Exposing PseudoAstronomy

March 28, 2010

When Encyclopedias Are Bad: A Closer Look at Conservapedia – “Mars”


Last week, I wrote an article about how Conservapedia calls “black holes” and “dark matter” “liberal pseudoscience” in a very “huh?” moment. It still is confusing to me why they would waste mental energy on calling those things “liberal pseudoscience.” But I digress.

I thought I might take a closer look at some of their actual astronomy articles. Since I’ve been studying Mars for the last 4 years fairly in-depth, looking at their article on Mars seemed like a natural article to take a peek at.

I found what I expected – creationism and “problems for evolutionists” – but I also found what I didn’t expect – gross errors in information and zero references to back up most of what was stated.

The Good

I’ll start out by showing that I’m not completely out to “diss” Conservapedia. Their article has some good things. It correctly states that Mars is the 4th planet from the sun, for example. It gives the interesting factoid that researchers with missions on the planet will often adopt a “Mars day” work schedule that’s about a 25-hr day (as opposed to Earth’s 24-hr day). It talks correctly about what causes seasons on Mars. It even (mostly) correctly discusses the whole “face on Mars” issue.

The “Eh, That’s Wrong, But It’s Minor”

Let’s first deal with some assertions. Specifically, near the beginning, it states that Mars’ 26-month synodic period makes it a “particularly difficult object to explore, [sic]because opportunities to launch a rocket probe to Mars occur so far apart in time.” Rather, Mars is pretty much the easiest planet or planet-like object to get to by spacecraft, except for our moon. It’s close by, there’s NO WAY that the world’s space programs are funded enough to make craft to visit the planet more often than every ~1.5-2 years, and we can actually land on it and survive as opposed to the actual closest planet to us – Venus.

Towards the end, it discusses exploration of Mars. It states, “Mars has been the subject of more attempts to explore it, and more failures, than any other planet.” This is wrong. To-date, at least based on NASA’s Chronology of Venus Exploration and Chronology of Mars Exploration, Mars has had 40 missions, while Venus 43. Minor, but still a mistake.

Under their “Young Mars Creation Model” (see below for more on that), it states, “Discoveries by the Mars Excursion Rover Opportunity have led …” Unfortunately for Conservapedia, The MER craft acronym stands for, “Mars Exploration Rover,” not “Excursion.” Minor, but slightly humorous.

The Bad

Note: This section will not address the creationist stuff, look to the next for that.

I was reading through the page and the biggest thing to stand out was the following two paragraphs:

“Mars contains the largest of three major geologic features in the Solar System. The largest impact basin, the largest volcanoes and the largest canyon are all found on Mars and in a clear relationship to each other. This relationship provides the key to understanding Martian geology.

“Mars’ largest impact basin is called Hellas. As shown in the topography map, on exactly the other side of Mars from Hellas is Mount Alba Patera, the largest volcano by surface area. This antipodal juxtaposition suggests that the Hellas impact caused the eruptions of Alba Patera and the volcanoes of the Tharsis plateau to the south and southwest. To the east is found the gigantic rift valley called Valles Marineris.”

Alright, there are a few things here. First, a very minor one. “Alba Patera” is the name of the volcano, not “Mount Alba Patera.” When features were originally assigned names when we got the first good images back from spacecraft, “Mons” (singular) / “Montes” (plural) were given to very large and obvious mountains, “Patera” (singular) / “Paterae” (plural) were assigned to very large, irregularly shaped features, and “Tholus” (singular) / “Tholi” (plural) were assigned to “small” mountains or hills. Nothing has two designations. And later imagery revealed some of the montes, paterae, and tholi were volcanoes.

Moving on, I don’t want to concentrate on the whole Alba Patera is antipodal to Hellas Basin. Suffice to say, the ages don’t really work out. It’s possible, but it is no way a given that this is the case.

Rather, I want to focus on the other information given on Hellas: According to this article, Hellas Basin is the largest crater on Mars, and it’s the largest crater in the solar system. Wow.

In a word: NO.

First off, let’s put some numbers down. Hellas Basin< is very roughly 2200 km across and about 9 km deep (it’s difficult to measure the diameter because no one actually knows where the rim is, so you have different people making different estimates). For comparison, that’s just friggin’ big. It’s well over half the size of the United States.

But it’s not the biggest in the solar system, and it’s not even Mars’ largest.

Check out Utopia Planitia on Mars. It’s pretty much due north of Hellas, and it pre-dates Hellas by roughly 400 million years. It is also roughly 50% larger than Hellas, having a diameter of about 3300 km and being about 4-5 km deep on present-day Mars. Now that’s big. But to be fair, I suppose that Conservapedia’s article can be saved if we say that by “biggest” they mean “deepest.” Oh, and if you want to play around on Mars, looking at various features, I highly recommend Google Mars.

Anyway, Utopia is by far the largest impact basin on Mars. Or is it? The largest topographic feature on Mars is its crustal dichotomy – the north is low and flat and young (at least its visible surface), while the south is high and hilly and old. Again, check out Google Mars and zoom out. There have been many, many explanations proposed for this dichotomy, but the latest one to be shown to be viable is that of a really really big impact, very early in Mars’ history. Being a guy who studies craters, I like this idea, but I do think it has awhile to be shown somewhat conclusively. In this case, it is possible that even Utopia is just second place to an impact “basin” that covers nearly half the planet.

