Friday, April 14, 2006

The End of the World As We Know It

I find television to be very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go in the other room and read a book. ~Groucho Marx
I know that television feels it has to cater to the lowest common denominator (Translation: they program for the dumbest viewers). And, I am also very aware that networks are quick to pick up on a trend (Translation: we'll keep churning out the same crud until you stop watching). But when science and history channels join the party of stupidity, I begin to get ill with it.
I don't know who started it. The Discovery desk set (Science, Times, Discovery Channel, et al) started showing meteors and comets crashing into the planet. Global warming generated another pile of doom and gloom. When the tsunami hit Asia, these guys went nuts with tsunami shows. National Geographic has their own set (Yellowstone is gonna blow any day now). The Weather Channel, not to be outdone, came with wonderful scenario programs about New York getting hit by Katrina's closest relative, San Francisco rocking and rolling to the earthquake of the century, and Dallas getting swallowed by an umpteen-mile-wide tornado.
In the Weather Channel's case, I imagine that they figure anything they can do to take people's minds of the inaccuracy of their forecasts is a good thing.
Even the History channels take turns showing programs about the same potential disasters. However, just to spice things up, they also feature idiotic analyses of “prophecies” from the past: “In 1406, Jerkius Foobar predicted that a leader from the east and a leader from the west would go to war when the leader from the east crossed the River Zuggerat.” It is then lamely shown that “Zuggerat” is lower Slobbovian for “rind” which sounds like Rhine, so this was an accurate prediction of Hitler attacking France. With this sound foundation, we are then told that Foobar also predicted that “Something really bad would happen in 600 years,” which clearly means that the world is about to end.
John Titor would be so proud.
When they're not making things up, these guys mess up actual events. For example, a show that I've mentioned before spent a lot of time with some “revolutionary” theory for the extinction of the dinosaurs. Conventional scientific wisdom says it's most likely that the long reign of T-rex and friends was ended by a meteor that crashed into the Gulf of Mexico, just off the Yucatan peninsula. The “revolutionary” theory was that it wasn't the Mexican meteor that caused the extinction event; it was another meteor that did it.
But, what got me irritated was their discussion of the actual effect of whichever meteor it was. According to the narration, it was “generally believed” that the impact explosion caused a world-wide conflagration, destroying the food supply and most of the dinosaurs. Most? The whole planet catches fire and some survive? How? But, just to make sure, they say that the material thrown up into the atmosphere would cool the planet for a very long time, killing off all the vegetation. What vegetation? You just burned it all up!
It turns out, of course, that there is no evidence for a planetary blaze, and the period of cold climate was not all that long. This is explained by several scientists on the program, which leaves us to wonder just who these “generally believing” people were that the narrator referred to.
Now a meteor like the one that hit the Gulf 65 million years ago would be a catastrophe of major proportions. Why, then, did the producers of the program feel the need to overstate the effect? If they can't describe a factual event accurately, why should we trust them to describe a hypothetical one correctly? And why do these networks insist on selling Armageddon on a nightly basis?
Oh, occasionally, these shows will talk about preventing the ultimate disaster in some manner, but most of their time is spent showing the same CGI effects of death and destruction. One program went so far as to imagine the weather of other planets occurring on Earth. Rather than simply discuss the planet-wide sandstorms of Mars, they have to have one here (even though it's an impossibility on Earth). Using these sorts of scenarios, there's simply no hope for any of us.
They're not getting any better, either. The other night, one of the channels did a show on comets. It imagined a comet passing near enough to be perturbed by Earth's gravity, with pieces breaking loose as a result. So as people watch the lovely meteor shower that comes from passing through the comet's tale, they are suddenly assaulted by flaming rocks rushing down from the sky.
Okay, firstly, meteor showers are caused by comet residue to be sure, but when the Earth has passed through a cometary tail, there's no such effect. The tail is almost all tenuous gas, not little bits of comet. Secondly, if we're passing through the tail, the comet has passed us. There's no mechanism for the pieces of comet to do a U-turn and head for LA (so they can hit the Hollywood sign, just to show how hokey the show was). Thirdly, it's almost impossible for all the chunks to come down in a narrow area like LA (in astronomical terms, LA is a pimple; most of these chunks would land in some of the two-thirds of the world covered in water). And finally, meteors that hit the ground aren't flaming. As they come through the thicker atmosphere, they are slowed significantly and cool down a good bit. They may be hot to the touch, but the image of fireballs crashing into cars is ludicrous.
If you doubt that last one, ask the lady in New Jersey who actually had a meteor hit the car in her driveway. It punched a nasty hole, but nothing exploded or was set aflame.
At any rate, that was all of that program that I watched. I figured that if they could get that much wrong in five minutes, the remaining hour and 30 minutes (after commercials) was just going to be drivel.
What bothers me is what these shows are telling us about the target audience. Evidently, somebody is watching these shows. I'm not, because I avoid these things, but somebody must be glued to the set, because networks keep producing them. Are people so turned off by the future that they'd rather imagine the biosphere being torn apart?
Seems to me that mankind needs an attitude adjustment. All right, now, all 7 billion of you, go take a timeout until your attitude improves.

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