Exposing PseudoAstronomy

October 31, 2011

Podcast Episode 9 Is Up: Earth’s Decaying Magnetic Field

And for another short post: Podcast Episode 9 is up. It’s about the young-Earth creationist claim that Earth’s declining magnetic field is evidence for a recent creation. This is a re-worked version of my previous post on the decaying magnetic field two months ago. I’ve gone into some more detail on the Kent Hovind claims that there have been no magnetic field reversals ever. The episode length is similar to my last episode at a bit over 30 minutes.

I’ve also introduced a whole new segment: Q&A. The idea is that anyone who wants can send in questions that I will attempt to answer. Preferably, the questions will focus on weird astronomy claims that you’ve heard or are interested in, but I’m willing to relax that to general astronomy questions that you may have.


October 24, 2011

What Does It Mean to Be “Anti-Science?”


In my and other skeptically minded blogs, you will often read us either explicitly or by implication state that something we’re arguing against is unscientific, or it is anti-science. In the current political climate, you will often hear the Republican party being referred to as the “Anti-Science Party” by its detractors. Phil Plait has been a good example of that over the past several months with his numerous posts about climate change denial within the crop of Republican presidential candidates.

But what does “anti-science” actually mean? In the latest episode of the ID The Future podcast, the new host David Boze rants discusses for about 16 minutes that “anti-science” is actually a political term meant to stymie detractors of “Darwinian Evolution.”

The Claim

The entire podcast can really be summarized by what David states starting at 15 minutes 28 seconds into the episode: “The anti-science label is clearly a political tool designed to eliminate debate between proponents of intelligent design and proponents of Darwinian evolution. And, since we’ve demonstrated the common use of this label is false, when you hear it being hurled at those who disagree with Darwinian evolution, you can point out it’s unscientific to use the term.”

The Evidence

David spends the 15 minutes before this in a very scripted argument for his case. As his evidence, he focuses on pretty much the single – at least the most outspoken – candidate for the Republican presidential nomination who has called his fellow candidates out as being “anti-science.” This man would be John Huntsman, President Obama’s former ambassador to China, and a man whom Conservapedia refers to as a “RINO” (Republican in name only).

Huntsman has very publicly stated that he accepts the evidence for evolution and trusts climate scientists that climate change is real, that overall it is warming, and humans are very likely a major contributor to it currently. This is as opposed to the rest of the candidates who, as a whole, deny climate change at all and are mostly biblical creationists (at least the most outspoken ones are).

In his main statements, and especially in the ones that David Boze used for this podcast episode, Huntsman has clearly focused on climate change and evolution. David even states that in the middle of the podcast before saying that, for brevity, he’s going to cut out the comments on global warming.

He then focuses entirely on the evolution parts. And uses that to say that clearly all Huntsman is talking about as “anti-science” is people who don’t fully accept an “atheistic Darwinian evolution.”

David goes into some of the US’s founding fathers, including Benjamin Franklin (since Huntsman did), and laughingly says that Franklin was not an evolutionist (obviously not since Darwin’s theory was not published until 1859). He talks about Abraham Lincoln (since Huntsman brought him up as an example of a non-anti-science Republican), and says that evolution was not high on Lincoln’s domestic policy. Again, obviously not since the theory was published only two years before the civil war. Brings of Nixon, Reagan, and Bush (again, since Huntsman did) and points out that clearly a scientific dark age did not happen when any of these men were in the White House (though this is an arguable point with the later Bush), the implication being that they were not strict atheistic evolutionists therefore under Huntsman’s alleged position, they should have brought down Western society.

All this is evidence, according to David Boze, that the term “anti-science” means “doubts Darwin” and is a political label and doesn’t mean anything else.

Can We Say “Cherry Pick” and “Persecution Complex?”

If you’ve read this far, you’ve probably figured out from my tone that David has committed some HUGE leaps in logic that betray his ideology and doom his position. Two very obvious ones are cherry picking and at least a persecution complex if not an outright argument from persecution.

Mr. Boze has chosen ONE example of ONE person using the term “anti-science.” He has cherry-picked that ONE person’s use to focus on ONE topic, despite clearly stating just a few minutes earlier that he had used it in reference to TWO topics. That in and of itself should lead an objective, curious, and interested person to doubt his conclusions.

What Does “Anti-Science” Actually Mean?

The reality of the term is that we use it to mean anyone who disagrees with basic, objective, scientific data and disagrees with established scientific theories (where I use the term “theory” as a scientist). In politics these days, yes, it is mainly used in reference to climate change and evolution. Less frequently in politics, it is also used in regards to health care (especially vaccinations), abortion, energy policy, education policy, the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), and even basic mathematics.

I tend to use it – again either explicitly or implied – to refer to some people or ideas I discuss on my blog. I do try not to over-use it or paint with too broad a brushstroke. I don’t think that someone like Richard Hoagland, for example, is anti-science; I think he’s just deluded. Same with Andrew Basiago.

I wouldn’t even label most astrologers nor UFOlogists as anti-science except for maybe when they pull the special pleading argument of, “Oh, well you can’t test this because it’s untestable within the current scientific paradigm.” Right. It works until there’s a skeptic in the room and then it magically fails. Have you met my pet invisible dragon?

However, I talk about young-Earth creationism quite a bit here, and I would consider most creationists to be anti-science. They use science only when it can bolster their position, and misinterpret or plain ol’ deny it when it disagrees with their position and beliefs. That’s anti-science.

