Do you have a ten year old daughter who asked you "can we build a bomb shelter?" and who has nightmares about the world ending? Have you watched a timer on the online version of a major broadsheet newspaper count down the hours and minutes to what they say is the end of the world, and believed it? Have you stared at the sun, knowing that it could damage your eyes, to try to see a second sun which you believe is going to end all life on Earth?
Have you watched a lunar eclipse in fear that when the Moon turns red, everyone on Earth will die?
There are many news stories every week that promote such anxiety. There are almost none that debunk these BS scenarios that many have come to believe to be true.
Have you had to ask your doctor to help you to overcome extreme anxiety about the world ending? Have you wondered if there is any point in preparing for Christmas because you have read stories you find convincing, that say that we will all die on Christmas eve? Have you felt suicidal out of fear that the world would end, or had a friend, relative or child who was suicidal out of doomsday fears?
This is reality for many people. NASA astrobiologist David Morrison first drew our attention to this issue in 2012, when he talked about the many people who responded to his "Ask an Astrobiologist" column with questions about their fears that we have a second sun that endangers the Earth, or that we will be hit by a planet or perhaps an entire solar system that they have told has been hiding behind the sun for years and is going to jump out at us with a week or a month of notice, and many other such absurdities. At least one schoolchild killed herself out of fear of such things, and he says that he was told anecdotally about several other suicides
Most of us would just LOL at the idea that we have a second sun. The other ideas are equally absurd to anyone with basic understanding of astronomy, what Brian Cox calls this "Imaginary BS Planet Nibiru". They are like movie scripts for a bad B movie. But with enough repetition, stirring music, videos that they find impressive, and narration in a convincing authoritative sounding voice, vulnerable people come to believe the most bizarre things.
The ones who are most vulnerable here are young children, adults with learning difficulties, and anyone who flunked physics at high school and decided that science is not for them. Once you start to get scared and search the internet for information, you will find that almost every week, a new "doomsday story" will break. You will find almost no stories debunking these scenarios.
Try to find a newspaper report that debunks the idea that we have two suns, or that there's an extra planet hiding behind the sun, or that the Earth is at risk of being shaken so much it turns upside down. Sometimes they will say "NASA says there is nothing to worry about" but that's almost the worst way to deal with it because many of the conspiracy theorists, for some reason, believe that there is a conspiracy organized by NASA to somehow hide our second sun or the extra planet or whatever it is they believe in. Crazy I know, if you have any background in astronomy, but this is something vulnerable people and children also find credible.
Since I started to write in this topic area a little over a year ago, I have had over a thousand comments on my articles by these scared people (over 500 on the Imaginary Bullshit Planet Nibiru article alone, not counting my replies), averaging around three a day. I get a similar number of private messages, by scared people. That's why I write all these articles on it here and continue to raise the issue.
I've done a couple of petitions to highlight these issues on Change.org.
- Petition to Youtube to Halt Ads on Doomsday Videos
- Petition: Let's End Dramatized Reporting Of "Doomsday" Stories - The Vulnerable Get Suicidal
WORST EXAMPLE OF A DRAMATIZED DOOMSDAY STORIES IN THE MEDIA
The worst example that I've ever seen is a story that ran in the online version of the Telegraph. This is a respected mainstream broadsheet newspaper in the UK. The story said that the world would end on the 29th July 2016. It had a count down timer to the end of the world at the top of the page (now removed) and a stream of fake tweets about our impending doom. You may be able to spot its humorous tone, but the vulnerable miss this. I got many comments from scared people on my articles, asking questions such as when it would happen in their time zone. For them it was deadly serious. They thought that the world was going to end when that count down timer reached zero.
This is the image used by the Telegraph story. It's become one of the generic images used for doomsday stories. It’s actually a fuzzed out version of this image of Cassiopeia A, a supernova remnant 11,000 light years away by the Chandra X Ray observatory. Nothing at all to do with Earth or our solar system!
A fuzzed out image of Cassiopeia A was originally used as a cover image for stories about the "Big rip" theory. The only connection with the big rip theory is that the research for it involved study of the red shifts of distant supernovae, and I've no idea why they fuzzed it out. This image is now often used for Doomsday stories, with no connection with supernovae and no explanation of why it was used, as for the Telegraph article.