Moving on, though, we have the moon. Discovered on the lunar far side about 50 years ago resides the South Pole-Aitken Basin. This thing is also big. It’s about 2300 km in diameter – so bigger across than Hellas but not Utopia – but a whopping 13 km deep. So now, our goal of saving Conservapedia’s article by saying “biggest” means “deepest” doesn’t work, either. Oh, and there’s also Google Moon to have fun with.

The Creationist Take

In any normal article talking about Mars, I don’t think anyone would expect sections about young-Earth creationism. But, *gasp*, Conservapedia does.

It first shows up in the discussion about Mars’ magnetic field. There is none. There are pockets of crustal magnetism that locally are stronger than Earth’s, but there is no global magnetic field. In the section on Mars’ “magnetosphere,” it directly refers to Russell Humphreys, who is a creationist whose ideas I’ve discussed on this blog before.

It next comes up in the entire section on, “Problems for Uniformitarian Theories” (that’s code for old-Earth) that talks again about Mars’ magnetic field. Except, rather, it talks more about how Mercury’s magnetic field is an open question for astronomers rather than Mars’.

Finally, we get to the entire section, “Young Mars Creation Model.” I’m not entirely certain how anything that they discuss in the section actually supports their conclusion of: “This shows that, like Earth, Mars has evidence that it is only a few thousands of years old and not 4.6 billion years old.”

It does state, “The dating of [Hellas basin formation triggering Alba Patera’s volcanism] from craters places it at about the time of the Great Flood on Earth.” Of course, this is completely uncited. But being someone who actually studies craters on Mars and has the largest database of said craters in existence, I can unequivocally state that the craters on Mars’ present-day surface show it to be ancient – over 4 billion years old.

Final Thoughts

Perhaps I’m being unfair. After all, the editor of the page that put up the bulk of the information I talked about has no background in astronomy. Rather, he’s in charge of Conservapedia’s attempt to re-write the Bible. And in the spirit of Wikis, perhaps I should attempt to edit the page myself to make the corrections (fat chance …).

But rather, I think this serves as an example of two things. First, it’s another example of how Conservapedia should not by any stretch of the imagination be considered a good source for scientific information.

Second, it shows that encyclopedias in general should not be taken as gospel. Students should not use them as their source material. They may use them as a starting point, but they need to look at the references, evaluate them, and in the end find actual original source material.

March 24, 2010

Planet X and 2012: Young-Earth Creationists Actually Can Do Real Science Reporting


This post is brought to you by the letters, “A-G-E-N-D-A.” That’s really the key word here, “agenda,” to keep in the back of your mind as you read this post. I’ll tie it back to that word at the end.

For those of you who don’t know or haven’t figured it out, every day I look at the headlines from three Young-Earth Creationist (YEC) websites – Answers in Genesis, Institute for Creation Research, and Creation.com. I do this to see if they mention astronomy, geology, or physics, to get ideas for potential blog posts since they will normally skew the information or leave out important parts to fit their worldview.

This time, however, the Institute for Creation Research and it’s “science” writer, Brian Thomas (who I have lambasted profusely on this blog before) had no agenda in terms of trying to get science to fit into the literal biblical worldview. Rather, for once, we faced a common foe: 2012 Doomsday proponents.

The Christian Bible and Revelation

From everything I have heard, a consistent theme that many Bible proponents/scholars/etc. have is that it is very clear that we will know neither the time nor the day in advance of Armageddon. From an outside position evaluating this in the same way I evaluate other predictions, that’s one of the most intelligent things the Bible could do that many of today’s alleged psychics still haven’t figured out — be vague and do not make specific predictions that could later be proven false. Saying that you can’t know ahead of time when something is going to happen ensures that you are never wrong.

Yet throughout time, nearly every generation has thought it’s lived in the End of Days, whether that be from the Christian Bible’s book of Revelation, some vague cosmic event, the Jewish Bible’s various predictions, Nostradamus’ quatrains, etc.

2012 “Earth Changes”

I have written extensively about the idea that Earth’s rotational axis is going to shift in 2012, and I’m not going to get into that here. Suffice to say, one of the lines of “evidence” that proponents of this idea point to is an increasing number of earthquakes that are reported each year.

Indeed, though, this has come to pass! In 1990, there were 16,590 earthquakes around the world. Nearly every year since then, the number has been increasing! In 1995, there were 21,007. In 2000, there were 22,256. In 2005, there were 30,478 …


(Sorry for the bold/italic/caps/color … I was trying to do what the doomsday websites do.)

Enter the Institute for Creation Research

As Brian Thomas writes in, “More Earthquake Data Does Not Mean More Earthquakes:”

On the surface, earthquake data compiled by the United States Geological Survey appear to show a sharp increase in the number of earthquakes in recent decades. … However, the increased number of recorded quakes does not correspond with an increase in seismic activity. Rather, it is due to the proliferation of seismometers deployed worldwide over the last few decades. A USGS fact sheet reminds readers that “as more and more seismographs are installed in the world, more earthquakes can be and have been located.”

