Exposing PseudoAstronomy

October 28, 2012

When You Worry that Any Bone Tossed Will Set Off Conspiracists: NASA Video on Fomalhaut b


Sorry the blog’s been a bit bare lately. As mentioned in my podcast, I’ve been very busy the last two months. Hopefully things will die down a bit in mid- to late-November after most of my stuff is due, such as three faculty applications.

Anyway, this is just a short, fun, and scary post ’bout a video that NASA’s animation group recently posted: “Zombie Fomalhaut b: Study of Hubble Data Revives a ‘Dead’ Exoplanet.”


For those of you who live outside of normal society, three days from today is October 30, my father’s birthday, and the day after that is October 31, the Big Candy holiday of Halloween. The dead and scary and related are celebrated and ultra-conservative Christians protest it as worshipping a guy named Stan. Or maybe they left out the “a” and meant Satan. Anyway …

Fomalhaut b

Fomalhaut is a star – a rather bright star as seen from Earth that’s about 25 light-years away. It made headlines in 2008 with the potential discovery of an actually imaged planet around the star. Following convention, the planet was termed Fomalhaut b.

Fomalhaut b

Fomalhaut b

However, controversy came earlier this year when, despite the apparent solid observations in visible light, it was difficult if not impossible to be seen in infrared light. It should have been prominent in IR light (which is where most people actually go for direct-exoplanet imaging) because planets are “warm” and so glow relatively brightly in the IR while stars are much brighter in the visible. Hence, the lack of an IR detection raised some significant issues.

But, a recent reanalysis shows that it probably is real, it’s just smaller than previously thought. And follow-up observations are being made. That’s what you can get from the neat-o 2 min 08 sec video I linked to.


If you watch the video, it’s obviously meant to be humorous and in the spirit common to Halloween in the US. But, if you watch the last 10 seconds, they show a disk-shaped 1950s-style UFO passing by Earth.

Yes, obviously it’s meant to be Halloween-y. But I guess when you’ve been listening to and watching conspiracy people for any length of time, you worry that ANY sort of thing like this from any “official” government body, especially NASA, is going to be latched onto and taken as an admission or a leak or whatever to support their ideas.

Take John Glenn. He appeared on an episode of Frasier and he stated:

“Back in those glory days, I was very uncomfortable when they asked us to say things we didn’t want to say and deny other things. Some people asked, you know, were you alone out there? We never gave the real answer, and yet we see things out there, strange things, but we know what we saw out there. And we couldn’t really say anything. The bosses were really afraid of this, they were afraid of the War of the Worlds type stuff, and about panic in the streets. So, we had to keep quiet. And now we only see these things in our nightmares or maybe in the movies, and some of them are pretty close to being the truth.”

Richard C. Hoagland, Face-on-Mars-guy extraordinaire, has used this many times to support his conspiracy claims. And yet, if you actually WATCH the episode, the entire point was to show the comedy of an argument between two of the show’s main characters, Roz and Frasier, that they are so self-absorbed in their own squabbling that they miss the sensational statement by John Glenn.

Conspiracists such as Hoagland, Mike Bara, or David Wilcock miss the entire point that this was a scripted show and not an off-the-cuff admission of ET life. Expat over at the Dork Mission blog has a good summary and goes into a bit more detail about this than I do above.

Final Thoughts

To return to my point, the NASA video is funny, and it shows how science works: This is a process of finding evidence to support a claim, testing it, and trying to figure out what’s really going on. The video was released just a few days ago obviously in the spirit of a US holiday. But just as the Frasier show was clearly scripted comedy but was used by UFO nuts, I worry that a few animation guys having fun may also be used by conspiracy / UFO folks to support their own claims.


October 16, 2012

Podcast #53: Lunar Formation and Origins

This was a listener-requested episode, how the moon formed. There isn’t too much pseudoscience in this one, though a few references are made to misconceptions in Mike Bara’s new book. And some misunderstandings by Bob Novella from episode 350 of The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe podcast.

Since I was trying to get this episode out quickly, several of the normal segments are not present, but I did have a bit of another run-in with David Nabhan, the very “passionate” guy from episode 50 on lunatic earthquakes. If you have maybe 10-15 minutes to kill, I highly recommend reading the exchange starting part-way down that thread on October 4.

October 11, 2012

A Post About Not Posts – NASA Grant Review Panels and Confidentiality


I was recently asked to serve on a NASA grant review panel. What that means is that I’m expected to independently read several scientific proposals (ideally within my area or remotely within my area of expertise), write up what I think of them and whether I think they should be funded, and then fly to Washington, D.C., to meet with other people and as a group, over the course of a week, make a recommendation to the program officer about what should be funded.

I was planning to do a series of blog posts talking about this process — the details of how it works, as I was going through it. I thought it would be helpful to everyone to understand how it works — both the general public and young scientists. The plan was to anonymize everything.

When I ran this by the program manager, I was told that the desire for confidentiality was paramount, and he was not comfortable with me blogging about it. Hence, I’m making this post, before the panel meets, to avoid any tainting by that, and to describe why I won’t be blogging about it.


I can immediately hear conspiracy theorists screaming that I’m a NASA stooge, that NASA wants to keep everything secret, that it’s public money so taxpayers should be able to know every detail of the process, etc. Here’s why that’s not true, and why everything needs to be kept confidential. You’ll notice that I haven’t even said what grant review panel I’m on.

