Exposing PseudoAstronomy

July 30, 2013

New Interview of Me Is Up on The Conspiracy Skeptic Podcast

Filed under: podcast — Stuart Robbins @ 9:12 am
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

The Conspiracy Skeptic himself, Karl Mamer, has posted a 69-minute interview of me. In the interview, we discuss numerous things but try to focus on TAM and my new blog, WND Watch.

Sorry for the lack of posting lately (and my suspended TAM series … that’ll continue soon). I’m in the process of moving from one city to another and despite my planning, it’s taking a lot more time than I had expected.

July 22, 2013

Podcast Episode 81: Is the Speed of Light Constant?


Creationism …
But stars, etc. are far away.
So, can light speed change?

A shorter episode on a mainstay of young-Earth creationism, if light were faster in the past, then stuff >10,000 light-years away can reach us within the young age of the universe. It’s a pretty straight-forward episode, and due to me moving from one city to another, there’s not too much extra stuff, though there is the rare New News segment.

The next episode will be about claims made by David Sereda on the structure of … stuff. Think Depak Chopra but without the medical claims and without the sanity. Yeah, I did just say that.

BTW, link to the new podcast is: WND Watch.

July 18, 2013

#TAM2013 Day ±0 Review by the PseudoAstronomer


Thursday, the day of optional workshops and the evening welcome reception.

Cost for an all-workshop pass is +$100 from the normal ticket price, or it is included with the TAM experience. Or, a single workshop will run you $45. I don’t remember how much the evening stuff was, I think $40.

Early Morning

The day before the official events, there is no provided food other than at the welcome reception that evening. That was fine with me, I was too nervous to eat, giving the first workshop, 1A, “How Your Camera Lies to You.” You can read a description of it on this blog post.

Let me be clear, I’ve given presentations before. To well over 100 people. Both science talks at conferences and public talks. But, this was my second TAM, people had a choice of what to go to (this workshop or a blogging one), and people were actually paying and had the option not to pay and not to go. And it was at 8AM and anyone coming from out of town would likely be jet-lagged … if coming from the East or more than a few timezones West (Australia, New Zealand, etc.). I wasn’t sure if I would be awake.

I set three different alarms on two devices and woke up several times before them, including once due to a nightmare where nothing worked and everyone walked out and DJ Grothe (President of the JREF) had to refund everyone. Not a great way to start the day.

First Workshop Block

Obviously, I went to Workshop 1A. There’s video and photo proof! Or, evidence anyway.

Stuart Robbins and Bryan Bonner at TAM 2013, Workshop 1A

Stuart Robbins and Bryan Bonner at TAM 2013, Workshop 1A

The room had 352 chairs (2 macro columns, 16 rows, 11 columns each). I was hoping for at least 100 people, to have more than the blogging workshop (no offense, Skeptic Ink), and good reviews (pending…). I took a photo part-way through, and at 8:24AM, there were 164 people sitting or standing, 2 AV folks, and myself and Bryan presenting. The room looked much more full than that, but 164 people for an 8AM thing is not bad.

TAM 2013 Workshop 1A Attendance

TAM 2013 Workshop 1A Attendance

I think the workshop went well. I got compliments throughout the next few days, people seemed engaged, and they laughed at the correct times (no, we did not have a “LAUGH NOW” sign up, they did it on their own).

Bryan and I have ideas for a follow-up workshop for next year that wouldn’t require having seen the one this year. And I have other ideas for stuff I could present or do a panel on or … well, that’s a separate story. If you went to TAM, and you liked the workshop, please make sure that the JREF knows!

That’s not to say that everything was perfect. It almost wouldn’t be TAM if there weren’t A/V issues. Nothing on our end, but microphones were not working and I had to speak into Bryan’s chest once or twice to use his lapel mic. ‘Sok, we made it funny.

Second Workshop Block

I had friends presenting during the second workshop, but I was too exhausted (and wound up) to go to it and I needed to deposit all my demo stuff in my hotel room. Speaking of hotel room: I was on the 22nd floor again this year. Apparently, you can get a lower floor room just by asking. I plan to do that next year.

Anyway, I instead went to breakfast at the Coronado in the hotel with a few other folks (mostly Colorado folks, incl. the co-presenter, Bryan). I maintain my evaluation from last year: Coronado is SLOW and EXPENSIVE. I do NOT recommend it.

Oh, the options for this block were “Skepticism Around the Curriculum” and “Crowd-Sourcing Skepticism.”

Third Workshop Block

Options during this block were “Physicists, Metaphysicists and Frauds” and “Supporting Skepticism Around the World.”

