On science blogs this week: Raptures

THE RAPTURE, RESCHEDULED. Well, it wasn't the end of the world after all, except in Joplin, Mo. and the usual parts of the Middle East and Africa. The rest of us are still here, still awaiting The Rapture, which has been rescheduled for October. I guess I must keep writing after all.

It's not hard to anticipate what PZ Myers had to say (= snarl) at Pharyngula, but he said it with unusual enthusiasm, even for him. (Hint: the hed is "Wrong, root and branch; wrong at every cell and molecule; wrong to the core.") See also Greg Laden's blog. I also liked Grrlscientist's post at Punctuated Equilibrium, with quite a nice embedded video.

Some bloggers examined just why it is that folks get sucked into wacky beliefs. At Evolving Thoughts, Aussie John Wilkins drew on his former life as an evangelical to view apocalyptics sympathetically. He views Rapture as a type of Pascal's Wager and thinks even the chief apocalyptic, delightfully named Camping, may believe it. (My thought is that Camping probably does believe — in the reported $18 million his organization has taken in from those who have been taken in.)

Discover bloggers examined the disappointed's rationalizations about why the Rapture failed to occur last Saturday after all. See Phil Plait at Bad Astronomy and also several posts by Chris Mooney at The Intersection. Comments on all these are, as you may imagine, a treat.

But if you buy into Pascal, you should certainly prepare for next October. The Association of Health Care Journalists has assembled a useful list of resources for covering disasters.

DEBUNKING MYTHS, RAPTUROUS AND OTHERWISE. Many blog posts about the Rapture were scathing attempts to make fun of and debunk stories about the end of the world, the existence of an afterlife, and other metaphysical notions associated with religion. Presumably most of us write about science at least in part because we want to tell the truth about the ways of the world(s), at least as near as the truth can be known at a given moment. But there's a debate in journalism about whether it's a writer's job to debunk.

At the Nieman Journalism Lab, Matthew Schafer and Regina Lawrence describe their study of how the media handled Sarah Palin's 2009 claim that the new health care legislation includes what she called "death panels" to decide whether the disabled would be permitted to partake of health care. They conclude, scarily:

the dilemma for reporters playing by the rules of procedural objectivity is that repeating a claim reinforces a sense of its validity — or at least, enshrines its place as an important topic of public debate. Moreover, there is no clear evidence that journalism can correct misinformation once it has been widely publicized. Indeed, it didn’t seem to correct the death panels misinformation in our study.

They do offer "critical curation," a solution of sorts, although I'm doubtful whether it will be enough to do the job.

Yet there is promise in substantive objectivity. Indeed, today more than ever journalists are having to act as curators. The only way that they can effectively do so is by critically examining the surplusage of social media messages, and debunking or refusing to reinforce those messages that are verifiable. Indeed, as more politicians use the Internet to circumvent traditional media, this type of critical curation will become increasingly important.
Spirit's snapshot of Earth, the first ever taken from another planet

Spirit's snapshot of Earth, the first ever taken from another planet

MORE RAPTURE, OUT OF THIS WORLD. NASA's plans to take a bite out of an asteroid gobbled up most of the Space space this week. (And don't you know the apocalyptics love that they acronymed it for a pagan deity, OSIRIS-REx, and Kinged it for good measure?)

As a result, some mournful space news got short shrift. An extra-cold Martian winter apparently froze its innards, and the Martian summer was unable to revive it. So this week NASA ceased trying to communicate with the doughty Mars Sprit Rover, and there it sits.

Forever? Not according to blog commenters, who envision an eventual rescue and return to Earth and an honored place at the Smithsonian. Or perhaps in a Martian museum, which will, of course, be a first priority for the new settlers. See doleful posts by Richard Kerr at ScienceInsider, Phil Plait at Bad Astronomy, Greg Laden's Blog, and, for a dose of reportorial reality, Keith Cowling's wrathful account, "JPL Screws Up Spirit Shutdown Announcement" at NASA Watch.

But info-mining of Mars is by no means at an end. The equally doughty Opportunity Rover continues its creeping there, and at The Thoughtful Animal, Jason Goldman shows how the Jet Propulsion Laboratory is making a festival out of displaying the latest Mars rover, Curiosity. It's due for launch next fall and arrival on Mars in August, 2012.

The Mars Opportunity Rover, a NASA "simulation"

The Mars Opportunity Rover, a NASA "simulation"

Curiosity is said to be the size of an SUV. No matter how faithfully it performs, though, I doubt we will be inclined to befriend so large a Rover. But for reasons I will leave to the shrinks, we seem unable to resist the anthropomorphizing adjectives when it comes to feisty, spunky, plucky little Spirit.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, LAST WORD ON NOTHING. Calling your attention to this fine group blog, which has just celebrated its first anniversary. The traditional paper anniversary, but paper, of course, has nothing to do with it. As a gift to readers, Ann Finkbeiner links to the bloggers' favorite posts. You will already know many of their names and have been reading their splendid science writing for years: Sally Adee, Erika Check Hayden, Ann Finkbeiner, Jessa Gamble, Thomas Hayden, Virginia Hughes. Richard Panek, Heather Pringle, Cassandra Willyard.

ARSENIC, AN OLD CASE. One of the Last Word posts, by Erika Check Hayden, touches on a new group of commentaries, out today, on that toxic paper from late last year claiming to have discovered a bacterium that could replace its phosphorous with arsenic.

Today Science adopts the traditional approach, journal publication of formal scientific critiques of a paper, although I suspect more speedily than is usual. It includes the one by microbiologist Rosie Redfield that triggered the original cascade of mockery. Also present are responses from the authors, headed by Felisa Wolfe-Simon. All the papers are free at ScienceExpress, but I believe you have to register. I haven't had a chance to read them thoroughly, but may have more to say next week.