Exposing PseudoAstronomy

November 30, 2011

A Follow-Up on How Science Works versus Creationism


Introduction

This is a short follow-up to my last post, “Mistakes in Science Apparently Means Creationism Is True.” In that fine piece of blogging, I talked some about how science is a process where we continually revise our knowledge based upon new observations and discoveries. Contrasted with creationism.

It was therefore apropos that I ran across this article on Ars Technica, “ How a collapsing scientific hypothesis led to a lawsuit and arrest .”

Article

The article in question was written by John Timmer, a faculty at Cornell Medical College. He got his Ph.D. in Molecular and Cell Biology (like my dad!) from University of California, Berkeley (not like my dad). So I’d say he’s reasonably qualified – while avoiding an argument from authority – to write about this topic.

In his article, Dr. Timmer tells the story of a small group of researchers thought they found a retrovirus associated with prostate cancer, and they later even linked it to people with chronic fatigue syndrome. I’m about as qualified to talk about medicine as any other lay person (so not much), but I can gather that this would be pretty darn important. A retroviral link means (a) a good test to see in who this may develop, and (b) a possible cure if we could get rid of that retrovirus. Their work was published in one of the two leading journals in the world, Science.

Then problems developed. I don’t want to take too much away from Dr. Timmer’s article, which I highly recommend reading. But, suffice to say, other people investigated these claims and tried to verify them. Nothing less than the country’s blood supply was actually at stake if their findings bore out. Problem was that no one could replicate them. And the main researcher’s (Judy Mikovits) co-authors started to walk away. Mikovits didn’t, ended up being fired for insubordination when refusing to share cell cultures as required, and then arrested for stealing her lab notebooks and other things.

So, as the title sums, a collapsing hypothesis led to a lawsuit and arrest, but also a good moment to illustrate how science works, especially in contrast with creationism.

How Science Works

Readers of my blog will recognize that I’ve said this before, but it’s important to get across. So I’ll try to shorten it this time. The scientific process requires duplication of findings. It requires testing of claims. It requires questioning and critiquing others’ results. It requires revision.

All of these requirements are how and why the process of science is incremental and self-correcting. Mikovits’ work made it into one of the most prestigious scientific journals in the world. That does not mean everyone believed it nor that it meant it was “true.” Less than five years later, the paper has been retracted and the researcher has been pretty much disgraced in the scientific community and is facing significant legal issues due to misconduct and theft. The study was shown to be wrong. The scientific process is to thank for showing that.

(And now the obligatory “in contrast, creationism … .”) In contrast, creationism generally requires putting your fingers in your ears and shouting, “La-la-la, I can’t hear you!” when something contradicts their favored position. Or, they will accept the latest study whole-heartedly if it fits their paradigm, but not admit it was wrong if later retracted or shown to be wrong or misunderstood. I pointed to Earth’s magnetic field strength last time, this time I’ll choose comets and simply link to my blog (here, or here), or podcast (here).

Final Thoughts

Perhaps the worst part of the story in question is that a whole new subset of medical pseudoscience has cropped up because of Mikovits’ work. Before she came along, no people suffering from these really thought there was a retrovirus cause. Now some do, and “alternative” practitioners offer to test them for the non-existent retrovirus or offer antiretroviral agents as “cures.” Even though it’s now come out that the original study was simply wrong. But, unfortunately, that doesn’t change things once the idea is out there.

November 28, 2011

Mistakes in Science Apparently Means Creationism Is True


Introduction

I realize I haven’t posted in a few weeks other than for my podcast. Busy, blah blah blah. Anyway …

The post today centers around yet another Institute for Creation Research (ICR) article, this one by Christine Dao, their assistant editor. I’m not quite sure for what she is the assistant editor, but that’s her title. The article is, “Mistakes and Misconduct in Science.” Peter over at “Eye on the ICR” has already talked about some of the details of this latest piece of young-Earth creationism (YEC) propaganda and I suggest you read it if you’re interested in a detailed picking apart of the article. (He gets up crazy-early to write about these things. Or maybe it’s just ’cause he’s on the other side of the planet from me.)

The reason I’m doing a post on it is that I want to talk more about the process of how science works, how it is conducted, the self-correcting nature, and how this is the opposite of creationism.

Crux of the Nature Report

Ms. Dao’s basic premise is a recent Nature report entitled, “Science Publishing: The Trouble with Retractions” (unlike most articles, this one seems free to the public to read, so go ahead and follow the link to read it).

The report (the point of which the ICR article misses) really talks mostly about attitudes among journals and journal editors with regards to retractions and the reasons for retractions. It also mentioned some numbers — mainly that the number of retractions these days is around 0.02% of all papers published. And that in one week alone, around 27,000 papers are published. That means, if we multiply by about 52, over 1.4 million papers are published in scientific journals each year, and 2,800 of those will eventually be retracted.

Fascinating.

Crux of the ICR Article

Ms. Dao seems to make a really big issue of this tiny number. She blows it way out of proportion – as I’ve shown YECs are wont to do – and somehow says that because there are a tiny number of retractions, with a small percentage of those due to fraud, this means that evolution is wrong. I’m serious. Go read her last two paragraphs if you don’t believe me.

Scientific Process

Something that Ms. Dao either does not know or willfully ignores is that scientists know this. We know that not 100% – or 99.98% – of papers published in journals are going to bear the test of time and further research. No scientist thinks that. In my undergraduate education, we would have a weekly seminar in the astronomy department where we read a paper and discussed it and decided whether or not we thought the results were valid.

