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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

The BA Year That Was

By Phil Plait

Another year, another 500 or so articles written here at BA HQ.

I’m always a little amazed at the end of the year, looking back and seeing how much I’ve written. I don’t mean that to sound like a brag; after all, anyone can sit and write a lot.

What amazes me is that it doesn’t really seem like work; I really enjoy writing this blog! Sure, sometimes there can be pressure when a deadline is looming and there are a million things to do, but those moments are far outweighed by the joy of sharing my own fascination with the world. And even that is neck and neck with the joy of learning new things, which happens all the time when you write about science for a living.

Of course, that means making the odd mistake or two, and then having to go back and fix them. That happens to everyone—making mistakes, that is—but I make it a point to publicly admit them and correct them on the blog as best I can. After all, science is all about learning from errors. It’s hard, and humbling, and sometimes downright embarrassing, but if everyone strove to do it more often, imagine what progress we’d make on this planet.

To Err Is Human

Looking over what I’ve written in 2014, I made a few mistakes, and some were whoppers. The one that irks me the most personally was when I wrote about how an infinite series of positive integers can sum to the fraction -1/12: “When Infinity Is Actually a Small, Negative Fraction.” Literally, how 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 … can wind up equaling -1/12. I know, bizarre, right? A little too bizarre, it turns out. Kinda.

First, to be clear, there are in fact ways in which, mathematically, the infinite series does sum up to -1/12. But I based my article on a method that does not work and involves some mathematical trickery that is illegal, as far as math rules go. A lot of folks pointed this out, which was great (others just hurled invective, which was not great, and something less than useful). I spent a lot of time that night on the problem and then wrote a correction (“Follow-Up: The Infinite Series and the Mind-Blowing Result”).

Another mistake worth noting was in my review of Interstellar (Interstellar Science”) where I neglected to account for the fact that the black hole in the movie was rotating, which changes the physics I complained about. I still have issues with a lot of the science in the movie, some of which I noted in my correction (“Follow-Up: Interstellar Mea Culpa”). But in the end, it was the plot and the writing that doomed that movie for me, not the science. I don’t let bad science ruin stories for me, unless it’s so egregious I get pulled out of the story (cough cough “Kill the Moon” cough).

A mistake I’ll note here was writing about role models in science (“Science, Celebrities, and the Perils of Promotion”), where I praised actress Mayim Bialik’s pro-science work, even though she holds some decidedly anti-science beliefs. That generated a lot of discussion. In the end, in my second piece on the topic (“Follow-Up: Celebrities, Science, and Anti-Science”) I stood by my premise that no one holds entirely 100 percent evidence-based critically thought-out beliefs in their head, and so we should be careful when putting people on pedestals … but that Bialik’s beliefs in “alternative” medicine put her on the wrong side of that line. To be clear: There are times to support those with whom you might disagree on some or many topics; but in this case it wasn’t the time.

There were others, as well, but none as personally sigh-worthy as those. Not that there weren’t other posts that generated controversy …

Lewis' Law

Two of my most popular posts weren’t on astronomy at all; they were on cultural sexism. The first, “#YesAllWomen,” I wrote after a serial murderer wrote a manifesto in which he blamed his horrific acts, in part, on the fact that women wouldn’t sleep with him. On Twitter women (including several friends of mine) started posting their own stories of abuse, harassment, and rape. This prompted the use of the hashtag #NotAllMen, where men were saying, Hey, not all men do this sort of thing. While true, that entirely misses the point; it’s a distraction at best and dismisses what these women were saying.

A lot of men (a lot; some women too) don’t take these sorts of stories seriously, and I thought it was a good idea to use my platform to spread the word. As I expected, it generated an appalling flow of vitriol, abuse, and plain ol’ dumbosity. It was repellent and upsetting … and just the tiniest sip of what women on the Internet deal with every hour of every day forever.

The other post (“Shirtstorm”) was about casual sexism in the form of the pinup-girl shirt worn by scientist Matt Taylor during a press conference about the Philae lander setting down on a comet. That also generated a lot of sound and fury, and again it was astonishing how many people missed the simple point: It’s not about the shirt itself, it’s about attitudes toward women, it’s about the context of wearing a shirt like that in that environment, and how our culture is so steeped in sexism that most men simply miss it.

I was amazed at how many people danced on the head of a pin, trying to dismiss my arguments as prudishness (which made me laugh and laugh and laugh; I’m actually a big fan of pinup art, so trying to claim the shirt offended me due to its sexuality is really ridiculous) or over-sensitivity (nope; as I said, it wasn’t really about the shirt itself, it’s about the overwhelming miasma of sexism in society). I read a lot of screeds about it, but not one actually rebutted the points I was making; they were all distraction and strawmen and ad hominems.

Science and/or Otherwise

Finally, I want to note something interesting. The good folks at Slate are really wonderful about letting me write about whatever I want. The majority of my posts are about astronomy (or science in general), because that is, after all, my passion. But I also write about other topics, notably anti-vaxxers, climate change deniers, and religious overreachers. There are lots of other topics that could fall into the category of anti-science, but in general those are the ones I care most about. I of course reserve the right to write about other topics that may come along in the future.

Interestingly, of my top 10 posts for the year (measured by number of readers), only three were strictly astronomy; two were about upcoming sky events, and the others were debunkings of various flavors.

The most popular post in 2014? “Jenny McCarthy Asks; the Internet Slam Dunks.” I almost didn’t write it; it seemed a bit ad hominemy. But in the end it showed that there was a lot of pushback for McCarthy’s ridiculous and dangerous anti-vax claims, and I used this as a platform to link to solid, factual info about vaccines.

Of everything I wrote in 2014, though, the one I’m most proud of is easy: “Answers for Creationists.” After Bill Nye famously debated creationist Ken Ham, a BuzzFeed post went viral showing creationists holding up placards with questions they felt science and evolution couldn’t answer. In fact, the questions themselves showed a profound misunderstanding of evolution, so I answered the questions.

The post went viral, and I got a lot of mail and tweets about it. They were overwhelmingly positive, even from creationists! They were simply pleased that I was polite in the post; I didn’t mock or jeer. That was no accident; research shows that when you’re a jerk toward someone they’re less likely to listen to you. Color me completely unsurprised that this worked in this case.

Ad Astra

So what can you expect in 2015? Why, more of the same, of course. Gorgeous photos of the Universe, fun explanations of them, and new results in science. But I will also continue to shine a light on anti-science, and while I try to be as polite as is called for, I will stand firm when defending reality against those who would attack it.

Do not mistake being nice for being weak. Do not mistake rage for strength, either. Both will lead to regret, I assure you, and will do little or nothing to further your cause.

To everyone out there who spent time reading the words I wrote, I thank you sincerely. Thank you also to everyone at Slate, and especially to my editor Laura Helmuth, who has been amazingly supportive, and who totally rocks.

So. Onward to 2015. Let’s see what happens next.

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