Exposing PseudoAstronomy

January 24, 2013

Podcast Episode #62: Interview with Bill Hudson About 2012hoax.org


The Alexa web traffic tracking service currently has 2012hoax.org as among the top 120,000 most-visited sites in the world. (In contrast, my own domain, sjrdesign.net, is currently #3,578,209. whitehouse.gov is #1644 in the world and 435 in the US.)

In episode 62 of my podcast, I interview the man behind 2012hoax.org, and we discuss his motivation behind creating it, some of the stats, most contentious articles, and his favorite 2012 back-peddlers (so far). We also discuss his latest work, Cosmophobia.org (where 2012hoax.org is redirecting).

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January 16, 2013

Podcast Episode 61: Special Pleading with Large Impacts


A complaint I’ve heard is that the invoking of giant asteroid impacts to explain some odd solar system features (Venus upside-down, Uranus on its side, etc.) is just special pleading and as crazy if not more so than the pseudoscience ideas, like Velikovsky. While I obviously have my own opinion about Velikovsky in particular, I wanted to take an episode to talk about why giant impacts are used to explain some things, and whether we have a real reason to do so or if it’s just our own way of making stuff up.

There isn’t a new puzzler, though the one from last episode – send in your favorite planetary pareidolia – is still going on.

January 10, 2013

Another Completely Arbitrary Milestone Reached: 500,000 Blog Views

Filed under: Miscellaneous — Stuart Robbins @ 3:00 pm
Tags: , ,

On September 3, 2008, roughly 4 years 4 months 7 days ago, I launched this blog. It took me 17.5 months to get to 100,000 views. It took another 18 months to get to 250,000 views. It took 16 months after that to double it and get to 500,000 views. One can almost fit a straight line there :).

As with the last two times, I think it’s apropos to take a brief look at some of the stats over the last very roughly 1589.8097 days.

  • My busiest day was still on June 16, 2010, thanks to Phil Plait when he blogged about my run-in with and subsequent threats by the astrologer Terry Nazon. Over 12,000 people visited my blog thanks to Phil, but in that day, it topped at 7,985.
  • Over the last year, the busiest day was December 20 (due to all my posts regarding December 21, 2012), with 2,798 page views. December 21 added another 2,303, for over 5,000 views due to 2012 stuff on those two days.
  • I have made 313 posts (this is 314), and there have been 3,507 comments. Obviously the comments are not evenly distributed among the posts. Meanwhile, over 75,700 spam comments have been caught.
  • The top link people have clicked on, with 9,011 clicks, is to my image of what the sky looks like on December 21, 2012 … again (this was the top last time). The next-top is to the NASA site with images of Apollo from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, with 707 clicks, though that’s only about 60 above what it was at 250,000 posts. If you narrow it to the last year, then the next-top click was to my context image of the claimed lunar ziggurat.
  • With the top-clicked file in mind, it is perhaps fitting that the top five posts people have read are about Planet X & 2012. The most popular with 27,428 views is on What the Sky Looks Like on December 21, 2012, which pushed down the previous top two to second and third place (magnetic pole shift and proof Earth is not currently undergoing a geographic pole shift). For the year of 2012, though, the third-most-popular post with 4,839 views was, “Richard Hoagland’s Ziggurat on the Moon: Hoax or Fraud, but Not Real.” The video I created for that has been downloaded nearly 9,000 times (how’s that, Expat?).
  • In how people are getting here, the top non-search-engine referrer is Facebook (in 2012) and Phil Plait’s blog for all time.
  • Also on the topic of referrers, the top two search terms that get people here are “Terry Nazon” with 1,789 clicks, “Planet X” with 1,195 clicks, “pseudoastronomy” for 1,183 clicks, and “Define:Theory in Science” with 1,146. The first and third are new for this time, and in 2012, the top was “exposing pseudoastronomy.” I think that’s both a good and bad thing. Good in that it means I’m generating a “brand” much in the same way that “Bad Astronomy” = Phil Plait and it has name recognition. It’s bad in the sense that I would like if more people got here by searching for the topics that I write about.
  • Something new that WordPress added in early 2012 was country stats. The vast majority of people who read this come from the USA with 106,500 views. Next comes the UK at nearly 17,000 views, and Canada is third at 12,775 (I’m assuming that Karl Mamer doesn’t account for all of those). The first non-English-speaking country is in 5th place overall, India, at 3,000 views.

