Exposing PseudoAstronomy

October 29, 2014

The Deathbed Confession Phenomenon, and I’m Blogging at JREF’s Swift

As I continue to emerge from my seclusion from writing 5 grant proposals, a new development is that I am now included in the roster of bloggers on the James Randi Education Foundation (JREF) Swift blog. I’m not entirely sure how often I’ll be able to do it, but with 400-1000 -word posts and me already doing the weekly ATS 3-hour radio program Saturday nights, hopefully some time overlap can be arranged.

That said, my first post is about deathbed confessions, and why I find them unconvincing in terms of revealing anything outside the mainstream. I’m going to include the posts here in part because the Swift blog comments are closed. The posts here will not have been edited from what I send Sharon Hill (who does the actual posting) or have the images, so go there for the pretty pics.

Since this is my first Swift post, I wanted to give a brief introduction. I’m a self-termed “astro/geophysicist” with a Ph.D. in geophysics but a background more in astrophysics. Given my background, I tend to focus on pseudoscience and skepticism as applied to astronomy, geology, and physics. One regular activity of mine is that I’m a member of the studio of “ATS Live,” the premier three-hour live weekly show of the Above Top Secret website (one of the most popular conspiracy websites in the world); I’m the token skeptic.

On last weekend’s show (October 25, 2014), one of the topics we discussed was the deathbed confession of “Area 51 scientist,” Boyd Bushman. Within a few weeks of his death this past August, Mr. Bushman was recorded in numerous clips making various claims about how he worked on things such as antigravity, UFOs, and other classic pseudoscience claims related to what could be loosely termed, “new physics.”

I think this is an excellent example of why I find the “deathbed confession” phenomenon completely unconvincing, especially as related to paranormal-type claims.

People who want to believe tend to cite two reasons that deathbed confessions should be considered good evidence for their claims. First is the classic argument from authority, especially in the case of Boyd Bushman who’s reasonably well known in the UFO community and “was a retired Senior Scientist for Lockheed Martin.” He was awarded patents and defense contracts. Sounds impressive.

To be brief, the argument form authority is meaningless in terms of the veracity of the actual information; claims and information need to stand on their own and be verified regardless of the person who is making it. My favorite example is that Isaac Newton who (by most metrics) founded modern physics, believed in alchemy.

With this in mind, I don’t even need to start on the path of investigating Mr. Bushman’s claims of employment and background, which many people have called into question.

The second reason people tend to believe deathbed confessions is, “they have nothing to lose!” After all, the person making the deathbed confession is – barring something miraculous – dying. Being killed by the Men in Black at that point is no longer a threat because they’re about to die anyway.

While this certainly makes sense, there are plenty of other reasons why a deathbed confession would actually not be reliable. For one, at least for those who are older and close to death, senility can play a role. It is a normal part of aging, and for the record, Mr. Bushman was 78 when he died. I’m not claiming that senility played a role in this case, I’m merely raising it as a complicating factor of an older person’s testimony.

That aside, a deathbed confession can be a good time to solidify one’s reputation and use the deathbed confession phenomenon and the belief in its veracity to double-down on the claim to increase peoples’ belief in it.

The thinking could easily be, “People really believe that people are 100% honest on their deathbed, so I’m going to make sure I go out with a ‘bang’ and make my claims yet again. People who didn’t believe me before might this time because they’ll think I’m telling the truth ’cause I’m about to die.”

However, in addition to explaining why the common reasons to believe deathbed confession testimony are unconvincing, there’s a better reason why the testimony is not useful: They’re doing it wrong.

Let’s say I had a bunch of secrets of exotic physics and decided to do a deathbed confession. Here’s what I would say: “I’ve been working on antigravity and warp field physics for the last 50 years, in secret, with the US government.” Then, instead of showing photos of a spaceship or a blurry alien – if even that as opposed to just speaking to the camera – I would add: “And, here are the equations. Here is a diagram for how you build a device. Here is a working model. Here is exactly how you put everything together.”

In other words, it shouldn’t matter who I am, what my experience is, or what pretty (or ugly) picture I show. What I need to show is HOW to do it. Saying something doesn’t make it so. I need to give enough information for someone else to verify it and duplicate it. Otherwise, what’s the point? To show I’m smarter than everyone else and I’m just letting you know that before I die?

That’s why I find this whole deathbed confession thing unconvincing and, perhaps more importantly, unuseful: We have no more information than we had before. We have no way to verify any of the information claimed. No way to test or duplicate it. At *best*, we have another person claiming this stuff is real, and while he or she may be proven out with the passage of time, their “confession” contributed absolutely nothing to that advancement.

Until then, it’s no better than any other pseudoscientific claim.

October 17, 2014

Podcast Episode 118: The Big Mars Hoax / The Two Moons Hoax

Two moons in the sky,
One of them is Mars, but it’s
Too weird to be true.

Finally, a new episode is out. As I slowly ease back into a hopefully regular release schedule (back down to 2x/month), I thought I’d tackle a relatively well known claim, but one that I still thought I could add something to. I got the inspiration for the episode while listening to back-episodes of The Reality Check podcast and they covered this topic.

However, as I said, I think I can still add a significant contribution to the topic, in my own unique format. Yes, I debunk it, but I do it by taking you through Kepler’s Laws of planetary motion, the Small Angle approximation, and show how you can easily estimate how large one object will appear relative to another. Then apply that to Mars.

I also go into a bit of history of the claim, and unlike many that I address on this blog and in the podcast, I don’t think there’s any malice to the people who promote the claim each year. My own Great Aunt Ester thought it was true and sent it to me back in 2009.

As I explain at the end of the episode, I’m still very busy these days, but the amount of busicity (for that neologism, pronounce it as “bizz-I-city” where the “I” is pronounced as the “i” in “it”) has fallen. So, we’ll see how things pan out over the next few weeks. I’m busily listening to old C2C episodes to get material for the Norway Spiral episode, promised at least 3 months ago.

September 21, 2014

Philosophy: On Skepticism and Challengers


I’m taking a break because I don’t want to work on this proposal at the moment. I’m great at procrastination, when I get around to it.

