Touch the Sky

4 February 2021

The most popular post on my website is this one. It’s a post about whether you can see stars in space. You can. The next most popular one is on the fact that the Earth is round. Number three is a post debunking the idea that stars are powered by electricity.

Over the past decade, I’ve written more than 1,700 posts. More than a million words covering everything from the four fundamental forces of the universe to why the seasons change. But none of those posts get read very often. As far as the general Internet goes, I’ve just written about three things: the Earth is round, astronauts can see stars, and the Sun isn’t an electric light bulb. These three posts are so popular they account for 47% of my pageviews.1 Nothing I’ve written in the past five years has got even close to the hits of these three.

It’s rather disheartening, really.

The pages aren’t popular because elementary students are researching their earth science papers. They are popular because science skeptics link to them on forum pages where they spend hours debunking what I wrote. They write 50-page slide presentations parsing my words phrase by phrase, and devote pages on their website to prove that a lying sack of crap. People have tried to get me fired because of these posts.

Then there are the death threats.2

I normally get a handful of really angry emails a month. This week they have really cranked up a notch. About twenty this week. As one fan wrote:

It’s bull slinging authors such as yourself that will be the demise of everything Man has ever created. Einstein was a parlor magician, and his theory of relativity is a load of crap! Everything you print is hogwash. You are a GIANT FAILURE to humanity. You should be held accountable for betraying mankind.

Another reader declared that I should be hanged,3 that God will judge me, and I should look forward to burning in hell. He then ended the email politely with:

Getting back to the subject at hand, take down the fucking article you goddamn liar.

So why all the death threats over posts that are more than five years old? It turns out that there’s been an uptick of interest in the flat earth “theory” because of a pharmacist in Wisconsin. In late December he removed nearly 600 doses of the Moderna covid vaccine from storage and kept them unrefrigerated long enough to be ruined. He thinks the vaccine is harmful, so he spoiled them to make them “safe.” More than fifty patients received ineffective doses. This pharmacist also believes the Earth is flat, and that the sky isn’t real. He thinks what looks like the sky is a “shield put up by the government to prevent individuals from seeing God.”

This guy doesn’t believe in the #!@*&% sky!

And he’s not alone. It’s tempting to write off folks like this as just whacky conspiracy theorists, but this kind of thinking has metastasized in our society. This pharmacist has harmed lives because of his views. A member of the House of Representatives is a QAnon supporter who posted claims on Facebook that the 2018 Camp Fire was started by “space solar generators” funded by an international cabal of Jewish bankers. We’ve gone far beyond the guy rambling about the time he was abducted by aliens after a few too many at the bar. These ideas have become dangerously mainstream.

Much of this is driven by social media, which has the sole purpose of keeping your eyes on the screen. If you are angry, or if you think your ideas are under attack, you are more likely to keep reading when you see something that supports your view.4 Although sites such as Facebook and Reddit will remove the worst examples eventually, they also nurture fringe ideas because they get views. Social media companies will happily dance with the devil, as long as he pays for dinner.

And social media isn’t the only culprit. The surveillance capitalism model is so popular that much of the Internet will happily push fringe ideas to get views. Recently I wrote a post about how we can’t measure the speed of light in one direction. It entered my top ten this week5 because several creationist websites started quoting it as proof that Earth is only 6,000 years old even though I’ve written before about how limits on measuring the speed of light prove no such thing. I only noticed it after Google sent me an email. Google is quite happy to promote young earth sites hosted on their Blogger platform and covered in ads, so when one of those sites mentions my name I get a happy little “you’re trending” email from Google.

Lucky me.

I’m not alone. Writers across the web could tell a similar tale. And I don’t have any thoughts of wisdom about how to solve this issue. Between the angry emails, Google’s pay-us-or-die web model, and the feeling that pseudoscience has won the day, part of me wonders why I keep writing. Why keep shouting into the digital void when the feedback I get is people telling me I should die?

This isn’t a call for you to pat me on the back. I’m in a fortunate position. I don’t need this site to succeed to keep food on the table and a roof over my head. It’s a hardscrabble life for most writers, and I’m the lucky exception, not the rule. But if I’m even remotely contemplating quitting the site, how can younger, less financially stable writers ever be encouraged and nurtured? There are young voices out there. Voices that can make us look at the world in new ways, excite us about a scientific discovery, or tell us wondrous new stories. But we won’t hear them because their work will be buried under a mountain of posts telling you how NASA faked the Moon landings.

I suppose if I have any advice, it would be to give some real support to the young creatives out there. If you read an article you like or enjoy their creative work, send them an email thanking them. If you can, toss them a bit of coin or buy what they’re offering. Because I guarantee they are getting hate mail and even death threats from time to time. They may have to choose between growing their own voice and writing yet another article on “ten reasons why we need a new Buck Rogers movie” just to make rent. And without some real encouragement, they will never find their true voice and rise to touch the sky.

  1. Yep, half my traffic for the past six months. ↩︎

  2. Just to be clear, the threats I get pale in comparison those received by others. ↩︎

  3. He actually said I should be hung, but in the context of the email I’m pretty sure he wanted me to be strung up, and not well-endowed. ↩︎

  4. McCauley, Clark R., and Sophia Moskalenko. Friction: How Conflict Radicalizes Them and Us. Oxford University Press, 2016. ↩︎

  5. Readers who have heard me complain about how Google hides my website might wonder how this post was found. It turns out many conspiracy folks don’t like Google, so they use alternative search engines. Those search engines don’t bury my website, so it shows up in search results. ↩︎