Scare tactics

In a previous post, I talked a bit about Eta Carinae and how the popular press seems to in the beginning of ramping up the hysteria machine, pounding the general public with doom and gloom scare tactics.   Now, in a post on her blog, Star Stryder (who is a *real* astronomer (as opposed to yours truly) , and is one of the voices behind the Astronomycast Podcast series ) takes a look at the television series “The Universe” on the History Channel.

One of the things that strikes her about the show is that “…if you want to sell a television show, life finding or life killing science may be the best direction to go.”

There is an unfortunate fact of human behavior that we are attracted to disaster.  We may find images and memories of the Indian Ocean tsunami to be horrifying, but the various TV specials about the disaster did very well, as far as viewership.  Television producers know this, and use it to their advantage.  The disasters that occur are recorded, edited, chopped up, re-arranged, dumbed-down, packaged for our consumption and then shoved down our throats repeatedly.

Mount Saint Helens, Mount Pinatubo, exploding stars, asteroids raining down on our heads, killer comets, tsunamis, and even war.  They’re all fair game.  The result is that the public believes that these disasters occur much more frequently than they do.  Take supernovae for example:  The last recorded supernova in the Milky Way galaxy was Cassiopeia A., which probably exploded in 1667, but wasn’t recorded (by John Flamsteed) until 1680.   The science is clear: Supernovae are rare.  Yet if you went by the popular media’s treatment, you may think that we’re due to be toasted by an half-dozen or so nearby supernovae in the next decade.  As Dr. Gay says “…it is scientifically irresponsible to scare the shit out of the public.”

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