Exposing PseudoAstronomy

July 6, 2013

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


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!


  1. You might not be so happy with an author called Allen Steele, in 1992 he wrote a book called “Labryntih of Night” in which he took as his base premise that all of Hoaglands claims about Mars up to that date were true. I have no doubt that Hoagland has multiple copies.

    Comment by Graham — July 7, 2013 @ 3:37 am | Reply

  2. “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.”

    Your “gateway drug” analogy is brilliant. It squares with physicist David Hestenes’ comments in the last paragraph of the first page of this document: http://modeling.asu.edu/modeling/HestenesLectures/3.Discourse.pdf

    I, too, am concerned at the number of people who are drawn by pseudoscientists’ invitations to be part of the group of people who “don’t let themselves be fooled by establishment scientists”. Also of concern is how those people approve when pseudoscientists respond to critics with New Age goosh about tolerance for other views, and with dribble and goo about how no one can really know what the truth is, so “alternative” science is just as valid. Therefore, we mean ol’ critics need to become more accepting of “out of the box” thinking.

    Especially objectionable are pseudoscientists who know they’re wrong, but peddle their gateway drug to make a buck. As I told one of them recently,

    “Pseudoscience peddlers always attack teaching of critical thinking and the need to support claims with evidence, and always do it by playing the victim and assuming a superior air of ‘tolerance for different views’. Tolerance of other views *is* a good thing, but it doesn’t extend to bogus works whose authors ignore evidence that refutes them.”

    Comment by Jim Smith — July 16, 2013 @ 9:42 pm | Reply

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