And yet, I label them as anti-science not because of their position on evolution, but because of their stances on comets, magnetic field data, the moon’s recession rate, basic physics of spiral galaxies, cosmology, and a slew of other topics. I have never actually directly addressed evolution in a post on this blog. I may have talked about it peripherally, such as in this post, but it’s never been the focus.

Surely my use of the term “anti-science” is just as valid as John Huntsman’s, which is surely more valid than the quote-mined version that David used.

Final Thoughts

Anti-science means, in my book, that you refuse to accept basic fundamental scientific methodology and/or results. It can be on a specific, sacred cow topic of yours such as whether or not Earth is hollow. It can be on broad topics based on your framework of biblical literal-ness. Being “anti-science” does not mean that you have to reject everything discovered in the last ~400 years.

And that’s where David Boze’s foray into the topic, I think, fails. He has an ideological persecution complex, sees it used in one way by a politician, focuses on half of that person’s argument, and then claims that anti-science means that you don’t accept atheistic evolution.

Sorry, David, my faith is not strong enough for those leaps.

October 20, 2011

Does the “Doom and Gloom” from a Show About the Universe Mean We Should All Be Christians?


About two and a half months ago, when I was getting back to blogging and starting up my own podcast, I found an article from Creation Ministries International entitled, “Doom and Gloom from the BBC.” I was intrigued and I wondered if it had anything to do with the BBC four-part series, “Wonders of the Universe.”

Indeed, it did! And now that I’ve finally gotten around to watching the first (and second) episodes of the BBC production, I thought I could legitimately comment on it and get this CMI article out of my queue.

Wonders of the Universe

Disclaimer/Bragging: I’m very peripherally involved with both this series and its prior cousin, “Wonders of the Solar System,” for the BBC purchased several lunar photographs from me to use in the production.

“Wonders of the Universe” is a four-part, roughly four-hour (total) production of the BBC that, in my opinion, is very well done and a cinematic experience. It’s a bit more non-linear than I would like, but I think that it’s quite well done overall. The series is hosted by physicist Brian Cox, a fairly famous popularizer of science these days.

Each “wonder” of the universe that is discussed falls under one of the four episode’s themes: Destiny, Stardust, Falling, and Messengers. (For more detail on each of these, you can check out Wikipedia’s page on them.)

In the first episode on “Destiny,” the theme is the evolution of the universe from start to possible “end.” Cox goes through the first stage of the universe (birth and expansion) and concentrates mostly upon the “stellariferous” (or some such spelling) stage, which is now. This is the time when stars are forming and their energy allows life like us to exist.

Cox then describes how the second law of thermodynamics works (entropy can never decrease) with what I thought was a brilliant example with a sand pile versus a sand castle. Along with this, he goes into the “arrow of time,” basically that we know time is progressing as entropy increases. Otherwise, all of the laws of physics do not contain an actual “direction” of time, but they work equally well forwards or backwards.

This means that as the universe ages, things die. Eventually, there will no longer be stars. Even further in time, black holes will evaporate. Protons will decay. Nothing will be able to exist in this “heat death” of the universe. The amount of time that life like us can exist is vanishingly small — Cox wrote a heck of a lot of zeros in the sand with a teensy little “1” at the end to show the fraction.

It’s a somewhat bleak picture. Occasionally (once every few years?) I lie awake at night thinking about it, and then I realize that it’s stupid to worry about it, so I turn over and go to sleep. Maybe that’s why I’m not a cosmologist.

Doom and Gloom, Therefore God

Enter Creation Ministries International and the author of this particular article, Russell Grigg. The CMI article starts out noting that Dr. Cox “is a ‘Distinguished Supporter’ of the atheistic British Humanist Association” and this “is par for the course for the BBC, long known for its anti-Christian bias.”

I’m not going to bore you with the standard young-Earth creationist apologetics with rehashed arguments that have been shown to be wrong many many times (such as, they repeat the wrong idea that spiral galaxies should wind up).

The conclusion of the CMI article – I know, you’re going to be shocked – is that all the apparent problems for us evolutionists (somehow Dr. Cox, a physicist, is now an evolutionist) are resolved by the young-Earth Christian biblical worldview:

  • We don’t need to figure out how the universe began, Genesis states Goddidit.
  • A distant gamma ray burst isn’t the oldest object we’ve ever seen ’cause all the stuff in the sky on Day 4 of Creation Week when Goddidit.
  • Stuff that seems far away and therefore billions of years old isn’t actually billions of years old because the heavens were “stretched out” when Goddidit.
  • We don’t need to worry about the end of the universe described by physics because believers are going to have an eternal life in Heaven when Goddoesit.
  • Death doesn’t matter because after it, we have eternal life ’cause Godsaysit.

Et cetera.

Final Thoughts

This isn’t a long post because there really isn’t’ too much to say. It’s a great TV program, and I highly recommend that anyone interested in cosmology or astronomy in general finds it at their local Blockbuster looks for it on Netflix or your DVD procurement location of choice. (If you’re interested in planetary / solar system astronomy, then its predecessor, “Wonders of the Solar System,” is also definitely worth watching.) The creationist response to it was predictable and gratuitous. The BBC series provided them another opportunity to complain that on a science show based in observable evidence and testable theories, their special Godwroteit book wasn’t given any notice.

