Exposing PseudoAstronomy

July 6, 2013

Forgiveness, or Why I Like Stargate but Not Hoagland, Creationists, Planet Xers, etc.


Introduction

I’ve thought about writing this post for awhile but never got around to it. Now, I’m writing it instead of going to bed.

If you couldn’t figure it out from the title, the purpose of this post is to discuss why I like some television shows and movies that incorporate some bad science and am willing to forgive that versus why I dislike the purveyance of bad science by people such as creationists, UFOlogists, IDers, Planet Xers, or individuals like Richard Hoagland, Nancy Lieder, Maurice Cotterell, or Whitley Strieber — to name a few.

In other words, why I forgive some, but I don’t forgive others.

For Entertainment Purposes Only

We’ve all seen this or heard this line, especially if we read the 2-pt print at the bottom of many websites for, e.g., astrologers. For them, though, it’s to keep themselves legal. For science fiction shows such as Star Trek, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, or Stargate, that really is the intent: To entertain. Well, to make money for the network, but to tell an entertaining story.

I think that Gene Roddenberry was right in that, to tell a good story, it usually has to be about humans and the human condition. That was part of his impetus for having Spock in TOS and TAS, Data in TNG, and later directors to have Kes / 7 of 9 and Neelix in VOY, the various non-humans in DS9, and we’ll ignore That-Series-Which-Must-Not-Be-Named. These were the outsiders looking in on and commenting on and reacting to the humans and how they dealt with new situations.

Star Wars is similar: It can really be boiled down to the classic Hero’s Journey and is about humans fighting for freedom and survival. Stargate is similar, as well, having Teal’c as the alien character looking in for SG-1, Teyla on ATL, and then UNI failed for many reasons, but I think the lack of that non-human character looking in contributed.

Is the science perfect? Abso-friggin’-lutely not. I recently (last week) re-watched the original Stargate movie and then first three episodes of SG-1. In the first episode, the scientist character (Sam Carter, played by the amazing actress Amanda Tapping) has a conversation with the archaeologist (Daniel Jackson, played by the actor Michael Shanks:

Sam: According to the expanding universe model, all bodies in the universe are constantly moving apart.

Daniel: So in the thousands of years since the Stargate was built-

Sam: All the coordinates could have changed.

Daniel: But why does it still work between Abydos and Earth?

Sam: Abydos is probably the closest planet in the network to Earth. I mean, the closer they are, the less the difference in relative position due to expansion. The further away, the greater the difference. In a few thousand more years, it won’t work between Earth and Abydos either.

Daniel: Unless you can adjust for the displacement.

Sam: Right. Now with this map as a base, that should be easy. All we have to do is correct for Doppler shift. Then I should be able to arrive at a computer model that will predict the adjustments necessary to get the Gate working again.

Purists might say there’s nothing wrong with that, in the movie they clearly state Abydos is in a distant galaxy. But, in the TV series, and later in this first episode, they clearly state the Stargate system operates within the Milky Way. You have to have much more power and “dial” an extra glyph to get outside the Galaxy.

Ergo, the expanding universe does not apply in anyway. Sam in supposed to be an astrophysicist. An intro astronomy major would know that this line makes no sense, that galaxies are gravitationally bound objects in this epoch of the universe. Stellar drift – which the script writers use later in the series perhaps because they were told expanding universe doesn’t apply – is a very plausible explanation. But, that doesn’t change the fact that I rolled my eyes and shook my head when I heard that line.

And the follow-up of using Doppler shift to correct for it is equally fallacious: If you’re going to a distant galaxy where expansion plays a role, Doppler shift only gets you the radial velocity towards/away from Earth. You still have to know the Hubble Constant – which they didn’t in the 1990s when SG-1 started – to convert that to a distance, and you would need to know the motion across the sky, which you can’t really get for a distant galaxy (though it would be small relatively speaking).

In other words, the science is wrong. But it wasn’t as though the entire plot hinged upon it. It wasn’t as though the producers were trying to tell us that this is what’s really going on in the world (unlike what William Henry may think).

As such, I’m willing to forgive this kind of thing for the broader entertainment value, just like I’m willing to forgive the fact that everyone somehow speaks English all across the galaxy.

