Exposing PseudoAstronomy

August 23, 2016

Yeah … So, About NASA Saying All Research Funded By It Will Be Online, Free …


Intro

This story has been making the round quite a bit over the last five days. You can find it on various news sites, but here’s the actual press release: NASA Unveils New Public Web Portal for Research Results

Seems great, right? All federally funded research results will be made available for free. As I think it should be. The problem is that this press release is not only short on details, it lacks any and all details for those of us who carry out that research. Before getting to what I mean here, I need to give you five pieces of background information.

Background

1) I, personally, am an outlier in my field where I believe that not only the results, but the raw data that most people normally would not release should be made available to anyone who asks. I’ve posted about this before on this blog. I also have a very strong track record of doing so, so I don’t just “talk the talk” on this issue. So, as you read this, don’t think that I’m against the new policy.

2) As of 2013, the US Executive Branch’s OMB (Office of Management and Budget) directed all federal agencies to make the research they fund publicly accessible, for free. As in, the public has already paid for it once, they shouldn’t have to pay for it twice. So any policy like this is not just magnanimous of a particular federal agency, it’s been mandated by the Office of the President.

3) As of 2015, NASA started to comply with this in terms of data gathered, computer code written, and other things that researchers do to get the results that they publish. All of that stuff has to be released. And you have to detail how this will be done and how you comply with the mandate in what is called a “Data Management Plan” (DMP). In 2016, instead of this being a paragraph on the cover sheet of your proposal, it’s now a 2-page requirement except for some specific programs. I just applied to one and here’s my DMP so you can see what it’s like:

After the database is complete and validated, it will be released to the community in six formats on four distribution sites: (1) The PDS’s Imaging and Cartography Node in PDS4 format; (2) Lunaserv as a layer file which will make it available to any WMS-enabled software (e.g., JMARS, ArcGIS); (3) JMoon/JMARS in their own layer file format; (4) and on the PI’s own established website (http://craters.sjrdesign.net) as a searchable form and in PDS4, CSV ASCII, and GIS shapefile. Finally, there will be one peer-reviewed publication “announcing” the database, describing what it contains, and how it was built for referencing and to further publicize the database. Letters of support for the first three are included in this proposal.

These fit the PDART requirement for archiving independence, sustainability, open availability, searchability, citability, standards-compliant for the sub-field (preeminence), and standard format (standardization), for we are including the default PDS as our primary distribution. The additional venues and formats increase the availability to the community. Because the only code we will use are generic algorithms not developed under PDART, the code will not be archived (verified with PDART program officer, Sarah Noble, June 27, 2016), but it will be described in our publication.

4) NASA is already one of the most open federal agencies about their data. All spacecraft data is made available, for free, PDS. It might be a bit difficult to navigate, but there is literally terabytes of data there, all for free, for you to download and work with. I rely on it for most of my research.

5) Other fields and federal agencies already do what the latest NASA press release says, and it’s been in place for a long time. The issue in part is that journals we publish in have monopolies on the field, and they charge us to publish and then you to read. Win-win for them. The NIH (National Institutes of Health) have a policy that all research papers have to be made available, for free, to the public, through “PubMed,” but they let the journals have a one-year proprietary period.

Implementation?

With that all said and out of the way, what the heck does this latest press release mean?! The scientists (like me) have not had any clarification or any information about this. Does this mean NASA has worked out a deal (like the NIH has) with journals? Do I need to remember 1+ year after publication to submit to NASA’s website for this, or will it be done automatically? Does this only apply to new grants (since it’s not in my contract with NASA to do it for ones that I already have funded)? Will it apply retroactively? What about past research that’s been published for decades? Does this require the “Open Access” publication option for journals, which can cost upwards of $3000 that I need to include in my budgets?

And, why does NASA’s portal for this go through the NIH?!?! (the website they link to for this is https://www.nihms.nih.gov/db/sub.cgi)

And those are just the questions I thought of within a few minutes of reading the press release.

So, let me repeat, so that there is no ambiguity here: I’m all for this. I don’t like that the journals have a monopoly and it’s pay to publish and pay to read and legally I can’t even give you a PDF copy of the paper I wrote but published with them. I also think that all the data we generate should be made public, and the public should have access to the results.