Exactly! Very large earthquakes, such as those of magnitude 6 or 7 and larger, are hard to miss even when they’re over 100 km away. Hence, you do not need a dense network of seismometers to pick them up. Smaller earthquakes – because they release less energy – are not felt over nearly as large a distance. The consequence? If you don’t have a seismometer nearby, you can’t detect it.

So we have a hypothesis: As the density of seismometers increases over the world, we would expect to see an increase in the number of earthquakes recorded/detected that are small.

We have a way to differentiate this from a general increase in earthquakes: If this is due to an actual increase in the number of earthquakes on the planet, then we should see a uniform increase in number across all energy levels (magnitudes).

Let’s look at some of the data (from the above links, graphed by me):

USGS Earthquake Data from 1995-2008, Magnitude 7.0-7.9

USGS Earthquake Data from 1995-2008, Magnitude 7.0-7.9, Error Bars are Counting Statistics

USGS Earthquake Data from 1995-2008, Magnitude 4.0-4.9

USGS Earthquake Data from 1995-2008, Magnitude 4.0-4.9, Error Bars are Counting Statistics

The data clearly show that, yes we do see an increase in the number of small earthquakes, but the number of earthquakes that are magnitude 6 and larger are constant. Note that the error bars are purely due to counting statistics and do not take into account the density of the seismometer network.

Hypothesis that it’s due to better data recording – supported.

Hypothesis that it’s due to increasing earth activity in preparation for a pole shift – falsified.

In addition, as the world’s population increases and cities become more densely populated, the more people will be affected by any given earthquake. Hence, the number of injuries, deaths, and property damage will also be expected to rise, completely independently of any increase in the actual number of earthquakes.

Final Thoughts

The crux of this post was about earthquake data. But this was presented against the backdrop of an agenda. I have shown many times that Brian Thomas will not hesitate to bend the actual science to fit his YEC views (such as here, here, here, here, or here). I’ve no doubt that if the New Testament stated that the end of the world was in 2012 that Thomas would completely ignore the actual reason behind more earthquakes detected per year, as the other 2012-doomsdayers do (like Brent Miller does here).

But Thomas’ agenda seems clearly to uphold the Bible. And the Bible says that we won’t know the time nor place, hence biblical literalists are against the 2012 doomsdayers. That’s part of the agenda of Thomas’ article, and in this case, at least, I have found common ground with him.

March 22, 2010

Conservapedia Calls Black Holes and Dark Matter “Liberal Pseudoscience”


I’ve yet to really do any post that has anything to do with politics, as that’s usually not relevant to astronomy (one would hope …). Alas, I have found a case where it is: The bastion of knowledge, Conservapedia.

What’s Conservapedia?

For those few of you who may not know, Conservapedia is a reaction to what was and is perceived by some to be a “liberal bias” in the omnipresent Wikipedia. For more information on that, you can view Conservapedia’s entry on “Bias in Wikipedia”. Among issues it cites are: “Wikipedia’s article on engineering features a photo of … an offshore wind turbine, which is an inefficient liberal boondoggle and certainly not a representative example of engineering. None even exist off the shores of the United States because they are not competitive.”

That may give you an idea of what Conservapedia is about. Additionally, almost all of their “science” articles contain large amounts of space devoted to the Creationist perspective, and they recently began a project to re-write the Bible in order to remove what they see as liberal biases in it. If you really need more examples, take a look at their entries on evolution, abortion, homosexuality, and Barack Obama. I choose not to hot-link these on purpose.

“Liberal Pseudoscience”

It may not be surprising to readers of this blog, but some fundamentalist, literal-Bible believers have some issues with the conclusions of modern science. That’s not the point of this post — I’ve been told I ramble somewhat, so let’s get straight to the point: Conservapedia lists Dark Matter and Black Holes as “Liberal Pseudoscience.” For some reason, it lists these along side “Moral Relativism” and “Wormholes” in its “Liberal Pseudoscience” category under the Theory of Relativity. How Moral Relativism fits in there is beyond me … same with wormholes, for that matter.

Final Thoughts

That’s really the point of this non-rambling post – point this out, and just kinda shake my head. First, I have no idea what black holes or dark matter ever did to conservatives. Or young-Earth creationists, for that matter. The existence of black holes and dark matter are completely compatible with what creationists have come up with in their “models” of a <10,000-year-old universe, unless they're just offended by the joke that, "Black holes are where God divided by zero."

I've been considering doing a post on the evidence for dark matter, so I guess I'll ask here — is anyone interested in a post on the evidence for the existence of black holes? Let me know in the Comments.

March 20, 2010

The “Youthful” Dynamics of Saturn’s Rings – A Preemptive Anti-Young-Earth Creationism Post


Several months ago, I posted on a young-Earth Creationism (YEC) article about uranium-238 radiometric dating of the solar system. In that article, I stated that I had one of my numerous psychic premonitions when I read the original science article that the creationists would use it somehow. But, I had no documentation backing that premonition up so I can’t apply for the James Randi Educational Foundation’s $1 Million prize. Darn.

In a much earlier post, nearly a year ago, I wrote a post on more YEC claims that the Saturnian system is young. I mentioned that they were indirectly using my own research in their claims.

