Exposing PseudoAstronomy

April 27, 2013

To What Podcasts Does the “Exposer of PseudoAstronomy” Listen?


This post is brief and was inspired by “Nigel’s” recent post on The Skeptical Review on what podcasts he listens to. And, I’ve been asked this question a few times by readers of this blog and listeners of the podcast.

Within their categories, these are listed in alphabetical order (so, no preference for one over the other is implied).

Skeptical

The Conspiracy Skeptic – I started to listen to Karl after he invited me on his show several years ago and now keep up with his (sorta) monthly episodes.

Dumbasses Guide to Knowledge – Started listening when he posted on the SGU forums about the new podcast and, as with Karl, he has a “when they’re ready” release schedule so I listen when they come out. It’s an eclectic show and it used to be that every-other-episode was about Ancient Aliens stuff.

Invisible Sky Monster Podcast – Same as the above, same guy, etc. This is an interview-style show with two other people talking with the host about their opinions on the latest news of the month.

The Skeptics’ Guide 5×5 and Guide to the Universe – Shouldn’t need explanation to this crowd. However, I listen to them in spurts where I usually accumulate around 10 and then listen all at once while cleaning, cooking, driving, exercising, etc.

Skeptoid – Also shouldn’t need explanation to this crowd. With Dunning’s guilty plea, however, we’ll see what happens to the podcast over the next year or so.

Science

AstronomyCast – I listen to them the same what I listen to SGU, building up a catalog of around 10 new episodes and then listening all at once. I listen to AstronomyCast to remember all the astronomy I’ve forgotten or should have known.

Paranormal

I listen to this general category to stay abreast of what “the other side” is saying and putting out there and to get ideas for blog posts and podcast episodes. I choose not to link to them here.

Coast to Coast AM – Not every episode, just maybe 1/4-1/3 of them that deal with topics that are sorta relevant to what I do or care about (I suffer through the alt-med ones, for example, but refuse to listen to ones about political conspiracies). I’d say >50% of blog post ideas and podcast episode ideas come from C2C.

ID The Future – Put out by the Discovery Institute, the “think tank” (I use the word “think” rather loosely here) behind “Intelligent Design.” They put out, generally, 3 episodes per week but the majority of them are repeats from several years ago so I delete without listening.

Skeptiko – Alex Tsakiris, of whom I’ve written a few times on this blog, absolutely refuses to address what he claims to address and be interested in: Why he believes in the paranormal (and conspiracies, is a climate change denier, and believes in UFOs and psychic dogs) and “skeptics” don’t. Despite being told why numerous times — it has to do with the standard of evidence and not using arguments from authority and, well, actually understanding experiments. He can be hard to listen to, so I sometimes listen to his episodes in bits and pieces.

Dreamland – (out of order because it’s listed as “Whitley Strieber’s Dreamland” in iTunes) This, like C2C was started by Art Bell but taken over by a moron someone who doesn’t follow the original spirit/intent of the show. Basically a mini-C2C once a week.

Defunct

Other than The Onion video stuff which doesn’t seem to be defunct but hasn’t released a new episode in half a year, really Rich Orman’s “Dogma Free America” and “US Supreme Court Review” are the two I listened to regularly that are now defunct.

Occasional

This category is for podcasts for which I may have listened to 1-6ish episodes that someone suggested I may like or be interested in. I’m just going to list them without commentary: The Amateur Science Podcast, Paracast, QuackCast, Rational Alchemy (I was a guest a few times), Righteous Indignation, Silicon Valley Astronomy Lectures, and The Unexplained. I think a few that are no longer in my iTunes feed for one reason or another, including Mike Bohler’s “A Skeptics Guide to Conspiracy” that I downloaded a few episodes of.

That’s It!

I don’t listen to a lot compared with some people. I generally listen when I’m doing work that doesn’t require thought (like crater counting or making figures for papers, or doing some other analysis … versus when I’m writing a paper or trying to program). Sometimes that’s my entire day, sometimes that’s not.

I also have an iPod nano and portable speakers that follow me throughout my apartment and into the car and I’ll listen when I’m doing other things like driving, cooking, or cleaning.

I think maybe once or twice a year, for an hour or so, do I not have a backlog of stuff to listen to. That said, if there’s something that you absolutely love that you think I should listen to, let me know in the comments!

P.S. Yes, I listen to my own podcast, but only when editing, and I download it to make sure it works correctly in iTunes.

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April 24, 2013

Podcast #72: Solar System Mysteries “Solved” by PseudoScience, Part 1 – Iapetus


Exploding planets,
Alien spaceships … Why is
Iapetus weird?