I will freely admit that the Christian worldview presents a much more warm, cuddly feeling and outlook on the future of the universe. Would I want to be embraced by my Creator for all time and know He loves me? Sure. I don’t know many people who want to die and simply cease to exist.

Does that mean that I’m going to convert? No. All because it may be something I want, that does not mean it’s true or is going to happen. I want a chocolate bar right now. I’m closing my eye (I can touch type) and I’m wishing that a chocolate bar is going to materialize in front of me. Opening eyes … NOW. (looking around) Nope, no chocolate bar. I wanted it, but it didn’t happen. No evidence for it. Similarly, I’m not putting faith into a manuscript written millennia ago that contradicts basic science, logic, and reason.

October 18, 2011

The Sad State of Media Reporting and Basic Math

Filed under: media reporting — Stuart Robbins @ 8:22 pm
Tags: , , ,

This is a quickie post. It’s also a minor rant.

This evening, I was reading the 668 headlines that had accumulated in my RSS feeder over the past 10ish hours. I skim over most and click on the 1 out of maybe every 25-50 stories that interest me to then read while eating dinner. (That’s 2-4% of the stories.)

If there are a lot to read at once, such as tonight, I go through each source individually. ABC news is usually first after I check blogs and Apple rumor sites. ABC had a story headlined, “Woman’s $200,000 Cell Bill No Mistake,” and the short summary was, “Florida woman shocked by $200,000 cell phone bill; company agrees to 88 percent discount.” I was minorly interested because I’m sure we all remember reading those stories of people with crazy kids who over-txt or whatever. I clicked. But before clicking, I did the math with a calculator to figure out what she’d still have to pay. 88% discount on $200,000 should mean she pays 12%, or $24,000. That’s still a lot. Click the story and find out she has to pay $2,500. Um, 2500/200000 = 0.0125, or 1.25% of the original bill, meaning the company gave her a 98.75% discount.

I shook my head and scoffed at another bad story from ABC.

Then I got to the Washington Post’s RSS feed and saw the SAME STORY. This time, the headline of their story was ABC’s subheader: “Florida woman shocked by $200,000 cell phone bill; company agrees to 88 percent discount.”

Um … I clicked. Read the exact same story. Came to the bottom and the byline was the Associated Press. Meaning that the AP sent out this story, all these news sources picked up on it and just ran it without thinking, likely without actually reading. The actual original story from a local news station (before AP picked it up) was about how the person contacted their local public help guy who became a consumer advocate on the woman’s behalf. I actually really like those kinds of stories. The original story also had nothing to do with percentages, so it was all the AP who added in that math problem.

Now, I’m okay with some basic, stupid math errors. Likely the person did 2500/200000, saw 0.0125 as the result, and then did mental math of 1-0.125 with the decimal point moved over one. Okay. We all make basic mistakes sometimes. I have an issue when this basic math mistake is repeated over and over again in major news outlets in a story that is 131 words long and takes 30 seconds to read for me, and I’m a slow reader.

As I mentioned back in my post about Dark of the Moon movie, it’s just lazy, and it insults the intelligence of the audience.

October 15, 2011

Podcast Episode 8 Is Posted: The Hollow Earth

This is actually a topic I have NEVER addressed in my blog before, in part because it’s a lot of quotes from various people and it’s a pain to transcribe. In this episode, I spend the first half going through some of the actual “science” claims of the hollow Earth, including some of the history. I spend the latter half of the episode discussing four independent, distinct ways that we know Earth is not hollow.

This is also my longest episode so far (other than the live talk). As I state at the beginning of this episode, I don’t know how long episodes are going to evolve to be. In a manner of speaking, they’ll be as long as they “need” to be to address the singular topic I’ve chosen for the episode. Just like when a teacher gives that response for the required length of a paper, I know it’s unsatisfying. But I also don’t know how long it’s going to take to address each topic. I thought initially when I started the podcast it would be in the 10-20 minute time frame. Obviously I was mistaken for the last few. We’ll see what happens.

October 14, 2011

The New-Age Conspiratorial World of Gregg Braden


I started listening to Coast to Coast AM somewhat regularly when I started to “get into” modern science-based skepticism. I wanted to know what the “true-believers” thought and to learn about all sorts of ideas that are out there. Often, the ideas are anti-“establishment,” which is why they are a supporter of Ron Paul or “alternative medicine.” Often they’re “new-agey.” Sometimes they’re both.

Sometimes they’re so over the top that you have a difficult time believing people actually think that. Sometimes the people on the show (often, actually) will distort the actual facts to support their claims. Sometimes they will make them up.

This long rambling introduction is to point out all of the things that various C2C guests bring. The one I’m going to discuss here brings in all of them. This is a somewhat long post, but there is a lot to say about Gregg Braden. If you’re wondering who this person is, I’m not going to give a short bio section, rather I’m going to illustrate his views through time throughout this post, like dipping a candle in successive colors.

Through Time

I first got curious about this person last weekend when I was looking at the C2C schedule for the week ahead and saw he was on. I did a search through the ~135 gigabytes of episodes I have of C2C for the past two decades. His name popped up not infrequently, so I started to listen to him starting with his 1999 interview conducted by Art Bell. (Note that he had been on earlier shows, at least dating back to 1992, but I do not have those.)

