2011 Year’s End Roundup: the Good, the Bad, and the Skeptical

Christopher Hitchens
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This has been an absolutely vibrant year, with the Arab Spring begun in December of 2010 coming to a boil across the Middle East, and continuing even as I type this.

There was, and is, the terrible trifecta of disasters of earthquake, tsunami and the resulting worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl, in Fukushima prefecture, Japan.

But let’s look at some of the highlights in science and skepticism of this year, considering this blog’s theme:

Pastor Harold Camping made the headlines and much headway with the credulous when he predicted, as he had previously done in the 1990s, that Teh Rapture™ would happen on April 21, and when this failed to materialize backpedaled by saying it had happened, but was a subtle event, and reset his prediction for this last October 21st.

This too, unsurprisingly, failed to come to pass, as has every other End Times™ prediction made to date, like clockwork.

There was a rash of mysterious bird deaths, with reportedly thousands of birds at a time falling from the sky, which in many cases turned out to be caused by fireworks which frightened the birds, causing them to crash into things at full flight speed.

New exoplanets were discovered, bring the number past 700, and only a few weeks ago the discovery of more roughly Earth-sized planets, including one in the habitable zone of it’s home star, Kepler 22-b, sighted by and named after the Kepler space telescope, a new world with roughly twice the diameter of Earth — I said Earth-like, not Earth identical!

More supermassive black holes were discovered including an uncharacteristic and most properly pumped-up one in a dwarf galaxy, Henize 2-10, an irregular galaxy 3000 light years across.

Astrologers got a bug up their butts when Professor Brian Cox and Dara O’Briain publicly and quite rightly made unfavorable comments on the validity of astrology, calling it “rubbish” and “nonsense,” which given my obvious skeptical bias, I’m inclined to agree with.

Ken Ring was making headlines with his overly-publicized and discredited claims of earthquake prediction, credulously promoted by the media.

Doomsayers were making the rounds with predictions of disaster allegedly following the dreaded Supermoon, a silly idea more hype than fact…

…predictions which flopped when the event came and went, of course.

After decades of use, NASA’s space shuttle program was finally retired, unfortunately with, at the time, no real replacement to succeed it.

In June, two new elements, neither found in nature, 114 and 116, were added to the periodic table – Mendeleev would be proud. It will be interesting if industrial uses for these can be found once more stable isotopes are produced.

In my home state of Virginia, the first notable earthquake in a long time happened in August, at about 5.8 on the Richter scale, and I can honestly say, “I felt that.”

In September, headcase Pastor Mike Stahl suggested a registry for atheists, comparing them to sex-offenders and terrorists in a classic and typical show of religiously-motivated bigotry, which just induced a Picard facepalm with me.

In October, former Apple CEO Steve Jobs passed, may he be forever at peace, with a controversy in the skeptical community over his use of alternative medicine in treating his cancer, and the whether to discuss it as a lesson in the dangers of Alt Med so soon after the announcement of his death.

In November, a research team funded by the Koch brothers confirmed the reality of global warming, surprising because it was a confirmatory study conducted by global warming skeptics, not proponents, but skeptics who permitted themselves to be convinced by the data.

Of course, other AGW skeptics backpedaled on earlier statements that they would accept the results, now claiming them fatally flawed, and calling the head researcher a closet warmist instead.


Earlier this month, the Curiosity rover, the Mars Science Laboratory vehicle, blasted off flawlessly to the Red Planet, while the Russian Phobos-Grunt probe bound for one of Mars’ moons got stuck in orbit, likely falling back to Earth next year.

This month also saw an event I dreaded but knew was going to happen, the death of “the Hitch,” Christopher Hitchens at age 62, in my view the greatest rhetorician of his time, from pneumonia after struggling with esophageal cancer since the Spring of 2010.

Mr. Hitchens was an inspiration for me, like Carl Sagan, and like the host of Cosmos, he will be sorely missed.

Here’s a bit of wishful thinking that the coming year is just as much in the way of “interesting times” as this one, though without the tragedies, but wishful thinking is just that, and I’m not really betting on it.

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