Now, a year later, the science journal Icarus has its April special “Cassini at Saturn” edition out, and I happen to have a first-author paper in it. In addition, on Friday, the March 19, 2010 issue of the very prestigious journal Science has a 5-page article that kinda summarizes several of the papers in Icarus – including citing mine – that show that Saturn’s rings aren’t just boring slabs of particles orbiting away.

Call me “psychic,” but I have a feeling that some YECs will be using this in another of their attempts to propagate their version of a literal biblical worldview. This post is an attempt to summarize my own research on the rings and to show why the dynamics that we see are fully consistent with an old ring system.

Warning: This blog post rambles a bit more than usual. In it, I outline how models are created in astronomy, how that applies to the mass of Saturn’s rings, how the mass is linked to the age of the rings, and then my own research into the mass and hence age. It’s really a background post so that if/when the YECs pick up on this story I can just refer to it for background and just address the claims on that post.

How a Scientist Starts a Model

The entire purpose of physics is to mathematically produce a model that replicates the observable world. When a scientist starts out to create a model of a complicated system – say, Saturn’s rings – they will start with the simplest model possible and then add layers onto it in complexity.

Very early on, the rings were thought to be solid – thin disks that orbited Saturn. Later, that view changed to one where individual particles were thought to make up the rings. That’s the view we hold today.

In terms of the dynamics involved, in modeling the rings, one starts with a bunch of particles in orbit around a large central mass (the planet), and uses basic physics to describe how they would interact with each other. By adjusting parameters such as how big the particles are, how many there are, etc., you will get different results, and you can use the observable data to then constrain your model.

Some basic parameters that are still somewhat unknown about Saturn’s rings are the makeup of individual particles, their density, how “sticky” they are, how large they are, and how much material is actually there.

Old Voyager Results

Around the time I was born, the starship Voyager spacecraft (1 and 2) passed by Saturn. One of the many observations they made is called a “stellar occultation” through the rings. An “occultation” is when you block out a background object with a foreground one. In this case, a “stellar occultation” is when a star is blocked out, and this was by Saturn’s rings. The purpose was to measure how much light got through the rings in order to measure their “optical depth.” “Optical depth” is, well, how much light can get through something. An optical depth of 0 means that everything gets through.

Anyway, based on the Voyager measurements, which showed significant optical structure in the light that got through the rings, we had to complicate our models. And by “we” and “our” I mean the ring-studying community … I hadn’t quite entered kindergarden. The rings were still modeled as particles, but they were modeled like “granola bars” (in what is referred to as a “granola bar model”): Slabs of optically thick (no light gets through) clumps/aggregates of ring particles separated by optically thin (light gets through) gaps. In developing their models, the question now focussed on the width of those slabs and the width of the gaps between them.

It was from these models that values are still quoted today in terms of the height of the rings (“several yards” – though some places say “less than a mile”), the mass of the ring system (around the mass of the moon Mimas), and perhaps most importantly for this discussion, the age of the ring system.

The Copernican Principle

There’s a principle in astronomy that states, “We do not live in a unique time nor place until shown otherwise.” I’m not going to argue here whether that’s a good principle to live by and do research by, what its roots are, nor its “validity.” Regardless, it’s there and I personally think it’s fairly good to stick with for the time being because it forces us to do more work.

What came out of the Voyager results is that the ring system seemed “young.” “Young” here is in quotes because it means something on the order of 100 million years. That’s only 2.5% the age of the solar system, hence “young.” Part of the reason for this is that the “dynamical lifetime” of the rings of that mass is much less than the age of the solar system — the ring particles are slowly raining down on Saturn and in the future the ring system will be gone. But, that unsettles astronomers because of this principle that we don’t live in a unique time nor place.

It also makes different formation mechanisms much more difficult to justify statistically. In other words, it is much easier to justify, for example, two moons crashing together – or a moon and a large asteroid or comet crashing together – during the solar system’s formation or very soon afterwards when we know those kinds of collisions were common than it is to justify that happening recently, when the solar system is fairly well behaved.

My Work

I’m not going to discuss in detail my modeling of the ring system. If people are interested, they can e-mail me or post in the Comments asking for a copy of the 15-page paper. But I will give you the basic idea:

Cassini is a craft that’s been in orbit around Saturn since 2004. Besides many truly awe-inspiring pictures it’s taken, an instrument on it also performs stellar occultation measurements through Saturn’s rings. Over the course of nearly 6 years and well over 100 such observations, we have a much more detailed understanding of the optical thickness of the rings — how difficult it is for light to get through any given location in the rings as a distance from Saturn.

For my research, I performed what are called N-body simulations, where in the computer I created a mini saturnian ring section. I varied many different properties – including the ones I mentioned a few paragraphs ago – and I let the system evolve from an initially random state. I then simulated a Cassini observation through my little ring section.

I then compared the results of my simulated occultation to the real ones. From these results, I was able to further narrow-down some of the basic, fundamental properties of the rings. The most important one was that I was able to place a new, minimum mass constraint on the total mass of the ring system. This new constraint is about twice as large as the original one – about 2 times the mass of Saturn’s moon Mimas.

How Does Mass Relate to Age?

Directly, it doesn’t. But indirectly, it does, and I’ll explain here two examples of why.

One is the example that I explained above — if you have more material, then the dynamical lifetime is longer, and you can make the rings correspondingly older by the simple fact that they are still there today to be observed.

