Exposing PseudoAstronomy

January 28, 2012

Talks at Science Conferences Doesn’t Mean They’re Science


Introduction

My work load is starting to diminish from the 80 hrs/week as I prepare to head off to, um, “lovely” Houston next week for a conference on Early Solar System Bombardment (as in big chunks of rocks hitting other, bigger chunks of rocks).

The small conference – such that it’s called a “workshop” officially – has all the abstracts posted online, and I was browsing and downloading them today. I then came across abstract #4008, entitled, “Questions About Lunar Origin.” It’s by Fred S. Singer, and he’ll be talking about it on Wednesday evening during the poster session.

Innocuous Title

The title itself is fairly innocuous, and scientists know that there are questions about how the moon formed the way it did. Of course, if this were like “Intelligent Design” and their “teach the controversy,” then Singer would likely advocate teaching students that there is just as much evidence that the moon was (1) captured, (2) formed in Earth orbit originally, (3) was flung off Earth, (4) was formed when a Mars-sized object hit Earth, or (5) was put here by space aliens.

But I get ahead of myself.

Reading the Abstract

First off, the abstract is not in standard format. Almost all the rest of us put our abstracts in the same, required format by the conference, but there are always some people who think they’re special and don’t have to do what the rest of us do. But I’m not bitter or anything.

The abstract, I think, can be classified as a rant. The first three paragraphs read like a “Woe to the people who accept the impact hypothesis of lunar formation, but if you do …”

The remainder is a list of “12” questions that actually have many questions within them where he basically shows that he does not know how science operates. They read like “… well how do you explain THIS?! Huh!?”

I’m not going to bore you with reiterating everything from his two-page abstract, but I want to point out a few examples just to give you an idea of how pseudoscience works. This is really one of the first very clear-cut examples I’ve seen where someone is arguing about astronomy who is not a creationist in a very creationist way – by pointing out examples of apparent contradiction or lack of consensus in the literature as a way to argue that it’s all wrong, no one knows what they’re talking about, therefore he’s correct.

Example 1

3. At what stage of terrestrial accretion does the hypothetical impact occur? Early or late? Different papers give different answers.

4. What is the mass of the impactor? Twice lunar or more like that of Mars? Different papers give different answers.

These “two” questions are clear examples of, first, not citing your sources (he refers to “different papers give different answers” but he does not give those different answers nor does he list those different papers). Second, it’s pointing out what could sound like major issues to someone who does not know about the subject, but to those that do, it just seems silly.

For #3, the answer is “we don’t know” but we do have constraints. Dating of lunar rocks puts the moon’s formation at no later than 4.527 billion years ago (source). The age I’ve seen for Earth is about 4.54 billion years old (source). Quibbling over whether this was early or late-stage terrestrial accretion (when the planets formed) to me does not seem to actually be an issue in the literature. Hence why it’d be nice to see his “different papers.”

For #4, the canonical mass I’ve always heard is “Mars-sized.” Mars is about 45% the diameter of Earth, while the moon is around 25%. If they were the same density (they’re not), then the mass difference would be the ratio of their diameters cubed (0.45/0.25)^3 ≈ 5.8x different). Mars is actually 10.7% the mass of Earth while the moon is 1.2% Earth’s mass … meaning that Mars is 8.7x the mass of the moon.

Fred is arguing that the factor of 4.4x in range (2x Moon to 1x Mars) is apparently a major issue here. It’s not. There is absolutely no way to know the mass of the original impactor. The range comes about because of different potential impact models (I assume … if I had his “different papers” then I could look). If you have a different velocity or impact angle, you need a different initial mass. If you have a different initial mass for Earth, you’ll need a different mass for the impactor. A difference of a factor of 5x does not seem to me to be a deal killer.

Example 2

6. What happens to the splashed-out material from the impact; how many particles escape and how many return on ballistic orbits? Whence comes the angular momentum for a bound lunar orbit? How and where does “captured” material assemble and what exactly is the initial lunar orbit?

Asking “this” question is missing the point. Dr. Singer has had a varied career in science over the years, but from reading this question I doubt he’s ever done any N-body modeling (the kind of code where you have many particles and you simulate how they interact). If he had, then the question about “how many particles escape” is nonsensical. For example, if you had a simulation with 1 million particles and 10,000 escaped and 50,000 returned on ballistic orbits and the rest did something else, then I just gave you the numbers there. But then if you ran a simulation with 10 million particles you’ll get a completely different answer. Maybe he means “how many” in terms of a fraction?

The “how and where” of the moon’s formation in the impact hypothesis is a head-scratcher. The answer has pretty much always been that it “assembles” in orbit of Earth, actually fairly close to the planet, and the “how” is through normal processes of agglomeration (stuff hits other stuff and sticks).

The exact initial lunar orbit is kinda like a creationist asking, “What was the exact functionality and makeup of the very first cell?” We don’t know, but we can make educated guesses based on modeling and observations of what we see now. He’s asking unanswerable questions in their specificity, but ones that have been answered to most peoples’ general satisfaction.

Final Thoughts

The point of this post is to teach a little astronomy while also pointing out, as the title suggests, that presence at a science conference does not mean what you’re doing is science. Creationists actually have a habit these days of going to geology conferences, presenting something, and then coming back and saying, “See! We presented at a scientific conference even!”