I listened to about 16 hours of interview, and then I re-listened to about half of them to pull out the quotes and points I wanted to use for this (and maybe an eventual podcast).

The “Early” Years – Pre-2001

Okay, technically I only had one episode from February 5, 1999, and then the next was in 2006. But based on later material, things changed for Braden in the few years after Sept. 11, 2001. I’ll talk about that later.

During this earlier time, Braden comes off as your standard new-agey anti-establishment person: Darwinism is evil, consciousness rules. There really wasn’t much unique about his message.

He was an avid advocate of “free energy” devices, claimed there was copious evidence that our DNA was currently evolving rapidly even though he doesn’t “believe” in evolution, that through consciousness we can “activate junk DNA” and do kewl stuff, and generally ranted for four whole hours on how scientists won’t let the “real” knowledge out to the general public. Fairly run-of-the mill, really.

May 6, 2006 Interview

In this interview, I noticed something of a shift in Braden’s attitude. While he was still hawking his books and advocating his ideas, he seemed to have shifted more towards alleged evidence for his claims and “research” he was doing. This was much more evident in the later interviews (next section).

January 6, 2008 Interview

Now we really got into the idea of “let’s throw out some sciencey stuff that sounds more real than what I peddled a decade ago” (no, he didn’t actually say that, that was my impression).

He makes a few interesting claims. The first I noted down is during hour 2 of the program at 17 minutes into the hour, he states that Nature (one of the top science journals in the world) published a study by Silvertooth in volume 322, August 26, 1986, page 590. It’s actually August 14, but I’ll forgive that. (Here’s the “study,” subscription required.) Problem is that this was not an article Nature “published,” it’s a letter that they included that spans less than 1/3 of a page. In it, Ernest W. Silvertooth claims to have conducted an experiment that proved there is an “ether” through which light propagates, disproving General Relativity, and the famous Michelson-Morley Experiment (conducted where I got my undergraduate degree … a century earlier).

Interesting. It’s a letter to the editor. Not peer-reviewed. Silvertooth’s name shows up on Anti-Relativity.com. And the only way he got a paper out is by publishing it himself. And yet Braden claims this is undeniable proof that scientists won’t let the secrets of the universe out and that this guy irrefutably showed that the standard ideas are not real.

However, he takes this a step further to say that the “ether” is not just a medium through which light travels, rather it’s the general consciousness field in which we all exist.

Later in the interview, in hour 3, starting at 8:25 in, he states:

“What our own science has found is that our heart is the strongest electrical field generator in the body, and it is the strongest magnetic field generator in the body, and the reason that’s important is our physical world hinges largely on electric and magnetic fields. … [In atoms,] if we change EITHER the electric or magnetic field, we can change and influence the way that atom behaves, and our heart creates BOTH, not just one or the other. …

“(9:37) And this is why feelings in our heart are so much more powerful than thoughts in our mind, because our own science now is telling us that our heart creates electrical fields that are 60-100x stronger than the fields of our brain. … And magnetic fields 5000x stronger from our heart than those of the brain, and that explains to us why thoughts aren’t as powerful … and it’s much easier to heal and create peace and alter our physical reality from our hearts than it is through our thoughts, and our hearts are where we have the feelings, and the beliefs, that communicate with this field and connects everything.”

Got all that? I warned you he’s a new-ager. But he made some specific statements. The easy first one to check on is the field strength of the heart and brain. According to this source, the brain’s value is on the order of 0.1-1.0 pT, or picoTesla (10-12 = 1 pico). And according to this source, the strength of the heart is around 10 pT. So he’s sorta right in his first statement that at the extremes, the heart’s magnetic field at the surface of the body is 100x stronger than the brain’s. But not 5000x as he states a few sentences later. And it bears mentioning that Earth’s field is on the order of 10-4 T at Earth’s surface, or 107 times stronger than the human heart’s as measured from the surface of the body.

He also was talking about how magnetic and electric fields are different, which I really don’t want to get into in this post, but basically he’s stretching the truth.

The kicker comes about 14 minutes 55 seconds into the episode where he states:

“This is how science is kinda backing into the fact that we are connected with our world. They’re seeing that the human heart – literally – can change the physical stuff our physical world is made of through this electric and magnetic fields. And they’re also finding that we’re literally tuned to layers of the atmosphere of the Earth through these fields.”

Yeah. Please show your work.

March 17, 2009 Interview

At this point, he is invested more fully in the idea of his Institute of HeartMath and Global Coherence project and he starts to bring in alleged evidence for his claims. This was where I really got interested, and frankly it’s about the only part that really gets into the topics I discuss on this blog (astronomy, physics, geology).

Its within these that he adopts the standard “amateur science” motif that we ridicule in skepticism: He misinterprets basic data and misrepresents other data (one could call it lying, but that implies I actually know that he knew he was doing these things, and I don’t — at the very least, he is sorely mistaken and data-mines).

I already addressed the whole atom an magnetic field and electric field and heart-brain fields with the 2006 interview. And evolution with the 1999 interview. He also talks about 2012 in this one, but there’s really nothing new he contributes to the mythos so I don’t want to go into it here.

He also makes a specific reference to another Nature paper about the Milky Way’s black hole and energy shooting towards us, saying it’s by “Rhode and Miller” in volume 434, October 2004. Problem is that volume 434 is for March-April 2005, and October 2004 is in volume 431. I searched all and could not find it. So much for that.

