Exposing PseudoAstronomy

June 29, 2011

Are Creationists Winning Some Parts of the “Culture War?”


This is a quick post so I’m going to forego my normal subject headings.

Last year, I wrote a post entitled, “Do Scientists Believe?” where I discussed the use of the two words “believe” and “think” as they are used in our American English language (I would also assume British/Canadian/Australian/etc. English, but I don’t know for sure).

Feedback seemed somewhat mixed as to whether the terms are interchangeable or whether people should be more precise in using “believe” when there is something you are taking without evidence versus “think” where you have evidence to back it up. Personally, I agree it’s a bit of semantics and didn’t really have much sway.

That is, until I read the latest Institute for Creation Research article entitled, “Miss USA ‘Believes’ in Evolution. I figured it would be a standard ICR pice about how she should be more God-fearing and whatnot. Instead, the article discusses the very issue I brought up last September in my post: “Oftentimes the respondents, including Ms. Campanella, spoke of evolution as a belief system. More often than not, the women supported presenting students with as much information as possible so that they could decide for themselves what would be best to ‘believe.'”

In other words, the ICR is using the innocent imprecision with which people use English to claim that evolution requires belief, therefore faith, to be considered valid by people.

Obviously I have not interviewed the new Miss USA. I don’t know if she really “thinks” or “believes” in evolution, but the very fact that the ICR is using this as a “win” in my opinion requires we ask the question: Are creationists winning some parts of this supposed culture war? The fact that, in everyday language, we are using terms like “believe” when referring to scientific theories seems to indicate they may be.

I’m reminded of something Steve Novella (Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe podcast host) stated several months ago. He was talking about his and other doctors’ push to use the term “evidence-based medicine” or “science-based medicine” when referring to standard treatments. He added that after several years of doing this, that even the “alternative” medicine people were beginning to use the term. He saw this as winning part of the battle, part of the culture war, when your opponents use your terminology.

Is that what’s happening here?

Edit (Update on July 30, 2011): I saw this comic posted on another blog and thought that it summarized my point fairly well:

June 28, 2011

The Magical Hyperbolic Tetrahedral Geometry of 19.5° Latitude


Introduction

Hyperbolic Tetrahedral Geometry

"Hyperbolic Tetrahedral Geometry"

Take a tetrahedron (4-sided solid made of four equilateral triangles) and put it in a sphere such that each point of the pyramid touches the inside surface of the sphere. Draw a straight line through the center of the sphere such that one end of the line intersects a point of the pyramid; think of this line as the polar axis, and now orient it in your mind so that the line that goes through the pyramid point is down. Now draw a line around the circle’s equator. Now, if you take the angle between the equator, the center of the sphere, and one of the three non-pole points of the pyramid, you get 19.5°.

That’s the magic of Richard C. Hoagland’s hyperbolic geometry and all the claims of importance for the 19.5° latitude that I’m going to explore in this post.

Richard C. Hoagland’s Magical Thinking

Richard C. Hoagland says a lot of stuff. Almost everything he says sounds crazy. Over the decades, he has built up a vast conspiracy-laden mythology about the universe, how it supposedly works, and why things are the way they are.

To go into every single one of his claims, as I’ve said before in other posts about Hoagland (like here, here, or here), would be next to impossible. As in previous posts, the point in this is to go over a very specific claim.

The “19.5° is an important number” stems from his whole “hyperdimensional physics” mythos. Again, something I’m not going to go into. Partly because it’s incomprehensible, nonsensical, and made up. Suffice to say, “A tenet of these views holds that vast amounts of energy originating from dimensions we cannot perceive are available at latitudes 19.5° both south and north on the Sun and every planet in the solar system” (quote source).

In other words, Hoagland and fellow believers claim that it is at 19.5° latitude on every body in the solar system that we have the biggest/bestest/scarriest/craziest/powerfulest/whateverest feature. Let’s take a look, shall we?

What’s at 19.5° Latitude?

Taken from Hoagland’s own website, we have a short list proving that everything of importance in the solar system is at 19.5° latitude.  Note that everything in this table is directly copied from his website except for the comments, which I have simplified/shortened/clarified.

