Exposing PseudoAstronomy

October 31, 2010

Planet X and 2012: When Is “2012,” Anyway?


Introduction

I was gone for over a week, without much e-mail contact nor modern things like air conditioning or heat. Which would have come in handy in sub-40° temperatures sleeping in a tent. During that week, it came to my attention afterwards that a chapter in a new book by Gerardo Aldana – an actual professor at a university (of California) as opposed to an “independent amateur scientist” – casts doubt on the alignment between the Gregorian calendar and the Mayan Long Count calendar.

What does this mean? “2012” doomsday via the Mayans may have happened up to 100 years ago. Interesting … we’re all still here.

Background

As I explained nearly two years ago in my “Primer on the Mayan Calendar,”, we don’t know for sure when the Mayan Long Count calendar started relative to the calendar that most of the world uses today. The very basic way these two calendars are lined up is based on the timing of known events that were recorded in both, and then counting the years forwards or backwards.

For example, if I say that today is October 31, 2010, on the Gregorian calendar, how would you know what day it is on the Hebrew calendar if you didn’t have someone keeping track? Let’s say that, also, American independence was recorded on the Gregorian calendar (it wasn’t, it was Julian, but let’s just be nice) as July 4, 1776. It also happened to be recorded by a living Jew as 17 Tamuz, 5536. Now, you may not know what today is, but you can count the number of days since July 4, 1776, and get an idea what day today is on the Hebrew calendar.

Getting back to the issue at hand, the correlation to get December 20, 2012 = 12.19.19.17.19 on the Mayan long count was based on work done a few centuries ago based on colonial documents (1500s) written in both Mayan and the Latin alphabet. It was later bolstered by an American linguist and anthropologist, Floyd Lounsbury, who did work with a Mayan almanac that charted important celestial events of the planet Venus.

Current Work

The latest work is by Prof. Gerardo Aldana of the University of California – Santa Barbara, who is a professor of Chicana and Chicano studies. In his book, Calendars and Years II: Astronomy and Time in the Ancient and Medieval World, he casts doubt on the correlation with the Venus tables. If the Venus tables’ interpretation is not correct, then that casts serious doubt on the historic correlations, since those were always less certain than the astronomical data.

Unhappily for doomsday proponents, perhaps, Aldana does not provide a new correlation, but simply the incremental work suggesting the old one is wrong.

Final Thoughts: What This Means

As I did mention in my original post on the Mayan Calendar, and as I suggested above, doing this kind of work is very difficult. There are many assumptions that need to be made, and there is often conflicting data. Fellow blogger and my internet acquaintance Johan Normark writes more on this issue in his post, “2012: The Long Count may be off by at least 60 days,” and I highly recommend reading it as he actually studies the subject.

I should also emphasize that this is one person’s analysis, and it was published in the popular literature as opposed to scientific (though in archaeology, the standards may be a bit different than in “hard sciences,” and I am led to understand from Johan’s post that he has been publishing this idea for a few years). Regardless, I am always wary of a single person’s analysis, and one should always withhold judgement until the other experts in the field can weigh in on it (even if it supports your own conclusions!). However, this is another piece that does add to the idea that the December 21, 2012 = 13.0.0.0.0 may not be the correct alignment.

I have already shown that all of the major physical claims of doomsday proponents will not be happening around that time, and this is a nice addition to the story — that the supposed “triggering event” may not even be happening at the suggested time, either.

Will this change anything? Very very unlikely. I would be surprised if even one true believer were swayed by this new analysis. Fence-sitters, perhaps, but people who are invested in this idea will not change. After all, many still cling to the idea that a solar event will happen in 2012 because about 8 years ago, that was when it was predicted the height of solar activity would be in the next sunspot cycle. But forecasts for the last three years by the same people have shown that the height of solar activity will be in 2013 to 2014 instead … and yet out of the hundreds of people I’ve listened to spout doomsday ideas, only one has actually incorporated this new data into it.

October 27, 2010

Major American University Advertising Pseudoscience?


Introduction

I will start this post with two disclaimers.

First, I am not a medical professional, nor student, nor have I had any medical training beyond a wonderfully taught class in high school on human anatomy and physiology. That is why I link to those who do have that necessary expertise for some points in this post. I do have the physics background, though, and use that where appropriate.

