Exposing PseudoAstronomy

December 31, 2011

My Prediction for 2012


2013 will come without a problem with the human race pretty much as it is now, with nothing happening on the Dec 21, 2012 date that 2012ers claim.

To quote my favorite psychic prediction from Coast to Coast AM last year, “There will be no really big changes, it’ll be ‘pretty much the same-old-same-old.’ There’ll be some crises, medical advances, etc., but that’s what happens every year.”

Enjoy whatever celebrations you may do on today, this arbitrary date of a major calendar ending … and starting again.

December 26, 2011

New Interview of Me on “Point of Inquiry” Podcast


Quick post to let you know that Karen Stollznow interviewed me for the December 26th episode – last of 2011 – of Point of Inquiry podcast. The subject matter was a summary of the 2012 phenomenon and associated phenomena, and it was appropriately titled, “The End of the World as We Know It.” It’s very, very roughly a 42.62-minute podcast, about the length of my own (so less detail on each subject). Enjoy!

And for reference, I figure it’s time to update my list of 2012 posts so far:

I have also written a few posts that are tangentially related to the 2012 subject:

And my podcast episodes so far on 2012:

December 22, 2011

On the Subject of Absolute Denial


Introduction

Lately, I’ve had a somewhat morbid fascination with the news feed over at Conservapedia where they post the most absolute conservative and Christian fundamentalist stories along with often laughable commentary. For example, we have, “Thousands of Christians, fed up with persecution at the hands of atheists, rally in Texas in a fight to save their Nativity scene.” Or:

Additional Climategate fraud exposed: U.S. Gov’t money helped fund a deliberate hiding of data: “Now a new batch posted in late November to a Russian server shows that scientists at the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit refused to share their U.S. government-funded data with anyone they thought would disagree with them.” Not even replication is allowed, a basic tenet of science. And our critics say we’re anti-science!

At least a third of the time (at least it seems), their articles are direct links to Creation Ministries International (CMI) articles. Following their CMI bent, Conservapedia is a big supporter of the CMI’s “Question evolution!” campaign, often filling their news feed with notes that a new Question evolution! campaign was launched somewhere.

What brought me to write this hopefully short post is Conservapedia’s commentary with their latest update on said campaign: “How did life originate? Evolutionists and atheists don’t have any answers. Creation Ministries International unveils their second Question evolution! campaign video which no evolutionist/atheist is going to be able to rebut.”

Question evolution!

RationalWiki’s page on “Question evolution!”

That’s what mostly needs to be said, but to summarize, CMI came up with 15 questions that “evolutionists” supposedly can’t answer and where each of them disprove “Darwinism” with absolute certainty.

One problem with this is that several of their 15 questions have nothing to do with evolution, such as, say … Question 1, “How did life originate.” Sorry CMI, but origin of life studies has nothing to do with the change in the frequency of alleles in cells. Other of the questions are philosophical and have nothing to do with science, like Question 6, “Why do living things bear the hallmarks of design, [sic] if no one designed them?” (you’ll also notice they improperly use commas).

A second problem is that this sets up a false dichotomy with a god of the gaps on one end where CMI obviously wants you to think that because scientists supposedly can’t answer these questions, Goddidit.

The final “problem” is that the questions pertaining to evolution are answerable and have been answered many, many times. RationalWiki does a good job on that page I linked to.

The Point of This Post: Denial

It admittedly is difficult for me to imagine, with full knowledge of my own argument from personal incredulity, that the editors over at Conservapedia are ignorant of the responses by scientists to this campaign. After all, CMI did their own three-part series on it. Perhaps this is why Conservapedia often inserts the word, “satisfactorily” into their statement that these are questions “evolutionists cannot satisfactorily answer.” But that’s my own musing.

It is thus that I wanted to muse further about the idea of denial. Often in skepticism, we naïvely expect propagators of woo to play by the rules of logic, evidence, and acknowledgement of statements and full responses to them. We quickly learn that most don’t play by that game. The response is often moving the goalpost (conspiracy theorists often do this) or a Gish Gallop (named for the creationist who did this and often encountered with conspiracies as well as creationists).

It is in this spirit that I point out that Conservapedia is simply denying that scientists have answered their questions, they just don’t like the answers. I submit that people such as Andrew Schlafly (the founder and primary editor of Conservapedia) will never consider any response to these kinds of things “sufficient” for their purposes. Almost by definition, this is where we enter the realm of the “True Believer.”

Final Thoughts

In science, in contrast (and I know I’ve addressed this many times), the ideal is to never hold our own personal beliefs above the evidence for them and especially against them.

If someone were to present demonstrable evidence that Planet X were nearby and there was actually some mechanism for it to cause a pole flip in a year yesterday, I’d look at it and take it seriously. But a Planet X that’s 365 days away (2012 is a leap year, after all … oooo! scary!) would almost be the brightest object in our sky. Last time I looked up, I didn’t see it.

Similarly, if someone were able to present demonstrable evidence that pans out for, say, the Moon Hoax conspiracy, then that would be something. But I would expect that if I looked into that person’s claim and presented my findings to them, that that person would then look at my evidence and analysis and respond to it. That has never been the case so far (at least for me), all they do is not respond or move onto another claim.