A second reason why is that of pollution. As the ring particles orbit Saturn, micrometeorite impactors rain down on the rings and will pollute them. Through various observations and modeling constraints (including mine), we know that the rings are more than 90% water-ice. This is really pure ice and raises the question of how something so old could be so fresh, especially with the pollution from other material.

The answer lies at least partially with the mass: If you have more material there to begin with, then you can more easily “hide” the pollution. For example, if a factory spits out sewage into a small lake, then after a day that lake will look pretty gross. But if that factory spits out the sewage into the ocean, it can do it for many, many years before the ocean is going to show any signs of being polluted. The same is true with the rings.

Hence, as a result of my paper and placing a new minimum mass constraint that’s larger than before, you can push the age of the rings further back in time. And my work is just a minimum estimate — if I had faster computers and more time and weren’t actually doing research on something completely different, then I could push the simulations to many more particles over a larger area and simulate even more massive rings to really try to nail down that mass. But, in 2017 or whenever they choose to kill off Cassini, it will fly between the planet and the rings and we will be able to directly measure the gravitational tug on the craft by the rings and should be able to answer that question. But I digress …

Anticipated YEC Responses

I don’t actually expect YECs to directly respond to my paper in particular. I think it approaches the problem too indirectly for them to take notice and think it’s worth writing about.

What I do expect is for them to respond to the Science article. It’s title is quote low-hanging fruit for the YECs: “An Evolving View of Saturn’s Dynamic Rings.” Wow. They have both “evolving” and “dynamic” in there. I expect that:

(1) Creationists will somehow try to link this to “darwinism” and that an old ring system “belief” is driven by some desire to provide “millions of years” for evolution to occur.

(2) Creationists will have issues with the Copernican Principle and argue that we do live in a specially created time and place where “the heavens declare the glory of God.”

(3) I expect the creationists will key in on the dynamical nature of the rings that we see today. This is not something that I talked about in this post much at all. Very briefly, it has to do with moving from the “granola bar model” to self-gravity wakes of material clumps that we have observed in simulations, theory, and observations that move around, exchange material, and produce bumps, ridges, spokes, and cusps in the rings that Cassini observes. If they do happen to address this, then I’ll discuss it more in my response post.

Final Thoughts

There you have it. I have a prediction out there. I’ve preemptively discussed my own research in this area and hopefully explained it in a reasonably clear way. Now let’s see if the YECs bite.

March 8, 2010

Is Debunking a Fringe Person Still Worth It?


This morning, I received an IM from a friend congratulating me on the 100,000+ reads on my blog. I responded with a bit of surprise, saying that I didn’t realize she read my blog. Her response was that she has an RSS feed of it and skims what I write when there’s a new post.

This particular friend happens to be the person I briefly consulted for my two-part (eventually three-part) series on the astrologer Terry Nazon (here and here), because this friend practices astrology as a hobby.

Somewhat fearful, I asked her what she thought of the two blog posts about Ms. Nazon. Her response was, “I think that you were probably debunking a hack astrologer.” That led me to quickly justify why I did it, but I think it does raise a decent question: Should one spend the time debunking someone who is on the fringe of their particular pseudoscientific belief system?

Why I Think the Answer Is “Maybe”

I think that there are several reasons both do to this and not to do it. On the “not” side there’s the obvious time-waste component for relatively little gain if they’re on the fringe. There’s the lack of applicability to the underlying field you’re trying to refute. Another con is that you run the risk of presenting a straw man argument – though I try to make very clear that I am only addressing specific claims, not the entire field.

On the “do it” side, I think there are stronger arguments, providing you have the time. The first I thought of is that this person is still making their claims and they do have an audience. In Ms. Nazan’s case, she was going to be featured on an internationally syndicated radio show that reaches literally millions of people every night on over 525 radio stations. Many of her website page headings (her site, her blog, her Facebook) bill her as “Terry Nazon World Famous Astrologer” with the word “Celebrity” sometimes thrown in there. She also apparently makes enough money to run her website.

That led me to the second reason: She’s bilking people out of a heck of a lot of money. I’ll repeat the numbers – at least the current ones on her website – which are $4.99 per minute, $75 for an e-mail reading, $75 for a 15-minute reading, $150 for a 30-minute reading, and $330 for a 60-minute phone reading. I am still amazed at that – I cannot grasp that people are willing to throw that much money at her for something that says at the bottom of her website in very small print, “For entertainment purposes only,” and for someone who was absolutely so demonstrably wrong in her claims (as I illustrated here and here). A three-hour reading from her costs more than my month’s rent.

Third – and this is more minor – you get experience picking through arguments in a logical, methodical way.

And for me, that’s really enough. If (1) the person has a name for themselves and an audience, and (2) there actually is harm being done – in this case separating people from their money during a recession – then I think they’re fair game. It doesn’t matter whether they’re on the fringe of their particular field. You still get the experience of debunking someone, and hopefully some of the people being harmed will at least begin to doubt what they’re about to do. If by my blog posts I have stopped one person from contacting Terry Nazon for a reading, then I will be pretty happy and consider it worth it.

