Exposing PseudoAstronomy

March 26, 2013

Why I Do What I Do


First post back from the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, probably the second-largest annual gathering of planetary scientists in the world, and largest of those with a non-Earth focus (December AGU being more terrestrial geology). Whilst I was away, The Star Spot podcast posted an interview I did with them a month or so ago. It focuses mainly on different ideas about Planet X, about which I’ve both written and podcasted extensively.

At the end of the interview, I was asked, effectively, why I do what I do. I admit I hadn’t had much sleep before the interview, and I didn’t exactly have my A-game on. And so I may have come off as being somewhat more self-centered than normal. I have been asked this a few times before, like last year when going back-and forth with Mike Bara about that whole lunar ziggurat thing.

So, here’s the self-reflective but hopefully not as self-centered post. And the announcement of me being interviewed.

Being a Better Scientist

Let’s get this one out of the way because it’s what I mostly answered with when interviewed. One of the things needed to be a good scientist is the ability to ask good questions (let’s not get started on the, “There’s no such thing as a bad question!” because there really are). You have to be able to ask those questions and then investigate them. You have to have a high threshold for evidence. In my opinion, a good scientist needs to set a high threshold for the acceptance of new conclusions and needs to think about what may be mitigating factors.

What I mean by this is that you have to be skeptical. At least one commentator to my blog likes to claim that being skeptical is the antithesis of being a good scientist. That particular person couldn’t be more wrong. While Mike Bara has definitely flung more mud at me, the harshest substantive critiques of what I’ve written have always come from reviewers of papers I’ve written.

That’s what we do: When we sit down to review a paper that describes someone’s data and conclusions, we question everything. Does their data make sense in light of what’s been done before? Do they reference what’s been done before? Does their data description match their diagrams? Does the way in which the data were gathered make sense? Are their conclusions supported by the data? Are they reaching in their conclusions beyond what they have evidence for?

And those are just the big-picture questions. Most reviewers will also bluntly tell you that your grammar is bad, that the paper is poorly written, the figures are illegible, and so-on. I once had a reviewer say that my use of a three-word term once in a 10,000-word paper made everyone in the field look stupid.

This bit of a digression gets back to my main point: Scientists are skeptical, whether they self-identify with that term or not. If you cannot learn how to support your conclusions, if you can’t think of holes others might poke in your arguments and pre-emptively fill those holes, and if you can’t deal with people picking apart your work, you’re not going to make it in science.

Every little claim that I look into, every argument by a young-Earth creationist or UFOlogist that I pick apart, helps me hone my own skills in sorting through evidence and figuring out how to back up my own claims better.

Public Outreach

Yes, to you the public, who are not scientists, it is important to convey good science and to NOT convey and anti-convey (is that a term?) bad science. Not just for the broader utopian goals of a more intellectual society that’s better informed, but let’s face it: It also comes down to money. Pretty much all astronomy-related science is supported by government grants. I should not have to compete with someone like Richard Hoagland for a grant to do research when his stuff is clearly pseudoscience. But, to someone who is uninformed and who doesn’t know the tools and methods and background of how science is done and what he’s claiming, Hoagland’s nonsense may seem just as valid as what I do.

Case in point is that the National Institutes of Health have their “Complimentary and Alternative Medicine” division/institute/thing that actually DOES dole out money for studies into things that have been shown by the normal rules of evidence to not help treat nor cure anything. Real doctors and medical researchers have to compete against chiropractors and homeopathists for a dwindling pool of federal funds. And that’s sad.

I hope that by doing what I do, I can help people realize what science is, what good science is, and how to tell it from bad science.

Applicability to Every-Day Life: Critical Thinking

What this really teaches is critical thinking. Let’s say that you didn’t believe me that Planet X wasn’t going to cause a pole shift on December 21, 2012. I went through numerous posts on it and I got many people writing in the comments that we were all going to die. It’s late March 2013, so clearly they were wrong.

But, clearly they at least read some of what I wrote. It’s not always the conclusion that matters. But, what always matters is the process. The process that I try to go through in my blog and podcast when dissecting claims really boils down to critical thinking. No, not thinking critically (as in badly) about something, but thinking about it in detail and analyzing it in all ways possible.

That method of going through a claim in agonizing detail, showing what it would have to be in order to be correct, showing what it would mean for completely unrelated fields and applications (like, if magnetic therapy bracelets worked, you would explode when you go into an MRI), is – more than most other things – what I hope people get from the work I do here.

You probably aren’t going to come up against someone who’s going to make you decide between whether Billy Meier’s dinosaur photos are of real dinosaurs or of a childrens’ book and depending on your answer you stand to lose $1M or something like that. But, let’s say you’re going to invest money in a high-risk venture. You’ll be thrown a bunch of marketing hype. If you have the critical thinking tools and know where to look for the background knowledge, you could save yourself from quite a bit of financial loss. Perpetual motion scams companies do this all the time, trying to bilk rich people who don’t know any better out of their ¢a$h.

Final Thoughts

Skepticism, to me, is a process. It’s not a conclusion, it’s starting point and a process. I use it in my every-day work, and the more I practice it, the better (hopefully) I get.

I also happen to be in a position where I know more than the average person about a narrow topic range. My hope is that by showing where people go wrong in their thinking, I can help others avoid mistakes. People often learn better by understanding how they got the wrong answer than being told the right answer. That’s the goal here: Understanding the critical thinking process to be better equipped to deal with things that might not be so obvious in the future.


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