Not Rocket Science

In the USA, the ‘era of celebrity and social media’ is accelerating the decline of reason. While some years ago it was observed that the average intelligence of on-line articles was dropping, it’s ostensibly now in free-fall.

Admittedly, though, it’s not from a great height.


Meet Mike Hughes, all-American rocket enthusiast and future Darwin Award recipient. Although Mike isn’t a rocket scientist, this doesn’t prevent him from building, and flying, his own rockets (steam-powered, because – thankfully – they don’t give out industrial grade rocket propellant to just anyone). Doubtlessly, this is another impressive – if unnecessary – proof of the Dunning Kruger effect. It’s a miracle he’s still alive – he rode one of his contraptions for a quarter of a mile before it impacted and left him in a walker for two weeks.

Now, although Mike isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer, he’s discovered what every real rocket scientist discovers:

If God had wanted us to fly rockets, he’d have given us more money.

But luckily Mike also discovered a group that’s even more strapped for brains than he is, and who are much better funded: the Flat Earth Society. And so – it would seem – Mike joined FES, and FES paid for Mike’s hobby. He then declared that his goal is to prove that earth is flat: from his targeted altitude the curvature of the horizon should be apparent if the earth was, indeed, a sphere. Now, we should note that this lofty goal currently sits at a modest third of a mile (530 meters or 1600 feet above ground), so Mike could easily get to a higher altitude if he rode Shanghai Tower’s elevator to the top floor – or reach much greater altitude if he climbed one of the mountains that surround the Mojave desert, his intended launch site. More to the point, you could simply attach a camera to a weather balloon and see the earth’s curvature without risk to life and limb. It’s therefore more than likely that Mike merely paid lip service to those people whom he managed to stick with the bill for his obsession. “A fool and his money…’, so to speak.

As a whole, this is entirely entertaining, and right up my alley – even if there is a possible tragedy waiting in the wings. After all, we are talking about a bunch of idiots who are helping another one to find the way of the Dodo: as Wile E. Coyote can attest, flying your home-brew rockets is as rampantly stupid as is belief in a flat earth, and so last Saturday found me, pop-corn in hand, scanning the Internet for news on Mike’s launch.

That’s where I came across this year’s most egregiously stupid headline, courtesy of NBC:

Can a self-taught rocket scientist prove the Earth is flat?

[cue an incredulous pause that includes a blank stare, furiously re-checking the URL, and at least two blinks]

Are you frigging kidding me?

Even with Betteridge’s law, this is NBC’s official capitulation to The Stoopid; it’s in line with other headlines over purported unresolved questions (e.g. climate change) or conspiracy theories (Birther, 9/11, JFK, Reptilians, Moon Landing anyone?) for the open-mouth-breathing majority of Americans. At best, this headline was approved for financial reasons (a.k.a. clickbait); it’s still an admission that NBC believe that their audience is so stupid that they view a flat earth as a viable discussion. More likely though, the editors found nothing wrong with the headline; perhaps they even thought it was a fair, balanced contribution to a scientific issue. It seems that we’ve now gone from fake news to fake questions.


[NOTE: It took some time for me to get this article published – Mike has flown his rocket, and survived. Shape of Earth still undecided]