Object Feature Latitude Importance
Venus Alta Regio 19.5° N A Volcanic Region
Beta Regio 25.0° S A Volcanic Region
Earth Hawaiian Caldera 19.6° N Largest Shield Volcano (on Earth)
Moon Tsiolkovskii 19.6° S Unique Farside “mare-like” Lava
Mars Olympus Mons 19.3° N Largest Shield Volcano (on Mars)
Jupiter Great Red Spot 22.0° S Vast Atmospheric “Vorticular Upwelling”
Saturn North/South Equatorial Belts ±20.0° N/S Region of “Storms” Observed from Earth
Uranus Northern/Southern IR 1-2 K “Dip” ±20.0° N/S “Upwelling” Created by High-Altitude Clouds
Neptune Great Dark Spot 20.0° S Presumably Same as Jovian Counterpart*

*Hoagland calls this “Neptune Great Red Spot” but it has, since it was observed by Voyager 2 in 1989, disappeared.

Since Hoagland posted this (his page is ©1989), many other people have found other things on other planets that they claim enhances this idea. One such site, for example, indicates that the Pyramid of the Sun is at 19.6° N (on Earth). Other people claim, such as Will Hart, that all solar storms and susnspots originate from 19.5° latitude on the sun; another twist from this site about the sun is “sunspot activity and the region of peak temperatures is limited to 19.5 degreees north and south.” Others remark simply, “It is interesting how most planets in our solar system display phenomena at this latitude.” The list of claims goes on.

Dissecting the List, and Are These Features Important?

One of the first things you should notice from Hoagland’s list is that only one of the 9 things I pulled (the ones I didn’t are on Jupiter’s moon Io) is at 19.5°. Two more are within 0.1° of it. For a precise geometric phenomenon where huge amounts of energy are released, this isn’t very precise.

On Earth, Mauna Loa, Hawai’i, with a summit at 19.48° is a correct claim of the largest shield volcano presently on the planet. However, it’s really not that spectacular a volcano in terms of energetic potential. The Yellowstone caldera is about 34×45 miles (55×72 km) across. That’s just the caldera. It is at a latitude 44.4° N. The most recent known supervolcano eruption on Earth was in Lake Taupo, about 26,500 years ago, and its latitude is 38.82° S.

Additionally, the largest earthquakes – more releases of energy – since 1900 haven’t been anywhere near 19.5°. None of them.

As for structures on the Earth to harness this energy, one might consider the Pyramid of the Sun and say, “wow, that’s pretty neat that it’s at 19.5°.” But what about Egypt’s pyramids? Or South America’s? What about other architecture, say, Stonehenge? None of these are near 19.5°. This is what we call “cherry picking” to an extreme.

If we want to expand the notion of cherry picking, let’s go to the moon. Hoagland has found some random feature at 19.5° … err, 19.6° … latitude on the far side that has something to do with a volcanic feature. Except that the moon is covered in volcanic features. When you look at the moon, all those dark splotches on the near side are vast volcanic areas where ancient impacts allowed magma from deep below the crust to breach the surface and fill them. And these seas of volcanic material — maria (plural) — are not in any way centered around 19.5°. Nor are the smaller volcanic features that we observe today still strewn throughout them.

Or there’s Mars. Hoagland and his ilk claim that the vast Olympus Mons volcano – the tallest volcano in the solar system – is centered at 19.3° on Mars and is perfect evidence for this hyperbolic geometry. Except that it’s not. The caldera complex of Olympus Mons (there are at least 6 distinct calderas at the summit) range between latitudes 17.8° and 18.8° North. In addition to that, Olympus Mons is so vast with a diameter of around 650 km that the northern scarps start at around 23.5° N while the southern margin is around 13.5° N latitude. So with it spanning over 10°, it’s not that hard to hit it. Besides, Mars has 23 other major volcanoes, and Alba Patera, which is actually the most voluminous volcano in the solar system (as Mauna Loa is the most voluminous volcano on Earth), has a caldera centered at 40.3° N.

