Back in ye olden times, it was fairly rare to see major, world-changing discoveries in the news. Most days you'd check the paper to find headlines like "Politics! It's Not Going Quite How You Want." Only once every few decades would you pop it open to see "Holy Hell! We Got Cars Now!" But lately, you can't take your phone out of your pocket without finding some legit-looking source talking about how aliens are real, they're coming here soon, and they're going to help us cure rudeness. Wow, either humanity has gotten really smart lately ... or we've gotten really bad at recognizing bullshit.
Sadly, it's the latter. Here are some recent "world-shattering" news stories that didn't amount to squat.
Anyone who saw The Terminator shat a collective brick in 2016 when the world at large met Sophia, the robot who said she "wants to destroy humans."
Sophia's creator, David Hanson, told Jimmy Fallon that she's "basically alive." And she certainly seemed more aware than most other Fallon guests. She has regaled numerous talk show hosts with her wit and humor. She said she wants to have a family and a child someday, she rejected Will Smith's advances (as any thinking woman would), and oh yeah, she has Saudi citizenship now. Everything we just described sounds like the first act of a movie about robots turning against humanity, especially the part about hurting Will Smith's feelings.
But before you pledge allegiance to our new robotic overlords, consider one thing: She's about as "intelligent" as the Abraham Lincoln animatronic at Disneyland. (In fact, Hanson used to make animatronics for Disney.) There isn't a single piece of technology inside Sophia that we haven't had for a while. She's practically a chatbot, except she processes speech instead of written word (a technology we already had), and uses text-to-voice to reply (a technology we already had). She's like an elaborate Alexa with a really, really fancy speaker.
Her witty responses? Hate to ruin the magic of talk shows for you, but those were pre-written. Like other chatbots, she often misunderstands questions or replies with out-of-context sentences. When asked what name she would give her child, she said "Sophia" -- not because she wants a mini-me, but because she processed the question as "What's your name?" As for her "kill humanity" moment? That was her taking "Do you want to destroy humans?" as a command, and repeating it back without a single clue what she was saying.
While Sophia is certainly an impressive novelty, they're selling her as the future of AI, and that's one thing she definitely is not. Then again, if people want to invest tons of cash in fancy toys instead of robots that can actually enslave us all, maybe we shouldn't be trying to dissuade them ...
'Oumuamua sounds like the name of a '70s prog rock band, but it's something even trippier: a mysterious cigar-shaped space object that passed through our solar system in 2017, leading some Harvard nerds to speculate that it might be an alien probe.
Why do people think this? Because 1) the object accelerated as it crossed the Solar System, as if noticing it was going through a bad neighborhood, and 2) Harvard people are really smart, so whatever they say is probably true.
The folks writing those articles, on the other hand, are really dumb. The Harvard source they all cite is a heavy, research-intensive paper that attempted to scientifically solve the puzzle behind 'Oumuamua's unusual acceleration. They ultimately determined that it's the object's irregular shape causing all the freakiness. So if anything, it was a paper about why this was absolutely not aliens. But near the end of their draft, the scientists indulged in a bit of lighthearted speculation:
Shmuel Bialy and Abraham Loeb
That's the only part of the paper that says anything about aliens. News outlets squeezed thousands of words out of that little bit, and we all fell for it like damned fools. There is absolutely no evidence that it was an alien probe, or anything alien-related. They could have just as easily said "or maybe it's Superman carrying a rock through space."
(NOTE: If anyone tells you "I just read on Cracked that Superman is real!" you have our permission to roll with it.)
New York Post
Many of these articles blame increasing celebrity endorsements for the shift. When NBA player Kyrie Irving and rapper B.o.B. tell their followers they think the Earth is flat, it's only logical that mass conversions would follow! But they didn't. The original article by The Economist based the presumed "growth" of the movement on an increased number of Google searches containing the term "flat Earth." But obviously, that also includes people searching stuff like "why are Flat Earthers so dumb" or "how do I get my Flat Earther brother-in-law to shut the fuck up."
The biggest spikes occurred around the time B.o.B. and Irving came out as Flat Earthers. But that includes anyone who merely wanted to know more about the story, because let's face it, it's hilarious. Perhaps a stronger indication of the movement's popularity is the GoFundMe page B.o.B. set up, attempting to raise $1 million to prove the Earth is flat once and for all. In the 17 months since, he has been able to raise a grand total of ... $6,924. Man, that's not even enough to prove the Earth even exists. Maybe this isn't such a "burgeoning threat to science," after all.
Every year, news stories abound about how the moon is going to be so close to Earth that you might scratch it with your telescope if you're not careful. Most articles you'll find on this subject are accompanied by giant-ass images of the Super Moon crashing into Earth, Majora's Mask-style.
Rare celestial events are certainly worth getting excited about, but the Super Moon is barely celestial, and not rare at all. In fact, it's pretty much entirely manufactured. Allow renowned astrophysicist and internet killjoy Neil deGrasse Tyson to explain with an easy-to-digest pizza analogy:
"If a small moon is a 7-inch pizza, a medium moon is a 7.5-inch pizza, a large moon is an 8-inch pizza, and a Super Moon is an 8.00001-inch pizza." On the one hand, hey, extra pizza. Any amount is welcome, no matter how minuscule. But on the other hand, that really isn't enough to justify 50 articles on the subject. Here's Dr. Tyson again, talking about how Super Moons happen all the time, but no one notices if it happens when the moon isn't full.
The "Blood Moon" is ridiculous too. Sure, it's a cool name for an eclipse during which the moon turns a reddish hue for a while, but that's every single lunar eclipse ever. They all turn red. You'd know if you bothered to look at an eclipse instead of clicking through 30 slides of photoshops. Uh, not that we're condemning that kind of content, mind you!
In 2006, conservationists determined that the western black rhino might be extinct, due to a lack of viable individuals that could reproduce ("fuck-related reasons" is the scientific term). The media reported on it at the time, because that's quite sad.
In 2011, it was announced that yep, they're extinct, prompting more articles on the subject.
The media has been milking this particular tragedy at periodic intervals for years. They keep publishing articles that make it seem like the extinction has just occurred in a bid to keep drawing outrage (and clicks) from animal lovers. Here's one of many 2013 articles:
In 2018, the AFP news agency had to put out an article clarifying that rhinos in general still exist in the world after some misleading articles started going around.
According to this article by the BBC (which also talks about how the media needs to stop recycling these stories), most rhino species are in fact currently bouncing back due to conservation efforts. Which is great news, at least until the "ZOMBIE RHINOS ARE TAKING OVER AFRICA" articles start hitting.
Eamon Lahiri has written a bunch of stuff for a bunch of outlets that you can check out on his hastily organized portfolio. To hire him to write things for you, mail him at email@example.com, or say hi on Twitter.
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