So really, this is a guide to those who believe something that’s not generally accepted: If you lay out a specific claim, present specific evidence for it. If someone takes the time to look into that evidence and addresses your claim, have the courtesy to “play by the rules” and actually examine what they show you, and then respond to it. If the person shows that your evidence is flawed, acknowledge that. Don’t change the subject. Don’t say, “Oh, well I can’t give you anymore evidence because the men in black took it.” If you do, a rational person is not going to believe you because the only evidence you had was shown to be flawed.

And at that point, don’t turn around to the next person and completely ignore what had just happened (e.g., Bart Sibrel, I’m lookin’ at you). Don’t claim that your flawed evidence that you acknowledged was flawed (assuming we got that far) is valid again to the next person you talk to.

December 21, 2011

Podcast Episode 16: What the Sky Looks Like on December 21, 2012, Part 2


The next episode of my podcast is up, and it’s short. It’s a quick follow-up to episode 15 on what the sky looks like specifically on the December 2012 solstice. This episode is similar to my blog post by the same name.

December 19, 2011

Follow-Up on Creationists Not Liking ET Life


Introduction

In my last post, “Creationists Really Don’t Like ET Life,” I talked some about the philosophy young-Earth creationists (YECs) seem to have about ET life and discussed a few specific factually wrong statements that an article from Creation Ministries International had on its website regarding the discovery of the planet Kepler-22b.

In the “Final Thoughts” section, I stated that I had submitted feedback to them pointing out the two factual mistakes, and that I would post here if I actually got any reaction. I didn’t expect one.

The Response

But I got one. My comment to them, in full, with my full name was:

Hi, I just wanted to let you know you have at least two factual errors in your article. First, “astrobiology” was coined in English in 1903 from the French according to the Online Etymology Dictionary (http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=astrobiology). NASA was not created until 1958, and NASA’s Origins program was not formed until the 1990s (http://history.nasa.gov/factsheet.htm), well after this term was in use.

Second, exoplanets have been directly imaged, over three years ago. A simple Google search for “exoplanet imaged” yields headlines like, “Astronomers Capture First Exoplanet Images” and “Hubble Takes First Visible Light Image of Extrasolar Planet.”

I recommend correcting your article.

In my e-mail inbox this morning, in its entirety:

Dear Mr Robbins

Thank you for your constructive criticism.

All the same, I don’t think there are errors that you claim. It may well be that “astrobiology” is not a new term, but it is a new field of research as the article claimed. Similarly, one could call “computers” a very new development, certainly for most of the public. But the word “computer” is actually over two centuries older than the word “dinosaur”.

As for the other claimed error, We don’t deny the existence of extrasolar planets, as should be clear from articles on http://creation.com/solar-exoplanet-qa, and a recent overview article in Creation magazine. But this doesn’t mean all claims are right; so the phrase is not wrong. We wrote a while ago http://creation.com/focus-211, and indeed it’s about the very man quoted in the article you wanted us to find:

Paul Kalas, of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany, is one evolutionist who believes that other planets will be found. But he asks whether many claims are the result of ‘planet mania.’

This is ‘a bias among astronomers in which every cavity and blob, even a wiggle, in circumstellar dust disks [disks surrounding a star] is taken as evidence for extrasolar planets.’

Kalas also points out there are huge leaps in logic. For example, some astronomers argued that a star called HR 4796 is the right age to form planets, so certain observations should be explained by planets. Kalas points out that this is like a doctor diagnosing cancer because you are the right age to have cancer.

The Argumentum ad Googlem is something of a fallacy in itself. The rare point image of a planet is fairly recent but again a point of light is a bit different from a real surface image. Until fairly recently, even stars were only seen as points of light; only in the last 15 years has an actual surface of a star been seen, and that was the huge supergiant Betelgeuse. Hubble was very excited at the time http://zuserver2.star.ucl.ac.uk/~idh/apod/ap960122.html “the first direct picture of the surface of a star other than the Sun. “
The article has now been re-worded a bit to incorporate the above.

Regards

Jonathan Sarfati

You may vaguely recognize that name as I mocked him in this post for listing his full name and title in a CMI article he wrote on Earth’s magnetic field: “Dr Jonathan D. Sarfati B.Sc. (Hons.), Ph.D., F.M.”

Is Astrobiology a New Term?

No, as I discussed last time, it’s not. This is the text of the CMI article I was critiquing:

NASA’s Origins program is dedicated to looking for habitable planets that might harbor life. Their endeavours spawned a new field of research called ‘astrobiology’, which is to specifically search for the evolution of life wherever it might occur in the universe.

I can see now that perhaps they weren’t saying NASA invented a term, but now unequivocally they are claiming it spawned “a new field of research.” To quote from a conference abstract entitled, “Some elements for the history of astrobiology:”

A study about life in the Universe [appeared] in a French journal of popular science as early as 1935 (Sternfeld 1935). … As early as 1941 the word “astrobiology’ was defined by Lafleur as “The consideration of life in the universe elsewhere than on Earth.” … The first American symposium in astrobiology was held in 1957 (Wilson, and following papers, 1958) … . Astrobiology is not a science as young as generally thought.