With all that in mind, I’ll wrap up this short, self-congratulatory post and work towards the next arbitrary milestone of … one million views! Assuming I stay on WordPress, I predict I’ll be able to write that post before the end of 2015 … a reasonably safe bet after accounting for extra traffic due to 2012 stuff.

No, Asteroid 99942 Apophis Will NOT Hit Earth in 2036

Filed under: asteroids,astronomy — Stuart Robbins @ 12:40 pm
Tags: , , , , ,

New radar observations during Apophis’ close approach to Earth over the last few days have narrowed down the uncertainty in its orbit enough to know that it will NOT hit Earth in 2036, according to an article published in Sky and Telescope (I’m still trying to track down a more primary source).

This is despite still not knowing several things about it (like its shape), but the uncertainties on its orbit are now so small that the combination of all the other unknowns are too small to put it on a collision course with Earth in 2036.

That’s all the info I have on this for now. Doesn’t mean it may not hit in the future, and it doesn’t meant that something else won’t hit in the future. When looking for things in space to kill us, asteroids are by far the most likely because we know it WILL happen, it’s just a matter of when and how big.

Edited to Add: And here’s more of an official story, this one from NASA’s Asteroid & Comet Watch.

January 9, 2013

How Astronomers Are, According to Popular Press, Constantly Discovering the Same Thing


Introduction

This post was prompted by a bit of discussion both at work and on my blog lately.

Regarding the blog, the question has come up of when people have known different things, and laypeople going to popular press to determine when stuff has been discovered.

Regarding work, an e-mail was sent out yesterday with one of the senior scientists wondering what the big deal was with a press release claiming to have discovered something new, but he pointed out a paper from 1984 that said the same thing.

So I thought I’d talk a bit about why the media (and official science organizations’ press offices) keep announcing a “new discovery” when it’s, in fact, a very old discovery.

Example from Yesterday: “NASA, ESA Telescopes Find Evidence for Asteroid Belt Around Vega”

On January 8, 2013, NASA released a press statement #13-006, “NASA, ESA Telescopes Find Evidence for Asteroid Belt Around Vega.”

If you read it, the very first part of the very first sentence states: “Astronomers have discovered what appears to be a large asteroid belt around the star Vega.” If you read further, it’s all about implications, comparing it with other recent discoveries, and what questions future studies hope to answer.

It all seems as though this is a very new and interesting finding, and as a press release (and from NASA, no less), it was picked up by many news outlets (looks like at least 35 from a Google News search as of posting this).

I’m not trying to minimize these researchers’ work, and if you want to read their paper, it’s posted here.

But, turn the clock back 30 years. In June 1984, in the journal Science – one of the preeminent journals in the world – there was a paper published by Paul R. Weissman with the title, “The Vega Particulate Shell: Comets or Asteroids?”

If you read the abstract, it states: “The [IRAS] science team has discovered a shell of particulate material around the star Vega. … The Vega shell is probably a ring of cometary bodies … . … A possible hot inner shell around Vega may be an asteroid-like belt of material a few astronomical units [the distance between Earth and the Sun] from the star.”

We didn’t have the internet back then, but based on a Google News archive, at least one newspaper, the Boston Globe, mentioned it in October 1984.

It is true that these are not exactly the same thing. It’s true that the new data are much better 30 years later. But the basic idea is the same: We knew 30 years ago that Vega had a debris disk around it of at least cometary and maybe asteroidal material as well.

