The last few days have felt like I'm living through an extended version of the infamous 1938 radio broadcast of "The War of the Worlds."
Someone with the signature "Aussie Bloke" has had thousands of people worried that large comets or asteroids will be colliding with Earth this month. Aussie Bloke knows enough science and astronomy to be believable. He has posted at BushCountry.org a series of messages detailing his work over the years as an astronomer, and warning of the impacts to come this month: "18th-20th June:Impact 1; 24-25th June Impact 2; 26th-27th June "anomaly." He has included supposed computer printouts that look convincingly like computations of object tracking and estimated time of arrival information. He has woven together a tale of governmental cover-up and intimidation, and has warned everyone to get their affairs in order, for the end is near.
While all this sounds outright unbelievable, he has been so convincing that my own family and friends have awakened me in the middle of the night with a list of evidences for me to refute. I even put a web page on the internet to address the scientific holes in his arguments, and I'm sure professional astronomers will find even more.
This whole episode got me thinking about how powerful the internet has become for not only informing, but misinforming as well. Anyone with a computer and internet access can post whatever he wants, and in a matter of hours or days a Google search will display their words for the world to see. Taken together with the global public's willingness to spend $237 million in the last week to see the Earth frozen over in the movie "The Day After Tomorrow," you can see that a mixture of fact and fiction can be a powerful influence. Half-truths are so much more believable than falsehoods. Recent sightings of large meteors have only heightened anxieties, as they are pointed to as evidence that something big is about to happen. In the global warming realm, scientists lacking sufficient skepticism have enabled a generation of school textbooks (and thus students) to assimilate outlandish predictions of global warming. While more recent predictions have become much more benign, there are always scientists who want to whip up a frenzy over what "might" happen. To their credit, the scientists monitoring near-earth objects have (miniscule) probabilities assigned to the objects they are tracking, indicating the potential for a future collision with the Earth.
Why do so many of us believe in conspiracy theories? Well, for one thing, conspiracies do exist. They have shaken our own government and influenced our elections (Watergate), and terrorists have successfully conspired to murder thousands of Americans within our own borders. "Aussie Bloke" has successfully fooled many people. How long will it be before a group of terrorists will use the internet to spread hysteria as part of a larger, more carefully orchestrated plan to disrupt our way of life?
So what became of "Aussie Bloke"? Well, first he revealed his "true identity," giving the name of a real Australian astronomer. This only helped the credibility of his story. It turns out, though, that there is now one very angry ex-astronomer (now a blueberry farmer) in Australia that wishes a small asteroid would fall on "Aussie Bloke" for hijacking his identity and perpetrating this hoax. Even as you read this, though, thousands of people are still unaware of this latest development, and are still watching the skies.