But today, hundreds of scary blurbs about the latest asteroid get written and posted to blogs and tabloid-like sites before NASA scientists can vet the claim and publish their official, less-terrifying statement regarding the asteroid's trajectory. "In the case of this asteroid, you get hundreds of hits on the Internet, and in the case of the 2012 [Mayan calendar] business, millions of hits suggesting disaster. And you get a few folks in the media and at NASA who put out the truth. But people go online and see millions about disasters and a few saying 'no disaster' and they think, well, the majority of these say I should be worried," Yeomans said. [Will We Be Able to Deflect an Earthbound Asteroid?]
The other half of the problem is that many people do not know how to judge the validity of the pseudo-scientific information they read. "There are millions of people out there who have not been trained in the scientific method, and don't understand that evidence is critical for supporting any new idea — especially any dramatic departure from the current state," he said.
In psychology, this is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. People who lack knowledge in a given area, such as science, are unable to accurately assess their own abilities in that area, and so they aren't aware that they are coming to blatantly false conclusions. David Dunning, a psychologist at Cornell University who first characterized the phenomenon, recently explained, "Many people don't have training in science, and so they may very well misunderstand the science. But because they don't have the knowledge to evaluate it, they don't realize how off their evaluations might be." [Incompetent People Too Ignorant to Know It]
There is no obvious remedy for the one-two punch of widespread misinformation and a scarcity of mental tools for evaluating it, but Yeomans said scientists need to do a better job engaging with the public. He and his group regularly address people's fears regarding near-Earth asteroids by making statements and issuing news releases. "The hope is that people will understand that we are the more trusted sources of information," he said.