Dear Asteroid Hunters: Stop telling us we’re all gonna die!

“Don’t blame yourself. The apocalypse wasn’t your fault. Actually, it was just as much your fault as it was anyone else’s. Come to think of it, if you’re an American, it was probably about 80-90 percent more your fault than the average human. But don’t let that get you down. It wasn’t exclusively your fault. Unless you’re the president. Then it might be your fault. But you’ll have plenty of interns to tell you that it wasn’t, so you’ll be fine.” –Meghann Marco

Nothing gets a scientist in the press quite like telling everyone that we’re all gonna die. Remember when there was talk of creating black holes that destroy the world at the LHC?

Remember the hype that the world’s going to end on December 21st, 2012?

Remember the supposed end-of-civilization-as-we-know it from Y2K? (Actually, younger readers may not!)

As you may have guessed, none of these things either has destroyed the world or is likely going to. These stories are always out there, and they’re almost always full of gross misinformation. One of the public services that science (and scientists) often perform is getting the correct information out there, out of the hopes that this will allay the hysteria and the wasted resources that these scares cause.

But what do you do when it’s one of your own who causes scares like this?

I’m looking squarely at you, asteroid- and comet-hunters. Remember, a few years ago, there was speculation that there was a 1 in 37 chance that the large asteroid, Apophis, would hit the Earth with devastating results?

Of course, now that we’ve taken better data, that chance is now down to less than 1 in 100,000. And this seems to be a recurring theme in popular media; I recall watching the worst episode ever of History Channel’s “The Universe” on comets and asteroids destroying the Earth.

To what should be no surprise, a new asteroid, relatively large in size, with poor data mapping its trajectory, is in the news. I’ve gotten to read headlines like:

  • Asteroid Could Threaten the Earth in 2182,
  • Giant Asteroid Headed Towards Earth; Could Level London, and
  • Will an Asteroid Kill Us All in 2182?

The reports are that there’s a 1-in-1,000 chance that we’re going to get hit. And I get it. I get why this is so scary. After all, a giant asteroid impact is what wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. If that happened to Earth today, just as surely, we’d all be goners.

Here’s my problem with this type of reporting, both by journalists and by scientists. Remember the story of The Boy Who Cried Wolf?

It only works if the boy cries wolf when there’s actually a wolf! Despite what’s being reported, the odds are almost certainly much, much safer than “one-in-a-thousand.” But you’d never know that from reading the news. Take Apophis, for example. The odds were reported at 1-in-37 because the data was poor at that point, the asteroid’s trajectory was very uncertain, and solid conclusions couldn’t be drawn. It wasn’t until better data was taken and its trajectory was better determined that we could come up with a realistic estimate. And we did, and it was more like 1-in-250,000. But this means Apophis never had a 1-in-37 chance of hitting us, we just didn’t have enough data to know better.

Does this latest story feel like déjà vu? It should. When you tell stories like this, giving 1-in-1000 odds of our destruction I don’t believe you. I’ve seen the pattern of bad reporting, and I assume — correctly — that you give “scary” odds because your data isn’t good enough to make a realistic prediction. (Guess what? The data for this new asteroid, 1999 RQ36, isn’t very good yet.)

And you do it, alarming the public, every couple of years. And when more data comes in, we find out — every time so far — that the object is actually going to miss the Earth entirely by many thousands (or tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands) of kilometers.

So STOP.

We’ve got lots of asteroids, and we need to learn to track them, because when a potentially devastating one actually does wind up on a collision course with Earth, we’d like to be ready. And even though “extinction” events (like the one that wiped out the dinosaurs) only happen once every hundred million years or so, smaller, substantial impacts that cause significant damage happen thousands of times more frequently.

But by causing unfounded hysteria like this, based on inconclusive data, you make all of us look bad. Worst of all, you add to this awful misconception that science doesn’t know what it’s talking about most of the time.

And that’s not true. Science knows what it’s talking about. But loudmouth scientists (and science journalists) who cry “wolf!” (or “Asteroid!”) harm us all, and I’m speaking out against it. We’re not all going to die, not from this asteroid, not anytime soon.

And your great-great-grandkids probably won’t either; give us a few more years to better track this asteroid and we’ll have an accurate, meaningful estimate of the odds for you then. But until then, please don’t lose any sleep over it.