Exposing PseudoAstronomy

September 20, 2008

Flat Earth Society – Introductory Post

Filed under: flat earth concept — Stuart Robbins @ 11:27 pm
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Like my series on the Apollo Moon Hoax, the idea of a “Flat Earth” will be a topic that I will come back to in future blog entries, discussing some specific claims that are made.  For this first post on the topic, I am going to briefly outline the core concept and explain why it is flawed relative to what we know about the Earth, space, physics, and just plain ol’ common sense.

The main premise of the “Flat Earth” idea is that Earth is, well, flat.  People who believe this idea believe that our planet is a a few miles thick, and everything that is on it – continents, oceans, and ice caps – rest on this flat object (“flat” being a relatively thin object considering how large in diameter it would be).  In terms of basic geography, the North Pole is at the center of this disk, and Antarctica is actually a wall of ice that surrounds the outer rim, keeping the oceans from sloshing over.  I kid you not.  Earth is also the fixed center of the Universe, with everything “revolving around it in a plane level with the flat Earth.”

Flat Earth believers (for brevity, I will call them “flaterthers,” a term that I just made up with the emphasis on the second syllable and the first “a” being pronounced like the “u” in “fluff”, fla-TER-thers) point to five main arguments for their beliefs:

  1. Earth says still in space relative to … something.  In the 1800s, physicists thought that there was a universal “thing” called the “ether,” through which light was supposed to travel.  But an 1887 experiment now called the Michelson-Morley experiment disproved this concept by showing there was no preferred direction (even though they were trying to prove it) in perhaps the most famous “null result” in physics history.  However, the flaterther argument somehow uses this to say Earth does NOT move, there actually IS an ether, and somehow this supports their idea … though I honestly don’t understand how.
  2. The second argument that is made is that Earth can’t possibly orbit the Sun because (a) there’s no way for it to maintain its velocity over billions of years given that it’s traveling through an ether and therefore feels resistance, and (b) because when you orbit an object, there’s an acceleration, and any object “ahead” of the acceleration would get squashed and an object “behind” the acceleration would float away.
  3. Objects on a curved surface would fall off.  They’d slide “down” and when they reached the bottom, they’d fall off.  Hence, according to flaterthers, it’s not possible for people in the USA to be standing up and people in Australia to be upside down, relative to those in the USA … Australians would fall off.
  4. On a curved surface, there’s an inconsistent “down” direction, so if someone from the USA were to fly to Australia, they’d now be upside down!  (I’m not sure why this is a separate argument from #3, but they consider it one on their website).
  5. The only way to keep an ocean on the Earth is to keep it in the large bowl that is bound by the great sheets of ice that we normally think of as Antarctica.  And, the only way to keep the air on Earth is to protect it with a large dome.

Since I honestly don’t understand how #1 is used to justify the Earth being flat (they seem to equate that with Earth being the unmoving center of the Universe), I am not going to address it.  In other words, this is the “Non-Sequitur” logical fallacy – the argument that Earth may be stationary relative to some permeating substance doesn’t say anything about Earth being flat. 

#2 is a little difficult to address because it requires some basic physics concepts and math in order to understand.  First off, there are a few things they say that just aren’t true.  For example, they state that Earth orbits “the sun at a radius of around five-hundred million kilometers.”  This is not true.  Earth’s average distance from the Sun is 149,600,000 km, or about 93 million miles.  At the risk of sounding flippant … every school child knows this.  In addition, they say that “Earth is supposed to be a large, spherical shaped ball of rock flying through space at hundreds of thousands of miles per hour …”  Again, this is over-stated to make it sound impossibly big.  Earth’s average orbital velocity is 29.78 km/s, which is 107,200 km/hr, or about 66,470 mph.  Still pretty fast compared with our every-day lives, but not as big as they make it seem.

Their actual arguments (as opposed to bad math/numbers) are a little more difficult to address with this claim.  First off, no one has actually said Earth has maintained the exact same orbit and the exact same speed for billions of years – that is a Straw Man logical fallacy.  And Earth does travel through a medium – not the ether, but rather the solar wind.  The solar wind is made up of charged particles that are emitted from the Sun and stream outwards in all directions.  In addition, Earth sometimes encounters asteroids that hit it.  Every time something hits Earth, whether it be a giant asteroid or an elementary particle, the momentum from that object is added to Earth’s, and this can act to slow it down or speed it up.  Because asteroids are so much more massive than the solar wind, I’ll address the impact of asteroids:

Earth weighs 5.97*10^24 kg.  That’s a lot.  Let’s look at a dinosaur-killing, mass-extinction-causing asteroid impact – an asteroid that’s, say, 15 km in diameter – or around half the size of Manhattan.  The average velocity of an Earth-crossing asteroid is around 15-20 km/sec, and most asteroids are made of rock, with a density of 3-4 gm/cm^3.  That’s a total mass of 5*10^6 kg, or a difference of 18 orders of magnitude.  That’s about the difference between the mass of our entire galaxy vs. the mass of the planet Mars.  In other words, a dinosaur-killing asteroid event hitting Earth is like you, a person, running into a piece of dust.  Even if that dust is going faster than a speeding bullet, you are not going to feel it.  Similarly, even if Earth gets whacked by these things once every million years, it’s still not going to feel it.  So, unless they are claiming that the ether is more massive than these asteroids, this claim doesn’t hold water (so to speak).

As for the acceleration argument, this is just pretty much wrong.  Our reference frame – the reference frame of EVERYTHING on Earth – is Earth.  We move relative to our planet, our point of view is relative to our planet, and our velocity is relative to our planet.  Yes, Earth goes in a really big circle around the Sun, and so there is a very very very slight accelerating “force outward” away from the Sun, but it is so small that there is no way you can feel it, and you folks who go to Weight Watchers don’t need to try to plan to go and weigh yourself at midnight instead of noon to get a lighter weigh-in.

