Exposing PseudoAstronomy

March 9, 2018

Even Science Reporters Are Circumventing Scientific Process

I study impact craters (those circle thingies on other planets, moons, asteroids, comets, etc.). A colleague recently pointed out a manuscript to me that demonstrated a new method to do something with craters. (I’m being purposely vague here to protect the situation.) It was an interesting manuscript, but it was submitted to an open archive (arxiv.org) where anyone can submit pretty much anything that seems sciencey. It has not been through the peer-review process.

Peer-review is not perfect. I’ve written about it before on this blog and discussed it on my podcast. But the purpose of peer-review is to weed out stuff that is obviously wrong. Things that may seem good to a general researcher, but to someone else who really knows the field, it clearly has issues. Other purposes of peer-review are to make sure the work is placed in proper context (usually by citing the reviewers’ works, but that’s a separate issue), making sure that the authors of the manuscript have explained themselves well, that their methods make sense, that they have explored alternative interpretations of their data, etc. In other words, do science “right.” Where “right” is in quotes because there is no formal set of rules by which one must play, but there are general guidelines and important pillars which people should uphold.

After it passes peer-review – if it passes peer-review – then it may be accepted by a journal and published. Some stuff that gets through peer-review is great. Some stuff is utter crap because the process isn’t perfect and because we don’t know everything, and the prevailing scientific opinion can shift with new information.

That is upended in today’s cut-throat world of journalism and a desire to be the first to publish about something that seems new and interesting.

I was contacted yesterday by a freelance reporter for the publication New Scientist. I’m not going to say the reporter’s name, but I have no qualms stating the publication. The reporter, coincidentally, wanted me to comment on the manuscript that had been submitted to arxiv.org. I refused. Here is what I wrote:

Thank you for writing. I am generally happy to comment about crater papers, and I would be happy to comment on this manuscript should it be accepted by the peer-review process. My concern at the moment is that the manuscript is only on an open server to which anyone can submit and it has not been vetted by researchers in the field beyond the authors themselves. The authors also used [specifics redacted] which have some significant omissions, and how that affects their results needs to be assessed by people who know all the ins and outs of their methods, which is not me.

I strongly recommend that you refrain from publishing about this work until it has made it through the peer-review process. It is easy to get excited about new techniques, but at the moment, it has not been vetted by other experts in the field, such that I think writing about it now is premature.

The reporter responded that I had a valid concern, he appreciated my advice, and he would discuss it with his editor.

Then just a few minutes ago, I heard from another friend in the field that she had been asked to comment for the story. She is taking a similar approach, which I greatly appreciate.

But this identifies, to me, a significant problem that those in both the scientific community and skeptic community have pointed out for years: Journalists don’t seem to care about vetting the science about which they write. Now, this could be an isolated example of an over-zealous reporter given the “OK” by their editor. Except it’s not. Too often we see articles about work just at the very edge of the field that offers great marvels and promises, only to hear nothing more from it because it was all based on extraordinarily preliminary efforts. Craters aren’t going to affect your daily life. But the issue here is a symptom of a greater problem. And I think that only if scientists and the reading public demand that reporters stop doing this will we see any sort of change.


December 22, 2017

Podcast Episode 169: Modern Eclipse Lunacy, Part 3: Richard Hoagland’s Claims

Richard C. Hoagland:
Of course he has claims about
The solar eclipse.

In the final regular episode in the three-part Solar Eclipse of August 2017 series, several of the claims made by Richard Hoagland are addressed. Three types of claims are examined: Whether shadow bands indicate there are glass structures on the Moon, whether the Accutron watch readings indicate there is a hyperdimensional physics, and alleged disinformation.

This is – surprise, surprise – the last episode for 2017, the only episode for December. Just work/podcast balance realities. Of course, if I started selling ad space and had a Patreon like those OTHER podcasts … but this is free and ad-free and I’m keeping it that way.

Anywho, I also finally get to feedback in this episode, and I think I’m caught up on e-mails from 2017 except those of you who responded to my recent responses. Seems like whenever you clear the Inbox, people have a spidey sense of it because that’s when I get another flood of e-mail. Could just be confirmation bias.

Solar Eclipse from August 21, 2017 (©Stuart Robbins)

Solar Eclipse from August 21, 2017 (©Stuart Robbins)

November 27, 2017

Podcast Episode 168: Common (and False) Fine-Tuned Universe Beliefs, Discussed

Fine-tuned Universe:
Not just for creationists
Anymore. Let’s see …

Fine-tuning of the universe to allow us to exist has tended to be a focused argument by young-Earth creationists, but it’s also used by other folks to generally argue that we are special. In this episode, I discuss four categories of claims that fit into this broad argument.

An exploration into four groups of fine-tuning arguments used by some to say that we are special: Solar outbursts, habitable zone, lunar origin and effects, and giant planets and impacts on Earth.

Fine-Tuning Image

Fine-Tuning Image

November 14, 2017

Podcast Episode 167: Modern Eclipse Lunacy, Part 2: Flat Earth

Eclipse lunacy,
This time from flat Earth folks, and
What they thought of it.