The subject of this episode is Saturn’s moon, Iapetus, and two mysteries about it that various branches of pseudoscience have claimed to solve: the brightness dichotomy via an exploded planet, and the equatorial ridge via a spaceship.

This is the first of what I plan to be a series much like “The Fake Story of Planet X” series — different mysteries of the solar system that have a pseudoscientific explanation and may or may not have a real science (agreed upon) explanation. Let me know what you think of the concept. Future ideas for shows are the Pioneer Anomaly and Mars’ crustal dichotomy.

Otherwise, there’s a bit of feedback and then I get into the puzzler from last time and one announcement.

Well, I sorta snuck in a second announcement — I’m headed to Australia, December 18 – January 20. I’ll be centered in Melbourne (which I enjoy pronouncing as “Mel-born-EE”) for most of the trip though should make it up to Sydney (I wanna see the Great Barrier Reef!). So, dinner in each city if I can round up enough interest. I’m slowly learning that Australia is not just a 5-hr drive across, so I’m less likely to make it to the eastern half. We’ll see if I can increase my Australian listenership in the meantime to make a dinner here or there worth organizing.

April 18, 2013

The State of NASA Funding for Research


Introduction

I debated for awhile about whether I should write this kind of post or not. It’s not really related to the topic of “pseudoastronomy,” though when I thought about it more, a popular claim amongst the “alternative” people is that scientists have practically unlimited funding and they are paid such to uphold the status quo.

I had my link, I write this post. 🙂

How Scientists Get Funding

First, I recommend you read this post, “Where Do Scientists Get Funded” (though hopefully the grammar in the post is better than the title — not sure how I came up with that title).

The jist of the post is that we live in a time that only started maybe 100 or so years ago where governments realized that for a healthy society, a progressive society, and one that can keep ahead in the world, the government needs to support basic research and development. And by “support,” I mean “fund with money.”

There are numerous science and science-related fields that do NOT rely significantly on government support. Engineering is perhaps an obvious one. Medical research pulls from both. Geology pulls from both but probably dollar-wise, industries such as oil, gas, and coal fund the most geological research (I’m guessing here, so don’t yell at me if my numbers are wrong).

Then there are fields where the majority of the funding comes from government research. In broad brush strokes, I would say that the “basic science” fields such as physics, astronomy, most of chemistry, and similar disciplines get most of their funding through government grants. Why? Probably because the benefit to industry isn’t as obvious. Why should a company like Boeing care about how many extrasolar planets are out there?

I can say pretty much without fear of being wrong that the vast majority of professional astronomers in the USA are funded through NASA and/or NSF grants.

Let’s talk about how you get a NASA grant.

Getting a NASA Grant

In February each year, NASA releases the call for proposals to their massive “ROSES” program (Research Opportunities in Space and Earth Sciences). ROSES has dozens of sub-programs that distribute awards ranging from $50k/yr for light research to several $million/yr for instrument and/or missions. Separately, there are also calls for institutes (like NASA Astrobiology Institute, or the NASA Lunar Science Institute) which are generally around $1-2 million/yr, and there are calls for mission proposals (which as we learned with Curiosity can cost several $billion over a decade or so).

That overview aside, most basic research is funded through ROSES. ROSES has 102 separate programs you can apply to, though not all of them are available every year.

The basic research ones, such as those that I apply to like LASER (lunar stuff), MDAP (Mars Data Analysis Program), or PGG (Planetary Geology and Geophysics), tell you that they expect to give X number of new awards this funding cycle that will average $100,000 per year. So if I’m writing a 3-year proposal to PGG, I should try to get my total budget to be about $300,000 regardless of what I’m doing or how many people I’m supporting or what my institution charges in overhead (usually 2-3x what I would get in salary) or how many trips I need to go on or what equipment I need.

Then you write the proposal, submit it, and cross your fingers. A panel reviews the proposal and decides what they think its scientific merit is, how cost effective it is, and whether it’s relevant to that program (for example, if >20% of your proposal is to analyze existing Mars data, then you can’t apply to MFRP because it’s not relevant to MFRP (Mars Fundamental Research PRogram); or, if you don’t include some of the required material like a CV, we vote non-compliance which goes in relevance). Each panel is actually broken into several sub-panels, like within LASER you may have a geology sub-panel, exosphere sub-panel, materials sub-panel, and geophysics sub-panel. (I have never been on a LASER panel so I’m guessing here based on other ones I’ve been on, but due to confidentiality I can’t say what those are.)

Each sub-panel then ranks the proposals based on their scores (scores are 1-5) and also gives them a word grade based on the score, from Excellent (5) to Poor (1). You can also get split scores like Very Good / Good (3.5). Anything below Good (3) is considered unfundable no matter how much money is available.