He even carries on again with a basic rant 15 minutes in about how the ancients knew everything and we know nothing. But I’m not going to go into that, either

Nay, the one I want to talk about here comes from this rather lengthy quote from the March 17, 2009 interview:

“2001, scientists were measuring the geomagnetic field of the Earth, from two satellites, one int he Northern Hemisphere, one in the Southern Hemisphere, called GOES … . Every 30 minutes they send back a signal that tells the strength of the magnetic field … and it fluctuates, but it’s always within this range. And in 2001, all of a sudden, there was a big spike in this field, and scientists said, ‘Well, you know, what happened to the magnetic field of the Earth to create this change?’ They overlaid the data onto the calendar, and it’s probably no surprise to our listeners, that the date was Sept. 11, 2001. And it was 15 minutes after the first plane struck the first tower in the World Trade Center that the magnetic fields of the Earth showed this big spike. …

“That led to a series of studies that showed that it was the collective emotions of humans on this planet that had such a profound effect on the magnetic field of the Earth that our satellites, 22,000 miles above the surface, detected this change, and these scientists said, ‘Woah! That means that we are literally … part of the field that sustains the life on Earth.’ That led to a series of experiments that showed that when many people learn to create this quality of emotion inside of their hearts that the magnetic fields of the Earth convey this change to all life on Earth, and that is what I think the opportunity of our time in history is all about.”

In fact, he has this in print, in his book Fractal Time a short excerpt I found on scribd.com:

“September 2001, two geostationary operational environmental satellites (GOES) orbiting the earth detected a rise in global magnetism that forever changed the way scientists view our world and us. The GOES-8 and GOES-10 each showed a powerful spike of Earth’s magnetic-field strength in the readings they broadcast every 30 minutes. It was the magnitude of the spikes and the time they occurred that first called them to the scientists’ attention.

“From a location of about 22,300 miles above the equator, GOES-8 detected the first surge, followed by an upward trend in the readings that topped out at nearly 50 units (nanoteslas) higher than any that had been typical for the same time previously. The time was 9a.m. eastern standard time, 15 minutes after the first plane hit the World Trade Center and about 15 minutes before the second impact.”

Yes, those were long. The bottom-line claim here is that Earth’s magnetic field was altered by human emotion during the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York City. This is similar to claims by the Global Consciousness Project, but different. The nice thing is that this is highly objective data that’s easy to find and check. Which I did. I even contacted the institution that runs the GOES to get a bit of help and information (thanks to Dan Wilkinson and Ted Haberman).

For brief background, GOES are and have been many different satellites, and they are periodically launched and decommissioned as one wears out and technology advances. We’re now on GOES 11 and 13 as the main two, though GOES 12, 14, and 15 are in orbit. In September 2001, GOES 8 and 10 were in operation (it looks like there were some issues with GOES 11 at that time).

These satellites orbit at about 6.6 Earth radii from the planet, and our magnetic field extends to about 10 Earth radii, so it is correct that they can measure the magnetic field, and they do contain instruments to measure magnetic fields at their location. Though they send back data that’s binned in 5-minute intervals, not 30-minute intervals.

The data that Braden and others present at their Global Coherence Institute is the exact image below (I’m directing to their web site so you know I’m not making it up).

Global Coherence Image for GOES Data on Sept. 11, 2001

Global Coherence Image for GOES Data on Sept. 11, 2001

Looks kinda interesting. The field is varying between about 50 and 125 nT (nanoTeslas) in the four days leading up to Sept. 11, 2001, and then it spikes to 173 nT as seen from one satellite and 153 nT as seen from another. Then it seems to vary slightly more than it had in the few days after. Do we have something here? Are they making these data up?

Actually, they’re not. The data do show that spike. You can view it for yourself here for GOES 8 or here for GOES 10.

So now the logical question in evaluating this claim is, “They’re showing a week-long window. What does the field look like at other times? What’s the normal variability?” And let’s avoid any idea they might claim of contamination from the craziness of that month.

To answer that, I chose a random month and I skipped back to June 2001. The data I show below (all data is on that site, specifically downloaded from here) show that the normal variations for the magnetic field are about 60-125 nT (so that agrees with the Sept. 2001 baseline), but in this random month of June, there were spikes all the way up to 186 nT (higher than Sept. 11, 2001 by about 15 nT). Hmm.

GOES Magnetic Data, June 2001

GOES Magnetic Data, June 2001

In fact, since I have the data in my grubby little hands, I can actually do some basic statistics. The average from GOES 8 during June 2001 was 113 nT, and from GOES 10 it was 97 nT. The standard deviations were ±10.6 and ±14.6 nT, respectively. In September 2001, the averages and standard deviations were 109±14.2 nT and 95±20 nT. So they agree with each other. September 2001 was not an odd month at all.

I then chose a different random month and year, January 1998 (the Global Consciousness Project people would probably say they’d expect at least two significant events during this month, one for the new US Congress taking office and one for New Year’s Day). Or November 2007. Both of those months’ data are displayed below. The maxima were 173 for GOES 9 in January 1998 (but a minimum of only 22 nT!) and 188 nT in November 2007 with GOES 11 (there was some data drop-out in the last week of the month from GOES 10).