The only basis for the date in the story was the video title text typed in by an anonymous youtube video uploader, "Why the World will End Surely on July 29th - Shocking Facts" and a custom youtube thumbnail they made for their video. There is no way to know who did this, as their identity is hidden behind their youtube channel name.The video itself was an unauthorized copy of someone else's work, using amateur graphics, elaborating on events described in the book of Revelations, one of the most enigmatic books in the Bible. This book is so easy of misinterpretation that the Eastern Orthodox church has excluded it from the list of Bible passages that can be read from a lectern.
This story, based entirely on a date in the title typed in by some anonymous youtube user for their unauthorized copy of someone else's video ran as a major "Doomsday story" on many news sites online, and the video racked up six million views. That's enough to earn the anonymous perpetrator an estimated $8,000 to $22,000 in ad revenue for their hoax. Shocking!
That's an extreme example, but there is a huge bias in the news media towards doomsday stories. Journalists can take the most insignificant news item and turn it into a dramatic story of impending doom. Some of the worst stories are about asteroid flybys.
We have had a strong program of asteroid detection ever since the wake up call of the Shoemaker Levy impact on Jupiter in July 1992. This program detects faint asteroids every day passing millions of kilometers away from Earth. Once these asteroids are discovered, and their orbit is known, any amateur or professional astronomer with a decent telescope can image them.
One of these asteroids, 2009ES was photographed by a Chinese observatory in early September, one of the many asteroids photographed every day. For some reason this became a major news story. This asteroid was discovered in 2009, as you can tell from the name. It flew past Earth at a distance of 7.2 million kilometers on the 5th September. The original story did not give a date for a flyby and as a result, the story continued to be repeated in online news sites, predicting the end of the life on Earth, for much of September. Here is an example story: End of The World? Massive Killer Asteroid Heading Towards Earth, Experts Warn on Nature World News and Warning of doomsday asteroid ‘with the power of three billion nuclear bombs’. on Metro magazine.
As another example, right now, many of these online news sources are running a story about 2000 ET70 which isn't anywhere near us this year. The closest it gets to us before 2100 is a flyby at a distance of 5.52 million kilometers on the 19th February, 2059 at 9:20 am. They don't give a source for the story so it's impossible to work out how the misunderstanding arose. If you do a google search for 2000 ET70 the news is full of stories saying that this will be a disaster and kill us all. See this screen shot.
If a journalist was to run a story that a famous figure has died, when they are still alive, and it turned out that they never bothered to check the facts, they would be out of a job. But for some reason, the same standards are not applied to Doomsday stories about asteroids.
You can write a story saying that an asteroid is going to hit Earth and kill everyone, and it doesn't seem to bother them at all whether or not the asteroid actually comes anywhere near to Earth this year or this century. They simply don't check. Perhaps it's because journalists don't know how to check these stories? It is so easy to do too. It takes you just a couple of minutes if you know where to go.
Of course I'm not saying this is the case for all newspapers. Many probably would check an asteroid flyby story before publishing it, but there are enough journalists out there that don't check these stories at all, to flood google news results every time one of these stories "breaks". They just copy each other.
If you are one of those journalists, here is how to check these stories.
FOR JOURNALISTS - HOW TO CHECK AN ASTEROID FLYBY STORY
Go to the NASA Sentry Risk Table. The risks are ordered with the highest risk at top. If the top entry is blue or white, there is no current risk known from any asteroid, and the story is a hoax or misunderstanding. If you want to investigate in more detail, see the indented paragraph:
For a more thorough check, look up the object's page in the JPL NEO browser and click on "Close approach data". Here is the page for 2000 ET70. The first column shows the date. The fourth column shows the minimum distance in au, where 1 au is the distance from the Earth to the Sun. To convert that to kilometers type 0.0369406968466726 au in kilometers into google (or whatever the number is). That particular example gives the distance for the closest approach for 2000 ET70 in kilometers.