Returning to the series I started in September, we have modern eclipse lunacy, part 2, as discussed by flat Earth proponents. Part 3 should come later (well, obviously not earlier) and will be about the ideas espoused by Richard C. Hoagland as related to the solar eclipse from August.

Due to the lateness of this episode, I am really hoping that I can get another one out by Sunday. I leave for a trip Saturday night and will be gone through the following Sunday, so if I don’t at least get something written and recorded by the 18th, there won’t be an episode until after the 26th. I already have the topic, it’s going to be “Common (and False) Fine-Tuned Planet Beliefs, Discussed.” Surprisingly, this is NOT from young-Earth creationists, but rather from a UFOlogist, Whitley Strieber, that I recently heard him repeat on his internet radio program.

Flat Earth Lunar Eclipse

Flat Earth Lunar Eclipse (found on Reddit)

November 10, 2017

About Accepting and Rejecting Claims

I was contacted in the recent past by a listener inquiring about various claims that I’ve written (here) or spoken (podcast) about, and whether me not talking about certain things or choosing to ignore certain claims means that I agree with them. I explained my position via email, but in lieu of an on-time podcast episode (sorry … now a week late), I thought I’d explain my position here, too.

For me, to either accept a claim or to reject a claim means that you (or me, in this case, since I’m talking about me) would need to actively form an opinion about something and then state that opinion somewhere so others know about it. That latter part isn’t necessarily required, but it does constitute documentation of acceptance or rejection of said claim.

In this case, the opposite is also true: If I do not actively form an opinion about something, I have neither accepted nor rejected it. Is red wine or white wine better? For me, someone who doesn’t drink alcohol, I have no opinion in my own mind nor have I stated that opinion because I simply have not thought about it.

Could there be a knee-jerk reaction to something or could one accept or reject something by default before exploring it? Sure — Brian Dunning did an episode of Skeptoid about this maybe a year or so ago that, to exist in normal society, we can’t be a skeptic about everything. For example, I take it for granted that the electromagnetic force making me a solid object will keep me in my car, and I and my car won’t fall through the road. I take it for granted that my alarm clock will go off when I tell it to, that the operating system on my phone will just keep working, and I could go on with a myriad of other examples.

On the other side, I’ve gotten all sorts of “outside the mainstream” feedback for my Exposing PseudoAstronomy “brand.” For example, I had a woman e-mail me earlier this year claiming that chemtrails are crazy conspiracy, but that she had proof in a photograph that a certain cloud formation was actually the angelic Host of Heaven coming forth to Earth. I ignored the e-mail.

In ignoring that e-mail, does that mean that that woman should think that I accepted her position? Absolutely not – it would be pretty crazy to interpret a non-response as an acceptance of someone’s position. Should she assume that I don’t agree with her because I did not respond? She might, and my knee-jerk reaction is to disagree with that kind of message, but in fairness, I did not investigate and so I opted not to form a formal opinion on the matter. Do I consider it unlikely? Of course. But formally, I have neither accepted nor rejected her claim.

The same goes for many other kinds of messages I get from other individuals, as well: While I appreciate feedback, though am always behind in responding, if you send me a claim that you believe in, my failure to respond indicates neither acceptance nor rejection of that claim. However, if that claim is one that I have already looked into and have copious writings on in the past – for example, a young-Earth creationist claim, or Planet X, or much of Richard Hoagland’s material – then one can look to that material and likely infer my response.

But, to interpret a lack of response as me accepting your position is dishonest and could be considered libelous, depending on how far you go.

October 18, 2017

Podcast Episode 166: Stellar Evolution, Age of the Universe, and Young-Earth Creationism

Star evolution,
Age of the universe, and

Young-Earth Creationism strikes again and this time misuses error bars to argue that GodDidIt. The episode covers a science paper that discussed the age of a very old star which was derived to be a bit older than the universe. But, add in the appropriate error bars, and potentially a correction to its color, and there’s absolutely no issue whatsoever. But, try telling that to a creationist with an agenda. There’s only a very brief singular additional segment in this episode.

M15 from HST

The dazzling stars in Messier 15 look fresh and new in this image from the NASA/Hubble Space Telescope, but they are actually all roughly 13 billion years old, making them some of the most ancient objects in the Universe. Unlike another recent Hubble Picture of the Week, which featured the unusually sparse cluster Palomar 1, Messier 15 is rich and bright despite its age. Messier 15 is a globular cluster — a spherical conglomeration of old stars that formed together from the same cloud of gas, found in the outer reaches of the Milky Way in a region known as the halo and orbiting the Galactic Centre. This globular lies about 35 000 light-years from the Earth, in the constellation of Pegasus (The Flying Horse). Messier 15 is one of the densest globulars known, with the vast majority of the cluster’s mass concentrated in the core. Astronomers think that particularly dense globulars, like this one, underwent a process called core collapse, in which gravitational interactions between stars led to many members of the cluster migrating towards the centre. Messier 15 is also the first globular cluster known to harbour a planetary nebula, and it is still one of only four globulars known to do so. The planetary nebula, called Pease 1, can be seen in this image as a small blue blob to the lower left of the globular’s core. This picture was put together from images taken with the Wide Field Channel of Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. Images through yellow/orange (F606W, coloured blue) and near-infrared (F814W, coloured red) filters were combined. The total exposure times were 535 s and 615 s respectively and the field of view is 3.4 arcminutes across.