The Correction

Out of potential interest to readers, here is the exact text of the original CMI posting (I was critiquing the second sentence):

Although many extrasolar planets are assumed to exist, we should keep in mind the methods used to detect them. Firstly, we have never witnessed or directly observed (i.e. with our eyes through a telescope) a planet outside of our own solar system. They are presumed to exist through indirect methods of observation. In the case of this latest find, Kepler 22b was detected using the transit method. This is where the planet’s host or nearby star’s light is seen to dim when the alleged planet passes in front of it and between our line of sight from the earth.

The new posting states, with some links left in, and strikethroughs indicating removal and underline being additions (my markup):

Although many extrasolar planets are assumed to exist, we should keep in mind the methods used to detect them. Firstly, we have never witnessed or directly observed (i.e. with our eyes through a telescope) a planet outside of our own solar system. They are presumed to exist through indirect methods of observation. In the case of this latest find, Kepler 22b was detected using the transit method. This is where the planet’s host or nearby star’s light is seen to dim when the alleged planet passes in front of it and between our line of sight from the earth. We have not seen the surface of a planet directly. In fact, until recently, not seen stars as anything but points of light. Only in 1996 did the Hubble Space Telescope see “the first direct picture of the surface of a star other than the Sun”—the red supergiant Betelgeuse, 1000 times the sun’s diameter. However, in 2008, a planet was observed from direct light reflection around the big, close, white star Fomalhaut.

Final Thoughts

First, no, I’m not going to respond as I don’t think it’s worth belaboring the point further. I was impressed I got a response at all.

I still disagree with the first one on NASA founding astrobiology for the reasons I pointed out above (it’s wrong …).

I’m impressed that they actually corrected the other point. It goes from pure denial originally to a basic news report that they seem to be struggling to spin their way but not really being sure how to do so anymore. Originally it was “None exist, we can’t see them,” to “Okay, some definitely exist but we still don’t think these others do and even if we do we can’t see their surface so so what?” It’s potentially colored by my own view of YECs, but it seems like a 5-year-old who’s lost an argument but still trying to stamp away with some thoughts of dignity.

I also wasn’t aware of an “argumentum ad Googlem.” Fascinating logical fallacy, though I think incorrectly applied in this case. I was pointing out that if they were at all familiar with the topic or had done any simple research, they would have not made a factual mistake of stating that no planet had been directly imaged. Now, if I were trying to use the argument to say they needed to include the Pacific Northwest tree octopus, then that might be considered an “argumentum ad Googlem.”

December 17, 2011

Young-Earth Creationists Really Don’t Like ET Life


Introduction

Sometimes, I’m fascinated with young-Earth creationist (YEC) positions on certain topics. It kinda falls under the category of “Why are you wasting energy worrying about THIS?” Like with Conservapedia taking the time to complain that black holes are liberal pseudoscience.

The issue du jour has to do with extraterrestrial life. For some reason, YECs just can’t even entertain the idea that there may be other life off this planet that did not originate here.

Possible Explanation

I think that the root of this is in a literal interpretation (yes, interpretation) of the Bible. Which shouldn’t be a surprise, but stick with me a moment longer. YECs and other biblical literalists like to say that everything in the Bible is 100% True exactly as it was written by their deity. In the Bible, it apparently says that Jesus died for all our sins and they were all the sins of mankind. Well obviously that means that Jesus did not die for aliens’ sins and therefore aliens don’t exist.

Other Bible readers have no problem with ET life, though. They say things like the Bible was written for us and just left out all the stuff about aliens. That believing life isn’t out there is limiting their god because why couldn’t it have created life out there, too?

YECs counter that the Heavens Declare the Glory of God (I think that’s a psalm or something) and that Jesus would have had to go to every planet with intelligent life and died for the sins of that species and the Bible doesn’t say anything about that. Since the Bible is a complete record of all that stuff, then since it’s not in there, it didn’t happen (I swear folks, I’m not making this up). I guess that means that cars aren’t real but wizards are.

As evidence for my hypothesis, I offer a full CMI article on the subject or several quotes:

“The Vatican astronomer’s comments about the possible existence of extraterrestrial life are the inevitable outcomes of allowing man’s word preeminence over God’s Word, instead of using the Bible as our starting point with which to interpret the universe.” from AiG.

Or “As we’ve written before, the Bible does not teach that God did not create life beyond earth; it is silent on that possibility. Yet, reading Scripture holistically, the implication is that earth (and especially humanity) is at the center of the cosmic stage. That view, combined with the lack of evidence for either evolution or extraterrestrial life, leaves us quite doubtful about ET—truly skeptical, unlike many modern scientists who have put their faith in evolution.” from AiG.

“Creation scientists maintain that we will never receive messages or entertain intergalactic visitors from deep space simply because there are no such civilizations out there. “As far as the Scriptures are concerned, they teach unequivocally that the earth is uniquely the abode of man [Psalm 115:16 and Acts 17:20]… It seems grotesque and blasphemous to suggest that the tragedy of Calvary’s cross should be repeated on millions of other planets, for the benefit of other unknown and hypothetical members of God’s creation.”5 Theoretical speculations and imaginative evolution-based predictions aside, all research beyond Earth has shown that when it comes to organic life — we’re it.” from ICR.

Full Disclosure

Even though I don’t think it’s relevant, I figured I should insert my own opinion on the issue. After all, it’s only fair considering that I’m analyzing someone else’s. I’m an ET life agnostic. I personally think that the hypothesis that ET life exists is not science because it is not falsifiable – we can never prove it doesn’t exist because you can always say, “Well, we just can’t detect it yet.”

