Friday, April 18, 2008

A Cautionary Tale

Remember the asteroid that's coming close to hitting the earth in 2036? Most of us probably heard about it at some point or other, made a quick calculation to see if we would be alive then, and forgot about it. If you looked into it a bit further, you found out that NASA only gave it a 1 in 45000 chance of hitting the earth; not nearly enough to worry about.

But then, shock! horror! what if NASA were wrong? People make mistakes. It's not as if they double-checked these results.* And it's not as if the smartest minds of the planet were working for NASA.** Who could we rely on to find out if there are any problems with NASAs calculations? Oh, I know. Let's ask a 13-year old schoolboy. It's good enough for The Times. And what do you know, the whiz kid places the risk at 1 in 450. Definitely in the "we should worry about this" category.

Except NASA never confirmed it, as stated in that article, and has in fact since denied that the boy's calculations are correct. Mark over at Good Math, Bad Math has a simple explanation why his assumptions are flawed.

I don't mean to put down Nico Marquardt, the boy who made the calculations. He obviously put a lot of effort into this, and it must have been pretty good work to convince so many people. Who I do want to put down is the many many papers who simply picked up this story, based on its "newsworthiness", seemingly with no fact checking at all. One phone call to NASA would have cleared it all up. Is this all we can expect from Old Media?

* They did.
** They are.