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Asteroid 2012 DA14 definitely won't hit Earth. So why are people freaking out?

Asteroid 2012 DA14 is scheduled to whiz past our planet with a comfortable 17,000 miles of clearance. So why all the gloom and doom?

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In psychology, this is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. People who lack knowledge in a given area, such as science, are unable to accurately assess their own abilities in that area, and so they aren't aware that they are coming to blatantly false conclusions. David Dunning, a psychologist at Cornell University who first characterized the phenomenon, recently explained, "Many people don't have training in science, and so they may very well misunderstand the science. But because they don't have the knowledge to evaluate it, they don't realize how off their evaluations might be." [Incompetent People Too Ignorant to Know It]

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There is no obvious remedy for the one-two punch of widespread misinformation and a scarcity of mental tools for evaluating it, but Yeomans said scientists need to do a better job engaging with the public. He and his group regularly address people's fears regarding near-Earth asteroids by making statements and issuing news releases. "The hope is that people will understand that we are the more trusted sources of information," he said.

And in the case of 2012 DA14, the information is this: There is zero chance of the asteroid hitting Earth next year. The chance of a collision is slightly higher — 1 in 80,000 — when it swings past in 2020, but radar and optical observations of the space rock during next year's flyby will help the scientists nail down its trajectory, which will in all likelihood reduce the 2020 risk estimate to zero.

There are better things to worry about even than the absolute worst-case scenario. If observations next year show that current estimates are way off and the asteroid and Earth are on track to collide in 2020, then NASA would try to deflect it by bumping it with a space probe sometime before then — a move Yeomans says is doable. Even if that failed, any Earthbound asteroid has a 70 percent chance of plunging into the ocean, and a higher chance still of impacting only an ocean or an unoccupied land region.

An asteroid this size strikes Earth every 700 years or so, Yeomans said. Humanity has survived innumerable such events.

Follow Natalie Wolchover on Twitter @nattyover. Follow Life's Little Mysteries on Twitter @llmysteries, then join us on Facebook.

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