Episode 140 - Doomsmonth: September 2015
Recap: There are a lot of rumors going around that September 2015 is going to result in doom and gloom, with the destruction of financial markets, or maybe the world will end in a Christian New Testiment way, or we'll just get whacked by an asteroid. I talk about five different rumors in this episode and I put them in context with other, past claims, and other, past claims of the exact same thing that (obviously) did not result in doomsday.
- The Reality Check Episode 364: "Is An Asteroid Coming?"
- Doubtful News: "September asteroid impact lie results in NASA statement"
- JPL Press Release: "NASA: There is No Asteroid Threatening Earth"
- Chabad.org: "What Is Shemittah?"
- Wikipedia: "List of largest daily changes in the Dow Jones Industrial Average"
- Recent Interviews:
- The Reality Check Episode 363: "Talking New Horizons with Dr. Stuart Robbins"
- Dark City: "Astrophysicist Stuart Robbins: Exposing PseudoAstronomy"
- The Conspiracy Skeptic (website not updated as of this posting, refer to RSS feed)
- A Skeptics Guide To Conspiracy: "Dr. Stuart Robbins Interview - #56"
- Logical Fallacies / Critical Thinking Terms addressed in this episode: Correlation = Causation (Post hoc, ergo propter hoc), Cherry Picking (Unrepresentative Sample)
- Relevant Posts on my "Exposing PseudoAstronomy" Blog
Setup: After 2012 came and went and we all survived, I was asked by a wise but now busy Conspiracy Skeptic, when would the next doomsday be? I told him that I didn’t know, that people will always find something to be afraid of and hype, but that it would likely involve the same elements or mechanisms as before and not be something that’s expected. Enter September, 2015: Doomsmonth.
I hadn’t planned to talk about this, but then I listened to Episode 364 of The Reality Check podcast and everything sorta came together for me. And so, while doing bicycle crunches, ski squats, V-ups, and then my elliptical, I composed this episode in my head, deciding to address some of the doomsday ideas floating around for this month that are (not to give away the end too soon) baloney.
Mars Will Be Giant
There are three I’m going to talk about, and the first two will go by really fast. First up, is Mars. Refer to Episode 118.
Next up is … okay, a bit more detail. Annually around this time, the internetz are full of rumors that Mars will appear as big as the moon in the sky and some people even go so far as to say this means bad things for Earth. I went into a significant amount of detail about this in Episode 118, so to be succinct, it’s not possible and there’s nothing to worry about.
This particular rumor is also most often associated with late August, but because of other things in September, this year I’ve seen some people misappropriating it to September.
Blood Moon, Jewish Holidays
Next up is the lunar eclipse in September 2015. See Episodes 85 and 131. This one is actually true, there is a total lunar eclipse in September 2015. It also happens to coincide with a Jewish holiday, Sukkot. Pretty sure I nailed that pronunciation, which is important because after Episode 85, I think my mother got a headache from all the eye-rolling at my attempting to pronounce holidays like Shavuot.
Anywho, this is the last total lunar eclipse for two years, and it’s the last tetrad for awhile, where a tetrad is four TOTAL lunar eclipses spaced 6 months apart. And this particular tetrad happens to coincide with important Jewish holidays, which isn’t surprising since the Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar and there are a lot of Jewish holidays. All of this is described in Episode 85.
Also described in Episode 85 is that various apocalyptic messianic Jewish rabbis and Christian pastors have decided to make a big deal out of this coincidence. As I describe in that episode and in a later blog post, linked up in the shownotes, to get everything to fit, they have to bend the facts. A lot. It’s a correlation = causation claim, where they say important bad things happen during these events, except most that they point to happened a year or two before or after the tetrads, and they skip over some tetrads that don’t fit their ideas.
Not only that, but for people who claim to be reading signs from God, they can’t even read NASA’s eclipse website where it says that the lunar eclipse tables are for the past 4000 years and future 1000 years, not past 5000 years. It might be a minor point, but it calls into question how good he is at reading even less obvious signs which is the entire basis for his claims. (And Pastor Biltz, the guy who originated this idea, claimed that Christopher Columbus was Jewish – he insisted on it – despite the fact he was a Roman Catholic. Again, signs of poor scholarship and a willingness to warp something to fit his ideas.)
Not only that, but as I mentioned in episode 131, because of Earth’s non-sphericity and atmospheric refraction, the total lunar eclipse in April 2015 that is needed for this to be a tetrad wasn’t actually a total lunar eclipse.
You might think I’m being a bit flippant and overly dismissive with this one, but I feel like I’m giving it about as much - if even more - attention than it deserves. It’s an example of using scary sounding words for a mundane but neat astronomical event that means nothing. It’s been hyped literally like crazy including books and movies about it and fear-mongers handing out books about it to US congresspeople. Perhaps my personal biggest annoyance will be that when absolutely nothing happens, these people will not be held accountable for their fear-mongering.
Just like all those people who say that some random asteroid or comet is going to cause doom and gloom, which is the third claim for the doomsmonth of September 2015, and what they were talking about on The Reality Check episode 364, which you can find at trcpodcast.com (a great website).
Big Asteroid or Comet
This is something that I didn’t even know was A Thing until recently, and it’s to what I was referring in my Conspiracy Skeptic interview many years ago: Some random claim that pops up and just so happens to get picked up by enough people that it goes viral. You can’t predict what will get picked up, nor what form it will take, other than it’ll be baseless but stoke a lot of fear.
I first heard about it this summer, on that bastion of good journalism and level-headed thinking, the late-night paranormal radio program Coast to Coast AM. People were asking about September 2015 as something bad happening, like an asteroid hitting, and for once, guests who were being asked that said they hadn’t heard anything but it sounded like all the other similar claims.
I then heard about it when a caller asked Richard Dolan who was a guest on Art Bell’s new Midnight in the Desert radio program. Richard Dolan said it was bullocks (my phrasing), that people were saying this all the time and this one was no more real than the last one. He even added a gratuitous mention of Richard Hoagland’s claims about Comet Elenin and how ridiculous that seemed in hindsight (something I discussed in detail in Episode 5 of this podcast). In response, Richard Hoagland … um … “strenuously disagreed” and was rather flustered on his own radio program which immediately followed. But I’m digressing.
The point is, it was making its way onto these programs, meaning that multiple people were coming across it. I continued to hear it on other Coast to Coast programs throughout the last two months.
Otherwise, the next mention I saw of this was on Doubtful News when NASA came out with an official statement that no, there was no known large asteroid or comet that would hit Earth in the next hundred years, let alone next month when that was published, so September 2015. Again, I didn’t really think much of it other than this was kinda getting ridiculous.
And then I heard Pat’s segment on The Reality Check and finally decided that it was worth talking about here.
Let me get this out of the way: Other people do a good job about discussing why this is bull-oney. I suggest listening to The Reality Check episode for background on the claim and the NASA statement, or reading the Doubtful News article, or NASA’s statement itself, all linked in the shownotes for this episode.
Suffice to say for this episode so far as this claim is concerned, there is simply no substance whatsoever to this claim, at all, in any way, shape, or form. It was made up out of whole cloth, as the saying goes though I have no idea why that’s a saying. There is literally nothing backing it up. It should not be A Thing because there is nothing behind that thing to go on. Someone threw some excrement on the internet and the internet ran with it. I’m not sure how else I can put it.
Which makes it interesting to me how it got this far, and some of the reactions, which is what I’m going to spend the rest of the main segment discussing.
Let’s start with something I’ve talked I think only peripherally about before: How can I actually say with any certainty what’s up in the sky, what’s going to hit or not, and when? The answer if that we look. This is a simple case of very simple but very boring astronomical observations over the course of, well, since the first asteroid was discovered in 1801.
Since then, we’ve continued to look. We’ve found tens of thousands of asteroids. After finding them, the task is to compute their orbits. As I’ve mentioned a couple times, this is based on math that was created nearly 400 years ago and while it’s not the most simple of processes, once you have three observations, you can get an orbit. Once you have many observations, you can compute its orbit with a lot more accuracy. I discussed this in Episode 94, and I also discussed how we still can’t quite get orbits known to 100% perfection because of uncertainties in our observations and things like the gravitational constant. But, we can know to very high accuracy asteroid orbits for more than 100 years out - like, better than the width of Earth which is important for an asteroid impact.
So we’ve found lots of asteroids. But not necessarily all of them. And we can get their orbits, but not to 100% Truth. But that doesn’t mean this September doomsday is going to happen.
Asteroids, like most objects in space, have different compositions and different brightnesses. But most asteroids have very roughly - maybe to within 10-20% - the same brightness. That means that we can estimate their size if we observe their brightness. Think of it this way: If we see a certain amount of light, and we know the object reflects, say, 10% of the light that reaches it, and we know where it is because we’ve calculated its orbit, so we know how much light is reaching it, then we know how big it has to be to reflect that much light back at us. Fairly straight-forward calculation, actually.
And, hopefully I can say “of course” here, the bigger ones are going to be brighter. Meaning they’re easier to detect. Meaning we’ve cataloged them. The magic, round number that we’re currently shooting for for continent-killers is about a 1-km-diameter asteroid, which, with a reflectivity average of 14%, should have a magnitude of 17.75, or there-abouts, if it’s as far out as the asteroid belt. This won’t mean much to most of you, but let’s put it this way: Using very round numbers, that’s about 100x fainter than Pluto from Earth, but it’s 10x brighter than Comet Elenin when it was discovered a few years ago.
In contrast, a 10-km-diameter asteroid should be brighter than Pluto as seen from Earth. For a 2.5-mile-wide asteroid, the size of the one allegedly that’s gonna hit this month, that’s about 4 km, or about an absolute magnitude of around 14.7. Remember that absolute magnitudes are a log scale, every change of 2.5 is a change of a factor of 10 in brightness, and the smaller numbers are brighter.
I’m getting these numbers from a paper that was published just a few months ago by one of the top people in the asteroid-finding field, who’s retired, but still does this for fun, still has the best data around, and because he’s doing this for fun, he’s beholden really to no one in terms of money or reason to keep up a conspiracy.
In his paper, he shows how many new asteroids of a given brightness have been discovered over the past few years. Based on that and on surveys, he estimates that more than 99% of all asteroids THAT CROSS EARTH’S ORBIT that are more than 6 km in diameter have been found. 98.2% of all asteroids more than 4 km in diameter have been found. 82.6% of all asteroids 1 km and larger have been found.
Okay, so what am I getting at with all this seemingly extraneous information that would seem like a digression?
The original point was that someone is saying that it’s well known - in fact NASA was saying this, so the claim goes - that a 2.5-mile-wide asteroid is going to hit Earth, well, within a few weeks from the date this podcast goes out. I already said it’s wrong. I’ve also told you about how asteroid surveys work, just kinda for kicks. But also this is apparently known to people!
So why are we only hearing about it from callers into late-night paranormal radio programs and in the seedy corners of the internet? What did NASA actually say?
Nothing. Until August 19, 2015, when they took the rare step to put out a press release entitled, “NASA: There is No Asteroid Threatening Earth.” And they used improper title case because the word “is” is a verb that should be capitalized if you’re capitalizing nouns and verbs.
Grammar and capitalization aside, the press release stated the following, in part:
Numerous recent blogs and web postings are erroneously claiming that an asteroid will impact Earth, sometime between Sept. 15 and 28, 2015. On one of those dates, as rumors go, there will be an impact -- "evidently" near Puerto Rico -- causing wanton destruction to the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the United States and Mexico, as well as Central and South America.
That's the rumor that has gone viral -- now here are the facts.
"There is no scientific basis -- not one shred of evidence -- that an asteroid or any other celestial object will impact Earth on those dates," said Paul Chodas, manager of NASA's Near-Earth Object office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
In fact, NASA's Near-Earth Object Observations Program says there have been no asteroids or comets observed that would impact Earth anytime in the foreseeable future. All known Potentially Hazardous Asteroids have less than a 0.01% chance of impacting Earth in the next 100 years. […]
"Again, there is no existing evidence that an asteroid or any other celestial object is on a trajectory that will impact Earth," said Chodas. "In fact, not a single one of the known objects has any credible chance of hitting our planet over the next century."
