Friday fallacy

Those of you who received my Facebook invitation to this blog were promised (along with details about my novel and musings about writing in general) “rants, ramblings, and momentary distractions” on all manners of “amazing, fucked up, or fall-on-your-ass stupid shit” that’s too juicy to ignore.

Far be it from me to go back on my word.

I am therefore delighted to present you with “Fall-on-your-ass-stupid shit”: the inaugural edition.

Today’s little nugget of nonsense seems to surface every August on social media. The claim is that on August 27 (three days hence), Mars will appear as large as the Moon in the night sky. Amazing, huh!?!

Ummm… no.

The rumour was born out of an actual celestial event in 2003, and ludicrously exaggerated. Every 15 years, Mars’s orbit brings it closer to Earth than at any other period, roughly 54.6 million kilometres (at its furthest, the red planet is just over 400 million km away, so that’s practically next door by martian standards). Back in ’03, it was closer than it had been in some 60,000 years (marginally closer than previous cycles, but still), and skywatchers everywhere went nuts… or as nuts as skywatchers ever get. Of course, unless you had a telescope it was still just a reddish dot in the night sky, if only a slightly more prominent one than usual. Still, star gazers around the world were understandably excited: break out the old Tasco, find a dark open space far from the city lights, point your lens at the right spot, and fill your hearts with bright orange loveliness.

But what good is the Internet if you can’t use it to indulge in wild, unsubstantiated gossip that preys on readers gullibility and utter lack of critical thinking? Especially if you have access to Photoshop! An easily falsifiable rumour is born, people “oooh” and “ahhh” for a moment, make a quickly forgotten mental note to look out their windows on the date in question, and move on to the next story… like the beached squid the size of a house, or sharks swimming through flooded shopping malls.

Fast forward another 15 years, and the rumour cycles back again. Mars is closer now to Earth than it’s been since ’03, but it’s still bloody far. The Moon is 384,000 from Earth; at its closest, Mars is still over 140 times further away. Granted, Mars is twice the size of the Moon, but it will NEVER be more than a dot in the night sky to the naked eye. EVER.


(I think the Death Star would have been more convincing.)

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