This month marks the 200th edition of Roanoke Skies – some 625 words presented for 200 consecutive months explaining the truth of the celestial domain as ferreted out by science. Due to our current absurd non-fact based world, the topic originally scheduled – a review of the more popular past columns – was dropped in favor of something more important.
In a world where facts are ignored, where truth is disregarded, and where science is doubted, some groups of people stubbornly cling to what is forcefully and repeatedly stated by others who are not truthful nor particularly knowledgeable about a topic. It is a place where provocateurs and demagogues are held in high esteem, loudly commanding attention while uttering nonsense and falsehoods.
Such was a time over eight years ago.
What might have been the most timely column of Roanoke Skies concerned the doomsday scenarios resulting from the end of the extremely long Baktun counting cycle of the Mayan calendar. Many strange statements were issued without any evidence by unbelievable people who often said they were revealing what “the experts don’t want you to hear.” The column raised the idea of credibility, something that, unfortunately, is not often considered when evaluating important statements today. From the September 2012 Roanoke Skies:
Credibility. This word has become lost in the rhetoric associated with the major issues of our day. That’s bad because it is an important quality demonstrated by someone who we regard as an authority on a particular subject. We rely on reputable people who are more experienced and more knowledgeable than we to keep us informed so we can make rational decisions on complex topics.
What makes someone credible? The credible person has extensive knowledge and training in his or her field, and is adept at accurately and clearly explaining the issue. The credible person has earned the respect of his or her peers. The credible person has a history of presenting truthful information. The credible person understands the full scope of the subject at hand and is familiar with its associated disciplines.
The credible person does not use emotional buzz words nor states vague generalities. The credible person speaks to the point using verifiable information, and does not hide possible conflicts of interest.
Continuing from that September 2012 column, self-styled experts claimed that in December 2012:
The sun aligns with the center of the Milky Way galaxy causing it and Earth to be pulled in that direction. Massive earthquakes and a flipping of our planet’s magnetic field result.
A large body, possibly a comet or the mythical planet Nibiru, approaches too closely to Earth, perhaps colliding with it.
An undisclosed planetary alignment occurs, igniting massive solar flares which create mayhem on our home world.
No credible person offered any evidence supporting those assertions because there was none. Only unsubstantiated statements by questionable spokespeople were produced. The result: Purveyors of doom looked foolish when Earth suffered no ill effects.
Such was a time in 1997.
Followers of the cult, “Heavens Gate,” claimed that an alien space ship trailed the much anticipated Comet Hale-Bopp as it moved into the inner solar system. The extra–terrestrial visitors were said to transport the spirits of the group’s members onto the ship. No evidence in support of this was ever given because there was none, only unverifiable, nonsensical statements. The tragic result: thirty-two people took their own lives by poisoning themselves.
Such was not a time ten years ago.
A small research team of NASA scientists released a report asserting that extremely small and unusually shaped mineral deposits discovered by robotic rovers on Mars were caused by ancient microbial life, perhaps being actual microscopic fossils. They presented their data, procedures, and conclusions. The result: other teams of experts – all credible scientists – critically examined the evidence, and concluded that the formations were more likely due to natural geologic processes than due to ancient microscopic life. Disappointing? Yes, but that is what the evidence indicated, the same evidence that the credible person can not ignore.
When evaluating any claims, the credible person – whether a member of the Hubble Space Telescope science team, or a government leader responding to a global bio-medical emergency, or the critic of a political process – will always ask, “Show me the evidence.” Not to do so can lead to folly, tragic or otherwise.
Goss is the past president of the Astronomical League.