Ergo, the press release title is misleading. And, anyone who does a news search who’s looking for when particular things may have been discovered – or at least probably discovered – in science will be mislead … in this case, by 30 years.

Why?

Listening to The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe podcast, I have definitely become somewhat jaded with news reporting. Having had my own press release come out about some of my work last year, I have had my own issues (a simple comma missing in the final copy – removed after I had approved it – completely changed the meaning to make it seem like I was talking about ice volcanoes on Mars).

Given my experience, my best guess is that it’s the press officers’ job to get as much publicity for their subject as possible. And we’re lucky if we get to see the final version before it gets sent out. A press release with the headline, “NASA, ESA Telescopes Re-Find [or Confirm] Stuff Found 30 Years Ago” is not going to stoke public interest.

For a topic closer to my own research, it’s the same case with water on Mars. We had darn good evidence back in the late 1960s and ’70s after the first spacecraft images were returned that there had been large amounts of surface water on Mars in its past. But, every few months it seems, a press release comes out stating that a new study has “discovered” water on Mars (or in Mars, or recently on or in Mars, etc.). It’s become something of a running gag during weekly science discussions.

Final Thoughts

To those who did the original (or previous additional “new discovery”), it’s frustrating they don’t get credit. It’s also somewhat insulting. The new Vega paper in this case doesn’t even cite Weissman’s work.

To be fair, this isn’t a huge issue. It’s not media misreporting something major, it’s just a short memory span. But, to those of us who do research in the field or closely related fields, it’s another example of marketing spin taking precedence over honesty. And for laypeople trying to figure out when something was known or discovered, it makes it seems as though everything was much more recently known than it actually was.

January 8, 2013

Podcast #60: The Face on Mars, Part 2


Face on Mars - from Mars Global Surveyor

Face on Mars – from Mars Global Surveyor

This episode is the second of two about the Face on Mars. In this second episode, I start out with a discussion revisiting the basic idea of pareidolia and why this feature is best explained by that psychological phenomenon. I then get into Mark Carlotto’s image analysis, other faces, and finally spend quite a bit of time on various conspiracies surrounding it.

I also have a very brief New News segment and a short carry-over puzzler. The next episode is going to be about whether or not claiming that “asteroids did it” is special pleading for explaining various anomalies in the solar system. If you have ideas for a puzzler, please let me know (e-mail) BEFORE Friday the 11th — I have to record the episode on Saturday because of travel.

January 7, 2013

No, Asteroid 99942 Apophis Won’t Kill Us This Week


Introduction

Unfortunately, the UK’s The Guardian has a misleading title in an article that came out today (January 7, 2013): “Apophis – a ‘potentially hazardous’ asteroid – flies by Earth on Wednesday.”

Now, technically, the headline is correct. For awhile, asteroid 99942 Apophis (or just “Apophis” for short) was potentially dangerous with as much as a 1 in 37 chance as calculated in December 2004 of striking Earth in 2029. Then, the worry was that in 2029 during a close approach, it might pass through a very narrow region in 3D space that would alter its orbit so it would come back in April 2036 and strike Earth.

Apophis’ Orbit

To be clear, from hundreds (if not thousands) of observations at this point, the chance of it striking Earth in 2029 is as close to 0 as you can get, and the chances of it striking in 2036 is about 1 in 250,000. Yes, 2029 will be a very close approach, with estimates being it passing by at only 5.6 times the radius of Earth. But that’s not a hit.

So what’s all this then about 2013?

It’s just a close approach. It’s the closest approach in awhile and it will let us refine its orbit even more.

Why do we need lots of observations over a very long time to get a better orbit? It’s like watching a hot air balloon in the sky: If you observe it for 3 seconds, you can get a very rough idea of how fast it’s going and where it’s headed. But if you watch it for 3 minutes, you’ll have a much better idea. And if you watch it for 3 hours, even better. It’s the same idea with asteroids, or really anything else.