Anyway, I want to muse philosophical-like for a few minutes, reacting to some recent things I’ve heard regarding skepticism and people challenging your views.

“Healthy” Skepticism

George Noory, the now >1 decade primary host of late-night paranormal radio program Coast to Coast AM, had Dr. Judy Wood on his program for the first two hours of his “tribute” to the September 11, 2001 (I refuse to call it “9/11″ because I think that trivializes it — we all have our quirks) terrorist attacks. Judy Wood is author of the book, “Where Did the Towers Go?” Her thesis is that a directed “zero-point energy” weapon “dustified” the towers, or that they suffered “dustification.”

It was a very difficult interview for George, I’m sure, since Judy refused to speculate on anything. I’m also growing slightly more convinced that he may have questions written down on cue cards because he asked the exact same question a few minutes apart (“how much energy is required to ‘dustify’ the towers?”) and she refused to speculate both times. Just repeating what she “knows she knows that she knows.” She is also incredibly defensive and clearly doesn’t know what the word “theory” is.

All that aside, early in the interview, George did a tiny disclaimer saying that they always get people writing or calling in saying that doing shows like that is unpatriotic and/or disrespectful to everyone who died in the attacks and the aftermath. But, that it’s healthy to have skepticism and to always question the official story.


Okay, George, you are correct in theory (yes, I used that word purposely), but completely wrong in practice. Skepticism does not mean doubting or denying or not accepting everything. Skepticism, as we use the term today, means to not accept something unless we have good evidence to do so. It’s a method of investigation, to look into claims, examine the evidence, and put it in context with all the other evidence and plausibility given what has been established about the way the world works.

At least, that’s how I tend to define it, and it’s how I tend to practice it.

Do I believe “the government” on everything? No. For example, President Obama recently announced that the US is going to take on ISIS in some form or fashion, but that there would be “no boots on the ground.” Given past experience when politicians have said that, and given the realities of ISIS and the Middle East area in general, I’m … shall we say … “skeptical,” and I will reserve acceptance of his statement until it actually plays out.

Do I believe that NASA “tampers” with photographs of the moon to “airbrush out” ancient ruins and alien artifacts, or do I accept what “they” give us? (I put “they” in quotes because “NASA” is an organizational administration within the federal government; it’s the people involved who do everything, and it’s contractors and grant awardees who deal with data and other things.) I accept what they give us. I tend to not question it.

Why? Because of past experience and my own experience in investigating the claims to the contrary. I look at other images of the area from multiple spacecraft. From spacecraft from other countries. They are consistent. They don’t show different kinds of anomalies you’d need in order to have the scenario that the conspiracists claim is happening. They do show what you’d expect if the data were faithfully represented, as it was taken, after standard spacecraft and basic data reduction steps (like correcting for geometric distortion based on how the spacecraft was pointed, or removing artifacts from dust on the lens).

George, there is a difference between healthy skepticism – looking into claims – and beating a dead horse. Or beating over 3000 dead victims to a terrorist attack.

There is no plausibility to Dr. Wood’s arguments. Her claims made to back them up are factually wrong. (Expat has addressed some of them in his blog, here, here, here, and here.) She is ridiculously defensive, refuses to delve further into her model to actually back it up, and has a name for herself only because people like you give her airtime to promote her ideas. True skepticism is to examine the arguments from both sides and draw a conclusion based on what’s real and what’s most probable. Which has been done by thousands of people who debunk every single claim the conspiracists make about the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. But you won’t go to them. You bring on Dr. Wood, or people from the Architects and Engineers for Truth.

A one-sided investigation is not faithful, not genuine, and is disrespectful to everyone.

Challenging Your Conclusions

In a related vein, but completely different context, I was reading through my RSS news feeds and came upon the headline to the effect (because it’s disappeared from my feed since I started to write this): Michelle Obama explains to school children that challenges [probably, though I read it as "challengers"] are a good thing.

So true. Most people in the skeptical movement know that this is “a True.” Most scientists know this is “a True.” Most pseudoscientists are vehemently against being challenged.

I’ll take the subject of my last blog post to illustrate this example, not that I want to pick on him per se, but he’s the last person I listened to in detail that I can use to illustrate this point, other than Dr. Wood, who I discussed much more than I want to in the above section. Mike Bara.

Mike was somewhat recently on another late-night (though not quite as late) internet radio program, “Fade to Black,” where Jimmy Church is the host. It’s on Art Bell’s “Dark Matter Radio Network,” where I was also a guest several months ago. I have since called in twice to the program, both times to discuss the possibility of debating Mike Bara on some of his claims.

The very brief backstory on that is Mike was on Coast to Coast, and basically attacked me. I called in, George said he’d arrange a debate, then stopped responding to my e-mails. A year later, the same thing happened, and George actually e-mailed me (I couldn’t call in because I lost power that night — happens sometimes in the mountains of Colorado, though we now have a generator), he wanted to arrange a debate, he claimed on air that I had stopped responding to his e-mails … and then he stopped responding to mine so the debate never happened. Later, I learned that it was Mike who may have dropped his acceptance. I related that to Jimmy.

Jimmy asked Mike if he’d be willing to debate me, and Mike’s response was effectively, “what do I get out of it?” Mike opined that what I (Stuart) would get out of it is a platform and attention which, according to Mike, I so desperately want (or maybe that’s Michael Horn’s claim about me … I get some of what each says is my motivation a bit confused). Meanwhile, Mike already has attention, so he said that he wouldn’t get anything out of it and therefore didn’t want to do it. Jimmy countered that it would make great radio (which I agree with).

I did call in, but unfortunately Mike got dropped when Jimmy tried to bring me in. It was the last 10 minutes of the program, anyway, so I told Jimmy what I thought we both (me and Mike) would get out of it: We would each have to back up what we say, and when challenged, it forces us in a radio setting to make our arguments concise, easily understandable, and actually back up what we’re saying.

