Look! Up in the sky! It's a disappearing Moon!
On the lunar eclipse, your car's extended warranty, and when public intellectuals ought to stop tweeting
Conventionally, when a person argues against their own self-interest, the audience can take it as a sign that they're getting a useful, unvarnished truth from someone doing the honorable thing.
■ If a salesperson at a car dealership were to say, "Really, don't bother paying for our extended warranty -- if something's going to go wrong, it's either going to happen early in the standard warranty period or it won't happen until long after all the coverage has expired anyway", then the buyer would be well within reason to take the advice without challenging it. After all, anyone operating under the general rule of "caveat emptor" should assume that any upselling (including for an extended warranty) is in the financial interest of the person doing the selling.
■ But sometimes people argue against their own self-interest and the reason is nothing but a head-scratcher. Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who has become one of the most widely-recognized public-facing authorities on space via his engagement with popular culture and social media, responded to the late-weekend lunar eclipse with a couple of comments about the science of the event.
■ Then he turned on himself with, "Lunar eclipses are so un-spectacular that if nobody told you what was happening to the Moon you'd probably not notice at all. Just sayin'." and "Lunar eclipses occur on average every two or three years and are visible to all the billions of people who can see the Moon when it happens. So, contrary to what you may have been told, lunar eclipses are not rare."
■ What he wrote was, of course, strictly true: Lunar eclipses aren't effectively all that different from the new moon, and total lunar eclipses do happen every couple of years. But those are odd arguments to make against one's own interest.
■ If the imagery of the Pale Blue Dot means anything to us as humans, it ought to be as a reminder that all of our problems on this seemingly big world are merely background noise amid an inconceivably vast universe. And as a matter of connecting their complex math and mysterious cosmological queries with the pedestrian world, astrophysicists and their friends ought to talk up every reasonable opportunity to get people to pause and stare for a few minutes at the heavens.
■ "Every two or three years" is significant enough a period -- it's longer than the stretch between Olympic Games or elections for the House of Representatives. And lots of things might go unnoticed "if nobody told you what was happening" -- such is the majesty of human knowledge that we can and should tell each other when interesting things are happening, especially if they are easy to miss.
■ Spend enough time sharing your thoughts on social media, and you're bound to drop a real clunker on your audience. That's fairly inevitable. But for an obviously magnificently intelligent person, it certainly seems like a weirdly unforced error for a space promoter to knock down an event that gets people to look up at the skies for a predictable, easy reward that can be observed with the naked eye and photographed with ease. Let a win be a win! Just sayin'.