But, this is like a … scratch that, it pretty much IS a mandate by press release with no information on to what it applies, to whom it applies, nor how it applies. Until then, that’s really all this is: A press release.

August 18, 2016

Has Yahoo! Finally Hit Rock Bottom, with Horoscopes in its Science Feed?


Jerry Coyne reports today that Yahoo!’s science news feed is reporting on astrology. Not that it’s Taurus excrement, but an article with the headline, “Tonight’s full moon and upcoming lunar eclipse are going to bring about some CHANGE” is full of astrological bull crap.

Not only that, but the picture they use is of an annular solar eclipse. Notice that a “solar eclipse” does not equal a “lunar eclipse.” An annular solar eclipse is when the moon is near apogee (farthest point from Earth) so it appears smaller than the sun’s disk and therefore cannot completely cover it, leaving a ring of solar illumination around it.

Not only that, but the “eclipse” this month is not a lunar eclipse at all, and the one next month is a penumbral eclipse — unless you have a camera and are very carefully looking at the brightness, you will not notice any change.

Fortunately, the vast majority of the 250+ comments (as of the time of this writing) take Yahoo! to task over this.

Though I will let an astrologer have the last word. To the currently highest-rated comment, by “Tia” with 104 up-votes and two down-votes, and 15 replies, “gypsyshookar” (which I originally read as “gypsyhooker”) wrote:

“While I agree with you, as a very experienced and certified astrologer, we have it on our own authority that this qualifies astrologically as an eclipse with eclipse effects. However, it is NOT astronomy which focuses mainly on the observable physical phenomena of rocks in space. Astrology, on the other hand, is based on the observable correlation of life and events on Earth with the placement of the planets. FYI, astronomy is based on the earlier astrology and not the other way around. And before you pooh-pooh astrology, I suggest you take a course in it from an accredited astrologer such as myself, whose name is followed by something like BA,MCL, or better yet PhD. When scorned by a colleague for his belief in astrology, Sir Isaac Newton replied: “I have studied it, Sir. You have NOT.””

August 4, 2016

Face on Mars, Face on Hawaii – Pareidolia is Real, Get Over It


News this week that hasn’t been political has included information about Hawaii’s volcanoes finally spilling lava into the ocean again, for the first time in several years. And, a video of one of the calderas has been making the rounds, uploaded to Vimeo and shot by Mick Kalber.

Volcano in Hawaii, USA, Showing a Smiling Paredolia (Mick Kalber)

Volcano in Hawaii, USA, Showing a Smiling Paredolia (Mick Kalber)

One of the main ways this has become viral is pareidolia at work, with headlines such as “Hawaiian Volcano Smiles at Photographer” and such other whimsical things.

Obviously, the volcano, caldera, and lava are not smiling. It’s the human brain trying to make a familiar pattern out of randomness. Which it very happily does. Visually, it’s generic pareidolia. If it were audio noise and you thought you heard something (the ghost hunter’s infamous “EVP” or Electronic Voice Phenomenon), that would be audio pareidolia.

Everyone does it. And yet, there are still some noted pseudoscientists have consistently refused to believe that it’s real. After all, almost their entire repertoire of claims would be blasted away if they admitted that a bit of the right shade here and a bit of the right shade there and something random will appear to be something familiar.

The phenomenon of pareidolia is real. Get over it.

July 22, 2016

For Fun, Some Numerology About NASA, Courtesy of Richard Hoagland


I’ve mentioned before that Richard Hoagland’s claims can really be broken down in to four main categories: Numerology, Conspiracy, Pareidolia, and Shoddy Image Analysis.

In this post, I’m going to give you a small taste of the first one so that you can see just how silly it really is. This comes from his radio program from the morning of July 20, where he was discussing the anniversary of NASA’s Viking 1 lander on Mars, approximately 17 minutes into the broadcast (commercials removed):

… the 40th anniversary of the Viking mission, and the 47th anniversary of Apollo 11. And if you think NASA doesn’t do things ritualistically, 47, of course, is part of 19.47, and 40 is 1 more than 39; it’s canonically 40, you know, Old and New Testament, so the numbers, the numerology of NASA is well in operation because, obviously, it was not accidental that Viking was landed on the exact same anniversary date, July 20, as Apollo 11.