That’s what we do in science: We have to back up what we say. We expect to get challenged, we expect to have people doubt our work, we expect to have people check our work, and we expect people to challenge our conclusions. Only the best ideas that can stand up to such scrutiny survive. That’s how science progresses. That’s where pseudoscience fails. Science is not a democracy, and it is not a communistic system where every idea is the same and equal as every other idea. It’s a meritocracy. Only the ideas that have merit, that stand up to scrutiny, survive.

The point of science is to develop a model of how the world works. If your model clearly does not describe how the world works and make successful predictions (and have repeatable evidence and have evidence that actually stands up to scrutiny), then it gets dropped.

Final Thoughts

I hope you found these musings at least mildly interesting. And let me know if you agree or disagree. Challenge my ideas, but if you do so, make sure you back them up!

July 26, 2014

Joining the Cast of ATS Live

Filed under: conspiracy theories,interview — Stuart Robbins @ 5:34 pm
Tags: , , ,

Ive been forgetting to mention this in the podcast for over a month now, but since we go live in 40 minutes, I finally remembered for here:

Many moons ago (2 lunations?) I was interviewed on the “Above Top Secret” Forum’s live internet radio show, “ATS Live.” It’s a three-hour program, it goes out 6-9PM Pacific Time, 9PM-12AM Eastern Time, and convert for yourself for other time zones because I dislike timezones. This followed my appearance on their Wednesday night program, “Reality Remix” (different hosts, different show, just tied together because of the ATS forums).

For those who don’t know, Above Top Secret is one of the largest conspiracy-discussing websites on the internet.

I apparently did good, after talking about astronomy and space ‘n’ related topics (a bit of the conspiracy, but really we talked more about mainstream science than I had anticipated, so I threw out my notes about Bob Lazar and “Element 115″). I say I “did good” because they have since had me back as a regular panelist. Weekly. Except when I’m super-busy or am out of town, like when I was at TAM two weeks ago.

The topics for each show can be found on this forum, and they are posted a few hours before the show. Tonight is episode 219. Usually, the first hour discusses a few topics on the ATS forum, the second hour is an interview (I got to ask Nick Pope a question about a month ago, for example), and the third hour is more about some ATS forum topics.

All the panelists tend to offer their opinion / expertise (more opinion) on the topic at-hand. I usually have my line on mute because I have little to say about, for example, the Israeli war last week (well, I had a lot to say, but I chose to remain apolitical and so didn’t say anything). Or on the consciousness of trees.

But usually about once an episode, I’ll “cue” in and offer my opinion or some tidbit or fact, like some skepticism about the 9/11 attacks being a nuke. Tonight I might cue in on a video about the beginning of the universe to the end of Earth in 2 minutes, or about biologists warning of the 6th mass extinction on Earth (caused by us).

Some of the panelists call me “The Professor,” or “Doc,” or whatnot, and despite some appearance of on-air tiffs, we seem to get along fairly well.

Anyway, the point of this post is to let you know yet another outlet where you can find me these days, and to advertise for the show a bit. As I said, I’m not always on, and I rarely talk more than 20 minutes total, but it is still interesting and you might have it on the background while you play poker with your friends on Saturday nights or some such thing.

Update: I was apparently so excited to be on last night that it slipped my mind: You can listen by following the links here.

June 23, 2014

Podcast Episode 113: The Blue-Haze Limb of Mars

While the color of
Mars is red, some photos show
Blue on the limb. Why?

While I’ve already addressed the True Color of Mars (episode 74), one remaining – and unmentioned – twist is the blue haze limb that is sometimes visible as the upper atmosphere in color images taken from Earth orbit; this episode addresses those. And, it’s a completely different phenomenon than just a crappy understanding of image analysis. Real science ensues!!

Feedback makes up over half of this episode. I talk about Episodes 112 (why Russell Humphreys thinks that magnetic fields should decay to begin with and how he made his prediction), 109 (a follow-up interview of Marshall Masters from just a few days ago), and 111 (general feedback and criticisms of the Cydonia movie).

Finally, TAM is less than 2.5 weeks away, and I’d love to meet my adoring fans you folks who tolerate listening to me every now-and-then. Please let me know if you’re going AND interested in meeting up. Otherwise, I may have to spend all my time with a Hershey chocolate -lover, and we don’t want that now, do we?

And über-finally, I got a special e-mail while I was recording this episode. Listen to it all the way through to hear it. :)

Oh, and super-düper-finally, about the release schedule: Some of you may have noticed has been a bit off lately. The excuses are the usual, but ostensibly, the podcast is “supposed” to come out on the 1st, 11th, and 21st of the month. And that’s how I date them in the RSS feed. But, in the intro, I state that this is an episode for a certain third of the month, so that’s been the justification in my head for being able to get it out a little late. And looking at my upcoming schedule, I think that you can probably expect more of the same at least until September. They should be on or about the 1st, 11th, and 21st, but won’t necessarily be exactly on those dates.

May 22, 2014

Podcast Episode 110: Solar System Mysteries “Solved” by PseudoScience, Part 2 – The Pioneer Anomaly

Pioneers: Little
Spacecraft that could. But, reveal
New physics, maybe?

The long put-off episode on the Pioneer Anomaly (you’re welcome, Graham). This is a normal-length half-hour episode, hopefully a complete telling of the story, hopefully understandable. There are a lot of links in the shownotes, so head over there if you get lost.

There’s also a Q&A segment, a question from the many in my archive.

There are also three announcements, two requiring links. First up is the trailer for my Cydonia region of Mars video, and second is that this Saturday I will be interviewed on ATS Live (I’ll try to record it and post if possible). I don’t know all of what we’ll talk about, but topic-wise we will likely hit on Bob Lazar and John Lear … if you’re into UFOlogy, you almost certainly know those names.

May 12, 2014

Podcast Episode 109: The Fake Story of Planet X, Part 9 – Marshall Masters

Conspiracy shrouds
Planet X in mystery.

In this episode, we get Marshall Masters’ version of Planet X. There’s honestly not too much new with his view except that he brings in lots of various ideas of Planet X to make a non-cohesive argument and salts it generously with a whole lotta conspiracy. Graham requested the topic, and because I wanted to do something interesting, I explored a somewhat different way of introducing it with a suggestion from Mike Bohler.