Movies I sometimes hold to a higher standard. For example, I saw the new Star Trek: Into Darkness movie a few weeks ago. Towards the end, the Enterprise is in orbit of Earth, but at the distance of the Moon. No engines. From the shot, they are implying that it is orbiting at the same speed as the Moon around Earth In the space of a half hour or so, the ship is plunging through Earth’s atmosphere, sure to crash. Sorry, but no. Being at the distance of the Moon and traveling at the same velocity is a stable orbit. Or, it took the Apollo astronauts three days to get to the Moon, and three days to get back, under powered travel. Not 20 minutes. No way the ship would be plunging through Earth’s atmosphere so soon. And that bothered me. Perhaps because it was a higher-budget endeavor than a weekly TV show. But, I still enjoyed the movie and it didn’t affect my opinion of it overall.

Then the Others

And then there are the ones of whom and of what I spoke in the second paragraph. They make factual mistakes, too. Like Mike Bara talking about how Mars’ orbit is elliptical because of its large distance difference from Earth, or that the surface of Earth is darker than clouds because light takes more time to reach it than clouds when the camera is in space (and oceans are darkest “because the light has to travel all the way to the ocean floor before it is reflected back to the camera.”

But, they try to sell that “science” as reality, and that’s all they’re selling. Sitchen was not creating an alternate world with an alien race that created humans and lived on a planet that swings near Earth every 3600 years and trying to make money with sci-fi. He really thought that is true.

In-so doing, and in perpetuating their own mythologies as real, they in fact do harm. I’ve often stated in my podcast and blog that bad astronomy is much less harmful than things like bad medicine where people really die because they take a homeopathic pill rather than get chemo. Very rare for someone to die because of astronomy pseudoscience.

But, astronomy pseudoscience is where it can start. Someone listens to James McCanney and electric universe stuff and thinks, “Well that’s weird, I’ve never heard about this before from ‘establishment’ scientists, but this guy has degrees, he has a platform, maybe there’s more to this.”

Bad science in any form is like a gateway drug: If you’re credulous about one thing and you don’t go through the critical thinking necessary to understand why it’s wrong, it opens you up to being taken advantage of by pseudoscience that can do a lot more physical harm.

Final Thoughts

I think that’s why I give science fiction shows and movies a free pass when they get the science wrong (in most cases), but I don’t give people like Richard Hoagland a pass: It’s all about intent.

Stargate is meant to entertain and they usually try to get the science right. Richard Hoagland, on the other hand, does not. He tries to sell you books, sell his appearance on TV shows and conferences, and various other ways of making money on perpetuating a misunderstanding of how science is done and the conclusions from its process.

And I think this is a good post to leave you with as I get ready for TAM 2013!

May 26, 2013

Properly Designing an Experiment to Measure Richard Hoagland’s Torsion Field, If It Were Real


Introduction

Warning: This is a long post, and it’s a rough draft for a future podcast episode. But it’s something I’ve wanted to write about for a long time.

Richard C. Hoagland has claimed now for at least a decade that there exists a “hyperdimensional torsion physics” which is based partly on spinning stuff. In his mind, the greater black governmental forces know about this and use it and keep it secret from us. It’s the key to “free energy” and anti-gravity and many other things.

Some of his strongest evidence is based on the frequency of a tuning fork inside a 40+ year-old watch. The purpose of this post is to assume Richard is correct, examine how an experiment using such a watch would need to be designed to provide evidence for his claim, and then to examine the evidence from it that Richard has provided.

Predictions

Richard has often stated, “Science is nothing if not predictions.” He’s also stated, “Science is nothing if not numbers” or sometimes “… data.” He is fairly correct in this statement, or at least the first and the last: For any hypothesis to be useful, it must be testable. It must make a prediction and that prediction must be tested.

Over the years, he has made innumerable claims about what his hyperdimensional or torsion physics “does” and predicts, though most of his predictions have come after the observation which invalidates them as predictions, or at least it renders them useless.

In particular, for this experiment we’re going to design, Hoagland has claimed that when a mass (such as a ball or planet) spins, it creates a “torsion field” that changes the inertia of other objects; he generally equates inertia with masss. Inertia isn’t actually mass, it’s the resistance of any object to a change in its motion. For our purposes here, we’ll even give him the benefit of the doubt, as either one is hypothetically testable with his tuning fork -based watch.

So, his specific claim, as I have seen it, is that the mass of an object will change based on its orientation relative to a massive spinning object. In other words, if you are oriented along the axis of spin of, say, Earth, then your mass will change one way (increase or decrease), and if you are oriented perpendicular to that axis of spin, your mass will change the other way.

Let’s simplify things even further from this more specific claim that complicates things: An object will change its mass in some direction in some orientation relative to a spinning object. This is part of the prediction we need to test.

