Exposing PseudoAstronomy

December 5, 2014

How to Not Understand Science and Use that to Say Science Is Wrong


Introduction

Given the large amount of work I spent on my two-part 1.75-hr podcast episodes on James McCanney’s “science,” I thought it appropriate to get a Swift blog post out of the effort. This post was geared more towards a general audience and so I used one of McCanney’s quotes to discuss a common problem that we face as scientists, we face as science communicators, and we face as skeptics (where “we” is a different group in those three instances, and I consider myself a member of each).

This is reproduced from what I originally sent the editor on the JREF Swift blog.

Swift Blog Post #3

As a scientist and attempted science communicator (and skeptic in my copious free time), one of the difficulties I face is that science is not other-people-friendly. In fact, most of us work on tasks so specific that we often face difficulties explaining what we do to colleagues, much less people who are not scientists, so it’s rarely even other-scientists-slightly-outside-our-field-friendly.

Since I also play a skeptic on the internet, I have the added issue that terms, phrases, and analogies I may try to use to explain a concept could very easily be misconstrued by a pseudoscientist to support their pet idea. For example, if I talk about an “image anomaly,” to other scientists, this means something like a spot of dust on the lens (usually appears as a darker doughnut shape on the image) or a cosmic ray that makes a bright spot or streak. To a pseudoscientist, it could mean an apartment complex on Mars or an alien space ship near the sun.

This especially becomes an issue when people use those misconceptions to turn around and say that some well established model in science is wrong, and spread those views.

For example, I recently completed a two-part podcast series (episode part 1, part 2) on the ideas and misconceptions of “Professor” James McCanney (I place “Professor” in quotes because he is introduced as such, but he has not taught for over 30 years after he was fired from two teaching jobs, and he does not have a doctorate). Mr. McCanney has many misconceptions about the universe, but one that struck me was this, stated on the Coast to Coast AM radio program on 30 August, 2007:

“When astronomers take their picture of the universe, and they start looking back, and they say, uh– ‘We’re looking back in time,’ and now scientists say they’ve seen objects that are only 500 million years after the Big Bang. But the only problem is they’re in all directions, when we look out in all directions. So if you actually were seeing objects that were only 500 million years after the Big Bang, they would have to be consolidating in some location in the sky near where the original Big Bang had to be. But that’s not the case, they’re all over the sky.”

This was one of his primary stated reasons for saying the Big Bang was wrong, doesn’t make sense, and observations do not support it.

The problem is that this is a gross misunderstanding of the science, and because of that misunderstanding, he concludes that the science is wrong. This example is, in part, a manifestation of an issue we scientists face: Trying to explain a geometrically and spatially complicated idea that goes against your every-day experience.

The analogy in common culture for the Big Bang is that it’s an explosion. In our every-day experience, explosions happen at a specific place. Therefore, if the Big Bang was an explosion, shouldn’t it have happened in a certain place? Ergo, shouldn’t what Mr. McCanney said – that we should see stuff only get younger towards the original spot of that explosion – be correct? And if the evidence doesn’t show that, doesn’t it mean the Big Bang is wrong?

Herein lies the problem with your every-day experience: The Big Bang model holds that the universe did not “start somewhere,” but rather it “started the somewhere.” You cannot have the event that created the universe – all of space and time as we know it – happen within the universe itself. It’s like saying that you, yourself, started in your big toe, or your ear, and grew out from that. But you didn’t: Your entire physical self started with your entire physical self (a single cell) – you cannot point to a specific part of yourself where you started.

The same is the case with the universe. The reason why there is no center of the universe, or no specific spot where we can look towards where the Big Bang occurred, is that it was an explosion of space, not in space.

Another common analogy that’s used is to think of a balloon. The surface of that balloon is a 2D representation of the 3D universe. That 2D representation is warped in 3D, just as our 3D universe is likely warped in 4D or higher spatial dimensions. If you think of a squished, completely deflated balloon, you could say that it’s just a tiny speck and that surface (our universe) doesn’t yet exist. Now, blow air into the balloon, and the surface exists and expands. If you were on that surface and you looked in any direction, you would see the surface. If light travelled really slowly, then you would see that surface as it appeared further back in time.