Let me know what you think of the intro. And, does anyone recognize the music at the ~1-minute mark?

There’s also a New News segment, courtesy of Flip.

May 1, 2014

Is Camera Noise Evidence for Ancient Advanced Civilization on the Moon?


Richard C. Hoagland. Yes, another post about some of his claims (not him). Things had been quiet from Mr. Hoagland for several months, apparently because of his latest work, spending 4 months attempting to show that the Chinese lunar mission, Chang’e 3 (嫦娥三号), and its rover Yutu (Jade Rabbit, 玉兔), had found evidence of the same thing he thinks he sees in Apollo photographs (that was likely dirt on his scanner): Ancient glass towers on the horizon.

Where to start? What to address? His “paper” on the subject, which you can find at his “Enterprise Mission dot com” website (sorry, I’m not going to link), is massive. And has 136 markup errors and 23 warnings according to the W3C markup validation service. It is nearly 14,000 words long, Richard says it has over 100 photographs, and if I were to print it from Safari would come out at 86 pages.

That is a long way of saying there’s no way I’m going to even come close to addressing it all, or even try to. There’s even so much I could write about the specific topic I want to talk about – image noise and sensor non-uniformity – that I’m only going to be able to talk about in broad brushstrokes, but hopefully it’s understandable.

What I’m Not Talking About

Richard has been making the circuit of the late-night paranormal shows, podcasts, etc. Tonight he was on Jimmy Church’s show, the one I was on two weeks ago. I think that, given that I heard his Coast to Coast interview, his “The Unexplained” interview, and “Fade to Black” interview, I have a reasonable idea of his argument (keep in mind, that’s about 5.5 non-commercial-hours of listening to Richard talk about this, so forgive me for not reading another 13,700 words).

I’m not going to talk about his numerology:

  • 19.5° … anything.
  • Landed at 19.5° … LONGITUDE, not latitude.
  • Landed at 44°N which was a message to the 44th President … Obama.

I’m not going to talk about his conspiracy and symbolism:

  • Obama made some mention of carrot seeds in a gift to the Pope, which was a hidden message about the Jade Rabbit lunar rover.
  • All his previous NASA conspiracy stuff coming in.
  • Disclosure is going to happen within a few months (I seem to recall him saying 2010 was the Year of Disclosure and then in 2011 when being called on it (a rare instance of being called out), he said it was, we just hadn’t noticed it).
  • Brookings Report

I’m not going to discuss his pareidolia, since that doesn’t really play much a role in this set of claims (to the extent it does with grids, that will be discussed).

And so, of the four things that comprise the vast majority of Richard Hoagland’s claims (numerology, conspiracy, pareidolia, shoddy image analysis), it will be the image analysis that I will delve into.

Why not this other stuff? Why isn’t that as important? Because none of it is actual objective evidence for anything. It is supposition, ancillary to the claimed photographic evidence that I’ll be discussing in the rest of this post. Since the photography is the only (or the most) objective part, that’s what’s important to examine.

The Images (One of Them)

Here is the hallmark image that Richard has been sending to radio hosts. And I have included the original caption.

Richard Hoagland's Lunar Glass Towers from Chang'e 3

“Equalized version” of another official Chang’e-3 lunar surface image, revealing another set of the Moon’s startling “glittering glass towers” standing only a few miles northeast of the the Chang’e-3 landing site. Careful examination of the image will reveal an amazingly coherent geometry to these ancient, heavily meteor-eroded glass structures … including, the surface placement of the still-glowing “colored blue and red panels” appearing at these structures’ base and to the extreme right — apparently energized colored panels “embedded in the ancient glass.”


Ah, noise. Most of us are familiar with audio noise. Turn speakers on, when they’re not connected to anything else, and put the gain up all the way. You will hear static. That’s random electrons being picked up by the circuitry and being amplified as, literally, noise.

The same thing happens with digital cameras. They work by converting photons (little packets of light) into energy, and recording how much energy is recorded. Some pixels are more sensitive than others. Some pixels are always on, some are always off. Usually, because of the manufacturing process, it’s entire rows and/or columns of pixels that will be slightly more sensitive than others. And there’s the statistical fluctuations that have to do with counting statistics.

When cameras get warm, the molecules have more energy (definition of heat), and are more likely to randomly emit an electron that will be recorded … as in, noise. That is why professional – and even enthusiast – astronomy CCDs are cooled, sometimes with liquid nitrogen. It reduces the noise. If your sensor is unevenly heated, that can cause uneven noise across it (more noise where it’s warmer). Just a degree temperature difference will do it.

All of those mean that ANY digital detector will have noise – I don’t care how good it is, how much you paid for it, how many pixels it has, if it’s color or B&W … whatever about it – it will have noise. The fact that it has a temperature above absolute zero means it will have noise.

Here is an excellent tutorial on image noise. If at this point you don’t know what I’m really talking about, please read it, or at least look at the images. There is a small link to a part 2 at the bottom. Going forward, I’m going to assume that you have a a reasonable grasp of noise. This is already a long post.

What Is “Equalization”?

“I just brightened up the images a little bit.” –RCH

This is a hallmark of much of Richard Hoagland’s types of claims. Brightening the image, increasing contrast, increasing saturation, etc.

Equalization itself can have innumerable types of algorithms, but the basic idea is this: Many photographs of a typical scene have a little bit of dark, a little bit of bright, and a lot in the middle. That’s not how you have to shoot a photo, but that’s typical (go to this post and look for “Histograms”). What Equalize does it want to put the same number of pixels at every brightness level.

So, in that example, it will move some of the slightly darker middle colors to be darker, and it will move slightly brighter middle colors lighter. That way, if your image has 256 pixels, and you’re in 8-bit mode so there are 256 levels of brightness, one pixel will have a brightness 0, one will have a brightness 1, one will have a brightness 2, and so on.