Argument #3 and 4 I’m going to lump together into the basic concept of a misunderstanding of gravity.  As I said in the paragraph above, Earth is our reference frame for everything in our daily lives, and that’s because it is so big and we are so close to it (relative to everything else) that we are completely dominated by its gravity.  In their third point, they argue that people would simply fall off of a round Earth once they get to the edge that “goes down.”  Their analogy is a beach ball, where if you simply pour sand on the top of a beach ball, it will follow the curve of the ball until it gets to the side and then just fall off.

The reason why this analogy doesn’t work is that the beach ball has effectively no gravity when compared with Earth.  Things “fall down” because gravity pulls it “down.”  “Down” is always towards the center of Earth (until you get beyond Earth’s gravitational pull).  Now, if the beach ball were out in empty space and it was the most massive object around, a grain of sand that was placed on it wouldn’t move … it wouldn’t “fall” anywhere because “down” would be towards the center of the beach ball, regardless of whether the sand was placed next to the part where you blow into the beach ball or placed on the opposite side.

This is why when an American goes to Australia, the American is not standing on their head when they get there.  Throughout the flight (or boat ride) over, “down” is constantly changing so that it always points towards the center of Earth.  In other words, yes, the plane effectively does turn upside down during the flight.  It just does it very very slowly and you don’t notice it because it’s just following the curve of the planet, with the bottom of the plane always facing the surface of Earth.  (And as a side note, if you go to Australia, stay longer in that country than it took you to fly there, speaking from personal experience.)

As for argument #5, I really just have to resort to the ad hominem response:  This is absurd.  The belief that Earth is covered by a dome to keep the air in and that the edge is a giant sheet of ice to keep the ocean in is a juvenile concept that requires massive conspiratorial claims to maintain (which they do) since it negates space telescopes, the Apollo lunar missions, and expeditions to Antarctica, among other things.  In addition, it flies in the face of simplicity, plausibility, and most people who are older than 5.

That’ll wrap up this post on introducing the Flat Earth concept (and flaterthers).  In future posts, I will address more specific problems with it, such as their explanation for seasons, sunsets, tides, their concept of gravity, and other tidbits.

September 15, 2008

CERN and the LHC – About Correlations and Scientific Certainty


One of the major topics in the “cryptonews” over the past two weeks has been about the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Europe, operated by CERN.  The LHC is the largest, most powerful collider experiment to be built, and it was “switched on” last Wednesday (September 10, 2008).  The collider operates by sending protons (as clouds of hydrogen gas that have been stripped of their electrons) around the 17-mile tunnel at close to the speed of light, in opposite directions, smashing them into each other and observing the results.

The purpose of this post is not to get into how colliders work, what the experiments are looking for, nor even to really address all the doomsday scenarios that have come out by “scientists” who are suing CERN to try to stop it.  Rather, the purpose of my post is to talk about correlation vs. causation and what it means when scientists say that something will or will not happen.

First off, after the LHC was activated, people have been attempting to link it to hurricanes and earthquakes.  There were two in indonesia, one in Japan, and others elsewhere.  However, according to CERI, the Center for Earthquake Research and Information, there are over 55,000 earthquakes that are felt per year, and over 7000 that can cause damage.  That’s nearly 20 earthquakes per day that can cause damage.  Large earthquakes (magnitude 6 or larger) occur about once every three days somewhere on Earth.

My point here is that earthquakes happen.  They may be in the news more often around other events in an attempt to link them to drum up ratings.  In addition, you are more likely to take notice of a reported earthquake if you are actually looking for it, trying to correlate it with another event (e.g., the LHC being fully activated).  There are two things going on here:  Confirmation Bias, and the logical fallacy of confusing association with causation.

Confirmation bias is where you believe in something, and so when any event occurs that confirms that belief, you remember it, but when an event occurs that refutes it, you forget it.  For example, I may think that Student A is brilliant and does well in all her assignments.  That’s my bias.  If she turns in her next assignment and gets 100% correct, my bias is confirmed.  If she misses a question, though, I am likely to not remember that she missed it later on, or I’m likely to rationalize it away as a potentially unfair question.  This is the same thing with any geologic disturbance that people are claiming is a result of the LHC.

Confusing association with causation is a logical fallacy whereby all because two things may happen at the same time, you automatically assume they are related.  For example, if I saw a bird fly by my window and at that same moment a light bulb went out in the kitchen, I would think that the bird caused my lightbulb to blow out, even though, in reality, one had nothing to do with the other.

The second aspect I wanted to address is what it means when a scientist says something will or will not happen.  What they are actually saying is that, given all the evidence and our current understanding of how things work, the likelihood of the event happening (or not happening) is very close to 100% (or 0%).  A good scientist will never say that something is impossible.  Saying that would require an infinite amount of knowledge.

The reason this is relevant is that some people are saying that there’s a tiny possibility that the LHC would produce something that would destroy the Earth or Universe.  Yes, it’s possible.  It’s about as possible as the LHC creating a flying unicorn that poops rainbows.  Given everything we know and have verified about particle physics, the LHC producing something that destructive will not happen.  But, there is always the possibility that something unknown could happen.

This is why scientists generally do not call things the f-word:  “Facts.”  There is no “Fact of Gravity,” or “Fact of Nuclear Physics.”  Science deals with “Theories,” which is about equivalent to how many in the public think of “Facts.”  A scientific theory is one that has been verified by countless experiments, different lines of evidence, and has withstood attempts to disprove it.  The Theory of Relativity has so far been confirmed by everything we’ve thrown at it.  Our theories show that the LHC is perfectly safe.  But fear-mongers throw around “theory” as if to say, “Scientists don’t know what they’re talking about, after all, it’s just a theory.”