Similarly, despite using some of the more fringe claims of 2012 and Planet X stuff to address some of the more basic claims people make, my blog generally gets ~150-250 hits a day from people searching for information on the subject, or linking to my blog from forums or bulletin boards as a resource to learn what’s really not going to happen. I have actually received e-mails from people who say that they were very worried and my blog helped them to calm down from the hysteria that they were approaching. And of course the Comments section posts are nice, too.

What Do You Think?

This is where I normally sum up my position, but I think I already did that. Rather, I’ll use this quick ending to ask you, the reader, what do you think about this? Should people bother to spend time debunking more fringe claims in a field? Or is it just a waste of time? Please answer in the Comments!

March 7, 2010

Arbitrary Milestone Reached: More than 100,000 Blog Views

Filed under: Miscellaneous — Stuart Robbins @ 9:06 pm
Tags: , , ,

Humans, by their nature, have many arbitrary milestones by which they judge, rate, rank, measure, and place their lives. In our base-10 number system, many of these have to do with multiples of that base. For example, someone’s 50th birthday is much more momentous than their 49th or 51st, and it’s usually celebrated with more interest than their 60th or 40th. Another example is when that next digit on the car goes from “0” to “1” just after all the preceding digits are “9.”

In similar fashion, I was watching my blog stats on Thursday while I was supposed to be in talks at a conference in Texas. My blog views were at 99,992, and I was hoping to get a screen shot when it passed to 100,000. Unfortunately, I was in a very expensive hotel. You know it’s expensive because most of the stuff that normal hotels give you for free – internet, not getting a newspaper in the morning, continental breakfast, parking, for example – they charged you for at this hotel.

Anyway, the signal upon which I was piggybacking died, and I was without internet in my room for about a half hour. Finally, the page reloaded and I was at 100,010 hits. Darn! I mean, Yay! Well, oh well. I could photoshop it to be 100,000, but it’s not quite the same thing. Anyway, for posterity, here it is, and thank you, RSS followers, subscribers, Christian Forum linkers, 2012 Hoax wiki links, Yahoo! Answers links, and general internet searchers for 100,000 reads. It took about 17.5 months to get there … let’s see if the next 100,000 can go faster! Or, perhaps I should celebrate the 250,000 mark, since that’s a “quarter million” and sounds better?

More than 100,000 Page Views

More than 100,000 Page Views

March 1, 2010

Judging a Middle and High School Regional Science Fair


Last week, I judged a regional high school and middle school science fair that was held at my university. I’m trying to be fairly general in my post here and not use specific names, places, etc. in order to keep some semblance of privacy for people involved.

With that in mind, this post contains my experience, thoughts, examples, and general judging criteria, questions I asked, and things that I looked for when judging this fair.

Hopefully it will be (a) an interesting read, and/or (b) useful to future science fair judges, and/or (c) useful for students and parents in preparing for their own science fairs.

Getting Ready

First off, this science fair was for high school (grades 9-12, about ages 13-18) and middle school (grades 6-8, about ages 10-14) students, and it is a “regional” fair, effectively city-wide. It is part of a much larger one where from this, we send people on to state, national, and sometimes just fast-track to international competitions.

There are different categories, in this case the ones I remember were Physics, Earth and Space Science, Environmental, Chemistry, Health and Medicine, I think an Engineering one, and then some others that I don’t remember (’cause they weren’t near my table and I didn’t judge them). When signing up as a judge, we could request the main topic we wanted to judge and then were asked to fill in 1-3 others. I requested Earth and Space Science primarily, and Physics as my second. I also checked the box indicating I wanted to be a “head judge,” meaning that within a particular subject, I would be responsible for determining 1st, 2nd, and 3rd places, and I would also confer with the Roaming Judges about best in show and who to send on to state/national/international. Based on who the head judges were last year and that I had judged this fair before, I thought I had a decent shot.

The week before, I got an e-mail saying I’d been placed in Physics and Environmental. I was not a head judge. When I showed up the morning of, I got my packet and found I was in Earth and Space Science (ESS) in the morning along with Environmental, and ESS and Physics in the afternoon. Still not a head judge. It had been changed because they had last-minute judge cancellations.

The Day Of

I went to sit down before we started at the ESS table. I got to talking with a few people there – only one whom I’d met before – and then the head judge for our table – who studies space weather forecasting – introduced herself and told us what her bias was in judging. She liked the projects where the students really seemed to have a passion for it and followed the scientific method, as evidenced by them coming up with the project themselves, and then forming a hypothesis and working towards answering it.

Fair ‘nough. Since she had told us that, I decided I would say what mine were. I said that I really liked it when the students would form a hypothesis and then their experiment showed that they were actually wrong. And then that they decided that, on the basis of their data, their initial hypothesis was incorrect.

(I said that they get brownie points if it’s a common pseudoscience. This isn’t to say that I would judge students more harshly if they started off with a “correct” hypothesis, just that I think it is admirable when they are willing to change their beliefs on the basis of observable data – since on this blog I have illustrated many cases where people will not.)

Then I gave an example from the previous year of a middle schooler who thought that granite was radioactive and emitted poison radon gas. He found out by testing various common building rocks that he was wrong and he changed his mind about the initial hypothesis as a result. I then gave a second example of a high school student last year who thought that magnetic healing was real and that she …

That was where I was interrupted by the head judge. She said, “But magnetic healing does work.”

