ABC scare-mongering

Contributed by
Aug 29, 2006
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It's pretty obvious I love astronomy. It inspires us, and I think in many cases brings out the best in humanity: the wonder, the curiosity, and the desire to explore.

That's why I get more than a little upset when someone twists astronomy, misusing it to further their own ends. You can find any number of people who do that; check the main site for names if you care to. But just about the worst thing that can be done to astronomy is for it to be used to scare people. There are scary things in space, sure, but it's easy for these things to get amplified beyond what they deserve. And amplified they are, in many cases so that money can be made.

Enter ABC television.

They have a show coming out tonight (Wednesday, Aug 30 at 9:00 p.m.) about doomsday scenarios. Several friends of mine, scientists, were interviewed for it, and it looks like it will be an interesting and fun show. I think this is a great hook to get people interested in astronomy, but only if it's done right. A lot of people don't understand the science involved, and so you have to tread carefully lest you scare them needlessly. The show may very well balance things, giving a fair picture of dangers from space. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of their advertising for it.

ABC has been promoting the show online, and their advertising department went out of its way to scare people needlessly. Here's the opening line from the promotional article (which, incidentally, is billed as a science news article):

Imagine a black hole swallowing Earth, ending life in an instant. It's not only the stuff of pulp sci-fi novels but, scientists say, a looming possibility.

Not to be too subtle here, but that's a load of crap. It's not "looming" at all. I found a paper that showed that the odds of even a normal star getting anywhere near us are only one in 100,000, and that's over the next 3.5 billion years. The odds of a black hole getting that close are much smaller. I'll be clear: there is nothing to worry about. Black holes are really far away, and pose no danger to the Earth.

Later they quote physicist Michio Kaku as saying,

"Then, in the year 2000, all hell broke loose," Kaku says. "At that point, we had conclusive evidence that there are wandering black holes — nomads, renegades — right next to us in our own backyard of a galaxy."

When he says "right next to us" he is not being literal. The nearest known black hole is 1600 light years away, or about a quadrillion miles. I feel pretty safe about that.

It isn't until the next paragraph, almost all the way down the first page of the article, that they ease this up somewhat:

Fortunately, scientists say the probability of a black hole heading straight toward Earth and swallowing us whole is highly unlikely.

No kidding. That would have been a nice thing to say up front... along with numbers to back it up.

This is fear-mongering, pure and simple, and it's loathsome. I am particularly sensitive to this after the scare-tactic garbage spewed by such people as Nancy Lieder and Mark Hazlewood. It's truly awful behavior.

Mind you, I participated in a show on the SciFi channel about doomsday scenarios as well, but I was careful to talk about how long the odds are of any of them actually doing any damage (though most of that was cut out, of course). I also wrote an article for Sky and Telescope magazine that appeared in June about this exact topic, and again I was careful to say that the odds are long indeed; I'd worry more about an iceberg hitting a cruise ship in Bermuda.

The scientists interviewed were trying to provide fun quotes, so I don't blame Kaku (much-- I do think he should have been more circumspect with his comments, but for all I know he was quoted out of context, and may have put things in perspective but wasn't quoted doing so), or any of the other scientists in the article (or in the ABC show so far as the previews available let me see them). I blame ABC for promoting this like it's an imminent threat.

And while I'm at it, I'll poke an accusatory finger at The Huffington Post, who linked to this story with the headline "Scientists Worry “Wandering Black Holes” Could Approach Earth...". That's just so much eyewash as well.

I'll watch the show tonight if I can, but I'm leaving extremely early in the morning for Dragon*Con, so I doubt I'll be able to write up anything until later Thursday, if at all. The show may be pretty good; they did get some good people in it. So don't get me wrong, I'm not saying anything about the show... until I see it. It's ABC's advertising department I hold in contempt.