June 24, 2018

Life in the Astro-Blogosphere May 2013: They’re Out There, Man…

Why yes, we HAVE seen the ISS!

You just never know when you’ll come face-to-face with Woo.

We recently wrote about Comet ISON on Universe Today and how conspiracy crackpots are already lining up to capitalize on the projected “Comet of the Century.” It’s really win-win for them; if the comet lives up to expectations, there’ll be lots to hype, and if it’s a fizzle, hey, NASA’s “secret mission” must’ve taken it out…

But it always amazes me the amount of mis-guided brainpower that goes into conspiracy theories. If often makes me think that a mind is a terrible thing to develop without help. It also makes me realize that hey, there’s lots of interest in science out there that’s just not being satisfied and channeled into productive use. Many have the image of the lone tinkerer working in a vacuum making discoveries from left field, but modern science is more of an international and large-scale collaborative effort than most people realize. It’s just plain hard to keep the conspiratorial lid on any new discovery these days.

The commentary we received made me think back to an encounter back from our Tucson days. Back around 2003, we frequented Friday night meetings of the Tucson Amateur Astronomy Association whenever our schedule would allow.

This particular Friday meeting was shaping up to be no different. There would be a guest speaker, followed by announcements, followed by the monthly parade of slideshows from advanced astrophotographers as they stood in line with USB flash drives in hand to show off their latest accomplishments.

But this month’s speaker turned out to be a cosmologist of some note, and the audience was quickly filled in with many non-astro clubbers.

They were easy enough to pick out; your average amateur astronomer looks like maybe a ComicCon attendee without the Vulcan ears. The “suits” in the crowd were mostly fellow astrophysicists from the university, as said cosmologist was to receive an award. WMAP had just taken to space and there was much excitement in the field of cosmology.

A fair amount of journalists were also on hand, one of which sat next to me. This was long before I was to engage in the romantic and vagabond life of a freelance science writer myself. As the talk wrapped up, I mentioned “That’s pretty amazing!” to which said journalist replied along the lines of;

“Most of what he said was bunk. Look around online and you’ll find that the Big Bang theory is in deep trouble.”

As the audience filtered out, I never did get to hear a follow up to this assertion. I wasn’t even that interested in arguing with said Big Bang-denying journalist, telling him of the multiple lines of evidence building up a bulwark to the present picture of the cosmos. I’m pretty sure he’d tuned all of that out already. Was he in favor of a modified steady state universe, or a supporter of anti-relativity? Or did he simply believe in a burrito-shaped universe? I meet these types doing astronomy outreach all the time. Keep in mind, this was in an era before social media and smartphones, when spam and chat boards were still pretty hip. If it was on The Internet, Man… well, there just HAD to be something to it, right?

At most, I wondered what his angle was, who he wrote for. Perhaps, like climate change scientists, cosmologists have their own “anti-groupies” that chase them around from lecture to lecture, looking for loopholes to fly their warp drives through. You can almost trace the trajectory of Mr. Big Bang deniers’ path through the next decade from one fringe theory after another. Perhaps he’s still out there, leaving a novel-length comment on a blog just now, or posting another You Tube vid about how the Mayans got it wrong, and 2014 is the REAL apocalypse

I think we’ve done a disservice by not grabbing these people at a young age and introducing them to the scientific method. If nothing else, I feel it’s important for folks to realize that science is around us, in our backyard and our neighborhood. Scientists and science groupies don’t just decide something is a “good idea” and then close our minds. We’re hardest on each other and ourselves, but the long arc bends towards time-tested truth and knowledge.

We do always have to be careful not to preach to the choir. Skeptics are on the frontlines in the war on pseudoscience, but it’s tough to not have your woo-radar up as yet another stranger approaches, both in reality and online. Are they a science-minded “fellow traveler,” or are they someone looking for an ear to pour their alien-Elvis abduction theory into?

Watch for woo and you’ll soon see and hear it every day. But don’t miss a chance to show off the universe that’s all around us. The next time someone says “Yeah, but have YOU ever SEEN the International Space Station?” you can counter “Yes, I have, and I’ll show it to you tonight!”

 

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