Friday, August 22, 2008

Scam psychology, Whack-a-mole and the next 2012 hoax

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The stream of nonsense predictions about the upcoming doomsday in 2012 never seems to end. It's driven by people who use fear and doubt to make money and gather attention. It's spread by normal people who can't debunk things or lack confidence in their own critical thinking. The first group are con artists and fraudsters. The second don't know any better.

I'm not talking about the relatively harmless nonsense like the "mars appearing as big as the moon emails" (see Mars as big as the Moon: it’s baaaaack) that have been making rounds since 2003. I'm talking about harmful lies and fabrications.

These scams pop up like a whack-a-mole at the amusement park. The problem is there seems to be no off switch. A number of well respected and knowledgeable people have spent time and effort to debunk this nonsense. These include the Bad Astronomer and recently Dr. Ian O'Neill at Astroengine who has written a fine set of articles debunking various 2012 scams. Please read his article "2012 Doomsday Fabrication: Abusing Science and Making Money".

I've said before that critical thinking is an important life skill (see "Greenwash, Security Theatre, and Skepticism - Critical Thinking"). One tool that can help you do this is to think about the language being used and who the person is supposed to be writing to. A hallmark of many scams is pseudo-scientific language aimed at lay people! If an author is trying to honestly communicate they will speak to their audience. While talking above your audience can be a mistake, it's not one experienced communicators make often. It's also another hallmark of a scam.

Con artists rely on people not to ask questions. Perhaps adults feel embarrassed that they might appear stupid by not knowing something. Any three year old can "why?" an adult to distraction in a few moments, yet somehow many of us loose this as we mature. If they can't explain it to you in terms you can understand, then they should be able to direct you to someone who can. If they can't do either, it's their problem and not yours! A friend of mine once described the ability to pick up on misleading pseudo-scientific and pseudo-technical language as his "BS (aka Bad Stuff) detector". Some of the current crop of bad stuff making the rounds are:
  • "Barycenter Sleeves" (No such thing - see the Astroengine debunk)
  • "mapped by a polynomial function of the third degree" (misleading misuse of math - see the Pseudolympics debunk at Bad Astronomy)
And my prediction for the next 2012 scam is the recently announced discovery of a comet-like object called 2006 SQ372 on a long 22,000 year orbit that brings it about as close as Neptune (for more see Astronomers Find a New "Minor Planet" near Neptune). This is simply too small and too far away to hurt us.

Get your hammers ready and keep asking questions!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

2012 is a scam preying on the entire Heartbeat of America. It's not going to happen just another fun fact scam preying on Americans for they are not falling for this in Europe.