Penn & Teller & Astroengine: Bullshit!

ptbullshit

One day, many, many months ago, I was approached by the producer of the Emmy Award winning TV show Penn & Teller: Bullshit! to make a skeptical appearance for one of their Season 7 episodes. Apparently it was all going to be about doomsday, Mayans, Planet X and all that jazz. As I was halfway through my “No Doomsday in 2012” series over at the Universe Today, I jumped on the chance to be involved with such an awesome production.

This is me, on TV (by @cbrannon)

This is me, on TV (by @cbrannon)

Until this week I’d forgotten about the filming, but then the episode called “Apocalypse” popped up… could it be?

Unfortunately, I don’t have Showtime, so I’ll have to watch it on the DVD, but an eagle eyed Twitter friend @cbrannon sent me this sighting… they used my stuff! I can’t wait to watch it.

As the new episode aired tonight, you might have missed it, but it looks like it’s going to be repeated for a long while yet, so check out the schedule and tune in!

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Bloggers Must Fill the Public-Science Gap

public_disconnect

So, there appears to be a growing fissure between what public opinion considers to be “science” and what “science” really is. I could start making some huge proclamations that this might explain modern pseudo-science (like this, this or this) or this gaping hole is a new one causing a frenzy of media hype (like this, this or this), but I don’t think it’s quite as simple as that.

Although I love statistics, and a recent poll gives me plenty of ammo, I seriously doubt we can start making any conclusions about scientific advancement and the inverse correlation with public intelligence. No, pseudo-science, fear of science, mad scientists, scientific misinformation, outright lies of science claims and I Just Made This Up™ have always been around, it’s just that media is propagating faster than ever before; and as information spreads quickly, misinformation spreads faster.

Public-science is a weak link

If a physics researcher can set up a blog, so can your average crazy doomsday theorist with a brand new theory about the universe being driven by a galactic hamster on a treadmill. Actually, as physics researchers are very busy, crackpots probably have more time to set up their text-heavy, science-lite websites.

Crazy websites to one side, another factor to consider is that there’s a stronger public-media relationship than a public-science relationship. This is why quality, specialist reporters are needed, to communicate science to their readers in a rational, relevant way. Unfortunately, this is probably the weakest link for science communication in this world of ultra-fast media.

As the “old media” behemoths start to suffer, trying to make profit while sinking in a tide of free online content, cutbacks are inevitable. I’ve seen this first hand at a recent conference, where the press room was occupied by bloggers, podcasters and vidcasters. Only one New York Times correspondent was present; a politics correspondent. This was an astrophysics conference. He was only there for a few hours, looking perplexed.

The disconnect widens

So the traditional media has to make cutbacks, so what? That’s business. Unfortunately, there are few science reporters, so when cutbacks happen, reliable reporting of science is lost, and reporters who probably haven’t studied any science in their lives find themselves being sent to report on the next great Hubble discovery or… the LHC (we all know how that went).

So it is little wonder we start seeing statistics like this surfacing:

On the whole, scientists believe American research leads the world. But only 17 percent of the public agrees, and the proportion who name scientific advances as among the United States’ most important achievements has fallen to 27 percent from nearly 50 percent in 1999, the survey found.

Almost a third of ordinary Americans say human beings have existed in their current form since the beginning of time, a view held by only 2 percent of the scientists. Only about half of the public agrees that people are behind climate change, and 11 percent does not believe there is any warming at all.

The report said 85 percent of science association members surveyed said public ignorance of science was a major problem. And by large margins they deride as only “fair” or “poor” the coverage of science by newspapers and television.

(emphasis added by me)

Playboy science

So why is there a growing disconnect between the public and science? I think it’s a combination of factors (fast online media, a lack of good quality science journalism etc.), but the result is pretty worrying. When you see celebrities such as Jenny McCarthy spewing her dogma about the link between child autism and vaccines, alarm bells should be ringing. McCarthy has decided to battle against science (and the BigPharma overlords, of course), and she’s gathered quite a following; parents who have decided to turn their back on science and trust an ex-Playboy model instead.

This is just one example of the impact of science distrust. Using this slack in the public-science communication, there’s been a huge surge in conspiracy theories and individuals using science as a means to “prove” their “belief.” This is an uncomfortable situation where you have large groups of people who are willing to promote their pet theory as science fact (I’m not talking Creationism here, there are a fair few odd physics theories knocking around too). And when you have a very polished theory that sounds reasonable on the surface, but fails after a small bit of scientific rigour (despite the fact they use out of date science to point the finger and say, “I told you so!”), it can be hard for the public to understand what is “science” and what is bunkum.