This is something called critical thinking where you analyze things and decide whether or not they make sense in light of all the other observable evidence. Probably the reason Ms. Dao chooses to ignore this is because YEC does not hold up to critical thinking, but more on that in the next section.

In fact, far from 100% of published papers being “right,” various studies have shown that at least 30-40% of them will later be falsified based upon new data, observations, experiments, and theory. This is not a secret. It’s how science works. It is self-correcting over time because everything is subject to further testing and independent analysis.

Creationism Process

Goddidit.

Creationism Process, Expanded

I’ve used this diagram before in a lengthy post on the scientific method, but it bears repeating here:

Flow Cart Showing the Scientific Method

Flow Chart Showing Faith-Based 'Science'

The flow chart shows the basic process that most biblical literalists use to vet new information. They may get an idea, or hear of something. Let’s use a young-Earth creationist mainstay, Earth’s magnetic field (previous blog on this, podcast on this). Data shows that Earth’s field has gone through reversals in polarity at many points in the past. The data is clearly out there for anyone to examine, and it is unambiguous that crustal rocks record a flip-flopping magnetic field.

Now, does it fit in the Bible? Creationists such as Kent Hovind say that it does not. The result is that alternating magnetic fields are simply not possible. To quote him: “That’s simply baloney [that there are magnetic reversals in the rocks]. There are no ‘reversed polarity areas’ unless it’s where rocks flipped over when the fountains of the deep broke open. … This is a lie talking about magnetic ‘reversals.'” (Taken from his Creation Science Evangelism series, DVD 6:1.)

Alternatively, Russell Humphreys, of Answers in Genesis, accepts that there have been magnetic reversals, as he is able to fit it into a reading of the Bible. He explains the field reversals as rapidly taking place during the 40 24-hr days of Noah’s Flood. Hence, because they are able to fit it into the Bible, they accept it as a dogma.

Creationism Retractions?

Ms. Dao makes much ado about almost nothing in terms of retractions in scientific literature. Something she doesn’t tell you are how many retractions there have been in the creationist literature. Obviously the Bible has never been retracted, except for those books that aren’t accepted (like the recently discovered Gospel of Judas, or the Book of Ezekial). But I’m talking things like the articles the ICR, AiG, or CMI puts out that I and many others have picked to shreds over the years. Or perhaps their own journals, like the ARJ (Answers Research Journal) or the Journal of Creation. Any retractions?

The most I have ever seen is AiG’s list of “Arguments Creationists Should Avoid, which CMI copied and expanded, or when Brian Thomas of the ICR changed his article based, perhaps, on my criticisms (see the post-script in that blog post).

In fact, far from a retraction, Creation Ministries International still has its article by Andrew Snelling entitled, “Solar Neutrinos – the Critical Shortfall Still Elusive” that discusses the solar neutrino “problem.” (For information on this, see my blog post on it.) The article is still in its online index for their Journal of Creation with no indication that it was retracted. The only thing you get is in the HTML version where the editor notes that the argument was valid for the time but “that the shortfall problem seems to have been solved. Therefore creationists should no longer use this as an ‘age’ argument.” If that’s what passes for a retraction, these guys should run for Congress.

Final Thoughts

Yes, maybe half of papers published in journals now will be found later on to not be valid in the light of further study. This is true. This does not mean that evolution is not true. It means that creationists would do better to understand a topic before attempting to criticize it if they care at all about intellectual honesty. But that’s a different blog post …

November 23, 2011

Podcast Episode 12 is Up: Conspiracy Skeptic Interview About Nazis Living in the Hollow South Pole


Quick post to let’cha know that episode 12 is now posted. So while the 64% of you USAians are making turkey, stuffing, potatoes, jell-o mold, and cookies (okay, my mom’s making the next-to-last and I’m making the last one today), you can enjoy for about 40 minutes the docile tones of Karl Mamer and myself. And learn about Nazis living in the hollow Earth … which I showed doesn’t exist in episode 8.

November 16, 2011

Podcast Episode 11: Dust and Rock Claims of the Apollo Moon Hoax


It seems like I just put out an episode. Which I did. Here’s the second regular episode for the month, another one on the Apollo moon hoax/conspiracy. I’m trying to go through the claims that don’t rely on a bunch of photographic evidence because, obviously, that’s difficult to do during a podcast.

So I picked about a half dozen claims related to the specific category of claims of dust and rock, and I discussed two rock-related independent ways to show that we actually did land and bring back astronauts.

It’s also a bit long, almost 40 minutes. Enjoy.

November 11, 2011

Creation Research’s Education Person Shows Own Stupidity


Introduction

This is a short post in the wake of my 3200-word last post on Mike Bara. Yes, it’s an ad hominem, but it’s oh-so-juicy.

The Site

The Institute for Creation Research, a young-Earth creationist, um, institute, has news stories that I often use for fodder on my blog. They also have started up a “Science Essentials” website that has blog posts and resources for teaching students that modern science is false and young-Earth creationism is the only thing that works. Yes, that sounds harsh, but no, I am not exaggerating.

Peter over at Eye on the ICR blog has been posting a lot about them. I recommend reading any single one of his posts on it and you’ll see what I mean.

The site is mainly a blog in its content that is written by Dr. Rhonda Forlow. Her degree is a BS in psychology and special education, an M.Ed. in educational leadership and policy analysis, and an Ed.D. in educational leadership. Notice that no where in there does it include common sense nor actual science.

Spam

Blogs get spam comments. They are usually very obvious and they are caught by spam filters. My own blog currently has 39 spam in the filter since I last emptied it two days ago. An example message is by someone named “critical illness online quote” with a long URL for their web address and e-mail address and a message that contains the text, “Thanks for that awesome posting. It saved MUCH time :)” along with a link to their site.

Another example message in my spam filter is by a person named “best dogs for kids” with the message “Its like you read my thoughts! You appear to grasp a lot approximately this, like you wrote the book in it or something. I feel that you simply could do with some % to power the message house a little bit, however instead of that, this is magnificent blog. A fantastic read. I will definitely be back.”

As I said, these are really obvious and clear. And they should be to anyone with oh-so-many advanced degrees in education and psychology.

But Dr. Rhonda doesn’t seem to know this.

An Example

Again, I got this from Peter, but if you for example go to Rhonda’s first post, at the time of this writing there are 25 comments. When I first posted a comment on her blog, there were a few less. One of the comments is by someone named “download music to my phone” with the message, “I wanted to thank you for this great I definitely loved every little bit of it. I have you bookmarked your web site to look at the latest stuff you post.”

Another is by “MP3Million” with the text, “Thanks for taking the time to discuss this, I feel strongly about it and love learning more on this topic. If possible, as you gain expertise, would you mind updating your blog with more information? It is extremely helpful for me.” In both of these, the URL to the spam site was left by Dr. Forlow.

Even more amazing is that the message after that by MP3Million is by Dr. Forlow. She replies to MP3Million’s request with, “For now, the postings are scheduled for 3 times per week, with an occasional 4th or 5th post. However, please check out our website at http://www.icr.org for free access to over 12,000 science articles. You will find more specific information there.”

That’s right folks, she thinks these are real people.

Censorship

I actually tried to – fairly politely – post to her blog to let her know that these were spam and that her actual replies to them did not lend much credibility to what she writes. The comment went through automatically.

I checked back a few hours later and my comment was removed. The spam was still there. Her response to the spam was still there. I tried to post again, and this time nothing happened. The only reason I can figure is she blocked my IP address from posting.

Still Goin’!

I just checked back, a day later (I’m writing this early Friday morning) and there’s a post by a person named “Palo Alto disability rights attorney” with the spam URL still linked from the name and the comment “Good Article. You do a good job. Thanks again.”

Final Thoughts

I checked through a few of her other posts. I found a comment from “Cheap Flights,” “r c helicopter reviews,” and others.

As I said, I realize this is a total ad hominem. But at some point you just have to call crap when you see it. This is one of those times. The vast majority of the world – in fact the majority of Americans, despite our image among many and despite our Republican presidential candidates – do not take young-Earth creationists seriously. The creationists don’t need any help in looking foolish. Things like this help them look even more clueless.

And, deleting my comment trying to point out that she was letting spam through and responding to it but not deleting the spam further illustrates the “head in the sand” that creationists do when confronted by information they don’t like. I’m not really annoyed that she deleted my comment, nor am I upset. I’m more flabbergast than anything else. I don’t like stereotypes, I’ve tried to avoid being a stereotype for the last 10 years. But actively working to ignore someone pointing out some small stupid thing she’s doing just feeds more into that stereotype of creationists.

November 10, 2011

Mike Bara’s New-Agey Anti-Science Beliefs, from Bad Geometry to Astrology to Exploding Planets


Introduction

In the latest episode of my podcast, I interviewed a man, “Expat,” about some of the claims of another man, Mike Bara. In setting up the interview with Expat, I agreed to limit the scope of the interview to just cover his call into the show and very closely related claims.

However, during Mike Bara’s interview on Coast to Coast AM on November 10, 2010, he made many many basic science claims, errors, and outright pseudoscience statements. On this “Baraversary” of his interview on Coast to Coast, I wanted to delve a little more in-depth into some of his other claims.

About the Man, Mike Bara

I rarely go into someone’s detailed past or give a short biography, but since this post is about him and his claims, I thought it would be informative to give a little bit of context. My background on him is that he hooked up with Richard Hoagland a few years ago and co-authored Dark Mission: The Secret History of NASA. Already by this point, you know the man is a conspiracy hypothesist, believes pareidolia-based observations are the real deal, and employs some magical thinking and numerology as he agrees with Hoagland’s mythos (which I’ve written about before and will write about again).

After listening to him talking for three hours and taking copious notes about what he says, I can also tell you that he can be classified in general as “new agey” and a general “modern science denialist.” That latter classification is not one I make lightly, but I do for him.

That’s my impression. In complete and total fairness, I’ll also give you what he says in his own words, copied and pasted on November 10, 2011, from his about page:

“A self-described “Born Again conspiracy theorist,” Mike’s first book Dark Mission-The Secret History of NASA (co-authored with the venerable Richard C. Hoagland) was a New York Times bestseller in 2007 for Feral House books. His essay “The Occult History of NASA” appears in Secret and Suppressed II, also from Feral House. Mike has made numerous public appearances lecturing on the subjects of space science, NASA, physics and the link between science and spirit, and has been a featured guest on radio programs like Coast to Coast AM with George Noory. He began his writing career after spending more than 25 years as a “Card carrying member of the Military-Industrial complex” where he worked for a wide variety of aerospace companies as an engineering consultant and designer. In 2010, Mike returns with “The Choice” a new book for New Page Books which he describes as “The unified field theory of physics and metaphysics.” He promises that “The Choice” will peel back the layers of mystery around the Mayan calendar, 2012 and the future we can expect if we don’t heed nature’s warning signs.”

So you can see that I’m not being unfair in my painting of him as a new-ager nor a conspiracist.

He also looks kinda badass in his photo, like he’d be at home on a noisy motorcycle — much cooler than I do. This is a totally irrelevant point, but since I rarely talk specifically about a person, I thought I’d bring it up in the rare case when I do.

The next several sections are my attempt to organize the basic statements made by him during his Nov. 10, 2010, C2C interview.

Hyperdimensional Physics

Bara is an ardent believer in Richard Hoagland’s hyperdimensional physics. Starting in hour 2 at 12 minutes 29 seconds in, he claims that hyperdimensional physics means that everything is connected to something higher, a higher spatial dimension, which is where energy comes from. At 13:16 into hour 2, he states, “I can back up all this stuff that we’ve all believed in … with some actual physics and physical experiments that pretty much prove that the so-called ‘laws of physics’ that we’re taught in school, really aren’t real, they don’t really work, and they kinda fall apart when you get into them a bit, and there’s something much richer and much more beautiful … a more elegant solution, and that’s the theory of hyperdimensional physics.”

This is a very bold claim, to be able to turn over all of modern physics. It would be nice if he presented actual evidence of this that were well documented. Unfortunately for him, he does not. Throughout the episode when asked about this, what he does seem to harp on is that during eclipses, pendulums will move backwards or change their rate of swing. Bara presents this, for example, at 11:15 into the third hour: “Free-swinging pendulums [before eclipses will] be swinging with the rotation of the earth suddenly start going very rapidly backwards against the rotation of the Earth.”

I actually assumed this was total nonsense, but I was intrigued to find, after 5 seconds on Google, that it’s only total nonsense the way he explained it. There is an actual named effect, the Allais effect (named after frenchman Maurice Allais who later won a Nobel Prize in economics). You can read more about it on everyone’s favorite website, Wikipedia. The effect is that Allais observed that during a total solar eclipse, the rate of swing of a pendulum changed very slightly.

To summarize, experiments about a decade ago on normal pendulums found that the very very very slight differences in period could be easily accounted for by changes in temperature and air currents during an eclipse. The effects on a torsion pendulum (one that twists rather than swings) have been unreplicatable after they’ve been reported. This can really be summarized (as Wikipedia nicely does) by: “No unambiguous detections [of an Allais effect] within the past 30 years when consciousness of the importance of [experimental] controls was more widespread” (original source, subscription required).

So, the evidence for this seems to be a tiny effect that can be explained conventionally or an effect that does not exist.

But perhaps I’m closed-minded about hyperdimensional physics because I don’t believe in God. Bara states at 21:47 in hour two, “[Scientists] don’t want to admit that there’s a god, and that’s another reason why hyperdimensional physics is not accepted.” Um … sure. Not.

Bara 0, Science 1.

Astrology

And auras and crystals and consciousness. He believes in all that, clearly explicitly states it, but I want to focus in this section more on the astrology (though this will be short). I’ve written quite a bit about astrology before. If interested in the short version, I recommend this post first. If interested in reading more, I recommend this post second. Or, if you’d rather listen, I can now link you to my podcast episode on astrology (ep. 6 for those who already subscribe but want to re-listen).

Anyway, there are several short quips about astrology in the C2C interview, so it’s a bit hard to pull out a true gem. I’ve chosen the one at 37:55 in hour 2:

George Noory: “I mean, you’re even a believer in astrology now, aren’t you?”

Mike Bara: “Yeah well you know again, that goes back – that goes back to the hyperdimensional physics because the idea is that the planets are generating energy, which is traveling through these higher dimensions, and it is like this wave after wave of energy affecting us here on this planet. And, uh, there’s lots of, uh, interesting cases, there’s lots of experiments that show that-that this is really the case. That the planets and their positions relative to the Earth do have an effect, not just on physical instruments here, but actually on the way we think! And our consciousness.”

As an example – “the best example” – he tells a story of John Nelson in the 1950s who tried to find out why short-wave radio signals went wonky sometimes. Bara claims that he (Nelson) found a correlation with planetary positions and activity on the sun which Bara says is evidence for this: When the astrology for the planets said good things should happen, the sun was quiet, and then the opposite was the case. If you do a Google search for this (as I just did), you will find this study reported on astrology sites and … yeah, Richard Hoagland’s site in an article written by Bara. A bit more digging and you can actually find a PDF of the article Nelson wrote which was NOT in a peer-reviewed journal, but it was in a technical memo for RCA. The abstract clearly does state that Bara is not misrepresenting the basic findings from Nelson:

“An examination of shortwave radio propagation conditions over the North Atlantic for a five-year period, and the relative position of the planets in the solar system, discloses some very interesting correlations. As a result of such correlations, certain planetary relationships are deduced to have specific effect on radio propagation through their influence upon the sun. Further investigation is required to fully explore the effect of planet positions on radio propagation in order that the highly important field of radio weather forecasting may be properly developed.”

There are several important things to note here. First, this was not peer-reviewed meaning that there was no external unbiased rigorous check of his work. Second, correlation does not equal causation. Third, this was a single study, and even if 100% true and valid, it has not been replicated by anyone else that I have been able to find (I searched for about a half hour). Fourth, it has not been used to actually make predictions, which all testable hypotheses must.

Fifth, there is overwhelming science showing that astrology does not work, that it is nothing but magical thought and cold (and sometimes hot) reading. I don’t even think I need to refer to argument from authority vs. scientific consensus here (but I did anyway …). At 12:22 in the third hour, though, Bara stated, “If the planets can affect radio signals, then they can also affect our brainwaves.”

At the absolute very least, one can conclusively state that this does not prove astrology affects our “consciousness.” And if this is the best evidence, well, that’s sad.

Bara 0, Science 2.

2012 Galactic Alignment

It’s nice when one’s research involves going back into their own blog archives. In this case, for background in why the 2012 purported galactic alignment is not worth the electrons its printed on, I’ll refer you to this post of mine.

