Exposing PseudoAstronomy

July 28, 2014

Astrology: What’s the Harm?


Introduction

I’ve very rarely covered astrology on this blog (~5% of posts get tagged with it), mostly because there’s very little to say about it beyond the standard, “It doesn’t work!”, “There’s no physical reason why it should work,” and “Different astrology systems around the world conflict with each other but claim similar results, therefore it’s standard ‘psychic’ cold reading.”

But, this story has been making the rounds lately, and it’s rare I get to even peripherally address a “What’s the Harm?” with respect to astronomy-based pseudoscience, so let’s get into it.

The Story

From the BBC: Astrology-Loving MP Seeks Health Answers in the Stars. The story is about David Tredinnick.

Insert collective groan.

Okay, let’s get this out of the way: Astrology does not work. I have addressed this numerous times on this blog (here and here) and once on my podcast (Episode 6).

If you don’t like that, well, I also scored numerous astrologers’ predictions to see how well they do at predicting things. They don’t work. For example: in 2010, 2011, and not only once, but twice in 2012.

It lacks a mechanism (which in itself isn’t a deal-killer because there could always be something we don’t know about), but it also simply and utterly fails whenever it is tested.

So What?

Normally, I honestly don’t care that much. Yes, it’s annoying to me as a scientist, and as a critical thinker. Yes, I think it leads to magical thinking. And people spend money on bull Taurus. But in general, beyond time wasted, money wasted, and it being a gateway to other magical thinking, there is little harm in this.

Except when someone asks what I do and I say that I’m an astronomer and they say, “Oh, I heard that Mercury was in retrograde now, what does that mean?” Which is why I now tell people that I’m a volcanologist who studies volcanoes in Hawai’i.

So, live and let live. In general.

And then this guy comes in and messes with that mentality:

A Conservative MP has spoken of his belief in astrology and his desire to incorporate it into medicine.

David Tredinnick said he had spent 20 years studying astrology and healthcare and was convinced it could work. The MP for Bosworth, a member of the health committee and the science and technology committee, said he was not afraid of ridicule or abuse. “There is no logic in attacking something that has a proven track record,” he told BBC News.

…Recalling the experience in the House of Commons, he said he had been invited to take part because of his “radical agenda” on complementary medicine – he is vice-chairman of the government’s herbals working group. … “I am absolutely convinced that those who look at the map of the sky for the day that they were born and receive some professional guidance will find out a lot about themselves and it will make their lives easier,” he told MPs.

… [H]e now wanted to promote astrology, which was not just predicting the future but gaining an insight into personal problems. He stopped short of suggesting astrological readings on the NHS, but said he wanted to raise awareness of it as an alternative among patients and clinicians.

(I removed some of the paragraph breaks, since the BBC seems to think that every sentence needs its own paragraph.)

So, yeah …

The Response …

… has been ridicule. As it should. Some of the skeptical bloggers took a crack at it, like Sharon over at Doubtful News, and today a guest post by Andy Wasley at The Friendly Atheist.

I don’t think it’s worth me spending time going through every single sentence in there and how he’s wrong. I’ll leave that “as an exercise to the reader,” as the saying goes, or for you to full out the particularly ridiculous bits in the Comments.

The Problem

I’m not going to pretend that we don’t have (in my opinion) idiots on the US Congress and Senate. Some of the people sitting on Science committees are about as anti-science as you can get, rejecting evidence-based science in favor of everything but. So it’s nice to point out a tu quoque that other countries have their loons, too.

The problem is that if this were any normal person, it’d be another eye-roller. But he’s not a normal person. Or, he is, but he’s not in a normal position. He’s a member of the UK Parliament’s Health and Science & Technology Committees (that’s Health Committee, and Science & Technology Committee). And he believes in altmed and astrology. And he thinks that astrology not only has a proven track record of success (despite all objective tests), but he seems to want to implement it in some way in some official capacity.

This is a man who has serious power to control policy and money in the UK.

And, this is not only not an isolated case, but it’s also a good example of the common phenomenon where one form of magical thinking makes way for others. In this case, I don’t know what came first, but it’s very likely that either his believe in astrology made believing in altmed easier, or his belief in altmed made his belief in astrology easier.

These kinds of things rarely are seen in isolation. The thinking goes like this (and I’m not just surmising or musing here, I’ve heard people say it): If they start to accept one thing that’s “outside the mainstream” or something “scientists keep telling us is wrong, well” (the thinking goes), “what else have they been trying to hide from us? What else that they say is fake is really real?” It might sound like the “slippery slope” fallacy, but it’s not. One kind of pseudoscience belief is often a gateway into others.

Wrap-Up

And normally, as I said towards the beginning, I wouldn’t care. Do what you want, believe what you want, so long as you’re not really harming other people. And generally I’d prefer if you not harm yourself, but you have the right in most countries to do that, at least in some form or another if not all forms. (E.g., you might be institutionalized if you try to slit your wrists, you may have your child taken away from you if you insist on praying for them to get better from cancer instead of having chemo.)

But this is a case where one kind of magical thinking has lead to another. And this guy has power to affect £millions ($millions x1.7) and millions of people.

And he’s not alone.

So, while belief in astronomy-based pseudoscience may not be on the forefront of what most skeptics consider to be important, I would argue that it should be. We shouldn’t discriminate or rank or prioritize quite as much as some may try. Convincing someone when they’re 14 that astrology is Taurus-poop may just prevent them from trying a raw food juicing diet to cure themselves of pancreatic cancer 40 years later. Or from passing a resolution when they’re on a school board in 30 years that creationism should be taught alongside evolution.

September 12, 2013

Podcast Episode 86: Was Mars Murdered?


Xenon-129:
Is it evidence for Mars
Having been murdered?

This is another classic-form episode. I state the claim, go through background info, and when you understand the background information, the claim falls away. It’s also just a tad over 30 minutes, returning to my roughly average length.

I had to cut out extra parts this time because I’m a bit bogged down with work. I have about half a $million in grants due next Friday and I’m having a party the day after, so I’m a tad busy and also the next episode might be slightly delayed (like this).

The most important announcement I made is that I’ll be interviewing Robin Canup on October 4 for the 89th episode on October 11. It will be about lunar formation and remaining problems and whether (as Bob Novella I think wrongly claimed) the “Big Splash” model is dead because of various mineral abundances in different locations. We’ll see what she says. If you want to have input on what she says – or more, what I ask – feel free to recommend questions for me to ask her. Please keep them very narrowly focused on lunar formation: She’s a very busy person and I don’t know how much of her time I’ll be able to take.