Inevitably, this has the effect of stretching at least some brightness levels in the image. More on that in a bit.

This can be good! You take a wedding photo and Equalize can help bring out detail in both the bride’s white dress and the groom’s black tux (if we’re talking about a Western-style heterosexual marriage). That’s because the image, as-shot, would have a lot of dark pixels and a lot of bright pixels, so Equalize will bring them more to the middle.

But this can also be bad or silly, as I show in the next section.

Stuart’s Example

Below is an image I took of the moon last year.

Example of Why Equalization Is Sometimes Stupid

An original image of the Moon showing what happens when you “Equalize” blackness and the structure of noise.

The top image shows my nice, well-exposed photograph of the moon.

Then I saved the image as a JPG. The middle row shows what happened when I pressed Photoshop’s “Equalization” option. The left column is from the original image, before I saved it. The right column shows what happened when I pressed Equalize on the JPG-saved image. The bottom row is what happened after I converted both to greyscale, just for completeness.

So, what is this showing? Noise! (The pixel noise I talked about before and the JPG compression artifacts, though I’m not going to talk about those JPG artifacts in this post.) As I talked about above, different rows and columns of pixels are very slightly more or less sensitive than others. It doesn’t matter how good your sensor is, it will still have imperfections.

Since this particular sensor is three-color (RGB pixels), then different rows and columns of colors have different sensitivities, hence the red/pink checkerboard feature. The green pixels in this sensor apparently had better noise properties than the red and blue.

Notice also that it’s brighter around the moon. As if it’s surrounded by tall glass structures! After all, all of this stuff is showing perfect rectalinear geometry.

But why did I say that using equalization on this is silly? It’s because it is. The moon was surrounded by black sky. If you go to the original image on my computer (please don’t hack me), the pixel values – the number of photons recorded – scaled between 0 and 255, is 0-2 in that dark area. That, dear reader, is noise.

What about close to the moon? It raises to 8-20. (The Moon itself is 150-230.) The 8-20 pixel brightnesses are both noise AND, more importantly in this case, scattered light. This gets to another thing about optics: I don’t care how good your optics are, what kind of special coatings it has … unless you are in a clean room with ZERO dust, and perhaps using the clearest of crystals as your optics, your optics are not perfect and they will scatter light. Meaning the light won’t just pass through as it should, a few photons will be deflected and go somewhere else.

What that means for this case is that the moon is a bright circle on this image. A few of those photons are going to scatter within the optics of my camera and the probably 15 different pieces of glass that form the lenses. Probably, they won’t scatter far. That’s why right next to the moon, it’s 8-20 photons. But just 10% of the image away, we’re back at the background level of 0-2.

This all gets back to Richard’s images. I can’t figure out exactly which image Richard used as his main one, but another he uses comes from here, the bottom one with the caption 嫦娥三号着陆器地形地貌相机拍摄的“玉兔”号月球车照片。(Chang’e 3 lander topography camera “rabbit” No. rover photos. –via Google Translate).

Here’s how Richard presents it:

RCH's Processing of a Chang'e 3 Image

There — from the institution which forms the foundation of China’s very 21st Century existence–
Was the ghostly … repetitive … glistening glass geometry of “an ancient, Mare Imbrium dome …”–
With the official “Chinese People’s Liberation Army” logo plastered right on top of it (below)!

When I look at the image, the pixel values in the sky on the left half are 0-5. The right half is 5-10. The lunar features being around 100-250. It’s the same on a higher-resolution image that “Dee” found and posted over on Expat’s Dork Mission blog. Again, noise. And, I think some scattered light.

The moon is dusty. And even if it weren’t, the scattered light in the right half makes sense, getting back-scatter from the sun coming from the right, scattered in all directions but a bit more back to the right, and into the camera lens on that side. Another explanation is that the right half of the sensor was very slightly warmer than the left half. That will also give you noise of this exact type.

And, if these are glass towers, one must also ask why they stop just above the horizon!? On Richard’s “Enhancement” via Equalization, he shows the lunar surface, and just above it is a black line, and then are his glass towers.

But back to Equalize, what happened? Well, about half the image is really dark, pixel brightness values between about 0 and 10. Half the image is middle to bright, with brightness values between about 100 and 255. Because Equalize demands that the same number of pixels be at every level of brightness, it has to make a lot of those dark pixels brighter. Since half-way between 0 and 255 is about 127, it barely has to do anything to the lunar surface part. It’ll make some of the pixels a little darker, and some of them a little brighter, but the most drastic change will be to the sky area because that’s half the image, and so that half the image now must be mapped instead from 0-10 brightness to about 0-127 brightness. (Since it’s a little less than half, it only gets mapped up to 90, but you get the idea.)

Richard Says it Could Be Noise, But It’s Not Because It’s Geometric and Not Below Horizon

Richard said words to that effect at about 9:04 PM on Jimmy’s radio program (just over 2 hrs into it). He said it could either be noise or glass structures. He said it’s not noise because it’s geometric and because it doesn’t show below the horizon (the surface of the moon).

I reject both of those as explanations for why it’s not noise. The geometry argument because of my example above with my image of the moon, and see that tutorial on banding noise. If he thinks that image noise is not geometric (the noise from the sensor and noise from JPG compression), he is either more ignorant or delusional than I thought or, well, not telling the truth. Sorry, it’s hard to listen to him for 3 hrs and write 2800 words and not get in a small ad hominem.

I reject the part about it not showing below the horizon as evidence it’s not noise because of … the numbers. Even Richard often says, “It’s about the numbers!” In this case, you are talking about pixel values of about 5-10 brightness. Let’s say that’s noise. Just give that to me for a moment. Now look at the actual lit part of the moon. Pixel values 100-250. Noise of 5-10 photons on top of 0 is HUGE. Noise of 5-10 photons on top of 100-250 is miniscule. In other words, I say that the noise is still there in the part below the horizon, you just don’t see it.

Again, I’ll refer to the tutorial I linked to, specifically the first two images. The top one shows the same noise level, but a large signal (like the lunar surface). The second one shows the same noise level, but a very small signal (like the sky, though I’d say there’s no signal, it’s all noise).