Does that mean I don’t think it’s out there? I think it’s possible. I think that the study of extremophiles – lifeforms that exist in seemingly toxic environments like extremely acidic or temperatures above boiling or below freezing – is really interesting. I think the recent studies that have found amino acids on asteroids is really neat.

I also do think that if life arose here, it’s quite likely to have arisen elsewhere. But that’s really as far as I’m willing to go on the issue.

The Topic At-Hand

The reason for this blog post is a Creation Ministries International (CMI) article on the subject that came out December 15 entitled, “Has the Kepler spacecraft found an ‘alien world’?” This was followed up today by the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) article “Another ‘Goldilocks’ Planet Stirs ET Hopes” I’m going to focus more on the CMI article because Peter already talked about the ICR one.

First, I’m actually a bit surprised it took over a week since the press release for CMI and then ICR to come out with their take on the discovery of Kepler-22b, the first Earth-sized (ish) planet that orbits within the habitable zone around its parent star (the distance needed for the temperature range such that H2) can be in a liquid state). It’s a neat discovery and of course all the news stories – perhaps rightly – played up the astrobiology/ET possibilities.

After all, for life to exist as we understand it, we basically need two things — first, a liquid to act as a solvent and medium for metabolic reactions, and second, an energy gradient that metabolic reactions can take advantage of. This may sound different from how you learned it in school (I know it’s different from how I learned it) where you were probably taught that life needed some protection, water, and sunlight. Well, the first isn’t really true (bacteria survived for years on the moon being exposed to the vacuum and radiation of space), the second one doesn’t need to be water but we still think it’s the most likely, and the third one really just means energy where we use sunlight but you could take advantage of favorable chemistry, too, or geothermal heat.

Anyway, my point was that the media spin was somewhat hyped, but I don’t blame them. NASA is a public governmental agency that requires the good will of Congress to remain funded and so whenever it can play up stories that are of interest to the public, it will. And a story like that is so much more interesting than Britney Spears being the first person to get a million friends on Google+ that just came out today.

Studying Astrobiology

The third paragraph, though, of the CMI article states: “NASA’s Origins program is dedicated to looking for habitable planets that might harbor life. Their endeavours spawned a new field of research called ‘astrobiology’, which is to specifically search for the evolution of life wherever it might occur in the universe.”

This is wrong. According to NASA, the Origins program began in the 1990s. According to the online etymology dictionary, “astrobiology” was formed in the English language in 1903, well before NASA was founded over half a century later (1958).

The next paragraph of the CMI article is a not subtle hint that life on Earth is complex and CMI thinks that NASA should be studying that to show that only God coulddadoneit.

Then we get to the crux of the issue: Evolution. Apparently, the entire endeavor of astrobiology is to prove evolution is true because as we all know, abiogenesis or even a non-abiogenetic origin of life has anything to do with evolution. (For those of you who could not tell my tone in the written word, that was sarcasm. Origin of life study has NOTHING to do with evolution.)

The sixth paragraph of the CMI article deals with money. The Kepler observatory, which is what made the discovery of this planet, cost $600 million to build and launch. Gosh. That’s a lot of money. For that money, we could fund people to do research on the ground. Ahem … I couldn’t find any solid numbers, but as an example of some that were repeated when I searched (source), the city of Boston Catholic Archdioces alone has around $600 million in assets. That’s just the Catholic church. In one city in the US. Or we have, “The Catholic church, once all her assets have been put together, is the most formidable stockbroker in the world,” according to a church official. Or “The Vatican’s treasure of solid gold has been estimated by the United Nations World Magazine to amount to several billion dollars.”

Finally: “The Catholic church is the biggest financial power, wealth accumulator and property owner in existence. She is a greater possessor of material riches than any other single institution, corporation, bank, giant trust, government or state of the whole globe. The pope, as the visible ruler of this immense amassment of wealth, is consequently the richest individual of the twentieth century. No one can realistically assess how much he is worth in terms of billions of dollars.”

In contrast, NASA’s annual budget for FY2011 is $18.724 billion. The science division gets $5.006 billion of that (source). I think if a religious organization wants to study life, it has more means to do so than NASA. So stop complaining.

Do Extrasolar Planets (Exoplanets) Exist

Yes.

But following the reasoning they use with comets, I guess I’m not surprised that they question the existence of exoplanets. CMI states, “Firstly, we have never witnessed or directly observed (i.e. with our eyes through a telescope) a planet outside of our own solar system. They are presumed to exist through indirect methods of observation.”

Again … wrong. Spend 2 seconds on Google and you come up with headlines like, “Astronomers Capture First Exoplanet Images,” or “First True Exoplanet Images” … you know, vague and hard to understand headlines. From 2008 (this is why I felt it important to point out that CMI’s article was posted on December 15, 2011).

The Rest

The rest of the CMI article is basically reverting to the standard, “Science has made mistakes before therefore what we say God did he did.” Yes, I may be sounding irreverent, but they’re irreverent towards me (or my field, anyway).

They also have a whole section on, “Should Christians be concerned by this?” Again, I’ll go back to my beginning statement that this is just one of those cases where I can’t figure out why YECs feel the huge need to fight and argue against it. If the Bible contains everything about the universe, then why doesn’t it talk about computers? But it does imply it’s okay to offer up your daughters to an angry mob. Sigh. But Biblical weirdness isn’t quite the subject of this post.