January 2, 2013

A Psychic Predictions Addendum


For Michael Horn

Michael Horn, the Official North American Media Representative of alleged UFO-contactee Billy Meier, has attempted to send me various tasks and things to do, apparently failing to realize that I don’t work for him. I’ve pretty much ignored them as is my prerogative and for reasons I’ve explained in detail before.

One such “task” (literally, the subject of the e-mail was: “A new task”) was this:

Hi tehre Stuart,

As you may imagine I receive some interesting information from various people, among them a couple of astrologers who seem to have been pretty accurate.

So I’m copying you some fairly recent emails with content from them. You can of course feel free to examine it critically and see if the past info seems to be more than chance where it’s accurate and the foretold info/events should speak for themselves, one way or the other.

On August 31, Michael wrote in a comment on my blog:

P.S. When I have the time, I will post some interesting information pertaining to an email that I sent Stuart a while ago. In it I put information from a couple of astrologers who had gone on record with a number of specific things, and times they thought they would occur. It appears that they were…right. I notice that Stuart hadn’t put up a blog attacking these “silly” people, or whatever. Nor has he mentioned having checked them out and been confronted with their documented accuracy.

I wrote in response, to which Michael did not reply:

Oh, you mean your e-mail where your astrologer said, let’s see … “July will be a very busy month for the world … which … will also launch a major volcanic eruption, one of the largest we have ever seen, as well as major quakes around the world.”

Or “I see lots of major issues in the way of electrical power blackouts in 2012. There will be so many issues with power world wide, with huge black outs that last months even years. More black outs and rolling black outs then ever. Some very odd and completely un-explained by scientists.”

Or maybe this was more accurate? — “As I’ve said, I see major issues with the severe heat in many places. Temps could reach 130, even 140, this will also have a major effect on the power plants. July and August will be some of the worst times for this. The blame will partially be on sun solar storms that produces record breaking heat.”

Hmm. Unless I’ve been on some other planet the last two months, your astrologer doesn’t appear to be “right,” as you put it.

Let’s actually review the predictions of Michael’s astrologers who were “right,” shall we? I think that this will be informative because it shows how I got about evaluating predictions.

Reverend Michael Vanderpool, Astrologer & Intuitive — 0 hits || 3 can’t judge || 2 misses

First, the “Reverend” part — his “Doctor of Divinity” is from the Universal Life Church, an organization whose Wikipedia page starts by saying, “The Universal Life Church (ULC) is a religious organization that offers anyone semi-immediate ordination as a ULC minister free of charge. The organization states that anyone can become a minister without having to go through the pre-ordination process required by other religious faiths.” He also has a degree in “Healing Sciences” from the Jesus of Nazareth Church International. The certificates are scanned in and posted on his website. Not meant as an ad hominem, simply putting this out there since he consistently refers to himself as a Reverend.

Moving on, I listened to about an hour’s worth of his YouTube videos. The first was posted December 30, 2011. In it, he makes three predictions:

1. “January 9 to January 12, thus possibly affecting [January 8-16] … in terms of that war-like energy.”

2. He relates this to a war in Syria starting around January 15, and then Syrian president Assad is losing power in the time between February 24 and March 15 “with great probability.”

3. Markets will go up February 24, 2012. That’s the basic idea of this prediction, but he specifically stated: “Why do I say that [the Assad stuff]? Because in that window of time, the planet Jupiter will trine Pluto, and it almost always means that we see a a stabilization, or a maintaining of the markets, or an increase – a rising up of all markets when that happens.” He then says that last time this happened, markets went up. “And therefore, because I see that, the markets will go up with great probability February 24 …”

I then watched his video posted February 23, 2012. In this one, there was the very vague prediction:

4. There are “turbulent times” around June-July and a “difficult astrology time” around the November presidential election in the USA.

Analysis: WAY TOO VAGUE to be considered a hit or miss on any objective scale. As a predictor, this is useless.

Perhaps more interesting, he claims that he was 100% accurate in his market prediction that it’s “a very accurate prediction and quite a significant prediction.” This is based on a newspaper article from the previous day that stated the stock markets were at all-time highs since 2008. So taking that newspaper article, sure, he’s correct.

But let’s look at prediction 3 in greater detail, for which I’m using the Dow. The 10-year high for the Dow was October 12, 2007, at 14,093.08. The high in the year 2008 was May 2 at 13,058.20. 2008 ended at 8515.55, while the high in 2009 was at the end of the year at 10,328.89. Overall, the stock market has been improving ever since its low in early 2009, so the prediction that markets will go up on February 24, 2012, is not unlikely.

In fact, February 22-24 was not even the high for February, which came on Feb. 28 at 13,005.12, whereas Feb. 22-24 the Dow was around 12,940-12,985. It did NOT reach the high from 2008 in February in end-of-day trading, though it got close. Nor was this a high in 2012, the high close was 13,610.15 on October 5, 2012, though the actual high was up to 13,661.87.

Strictly speaking, he is correct, the markets did go up Feb. 24. But practically speaking, this was either (a) a high-probability hit that the market will go up on any given day, or (b) too vague for him to claim it was a hit with the specificity that he later did.

Similarly, he claimed that prediction 1 was actually “a great probability — a great possibility of war … in January 9-15, 2012 window, which can be evidence AS AN ABSOLUTELY ACCURATE PREDICTION” by looking at an Israeli news source from January 14, 2012, that said the largest war exercises in US history would be conducted between the US and Israel around that time. Sorry, again, this is way too vague to be considered a hit. He also did not even mention Israel in the Dec. 30, 2011, video, but thought it would have to do with Assad … see prediction #2. In fact, I watched it again because I had actually missed this ’cause I lumped it in with his Assad prediction.

And, the Assad prediction, #2, is a miss. He did not lose power in Feb-March 2012, and is still in power as I write this at the end of 2012. However, he claims that his Assad prediction was actually correct.

So far, we have 4 predictions, 3 claimed hits. I say three are too vague to score, and one is a miss.

The final video I watched was posted on April 6, 2012. He repeated #4, that there would be some potential problems with the banking system around June-July, which could manifest as the closing of the Straights of Hormuz. Could affect gas prices, food prices. The most specific thing I could pull out was:

5. “Gas prices shooting through the roof [in the summer]. … It would be wise for people to prepare for what could be incredibly high gas prices, and thus, in turn, if that does happen, it could affect food prices …”

Analysis: At best for the astrologer, this would be considered too vague, but under my scoring guidelines, I consider this a miss. Looking at 5-year gas prices in the US, we had a high in summer 2008 of $4.12/gal. In 2012, we had two peaks, one at $3.92 at the beginning of April — when his video was made, and a smaller peak in mid-September at about $3.87/gal. Other than the beginning and end of the year, gas prices were at a yearly low during the time period that he’s describing, June-July. Ergo, I consider this a miss.