September 11, 2008

Logical Fallacy – The Difference Between Argument from Authority and Scientific Consensus


The purpose behind this post is to explain the difference between two things that pseudo-scientists often confuse:  The logical fallacy of “Argument from Authority” versus the concept of a Scientific Consensus.

“Argument from Authority” is effectively the idea that Person A is a supposed authority in Subject B.  Therefore, anything that Person A states about Subject B is true.  For example, I could make the claim that Dr. Crusher is an expert on human anatomy.  The fallacy then goes that if I were to say to my friends that Dr. Crusher says the neck bone is connected to the foot bone, then it must be true because she’s an expert in that field.  But, obviously this is not true.  In other words, the validity of the claim does not follow from the credibility of the source.

Less contrived examples of this are in some of the creationism and intelligent design posts that I have made.  In them, the interviewer often states that their information comes from Dr. So-and-so, a scientist.  This is the argument from authority, though, for any individual scientist is fully capable of self-deceit or deceiving others.

When I debunk these claims on this blog, I try not to use argument from authority for that basic reason.  What I use is the general scientific consensus about what are the facts or general understanding of the subject at-hand.  For example, the existence of the Kuiper Belt and Oort Clouds are accepted by the majority of astronomers — they have reached a consensus.  A scientific consensus represents the most likely explanation given everything that we know at the time.

This, too, may sound like an argument from authority, but it is not.  That is because the reason the argument from authority is a fallacy is that it is based on an individual‘s credibility.  That is why science is supposed to be peer-reviewed – so that you can convince your colleagues of the claim’s validity based upon the scientific evidence.  If the evidence is not real, sufficient enough, and/or can’t be replicated, then your claim will fall by the wayside and not be accepted by the scientific community.  It is only after the claim has been vetted and accepted by the majority of scientists that it becomes a consensus opinion and hence not subject to the logical fallacy of argument from authority.

An example of this in modern science is the global warming “controversy.”  The majority of climate scientists and modelers agree that global warming is in fact occurring and will continue to happen.  This is the scientific consensus.  However, there are still several scientists who disavow this viewpoint.  If a news article were to just quote one of those scientists to say that there is still a scientific controversy over whether or not global warming is occurring, then they have just committed the argument from authority fallacy.  The consensus is that it IS happening, and the debate over whether global warming is “real” or not is pretty much over.

September 9, 2008

Why the Universe’s “Fine-Tuning” Is Not Evidence of Intelligent Design


This entry is in reference to an episode of the “ID The Future” podcast, “The Argument for Design Cosmology” that was released on September 8, 2008.

This episode of the “ID The Future” podcast is fairly long, at nearly 32 minutes.  Because of this, I am not going to address each individual claim made by the guest, Dr. Bruce Gordon (who holds a Ph.D. in the history and philosophy of science with a focus in the foundation of modern physics), on the concept of the fine-tuning of the fundamental constants of nature.  To be perfectly honest, Dr. Gordon goes into a lot of aspects of cosmology that make my head spin.  Consequently, I will be addressing his most basic claim – and the basic claim put forth by the Discovery Institute on cosmology.

The premise is this:  The most reduced model of physics has a handful of fundamental particles (such as quarks, electrons, neutrinos, and leptons).  It also has four Fundamental Forces (strong nuclear, weak nuclear, electromagnetic, and gravitational).  In cosmology, there are some “fundamental constants” (or “fundamental values,” since we’re not really sure if they’re constant with time).  The main one that IDers discuss is the Hubble Constant, which is the expansion rate of the Universe.  Another fundamental constant is the speed of light, or the Gravitational Constant (a less well-known one is the Planck Constant that appears a lot in Quantum Mechanics).

One of the big questions of modern theoretical physics and cosmology is why these fundamental particles, forces, and constants have the properties and/or values that they do.  For example, why the mass of the electron is 9.109·10-31 kg, or the speed of light in a vacuum is 2.998·108 m/s.  Or why the strength of gravity on 2 protons in the nucleus of an atom is only 10-36 times the strength of the electromagnetic force.

The claim from Intelligent Design – and in this episode professed by Dr. Gordon – is that if any of these were different, even by the smallest amount (he throws out numbers such as to 1 part in 1040 for one of them — I do not know enough about particle physics to agree or disagree there) then our Universe would be vastly different and we wouldn’t be here.  As I said in my opening paragraph, I do not have the expertise to pick apart his specific numbers/values on precisely how fine-tuned these need to be, but for the moment let’s take his claims at face-value.

The conclusion from this – the entire point as to why IDers point this out – is that because “material” science has no good explanation for why these values are the away they are, and we could not exist if they were different, then there must have been some guiding intelligence that designed the Universe to be favorable for our development.

At this point, I will state right off the bat:  That conclusion by IDers may be correct.  There may have been some sort of intelligence guiding how our Universe formed such that we could develop the way we did.

However, THAT IS NOT A SCIENTIFIC CONCLUSION.  That conclusion is the logical fallacy of “God of the Gaps.”  The God of the Gaps argument can be reduced to two steps:  (1) There is a gap in scientific knowledge (we don’t know why these constants came out as they did).  (2) The gap is filled by an act of (a) G/god(s) / “intelligence.”  That’s what Dr. Gordon and Casey Luskin (the interviewer) have done, they’ve simply filled the gap of our scientific understanding with a supernatural intelligence.

Besides it being a logical fallacy, there is another reason why it’s not science, and that has to do with the nature of science.  The purpose of science is to derive from evidence the workings of the Universe.  It makes hypotheses and uses natural evidence to test them in order to either support or refute that hypothesis.  By its very nature, science cannot deal with matters of supernatural ideas nor theology because, once you have invoked something that’s supernatural, it is no longer within the natural world (pretty much by definition).