With that out of the way, Bara stated during the second hour at 27:48 into the hour: “We do get hit by a pulse of energy from the center of the galaxy right around this December 21[, 2012] period, in fact it goes for about a month before and a month after that where we’re really in this energetic pulse from the center of the galaxy at this time.” Then he went on to say that the energy is neutral and we can choose whatever we want to come out of it and it’ll happen. (Did I mention that the tagline for his book, The Choice, is, “You’ve heard of The Secret, now you can make The Choice”?) He also states around 10 minutes into the third hour, “We are aligned with the center of the galaxy [around the winter solstice].” Again, see my post linked in the paragraph above. And he brings in astrology. See the section before this one.

I’m not even going to go into detail on this. For this claim, it’s up to him to provide the evidence for this energy blast. What it is, what it’s made of (since “energy” is not a nebulous thing that just passes through stuff like new-agers think), why we need to go through an alignment that isn’t actually happening, etc. Otherwise …

Bara 0, Science 3.

Planets: Burped at Birth, Exploded at Death

In addition to this other stuff, Bara is a fan of the idea “planets were given birth to by the sun, the sun spewed the plants out, kinda from her belly” (16:31 into hour 2). Because of this, the planets are connected, and all our woes today are because there are missing planets, “quite obviously” the missing one between Mars and Jupiter (“Planet V”), of which Mars used to be a moon. When you lose planets in the system, you have less life energy and the “system gets out of harmony.” As evidence, “What happens is the Earth is tilted off its vertical axis by about 23°, and that makes us vulnerable to different waves of energy that are created when different planetary geometries – that is, the orbits of the planets around the Earth affect what’s going on here, they affect physical instruments, things like pendulums, they swing backwards during eclipses” (starting at 18:46 into hour 2).

So yeah, back to pendulums with a really really wonky idea of solar system / planetary formation, including the completely fallacious idea that the asteroid belt was once a planet and Mars was somehow its moon (“Mars itself which was absolutely devastated by … Planet V, the signatures are all over Mars” (18:20)). I actually do plan to go into the whole “exploding planet ‘hypothesis'” in some future blog post and likely in some future podcast episode, as well. For now, I hope that most people recognize that this is very hard to make happen by any known process, and the onus is on Mike Bara to really provide VERY convincing theory and evidence for why it’s the case. Yeah, I’m punting, but this is a LONG post.

I’ll forgo scoring this one for now. Someone remind me when I do that future post to add a link here.

Scientists Don’t Know Not’in’

This is very common in many new-ager claims or those of pseudoscientists or “amateur scientists:” Professional scientists are too entrenched in their thinking to really “get it.” Bara talks about this quite a bit starting around 22.5 minutes into hour two of the program. Among other gems are that evolution is wrong and Lloyd Pye is the guy to believe on this. (Lloyd Pye is the infamous “caretaker” of the “Starchild Skull” as well as the author of Everything You Know is Wrong (where “You” refers to him if you even get a page or two into the book), and he believes that ancient ETs were what created or at least modified us to be as we are today. Yes, that’s the person whom Bara would like us to believe about human origins and evolution.)

One particular gem was spoken starting at 24:03 in hour 2:

“There was only about 30% of the matter necessary to be holding the universe together. What does the physicist and the astronomer do? Do they say, ‘Oh, well gee, maybe our ideas are wrong.’ Um, no, they say, ‘Well the matter must actually be out there, it’s just invisible, we can’t see it, we can’t measure it, we’ll call it “dark matter” and we’ll start to look for it.’ [laughs] It’s just ridiculous ’cause what’s holding everything together is what’s literally the hand of god through a force that I talk about a lot in The Choice which is called ‘torsion.'”

Yeah, that’s right, instead of an extra term in Newtonian gravity or there being material out there that does not interact with light but does interact with other matter (that is the definition of dark matter), it’s God. It’s really difficult to know where to start here. So I won’t bother. I’ll refer you to wiki to get an overview of dark matter, and then for laughs I’ll refer you to my post on how Conservapedia calls dark matter a liberal pseudoscience.

As I noted with the galactic alignment, at the very least, Bara needs to provide evidence at least as convincing as the conventional explanation for his ideas to be even considered. Though I guess you can always claim “God can do anything” (by definition, right?), but that’s not science.

Bara 0, Science 4.

Ellipses in Planetary Orbits

It seems fitting that the section after I talk about Bara’s claim that is summarized as “scientists don’t know anything,” that I should come to this last one about ellipses that shows Bara knows less than the average middle school geometry student. I discussed this with Expat in the podcast, but it really bears repeating here, with diagrams.

On page 34 of The Choice, Bara states: “Many of the planet’s orbits, which … should be perfectly circular by now, are highly elliptical. In fact, Mars’s orbit is so eccentric that its distance from Earth goes from 34 million miles at its closest to 249 million miles at its greatest.”

It’s really simply incredibly stupid of Mike to claim that Mars’ orbit is highly eccentric because it comes as close as about 0.38 A.U. (“astronomical unit” is the distance between the sun and Earth) but goes as far as 2.67 A.U. (Actually, in fairness, the numbers that he gives equate to 0.37 A.U. and 2.68 A.U.; he and I rounded slightly differently.) Therefore it’s an eccentric orbit that’s evidence for his fission model of solar system formation.

The problem here, for those who didn’t listen to the podcast or don’t remember their middle school geometry is that you measure the long and short axis of an ellipse from the center of the ellipse. Not some crackpot arbitrary point inside or outside of it. In this case, the sun is one of the foci of the ellipse that is Mars’ orbit. The sun is one of the foci of ALL solar system objects that are in orbit. Earth is not. Measuring your axes from Earth is just stupid. It’s made up. It makes no sense. It has to be one of the stupidest things I’ve ever talked about on this blog, and that’s saying a lot.

