Exposing PseudoAstronomy

February 20, 2009

Latest Creationism Article, “Can Cosmic Collisions Create?” Is a Stack of Fringe Science Claims


Introduction

After writing for a few weeks on Planet X and 2012, I’m returning to my former bread & butter with debunking creationism articles – specifically young-Earth creationism (YEC). And today’s article by Brian Thomas, “Can Cosmic Collisions Create?,” is, to put it bluntly, a real piece of work.

And I mean that in a sarcastic, derogatory sense. I know my stated purpose for this blog is to just go for the science and test the claims and let them stand independent of who’s making them. But, after reading this article, I may resort to some stronger – though still at least PG – language. This is a family-friendly blog. :)

Choosing the Setting

Brian Thomas starts off his diatribe as most other Institute for Creation Research (ICR) articles do, with a paragraph or two introducing the topic. In this case, the title of the article is misleading. I assumed it would be talking about how YECs view events like the moon’s formation via a giant impact, Uranus’ tilt via a giant impact, general processes of solar system formation (accretion of small particles into larger ones), etc. as too serendipitous to be natural and requiring a supernatural hand (as in “God”).

But, that’s not really the case for the article. Brian decided to write the article about how astronomers resort to methodological naturalism in their science. In other words, we (since I’m an astronomer I can say “we”) are looking for a natural rather than a supernatural explanation for everything that we can observe. Otherwise, we can simply say, “God did it” and that would end all science. After all, if “God did it” then what’s the point in figuring out how it was done – we’re already starting with the answer. But that’s really a topic for a different post.

Regardless, Brian doesn’t set the stage for talking about collisions “creating” anything. And the rest of the article doesn’t go into that.

False Analogy in the Second Paragraph

I knew when I got to the second paragraph and Brian calls Eugenie Scott, the head of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), a “militant evolutionary scientist” that this article was going to be an eye-roller. So, he’s starting out right in the third sentence with an ad hominem as well as a non sequitur set of logical fallacies: He’s calling Eugenie a supposedly derogatory name in order to discredit her, and being an evolutionary scientist – or even evolution for that matter – has nothing to do with astronomy.

But it’s really the end of the second paragraph that started to get me going: “Forensic scientists routinely and appropriately consider intelligent, non-natural causes when they reconstruct past events, and astronomers’ refusal to acknowledge the possibility of divine causation makes some of their theories appear silly.”

To call it what it is, this is a false analogy. We have proof that humans commit crimes. It’s a given. It’s a no-brainer. “Duh,” as some might say. And, we have very good evidence that, say, trees don’t commit crimes, or at least not with intent. Again, “Duh.” So it would be completely irrational for forensic scientists (people who use science to investigate crimes) to, say, in a murder investigation, consider anything but a human having a hand in the killing. But what does that have to do with astronomy? There is no proof/evidence/scientific justification behind saying, “God did it” – or “Aliens did it” – in astronomy. Hence, because we pretty much know that humans do not have the power and ability of the Q Continuum and we can’t go around forming solar systems, we resort to natural explanations (had to throw in the Star Trek reference).

I just don’t understand why Brian would even “go there” in this article – making that analogy either shows profound ignorance or desire to deceive. Since I don’t know Brian personally, I cannot speak to which it may be, but I will let you judge based upon the rest of this article.

Comet Quandaries

I really don’t want to get into comets again, as I’ve already addressed YEC claims with regards to comets in two posts (“Why Comets Are NOT Evidence for a Young Solar System” and “More Reasons Why Comets Do NOT Prove Creationism“).

But, I want to nit-pick his words (emphasis mine):

For example, coincidental gravitational events have been invoked to explain the origin of comets. In this scenario, objects in the unobserved “Oort cloud” collide in such a way that a small percentage of them are launched into space and eventually form orbits around the sun. The likelihood that chance-based near-misses coupled with precise hits created, stored, and set in orbit the various comets in this way is unreasonably small.

Again, for the general science of comets and why this claim is wrong, see those two posts. But let’s look at the first text I bolded. The origin of comets is different from the source of comets. Current theory is that all comets formed at the beginning of the solar system along with everything else. They just formed farther away from the sun and hence where more ice could solidify versus closer to the sun where ice would be vaporized. That’s the origin. The present-day source of comets is this region of the outer solar system, divided into the Kuiper Belt which starts around where Pluto is, and then the Oort Cloud farther out, that theorists think could extend out to 2 light-years (half-way to the nearest star). Origin ≠ Source.

The next piece of text shows very poor editing, a profound ignorance for the astronomy, or a deliberate attempt to deceive. Everything that is gravitationally bound to the solar system by definition orbits the sun. All of the comets – be they in the Kuiper Belt, the Oort Cloud, or something else within the solar system are already on orbits around the sun. And what could he possibly mean by “launched into space?” Um, hello? — they’re already in space. By definition! They’re “launched into space” the same way that asteroids that happen to cross Earth’s orbit are “launched into space.” The way he’s worded it implies that there’s some base station that every-now-and then hurls them at us like we launch rockets.

And I note that while this may seem like an ad hominem attack, it’s not – I am addressing his claims, showing why they make no sense, and then stating three possible reasons why he made the claims in a non-false trichotomy.

Another Creationist Playground: Venus

My observation has been that if a YEC is going to talk about solar system astronomy in an attempt to support their claims, they will first go to comets, then either to Venus or magnetic fields. Brian does both, but first he does Venus:

Another random collision, according to Cardiff University’s Huw Davies, is supposedly responsible for the creation of Venus. Davies proposed that the second planet from the sun is the result of “a mega-collision between two large embryonic planets.” But many very specific parameters would have had to be involved in this random “little bang” to form Venus’ unique composition, its reverse spin, its orbit about the sun, and therefore its role in balancing the earth’s own orbit, which is vital to the survival of life here. Since when do collisions—especially mega-collisions—add purpose-oriented specificity to any system?

There are several things wrong with this paragraph. First off, Brian Thomas talks about only one of the hypotheses which has been presented to explain Venus’ orbital characteristics (mainly that it spins backwards, slowly, such that its day is longer than its year). Doing that is misleading at best. A more recent hypothesis than the giant impact has to do with a lot of math, basically the same kinds of tidal forces that causes oceanic tides on Earth from the sun and moon are responsible and quite capable of flipping Venus over via tidal interaction with the sun. Philosophically, this is more plausible to astronomers because it doesn’t invoke a serendipitous giant impact to flip Venus over. Not mentioning this as another valid scientific hypothesis is disingenuous – or shows ignorance – on Brian’s part.

Another – though minor – point is his reference to this as a “little bang.” To the causal reader, this draws an immediate connection to the “Big Bang” – the theory of the formation of the cosmos – which is something that YECs have successfully been able to draw doubt to the validity of among their followers. Hence, this is an example of “poisoning the well.”

Moving on, Brian states that Venus plays an important role in balancing Earth’s orbit and hence a serendipitous event somehow led to purpose-oriented specificity to the solar system. First, Venus really doesn’t have much of anything to do with Earth’s orbit and hence life. So that statement is pretty much wrong. Second, there are lots of random things that are later co-opted for a specific purpose. For example, I may go into the grocery store thinking I’m going to buy food to make Thai Basil Chicken. But, ground beef may be on sale that week for 50%-off. That’s a random event. I may then co-opt that random event and use it for a purpose – make a “hamburger soup” instead because it’s cheaper. It’s really the same concept – the solar system and the universe isn’t the way it is such that we can exist, rather we exist the way we do because the solar system and universe happen to be set up the way they are.

Martian Magnetics

Mars is thought to have had a rather strong magnetic field early in its history. We find highly magnetized regions of the planet’s crust that are consistent with this, but there is no global magnetic field now. The thinking is that the planet – because it’s half Earth’s diameter and less than 1/8th Earth’s mass – simply cooled off much faster than we did and so the molten metals in its core were no longer fluid enough to generate a magnetic field. That’s the consensus view of Mars’ magnetic history.

However, Brian chooses not to mention that, but rather something that I’ve honestly never heard of:

University of Toronto’s Jafar Arkani-Hamed proposed that a collection of hovering asteroids ignited and maintained an ancient magnetic field on Mars. Such a field would have been required for living cells to exist on that planet. But the possibility that these asteroids somehow avoided Mars’ moons and then hovered with just the right masses, trajectories, and distances to have pulled Martian electromagnetism into motion “for 500 million years” seems incredible. Mars rocks do show evidence that there once was a magnetic field. However, these asteroid conjectures seem merely to be extensions of a larger methodological naturalistic interpretation since the proposed asteroids and their exact specifications are ad hoc provisions with no direct evidence (and virtually no indirect evidence.)

Now, I have not read Arkani-Hamed’s paper, but on the surface it seems fairly implausible. Just as Brian says (see, sometimes I do agree with the creationists). There really isn’t any evidence for his hypothesis, as far as I know without reading the paper. But again, why wouldn’t Brian even mention the consensus view? Why does he resort to something on the fringe to try to make a point? Really, Brian is doing the same thing here as saying that creationists can explain everything by saying that God did it – that’s the consensus view – but then there’s one creationist that says, for this one thing, he doesn’t think God did it, but rather it was the Flying Spaghetti Monster (any pastaferians out there?).

In addition, throwing Mars’ moons in there really isn’t important because the consensus view is that they were captured asteroids, after Mars formed, and so it’s not necessary for them to have been in place when Arkani-Hamed’s asteroid swarm induced Mars’ magnetic field, and hence they really don’t cause a problem for it.

Brian then makes the obligatory argument of a decaying magnetic field being proof of a young solar system: “Incidentally, the observation that Mars’ magnetic field rapidly decayed would be consistent with a young universe in which systems break down. Magnetic fields observed in other planets are decaying at rates precisely predicted by one creation model.” I’m really not going to address this because it’s a classic YEC argument that I will address in a future blog post (though here’s a preview: It doesn’t hold up to the science!).

Final Thoughts

I think I got through that without too much name-calling. Rather, I question Brian’s sincerity. Obviously he is writing for a Young-Earth Creationist think-tank, the Institute for Creation Research. So obviously his stories will have a slant or bias towards that cause. But there’s such a thing as professional ethics, a code of conduct, or just basically telling the whole truth. As I’ve pointed out, at least for this story (and in past ones in other posts), Brian does not do this. In his skewed perspective, he omits information, goes out and finds cases of fringe ideas to point out how a non-God approach seems “out there,” resorts to many different logical fallacies, and just plain gets the science wrong either deliberately (which should violate the ethics laid down by his God) or through profound ignorance about what he’s writing (which would – or should – doom anyone in pretty much any other job). Perhaps now you may understand why I was frustrated more than usual when reading this article.

As for the actual science content, I really have nothing left to say. He’s just wrong pretty much on every count. Case closed.

February 3, 2009

Planet X and 2012: Why Planet X Is NOT Coming in 2012


Introduction

Continuing my series on Planet X and 2012, one of the main categories of claims deals with the amorphous “Planet X.” I use the adjective “amorphous” instead of “mysterious” or “elusive” because nearly everyone has a different hypothesis about what “Planet X” really is (and I’m going to drop the quotes for the rest of this post because it’s faster to write without them). Is it a large asteroid? Or a rocky planet? Or a gas giant planet? Or is it another star? Or is it something completely different?

I’m going to save going over those claims for another post. I’m also going to save the claims dealing with what will supposedly happen with Planet X for other posts, or ones that I’ve already covered (such as the Pole Shift). Rather, this post is really aimed at nipping Planet X in the butt before I even go over the specific claims – I’m going to show why we know that there is no Planet X coming for us in 2012 – or the near future, in general.

All posts in this series:

The Main Premise Behind Planet X

The basic idea behind Planet X is that a large object is currently approaching Earth and it will get very close to us towards the end of 2012. Doomsdayers disagree as to what exactly the object is, from where it’s approaching (as in within or above/below the plane of the solar system), and what exactly it will do to us. But, the real heart of the claims is that Planet X is out there, and either we just haven’t found it yet (even though it’s only 4 years away) or we have found it, but Big Government won’t let you know about it.

Knowing What’s In the Solar System

I discussed in my first post in this Planet X & 2012 series the real historical history behind the solar system’s Planet Xs. The basic idea is that the planets didn’t behave quite as they were supposed to given the gravitational forces by the other known planets in the solar system. Hypotheses were made about where the hidden mass would be coming from, the region was searched, and planets were discovered.

Today, we have very accurate models that take into account objects in the solar system ~1000 km in diameter and larger (this includes dwarf planets and some moons). These are used to calculate orbits which are included in every piece of astronomy planetarium-like software (such as Celestia, Starry Night, and The Sky on the freeware / commercial side).

Orbits are computed to even higher accuracy for space programs such as ESA, JAXA, and of course NASA, which have to know how everything is going to affect a spacecraft’s trajectory, how much fuel will be needed, and how and when it will get to its target.

The point that I’m attempting to make here is that if there were a large object out there, we would have to know about it.

What Do We Observe?

The claim has often been made that it’s out there but we just haven’t observed it yet — after all, the sky is a big place!

But, this claim is just wrong. We don’t have to observe the object with telescopes to know it’s there. After all, we don’t observe dark matter, but we know it’s there (and I will cover dark matter denialism in another post). We know dark matter is present because we observe its gravitational effects. And so if there were an unobserved, unseen Planet X that was fast-approaching Earth – even if it were 4 years away – we would know about it. Spacecraft would be slightly off-target. Planets would be where they’re supposed to be.

There are thousands if not tens or hundreds of thousands of amateur astronomers out there who are searching the sky every night to look at known objects or looking for unknown objects. If a planet were experiencing the gravitational effects of an incoming planet or star, the masses of people who rely upon calculated orbits without that object would notice that something was wrong.

The argument that amateurs wouldn’t know any better is also fallacious because quite often, amateur astronomers are better-versed with the sky than most professional astronomers. A professional astronomer – even if they are an observationalist, may know a few constellations, but likely they will only know where their object or objects of interest lie (I’m speaking from experience here). Amateurs, on the other hand, are very well-versed with where objects are in the sky, what you can see if you look in a certain patch, where asteroids will be, and where comets will be. So amateurs are more likely to notice the perturbations than professionals.

The other claim is that Planet X is known about but Big Government is hiding it from You. In other words, the “conspiracy theory.” But again, this is really not possible. For the same reasons given above that many thousands of amateur astronomers would see the gravitational effects of this object, they would also very likely find the object. Amateur telescopes can observe asteroids that are as small as a few tens of kilometers across (the size of a city). There’s no way that they would miss a planet – or especially a star – that is only 4 years away from hitting us. And there’s no way to keep many thousands of amateur astronomers from all over the world quiet.

Final Thoughts

The claim that Planet X is out there and is going to hit us soon is easy to propagate because astronomers are constantly finding new objects in the solar system. New asteroids and Kuiper Belt Objects are being discovered weekly. But people who are lead to believe the Planet X claims don’t take into account what it would really take to “hide” such an object from the tens to hundreds of thousands of people all over the world who observe the night sky. The gravitational effects from the object would be observed, and it should be bright enough – being only 4 years away from reaching us – that it should be plainly visible in the night sky.

And yet, it’s not observed. Its effects are not observed. So Planet X proponents resort to conspiracies to explain it, or they resort to simply ignoring the lack of evidence for it, effectively taking the “oh yeah!?” approach and not answering the questions or criticisms leveled.

As a final piece, in the interest of full academic honesty, I should note that it is not really possible to prove a negative. It is very remotely possible that there is a Planet X out there and we haven’t observed its effects for one reason or another. However, the likelihood of this being the case – as I have pointed out – is as close to 0% as is scientifically possible.

January 25, 2009

Planet X and 2012: The Real and Historical Story of Planet X


Introduction

This is the first post in what will become a series of posts over the next few days/weeks about the oft-portrayed mysterious, dangerous, possibly alien-harboring, Earth-destroying object touted as “Planet X.”

This being a blog about pseudo-astronomy, you should not be surprised to learn by reading it that there is no dangerous Planet X out there that’s going to cause a pole shift as Earth goes through the “dark rift” of our galaxy in 2012. However, in this first post, I’m going to describe what the real Planet X was in astronomy, a mystery that was created with the discovery of the planet Uranus in 1781, and didn’t end until we precisely calculated the mass of Neptune in 1993.

All posts in this series:

Finding Uranus

Until 1781, the solar system was known to consist of Earth, Venus, Mercury, Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, along with the moon, some other moons, and some unexplainable and unpredictable comets. That was it, and it wasn’t until William Herschel observed a ball-like object (not star-like) moving among the fixed background stars.

It took two years for Herschel to admit that he had really discovered the first planet in recorded history. But since it was discovered after Newton created Calculus and Kepler the Laws of Planetary Motion, various astronomers and mathematicians were able to observe it and predict its orbit based on its distance from the sun and the gravitational interactions with other planets.

The First Planet X

One of these people was Alexis Bouvard, who published tables of dates and coordinates that predicted where Uranus should be at a given time. These were based on the known laws of physics. But, Uranus refused to follow Bouvard’s tables.

In 1843, John Couch Adams (from Britain) calculated the orbit of a hypothesized eighth planet that could account for Uranus’ odd orbit. But no one really seemed to care about this undiscovered Planet X.

Two years later, a Frenchman by the name of Urbain Le Verrier did the same thing, but more precisely. Again, no one seemed to care. That was until Le Verrier sent his calculations to the Berlin Observatory’s astronomer Johann Gottfried Galle. A then-student at the observatory, Heinrich d’Arrest, convinced Galle to look for it.

That evening, September 23, 1846, Galle looked for this mysterious planet, responsible for Uranus’ weird orbit, and he found the planet within 1° of where Le Verrier thought it would be (for reference, the moon on the sky is 0.5°). This was within 12° of where Adams thought it should be.

At the time, there was no real debate that this object was a “planet,” as they had been looking for it and thought it was massive enough to account for Uranus’ orbit.

The Second Planet X

However, there were still some unexplained perturbations of Uranus’ orbit. These persisted for 70 years, to the time that Percival Lowell became interested in the problem and wanted to search for a now possible ninth planet at his observatory in New Mexico. I think that he was the one who really first coined the term, “Planet X.” Lowell searched for 12 years, 1905-1916, until he died, without finding it.

The search resumed in 1929 when the then-director of the observatory assigned the task to a young, 23-year-old Clyde Tombaugh. After a year of fruitless searching, Toubaugh found an object moving against the background of stars from two photographs he had taken in January of 1930. Pluto was discovered, Planet X, that was supposed to solve all the orbital problems.

A Third Planet X? — Nope, Just Fixing Neptune’s Mass

When Pluto was initially discovered, it was assumed to weigh in at several times Earth’s mass. However, estimates over subsequent decades were refined down, not up, and it was realized that Pluto could not account for Uranus’ orbit. The present-day mass estimate is about 20% Earth’s.

The search half-heartedly didn’t really continue for a mystery object that could explain planets’ orbits.

In 1989, the space probe Voyager 2 flew by Neptune. Calculations based on the orbital changes from that gravitational interaction were published in 1993 by Myles Standish, and they revised Neptune’s mass downward by 0.5%. This revised mass, when put into the calculations for the orbits of the outer planets, was then able to precisely account for Uranus’ orbit. No mystery object was needed, nor found, and as a result, nearly all astronomers today discount its existence.

Modern-Day “Planet Xs” (The Real Ones)

To be sure, I do not mean to imply that there are no more large objects out in the solar system. But “large” is always a relative term that needs to be qualified. The proton is gigantic relative to an electron. A sequoia tree is large relative to an oak. And Neptune is large relative to Pluto.

What I mean by “large” in this context is 100s to possibly 1000s of kilometers in diameter, icy bodies much like Pluto. These are the Kuiper Belt Objects, or at least the large members of the Kuiper Belt Objects. To-date, (January 2009), 4 are large enough such that the International Astronomical Union has termed them “Dwarf Planets” (Pluto, Eris, Makemake, Haumeamea). These objects are “large,” but they are smaller than our moon (our moon is 3,474 km in diameter). And, since density is related to volume which is the cube of a linear measurement, the actual mass of these objects is much smaller than that of a planet.

But, But, But … There Could Still Be Giant Things Out There!

Maybe. But they would have to be very far away from the 8 planets and inner Kuiper Belt Objects. Remember, even with the technology over 160 years ago, astronomers were able to calculate that Uranus, an object 19x farther away from the sun than Earth was being very slightly perturbed by an object 30x farther away from the sun than Earth. And these were both objects that weigh about a dozen times more than Earth – fairly small compared with what modern-day Planet Xers are claiming (that will be addressed in future posts).

Nothing in science is locked in stone, so-to-speak, and it’s impossible to prove a negative. However, keep in mind now that we can explain all the orbits of the planets with known, observed solar system objects. For there to be another object out there, it either has to be very small, or it has to be very far away. And when things are very far away, they take a very long time to move. Even a comet out by Jupiter heading towards us would take at least a year to get to Earth. And we could see it. The idea that there is a massive, planet-sized object that will hit or pass by Earth in just 4 years is ridiculous, unless you invoke the supernatural or physics that we don’t know about that can somehow shield even gravity.

Final Thoughts

Now that you have a historic basis for the present-day Planet X claims, as well as some preliminary information on why we “know” (as far as science can know anything) that there is no doomsday planet headed for us in 4 years, I will actually address the various fear-mongering premises that have been posited about Planet X, and how it is supposed to destroy Earth (or not?!), land ETs on Earth that want all our gold, or will cause a pole shift (another ridiculous idea that has its own problems), or whatever else people have invented throughout the past few decades.

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