For a list of all the flybys for upcoming dates, go to the ESA close approaches table. Or the JPL close approaches page. The JPL page is more comprehensive including even very small minor asteroids, while the ESA one has a longer timeline and includes past asteroids for some time back.
As another example of this sloppy science reporting about Doomsday stories, on 21st October, at the height of the Oronids meteor shower, the Daily Mail online ran a news story with the title "'Doomsday' comet set to shower Earth tonight" saying that conspiracy theorists claim that scientists have miscalculated the orbit for Halley's comet and that it will hit Earth this week. Halley's next approach to the sun is in 2061, and it's orbit intersects the plane of the ecliptic close to Venus. There is no way it can ever hit Earth on that orbit.
Orbit of Halley's comet. As you see it can never hit Earth or any other major planet for as long as it remains in this orbit, which is stable over timescales of thousands of years
(longer term it will probably evaporate away as many comets do eventually, over a period of a few thousand years. It's orbit is hard to predict long term exactly because it's orbit is sensitive to small scale perturbations. If it doesn't evaporate, the most likely outcome is that it is ejected from our solar system within 10 million years).
It's true that the Oronids meteor shower is associated with Halley's comet, but it comes from the debris from its tail, blown away from the main comet by the sun. See my answer to Can Halley's comet strike a planet in the solar system?
If they took the same level of care they take for obituaries, they would run the story past any professional or good amateur astronomer who would immediately see this is nonsense. Then either they wouldn't run the story at all, as for a fake obituary, or they would explain in simple terms why it is impossible so their readers can understand for themselves.
You do get an occasional debunking story. One recent example was a "blood moon" hoax in August of this year. The Independent (another UK paper) debunked it, and their story was top of Google news for that day (screenshot), with the title "Blood moon' and 'rogue planet Nibiru' are on their way to kill us all, conspiracy theorists wrongly claim". However the debunking stories are all too rare.
IT'S AN ISSUE FOR SCIENTISTS ALSO
This is an issue with scientists also. They usually get the science right obviously. But they are often unaware of how their stories will be interpreted by non scientists. As an example, here is the famous professor of theoretical physics, Michio Kaku talking about asteroid Apophis on Fox news back in 2011.
He explains that this asteroid, 330 meters across, is large enough to destroy an entire small country. He goes into this in more detail in his newsweek article "Asteroid apocalypse? Why scientists worry about 2036 ‘planet buster'".
That's true. One detailed evaluation determined that it could kill ten million people through either northern Russia or in central America depending on where exactly it hit Earth, or it could cause a tsunami in the Pacific ocean. Of course those regions would be evacuated, with many years of warning, but it's clear it would be a major catastrophe.
However he also says in the video that the risk of an impact at all is tiny. For a short while in 2004, Apophis had a 2.7% chance of impact with Earth in 2029. That meant that there was a 97.3% chance that it would turn out to be a false alarm. So, if you were a betting person you'd put your money on it turning out to be a false alarm, and indeed that's what happened. By the time he wrote that article, it was already so unlikely to hit that it was classified as a 0 in the impact risk table with a chance of only 1 in a quarter million of an impact. It is still possible, strictly speaking, but exceedingly unlikely, so unlikely that it is no longer classified as a significant risk.
It's easy to understand why scientists who want something done about the asteroid threat focus our attention so strongly on harmful effects. They want to wake us up, to alert us to the reality of the threat that they understand so clearly.
Everything he said in that video was accurate, but the way it was presented was scary for people who are not able to approach such topics with the same scientific objectivity and dispassion as himself. His video has been shared many times on youtube with scary titles and you can see from the comments how scared many viewers have become as a result of watching it. Instead of writing letters to their politicians to do something about this risk, or whatever else they might do, they just feel that everything is doomed, and panic and get scared and tell everyone else how scared they are.
The truth is that the risk of such impacts is so small that there hasn't been a single example in recorded history. We are no more at risk from them now than the ancient Greeks or Chinese were several thousand years ago.
Meteor Crater Arizona. Photograph by Tsaiproject, wikipedia. This crater is the result of an impact 50,000 years ago. The next such impact may be thousands or even tens of thousands of years into the future. There is no record in recorded human history of any populated area being hit by such an asteroid.
