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The tragic pollution of pseudo-science

Internet tripe feeds a national hunger for UFO talk and conspiracy theories. As usual, real science is left in the dust.

By Daniel Caton

Special to The Observer

Published: Wednesday, April 2, 1997


Page: 13A

Fifty Years ago the massive 200-inch mirror was installed at the Mount Palomar Observatory, overlooking San Diego. Last week, practically in the shadow of that observatory, a group of 39 individuals took their lives in an act that belies much of what we have learned of the universe. Apparently trapped in the web of pseudo-science, the group believed that Comet Hale-Bopp was accompanied by a spacecraft, its pilots intending to scoop up the 39 travelers. They would be delivered to a different place.

They got half their wish.

Their belief was predicated on an Internet image of Hale-Bopp which showed a companion blob of light claimed to be the spaceship. The photo was a hoax.

Comets have a history of inspiring terror. During the 1911 passage of Halley's Comet the Earth went through some of its tail. Astronomers had already discovered the signature of toxic chemicals in the spectra of comets. Would everyone die? Hardly. We can't even pump a vacuum in a lab as empty as the diffuse but brightly glowing tail! It now appears that the real danger in comets is the fear itself.

Religious cult groups continue to predict the end of the Earth with each major comet discovery. A pamphlet distributed in 1973 by the Children of God called that year's Comet Kohoutek the "Christmas Monster." Peppered with Biblical citations, it predicted cataclysms, catastrophes, chaos and confusion "due December 25th." I find this especially odd in that the Bible says that we will not know the time of our end. Kohoutek turned out to be a flop and, of course, we are still here.

Internet pollution

Unfortunately, pseudo-science is a growth industry on the Internet. A search on "Hale-Bopp and aliens" yields 3,000 hits–pages of information containing those words. Anyone can get a home page on the Web and publish whatever is desired. A bit of time surfing in these polluted waters is a sobering experience for those of us dedicated to teaching science; much of the world seems to have gone under for the third time. Before the ‘Net such dissemination of misinformation was costly. Now, it's almost free. I shudder at the thought of the spread of ignorance as Web usage increases.

And it is not just Joe Six-Pack who believes this tripe. Many of the Rancho Santa Fe victims were computer programmers. Closer to home, one of my brothers, also a professional, phoned me last year ro ask whether indeed the Earth was about to be hit by another comet. He had heard some discussion on a radio talk show claiming that a celestial bullet was headed our way and the government was covering up the discovery. I wish that I could say that I believed he didn't believe the story. I'm not sure.

I explained that the whole concept was illogical. First, just about nobody connected with the "government" (whatever that is), is actually searching for such sinister snowballs. The military might like to do so, given its need for a post-Cold War enemy, but it has no such project. The few, and I mean few, searches under way are conducted by astronomers who have no reason to cover up a discovery. A call to the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory starts the action. At SAO, Brian Marsden, a sort of official gatekeeper for discoveries, relays the news to hundreds of observatories, by e-mail. Th news spreads worldwide in minutes.

Personally, if I found a killer comet, my first call might instead be to Time magazine, to sell the story. We astronomers would like to be rich, too!

Calling the "government" would never come to mind.

The Ranch Santa Fe incident is just the tip of the iceberg of pseudo-science. On a wider but no less tragic scale, enormous amounts of lifetime and money are wasted by people on astrology, UFO's, crystals, conspiracy theories (Ron Brown's death, Flight 800), faces on Mars, etc. The shear amount of real, applicable knowledge displaced by such trivia (or never gained at all) is appalling.

Why no logical analysis?

Why do people cling to this trash? Anyone who has gotten through the school system, with or without college, should be capable of applying logical analysis. Is it easier to believe in UFOs than to inquire about real searches for extraterrestrial life? Is it easier to believe in conspiracies than accept the fact that many occurrences leave insufficient evidence to reach a final, natural explanation? Or are we simply failing to create a scientifically literate populace? We see now that being scientifically ignorant can be life threatening.

A year ago I recounted on these pages a tragedy connected to the viewing of Comet Halley a decade before, and prayed that there would be none associated with 1996's Hyakutake. Perhaps I should have prayed this year for the safety of the viewers of Hale-Bopp.

From themselves.

Return to Caton's columns.

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