And yet, in his e-mails to Michael Horn, he quotes news articles from June 30 stating that there are some rising oil prices and some analysts thinking that they’ll go up. Problem for Michael Vanderpool is that they did not.

Tony Vasquez — 1 partial hit || 3 can’t judge || 9 misses

These are all quotes from Michael’s e-mail to me on July 4, 2012. There were several different parts of it that I drew from to put these together. I included nearly everything written, with a few things left out that were preamble or more things simply too vague to judge.

1. “The U.S. presidential election turns out to be the dirtiest and most scandalous election ever.”

MISS

2. “Obama wins by a landslide.”

MISS — Obama won by less than he did the first time, hardly a landslide.

3. “I still see some kind of major controversy/scandal about Romney and it will completely jeopardize his chances at the presidency.”

MISS. Yes, he said some stupid things, but no one considers this a “major controversy/scandal.”

4. “I refer back to my previous predictions, and during this year’s astrological work, I continue to have no doubt that major chaos and destruction come from Iran, and to Iran.”

MISS

5. “I also believe that either Iran or Israel will be hit in a major way, possible hit by each other. This may not occur until late 2012, but July also looks like a possible time.”

PARTIAL HIT — One could consider the Israeli-Gaza conflict of November 2012 as the hit for this, but I consider it partial because (a) it was November and (b) Iran was not involved – at least not directly/obviously/admittedly.

6. “I believe Iran will also endure an attack from the U.S.”

Impossible to Verify with Present Info

7. “Also, as much as they are going to try and tell us Iran does not have a nuke or that they took out their nuke it will not be true.”

Impossible to Verify with Present Info

8. “I see lots of major issues in the way of electrical power blackouts in 2012. There will be so many issues with power world wide, with huge black outs that last months even years. More black outs and rolling black outs then ever. Some very odd and completely un-explained by scientists.”

MISS

9. “I still see major issues with the severe heat in many places. Temps could reach 130, even 140, this will also have a major effect on the power plants. July and August will be some of the worst times for this. The blame will partially be on sun solar storms that produces record breaking heat.”

MISS

10. “I do see 8+ earthquakes/tsunamis(3) hitting Japan and one 8+ hitting India – huge disasters with cities leveled.”

MISS

11. “Major “Events” in July and August will set off a chain reaction that will run right through 2014.”

TOO VAGUE

12. “I also see the Pope dying this year – the last pope then elected. Sept.-Nov. period for this.”

MISS

13. “July will be a very busy month for the world and a time when the planet’s energy shift goes into overdrive, which in turn will also launch a major volcanic eruption, one of the largest we have ever seen, as well as major quakes around the world. … I’m pretty sure there will be a major volcanic eruption – one of the largest ever – in July-August.”

MISS

Conclusions

A sum total of 1 partial hit, 6 too vague to judge, and 11 misses for a hit rate of around 4% and a too vague rate of 33%. This is right in line with the others from my main 2012 Psychic Predictions post.

With those all graded now, Michael, if you care to comment, feel free. But note that, as usual, I will block anything from you that is not SPECIFICALLY ABOUT THESE PREDICTIONS. No posting to your other stuff, no asking to look at other stuff, just comments about these predictions. Anything else will be blocked or edited out — you’ve posted enough stuff to your site that’s not related directly to the topic in other places on my blog.

December 29, 2012

2012 Psychic Predictions Roundup: Laypeople and Professionals Both Continue to Fail


Download the Predictions Roundup Document (PDF)

Introduction

Continuing a tradition that I started in 2010 and continued in 2011, I am posting a “psychic roundup” to celebrate the end of one Julian calendar year and bring in the next. In previous years, I have focused on Coast to Coast AM audience and professional predictions, and my conclusion has been, in one word: Bad. Average around 6% correct.

This year, I have branched out to other sources for three primary reasons. First, Coast has changed their format such that the audience predictions are more annoying and outlandish and it’s no longer one per person. Second, Coast is no longer doing a night or two of professional predictions where they bring in several guests per night to discuss the year ahead. It’s just a few people scattered over January. Third, last year, I was criticized for relying on Coast with people on some forums complaining that it wasn’t a good sample because no “reputable” person would go on the show anymore. I was also criticized for lumping different “kinds” of methods together, like astrologers with mediums.

So, I sniffed out seventeen other people who claim to make foresight-ful predictions who were not on Coast. I recorded their predictions, and I’ve scored them. I scored 549 predictions made by various people this year. If you want to just get right to ‘em, then see the link above or below. If you want more of a summary and a “how,” keep reading.

Download the Predictions Roundup Document (PDF)

People

Beyond the laypeople in the Coast audience, this year, the pros featured: Joseph Jacobs, Glynis McCants, Mark Lerner, Maureen Hancock, Paul Gercio, and John Hogue. The other 17 pros I looked at were: Concetta Bertoldi, Da Juana Byrd, Linda & Terri Jamison, Joseph Tittel, LaMont Hamilton, Carmen Harra, Judy Hevenly, Roxanne Hulderman, Blair Robertson, Pattie Canova, Cal Orey, Sasha Graham, Elaine Clayton, Denise Guzzardo, and Terry Nazon.

Many of these people are highly respected in their fields and charge a lot of money for readings (if they do readings). Let’s see how they did …

Scoring

I continued my tradition from last year with being somewhat strict in either calling something a miss or saying it was too vague or obvious or not a prediction. In one case, I had to call the “psychic” ignorant based on my reading of their prediction (that Antarctica would be found to have land under it?).

With that in mind, I was also what some may consider generous, giving some high probability hits (like Newt Gingrich would win the South Carolina primaries).

All numerical scores are the number of hits divided by the number of hits plus the number of misses. That means that predictions that were too vague/etc. were NOT counted against them, nor for them. The uncertainty is the square-root of the number of hits divided by the sum of the number of hits plus misses.

How They Did

I separated the folks into three groups: Coast audience, Coast professionals, and other professionals. Here’s how they did:

  • C2C Audience: 6.6±2.1%
  • C2C Pros: 15.6±7.0%
  • Other Pros: 7.5±1.7%

How They Did, Removing U.S. Presidential Election Stuff

The USA had a presidential election this year. About 3.3% of the predictions had specifically to do with who would run and be elected. These were pretty high-probability for the actual results followed what analysts were predicting months in advance.

