Exposing PseudoAstronomy

August 23, 2012

Where Do Scientists Get Funded

Filed under: astronomy,conspiracy theories,misconceptions — Stuart Robbins @ 8:08 pm
Tags: , ,


As Mike Bara suspected, I am listening to his interview right now on American Freedom Radio, and yes Mike, I appreciate the minor plug, but I find it fascinating that you think I’m obsessed with you. I have nearly 300 posts on this blog and a whopping half-dozen have to do with you, and all but one are just related to this ziggurat thing. Unless you were talking about Expat, for whom I can’t speak and don’t pretend to.

Anyway, I expect to get a small handful of folks coming here due to Mike’s radio appearance tonight, and I wanted to put up a quick post that I will respond to his 5-part post within a day or three. But in the meantime, Mike spent several minutes saying that I could not be objective about this because I’m funded by NASA.

I’ll respond to that momentarily. Meanwhile, Mike, where does your money come from? You’re getting paid for your books about this stuff, going to and speaking at conferences about this stuff, getting out there through radio appearances, getting paid to talk about your ideas on the History channel … do you honestly think that makes YOU an objective person with regards to your ideas? This thing works both ways if you really want to play the “follow the money” conspiracy game.

Where Astronomers Get Funding

For hundreds of years, science in the western world was made possible by rich folks (usually white men) who could afford to not have to earn a living based on their academic endeavors. Sometimes they were lucky in another way and were able to carry out research on the side of a teaching job at a university or other center of learning.

Later on, some got lucky in a different way and had rich patrons — noblemen, dukes, kings, etc. — who would indulge them and pay for their research and equipment because it increased their own status (“Oh yeah, Harry, well you may have 50 servants but I have my own astronomer!”). Kepler and Brahe are two examples of this case.

It’s really only in the last hundred years or so that governments themselves decided that it was for the collective good of society that they fund research. Thus, they set up institutions and grants and ways of giving public funds to those who presented the most likely chances of both success and adding something significant to our understanding of the universe we live in. And I’m not just talking astronomy here: Health, biology, environment, geology, physics, chemistry, all those other fields fit within our understanding of the universe, some just a little closer to home and of more immediate benefit.

Fast-forward to today in this incredibly abridged history and most governments have a fairly heavy bureaucracy in place to do this. In the United States, the vast majority of research astronomers have one main funding source: U.S. government grants that are mostly awarded through the Science Mission Directorate section of NASA in one of four main areas: Human exploration, astrophysics, Earth science, and solar system / planetary.

Yes, there are some other funding sources such as NSF (National Science Foundation) or individual companies – or universities if you’re teaching faculty – but the vast majority comes from NASA, an official government agency, which of course gives conspiracists all the ammo they need to argue their case fallaciously (see the section below).

Now, I realize this might come as a shock to those who are conspiracy-minded or anti-government, and you probably won’t believe me, but no where do we have to sign some sort of loyalty oath to uphold “NASA’s views” of [insert whatever]. In fact, as an organization, NASA has very few views on, really, anything; NASA is a government agency charged with space flight and funding research, not charged with being a Gateway through which Knowledge Must Pass®. As in, whenever I hear James McCanney’s bio read on Coast to Coast, I cringe whenever I hear the part of, “He’s openly opposed NASA’s view that comets are hunks of ice and rock …” Seriously folks — NASA has “no views” on that sort of thing.

I suppose there are some official positions that have come out of the PR department like global warming, though. And sometimes certain political appointees decide to insert their own censorship (such as the Bush administration did).

Anyway, my point here is that if Mike Bara would like to find some private funding for my research, I’d be more than happy to take it. I have never tried to make it a secret that I’m funded in part by a NASA grant I wrote in 2010 as a graduate student, and before that by a fellowship I wrote in 2007. In fact, I’m quite proud of the fact that I won two very competitive grants (one admittedly FOR graduate students) before I even had my doctorate. I also have some funding directly through NASA’s Lunar Science Institute to fund my lunar crater research through CosmoQuest’s “MoonMappers” project. The only stuff I had to sign was that I had no foreign nationals who would get the money.

Again, not something I’ve ever tried to hide. Yet Mike’s argument against my analysis of his ziggurat seems to be: “His education was funded by NASA, and all his grant $$$$$ comes from NASA. Fact.”

Mike, please find an example of a professional astronomer today whose education and/or current research was/is not funded by a research grant from NASA. They’re as rare as a two-leaf clover. They exist, but they are very rare.