Alright, I’m making this longer than it needs to be … so we rank the proposals and set a “water line” of “MUST FUND” and “Please Fund If There’s Money!” Then we send that to the program director who makes their recommendation to some other people at NASA.

What this all means is you propose, it’s reviewed, ranked, and then decided on. The problem these days is where that water line is, and why it keeps raising.

Falling Funding

NASA, as a federal agency, is beholden both to Congress for setting its budget, and the President for setting its direction and priorities (though sometimes Congress mandates some priorities in the bills it passes). NASA’s budget has been effectively stagnant relative to or decreasing relative to inflation for the past few years. And yet, it has been mandated each funding cycle to change direction and fund something new.

For example, the latest is some asteroid mission that made the news a week or three ago. That money has to come from somewhere. Each year that NASA gets more money, though, a large portion of that is already earmarked for stuff that it has already committed to. And yet with each new mandate, new funding for it is not provided. So, like someone who just got a flat tire but is on a fixed income and already has other bills, the money for that unforeseen expense has to come from something else. Usually, that’s SMD (Science Mission Directorate). Which funds the basic research. Which funds a lot of astronomers.

See where I’m going?

For the last several years, the fraction of successful proposals has been falling at NASA. To the programs that I apply, this past year, the success rate was roughly 17%. This is down from around 25-30%. That may still seem like a lot. Let’s put it a different way.

When I was on some grant review panels, our sub-panel had around 17-19 proposals. We were told that out of our sub-panel, we may get to fund up to 4 or 5 in one program I was on, and 3 in another I was on. Those were lucky – that was a 25% one where the program director had somehow managed to earmark more funds for their program. That means that about 15 of those others, despite some getting Very Good or Very Good / Good scores, were rejected.

New Lows

I work in a lab with on the order of 100 other research scientists. We were recently sent an e-mail asking us to come talk with the director of research if we were having funding issues. After I went to talk with him, he told me that this is the worst he’s seen it in over 30 years. As of that time, 1 RA (Research Associate) was below 100% funding. But, within the next 6 months, >10% of people are in jeopardy.

Meanwhile, NASA’s had travel freezes, pretty much all state institutes have had hiring freezes (so if someone quits or retires, that person cannot be replaced), and now the President’s budget recommendation calls for all education and public outreach to be removed from individual agencies that actually do that kind of research (like NASA, or the Department of Agriculture or Energy), and moved to either the Department of Education (formal education), National Science Foundation (education research), and the Smithsonian (outreach).

The way it currently works is that the researchers actually doing the research partner with people and pay people from the same grants to do education and outreach about that research. For example, every single space mission has a mandatory Education and Public Outreach (EPO) component that funds basic things like their website, and free educational material for teachers. If this proposal were taken and implemented as-is, the likely scenario is that all that money would be zero’ed out (or maybe just all future missions, and the current ones would be grandfathered in), and then all new EPO would have to be proposed through the DOE, NSF, or Smithsonian.

I can see trimming the fat of bureaucracy, but this seems like instead of trimming the fat off a cut of beef to get to the meat, they’re just throwing the steak away and going with chicken. An entirely different animal that will take a long time to get used to and, regardless, can’t fit the same needs as the old one, no matter how hard it tries.

Final Thoughts

I understand that as a somewhat political post, people are going to say that there’s no problem here, that scientists should “get real jobs” and/or not rely on someone else’s tax dollars to pay their salary. Fine. This post is not for you.

For other people who do think that funding basic science research is important, I’m writing this post to give you more of an insight into the process and insight into current problems that we face now. Obviously, this post has been written with specifics that are near and dear to me in mind. With that said, funding rates from the National Institutes of Health are roughly 5%. And somehow homeopathists can get NIH funds.

I also write this with a nod towards Pamela Gay’s blog post from last night, “Fighting Funding Cuts and Sequestration,” though I think the original title (based on the URL) also had an, “And Fighting for Our Lives” at the end. Her post is a direct request for funding support for her various projects. I want to be clear that I am not asking for donations in my post, nor am I begging you to make a donation to her. I will say that I am involved with one of her projects, “CosmoQuest,” which is generating data that we’re using for research and, in fact, right now writing a paper on that should be submitted to a journal late next month (11 coauthors … it takes awhile to get everyone to sign off on a paper).

