Exposing PseudoAstronomy

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.).

7 Comments »

  1. I just watched Virtual Skeptics 45 and your talk was frequently on the screen during Tims segment. Not sure what was covered in V/S 46 because it’s subject to a copyright takedown…

    Comment by Graham — July 3, 2013 @ 10:17 pm | Reply

    • Awesome! (the first part)

      Comment by Stuart Robbins — July 3, 2013 @ 11:39 pm | Reply

  2. I hope TAM records a video of your presentation, so I can eventually watch it. I really wish I could go see it, because it sounds very interesting. I seriously doubt you’ll have many people walking out, unless they need a restroom break or something.

    Comment by Rick K. — July 4, 2013 @ 8:34 am | Reply

    • People are telling me it’ll likely be well attended, but I always expect the worst and then hope to be pleasantly surprised.

      Comment by Stuart Robbins — July 4, 2013 @ 10:25 am | Reply

  3. At the risk of offending the faithful, is it at all curious to anyone that early 20th century photographs of paranormal phenomena were discounted as anomalies associated with the nature of chemical film and the developing process, but now in the 21st century we have eliminated film and developing in photography, yet the same phenomena continue to be photographed?

    It seems to have deprived the debunkers of their best explanations but does not seem to have changed their minds at all. it is analogous to a time when Venus, weather balloons and swamp gas are eliminated from the universe yet UFOs are still reported.

    What method of photography would you accept as “reliable”? Or is the a priori assumption that all photographs of the paranormal *must* be fake, therefore any method of taking such a photograph must be “unreliable” regardless of the technology used or the veracity of the photographer?

    Comment by -George- — July 12, 2013 @ 2:19 pm | Reply

    • You’re operating on a false major premise, so I’ll just broadly address your comment at this point by responding to your first paragraph. Film grain very rarely contributed to the phenomena. It was optical issues, such as lens flares, dust, and other things. In the digital era we still have all of those. We also have issues with the sensors, such as hot pixels and dead pixels and banding. We also have processing issues like basic digital manipulation that introduces artifacts (resizing, rotation, compression, “enhancement”) and we have intentional digital hoaxes and frauds. The digital tools make things easier, but some things were just as easily done a century ago like double exposure and forced perspective.

      Comment by Stuart Robbins — July 13, 2013 @ 11:30 am | Reply

      • I am by no means an advocate of the extreme interpretations of photographic anomalies, but neither am I in favor of summary dismissal of the same by incomplete or flawed arguments. My purpose is to both help me understand your arguments and possibly help you strengthen them. IMHO any explanation must address two key factors:

        1) Why is the accuracy of photography inversely proportional to the advances in technology?
        2) Why do the instances of video anomalies converge more with specific people than with the total amount of camera time per person?

        Expanding on point 1) Basically the more sophisticated the technology becomes, the less possible it is to photographically record events faithfully? I don’t think that is what you mean to say, but it is coming through that way. I would trust a 21st century digital thermometer over 19th century technology, same with cars, trains, medicine, etc. Why is photography in retrograde? Why does Peter Jackson seek out 21st century Red Epic digital cameras instead of pining to shoot his next film with a circa 1895 Eidoloscope? I don’t think he believes that the digital format is less capable of accurate image reproduction than it’s analog predecessor. More than ever, the camera does not lie; if the camera records it, it was there–rods, orbs, vortices and all.

        And on point 2) If the hypothesis is that video artifacts are susceptible to interpretation as reptilian features, etc. one would expect such reports to be proportional to the degree of on-camera time for an individual. A seemingly disproportionate number of such reports center around political figures such as Ms. Clinton and Queen Elizabeth, whom spend most of their lives avoiding the camera. Conversely, a person with decades on on-camera time, such as Walter Cronkite have no reports I can find of exhibiting such visual anomalies. What scientific basis then is there for the proposition that the issue is with the camera technology and not the person being photographed? Granted that a lot of Cronkite’s footage was videotaped on much older (and thus, by “point 1”, more accurate) technology, but he was filmed enough in his career that if such anomalies as scales, forked tongue and vertical pupils just “comes with the technology” then he should have been called out more than any other personality (and yes, reports of reptilian humanoids predate Walter Cronkite by centuries).

        Comment by -George- — July 14, 2013 @ 3:21 pm


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