< Fact Checking the End of the World

Transcript

Friday, September 21, 2012

 

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Here’s a fact:  According to a recent Reuters poll, about one in ten people worldwide believe that the world may end on December 21st, 2012, an apocalypse that believers claim was predicted in an ancient Mayan calendar. If you are not aware that Christmas is a little iffy this year, don’t blame Hollywood because it weighed in with “2012,” the movie. 

  [“2012” CLIP]:

DANNY GLOVER AS PRESIDENT THOMAS WILSON:  Six months ago, I was made aware of a situation so devastating that, at first, I refused to believe it. Through the concerted efforts of our brightest scientists, we have confirmed the world will soon come to an end.

  [END CLIP]

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  About 30 people a week ask NASA scientist Dr. David Morrison about our imminent annihilation. That’s because he’s offered himself up as something of a galactic fact checker. And, like political fact checkers, he finds that people can be highly resistant to facts they don’t like. David, welcome to the show.

DR. DAVID MORRISON:  It’s my pleasure.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  So how did a nice NASA scientist like you find yourself in a place like this?

DR. DAVID MORRISON:  I’ve always been interested in education, and so about ten years ago I started answering questions that the public sent to NASA’s Ask an Astrobiologist website. And those were questions about science, until five years ago when I started getting questions that weren’t about science at all, but will the world end on December 21st of 2012. Now it dominates all the questions that I receive and prompted me to do some YouTube videos. And I guess I’ve become sort of obsessed with it.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  [LAUGHS] Now, a lot of scientists wouldn’t bother. Why do you?

DR. DAVID MORRISON:  Most scientists simply don’t know about it.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  [LAUGHS] Oh, come on! Don’t they go to the movies?

DR. DAVID MORRISON:  [LAUGHS] No. Most scientists don’t know about it, or at least they certainly didn’t know when I started. And I wouldn’t have known about it, if I hadn’t started getting these questions because this Doomsday 2012 rumor or hoax has had virtually no coverage in mainstream media, not on NPR, not in the New York Times, not in CNN News. So the people that are obsessed with this, the people who are really afraid of 2012 are getting almost all their information from the Internet.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  You did research yourself and found out that even the mythical beginning of this notion is wrong, that it isn’t in the Mayan calendar.

DR. DAVID MORRISON:  That’s right. The Mayan scholars will tell you that this is just another step in this continuous set of cycles that make up the Mayan calendar, and there’s nothing special about it. It’s sort of like going from December 31st to January 1st; the cycle just starts again.

The same thing’s true for the rumors that this comes from the ancient Sumerians in Mesopotamia.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  That has to do with the Planet Nibiru?

DR. DAVID MORRISON:  A rogue planet which, according to these quite fictional interpretations of what the Sumerians thought, comes back every 3600 years, messes up the solar system and two times back brought along its inhabitants who landed on Earth and gave the glories of civilization to Sumer. It’s a crazy story. It’s an ancient astronaut story. If there were a rogue planet – and some people say it’s even much bigger than the earth – that was going to be here in less than four months, it would already be the brightest object in the sky. And its gravity would be affecting the orbits of all the inner planets.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  What do they say when you tell them that?

DR. DAVID MORRISON:  There are people that say, “Well, it’s coming up from below the earth, and so we can’t see it.”   [BROOKE LAUGHS] Now, I think “below the earth” is a description that would apply to a flat earth. [BROOKE LAUGHS] On a sphere you can see the whole sky. They say, oh, there are 100,000 astronomers around the world that are all in the pay of the evil US government to suppress this information, that the government is spraying chemicals into the atmosphere, partly to make us docile and partly so we can’t see the incoming object. These are people that, that truly feel isolated.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  So what do you do with that?

DR. DAVID MORRISON:  My purpose is to try to reach the people who – especially children – who are frightened by this, who don’t know any better. And they see that there are literally thousands of websites saying that the world will end, and only two or three that say that that’s a hoax.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  The position you’re in reminds me of the political fact checkers who have not been immune to charges of bias and conspiracy in this election season. Do you relate to them at all?

DR. DAVID MORRISON:  I think they do a great job, and I realize that some of the political issues are perhaps nuanced and depend a little bit on where you stand. I frankly don’t think that one’s inability to see an incoming planet Nibiru that’s going to crash into the earth –

  [BROOKE LAUGHS]

- has any such nuance. It’s just crazy.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Can you read me a few of the e-mails that you get?

DR. DAVID MORRISON:  “Nibiru does exist and I can prove it. Nibiru is in the Old Testament and Exodus, and you, NASA, are watching Nibiri from a telescope from the Southern Hemisphere and can see Nibiru in the daytime. Is that proof enough for you?” Or, “I’m 11 years old and I’ve been hearing from all of my friends that the world is going to end. I can’t sleep, I can’t eat. I’m scared. I’m thinking about suicide. What can I do? Can you help me?” It’s very frustrating and very disturbing.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Now, you’ve made a few YouTube videos.

DR. DAVID MORRISON:  Some say the earth’s axis is changing. Well boy, as an astronomer, I can tell you that’s not true. If it changed even a tiny bit our telescopes wouldn’t point, our GPS system would fail, airplanes would be crashing. The earth’s tilt is exactly as it should be.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  You’ve agreed to meet the conspiracy theorists and doomsday believers in their natural habitat. Do you think that the Internet can be wielded effectively to combat the ideas it seems to be so successful in propagating?

DR. DAVID MORRISON:  I don’t know. I am a little shocked by the number of young people who start from the premise that if it’s on the Internet, it must be true. And in this case, there are thousands of websites and hundreds of YouTube videos that are manifestly untrue. Some of them are even clever about it. They will take my videos that start with a picture of me and the NASA logo and simply chop that off and put that at the beginning of their video entitled something like, “NASA Confirms Nibiru and End of World.” It’s really a, a jungle out there.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Do you think you are making a difference?

DR. DAVID MORRISON:  I believe I’m making a difference or I wouldn’t be doing this. I have no way of measuring it. The question that comes to my mind is should the mainstream media also be covering this story? Are they correct to ignore it? Are my scientific colleagues correct to ignore it? Or should we be trying to get out there and help people overcome this dreaded fear that they have of December 21st?

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Thank you very much.

DR. DAVID MORRISON:  Thank you for the opportunity to talk with you.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Dr. David Morrison is the senior scientist at the NASA Astrobiology Institute. And thanks also to Dan Duray whose piece on The Awl website introduced us to Dr. Morrison.

  [“2012” CLIP]

DR. SATNAM TSURUTANI:  You have to begin the evacuation.

PROFESSOR WEST:  All our scientific advances, our fancy machines - the Mayans saw this coming thousands of years ago.

  [MUSIC/UP AND UNDER]

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Jamie York, Alex Goldman, PJ Vogt, Sarah Abdurrahman, Chris Neary and Doug Anderson, with more help from Leda Martinez and Ariel Stulberg, and edited by me. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Cambra Moniz-Edwards.

Katya Rogers is our senior producer. Ellen Horne is WNYC’s senior director of National Programs. Bassist composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. You can listen to the program and find transcripts and read our fabulous blog at on onthemedia.org. You can find us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter, and you can email us at onthemedia@wnyc.org. On the Media is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. Bob Garfield really will be back next week. I’m Brooke Gladstone.

  [FUNDING CREDITS] 

Guests:

Dr. David Morrison

Hosted by:

Brooke Gladstone