If, after reading this, you think this is an okay situation, that’s your prerogative. If you don’t, then I recommend that you contact your congressperson and/or senator and tell them that. And feel free to mention the fact that if young scientists today can’t get research funding, they only have two options: Find work in their field in another country, or choose a different career. In either case, that means that in 2-3 decades, the US will be faced with a serious deficit of those people, the very ones we need to stay ahead. In their stead, we’ll have people who think that pink beams of energy were photographed coming out of pyramids, that there’s a ziggurat on the moon, that clouds from space appear brighter than land because light from them takes less time to reach the camera, or that comets prove the universe is 6000 years old.

April 17, 2013

Podcast #71 – The Fake Story of Planet X, Part 6 – Andy Lloyd’s “Dark Star”


A dark star could save
Sitchen’s Anunnaki claim
But problems it has.

When I upload the RSS feed for the podcast, I have to provide both a “subtitle” (short description) and “description.” I use the “description” from my 3-4 sentence summary I post for every episode. I never know what to put for the other. I’ve decided to start posting haikus related to the episode.

Anywho, this episode is yet another in the Planet X saga. It covers Andy Lloyd’s idea, which is an offshoot of Zecharia Sitchin’s Anunnaki-hosting planet Nibiru from his interpretation of Sumerian tablets. Andy’s major change is to stick the planet around a brown dwarf star. In the episode, I do actual math and show why what he proposes is impossible.

There’s also a puzzler (yay!), new news item, and two announcements. The episode is also a bit longer than normal, coming in at a bit over 37 minutes.

Regarding the second of two announcements — Brian Dunning, the guy who does the Skeptoid podcast, has pled guilty to wire fraud. Based on this material, he is likely facing jail time. I greatly admire his skeptical work and think that clearly still stands on its own, and this does not diminish what he has done for our community.

April 8, 2013

Podcast #70: The Ringmakers of Saturn


The Ringmakers of Saturn, a book by Norman R. Bergrun, presents one of the most “out there” ideas I’ve discussed yet on the podcast. But, it’s still a decent teaching tool, worth briefly talking about.

I also have a Q&A, corrections, and Feedback.

April 3, 2013

Is the Scientific Method a Part of Science?


Introduction

You probably all remember it, and I can almost guarantee that you were all taught it if you went through any sort of standard American education system (with full recognition for my non-USAian readers). It’s called the Scientific Method.

That thing where you start with a question, form a hypothesis, do an experiment, see if it supports or refutes your hypothesis, iterate, etc. This thing:

Flow Chart showing the Scientific Method

Flow Chart showing the Scientific Method

The question is, does anyone outside of Middle and High School science class actually use it?

A Science Fair Question

I recently judged a middle and high school science fair here in Boulder, CO (USA). The difference in what you see between the two, at least at this science fair, is dramatic: High schoolers are doing undergraduate-level (college) work and often-times novel research while middle schoolers are doing things like, “Does recycled paper hold more weight than non-recycled?” High schoolers are presenting their work on colorful posters with data and graphs and ongoing research questions, while middle schoolers have a board labeled with “Hypothesis,” “Method,” “Data,” and “Conclusions.”

I was asked by a member of the public, after I had finished judging, why that was. He wanted to know why the high school students seemed to have forsaken the entire process and methodology of science, not having those steps clearly laid out.

My answer at the time – very spur-of-the-moment because he was stuttering and I had to catch a bus – was that it IS there in the high school work, but it was more implicit than explicit. That often in research, we have an idea of something and then go about gathering data for it and see what happens: It’s more of an exploration into what the data may show rather than setting out on some narrow path.

That was about a month ago, and I haven’t thought much more about it. But, the Wired article today made me think this would be a good topic for a blog post where I could wax philosophical a bit and see where my own thoughts lay.

Field-Specific?

A disclaimer up-front (in-middle?) is that I’m an astronomer (planetary geophysicist?). This might be field-specific. The Wired article even mentions astronomy in its list of obvious cases where the Scientific Method is usually not used:

Look at just about any astronomy “experiment”. Most of the cool things in astronomy are also discovered and then a model is created. So, the question comes second. How do you do a traditional experiment on star formation? I guess you could start with some hydrogen and let it go – right? Well, that might take a while.

That said, I’m sure that other fields have the same issues, and it’s really just a big grey area. What I’m going to talk about, that is. Some fields may be more towards one end of the greyscale than the other.

A Recent Paper I Co-Authored

I recently was a co-author on a paper entitled, “ Distribution of Early, Middle, and Late Noachian cratered surfaces in the Martian highlands: Implications for resurfacing events and processes.” The paper was probably the only professional paper I have ever been an author on that explicitly laid out Hypotheses, tests for those hypotheses, what the conclusion would be depending on the results, then the Data, then the Conclusions. And it was a really good way to write THAT paper. But not necessarily other papers.

