Renowned astrophysicist Carl Sagan once described a “baloney detection kit” — a set of tools that skeptical thinkers use to investigate any new concept in the world. A few of the key tools include a healthy distrust of information that isn’t independently verified, critically assessing an idea rather than becoming irrationally attached to it simply because it’s intriguing, and a preference for simple explanations over wildly speculative ones.
Artist’s conception of the rogue planet Nibiru, or Planet X.
The waxing obsession with Nibiru, which conspiracy theorists say is a planet swinging in from the outskirts of our solar system that is going to crash into Earth and wipe out humanity in 2012 — or, in some opinions, 2011 — shows that an astonishing number of people “are watching YouTube videos and visiting slick websites with nothing in their skeptical toolkit,” in the words of David Morrison, a planetary astronomer at NASA Ames Research Center and senior scientist at the NASA Astrobiology Institute.
Morrison estimates that there are 2 million websites discussing the impending Nibiru-Earth collision. He receives, on average, five email inquiries about Nibiru every day.
His biggest missing link in the doomsday prophecy is Nibiru itself. Because no giant, rogue planet has been found in the outer solar system to play the role of Nibiru, some conspiracy theorists have decided that a small comet called Elenin, which will pass nearest Earth in October 2011, is actually Nibiru. Even then, though, scientists say Elenin will come no closer than 100 times farther than the distance from Earth to the moon.
The fact that the comet isn’t headed our way is overlooked by most conspiracy theorists, while others say its path is going to change.
Morrison offered some advice to those who are interested in astronomy or are worried about impending collisions. “If it [a story] is real, it is likely to be in regular news media, not just posted on some website,” he told us. Furthermore, “not everyone who claims on YouTube to be a scientist or an employee of NASA is. But there is no simple way to distinguish truth from lies.”