GOES Magnetic Data, January 1998

GOES Magnetic Data, January 1998

GOES Magnetic Data, November 2007

GOES Magnetic Data, November 2007

The inescapable conclusion at this point is – as I said before – at best it’s “window-shopping” or data-mining. At worst it’s willful deceit of their audience. As is clearly shown by these data, the September 11, 2001, “spike” in Earth’s magnetic field is not an abnormal “spike,” but rather we see fluctuations even larger than that several times a month.

Final Thoughts

This actually brings me back a bit to what I consider “fair game” in terms of skepticism and this blog. I’m okay if you want to be a creationist, a UFO believer, a new-ager, or whatever (so long as you don’t try to force your beliefs on me). But when you actually start to point towards observable, checkable evidence for your claims, it’s totally fair game. And as I’ve shown here, Braden would be much better off sticking to his random new-agey claims than trying to use science to back them up.

October 10, 2011

Making the Rounds … Another Interview of Me (with someone else, too!)

Here’s a quickie post to let anyone who is interested know that I have been interviewed by my frenemy “Parrot,” AKA “The Dumbass” (he calls himself that) for his new podcast, the Invisible Sky Monster (which I think is a thinly veiled allusion to atheism, but that’s just a hunch). I was interviewed along with Rebecca O’Neill of the Skeprechauns podcast.

The topics we discussed were highly varied, spanning things such as the organic and natural food movements, death of Steve Jobs, “alternative” medicine, the role of critical thinking in life, and womens’ place in society the amount of advocacy that we each personally feel is appropriate or not for apparent minority groups in society at large and in groups/movements (specifically related to women in skepticism, but I expanded it a bit to homosexual advocacy, too).

VERY little astronomy was discussed in this discussion, which lasts about 75 minutes, so if you’re interested in learning my views on some other things, this podcast episode is well worth a listen. Just don’t give it a 4-star rating in iTunes*.

*This will make sense if you listen to the first few minutes.

I also want to clarify my position on this last point (advocacy of minority or under-represented groups) because I don’t think I made it very well in the last 6 minutes of the episode. My personal views are ideally along the lines of “live and let live.” I think that if you push too hard for any one thing that is not an objective fact, you risk a very vocal counter-movement and appearing to be militant and intolerant yourself (since we’re talking about social interactions and groups here, that’s not an “objective fact” like Earth is round).

This does not mean that I don’t think people should be able to join whatever group they want, nor do I think that it’s “okay” that women are highly under-represented in academia or other things because of some real or perceived bias. Again, in the “live and let live” approach, ideally, there wouldn’t be any sort of bias and so there wouldn’t need to be any sort of advocacy on behalf of an under-represented group.

I think all should be welcome and all should feel free to join or not if they want to, regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, etc. But I, personally, am not a huge fan of the rallies and workshops and endless meetings of how to fix a problem that may not actually exist. And I say this as a member of an under-represented group, one that is actively discriminated against by the majority.

October 9, 2011

Podcast Episode 7 (BONUS) Is Up – Apollo Moon Hoax Live Talk

Filed under: apollo moon hoax,podcast — Stuart Robbins @ 10:39 am

This is a quick post to let you know that episode seven has been posted of my “Exposing PseudoAstronomy” podcast. This is an off-bimonthly episode, so it’s a bonus, and it’s long (about an hour). It’s a live recording of my ~50-minute talk at the Colorado Springs Skepticamp from August, 2011. Enjoy!

October 8, 2011

Why Movies Need Scientist Advisors – Transformers: Dark of the Moon


Never played with the toys, never watched the cartoons, never read the comics, never had any interest in them. But tonight I watched the Transformers: Dark of the Moon movie. It was intriguing, impressive CGI, somewhat boring plot but it did have enough twists and good looking actors to keep me interested. I found it entertaining for what it was worth. I am perfectly happy suspending my disbelief to enjoy some mindless entertainment for a few hours, especially after a long work week that will continue after I wake up in the morning.

But that suspension of disbelief only goes so far, especially when they are stupid little things that the writers/directors/special effects people get just plain wrong. It’s stupid, really really stupid, to get these things wrong, especially when they wouldn’t have affected the plot in any way. It shows pure laziness on the part of these people, and it demonstrates that they unfortunately don’t seem to care enough about the intelligence of their audience to worry about checking things.

I’ll warn you up-front, this post is a bit of a rant. This post is also why I’m part of the US National Academy of Sciences “Science and Entertainment Exchange” program that pairs real scientists with real writers and directors to act as advisors in these cases (I’ve already been tapped twice for some interesting projects!).

With that said, let’s see what Michael Bay got wrong. (Note: SPOILER ALERT.)

Opening Sequences

The movie opens with some pretty nice archival footage mixed with modern actors dealing with the Apollo 11 launch and landings. Unfortunately, there are a few things wrong with the sequence of Apollo 11 on the moon. I’m actually fine with Buzz and Neil losing contact with the public to start their whole secret mission thing (even though that didn’t happen in real life). Again, suspension of disbelief for the sake of the movie. My problem, though, is two-fold.

First, there are stars in the background. It seems that every movie* special effects director wants to put stars in the sky from the moon. After all, it’s black sky so it must be night so there must be stars, right? And they are on the “dark side” of the moon … but that’s later on and I’ll get back to it. As I cover in this post, no stars were easily visible to the naked eye because it was daytime. If Earth didn’t have an atmosphere, we would have a black sky during the day and still not be able to see stars.