I went to 3B due to the desire not to work in small groups and because 3B had huge names (Richard Saunders, Leo Igwe, and Sanal Edamaruku — a guy for whom James Randi started at least one standing ovation during his talk). DJ Grothe and Richard Saunders had to leave about 40 minutes into the workshop because of a Million Dollar Challenge development, and Senal came in an hour late. Otherwise, the entire workshop was really more a monologue with different actors — I’m not saying anyone was “playing” a part or that it was scripted, but it wasn’t even much of a dialogue like the panels later on during TAM, it was each person said their bit about skepticism activities and/or persecution in their part of the world, or a part they were interested in.

I’m not saying it was bad, and I’m not saying that any individual was bad. An effectively smaller version of this was what I thought was the best workshop last year. But, it wasn’t a workshop.

Fourth Workshop Block

Neither was 4A, “Science Based Medicine” (your other option was “Preserving Skeptic History” … I always hated history class, so I went to SBM). As last year, it was a few MDs talking about something they wanted to talk about for about 15 minutes and that was about it. If billed as a “lecture,” that would’ve been fine. But I think it’s false-advertising to be calling these things “workshops.”

Fifth Workshop Block

At this point, I was feeling the 3 hrs of sleep 3 days in a row and I really had to nap during this block. The options were, “How Rational Are You?” and “Skeptics in the Dojo: Taking on the Martial Arts.”

The fifth workshop block ended at 5:45, then it was dinner on your own for another hour.25.

Reception

The reception was 7:00-9:00, and this year, with my bf NOT driving through town, I stayed the whole time. I spoke with many people (several dozen?) and some were those who had attended and liked the workshop (yay!). I also got to meet Tom and Cecil of the Cognitive Dissonance podcast, probably my favorite of the 3 new ones I started listening to after my blog post a few months ago about what podcasts I listen to.

The food was free and decent (I went for the chicken and fruit), and I think the alcohol cost money (I don’t drink so that wasn’t an issue).

George Hrab introduced James Randi maybe an hour into the event, and Randi officially kicked off TAM to much applause and then people went back to talking and drinking and eating.

Evening Show: What THEY Don’t Want You To Know

The evening show this night (and all nights) was 9-11. Bryan and Baxter are Colorado skeptic staples, and they’ve been to every Skepticamp I’ve gone to except one in Fort Collins and the one last month in Colorado Springs. And I gave the workshop with Bryan. So, I’m kinda biased, but I’d put them probably first in terms of the three evening shows this year. And I’m saying that as someone who had seen pretty much ALL of the clips they showed.

If Bryan and Baxter are invited back – and they should be – I recommend going to their show.

After the Evening Show

You’d think that after very little sleep, getting up at 6:30AM, getting MAYBE a 1.5-2 -hour nap, and it being 11PM that I would go to bed straight-away. Alas, no. First option is the Del Mar lounge, which is the staple of TAM. The “watering hole” as it were. Or, perhaps, “alcoholing hole.” You might find TAMers there until the very late hours of the night, maybe even up ’til breakfast the next morning.

My alternative option was that the Colorado folks and a few others got a suite on the top floor, and there was booze and actually audible conversation there. And, it was a good place for me to bring the baked goods I brought (candied pecans, chocolate-mint fudge, and key lime meltaway cookies). I stayed up there probably until around 1AM.

Overall Comments

To follow-up on my comments from yesterday when I recommended that you arrive on Wednesday if you can, I’ll modify it to say that if you can’t arrive Wednesday, you need to arrive early Thursday and go to as much as you can. Well, at least the evening stuff. I honestly wish I could recommend the workshops more (other than my own of course, which was EXCELLENT).

To be blunt, and honest, and hopefully not to burn any bridges, I was not impressed/thrilled with the workshop options this year — nothing really “popped” out at me as a super-exciting must-go-to thing (mine being a clear exception in the positive direction, obviously). I also think that they should have been kinda – you know – interactive. When I was begging DJ to let me do a workshop and pitching different ideas to him, one of the two main things I remember was that DJ insisted that the workshop be interactive. That’s the difference between a talk and a workshop.

Bryan and I tried really hard to make our workshop interactive in at least some way. And there was some. It wasn’t a break-into-groups-and-do-something thing or hands-on origami folding, but there was back-and-forth and some audience participation. There was very little of that in any other workshop except I think 3A. There was NONE of it in the two others I went to, 3B and 4A, and those were by some of the biggest names in organized scientific skepticism. That bugs me. Not because I tried hard and did something that others didn’t, but because they didn’t and so their workshops were not as good as they could have been.

I think what TAM needs is to clearly state that there are some workshops and there are some lectures. Mine was a workshop. 3A was a workshop. 3B and 4A were lectures.