And then of course, again, your money these days sure seems to come from your lunar anomalies and so-called consciousness stuff. That’s supposed to make you more objective than I on this kind of issue?

Reminder: Ad Hominems, Non Sequiturs, Argument from Persecution

A non sequitur literally means “doesn’t follow.” I’ve mentioned this briefly before, I’m sure, but discovery of life off-world would be a huge boon to NASA or any other space organization or company that found it. P.R. is written for the next few hundred years, and money would flow. If I were “a NASA shill,” I would be arguing FOR there being life out there. I actually, personally, have written before that I think astrobiology is a bit of a pseudoscience because it is never falsifiable (“oh, we just couldn’t detect it WITH THAT TEST, but it’s still probably there!”). Of course, the conspiracists would dismiss this as me just lying to serve my overlords, but facts never stood in conspiracists’ way.

To those who do not know, an ad hominem attack is when someone attacks the person rather than the claims. The claims may be valid, they may be invalid, but the other person is only attacking the person and not actually addressing the root questions being asked. Mike is doing this.

Finally, the argument from persecution is where someone says, effectively, “If I’m wrong, then these people wouldn’t be arguing against me and hate me, therefore, because they are arguing against me, I must be right!” Like the ad hominem, this particular non sequitur fallacy does not address the claim on its merits but instead tries to bolster the person’s claim based on the perceived reaction of someone else. Sometimes this manifests as the “Galileo complex.”

Addendum Added 3 Hrs Later

I was just skimming Mike’s Part 1 before bed and he makes a few accusations which I think need to be addressed here. Mainly (1) that I’m charging time I spend writing these posts to work time, and (2) that I’m using work equipment to do so.

The exact quotes:

In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if he was able to respond so quickly and extensively to my posts because he was writing on his personal blog using taxpayer or university funded equipment and internet access while he was supposed to be working!

(Note: 8/16/2012; this suspicion was confirmed when Dr. Robbins posted his latest update today at 3:45PM, the middle of the work day. It obviously must have taken him at least a couple of hours to write this up. I’m wondering which government funded project you charged these hours of work on your personal blog to, Stuart)?

Since these are actually very specific things that we must certify we will NOT do with NASA-funded equipment, I think it’s important and it be addressed.

As I’ve written when interviewed before, I’m a postdoc and set my own hours. I can work 8PM-10PM and then 1AM-5AM one “day,” then 10AM-11PM another. I can take a break from what I do and address this stuff if someone sends me an e-mail about it and I want to take a break and address it. And, I work primarily from home, going into the university maybe once a month during the summer and a few times a week during the school year for meetings, seminars, etc.

The fact that I may choose to wake up at 10AM one day, work from 10:30-2:00, take a break for 3 hours to address the latest pseudoscience, and then go back to work from 5PM to 11:30PM is a far cry from “confirmation” that I’m doing anything illegal with NASA funds. In fact, I keep ridiculously thorough records of all time spent working on each grant as well as time spent doing education and public outreach (EPO) stuff (this blog and podcast). As a postdoc, EPO factors in up to 5% of my annual review, which is available via public records request, and so I like to be able to say I spent a fair amount of time working on it. If I get promoted to Research Scientist II or ever get a faculty position, EPO (on our own time) is a significantly larger fraction of our evaluations (up to 40% here at LASP for a level IV).

A retraction from Mike should be in order, but the likelihood of it coming is miniscule.


1 Comment »

  1. As far as the accusation Mike Bara aimed at you about how you use your time and equipment, I think he was mainly trying to cast doubt on you by using ad hominems to distract from the fact that you kept knocking down all his arguments, one after another, by using evidence to back up what you said, while he had nothing but his word to support his assertions. So I guess it was really his “poisoning the well”, with maybe a slim hope that your boss might see what he said and fire you for misuse of funds. Interesting thought: he first accuses you of being unreliable for being paid by NASA, then he tries to use that fact to lamely attempt to get you defunded. He sounded really desperate after a while, since insults and Gish galloping didn’t make you to leave him alone about the ziggurat. He milked his disagreement with you as long as it was useful for sales of his (then) new book, then blew you off as not worth his time anymore. Sadly, one has to admire his skills at self-promotion and marketing. I hope you managed to convince a few people not to give him money.

    Comment by Rick K. — April 20, 2013 @ 11:10 pm | Reply

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