It’s as though Bara missed math classes after 5th grade, missed the Copernican Revolution that started over 500 years ago, heliocentrism in third grade, and then he simply lies about it that he didn’t claim he said what he did, and then he makes the original claim again.

Bara 0, Science 5. Though I’d like to count this last point more as ∞ because of its shear stupidity, so … we’ll just wrap it up with Bara 0, Science ∞.

Final Thoughts

This was a long post and took me over two hours to write. There’s a lot in here. I return, though to what I wrote in the background on the man. I think he is anti-science and is so clouded by his sense of new-ageyness that he clearly refuses to admit that he may be wrong about something or that the conventional explanation is real.

His many claims that are related to astronomy are, well, many. I’ve gone over six in this post in some detail. Every single one is wrong. But when challenged, as was clear in my interview with Expat, Bara goes on the attack and defense, lashing out at the accuser, calling them a stalker, crazy, obsessed, etc., that nothing he said is wrong, and then refuses to address it in any way. From a psychology standpoint, it’s quite interesting. From an intellectual standpoint, well, there simply is none. There is no sense of intellect there that can be addressed.

Podcast Episode 10 is Up: Interview About Mike Bara’s “The Choice” (Plus Some Hoagland on the Side)


Yet another bonus episode of my podcast has been posted. This episode is my first ever interview that I conducted, so I apologies if it sounds shaky in places. The interview is with a man who goes by the pseudonym “expat,” and he requested that I refer to him by that name throughout. He runs the blog, “The Emoluments of Mars” (yeah, I tripped over that second word in the recording) which is also known simply as “Dork Mission.”

Readers of this blog who may be familiar with Richard Hoagland’s own publications may recognize both of these titles as plays on Hoagland’s books, “The Monuments of Mars” and “Dark Mission.” The latter was co-written with Mike Bara, and this interview was about Bara’s own, single-author book, “The Choice.” Most of that book is about normal new-agey stuff with the basic premise that we can shape the world with our thoughts during the events of 2012. He also has a lot of other claims in there, such as saying that astrology is a perfectly valid science, Newtonian physics doesn’t work when things rotate, the sun budded off planets, and some other stuff.

In particular, the reason for this bonus episode is that a year ago today, on November 10, 2010, Bara was interviewed on Coast to Coast AM. Expat managed to call into the show and challenge Bara about one very minor claim. What ensued was …

Okay, if you want to know, listen to my podcast. :) Suffice to say for now, it was interesting, and we talked a bit about how to conduct an interview on talk radio and how to treat guests and callers. I explore the call with Expat and go a little more deeply into some of Bara’s claims that Expat has some particular expertise on (namely rocketry, engineering, etc. — the flip side of space exploration about which I have next to zero knowledge).

Please let me know what you think, either by e-mailing me, posting here in the comments, or to the shownotes page for the podcast episode. As I said, this was the first interview I’ve ever conducted, and considering that I have another one scheduled to do with Karl Mamer (“The Conspiracy Skeptic”) in about a week and a half, feedback on how you think this went would be good.

Hopefully I will also have a blog post up within a day or so looking at some of Bara’s other claims during that episode of Coast to Coast, but I have a meeting in 12 hours and need to go to bed. The normal, regularly-scheduled podcast episode for November 16 will return to the normal format and will discuss some of the rock and dust claims related to the Apollo Moon Hoax conspiracy. The nascent Q&A section needs some Qs if it’s going to persist past its debut episode, so feel free to send in questions.

Edited to Add: The above-mentioned future post has now been made.

November 8, 2011

Proof in Science versus the Media, Comets and Water, and Creationism


Introduction

How Earth got its water is an ongoing question in solar system evolution. A new study suggests comets are more likely to be the answer than previously thought. But could the answer simply be too hard for us to figure out; should we just not worry, and can we simply say that a loving God did it?

The Problem

When the solar system formed, there was a basic temperature gradient — it was hot in the center, where the sun was forming, and it got cooler as you went farther away from the nascent star. The location in the solar nebula that was about 100°C (212°F), is called the “Frost Line” where the water molecule would no longer be a volatile gas, but it would be a liquid and could be accreted to a forming object in an appreciable quantity. The frost line is about where the asteroid belt is.

Hence the problem: If liquid water could not form where Earth was, then how did Earth become the relatively water-rich world it is today?

A Solution?

For the last few decades, the favored solution has been delivery by comets. Comets are mostly water-ice, we know they impact objects, and we know that the impact rate was much higher in the very early solar system than it is today (in fact, I’m attending a workshop on the early solar system bombardment history in February where the focus will be on this).

A problem with this has to do with what’s called the deuterium/hydrogen ratio. Basically, water comes in two forms, “normal” water which is the familiar H2O (two hydrogen atoms and an oxygen atom), and HDO (one hydrogen, one deuterium, and one oxygen). The latter is known as “heavy water” and you may have heard about it in relation to nuclear fusion.

Deuterium is a heavy form of hydrogen. A normal hydrogen atom has one proton in the nucleus. Deuterium has one proton plus a neutron, making its mass about twice that of a normal hydrogen atom … hence “heavy water” when it’s incorporated into the water molecule. It’s still considered hydrogen because the number of protons is what determines what atom it is. (And for those who like the extra credit information, tritium would be one proton and two neutrons.)

