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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

Thoughts on a Backward Moon

By Phil Plait

It's 2016? Already?

OK then. Well, in 2014 I wrote a year-end wrapup of the blog, talking about mistakes I made, posts I liked writing, and all that. And I’d do it again for 2015, but as it happens I already made a video about the big science stories of 2015, so go watch that.

But I do want to focus on one thing in the video, something that really made my year (and got me thinking about other topics, too). At the end, I talk about the episode of The Simpsons with Elon Musk (“The Musk Who Fell to Earth”), where the animators drew the crescent of the Moon facing the wrong way. I wrote about that episode right after it aired in February 2015, having some fun with it. I thought it was worth a chuckle when I wrote it, and I figured people might get a kick out of it.

What I certainly didn’t expect was that it would become the single most popular post I’d write in 2015. And it’s not even close; it more than doubled the next most popular post (about that weird star where astronomers were looking for alien megastructures). Even now, it was the second most popular post for December, 10 months after I wrote it, and all by its lonesome accounted for more than 5 percent of all the traffic I got in 2015 (I wrote more than 500 posts during that year).

¡Ay caramba!

The whole thing is funny to me. I was (and am) a huge Simpsons fan, and I’m pretty happy with what SpaceX is doing, so when I heard Musk would be on, duh, I made sure to watch.

I thought the episode was pretty good. But in the scene when Musk stood up at dinner and looked out the window at the sky, I knew immediately they had screwed up the Moon. It happens a lot on TV and in movies, and I’m used to looking for it.*

I also knew immediately I’d have to write about it, and even how: with a conspiratorial tone, but also with enough seriousness that I could slip in some real astronomy (specifically, just why the Moon appears as it does in the sky).

To my surprise, the post went viral. I’m not sure why. Was it because people love the show itself, my silly tone, or that Musk was on it? Maybe it was just that I got the post up so quickly after the episode aired. Who knows? Trying to figure out why things go viral is a maddening venture, which is why I never worry about it.

Still, if I couldn’t know it would go viral, what happened next was entirely predictable had I given it any thought. I posted the article, tweeted the link, and put it up on Facebook. What I got in reply was … well, the Internet.

Most people got the joke, of course. But a lot of people—a lot—didn’t. Some were quick to mock me for analyzing the show at all, completely missing the entirely tongue-in-cheek tone I took. Others took me to task for speculating that Springfield was actually in the Southern Hemisphere. That can’t be right, so many netizens told me, because the episode “Bart vs. Australia” hinges on the fact that Springfield is in the U.S. Many of these replies were also from people clearly in on the joke, but—judging from the tone, which may be unfair—not all of them were (as an aside to those folks: Do you really think I missed an episode which is based on the Coriolis effect? You can bet your last dollarydoo I know that episode).

I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. For many reasons—and I can think of quite a few—people can miss a joke. I’ve done it before (and what if I’m misinterpreting their own jokes as missing my joke? How meta); everyone has at one point or another. But when a post gets read by nearly 1 million people (!!), if even a tiny fraction take you seriously, it can still generate a pretty substantial reaction.

While I got a chuckle out of all the feedback, it got me thinking.

When you get a negative (or at least critical) reaction, it can seem like the whole world is coming down on you, but that’s an illusion. It’s what scientists call a selection bias; it’s what you’re seeing, but it’s not necessarily what’s actually going on. For every person shaking their fist at you there are a lot more who read what you wrote, smiled to themselves, and moved on.

This has been a pretty contentious year (as every year is, of course). I’ve posted some articles that have generated a lot of heat, including ones on sexism, science denial, and other such adrenaline-inducing topics.

I get a lot of support when I write those articles, and I can say with honesty and no small amount of awe that I truly appreciate it. Of course, I also get lots of folks who disagree with me, and in general that’s fine, too. Sure, I get email/comments/tweets that can be generously classified as “spittle-flecked” and can immediately be tossed into the handy black hole I keep by my desk for replies by people who clearly are too angry and entrenched to be reasoned with. Your mileage may vary, but if you want to sway me, screaming in my face probably isn’t the way to go about it. So I ignore those.

But happily, much of the criticism I get is from people who disagree with me, who may even be angry, but who make their point rationally and well. Those are the ones I mull over. Is their point valid? Did they understand my own point, or was there a misinterpretation somewhere? Was it because I wasn’t clear? That certainly happens; every writer (or anyone who creates anything) knows that what makes sense in your head gets bollixed on its way to the keyboard and out into the ether. I find it’s a good thing to keep in mind; I think it keeps one more open to listening to someone else’s view.

I like those opportunities to learn; whether it’s more about myself and my writing, or about the people who read my words. It’s fascinating to see how people react to various topics, and what surprises lie therein. And if I find I was in fact wrong, well then, I get to learn something. That can sometimes be painful, but it’s always a good thing in the long run.

All this may seem like an odd outcome from writing a silly bit about a Simpsons episode, but that’s rather the point, isn’t it? You never know what will resonate, what will be deflected, what will dig in, what will enflame. What will be a lesson.

That’s part of the fun. It’s been my pleasure to write for y’all this past year, as it has been for all the years before that as well—and there have been quite a few now. I’ve learned a lot.

So, to everyone who has supported me, or questioned/disagreed with me thoughtfully, or just enjoyed my posts and/or shared them with friends over the past year (and all the years before that), please accept my honest and heartfelt thanks. It means so very, very much to me. You are the Bernoulli effect above my wings.

And hey, it is 2016, a new year. A lot will happen this year, both in outer space and our space here on Earth. I'll see what I can do to write about it. If you agree, great. And if you disagree, great

*Similarly, in many movie scenes the Sun rises backward; before software made it trivially easy, a while back it was more difficult to know exactly where the Sun would rise using a long telephoto lens, so directors would film a sunset and run it in reverse.

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