A Recent Paper I Wrote

I had a paper that was recently accepted (too recently to supply a link). The paper was about estimating and modeling the ages of the largest craters on Mars. There was an Introduction, Methods, Data, and Conclusions. There was no Hypothesis. It was effectively a, “Here is something we can explore with this database, let’s do it and put these numbers out there and then OTHER people may be able to do something with those numbers (or we can) in future work.” There really was no hypothesis to investigate. Trying to make one up to suit the Scientific Method would have been contrived.

This is also something the Wired article mentions:

… often the results of a scientific study are often presented in the format of the scientific method (even though it might not have been carried out in that way). This makes it seem like just about all research in science follows the scientific method.

This is especially the case in medical journals, but not necessarily elsewhere.

Change the “Scientific Method?”

The Wired article offers this as the “new” method:

New Scientific Method (via Wired)

Here’s the accompanying justification:

There are a lot of key elements, but I think I could boil it down to this: make models of stuff. Really, that is what we do in science. We try to make equations or conceptual ideas or computer programs that can agree with real life and predict future events in real life. That is science.

I will preface this next part by saying I am NOT up-to-date on the latest pedagogy of teaching and I am NOT trained in teaching methods (other than 50+ hours of Graduate Teacher Program certification during grad school plus teaching several classes, including two as instructor of record).

That in mind, I think that this is a good idea in later years of grade school education. In the early years, I think that the methodology of the Scientific Method helps get across the basic idea and concepts of how science works, while later on you can get to how it practically works.

Let me explain with an example: In third grade, I was taught about the planets in the solar system plus the sun, plus there are asteroids, plus there are random comets. In eighth grade, I was taught a bit more astronomy and the solar system was a bit messier, but still we had those nine planets (this was pre-2006) and the sun and comets and asteroids plus moons and rings.

Then you get into undergrad and grad school, and you learn about streaming particles coming from the sun, that we can be thought of as being in the sun’s outer-most atmosphere. You get taught about magnetic fields and plasmas. Zodiacal light. The Kuiper Belt, Oort Cloud, asteroid resonances, water is everywhere and not just on Earth, and all sorts of other complications that get into how things really work.

To me, that’s how I think the scientific method should be taught. You start with the rigid formality early on, and I think that’s important because at that level you are really duplicating things that are already well known (e.g. Hypothesis: A ping pong ball will fall at the same rate as a bowling ball) and you can follow that straight-forward methodology of designing an experiment, collecting data, and confirming or rejecting the hypothesis. Let’s put it bluntly: You don’t do cutting-edge science in middle school.

In high school — in a high school with good science education — you actually do start to learn more about the details of different ideas and concepts and solid answers are no longer necessarily known. You want to find out, so you might design an experiment after seeing something weird, and then gather data to try to figure out what’s going on.

That’s how science usually works in the real world, and I think it’s a natural progression from the basic process, and I still think that basic process is implicit, if not explicit, in how science is usually done.

I just got back from a major science conference two weeks ago, and I sat through several dozen talks and viewed several hundred poster presentations. I honestly can’t remember a single one that was designed like a middle school science fair with those key steps from the Scientific Method.

Of course, another aspect is that if we get rid of it, we can’t make comics like this that show how it’s “really” done (sorry, I forget where I found this):

How the Scientific Method Really Works

How the Scientific Method Really Works
(click to embiggen)

Final Thoughts

That said, this has been a ~1400-word essay on what I think about this subject. I don’t expect much to change in the near future, especially since – as the Wired article points out – this is firmly entrenched in the textbooks and in Middle School Science Fair How-To guides.

But, I’m curious as to what you think. Do you think the Scientific Method is useful, useless, or somewhere in-between? Do you think it should be taught and/or used in schools? Do you think it should be used in science fairs? Do you think professional scientists should use it more explicitly more often?

April 1, 2013

Podcast #69: The Solar Neutrino “Problem”


I was all set to do a few other episodes, and I was re-kajiggering the schedule of episodes for the next several months. I realized that – gasp! – I had almost nothing planned picking on young-Earth creationists! And it had been about 20 episodes since I had last done it.

Clearly, I had been neglectful, so this episode deals with one of the more technical but one of my more favorite topics in young-Earth creationism: The Solar Neutrino “Problem.” Listen to the episode, especially towards the end of the main segment, and I think you’ll see why I like it so much.

Otherwise, in this episode we have the solutions to the past two puzzlers, a new puzzler for this one, and three announcements of upcoming talks: Colorado School of Mines on April 12 (Apollo moon hoax), Denver Skepticamp on April 27 (image anomalies), and TAM in mid-July.

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