Exposing PseudoAstronomy

December 21, 2009

Logical Fallacies and Fallacious Arguing: Misrepresenting Quotes, or a Position


Following my week-long break from a 6-week series (so far) on logical fallacies, I’m going to again take a slight detour from the more formal logical fallacies and address a fallacious way of arguing a point, and that is the complete misrepresentation of a position.

What Do I Mean by the Misrepresentation?

I suppose at its core, this can be the same as quote-mining or the Straw Man or even misusing an Argument from Authority, and it can be used either to bolster or to denigrate a claim.

In effect, what I’m talking about here is when someone is trying to stake out a position (for or against something), they bring in an apparent authoritative argument or a piece of evidence, they may actually quote it properly with or without context, but then they simply misunderstand what it actually is saying.

How did I come up with this? From an episode of Coast to Coast AM that I was listening to …

Example from a Conspiratorial Standpoint, Thinking Scientists Are Holding Back Earth-Shattering Information

The context of this example is a person, Mitch Battros, an “Earth changes expert,” trying to link together the Yellowstone supervolcano, apparent Mayan prophecy, the current solar cycle (#24), and multiple universes leaking into ours.

The following is a direct quote from Mitch Battros during the fourth hour of the December 17, 2009, Coast to Coast AM radio show, starting at approximately 11 minutes into the hour:

In this article, [the scientists with the European Space Agency’s “Planck” satellite mission] say that they’re concerned about exposing too much information, that it would be overwhelming. I’ll quote: “To one’s surprise, there are astrophysicists and cosmologists who are concerned the Plank mission as well as other spacecraft will provide an overwhelming amount of data, setting new paradigms, and unsettling current models.” That goes back to Mayan prophecy. The galactic alignment.

Now, within the context of the show and everything that Battros spoke about, it’s fairly obvious that he at least is presenting this in the following way: Scientists think these missions will (a) Provide lots of new data that will make their “theories” certain to (b) set new paradigms that will (c) revolutionize the way we look at the universe. Within the context of the show and his very next sentence fragments, he seems to think that means that legitimate scientists will verify his ideas.

However, as an actual scientist who is likely more familiar with (1) the way that scientists write and think, (2) the way science operates, and even (3) some of the problems facing astronomy today, I have a different take on his quote.

My take is that, first, there is a real data problem in astronomy. For example, a single instrument on a single space craft (specifically, the HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft) is returning images from Mars at up to a few 10s of centimeters per pixel. Each image is generally around a gigabyte in size. The instrument has been in orbit for a few years and has taken thousands of images, comprising terabytes (TB) of data. If any of you are computer folks, you’ll know that at the consumer level, we’re just now (Dec. 2009) getting hard drives out that store up to 2 TB. Now, multiply that by about 6 for the number of instruments on that craft. Multiply that by a dozen or two for the number of spacecraft out there. Multiply that out many times to include gigapixel camera arrays on world-class ground-based telescopes.

With that in mind, the phrase that scientists “are concerned the Plank mission as well as other spacecraft will provide an overwhelming amount of data” takes on a much less sinister and conspiratorial mentality. Figuring out how to store the data and then how to retrieve (from searching) that data is a real problem these days.

Now let’s look at the next two parts – new data creating new paradigms and unsettling current models. Again – and I say “again” because I’ve said this many times in this blog – this is the whole point of science. With new, high-quality data when testing models of very cutting-edge physics, you are almost always going to cause a paradigm shift, be it simply being able to rule out one model from another (a paradigm shift) or having good, reproducible, high-quality data that does not fit with any of the current models, forcing them to be “unsettled” and for a new model to take its place.

Hence, by misrepresenting what someone likely meant, they have used a fallacious form of arguing — their premise or apparent evidence from that quote is useless as it does not actually mean what they think.

Final Thoughts

Unfortunately, this is a fairly common method of arguing AND it is difficult to identify if you do not actually know the field well. It is VERY often used by young-Earth creationists and Intelligent Design proponents (see my post on Casey Luskin’s ignorance about library books), but everyone can fall into the trap, whether knowingly (in which case it’s no longer a fallacy other than plain ol’ lying) or unknowingly.



  1. There’s another aspect of the data problem that’s particularly applicable to space telescopes/probes/satellites of all sorts — bandwidth. HST images can take quite awhile to make it down to the ground, and it’s in LEO where the available TDRS satellites are (relatively) abundant. JWST is having problems now figuring out how to sufficiently compress its data so that it can actually transmit back everything it takes, and it will be doing some parts of data reduction (e.g. bias subtraction) on-board in order to make the returned data easier to compress (and to reduce the number of images that it has to return). It wouldn’t take much for Planck’s instruments to overwhelm the available space-ground bandwidth.