The second issue I have with the sequence is that the astronauts are clearly on the moon early in the morning, as evidenced by long shadows cast (could be late evening, but they actually did land during early morning). At 5 minutes 45 seconds into the movie, they “lose contact” to go on their secret mission, and the movie has a Walter Cronkite impersonator state, “We now have had confirmation of loss of signal from the Apollo 11. The Apollo 11 is at the moment on the far side of the moon.”

This statement is insane. First, it’s wrong historically. Second, we would not be able to have any contact with Apollo if it were on the far side – the side facing away from us – because there would be no way to get the signal from them to Earth. We would never have sent people there without any way to contact them. Third, they claim they’re on the far side, but then they pan out and you can clearly see Earth bright and somewhat high in the lunar sky from the astronauts’ location. If they were on the far side, you know, that whole side facing away from Earth, you would not be able to see Earth. ‘Cause you’re facing away and you have the rest of the moon between you and the planet.

Then there’s the issue of equating this with the dark side, but I’ll get to that in the next section. I’m not even going to get into the fact they have sound on the moon where there isn’t any atmosphere to propagate the sound, for that would be a third point and I said I only had to big issues with this sequence.

These are things they could have easily gotten right and it would not have in any way detracted from the movie.

*Yes, I know there are a few that get it right, like 2001. But let’s be fair here — the VAST majority get it wrong.

More Missions

Another short WRONG statement was about how all the other NASA missions collected more stuff from the cybertronian ship that they found on the moon. Historically this is simply wrong because the Apollo sites landed in different places all on the near side of the Moon. We have had orbital photographs of all the Apollo landing sites now for over two years, we know where they landed, and they were not in the same place.

If you want to somehow argue that Apollo were just the public ones and there were secret missions, well, think of how much of a noise (literally and figuratively) it made when Apollo was launched. Or the basic fact that the soviets were spying on us just as much as we on them and would have raised hell if we had a launch we didn’t tell them about it.

Again, this was a statement that did not need to be made at all because it didn’t add to the movie, it just took away.

Dark Side ≠ Far Side

Apparently the writers of this movie never read my blog, for I addressed this issue in one of my very first posts. I also addressed it in my first podcast episode.

At 58 minutes in, Sam (our hero) states that an engineer “may have messed with the code preventing [the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter] from mapping the far side of the moon, which is also the dark side.” Seriously? I mean, the movie was fine with the plot point that the guy was working for the Decepticons (yes, the bad guys are called “Decepticons”) and was killed after they didn’t need him and he did something to a satellite so that we couldn’t find the crashed spaceship. There was absolutely no need to add the WRONG clause about the dark side being the far side other than to show further willful ignorance.

Or a statement that we couldn’t map an entire half of the moon? I think someone would have figured out very early on that there was a problem with the software or hardware. This would not be a hidden thing. (And for the record, the Lunar Reconnaissance Oribter maps the entire lunar surface about once per month with its wide-angle camera.)

It’s also plainly wrong when we go back to that opening sequence where they (wrongly) state Apollo 11 is on the far side of the moon, but they show the astronauts in sunlight and casting shadows. Obviously, the far side is not the dark side.

Unfortunately, throughout the movie they make this mistake, compounding it by equating the two as opposed to just using them interchangeably. Using them interchangeably would still be wrong, it’s just less obvious and slightly more forgivable. For example, I could say at one time, “My favorite food is Doritos.” I could say another time, “My favorite food is ice cream.” Obviously one is not correct, but it’s somewhat forgivable hyperbole. Instead, the movie effectively says, “My favorite food is Doritos, which is ice cream.” Seriously, that’s what Sam’s statement is like.

Another time they equate these is during the meeting with the former Russian cosmonaut where he states that Luna 3 photographed the “dark side, the shadow side” and saw “nothing.” Duh. It’s in shadow. Night. Except the photos he’s holding up clearly show a late-afternoon or early-morning shot based on shadow lengths (morning/afternoon dependent upon which way is north). Then he said hat Lunar 4 did see the ship. It’s just … wrong! ANY astronomer would have told them to simply replace “dark” with “far.” Not that hard. Would not have taken away anything from the movie.

Final Thoughts

Okay, now that that rant is over, I feel a little better. The whole point of this post is that you can have a perfectly good movie that loses nothing by making sure that the basic science is right and not stupidly wrong. If you’re going to break science, do it intelligently and for a good reason. I am perfectly willing to suspend disbelief for the story (like in this case that we have intelligent, sentient machines locked in a long civil war that’s now playing out on Earth).

But when the writers show absolute laziness by making kindergarden mistakes with basic things like the dark versus far side of the moon, it detracts from the entire experience, shows that they are not being intelligent, and it shows that they don’t respect the intelligence of their audience. Even Leonard Nimoy’s voice could not overcome it.

To end with a quote of Isaac Asimov, “The most common mistake a science fiction writer makes is to downgrade science. Now, these days particularly, many science fiction writers have very little to do with science, and many science fiction stories have very little to do with science. But whether a science fiction story has science or not, it is impossible to write a good one if you are completely ignorant of science. You will make mistakes even when you think science isn’t involved. … There are other science fiction shows in which it is quite clear that the writers and the producer know nothing about science and don’t care and that shows, too, and it is impossible to be a self-respecting viewer and accept it.” (emphasis mine)

October 6, 2011

The Cult of Apple, and Steve Jobs

Filed under: cults,doomsday,ufo — Stuart Robbins @ 3:42 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , ,


Everyone seems to be talking about Steve Jobs’ death yesterday (Wednesday, October 5, 2011). Even President Obama. I figured that there was absolutely nothing I could add to the discussion that was in any way related to Apple or Steve Jobs, but then I thought about the whole cult angle.