According to Richard, the other part of this prediction is that to actually see this change, big spinning objects have to align in order to increase or decrease the mass from what we normally see. So, for example, if your baseball is on Earth, it has its mass based on it being on Earth as Earth is spinning the way it does. But, if, say, Venus aligns with the sun and transits (as it did back in July 2012), then the mass will change from what it normally is. Or, like during a solar eclipse. This is the other part of the prediction we need to test.

Hoagland also has other claims, like you have to be at sacred or “high energy” sites or somewhere “near” ±N·19.5° on Earth (where N is an integer multiple, and “near” means you can be ±8° or so from that multiple … so much for a specific prediction). For example, this apparently justifies his begging for people to pay for him and his significant other to go to Egypt last year during that Venus transit. Or taking his equipment on December 21, 2012 (when there wasn’t anything special alignment-wise…) to Chichen Itza, or going at some random time to Stonehenge. Yes, this is beginning to sound even more like magic, but for the purposes of our experimental design, let’s leave this part alone, at least for now.

Designing an Experiment: Equipment

“Expat” goes into much more detail on the specifics of Hoagland’s equipment, here.

To put it briefly, Richard uses a >40-year-old Accutron watch which has a small tuning fork in it that provides the basic unit of time for the watch. A tuning fork’s vibration rate (the frequency) is dependent on several things, including the length of the prongs, material used, and its moment of inertia. So, if mass changes, or its moment of inertia changes, then the tuning fork will change frequency. Meaning that the watch will run either fast or slow.

The second piece of equipment is a laptop computer, with diagnostic software that can read the frequency of the watch, and a connection to the watch.

So, we have the basic setup with a basic premise: During an astronomical alignment event, Hoagland’s Accutron watch should deviate from its expected frequency.

Designing an Experiment: Baseline

After we have designed an experiment and obtained equipment, usually the bulk of time is spent testing and calibrating that equipment. That’s what would need to be done in our hypothetical experiment here.

What this means is that we need to look up when there are no alignments that should affect our results, and then hook the watch up to the computer and measure the frequency. For a long time. Much longer than you expect to use the watch during the actual experiment.

You need to do this to understand how the equipment acts under normal circumstances. Without that, you can’t know if it acts differently – which is what your prediction is – during your time when you think it should. For example, let’s say that I only turn on a special fancy light over my special table when I have important people over for dinner. I notice that it flickers every time. I conclude that the light only flickers when there are important people there. Unfortunately, without the baseline measurement (turning on the light when there AREN’T important people there and seeing if it flickers), then my conclusion is invalidated.

So, in our hypothetical experiment, we test the watch. If it deviates at all from the manufacturer’s specifications during our baseline measurements (say, a 24-hour test), then we need to get a new one. Or we need to, say, make sure that the cables connecting the watch to the computer are connected properly and aren’t prone to surges or something else that could throw off the measurement. Make sure the software is working properly. Maybe try using a different computer.

In other words, we need to make sure that all of our equipment behaves as expected during our baseline measurements when nothing that our hypothesis predicts should affect it is going on.

Lots of statistical analyses would then be run to characterize the baseline behavior to compare with the later experiment and determine if it is statistically different.

Designing an Experiment: Running It

After we have working equipment, verified equipment, and a well documented and analyzed baseline, we then perform our actual measurements. Say, turn on our experiment during a solar eclipse. Or, if you want to follow the claim that we need to do this at some “high energy site,” then you’d need to take your equipment there and also get a baseline just to make sure that you haven’t broken your equipment in transit or messed up the setup.

Then, you gather your data. You run the experiment in the exact same way as you ran it before when doing your baseline.

Data Analysis

In our basic experiment, with our basic premise, the data analysis should be fairly easy.

Remember that the prediction is that, during the alignment event, the inertia of the tuning fork changes. Maybe it’s just me, but based on this premise, here’s what I would expect to see during the transit of Venus across the sun (if the hypothesis were true): The computer would record data identical to the baseline while Venus is away from the sun. When Venus makes contact with the sun’s disk, you would start to see a deviation that would increase until Venus’ disk is fully within the sun’s. Then, it would be at a steady, different value from the baseline for the duration of the transit. Or perhaps increase slowly until Venus is most inside the sun’s disk, then decreasing slightly until Venus’ limb makes contact with the sun’s. Then you’d get a rapid return to baseline as Venus’ disk exits the sun’s and you’d have a steady baseline thereafter.