And that’s what we see when we look out into the universe: As we look farther and farther away, we look further and further back in time, and we see a much younger universe. In all directions. Including the cosmic microwave background radiation, which if what the universe “looked like” just about 380,000 years after the Big Bang.

This observation is what one should and would predict if the Big Bang is the correct model for the initial stages of the universe’s existence.

To bring this full-circle, this kind of observation – the very one Mr. McCanney says contradicts the Big Bang and that’s one reason why he doesn’t believe it – is actually an observation that supports the Big Bang.

But, trying to grasp why this is what you should predict from the Big Bang model is not easy. It goes against what you normally think of when you think “explosion.” Or of really anything happening in the universe, which, by definition, is everything we’ve ever observed or experienced. It is a common misunderstanding, but it’s one that comes from an attempt to simplify the science in a way to easily explain it to non-scientists.

That’s why, as skeptics, we always need to be aware of simplifications and analogies used by science communicators: While it may be done with the best of intentions to try to convey a complex concept, it can introduce further misunderstandings. And, given the right person (or wrong person, depending on your point of view), that misunderstanding can be used to promote pseudoscience.

November 28, 2014

The Decline of Time Magazine: From A to Z (Astrology to Zen)


Introduction

When I took AP English History in 1999-2000, we were required to have a subscription to either Newsweek or Time Magazine.

When I worked in the public library during most of high school, I admired the large, full-page covers of Time and I considered it to be one of the premier news magazines of the, well, time. There are even books of its covers and what they represent of America’s and the world’s history.

After I graduated high school and began to read news on a regular basis, Time and CNN were my primary news sources.

But, the Age of the Internet and shifts in emphasis have, in my opinion, led to a significant decline in Time. From its shift of investigative journalism to columnist opinions, and from lengthy reports to quick, ~5-paragraph summaries, it’s a change, and not for the better.

But worst of all, this kind of change allows for more credulous and – dare I say – pseudoscience reporting to masquerade as “news” under the still generally well-respective umbrella that is Time. Phil Plait beat me back in early October when he posted about Laura Stampler writing columns on astrology, but the latest is Charlotte Alter writing a completely credulous column that parrots Deepak Chopra.

Laura Stampler Parrots AstrologyZone’s Susan Miller

Two days in a row, on October 7 and 8, 2014, Time‘s Laura Stampler wrote two “interviews” she did with AstrologyZone’s Susan Miller. I place the word “interview” in quotes because it was the level of hard journalism that one might expect from talking to the television: Miller said what she wanted to say about astrology, and Stampler wrote it down.

For example, here are paragraphs 2 through 7 of the first piece on Astrologer Susan Miller On Why You Should Pay Attention to the Lunar Eclipse”:

“It’s called a blood moon, but I don’t want people to be agitated by that,” popular astrologer Susan Miller tells TIME. And while the April 15 lunar eclipse signaled a time of conflict and even tragedy — Miller notes that was the day day Boko Haram kidnapped 276 schoolgirls in Nigeria and the day before a South Korean ferry capsized leaving 300 dead and missing — “this one is much more gentle.”

In fact, Miller says the change that the Oct. 8 lunar eclipse brings, although shocking at first, will even be good, at least according to the stars. To understand why, we asked her all the questions you’d want to ask a famous astrologer.

“This eclipse is a full moon so something is coming from to an ending or culmination,” she explains.

“Eclipses are non-negotiable,” Miller says. “They end something and they brings something else. But it really needed to end… There’s a shock factor first, and then a solution that turns out to be so good that you realize, wait a minute, this is a blessing.

