A planetary alignment did not trigger a cataclysmic earthquake yesterday, but a YouTube video predicting the catastrophe drew almost 1.6 million hits. (More)

Questioning Science Part II: Too Bizarre to Ignore

This week Morning Feature considers questions in science. Yesterday we began with headline-making scientific studies that turned out to be false. Today we look at junk science that clings in our culture despite repeated debunking. Tomorrow we’ll distinguish scientific questions from questioning science itself.

“Los Angeles will go into the sea and Japan will be affected by terrible tsunamis”

So warned “Frank,” a man from the Netherlands who narrated a popular doomsday video on YouTube. You don’t have to watch the 24 minutes of hokum. An article at Inquisitr quotes the relevant bits:

Frank explains that on May 28, “toward the end of the day UTC time, and continuing on May 29″ alignments between the Sun, Mercury, Saturn, the Earth, and Moon on Thursday, May 28, will somehow cause a magnitude 9.8 quake that will devastate major cities of the West Coast, such as Los Angeles and San Francisco.

With the aid of a computer simulation of the solar system, the narrator demonstrates the alleged alignments that will cause a monstrous magnitude 9.8 quake at about 4 p.m. local time.

He explains in the video, “This is a very, very important update. If the prophecy is correct Los Angeles will go into the sea and Japan will be affected by terrible tsunamis. On August 12 2013 I received a message directly from spirits that a very, very large earthquake would happen on the west coast of America. Now I believe I know when it is exactly going to be. I hope I am wrong.”

Frank’s hope came true. That is, he was wrong. Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Japan are still there.

“It’s literally impossible”

At first blush it sounds reasonable and even science-ish that a planetary alignment might set off an earthquake. The stress along fault lines is enormous, and the gravitational pull of several planets in our solar system aligning on same axis could cause tectonic plates to slip … right?

But astronomer Phil Plait has done the math:

There is simply no way an alignment of planets can cause an earthquake on Earth. It’s literally impossible.

I’ve done the math on this before; the maximum combined gravity of all the planets under ideal conditions is still far less than the gravitational influence of the moon on the Earth, and the moon at very best has an extremely weak influence on earthquakes.

Here are the numbers:

The gravitational force between the Earth and a 50 kg (110 lbs) person standing on the Surface of the Earth is ~500 N (a Newton, N, is a unit of force). The Sun is 333,000 times more massive than the Earth (more mass increases gravitational force), but it is also 150 million kilometers away (distance decreases gravitational force). Since distance is more important in determining gravitational force, the force between the Sun and a person on the surface of the Earth is much smaller than gravitational force the Earth exerts on that person. It is so small (only 0.06% of the force from the Earth) that you would never notice it in every day life. The force a person feels from the Moon is even smaller, 0.00035% of the gravitational force from the Earth, and the force from Jupiter when it is closest to the Earth is even smaller yet, only 0.0000037% of the force from the Earth.

Even if every planet in our solar system were in a perfect line with the Earth, Sun, and Moon, the pull from all of the other planets combined would be less than 2% of the pull of the Moon alone. How tiny is that? Well, the Moon is in an elliptical orbit, so its distance from the earth varies over the course of a month. That means the Moon’s gravitational pull on us varies too, by about 25% from its nearest to its most distant point. That monthly variation is over 12 times the gravitational difference we’d feel from a ‘perfect’ planetary alignment. Oh, and the Moon has only a tiny effect on certain kinds of earthquakes.

“Deliberate exaggeration of the size of the planets”

And to top it off, there was no planetary alignment yesterday:

Even as the prediction spreads alarm among susceptible audience on several conspiracy theory websites, Scott Sutherland, a meteorologist and science writer on the website The Weather Network, dismisses the “prophecy” as a hoax. He notes that the model of the solar system alignment that the “prophet” presents in the video, using the online simulator Solar System Scope, is flawed due to deliberate exaggeration of the size of the planets.

In other words, “Frank” used a popular and accurate online solar system modeler … but he either forgot to adjust the viewing size of the planets or he didn’t realize the default view is vastly out of scale. Reduce the planets to their actual size – the Realistic View option – and the “alignment” disappears.

“The tides are part of the 4% we understand”

“Frank” was hardly the first person to predict a cataclysm triggered by a astronomical alignment. People predicted a planetary alignment disaster on May 5, 2000, and the 2012 Mayan Doomsday was based on part on the Earth aligning with the center of the Milky Way galaxy. Of course those predictions were wrong, but “Frank’s” YouTube video still garnered 1.6 million views.

Turns out there’s a big audience for scientific ignorance:

Apparently, Bill O’Reilly has never heard of the moon. In a debate Tuesday with Dave Silverman, head of the American Atheist group behind this, the Fox host tried to prove the existence of God by citing the unknowable mysteries of the tides. “I’ll tell you why [religion is] not a scam, in my opinion,” he told Silverman. “Tide goes in, tide goes out. Never a miscommunication. You can’t explain that. You can’t explain why the tide goes in.”

O’Reilly was exaggerating – to the point of absurdity – the fact that good scientists admit they don’t have all the answers, as astrophysicist and Cosmos host Neil de Grasse Tyson explains:

The difference is, we do understand the tides. The tides are part of the 4% [of the universe] we understand. So Bill O’Reilly’s giving a list of things that are fully understood. If he’d given a list of things that are not understood, okay, that’d be a different reaction. It would be less susceptible to comedic mockery than saying “Tides come in and out. You can’t explain that.” Yes we can. We’ve known that one for the past couple of hundred years. Give me a better example. So if he said “There’s dark matter, there’s dark energy forcing an expansion of the universe so fast that it’s accelerating. You can’t explain that.” Right. We can’t explain that. [Laughs.] I don’t think he knows enough physics to be able to tell us what it is we don’t understand yet.

Tyson’s brilliant video debunking O’Reilly gathered 576,000 views. Less than one-third the YouTube audience for “Frank’s” doomsday prophecy. The brief CERN video of the discovery of the Higgs Boson – the particle that gives other particles mass and thus gravitational attraction – has only 195,000 views. The two-hour CERN seminar from which that minute-and-a-half snippet was taken, only 85,000 views. On the other hand, the Higgs Boson discovery won a Nobel Prize.

Tomorrow we’ll see how the Too Bizarre to Ignore phenomenon spurs the Too Good to Be True problem we discussed yesterday … and why we need to change how we talk about science.

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Happy Friday!