Science blogging standard

So, as trusted media sources — such as major newspapers and news channels, traditionally the ‘ground zero’ of reporting — desperately try to grasp this new world of free and fast media, science journalism falls by the wayside, watering down the facts. To “go viral,” often stories will be of very low science merit, but headline grabbing. This could be the key reason why we have this current bout of public misunderstanding of science, allowing cranks some room to manoeuvre their next insane theory into position.

This is where science bloggers are flourishing. In fact, science blogging is almost like the Internet’s immune system (that’s an analogy, not scientific ‘proof’), and because bloggers can knock out articles very quickly, they can often be the first on the scene to fight off the next flawed conspiracy theory or crackpot ramblings. Of course, you don’t have to be a scientist to blog, but there is a huge, wonderful infrastructure of skeptical websites that make a very healthy existence debunking false claims and pseudo-science.

Although many skeptical bloggers view debunking nutty theories to be an enjoyable pastime, it turns out they are doing something the mainstream media cannot: they are connected with their audience, they are usually professionals of their field and they will highlight the abuse of science, exposing these theories for what they really are (crap).

So if you’re ever confused about a website’s claims, keep in mind Carl Sagan’s famous (and very relevant) quote, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” If a website is telling you that the Sun is actually driven by a magical force, other than gravitational pressure and nuclear fusion, ask ‘where’s your proof?‘ — you’ll find there will be no satisfactory answer to that question.

A special thanks to ace Norwegian science reporter Geir Barstein for inspiring this post after a recent chat we had during his visit to LA…

2012: Hardcore Disaster Pr0n

2012b

This video made my day.

Fortunately I’ve been hard-wired to Twitter today, so I’ve spotted some awesome links pop up from my ace tweeters. But I wasn’t prepared for the awesomeness that was encapsulated in @jimmynewland tweet titled, “2012: All the Disaster Pr0n you can take!

To be honest, I was expecting the movie trailer for the John Cussak disaster flick “2012” (coming to a deafening surround sound theatre near you), but no… this is better… far better. Take a look, it gets funnier the more you watch it:

As I made all too clear in my previous post on this subject, I made the pre-preview prediction (and I didn’t need a crop circle to predict this) that 2012 is going to be heavy on the CGI, but light on the plot.

Basically, it looks like Emmerich’s wet dream, probably an opportunity he’s been waiting for all his career. If you thought The Day After Tomorrow was an Earth-crunching death-fest, think again, this movie has rolling buildings, flying Bentleys, flying giraffes, spaceships, exploding cities, exploding fireballs, exploding… rocks… Hell, where’s the nukes! We need nukes! I hope Emmerich remembered the nukes.

And this video sums the whole thing up, and I love it. As described by the creator on io9, Garrison Dean:

Every so often I feel a film is just being marketed poorly. This is often laziness and misdirection on their part. Occasionally it is arrogance when they think there is more to their film than is actually there. So, in my own arrogance, I try to help them along. Last year I felt “Hulk” needed some help. Today my mission is one that blends swimmingly with my own love of Disaster. Please enjoy this special holiday treat that I made just for you.

Dean is referring to 2012, and watching it, I can’t help but be entertained and enthusiastic for the movie. He’s done a great re-edit. It now has the 1970’s classic disaster movie atmosphere of Towering Inferno with the cutting edge Big Flaming Balls Of Fire™ we are now accustomed to in modern Hollywood.

It’s not going to be a good film, films kinda need plots. Perhaps the experienced cast might be able to pull it out of the frenzy of tsunamis, burning cities and crying children, but I’m not going for the plot, I’m going for the CGI… and the science errors, of course.

John Cusack? Airlifted Giraffes? Please Tell Me It’s Doomsday

Firstly, let’s set the record straight: I love disaster movies.

I don’t care if the Earth is being invaded by aliens, getting hit by comets, being saved by oil drillers or poisoned by angry trees (yes, my brain even shrank through The Happening). It’s fiction, it’s fun and, let’s face it, who doesn’t enjoy a bit of global calamity interwoven with a silly plot.

So, today the extended trailer for the November film 2012 has been released (below), and I do admit, I was mildly excited to see what this budding blockbuster had to offer — although I changed my mind when seeing the horridly Hollywooded ‘science’ and the USS John F. Kennedy flatten the White House after surfing a mega-tsunami at the end. That was no cigarette they were smoking in the Sony Pictures cutting room.