My other comment on the workshops is that they were shorter this year — 90 minutes instead of 120. That was hard for me and Bryan (or at least me) because we had SO MUCH CONTENT that we left out because we couldn’t fit it. But, as someone sitting in the audience, I think that this was a better timespan. I mean, my own attention span was lagging during some parts of my 90-minute workshop, and there comes a point where you just have to get up and stretch, or focus on something else for a few minutes.

#TAM2013 Day -1 Review by the PseudoAstronomer


Wednesday, the day before workshops and the welcome reception.

(Note: Last year I did a massive TAM 2012 review. I’m breaking it up into days this year.)

Getting There

I had a 9:30ish AM flight, meaning I had to leave my place around 6:30, meaning I got very little sleep. Not a good way to start things off.

I had called the South Point hotel to get a reservation for the 11AM shuttle. The next shuttle wouldn’t come until 12:30; the shuttles are at Terminal 1, and you cannot walk to it. My flight got into Terminal 3 at 10:20, and Frontier decided not to tell us that the baggage carousel was not working and didn’t switch to another one. Perhaps needless to say, I missed the shuttle.

Fortunately, I met two other TAMers on the interterminal shuttle, and we split cab fare to the hotel. The total was around $28. Check in went fine, and I got a late lunch in the hotel at the buffet (I didn’t get to try it last year). Wasn’t bad.

Afternoon

I really should have slept, but I didn’t. Checkin for TAM was going to be at 1PM, but due to computer issues, it started at 3PM. I spent time talking with the friendly atheists from the Richard Dawkins Foundation (I know them reasonably well since they’re from Colorado Springs and they and us (the Denver folks) go to similar events like Skepticamp).

They also set up around 4:30 to interview me (they interviewed around two dozen presenters and will be putting out videos later — I’ll link when I know where they are, or where mine is). The interview was to last ~15 min and be boiled down to ~5 min, but since I was the first and we did many takes, I was there for about an hour. All good. And then re-did on Sunday (that’ll be on the Day +3 post).

I then napped.

Evening

I had a cheap-o dinner at Steak ‘n Shake inside the casino. I took my milkshake to the venerable Del Mar lounge to talk with other TAM folks and pimp my workshop that would be starting in about 11 hours. I met two fans of my podcast (yay!) and convinced a few people to come to the workshop.

When the rest of the Colorado folks arrived around 10:30ish, Bryan and I sat down to go over the presentation for the workshop.

And then there was bed.

Overall

Not a bad start. Well, bad start with transportation, but once I got there, I had a good time and met new people (my second-main goal this year was to be more social).

I honestly recommend that if you’re going to TAM, you get there on Wednesday. It’s so much less pressure to go to stuff, you just get to ease into Vegas (something this country boy needs), and there are fewer people there so you can actually hear yourself talking to others.

And if you happen to be doing a workshop the next morning at 8AM, you can try to talk people into going.

July 12, 2013

Ebook or Book on Planet X?

Filed under: astronomy,planet x — Stuart Robbins @ 9:47 am
Tags: , ,

I’ve written a lot on Planet X over the last five years. And I’ve spoken a lot about it on my podcast, having just done Part 7of the “Fake” story of it. I think at this point if I were to do a cohesive tome of any one pseudoscience topic, this would be it. Think it’s worth trying to put something together during my free time?

July 11, 2013

Podcast Episode 80: The Fake Story of Planet X, Part 7 – Mark Hazlewood


Planet X, again,
With claims like Nancy Lieder’s,
By Mark Hazlewood.

A bit of a longer episode, this is yet another in the ongoing saga that is Planet X. A lot of the basic claims about Planet X itself, by Mark Hazlewood, are very similar to those made by Nancy Lieder. However, the narrative that Mark tells is interesting in and of itself, and that’s what I focus on in this episode. Especially on the conspiracy aspects and the level of evidence that Mark considers trustworthy.

There’s also a Puzzler and Feedback in this episode.

This episode was written and recorded a few days early so that I could put it out whilst I’m at TAM … as in, now.

The next episode will probably be about young-Earth creationists’ contention that the speed of light changes — it’s one of the main methods they use to argue that the universe can be young in light of modern cosmology. The next episode was originally going to be about the claims of David Serida, but, that is going to have a lot of Coast to Coast AM clips, and since the last two episodes (including this) have a lot of C2C clips, I figured I would give y’all a break. At least for one episode.

July 10, 2013

Apollo Lunar Landing Sites to Be National Parks?


Um … huh? I’ve seen this article now in at least three different places, so I thought it was worth a quick post. (And here’s one that goes into more detail.)