Therefore, once you invoke a supernatural intelligence to make our Universe favorable for life as we know it, then you are no longer in the realm of science.  You cannot test the “intelligence” posit because it is outside nature, and if you were to ask, “Why would an intelligence design it this way?” the answer is a matter of theology (e.g., “You can’t question the mind of God,” or “So that we could live.”).  In addition, this is what has been termed a “science-stopper.”  In other words, if we already have the explanation (“God did it”) then why should we bother with doing any further research?

Science – and this particular podcast program likes to use the term, “materialistic science” as if to differentiate it from ID under the false assumption that ID is a science – does not really know why we live in the Universe we do.  The leading hypothesis deals with a consequence of String Theory, called the “Multiverse.”  The idea behind the multiverse is that our Universe is just one of many Universes, each with their own set of constants, and we really did just get the luck of the draw (akin to the Anthropic Principle).  There’s no known way to test this or to make predictions from it that are testable (that we know of) and so I relegate it to the term of “hypothesis” and not “theory.”  But, it comes about as a consequence of a materialistic paradigm, and so it is still science.  It does not invoke any supernatural argument.

Consequently, whether or not we have a satisfying explanation for why the fundamental properties of our Universe are the way they are, it is not within the realm of science to conclude that the Universe was created this way by (a) G/god(s) or “intelligence.”

September 7, 2008

Apollo Moon Hoax: Huge, Deadly Temperature Variation Claims


All posts in this series:

This second installment on bashing the Apollo Moon Hoax deals with the various claims that the moon gets to about -200 °F in the shade and up to +200 °F in full sunlight. According to conspiracy theorists, this range is way too much and would have (a) rendered the film unusable (because it would have shattered in the cold or melted in the heat), and (b) been very dangerous to the astronauts, if not deadly.

In order to properly understand why this claim really doesn’t present insurmountable odds, you must first understand how heat is transferred. There are three ways that heat moves from one object to another:

  1. Radiation: Radiation is the least efficient process of transferring heat.  It involves exactly what it sounds like – radiation, or light-based energy (photons).  The photon is emitted from the heat source and is absorbed by the target.  The act of absorbing the photon – a packet of energy – adds to the energy of the target material, thus heating it up.

    The Sun heats all objects in the solar system mainly through radiative heat transfer.  This is also the same mechanism behind “heat lamps” – those hot red lights that are oh-so-common in cafeterias, keeping the french fries or the pizza warm.

    There’s another aspect to this that does not play a role in the other two heat transfer processes:  Some surfaces will absorb heat faster than others.  This is because objects that are whiter will absorb less radiation because they reflect more.  Objects that are blacker will absorb more radiation because they reflect less.  Astronomers call this “albedo.”  You may have noticed this effect if you’re outside in the summer and wear a white shirt vs. a black shirt – you’ll heat up much more quickly in black.
     

  2. Conduction:  Conduction is the process where heat is transferred by one object physically touching another object.  For example, when you place a pot of water on the stove to boil, the heating element of the stove physically touches the pot, heating it up, and the pot physically touches the water, heating that up.
  3. Convection:  Convection is the most efficient process of heat transfer.  It involves the physical mixing of material of two different temperatures, which distributes the heat.  An everyday example of this is adding ice to a glass of water and then stirring it around.  This stirring physically moves the ice and water to better distribute the heat than if the ice just sat there (conduction).

    Another good example is a pot of thick stew or chili on the stove.  I learned this lesson the hard way – while soup convects quite easily, chili only conducts.  In other words, in most soups, you generally get a good boil going and the liquid circulates throughout the pot, carrying and distributing the heat very well.  Thicker foods like chili, however, do not convect; the heat conducts up through the pot to the food on the bottom, and then it just stays there.  The bottom will continue to absorb heat, but because the food is so thick, these warmer parts of the food don’t move anywhere, they just sit there, slowly conducting heat away at a slower pace than the pot is conducting heat to it.  This results in burnt chili on the bottom and barely warm chili on top.

There’s one more piece of information that you need to remember when trying to understand this claim:  The moon lacks an atmosphere – there’s no air!  This may seem like a basic, obvious statement, but it really makes all the difference.

On Earth, the Sun heats the ground (because the air really absorbs very little radiation) through Radiation.  The ground, in contact with the air, then heats the air near the surface by Conduction.  Because air is like soup and not like chili, it easily Convects, warming the whole planet.  This is part of why there is comparatively very little difference between the day and night air temperatures on the planet, as opposed to, say, Mars.

The the moon, the first step is the same – the Sun heats the ground through Radiation.  And then it stops.  There is no atmosphere to speak of, and so there is absolutely no way for the heat to distribute throughout the moon other than through the slow process of conduction (which doesn’t heat more than a few meters deep, called the “skin depth”).  The region of space directly above the moon’s surface does not change temperature any real amount even though the surface below it goes through 400 °F temperature swings.

With this in mind, let’s place an Apollo astronaut on the surface, with a camera attached to his chest (I’m using male pronouns not out of any sexism, but because they were all men).  The solar radiation is heating the surface fairly well, since the lunar albedo is about 0.08 (it reflects only 8% of the radiation it receives, absorbing the other 92%).  The astronaut and the camera, however, has an albedo fairly close to 0.90 (new-fallen snow, reflecting 90% of the light it receives, absorbing 10%).

So right away, you can tell that the astronaut’s suit – in the absence of any cooling or insulation – will heat up more than 10x more slowly than the ground just through the solar radiation.  However, to be fair, there is a very small contribution from the lunar surface because it has a certain temperature and so radiates, as well.  But, this contribution is very small compared with the Sun.