We could build an asteroid defence system to deflect such asteroids, able to launch at a moments notice using the technology of ICBMs, but the chances are that the rockets of this defense system would sit unused in their silos for thousands of years into the future.
If we had enough funding, this would be a sensible thing to do. However, given limited funding the most important thing is to detect the asteroids and track their orbits precisely. We are doing this. Few of these stories actually emphasize our successes. We have already found all of the asteroids of ten kilometers in diameter that do regular close flybys of Earth. We are in the process of completing the survey of all the ones of one kilometer in diameter or larger. There are about a thousand of those, 90% of which have been found, and we discover them at a rate of about one a month. At this rate, the survey will be nearly complete by the late 2020s.
This leaves the long period comets. But the larger comets are easy to spot on their long journey into the inner solar system. A good example here is Comet Siding Spring because astronomers thought it might hit Mars on 19 October 2014. They gave this warning soon after it was discovered on 3 January 2013. However with later measurements, they soon found out that it was going to miss.
Artist's impression of Comet Siding Spring which did a close flyby of Mars in autumn 2014. It was discovered in early 2013. If a comet was headed towards Earth, we'd discover it over a similar timescale, over a year before it got here
If a comet was discovered heading for Earth, it would pan out over a similar timescale, we'd discover it perhaps a year and a half before impact. And as with Sliding Spring we would almost certainly find out that it is going to miss a week or two later once we have more observations.
The risk of a 10 kilometer asteroid hitting Earth in any century is about 1 in a million. The risk of a comet is perhaps a hundredth of that (though it is hard to get an accurate estimate for comets). You can be approximately 99.999999% certain that this won't happen before 2100. So we are not in imminent danger from a large asteroid or comet, never mind a planet. That risk is pretty much retired, through to 2100.
As for larger comets of diameter a hundred kilometers or larger, as in the movies, they can't hit Earth at all, there's a negligible chance of that. The big craters and lunar seas were formed well over three billion years ago soon after the Moon formed. Since then there have been no impacts by comets or asteroids that large on the Moon, Mars or Mercury, or what we have of the history of Earth or Venus.
This is often used as a cover picture for asteroid impact stories. The artist's description reads: "A planetoid plows onto the primordial Earth, during the eons of time when conditions were ripe for the development of life. It is possible that life of kinds unknown to us appeared repeatedly only to be destroyed in collisions like this one which could 'rework' the entire surface. Fortunately the average size of debris declined sharply through geologic time, but the supply of wayward rocks a few kilometers in size is by no means exhausted."
Such large asteroids and comets no longer threaten Earth and haven't done so for well over three billion years. Jupiter, it seems, protects us from large comets by breaking them up, diverting them to hit the sun, or Jupiter itself or ejecting them from our solar system. It doesn't do such a good job of protecting us from the smaller 10 km scale asteroids and comets, though many of those also do impact into Jupiter as well.
But for small asteroids the risk is still significant as Michio Kaku so vividly explains in his video. Unlike risks from earthquakes, tsunami, volcanic eruptions, or hurricanes, this is a risk we can predict exactly to the minute and even the second, decades in advance, once we have the necessary observations. Then we can either evacuate the impact zone or deflect the asteroid.
The urgent thing to do is to find the asteroids. If we know about a potential impact a decade in advance, a tiny nudge, only centimeters per second, will cause it to miss Earth completely. If it does a flyby in between, then it is even more sensitive. Apophis, before they proved it would miss, had to fly through a "gravitational keyhole" less than a kilometer in diameter in 2029 to hit Earth next time around. That means that a nudge of less than three microns per second would change its trajectory enough so that it would miss Earth next time around.
So we can do something about this. If you focus too much on the potentially disastrous effects, the audience just get scared and even suicidal. If you explain clearly that we can do something about it and make that a very strong focus in the article or video, and spend at least as much time on that as on talking about the effects, maybe we can actually get something done.
It's not a large amount of money to find as these things go. The UK government recently chose to spend huge amounts on renewing the Trident nuclear missiles. It may well spend more on renewing Trident than the total cost for the ISS for the US, ESA, Russia and all the other partners combined.