If the change is very slight, this is where the statistics come in: You need to determine whether the variation you see is different enough from baseline to be considered a real effect. Let’s say, for example, during baseline measurements the average frequency is 360 Hz but that it deviates between 357 and 363 fairly often. So your range is 360±3 Hz (we’re simplifying things here). You do this for a very long time, getting, say, 24 hrs of data and you take a reading every 0.1 seconds, so you have 864,000 data points — a fairly large number from which to get a robust statistical average.

Now let’s say that from your location, the Venus transit lasted only 1 minute (they last many hours, but I’m using this as an example; bear with me). You have 600 data points. You get results that vary around 360 Hz, but it may trend to 365, or have a spike down to 300, and then flatten around 358. Do you have enough data points (only 600) to get a meaningful average? To get a meaningful average that you can say is statistically different enough from 360±3 Hz that this is a meaningful result?

In physics, we usually use a 5-sigma significance, meaning that, if 360±3 Hz represents our average ± 1 standard deviation (1 standard deviation means that about 68% of the datapoints will be in that range), then 5-sigma is 360±15 Hz. 5-sigma means that 99.999927% of the data will be in that range. This means that, to be a significant difference, we have to have an average during the Venus transit of, say, 400±10 Hz (where 1-sigma = 2 here, so 5-sigma = 10 Hz).

Instead, in the scenario I described two paragraphs ago, you’d probably get an average around 362 with a 5-sigma of ±50 Hz. This is NOT statistically significant. That means the null hypothesis – that there is no hyperdimensional physics -driven torsion field – must be concluded.

How could you get better statistics? You’d need different equipment. A turning fork that is more consistently 360 Hz (so better manufacturing = more expensive). A longer event. Maybe a faster reader so instead of reading the turning fork’s frequency every 0.1 seconds, you can read it every 0.01 seconds. Those are the only ways I can think of.

Repeat!

Despite what one may think or want, regardless of how extraordinary one’s results are, you have to repeat them. Over and over again. Preferably other, independent groups with independent equipment does the repetition. One experiment by one person does not a radical change in physics make.

What Does Richard Hoagland’s Data Look Like?

I’ve spent an excruciating >1700 words above explaining how you’d need to design and conduct an experiment with Richard’s apparatus and the basic form of his hypothesis. And why you have to do some of those more boring steps (like baseline measurements and statistical analysis).

To-date, Richard claims to have conducted about ten trials. One was at Coral Castle in Florida back I think during the 2004 Venus transit, another was outside Alburqueque in New Mexico during the 2012 Venus transit. Another in Hawai’i during a solar eclipse, another at Stonehenge during something, another in Mexico during December 21, 2012, etc., etc.

For all of these, he has neither stated that he has performed baseline measurements, nor has he presented any such baseline data. So, right off the bat, his results – whatever they are – are meaningless because we don’t know how his equipment behaves under normal circumstances … I don’t know if the light above my special table flickers at all times or just when those important people are over.

He also has not shown all his data, despite promises to do so.

Here’s one plot that he says was taken at Coral Castle during the Venus transit back in 2004, and it’s typical of the kinds of graphs he shows, though this one has a bit more wiggling going on:

My reading of this figure shows that his watch appears to have a baseline frequency of around 360 Hz, as it should. The average, however, states to be 361.611 Hz, though we don’t know how long that’s an average. The instability is 12.3 minutes per day, meaning it’s not a great watch.

On the actual graph, we see an apparent steady rate at around that 360 Hz, but we see spikes in the left half that deviate up to around ±0.3 Hz, and then we see a series of deviations during the time Venus is leaving the disk of the sun. But we see that the effect continues AFTER Venus is no longer in front of the sun. We see that it continues even more-so than during that change from Venus’ disk leaving the sun’s and more than when Venus was in front of the sun. We also see that the rough steady rate when Venus is in front of the sun is the same Hz as the apparent steady rate when Venus is off the sun’s disk.

From the scroll bar at the bottom, we can also see he’s not showing us all the data he collected, that he DID run it after Venus exited the sun’s disk, but we’re only seeing a 1.4-hr window.

Interestingly, we also have this:

Same location, same Accutron, some of the same time, same number of samples, same average rate, same last reading.

But DIFFERENT traces that are supposed to be happening at the same time! Maybe he mislabeled something. I’d prefer not to say that he faked his data. At the very least, this calls into question A LOT of his work in this.

What Conclusions Can Be Drawn from Richard’s Public Data?

None.

As I stated above, the lack of any baseline measurements automatically mean his data is useless because we don’t know how the watch acts under “normal” circumstances.