Now, with an astronaut standing on the lunar surface, there’s an additional heat transfer process:  Conduction.  The ground physically touches the astronaut’s boots, allowing them to conduct heat, and so contributing to heating up the astronaut.  This is a smaller effect, though, than conspiracy theorists may have you believe.  After all, the saying goes, if you walk down a beach on the dry sand with the sun out, your feet quickly roast.  But, the lunar surface material – regolith (we don’t call it “soil” because soil implies an organic origin) – is very loosely consolidated.  In other words, it’s more like trying to conduct heat through flour as opposed to sand or asphalt.  And the heat that was transferred was generally shielded by the insulation in the astronauts’ boots, preventing this fairly slow process from transferring too much heat.

So at this point in the discussion, we have pretty well shielded from any excessive temperatures.

This brings up my third (I think third) point:  The astronauts AND the cameras had insulation around them.  This insulation – like a nice warm winter jacket – prevented a lot of heat from being transferred both into and out of the suits and camera housing.

But this brings up a fourth argument:  Even if the astronauts were not properly insulated from the cold temperatures, where would their heat go?  The process of getting too cold happens when heat is transferred from you to the environment.  But there was no environment on the moon to which the astronauts or their cameras could transfer the heat.  The only way they could do it was conduction back through the insulation in the astronauts’ boots to the lunar regolith, or through radiative heat transfer to empty space.  And with their insulation, neither of these played any significant role.

My fifth and final point deals with the timing of the missions.  NASA knew that the moon’s surface went through these temperature swings.  But, that doesn’t mean that as soon as a square meter of lunar surface rotates into the Sun’s light that it suddenly, immediately goes from -200 °F to +200 °F.  It takes time to absorb the radiation and heat up!  And that is why all of the lunar missions were planned for “dawn” on the moon, before the surface had heated up to the +200 °F temperatures, but after it had warmed a little from the -200 °F temperatures.  So even while the lunar surface does experience wide temperature swings throughout it’s nearly 700-hr day, the astronauts did not experience those extremes!

 


Finally, to summarize why this claim does not hold up under scrutiny:

  1. The astronauts and the cameras were covered in reflective material, limiting radiative heat transfer.
  2. The lunar regolith is loosely compacted, resulting in very slow conduction of heat from it to the astronauts’ boots.
  3. The astronauts and the cameras were covered in insulation, limiting heat transfer.
  4. There’s no atmosphere on the moon to conduct heat to or away from the astronauts and cameras.
  5. The EVAs (Extra-Vehicular Activities, or moonwalks) were all during lunar dawn, so the astronauts did not even experience the massive temperature swings that conspiracy theorists report.

September 6, 2008

Why a Scientist Who Is Religious Does NOT Mean that Creationism is Scientific


This post is in response to the Creation Science Evangelism article, “Is Creationism Scientific?” on August 14, 2008.

This is a fairly easy claim to refute. The article and accompanying video states, “Every major branch of science … was established upon the work of creationists.” That, in and of itself, does NOT mean that science is based upon creationism. It simply means that the people who founded those fields happened to believe in the concept that God created everything.

The article goes on to state that, “The creationist understands that science was established by God, and thus seeks to follow the clues in God’s creation that help him to better understand the natural world.” This, again, does not go “against” the modern concept of science. You can believe that God created the natural laws, started the Big Bang, and that this deity wants us to use the clues that were left to figure out how those things were accomplished.

That is how the astronomers/physicists that are mentioned in the article (Isaac Newton, Johannes Kepler, and Galileo Galilei) proceeded if they were guided by this underlying concept: They wanted to use the natural clues in the world they observed in order to better understand it. It does not matter whether they approached this from a materialistic (everything has natural causes) or from a religious world view so long as they sought out natural explanations for their observations. To them, that was one step closer to understanding the mind of God., to understand how the universe worked.

The problem is that modern “Creation Scientists” do not seek out natural explanations for what they observe. They treat the Bible as an unfallible tome that is correct and literal. Starting from that basis, they then try to explain everything in that context. In other words, evidence-based explanations are not present, rather evidence is adapted to fit with their explanation. This is the reverse of how “real” scientists operate today (gather evidence to form, support, or refute a hypothesis) and of how these famous scientists operated centuries ago.

The Apollo Moon Hoax: There Is a “Prop Rock” Labeled with a “C” (Updated)


Introduction

This was my first entry is what is becoming a large series on the Apollo Moon Hoax — the conspiracy theory that NASA faked the Apollo moon landings. This is/was one of my first blog posts, which was relatively unorganized compared with my present posts. It was originally made on September 6, 2008, but it has been re-organized as of June 26, 2009.

All posts in this series:

The Claim

In Apollo photograph AS16-107-17446 (Apollo 16, film roll 107, photo #17446), shown below, there is a large rock in the foreground. After the photograph had been duplicated many times by many people and sent out to the public, an apparent “C” was superimposed over the rock (shown below). Conspiracists claim that this is obvious evidence of a hoax because it’s a prop rock — they believe that the prop man forgot to turn the rock over because NASA took the time to label all the rocks to make sure they go where they’re supposed to.