    Comment by Brian York — December 22, 2009 @ 10:05 am | Reply

  2. […] Thomas, the ICR article’s author, goes on a quote-mining expedition for the next two paragraphs to try to show that radiometric dating was never an established […]

    Pingback by The Age of the Solar System Needs to Be Recalculated – Could Young-Earth Creationism Be Right?! « Exposing PseudoAstronomy — January 26, 2010 @ 12:02 pm | Reply

  3. It has recently come to my attention that oceans shark population since the release of “Sharkwater” has been fished down 90% of their population. Sagittarius a “man” holding a bow and arrow aligns in 2012 with Pices a fish. (Sharks are fish)Maybe all the Mayans saw was man killing fish on an “black road” the road to mankind’s demise is the destruction of our ocean. Maybe we knew from the beginning but greed, desire and want were too consuming to listen to our only doctrine. Do not kill, love one another, honor thy mother and father; The order of things and our ecosystem that contains us. I have done a lot of research on our planet since a child but after watching Rob Stewarts documentary, everything made sense. All humanity in some form or another was accurate that we all started in the same place and will all end up in the same place. That is because it is a proven FACT matter cannot be created or destroyed, only changed. In a nutshell humanity had everything it ever needed, everything works in cycles and is connected. Most importantly humanity as a whole had the answer from the beginning and we did nothing. A man seen killing fish in a toxic road way was the dark road to mankind’s’ demise witnessed every winter solstice for the past 1000 years.

    Constellations do not “align” with each other. First, it takes thousands of years to notice ANY movement of the stars relative to each other without anything other than very sensitive MODERN astronomical equipment (where “modern” is last ~100-150 years). Second, each star that resides in a constellation has its own relative motion compared with the other stars and over time the constellation will look completely different. They are not in any way, shape, nor form bound to each other and their only significance is that they appear to make a certain shape when viewed from Earth.

    Comment by astrostu206265 — April 23, 2010 @ 1:09 pm | Reply
    very intelligent point of view so i thought i add my response

    Yes exactly everything has its own cycle and its own system and through mathematics we can determine such things as weather, crops, tidal changes etc.
    I dont believe by any means the world is going to end due to some prophecy. However if sharks go extinct since their population has already been reucuded to estimated 10% of the population remaining. This means smaller fishs’ main predator that helps controll the fish poulation will no longer be balanced; become rampant and eat out their source of phytoplankton. Which produces 90% of the worlds oxygen.If we no longer have oxygen I’m pretty sure we’ll die.

    Comment by Julie McKay — April 23, 2010 @ 2:30 pm | Reply

  4. “everything works in cycles” I suspect that this is what the Mayans (and the biblical ‘apocalypse’) and most of the other world religions/philosophies worked out.

    Comment by Dave — April 27, 2010 @ 3:38 am | Reply

  5. Thank you for agrreing with me dave. This is something im trying to figure out how to explain, that we all had the same source of information that we came from the same source of energy and would return to the same source, a fringe theory im working on relates to the human brain which I believe we’ve already proven. Energy can neither be created nor destroyed. Matter can go from matter to energy, witness the atomic bomb. In theory one might say since the human brain functions on electromagnetic fields which can be proven by eeg and meg there is a link that could suggest that electromagnetic field meters in theory are picking up signals of the sum of both the magnetic and electric states that was the brain ie. ghost or spirit.
    I think society has become corrupt angry and scared and we need to kiss and make up. We were all right and wrong adn while we still have time we need to figure out a solution to save our ecosystem while we have a chance.

    Comment by Julie McKay — April 27, 2010 @ 1:58 pm | Reply

  6. Julie

    You are on the right lines more than you know. Yes the human mind works on electromagnetism. We are in an electro-magnetic field. The ‘scared and angry’ comes from the mind not the spirit. The magnetic field is cyclical. Go from there.

    Comment by Dave — April 28, 2010 @ 3:52 am | Reply

  7. Astrostu

    It’s not planetary or galactic alignments that are important it’s planetary configurations. Go to http://www.formilab.ch for the solar system simulator and put in march 28 2012 or june 10 2012. You will know more than I how frequent or rare these configurations are.

    Comment by Dave — April 28, 2010 @ 4:25 am | Reply

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