Saturday, July 02, 2005

Something odd about Manson

There's something odd about Manson, Iowa. Manson has a secret. For years, geologists knew that something was odd about the land around here. Abnormalities had been uncovered as far back as 1912, but the scientific community believed that ancient volcanic activity was the culprit. But then geologists Ray Anderson and Brian Witzke changed everything: they found shocked quartz. Only one thing on earth is powerful enough to create shocked quartz: a nuclear weapon. The conclusion was clear: 75 million years ago, our pre-mammalian ancestors in Iowa had WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION!!!

I'm just watching the National Geographic Channel's NAKED Science show about killer asteroids. Yes, once every few million years, an asteroid hits the earth with such force that it would extinguish the entire human race. In fact, we are four times more likely to be struck by an asteroid than hit by lightning. [according to NatGeo, anyway]

But what does that mean?

How many people have you ever heard of who were killed by a massive asteroid that wiped out the entire human species? How many people have you ever heard of who were struck by lightning? Maybe a few dozen, up to possibly a few hundred, people are killed by lightning every year in the United States, not counting the ones who survive. At least half a dozen people die from lightning strikes every year, just in the city of Singapore — more than in all of Great Britain!

Now, I'm sure that if you average out the number of people killed per year over a hundred million years or so, the asteroid will probably beat the lightning by a handy margin. However, most humans are just a tiny bit more selfish than that perspective reflects. What are the odds that I will be struck by lightning, ever in my lifetime? What are the odds that I will be vaporized by a meteor, ever in my lifetime? Should I climb a tall tree in a thunderstorm? Should I carry a concealed semi-automatic handgun just in case I need to shoot down a rogue meteor the size of Mount Everest?

This program really is the science geek's answer to Cops. "Bad science, whatcha gonna do, whatcha gonna do when they come for you-u-u-u?" Shoulda known with a name like NAKED Science.

Let me put on my Donald Rumsfeld hat and answer a few of my own questions:

  • Should we worry about an asteroid collision in our daily lives? No. Not even a tiny little bit.
  • Should we spend taxpayer money to look for asteroids that might destroy the earth? Hell, yes. A few months' advance warning really might mean the difference between a cataclysm and a pretty fireworks display. Forewarned is forearmed, dontcha know.
  • Should we worry more about our cellphones giving us brain cancer? No, that one is somewhere around "being eaten by mutant zombies" in the grand scheme of risks to life and limb. It could happen, sure, but let's be serious.
  • Should we carry gas masks around with us on the subway, just in case of an anthrax or Sarin gas attack? Ya know, you can just go right ahead and tap dance naked on my grave if that one bites you on the ass. Oh, except that you'll be dead, of course. Maybe you could haunt me. On the other hand, maybe that's why both of my computers crash so often. Woo-oo-oo-oo! My Dogbert doll commands you to hie thee hence!
  • Should we seriously think about the damage that human technology is doing to the earth and the life upon it? Well, that might be a good idea, but only if we're more interested in the survival of the species than in fake photos of Britney Spears getting it on with Paris Hilton. (Or are they really fake??) I'm not talking just about global warming here, folks. We are killing off whole species, even whole phyla, of plants and animals, faster than anything since that, umm, killer asteroid 65 million years ago. You know, the one that created the Gulf of Mexico and killed the dinosaurs. So yeah, if we have a spare moment, we might want to think about not raping the earth, at least not quite so roughly, 'cause she might just fight back one of these days.
Gosh, I wonder why the general public doesn't understand and/or doesn't trust the pronouncements by scientists about risks.

It would be unfair to compare the science shown on this program with the Bush administration's so-called reasoning behind its policies, but there are certain parallels. Both are engaged in sensationalistic fear-mongering. It's the dramatic music that sells the TV show about KILLER ASTEROIDS!!! but it's about as scientific as that useless little plastic/foil sticker that's supposed to reduce the HARMFUL RADIATION from your cellphone into your braaaaaain (or improve your reception in elevators, or maybe both). Likewise, the Bush administration's presentation of its "evidence" on Iraq really wasn't far removed from "We've got charts and graphs, so fuck off!" and the President's Social Security plan is clearly a faith-based initiative.

Be alert. The world needs more lerts. Well, the world could use a few more people who understand at least enough science to know when someone is spouting total bullshit. The world could also use a few more people who give a damn about the yawning chasm between what the government says and the reality of the situation, whether we're talking Iraq or Social Security, and even whether we're talking Republicans or Democrats.

We should also question our government when it tells us for 68 years that marijuana is an addictive drug that will ruin our lives and destroy our society. Sure, marijuana is addictive. It's almost as addictive as Robitussin. Now, take your crack cocaine or your crystal meth or your alcohol, heroin, or tobacco — those are your big-league addictive substances. On the other hand, we have prisons bursting at the seams, the feds even stepping in to place the California state prison system in receivership this week, because, among many other reasons, we have thousands and thousands of people in prison for simple possession of marijuana. We know from his own direct admission that President George W. Bush has smoked marijuana, so I'll grant you that it can cause insanity and inability to cope coherently with adult reality, but for most people the effects are rather less severe. How can we trust a government that has so consistently, under both parties, outright lied to us about its drug policies through TWELVE administrations?

But since I mentioned Manson, here's a link for you: Ike, Tay, and Zac Manson. Or something that rhymes with it, anyway.