That aside, looking at his data that he has released in picture form (as in, we don’t have something like a time-series text file we can graph and run statistics on), it does not behave as one would predict from Richard’s hypothesis.

Other plots he presents from other events show even more steady state readings and then spikes up to 465 Hz at random times during or near when his special times are supposed to be. None of those are what one would predict from his hypothesis.

What Conclusions does Richard Draw from His Data?

“stunning ‘physics anomalies’”

“staggering technological implications of these simple torsion measurements — for REAL ‘free energy’ … for REAL ‘anti-gravity’ … for REAL ‘civilian inheritance of the riches of an entire solar system …’”

“These Enterprise Accutron results, painstakingly recorded in 2004, now overwhelmingly confirm– We DO live in a Hyperdimensional Solar System … with ALL those attendant implications.”

Et cetera.

Final Thoughts

First, as with all scientific endeavors, please let me know if I’ve left anything out or if I’ve made a mistake.

With that said, I’ll repeat that this is something I’ve been wanting to write about for a long time, and I finally had the three hours to do it (with some breaks). The craziness of claiming significant results from what – by all honest appearances – looks like a broken watch is the height of gall, ignorance, or some other words that I won’t say.

With Richard, I know he knows better because it’s been pointed out many times that what he needs to do to make his experiment valid.

But this also gets to a broader issue of a so-called “amateur scientist” who may wish to conduct an experiment to try to “prove” their non-mainstream idea: They have to do this extra stuff. Doing your experiment and getting weird results does not prove anything. This is also why doing science is hard and why maybe <5% of it is the glamorous press release and cool results. So much of it is testing, data gathering, and data reduction and then repeating over and over again.

Richard (and others) seem to think they can do a quick experiment and then that magically overturns centuries of "established" science. It doesn't.

May 1, 2013

Podcast #73 – Image Analysis for Skeptics: From Faces to Pyramids (Live Talk)


The mysterious
Veil on phographs, Lifted
in this episode.

This episode was filmed in front of a live studio audience at this year’s Denver Skepticamp last weekend. The episode is a short version of a workshop that Bryan Bonner and I will be co-leading at TAM this summer. As such, feedback is solicited! (as usual)

I’ve posted the materials (slides and two movies) to the shownotes page for this episode.

Since this was a live talk, the normal other segments were not done.

April 8, 2013

Podcast #70: The Ringmakers of Saturn


The Ringmakers of Saturn, a book by Norman R. Bergrun, presents one of the most “out there” ideas I’ve discussed yet on the podcast. But, it’s still a decent teaching tool, worth briefly talking about.

I also have a Q&A, corrections, and Feedback.

December 12, 2012

Being Pedantic Over Laser Colors on Law & Order: SVU


Introduction

This is a quick post about me being a crotchety young man. But, one of the founding ideas of this blog was to point out not only bad astronomy/physics/geology that I see out there on crazy blogs and Coast to Coast, but also what I see in the media, on TV, and in movies.

I’ve been going through and watching old Law & Order: SVU episodes. I enjoy the series and watched it with my mom during part of high school and sometimes when home from college. Now in it’s 14th season, I have a lot of catching up to do.

Setup

I was watching season 5 episode 1 last night while doing some other work on the side (you can decide for yourself if that’s an intended or unintended dangling participle). About 31 minutes into the episode, a lab tech makes a big deal about restoring a receipt and the detectives are hoping it can lead them to a woman who had been kidnapped. Only problem is the receipt is saturated with blood and unreadable … under normal lights.

Good Premise

The lab tech makes a big deal about how it’s illegible “to the naked eye, that’s why God invented lasers. Different frequencies reveal different inks.”

This premise is true. In fact, over Thanksgiving, I was back in Ohio visiting with my parents and went to the Cincinnati Museum Center’s special exhibit on the Dead Sea Scrolls. They had a side room on their digital imaging process for documenting the scrolls and, “using technology developed by NASA” (people who don’t think the space program has any practical applications …), they showed how the fragments are all being imaged with 12 different colors of light: seven visible, five IR. Here’s the video that I had seen on it, and here’s a shorter version that just shows one scroll under the different wavelengths.

What the video pointed out is that several letters were not visible due to burns or dirt. But, under different wavelengths of light, the dirt becomes transparent while the ink remains opaque and you can read them.

This is exactly why astronomers use different wavelengths of light to study different things. Anyway …

Law & Order: SVU -- Laser Colors Mistake

Law & Order: SVU — Laser Colors Mistake


Bad Science

In what was obviously done for visual interest for television, the lab tech then goes through and supposedly illuminates the receipt under three different laser colors to try to bring out text. First, she says she’s using 400 nm, which shows up as bright blue, tinging on violet. Then 500 nm, which shows up as a ruddy orange. Finally, 600 nm, which is a brilliant green and they can read it and go and find the girl.

