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The Article

Some astronomers seem to be willing to say and do just about anything just to get a better look at the heavens, including making city streets safer for criminals.

In a commentary in Nature magazine (Jan. 1) presaging the 2009 International Year of Astronomy, astronomer Malcolm Smith says that it’s time for cities to “turn off the lights” wo we can better see the Milky Way, conserve energy, protect wildlife and benefit human health. Smith is part of the so-called Dark Skies Awareness project, an international coalition of astronomers and related institutions that wants to “find allies in a common cause to convince authorities and the public that a dark sky is a valuable resource for everyone.”

“A fifth of the world’s population cannot see the Milky Way,” is Smith’s headline argument. “This has a subtle cultural impact. Without a direct view of the stars, mankind is cut off from most of the Universe, deprived of any direct sense of its huge scale and our tiny place within it,” he asserts.

That fuzzy mix of cosmology, sociology and psychology would seem to be an odd argument coming from someone who holds himself out to be a scientist. Odder still is Smith’s subsequent statement that, “Our relationship with artificial light is complicated and changing. Humans innately fear the darkness and modern society relies on light as a security measure, even though there is no evidence that controlling light wastage increases crime levels.”

Moving past the term “controlling light wastage,” which seems to be little more than a euphemism for darker city streets, plenty of data link dim urban areas with higher crime rates. A 2004 study in the Journal of British Criminology, for example, studied 13 U.S. and British cities and concluded that improved street lighting, on average, was associated with a 20 percent decrease in crime. In contrast, I could find no data linking the inability to see the Milky Way with any sort of harm to anyone.

Smith next asserts that skyscraper lighting kills millions of migratory birds in North America. An “unnecessary annual slaughter,” he calls it. But his source for that factoid, the Fatal Light Awareness Program, doesn’t even place building lighting in its “Top 13” risks to birds. Glass windows are first (purportedly killing more than 900 million birds per year), followed by power lines (174 million), hunting (more than 100 million), house cats (100 million), cars and trucks (100 million), pesticides and cutting hay (67 million), communications towers (4 to 10 million), oil and gas drilling (1 to 2 million), land development (unknown), livestock water tanks (unknown), logging and mining (unknown), commercial fishing (unknown) and power line electrocution (more than 1,000).

It seems that if Smith were genuinely concerned about birds he would also be promoting windowless buildings, catless homes, hayless farms and other similar “awareness” projects. But there’s more to Smith’s argument for making urban areas more dangerous in the name of enabling urbanite contemplation of the Milky Way.

Smith suggests that city lights increase cancer risk by reducing the normal production of the hormone melatonin, “a suppressant of cell division in cancer tissues,” he asserts. But alleging a link between melatonin levels and cancer risk is speculation, not fact. To support this conjecture, Smith cites a 2007 article in the Journal of Pineal Research that vaguely concluded, “The increasing prevalence of exposure to light at night has significant social, ecological, behavioral and health consequences that are only now becoming apparent.”

Putting millennia of nighttime candle and torch illumination aside, we’ve been lighting street and indoor lights with gas since 1807 and with electricity since the 1880s. If night lighting was a genuine and significant problem, you’d think someone would have noticed by now. Moreover, improved and increased night lighting in developed countries over the last 200 years has coincided with more than a doubling of life expectancy, the most objective indicator of public health. As you can readily see from this map image of nighttime lighting around the planet, it’s the darkest populated areas that tend to be the least healthy and poorest.

Although Smith only briefly mentions energy conservation and energy-efficient lighting in his article, a visit to the Dark Skies Awareness project Web page reveals that the project is partnering with the World Wildlife Fund to promote global warming alarmism. The precise point of intersection for the two groups’ agendas is the upcoming “Earth Hour” on March 29, when they hope “tens of millions of people around the world will come together once again to make a bold statement about their concern about climate change by… turning off their lights for one hour.”

Dark Skies states that, “Earth Hour symbolizes that by working together, each of us can make a positive impact in the fight against climate change. Here in the US, it sends a message that Americans care about this issue and stand with the rest of the world in seeking to find solutions to the escalating climate crisis.”

The term “escalating climate crisis,” however, can only justifiably be referring to global warming alarmism rather than manmade temperature increases. Average global temperature, after all, has trended downward over the last five years despite the ever-increasing output of manmade greenhouse gases.

If Smith’s article is what passes for scientific thinking among the Dark Skies crowd, perhaps they ought to consider renaming the group the Dark Ages Advocacy project.

Steven Milloy
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