October 1, 2017

Podcast Episode 165: Little Things in Space

True or near vacuum pressures,
Temperature in space.

A long-planned episode that gets back to the roots of ferreting out misconceptions (though three tied together): Little Things in Space!!! This episode, if you couldn’t get it from the haiku, covers the concept of microgravity, vacuum, and temperature (what does temperature mean if there’s nothing there to experience it?). There are no additional segments.



September 24, 2017

Podcast Episode 164: The World Didn’t End on September 23, 2017

Doomsday yet again!
The story of this one, though,
Has a surprise end.

A much shorter episode this time, announcing what you already know: We survived doomsday, again (yay!). But, the story of this particular doomsday claim may surprise you — it did me. But I could be wrong, so please let me know if you have additional information beyond what I found (listen to the episode for more of what I’m talking about).

Meanwhile, this is either a bonus episode or the episode for the second half of September. I haven’t decided yet because I’m not sure if I can get out another episode before the beginning of October. My 10-day vacation in Utah was great, but it requires a lot of catch-up at work.

There are no additional segments.

Gallifrey in the Skies of Earth (from Doctor Who episode S04E18)

Gallifrey in the Skies of Earth (from Doctor Who episode S04E18)

September 1, 2017

Podcast Episode 163: Modern Eclipse Lunacy, Part 1

Solar Eclipses:
Even in the modern day,
Lunacy exists.

Back and pumping out a 42-minute episode on some of the crazy surrounding the recent lunar eclipse, crazy that you’re not going to hear from other sources. This past eclipse on August 21, 2017, was perhaps one of the most-hyped and most-viewed solar eclipses in human history. As with any such mass-sighted event, pseudoscience is bound to rear its ugly head. In this episode, I address doom and gloom, earthquake predictions, astrologic predictions, Planet X predictions, and other topics related to the eclipse.

There’s one additional segment, and that’s about where I’ve been (literally).

Solar Eclipse from August 21, 2017 (©Stuart Robbins)

Solar Eclipse from August 21, 2017 (©Stuart Robbins)

May 29, 2017

Follow-Up on NASA Providing Open Access to All Its Funded Research

Open Access Banner

Open Access Banner

Last August (2016), I wrote a post about the recent announcement that NASA would be making available all research that it funded, for free. In the post, I wrote many reasons why I was in support of the concept of such an endeavor, but I had serious questions and potential issues with the implementation of it. Namely, we had zero information about the implementation.

Last week, I got an e-mail that seeks to clarify:

Dear Stuart Robbins,

As a NASA grant awardee, you have the option to submit your accepted manuscript(s) to NASA’s PubSpace repository. PubSpace is available from a collaboration between the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and NASA to allow wider access to the results of federally-funded research. For the grant listed below, you may deposit any peer-reviewed manuscripts describing work supported by NASA awards that were published or accepted for publication through the NIH Manuscript Submission (NIHMS) system. At this time, this is not a Term and Condition of the grant listed below; however, you may voluntarily submit any manuscripts that were a result of the funded research from this grant.

Grant Award Information:
Grant Number: █████
Proposal: █████
Technical Officer: █████
Technical Officer Email: █████

In order to complete this process, you will need to have an ORCID ID number. Your ORCID ID number is required to align your award information to you and to allow you to log into the NIHMS system. Please follow this link to create an ORCID ID or to log in with your current ORCID ID number.

You will need to allow NASA to have access to your ORCID record as a trusted third-party. To do this, confirm that the box is checked next to “Allow this permission until I revoke it.” When creating a new ORCID ID, once you have all the required fields filled out completely, click the “Authorize” button at the bottom of the screen. For those who already have an ORICD ID, once you log in your ORCID profile will be associated with NASA. This will take you to a landing page that will provide further information and details on the NIHMS system.

Please allow three business days from when you register your ORCID to login to the NIHMS system. We are asking for you to complete this process so that when you do have a manuscript you wish to deposit, you will be able to access all systems and have a more streamlined experience.

If you have any questions or concerns please contact the NASA Open Access Help Desk at nasa-researchaccess@mail.nasa.gov or call (757) 864-6736. You can also navigate to https://www.nasa.gov/open/researchaccess/frequently-asked-questions for additional information.


Michelle L. Chrzanowski
NASA Open Access Help Desk
(757) 864-6736 (OPEN)

So, we now have a system, apparently. I haven’t tried it, but I’ll be submitting my first paper based on the above redacted grant later this summer, so we’ll see how it works out as that progresses.

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