Communion Of Dreams


It’s a matter of perspective.

Phil Plait has another in a long series of articles about a space rock that isn’t going to hit Earth. Seriously:

This is Part N of what is apparently an infinite series of “No, Asteroid XXX Is Not Going to Hit the Earth” posts.

I’m sure he’s right. I have no doubt that he’s right. The latest rock in question isn’t going to get any closer than about 5 million kilometers. Which, as Plait notes: “That’s a pretty wide margin, well over 10 times the distance to the Moon.”

But I think that the problem with this kind of thing is that most people just have no clue how great that distance actually is. Seriously. I remember reading that a series of studies were done where if you asked people what they thought of the relationship between the Earth and the Moon was in terms of distance, where the Earth was represented by a basketball and the Moon by a softball, they’d typically say that the distance between the two was about a foot. Some would say a yard. As in, 3 feet. Maybe they’d say a meter if they were feeling sciency.

Whereas the proportional distance would be more like 24′ in actuality. (Based on just memory, I originally said 18′. A friend who actually knows this stuff gave me the correct number – thanks, Brent!)

Space is big. Most people have no damned clue how big. So when you say that some fast-moving rock will pass by the Earth by as much as 10x the distance of the Earth to the Moon, they’ll get scared, thinking that it is going to be a hell of a lot closer than it actually is.

It’s all a matter of perspective, not science. Like most things.

Jim Downey

Edited to add: My friend Brent, who set me straight on the actual proportion above, added a comment on FB to note that if you have the distance of the Sun-Earth (one AU) set to one inch, then a full light-year would be right about a mile total distance. Which would put our nearest neighboring star at about 4.5 miles distance.

Yeah, space is BIG.



Updating PT Barnum.

OK, granted, it probably wasn’t P.T. Barnum who uttered the famous phrase “There’s a sucker born every minute.”  But if I titled this post “Updating David Hannum” almost no one would have recognized the name.

Anyway.

While I think the maxim still holds true, I think that it could be updated to reflect current usage more accurately.  Sure, there are still some “suckers” around — people who are ignorant or unsophisticated generally, or who have just enough larceny in their soul to tempt them to take risks they should know better than take (“you can’t cheat an honest man”) — but the kind of ignorance or unsophistication which existed in Barnum’s time is fairly uncommon now.

With one major exception: people who are suckers because they’re scared.

Fear short-circuits our decision making abilities, particularly if you’re not aware of what it can do and trained to recognize and counteract it. Unfortunately, even though plenty of people are aware of what effect it can have, most folks aren’t very good at recognizing when it is working on them, nor what to do to negate the effect. To borrow a phrase, we’re “little brains”:

Bob Diamond: Being from Earth, as you are, and using as little of your brain as you do, your life has pretty much been devoted to dealing with fear.
Daniel Miller: It has?
Bob Diamond: Well everybody on Earth deals with fear – that’s what little brains do.
Bob Diamond: …Fear is like a giant fog. It sits on your brain and blocks everything – real feelings, true happiness, real joy. They can’t get through that fog. But you lift it, and buddy, you’re in for the ride of your life.
Daniel Miller: God… my three percent is swimming.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently. Partly because it is a major component of the ‘background’ of St. Cybi’s Well  (you’ll see) but also because of the 10-year anniversary retrospective of the start of the Iraq War. A war which I think most people in the U.S. will now agree was sold to the public more on the basis of fear than objective evidence. Whether or not those who did the selling were also acting out of fear I leave for others to argue.

And because I’ve been thinking a lot about how fear is used in this way, I’ve been seeing more and more examples of how that is done. Just this morning I came across a very good article about personal cyber security which was a perfect example of fear-based reporting. Yeah, sure, the article raises legitimate concerns, and ones which each of us should address, but the overall tone (and response by many people) is one of fear. And this kind of thing is done routinely by news outlets; there’s always some new cancer-causing food scare, or story about child predators, or a report on how fragile the economy/environment/whatever is. And all of this is used to sell us something. Sometimes it’s just page clicks. Sometimes it’s newspapers. Sometimes it’s Home Security systems. Sometimes it’s guns. Sometimes it’s a war.

And we buy it. Because we’re suckers. Because we’re “little brains.” Because we’re afraid.

So, back to updating David Hannum, er, I mean P.T. Barnum: “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

Personally, I like “There’s a little brain born every minute” but it requires too much context for people to understand. Defending Your Life wasn’t *that* popular.

How about “There’s a sheep born every minute”, then?

I think that works pretty well. Conveys the timidity of a somewhat panicked animal, one which is used for the benefit of others. “Sheeple” is already a common slang term. And it references the classic SF novel by John Brunner. Which really isn’t important for a generic cultural maxim, but amuses me.

Yeah, definitely: “There’s a sheep born every minute.”

 

Jim Downey