Final Thoughts

The article as I’m viewing it now has two comments posted. One of them is from Jack of Australia who basically asks about the Fermi Paradox: If aliens exist, then we should’ve found them by now? The author of the CMI article responded and gushed at Jack answering with normal complaints against science.

Paul in the UK is the other commenter who just takes the article a bit further emphasizing that us evil scientists will believe anything so long as God is not a part of it.

I’ve actually submitted a comment because I find the factual mistakes somewhat annoying. and I’m curious to see what they’ll do. I’m hypothesizing that they will ignore it, especially because I’m putting in my full name. In the event they don’t, then I will post about it.

Edited to Add: And here’s the follow-up.

December 16, 2011

Podcast Episode 15: Galactic Alignments, Part 1


And now episode 15 is up. It’s the first part in a short two-part sub-series on galactic alignments in my Intro to 2012 month. Part 2 will come out on December 21 and will be “What the Sky Looks Like on December 21, 2012, Part 2″ (yes, you don’t need to have the same title to be Part 1 / Part 2 … plenty of TV shows do it, too).

The episode is what I think is a more cohesive version – if slightly repetitive – of my nearly three-year-old post on the pseudoastronomy of galactic alignments.

I got a Q&A from a friend at the last minute and realized I had another Q that I’ll use next time, but I really would like yous folkses to submit ‘em if you got ‘em.

And that is all.

December 9, 2011

Skeptiko Host Alex Tsakiris on Monster Talk / Skepticality, and More on How to Spot Pseudoscience


Introduction

A few weeks ago, I learned that the popular Monster Talk podcast would be interviewing Skeptiko podcast host, Alex Tsakiris. They ended up later posting it instead on their Skepticality podcast feed, and the interview also was episode 153 of Skeptiko; it came out about two weeks ago. The interviewers from Monster Talk are Blake Smith, Ben Radford, and Karen Stollznow (the last of whom I have the pleasure of knowing). Got all that?

If the name Alex Tsakiris sounds familiar but you can’t quite place it and you’re a reader of this blog, you probably recognize it from the two previous posts I’ve written about him on this blog. The first was on the purpose of peer-review in science because Alex (among others) were talking about how peer-review was a flawed process and also that you should release results early without having a study completed.

Fourteen months later, I wrote another post on Alex, this one being rather lengthy: “Skeptiko Host Alex Tsakiris: On the Non-Scientifically Trained Trying to Do/Understand Science.” The post garnered a lot of comments (and I’ll point out that Alex posted in the comments and then never followed-up with me when he said he would … something he accuses skeptics of not doing), and I think it’s one of my best posts, or at least in the top 10% of the ~200 I’ve written so far.

This post should be shorter than that 2554-word one*, despite me being already in the fourth paragraph and still in the Introduction. This post is further commenting on not the actual substance of Alex Tsakiris’ claims, but rather on the style and format and what those reveal about fundamental differences between real scientists and pseudoscientists. I’m going to number the sections with the points I want to make. Note that all timestamps below refer to the Skeptiko version.

*After writing it, it’s come out to 3437 words. So much for the idea it’d be shorter.

Point 1: Establishing a Phenomenon Before Studying It

About 8 minutes into the episode, Karen talks with Alex about psychics, and Alex responds, “If you’re just going to go out and say, as a skeptic, ‘I’m just interested in going and debunking a psychic at a skeptic [sic] fair,’ I’m gonna say, ‘Okay, but is that really what you’re all about?’ Don’t you want to know the underlying scientific question?”

Alex raises an interesting point that, at first glance, seems to make perfect sense. Why belittle and debunk the crazies out there when you could spend your valuable time instead investigating the real phenomenon going on?

The problem with this statement – and with psi in general – is that it is not an established phenomenon that actually happens. Psi is still in the phase where it has yet to be conclusively shown to exist under strictly controlled situations, and it has yet to be shown to be reliable in its predictions/tenants. By this, I mean that psi has yet to be shown to be repeatable by many independent labs and shown to be statistically robust in its findings. I would note the obvious that if it had been shown to be any of these, then it would no longer be psi/alternative, it would be mainstream.

Hence, what the vast majority of skeptics are doing is going out and looking at the very basic question of does the phenomenon exist in the first place? If it were shown to exist, then we should spend our time studying it. Until then, no, we should not waste time trying to figure out how it happens. This really applies to pretty much everything, including UFO cases. In that situation, one has to establish the validity by exploring the claims before one looks at the implications, just like with alleged psychics.

A really simple if contrived example is the following: Say I want to study life on Io, a moon of Jupiter. I propose a $750 million mission that will study the life there with cameras, voice recording, chemical sensors, the works. I would propose to hire linguists to try to figure out what the beings on Io are saying to the probe, and I’d propose to hire biologists to study how they could survive on such a volcanic world. NASA rejects my proposal. Why? Because no one’s shown that life actually exists there yet, so why should they spend the time and money to study something they don’t know is actually there? And, not only that, but Io is so close to Jupiter that it’s bathed in a huge amount of radiation, and it is so volcanically active that it completely resurfaces itself every 50 years, making even the likelihood of life existing there very slim.

