If You're Reading This, The World Didn't End Last Thursday
New York - May 26, 2003
There will be no refunds on disposable toilet bags or emergency dental kits, so if you purchased these or other "family preparedness" supplies from The Survival Center, in the expectation that a mysterious planet or rogue sister star of our own Sun would wipe out 90% of the Earth's population this month, you'll have to simply chalk it up to a moment's paranoia: the sun is shining, the planet is blissfully unmolested and Britney Spears has no plans for repopulating a post-apocalyptic Earth with you anytime soon.
Planet X, or Nibiru as it's exotically known to believers in a cult of ancient Sumerian astrophysicists, remains a persistent myth based on an innocuous observational error now nearly a quarter-millennium old.
The error has to do with the orbits of the outer planets in our solar system, and is inarguably symptomatic of well practiced science: few discoveries circumvent the awkward evolution of initial mismeasurement into refined calculation and clarity, even if 14-point headlines and Hollywood dramatizations sometimes make it seem as if science is little more than the act of lighting a match in a dark room.
The mystery of Uranus, discovered in 1781 at the seeming cusp of our solar system, was no exception. In the years following its discovery, perturbations were noticed in its orbit that hinted at the gravitational tug of something not yet discovered in the void beyond.
A search was undertaken and an eighth planet found by the mid-nineteenth century, but while Neptune's influence helped explain some of the variations in its predecessor's path across the ecliptic, its mass was slightly larger than anticipated and left a small margin still unaccounted for.
Nearly a century passed before a ninth planet was discovered in 1930 and it seemed at last as if the issue of Uranus' anomalous orbit had been put firmly to bed - until it was established that Pluto was just a bit too small to balance out the orbits of the outer planets, and so the search continued for a further guiding hand at the edge of the solar system: an as yet undiscovered planet which had been fancifully dubbed Planet X and was certainly not out of place in the era of Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers of the Twenty-Fifth Century and Orson Welles' radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds.
It became clear in 1992 that there was nothing at all wrong with the orbit of Uranus. NASA's Voyager 2 probe measured Neptune's mass on its way out of the solar system in 1989 and, once the numbers had been crunched, resolved the discrepancy once and for all by subtracting a problematic .5% and restoring harmony to the orbits of the outermost planets.
Although this would seem an appropriate occasion to turn the page and move onto any number of as yet unresolved issues in planetary astronomy, it turns out there's something strangely appealing about anticlimactic mysteries such as these to a small but persistent reactionary fringe of armchair cosmologists, conspiracy theorists and doomsday profiteers.
Unmoved by equally dire (if slightly more plausible) threats of nuclear escalation, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, near-Earth asteroids or neighborhood supernovae, the doomsday fringe prefer stories of a more baroque touch: alien invasions, planetary alignments, super-storms, apocalyptic computer viruses, Nazi flying saucers and secret CIA mind control experiments.
Undeterred by the embarrassing survival of the human race following the publication of such blanching paperbacks as Richard W. Noone's "5/5/2000 Ice: The Ultimate Disaster" and David S. Montaigne's "Nostradamus World War III 2002," doomsday prophets like Mark Hazelwood ("Blindsided: Planet X Passes in 2003") and Nancy Lieder (founder of the ZetaTalk cult) have breathed new life into the mysterious perturbations of Uranus' orbit as a smoking gun for Planet X, the furtive tenth planet or sister sun which was destined to have re-entered our solar system this month with satisfyingly cataclysmic results. The evidence for a distant rogue planet, according to writer and fringe researcher Zecharia Sitchin ("The Twelfth Planet"), can be found in ancient Sumerian tablets which seem to depict eleven planets circling a sun.
To make prophecy match modern interpretation, of course, revisionists like Sitchin have had to quietly count the Earth's moon as a "planet" and then, just for good measure, gone ahead and counted the sun as a planet too.
What Sitchin's jacket copy of "The Twelfth Planet" declines to mention is the fact that the Sumerians were also wrong about rather a lot. They believed that the sky was a great enclosed dome which contained the sun, the moon and the stars, for instance.
To therefore selectively interpret 6000-year old Sumerian creation myths as evidence that the Earth was seeded by aliens and their android thralls, as Sitchin advocate Jason Martell has been wont to do, seems - shall we say - a trifle disingenuous.
Doomsday prophets are not a recent phenomenon, and while one might argue that book royalties and the promise of late night talk show coverage motivates the modern apocalyptic seer, there's clearly something about the messianic act that appeals to certain personality types.
We'll never know whether Nostradamus would've been a hit at cocktail parties, but his present-day counterparts might lead one to believe that charisma, intellect and unthreatened open-mindedness are less likely attributes than an awkward unblinking paranoia when confronted by intellectual sophistication or irrefutable data.
To hear Sitchin mutter about alien astronauts in ancient Mesopotamia is to find oneself wishing he'd found a somewhat healthier outlet for his mania, like hanging around convention halls dressed as Mr. Spock.
