Every few years scientists inform the press that an asteroid will make a “near miss” of earth, passing within x number of miles of our planet. This usually gets page 3 (or sometimes page 2) coverage. I’ve never seen an article claiming that this is a hoax and that there is not near-miss event about to occur.
I usually chalk this up to the fact that it is a near-miss event. I mean, if it misses, we have nothing to worry about. It’s really a non-event. It’s a curiosity. That’s why it’s on page 3. Why refute a non-event?
I also see stories, also usually on page 3, reporting that one man, usually the head of some cult or church somewhere, has claimed that the world will end on such and such a date. I usually don’t see other articles claiming that this is a hoax either.
I usually chalk this up to the fact that we have been hearing a similar sort of thing for the last 2000 years and it has never happened yet; he has no reasonable evidence other than his belief to suggest that it might, and nut-jobs are born every minute.
So what happens if one scientist claims that there is an asteroid – a big asteroid – headed straight for earth and the media picks up on it? According to his calculations we have 405 days until impact and it will be an extinction event. Can I expect articles saying this isn’t true?
Actually, yes, I would expect that. Firstly, if it is true, there’s almost certainly nothing to be done about it, so why panic the population. Secondly, it’s one guy. Along with the usual government proclamations that “there is currently no information to support the claim,” there are bound to be a few other scientists willing to take whatever opportunity to discredit a colleague.
At the same time, I would also expect that a large number of astronomers, astrophysicists, and other types with a bunch of letters after their names are going to be pouring over this guy’s “evidence” and determining for themselves if he’s possibly correct. I would expect that because guys with lots of letters after their names know that a fellow scientist is probably not a nut-job, this is something that has happened in the past, and they have all been predicting for years that it could happen in the future. Oh, yeah, and he didn’t say near-miss; he said extinction event.
So, a few weeks later, quite a few more scientists are saying that they have checked this out and yes, there is an asteroid, and yes, it might strike the earth, and yes, it might be an extinction event. But it’s still a ways out there, and it might miss us by a few miles; it’s really too early to tell. But there are also quite a few who are saying that their calculations show that it will miss us, probably.
The media has to air all the claims, but because of the “fairness doctrine,” they are careful to give equal time to the guys who say it’s all over and the guys who say maybe not. And they also have to give airtime to the guys who say the whole thing is a hoax, dreamed up by scientists to make them look important. There is no asteroid. Do you see an asteroid? Of course you don’t. There ya go.
Those who are driven by economic concerns realize that if people think there is an asteroid, they won’t buy big ticket items, so they join the naysayers.
A couple of weeks pass and the debate rages. Everyone takes sides. Three hundred eighty eight days until impact.
By now the majority of those guys with the letters after their names have run the numbers enough times that they have to admit it is very probable that this big rock will hit and that will pretty much mean we’re toast. There are only a few of the “maybe not” types left. Human nature being what it is, though, the number of people denying the whole thing has grown. The reasoning is pretty much the same as that for dismissing the guy with the sign that says the “end of the world is nigh”: you’ve been predicting this for ages; it hasn’t happened yet; I don’t believe your evidence, and I don’t see no asteroid! Besides, you guys are all in one big conspiracy to dupe the public.
Another month gone. Three hundred fifty eight days until impact.
NASA, Roscosmos, The European Space Agency, and the China National Space Administration issue a joint statement that they have a plan to alter the orbit of the asteroid at the last minute, thereby saving the earth. The plan will require the cooperation of every country in the world and an enormous expenditure on the part of the developed world that will impact the world economy for years. But it might work. Someone find Bruce Willis and his crew, please.
Immediately, corporate interests in the US come out against the effort. There is no evidence the asteroid exists, they claim. And if it did exist, there is no guarantee the plan will work. And if there is an asteroid, it might miss us anyway. Why bankrupt the country for something no one can even know exists? These guys with letters after their names are the same guys who say the universe is billions of years old, and we know that’s not true. Why should this be true? Why trust scientists?
World leaders convene a summit and almost every country in the world agrees we have to adopt what the media now calls the Willis plan. We have to launch the Brucemobile 45 days before impact or the mission will fail. All the scientists agree. They also agree that without US support, both technical and financial, there will be no way to get the project off the ground. No one apologizes for the pun.
Back here at home there are still those who say they’ll pass legislation to keep the US from participating. They trot out the few scientists they can find who are still willing to deny the asteroid exists or that the asteroid will impact the earth even if it does exist and they spend millions to convince people it is all a tempest in a teapot.
The vast majority of the American population wants the plan to go forward. Ninety seven percent of all scientists say it’s our only hope. Almost every country in the world met, debated the merits, and agrees.
Three hundred days until impact. Times Square puts up a new version of the Doomsday clock.
Scientists release photos from the Hubble telescope that show a pinprick dot among the stars with an arrow pointing to it. Object 4359 they call it. It makes page 1 of most newspapers. The media calls it The Doomsday Stone.
Two Hundred forty five days until impact.
“It’s a hoax!” say the naysayers. “That’s a dot. You can’t know anything about it. You’re not God. Only God knows the future. WE DON’T BELIEVE YOU!”
One hundred seventy five days until impact.
Bill Nye, the science guy, has a heart attack arguing with Sean Hannity. He gets red in the face and shouts, “by the time that dot in the photos gets big enough for you to see the words “You’re fucked” written on it, it will be far too late.” and then keels over. He survives. Afterward, in an interview, he explains that he got so upset because, “even Bruce Willis can only do so much!”
Every TV in the world shows a tiny insert on the screen 24/7 with the clock ticking down. Every major web site has one. It’s everywhere. Amazon sells them for $19.95 for a limited time only!
And as the Doomsday clock ticks off the days, the opposition begins to buckle.