Point 2: Appeal to Quantum Mechanics

I’ll admit, I have a visceral reaction whenever I hear a lay person bring up quantum mechanics as evidence for any phenomenon not specifically related to very precisely defined physics. At about 12.5 minutes into the episode, Alex states quite adamantly that materialism (the idea that everything can be explained through material things as opposed to an etherial consciousness being needed) “is undermined by a whole bunch of science starting with quantum mechanics back a hundred years ago … .”

It’s really simply basically practically and all other -ly things untrue. Alex does not understand quantum mechanics. Almost no lay person understands quantum mechanics. The vast majority of scientists don’t understand quantum mechanics. Most physicists don’t understand quantum mechanics, but at least they know to what things quantum mechanics applies. Alex (or anyone) making a broad, sweeping claim such as he did is revealing more their ignorance of science than anything else.

Unless I’m mistaken and he has a degree in physics and would like to show me the math that shows how quantum mechanics proves materialism is wrong. Alex, if you read this, I’d be more than happy to look at your math.

You will need to show where quantum mechanics shows that consciousness – human thoughts – affect mater at the macroscopic level. Or, if you would like to redefine your terms of “consciousness” and “materialism,” then I will reevaluate this statement.

(For more on quantum mechanics and pseudoscience, I recommend reading my post, “Please, Don’t Appeal to Quantum Mechanics to Propagate Your Pseudoscience.”)

Point 3: Appeal to Individual Researchers’ Results Is a Fallacy

A habit of Alex is to relate the results of individual researchers who found the same psi phenomenon many different times in many different locations (as he does just after talking about quantum mechanics, or about 45 minutes into the episode where they all discuss this, or throughout the psychic detective stuff such as at 1:30:30 into the episode). Since I’ve talked about it at length before, I won’t here. Succinctly, this is an argument from authority, plain and simple. What an individual finds is meaningless as far as general scientific acceptance goes. Independent people must be able to replicate the results for it to be established as a phenomenon. The half dozen people that Alex constantly points to does not trump the hundreds of people who have found null results and the vast amount of theory that says it can’t happen (for more on that, see Point 6).

For more on this, I recommend reading my post on “Logical Fallacies: Argument from Authority versus the Scientific Consensus” where I think I talk about this issue quite eloquently.

It’s also relevant here to point out that a researcher may have completely 100% valid and real data, but that two different people could reach very different conclusions. Effectively, the point here, which is quite subtle, is that conclusions are not data. This comes up quite dramatically in this episode about 22.3 minutes in when discussing the “dogs that know” experiment; in fact, my very point is emphasized by Ben Radford at 24 min 05 sec into the episode. For more on this sub-point, I recommend reading my post from last year‘s Point 1.

Point 4: Investigations Relying on Specific Eyewitness Memories Decades After the Fact = Bad

The discussion here starts about 36 minutes into the episode, stops, and resumes briefly about 50 minutes in, and then they go fully into it at 1 hour 13 minutes in*. For background, there is a long history of Alex looking into alleged psychic detectives, and at one point he was interviewing Ben Radford and they agreed to jointly investigate Alex’s best case of this kind of work and then to hash out their findings on his show. This goes back to 2008 (episode 50), but it really came to a head with episode 69 in mid-2009 where they discussed their findings.

Probably not surprisingly, Alex and Ben disagreed on the findings and what the implications were for psychic detectives (Nancy Weber in this case). If you are genuinely interested in this material, I recommend listening to the episodes because there is much more detail in there than I care to discuss in this quickly lengthening post. The basic problems, though, were really two-fold — Ben and Alex were relying on police detectives remembering specific phrases used by the alleged psychic from a case almost 30 years old (from 1982), and they disagreed on what level of detail counted as a “hit” or “miss.”

For example, when Ben talked with the detectives, they had said the psychic told them the guy was “Eastern European” whereas they had separately told Alex that she had told them the guy was “Polish.” Alex counted it as a hit, Ben a miss. I count it as a “who knows?” Another specific one they talk about in this interview is “The South” versus “Florida” with the same different conclusions from each.

To these points, both scientists and skeptics (and hopefully all scientists are appropriately skeptical, as well) I think can learn a lot when looking into this type of material.

First, I personally think that this was a foolish endeavor from the get-go to do with an old case. Effectively every disagreement Ben and Alex had was over the specific phrasing which, unless every single thing the alleged psychic says is recorded, you are never going to know for sure what she said. Human memory simply is not that reliable. That is a known fact and has been for many years (sources 1 and 2, just to name a couple). Ergo, I think the only proper way to investigate this kind of phenomenon where you have disagreements between skeptics and other people is to wait for a new case and then document every single part of it.

Second, one needs to determine a priori what will count as a hit or miss (“hit” being a correct prediction, “miss” being wrong). In the above example, if they had agreed early on that Nancy Weber only needed to get the region of the planet correct, then it would be a hit. If she needed to get the country (first example) or state (second example) correct, it would be a miss under what the detectives told Ben. This latter point is the one that is more relevant in scientific endeavors, as well. Usually this is accomplished through detailed statistics in objective tests, but in qualitative analyses (more relevant in things like psychiatric studies), you have to decide before you give the test what kinds of answers will be counted as what, and then you have to stick with that.

