Monday, October 26, 2009

Funny and Seriously Troubling

I recently came across a website that I am now completely obsessed with. The website is called Ask an Astrobiologist and is a NASA page. At first glance the website doesn't seem like anything unusual until you start clicking through the questions that he receives. As questions are submitted via the internet, the questions are often baffling. The Astrobiologist answering them, David Morrison, does not suffer fools gladly, as the expression goes. He takes a very firm hand with the lunacy that pervades the internet and implores people to develop critical thinking and critical researching skills. With all the disaster movies that have been coming out, or will be coming out, he gets a lot of crazy questions asking if those things are true, or demanding to know why NASA is hiding this stuff from them. There are also heart-breaking questions from people clearly confused by the massive amount of misinformation they find online. I wish more people would speak this clearly with the American people on a whole host of issues. The lack of understanding of many of the questioners points to deeper failures in the education system. Some of my favorite excerpts from the site:

I saw an episode of "The Universe," on the history channel, that showed NASA landing a probe on the asteroid Eris, or Eros. A week later another episode explained that Eris, or Eros, was a dwarf planet in the Kiper Belt. (1) If Eris is a dwarf planet out past Pluto then how could NASA land a probe on it? (2) Is Eris a dwarf planet or an asteroid that NASA put a probe on?

You are confusing Eros (a near Earth asteroid) with Eris (the largest known dwarf planet). Eros and Eris are different just as Washington is not Wilmington, and Paris is not Paros, and in planetary science Titan is not Triton. Different words mean different things. If you do not make this distinction, you will misunderstand many things you read and see on TV. For more information on either Eris or Eros, try Wikipedia.

People are saying that a solar flare is going to hit the Earth in 2012 and "toast" us alive. What is this site all about? I even saw their commercial on tv! I just want to know the truth and be prepare if something is really going to happened. AND I recently saw a commercial on Discovery's History Channel where a lottery entry has begun to "save yourself" from the 2012 doomsday event; however, it was not specified what this event may be or how these winners would be saved. AND I found this website with very believable information. Is it really true ? AND I saw this commercial on tv about the institute for humanity continuity and I am very scared.

About dozen people have written to me this week about ads for the Institute for Human Continuity. This is just part of the publicity for the science fiction film “2012” to be released in November. Let me be clear: (1) Nothing bad is predicted to happen in 2012. The 2012 doomsday is a hoax. (2) There is no Institute for Human Continuity. It is a fake website created to generate interest in the film. (3) Neither the film nor this website are based on science. This is fiction. (4) The creation of a fake website to publicize a film is called “viral marketing” by a analogy with a computer virus (look it up in Wikipedia). (5) It is important to learn to distinguish fiction from fact, and Hollywood film plots from reality. Here is what I wrote in this subject a few months ago in my “Twenty Questions” about 2012: The pseudoscientific claims about Nibiru and a doomsday in 2012, together with distrust of the government, are being amplified by publicity for the new film from Columbia Pictures titled “2012”, to be released in November 2009. The film publicity includes creation of a faux scientific website ( for “The Institute for Human Continuity”, which is entirely fictitious. According to this website, the IHC is dedicated to scientific research and public preparedness. Its mission is the survival of mankind. The website explains that the Institute was founded 1978 by international leaders of government, business, and science. They say that in 2004, IHC scientists confirmed with 94% certainty that the world would be destroyed in 2012. This website encourages people to register for a lottery to select those who will be saved; a colleague submitted the name of her cat, which was accepted. I learned from Wikipedia that creating this sort of fake website is a new advertising technique called “Viral Marketing”, by analogy with computer viruses.

I'm really worried about supernovas and hypernovas. I'm specially worried about stars called Betelgeuse, Eta Carinae, Antares and WR 104, as there is a lot of conroversial information on the internet about these stars. I Know pretty well the situation about WR 104, as you have answered it also, but the rest of the stars i mentioned are still a mystery. This is really worrying me as i can't sleep when I worry about these things (yes I'm a worryer and a bit of a cosmophobic), so it would be very helpful if you could give me the information I need so I could go on with my life.

I can think of no reason why any of the stars you mention should be considered threats. I don’t know what specific information will calm your fears, but these are just ordinary stars going about their business like the other 100 billion stars in the Milky Way Galaxy...If you are finding many websites that claim controversy about these four stars, my advice is to stop using such misleading sources of information. The Internet is filled with misinformation and disinformation, most of which should simply be ignored. One of the most valuable aspects of Wikipedia is that it is up to date and reflects the knowledge of real scientists. If anyone thinks they are falling for the crazy ideas of cosmophobia or are having trouble sleeping because of fear of astronomy, please check out Wikipedia or other reputable sources (such as Sky & Telescope or Astronomy magazines) and forget the pseudoscience.