Anyone shaking their head right now?

If not, let me explain the first issue: Those colors are wrong for those wavelengths. I should know — I just purchased four lasers, one each at 405 nm, 460 nm, 532 nm, and 650 nm. The colors for those are deep purple, bluish-violet, green, and deep red.

As in, if those wavelengths she stated were the actual colors, 400 nm would have been a very deep purple, bordering on invisibility to the human eye (edge of human vision is somewhere around 380-400 nm). 500 nm should have been a turquoise blue-green. 600 nm would have been a yellow bordering on red (yellow sodium lights in parking lots are at 589 nm).

A second problem is that lasers are not made at those wavelengths. I guess it’s theoretically possible, and there might be some very rare laser of which I’m not aware, and while there are a large variety of lasers out there, 400, 500, and 600 nm are not among them.

My third of three problems with this is that lasers generally make a dot. You can have spreaders and put in gratings and whatever to make broader patterns, but generally speaking, they’re dots. This was basically like a broad light. What she showed, and what should have been used, and what she should have simply said, are that she was using a diode. Speaking as someone who’s been kept awake by the diode power lights on a computer case, diodes create a broad illumination, not a tiny point of light.

But I guess lasers sound cooler.

Final Thoughts

Yes, pedantic, nit-picking, etc. Does this have any bearing on broader society? Probably not.

But, then again, there are two issues here. One is that she was simply wrong. Portraying bad science or getting the science wrong is … wrong. It shouldn’t have happened.

The second issue is that someone might pick up on this and think that’s the way things work — that those are the colors that correspond with those wavelengths. And then it could take a long time for them to unlearn it. For example, I had an 8th grade science teacher who claimed a kilometer was longer than a mile (among other things). Three years later, I was in AP music theory class and, as usual, we were doing nothing, so I was complaining with a senior about incompetent teachers at our school. And I brought up the 8th grade teacher and units of length. And she exclaimed that because she had been taught that, too, by the guy the year before I had him, it screwed her up for two whole years. It took 10th grade chemistry and a sit-down with the chemistry teacher before she got everything straightened out such that she now knows a centimeter is shorter than an inch.

Perhaps an extreme example, perhaps an example that further illustrates the tiny effect that this doesn’t have, but it’s stuck in my mind.

And there are a lot less useful blog posts out there, and I’m tired about hearing about 12/12/12 and 12/21/12.

P.S. If I had to guess, I’d say that the “400 nm” was around 470, the “500 nm” around 600 or so, and the “600 nm” right on that classic green laser color of 532 nm.

December 9, 2012

New Blog Added to Blogroll — Interpose Mission


Quick post to mention that I’ve added a new blog to my fairly short “blogroll” list off to the side of every page, if you scroll down far enough past the monthly archive links. For those who like my Richard C. Hoagland -related posts, this blog’s for you: Interpose Mission.

The blog is different from Expat’s Dork Mission: The Emoluments of Mars, in that (a) Julian gives his real name, (b) it’s less snarky (so far … but we all end up deteriorating after awhile), and (c) it goes into a bit more detail about why ol’ Richard’s yarns are poorly spun and fraying throughout.

So far, he’s only done three posts. The first was an introductory post, similar to most peoples’, and then the next two were about Richard’s long-standing claim that Mars’ moon Phobos is an artificial spaceship and that Curiosity has found the ruins of apartment buildings on Mars.

I’ve added it to my RSS feed, and if you “like” more of Hoagland’s “ideas,” I suggest you do the same.

September 1, 2012

Podcast Episode 50: Lunatic Earthquakes


Do lunar tides actually cause or trigger earthquakes, and is there a vast conspiracy to cover it up? Or do the people who make this claim misunderstand the data and statistics?

Well, since this is the Exposing PseudoAstronomy podcast, you can guess what the conclusion is. But, it’s a ~50-minute exploration of the claims and evidence dealing with this claim, and for those of you who like logical fallacies, you’ll really like this episode. I hope. I’ve also written up a document of the statistics I did for this.

Other segments: Q&A, Feedback, Announcements … and TWO puzzlers!!

The two announcements are: (1) I need to drop down to 2 episodes/month, at least for September. We’ll see what happens in October, but likely this will hold at least through November. (2) I’ll be in Flagstaff, AZ (USA) for a conference for September 18-23. If you’re interested in meeting up at all, send me an e-mail.