Other Relevant, Miscellaneous Statements

“The data are replicable” therefore the fact that he sees this in Apollo and the Chang’e 3 images means it’s real, it’s “stunning confirmation.”

Yes, it certainly does mean that image noise is real and banding noise is also a real type.

“The Chinese have gone to the Moon and sent back the message — ‘Hoagland was right.'”

This one in particular struck Expat from the Dork Mission blog. I kinda agree. I find it typical of a decent number of claims by conspiracists in general and (personally) I find it somewhat arrogant to think that THEY are the only ones who can decode these secret messages, and even that the encoders are speaking directly to them!

Other “Enterprise Mission scientists” agree with him.

That is not peer review, that is an echo chamber. There’s a reason that Richard Hoagland is making the circuit on the paranormal shows and not anything else with this stuff.

Since the images are still up on the various Chinese websites, even after Richard Hoagland’s disclosure last week, that means that they are admitting that this stuff is real.

No, it means that most of us laugh this off as not understanding anything about photographic noise. Those of us among the very small community of scientists who actually follow these kinds of topics.

Where Are These “Miles-High, Miles-Across” Features in Meter-Scale Orbital Photographs?

As with the lunar ziggurat saga, and even as Richard stated (just his example doesn’t qualify), science demands repetition of objective data. Richard has claimed that these features are massive, miles across and miles high and miles wide. The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter’s Narrow Angle Camera records images with pixel scales of around 0.5 meters. Wide-Angle Camera is ~60 meters per pixel. The Japanese Kaguya craft had a terrain camera that recorded images at ~10 meters per pixel. And that’s just in the last few years.

But, none of these craft show these features. Even Richard hasn’t pointed to any of these images that would allegedly show them.

And yet, Richard claims that they are shimmering, glittering, multi-colored, glassy … and miles across. Where are they in other imagery? Yes, you’re looking down from above, but glass refracts light (index of refraction is 1.5-2.0-ish) so we should see weird distortions. And, he says it glitters, so we should see specular reflections, especially off the parts that are “damaged” (as he put it) and haven’t been repaired yet by robots (which he said are there in the C2C interview).

So either they should be there in the other images, or they don’t exist. Or, massive conspiracy. *cough*

Final Thoughts

I wasn’t going to talk about this stuff. When I first listened to it on C2C last week, my almost knee-jerk response was, “This falls into the category of Not Even Wrong.” In other words, there is simply so little correct, so little grounding in reality, that (a) there’s no way to even start to address it all, and (b) there’s usually not any reason to.

As RationalWiki put it, a Not Even Wrong statement is not of the form “2 + 2 = 6,” but rather, “2 + zebra ÷ glockenspiel = homeopathy works!”

Then I saw how much press he was getting on these various shows. On “The Unexplained,” he made a comment to the effect that he can reach 2% of the population (US population? world population?) “without breaking a sweat.” And he’s right. Or at least close to it. If the audience numbers that I’ve heard reported for these various shows are correct, he’s probably easily reached over a million listeners at this point, or 1/3 of a percent of the US population.

I don’t believe for a Plank time that all those people believe what Richard says. I also, honestly, don’t think it’s incredibly important whether they do or not. But, the credulity that even entertaining this kind of “analysis” fosters transfers into other fields. Like medicine. Or believing in a soon-to-be apocalypse. And there, your choices, your belief in various “alternative” views, can kill you. Or, in cases of psychics, astrologers, and others, they can bankrupt you.

April 21, 2014

Podcast Episode 107: Clip Show #2

Force, lunar holograms, and
Rainbows. Yay clip shows!

You get three different claims in this episode, from simple misunderstandings to what some may classify as outright crazy (or, as I like to write, cräZ). More specifically, I talk about whether gravity is an accelerative force, whether the moon is a hologram, and something having to do with rainbows. And no, I’m not talking about the sprinkler rainbow lady.

The possibly newly forming moon around Saturn is a Q&A in this episode.

Graham, I swear I’m getting ready to do the Pioneer Anomaly …

My Interview on “Fade to Black” from April 16


has been posted. I start after about 30 minutes, though the host, Jimmy Church, intros / prefaces the interview during the first half hour. You might as well just listen to the whole thing. :)

(And for some reason, my audio seems a bit quiet relative to the host’s (Jimmy Church) … sorry ’bout that).


My goal during the interview was to provide plausible, science-based explanations for, well, whatever we talked about, to show that the scientific explanation is at least as plausible as the conspiracy or pseudoscience one, and to be reasonable.

I think I sounded a bit like a broken record towards that effect, and I probably could’ve said it a bit less often. But, for those who aren’t going to listen, let me re-state it now in print: I would love for lots of the stuff common to paranormal radio programs to be true. I would love for there to be aliens visiting us and sharing or giving us advanced technology. For there to be bases on the moon, or other kinds of artifacts on Mars that provide evidence for ancient “high technology” beyond a reasonable doubt. But, the evidence that has been presented simply doesn’t meet that threshold, in my opinion.

If the best evidence for aliens is a mesa that at high-resolution looks like a natural eroded rock formation, or a few bright pixels that can be explained as a camera defect because it doesn’t show in other pictures of the site taken at the same time, then that simply does not meet my own personal threshold. It may meet yours. It obviously meets some peoples’. But, that is why the scientific community, as a whole, does not accept these things.

Would I Have a Conspiracist / “Alternative” Person on My Podcast?

No. I was asked this a little before the first hour (of the three-hour program). It was in the context of would I ask Bart Sibrel on the show. The answer, again, is no.

The reason that I gave is that the purpose of my podcast is not to be sensationalist, not to present a false balance or appearance of balance. It is a science-based podcast that addresses claims that are “out there” in general or promoted by specific persons. They are up against the entirety of science and evidence to-date. Ergo, a true balance would be to let them have, perhaps, a single second out of my normal ~half-hour show.