Basically, two Representatives to the US House, one from Maryland and the other from Texas, have filed a bill that would designate each Apollo landing site (yes, the ones on the moon) to be National Parks, putting the US National Park Service in charge of them. And that the Apollo 11 site be submitted to the UN organization to be designated a World Heritage site. Both representatives are Democrats.

This is stupid.

Okay, I understand the idea, and why the Apollo sites should be preserved. And it’ll happen — after all, it was on an episode of Futurama, though they weren’t exactly sure where the sites were on the moon.

But the US has zero jurisdiction. I’ve covered this a few times, like back in 2008 in my post on why you shouldn’t “buy a star,” or my podcast episode 37 on space law. As far as I can tell, the same thing still applies.

Basically, the US has signed a treaty that states that no nation can claim an extraterrestrial object in ownership. Like, the US planted a flag on the Moon but that doesn’t mean we can now claim it’s US territory. You can probably see where this is going … since we can’t claim the Moon as US territory, how can we possibly designate it a US National Park, and then put it under the jurisdiction of the National Parks Service, a part of the US government?

As for the US designating it a “world heritage site,” sure … except it’s not part of Earth, the “world.”

As I said, I understand the intent, and it’s too far away from an election for this to be voter-playing, but I suggest these two reps take a 10-minute course in space law. What they are proposing violates at least one international treaty.

July 7, 2013

An Ancient Crash-Landed Spacecraft on Mars?


Introduction

Mars Feature, ~13.3°N, 115.5°W

Mars Feature, ~13.3°N, 115.5°W

So claims the website “UFO Sightings Daily.” I was alerted to it by Sharon’s Doubtful News site.

I know I said my last post would be my last pre-TAM post, but given that my workshop is on image analysis and how to investigate image-based claims, well, this one was easy and I thought I’d write about it. And I’m going to assume for purposes here that you’ve gone to one of those two links and read a bit about this.

Investigating the Claim: Find Original Images

The first step to investigating a claim like this is to try to find the original image, or the location of the image on the planet. Fortunately, this is a feature on Mars, and the website has provided the coordinates: about 13.5°N and 115.5°W.

As an astro/geophysicist who got his Ph.D. studying images of Mars to study craters, I know of many different ways to find images of locations of Mars. My normal go-to website is Arizona State University’s Mars Global Data portal. It’s fairly exhaustive, letting you use a (admittedly small) map of the planet to find images from over half a dozen different image sources at a huge variety of resolutions. I do not use things like Google Earth because of the way it resamples and stretches images and I don’t like that it caches everything on your computer, taking up hard drive space, and it does not have all the latest data.

What I did was go to the “Webmap” of CTX data. CTX stands for “ConTeXt” Camera on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. It has a very large, almost global coverage of the planet at a very good ~6 meters per pixel scale. Probably around 70-80% coverage at this time (it’s still in operation and returning data). It’s my go-to source for stuff like this and my work in general. After finding the area, here’s the most zoomed-in you get on that area.

The slanted rectangles are approximate image footprints. By clicking the mouse-arrow tool and then clicking on them, little thumbnails show up below the map. You can click on them to bring up the image on its own page. Of the two that might cover the area, it’s CTX image G01_018494_1930_XN_13N115W that has the feature in the upper third of the image.

You can use the Flash-based zoomer, or you can use any of the browse formats to get a smaller version (though larger than the thumbnail). This CTX image has a pixel scale of about 5.5 m/px, but it looks somewhat grainy. I would guess this is due to possibly photographing through a mild dust storm, or they didn’t expose the camera long enough. However, the feature itself is clearly visible.

MOC, THEMIS, Viking, and HRSC have also all taken photos of the feature, visible through the webmap interface, all with different resolutions. THEMIS took a color image, and HRSC has an image at 12.5 m/px.

If I had to guess, it’s that the THEMIS image is what’s used in the Google Maps version shown on the UFO site, and that Google has also just colored it a rusty orange.

Investigating the Claim: Positive or Negative Relief

Various persons on the UFO page and other places that this is being reported say that it’s a positive feature, meaning that it comes out at you like a hill. Others, like on the Ghost Theory site claim that it’s also positive relief, but that the shadows have been played with in the area.

Mars Object with Context and Craters Identified

Mars Object with Context and Craters Identified

Given that we can go to numerous original images and not ones that have been mosaicked together, we can look at the shadows of other features. To be scientific, you can use the sun angles given in the data on the ASU site for each individual image. Or, you can just look at the craters. Craters are negative features, going into the surface. Shadows will be on the side facing away from the sun, while highlights will be facing the sun. Using the shadows on the craters, we can clearly see that the shadows of this feature match, and so it is a negative relief feature.