August 23, 2012

Where Do Scientists Get Funded

Filed under: astronomy,conspiracy theories,misconceptions — Stuart Robbins @ 8:08 pm
Tags: , ,

Introduction

As Mike Bara suspected, I am listening to his interview right now on American Freedom Radio, and yes Mike, I appreciate the minor plug, but I find it fascinating that you think I’m obsessed with you. I have nearly 300 posts on this blog and a whopping half-dozen have to do with you, and all but one are just related to this ziggurat thing. Unless you were talking about Expat, for whom I can’t speak and don’t pretend to.

Anyway, I expect to get a small handful of folks coming here due to Mike’s radio appearance tonight, and I wanted to put up a quick post that I will respond to his 5-part post within a day or three. But in the meantime, Mike spent several minutes saying that I could not be objective about this because I’m funded by NASA.

I’ll respond to that momentarily. Meanwhile, Mike, where does your money come from? You’re getting paid for your books about this stuff, going to and speaking at conferences about this stuff, getting out there through radio appearances, getting paid to talk about your ideas on the History channel … do you honestly think that makes YOU an objective person with regards to your ideas? This thing works both ways if you really want to play the “follow the money” conspiracy game.

Where Astronomers Get Funding

For hundreds of years, science in the western world was made possible by rich folks (usually white men) who could afford to not have to earn a living based on their academic endeavors. Sometimes they were lucky in another way and were able to carry out research on the side of a teaching job at a university or other center of learning.

Later on, some got lucky in a different way and had rich patrons — noblemen, dukes, kings, etc. — who would indulge them and pay for their research and equipment because it increased their own status (“Oh yeah, Harry, well you may have 50 servants but I have my own astronomer!”). Kepler and Brahe are two examples of this case.

It’s really only in the last hundred years or so that governments themselves decided that it was for the collective good of society that they fund research. Thus, they set up institutions and grants and ways of giving public funds to those who presented the most likely chances of both success and adding something significant to our understanding of the universe we live in. And I’m not just talking astronomy here: Health, biology, environment, geology, physics, chemistry, all those other fields fit within our understanding of the universe, some just a little closer to home and of more immediate benefit.

Fast-forward to today in this incredibly abridged history and most governments have a fairly heavy bureaucracy in place to do this. In the United States, the vast majority of research astronomers have one main funding source: U.S. government grants that are mostly awarded through the Science Mission Directorate section of NASA in one of four main areas: Human exploration, astrophysics, Earth science, and solar system / planetary.

Yes, there are some other funding sources such as NSF (National Science Foundation) or individual companies – or universities if you’re teaching faculty – but the vast majority comes from NASA, an official government agency, which of course gives conspiracists all the ammo they need to argue their case fallaciously (see the section below).

Now, I realize this might come as a shock to those who are conspiracy-minded or anti-government, and you probably won’t believe me, but no where do we have to sign some sort of loyalty oath to uphold “NASA’s views” of [insert whatever]. In fact, as an organization, NASA has very few views on, really, anything; NASA is a government agency charged with space flight and funding research, not charged with being a Gateway through which Knowledge Must Pass®. As in, whenever I hear James McCanney’s bio read on Coast to Coast, I cringe whenever I hear the part of, “He’s openly opposed NASA’s view that comets are hunks of ice and rock …” Seriously folks — NASA has “no views” on that sort of thing.

I suppose there are some official positions that have come out of the PR department like global warming, though. And sometimes certain political appointees decide to insert their own censorship (such as the Bush administration did).

Anyway, my point here is that if Mike Bara would like to find some private funding for my research, I’d be more than happy to take it. I have never tried to make it a secret that I’m funded in part by a NASA grant I wrote in 2010 as a graduate student, and before that by a fellowship I wrote in 2007. In fact, I’m quite proud of the fact that I won two very competitive grants (one admittedly FOR graduate students) before I even had my doctorate. I also have some funding directly through NASA’s Lunar Science Institute to fund my lunar crater research through CosmoQuest’s “MoonMappers” project. The only stuff I had to sign was that I had no foreign nationals who would get the money.

Again, not something I’ve ever tried to hide. Yet Mike’s argument against my analysis of his ziggurat seems to be: “His education was funded by NASA, and all his grant $$$$$ comes from NASA. Fact.”

Mike, please find an example of a professional astronomer today whose education and/or current research was/is not funded by a research grant from NASA. They’re as rare as a two-leaf clover. They exist, but they are very rare.

