The Jeff Wise Blog

The Ecology of Misinformation

It’s the paradox of the internet age: never before has so much information been available so effortlessly, so quickly — and never before has so much of it been completely erroneous. How do we decide what is true? Who do we trust to verify the information that we consume?

Here I would like to offer a small case study from my own experience.

I first came across the above video clip on Tuesday on Kottke.org. Soon after, I stumbled across it again on NASA’s excellent Astronomy Picture of the Day site. Clearly, it had gone viral in a big way. The clip is described as an animation based on thousands of photos taken by the Cassini space probe stitched together to form a movie of the spacecraft’s visit to Saturn. What’s really remarkable about it is that it is pointedly not a computer animation. As the credits at the beginning clearly state, “no CGI, no 3D models.” Or, as Kottke put it, “There is no 3-D CGI involved in this amazing Saturn fly-by video.”

I watched the clip and immediately became suspicious.

First, as the sequence begins, we’re moving towards Saturn, arcing below the plane of the rings, and then coming right up through the rings themselves. Now, I recalled that Cassini had flown through the ring plane during its orbit insertion, but it had been sent through a gap in the rings, not through the meat of it — all that debris would have torn it to shreds. Next, we see six of Saturn’s moons all in a perfectly straight line, with Saturn in the background. Finally, we zoom in towards Saturn again, past two moons, down through the ring plane, up through the middle of the rings, and then zoom away from Saturn again — without having first passed around behind the far side. I’m no astrophysicist, but I know that this is not how orbits work.

On the clip’s Vimeo site, I found that its fans had been wowed to distraction.”Astounding! Keep up the fantastic work!” read one typical comment. My own emotions were more troubled. It seemed to me that a great deal of the film’s impact came from the implication that you were seeing, in essence, what Cassini saw — that what you were seeing was “real” in some sense — and I was convinced that this was erroneous. I tweeted to Jason Kottke, “I think you’ve been hoaxed.” He didn’t reply.

As it happened, the Vimeo site links to the web page of the clip’s creator, Stephen Van Vuuren. Van Vuuren’s site explains a good deal about how he made the clip, and includes a telephone number. I called him, and we had a chat. In conversation, I immediately found him to be low-key and likable. He explained that the clip is an excerpt of what will be an epic, 42-minute long IMAX film that he’s been working on for the last five years in his basement, using a network of patched-together computers that he’s built himself. The project is a true labor of love, one that some people with expertise in the matter have told him is impossible. In all those years working in the basement, he’s often wondered if the skeptics were right, if he had any hope of succeeding, and whether anyone would care even if he did.

When he first put the clip up ten months ago, he wasn’t expecting that it would be seen by more than a few friends. But, as sometimes happens, word got out. Suddenly, the clip was getting thousands of hits, then tens of thousands, then hundreds of thousands. When we spoke yesterday, it had been seen by about half a million people. That’s been an incredible confidence booster for Van Vuuren.

But, I asked him, what are we really seeing here?

He understood immediately what I was talking about. “There’s a little bit of misinformation out there, about what you’re actually seeing,” he admitted. “What you’re seeing, the spacecraft never saw that flight path. That’s my own flight path of my own imagination. It’s an art film, it’s not a scientific visualization.”

He went on to explain, in terms that I frankly did not fully understand, that while the film consists entirely of actual images taken by Cassini, those images have been manipulated and combined to give the illusion of movement that never actually happened. It sounded to me like a CGI animation, but apparently for technical reasons Van Vuuren does not consider it as such.

“I probably should have explained it on the page,” he said, “but when you post a clip, you never think, ‘Hey, half a million people are going to be looking at this.’”

I felt relieved to have my suspicions confirmed, and to learn that the clip was not the product of a malicious hoax. Though the misconception that the movie shows what Cassini actually saw could only have helped it go viral, I take Van Vuuren at his word that he did not intend to deceive.

We live in a time in which delightful bits of verbiage, sound, and imagery pop in and out of our consciousness so quickly that we’re barely equipped to handle the flow.We rarely have the time or the expertise to competently assess the validity of anything before we pass it on. So what tends to proliferate are not things that are true, but that possess the ability to stimulate our sense of wonder — an emotional, not an intellectual reaction.

Crucial nodes in the ecology of the internet are information curators like Kottke and Astronomy Picture of the Day. They are ideally positioned to sort the wheat from the chaff, but they’re bound to make mistakes. So Van Vuuren’s labor of love has gone out in the world, living a life of its own, winging from brain to brain via memetic prowess — for better or for worse. No doubt, some will learn from it an erroneous picture of what Cassini has seen and is seeing in the vicinity of Saturn. Maybe some who see it will be awakened to the beauty of the cosmos and be motivated to learn more.

PS: If you’re curious to see what Saturn’s rings actually look like from Cassini, check this out. And here’s another cool movie of Saturn, courtesy of Hubble.

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