Getting back to the problem, the deuterium/hydrogen ratio (abbr. as D/H) is the normal ratio of heavy water molecules to normal water molecules found on an object. Earth’s oceans have a D/H of about 1.56 x 10-4, or basically a bit more than 1 out of every 10,000 water molecules is heavy water. Comets, though, have been measured to be about (2.96±0.25)x10-4, or around 70% too high. Asteroids are too low at (1.4±0.1)x10-4.

So where did the water come from?

New Proof that Comets Watered the Earth

So proclaimed the title of an October 11, 2011 Time article. That’s right, “Proof.”

My problem with this statement is that we never have absolute “proof” in science. We have evidence that adds to the “conclusivity” (yes, I just made up a word) of a hypothesis. Proofs are in mathematics. Proofs never apply to real life. If you’re interested in this subject, I’ve written probably two relevant posts on it (post 1, post 2).

The article in question (Hartogh et al. 2011) is about a recent Nature Letter (a very short paper) that measured the D/H value in a comet named 103P/Hartley 2. The D/H measured in that comet came out to be (1.61±0.24)x10-4 … which overlaps with Earth. This particular comet was from a different part of the solar system than previous comets with a D/H measurement, which is part of why this is a new result and why it was hyped up a bit.

The effect of this work is to revitalize the comets delivering water hypothesis, clearing up one of the biggest problems with it: We now do have a potential source for water that matches a significant constraint.

If you’re interested in reading more about it, other than the title, I do suggest the Time article.

But I Thought Goddidit

This brings us to the Answers in Genesis’ “News to Note” from October 15, 2011, specifically the second item. They don’t necessarily dispute the basic science of the article, rather the “view:”

“Nevertheless, in an effort to avoid a biblical explanation for the origin of all things—in other words, God as Creator—many cling to this explanation despite its aberrant physics. While the isotope ratios in the comets and asteroids are of scientific interest, they tell us nothing about the origin of the solar system. …

“The Bible explains the origin of the water on Earth and the origin of the entire universe. And the time of this Creation, about six thousand years ago, does not exceed maximum comet lifespans or demand a hypothetical birthplace to replenish them. … [God] made the Earth with its generous supply of water, not as a hot molten world that would boil away its water. After providing the Earth with an atmosphere, dry land, and plant life, He created the solar system and the other stars. He specifies that He made the sun, moon, and stars on the fourth day of Creation week. There is no way to blend the Genesis account of Creation with secular ideas of cosmology such as the big bang and the nebular hypothesis without calling God a liar.”

I really don’t think at this point that I need to go into detail about this and my position on it. It really is interesting to see, though, how these people are so willing to stick their heads in the sand and would be perfectly content in the Dark Ages of Europe a thousand years ago.

Final Thoughts

This was an interesting piece of science news, one that I knew some creationist somewhere was going to have an issue with, and one that I hoped the news media would not spin too broadly. I was right on the first, wrong on the second. With the latter point, these things are subtle, but using words like “proof” or “prove,” “hypothesis” versus “theory,” and “believe” versus “think” are words that shape significantly the public perception of science, how it works, and how “definitive” it is.

After over half a decade of fighting, the science-/evidence-based medicine crowd has succeeded in making that the term people use for what had been generally referred to “western” medicine. It’s a long battle, but maybe some day we’ll be able to get people to use some of these basic science terms correctly. At least when referring to science.

November 2, 2011

The Many Stars of the Heavens … Are Young?


Introduction

In my unofficial rivalry with a high school student, it looks like I’m finally getting a post up before him about the latest from Brian Thomas and the Institute for Creation Research’s “Daily Science Updates.” Though it’s really an unfair challenge because he’s in a land Down Under and wakes up about the same time that these suckers go up on the ICR’s website. I’m supposed to be in bed.

This post today is about the IRC’s post, “New Study Can’t Explain Blue Stragglers’ Youth.”

About Stars

Stars are important. Perhaps that much should be obvious to everyone. In the current epoch of the universe, stars are what provide energy to allow some minor things like, say, life to exist. Stars are formed generally with a set amount of gases, and the vast majority of this gas is hydrogen. In the core of stars – roughly the inner 10% in a sun-like star – temperatures and pressures are high enough for fusion to occur which is what provides energy.

It also prevents the stars from collapsing. Stars are a balancing between outward pressure from heat and energy versus the collapsing force of gravity. Gravity compresses the gas until fusion begins and counters it. In small stars, there is less force of gravity, and so the pressures and temperatures are lower and fusion goes on more slowly. In large stars, there is a larger force from gravity, the pressures and temperatures are much higher, and fusion goes on at a much faster rate and over a larger portion of the star in order to prevent collapse.

This means that even though smaller stars – say, red dwarfs – are significantly lighter than the sun, they will be able to continue to fuse hydrogen for roughly 10 trillion years as opposed to the sun which has an estimated lifetime of 10 billion years.

Contrast that with the gigantic stars – blue supergiants – which are generally up to about 50 times the mass of the sun, and these will go through their nuclear fuel in roughly 10 million years. In each of these (red dwarfs, yellow dwarfs like the sun, blue supergiants), we’re dealing with a factor of one thousand difference in expected lifetime because of the different pace of fusion.

Blue Stragglers

Surrounding our galaxy, there are roughly 175 known groups of stars called globular clusters. These are tight groupings of many hundreds of thousands to millions of stars that generally all formed at once (astronomically speaking) and lack any interstellar material from which to form new stars. There are different ideas for how these originated – some think they were just clouds of gas that collapsed into dense clusters of stars, similar to open clusters, while others think they may be the cores of small dwarf galaxies that were consumed by our galaxy.