Already, that negates claims made on these sites that it’s a space ship or a big rock. Despite the claim in the article: “This structure also does not go under the ground, but instead is laying on the surface of Mars.” As will be a bit of a theme during our TAM workshop (1A!!!!), when someone says “This is NOT [something],” that should be the first thing you check on.

Investigating the Claim: What Is It? Crater?

The default for a hole in the ground on most solid solar system objects other than Earth is an impact crater. And you can get highly elliptical impact craters.

However, this does not look like an impact crater: (1) There is no raised rim, (2) there is no ejecta, (3) the walls are very steep, and (4) the floor looks flat (though no topography data is available). Taking these in order …

1. All impact craters start with a raised rim. These do erode over time, but it takes time. Looking at other craters in the same images, they all have raised rims but the floors look like they’re infilled (they’re not as deep as they should be … remember, I got my Ph.D. studying Mars’ crater population). Given that this is on a very young surface (lack of large craters), it’s very unlikely that such a rim would erode to literally nothing: The ground is flat, and then it drops down into this feature. Not an impact crater.

2. All craters eject material when they form. There is no evidence of ejecta – either present or fossilized – and again with the youth of the feature, this would be very surprising for an impact crater.

3-4. Impact craters that are small are bowl-shaped and have characteristic slopes to their walls. This looks much steeper than you’d get with an impact crater, more typical of what I’ll discus later. Similarly, all small craters are, as I said, bowl-shaped, and this lacks that bowl on the floor. This could be explained by infilling so, in itself, that’s not a reason to discount it being an impact crater. Given the other points, it’s fairly conclusive.

Investigating the Claim: What Is It? Geologic Context

This is on the massive volcanic province of Mars known as the Tharsis region, or Tharsis bulge, or just Tharsis. Massive volcanos resurfaced large parts of it as recently as about 100 million years ago — yes, if the dinosaurs had telescopes and spacecraft in orbit, they would have seen active volcanoes on Mars.

Volcanic vents are fed by lava tubes. When lave tubes are evacuated, they are hollow. You can walk through some in Hawai’i. When they’re hollow, they can collapse. Again, check out Chain of Craters Road in Hawai’i.

When they collapse, you can get individual craters (“pit craters”), or if a large portion of the tube collapses, you get graben – a linear feature with a flat floor and very steep sides – typically steeper than an impact crater. (You can get graben other ways, but this is one of them.)

Mars Object with Broad Context

Mars Object with Broad Context (click image to embiggen)

With that in mind, look elsewhere in the CTX, HRSC, or THEMIS images. You will see graben. In fact, there’s a large, long one a few 10s miles/km north of the feature in question. In fact, between that graben and this feature, there’s another one that looks similar to this feature. In fact, this feature runs parallel to other nearby graben. In fact, there is a very shallow graben leading right into the west end of this feature, in the same direction as the long axis of this feature. In fact …

Investigating the Claim: What Is It? Collapsed Lava Tube?

… that’s what this very likely is: A portion of a collapsed lava tube. It makes sense given the geologic setting. It makes sense given the orientation relative to other obvious graben in the area. It makes sense given that it’s unlikely to be an impact crater.

I think another possibility (less likely in my opinion) is that it’s a large volcanic vent – another type of crater, a “volcanic crater” (AKA caledera). The reason I think this is less likely is that I don’t see evidence of magma coming out of it – there isn’t anything radiating away. Topography data would help settle that, but given that the flows immediately north and south of it appear to continue as though it doesn’t exist, and then this feature is just right on top of them, I think it’s more likely to be the collapsed lava tube.

What It’s Not

Not a spaceship. Not a big rock. And yet, with the headline of, “Ancient Structure On Mars,” you get all sorts of commenters on the UFO website exercising their amazing powers of pareidolia:

“It even has windows along the sides! It could be a building but more likely it is a vehicle.”

“I sent an email with a photo showing what I believe are tracks, lines of holes in the sand, behind the object, (behind meaning at the fat end). It might be that wheels there are complex, not round but different from wheels on Earth, due to the soft sand. They might have deep knobs on the tires, or something like that.”

And from the original post itself: “Notice the evenness of the lines. The balance of the indents that go all the way down the sides. The back seems thinner a bit than the front…if it is the front. This structure shows lots of signs of being an a spaceship that has long since been abandoned on Mars.”

Final Thoughts

Well that was fun. Good to get the juices flowing and prolong my crappy sleep schedule.