Apollo Photo AS16-107-17446

Let’s Think Logically

Before I actually get into why this “C” is there, there are a few basic logical questions that one should ask when presented with this claim:

  1. Does anyone actually label props on sets? When Penn & Teller addressed this claim on their Showtime program (I won’t name it because I want to keep this blog at least G or PG), they asked their propman if he’s ever labeled sets. The answer was a resounding “No.” You may claim this is an argument from authority, but you should really ask movie producers if they label their props. Seriously.
  2. Even if Hollywood labels their props, why would NASA? Why would they risk accidentally putting a prop “label-side up?” After all, they must have had literally thousands of “prop rocks” to keep track of and make sure that they were put in their exact locations, which leads me to …
  3. … If NASA had hundreds or thousands of props to keep track of, why didn’t they set up their scenes ONCE, make certain that it looked alright (as in no props with the label facing up), and then do all of their filming? They should’ve checked everything and then filmed. Which leads to …
  4. … A major problem with this conspiracy theory, and many others, is that it lends the conspirators incredible power. After all, they must have been able to keep the lid on this for decades despite the half-million people involved in the project (1 out of ever 360 Americans, according to the 1970 US Census). And yet, with all this incredible power at their disposal, they miss something like a rock that’s flipped the wrong way?

Refuting This Claim the Standard Way

If you have managed to get this far and still believe this claim, then let’s actually get to what’s really going on. Have you ever scanned or photocopied something? If so, you know that any little piece of dirt, hair, dust, or whatever that gets between your original and your imaging device will show up in the copy. That is what happened in the case of the infamous “C” rock – a hair (such as an eyelash) or a small piece of lint got caught between the image and the imager when they were making copies of it. Plain and simple. In the original photograph (closeup shown below), there is no “C.”

Refuting This Claim My Way

That is the fairly standard way to explain/debunk this claim – it’s simply a hair in the copy and the original doesn’t show it. But there’s another way: The ONLY photograph that conspiracy theorists point to with the “C” rock is AS16-107-17446. The photograph taken just before it, AS16-107-17445, shows the bottom-half of #17446, including the rock in question. The rock is in the exact same position, orientation, etc. And yet … there is no “C” on it!

No hoax proponent has ever looked at photo #17445 and claimed that it has the “C” on the rock. In other words, their conspiracy “theory” is not internally consistent even in this one single claim. The photo is shown below, first in full, then in detail.

Apollo Photo AS16-107-17445
Apollo Photo AS16-107-17445 Detail (Pre-C Rock)

Why This Claim Is Not Consistent with Another Hoax Claim

Another hoax claim that I have not addressed as of the time of writing or updating this post is that photographs that NASA claims from Apollos 16 and 17 that were taken hours and miles apart show “identical” backgrounds. This would seem to imply that NASA had one set that they used for each mission. The next logical assumption is that they would set up the set once, check it over, and then do all their filming. But, that can’t possibly be true given the differences in Apollo photos AS16-107-17445 and AS16-107-17446.

Final Thoughts

In sum, there are three main reasons why this claim doesn’t hold up to any scrutiny: (1) It simply doesn’t make sense that a rock would be labeled and “accidentally” left label-side up, (2) It is very easily explained by a simple hair getting caught in the copying device, and (3) the claim is internally inconsistent because no hoax proponent has ever looked at other photographs of the same scene and claimed that there is a labeled rock or a cover-up.

This is, hence, another example of anomaly hunting to create a false dichotomy: There is something that appears anomalous in the Apollo footage (anomaly hunting), therefore the moon landings were faked (false dichotomy).

September 4, 2008

More Reasons Why Comets Do NOT Prove Creationism

Filed under: comets,creationism — Stuart Robbins @ 11:30 pm
Tags: , , , ,

This post is in regards to the Institute for Creation Research’s September 6, 2003 program about Comets. You can listen to the audio here.

Even though this episode of ICR radio was produced before my previous post on comets and creationism, I’ve opted to write about it second because the claims in it are more subtly incorrect.

The first comment on this episode is really more of a nit-pick (@ 4 min): The scientist on the program claims, “The famous Shoemaker-Levy [9] comet, which broke up into 9 pieces and crashed into the surface of Jupiter …”

Now this claim really isn’t used to try to prove creationism, but another purpose of this blog is to help propagate good astronomy when there is bad astronomy being stated. There are two problems with the above statement. The first is that the comet in question did not break into 9 pieces, but rather it broke into 21 main fragments, labeled A through W. Also, Jupiter really doesn’t have a “surface” in the traditional sense. It may have a rocky core, but we don’t know that for certain. What we do know is that its atmosphere is huge, extending at least 5 times Earth’s radius, and the comet fragments that crashed through the jovian atmosphere would have been crushed by the pressure well before they reached any “surface.”

About 6 min 30 sec into the broadcast, we get the first bit of real pseudo-astronomy: One of their scientists is talking about how comets tend to fragment, they lose some of their material during their orbit, and they’re somewhat fragile if they come really close to a large, massive object (like a planet or star). But he then states, “This has been a problem for evolutionists for a long time because comets just don’t last, and they certainly don’t last over the supposed age of the solar system.”

Again there’s that “evolutionist” label … somehow because I’m an astronomer who uses “real” science I’m now an evolutionist, too. Regardless of this snub, this is the same argument that I talked about in my previous post on comets: Comet nuclei were not all “launched” into close-Sun-passing orbits at the beginning of the solar system. They effectively “lie in wait” in the frigid outer regions until they collide amongst themselves or a passing massive body causes their orbits to change, bringing a few into the inner solar system. This effectively sets their internal “clocks” at a zero-age in terms of losing material, and so it really has nothing to do with “proving” the solar system was created a matter of a few thousand years ago. This is NOT “good evidence that the Universe isn’t billions of years old,” as the narrator states.

The next argument is closely related (about 7 min 45 sec in): Dr. Ross Humphreys is a physicist for the ICR and says, “There’s (sic) some comets called ‘short-period comets’ that come around so frequently that they could not have been in our solar system longer than 10,000 years. … Halley’s comet is acknowledged by scientists to not have been in the solar system longer than 90,000 years.” (emphasis mine)

So this is the same argument as above which I’ve already addressed. However, there’s a new wrinkle. This person claims that these comets aren’t even in the solar system until recently. This simply doesn’t make sense. People who do modeling have shown that it’s nearly impossible to have objects line up just right such that two bodies that were not gravitationally bound to begin with (a comet being “in” our solar system, in other words) can be captured. I believe their physicist meant to say “in the inner solar system,” which could be more correct. But this is a pretty obvious mistake to make, and if you’re going to make an argument from authority (the guy being a physicist) you would hope their authority knows that comets didn’t magically appear from beyond the solar system.