Confidentiality – Good for the Reviewers

Let’s say I review a proposal. Let’s say I think it’s absolutely horrible and I detail an enormous numbers of flaws in it and I submit that to the panel. Now let’s say that my review is made public.

Remember: These are my peers. Of the proposals I’ve been asked to review, I know pretty much at least one person on the proposal personally (I’ve met them before or worked with them, or something like that). So from the start, it could obviously hurt any interpersonal relationships.

Remember: These are my peers. In science, we have peer-review before anything gets published. Let’s say that that person whose proposal I panned is a reviewer on a paper I submit a year later, or even an editor at the journal I submitted the paper to. Even though everyone usually tries to be as objective as possible, it’s hard to believe that a public criticism of their proposal by me would not affect their review of my paper. Keep in mind that these proposals for NASA research grants are in the neighborhood of $100,000 requests per year, and the grants usually go for 3 or 4 years (my last proposal was for a 3-year, $448,000 grant).

Or let’s say that in three years, I apply to their school or institution for a job. Even if they are not on the search committee or not directly involved in the hiring, they can still easily affect others’ views of me.

Now let’s say that I give the proposal glowing reviews. I tell the panel that if this proposal is funded, it will change our views of the universe in a fundamental way, this person is the next Einstein, huge paradigm shifts, etc. I argue with everyone and adamantly state that it should be funded. And that review is made public.

The same scenarios happen, only in the opposite way. That person would no longer see me for my research, but that I gave them a good review and helped them (maybe) to get money to fund their research. They would be biased towards me as opposed to against me, and may not be able to judge me fairly against other people who may be more qualified for something. Yes, good for me, but not really fair overall.

What this really boils down to is the same thing with why peer-review of research papers is usually anonymous: Politics and personalities. It can be hard to be honest and objective in a review – especially a negative review – when you know that the person is going to see it.

Confidentiality – Good for the Proposers

At this very early point in my career (I’ve had my Ph.D. for about 18 months now), I have written 3 grant proposals as PI (Principal Investigator, meaning that I’m the one in charge, responsible for everything, and probably doing most of the work). I’ve been on 8 proposals as a Co-I though 3 of them were as a grad student when I would have been a PI if allowed (Co-Investigator, meaning I would get money from the proposal and be in charge of doing some work for it). I’ve been on 4 proposals as a Collaborator (meaning that I’ll provide a supporting role or dataset and have agreed to help the PI and Co-I(s) with a specific task if they are funded, but I won’t get any money from it).

In every single case, I was proposing, we were proposing, or they were proposing new research in an area that had not been explored before. Possibly in an area that had never been thought of before. In one example, I was proposing my own model for something that no one had thought of before, and I was seeking funding to carry out data-gathering to see if my model was supported.

When I submitted those proposals, I expected that no one would see them except for the review panel and program director. I expected that they would not in any way be made public, in any stretch of the imagination. Even by some blogger somewhere who let it slip that he had read a proposal by a redacted person at a redacted institution that was going to look at whether a particular type of crater ejecta could form from atmospheric vortices rather than water.

As soon as my novel approach/ideas are out there, someone else could take them or start working on them and beat me to the punch. Maybe that someone knows of a way to do it faster than I, already has a lab set up, an army of students to throw at the project, and a month later could finish it while I’m still waiting to hear back about funding.

In research, it’s publish or perish, it’s a meritocracy, and if someone publishes first, they usually get the credit. And something like this happened to one of my former officemates (it wasn’t from a NASA review panel, it was that someone overheard her talking in a bar during a conference about work she was going to start).

(Note: The model I mentioned three paragraphs up was proposed in the 1970s, so I’m not giving anything away by putting it in there — I’m giving a “for instance.”)

Final Thoughts

Unfortunately, that’s it for this. I may do a post related to this on the issue of Conflicts of Interest, which are generic to the research process and not just grant proposals. But, I’ll of course honor the program manager’s request and not blog about more details of the process.

When we agree to be a reviewer, we have to sign documents stating that after the panel meets, we will destroy all documents we have that relate to it, including deleting all computer files.

Hopefully you can see from the above discussion* that even though I assured the program manager that I would anonymize everything and not discuss specific proposal ideas, that he or she was still uncomfortable with the idea and requested I not blog about it.


*I’m sure there are other reasons, as well, for why confidentiality is necessary in these kinds of things. But, those are the main ones that I can think of.

October 1, 2012

Podcast Episode 52: The Mystery of Phobos 2

The year was 1989, and the second of a twin spacecraft – the first having failed two months after launch – was close to its target: Mars’ moon, Phobos. Just before it was to launch its two landers to study the surface of the moon, something went wrong, and all contact was lost. The last image it sent back just before it lost contact was of a thin, cylindrical object — a UFO mothership — that must have blasted it out of the sky to hide from the Earthlings the closely-guared Illuminati secret that Phobos is actually a gigantic spaceship.

… or at least, that’s what they want you to believe.

Episode 52 addresses the “mystery” of the Phobos 2 spacecraft, and the conspiracy story that has been put together over the years that I relayed above.

Besides the somewhat shorter main segment, there are two New News items, Feedback, Puzzler (answer, no new one), and one tiny Announcement. Next episode should go up on or about October 16.

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