Second, I will be discussing the contents of two e-mails that were not sent to nor from me but were forwarded to me by the initial sender. I have received their (being gender neutral) permission to post the contents and while I have no way of guaranteeing the validity, I do think they are genuine since I know the person who sent them fairly well. I have also verified the main claims contained in the initial e-mail. I will also be anonymizing them for some liability reasons except for the name of the Chancellor (since that’s easy enough for anyone to look up, anyway).

With that out of the way, I am a graduate student at the University of Colorado at Boulder (CU-Boulder), for those of you who have not been reading this blog very long or have not checked the “About” page. For those who are unfamiliar with the university, it boasts roughly 30,000 undergraduate students and somewhere around 6,000 graduate students. The university has four Nobel laureates, three of them are in physics and one in chemistry. It is a Research I university meaning that faculty who want to do more research than teaching will go here, and it is fairly prestigious. The university is also reasonably famous (maybe a tad infamous, too) for its sports, and the entire campus pretty much shuts down itself and the nearby streets when there’s a football game. Now comes the disappointing part.

Edited to Add: I have written a follow-up post with the response of the Media Relations Director and Spokesperson at CU-Boulder. It’s not encouraging.

Initial E-Mail

Mr. Chancellor, Mr. Athletic Director, and esteemed regents:

Today I attended a football game at my alma mater CU-Boulder. I felt a moment of pride as I passed by Wayne [sic] Physics and saw the sign noting CU’s three nobel prize winners in physics. This feeling was countered by one of chagrin when I saw that CU was promoting a plastic wrist band called “Power Force” as “the preferred wrist band of CU athletics.” This promotion was done on the video screen (complete with a photo of the power force band) and with the announcer promoting this product. It was, to my memory, the only product that was promoted during the game in such a fashion during today’s game. I have had an opportunity to examine the website for this Power Force. They are selling rubber (or rubberized plastic, it does not actually say) wrist bands with collegiate logos for $28.99.

The website justifies this price with the following advertising copy: “Power Force Power Bands the Official Power Band of Collegiate Licensed Schools. Power Force, LLC is licensed to distribute team merchandise for more than 100 college teams. Power Force’s Innovative Products were developed to work with your body’s natural inner force. Within each Power Force powerband are ions that work with your body’s energy to give you confidence from within. Your inner force is limitless. Channel this force with Power Force powerband. Power Your Inner Force.” It does not take more than a rudimentary understanding of human anatomy and physiology to understand that there is no such thing as a “natural inner force” and that imbuing a plastic wrist band with some kind of ion is not going to have any effect on the human body whatsoever (except–I guess–if the ions were somehow toxic and would poison the wearer, which I doubt is the case here). The claim by the Power Force company as to the efficacy of this product is clearly pseudoscientific mumbo jumbo. It is extremely disappointing to see a university of CU’s caliber publicly and proudly associate itself with this kind of product, and with this kind of pseudoscientific claim. You are quite clearly (and apparently proudly) involved in selling a … overpriced product that cannot work in the way that its sales people claim. … This is no different than having the “preferred palm reader of CU Athletics” or the “preferred psychic medium of CU Athletics.”

I would also note that the website for Power Force brags that it is the official wristband of a great many universities. I don’t know how so many universities have been horns-waggled into an association with this dubious business partner, but I urge you to reconsider CU’s association, for the good name of the University that all of us love.

The website for this Power Force company is: http://www.powerforcellc.com/

Thank you for your consideration.

[Name]
CU graduate, BA A&S [year].

Emphasis is mine. Ellipses have been added to avoid liability issues.

Response

Dear [Name],
I asked our athletic department for an explanation for you regarding how products receive permission to use the CU logo and its endorsement. Buffalo Sports Properties owns the rights to all the advertising and sponsorship opportunities so this is their response.

“The company Powerforce went through all of the appropriate channels for approval to use the CU marks and logos. They applied for the CU license through CLC and based on the company’s information, goals and objectives, a license was granted. Additionally, the company has paid for a sponsorship with CU Athletics, which is the product was [sic] promoted on the video board.

As for the actual product, there has been research about magnetic therapy and its effects on pain, stress, fatigue, and concentration. While I don’t have access to our campus library (which may have better access to scientific research), here are two links to websites with articles about magnetic therapy.

http://www.articlesbase.com/medicine-articles/magnetic-bracelet-therapy-case-study-by-dr-carlos-vallbona-usa-2268067.html

http://www.magnetictherapyfacts.org/magnetic_therapy_research.asp

Thanks,
[First Name]
[Full Name]
Buffalo Sports Properties
[Phone]

Thank you for your interest and support of CU.

