Crowds are stupid. People panic over every "end of the world" theory they read about on the Internet, forward each other emails claiming Barack Obama is building concentration camps and they repeat urban legends without taking five seconds to verify them on Snopes.
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But everybody can get taken in sometimes. Just look at these panics that seemed to draw in lots of well-educated types right along with the rubes. Like...
#5. Swine Flu
Cough. Within 30 seconds, someone in your office will ask if you have Swine Flu. If you say you do, you will be quarantined by a crowd bearing pitchforks and torches.
That scene is repeating itself all over the globe, to varying degrees. In Japan, they're selling a suit that makers claim can repel the H1N1 virus. In the Middle East, Iranian officials have banned their devout from going on Pilgrimage to Muslim holy sites, including Mecca, to avoid contamination. Saudi Arabia is requiring that pilgrims coming to Mecca provide proof of vaccination. For the very few of our readers who aren't devout Muslims, that's like canceling Christmas and making Aunt Ethel stand out in the snow until she shows you her small pox scar.
Why It Sounds Rational:
It's Swine Flu! Didn't the news say that this shit had the potential to kill like 100-million people?
And the news is never misleading.
And look at the response! The U.S. is preparing to vaccinate half the freaking population in under a year. That's never even been attempted before. Not even with Polio.
If you don't speak the language of local and cable news, allow us to translate: THIS IS AN EMERGENCY, PEOPLE! Get in your Swine Flu bunkers before it's too late!
Why It's Not:
The current pandemic of Swine Flu has claimed less than 3,000 lives. Well... that's still pretty bad, right? After all, that's like a flu-caused 9/11. Then again, the ordinary flu, that gives us the sniffles every year? That one kills several hundred thousand people around the world.
The reason for the early panic is that they believed this virus was a descendant of the 1918 Spanish Flu that wiped out a jaw-dropping 50-million people. And while it was obviously not as deadly, the fear was that it would eventually mutate into something like its apocalyptic ancestor.
Also, it's got a scary name.
Swine Flu mascot briefly considered by the CDC.
It hasn't lived up to it. Even the World Health Organization is describing this as a "moderate" outbreak. Their advice? Same as with the regular flu. Babies and old people should get vaccinated. The rest of your should wash your hands and stay away from sick people.
The World Health Organization would also like to remind everyone that it's safe to go back to eating your pork rinds, as there is no proof that pork causes Swine Flu and you cannot believe everything you read on fucking Twitter.
#4. Killer Asteroids
Giant killer asteroids aren't just something Michael Bay dreamed up so he'd have an excuse to flatten Paris on the big screen. Stephen Hawking just made headlines around the Web by proclaiming that the biggest reason intelligent life doesn't develop on planets is because they get wiped out by huge fucking space rocks before they have the chance.
Asteroids could have stopped this.
Why It Sounds Rational:
It's true that asteroids and comets are everywhere. Scientists guesstimate that somewhere between 18,000 to 84,000 meteorites bigger than 10-grams hit Earth every year. Our planet's crust is pock marked with proof that meteorites have slammed into Earth time and time again.
Why It's Not:
We're not disagreeing with Mr. Hawking here. It's that people tend to take what experts like him say and extrapolate it into, "WE'RE ALL GOING TO DIE AT ANY MOMENT" because that makes such a better headline. For instance, the story linked above got sent around the Internet with the headline, "Stephen Hawking: Asteroid Impacts are the Biggest Threat." As if he was saying we should be more worried about asteroids than global warming or curing cancer.
He wasn't. He was saying that it takes millions of years for life to evolve and if you wait millions of years, eventually a big-ass asteroid will hit.
To be ranked as a planet killer, an asteroid has to be pegged as a 10 on the Torino Impact Hazard Scale. Currently, scientists can only find one asteroid near Earth that ranks even a one on that scale, never mind a 10. Everything else is a zero.
So how dangerous is that level one asteroid? It has about a one in 3,000 chance of hitting the Earth 40 or 50 years from now, and it's one-hundredth the size of the one they think killed the dinosaurs.
Again, we're not saying it can't possibly happen. It's that the odds are overwhelming that you will die of something else long before it does.
Let's face it: There is not a single movie in the history of science fiction where cloning has turned out well. It's no surprise that when scientists in the 90s managed to clone a sheep named Dolly, the news media lost their shit.
Even the most enlightened, forward-thinking guy you know will hesitate to eat a steak that he's been told was cloned, and that guy will react even worse if his parents tell him they're going to clone him a little brother.
In fact, in 2008, the European Union called for a ban of all cloning for commercial purposes, meaning that no cloned critter bits could be brought into the European market and would prohibit everything from T-bone steaks to leather fetish gear being made from clones.
Why It Sounds Rational:
There just seems like so, so many ways this could go wrong. Science takes a few cells, bakes them in their magic E-Z Bake Ovens and produces an animal that was not conceived in any natural way. Then along come the venture capitalists, pie-eyed with dreams of cloning pets at exorbitant prices and filling private zoos with extinct species. The next thing we know we're all living in Jurassic Park without a dinosaur expert in sight.
Why It's Not:
First, what scientists are trying desperately to do is clone cells, as there are all sorts of medical breakthroughs that can happen if we learn how to grow certain kinds of cells at will. But cloning whole creatures is also in the cards, and fears about that seem to break down like this:
"Imagine a future of identical, soulless clones! All respect for human life would be ruined!"
It would be a shame if people started trivializing human life.
They're not talking about building a machine that spits out fully-grown human photocopies. They're talking about cloning embryos and letting them grow up normally. You can still think they're unnatural and weird, in the sense that you are also free to think identical twins are unnatural and weird. But if you treat them as less than human, you're the dick in that situation.
"The cloning process will produce horrific deformed cloned babies!"
The manufacture of grotesque flipper-babies for our amusement is probably already illegal where you live and if it's not, it soon will be. No one is in favor of that.
"It's playing God! And who can predict the effect such tinkering would have on the ecosystem?"
Actually, we've been "cloning" living things for thousands of years. We're talking about plants here, and farming depends on it. The result has been better plants that produce more food for everyone, without a single sentient man-eating plant to be found (though we probably tried).
It should also be noted that this is one of those technologies people assume is way further along than it actually is. Possibly because some publicity-seeking mad scientist comes along every few years and makes an outrageous claim about cloning humans or something else equally sure to get him headlines. Said scientist always proceeds to offer zero evidence, and then quietly slips back into obscurity, never to be heard from again.
Real scientists have managed to clone about a dozen species... almost all of which immediately die. Remember Dolly, the cloned sheep? Professor Wilmut, the scientist behind that project, has abandoned cloning as a technique. A team in South Korea that had claimed massive breakthroughs in the field turned out to be frauds.
What we're saying is we're much closer to a robot dinosaur rampage than a cloned dinosaur rampage, and urge scientists to put their efforts there instead.