Every semester the astronomy department hosts Evening with the Stars, a lecture accompanied by a trip to the Paul Tebbe Observatory on campus. This semester, a combination of a cloudy sky and a presentation about media illiteracy kept the audience firmly on the ground.
Jay Manifold, former vice president at the Powell Observatory, gave his speech, “Alarming Astronomy: Strange Sights—Past, Present and Future” on Saturday night, April 13. His lecture was entertainingly promoted as an exploration of recent apocalyptic predictions and referenced a solution to the “looniness.”
His lecture was strongly overshadowed by his condescension toward the general public, and he even fell into the predictable tune of “young people spend too much time on technology.” It wasn’t a great look in front of an audience of community college students.
Manifold discussed different incorrect astronomical predictions and how they came about, naming science journalists as the source of false information. He told the story of Leonid Elenin, a Russian man who discovered a comet which was then predicted to hit the Earth. The comet, however, disintegrated when it entered the inner solar system. Later, Manifold talked about the comet Apophis, said to collide with the Earth in 2029 or 2036. He said that projection is also false.
His lecture heavily relied on a website he referenced, 2012hoax.org, now moved to cosmophobia.wikidot.com. He used their categories; Nibiru, Planet X, Comet Elenin and planetary alignments for the structure of his talk and the bulk of his information.
It is unclear what the credentials of the person(s) running the website are, and the only named contributor is “Astrogeek,” whose “about” page is blank except for their pseudonym. Ironic, coming from someone lecturing about trustworthy media sources. More about that later.
Part of his concern regarding the circulation of false information is the threat it poses to NASA. Manifold said he was concerned about the potential for a shooting at the administration’s office due to false information.
The shooting he chose to illustrate his point was the 2012 non-fatal shooting of a security guard at the D.C. location of the Family Research Council (FRC) – an anti-abortion, anti-same-sex-marriage lobbyist group.
“He [Floyd Corkins] saw the FRC listed as a hate group on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s website and decided to give them what he thought they deserved,” Manifold said. “I suggest that we are at noticeable risk of someone pulling a Corkins on a NASA office or an observatory somewhere after reading on a conspiracy website that they are covering up knowledge of a calamity.”
He seemed to equate the Southern Poverty Law Center with a “conspiracy website.” However, the SPLC is a civil rights organization, not a fringe news outlet. A better example of his point would have been pizzagate: In 2016 a man stormed a pizza place and fired a rifle after reading on far-right conspiracy websites that the pizza store was the site of a sex trafficking ring. The theory has been debunked multiple times.
If someone goes to a NASA office with a deadly weapon, it seems more likely it will be because they read the organization spends tax dollars researching climate change. However, Manifold appears to belong to the conspiracy theorists who don’t believe it.
“The idea that people shouldn’t have children because of ‘climate change’ is being bandied about as I speak,” Manifold said. “Predictions of this or that catastrophe resulting from global warming are no better than the ones I’ve been talking about.”
He later suggested that money from big oil is not suppressing climate change research, when, in fact, the paper trail there is clear.
At the conclusion of his talk, he invited the audience to join the Astronomical Society of Kansas City to give them a better understanding of astronomy and prevent succumbing to the “looniness” he discussed – a poor solution for much of the public. What does reach everyday people is the news, but his big topic was a disavowal of science journalism, including a few sharp lines about reporters not being smart enough to report on science.
“A prediction makes an interesting scary story that’s based on math too hard for reporters and editors to check is prime for wide distribution,” Manifold said. “There are a large number [of journalists] who seem to be doing reasonably good work and then there’s everyone else, including almost all general assignment reporters and editors.”
Manifold then touched on the structural bias of news media and how it, by definition, conflicts with trustworthy science. News often relies on a breaking story, making something like the first study of a subject or a finding that goes against years of precedent news-worthy. However, in the world of science, the first study is never trustworthy, and years of precedent takes the cake until the divergent theory is proven through time. Science and news are very nearly opposites in this respect.
This conclusion is a re-presentation of science journalist Tom Siegfried’s 2009 presentation, “Odds Are, It’s Wrong: the misuse of math in science, medicine and media,” who Manifold listed as one of his trusted journalists during his lecture. What Manifold missed that Siegfried acknowledges is the role of statistics contributing to the phenom.
“The fault lies not in science writers, but in science itself,” Siegfried said. “Basically, the problem is that statistical methods for testing hypotheses are flawed. Even when the journalists get the story right, what you read is likely to be wrong. In other words, even if the reporter quotes the scientist correctly and in context, faithfully presents the conclusions of the scientific paper and represents the meaning of the findings for science just as the scientists do, odds still are that it’s wrong.”
Siegfried goes on to explain this is because of the nature of statistics, but also because of the explanation Manifold presented, that the nature of news directly conflicts with it.
I present Siegfried’s argument because he shows that the problem isn’t that journalists and the general public are too stupid to grasp astronomy. Rather, there is a larger structural problem, greater than any one person or article, and it will not be solved by joining the Astronomical Society of Kansas City, as Manifold suggested. There will not come a time when everyone is an amateur astronomer.