Miller recalls when she had a houseguest who “spent the whole year crying on my couch,” coincidentally over the course of a series of five eclipses. On the first eclipse, her husband asked for a divorce. On the second, he told her that he wanted to sell the house. Come the third the house was sold, fourth the property was split, and on the final eclipse the divorce was finalized.

The second piece, the next day, wasn’t much better. Well, really was somewhat worse. The title was, “Why the Most Famous Astrologer in the Universe Says You Shouldn’t Buy an iPhone Right Now.” Here are just two paragraphs as a sampler:

“I’m such an Apple addict, I love everything they come out with, but it’s not the right time,” Miller, founder of Astrology Zone, tells TIME. “I know that everybody wants to buy the iPhone 6, but you’ve got to wait.”

Why? Mercury is in retrograde between October 4 and 25 — and that period of cosmic slowing, when the planet appears to be traveling backwards, is notorious for misunderstandings and technological failings. “It’s not a good time to buy an electronic item,” Miller says. “Sometimes you can make the wrong decision or you buy something and you never use it and you say to yourself, ‘Gosh, that was a bad purchase.’ You bought the wrong model or then it goes on sale the following week, or something happens… [iPhones are] going to continue to have little software bugs.”

Readers of my blog should know by this point that astrology carries zero weight with me or with any other scientist. It is magical thinking, confirmation bias, and vaguely worded nonsense that can apply to most people who hear it. It also uses science-babble (akin to techno-babble on something like Star Trek where they use sciencey-sounding terms and phrases in various combinations and contexts that render them meaningless).

Having a major news source have any author posting about it in this kind of credulous “reporting” is worrying, among other adverbs.

Charlotte Alter Parrots Deepak Chopra

I haven’t really talked about Deepak Chopra on this blog before. That’s mostly because Chopra is primarily in the New Age “field” and tries to talk about medicine. And the nebulous concept of “consciousness.” His only real foray into astronomy or physics is to be a worse abuser of terms and concepts than astrologers, especially of anything “quantum.” I honestly simply haven’t considered him worth addressing on this blog.

However, in the context of bad media reporting, after Laura’s horrible pieces on astrology, I was watching for other examples, and this morning at the airport while looking through my RSS feed, I saw this headline: “Deepak Chopra on Why Gratitude Is Good for You.”

Sigh. (Yes, I literally sighed when I saw the headline.)

The “article” is by Charlotte Alter. It consists of six paragraphs. One of them is a sentence fragment introduction. The fifth is a paragraph that appears to be from one of Chopra’s books. In other words, this one isn’t even an “interview” with him, rather this is Charlotte reporting on what Chopra has written in the past about gratitude and why it’s “good for you.”

In her third paragraph, she wrote: “Chopra, who most recently wrote The Future of God: A Practical Approach to Spirituality for Our Times, says expressing gratitude on Thanksgiving isn’t just tradition — it’s also good for the body and spirit. And in a month when many Americans may be feeling worried or disappointed (about everything from the severe weather, to the unrest in Ferguson and the disturbing allegations against Bill Cosby), an effort to be more grateful can help get rid of those “toxic” feelings, if just for one night. “Anger and hostility can be inflammatory not only in your mind but in your body,” he said. “Gratitude is healing. It expands your awareness and shifts your focus from something that’s actually hurting you to something that is healing.””

This is why there are websites that randomly generate “Chopraisms,” combining random words into phrases that sound a lot like what Chopra sells.

Alter concludes with these three paragraphs:

But it’s not enough to just gorge yourself on sweet potatoes and bicker over the drumstick– you have to actually deliberately practice gratitude in order to reap the spiritual benefits.

“You can do a simple meditation where you quiet your mind, put your attention in your hear and just ask yourself ‘what am i grateful for?’ If you just ask the question in your own stillness, things will come up…You don’t have to go looking for the answer, you just have to ask the question and then allow any sensation, image, feeling or thought to come to you…People who practice this kind of ritual, they have a boost in their immune functioning, a shift in their hormones, it’s pretty interesting what happens even at the level of cell markers of information…This kind of thing actually has very powerful biological consequences.”

So stop stressing about how much pie you’re eating and focus instead on what’s good in your life. It’s healthy.

I’m not sure if the poor grammar is in the original Chopra writing or if Charlotte did some bad copying. I’m also not sure how you would “put your attention in your hear.” But I guess I’m just a mean skeptical scientist.

Decline of the News Industry

I don’t know if Ms. Alter is a good reporter or a stay-at-home occasional freelance writer who submits random blog posts to news sources in the hope of making a few bucks if they’re published. The same goes for Ms. Stampler.

But, once you have a reputation as a good company in whatever your field may be, allowing stupidity to be done in your name is a sure way to ruin your reputation.

It’s also a way for pseudoscientists to claim an undeserved reputation. Being published in these kinds of outlets lends undeserved credibility that can then be cited as evidence of veracity as a form of argument from authority: “Hey! I got published in X (which has a great reputation), therefore I should be taken more seriously now!”

I’m probably preaching to the choir here, though. Most of us know traditional media is dying, and they need to look for other ways of making revenue.

However, I’m reminded of the Murphy Brown episode where the news crew of FYI decided to have “ladies of the night” on along with some concerned mothers’ group and it erupted into a cat fight. The crew felt like dirt after doing it, but then they saw that their ratings were the highest they had ever been. They excitedly talked about other, similar ideas and more controversy and spectacle … and then they had another moment of, “What the heck are we doing here? We used to be serious news people and now look at us.” The episode ended with them pondering the trade-off between serious journalism and sensationalism and easy ratings.

I worry that Time is not that introspective.

Now, if only those damn kids would get off my lawn…

November 7, 2014

The Myth that Skepticism is Easy


Introduction

There’s a lot of finger-wagging on both sides of the skeptics vs believers “debate.” To the point where people who believe in things like bigfoot and ghosts are already going to say from my terminology in the first sentence that I’m biasing this entire blog post. Well, get your own blog. Or be polite about it in the comments.

Anywho, there is the frequent claim that I hear on various shows and read in various places that “being a skeptic is the easiest thing in the world: All you have to do is say ‘no.’” Perhaps obviously, I disagree, and this post is about why.

Terminology

First, I must define my terms. I do not consider someone who just comes out and blurts “that’s not true” or “that’s not real” without evidence to be a skeptic. There is a difference between a skeptic and a denier. I consider:

Skeptic: Someone who approaches a question from a position of looking for evidence and making a conclusion based on the preponderance of the evidence, which can and should include all past evidence for plausibility of various explanations of that question.

Denier: Just says “no.”

Notice that there is a difference here. A skeptic can be someone who just says “no,” but it must be able to be backed up based on an examination of the evidence. For example, these days, I just say “no” automatically to most claims that the latest rock seen on Mars is a skull or a face or a fossil or a water valve. (The water valve ended up being the impression of a Phillips head screwdriver, but it’s much easier just to not do any research into the instrument and claim it’s a miniaturized water valve, because, ya know, it looks like one!) I can say that while still fitting my definition of “skeptic” because I actually have investigated this class of claims ad nauseam on this blog and on my podcast, and at a glance I can usually tell what class of misconception it fits into (usually either poor image analysis and/or pareidolia).

It’s Not Easy Being a Skeptic

It’s not.

No, really, it’s not.

Seriously.

For a completely selfish and capitalist reason, it’s not financially rewarding, which is very different from pseudoscience. I listen to people on Coast to Coast AM who publish a book every year – and those are the slow ones – about talking to dolphins, or searching for Atlantis, or making things up about archaeology or astronomy. It would be so easy, so cheap, and so much less time for me to write a book where I just make things up than to write a book that’s about real stuff that requires real research.

Now, I realize that I’ve painted with a very broad brushstroke here. I’m not saying that all people who many of us would classify as “pseudoscientists” publish quick and easy books where they just make things up and don’t do research. Some put a lot of time and energy into their books, and that is a separate category. But, next time you’re at a bookstore (they still have those, right?), take a look at the New Age or Spiritual sections. Count the number of books, amount of shelf space. Then go to the Skeptical section. Can’t find it? There’s a reason for that. You may be lucky to find Carl Sagan or Michael Shermer in the Science section. Or perhaps just in the broad Non-Fiction.

With that aside, being a skeptic – a real skeptic (with full knowledge of the No True Scotsman fallacy … see Terminology above) – takes a lot of work. It is trivially easy for someone to look at a rock in the latest image from Mars and claim that it’s a mechanical pump. Or a fossil of a sea star. And it will get posted on UFO Sightings Daily, and maybe even get picked up by a small online newspaper, and then maybe even by the Huffington Post. Yes, this has happened before.

Meanwhile, to do a proper skeptical investigation, we have to bring in information about how cameras work, how images from spacecraft are sent to Earth and processed, how color compositing works, how image resizing works, and what pareidolia is. It has taken me longer just to write that sentence listing the things you have to do than it would for me to look at a photo taken by an Apollo astronaut, see blooper, and send an e-mail to a UFO outlet online.

And then there’s actually doing the work. Fortunately, I’ve covered a lot of that material in podcasts #47, #48, #73, and #74. FYI, that’s nearly 3 hours of listening pleasure. All to investigate one single claim.

So, Is Skepticism Easy?

No.

Wrap Up

See what I did there? With the “No”? Anyway …

For those reasons, it really does bug me when I hear people say, or read when people write, that being a skeptic is easy. So much easier than being what they term a “true investigator.”

No, in fairness, just as there are some paranormalists who do write lengthy tomes that are full of real investigation (at which point I would mainly just argue with the conclusions), I do know that there are investigators who do do a lot of real investigation. Graham Hancock springs to mind. I fully disagree with practically everything the man has said. But, he has done a lot of real work, and I have to acknowledge and give him credit for that.

But, people like him, on the paranormal side, are very few and very far between. Most that you hear from are fully on the quick-’n’-dirty claim side, where it really is much, much easier to not be a skeptic.

November 3, 2014

Podcast Episode 119: The Norway Spiral


The Norway Spiral
Is now a catch-all for lots
Of diff’rent ideas.

The long-expected but -delayed Norway Spiral episode is out. It has a little bit for everyone, nearly 5 minutes of Richard Hoagland, and I leave you to make up your own mind in the end.

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


Introduction

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.

*cough*

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!

September 19, 2014

A Quick Post on Pareidolia


First, the subject of this post: A study into pareidolia has won an Ig Nobel Prize. (If you don’t know what the Ig Nobels are, go to the link and read.) This study has six authors and is published in the journal Cortex: “Seeing Jesus in toast: Neural and behavioral correlates of face pareidolia.” (sorry, it’s behind a paywall)

Why am I posting about this? Well, some of my run-ins over the years have involved Mike Bara, most notably with respect to a lunar ziggurat (his belief in a step pyramid on the far side of the moon). The argument, which took place over the course of several months, never involved pareidolia, but in the course of the argument, Mike made this statement:

“The actual truth is that there is no such thing as “Pareidolia.” It’s just a phony academic sounding word the debunkers made up to fool people into thinking there is scholarly weight behind the concept. It’s actually a complete sham. … The word was actually first coined by a douchebag debunker (is that my first “douchebag” in this piece?! I must be getting soft) named Steven Goldstein in a 1994 issue of Skeptical Inquirer. Since then, every major debunker from Oberg to “Dr. Phil” has fallen back on it, but it is still a load of B.S. There is no such thing.”

In other words, very explicitly stating that pareidolia does not exist. He thinks it’s a made-up term (it’s not, or it isn’t any more made up than any other word in language) for a made-up thing. When pressed about this point, Mike has claimed that his stance is at least partly based on the “fact” that there are no scientific studies that talk about pareidolia. That there are neurological disorders about people seeing things that aren’t real, but nothing on pareidolia.