So, to try to un-bias the predictions relative to previous years, I removed ALL predictions having to do with the either who would be the nominee on the Republican side or who would win the presidency. The results, and compared with previous years, are:

  • C2C Audience
    • 2012: 6.7±2.2% (4.7% too vague to score)
    • 2011: 5.8±2.3% (8.8% too vague to score)
    • 2010: 5.7±2.3%
  • C2C Pros
    • 2012: 13.8±6.9% (17.1% too vague to score)
    • 2011: 2.6±2.6% (39.0% too vague to score)
    • 2010: 11.5±4.3%
  • Other Professionals
    • 2012: 5.5±1.5% (27.1% too vague to score)

Several Conclusions from the Data

Note that these are discussed in more detail in the massive PDF file that lists all the predictions. For the shorter version …

First, I repeat this every year – and I predict that I’ll repeat it, in effect, next year – these “professionals” are NOT capable of telling the future any better than you or I, and some of them are in fact far worse.

Second, another thing I repeat every year and has held true this year, is that the pros are much vaguer than laypeople. On average, they’re a factor of around 3-5x vaguer in the sense that, percentage-wise, 3-5x more of their predictions are too vague to actually score. This means that they’re very easy to retrodict, after the event occurs, to claim accuracy. But, that “accuracy” is useless because it was not something that could be actionable when the “prediction” was made because it was so vague

Third, if the small numbers can be believed, the pros are better at setting aside their personal aspirations for politics — of the 12 predictions dropped because they were about the presidency, 1 hit and 2 misses were from the laypeople, while 7 hits and 3 misses were from pros. This indicates they got more right than the laypeople, which, while someone could point to that and say it proves they’re more psychic/intuitive/whatever, an objective person would look at that and point out that they were simply more likely to state what the polls and analysts were saying at the time.

Fourth, again if small numbers can be believed, when separating the pros into psychic-mediums, psychics, intuitives, and astrologers, the prediction rates were identical — except for the astrologers, who got 0. The only difference was that the psychics were much less vague, averaging around 19% unscorable versus about 35% unscorable for the others. I’ll have to watch that and see if it pans out in future years.

Scoring, Revisited

Before I wrap this up, I want to revisit the scoring and point out a major difference between the prognosticator and what I would consider an objective person looking to see if a “psychic” prediction is accurate or if it’s so vague that it can be retrodicted after the event to claim accuracy.

My example is Linda and Terri Jamison, the “Psychic Twins” who claim to be “psychic mediums.” They stated they see “one or two major schools being victimized by a young terrorist in the U.S.”

I consider that a miss. A terrorist is someone who commits their terrorism to create fear and panic, usually in the pursuit of political aims. By all accounts — except for the very conspiracy-minded, who unfortunately have been on C2C talking about this — Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hooke Elementary School shooter, was anti-social and disturbed. NOT a terrorist, not doing this for political gain, no cause in mind, and no greater demands for a group. To me, this is NOT a correct prediction for the twins. Sandy Hooke Elementary is – no offense – also not exactly what I would consider a “major school” (someone from Connecticut please correct me if I’m wrong).

However, I fully expect the twins to go out and claim that they predicted the Sandy Hooke shooting based on their above statement, just as they’ve been saying for over a decade they predicted the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks via the following exchange:

– Twin A: “We’re seeing a lot of natural disasters in terms of earthquakes and hurricanes, uh, blizzards and earthquakes coming up, especially in the next 10-12 years. A lot of activity like that because of global warming. We are seeing, uh, various terrorist attacks on Federal government, uh, excuse me — Federal buildings, um –“
– Twin 1: “– yeah, particularly, uh, South Carolina or Georgia.”
– Art Bell: “Really.”
– Twin 1: “Uh, by July 2002, and also uh, the New York Trade Center, the World Trade Center in 2002.”
– Art Bell: “Really.”
– Twin 1: “Uh, with something with a terrorist attack and, um, yeah, so that’s pretty much it.”

That is their claim for predicting the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. I consider it a miss. But that’s a future blog post.

Final Thoughts

That about wraps it up for this year. I’m not going to repeat my small tirade from last year against the amount of money people waste on these professionals. I’ll just ask that you look at the data: They don’t do any better than you.

I’ll also ask that if you found this at all useful or interesting, please help spread the word through Twitter, Facebook, e-mail, message boards, your favorite podcast (unless it’s mine, in which case I already know), etc. A lot of work went into it, and as far as I know, this is one of the most comprehensive looks at predictions for 2012 (and thanks again to Matt T. for help on scoring several items).

Also, if I got anything wrong, please let me know by posting in the comments or sending me an e-mail.

September 26, 2012

What’s a Skeptic?


This short post is meant to be a bit interactive, at least through the comments. The subject is, what is a skeptic?

I use the term to describe myself: I’m a skeptic. Or, perhaps just like the PC term being that someone “has schizophrenia” versus “are schizophrenic,” I am skeptical. I would put forward that a good scientist is skeptical, and that anyone who is a critical thinker is skeptical.

But people like Alex Tsakiris, George Noory, Mike Bara, and others whom scientists would generally term “pseudoscientists” also say that they themselves are skeptical, and that people like me are “close-minded skeptics/debunkers.” Meanwhile, people like Michael Horn claim that “skepticism” is a religion.

I could go through lengthy etymology and modern usage that might make an English major or a language scholar swoon, but no one else, really. Instead, this is how I define the term, and why I think that people such as those whom I term “pseudoscientists” are anything but skeptical:

To be skeptical means to reserve judgement on the veracity of a new claim that is different from what has been previously established. The established idea is effectively the null hypothesis — the idea that will stand if the new one is shown to not have enough supporting evidence. The evidence for the new claim must be evaluated on its own merits, and if valid, it must be weighed against the evidence for the established idea. To be accepted, the new idea must have at least as much evidence for it as the old claim, and it should also explain why the evidence in support of the old claim is faulty and/or be evidence for the new claim just as well. Any idea that’s rejected is always subject to re-analysis upon submission of additional data.

So, for example, if someone makes a claim that — oh, I dunno — there’s a kilometer-sized ziggurat on the Moon, that’s the new claim. The null hypothesis is that there is no ziggurat on the Moon. There are many different lines of argument that support the null hypothesis (no one to build it, no astronaut talking about it, no other photographs showing it), while there is one photo circulating the internet that is the evidence for it. When examining that individual photograph, many anomalies come up that indicate it is more likely than not that the ziggurat in that one image is fake. With doubts as to the authenticity of the single image with the ziggurat, the evidence for it is very small, and it is completely overshadowed by the evidence for the null hypothesis.

Ergo, as someone who is skeptical, I adopt the position that there is no ziggurat, though that position is always subject to revision based on new data.

As another example, one could take astrology. The null hypothesis is that astrology does not work, and there is no known physical mechanism that would allow it to work. Evidence that people have put forward for astrology working is, in sum and substance, anecdotal (“I got a reading and it was accurate!”). In fact, I saw an astrologer recently argue that because more people believe in astrology than any one religion, and since Americans spend $hundreds of millions of dollars on astrology per year, that it’s real. Meanwhile, every large, controlled experiment that has tried to test the validity of astrological predictions has shown a negative result.

