We are fresh off the heels of probably the most talked about, tweeted, and photographed eclipse in history. I was jolted back to reality by the absurd and happening Internet hoax that NASA is predicting 15 days of complete darkness in November. By now, some of you have likely seen a friend or a cousin post this in social media. It is not true.
This fake news (Not CNN) began in 2015 according to Snopes when a seemingly credible (but ultimately fake) news site called Newswatch33 published an article, entitled “NASA Confirms Earth Will Experience 15 Days of Complete Darkness in November 2015.” The article claimed that then NASA Administrator Charles Bolden issued a 1000-page report noting that the darkness would be caused by an astronomical event involving Jupiter and Venus.
I am not even going to spend time trying to explain the claim because it is fake, but it was rooted in some notion of “planetary alignment theory” and even folds in the discussion of the Mayan calendar predicting the end of the world. That report never happened. First of all, I am a former NASA scientist and know Charles Bolden personally. He is a brilliant man and a former astronaut. He would spot the foolishness in the s0-called “science logic” of this claim by a million miles. The other thing that should have raised a yellow flag is a 1000-page report.
That Newswatch33 article picked up on a viral Internet claim that I have seen resurface year after year and unfortunately, it has resurfaced this week after the eclipse. Eclipses are easily predicted. NASA’s excellent eclipse resource website points out that,
Astronomers first have to work out the geometry and mechanics of how the Earth and Moon orbit the Sun under the influences of the gravitational fields of these three bodies. From Newton’s laws of motion, they mathematically work out the motions of these bodies in three-dimensional space, taking into account the fact that these bodies have finite size and are not perfect spheres, and that the Earth and Moon are not homogeneous bodies. From careful observation, they then feed into these complex equations the current positions and speeds of the Earth and Moon, and then program the computer to “integrate” these equations forward or backward in time to construct ephemerides of the relative positions of the Moon and Sun as seen from the vantage point of the Earth. Eclipses are specific configurations of these bodies that can be identified by the computer.
These forecasts can be accurate to less than a minute as far out as several hundreds of years.
When I started seeing the post circulating around again, my immediate thought was, “why don’t people immediately recognize something like this as a hoax.” I concluded that it is likely a convergence of science literacy gaps, the inability to distinguish credible from bogus news sources, and the “share before reading and thinking” mentality pervasive in social media. In 2015, Lucy Goodchild van Hilten published “Science hoaxes: Why do we fall for them-and who benefits?” in Elsevier Connect.
Her answers include the social media click-bait phenomenon (getting views), unvetted websites and science sources, and trickery. She also discusses “understanding and emotional engagement.” Max Goldman of Sense About Science told van Hilten,
If it’s something graspable, if someone has written a headline designed to provoke an emotional response, then people will share.
The article ends with some recommendations to end sciences hoaxes: