In perhaps unwitting participation in the publicity campaign for Columbia Pictures' upcoming doomsday flick "2012," NASA has posted a promise on its web site that "nothing bad will happen to the Earth." Gulp.The Internet has been a boon to both endeavors, making it easier to share clips and comments regarding upcoming flicks, and serving as an echo chamber for conspiracy nuts to confuse rumors and allegations with fact and proof. It's a great medium for propagating self-referential anything; online content is leveled and all-inclusive, so a movie recommendation or nutty theory are really no different. Folks don't actually learn new things as much as discover what they thought they already knew, supported with info from people who already agree with them that references what they'd previously suspected.
So when did it become the government's duty to wade into entertainment propaganda and the insanity of quack science?
There've always been kooky rumors surrounding the space program, from claims that the Moon landings were faked on a sound stage, to the allegations that the recent crater bombing was intended to destroy an alien base. My personal favorite is Erik von Daniken's "Chariots of the Gods" theory that suggests the Bible's Elijah ascended to the sky in a spaceship, among other examples of archaic rocketry. NASA has weighed in on such topics, at least on the Moon landing thing, but otherwise seemed content to occupy itself with matters more directly relevant to launching people and things into space.
I'm not sure why rumors of the world ending on December 31, 2012 would warrant NASA's attention whatsoever. And it doesn't just reference it, but dives into a detailed Q&A to reiterate that all the data collected in the past suggests that nothing bad is going to happen in the immediate future.
I've written before (here and elsewhere) that the space agency does a crummy job of popularizing and promoting its endeavors. So much of its outreach is based on the presumption that the web can be used to educate people, when the mechanism for communicating online is all about buzz, glitz, shock, and entertainment (see above).
Maybe it has finally figured out that it needs to attach itself to popular, conversation-worthy subjects? By issuing a position on a debate in which it has no skin, it thereby becomes part of the debate nonetheless, and its declaration will prompt lots of responses. Getting referenced is much better than being ignored. It's a branding strategy that lots of products have pursued.
Or maybe NASA has something to hide. Now that would really be something worth talking about.