That’s why this Wednesday, January 9, with its closest approach in awhile and for awhile, is important. The closer it is, the better we can pin-point its position and so the more accurate orbit we can derive in the future. We can also get a better estimate of its size. But, this approach is perfectly safe – Apophis’ closest approach this year will take it about 37-38 times farther than the moon.

Final Thoughts

I wasn’t even going to comment on this, but I’ve already seen people asking on various forums based on The Guardian‘s headline. So, there it is. Yes, technically Apophis is “potentially dangerous” because, based on our current orbit estimates, there’s a 0.0004% chance of it striking Earth in 2036. But no, the world is not going to end in 2 days after just “narrowly” surviving the “Mayan apocalypse.”

I’m hoping that the author of the article, Stuart Clark, didn’t select it. He’s written popular astronomy books and various other things, so he should know better unless he was trying to drum up page views. I’m guessing it was some editor.

January 2, 2013

A Psychic Predictions Addendum


For Michael Horn

Michael Horn, the Official North American Media Representative of alleged UFO-contactee Billy Meier, has attempted to send me various tasks and things to do, apparently failing to realize that I don’t work for him. I’ve pretty much ignored them as is my prerogative and for reasons I’ve explained in detail before.

One such “task” (literally, the subject of the e-mail was: “A new task”) was this:

Hi tehre Stuart,

As you may imagine I receive some interesting information from various people, among them a couple of astrologers who seem to have been pretty accurate.

So I’m copying you some fairly recent emails with content from them. You can of course feel free to examine it critically and see if the past info seems to be more than chance where it’s accurate and the foretold info/events should speak for themselves, one way or the other.

On August 31, Michael wrote in a comment on my blog:

P.S. When I have the time, I will post some interesting information pertaining to an email that I sent Stuart a while ago. In it I put information from a couple of astrologers who had gone on record with a number of specific things, and times they thought they would occur. It appears that they were…right. I notice that Stuart hadn’t put up a blog attacking these “silly” people, or whatever. Nor has he mentioned having checked them out and been confronted with their documented accuracy.

I wrote in response, to which Michael did not reply:

Oh, you mean your e-mail where your astrologer said, let’s see … “July will be a very busy month for the world … which … will also launch a major volcanic eruption, one of the largest we have ever seen, as well as major quakes around the world.”

Or “I see lots of major issues in the way of electrical power blackouts in 2012. There will be so many issues with power world wide, with huge black outs that last months even years. More black outs and rolling black outs then ever. Some very odd and completely un-explained by scientists.”

Or maybe this was more accurate? — “As I’ve said, I see major issues with the severe heat in many places. Temps could reach 130, even 140, this will also have a major effect on the power plants. July and August will be some of the worst times for this. The blame will partially be on sun solar storms that produces record breaking heat.”

Hmm. Unless I’ve been on some other planet the last two months, your astrologer doesn’t appear to be “right,” as you put it.

Let’s actually review the predictions of Michael’s astrologers who were “right,” shall we? I think that this will be informative because it shows how I got about evaluating predictions.

Reverend Michael Vanderpool, Astrologer & Intuitive — 0 hits || 3 can’t judge || 2 misses

First, the “Reverend” part — his “Doctor of Divinity” is from the Universal Life Church, an organization whose Wikipedia page starts by saying, “The Universal Life Church (ULC) is a religious organization that offers anyone semi-immediate ordination as a ULC minister free of charge. The organization states that anyone can become a minister without having to go through the pre-ordination process required by other religious faiths.” He also has a degree in “Healing Sciences” from the Jesus of Nazareth Church International. The certificates are scanned in and posted on his website. Not meant as an ad hominem, simply putting this out there since he consistently refers to himself as a Reverend.

Moving on, I listened to about an hour’s worth of his YouTube videos. The first was posted December 30, 2011. In it, he makes three predictions:

1. “January 9 to January 12, thus possibly affecting [January 8-16] … in terms of that war-like energy.”