Ergo, as someone who is skeptical, I adopt the position that astrology does not make accurate, specific predictions, though that position is always subject to revision based on new data.

As a scientist, I operate the same way. When I write a paper, I have to provide evidence to support my conclusions. If my conclusions contradict previous work, I have to go through the evidence that others have used to support their conclusions and show that it was wrong, wrongly interpreted, and/or can support my conclusions just as well. If I can’t do this, then no one is going to believe me over the established results that do have evidence.

Anyway, these are my musings on the subject. The idea for this post came while listening to yet another pseudoscientist (who shall remain nameless …) claim to a large audience, “Hey, I’m a true skeptic – not like those debunkers – and that’s why I can openly look at the evidence for [paranormal claim] and accept it!”

What are your thoughts? Do you agree, disagree, and why?

June 19, 2012

World Famous Astrologer Terry Nazon Redux: Word Salad of Wrongly Used Astronomy Terms with New Age Thrown In


Introduction

It’s been a long time since I wrote about “Terry Nazon World Famous Celebrity Astrologer.” I was bored last night when I should have been either weight lifting or going to bed, and I happened across her blog. I was scrolling through to see if there was any “real” astronomy in there and came across her, “Venus Retrograde The Anatomy of a Retrograde” post from May 15, 2012.

Wow.

First, Grammar

In the past when I’ve written about Ms. Nazon, I’ve made minor points about her grammar. It’s atrocious. Seriously. Anyone who is a professional (as Ms. Nazon seems to be considering that she now charges $400 to talk with her per hour) should have better grammar than she.

Throughout this post, I’m going to pick apart her three-paragraph “Venus Retrograde…” post. I’m going to be quoting verbatim a lot. Please keep in mind that these are copy-pastes and I’m not trying to make her look more ridiculous than she already is by altering her words.

What Is Retrograde Motion?

Literally, the term “retrograde” means “to go against” or “to go backwards.” Throughout the day, objects in the sky appear to move from East to West. Throughout the year, the stars seem to move just a bit faster than the sun. This means that, relative to the stars, the sun appears to travel from West to East over the course of many days.

When planets also appear to move from West to East relative to the stars over many nights, they are traveling with the sun, and so are going “prograde.” When planets move from East to West relative to the stars over many nights, they are moving “retrograde” because it’s against the motion of the sun over many days/nights.

The why of why planets will go from prograde to retrograde and back again after many months is a story that took thousands of years to figure out and was one of the main lines of evidence for heliocentrism and against geocentrism.

I really don’t want to go too much into the “why this happens” part here as I think this is going to be a long post; instead, I’ll refer you to this short animation that I made that shows a line of observation from Earth, through Mars, projected onto the stars, and the path it draws. If you look at that, then keep in mind as a basic explanation, “It’s because we ‘catch up and pass’ a planet in its orbit,” it should make some sense.

Paragraph The First

“As your horoscope week begins the planet of Love, romance, and wealth, Venus goes retrograde until June 27th. Venus typically retrogrades every about every year or 18 months, depending on its transit.”

The first sentence is surprisingly correct with regards to when Venus returns to prograde motion. The second is generally correct with how often it switches, and I’m assuming that her term “transit” is an astrology term; it doesn’t mean anything astronomically considering that the next Venus transit across the sun isn’t until 2117.

“Everyone who studies astrology tries to understand the movements of the planets and pierce understand their transits through the signs. How we see them from our perspective here on planet Earth, is sometimes quite different from what is actually happening, our perspective is skewed here on earth.”

This is Nazon’s way of setting up for why retrogrades are important, and apparently that importance helps us to “pierce understand” them.

“Retrogrades are special times when the planets appear to us from our vantage point of Earth to be moving backwards. They aren’t really. Mercury will not be transiting backwards, nor will any of the other planets. They will only appear to be moving backwards due to its position in orbit and it’s relation to the Earth …”

So far, we’re still generally okay, though the English language has suffered a bit.

“… as it moves away from the planet Earth in its orbit.”

I thought at this point that she was sort of correct, and I was going to give her the benefit of the doubt. That was until I saw the next three sentences:

“The farther an object is from us the slower it appears to be moving, it’s that simple. An object really far away appears to be moving backwards. Space and time affect our perception.”

Alright, this first sentence is true IF the object is moving at the same speed. Otherwise, all bets are off. An airplane 5 miles above me is going to move faster than the bird 20 feet above me.

The second sentence makes absolutely no sense. No sense whatsoever. It seems as though she’s extrapolating a linear relationship that stuff moves far away so it moves slower, so if it moves really far it will eventually slow down and move backwards? Um, huh!?

Paragraph The Second

“Science has proven that there is a difference in the influence of a planet when moving toward the Earth (or direct) and moving away from the Earth or retrograde.”

No. First off, “science” has never shown any influence whatsoever (astrology-wise) of other planets on Earth regardless of their position or movement in space. Since “science” has not done so, it also cannot show a difference between nothing and nothing for how that planet may be moving.

“This difference is called Red Shift.”

Cue George Takei: “Oh my.”

Ms. Nazon is confusing apparent motion across (as in “back-and-forth”) our sky with a real physical motion towards or away from us, which is red shift and blue shift. Read the link if you don’t know what these are, but suffice to say for the purposes of this post, these are nothing alike. They have nothing to do with each other whatsoever. What she basically said is, “The difference between a flute and a piccolo is tomato bisque.”

“When a planet is receding, or moving away it appears to be retrograde, the color of the light it gives off changes. It does in fact have a different measurable speed and different light spectrum. This is called Red Shift.”

As my animation example shows, Mars was moving prograde until its closest approach with Earth, at which point Earth “passed” it and Mars’ motion became retrograde. Earth was moving away from it for awhile and it was retrograde, and Earth continued to move away and it flipped to prograde. Not possible under Ms. Nazon’s misunderstanding.

I interpret these three sentences as Ms. Nazon’s misunderstanding of what’s going on and using the general astronomy terms in a “word salad,” going into overdrive. Now, she is technically correct when she says that there would be a measurable redshift as the relative velocities between Earth and another planet increase. That difference is minuscule, however, and you get a bigger difference in redshift/blueshift light from opposite limbs of the sun (since the sun rotates, the limb coming towards us is slightly blueshifted, the limb going away is slightly redshifted).

“When a planet is retrograde its influence is subnormal. Retrogrades makes the normal influence of any planet weak.”

This is just astrology-speak mumbo jumbo. I have no other comment.