The claim of the sun having sunspots centered at 19.5° is also wrong, as can be seen on any given day.

We can also look at other features of interest. I’ll name only one for brevity since I think I’ve made my point by now. Saturn’s moon Enceladus was, in the last few years, shown to have active geysers spewing material from the interior of the moon. What’s their latitude? About 90° S — that’s right, the south pole. Not anywhere near 19.5° North nor South latitude.

Final Thoughts

This particular magical belief is only supported by very very careful cherry-picking. As clearly shown above, even in the features that these people claim shows 19.5° is special, more than half the time they’re just wrong, off the mark, or are being very generous with reporting their numbers. And still the features that are “correct” are not especially unique.

I don’t really think much else needs to be said on this topic. It’s just made up and features are found to fit it while ignoring everything else.

June 23, 2011

Creationists Complain on Censorship Because Math Apparently Shows GodDidIt


Introduction

“It’s said that, according to the law of aeronautics and the wingspan and circumference of the bumblebee, it is aeronautically impossible for the bumblebee to fly. However, the bumblebee, being unaware of these scientific facts, goes ahead and flies anyway.” — Mike Huckabee, 2008

That quote is a fitting opening to this blog post, where after my hiatus I return to my bread-and-butter, batting at the low-hanging fruit offered up by young-Earth creationists (YEC). This post in particular response to the latest Institute for Creation Research (ICR) article by Brian Thomas, “Journal Censors ‘Second Law’ Paper Refuting Evolution”.

In reading up for writing this blog post, the Discovery Institute (the Intelligent Design think-tank) has also posted an article about it.

Crux of the ICR Article

The bulk and point of the article is, as usual from the ICR, to complain that evilutionists are so insecure that they can’t stand dissent and that the Truth is in the Bible. That said, let’s look at what’s different in this one.

The crux of this particular article is that a “math professor Granville Sewell of the University of Texas, El Paso showed that notions of nature alone building the complex structures of DNA are as unlikely as nature building a computer [and] either event would violate the second law [of thermodynamics].”

In other words, he’s claiming that, just as Huckabee claimed that Science says bumblebees can’t fly therefore GodDidIt, that Science says DNA can’t arise naturally therefore GodDidIt.

The Second Law of Thermodynamics

The second law of thermodynamics is “the entropy one.” It can be interpreted to verbally state, “The entropy of an isolated thermodynamic system cannot decrease.” In thermodynamics, entropy is the inability of energy to do work. Unscientifically, “entropy” can be thought of as the chaos in a system.

For example, an unlit match has a fair amount of stored chemical energy. Light the match, and it will produce heat that can do work, but smoke will rise – parts of the match that have burned – and that material will no longer be able to perform any useful work. Thus, entropy has increased.

Entropy should NOT be confused with the opposite of “order.” In fact, the order in a system can increase while entropy also increases. An example I like to use is to say you have a bunch of different sized marbles or rocks that are all mixed together. As they settle, they will sort by size. As they settle and sort by size, potential energy in the material is lost, the overall entropy has increased, but the overall order has also increased (because they are now sorted by size).

The Second Law of Thermodynamics and Evolution

This has been addressed SO MANY TIMES that I’m not going to do it here. People much smarter than I have shown the absolute rubbish of this claim before, so I will simply refer you to TalkOrigins.org (link 1, link 2).

If you really want a short version of the several ways this is a non sequitur, one is simply that Earth is not a closed thermodynamic system — we are open to space, receive energy from the sun, and radiate energy to space.

A quick-and-dirty second reason is that pockets within a thermodynamic system CAN DECREASE in entropy so long as the system as a whole increases or stays the same.

Going a Bit Deeper Into This Case

The story the articles I linked to in the Introduction tell about are of the math professor in question submitting a paper to a math journal, having it accepted, but then at the last minute having it withdrawn. Hence the “silencing,” “censoring,” and other various claims.

