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Saturday, January 30th, 2010 07:56 pm

written in response to this article forwarded to me by a relative who thought it was funny; cross-posted from here

I'm sure you're familiar with this joke:

Q: How many feminists does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
A (in butch woman's voice, accompanied by glare): That's not funny.

I'm afraid I'm having a similar reaction to Sanders's piece. Since I detest knee-jerk reactions, I thought I should try to convey why I find it un-funny, though I do not expect to succeed.

Imagine if you will that scientists have discovered that a small asteroid is due to hit the Earth in about 50 years. It's not a dinosaur-killer, but big enough to cause noticeable effects globally and severe effects locally. Let's say the best predictions are that it will wipe out the island of Bermuda, and probably cause tsunamis along the American coast for thousands of miles from South America up to the mid-Atlantic.

The orbital mechanics are such that if we mount a major space initiative within the next 5 years, we can completely deflect the asteroid from hitting the planet, with a good margin of safety. After that, the margin gets narrow pretty quickly; by 10 years out, there is currently no known design powerful enough and light enough for us to be able to get it off earth and out to the asteroid in time.

And of course, the sooner we start, the cheaper the solution will be.

For some reason, the tourist industry gets the idea that if people believe this prediction, tourism will suffer -- especially in Bermuda -- so they bizarrely mount a campaign to convince people that it is bad science, a hoax perpetrated by money-grubbing NASA scientists and the aerospace industry.

The mainstream media, seeing no sales in trying to explain science to the public, cheerfully shows "both sides of the controversy" -- respected astronomers are pitted against tourism industry PR people representing themselves as equally respected astronomers, even though they are not. Phoney "institutes" are set up to emit papers showing that the asteroid will come nowhere near Earth -- or was really just a lens aberration -- or will actually be a tremendous benefit as long as we are prepared for it -- or really won't matter in the long run, because Earth has been hit by asteroids before, and we're still here, aren't we?

The real scientists are largely baffled by the onslaught of skilled PR and manipulation; knowing that thousands or millions may die if nothing is done, they gamely keep trying to explain the danger.

Some scientists, in the interest of being as accurate as possible, admit that the size of the asteroid isn't known to a high degree of precision; it may be small enough to burn up in the atmosphere, or cause much less damage than expected. The error margin in its orbital elements is sufficient that it might even miss Earth altogether. Although this in no way changes the fact that most estimates of impact location and size are in agreement, the PR people seize upon these admissions as proof that the scientists are trying to pull the wool over everyone's eyes -- "They don't really know! Why should we spend billions of dollars on this when even the Asteroid Alarmists admit that they don't really know?"

Now, let's pause the scenario for a moment.

Can you imagine the frustration and outrage of the scientists and their supporters, as these PR dolts with their folksy camera-friendliness are able, in a few minutes on an evening "news" show, to smarmily dismiss the significance of millions of research-hours it took to find this likely collision among many petabytes of astronomical images, to gather the additional evidence needed to confirm or refute the initial conclusion, to run simulations on the various impact scenarios, to publish and criticize and defend papers on the major details? ...while the tourism industry spends, mostly behind the scenes, millions of dollars on their PR -- millions which could have stepped up the interception program dramatically and possibly solved the problem ahead of schedule for less money, while also reaping countless positive side-effects?

Can you appreciate the insanity of the fact that, despite the diligence of the scientists, the rigor of the scientific process, and the obvious ploys of the anti-science PR people, most people believe the PR over the scientists?

It seems bizarre to think that anyone -- even those scientists who lean towards thinking that the asteroid probably will not cause enough damage to worry about -- would work against honest discussion of what is clearly a genuine risk of some significance... or even against having a solution ready, just in case.

And yet many do -- seemingly ignoring the possibility that if they are wrong, millions of deaths, billions of dollars in property damage, and possibly trillions in economic damage, could be the result of the inaction they are promoting.

Now enters our Sanders-analogue with a humorous piece entitled "43 Things to Do Instead of Being Hit by a Meteorite", which speculates about what people (especially Asteroid Alarmists) will find to do in 50 years time when the meteorite completely misses and/or is found to have been a figment of scientists' overworked liberal imaginations. He wittily skewers the fretting and fussing of the Meteor-heads as they go into mass hysteria when the asteroid fails to appear as prophesied, finds dozens of potential uses for imaginary meteorite fragments, lampoons the shock of coastal homeowners when they unexpectedly aren't able to cash in on their tsunami insurance policies.

Maybe it's funny if you truly believe that the threat is completely made up. Maybe it's even funny if you believe the threat to be so unlikely, and the cost of averting it so impossible, that it's simply not worth worrying about.

Neither of those things would appear to be true in the case of global warming -- and even though nobody is seriously disputing this anymore, the petty pot-shots and dismissals continue to come in.

Sure, it's witty. The humor is part of the damage it does: it reduces a genuine threat -- however unlikely it may be (although the smart money seems to be on the idea that it is very likely indeed) -- to something nobody should waste two seconds thinking about, much less learning about and discussing seriously.

It is the sports jock tripping the geek and laughing when the geek falls down -- even though the geek happens to be right... or maybe because the geek is right. The fact that it matters a lot more than some petty schoolyard disagreement doesn't seem to enter into the jock's mind; the same behavior is still socially acceptable to a lot of people, so they laugh along because they want to be on the side that's winning.

If the above analogy doesn't make it clear why I don't find Sanders funny, then I might suggest comparing global warming denial to people who said that Hitler wasn't anything to worry about -- but if I said that, then by Godwin's Law I'd automatically lose the argument.

Related: deadly asteroid impact denial