The bottom-line here is that this appears to be a very natural, volcanic feature on Mars. To someone who’s a geologist or knows what they’re doing, anyway. I love that Google and other companies make these things available, that NASA is one of the most open space agencies in the world with releasing their image data, and that people love to pour over these images. It helps increase the interest in space exploration and you really do get cases of laypersons finding features that turn out to be major discoveries, like natural bridges on the Moon.

The downside is that this stuff also happens — people see something they don’t understand, and they leap to wild conclusions. And, with the internet, it can very quickly gain traction. An oft-quoted Mark Twain line is, “A lie can get halfway around the world before the truth can even get its boots on.”

I’m not accusing the UFO Sightings Daily website of lying. But, the quote can easily be adapted to replace “lie” with “misunderstanding” or even “paranormal claim.”

Also, as I’ve talked about before, it’s MUCH easier to spread a misunderstanding – or to have the misunderstanding – than to figure out what’s going on. I’ve spent >1800 words going through this claim. Granted, I could’ve probably cut it in half by just cutting to the chase, but it’s late and I’m being verbose and I wanted to do this logically and thoroughly explain my argument. Meanwhile, I’m sure the UFO folks are on to their next Mars pareidolia.

So why do this? Because the more people who are trained and armed with the tools to investigate stuff like this, the harder that misunderstanding is to propagate, and the faster people will be able to call them on it.

July 6, 2013

Forgiveness, or Why I Like Stargate but Not Hoagland, Creationists, Planet Xers, etc.


Introduction

I’ve thought about writing this post for awhile but never got around to it. Now, I’m writing it instead of going to bed.

If you couldn’t figure it out from the title, the purpose of this post is to discuss why I like some television shows and movies that incorporate some bad science and am willing to forgive that versus why I dislike the purveyance of bad science by people such as creationists, UFOlogists, IDers, Planet Xers, or individuals like Richard Hoagland, Nancy Lieder, Maurice Cotterell, or Whitley Strieber — to name a few.

In other words, why I forgive some, but I don’t forgive others.

For Entertainment Purposes Only

We’ve all seen this or heard this line, especially if we read the 2-pt print at the bottom of many websites for, e.g., astrologers. For them, though, it’s to keep themselves legal. For science fiction shows such as Star Trek, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, or Stargate, that really is the intent: To entertain. Well, to make money for the network, but to tell an entertaining story.

I think that Gene Roddenberry was right in that, to tell a good story, it usually has to be about humans and the human condition. That was part of his impetus for having Spock in TOS and TAS, Data in TNG, and later directors to have Kes / 7 of 9 and Neelix in VOY, the various non-humans in DS9, and we’ll ignore That-Series-Which-Must-Not-Be-Named. These were the outsiders looking in on and commenting on and reacting to the humans and how they dealt with new situations.

Star Wars is similar: It can really be boiled down to the classic Hero’s Journey and is about humans fighting for freedom and survival. Stargate is similar, as well, having Teal’c as the alien character looking in for SG-1, Teyla on ATL, and then UNI failed for many reasons, but I think the lack of that non-human character looking in contributed.

Is the science perfect? Abso-friggin’-lutely not. I recently (last week) re-watched the original Stargate movie and then first three episodes of SG-1. In the first episode, the scientist character (Sam Carter, played by the amazing actress Amanda Tapping) has a conversation with the archaeologist (Daniel Jackson, played by the actor Michael Shanks:

Sam: According to the expanding universe model, all bodies in the universe are constantly moving apart.

Daniel: So in the thousands of years since the Stargate was built-

Sam: All the coordinates could have changed.

Daniel: But why does it still work between Abydos and Earth?

Sam: Abydos is probably the closest planet in the network to Earth. I mean, the closer they are, the less the difference in relative position due to expansion. The further away, the greater the difference. In a few thousand more years, it won’t work between Earth and Abydos either.

Daniel: Unless you can adjust for the displacement.

Sam: Right. Now with this map as a base, that should be easy. All we have to do is correct for Doppler shift. Then I should be able to arrive at a computer model that will predict the adjustments necessary to get the Gate working again.

Purists might say there’s nothing wrong with that, in the movie they clearly state Abydos is in a distant galaxy. But, in the TV series, and later in this first episode, they clearly state the Stargate system operates within the Milky Way. You have to have much more power and “dial” an extra glyph to get outside the Galaxy.

Ergo, the expanding universe does not apply in anyway. Sam in supposed to be an astrophysicist. An intro astronomy major would know that this line makes no sense, that galaxies are gravitationally bound objects in this epoch of the universe. Stellar drift – which the script writers use later in the series perhaps because they were told expanding universe doesn’t apply – is a very plausible explanation. But, that doesn’t change the fact that I rolled my eyes and shook my head when I heard that line.

