‘Could’ is Such a Useful Word

A friend posted this HuffPost article to Facebook.

“Pat Robertson says an asteroid big enough to wipe out all life on Earth could hit NEXT WEEK!!!”

And, technically, he’s right.  One could.  One could have hit last week; or the week before that; or any week over the hundreds of thousands of years of human history.  Anything’s possible.

But is it more likely next week than any of those other weeks?  Nothing suggests so.  ‘Could’ is such a useful word for panic-mongers and the media: it allows them to scare people senseless without actually, strictly speaking, telling a lie or hysterically exaggerating.

And Pat Robertson, infamous US TV evangelist?  Not someone whose opinion I’d trust on matters of astronomy.

“He said: “I wrote a book, I wrote a book. It’s called ‘The End of the Age’ and it deals with an asteroid hitting the Earth.””

Oh, you wrote a book, Mr Robertson?  And I suppose you’d like us all to go out and buy that book?  Did you know that when people are frightened they tend to consume more and become more obedient?  Oh, yes, you probably did know that: you’re a televangelist.  [See also the Daily Mail business plan.]

“”I don’t see anything else that fulfills the prophetic words of Jesus Christ other than an asteroid strike.  There isn’t anything that will cause the seas to roil, that will cause the skies to darken, the moon and the sun not to give their light, the nations terrified on Earth saying ‘what’s happening?””

You can’t see anything else that might fulfil these prophetic words other than an asteroid? Might I hesitantly suggest ‘The Wrath of God’?  You’re referring to prophecies that you believe are real and yet to be fulfilled (well, you personally don’t believe it, obviously – you’re a televangelist and therefore religion is just a tool to make money with – but let’s just imagine for a moment you were a real dispensationalist Christian).  These are prophecies of events that humanity hasn’t seen since Noah’s Flood; why need you attribute them to mere rocks from space?

“[H]is claims come in the same week it was revealed that 26 asteroids have hit the Earth with the force of a nuclear bomb since 2000. While most occurred too high in the atmosphere to cause any serious damage on the ground it is a sobering reminder of how vulnerable the Earth is to the threat from space.”

As vulnerable as it’s always been.  Asteroids are a real threat, we shouldn’t be in doubt that.  There is always the possibility that we could be hit by something big enough and travelling at the right angle to get through the atmosphere without exploding; and there has always been that possibility: the atmosphere is a very thin layer indeed, and while it’ll stop glancing strikes it’s unlikely to be much impediment to something coming straight at us.

And this has happened recently: the most likely explanation for the Tunguska Event in 1908 is an airburst asteroid.  The airburst explosion of an asteroid over Chelyabinsk, Russia in February 2013 occurred eighteen miles up and still caused damage and injury on the ground.  But before we all head screaming for the hills we should probably bear in mind that while this revelation is unsettling, it still doesn’t change the number of nuclear-bomb-yield asteroids that have actually hit the surface since 2000, which is as zero as it was last week.

Astronomer Phil Plait refers to a calculation indicating that the odds of any of us being killed by a meteor, asteroid or other space rock are around 1 in 700,000.  That’s a tiny, tiny probability.  We don’t think it sounds small because we spend so much of our time trying to believe that our 1-in-14,000,000 chance of winning the lottery is going to make us rich one day; but it is a very, very small chance indeed.

But Phil gets the last word, because his are so much more eloquent than mine:

“It’s like the lottery: someone wins every time (eventually), but chances are it won’t be you.

Worrying about preventing a terrorist attack is a good idea, but (unless you work in a high-risk job) worrying specifically about dying in one is not.

Incidentally, you have about the same odds as being killed on an amusement park ride. Wheee!”

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