I looked at her and replied, “I mean stuff like the bracelets …” and that was when she held up her wrist and I saw one on her “… because blood is made with non-ferromagnetic iron.”

While she admitted that it may be a placebo effect, she claimed that she had debilitating arthritis in her wrist and that the magnets in the bracelet really helped her to function. I dropped it and moved on. But that was how my morning started. I figure if I had been in the Health and Medicine category, I would’ve spoken with the organizer at that time.

Brief Overview of the Day

In the morning session, the high schoolers are judged by up to 6 or 7 judges to get them more exposure. In the afternoon, each middle schooler is judged by up to 4 or 5.

Anyway, the next 8 hours of judging were fairly uneventful. There were some pretty good projects, and there were some really bad ones. Since I’ve seen people ask what judges actually look for and not just what we’re told to look for, I thought I’d post some specific examples of good and bad:

Example of a BAD Middle School Project

There was a middle school project where two guys wanted to see how quickly they could turn a water wheel with a hose based upon how far above the wheel the hose was as some sort of analogy for a hydroelectric dam. One of the guys was out sick, so he may have been the smrt one in the group (see what I did there?).

Besides not really being comparable to most of the projects there in terms of science nor skill, they got the “wrong” answer despite having the “right” physics on the poster and not realizing it. What I mean is that they found their wheel spun faster when the hose was closer to it. He said they had issues with the water blowing in the breeze when they held it high up which may have affected it. So I asked how it did not mimic an actual dam, and the guy thought, and then said the height of the water. I asked, “What else?” He didn’t know … I was looking for the idea that real dams aren’t bothered by the wind.

In his talk to me, he had mentioned potential energy, so I asked him what it was, trying to get him to realize the “right” answer for the overall project. He said he didn’t know, he hadn’t been paying attention in class that day. I looked pointedly at a location on his poster, then he looked, and said, “Oh, it’s right there …” he proceeded to read what they had written as to the definition of potential energy, and then just looked at me and said, “Yeah.”

(For those wondering, the higher the water starts, the more potential energy it has to convert to kinetic energy to spin the wheel.)

Example of a BAD High School Project

A bad one I judged at the high school level was a girl who was looking at minor gas components to Earth’s atmosphere and their affects on infrared (IR) absorption -> greenhouse effects. She used basically a blackbox model (she had no idea what went into it, it was a computer program handed to her) and used Earth’s standard atmosphere.

She modeled Earth and the sun as two black bodies. When I asked her to explain black bodies to me, she pointed to a part of her poster that had the equation and basically read the equation to me. I asked her what “I” was (as in the equation is “I = …”). She rambled off the standard definition of radiative energy per square unit per solid angle per blah blah blah. I asked her to tell me what it was in her own words. She didn’t know. I asked if, “Intensity” could be a synonym, and she said, “I guess.”

One of the results she found was that water vapor accounts for around 60% of IR absorption in the atmosphere. I asked her how much water vapor was in the atmosphere in her model. Since a second step was that she varied the amount from the standard atmospheric composition (making, for example, methane 500% of what it really is), she said, “100%.” I clarified: “No, I mean how much of the atmosphere in the standard model is water vapor?” She didn’t know.

I dinged her quite a bit for (a) just spouting off terms and not knowing what they were, and (b) not knowing what went into her model at all, especially in a field (climate modeling / global warming) where some of the major criticisms are what assumptions and parameters go into the models.

Example of a MEDIOCRE Middle School Project

There was a girl who looked at different soil samples around the county in a North-South then East-West line. She did a decent job, found a pattern or two, and was able to apply it to other things like saying that based on her results, if someone wanted to grow a garden she would recommend certain places and not others. Her stuff was good, but just within the scope of the project. There was nothing really brought in from outside, no bigger picture, and she got some terminology wrong, like what “topography” was. She also had told the judge just before me that she did the project in the space of a week before the Fair because her teacher suggested it to her since she had done well in their soils unit of science class.

Example of a Good Middle School Project

A good middle school project I saw was where a guy had built (supposedly himself) a water tank and made wheels out of styrofoam. The wheels all had the same outside diameter, different inside diameters, and then spokes. It was a model for turbulence for bike wheels.

He threw out terms like “Reynolds Number” and when I asked what it meant, he was able to answer it. Then I asked him if the Reynolds Number of water was larger or smaller than molasses. He got it wrong. Then I asked which had a higher viscosity. He got it right.

Moving on, after he had done his models in water, he tried out different tires with different spoke lengths on a bike — apparently he’s a “pro” biker (remember – a middle schooler) and has won some significant races. He found that the benefits from the water model were much more muted, by say 5% increases in speed due to reduced turbulence instead of the 100% he was seeing in the tank. He was able to answer why that may be. And he was able to say that even at 1-2% when you’re talking about a race where he won by 0.04 seconds over 17 minutes, then that really counts.

Things I Asked and Looked For

1. I started out after introducing myself and telling the student to assume I knew nothing about their project and subject and to start from there. In other words, I really wanted to see if they could explain it to a lay person without using the big words, and in their own words. I also ran into a problem last year where some of the high school projects were over my head (that wasn’t an issue this year); this had been my fault, really, since I should have made them explain it to me until I understood it and could tell if they understood it.