- This article in the Space Review estimates the total cost for the ISS up to 2015 as $150 billion (in 2010 dollars, so about $166 billion in 2016 dollars, US Inflation Calculator)
- Estimated cost of renewing Trident £205 billion Replacing Trident will cost at least £205bn, campaigners say - that’s equivalent to $249 billion, 150% of the cost of the ISS.
HMS Victorious part of the UK Trident nuclear submarine program. The UK government has just voted to renew this program at a projected lifetime cost 150% of the total cost of building and operating the ISS by all its partners.
The Sentinel space telescope developed by the B612 foundation has a price tag of $450 million. That's 0.18% of the cost of renewing Trident. The B612 foundation is still pressing ahead with its project, and it could launch it easily in 2018 if any of the advanced industrialized nations was to find the funding, and there are even many philanthropic billionaires who could pay for it.
Sentinel space telescope. At a cost of $450 million, it would cost 0.18% of the cost of Trident. Any of the developed countries could launch and operate this for a fraction of the cost of their conventional defence. Many philanthropic billionaires could pay for it out of their own pockets. It would find most of the asteroids that potentially threaten Earth, the small ones like Apophis and even smaller down to 20 meters in diameter, in less than a decade. An extra terrestrial from an advanced peaceful civilization might well be astonished at how much we spend on defending ourselves from each other, and how little we spend on defending our world from space rocks.
It's a similar situation with climate change. In the media, climate change stories often seem polarized between climate deniers who claim that nothing will happen, and others who exaggerate this hugely. Many teenagers think that the world will explode or become too hot to live in, or in other ways become uninhabitable as a result. See Björn Lomborg's op-ed in the Guardian (another UK newspaper), Scared silly over climate change
In reality, then Earth is at its coldest is has been for 450 million years. We have ice at both poles, a very unusual situation. Most times our world has no permanent ice or snow at all except at the top of high mountains and plateaus (like Tibet).
Our world is the coldest it's been for 450 million years. There is no risk at all of our world getting too hot. It is very unusual indeed to have ice at the two poles. For most of the Earth's history it's had no ice or snow at all except at the top of high mountains and high plateaus like Tibet.
Far from being uninhabitable, a warmer world would actually be more habitable if anything, the problem is the speed of change. There is nothing wrong with a world with Bangladesh flooded by the sea, many small islands and coastal cities flooded, the Arctic permafrost gone, tropical rainforests much hotter than they are now, deserts in some places that are currently fertile and fertile areas that are now desert, and a world without coral reefs or without permanent ice in the Arctic. It is just that the transition from our world to that one would make many of the more vulnerable species extinct and be a major issue for the human population if it happens too quickly.
It would not end civilization and there is no risk of human extinction. But it would cause a lot of hardship and expense and we would lose much. By taking precautions now we can save a lot of money in the long term and prevent a lot of hardship and disaster relief in the future.
That's the argument of the climate change scientists. It's a good one. It's the reason so many nations signed the Paris climate change agreement. But this gets confused by all the climate change doomsday stories along with the other stories by the climate change deniers. They scare people and they also make it into a subject many people feel they can do nothing about and would prefer to not think about.
PLEA TO JOURNALISTS AND SCIENTISTS
I don't think any of this can be dealt with by legislation. Instead I have several pleas to journalists and scientists, and also a recommendation for youtube.
The main plea for journalists is just to be aware that your stories are read by vulnerable scared people. Imagine that a ten year old girl is reading your story and going to ask her mother or father about it, and then write your story for her, and that might help.
More specifically, do avoid using words like Doomsday and Apocalypse in the title or the text itself for that matter. Those who get easily scared by such things sometimes send me links to stories about e.g. financial crisis predictions after Brexit, and if the story uses the word Doomsday in the title, they will ask me "is this something to be scared of". They are worried that it is some sign of the end of the world.
Of course this is a perfectly respectable literary trope, the use of hyperbole for dramatic effect. There is nothing wrong with it per se. But those particular words are very scary to some people and I think are best just avoided altogether.