Go Buffs!

Philip P. DiStefano, Chancellor
University of Colorado Boulder

Ions

What are these mysterious “ions”? Put very simply, all atoms have at least one proton. If an atom does not have the same number of electrons as it does protons, then it is an ion. This will give the atom a net positive or net negative charge (if number of electrons is less than protons, then positive; if electrons are more than protons, then negative).

Now, it is true that ions in the body play an important role – an essential role – in allowing cell membranes to function as they should and in the basic function of muscle and nerve cells. I’m not going into more detail there because that’s beyond my expertise and it’s unimportant to this post. What is important is that while ions are essential, the phrase, “ions … work with your body’s natural inner force” is absolutely meaningless.

What inner force? There are four fundamental forces of nature — gravity, electromagnetic, and the strong and weak nuclear forces. So maybe they mean electromagnetic force. Except that the ions in a bracelet aren’t going to affect you in any way, pretty much no matter how strong they try to make them (assuming they actually do “put ions” into their product). For example, the multi-million dollar machines hospitals use called MRIs (magnetic resonance imaging) create electromagnetic fields that are thousands of times stronger than a refrigerator magnet, yet they don’t affect your health.

One sentence later, the marketing claim for PowerForce changes: “… [I]ons … work with your body’s energy …” But we’re faced with a similar problem. What energy? I’ll refer you to Skeptoid Episode #1 – New Age Energy for a good discussion on that.

Magnetic Supposed-Therapy

Interestingly, the response quoted by the Chancellor has nothing to do with ions. Rather, the person moved the goalpost to discuss magnetic therapy. This lends credence to my supposition that PowerForce is advocating that the “force” their products work through is the electromagnetic.

It’s also interesting to note that the responder thinks that the CU library may have “better access to scientific research” on magnetic therapy. I’ll tell you that they have better access than the average person to medical journals, but magnetic therapy studies that are actually done with large sample sizes and are double-blinded show null results. I recommend listening to QuackCast episode #15 that has a 33-minute discussion of the main claims of magnet therapy and why they are all untrue.

Since I am not a medical person, I will merely state and explain my favorite: The most common is that magnetic bracelets will help the flow of blood because your blood (specifically the hemoglobin molecule in the red blood cells) contains iron. The only problem with this is that the iron in the hemoglobin is nearly completely magnetically neutral. If it wasn’t, then if you went in to get an MRI, your blood would explosively exit your body and coat the inside of the machine. It’s really that simple.

I went to the two links that were recommended by the Buffalo Sports Properties responder. The first has an ad at the top that promises to teach you to “use your own body’s healing power to end chronic tendonitis pain.” The second is fairly obviously an umbrella page for pro-magnet therapy folks. While not necessarily wrong to use this as evidence, it is wrong to use them if you actually read their studies. The first is a self-study and is meaningless since it was completely unblinded. The second is a report on another study that in itself is meaningless and one would need to examine the initial study. The third is from the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine … hardly a mainstream journal that is accepted by most medical professionals.

For magnetic therapy to actually be true, it must be physically plausible, requiring a mechanism. From a physics standpoint, it does not, at least not in any of the ways promoted. Again, one of the easiest ways to almost literally blast any claim to its efficacy is to take it to the logical conclusion: Put the person in an MRI and the effects should be magnified significantly. And yet decades of MRI use has failed to show any kind of results claimed by magnetic therapy proponents.

Edited to add: A good, recent meta-analysis of magnet therapy.

Final Thoughts: What We’re Left

We are left with either knowingly or unknowingly ignorant marketing and promotion. If unknowing, it’s embarrassing at a bare minimum and should be corrected when pointed out. If knowing, then I would, in my opinion, say this probably gets into the realm of fraud (by the PowerForce company).

It’s ridiculous that a university as prestigious as CU, with three physics and one chemistry Nobel laureates on faculty, would sink to the level of unabashedly lending its name, logos, and promotional space to such an obviously untrue product and set of claims. I can understand someone over in the Buffalo Sports Properties office being ignorant of physics, chemistry, and human physiology and being swayed by big words, sciencey-sounding claims, and falling prey to the argument from popularity of dozens of universities on their bandwagon.

I may even be able to understand a Chancellor maybe not wanting to deal with looking further into the issue. But that’s part of his job. Any kind of promotion of pseudoscience by any academic institution should not be tolerated.