Paragraph The Third

“Venus retrograde produces red spectrum lines and its influence is the antithesis or the exact opposite of Venus direct, its influence is more like Mars. Normally Venus produces a violet light. When retrograde a red spectrum light like Mars.”

As I already explained above, apparent motion back-and-forth through the sky has nothing to do with its physical motion towards or away from us. Nothing. Zip. Zilch. Nada. גאָרנישט. 何も. 没什么. Inget. (Yay Google Translate!)

That said, every object in the solar system radiates every color of light, by definition of how radiation works. Planets radiate more in the infrared because they’re cooler than the sun. Planets also reflect light, and a lot of that is in the visible. Venus’ cloud layers are mostly made of carbon dioxide (CO2).

Being a molecule, carbon dioxide has a complicated emission/absorption spectrum, but it is heavy in the infrared (which is why it’s a greenhouse gas). What makes Venus appear yellow-whitish-orange is a sulfuric acid haze in the atmosphere. If Venus’ relative motion towards/away to/from Earth really caused it to have a significant red/blue shift, then everyone would notice this. ‘Cause, well, it would appear visibly redder or bluer. It doesn’t.

I’m really amazed at how some very basic observations that “everybody” knows or can make somehow manage to get by a “World Famous Celebrity Astrologer” such as Ms. Nazon who charges $100 to talk with her for 15 minutes.

“The give and take of Venus is undermined now and many will feel they have to do more or give more to receive love, recognition, or attention. Nothing comes easy under Venus retrograde and the concept of “what’s in it for me” is always prevalent.”

And we end with more astrology stuff.

Final Thoughts

I almost didn’t do a blog post about this, then I changed my mind. I haven’t ever really addressed the “word salad” idea with regards to pseudoscience claims on this blog, except perhaps with quantum mechanics.

Ms. Nazon’s blog (and other writings) is a good example of this idea: Take some science-sounding words, add a heaping spoonful of new age, whisk vigorously until foamy, and then pour on baking sheet. Bake at 250°F for 15 minutes until half-done, then chop up and post your half-baked ideas online.

January 5, 2012

2011 Psychic Predictions Roundup: Audience and Professionals on Coast to Coast AM Majorly Fail … Again


Introduction

Last year, in what rapidly became a very well-read post, I wrote about the “psychic” predictions for 2010 by the audience and pros from the Coast to Coast AM late-night radio program. After reviewing nearly 200 predictions, my conclusion was that the audience did no better than the pros, and that both did miserably.

With a record number of Tweets and Facebook postings, how could I not do another analysis for 2011?

I’m a bit behind, but I’ve finally compiled the audience and professional predictions for 2011 that were made on C2C and I have scored them, as well.

So without further delay: The Predictions (PDF)! Please let me know if you find any mistakes in scoring, and I will correct them. If you enjoy this, please be sure to rate it (those stars at the top), leave feedback, and/or link to it from your portal, forum, social media, and/or wikis of choice! It’s the only way I know that it’s worth going through the many days’ of work to compile these.

Before We Get to Details … Scoring

I was a bit stricter this year in terms of what I counted as a “hit.” For example, Major Ed Dames stated, “Buy gold and silver if you can … because those commodities will be worth something.” I counted that as a miss as opposed to too vague. True, gold closed roughly $150 higher at the end of 2011 than it opened. If he has simply said “Gold will be up by the end of the year,” I would give him a hit (if an obvious one). But he said both gold and silver, and silver went down by $2.50 over 2011. On the other hand, he simply said they “will be worth something.” I interpreted that to mean as they will go up. Otherwise, taken at strict face value, this is like saying “Bread is something you can eat.” It’s just a statement of fact.

As with last year, I wrote down what predictions I could pull out of the professionals (more on that later). Many of them, however, were too vague or obvious – I considered – to be scorable. For example, Linda Shurman stated, “People are going to come out of their collective coma” because of the transit of Uranus in Pisces. I considered that too vague to be a hit or a miss. Similarly, Joseph Jacobs stated there would be rough times in Somalia. It does not take a claimed psychic to say there will be rough times in Somalia, so I did not score that.

Coast to Coast AM Audience

Every year, Art Bell would do the predictions show on December 30 and 31 for a “full” eight hours of predictions from the audience. He would have strict rules – one prediction per call, one call per year, nothing political rant-like, no soliciting, and Art numbered them. With Art having unofficially/officially retired (again) after the “Ghost to Ghost” 2010 show, Ian Punnett took over and, well, he wasn’t Art. He didn’t follow any of Art’s rules. This made the predictions a bit more annoying to figure out and write down, but I tried. Sometimes there were two per caller.

In the end, I counted 114 distinct predictions. 6 of them were hits, 99 misses, and 9 were non-scorable as too vague, obvious, or not for 2011. That’s a hit rate of 5.7% (6/(114-9)≈0.057). Very impressively, that’s the same rate as I gave the audience in 2010, so, huzzah for consistency!

Here are some of my favorites:

11. Subterranean tunnels will be found, huge caverns, a “huge city-like thing,” under America or the Russia-Asia continent. “This could lead to the big foot theories being solved.”

23. Within the Bilderburger / Illuminati, there will “be a wild sex slavery factory where blond-haired teenage girls are enslaved to make Illuminati babies they’re trying to create the perfect race. There will be sex slavery.” This will be revealed this year when someone is “caught red-handed with these girls.”

27. Synchronized walking will become very popular, such as in malls, with people walking in formation.

73. There will be a Christian worldwide movement that starts in the US around the time of the Super Bowl. They will force ABC/NBC/CBS/FOX to show Biblical stories.

Coast to Coast AM Professionals

Yes, as a skeptic we always say “alleged” psychic or whatever. I’ve done that enough in the intro and we’ll just go with their titles. Pages 14-25 of the predictions document list the different people that C2C had on for 2011 predictions.

I’ll state that, like the audience ones, these predictions were not as easy to record this year as they were for 2010. Instead of having the first few days of 2011 be devoted to several of these people, George had them scattered throughout the month of January and then did another set in July with three people. So, I recorded what I could.

The people involved were:

  • Jerome Corsi (Claim: General Conspiracist)
  • Joseph Jacobs (Claim: Psychic)
  • Major Ed Dames (Claim: Remote Viewer)
  • Linda Schurman (Claim: Astrology)
  • Starfire Tor (Claim: Psychic -> “Psi Data Downloads”)
  • Glynis McCants (Claim: Numerology)
  • John Hogue (Claim: Nostradamus Interpretor, Psychic)
  • Maureen Hancock (Claim: Psychic and Medium)
  • Angela Moore (Claim: Psychic)

All in all, they made a total of 64 predictions. I counted one hit, 38 misses, and fully 25 that were too vague or obvious to grant a hit or miss to. That’s a hit rate of 2.6% (Joseph Jacobs got the one hit by saying perhaps the obvious “I see maybe a temporary measure as far as lifting the debt ceiling”). That’s somewhat worse than 2010, when I gave them a combined (if generous) hit rate of 11.5%, for getting 6 correct out of 53.