Similarly, this is not to imply that there are no questions about the moon’s origin (as I mentioned above), nor observations that do not fit with the “Big Splash” model that is currently in favor. If you want to bring those points up, that’s fine. But going back and asking questions that are already answered, or cannot possibly be answered to your desired specificity, is not the way to argue your case.

And look, I got through that entire thing without mentioning that Dr. Singer is also a climate change denier.

Update: Singer was the only person to present today who was a no-show. No him, no poster.

12 Comments »

  1. The only thing you’re wrong about is you aren’t getting ahead of yourself. I don’t know the origin of our moon, but do know it has/had some out of this world inhabitants. Will you watch some of the testimony of disclosureproject.org? Many people privy to photos of the lunar probes say they firsthandedly saw buildings and structures that were unquestionably built by intelligent beings. The only more credible sources would have to be the E.T.’s themselves, and I don’t think they speak very good English🙂 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ud49Gh9yYLs ——http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kpHAxxRKksQ
    -Jared Lieberman(another inquisitive thinker)

    Comment by todenyistolie — January 28, 2012 @ 11:12 pm | Reply

    • Jared, as this is your first post on my blog, your comment is fine to go through. But in the future, please be aware that my comments policy is that comments should be on-topic.

      Comment by Stuart Robbins — January 28, 2012 @ 11:15 pm | Reply

  2. Dr. Singer is definitely using classic pseudo-science techniques to “prove” his point. Saying there are questions about the Moon’s origin does not mean aliens put it there (you were much too gentle in not going after him for that one). Your analogy with Creationism is quite correct. The assumption is that if we don’t know something for absolute certainty, then some deity (or alien, which can be thought of as the same thing in some circles) was responsible.

    How did Dr. Singer actually get invited to this conference anyway?

    Comment by Chris L — January 29, 2012 @ 9:16 am | Reply

    • Most conferences in my field are not an invite-only thing. You just submit an abstract by the deadline, and you register.

      Comment by Stuart Robbins — January 29, 2012 @ 11:38 am | Reply

  3. Stuart –

    You love to tear apart and make a living off refuting obvious bs, amateur science, nazis in the north pole, planet x’s, hollow earth theory, etc etc …. how about taking on a true scientist – Rupert Sheldrake.

    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Science-Delusion-Rupert-Sheldrake/dp/1444727923

    “Product Description
    The science delusion is the belief that science already understands the nature of reality. The fundamental questions are answered, leaving only the details to be filled in. In this book, Dr Rupert Sheldrake, one of the world’s most innovative scientists, shows that science is being constricted by assumptions that have hardened into dogmas. The ‘scientific worldview’ has become a belief system. All reality is material or physical. The world is a machine, made up of dead matter. Nature is purposeless. Consciousness is nothing but the physical activity of the brain. Free will is an illusion. God exists only as an idea in human minds, imprisoned within our skulls.
    Sheldrake examines these dogmas scientifically, and shows persuasively that science would be better off without them: freer, more interesting, and more fun.”

    Comment by Bruce — January 30, 2012 @ 3:51 am | Reply

    • Sheldrake fits your definition of a “true scientist?” Also, please point to any money I have made doing this. I sure haven’t seen it.

      Comment by Stuart Robbins — January 30, 2012 @ 10:19 am | Reply

      • Yeah, Sheldrake fits my description of a true scientist. I will assume by your facetiousness, that he does not fit yours; therefore he should be fodder for your debunking efforts. Have at him, Monsieur Robbins.

        Sorry to hear you haven’t been able to cash in. I guess there’s no money in proving obvious bs is bs. Yet, the truth has its own rewards, which if you doth speaketh the truth, you should be reaping, by the bucketfuls,

        Comment by Bruce — January 30, 2012 @ 4:13 pm

      • That is correct, I do not consider someone who talks about psychic dogs and morphic fields that enable us to all be telepathic and pursues this without regard for criticism, and then proceeds to write a book where most worlds’ scientists are wrong, to be a “real” scientist who follows the normal rules of evidence.

        Comment by Stuart Robbins — January 30, 2012 @ 9:47 pm

  4. You should invite Sheldrake to do some podcast debate/discussion. He’s a nice fellow & may oblige. It would be most interesting, more so than an aliens living beneath Mt Shasta podcast. They haven’t been there for years! 😉

    Comment by Bruce — January 31, 2012 @ 4:52 am | Reply

  5. Stuart,

    Wouldn’t it be better if you had waited to hear the whole conference of Dr. Singer before posting this example of science wrongdoing?

    Furthermore, calling someone a “climate change denier” isn’t either a fine example of scientific behavior.

    Congratulations on your blog and your podcast. Please don’t spoil it.

    Comment by Manuel — January 31, 2012 @ 8:03 am | Reply

    • Two things — first, I will be looking at his poster when he has it up tomorrow night. This is a workshop where there will be <50 presentations with no parallel sessions and so I can actually see everything. But, while his poster may tell a different story, his abstract certainly reads as I explained in this post. It's also his abstract that will last, being forever in the archived system, while his poster will be up for just a few hours.

      Second, at this point, climate change evidence is so overwhelming that saying it isn't happening gets into the realm of denial. Calling someone a "climate change denier" is not a scientific term, I never claimed it was. But not believing any of the research and results at this point is about at the same level as not believing in evolution.

      Comment by Stuart Robbins — January 31, 2012 @ 12:19 pm | Reply

  6. Update: Singer did not show today.

    Comment by Stuart Robbins — February 1, 2012 @ 7:05 pm | Reply


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