The whole 2012 hype has kept my blogging gene active for the best part of a year, so I know for a fact that 2012 director Roland Emmerich has a lot of material to play with.

According to the CGI-fest of a trailer, have some ancient intrigue with “mankind’s earliest civilization” (the Mayans… a.k.a. not mankind’s earliest civilization) predicting the “end of the world” (are you sure?) with their pesky calendar. We also have something astronomical (yep, Planet X is back) careering toward Earth. We get tsunamis flattening cities, flying giraffe, Noah’s Ark, minivans getting hit by Big Flaming Balls Of Fire™, crying children, earthquakes, fire, more crying children, famine, angry politicians and John Cusack. (What?)

This is going to be oodles of fun if you want to see our planet disintegrate into a tortured dust bowl via computer-generated fury, but could this also be the end of the quintessential disaster movie?

This has been my complaint all along about the insane doomsday scenarios being dreamed up by crackpots and greedy authors: You’re trying too hard! What ever happened to the subtle art of doomsday prophesy?

EXAMPLE: Nostradamus says the world will end some hazy time in the hazy future (get that man a Nobel Prize!); a computer expert says, “Hmm, these microchips might reset when the calendar switches from 1999 to 2000,” followed by the aforementioned crackpots and greedy authors telling the scared populous that we’ll be driven back into the Stone Age… all because of a small, overlooked flaw in computer programming.

I miss those doomsday scenarios. They were simpler times.

Now we have 2012 conspiracy theorists compounding doomsayer dogma, bending science to suit their hopelessly flawed doomsday scenarios. 2012 seems to be a hothouse for every impossible planet killer we could possibly imagine. How the hell Emmerich is going to work Nibiru, Planet X, killer solar flares, polar reversal, galactic alignment and geomagnetic hoopla into the plot I’ll never know.

Impossibly jumbled plot to one side, I will still want to be one of the first to see this movie. I’ve examined the real science behind the proposed end of the world in 2012 since May 2008, and I can assure you, I have yet to come across one single ounce of Planet X matter. No planet-wide calamity is expected on December 21st, 2012, and there isn’t a single shred of scientific or archaeological evidence that suggests otherwise. It will be interesting to see if Emmerich hired a science advisor, to actually add any credibility to doomsday, but if recent examples are anything to go by, I suspect it’s going to be science-lite.

Unfortunately, I am still saddened by Sony Pictures marketing ploy. The Institute for Human Continuity (IHC) viral campaign was very a successful yet short-sighted idea, marketing the movie like a multi-million dollar advertising campaign, but pandering to the anti-science sentiment that flows through the heart of doomsday hoaxers.

All in all, yes, I’ll watch 2012, but I can guarentee I’ll be shaking my head for the most part. The choice of cast is a warning sign. John Cusack as the flawed dad who’ll save the day? Danny Glover as President?? Woody Harrelson? Woody Harrelson?

Globe And Mail Interview: “Only Three Years Left Till Armageddon?”

bullet_earth2

A few days ago, I was interviewed by Elizabeth Renzetti from the Canadian publication, The Globe And Mail. As you may have guessed from the title, we weren’t talking about my pet rabbits.

Elizabeth and I had a great chat about 2012, the Mayan calendar and my feelings about the doomsday nonsense stupidity crackpottery, and I think she did a great job with the article. The best thing is, Elizabeth didn’t give any 2012 advocates misguided fools crazies any airtime as, obviously, she has a very strong sixth sense for bullsh*t and decided not to interview any of them.

All in all, a very satisfying article that puts the whole 2012 nonsense into perspective. Kinda refreshing.

I actually get the feeling people are tiring of the doomsday mania… but somehow I get the feeling that we ain’t seen nothing yet

For me, however, 2012 was so 2008.

Next!

2012: Not Doomsday, It’s the Last Stand for an Ancient Civilization

maya_cartoon

My good friend, talented writer and co-author Greg Fish, sent me this cartoon last night and I got a giggle out of it, so I thought I’d share. I think it exemplifies just how something so small can be blown completely out of proportion. Although the cartoon depicts two Mayans constructing the “Sun Stone”, it was actually the Aztecs, another mesoamerican culture, who constructed the Sun Stone. But that’s not the point of this article (besides, several doomsayers are clueless about the difference between Mayans and Aztecs anyway).