Let’s get the only factual statement about NASA out of the way in the above: Yes, NASA does like anniversaries, and it does like major US holidays. So does everyone. It’s a dream from public outreach’s point of view. That’s not unique to NASA. Moving on …

For the above to make any sense, you must realize that Richard loves the number 19.5 because it fits into his magical worldview. It’s really 19.47… (extra numbers after it), but he often rounds to 19.5.

So, what he’s done is removed the whole “19” part to claim that “47” is part of his system of numerology, therefore this particular anniversary of Apollo 11 is important. Of course, this makes absolutely no sense; it’s like me saying that I’m 25 years old, but I’m going to remove the “2” because the “5” lines up with how many knocks I do on a door, therefore 5 is important and syncs up with my age. It’s just stupid.

For “39,” you multiply 19.5 (remember, we rounded) by 2 to get 39. But to get the number to make any sense in Richard’s convoluted system, he had to add 1 because this is the 40th anniversary of Viking.

Now, granted, if you make up an entire numerological system and claim it’s significant, I suppose it may not be entirely fair for me to argue that he’s added yet another ad hoc rule to get to the numbers he wants. Why he didn’t say that the Apollo mission, 11, shows that “1” is important, evidenced by the repetition of the number “1” in it, therefore you can take the “1” from Apollo 11 and subtract it from the anniversary of Viking 1 (another 1!!!), which is 40-1, and you get 39. That makes much more sense than Richard’s ad hoc reason to subtract 1.

This isn’t the first time Richard has done this, though. Some of you may remember his infamous numerology of Comet Elenin in 2011 that proved by 1 in 46.5 BILLION chances that it wasn’t a spaceship.

If it weren’t so sad that people actually believe him, it’d be funny.

June 5, 2016

Astounding Evidence that Creationism Is a “Science Stopper” – Click Here to Find Out How, with Pluto and Friends!


Okay, so I’m not great at the click-bait headlines.

I was glancing through some of the young-Earth Creationist mainstream sites, as I do with some regularity, and I came across the Institute for Creation Research’s “Looking Back at Pluto” by Jason Lisle. Being involved with New Horizons (though this blog is completely separate from that work/employment), and given that Dr. Lisle graduated from the same school and program I did (but a summer before I got there), I had to click.

Jason goes through some of the interesting things we found at Pluto. In particular, he highlights: (1) The craterless (as far as we can tell) Sputnik Planum area (which he mistakes for Tombaugh Regio), (2) the polygonal terrain in Sputnik Planum that is likely due to convection, (3) giant ice mountains and cliffs and canyons, (4) potential cryovolcanoes, (5) dark red area at Charon’s north pole, and (6) some of its small satellites spin really fast.

For Realz scientists are studying these features, developing hypotheses to explain them, and testing those in the lab and/or with the data returned by New Horizons. And some of them just aren’t mysteries at all because Jason hasn’t done his homework.

For example, for point (1), going in we expected that Pluto may be devoid of many craters because its surface is constantly sublimating (turning from ice to gas) as material gets transported around the body from the summer pole to the winter pole. (Pluto, like Uranus, is tilted on its side so right now the north pole is in constant sunlight.) Jason also said that having the encounter hemisphere be the bright “heart” was “by providence,” but it was specifically planned years in advance based on the (now primitive) maps we had from the Hubble Space Telescope — that area displayed the largest ranges of brightness, so it was the area we wanted to see up-close the most. It’s not providence, it was planning exactly the way you would when doing Real Science.

Another example is point (6), where yes, we would expect satellites to not rotate really fast because tidal effects should slow down the spin rates over long periods of time. If I can replace gravity for magnetism for a moment, imagine holding a strong magnet in place, and several inches away have a bar magnet that is on a post that it can spin freely around but it can’t get closer to or farther from the magnet you’re holding. Spin the bar magnet. It’s going to slow its spin pretty quickly to align with the one you’re holding. That’s kinda sorta how moons tidally lock and slow their spin except the force is gravity rather than magnets.

Anyway, at least one of the moons spins on its axis, fully, in about half a day. Is it young? Maybe possibly but unlikely … but that particular moon also has giant craters on it, so it’s just – if not more – likely that it recently (as in within the last few million years) got whacked by a large piece of debris that simply spun it up, increasing its rotation rate.

