One of the hazards of being an outreach-minded astronomer is having to deal with a never-ending stream of lunatics. Whether it be the overly-fervent gal who got supper-pissed when I failed to agree with her that asterisms were galaxy-sized corporeal beings or the octogenarian who called out the cops because he was sure that I was using my telescope to peep at him through his solid walls, I’ve had more than my fair share of encounters with both the grossly misinformed and the all but barking mad. As a rule, though, I tend to take such crackpots in my stride.
The people who drive me bonkers, though, are the supposedly sane and well educated; fellow citizens who hold the most outrageous and improbable beliefs even though a modicum of sense and introspection should serve to dispel them one and all.
One notable such encounter involved a pair of otherwise smart and successful men, one of whom is a close friend of my sister. I won’t belabor the long and bizarre chain of fear-mongering and misinformation that impelled them to seek me out, but the main idea I want to get across is that none of this stuff happens by accident. In our modern web-mediated world, conspiracy-theories are about one thing and one thing alone: turning fear into profit. If you don’t believe me, feel free to visit any of the countless clearinghouses for such misinformation and mendacity (i.e. Above Top Secret or Rense), although I’d make sure to have a good strong mouthwash handy before I did so. To make the easy pun: “Made me want to retch.”
Anyway, the men were terrified that a Jupiter-sized planet or worse was slamming through our inner solar system at high speed and about to wreak unspecified havoc on Earth in a few short months. Indeed, they were so sozzled with fear that they were shopping for a bunker in the hinterlands to hide out in when it all went sideways. A friggin bunker!
I should, of course, mention that their Astronomical Armageddon was nothing more than one of several potential disasters selected from a vast menu of widespread government conspiracy and cover-up. They had no clear idea as to which of the potential boogeymen was going to get ‘em but they wanted to cover all their bases. Might be something astronomical, might be something nuclear; might be Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. The one clear thing that they really “knew” was that The Government (and they’re were being very plural here!) was frightened out of it’s collective wits and very much in the process of hunkering down for the big one. Amazingly, no-one had gotten wind of this excepting, of course, our would be heroes. Gotta love optimists!
Anyway, I won’t belabor the details because they were (a) essentially incoherent and (b) from a physics standpoint impossible.
The thing that made this particular discussion especially notable is that both of the men had medical PhDs and were extremely rich! I should also add that the fact that I was their selected science-expert de jour had very little to do with my own qualifications. Indeed, I tried to highlight my notable lack of a scientific degree several times but my every protest fell on deaf ears. Ultimately, my suitability came down to the fact that one of the men had been my sister’s close friend for 40+ years. She had innocently allowed at some point that I was an amateur astronomer (and thereby unlike to be tainted by an association with NASA, the man, etc.). Given their unstudied inclinations that was enough of a pedigree for them.
As always, when dealing with madmen and rabid dogs, I tried to put them down slowly. For a start, I was attentive if gently dismissive of their “best” idea—that an improbably-sized yet still-undetected stellar body was going to sling by the planet in the next couple of months and thereby play havoc with humankind. I tried to elicit testable facts or even well-stated predictions but all to no avail. The men had lots of incoherent hearsay and conjecture to share, but very little in the way of anything that one could make the least headway with. Even so I patiently explained how their general idea could be debunked with nothing more than high school physics. I even proposed a number of simple experiments that they could do on their own to allay their fears.
Needless to say this was all to no avail. I made my case a half dozen times, I emailed the men a bunch of relevant documents, I even got nodding agreement that I was right on “this astronomy thing”. And finally, after more than an hour of explanations, I got to hang up and return to the real world where extraordinary claims require extraordinary proofs.
Or so I thought. Not five hours later (at 3:00am, no less!) I received an email from one of the men, filled with even more incoherency to “debunk” my debunking.
So what’s the lesson? You could easily say that there is a malignant cancer at the heart of our society called Scientific Illiteracy. It appears to affect both the high and low. It’s pervasive, unassailable, and (if my own feeble efforts are to be cited as an example!) likely to be proof against all sense.
Oh, and the men? They bought the bunker!