Disquietingly, it seems not only as if hysterical superstition and messianic prophesy have survived the enlightenment, but may paradoxically be thriving in an age unprecedented for scientific discovery and public access to information.
The longevity of doomsday cults like ZetaTalk is, if nothing else, a strong indication that one of our fundamental assumptions about alternative science is wrong: as much as we might wish to believe that ignorance remains the firmament of exploitation, the twenty-first century's intellectual plague is a wealth of knowledge untempered by clear refutation.
The hoaxed moon landing movement is a particularly interesting example of the sort of pseudoscientific fearmongering that should've gone out of vogue with forensic phrenology.
Inspired by the provocative (and not unenjoyable) 1978 movie, "Capricorn One," in which budget-strapped NASA fakes a Mars mission and is forced to kill its own astronauts to keep the truth from the public, a fervid group of conspiracy theorists have embraced the notion that life mimics art (or vice versa) and aggressively promote the theory that NASA successfully faked the six Apollo landings - somehow doctoring data, forging photographs, dubbing radio transmissions and brainwashing or blackmailing thousands of aeronautics employees and subcontractors in what would have to be the biggest conspiracy since the Knights of Malta spirited away the Ark of the Covenant, kidnapped the Lindbergh baby and assassinated Kurt Cobain.
It's a testament to how pervasive the Apollo hoax theory has become in recent years that the Fox network aired a mortifying 1991 pseudodocumentary called "Conspiracy Theory: Did We Land on the Moon?" (not dissimilar to their previous efforts at provocative science, "Alien Autopsy: Fact or Fiction?" and "UFO's, The Best Evidence Ever Caught on Tape," both of which were revisited in dubiously self-serving fashion in "World's Greatest Hoaxes: Secrets Finally Revealed"); equally telling is the fact that a current Google search for "Apollo landings" is likely to result in at least one hoax-related website within the first cluster of ten results.
It's hard to imagine how the Apollo missions might have been more fully documented to provide indisputable proof of human presence on the moon. Anyone with an Internet connection can view archived photographs, read transcripts of recorded conversations between Houston and the lunar surface or order a commemorative DVD from Nova.
Conspiracy theorists counter this wealth of information with a level of logic not often found beyond the high sanitarium walls: a seeming absence of stars is attributed to clumsy set design rather than the limited sensitivity of NASA cameras, and the graceful bounding gait of astronauts traversing the moon's surface is apparently evidence of film run at half-speed through a projector rather than a near-weightless environment.
So why doesn't NASA simply set the record straight? After all, to paraphrase a cliché, if we can put a man on the moon can't we clearly explain how we got him there - and why a foley artist behind a blue-screen is a pretty unlikely explanation for perceived anomalies in the mission record? Concerned astronomers like Phil Plait have already attempted as much, yet NASA has chosen to take the high road, aborting an attempt to produce a book on spaceflight-related hoaxes by historian Jim Oberg when the media caught the scent of a potential cockfight.
Whether there's any relation between the space agency's perpetually beleaguered budget and a public perception of incompetence or conspiracy is certainly arguable, but there's little question that NASA holds claim to a smaller cut of the national imagination that it did a scant forty years ago - and a specific percentage of that mindspace is linked to lurid allegations of fraud. A low double-digit book contract seems a small price to pay for bringing home the swing vote.
As strategies go, the high road wasn't particularly effective with Roswell and doesn't seem to be working with Area 51 either. The Fox network's alien autopsy fiasco is a good indication that many people still think an alien spacecraft landed outside Roswell, New Mexico, in July 1947 - rather than what was later identified as a military weather balloon, a mix-up which seems to have originated when William Brazel, the rancher who discovered the wreckage on his property, reported to the local sheriff that he had stumbled across what appeared to be "one of them flying saucers."
Likewise, Area 51 - a top-secret Air Force proving ground for experimental aircraft in the Great Basin Desert of Nevada - has acquired a persistent following of UFOlogists who believe this remote site to be the flashpoint for a pending alien invasion of the heartland.
Blame it on too many remakes of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers": instead of remembering that the original 1956 version had alien pods standing in for communists (or, in opposing interpretations, for McCarthyists), we choose to remember the alien pods as... holy mackerel, alien pods!
The intelligence community is at least partially to blame for this kind of literalist paranoia: reluctant denials and blacked-out memoranda are obviously a poor substitute for clear and open refutation.
Perhaps the most innocuous of pseudoscientific obfuscations is the Intelligent Design movement, a post-creationist anti-Darwinian ideology with a folksy media-friendly name intended to disguise an unflinching mandate to restore religion as part of the science curriculum in public schools.
Three quarters of a century after the paradigm-wrenching Scopes Monkey Trial, popular neocreationist advocates like Michael Behe ("Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution") and William Dembski ("Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science and Theology") are quick to point out that ID isn't your daddy's seven-day creation myth.
Intelligent Design rather rakishly acknowledges the process of natural selection as evidenced by a robust fossil record, but stops short of attributing humanity's emergence to a dispassionate assembly of amino acids on a fortuitously located planet circling an average main sequence star.