And then of course, again, your money these days sure seems to come from your lunar anomalies and so-called consciousness stuff. That’s supposed to make you more objective than I on this kind of issue?

Reminder: Ad Hominems, Non Sequiturs, Argument from Persecution

A non sequitur literally means “doesn’t follow.” I’ve mentioned this briefly before, I’m sure, but discovery of life off-world would be a huge boon to NASA or any other space organization or company that found it. P.R. is written for the next few hundred years, and money would flow. If I were “a NASA shill,” I would be arguing FOR there being life out there. I actually, personally, have written before that I think astrobiology is a bit of a pseudoscience because it is never falsifiable (“oh, we just couldn’t detect it WITH THAT TEST, but it’s still probably there!”). Of course, the conspiracists would dismiss this as me just lying to serve my overlords, but facts never stood in conspiracists’ way.

To those who do not know, an ad hominem attack is when someone attacks the person rather than the claims. The claims may be valid, they may be invalid, but the other person is only attacking the person and not actually addressing the root questions being asked. Mike is doing this.

Finally, the argument from persecution is where someone says, effectively, “If I’m wrong, then these people wouldn’t be arguing against me and hate me, therefore, because they are arguing against me, I must be right!” Like the ad hominem, this particular non sequitur fallacy does not address the claim on its merits but instead tries to bolster the person’s claim based on the perceived reaction of someone else. Sometimes this manifests as the “Galileo complex.”

Addendum Added 3 Hrs Later

I was just skimming Mike’s Part 1 before bed and he makes a few accusations which I think need to be addressed here. Mainly (1) that I’m charging time I spend writing these posts to work time, and (2) that I’m using work equipment to do so.

The exact quotes:

In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if he was able to respond so quickly and extensively to my posts because he was writing on his personal blog using taxpayer or university funded equipment and internet access while he was supposed to be working!

(Note: 8/16/2012; this suspicion was confirmed when Dr. Robbins posted his latest update today at 3:45PM, the middle of the work day. It obviously must have taken him at least a couple of hours to write this up. I’m wondering which government funded project you charged these hours of work on your personal blog to, Stuart)?

Since these are actually very specific things that we must certify we will NOT do with NASA-funded equipment, I think it’s important and it be addressed.

As I’ve written when interviewed before, I’m a postdoc and set my own hours. I can work 8PM-10PM and then 1AM-5AM one “day,” then 10AM-11PM another. I can take a break from what I do and address this stuff if someone sends me an e-mail about it and I want to take a break and address it. And, I work primarily from home, going into the university maybe once a month during the summer and a few times a week during the school year for meetings, seminars, etc.

The fact that I may choose to wake up at 10AM one day, work from 10:30-2:00, take a break for 3 hours to address the latest pseudoscience, and then go back to work from 5PM to 11:30PM is a far cry from “confirmation” that I’m doing anything illegal with NASA funds. In fact, I keep ridiculously thorough records of all time spent working on each grant as well as time spent doing education and public outreach (EPO) stuff (this blog and podcast). As a postdoc, EPO factors in up to 5% of my annual review, which is available via public records request, and so I like to be able to say I spent a fair amount of time working on it. If I get promoted to Research Scientist II or ever get a faculty position, EPO (on our own time) is a significantly larger fraction of our evaluations (up to 40% here at LASP for a level IV).

A retraction from Mike should be in order, but the likelihood of it coming is miniscule.

July 1, 2012

Podcast Episode 42: Who’s Yo Mamma?! (Milky Way or Sagittarius Dwarf?)


Episode 42 has been posted — on time, I might add. We’re back to the 30-minute episode length and get back to some good ol’ Coast to Coast AM clips.

I take you on a whirlwind custody case that’s 10 years (or 5 billion years?) in the making, trying to figure out if our solar system is really a member of the Milky Way galaxy, or is it a member of the Sagittarius Dwarf galaxy, a galaxy that was only discovered in 1994 and is currently being eaten alive by the Milky Way.

I also have another crater-based Q&A, discuss the solution to episode 40′s puzzler including the feedback that everyone sent in on what the fate of the puzzler should be, and then a few quick announcements.

June 19, 2012

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


Introduction

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

Wow.

First, Grammar

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

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

What Is Retrograde Motion?

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

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

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

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

Paragraph The First

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paragraph The Second

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

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

“This difference is called Red Shift.”

Cue George Takei: “Oh my.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paragraph The Third

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

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

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

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

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

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

And we end with more astrology stuff.

Final Thoughts

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

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

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