I obviously cannot speak for the journal editor. I don’t know what backdoor dastardly deeds may have gone on. Or may not have gone on. I can, however, look at some of the facts about this professor and what the Intelligent Design people state. Two in particular came up.

First, Prof. Sewell has written intelligent design literature before where “he concludes that there is nothing in the history of life to support Charles Darwin’s idea that natural selection of random variations can explain major evolutionary advances.” An earlier work can be found here. Obviously then, this is a person who has a particular framework in mind from which he operates. That is not a crime, nor is it a bad thing. But it does provide some context.

Second, Prof. Sewell hired a laywer. That in itself says something. An academic hiring a lawyer because his paper was rejected from a journal? I may be new to this whole being a Ph.D. thing, but I’ve been around academia my entire life. I have never heard of someone hiring a lawyer and paying them $10,000 to fight because their paper was rejected from a journal (Andrew Wakefield may be an exception but that’s a different issue – the lawyer came when the paper was retracted over a decade later).

To me, this screams Discovery Institute test case all over it. The DI seems to have more lawyers on staff than “scientists,” and they very frequently try to use the legal system (judicial and legislative branches) to get what they want because they can’t through normal academic channels. Now, this is supposition on my part – I admit that. And then I looked into the law firm, which is decidedly conservative (based on the people and cases) and religious (considering they have references to Genesis 12:3 and Psalm 122 very visibly on their website).

Now, again, being a conservative Christian law firm isn’t bad for purposes here. But what it does is add to this story, strongly indicating there is more to it than just a poor math professor who is upset that his innocent paper was rejected.

Final Thoughts

I have actually skimmed Prof. Sewell’s paper. You can, too. It’s actually an easy read. A lot of it is quotes. It’s four pages long. And it reads a lot like ID and YEC articles I’ve read over the years and it repeats many of the tired, debunked ID/YEC claims.

But, there is a bigger picture here beyond the simple case in point, publishing, and alleged “viewpoint discrimination” (an ID buzzword). That’s why I opened with the Huckabee quote (which also, by the way, is wrong). If we observe something repeatedly, objectively, and clearly (such as a bumblebee flying), but our current scientific understanding of the process cannot account for it, then our science is incomplete. It does not mean GodDidIt. That’s the whole point of science: To figure out how the world works.

We don’t know how the DNA molecule arose. And that’s why scientists are trying to figure it out. Scientists don’t use the God of the Gaps argument, as Brian Thomas, the ICR article author does, and look to the Bible to find out that GodDidit.

June 17, 2011

A Fancy Sign Does Not Good Science Make


Introduction

As my first post since my hiatus to finish my degree, I thought I’d bring up a timely topic. Over on the Moon Zoo forums, one of our most active volunteers and forum moderators, a woman who goes by the name of Jules, posted about her time at the Times Cheltenham Science Festival.

From the Festival, Jules posted about her own outreach with Moon Zoo (and those other zoos …). She also took a photo of a particular sign:

Moon Sign at Cheltenham Science Festival

Moon Sign at Cheltenham Science Festival - Original credit, Jules W.

You can click the image to enlarge it. I strongly suggest reading it before moving on.

Let’s Look at the Text

The particular offensive paragraph is the fourth:

“As you have noticed the Moon goes through a number of phases, from full Moon, though to new Moon and back to full Moon. This is because as the Moon orbits, the sunlight that makes it visible can be blocked by the Earth. This means that the amount of the Moon that is illuminated depends upon where the Moon is along its orbit.”

Interesting. I would ask why you can see the sun and moon in the sky at the same time if Earth’s shadow is blocking light, causing the Moon’s phases.

You can also think about a lunar eclipse, such as the one that was visible just this week from most of Europe, Africa, and Asia.

What’s Wrong with This

If you haven’t caught on yet, this is not why we have phases of the moon. The moon orbits Earth approximately once a month. As it orbits, one half is lit by the sun, and the other half is in its own shadow, just as Earth is always half-lit by the sun and half in its own shadow for night. Since the moon keeps one face always looking at Earth, it is slowly rotating relative to the sun and so each point on its surface goes through about two weeks of daylight and two weeks of night.