2. Whenever they used a term or concept that I thought was above grade-level, I would stop them and ask them to explain it. Sometimes they could, sometimes they couldn’t. I did count it against them if they couldn’t because it meant they were just using buzz words and didn’t know what they actually meant.

3. About half-way through each project, I would pause and repeat back to them a general summary of what they were doing to make sure that I understood it. After all, it wasn’t fair to the student if I thought they were doing something they weren’t, and I thought it helped the student because it showed I was actually paying attention.

4. I asked them what the bigger picture was at the end. How they could apply it to something else, or what it could do for people? Most of them were able to answer that, and I would hope it’s a fairly standard question. There were admittedly some cases where there was no real practical application, such as determining rotation rates for stars, but in those cases I would ask them what the application to the field would be, instead of every-day life.

5. I would always ask if there was anything else they wanted to tell me or thought I should know before I left and said, “Thank you, and good luck.” I thought that was important in case they realized at that time they had left something important out.

6. If I remembered, I asked them how they got the idea for the project and how much help they had. Unfortunately, I didn’t remember to do that every time. But in general, you can tell as a judge how much help they had had.

7. One aspect that I in particular looked for was confidence in the results – as in error bars. Almost no one had error bars, and the one who did I asked how he got them and whether they were believable.

The error bar obsession probably comes from my own research and my professors from undergrad. In fact, I’m presenting some research on age-dating martian volcanos this week at a conference (LPSC XLI) that’s basically ALL about error bars, and it’s what I expect pretty much everyone to ask me about at my poster on Thursday night (if you’re actually interested in this, ask below in the comments).

An example of the importance of this was a high school student who was doing an experiment growing algae, and he found a negative mass on the 3rd day. I asked him why. He said he didn’t know, maybe something about the atmosphere changing. I asked him what his uncertainty was in his measurements, and he said that when all the analysis was done, he would do the detailed fitting analysis and the uncertainty in his fits. I replied, “No, each measurement you made has an inherent uncertainty in it, and you should be displaying that on your graph. For example, you found a mass of negative 0.01 gms. If your uncertainty in that measurement is ±0.1, then you’re fine. If it’s ±0.00001, then you have a problem.”

In another example, there was a student who I thought was the best in his category that I saw in the middle school part. He had looked at earthquake data in our state in order to test an empirical law, and he showed that it was wrong for small earthquakes. He was graphing magnitude versus number of quakes, and was looking at mag. 3-4 and found that it fit the law with a value of 13, but then 1-2 didn’t fit where he found 9 but expected 60. I asked him what the uncertainty was in each point. He didn’t know, but he said that he found only about 10% of what he expected. I told him I realized that, but in his magnitude 3-4 bin, he found it kinda fit the law, but the question was how well it did. In other words, at what magnitude does the law break-down with statistical “certainty.” He didn’t know. Since I was the last judge for him for the day, I told him he needed to look into Poisson statistics (sometimes referred to as “counting” statistics).

Some of the Formal, Official Stuff, and Judging Paperwork

The way I went about the actual judging part was that I left the score sheets alone. I went to each person with a blank sheet of paper and just wrote down notes. I spent about 10-17 minutes with each person (we were told to spend 12 on middle school, 15 on high school), and I did time it. I felt this was important (a) so the students had an equal amount of time with me, and (b) so that there wasn’t a judge waiting because I was taking up all the student’s time (speaking from experience of being that judge waiting …).

When I was done with each student, I went to a table and wrote down comments on the judging form that the students would actually see. I then went onto the next student I was judging.

I waited until I had talked with ALL students in the section before I sat down to actually assign a numerical score (morning was high school, afternoon was middle school). I figured that was the fairest way to do it so that I wasn’t too easy nor too hard at the beginning of the judging period and so that I could get a feel for the general level of the projects and rate them accordingly.

We were told to judge on a 100-pt scale, and judge independent of whether it was individual or team, and whether they worked on their own or in a lab. 30% went to creative ability, 30% to the scientific thought, 15% to thoroughness, 15% to skill, 10% clarity, and then an additional 16 pts to teamwork where the score was then normalized to 100 for teams. If people are interested in more details on what each of these were defined as, ask me in the Comments section.

Final Thoughts

I find judging – the two times I’ve done it – fairly enjoyable. On a jealous note, it’s really amazing what these young adults can do. When I look back at my middle school and high school science projects, there simply was nothing comparable until I specifically chose my “Senior Project” at the end of high school and built a model roller coaster.

Most of the projects at least show some interest in their chosen topic, especially at the high school level. There are always those few where you can tell that the student felt obligated to do something they really don’t care about, but luckily those can be offset by the ones that show thought.

Determining how much help students had is sometimes hard, but it’s important because it can mean the difference between someone winning first place or not even being in the running (something we did last year on a particular tennis racket project). It can be a hard judgement call, but it’s one that I have given my input on and then left it up to the head judge in the topic to decide.

Anyway, to sum up, I hope that this has been interesting and/or informative. If you’re a scientist, I highly recommend judging a science fair, at least once, to get a feel for it and to try to encourage young, potentially future scientists. Those that are actually interested in what they’re doing do enjoy speaking with people who are not their parents/advisor/mentor that understand what they’re doing and its importance.

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.