A big part—perhaps the biggest part—of my job as a planetarian is to foster interest in astronomy and, more broadly, science in general. On a more personal note, it’s not just what I do, but why I do it too. I love getting people excited about stuff I find interesting. Unfortunately I also often have to do exactly the opposite—to tell people that the things they’ve recently heard about are not as interesting as they’ve been led to believe.
A particularly notable example is the Supermoon. If you’ve never heard of it before, it’s because it’s not a thing. It’s not just not a thing but it’s a particularly uninteresting not-thing. I can understand interest in Planet-X or astrology, which are at least exciting ideas—I can work with that. Most people are disappointed when I have to say that that the famed Supermoon they’ve heard about on the news is just when there’s a full moon that’s kinda close, which happens all the time. It’s so far from being a scientific term that many astronomers die a little each time they hear it. Everyone leaves the interaction feeling, at best, disappointed, and at worse, deceived.
It also means when something really cool does come along, it gets buried under headlines like “Why You Should Make Plans Now to Witness 2019’s ‘Super Blood Wolf Moon’,” which sounds like someone just pulled words out of a hat. Compare that deplorable word salad to something more mundane like “Multi-messenger Observations of a Binary Neutron Star Merger,” which is about an unparalleled revolution in astronomical observation. Sadly, guess which I have received more questions about.
Now, it is fair to say that those two articles have incredibly different audiences and are titled appropriately for their audiences, but that doesn’t excuse the problem. People only have so much time to read something online (thanks for choosing this by the way), and there are fifty bombastic Supermoons for each matter-of-fact star merger.
An article about something more-or-less made up and without any sort of scientific phenomenon is much easier to write than covering a serious scientific discovery. It’s easy to get someone interested in a thing called Super Blood Wolf Moon, and you can crank out an article a day about it—it’s not like there are any facts to research or scientists to talk to.
Then you have cases like Oumuamua, when an author of a paper (a Harvard scientist, no less) said outright, “Oumuamua may be a fully operational probe sent intentionally to Earth vicinity by an alien civilization.” What then? Should we blame the journalists for writing headlines that get clicks? We all gotta make a living after all.
Yes. Yes we should. Journalists should know better. But we (the public) should, too.
There’s a rise of toxic science skepticism that’s storming through social media. I think it’s partly because after years of reading headlines like the one above, people learn not to trust them. Then they conflate the headlines they read with the phenomena that spawned them and lose their trust in science in general. Another part is that anyone can write an article (or blog), whether they’re a journalist or not, whether they’ve done any research or not—and the way the internet is monetized doesn’t reward consistent, thorough coverage supported via subscription; instead, it rewards the loading of ads in an article based on what the headline reads.
I swear I didn’t sit down intending to blame Facebook (and all of social media, really) for yet another thing that bothers me. Also, this isn’t a new problem nor is it unique to astronomy. And it’s not all bad.
Whether a person comes into the planetarium because they have a long-time interest in astronomy or because they read on Facebook that Mars will look bigger than the Moon on Friday the Thirteenth or whatever, doesn’t change the fact that they’re in the planetarium and eager to learn about space.
It might be that they feel lied to and will never take astronomy seriously again, but they might have never pursued it in the first place.
I don’t have a solution. But I would like to point out that here at Morrison Planetarium we’re supported by paid admission and members, not by ads or clickbait. Buy tickets today.