I can’t discuss papers that have been submitted by other authors on the team, but there are very plausible, natural explanations for several of the other features Jason lists, that are currently undergoing peer review, with conclusions based upon the available evidence.

As for the attempt at click-bait title? Here’s how Jason ends his article:

These are perplexing problems for secular formation scenarios. However, Christians delight in seeing the Lord’s creativity continually revealed.

In other words, his brand of Christians just STOP at the observation, attribute it to their god, and move on. How is that not a science stopper?

May 2, 2016

On the (In)Ability of Scientists to Give Good Public Talks


When I was an undergraduate student at Case Western Reserve University, the now-more-famous physicist Lawrence Krauss was head of the Physics department. Somehow, he managed to arrange a panel of about six Nobel Prize Winners (probably in physics) to give a panel discussion. I don’t even remember the topic.

What I do remember was my expectation going in and my reality coming out.

My expectation going in was extreme excitement, getting to sit in an auditorium and listen to these men (sorry ladies, it was all men) who pretty much literally had done the research that was recognized as being ground-breaking and reached the top of their field.

I came out thinking that it sucked.

Not a-one of those guys could give a coherent discussion or answer to questions, or do it in a way that was engaging to us in the audience. It was horribly disappointing. (And if one or two of them could, unfortunately that memory has been erased by those who could not.)

Right now, I’m listening to a radio program from April 08 where Will Farrar and Richard Hoagland discussed – in particular to this post – a talk that Chris Russell gave a talk during Space Science Week in Washington, D.C., just a day or so earlier.

Dr. Chris Russell is the PI (the head science-and-everything-else guy) in charge of NASA’s Dawn mission to Vesta and Ceres.

In particular, Will remarked that he was unimpressed with Dr. Russell’s talk, that practically every-other-word was “um” or “uh,” and he was not alone in thinking this. Richard Hoagland posited that this was because he was choosing his words carefully — in effect, to make sure he wouldn’t be giving away any of the NASA secrets like city ruins on these bodies.

Or, Dr. Russell just isn’t a good public speaker. And I’ll say it: I have been to two lectures that Dr. Russell has given. I would not elect to go to a third. What Will noticed is par for the course, in my experience, for Dr. Russell’s talks.

I’m reminded of a saying that we like to use in skepticism: Don’t attribute to conspiracy what can easily be contributed to incompetence. (One of the examples most often used is the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the US illustrating government incompetence rather than a ridiculously high level of competence to carry out such a coordinated, secret attack.)

I’m not saying that Dr. Russell is incompetent – far from it, for he is a wildly successful scientist – but a good, engaging public speaker, he is not. It has nothing to do with a vast conspiracy to hide The Truth, it’s just that public speaking is a completely different skill set from being able to do good science, and not every scientist is a good public speaker.

April 30, 2016

My Interview on “The Space Show” from Friday, April 29, 2016, Now Archived


Here’s the permanent link for the interview.

We discussed a very wide range of topics related to planetary astronomy and some other astronomy, and there was one caller. From the Higgs field, to Pluto and New Horizons, and craters on the moon to other space exploration.

Perhaps otherwise, it’s easiest just to copy the e-mail that the host, David Livingston, e-mailed me:

1. http://www.thespaceshow.com. You can find your program in the Recent Show section. Right now your show is currently the first one listed but it will move down a space with each show added.

2. The Space Show blog for listener and guest comments has been integrated with The Space Show archive for your show. Here, listeners can ask questions and post comments both during the live interview as well as on the archived program. As the guest, you can do the same. If there are interesting posts on the blog/comment section of the archives, I will be sure to call them to your attention. Your program will move down a line with each new program that is archived. Please note that one must have either a free Disqus account or access comments through one of their social media accounts as we do not permit anonymous posts.

3. The program is now podcasting.

4. Finally, the permanent URL on our website for your program for linking, quoting, etc. is: http://www.thespaceshow.com/show/29-apr-2016/broadcast-2692-dr.-stuart-robbins. Do not upload full audio or video shows to any website including YouTube & your own sites but you are certainly free to link the Space Show program on space relevant sites.