It should be noted that hits vs. misses was not the actual crux of the disagreement, however. It was the level of specificity the psychic claimed (“Polish”) versus what the detectives told Ben they remembered (“Eastern European”), and then the broader picture to how well that information will help solve a case.

I actually encounter the same thing when grading essays. This is one reason why teachers in science classes like multiple-choice questions more than essays (besides the time it takes to grade): It’s much more quantitative to know the answer is (A) as opposed to parsing through an essay looking for a general understanding of the question being asked.

*I’ll warn you that this goes on for about a half hour and it’s somewhat difficult to listen to with all the shouting going on. If you’re scientifically/skeptically minded, listening to this is going to make you want to smack Alex. If you’re psi/alternative minded, listening to this is going to make you want to smack Ben. This is why I try not to get into the specifics of the exact case but rather point out the process and where the process is going wrong here.

Point 5: Confusing Different Causes for a Single Effect

About 41 minutes into the episode and then for several minutes on, the conversation turned to the idea that psychics help with the grieving process. The reaction from me (and then the hosts) was pretty much, “Duh!” As Blake points out just before the 43 minute mark, “How many times did the [psychic] say, ‘Oh gee! That person’s in Hell!'” Thus, probably, not helping the grieving process.

The conversation steered along the lines of the three hosts of Monster Talk trying to point out that yes, the effect of the alleged psychic talking with the grieving person is that the grieving person felt better. But was the cause (a) because the person was actually psychic, or (b) because the person was telling the grieving people what they wanted to hear that their loved one was happy and still with them and they would join them when they died?

Alex obviously is of the former opinion (after pulling out yet another argument from authority that I talked about in Point 3 above). The others are of the latter. But the point I want to pull from this is something that all scientists must take into account: If they see an effect, there could be causes other than or in addition to their own preferred explanation. That’s really what this case that they talk about boils down to.

For example, we want to know how the moon formed. There are many different hypotheses out there including it formed with Earth, it was flung off Earth, it was captured, it was burped out, or a Mars-sized orbit crashed into Earth and threw off material that coalesced into the moon. I may “believe” in the first. Another person may in the last. We both see the same effect (the moon exists and has various properties), but how we got that effect probably only had one cause. Which one is more likely is the question.

Point 6: It’s Up to the Claimant to Provide the Evidence

I know I’ve discussed this before, but I can’t seem to find the post. Anyway, this came up just before the 52 minute mark in the episode, that Alex frequently states it’s up to the debunkers to debunk something, not for the claimant to prove it. (To be fair, in this particular interview, Alex kinda says he never said that at first, he only says it when it’s a paradigm shift kinda thing that’s already shifted … which it so has not in this case. But then he does say it …)

Blake: I think most skeptical people believe that whenever you’re making a claim that you have the burden of proof every time. And it never shifts …

Alex:… And they’re wrong because that’s not how science works. Science works by continually asking hard, tough questions and then trying to resolve those the best you can.

I’m really not sure where Alex gets this first sentence (the second sentence is correct, but it and the first are not mutually exclusive). It’s simply wrong. In no field is this a valid approach except possibly psi from Alex’s point of view. If you make a claim, you have to support it with evidence that will convince people. If I say I can fly, it shouldn’t be up to you to prove I can’t, it should be up to me to prove I can. It’s that simple. And Alex gets this wrong time after time.

This is further evidence (see Point 2 above) that Alex has no actual concept of science and how it works. And before you accuse me of ad hominems, I’m stating this in an objective way from the data — his own statements that have not been quote-mined (go listen to the episodes yourself if you don’t believe me).

But it continues:

Ben: So who does have the burden of proof?

Alex: Everybody has the burden of proof and that’s why we have scientific peer-reviewed journals, the hurdles out there that you have to overcome to establish what’cha know and prove it in the best way you can. It gets back to a topic we kinda beat to death on Skeptiko and that’s this idea that also hear from skeptic [sic], ‘Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.’ Well of course that’s complete nonsense when you really break it down because scientifically the whole reason we have science is to overcome these biases and prejudices that we know we have. So you can’t start by saying ‘Well, I know what’s extraordinary in terms of a claim, and I know what would be extraordinary in terms of a proof,’ well that’s counter to the idea of science. The idea of science is it’s a level playing field, everybody has to rise above it by doing good work and by publishing good data.

(Ben Radford corrects Alex on this point about 54.7 minutes into the episode; feel free to listen, but also know that the points he makes are not the ones I do below. Well, maybe a bit around 56 minutes.)

I know I’ve talked about this before, but not in these exact terms. What Alex is talking about – and getting wrong – without actually realizing it is how a hypothesis becomes a theory and the lengths one has to go to to overturn a theory. That’s what this nugget boils down to.

If you’re not familiar with the basic terminology of what a scientist means by a fact, hypothesis, theory, and law, I recommend reading one of my most popular posts that goes into this. The issue at hand is that it is effectively established theory that, say, people cannot psychically communicate with each other (yes, I know science can’t prove a negative and there’s no Theory of Anti-Psi, but go with me on this; it’s why I said “effectively”). Even if it’s not an exact theory, there are others that are supported by all the evidence that show this isn’t possible nor plausible.

Ergo, to overturn all those theories that together indicate psi can’t happen, you have to have enough convincing and unambiguous data to (a) establish your phenomenon and (b) explain ALL the other data that had backed up the previous theories and been interpreted to show psi is not real.