There are a few more misstatements and fallacious arguments in the next few minutes episode, but they are pretty much the same as those I have addressed below and in my other comet post (not believing in the Oort Cloud simply because they can’t see it). Oh, and apparently I’m now a “Big Bang Theorist” because I know about comets and agree with the evidence supporting the Kuiper Belt and Oort Cloud. Maybe I could write a grant to NASA to study comets because I’m a Big Bang Theorist.

The last argument they make that I want to address is the claim the Kuiper Belt “can’t” be a source of short-period comets (about 10 min into the program). The evidence they point to is that the objects in the Kuiper Belt are generally redder in color than comets. They claim this means they’re two entirely different classes of objects, and that evolutionists (honestly, how the heck do they equate studying comets with being an evolutionist?) have tried all sorts of ways to get Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs) to “lose” their red.

This is actually a fairly easy problem. Without getting into chemistry, spectroscopy, and physics, the basic idea is weathering. Even though there’s no air, water, etc. in space, there are particles that are constantly interacting with KBOs, and those particles mainly come from the solar wind. They have the ability to chemically alter the material they come into contact with, but only the very upper surface. When the objects are weathered, they become redder. Once a KBO is nudged into a sun-grazing orbit, however, the crust sublimates (turns from a solid directly into a gas). What is sublimating? The upper surface of the KBO … the surface that was weathered. So after a first-close-pass with the Sun, the object can easily lose that red color and look like an ordinary comet.



A final comment goes to the nature of science. On this program, as on the comet one I discussed below, the fall-back is something to the effect of, “Creationism has a much simpler answer than all this Oort Cloud, Kuiper Belt, and other stuff. It’s that the Solar System was created by God recently.”

That is faith. Plain and simple. It is NOT science. Science makes testable, potentially falsifiable hypotheses about the way things work. If you pass everything off to God as your explanation, that is perfectly legitimate faith, but it has nothing to do with science because it is not testable nor falsifiable. The explanations I have given may seem “materialistic,” but that is the nature of science; by definition, it does not accept faith-based explanations.

And I must add that, so far, the materialist explanation has worked perfectly fine for explaining the apparently unexplainable features of comets.

Why Comets Are NOT Evidence for a Young Solar System

Filed under: comets,creationism — Stuart Robbins @ 4:47 am
Tags: , , ,

This post is in regards to the Institute for Creation Research’s February 4, 2006 program about Comets.  You can listen to the audio here.

The beginning of this program is actually fairly decent, talking about how comets are “dirty icebergs” that orbit the Sun, and when they get too close, they begin to lose material because the Sun’s heat and wind both melt and erode material from its surface.  I don’t know precisely if the number “5%” of it gets removed, but that’s not a huge issue for me (is for them, and I’ll explain why).

The first real mistake in this piece comes at about 2 min 30 seconds in.  The host makes the point that, “Since matter is being stripped away from comets, how long do they survive in the solar system?”  Their expert, Dr. Falkner (not sure on that spelling), replies that most comets are only a few miles across and that each time they come close to the Sun, they may “lose a few feet off of that size.”

This contradicts what they said above about the 5% number.  Let’s say for argument that a comet is 1 mile in diameter (probably fairly small).  And a “few feet” amounts to a generous 10 feet.  If it loses 10 feet off its diameter every pass, it would need to go through about 528 passes of the Sun to disintegrate … not after “probably maybe 100 trips around the Sun it eventually dissipates.”  If comets have orbits of 100 years (as they then generalize), then that’s nearly 53,000 years!  NOT 10,000 years.

Then let’s examine the claim of 5%.  If a comet is again 1 mile in diameter, then it doesn’t simply have to approach the Sun 20 times (20*5 = 100) to die off.  5% is multiplicative.  So the first pass it would have 95% of its original material, but the next pass would reduce it to 90.25% of its original material (0.95*(1-0.5)).  This continues iteratively.  So the third pass would leave it with 85.7375% (0.9025*(1-0.05)), and so on.

But this is again a huge over-generalization, but they use it to say it’s evidence for recent creation.  Well, yes, IF you assume that all comets started orbiting the Sun on orbits that took them close to the Sun when the solar system was formed, IF you assume that all comets have 100-year orbits, IF you assume that all comets are only 1 mile in diameter and lose a few feet or 5% (which are NOT equivalent) of material after every orbit, then sure, this may be evidence for a recent creation.  But this is NOT the case.

And it’s not even the biggest mistake they make.  The host then says that, “Many evolutionists answer this question by hypothesizing that a large cloud of orbiting comets (dirty snowballs) exists in the outer reaches of the solar system.”  So there’s the association fallacy at work, I’m an “evolutionist” and therefore I’m wrong about other things simply by that association.

Well this claim that that’s what astronomers believe is mostly true.  They are referring specifically to the Oort Cloud, a very large (2-light-year-radius) cloud of comets that is believed to contain trillions of bodies in the outer reaches of the solar system, extending half-way to the nearest star (4.3 light-years away).  It is believed to be the source of long-period comets (comets that have a “year” of more than 250 Earth-years).  But there’s another region of comets interior to the Oort Cloud that starts just outside Neptune – the Kuiper Belt.  This is another region of space believed to have billions of comets that is the source for short-period comets (those with years less than 250 Earth years).  The Kuiper Belt was first observed in 1992 (when the first object was discovered in it).  The Oort Cloud remains the subject of theory simply because the objects in it are so far away and so small that they are too faint to be detected with current technology.  But it is still a falsifiable theory.