Also please consider writing debunking stories. As the Independent showed, a debunking story can often get more clicks and views than the doomsday ones. Such stories can be written in an engaging fashion. Use all the power of language, and vivid imagery, but use it for the purpose of debunking, rather than to promote doomsday ideas. There are plenty of doomsday stories published every month and if we had an equal number of doomsday debunking stories published each month it would go a long way towards addressing this issue.
Those who worry about these things often tell me that they can't find any doomsday debunking stories apart from mine, since 2012. Please consider writing stories that they can read so they don't get the very false impression that everyone thinks the world is about to end.
If you aren't sure how to write a Doomsday debunking story my outline for a future book. Debunking Doomsday may give some ideas, as it's organized by subject with links to my articles and answers.
Then for scientists writing about asteroids, I suggest that you try running things past anyone vulnerable, for instance a ten year old, and find out what their take home message is from your presentation. You might be surprised about how it differs from the message that scientists like yourself and your colleagues get.
My petition for youtube is to stop running ads on Doomsday videos altogether. This is not an unusual step as they already do halt ads on videos when they think it would be immoral to earn anything from them themselves. I would say that this falls into that category. It's immoral to earn from videos targeted at vulnerable people who become scared and suicidal as a result of watching them. So please just halt ads from these videos. Those who genuinely believe that the world will end can still upload their videos, so it is not any kind of restriction on freedom of speech, just a decision on what forms of income are morally acceptable for youtube ads.
PETITIONS ON CHANGE.ORG
If you agree on these points, do sign and share the petitions which I started on Change.org. They are:
- Petition to Youtube to Halt Ads on Doomsday Videos
- Petition: Let's End Dramatized Reporting Of "Doomsday" Stories - The Vulnerable Get Suicidal
My main aim here is to spread awareness. With awareness then journalists can find their own way forward to find a way to write engaging and entertaining stories on these topics which do not have this unfortunate side effect of scaring vulnerable people and making some of them suicidal.
If any of you reading this have any other thoughts of ways to deal with this issue, do please say in the comments thread!
For more about the asteroid impacts and how we can detect and deflect them, see my Giant Asteroid Headed Your Way? - How We Can Detect And Deflect Them
MY DOOMSDAY DEBUNKING ARTICLES
The numbers of comments on my doomsday debunking articles may help to give you an idea of the scale of the problem. Comments here include my replies and replies sometimes by others who joined in to help me, Milen particularly who answered many questions at a time when I was getting flooded by them and found it hard to keep up.
- September 24th, 2015 - Just Another Day In Space - Asteroid Flybys, "Blood Moons" And Armageddon Demystified
- Simple Ways To See Nibiru Is Totally Nuts - And Limits On Planets Hiding In Our Solar System
- Why An Extra Planet Can't Be Hidden Behind The Sun Or Above The South
- "Imaginary Bullshit Planet" Nibiru - Lens Flares, Sun Mirages, Hoaxes&Just Plain Silly
- Why This New "Planet X" Is No Threat To Earth :).
- No, There Isn't A Planet Called Nibiru, Soon To Hit Earth, And Often Visible In Your Photos Of The Sun :)
- Kudos To "The Independent" Newspaper For Debunking Nibiru "Blood Moon" Hoax
- No, We Were Not Hit By A 500 Kilometer Asteroid On March 8th. Nor Will We Be Hit By Nibiru Any Time - It's BS!
- Petition: Let's End Dramatized Reporting Of "Doomsday" Stories - The Vulnerable Get Suicidal
- World Did NOT End On 29th July! AWFUL "Silly Season" Story - Journalists Please Be More Responsible
- Petition To Youtube To Halt Ads On Doomsday Videos - They Make The Vulnerable Suicidal
That's a total of 2170 comments so around 1000 questions answered, as I or someone else replies to nearly all of them, in a period of just over a year. So I've been getting an average if about three comments a day from scared people on my doomsday debunking articles for the last year. I get a similar quantity of private messages.
That's just me. Imagine how many emails you must get on the subject if you are a famous astronomer like Brian Cox, Neil deGrasse Tyson, or Mike Brown?