And the follow-up of using Doppler shift to correct for it is equally fallacious: If you’re going to a distant galaxy where expansion plays a role, Doppler shift only gets you the radial velocity towards/away from Earth. You still have to know the Hubble Constant – which they didn’t in the 1990s when SG-1 started – to convert that to a distance, and you would need to know the motion across the sky, which you can’t really get for a distant galaxy (though it would be small relatively speaking).

In other words, the science is wrong. But it wasn’t as though the entire plot hinged upon it. It wasn’t as though the producers were trying to tell us that this is what’s really going on in the world (unlike what William Henry may think).

As such, I’m willing to forgive this kind of thing for the broader entertainment value, just like I’m willing to forgive the fact that everyone somehow speaks English all across the galaxy.

Movies I sometimes hold to a higher standard. For example, I saw the new Star Trek: Into Darkness movie a few weeks ago. Towards the end, the Enterprise is in orbit of Earth, but at the distance of the Moon. No engines. From the shot, they are implying that it is orbiting at the same speed as the Moon around Earth In the space of a half hour or so, the ship is plunging through Earth’s atmosphere, sure to crash. Sorry, but no. Being at the distance of the Moon and traveling at the same velocity is a stable orbit. Or, it took the Apollo astronauts three days to get to the Moon, and three days to get back, under powered travel. Not 20 minutes. No way the ship would be plunging through Earth’s atmosphere so soon. And that bothered me. Perhaps because it was a higher-budget endeavor than a weekly TV show. But, I still enjoyed the movie and it didn’t affect my opinion of it overall.

Then the Others

And then there are the ones of whom and of what I spoke in the second paragraph. They make factual mistakes, too. Like Mike Bara talking about how Mars’ orbit is elliptical because of its large distance difference from Earth, or that the surface of Earth is darker than clouds because light takes more time to reach it than clouds when the camera is in space (and oceans are darkest “because the light has to travel all the way to the ocean floor before it is reflected back to the camera.”

But, they try to sell that “science” as reality, and that’s all they’re selling. Sitchen was not creating an alternate world with an alien race that created humans and lived on a planet that swings near Earth every 3600 years and trying to make money with sci-fi. He really thought that is true.

In-so doing, and in perpetuating their own mythologies as real, they in fact do harm. I’ve often stated in my podcast and blog that bad astronomy is much less harmful than things like bad medicine where people really die because they take a homeopathic pill rather than get chemo. Very rare for someone to die because of astronomy pseudoscience.

But, astronomy pseudoscience is where it can start. Someone listens to James McCanney and electric universe stuff and thinks, “Well that’s weird, I’ve never heard about this before from ‘establishment’ scientists, but this guy has degrees, he has a platform, maybe there’s more to this.”

Bad science in any form is like a gateway drug: If you’re credulous about one thing and you don’t go through the critical thinking necessary to understand why it’s wrong, it opens you up to being taken advantage of by pseudoscience that can do a lot more physical harm.

Final Thoughts

I think that’s why I give science fiction shows and movies a free pass when they get the science wrong (in most cases), but I don’t give people like Richard Hoagland a pass: It’s all about intent.

Stargate is meant to entertain and they usually try to get the science right. Richard Hoagland, on the other hand, does not. He tries to sell you books, sell his appearance on TV shows and conferences, and various other ways of making money on perpetuating a misunderstanding of how science is done and the conclusions from its process.

And I think this is a good post to leave you with as I get ready for TAM 2013!

July 3, 2013

Preview of #TAM2013 Workshop 1A: “How Your Camera Lies to You: From Ghosts to UFOs, a Skeptics’ Guide to Photography”


The Amazing Meeting www.amazingmeeting.com #TAM2013

WORKSHOP 1A • HOW YOUR CAMERA LIES TO YOU • 8:00-9:30A.M.

So much “evidence” today for paranormal claims stems from photographic and vidographic depictions.  The vast majority of these are based on well known but unidentified anomalies based in photographs and videos are made, while many others are intentional hoaxes.  We’ll take you through many of the key anomaly types by using actual claims that are made based on them.  We’ll also show you how real scientists know about these and are able to remove a lot of them from their data.  Finally, we’ll take you through some actual hoaxes and discuss ways to determine how they were done and why they are more likely to be hoaxes than real.  This will be interactive: We’ll be asking you to participate along the way and see if you can figure out how some of our examples were done.

TAM 2013 Workshop 1A Title Slide

TAM 2013 Workshop 1A Title Slide: “How Your Camera Lies to You: From Ghosts to UFOs, a Skeptics’ Guide to Photography”

 


Introduction

As I announced a few months ago, and is now apparent at the top of the official schedule, I will be co-presenting a workshop entitled “How Your Camera Lies to You: From Ghosts to UFOs, a Skeptics’ Guide to Photography.”

