Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Addressing the Alarming Rise in Zombie and Mermaid Sightings (actually, citings)

Drawing by Sean Adams, 
A few weeks ago, the Center for Disease Control was forced to issue a statement that there is no zombie virus. While this might seem an absurd thing for a government agency to say, the whole story is somewhat more convoluted. As I learned from a talk given by science writer Carl Zimmer and posted online, the CDC had posted a story on its website with instructions to prepare people for the zombie apocalypse. The intention was to create greater awareness of disaster preparedness issues so that, by thinking about zombies, people would give some thought to earthquake, hurricane, and disease outbreak-type situations. In other words, a PR stunt. The strategy backfired when rumors started on the web about a real zombie apocalypse, and went viral. At that point, the CDC was tied up in the matter and forced to sound ridiculous.

I lived for six years in Princeton, NJ, itself known as a powerhouse of scientific knowledge. But just a few miles away was Grover's Mill, the site of the Martian landing in the "War of the Worlds", and where people, frightened by a radio drama of the book and believing it be an actual newscast, fired off guns at the water tower. This shows there is no limit to what people are capable of believing. If the CDC needs to deny the existence of zombies, should the Department of Agriculture issue a similar statement regarding unicorns, the Treasury regarding leprechauns? And one wonders, what jurisdiction do dragons fall under?

But here's one I didn't expect: the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration last week issued a statement that mermaids don't exist.

There is of course nothing wrong with anyone making a statement about what they know to be true. What drives me crazy is that these spokespeople seem to issue their statements with a level of precision of language that is typical of scientists but sounds eerily evasive to members of the public. The NOAA statement reads thus:
No evidence of aquatic humanoids has ever been found
The CDC's statement was a bit more elaborate:
CDC does not know of a virus or condition that would reanimate the dead (or one that would present zombie-like symptoms)
Both statements are precise in the sense that no one can ever know - with certainty - that something does not exist. But only someone who's spent their entire life inside academia would care about such a distinction. Both statements leave the impression that there is a distinct possibility still open.

Not surprisingly rumors of a zombie apocalypse have not gone away. After all, every good zombie movie includes a government cover-up. As for mermaids ... visiting the URL http://believeinmermaids.com/ brings up the following:

Which naturally leads us to speculate on what they are hiding. As the Bugle pointed out: have you ever seen Hillary Clinton's legs?

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