I have checked the PowerForce website and they do offer the CU bracelet. Their main marketing page does make the claims quoted in the initial e-mail. I encourage anyone and everyone who thinks that a university should not promote pseudoscience to contact the CU-Boulder administration and let them know.

If you do contact them, I recommend sticking to the basic fact that CU allows PowerForce to license their name and logo, that CU unabashedly advertises for them, and that the claims are demonstrably wrong. Details of the initial e-mail I presented and the narrative that followed are less important than the basic idea of an academic institution advertising pseudoscience.

Or, if you go to, are employed by, or are affiliated with another university, I encourage you to check out PowerForce’s website and see if they have yours listed. And then contact your own university’s administration.

Edited to Add: Now that you have read this, I have written a follow-up post with the response of the Media Relations Director and Spokesperson at CU-Boulder. It’s not encouraging.

October 9, 2010

“Scientists Don’t Like New Surprises” People Haven’t Met My Thesis Committee


This is going to be a quick post so I’m going to dispense with my normal subject headings. This idea that scientists don’t like surprises, or don’t like new things that challenge their sacred beliefs floats around the internet and popular culture a lot. The media delights in headlines that read, “Scientists are …” and insert any of the following: Baffled, Surprised, Astounded, Shocked, Clueless, Bewildered, Befuddled, Amazed. And many other adjectives that I can’t think of off the top of my head right now.

That’s the general media. Creationist folks and the intelligent designers also adore this because their literature tends along the “if scientists can’t explain this it’s proof that God did it.” You might be thinking, “Hey! That’s a straw man,” or “That’s not a fair characterization!” For you folks, I direct you to some recent postings:

From The Bible Is the Other Side blog:

In 2005, the Cassini spacecraft made a starling discovery, there are active geysers at the south pole of little moon Enceladus! It had astronomers shaking their heads, how could a small dead moon be still be geologically active after 4.5 billion years? It should have been frozen out billions of years ago because of lack of bulk, they say. … It’s truly amazing on what has been discovered! While the Cassini mission has thrown secular theories a loop, it has provided a wealth of great information on confirming the Bible!

From The Institute for Creation Research:

Mosasaurs were marine reptiles with large jaws and big teeth. Their fossils have been found on every continent, including Antarctica. They grew longer than 40 feet, and although they had fearsome jaws that marked them as a formidable predator, scientists had until now assumed that they were only mediocre swimmers. … However, an in-depth study of the world’s best-preserved mosasaur–which contains soft tissues such as skin, external scales, branching bronchial tubes, intestinal contents, decayed hemoglobin, and retinal soft tissues–demonstrated that the evolution-inspired weak-swimmer idea was all wrong. Instead, mosasaurs had all the necessary “adaptations” for a “fully aquatic existence.” … It has now been determined that mosasaurs swam quite well. Their remains show no evidence of having transitioned from any kind of land reptile, and at least one of them contains still-soft tissues. They therefore look like they were created recently, in accordance with Genesis history.

From The Discovery Institute:

A new paper in Nature magazine again shows that what was “once dismissed as junk” turns out to be another astounding example of complex and specified information in the genome and a crucial part of gene regulation. … What was “once dismissed as junk” turns out to be another astounding example of complex and specified information in the genome and a crucial part of gene regulation. Which paradigm would have predicted this finding: unguided neo-Darwinian evolution, or intelligent design?

The reason I bring this up is that I recently had a meeting with my thesis committee. Five Ph.D. scientists, all tenured except one who is tenure-track, two having been in the field as faculty researchers for over four decades. One of them did what I un-derisively and respectfully refer to as a more primitive version of my thesis work for her own thesis in the late 1980s.

There were two main things I came away from my thesis committee meeting with other than fighting the urge to cry (okay, not really, but it was not a pleasant experience). The first was that I needed to better focus and define the project, which is only a little disconcerting being ostensibly 7 months from defending. The second was a major emphasis from my committee members on the need for me to point out what is NEW with my work and has not been done before. Direct questions from my committee were: “What are the new results?” “How is your database different?” “What papers will you be comparing to?” “What papers’ hypotheses will you be testing and refuting?” And again, “What are the new results?”

Here are five people who between them have been in their field for about 150 years, who are established Ph.D. scientists in the ivory tower of a Research I institution (except one who I think is Research II), and according to popular ideas should be wanting me to prove that everything they’ve done in the past is right.

Instead, almost all they wanted to know was what am I doing that’s different and new and will “shake up” the field.

Amazing how people who have never actually been in the field they talk about end up characterizing it as the opposite.