This is summarized as, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” That’s the phrase, not “proof,” which in itself shows yet again that Alex misses some fundamental tenants of science: You can never prove anything 100% in science, you can only continue to gather evidence to support it. “Proof” does not exist, just like “truth,” as far as science is concerned.

Final Thoughts

Well, this post ended up longer than I had initially planned, and it took several hours not the least of which is because I listened to the episode twice and it’s almost two hours long. I hope that through this I’ve been able to illustrate several points that you and everyone needs to watch out for when evaluating claims.

To quickly recap:

  1. You need to establish that a phenomenon exists before studying it.
  2. Don’t appeal to quantum mechanics unless you actually know what quantum mechanics is.
  3. A single or small group of researchers’ results are not convincing, no matter who they are.
  4. If you want to study something that supposedly happens every day, don’t choose an example that’s 30 years old.
  5. A single effect can have multiple or different causes, including one that you don’t like.
  6. The person making the claim has the burden of evidence … always.

In the end, I’ll admit that this was personally hard to listen to in parts. I took issue with Alex constantly refusing to admit certain things like the detectives saying one thing to him and another to Ben and saying Ben was lying about it and that he should say (what he didn’t say) to the detectives’ faces. That was just hard to listen to. Or Alex’s refusal to directly answer some questions in ways that would have made a politician proud. Another point that was hard to listen to but oh so sweet in the end was Alex claiming that Karen had invited him on but Karen said that Alex had invited himself on. Alex insisted that wasn’t true and said Karen was wrong and he had the transcript … and then a few seconds later the transcript was read and Alex clearly had invited himself onto their show.

But, those are my personal and more emotional observations after listening to this. Do those change what we can learn about the scientific process and where pseudoscientists go wrong? No. Alex Tsakiris continues to unwittingly provide excellent examples of how not to do science.

Podcast Episode 14: The Mayan Calendar and What the Mayans Think of 2012


I have posted episode 14 of my podcast. This one follows episode 13 about the history of Planet X to be the second in my four-part series this month on Intro to 2012. (The next two will be on galactic alignments and what the sky looks like. Then, throughout 2012, there should be at least one episode a month about some idea related to it in the popular/alternative culture.)

In this episode, I interviewed Dr. Johan Normark who lives and works in Sweden*. Johan and I have been commenting on each others’ blogs for a few years now and actually he’s the only person I’ve ever asked to do a guest post on picking apart astrologer Terry Nazon’s “facts” about 2012. I’ve also used him as a quick resource a few times for some later posts on 2012 when I mentioned archaeology or the Maya.

Hence, it seemed like a good idea to interview him to get the “low down” (or whatever the kids these days are calling it) on what the Maya actually said or didn’t say about 2012 and to get an introduction to their calendar system. I realize this isn’t a podcast about archaeology, nor is it a blog about archaeology. However, the whole reason for the 2012 doomsday/goodday that most people are advocating is the Mayan long count calendar. So, in any series about 2012, you kinda need to get into the Mayan calendars.

This interview is long, and the audio quality isn’t stupendous. Blame it on going from Skype in America to a landline in Sweden. I’ve cut the interview down from around 1 hour 10 minutes to about 50-55 minutes, but I really didn’t want to cut out too much (a large portion of what was cut were pauses). We talk about a lot of things, but the basic coverage is (1) Johan’s background and interest in 2012, (2) about the Mayan calendar, (3) how their calendar may or may not line up with ours, (4) who some of the big players are or big claims related to 2012 from his perspective, (5) his least favorite “popular” claims related to the Maya or archaeology in general, (6) evidence, and (7) what the Maya actually “said” about 2012.

*As a quick end-note, I also want to apologize if I still got some Swedish words pronounced incorrectly … including Dr. Normark’s first name.

December 1, 2011

Podcast Episode 13: The True Story of Planet X

Filed under: astronomy,planet x,podcast — Stuart Robbins @ 1:30 am
Tags: , , , , ,

This podcast episode is a bit of a copy of my 3-year-old blog post on the topic, but it revises the subject a bit and serves as an introduction to my Intro to 2012 month (December 2011).

This month will feature four podcasts. The first is on the history of the term Planet X, and is this episode. The second will be an interview with a really truly live Mayan scholar and should come out December 8. Third will be about galactic alignments, coming out December 16. Finally, one will come out on December 21 about what the sky looks like on December 21 … 2012.

I expect all of these to be shorter than the ~40-minute episodes that have been the norm since October. For example, this one is only about 20 minutes. The interview will probably be closer to a half hour, though. It’s someone else talking and it’s not scripted.

There will be a lot of 2012 episodes coming out over the next 13 months. Many of them I have talked about on this blog before for the simple fact that I have written this blog for over three years and done the podcast for only four months.

In another bit of podcast news, the Q&A section is almost DOA. I’ve had two so far in regular episodes, and no one has asked a question for Q&A since the last. I have no problem with making it an irregular segment except then it kinda has the feeling of I’m someone’s go-to guy for that rare case they have a question (Jeff …). So, I’m soliciting questions for that.

Also, now that you know something of the topics coming up this month, if you happen to have a puzzler to suggest for the Dec. 16 episode, feel free to send it in. Coming up with these suckers is hard and help won’t be ignored.

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