Sunday, January 23, 2011


This here is a screenshot of CNN's home page at one point on Friday afternoon. Clicking will give you the full-size image.

The big horrible wretched mess is of course that main article, about Ben Roethlisberger's "road to redemption," which is just as awful as it looks and really is about how winning the Superbowl would totally make up for his "bad behavior," aka raping lots of people. The awfulness of this is obvious enough, and unfunny enough, that I will leave it at that. (Though I will pause to note the second story listed on the "latest news" feed off to the left; apparently when it's a reason for deporting Mexicans, rape can be called rape.)

Currently one of my favorite features on the CNN homepage is the "popular on Facebook" sidebar on the right, mostly because of its regularly hilariously infelicitous phrasing. For example, here we see that "23,081 people recommended Singer-songwriter Teena Marie dies at 54." One wonders if, absent the unimaginable cruelty of those 23,081, Teena Marie might still be alive today. The last one on the list, though, is perhaps the very best of them all: "116,510 people recommended Funeral protests to be met by 'angels'" which I admit made me laugh for longer than it probably should have. Interestingly, when I clicked on the link it took me to an article about lawmakers making it illegal to protest at their funerals, featuring only a glancing mention of that whole Fred Phelps counter-protest trend of wearing twinky angel wings rather than doing the sensible thing and ignoring them until they run out of people to sue for assault (or battery? whatever) and starve to death.

Moving along, we come to the reason for the post title. Direct your eyes, if you will, to the item five from the bottom of the "latest news" list: "Will Earth have 2 suns by 2012?"

Being big nerds, the Baronette and I (we were reading together) already knew just from reading the headline that the article would be about the imminent supernova of the star Betelgeuse, which when it occurs will briefly be as bright to a (naked eye) observer here on Earth as a second sun. Considering that Betelgeuse could, according to our understanding, go supernova anytime between now and about a million years from now ("imminent" means different things in human and universe scales), the 2012 shoehorning is of course silly, stupid, pandering, and entirely predictable.

When we actually read the article, we discovered that while the pandering had reached approximately its zenith in the headline, the silliness and stupidity had only just begun, and would soon reach levels that just moments before we never would have predicted. In the interest of brevity (too late!), here's a list of things the article says or implies rather than a discussion of them:
1. George Lucas invented the idea of binary star systems, and it's actually a far-fetched notion
2. A supernova being sun-level bright temporarily would be the same as us being in a binary star system
3. The Mayan calendar really really predicts the end of the world in 2012
4. This is relevant to supernovas somehow
5. Betelgeuse's name has "strong associations with the devil"
6. Betelgeuse is the second biggest star in the universe
7. The supernova will launch neutrinos at Earth, and since neutrinos are the building blocks of heavy elements like gold and uranium this will be beneficial to us, as it will enrich the planet with more valuable elements
All in an article of about 350 words. Numbers six and seven (which are, together, wrong in more ways than there are letters in this post), by the way, were in the article when I first read it, but have since been removed without comment, the cowardly fuckers.

All this is delightfully demolished in the comments, which for once on a mainstream news article are an absolute joy to read. My favorite (it was hard to pick) was one that Echo's incredibly annoying comment management system won't let me get to at the moment, so I can't credit it or quote it directly, but it was something along the lines of "Just because Betelgeuse's name comes from Arabic doesn't mean that it has to do with the devil."

Anyway, after we read the article (which, I should point out, was featured on CNN's home page but was actually hosted on Time's site), the Baronette and I saw that the story came to the attention of the writer via the Huffington Post, and, curious, we followed the link to that article, which we discovered was about 2% less completely misguided and misleading, but featured most of the same claims (Huffy at least had the decency to issue corrections about the goofy neutrinogold claim rather than just pretending it never happened) and also featured a bizarrely unnecessary Star Wars reference. Not only that, but it was actually drawing on an article from So we followed the rabbit to that article, which, we discovered, was about 2% less stupid than the Huffer article, but featured many of the same claims, joked about 2012, and mentioned Tatooine by name in the headline.

OK, maybe you had to be there, but neither of us could breathe for like an hour because we were laughing too hard.

So, some innocent scientist guy (whether you think "innocent scientist" is an oxymoron or not, he's an innocent in this situation) gives an interview. The interviewer, misunderstanding a lot of what the scientist says, writes up a flawed article, makes a weird Star Wars comparison, and jokes about 2012. A Huffing Hack copies and pastes the article and shifts the words around enough to make it technically not plagiarism, in the process misunderstanding the joke and taking the 2012 stuff seriously, because it's the Huffington Post and their charter requires all articles to feature credulous references to the worst aspects of New Agery. A Time writer picks that article up, copies and pastes, rearranges to avoid plagiarism, misunderstands things and gets all confused, and passes along the 2012 claim unquestioned, adding in a whole lot of other some-people's-weird-ideas-presented-as-fact claims for good measure, because it's Time and they exist to not question things and turn weird ideas into fake facts. And then CNN, too lazy to even rearrange the words, just links to that article because it's also too lazy to pretend that Time and CNN are two different news sources. Each of these steps maintains the Star Wars reference, because god forbid information get distorted.

Your news media, everybody. And if they do this with sciencey fluff pieces, just imagine what they do with everything else!

MORAL OF THE STORY: You will always, always, always be better served by not reading, listening to, or watching major news services, even if you don't replace them with anything.

PS I know it's extraordinarily unlikely, but I would love it if Betelgeuse went supernova within my lifetime.
PPS One of the funniest things about the whole thing, at least for me, is that the Baronette and I had been looking at the cheesy Gawker sci-fi blog, io9, before she jokingly said "Now let's see what's going on in the real world" and clicked over to CNN. And we found this.


Jack Crow said...

Great takedown of the Two Suns article. Really good read of it.

Saw the title and came over to comment on how awesome it would be, too.

But, you've covered that.

David said...

PS I know it's extraordinarily unlikely, but I would love it if Betelgeuse went supernova within my lifetime.

Me, too. But even if it did, it's 640 light years away, so we still wouldn't get to see it.

fwoan said...

Yeah, I'm hoping it went supernova several hundred years ago so that I'll get to see it here. But in two years time I'll never remember this shit.

In one article about this I read, the writer seriously wrote that it would shoot gold and silver at the planet.

Ethan said...

Thanks Jack.

And harrumph, David. I thought it would go without saying that I meant the timescale to be from our point of view, but I guess not.

OK, I admit it, you got me. I knew what I was talking about but forgot to put it into what I was writing. And it's very embarrassing considering what this post was about. I've decided to hate you in lieu of hating myself.

...but I mean, what does it even mean to say that something's going on RIGHT NOW, 640 light years away? It means nothing, that's what.

Ethan said...

fwoan, the werewolves better watch out!

Randal Graves said...