For a really cool movie illustrating this made by an amazing graphic artist, educator, and scientist, check out this link (22 MB, MOV format).

In other words, this sign is wrong. Blatantly wrong. Clearly wrong. Any little amount of thought put in would indicate that this is wrong (why do we see the moon in any phase other than full at the same time as the sun? we shouldn’t if Earth’s shadow is what causes the phases …).

And yet this sign looks nice, is shiny, has several corporate sponsors, and is presented at a large science festival.

Two More Things

The poster also lists a distance to the Moon as 384,000 km. This is correct. Until Jules pointed out to me that the sign claims this is the distance between the Moon and Sun (which is 149,600,000 km ± 384,000). The 384,000 km is the distance between Earth and the Moon.

A final incorrect statement has to do with the third paragraph which states that the moon having the same side facing Earth has been “very useful as astronomers have been able to map the surface of the Moon using telescopes.” This doesn’t really make sense. I suppose one may be able to claim that it would take us twice as long to map the Moon if we saw the whole thing, but then the nice part would be we’d be able to map the whole thing. We had to wait for the first Soviet flyby to return photographs of the lunar far side before we could even begin to guess what it was like.

Final Thoughts

This gets to the heart of two of the main reasons I do this blog. (1) It shows that all because you have a big fancy sign does not mean that you are right. People have to be ever-vigilant and questioning or they risk falling for something like this. (2) I think people learn better by examining misconceptions / mistakes that they make or others have made. The sign is clearly wrong, but you may not have known why it was wrong — it may have just sounded weird. So now with the actual explanation for phases, you can contrast that with the sign’s explanation which can make it easier to remember.

On a related theme, this sign actually reminds me of a sign I saw in a science museum a few years ago. It was talking about the force of a car crash and how much destructive power a 60 mph (100 kph) car crash has. And then the museum decided to throw in another line about how, “But, according to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, if conditions had been a little different the accident may not have happened at all!”

Yes, that was a science museum. Using a fallacious appeal to quantum mechanics.

Keep a lookout, folks, these things are everywhere. To distort a phrase, the price of knowledge is eternal vigilance against pseudoscience.

June 12, 2011

I Welcome My Argument from Authority and Location in My Ivory Tower


Hello all. I know I haven’t posted in awhile – I think twice in the last five months or so. As stated back in January, I was working on graduating. As the title for this very short post suggests, I did. I’m now in that ~5% of people in the world that has a Ph.D. Actually, a B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. And we all know what those stand for (since this is a PG-rated blog, I won’t go into that, but you can look it up).

And so, I am now able to use the argument from authority, “I have a Ph.D. I’m right, you’re wrong.” And I can be content living in my Ivory Tower of academia, isolated in my own field without any consideration for others, thinking deep thoughts and adding to the elitist knowledge that the Illuminati and Bilderberg Group use to run the world behind the scenes.

Or — wait. Maybe not. I have two half-time postdocs, one continuing my previous work, one being project and science lead of the citizen science project Moon Zoo, and yet other than a small salary increase, nothing has changed. I still work most of the time from my apartment and I still drive the same budget car. I’m still studying craters, though I’ve expanded from Mars and am obviously also now looking at the Moon. I still have to tie my findings into the bigger picture since nothing in science exists in isolation, and I’m still just as fallible as I was before. Or maybe that’s just what I want you to think.

Anyway, now that I’m done with my degree and starting to figure out how to get my motivation back in gear, you can start to expect more regular blog posts. I’m still working on my 2012 Astronomy eBook/PDF doc, and — shhh! don’t tell anyone! — I’m tossing around the idea of a podcast based upon this blog (if the Dumbass can do it, so can I). As far as I can tell, other than Phil Plait’s defunct but still-available-on-iTunes podcast, no one actually has a “bad astronomy” podcast out there (if I’m wrong – which I can’t be because I have a Ph.D. now – please post a link to it in the comments). The format would be short and sweet, I’m thinking of bi-monthly and a 15-20 minute format.

The Rubric Theme. Blog at WordPress.com.

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