I had two different reactions to this, neither of them my normal ones from the past.
First, I would normally expect conspiracists to say that this was disinfo, NASA’s hiding things, etc. etc. etc. They still do that, sure, but remember: The original claim here was that it was NASA who said that this was going to hit! Not just some random alleged secret military source or what-have-you. So the fact that NASA says that ain’t so should count for SOMETHING in this case.
But second, and this comes from the month I spent in Maryland working on New Horizons and with press people, is that I don’t like that NASA did this. First, it’s a damned if they do, damned if they don’t scenario. But second, there’s the cost of time.
This wasn’t just some blogger. This wasn’t just an Ask an Astrobiologist that doesn’t take much oversight. This was an official NASA press release, from JPL, with media contacts and other things. One might naïvely think that takes a press person to write and you’re done. Not so, if it’s anything like what we went through with New Horizons.
You have to have at the start at least several people talk and agree that this is worth doing a press release about. Then someone has to write it. Graphics have to be selected. Quotes have to be gotten from scientists. Then several people have to edit it. Then it has to go through an approval process. Then it has to get posted and checked.
All that takes many hours and it takes many people. In this case, likely all of them are civil servants, meaning they are fully government-funded. How much do they get per hour? Multiply that by at least 2 because of benefits like health care and retirement, and institutional overhead to cover things like computer equipment, water, electricity, building rent, etc. NASA responding to this, in the end, probably cost at least $1000.
You might think I’m over-reacting. $1000 is a small price to set at least a few people at ease. But it’s still a cost, and it’s one that’s not normally calculated for ridiculous internet rumors and responses like this.
Others: LHC, Shemittah
I was originally going to end this episode here, but there’s more. As there always is with this kind of thing. One I’ve heard on the paranormal circuit more of in just the last few days, and also sent in by Robert from Wisconsin: The Large Hadron Collider. Often mistakenly called “CERN.” CERN is the organization. The LHC is the actual monumental experiment. I’m guessing people use CERN instead of LHC because they don’t care about the difference and because “CERN” is faster to say than “LHC.”
It seems like whenever the LHC is about to be turned on, people panic. This is no different. People are panicking because of ignorance of science and listening to people who use big words. You might think I’m being more flippant than usual in this episode, but there comes a point where I’m just kinda tired of the same old lunacy over and over, especially when these people have a track record of being wrong every single time.
So continuing that theme is the Shemittah, which is a Jewish thing that happens every seven years and has been promoted by generally the exact same people who are pushing this lunar eclipse tetrad of doom.
But, just as they’re wrong with the lunar eclipse tetrad, needing to change the dates so they match and leave out all the misses to just count the hits that they make up because they’ve changed the dates, so too is the Shemittah.
I asked my landlord about this since he’s Jewish and actually can read some basic Hebrew and is a hell of a lot more religious than I, though that’s not hard. He had never heard of it.
He went to his go-to source for Jewish things, which is Chabad.org, which bills itself as having the mission to “utilize internet technology to unite Jews worldwide, empower them with knowledge of their 3,300 year-old tradition, and foster within them a deeper connection to Judaism’s rituals and faith.” I’ve also actually heard of it before as opposed to only hearing about Johnathan Cahn from World Net Daily when he’s pushing his end-of-the-world scenarios.
So, using Chabad.org as a resource, there is an entire page called, “What Is Shemittah?” And they properly capitalized the word “Is,” unlike NASA. To quote:
As soon as the Jews settled in the Holy Land, they began to count and observe seven-year cycles. Every cycle would culminate in a Sabbatical year, known as Shemittah, literally: “to release.”
The year following the destruction of the second Holy Temple was the first year of a seven-year Sabbatical cycle. In the Jewish calendar, counting from Creation, this was the year 3829, 68–69 CE on the secular calendar. By counting sevens from then, we see that the next Shemittah year will be the year 5775 after Creation, which runs from Sept. 25, 2014, through Sept. 13, 2015.