What’s known is that effectively every globular cluster surrounding our galaxy is very old, on the order of 10 billion years. In fact, before we had good models of stellar evolution, there was a disconnect in cosmology where we thought globular clusters were older than the universe (obviously that could not be true). It’s important to note in a post about this particular subject that these have since been reconciled both by better estimates for the universe’s age and better stellar models.

The point is that globulars around our galaxy are old (many around Andromeda are young, but this post is not about them). The problem is that most globular clusters contain a few blue supergiant stars known as “blue stragglers.” These are, well, blue supergiant stars. Given what I said above, these should not exist in an old star cluster because they should have exploded 10 billion minus 10 million years ago.

The same can be said about some open clusters in our galaxy, except that open clusters are usually young and they contain fewer members. Open clusters usually form within the plane of the galaxy, and over the course of a few hundred thousand to hundred million years, the member stars disperse due to interactions with other stars. So, most are young and most happily contain blue supergiant stars that are no problem for stellar evolution models.

There are a few exceptions, and one of them is discussed in the article that’s the subject of this post.

NGC 188 is well above the plane of the galaxy, so it has managed to stay together for about 7 billion years. All the members formed at about the same time, except that it contains some of those blue stragglers. So again, we have a question that needs answering: How do you get stars that are supposed to have lifetimes at 10 million years in a cluster that’s 7 billion years old?

Enter Brian Thomas and the Young-Earth Creationists to the Rescue!

Mr. Thomas’ article is responding to a recent Nature paper entitled, “A mass transfer origin for blue stragglers in NGC 188 as revealed by half-solar-mass companions.” With the wonders of the internet, you can read the paper yourself for free here (it’s short, but it’s pretty technical).

Now, to start off with, when I was an undergraduate just a very very few short years ago, because I’m not old, we were taught that the likely explanation for blue stragglers was that they were a second generation of stars within open clusters. These days, it appears as though the most promising explanations are either a collision between two stars that produces a massive enough result to make a blue supergiant, and/or a star in a close binary system that siphons off material from a companion to give it enough mass to turn into a blue supergiant.

This paper, in particular, that Thomas references was looking at the latter explanation. Through their observations, they have statistically ruled out the merger as the likely explanation and settle on mass transfer as the more likely of the two. They end their paper by saying mergers of triplets may happen, though. Remember: Clusters are dense and so binary and trinary systems are not uncommon.

The problem with this, according to Thomas, is:

“Nothing explains the many blue stragglers that are not binary stars and yet exist near and far throughout the universe. Could they have received recent “youthfulness” through collisions with other stars?”

I’m not actually sure where Thomas is coming from here. By definition, blue stragglers kinda need to be a member of a cluster of stars because otherwise they wouldn’t be blue stragglers. The reason we know they “shouldn’t” be so young is that we need a cluster that all formed at the same time from which to say, “Oh, every star in here formed at the same time, the bulk age is 5 billion years, therefore giant massive blue stars are out of place.” Perhaps Peter can provide context for this.

Moving forward to the next-to-last paragraph of the ICR article:

“So, isolated blue stars could not have received their young looks from a binary system, since by definition they have no binary from which to siphon fuel. They probably didn’t receive their youthful appearance from collisions, either, according to these results. And though the binary blue stragglers may have siphoned fuel from nearby partners, the idea that 12 of 16 only did so recently—after an imagined 7-billion-year wait—defies reasonable odds.”

At some point in skepticism and debunking, we simply have to ask, “Show your work/math.” Brian, show your math here. How did you calculate what are “reasonable odds?” We’re talking about a cluster with over 10,000 stars in a tightly confined space. Brian is presenting a specific, statistical claim. He needs to back it up with data before it’s even worth going into further.

It’s like me saying it’s mathematically impossible for 100 billion trees to exist on this planet. Okay, fine, but before anyone should accept that or take my word for it, they should demand to see evidence.

But, at least in that article (I see no link to “further math” nor “supplemental material”), he does not. Rather, the next sentence is “goddidit.” Err, sorry, it’s: “Thus, the best explanation is still the most straightforward one—blue straggler stars look young because they are young.” Yeah — what I said: “Goddidit.”

Edited to Add: Solstation.com has a nice illustration showing the two different models:

Missing the Forrest for the Tree

I find it interesting when young-Earth creationists use star ages to argue for a creation only a few thousand years ago. The whole “problem” with blue stragglers is that they are in a system that is otherwise dated to be several billion years old. And yet creationists don’t address that big, glaring contradiction to their “model.” Or in discussing supernovae and why there appear to be “too few” of them for the age of the galaxy (let alone universe), they miss the entire fact that supernovae occur at the end of a massive star’s death which takes at least 10 million (not thousand) years to happen.

Or that there exist neutron stars and black holes, which are the remnants from these explosions which would have again taken at least 10 million years to happen.

Or that there exist white dwarfs, which are the remnants from a sun-like star at the end of its life, and yet that takes several billion years to form.

At that point, for creationists, they must simply revert to God as Loki, the Norse trickster god. God made everything with the appearance of age to trick us. That’s not the kind of god that I think deserves to be worshiped. Nor, actually, do I quite understand why an omnipotent being has such a personality insecurity and low self-esteem to need to be worshiped. But I digress from astronomy here.

Final Thoughts

Why and how blue stragglers exist is an open question in modern astrophysics. It’s an interesting question, and it’s one that may not have a single answer. The latest paper seems to indicate that at least in this cluster, binary collisions are not the likely formation mechanism. It may be elsewhere. It could be trinary. It could be mass siphoning. We don’t know. But never should we revert to and replace “we don’t know” with “goddidit.” That simply stops science in its tracks and leaves willful ignorance in its wake.

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