I’ve now presented two drafts of the workshop in talk form at the Denver and Colorado Springs Skepticamps, and Bryan (the co-presenter) and I have met a few times and are near a final version. As such, I want to give a preview of what you can expect if you come (and if you’re going to TAM and will be there Thursday morning, you should definitely go to this workshop!).

Original Description

First, we’ll take you through a brief history of photography, from daguerrotypes to polaroids to cameras around Mercury, to learn about how images are taken and processed. In the next phase, we’ll show you processing tips and tricks and what Photoshop is really doing when you tell it to “Reduce Noise” or “Auto-Levels” and how every processing step can introduce more anomalies. During the last third of the workshop, we’ll go through numerous examples of claimed paranormal, supernatural, or alien images and take you through how to analyze them to figure out what’s really going on. This workshop will be interactive with the audience being asked to guess what manipulation has been applied and how they would start to analyze each new image for what may be really shown.

That was the description that I wrote back in January when originally planning this. I’m a very linear thinker. The idea of talking about how cameras work, then anomalies that take place due to how they work, and then paranormal claims based on those anomalies made total sense to me and is probably still how I would do it if I were teaching a university course.

Revising

Bryan is a much more abstract thinker. His talks are frequently a lot of pictures up that he and Baxter just talk through and discuss, sometimes forgetting that they even included them in the presentation. The workshop has ended up being something of a mesh of the two that I think works out better than either extreme.

Here is a revised description:

So much “evidence” today for paranormal claims stems from photographic and vidographic depictions.  The vast majority of these are based on well known but unidentified anomalies based in photographs and videos are made, while many others are intentional hoaxes.  We’ll take you through many of the key anomaly types by using actual claims that are made based on them.  We’ll also show you how real scientists know about these and are able to remove a lot of them from their data.  Finally, we’ll take you through some actual hoaxes and discuss ways to determine how they were done and why they are more likely to be hoaxes than real.  This will be interactive: We’ll be asking you to participate along the way and see if you can figure out how some of our examples were done.

Rough Topic List and Outline

There’s a lot of stuff that I wanted to fit in this workshop. Heck– I’ve done two podcast episodes dedicated to this material and most of the stuff I discussed in them didn’t make it into the workshop. This could easily have been four hours long if I had my way, but I don’t think anyone would want to go to that. So, Bryan and I have settled on a few of the anomaly types that we think form the majority of ghost-type and astronomy-type claims out there (and can also be applied to other claims), then I get to talk about how astronomers process photographs, and then we’ve settled on five hoaxes to round the workshop out — two ghost-type, three astronomy.

I should preface this list that it is still subject to revision, and it may be truncated if we run short on time. But, as currently planned, the topic list of anomaly types is:

  • Double Exposure
  • Forced Perspective
  • Long Exposures & “Night Mode”
  • Obstructions in the Optical Path
  • Optical Reflection and Refraction
  • Lens Flares
  • Hot Pixels
  • Noise
  • Pareidolia
  • Finite Resolution
  • Compression

Examples of these include, but are by no means exhaustive: Cities on Mars and the Moon, ghosts, reptilians, geoglyphs, orbs, UFOs, and Planet X.

Interactivity

Workshops, as opposed to TAM talks and panels, are meant to be interactive. Or at least, they are supposed to be (many aren’t *cough*ScienceBasedMedicine*cough*).

We have some planned, besides the obvious, “Please interrupt us if you have a question!” and questions at the end, and send any feedback to us at this email. One is where we ask if anyone can find the ghost in some images. Another is for all the hoaxes, asking the audience to spot the red flags and what the steps of investigation should be or could be. During some of the anomalies discussion (bulk of the workshop, probably the first ~50-60 minutes), we’ll be doing a live photography demo and asking in some of the cases what you/they (the audience) thinks may be going on — even though we’ll be giving the broad category (like, “crap on the lens”), the question of exactly what’s going on is still not always obvious.

Final Thoughts

This should be a really cool workshop, one that I don’t think has been done at TAM in a long time, if ever. You have a pro and semi-pro photographer (I’ve sold some stuff!) and this year’s only TAM presenter who’s an actual astrophysicist (me!). We’re also the first workshop, a great way to launch your TAM-affiliated activities.

So, if you’re going, come to the workshop! Ask questions ‘n’ other things! There may be delicious prizes!

If you’re not going, but you think this’ll be interesting, help spread the word (Twitter, Facebook, direct e-mailing to friends who are attending, sky writing, smoke signals, etc.).

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