Here are some of my favorites (there were many more from Starfire Tor, but you’ll have to read the document for more):

Joseph Jacobs: We’ll be “getting closer and closer to [UFO] disclosure.”

Major Ed Dames: We’re right at the cusp of a global flu pandemic that WILL happen in 2011.

Starfire Tor: Earthquakes continuing to accelerate due to the time shifts and time wars.

Starfire Tor: “You are going to see an advancement of the whale and people project … . It’s gonna be an agreeable movement around the world where cetaceans – whales and dolphins – who are self-aware are actually non-human people. So the status of them is going to change from ‘animal’ to ‘person,’ therefore people are going to have to stop killing them, and this is going to – every country every people in the world are going to have the opportunity to understand that there is more to intelligent life on the planet than humans.”

Maureen Hancock: “Decent relief” from high gas prices. “I see it coming down to at least a buck a gallon by November” in New England.

Differences Between Lay People and Pros

I brought this up last year, but it definitely bears repeating this year. The audience made 114 predictions and 9 (8%) of them were too vague or obvious to score. The pros made 64, and 25 (39%) of them were too vague or obvious to score.

That is a classic difference between a lay person and a “pro” in the business of telling people what they think the future will bring. Normal people will generally give you unqualified – if seemingly outlandish – statements. Such as, “The Saints will win the Super Bowl.” The pros will give you qualified vagaries, such as, “If the Saints do well and live up to their potential, I see them as possible winners of the Super Bowl since Mars in Virgo is favorable to them.” Okay, that might be a slight exaggeration, but let’s look back on some real examples:

Audience: We’ll see “a Clinton” for VP this year.

Professional: There will be new manufacturing ideas here in the US, opening doors for the unemployed.

Audience: A private research company without federal funding will start to clone people for organ harvesting.

Professional: In response to a question about the Carolinas being hit by a hurricane in the fall: “That is a possibility.”

See? This is also why they can stay in business. I’m fairly strict in my scoring. Someone who paid an alleged psychic $25 for a reading, remembering what the psychic said two weeks later, will be very likely to easily retrodict what the psychic said into a “hit” rather than a miss.

Take John Hogue’s, “Get ready for mother nature to be on the warpath.” I said that’s too vague to score. Let’s say he said that a month before Hurricane Irene hit New York in 2011. Most would count that as a “hit,” and they would not put it in context of Irene being only a Category 3, only doing $10 billion in damage, and Hogue not stating that the year of Hurricane Katrina when it’s much more apt.

No, this is not a rant, and I apologize if it comes off as one. I’m trying to point out why these people are still in business when they are no better than, sometimes worse than, and frequently more vague than the average person making a prediction. And with that in mind, let’s see … Joseph Jacobs charges $90 for 30 minutes, $150 per hour for readings. Maureen Hancock has her own TV show. Ed Dames sells kits on remote viewing, and most of these people sell books and other things. Maybe I should start selling my scoring of their predictions.

Final Thoughts

To continue from the above before transitioning back to the “fun,” yes, there is a substantial “where’s the harm” issue whenever we give these alleged soothsayers the power to make decisions for us based on vague statements. I point that out because it’s important.

But I also want to get back to this because I think they’re funny. I posted on Facebook a few nights ago, “Is it wrong for me to take distinct delight when alleged ‘psychics’ who are well known get things incredibly wrong?” I enjoy shaking my head at all these people being shown to be the shams they are.

And I enjoy the, well, I’ll just say “out there” predictions that make it through. Obama being a reptilian? Whales and dolphins being considered “people”? (Don’t get me wrong, I don’t like whaling and dolphining, etc., but let’s not go crazy.) When you hear some of these, you just have to roll your eyes.

And hopefully when you hear some of these that don’t sound quite as crazy, you’ll pay attention to and notice some of the tricks of the trade, and not spend your hard-earned money on something you could come up with on your own.

 

P.S. I realize that WordPress has a habit of adding Google Ads to posts for those who are not ‘pressers and due to the content of this post, most of the ads are probably for psychic or astrologic readings. I’m looking into the potentiality of migrating my blog to my own server so I won’t have to deal with all of that, but I’m afraid of losing Google rankings and all the link backs that I’ve established over the past ~3.5 years. If someone is knowledgable in how to preserve all those with redirects, etc., please get in contact with me.

P.P.S. Looking forward to 2012, if anyone has found a psychic/numerologist/astrologer/medium/whatever who has put out specific predictions, I’d like to extend beyond C2C for my tallies. Let me know in the comments or by e-mail of these and I’ll look into them.

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.

September 30, 2011

Podcast Episode 6: Astrology Basics and a (Non-?)Changing Sky


Here’s a short post for a long podcast episode on astrology. I’ve discussed astrology several times in this blog before, though I’ve never really gone through to talk about the basics of astrology and some of its inconsistencies.

This episode is (I hope) a natural progression from the basics to talking about observational problems with precession and some inherent contradictions with that and different astrological ages, then getting into the whole “there is no mechanism!” that most astronomers use to “debunk” astrology. I wrap it up with the idea of predictions – that astrologers haven’t ever predicted the existence of astronomical objects, and a little about the anatomy of an astrological horoscope and two statistical studies into its predictive power.

I don’t ever explicitly talk about how the entire astrological system is a logical fallacy (correlation does not imply causation, or cum hoc ergo propter hoc for you Latin folks), but with the tone of the episode I didn’t really think it fit in very well. Maybe if someone sends in feedback I’ll address it during feedback of the next episode (hint: next one is based on … or in … Earth).

This episode is my longest so far coming in at about 32.5 minutes. I know in my first episode I said I’d be doing 10-20 minute episodes and my last few have gotten progressively longer. I’m not entirely sure where this is headed (gimme a break, I’m only on episode 6! (no, not 6-factorial for you math people)), so we’ll see if I’ll adjust my aims over the next few episodes.

I should also note that the episode addresses WESTERN astrology only (though a lot of the information will apply to all types). With that said, go listen!

April 1, 2011

April Fools: A Serious Post for the Day


Introduction

In the past, I’ve had a bit of obvious fun on April 1 with my posts, such as last year’s where I explained how I had seen the light and was giving up science. And apparently it wasn’t too obvious to all that I was joking, as Michael Horn apparently thought I was serious.