Ad hominems Versus Claims a Person Makes

I think it’s important that whenever one addresses this kind of stuff that they address the claims and not the person. Yes, sometimes it’s important to give context. But in the end, the claims should stand on their own. That’s also why, when I was asked around the 1hr 12min mark, about “what makes a hoaxer” and why they do what they do, I honestly replied that I didn’t know and tried not to speculate too much.

In the interview, I tried to do that. I realize it sounds, a few times, like we were bashing on Richard Hoagland. That was not my intent. The reason that Richard was the proponent of several of the claims we talked about is that he is simply one of the main proponents of space-based image-based claims out there, and he has a huge back-catalog of claims spanning at least 30 years. If you get into addressing fringe astronomy claims, you will with almost 100% certainty run into Richard C. Hoagland.

I hope that comes across that I was focused on his claims and not him, himself. If it doesn’t, I’ve restated it here for the record.

And, since the interview, at least one person has said that Richard should get a “right of reply.” Also for the record, I have no control and no say in that. That is up to the host, producer(s), and Richard himself. I know that Richard is friends with the producer (Keith Rowland), so that may play a factor. That is also why I tried to be particularly sensitive to addressing the claims and not the person.

What follows are some of my musings and observations after listening to my interview again, and perhaps some things I wish I would have stated differently. This is not comprehensive to the interview, so you will not be able to get a guide to it by reading this post, nor will you get a flavor for the tone/tenor or total content. For that, you need to listen to the 2.5 hrs I was on.

Planet X

We talked about this for about 20 minutes at the beginning. I referenced the WISE survey with respect to the latest all-sky survey of faint infrared surveys. Here is the press release / story / paper that I was referring to.

Also I mentioned the common claim that IRAS discovered it in 1983. Here’s the episode of my podcast (#54) where I addressed this claim. Oh, and IRAS = InfraRed Astronomical Survey.

Apollo Moon Hoax

Going into this, I should have been better prepared. Jimmy had interviewed Bart Sibrel, one of the major four proponents of the hoax conspiracy idea, and the only one who is still alive. It was one of the five interviews (that’s still 15 hrs) I had listened to in preparation for my interview on his show. And, it made me mad. I had posted this to the BellGab internet forum (Art Bell fans) after I listened:

Ug. I wish I knew about the show a month ago. Listening to Sibrel is painful, and every single one of these claims have been debunked.

The whole psychology stuff? Utterly unconvincing. Why do the astronauts punch or kick Sibrel? Because they’ve spent 40 years dealing with jerks like him accosting them in public about this stuff. Forty years later (well, maybe 35 at that time), you have Sibrel, a tall, relatively young guy, marching up to an older Aldrin and demanding he swear on a bible while calling him “a coward, and a liar, and a thief,” … what would you do, especially after having been lured there under false pretenses?

Or Armstrong looking depressed or upset at the news conference right after the landings … how would you feel if you just spent three days in a tin can, a day on the friggin’ moon (wow!), but then another three days in a tiny tin can. Your every move scrutinized, in the same clothing, having to urinate and defecate in small bags, eating crappy food, and then you finally get home and you’re dragged on stage to talk to a bunch of people when all you want is a shower and bed (and a real toilet)? I don’t know about you, but I don’t do well the first few days being in a HOTEL (I have issues sleeping in a new bed for the first 2-3 nights), let alone in a tiny capsule for a week. I’d be miserable.

Sorry Jimmy, your analogy of just coming off the Super Bowl win doesn’t hold in this case. It would if you then stuck all the players (before they’ve had a chance to shower or change clothes) in a tiny room for three days – give ‘em a few bags of freeze-dried food and a few bags to “do their business” in – and THEN have them go talk with the press.

Sorry if I come across as P.O.’ed, but Sibrel and his ilk really tick me off by playing these one-sided games, giving you outright lies (yes, we could certainly read the original tapes if they were found), mis-statements (van Allen belts are NOT as dangerous as he portrays, or the stuff about lunar rocks from Antarctica), misdirection (see van Allen belts, or statements about why TV stations couldn’t read the raw feed, or even his statements about how many hours in space the Russians had (it’s quality, not quantity)), or these kinds of “well what would YOU do?” psychology things that leaves out the whole story.

Especially if you want to play that whole human psychology stuff, then actually put yourself in the WHOLE situation, with all the crap (literally) they had to deal with, how tired they would be after getting back, etc. As opposed to, “Hey, they are the first people to get back from the moon, they should be excited and want to tell everyone about it!” Remember, these are people, not robots.

I could go on, but I think I need to relax a bit, and that I’ve made my point. [...]

Since I had posted that, very obviously I should have been prepared to discuss it. And I could discuss practically any aspect of the Moon Hoax stuff at any time, except for the van Allen Belts. Electricity and Magnetism (E&M) and I do not get along. I hated the three semesters I studied it in college, and I did not go into solar physics in grad school because of it. And, he asked me about the radiation.

In my tiny defense, there had been a bit of feedback in my headset up to the point when Jimmy asked the question. That disappeared. And it seemed as though he ended the question a word or two short (at 1:03:54, he says, “So, how do you say?” prefaced by talking about the radiation … to me, since the feedback cut out right about that time, and it really does seem as though there should be a few more words to that question). So, I was fumbling trying to pull up a link where I had discussed it before to get my talking points (not realizing I hadn’t actually done a blog post on it), all while also looking at my network transfer speeds and Skype to make sure I was still connected. But, I sounded like a flummoxed moron, and I think it was by far my worst moment during the interview.

For the record, here is my podcast episode (#5) when I discussed this. There’s also Clavius.org and Phil Plait who both debunk this.

Otherwise, I think I did reasonably okay in this discussion, and I think that my end point should be emphasized again: Conspiracy ideas are easy to make because you just need something that doesn’t make sense to you, and you can state a conspiracy in 5 seconds or less. Debunking them requires a huge amount of specialized knowledge in various fields and takes much longer than 5 seconds. Meanwhile, if I were to satisfactorily explain away every single claim but one, then you would still believe in the hoax because of that one claim. Instead, you should be thinking, “Wow, all of those were bologna, maybe that other one is, too, and Stuart just gave a crappy answer. I should investigate!” I said as much in what I thought was a shining come back for a few minutes around 1hr 17-20min.

