With all the phony “fake news” tension promulgated by this corrupt administration, it’s actually a true issue affecting science journalists. I’m talking about a trustworthiness challenge caused by the tendency to hype and exaggerate science in order to grab attention.
One example: the SuperMoon business. We astronomers had a perfectly fine word for when the Moon comes close; it’s perigee. For centuries, the published lunar perigee date mostly elicited yawns. But when the term SuperMoon caught on a few years ago and the major media ran headlines saying, “Don’t miss tonight’s SuperMoon!” real confusion arose. The problem is that a perigee Moon looks exactly like every other Full Moon, whereas the word “super” suggests something very special must be afoot. Photographers soon obliged by publishing huge photoshopped Moon images, and the highway to hype was now open to traffic.
I want astronomy to catch on and grow, so I do want to stir up excitement. But I know not to oversell celestial events that will visually fall short of expectations.
When I took over the Old Farmer’s Almanac’s astronomy pages in the 1980s, I followed the same rules I created when I started this Night Sky column in 1974: namely, never to mention barely-there sky events. Thus, for the past quarter-century that venerable magazine never lists penumbral lunar eclipses, because such an eclipse usually doesn’t change the Moon’s appearance. I also ignore minor meteor showers, especially if they happen around a Full Moon. Yet last week Earth and Sky, normally an excellent radio show, urged listeners to go out to watch a skimpy display during a very bright Moon. I knew observers would be lucky if they caught a single meteor, even if they patiently stared for half an hour. Such overselling is the kind of thing that turns people off to astronomy.
There’s another aspect to this: how the pop-culture perception eventually gets set in stone and becomes permanent. For example, until the ’50s hit “Rock around the Clock,” the public didn’t invariably call the most famous comet “Hayley’s” Comet. For two centuries, many people correctly said “HAL-ee.” But Bill Haley and His Comets established a pronunciation that has become permanent, even though it’s wrong.
As another example, if you ask anyone the first words spoken from the Moon, they’ll invariably mention the “One small step” speech. Actually, the first lunar words were, “Okay, engine stop,” uttered by Buzz Aldrin. Less than a minute later, Armstrong said, “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed!”
Thousands of conversational words followed. Only seven hours later did Armstrong say, “That’s one small step…” and maybe you’d argue that those alone should count because he was then standing outside the lander. But that’s not how life works. When you land at JFK and the plane’s PA says, “Welcome to New York,” no one thinks, “I’m not in New York, because I’m still on the plane.” Similarly, as soon as the astronauts landed, they were on the Moon.
You could argue this either way; my point is merely that the media-declared reality is what became the sole permanent truth. Commentators had been speculating for days what Armstrong would choose to say when he stepped out, so the whole thing had been set up, and nothing else was going to matter. Only Neil’s out-the-hatch words would be catnip to the press corps.
This still happens. A couple of weeks ago the press ran the “first image of a black hole.” Well, that black circular glob was actually not a black hole. It was a false color depiction of an inky area 100 times larger, a zone where background radio waves had been disturbed by a black hole. But even if incorrect, once a media-favorite astro-“fact” gains enough repetitions, it becomes our permanent model of the cosmos – which is why the vast majority thinks orbiting astronauts can see the Great Wall of China, and believe that births or crime increase around the Full Moon. And think that professional astronomers look through telescopes. And believe radio telescopes capture sounds. And think the Moon has a dark side. Fitting into the vox-pop reality is probably why Alex Trebek says “your ay-nus” on Jeopardy, even though he’s normally a stickler about pronunciation.
Science programs habitually repeat the silly claim that astronauts have “escaped Earth’s gravity,” even though gravity at the Space Station is just a barely noticeable ten percent weaker than people experience in Saugerties. Few explain that the floating is solely due to the crew being in free-fall.
At risk of sounding like a curmudgeon, it’s weird to watch so much science get reimagined, with the hyped version permanently established as the truth. But at heart, this is about trustworthiness – which is why you won’t see the term “SuperMoon” on this page. It may be current and colloquial, and no harm in that. But it would also be a stepping stone on the highway of hype.
Want to know more? To read Bob’s previous columns, click here. Check out Bob’s podcast, Astounding Universe, co-hosted by Pulse of the Planet’s Jim Metzner.