The clocks count down in ominous unison. The pinprick dot gets bigger. People begin to panic. Eventually, congress acts. We’re in. The world breathes a sigh of relief. Bruce demands all movie rights to the story or he won’t go. Spielberg says he’ll direct.
And we all lived happily ever after.
Except we won’t. There is the small matter of that other extinction event still hanging over our heads.
The agreement just reached in Paris regarding climate change and action to avert its worst effects is an historic accord. But it is nothing other than a good start in the right direction. Nothing is binding on any country. It can be undermined at any turn.
Even before that agreement had been reached, Ted Cruz opened his “Data or Dogma” Senate hearings on climate change, a circus side show where he tried to prove that “global warming alarmists” were wrong. Even the title is a cruel twist on reason. Cruz would have you believe that the “data” support the naysayers and that the “dogma” is attributable to the scientific community.
Cruz laid all this out in front of the science panel of the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, which he chairs.
He made a number of interesting claims. For example, he stated that CO2, the gas responsible for global warming in large part, is “good for plants.” From a scientific point of view, this is much like saying that since warm water is pleasant for a bath, we should use boiling water when possible. He also claimed that the earth is greener right now than it ever has been. That may come as a real surprise to those who have documented the cutting of the rain forests.
He made the point that “for significant periods in history, prior to the industrial revolution, there has been markedly more CO2 in our atmosphere that could not have come from the burning of fossil fuels.” He failed to mention that those periods in history were before human beings even existed.
He claimed that for the last 18 years there has been no increase in global temperature and that current computer models are “profoundly wrong … and inconsistent with the evidence and the data.” In other words, take your science and shove it.
Ted Cruz is not a stupid man. You don’t graduate from Harvard and argue nine cases in front of the Supreme Court by being a stupid man. But as Ben Carson showed us, you can be very learned in one area while being “not so much” in others. Ted Cruz crafts his arguments from a very specific political and religious point of view. It has nothing to do with science.
The full title of his hearing was “Data or Dogma? Promoting Open Inquiry in the Debate over the Magnitude of Human Impact on Climate Change.” That should show you where his interests lie.
Ted Cruz and the others like him in the congress (70% of Republicans side with him) would love to debate the “Magnitude of Human Impact” until the cows come home. So long as they can get people to debate that, they can avoid action.
Why? Because there is no Doomsday clock.
We can’t point to the day, the hour, the minute when it will be too late to act. We know that it is already too late to avoid all consequences. But unlike tracking a rock in space, predicting something with the complexity of climate change on something as organic and complex as planet earth is not just a math problem. We can predict the ultimate outcomes, but the timetable is not available in days, hours, and minutes.
And that makes it seem like there is time. That makes it seem like we can engage in “Promoting Open Inquiry in the Debate over the Magnitude of Human Impact on Climate Change.” Maybe we can send that to committee for, oh, a decade or so.
Meanwhile, that dot in the photos keeps getting larger. If you squint, you can almost make out some lettering.
The debate is over. It doesn’t matter how much impact humans have had. The question – and it has been scientifically answered – is whether we are contributing. The answer is yes. The question is – can we do something that will avoid the worst outcomes? The answer is yes. Not the answer provided by dogma. Not the answer provided by “belief.” Not the answer provided by sound bites and political speeches – the answer provided by science and reason.
If we do nothing and science and reason are right, the planet will undergo wrenching changes that may challenge our very existence.
There is no doomsday clock in Times Square in this scenario. You won’t see one on every TV screen. But every day we don’t act is a day closer to losing another species. Tick Tock. Another island nation just flooded. Tick Tock. Fresh water in Florida is almost nonexistent. Tick! The permafrost has melted and now methane is pouring into the atmosphere at unprecedented rates. Tock!
There are decisions to be made.
Do you believe that the scientific community which has put men on the moon, increased your life expectancy by decades, and given you countless improvements to your life should have their nearly unanimous scientific conclusions rejected because politicians and the moneyed interests who control those politicians want to overrule them? Do you believe that those politicians know better than every major country in the world? Do you think the yahoos creating Face Book memes to dupe the public actually are smarter?
Do you REALLY believe that, because this isn’t a matter of inconvenience if you’re wrong?
Would you say the same thing if it was an asteroid strike the scientists were warning you about and there was a Doomsday Clock in the corner of your screen counting down right now?
There is a point where you have to decide whether your life will be ruled by reason or by unsubstantiated belief, by what has been time-tested and proven, or by empty rhetoric and sound bites. Forget about the conspiracy theories. Forget about what color the President is. Forget about how angry you are over the Syrian immigrants. Forget about who is a leader and whether America is still great and whether Planned Parenthood should be funded. This has nothing to do with any of that. Forget about your recently-acquired fear of Muslims and ISIS. This is a decision about the continued existence of life on the planet.
This could be Reason’s last stand.
If we accept reason and work to avert global warming, we may never know if the naysayers were right all along. The earth will not undergo the worst and we may never know whether that might have happened anyway. But we will have a better world. We will have a world that doesn’t depend on fossil fuels and that runs on renewable energy. We will have a world that has both developed and developing nations free of toxic air pollution. We will have island nations above water. We will have saved lives by the millions. We will have prevented any number of wars fought over resources. We may even have a world that is greener than ever before.
If we abandon reason, if we accept instead the politically and economically motivated nonsense promoted by the Republican Party and people like Ted Cruz, if we tell Bruce Willis and the guys they can stand down (false alarm gentlemen, we can let your kids handle this one) we will suffer one of the greatest disasters the species has ever known. We don’t know the day or the hour or the minute that will happen, but it will happen.
Your Humble Servant,
Roger A. Shipley, The Willowbrook Curmudgeon