We rarely see cults in regards to astronomy, geology, or physics, but they do occasionally crop up. The Heaven’s Gate cult – the group that committed suicide because they believed a space ship was behind Comet Hale-Bopp – is the one most often cited for astronomy “what’s the harm?” questions.

I thought I’d give my readers my opinion about cults, what qualifies as a cult, and whether anything going on now-a-days in astronomy would qualify in my opinion.

First, on Apple and Me

I’m a Mac guy. A friend in college called me the “Mac Daddy” and I was effectively her tech support. I was the Mac club’s secretary for a year and VP another year. I have owned three Apple laptops and two Apple desktops in this millennium, and I have owned two iPod classics, two nanos, and one Touch. I will very likely be getting an iPad version 3 when it comes out next year. I have a few t-shirts (all given to me for free) and one jacket (again, free). I use two Microsoft programs only (Word and Excel) except I had to load up Windows via Parallels for the work I do since GIS products on the Mac are absolutely horrible.

That said, I do not consider myself “in the cult of Apple / Steve Jobs.” Why? I’ll get into the exact reasons a bit more specifically below, but for now, there are several reasons. Mainly, I am not blinded by devotion to the brand/products.

I find many faults with the software: I hate how 10.7 is merging with the iOS as I’m a power user and need actual access to things other than “apps;” I don’t like the whole “apps” shortening; iAm sick of iPrefixes; Apple’s version of a lot of software (Aperture, Pages, Numbers) I think is a poor substitute for the other brands.

I find faults with the hardware, mainly the price and subsequent huge profit margin for Apple (their RAM is well over 2x as expensive as any competition). And their veil of secrecy and tactics to maintain it are obnoxious and may be illegal (that whole thing where Apple employees convinced the SF PD to get them to someone’s house where they searched for a missing prototype thing? I hope the guy wins a massive settlement).

I put all that there because I wanted to lay my cards on the table. I’m a fan of Apple products, but I find them far from perfect and I do not consider Steve Jobs – alive or dead – my Dear Leader.

What’s a Cult?

Many people smarter than I and actually having degrees rather than a four-fifths-finished minor in psychology have studied and written about cults. I’ll direct you RationalWiki for a more thorough discussion if you’re interested.

In the end, though, it’s a spectrum. And different people have different definitions and different qualifiers for when they consider something to be a cult. For example, at what point is a system of beliefs a “religion” versus a “cult?” In the play and movie “Angels in America,” the line goes something like, “Any religion younger than a few thousand years is just a cult” (that was paraphrased, I don’t remember the exact line). Many Christians still consider Mormons to be a cult*, and I know at least one Jew who considers Christians to be a cult.

*Edited to Add: A day after I wrote this blog post, this article was in the New York Times: Perry Ally Calls Mormonism ‘a Cult’.

In my book, though, I look for a few specific things:

  • Is there a charismatic leader who people believe without thought?
  • Do they try to isolate you from anyone outside of it?
  • Do they have different beliefs at different levels, especially those inside versus outside?

That’s really it — I look for three things. I try to keep it simple. I know on some lists there are over 60. Maybe a fourth on my list would be “are former members talked incredibly negatively about, to the point of encouraging harmful acts against them?”

Now, granted, MANY of other peoples’ items fit into my first, such as “the leader is always right,” “the leader is beyond reproach,” “the leader has a direct line of communication with the divine,” “the leader’s dictates are absolute” … that sort of thing.

When you put these together, no, I was/am not in a cult. And I think very few people would ever consider Apple to be a legitimate cult under most psychological/social definitions of a cult.

Are There Astronomy-Related Cults Today?

I’m sure there are a few VERY small ones out there. They will usually crop up around a predicted astronomical event that is observed, such as what happened with Hale-Bopp. People who follow the idea of the “Hopi Blue Star Prophecy” may possibly qualify, in time, if a leader emerges to capitalize on it. However, I think that this type of cult could be lumped into the category of general “doomsday cults,” it just so happens that there’s something in the sky that is part of their belief system.

UFO cults actually occasionally crop up, though even those would rarely fit more than one of the criteria I look for. These usually center around a single individual or pair who claim to have had an extraterrestrial encounter. Their story touches people and the people giving the story are usually highly charismatic and seem sincere.

Betty and Barney Hill are a good example, where for many years, despite their story changing, people believed everything they said. Even today, they have a “sort of” cult following where people think that they represent the most convincing evidence for alien abductions. This is despite that later in life they were highly marginalized by the UFO community, to the point where Betty Hill was nearly jeered off the stage at a convention several years ago.

Final Thoughts

If you’ve made it this far, pat yourself on the back. This post was more a stream-of-consciousness and thanks for coming along for the ride.

Getting back to the beginning and the news du jour, I think that Steve Jobs co-founded a great company, brought it back from the brink of failure in the mid-1990s, and oversaw some amazing product developments. I hope that Apple will be able to continue to innovate as before even without his leadership.

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