Anyway, this year I thought I would use the day to look over several ideas and concepts that I address on this blog or that, in general, the modern skeptical movement takes issue with. The purpose of this is that, often, people who believe in any of these topics will claim that skeptics can’t have their pet idea be true because it would upset their worldview, destroy everything they “believe” in, etc. On the contrary, I would absolutely love for many of these things to be true. Let’s take a look …

Near-Death Experiences, Spirit Contacts, Ghosts

Any and all of these things, if real (and by “real” for NDEs I mean they actually cannot be explained by biology), would mean that there is some form of existence after we die in this one. Seriously, I would be delighted if this were true. I don’t care what people say about how I can’t have this be true because it would mean there’s accountability, or that I can’t just do anything in this life ’cause I’d be reincarnated as a cockroach, or whatever.

Living for maybe 75 years and then ceasing to exist is a scary thought. Occasionally late at night, it crops up in my mind and I get freaked out. But that doesn’t mean that I believe that there is a form of existence after this one. I see no hard, reproducible evidence for it, and all the purported evidence that people have put forth is generally easily refuted (especially when we’re talking about ghosts and mediums).

But I would love it to be true. I asked a friend of mine once what he believed and he unabashedly said he was an atheist. As did his wife, who had grown up in some form of Christianity in a very conservative town. I asked her why, and if that meant she didn’t believe in life after death, either. She explained the usual reasons, but then it was this that got me: “No, I don’t think there’s life after death. But believe me, if someone were taking a vote and if I had any say in the matter, I would vote ‘yes.'”

I agree: If I have a vote in the matter of whether there will be a life after this one, I would vote “yes, I want there to be one.” But do I actually believe there is one? No.

Present-Day Visitation by UFOs and Aliens

In what you’ll quickly discover is a theme with this post, I think this would be cool, assuming of course some sort of benevolence as opposed to an Independence Day style of alien invasion. More Vulcans, less Borg. But do I think that tiny light in the sky that I happen to not be able to explain at the moment is an alien craft? No. Do I “believe” the Betty & Barney Hill story? No. Do I think Billy Meier’s laughable evidence is proof of visitation? No.

Ancient Aliens and Alien Artifacts in the Solar System

Following from the last section, this would again be pretty cool. Though I find it odd some people think Earth was the brothel of the galaxy eons ago and the idea that deviant aliens came here to make sweet sweet monkey love is wacked out. Again, actual real evidence of alien visitation in the past would be very neat. Evidence of an alien civilization on Mars or some other body in the solar system would likewise, I think, be cause of great interest and people would flock to it.

Does that mean I think the Nazca Lines are ancient alien landing strips? No. Or that aliens built the pyramids? No. Just because we may not have a mundane explanation for something now does not mean that “aliens did it.” Or, following perhaps a frequent refrain of creationists, it does not mean that “aliensdidit” (a la “goddidit”). Similarly, Richard C. Hoagland’s ideas of crystal tunnels and ancient sculptures on Mars, Andrew Baggiago’s ideas of fossils on Mars, and – closer to home – Hoagland’s “Data’s Head” find on the moon are obvious and clear examples of pareidolia and bad image processing, not the desired evidence of ancient advanced civilizations.

Young-Earth Creationism

To be perfectly fair, I really don’t “care” how old Earth is. As far as I’m concerned, I only “know” for sure that it’s just under 28 years old. Or really, it could have been created just a second ago but with the appearance of age and with all of our individual memories forged and everything made with the appearance of age. After all, that’s what you have to believe to be a young-Earth creationist, that every single piece of geologic, historical, astronomical, archaeologic, etc. evidence that points to a planet – much less solar system, galaxy, and universe – older than 6000 years was planted there by some sick, twisted omnipotent being to make us scratch our heads in the fashion of a chimp. Or you have to invent new science that doesn’t fit with anything else in order to make your models work out.

I think that in the coming decades, young-Earthers are going to be looked upon the same as flat-Earthers: People who ignore all evidence to the contrary, invent ways around what they can, and otherwise stick their fingers in their ears and shout, “La La La! I can’t hear you!”

Magic (Powers/Abilities like psychokinesis, Elves, Fairies, etc.)

I’ll be honest here (as elsewhere) and admit to a guilty pleasure: The TV show Charmed was one of my favorites. And I’m a Harry Potter fan, though that’s more socially acceptable for a guy. Anyway, I love the idea of magic existing, either out in the open or the concept of a hidden world “beyond the veil” that exists alongside our everyday lives but is hidden from us normal folks. In fact, for the past 4 years I’ve been working on and off on my own novel exploring that idea. But here you have the problem of not just a lack of even shaky evidence or suggestions that it’s true, but a solid lack of any suggestions that it’s true beyond the stray anecdote from the mentally questionable.

[Pick Your] Conspiracy Theory

Conspiracy theories are interesting because many of them actually could be true when first broached. It’s when people ignore all evidence to the contrary of a conspiracy theory that it begins to get stupid. For example, the Apollo Moon landings. Every claim by conspiracy theorists have been appropriately answered by reasonable explanations that adequately fit the model that the astronauts landed on the moon. And now we have Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter images of the Apollo landing sites. This particular conspiracy theory may have made some sense WAY back in the day, but no anyone who clings to it is willfully ignorant or simply delusional. There really is no other, kinder way to say it.

2012 Doomsday

Do I want this one to be true? Of course not. I want to see the solar eclipse in 2017. I have plans set for 2013. I’d prefer not to die in some cataclysm at the end of next year. Does my desire for this not to happen cloud my judgement on whether it will? No. Again, much like with the conspiracy theories above, every idea put forward by 2012 doomsdayers has been shown to be simply wrong, not physically possible, or just an outright lie. If there were actual evidence or even a physical mechanism that could occur, then I would reevaluate my conclusion and start eating more ice cream and Doritos.

Vaccines Cause Autism

Actually, I think it would be great if there were any kind of simple cause of autism, be it the thimerosal that was used as a preservative in childhood vaccines, parents playing Beethoven to the pregnant mom’s stomach, or solar flares. Unfortunately, there isn’t. Thimerosal was removed from most vaccines in the US a decade ago, and autism rates didn’t go down at all. No one knows what actually causes autism, but it’s definitely not vaccines. Concerned parents should be concerned, but they shouldn’t blame something that protects a child’s health and has conclusively been shown by every study to not cause autism.

Final Thoughts

That about wraps it up. Now, yes, this was posted on April 1st. No, this is not a “fake” nor joke post. In the end, this really boils down to this message for a “true believer” who harps on the “skeptics:” Get over yourselves. We are not “scared” that your-supernatural-belief-of-choice may be true. We would welcome it. Instead of wasting everyone’s time with that straw man, how about actually addressing the legitimate criticisms of the methodology instead of the claims?

What I’ve written above are my honest thoughts on the issues. What are yours?

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