Edited to Add:

After going to sleep after writing this post, I wanted to mention two more quick things that are related but obviously weren’t mentioned by my thesis committee. First, in order to publish in science, you pretty much always have to have something new. A paper review I got back a few months ago complained that it shouldn’t be published because it “presents little that is new.” Academia is pretty much publish or perish.

Second, the same thing goes for funding. While duplication of previous results, or duplication to place more stringent constraints on older results is important, funding committees have strong reservations in funding pure duplication research. This will vary significantly across disciplines, however, so it is a somewhat weaker argument to counter those who think “Scientists Hate Surprises.” For example, in the medical field, duplication is very important, especially clinically and in the pharmaceutical industry. But in my own field, you almost cannot get a grant if even a little of what you propose is duplication. Again from my own experience, I had a grant proposal in 2 years ago where about 5-10% of what I was going to do was duplication. Part of the reason it was rejected was they latched on that and said if someone else is already doing it, they’re not going to pay for it twice.

October 4, 2010

Comic Strip “Get Fuzzy” Tackles Pseudoscience with the “Big Bonk” Theory


Introduction

I listen to a lot of Coast to Coast AM. I know that a good fraction of the guests are quite literally certifiable, but it’s a good distraction from the mundane work day and, well, it can get addicting.

One of the hallmarks of the show, and something that its originator Art Bell would frequently say, is that that they will put ANYONE on to talk about ANYTHING (so long as it’s civil, etc.). This means that you get a lot of crazies. Same with folks who call in (despite the screeners). People who advocate pretty much anything and everything that the “mainstream” does not advocate. And a frequent refrain is that their “theory” is just as good as the mainstream one.

The Parody

Note: All images posted here can be opened in a new window and will be roughly double the posted size for easier reading.

Early in my college career I was introduced to the comic strip Get Fuzzy drawn by Darby Conley, one of the only things to which I’m thankful for my roommate. But that’s a different story. Anyway, the premise behind the strip is a single guy, Rob, living in an apartment with an anthropomorphized talking cat and dog. The cat, Bucky, is fairly insane while the dog, Satchel, is fairly dopy. I think the height of the strip was a few weeks where the cat was suing the ferret next door for knocking out his tooth … on Judge Judy.

Anyway, starting September 20 and going through October 2, barring the Sundays, the artist ran a story where Bucky decides to challenge, in a very Coast to Coast AM -like way, the idea that an asteroid killed the dinosaurs. The September 21, 2010 strip follows:

September 21, 2010, Get Fuzzy Strip

September 21, 2010, Get Fuzzy Strip

Well, when put like that, the scientific consensus seems laughable. But that’s because you have left out a significant amount of information. But it gets better. In the strip from September 24, 2010, the final line from Satchel is actually one that the Coast to Coast AM host, George Noory, has stated many times to someone’s crazy idea:

September 24, 2010, Get Fuzzy Strip

September 24, 2010, Get Fuzzy Strip

Continuing:

September 27, 2010, Get Fuzzy Strip

September 27, 2010, Get Fuzzy Strip

September 29, 2010, Get Fuzzy Strip

September 29, 2010, Get Fuzzy Strip

September 30, 2010, Get Fuzzy Strip

September 30, 2010, Get Fuzzy Strip

October 2, 2010, Get Fuzzy Strip

October 2, 2010, Get Fuzzy Strip

The Moral of the Story: Final Thoughts

Why am I taking the little free time I have these days to make a post about a comic that has little to do with astronomy? Because it has everything to do with how people think. And it has everything to do with how that maybe 1% of the population is willing to elevate any hair-brained notion to the same status as a scientific theory that has theoretical and observational backing and has withstood all attempts at falsifying it. And I do mean all.

This series may be a comic strip, but people really do this kind of thing, and worse, there are people who unquestioningly believe the one lone nut who promotes it!

The next time you read about or hear about or see about someone’s “theory,” pause and think. Don’t just accept it at face value. Is there evidence behind it? Are they giving you all the background information? Are they making things up, or are they “on the level?” In the end, is it something that’s worth your time to investigate further and seek out independent information, or is it just another “Big Bonk?”

Legal note: All images shown here are housed on the original server and I did not download them. All are copy written by Darby Conley and distributed by UFS, Inc. and posted online at comics.com. For brevity, I have not posted all strips in the series but picked the most relevant.

The Rubric Theme. Blog at WordPress.com.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,293 other followers