Last I was here, it was for the anniversary of Galileo’s landmark, first observations of the moon via telescope. Today I have a story about another moon observation, one that involves debate, peer review, and comics. See, when I first set out to draw science comics, I had decided from the get-go that, like science, I would revise comics if new evidence came to light.
Earlier this year—February 2nd, to be exact—I had decided to start a series in which astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson earns the ire of the public at large by explaining cosmic phenomena (thereby “ruining” the wonder and mystery). Since then he has taken this sort of villainous role in smashing the preconceived notions of the world. Yes, many of these comics involved crying children—inspired by the famous letters he received from heartbroken, Pluto-loving youngsters. No, we don’t dislike Neil Tyson. But I digress.
The comic in question had Neil explaining the moon illusion—wherein the moon appears larger on the horizon than when it is higher in the sky. I copied the explanation straight from one of Neil’s tweets, and thus felt safe in its veracity for almost a year. That is until another astronomer contacted me with a correction.
It was none other than Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer, and who cordially wrote to say, “That’s not quite right.” He pointed me to an article he had written in 2010 about the very subject. Phil’s explanation filled in many of the holes in the “foreground object” explanation. I kicked myself for not having researched the subject a little more thoroughly, and upon reading his article, I realized I had another comic on my hands. After all, this was sort of the moment of truth I had been waiting for as a self-revising webcomic. But when I posted the monster of a correction comic, something was still amiss.
People were still misconstruing the clouds in my description as being part of the illusion, rather than just a quick reference point. I.e. They took it as confirmation that objects near the moon affect our perception of it, when in reality the illusion can happen over the open ocean on a clear night. The debate raged on even more—the Foreground Object Camp squaring off against Team Ponzo (with minor quibble from the hapless “Atmospheric Lens” crowd). So I went back to the piece and added a whole new row to try to explain the “shallow bowl” mapping of space. That is, when our brain takes in our environment, it perceives the space right above us to be closer than the space on the horizon.
But there is a downside to this revision process. Depending on when and how the article was shared, some outlets display the older version or an intermediate edit. This is especially the case if they crop a panel or two to use as an image in the article. Another interesting phenomenon that popped up was that the outdated Neil Tyson strip inadvertently got more play (and was shared more!) than the strip that sought to correct it. Ack! I can only guess that it is a combination of being higher up in the article (so that it is more likely to be clicked before the user loses interest/gets distracted) and possibly because being angry at Neil Tyson is more entertaining than a sensible Phil plait. But having an incorrect comic meander about the internets sits weirdly with me.
I’ve considered a few options, including creating a big “Errata” page in which changes to comics are noted. Another thought was affixing a big “This comic is outdated” to the image itself, though again this won’t help on all the tumblr blogs the comic has appeared on. The last resort, of course, is to drown the baby (that’s the term, right?) and simply remove erroneous comics. Well, sure, I guess I could just edit it to be right, but I felt that leaving them in their original state offered context and a “paper trail” of the correction process. Currently, if the changes are minor (For example, I need to go back to my lasers post and fix the fruit fly. A discerning reader noticed that I had drawn a female fly instead of a male one. Impressive! ) I will go back and make the edit, but I’ve never had a comic invalidated before.
On the other hand, if you look at some of the comments on Phil’s posts, perhaps the jury is still out.
To see the posts in their entirety: