Exposing PseudoAstronomy

November 14, 2014

The Good and Bad of NASA Publishing Spacecraft Images Online


This was my second blog post for Swift, published late last week:

You wouldn’t know it by listening to many conspiracy theorists, but NASA is by far the most open space agency in the world when it comes to publishing data from spacecraft. By law, the teams that built and run the instruments on these missions must publish their data within six months of it being taken, except in rare cases when an additional six-month extension can be granted.

Contrast that with the Chinese and Indian space agencies, which still haven’t openly published data from missions that completed several years ago. Japan is better, as is the European Space Agency (ESA), but neither of them supply data as readily and easily as NASA.

In addition to the rules for depositing the raw, unprocessed data, NASA’s PR department, along with the PR arms of most missions, publish some of the data online almost as soon as it’s taken. This is great for the public; it’s also terrible for skeptics.

Allow me to explain by way of example: The LCROSS mission. This was the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite that infamously sparked conspiracies that NASA was “bombing” the moon. The mission was to launch a projectile at the lunar south pole where there are permanently shadowed regions, and have the spacecraft fly through the plume formed by the projectile’s impact to try to detect water. If water were found, it would be a boon for crewed missions to the moon because astronauts could mine the water there instead of bringing their own.

The big event took place the night (in the US) of October 9, 2009. Within just a few days, photographs taken by the spacecraft were published by NASA online.

This was really good for the public. We got to see early results of what had been a very hyped event with observing parties taking place across the nation, including at the White House. It helped keep public interest longer than just one evening. It shared data with the people who paid for it: taxpayers.

LCROSS Landing Site

LCROSS Landing Site

So what’s the problem? These images show several things: The most basic of photographic processing without things like dust on the camera removed (which is always done for science images), color (the camera was black-and-white, so the color is completely an artifact of the press release image), brightness enhanced a lot such that most of the surface is white, and the PR release image is a JPG file format, meaning that there are JPG compression artifacts that manifest as blocky blobs.

For most of us, that doesn’t matter. We get the point that this is showing a bright glow caused by the impact of the spacecraft’s projectile. In NASA’s before shots, that bright glow is not present. A tiny flash of light that the world was watching for, with tens of thousands of people across the night side of the Earth staring upwards. (Unfortunately, it was cloudy where I was.)

Pseudscientists, on the other hand, don’t get that. There exists a large group of space anomalists that look for anything in a space photograph that they don’t immediately understand and use that to claim fill-in-the-blank. One of the most prolifically published modern people who practice this is Richard C. Hoagland. He took the NASA press release, increased the brightness even more, and claimed that the rectilinear, colored structures, were in reality infrastructure (tubes and pipes) by the “secret space program” and that the public space program had bombed them because the folks at NASA had finally found out about the secret bases on the Moon.

NASA Image PIA10214 with a Close-Up of "BigFoot"

NASA Image PIA10214 with a Close-Up of “BigFoot”

This will seem absurd to most people. But not to some. And, this is just one example; innumerable others exist. Every image published online in the easy-to-access public websites of the Mars rovers are poured over by anomaly hunters in the same way. Among other things, they search for rocks that are then said to look like apartment complexes, fossils, Bigfoot, all kinds of terrestrial and aqueous animal life, boots, a pump, and very recently, a water shut-off valve (to just name a few). Most of these are basic examples of pareidolia (creating a pattern in otherwise random data), or imprints actually caused by the rover equipment, but these are usually facilitated by the low-resolution and highly compressed JPG image format.

Do I think that NASA should stop being so open? No. I think that people are always going to find ways to find anomalies in images and claim it means something special. It’s the nature of the phenomenon, and pseudoscientists are always going to find something anomalous with something. And, the moment that NASA starts to restrict access to data, claims of censorship and hiding things will become even louder than they currently are.

I’m part of the planning team for the New Horizons mission that will reach Pluto in July of 2015. When the PI (Principle Investigator) of the mission, Alan Stern, announced that some of the data would be released on the web as low-resolution JPG images as soon as we get them, I have to admit I cringed just a little bit. And I felt bad for doing it. Dr. Stern has the absolute best of intentions, and he wants to keep people interested in the mission and share the data and let people see results from what is probably a once-in-a-lifetime mission, especially since the data downlink to Earth is going to be done over several weeks (due to the craft’s vast distance from Earth).

But, he will be making it very easy for anomaly hunters to find anomalies made by an intelligence — just not understanding that that intelligence was the software that produced the image.

Going forward, I don’t think there’s any good solution. But, this is something the skeptical community should be aware of, and it shows that there’s always a downside to things, even when you think there isn’t.

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.

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!

December 12, 2013

Podcast Episode 95: The Fake Story of Planet X, Part 8 – Zecharia Sitchin, Revisited


Is Zecharia’s
Planet X supported by
Recent discov’ries?

I revisit one of the classics in this episode, the Planet X claims of Zecharia Sitchin. This is NOT an episode where I specifically refute Sitchin’s claims. Rather, I go through some of the current events (current a decade ago) that Sitchin wrote about and claimed were evidence that his Nibiru exists. This was actually prompted by a recent e-mail that I had received and was BCC’ed to Michael Heiser (who will be a guest in Episodes 97 and 98, to be released in early January 2014).

As with last episode, I also managed to fit in a short Q&A and Feedback, though the Puzzler is repeated from last episode and the solution will not be discussed until, probably, Episode 101.

I’ll remind everyone that I will be at the Launceston Skeptics in the Pub on January 2, 2014, where I’ll be talking about the Lunar Ziggurat saga, not only from a skeptical point of view, but from an astronomical one as well as from a more social science point of view — dealing with “the crazies.” I’ve also actually put fingers to keyboard and typed out the Intro in what may be my first eBook, currently with the working title, “Tilting at Monuments on Mars.” I also plan to do one on Planet X, , and I may finally work on some of the planned podcast-related videos while I’m on vacation in Australia.

February 13, 2013

The Peer-Review of Bigfoot


Introduction

Today, after a very long-awaited process, forensic DNA analyst Melba Ketchum released the results of her work that allegedly proves Bigfoot exists, being a species roughly 15,000 years old, and having resulted from the interbreeding of a human with an unknown primate at that time.

There are numerous people talking about this in the skeptical underworld … I recommend the Doubtful News story, JREF forum thread, and/or MonsterTalk Facebook page.

Clearly from the title of this blog, I am not a biologist, forensic anthropologist, geneticist, nor any other thing related. And people on those threads I just linked to are covering details of this such that much of anything I say would just be redundant. However, I have talked about the peer-review process on this blog before (mainly here, but also here, here, here, here, and here). And Melba Ketchum’s “publication” of her results is another good example to illustrate the purpose of peer-review and point out the fact that all because someone publishes something in a “science journal,” it does not mean it’s good science.

Edited to Add (2/14/2013): Some zoologists who have read the paper have chimed in, indicating that this paper is not of good quality nor up to general academic standards.

The Requisite Background

To make a long story short that you can read in much more detail at any of those first three links, Dr. Melba Ketchum received several samples of biological material (hairs mostly, I think), several years ago. After alleged detailed DNA analysis, they proved to themselves it was Bigfoot material. They wrote up a paper for a scientific journal – which is what you’re supposed to do in mainstream science – and submitted it for peer review (the process where people who do similar types of work look over the paper and try to figure out if there are problems with it).

As the story goes in this drastically shortened narrative, this was all under wraps until November of 2012 when it was leaked out by some overseas colleague (I want to say Russian? but I don’t entirely remember). This forced Dr. Ketchum to go somewhat public with it and face intense media scrutiny.

I listened to her for a full Coast to Coast AM show back on December 23, 2012, where she was on the defensive and offensive. In listening to her, I actually felt sorry for her and decided to reserve judgement to see what would happen if her results were actually published.

And that’s what happened today.

Publication

The problem is, it’s not in a typical peer-reviewed journal. It’s not even in a science journal that has any track record. She published in the “DeNovo Scientific Journal. Sounds okay at first …

… except that the domain was purchased anonymously 9 days ago for a period of one year. And this is the only paper that the journal has put out. And in fact, they admit that when other journals would not publish their results, they went out, bought a journal, renamed it, and published their paper.

That is not peer-review. This is like a case where your spouse won’t do something you want them to do so you go and build a robot spouse that you program yourself to do that something.

As I said, I felt sorry for her and I was willing to give Melba the benefit of the doubt. This, however, removes all pretense of an attempt at having people look at this work and judge it objectively and go back and fix mistakes that were pointed out.

She also apparently does not understand the concept of “open access” (meaning free) because it costs $30 to view the paper.

Other Signs

There are many other signs of a lack of any validity here. One is that, earlier today, the journal’s website was using stock photos from websites without any of the required attribution. Those photos are gone now, a few hours later, but other stock photos are present still without attribution (though maybe these were paid for, but most licenses still require posting attribution).

Another is that on the Contact Us page, the name “Robin Haynes” appeared earlier today, but it’s missing now (but visible at the moment in Google’s cached version). There is fairly good evidence that this is the renamed Robin Lynn Pheifer, who has gone by a few different names, and is a woman in Michigan who claimed to have 10 bigfoots on her 10-acre property to whom she would repeatedly feed blueberry bagels.

Another is that people have started to contact the co-authors to see if they actually participated in the paper. Of the two who have responded, one said that he did no analysis nor writing of the paper (though was aware of it), while another hasn’t seen any recent version and could not extract any DNA from the samples he had tested.

Final Thoughts

I’m sure this is going to continue to get very detailed scrutiny over the next several days. The problem is that at this point, almost regardless of what is determined, this move to create one’s own journal and call it peer-reviewed (and scientific — after all, “Scientific” is in the title!) is a gross violation of the terms and process. It’s worse than Answers in Genesis having their own “Creation” journal because at least they are clear about what it really is. And it uses stock images with proper attribution.

Peer-review is not a perfect process. But it’s the best we have. Invoking the Galileo complex (which she did) and then making your own publication only serves to further polarize people: Detractors will use this as fodder to point out that you’ve got nothin’, and people who already supported you already think there’s a vast conspiracy to keep them down.

January 9, 2013

How Astronomers Are, According to Popular Press, Constantly Discovering the Same Thing


Introduction

This post was prompted by a bit of discussion both at work and on my blog lately.

Regarding the blog, the question has come up of when people have known different things, and laypeople going to popular press to determine when stuff has been discovered.

Regarding work, an e-mail was sent out yesterday with one of the senior scientists wondering what the big deal was with a press release claiming to have discovered something new, but he pointed out a paper from 1984 that said the same thing.

So I thought I’d talk a bit about why the media (and official science organizations’ press offices) keep announcing a “new discovery” when it’s, in fact, a very old discovery.

Example from Yesterday: “NASA, ESA Telescopes Find Evidence for Asteroid Belt Around Vega”

On January 8, 2013, NASA released a press statement #13-006, “NASA, ESA Telescopes Find Evidence for Asteroid Belt Around Vega.”

If you read it, the very first part of the very first sentence states: “Astronomers have discovered what appears to be a large asteroid belt around the star Vega.” If you read further, it’s all about implications, comparing it with other recent discoveries, and what questions future studies hope to answer.

It all seems as though this is a very new and interesting finding, and as a press release (and from NASA, no less), it was picked up by many news outlets (looks like at least 35 from a Google News search as of posting this).

I’m not trying to minimize these researchers’ work, and if you want to read their paper, it’s posted here.

But, turn the clock back 30 years. In June 1984, in the journal Science – one of the preeminent journals in the world – there was a paper published by Paul R. Weissman with the title, “The Vega Particulate Shell: Comets or Asteroids?”

If you read the abstract, it states: “The [IRAS] science team has discovered a shell of particulate material around the star Vega. … The Vega shell is probably a ring of cometary bodies … . … A possible hot inner shell around Vega may be an asteroid-like belt of material a few astronomical units [the distance between Earth and the Sun] from the star.”

We didn’t have the internet back then, but based on a Google News archive, at least one newspaper, the Boston Globe, mentioned it in October 1984.

It is true that these are not exactly the same thing. It’s true that the new data are much better 30 years later. But the basic idea is the same: We knew 30 years ago that Vega had a debris disk around it of at least cometary and maybe asteroidal material as well.

Ergo, the press release title is misleading. And, anyone who does a news search who’s looking for when particular things may have been discovered – or at least probably discovered – in science will be mislead … in this case, by 30 years.

Why?

Listening to The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe podcast, I have definitely become somewhat jaded with news reporting. Having had my own press release come out about some of my work last year, I have had my own issues (a simple comma missing in the final copy – removed after I had approved it – completely changed the meaning to make it seem like I was talking about ice volcanoes on Mars).

Given my experience, my best guess is that it’s the press officers’ job to get as much publicity for their subject as possible. And we’re lucky if we get to see the final version before it gets sent out. A press release with the headline, “NASA, ESA Telescopes Re-Find [or Confirm] Stuff Found 30 Years Ago” is not going to stoke public interest.

For a topic closer to my own research, it’s the same case with water on Mars. We had darn good evidence back in the late 1960s and ’70s after the first spacecraft images were returned that there had been large amounts of surface water on Mars in its past. But, every few months it seems, a press release comes out stating that a new study has “discovered” water on Mars (or in Mars, or recently on or in Mars, etc.). It’s become something of a running gag during weekly science discussions.

Final Thoughts

To those who did the original (or previous additional “new discovery”), it’s frustrating they don’t get credit. It’s also somewhat insulting. The new Vega paper in this case doesn’t even cite Weissman’s work.

To be fair, this isn’t a huge issue. It’s not media misreporting something major, it’s just a short memory span. But, to those of us who do research in the field or closely related fields, it’s another example of marketing spin taking precedence over honesty. And for laypeople trying to figure out when something was known or discovered, it makes it seems as though everything was much more recently known than it actually was.

January 7, 2013

No, Asteroid 99942 Apophis Won’t Kill Us This Week


Introduction

Unfortunately, the UK’s The Guardian has a misleading title in an article that came out today (January 7, 2013): “Apophis – a ‘potentially hazardous’ asteroid – flies by Earth on Wednesday.”

Now, technically, the headline is correct. For awhile, asteroid 99942 Apophis (or just “Apophis” for short) was potentially dangerous with as much as a 1 in 37 chance as calculated in December 2004 of striking Earth in 2029. Then, the worry was that in 2029 during a close approach, it might pass through a very narrow region in 3D space that would alter its orbit so it would come back in April 2036 and strike Earth.

Apophis’ Orbit

To be clear, from hundreds (if not thousands) of observations at this point, the chance of it striking Earth in 2029 is as close to 0 as you can get, and the chances of it striking in 2036 is about 1 in 250,000. Yes, 2029 will be a very close approach, with estimates being it passing by at only 5.6 times the radius of Earth. But that’s not a hit.

So what’s all this then about 2013?

It’s just a close approach. It’s the closest approach in awhile and it will let us refine its orbit even more.

Why do we need lots of observations over a very long time to get a better orbit? It’s like watching a hot air balloon in the sky: If you observe it for 3 seconds, you can get a very rough idea of how fast it’s going and where it’s headed. But if you watch it for 3 minutes, you’ll have a much better idea. And if you watch it for 3 hours, even better. It’s the same idea with asteroids, or really anything else.

That’s why this Wednesday, January 9, with its closest approach in awhile and for awhile, is important. The closer it is, the better we can pin-point its position and so the more accurate orbit we can derive in the future. We can also get a better estimate of its size. But, this approach is perfectly safe – Apophis’ closest approach this year will take it about 37-38 times farther than the moon.

Final Thoughts

I wasn’t even going to comment on this, but I’ve already seen people asking on various forums based on The Guardian‘s headline. So, there it is. Yes, technically Apophis is “potentially dangerous” because, based on our current orbit estimates, there’s a 0.0004% chance of it striking Earth in 2036. But no, the world is not going to end in 2 days after just “narrowly” surviving the “Mayan apocalypse.”

I’m hoping that the author of the article, Stuart Clark, didn’t select it. He’s written popular astronomy books and various other things, so he should know better unless he was trying to drum up page views. I’m guessing it was some editor.

January 2, 2013

A Psychic Predictions Addendum


For Michael Horn

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

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

Hi tehre Stuart,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MISS

2. “Obama wins by a landslide.”

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

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

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

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

MISS

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

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

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

Impossible to Verify with Present Info

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

Impossible to Verify with Present Info

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

MISS

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

MISS

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

MISS

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

TOO VAGUE

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

MISS

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

MISS

Conclusions

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

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

December 29, 2012

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


Download the Predictions Roundup Document (PDF)

Introduction

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

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

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

Download the Predictions Roundup Document (PDF)

People

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

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

Scoring

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

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

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

How They Did

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

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

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

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

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

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

Several Conclusions from the Data

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

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

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

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

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

Scoring, Revisited

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Thoughts

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

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

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

December 10, 2012

2012 Mayan Doomsday: One Post to (Almost) Rule Them All


Introduction

This post is headed up exactly 11 days before the winter (in the northern hemisphere) solstice of 2012, assuming I got the time zones correct.

You know … THAT day. The one “everyone” is saying – or at least “everyone” is saying that the Mayans said – that the world is going to end. Or we’re all going to become higher vibrational spiritual beings. Or Planet X will swing by. Or some such other stuff.

In other words, only 11 more days people can suckle the milk from the teat of a meme that has frightened people, bilked them from money, made them see a pretty bad movie, and various other things.

If you’re just finding this blog through an internet search and don’t follow me regularly, perhaps you can tell that I clearly put zero stock in such things. In fact, the main purpose of this post is to create a “master” post for the majority of my 2012-related posts and podcasts. I’ve been known to suckle a bit myself, and there’s no harm in doing another post that’s just a bunch of links … it’s a public service, ¿ya know? to have ‘em all in one place.

After all, the majority of people coming to my blog these days are coming here due to searches for 2012-related doomsday stuff.

The Posts and Podcasts

The main blog posts:

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

And my podcast episodes so far on 2012 and Planet X:

And podcasts on which I have been interviewed on 2012:

Other Sites

Why would you be going to other sites?

Well, if you must, I highly recommend 2012 Hoax.org.

Regrets

My one main regret is not doing my planned eBook on the subject. It was going to be free, but I just never got around to writing it. Even just as a compilation of blog posts. :(

I suppose my other main regret is that I have yet to do a post or podcast episode on the sun and 2012. The podcast episode will be coming out in 5-6 days, though … so, still have time, and it’ll come out.

Saving Face – Help Me Look?

All that said, there are lots of people who have made several explatives’-worth of money on 2012 stuff. I have to think that some of them are going to try to save face and back-pedal and make excuses.

If you find any, PLEASE LET ME KNOW! You can do this very easily by posting a comment in the Comments section below this post. I want to do a podcast episode on it early in 2012 (like February-ish).

End Stretch

So far, I really haven’t seen too much escalation of this stuff now that we’re less than two weeks away. Supposedly some people in Russia are worried, but I don’t know if that’s just the press making a big deal out of a few people.

Even Coast to Coast AM hasn’t really ramped stuff up — I almost expected that the producers would be having a 2012’er or Planet X’er on several times a week, but that hasn’t happened. Looking at their schedule for this week, Dec. 9-12 (what’s posted), we have Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, the fiscal cliff, some mob-JFK show, and the “Watchers” and a cosmic battle with L.A. Marzulli. Only the last one is remotely 2012-ish. Perhaps “not with a bang but a whimper” is apropos.

Oh, and NASA’s come out with their “nothing’s going to happen” stuff, but the people who believe that “something” in 2012 is going to happen are rarely going to believe anything that NASA or any other part of any government says. It’s perhaps unfortunate, but that’s the case.

So that’s that for now. See ya on December 22.

Edited to Add (11/12/2012): Apparently now, even the Vatican is getting in on this, saying nottin’s happenin’. Which makes sense, considering that their holy book contains text that states no human (fairly sure it says “man,” but I’m generalizing here) will know the day nor the hour of the end stuff it talks about. Well, and the Maya, to them, are pagans so nothing they do should be taken seriously since the Vatican has a monopoly on spirituality, or some such thing.

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