The observance of Shemittah has several dimensions. In the following paragraphs we will outline the basics of Shemittah observance. For more detailed information, please see our Loan Amnesty and Deserting the Farms sections.
There are two important points in there. First, “Shemittah” literally means “to release.” It doesn’t mean “chaos,” it doesn’t mean “collapse,” it doesn’t mean “doomsday” as people on the internet and conspiracy radio shows are claiming.
Second, the Shemittah year doesn’t begin this month, as some people claim, rather it ends, and the next cycle begins. In other words, a normal year, which is every six out of seven if you follow this particular religious practice. From everything I’ve read in actual non-conspiracy sources, it’s only during the Shemittah that you’re supposed to take a break from farming, forgive debts to fellow Jews, and refocus on more spiritual pursuits. Afterwards, you go back to normal.
Now, in case you want to know actual numbers, people like Mark Biltz - the man who started this whole blood moon tetrad thing - claim that the last two Shemittah years, the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 7% and 7.1%. And to continue the number 7, he claimed that during the one before that, Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 hit Jupiter with 21 fragments and when you divide 21 by 3, you get 7.
Okay, stretches out of the way, I just out of curiosity looked up the largest percentage daily changes on the Dow. Handily, Wikipedia has such a list.
The largest was by 22.6% on October 19, 1987. About 2 weeks after the Shemittah ended.
Next was 12.8% on October 28, 1929. This was 11 months before the next Shemittah.
Then 12.0% on December 18, 1899. This was smack dab between two Shemittahs.
Then 11.7% on October 29, 1929. Again, 11 months before the next Shemittah, but I think that’s kinda double-counting the October 1929 crash.
I could go on, but looking through the list of biggest single-day percentage losses, only 3 occurred during a Shemittah year, and only 4 occurred within 1 month after a Shemittah year ending if you don’t double-count the October 2008 crash. That’s out of the 15 (removing those double-counts) that Wikipedia lists.
But what about market rises? 1 of the largest rises in the stock market occurred during a Shemittah year, and 3 (again, if we don’t double-count the same basic event) occurred within a month or so after a Shemittah year.
Sure seems like cherry picking to me — remembering the hits and forgetting the misses. If this were a real thing, you would expect a clear signal in the stock market as claimed, as opposed to almost as many single-day rises during or just after a Shemittah year.
To bring this all back into perspective, I opened this with the question I was asked years ago: What’s the next big doomsday. I still don’t quite think September 2015 counts. But it’s the biggest blip since December 2012, I think.
And it really seems to be a case of throw something out there and see what sticks, and then if something does, just pile on more. I think probably the whole lunar eclipse - tetrad - Jewish holidays started this, and due to some very dedicated conspiracy outlets like World Net Daily, it’s been kept alive by them and happily propagated by other apocalyptic media outlets.
With that forming the basis, I think the others just piled on and stayed in the public consciousness. Certainly, SOMEONE predicts a giant asteroid impact it seems at least monthly, so I don’t know what else would have made this particular one go viral as opposed to all the others. With the Jewish stuff of the lunar eclipses already out there, Cahn, Biltz, and others piled onto it the Shemittah, as well. And, it happens to coincide with a re-starting of the LHC, operated by CERN, which just multiples into these others.
So, is September 2015 doomsmonth? Are all these things that came and went before with nothing happening finally going to kill us all?
Provide Your Comments:
Comments to date: 2. Page 1 of 1.
Anonymous Location unknown
1:42pm on Saturday, February 13th, 2016
P.S. The LHC actually started running at its new max power in June 2015. All the nutjobs claiming it would re-start on September 23rd were three months behind the curve. Like NASA, CERN felt they needed to address the September hysteria: http://press.web.cern.ch/backgrounders/cern-answers-queries-social-media
Chew Location unknown
1:23pm on Saturday, February 13th, 2016
All asteroids and comets in the JPL Small-Body Database: http://goo.gl/RUFdee