How does one communicate an inconvenient truth, or a suspicion, formed from logic and data points one trusts, which flies in the face of the dominant paradigm? This question arose, indirectly at least, in a discussion on the Volcano Café website. That website disseminates information relating to volcanoes, earthquakes, and some astronomical phenomena, often couched in highly technical language and aimed, for the most part, at people with an advanced education in physics and geology.
The article which sparked the debate concerned a very large rock which passed close to the earth in 2017 – not as large as the one which caused the extinction of the dinosaurs, or even the Eltanin impact but larger than the object that damaged Chelyabinsk or than anything that has been confirmed to have struck earth in historic times.
Two characteristics of this object, dubbed Oumuamoua, distinguish it from the many space rocks that come close to the earth every year. First, although there are now more powerful means of detecting objects of this size range than were available even thirty years ago, and a global network of astronomers, professional and amateur, scanning the heavens for them, it was only detected when outward bound. We didn’t see it coming.
Consequently, even if aiming nuclear missiles at an incoming space rock which would otherwise hit us is a viable strategy, it could not have been brought into play in this particular instance. Such a scenario has been seriously proposed by policy makers at NASA, possibly to create the impression in the American public that otherwise esoteric space efforts are worth funding because they have the capacity to protect us from a grave, albeit low probability, threat.
Second, this rock came from an unexpected direction, in an orbit that strongly suggests that it originated outside the solar system. Most meteors, comets, and asteroids come from within the solar system and orbit roughly in the same plane as the planets. The ones that pose a potential danger to earth are believed to originate in the Kuiper belt, beyond the orbit of Neptune, and to be deflected into elliptical orbits by forces that may include a hypothetical planet within the Kuiper belt. They have relatively short lives in cosmological terms as orbiting objects before they crash into Jupiter or the sun, or, if they are predominately icy, melt and evaporate. Whatever forces projected a small asteroid from a more distant star in our direction, they are beyond our current capacity to model or anticipate.
What, you may well ask, is the inconvenient truth here? A subtext in any discussion of anthropogenic global warming is the question of what forces shaped warming and cooling trends in the historic and geologic past, which of them may be contributing to the present warming trend, and which non-human forces might reverse the present warming trend. One inconvenient truth is that a massive volcanic eruption, on the order of the Rinjani eruption which abruptly ended the Medieval warm period in 1257 would dwarf human efforts to stop global warming, especially if it coincided with a solar minimum. Such eruptions occur every few hundred years; the most recent one was Tambora in 1815. Volcanologists have identified a number of candidates for a large eruption in the next 50 or 100 years, but they can’t predict when. What is reasonably certain is that some volcano will inject massive amounts of sulfur dioxide and ash into the atmosphere, far more than emanated from Pinatumbo or even Krakatoa, before the doomsday scenario of global warming runs its course.
Bolide (meteor/asteroid) impacts, the focus of the article, are an even bigger unknown. The possibility that impacts by small asteroids had a profound effect on climate and human history is controversial, but cannot be entirely ruled out. There is a theory, for example, that a bolide impact in the Indian Ocean in Neolithic times caused megatsunamis and climate change giving rise to numerous flood myths, including the Biblical Noah story. Some details supporting the theory are suspect, but others make sense.The role of asteroid impact in geologic time is more firmly established.
One thing is certain, or rather uncertain, and that is, that geologic and cosmic processes are utterly beyond human control. Science gives us increasingly accurate ways to predict them, but the information is of limited use in the case of large-scale events. Since marketing something with reference to a threat requires a belief that humans are in control, the marketplace prefers to bury or marginalize knowledge of uncontrollable events.
Scientific discoveries which reinforce the dominant paradigm become enshrined in the public consciousness, to the exclusion of scientific discoveries which may be as well or nearly as well grounded in rigorous observation and experimentation. Challenges to the orthodox model of anthropogenic climate change – which ascribes all of the current warming trend to human activity, projects a doomsday scenario, and maintains that only expensive coercive actions on the part of a few major industrial powers, actions which incidentally generate wealth for the elites of those countries and may not be very effective, will save the planet – quickly get labelled pseudoscience and climate change denial.
It is easy to find tabloid-style, obviously flawed presentations of the opposing non-mainstream arguments, often framed in rhetoric and a world view (for example Biblical inerrancy) which Americans are taught in school to reject. It tends to be much more difficult to find information of a more sober and rational description, and one is left with the impression that the opposite camp is comprised entirely of illiterate yahoos. Is this a conspiracy? I have seen this phenomenon ascribed to the censorship of the marketplace – to the popularity of tabloid-style sensationalist reporting – but I am not sure this is the whole story. Hence my modest “moderate” conspiracy theory – that there is something about the information channels on which we rely which conspires, not entirely to suppress inconvenient truths which challenge the dominant paradigm and its bottom line, but to present opposing viewpoints in a biased way which leads people, without realizing it, to reject those inconvenient truths and hold them in contempt.
Photo is from Volcano Cafe