April 28, 2016

Interview Tomorrow: The Space Show

Filed under: astronomy,interview,skepticism — Stuart Robbins @ 5:23 pm
Tags: , , , ,

Tomorrow (morning, US time), I will be the guest on The Space Show. It’s my second appearance.

This is a live radio program and it is a call-in program. An agenda / line of questions has not been set; if I had to guess it’ll start out with (besides the introduction), a, “What have you been up to since we last spoke in mid-September?”

The program is 9:30-11:00AM, PDT. Here’s the link to listen live.

March 15, 2016

Neat Animation of Moon’s North Pole with LASER Altimetry – And Artifacts


I’ll be attending a µSymposium before the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference this coming weekend, and I just got a reminder e-mail today. Included in that e-mail was a link to an animation that shows Shackleton crater, a crater that is ON the moon’s north pole. As such, its interior is in permanent shadow.

BUT!! The Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter instrument (LOLA) on the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) has plenty of data that allow it to be viewed: Click Me!.

I find this very neat — until the last decade, we could never see stuff in permanent shadow because we didn’t have the instrumentation. LOLA and LROC have allowed us to do that. And there are thousands of craters in permanent shadow on the moon that may hide water (which is what I’ll be presenting at the µSymposium).

For reference, the north pole of the moon is just about smack dab at the 10:30 position on the large crater’s rim. Just inside the rim, along a line from that small crater just outside the rim to the center of the crater.

But for pseudoscience, you may also notice that there are some artifacts in the data. There are radial streaks from the center of the frame (usually). There’s a prominent one diagonally from upper right to lower left on the upper wall of Shackleton itself. Others are more prominent towards the edges of the animation.

These are not lunar roads nor subways nor trollies nor anything else made by an ancient civilization. They are artifacts in the data itself. LOLA is very well calibrated, and the “average” (root-mean-square) uncertainty is under 5 meters in elevation data. But some tracks (orbits) are a bit off. And since LOLA is fundamentally measuring the time it takes light to bounce off the surface from a laser beam from the craft, it needs to know exactly where the craft was to get an accurate surface elevation.

And some are off by a bit. These manifest in this kind of product as ridges or troughs that are perfectly in a straight line, along the line of the orbital track. It’s something that scientists who use these data see and ignore because we know exactly what they are. But pseudoscientists will look at line artifacts like this, or at image seems in a mosaic, and claim things like they are artificial tram lines.

March 14, 2016

“They Hate or Fear Me” — The Refrain of the Pseudoscientist


I like to argue. I was never on a debate team, but I would get worked up over things whilst growing up, in college, or graduate school over which I had no control nor power to affect. A common refrain of my father’s, in response to that was, “Harbor your emotional energies.”

Fear and hatred are powerful emotions. As soon as you use observe them in conversation, it colors the entire tone. Just the use of the terms affect your own emotions.

Emotion is also a much easier response than logical thinking. It comes from a more basic, instinctual part of the human brain than conscious thought. Rather than try to address an argument or claim with thought, it’s simply easier to say that the person making that claim hates or fears you, immediately appealing to your audience’s own more instinctual level of lack-of-thought.

That, I think, is part of why we often see that from pseudoscientists when skeptics address their claims. I saw it a lot from Mike Bara back in the lunar ziggurat days almost four years ago (see this blog post where I address the issue of manufactured “hate”). I continue to see it in other areas, such as manufactured fear by anti-GMO or anti-vaccine proponents, appealing to the emotion of fear rather than a logical argument for their position.

And tonight, Ken Ham over at Answers In Genesis (AiG) which is building a claimed replica of Noah’s Ark in Kentucky, USA, has created a new term: Arkophobia.

I really don’t want to link to AiG, so I won’t. But the thrust of the post is this:

The bottom line with the secularist opposition? Arkophobia is so widespread because “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). Secularists are in rebellion against their Creator. The fact that He has the right to tell them, through His Word, what is right (e.g., marriage is one man for one woman) and what is wrong (e.g., abortion is murder) angers them.

Secularists oppose the Ark because they are afraid of the Ark’s goal: to proclaim the everlasting gospel.

That’s right: Ham is claiming that people who are against him building this ark are against him because they hate him.

It’s so much easier than really answering why they spend millions of dollars on a theme park rather than give it to the poor, or answer legitimate questions about potential fraud in trying to get tax incentives.

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