Exposing PseudoAstronomy

December 16, 2014

Podcast Episode 122: Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko and Rosetta Conspiracies


Conspiracies of
Comet 67P …
Few, but they are weird.

A timely and listener-requested episode! What’s not to love!? In the episode I talk about several of the conspiracies I’ve seen surrounding the Rosetta mission and Comet 67P. From artificiality (Hoagland makes a guest appearance) to singing so as to raise our consciousness to angelic levels when 2012 failed, I spend nearly a half hour going through 2 to 4 claims (depending on how you count them) that have been making the rounds. I also get to touch on image analysis.

There is also one New News segment this episode, and it refers to the death of the Venus Express mission around (oddly enough) Venus. The news relates to the episodes on uncertainty. Not sure what the connection is? Listen to the episode! The episode also comes in at just over 30 minutes, my target length.

December 5, 2014

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


Introduction

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

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

Swift Blog Post #3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 1, 2014

Podcast Episode 121: James McCanney’s Views on Other Stuff in the Universe, Part 2


Some random claims based on
Electric Universe thinking
By James McCanney.

The long-awaited sequel to the critically-acclaimed (ha!) first part on James McCanney’s ideas about stuff. As I said last time, I’ve wanted to talk about James McCanney’s ideas ever since I heard him on Coast to Coast AM, and doing so isn’t hard — he’s been on the show dozens of times over the last two decades. I’ve heard him talk about a lot of things, but I mostly remembered him sounding like a broken record talking about how comets “discharge the solar capacitor.” This episode gets at many of his other ideas, though there are still many others and I reserve the right to do a Part 3 in the future.

Because this episode runs nearly 55 minutes, the only additional segment is two New News items (one sent in by Graham and the other by Callum (@ApproxPurified). Also, I plan on the next episode to be about conspiracies surrounding the Rosetta mission and its now host comet, so if you happen to see something relevant, please let me know before December 12, 2014.

P.S. My internet connection is being flaky — please let me know if you have issues downloading this episode or getting it to show up in iTunes or another RSS reader.

November 28, 2014

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


Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

Laura Stampler Parrots AstrologyZone’s Susan Miller

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charlotte Alter Parrots Deepak Chopra

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alter concludes with these three paragraphs:

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

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

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

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

Decline of the News Industry

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

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

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

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

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

I worry that Time is not that introspective.

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

November 18, 2014

Episode 120: James McCanney’s Views on Comets, Part 1


Comets: Are they weird,
Electrical phenom’na,
Or just dirty snow?

My first personal foray into electric universe claims (don’t forget part 1 and 2 intros via an interview with Tom Bridgman). I’ve wanted to talk about James McCanney’s ideas ever since I heard him on Coast to Coast AM, and doing so isn’t hard — he’s been on the show dozens of times over the last two decades. I’ve heard him talk about a lot of things, but I mostly remembered him sounding like a broken record talking about how comets “discharge the solar capacitor.”

I’ve been putting him off for awhile because I really really don’t like Electricity & Magnetism, so doing this was going to be a bit out of my comfort zone. It ended up not being that far out, thanks in part to generous help by Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy website and the 2012 Hoax website.

However, listening to Coast to Coast for clips took a very long time. Two straight days, listening at 1.7–2.5x speed. I took pages of notes, including numerous direct quotes. I mined these and wrote an incredibly lengthy episode that used 18 clips totaling nearly 15 minutes.

Then I decided to split it into two parts. This first part covers just his ideas about comets. This episode also has a Q&A (first time in many episodes) and Feedback.

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.

November 3, 2014

Podcast Episode 119: The Norway Spiral


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

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

October 29, 2014

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 17, 2014

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


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

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

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

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

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

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