2. He relates this to a war in Syria starting around January 15, and then Syrian president Assad is losing power in the time between February 24 and March 15 “with great probability.”

3. Markets will go up February 24, 2012. That’s the basic idea of this prediction, but he specifically stated: “Why do I say that [the Assad stuff]? Because in that window of time, the planet Jupiter will trine Pluto, and it almost always means that we see a a stabilization, or a maintaining of the markets, or an increase – a rising up of all markets when that happens.” He then says that last time this happened, markets went up. “And therefore, because I see that, the markets will go up with great probability February 24 …”

I then watched his video posted February 23, 2012. In this one, there was the very vague prediction:

4. There are “turbulent times” around June-July and a “difficult astrology time” around the November presidential election in the USA.

Analysis: WAY TOO VAGUE to be considered a hit or miss on any objective scale. As a predictor, this is useless.

Perhaps more interesting, he claims that he was 100% accurate in his market prediction that it’s “a very accurate prediction and quite a significant prediction.” This is based on a newspaper article from the previous day that stated the stock markets were at all-time highs since 2008. So taking that newspaper article, sure, he’s correct.

But let’s look at prediction 3 in greater detail, for which I’m using the Dow. The 10-year high for the Dow was October 12, 2007, at 14,093.08. The high in the year 2008 was May 2 at 13,058.20. 2008 ended at 8515.55, while the high in 2009 was at the end of the year at 10,328.89. Overall, the stock market has been improving ever since its low in early 2009, so the prediction that markets will go up on February 24, 2012, is not unlikely.

In fact, February 22-24 was not even the high for February, which came on Feb. 28 at 13,005.12, whereas Feb. 22-24 the Dow was around 12,940-12,985. It did NOT reach the high from 2008 in February in end-of-day trading, though it got close. Nor was this a high in 2012, the high close was 13,610.15 on October 5, 2012, though the actual high was up to 13,661.87.

Strictly speaking, he is correct, the markets did go up Feb. 24. But practically speaking, this was either (a) a high-probability hit that the market will go up on any given day, or (b) too vague for him to claim it was a hit with the specificity that he later did.

Similarly, he claimed that prediction 1 was actually “a great probability — a great possibility of war … in January 9-15, 2012 window, which can be evidence AS AN ABSOLUTELY ACCURATE PREDICTION” by looking at an Israeli news source from January 14, 2012, that said the largest war exercises in US history would be conducted between the US and Israel around that time. Sorry, again, this is way too vague to be considered a hit. He also did not even mention Israel in the Dec. 30, 2011, video, but thought it would have to do with Assad … see prediction #2. In fact, I watched it again because I had actually missed this ’cause I lumped it in with his Assad prediction.

And, the Assad prediction, #2, is a miss. He did not lose power in Feb-March 2012, and is still in power as I write this at the end of 2012. However, he claims that his Assad prediction was actually correct.

So far, we have 4 predictions, 3 claimed hits. I say three are too vague to score, and one is a miss.

The final video I watched was posted on April 6, 2012. He repeated #4, that there would be some potential problems with the banking system around June-July, which could manifest as the closing of the Straights of Hormuz. Could affect gas prices, food prices. The most specific thing I could pull out was:

5. “Gas prices shooting through the roof [in the summer]. … It would be wise for people to prepare for what could be incredibly high gas prices, and thus, in turn, if that does happen, it could affect food prices …”

Analysis: At best for the astrologer, this would be considered too vague, but under my scoring guidelines, I consider this a miss. Looking at 5-year gas prices in the US, we had a high in summer 2008 of $4.12/gal. In 2012, we had two peaks, one at $3.92 at the beginning of April — when his video was made, and a smaller peak in mid-September at about $3.87/gal. Other than the beginning and end of the year, gas prices were at a yearly low during the time period that he’s describing, June-July. Ergo, I consider this a miss.