The Mayans built a calendar so they could better organize their time, document historical events and enable them to make plans for the future (like any good calendar does). So, out of necessity, the Mayans put together an amazingly complex system of embedded calendars of various lengths. They came up with an innovative idea so they didn’t have to rely on short-term cyclical calendars (the longest was only 52 years), they created one of the first number-based calendars devised:

The Mayans had a solution. Using an innovative method, they were able to expand on the 52 year Calendar Round. Up to this point, the Mayan Calendar may have sounded a little archaic – after all, it was possibly based on religious belief, the menstrual cycle, mathematical calculations using the numbers 13 and 20 as the base units and a heavy mix of astrological myth. The only principal correlation with the modern calendar is the Haab’ that recognised there were 365 days in one solar year (it’s not clear whether the Mayans accounted for leap years). The answer to a longer calendar could be found in the “Long Count”, a calendar lasting 5126 years.” — Me, “No Doomsday in 2012“, Universe Today, May 19th, 2008 (there’s nothing quite like pimping your own megahit articles!)

Palenque Museum Mayan glyphs (wyattsailing.com)

Palenque Museum Mayan glyphs (wyattsailing.com)

So, the Mayans created a number system that lasted 5126 years. Judging by their love of cycling calendars that reset after 260 days (Tzolk’in calendar), 365 days (Haab’) and 52 years (Calendar Round), isn’t it logical to assume the Long Count calendar was designed to do the same thing? And why didn’t the Mayans explicitly say: “the Long Count will cycle again after 5126 years“? That’s because they were still in their first cycle. And within this first cycle, their entire civilization rose and and crashed back down again. They never got the chance to experience one whole cycle, resetting the Long Count or, indeed, simply extending it.

In short, the world isn’t going to end in 2012 (the coincidental end-date of the Mayan Long Count calendar), it’s the last stand of an ancient culture.

It’s actually rather sad; assuming the historians are correct, and the Long Count does end on December 21st, 2012, that is the final end date for an entire civilization. Although their cities may have crumbled and civilization faded into the history books, at least the Mayans had a calendar that endured hundreds of years after their downfall. The Mayan Long Count calendar outlived a civilization, perhaps December 21st, 2012, should be a celebration of a lost mesoamerican race, as this date will truly be the end of ancient Maya.

For more about the myths, lies and deception surrounding 2012, check out my “No Doomsday in 2012″ articles »

Same Message, Different Doomsday Vehicle

Warning: The following article contains criticism of a religious figure. Actually, it’s not really criticism, more pointing fun at a guy who should know better. If you feel the need to get angry in the comment boxes, feel free, but please use your CAPS LOCK sparingly, keep the language reasonable, cite any reference material and above all else, don’t blame the ancient Mayans for anything, they’ve been through enough.

Recognise it yet? Isaac's apartment floor painting depicting the destruction of New York in the TV show Heroes

Isaac's apartment floor painting depicting the destruction of New York in the TV show Heroes (source)

As a rule, I wanted to keep Astroengine.com away from religious debate, but once I became embroiled in the 2012 doomsday hysteria, religious views were bound to creep in. After all, 2012 is the latest date prophesied for Armageddon, End Times and Judgement Day, I was bound to start receiving emails and comments with a toasty religious flavour. That’s fine, everyone should have an opinion. Just because I don’t believe the year 2012 will bring anything of special religious/spiritual significance, that’s my view. I’m not religious and I’m not a religious specialist, it’s not my thing.

However, science is “my thing” so when I see authors banging on about the existence of Planet X, killer solar flares, geomagnetic shift and all the other wild and inventive ways the Universe won’t destroy the Earth, I do have a strong opinion. Now that “No Doomsday in 2012” has had over 1,000,000 hits (that’s a 1 with six zeros after it. I’m now in megahits), it would appear that 2012 is a doomsday theory that might not go away (place your bets on how many millions of hits that article will rack up in the next 3 years!).

However, having written about the key attributes of doomsday theories as presented by authors who use lies to sell a book or drive search engine traffic to their site (fear is a potent moneymaker after all), I know bullshit when I smell it. However, this time the doomsday prophecy doesn’t come from the misinterpretation of a Mesoamerican calendar, it comes from a popular American Christian evangelist. I have to say, I am impressed.

So, using my fool-proof “cheat sheet” on how to spot a doomsday fake, it wasn’t hard to cut through David Wilkerson’s dogma, revealing his “prophecy” for what it really is: rubbish.
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