Now that you have a brief understanding for what these are, on with the ICR claims (at about 4 min in):  [host] “However, there is a small problem with the Oort Cloud Theory.”  [scientist] “All this sounds very complicated, but the bottom line is nobody’s ever seen the Oort Cloud.  We see what looks like an Oort Cloud around other systems, but we don’t see it in our own vicinity.  So I have my doubts that it exists …” [emphasis mine]

So let’s think about this for a bit.  “Nobody’s ever seen the Oort Cloud … so I have my doubts that it exists.”  Alright.  No one’s ever seen gravity, but we see its effects.  No one has ever seen a crater form on a planetary surface, but we have a very good idea of how it happens and we can model it.  No one has ever seen a star explode (this is a good thing) but we have good models that make predictions about what we should see after they explode, which have been observed.

The Oort Cloud is hypothetical, and it is not possible to actually observe it with our technology.  But, it is the best science-based explanation for long-period comets.  The Kuiper Belt was hypothetical, but it was later verified and we have now cataloged many hundreds of members of it.

And they even miss the point that even if the Oort Cloud does NOT exist, then (a) there’s no source for long-period comets, but (b) it STILL does not mean that the solar system was created 10000 years ago or less.  That’s because it’s actually fairly few comets that enter the inner solar system at any given time, the Belt has to be perturbed by a passing object to knock a comet into the inner solar system.  That takes time.  And so any object in the Kuiper Belt today could get knocked into an orbit that takes it close to the Sun and makes it a comet to us.  That starts the clock on that particular comet at 0.  So the fact that we still see comets today says ABSOLUTELY NOTHING about the solar system having been created recently.



The creation scientist then goes on to talk about some other stuff, but around 5 min 30 sec basically sums up the point of the broadcast episode:  “Comets are fragile.  During their orbits around the Sun, they shrink, or melt, some occasionally hit the Sun or Jupiter, and some comets leave the solar system all together.  Yet, there’s the continued presence today of hundreds of known comets … each and every comet is a witness to a supernatural, created solar system that is just thousands of years old, not billions.”

As I have hopefully convincingly shown, this is simply not true.  It is based on gross generalizations, assumptions, and outright disregard for the consensus of the structure of the solar system.

But, it’s difficult to argue with faith, when the announcer says (8 min 30 sec):  “As creationists, we know that comets, along with the rest of the Universe, were made by God on Day 4 of Creation Week.”

This is why I am not trying to convince you that creationism is or is not true.  I am simply illustrating that the scientific claims that creationism makes are flawed, not true, or outright denials of evidence.

September 3, 2008

Terminology – Wrong By Association

Filed under: logical fallacy,terminology — Stuart Robbins @ 8:30 pm
Tags: , , , ,

This post is meant to discuss some of the very subtle ways that – often religious people – go about biasing their audience against evidence-based astronomy:  Association Fallacy.  This is a logical fallacy where the purveyor of the information introduces a hasty generalization or red herring about people who argue against them in an effort to make you think that they are wrong simply due to that association.

For example, let’s say that Spock is a Vulcan. Spock is also a vegetarian. The Associaiton Fallacy would then be that Dr. McCoy would assume all vegetarians are Vulcans. In this particular case, and as used below, this is a form of the ad hominem fallacy: A is both B and C, therefore B is C.

Okay, that’s a very contrived example, but it’s a decent illustration of how this fallacy works.  I’ve encountered this from two main groups of people who hold pseudo-astronomic concepts:  Intelligent Design proponents, and Creationists.

Intelligent Design proponents (IDers) claim, “Certain features of the Universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process,” and so an “intelligent designer” had some sort of hand in making, designing, or guiding it.  Whenever IDers try to point out an argument against them, they claim that it comes from a “Darwinist.”  That word implies that someone worships Darwin, or believes everything they say.  Since ID’s audience is generally people who don’t agree with Darwin’s theory of Evolution, then using the term “Darwinist” makes them wrong simply by being termed as such. They also add an “ist” or an “ism” to the end of “Darwin” to make it sound more like a belief system than science (after all, when talking about gravity we don’t say we’re following Newtonism, or that all scientists are Newtonists).

Similarly, Creationists do this to their critics by terming them, “Evolutionists,” or “Secular Scientists.”  There are two associations there, the former is discussed in the previous paragraph.  The latter is an attempt to say that anyone who argues against Creationism is godless.  And since the creationism audience is generally very religious, then making the association that anyone who is against their arguments does not believe in a god, and hence is amoral and not to be trusted.



I point these out because I think it’s humorous to listen to IDers or Creationists make their arguments and then say, “But the DARWINISTS will tell you …” or, “SECULAR SCIENTISTS disagree from what the Bible teaches us …”

I am not a “Darwinist.”  Yes, I think that Evolution is the current scientific theory that best explains the data.  I think there are some problems with it in terms of explaining all the mechanisms, etc., but the theory itself of change over time is as established as the Theory of Gravity, Relativity, Quantum Mechanics, or Atomic Theory, and no other scientific theory has been proposed that better explains the data and is also falsifiable.  But that means that I understand a scientific concept – NOT that I am a “Darwin-worshiper.”

Which begs the question:  What does this have to do with astronomy?  Absolutely nothing, really.  Evolution deals with how new species arise.  It has nothing to do with whether the Earth is flat, or the Sun less then 6000 years old, or if we went to the moon.  But when people make arguments to propagate their own pseudo-astronomy-of-choice, they often try to associate people who are against them with something their audience believes is “bad.”  Darwin for ID, secularism for creationists, or government apologist for hoaxes.

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