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The Sciences

Betelgeuse followup

Bad AstronomyBy Phil PlaitJanuary 25, 2011 1:00 AM
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It's been a couple of days since the foofooraw involving Betelegeuse, 2012, and media laziness took place. As you may recall, a site in Australia made some dubious connections between 2012 and the red supergiant star Betelgeuse exploding, which you may imagine I took a fairly dim view on. As bad as that was, it got worse when The Huffington Post weighed in, adding their own nonsense to the story, misattributing parts of the story and making even more faulty connections to 2012. The story went viral rapidly. Other media venues quickly picked up on it, furthering the nonsense without doing any independent investigation of it. Happily, not everyone got it wrong; I'll note that the first venue that apparently got it right was Fox News, who linked to an earlier article I wrote about Betelgeuse. I was also contacted by Jesse Emspak from International Business Times, who asked me specific questions about it and wrote a very well-written and factually accurate article about all this, doing something that made my heart sing: not just presenting the real science we could get out of a Betelgeuse supernova, but making that the focus of the article! As it should be. Kudos to him and IBT. Stories like 2012 and nearby supernovae are sexy, easy to sell, and get eyeballs on a webpage. It's the devil's bargain to write about them even on a skeptical astronomy blog; it can reinforce bad science in people's minds, or it might put a spotlight on something that could otherwise wither and die on its own (which is why I didn't write about this story until HuffPo posted it). It's also amazing to me how some media -- some actual, mainstream news sources -- didn't do any real fact-checking before putting up links to HuffPo. It once again reinforces what I learned long ago: keep a very skeptical frame of mind when reading or listening to the news. If they can mess up something as simple as this, then what else are they getting wrong?

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