Even if that were true (it’s not — at the very least, the above-mentioned paper proves that), just because a term is not described in medical studies with clinical research (and it is, the above-mentioned paper proves that) does not mean the phenomenon is not real.

I’m looking out my window now and I see a cloud that looks exactly like a mouse, complete with two ears, a snout, an eye, and a long body with tail. That doesn’t mean there is a giant mouse in the sky, nor does that mean that my brain is subject to some rare neurological disorder. It means I’m like every other person: My brain subconsciously (or consciously sometimes) tries desperately to fit randomness into something familiar.

That’s what pareidolia is, and it is a real phenomenon regardless of what you want to call it and regardless of whether scientific studies use the term or have researched it. (As a side-note, there are plenty of real phenomena and real things that have not been specifically and formally researched – much less published – in the broad disciplines of science. I’m in the midst of writing several research proposals at the moment, and a key part to these is past work — in several cases, there simply isn’t any, I’ll be the first person to study them. That’s part of the point of science.)

Now, if Mike happens to see this post and deign to respond, I suspect he will claim it’s one study, or it’s done by skeptics, or some such thing, and continue to deny that pareidolia exists. Why? I of course cannot know the workings of his mind, but I would suspect that it’s because that admission would then require a re-evaluation of most of what he claims, since much of his “evidence” for ancient aliens on the moon and Mars and elsewhere is simply pareidolia. Such as the tank or airplane hanger on the moon, or cities and faces on Mars. And he’s unwilling to do that, so he fights very hard to defend his claim that pareidolia is not only a made up term, but a made up phenomenon that doesn’t exist.

Remember that the next time you see Micky Mouse on Mercury, or a smiley face with a colon and close-parenthesis : )


Side-Note: I wanted to give you all a brief update on my silence lately. I’m still very busy. I’m in the middle of proposal-writing season and just submitted a grant proposal on Wednesday, have another due in 2 weeks, and two more due three weeks after that. Plus, I’m changing jobs, which means desperately trying to tie up several projects on one end while starting others on the other end. I am very much hoping to get back to things after the October 3 proposal is due, but I’m not sure yet if that’ll be when everything calms down or if it’ll be a bit longer.

September 1, 2014

Podcast Episode 117: Eyewitness Accounts and UFOs, Interview with Dr. Elizabeth Loftus


Human memory,
UFO reports, and their
Reli’bility.

Finally, a new episode is out. I saw Dr. Elizabeth Loftus talk at TAM this year, and I asked her to come on the podcast to discuss her research into human memory and how malleable human memory is, with implications for UFO reports.

I tend not to discuss UFO = aliens much on my blog or podcast. That’s because so much of the claimed evidence these days has mostly to do with eyewitness reports which I really find fairly unconvincing. I also find the Argument from Authority angle – that this was a report made by a “trained observer” or someone with “impeccable credentials” – very off-putting, for it really doesn’t mean their memory is any better than anyone else’s, it’s just an attempt by the proponent to make it sound more trustworthy.

What Dr. Loftus discusses in the roughly 15-minute interview are some of the details of her research over the past three decades into how much human memory can be manipulated. She hasn’t studied UFO reports in particular, so could not directly comment on that, but she is familiar enough with them and with the topic of how to interview a witness and how manipulate memory in general that she could comment on it.

Due to ongoing ridiculously large and numerous time commitments, I’m not sure how many episodes I can put out this month, so it’s possible that this one is it. Hopefully not, but we’ll see.

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 pull 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 belief 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.

July 21, 2014

Podcast Episode 116: The Electric Universe, Part 2, with Dr. Tom Bridgman


Sun models from the
Electric Universe. Do
The predictions work?

Practically on time comes part 2 of the two-part overview of the Electric Universe. This one is also a bit heavy with the math, so I recommend heading over to Tom’s site for more information and many, many more details.

So, um, with the deadline for a major grant program coming up in a few days, that’s it folks!

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