Why isn't there more media coverage of the 2012 doomsday? Explain to me what I am seeing in the video for HR 8791. Why did you guys finally decide to coordinate with other countries for the global space station or be in such a rush to find a planet that will support life. The biggest news today is the Health Care Reform but if you look at the words at the bottom on CNN they read that NASA has discovered a planet.

There is not more media coverage of the 2012 doomsday because the media realize it is a hoax. Fortunately most of the media prefer to write about real things, and they understand that 2012 is an Internet and UTube cult phenomenon without the slightest bit of evidence to support it. The only HR 8791 I know of is a Congressional Bill (HR stands for House Resolution) that has been the subject of a spoof by the satirical humor publication Onion. I hope you are not taking this spoof seriously. This sort of humor works only if readers can recognize the spoof...

Usually the astrologers use our planets to explain the present, past and the future life of we humans. Is there really any link between the planet alignment and its movement with the human's life or a person's zodiac sign?

No, there is no link — astrology is not science, or prediction, but an ancient religion that is unrelated to modern science...

There are certain people who believe that global warming may in fact be true, but at our current rate it is too late to do anything about it.... My question to you is, what do you think is the better solution for global warming. Invest billions into trying to find solutions to fix the problem. Or invest the billions of dollars of research into learning to live with global warming?I am surprised that you refer to “people who think global warming may be true”.

Global warming is about as sure as anything in science that deals with a complex system like Earth climate. We know the rapid increase in greenhouse gases is producing a rate of heating that overwhelms any of the much slower “natural” processes that influence global climate...

Monday, October 12, 2009

Taking Action - Getting Started, Getting Informed

Michael Moore's newest release, Capitalism: A Love Story, has stirred a lot of emotion and has been overwhelmingly well-received. The biggest criticism I hear is that he doesn't lay out where to go once you leave the theater. I find this very interesting given that the movie is about raising awareness and highlighting the problems and contradictions in the economic system in the U.S. and to a large extent globally.

The desire to have Moore not only lay out the problem, but also the solution, gets at one of the key reasons that this movie was made. Americans have let themselves be led around for too long, by media, by politicians, by their churches, etc. Only when people take a serious look at their lives and the lives of others will they really be able to say what they actually want. It is critical for Americans, and others, to get a better idea of how the norms of society inform both our individual goals and the appropriate means for attaining those goals.

This creates a situation in which many Americans have a difficult time imagining alternatives to the current system or even realizing the problems inherent within it. In our daily lives, the inadequacies of the current system can seem obtuse and distant. By taking a step back, we can begin to understand that there could be a different way, but this also will require action, not continued resignation. Engaging with history and the current realities in other countries can begin to show that what we take for granted is much more malleable than we realize. Systems change over time, often as the result of events that were seemingly minor at the time.

I am beginning to realize one of the biggest weaknesses of the American education system is teaching the ability to differentiate between good and bad sources of information. While not something that can be taught overnight, the key for me is to verify the expertise of the person or persons presenting the information, and whether their accounts are contextual. By contextual, I am referring to that they aren't simply stating a fact or facts as permanent or infinite. For example, you often hear a current belief expressed as timeless. For example, the idea that the U.S. is and always was a Christian nation. A simple historical review would dispel this notion; however, most people lack the skills to carry out such a review.

In many cases, media outlets underestimate their ability to educate as well as inform. An educated populace is complementary to an informed populace, but they can be very different. I see many people that are clearly informed, in that they are aware of current events, and have taken positions on key issues of the day. But often, these people lack sufficient education, to make their positions coherent. By education, I am not simply referring to schooling. I am also referring to a broader education, which requires engaging with history and taking a broader perspective than is found in most newspapers and textbooks. Similarly, I see many well-educated individuals, who clearly have grappled with difficult issues and are well-read in theory and/or history. However, many of them are unable to take the understanding and apply it in a coherent way to reality. In becoming so obsessed with the details of some historical period, or some theoretical perspective, they lose interest in the complexity of the everyday political and social issues.

I think it is critical for people to think about the deficiencies in their perspectives and try to get a better understanding of why they think what they do. It is important to come to terms with the biases and inadequacies of both our scholarly as well as contextual knowledge. This often requires seeking out new and varied sources, so that we are able to have a more coherent internal narrative. Key to this is identifying that just because you agree with an analysis or the conclusions, doesn't make the analysis accurate or coherent. Similarly, just because you disagree, it doesn't mean that you are missing something. Sometimes alternative perspectives or sources are just inaccurate or incomplete. By engaging with how they came to their conclusions is just as important as what conclusions they came to. Also important is to not fall into the trap that there are two sides to every problem or issue. Problems are much more complex than such a duality would allow. And the solution to any given problem doesn't lie between two expressed extremes. In all likelihood any given solution will favor some and infuriate others. Such are the complexities we face.