Behe, for example, argues that nature is filled with "irreducibly complex" systems like bacterial flagella (a form of cellular propulsion) which only function properly if several interrelated components somehow evolve simultaneously; he neglects to consider that there might be alternate evolutionary benefits to individual components, ignoring the fact that nature is filled with complex systems that reuse the successful bits and pieces of simpler organisms.
The fundamental flaws of Intelligent Design won't be found in bacteria, however - ultimately, ID posits the logical fallacy that if God cannot be disproved He must therefore exist, as well as the taxonomic fallacy that theology is a quantifiable scientific endeavor rather than mere philosophical theism.
What distinguishes the threat of Intelligent Design from prior creationist arguments is a shrewd use of popular science; like UFO fanatics or moon hoaxers, ID advocates sift through an abundance of data in fields as diverse as biochemistry, numerical analysis, behavioral psychology and cultural anthropology in search of superficial similarities to invariably vague theories of surreptitious determinism.
To the average layperson, evidence such as this - cautiously cast in the language of twenty-first century science - can seem to possess a thin veneer of respectability when unchallenged by informed refutation.
Either because of good manners or an unwillingness to compromise religious tolerance, Intelligent Design in particular has been spared the rigor of critical thinking in the popular media, with the notable exception of occasional articles in mainstream publications like the Skeptical Inquirer and Natural History magazine.
Whether confronting doomsday prophesy or alternative science, the popular media generally contribute to hysterical misperception by attempting to negotiate an inherent conflict of interest between responsible journalism and salacious hard copy.
"The Day the World Shuts Down" was Newsweek's 1998 attempt to objectively analyze the new millennium's Y2K crisis. A year later, CNN was "Bracing for Guerrilla Warfare in Cyberspace." Time Magazine lunged at us from another direction with its 2001 cover story "Summer of the Shark," drifting back into deeper waters with a 2002 cover story on "The Bible and the Apocalypse."
Blaming the media, however, is perhaps a little like blaming one's reflection for being overweight: we're all responsible for the information we choose to consume and the degree of personal gullibility we're inclined to tolerate.
The average American's gullibility barometer couldn't help but have reacted to the 9/11 attacks on New York City and Washington, DC: just when we'd begun to adjust to the declining role of organized religion in our increasingly quantifiable lives, Islamic fundamentalism put the end of Western civilization back on the map.
Amid the resulting media frenzy of terrorist sleeper cells and potential rogue nations, the prophesied return of Planet X seemed a little less the stuff of science fiction and, to many, just one more reason to feel a bit jumpy on the way to the laundromat.
For the conspiratorial fringe, 9/11 was a goldmine of conflicting data, irretrievable evidence and easily exploited paranoia. Even after Islamic militants had been publicly identified on the flight rosters of hijacked planes, rumors abounded that it was the work of Zionists trying to polarize debate in the Israel-Palestine conflict, or wait, maybe the United States military did it to distract the American public from a struggling presidency.
For its part, the Bush administration showed little hesitancy in exploiting public opinion to mobilize American forces against Iraq, calmly marginalizing as naïve any arguments that an Iraqi / bin Laden connection were tenuous at best with the same smug unflappability favored by Roswell believers confronting a skeptical scientific community.
Sadly, conspiracy theory and reactionary militarism if unsuccessfully refuted both favor a wealth of conflicting information, lowering the bar for the paranoid and messianic: instead of insisting on unwavering belief, it seems all a modern seer need demand is that you believe in everything, even if only a little bit.
To date, the bulk of the scientific community has washed its hands of cult science, sufficing to roll back on its heels with an exasperated cry of, "Where does it end?" Surely there has to be a point past which it's simply not worth the effort of discrediting spurious claims or providing the deliberately uninformed and embarrassingly delusional with - in the words of one frustrated writer to Natural History magazine - "exactly what they desired: publicity in a mainstream scientific forum.
These advocates should be ostracized by the scientific community, just as we would ostracize someone who claims to be researching the natural behavior of wood nymphs and faeries."
As comfortable as most people may be drawing that line, it's clear that primetime network alien autopsies - or Time/CNN polls revealing that 65% of Americans believe clandestine alien contact was made in the forties - ought to suggest that the scientific community's boundaries of responsibility need to redrawn for the information age.
To dismiss Roswell and Rael as particularly weedy offspring of a hopelessly Punchinelloed Flat Earth Society (which, at its height, had little more to work with than azimuthal cartography) somehow seems an arrogant attempt to have our cake and eat it too: popular paperbacks on cosmology and natural science come at a price, and that price is the authority we invest, foolishly or not, in unexamined science writ large.
Timothy Quinn is a writer and technology professional who currently lives and works in New York City.
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Smells Like Teen Spirit
Scottsdale - May 14, 2003
Before long, a private vehicle will make a successful suborbital flight. That flight will mark a passage from adolescence to adulthood for the space community, an achievement of independence from the stifling paternalism of stagnant government programs, writes John Carter McKnight.