What I find truly disingenuous of hoax proponents, though, is all this stuff has been pointed out to them so many times. And yet, they keep making the claims without acknowledging any of the refutations.

Finally, something I thought of after the show that I should have responded with when Jimmy kept coming back to the technology claim is this: It’s very easy to say, “But they didn’t have the technology!” But, that’s a very general and vague statement. What specific technology is needed? Can there be any substitutes? Now with that list, let’s see what they did have.

Scientists and the Status Quo

It is a frequent refrain by any non-mainstream person that scientists just want to uphold the consensus, they don’t want to find anything new, they don’t want to upset the apple cart, blah blah blah. I talked about this in the “Fear and Conspiracy” section of my last post on the lunar ziggurat, but I wrote an entire post on it in 2010, as well.

Do I Think Intelligent Life (Aliens) Have Visited Us, and/or Are “Out There?”

I think Jimmy was frustrated with my very qualified answer to this, starting around the 1hr 35min mark, so let me give a slightly more thought-out response.

For me, there is a difference between “think” and “believe,” the entire subject of another 2010 blog post. I don’t think there is any evidence for this. But, I want to believe that it is true. If I ignore my “thinking brain” part, I, like probably most people, have a desire to know if we’re alone or not. I believe the universe is too vast to not have other intelligent life out there. I’m not sure I believe there’s any reason for them to visit Earth at any point in our past versus any other of the countless billions of planets in the galaxy, but sure, it’s possible.

But then that concrete part of my brain kicks in when I’m asked this kind of question, and I try to look for evidence. And, I just don’t see any good evidence for it.

So yes, I want to believe, I would love for it to be true, but all of the evidence presented so far is not good enough, it does not meet the very high threshold that I hold for such a spectacular and important “thing.” And, some of that evidence has been discussed previously on this blog and/or my podcast.

Face on Mars and Other Stuff on Mars

We spent a lot of time on this, starting around 1hr 50min. I don’t really have too much to add, except that I did an in-depth two-part podcast series on the Face on Mars (part 1 || part 2). Jimmy also said that we would have to address “19.5°” at some point during the evening, which we didn’t get to — I did podcast and blog about it in the past.

We also talk about the layout of the “city” and other stuff in the Cydonia area; that is something that I have yet to blog or podcast about, but it is something I’m working on for some as-yet-undisclosed projects (undisclosed because I seem to disclose stuff and then it never gets done; this way perhaps I’ll finish something and then disclose it).

Bright Spot in Curiosity NAVCAM

Around 2hr 30min, for several minutes, we talked about this bit of news. That I blogged about here. As promised, about a half hour after we got off the air, I sent this e-mail to Jimmy with more examples of bright spots in the images:

Here are a couple images, most of them courtesy of the scientists who are actually discussing what this could be (as opposed to UFOlogists / anomaly hunters over on UFO Sightings Daily who first came up with this), via the Unmanned Spaceflight forum: http://www.unmannedspaceflight.com/index.php?showtopic=7825 . There’s a lot of discussion on there about what people think it may be — I suggest skimming through the thread (like posts 20 and 21 or 95).

First, here’s the original left/right where it only shows up in one: http://curiosityrover.com/imgpoint.php?name=NRB_449790582EDR_F0310000NCAM00262M_ versus http://curiosityrover.com/imgpoint.php?name=NLB_449790582EDR_F0310000NCAM00262M_ .

Second, here’s another left/right NAVCAM image that shows another one. Same camera was the only one to catch it, though if real (“real” = actual feature on Mars) it could be because of perspective/parallax: http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/multimedia/raw/?rawid=NRB_449700848EDR_F0301254NCAM00252M_&s=588 versus http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/multimedia/raw/?rawid=NLB_449700848EDR_F0301254NCAM00252M_&s=588nor . When people talk about “the other one of the same site from a different day,” this is what they’re talking about — and no, it’s not the same site.

Here’s another pair of another bright spot in right but not in left: http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl-raw-images/proj/msl/redops/ods/surface/sol/00568/opgs/edr/ncam/NRB_447920587EDR_F0291020NCAM00295M_.JPG vs http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl-raw-images/proj/msl/redops/ods/surface/sol/00568/opgs/edr/ncam/NLB_447920587EDR_F0291020NCAM00295M_.JPG

Next, here are two images that show a hot pixel with a HUGE amount of blooming, exact same spot on the two images, but they are completely different images of different places: http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl-raw-images/msss/00582/mcam/0582MR0024340330400325E01_DXXX.jpg and http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl-raw-images/msss/00580/mcam/0580MR0024070490400044E01_DXXX.jpg

And, here’s a lone cosmic ray hit (or whatever artifact is plaguing apparently the right NAVCAM more than the left): http://www.midnightplanets.com/web/MSL/image/00107/0107MR0682028000E1_DXXX.html (click the image to enlarge it, bright spot is vertically in the middle, horizontally on the right side).

Here’s one of the guys who built/engineered the cameras saying it might be a light leak: http://www.nbcnews.com/science/space/nasa-explains-martian-flash-its-not-what-you-think-n74931

Bottom-line: I’m not 100% sure it’s a cosmic ray. I think it’s likely. When most of us astronomers saw it, we immediately went to “cosmic ray” just as aliens people said “alien artifacts.” I do think it’s a bit coincidental to be right on that horizon line. But, I still think it’s more likely to be an imaging anomaly than spot lights or a city. I would love for it to be evidence of that. But, I don’t think it’s good enough when there are other explanations. And as I said, I think the process should be to figure out all the things it *could* be, what fits with all the evidence, and then decide what you think is most likely.


Here’s an article describing how the Prime Meridian (longitude 0°) is defined on Mars. And here’s Dava Sobel’s excellent book Longitude.


As I said, this is not comprehensive of what we talked about. But, it’s about all I wanted to follow-up on. If you listened to the interview and have a question, let me know, I can respond to you in the comments and/or append this post.

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