And yet, in his e-mails to Michael Horn, he quotes news articles from June 30 stating that there are some rising oil prices and some analysts thinking that they’ll go up. Problem for Michael Vanderpool is that they did not.

Tony Vasquez — 1 partial hit || 3 can’t judge || 9 misses

These are all quotes from Michael’s e-mail to me on July 4, 2012. There were several different parts of it that I drew from to put these together. I included nearly everything written, with a few things left out that were preamble or more things simply too vague to judge.

1. “The U.S. presidential election turns out to be the dirtiest and most scandalous election ever.”

MISS

2. “Obama wins by a landslide.”

MISS — Obama won by less than he did the first time, hardly a landslide.

3. “I still see some kind of major controversy/scandal about Romney and it will completely jeopardize his chances at the presidency.”

MISS. Yes, he said some stupid things, but no one considers this a “major controversy/scandal.”

4. “I refer back to my previous predictions, and during this year’s astrological work, I continue to have no doubt that major chaos and destruction come from Iran, and to Iran.”

MISS

5. “I also believe that either Iran or Israel will be hit in a major way, possible hit by each other. This may not occur until late 2012, but July also looks like a possible time.”

PARTIAL HIT — One could consider the Israeli-Gaza conflict of November 2012 as the hit for this, but I consider it partial because (a) it was November and (b) Iran was not involved – at least not directly/obviously/admittedly.

6. “I believe Iran will also endure an attack from the U.S.”

Impossible to Verify with Present Info

7. “Also, as much as they are going to try and tell us Iran does not have a nuke or that they took out their nuke it will not be true.”

Impossible to Verify with Present Info

8. “I see lots of major issues in the way of electrical power blackouts in 2012. There will be so many issues with power world wide, with huge black outs that last months even years. More black outs and rolling black outs then ever. Some very odd and completely un-explained by scientists.”

MISS

9. “I still see major issues with the severe heat in many places. Temps could reach 130, even 140, this will also have a major effect on the power plants. July and August will be some of the worst times for this. The blame will partially be on sun solar storms that produces record breaking heat.”

MISS

10. “I do see 8+ earthquakes/tsunamis(3) hitting Japan and one 8+ hitting India – huge disasters with cities leveled.”

MISS

11. “Major “Events” in July and August will set off a chain reaction that will run right through 2014.”

TOO VAGUE

12. “I also see the Pope dying this year – the last pope then elected. Sept.-Nov. period for this.”

MISS

13. “July will be a very busy month for the world and a time when the planet’s energy shift goes into overdrive, which in turn will also launch a major volcanic eruption, one of the largest we have ever seen, as well as major quakes around the world. … I’m pretty sure there will be a major volcanic eruption – one of the largest ever – in July-August.”

MISS

Conclusions

A sum total of 1 partial hit, 6 too vague to judge, and 11 misses for a hit rate of around 4% and a too vague rate of 33%. This is right in line with the others from my main 2012 Psychic Predictions post.

With those all graded now, Michael, if you care to comment, feel free. But note that, as usual, I will block anything from you that is not SPECIFICALLY ABOUT THESE PREDICTIONS. No posting to your other stuff, no asking to look at other stuff, just comments about these predictions. Anything else will be blocked or edited out — you’ve posted enough stuff to your site that’s not related directly to the topic in other places on my blog.

January 1, 2013

Podcast #59: The Face on Mars, Part 1


Face on Mars - from Mars Global Surveyor

Face on Mars – from Mars Global Surveyor

This episode is the first of two about the Face on Mars. In this first episode, I discuss a lot of the history of imaging the Face, the context of it and its location on Mars, and many of the claims related to the imaging of it. Get ready for some Coast to Coast clips — there are eight of them. This episode goes into significantly more detail than my post four years ago on the subject.

Part 2 will be about some of the more conspiratorial and related claims along with a few other faces thrown in. This episode as it was was already 40 minutes long, so I decided to split into two parts.

I also have a very brief New News segment, a short puzzler, and two announcements.

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