Exposing PseudoAstronomy

January 24, 2015

The Titles of Research Grants, Out of Any Context, Makes Taxpayers Angry


Introduction

I originally wrote this post yesterday for my other, much smaller blog, WND Watch. However, I think I did a pretty good job of explaining federal grants and problems with publicizing what the research is. So, I’m copying most of it over here.

The Post

Federal research grants are important. They provide money for a huge range of scientific research that otherwise would not be done. We, as a society, have decided that they are good, though both the left and right and everyone in between may disagree about specific programs.

Because they are public, certain laws and regulations exist whereby the public gets to know what their tax money is going to. And, there exist many websites that will let you search them. Here’s one that I have found useful because it links to the search forms for what looks like all federal research funding agencies.

What information is shown is somewhat variable, but in general, you will find: The funding agency, the PI (principle investigator), the PI’s institution, Co-Is (co-investigators), the date the funding starts, the date the funding ends, the amount of funding, and an abstract that describes the research that was provided within the proposal. You won’t find the actual proposal because it contains proprietary information — not only sometimes classified information, but also the ideas and methodology behind the proposal (so the team doesn’t get “scooped”), and even the layout and style of the proposal itself (trust me, there are many ways to write a proposal, and some of them are very effective, while others are very ineffective).

The problem with this information is that to a non-expert, and without any of the broader context of the many pages explaining what the proposal may do and the implications for it beyond the immediate research, the proposal easily looks like a waste of money to the average person. And, despite a tiny fraction of the federal budget going to research grants, various bloggers, reporters, and even congresspersons will often pull up a random title and claim that it’s an amazing example of government waste.

Such seems to have been the case with a Free Beacon article titled, “Feds Spent $432,000 Studying Gay Hookup Apps” with the subtitle, “NIH project studied ‘arousal’ of gay men when using Grindr.” The image is of two men, ostensibly gay, laying on each other and smiling.

The World Net Daily subtitle is the same, but they slightly modified the title: “Feds Spent $432,000 Studying ‘Gay’-Hookup Apps.” See, they added a hyphen and put “gay” in “quotes” because “gay” is scary and fake and a choice, because it’s WND.

There are three distinct problems here, and I don’t know if there’s a good solution to any of them: (1) There is no context, making it easy to complain; (2) titles of proposals are often whimsical; and (3) people don’t realize that less than half of the money goes to the actual researcher(s).

The first issue is that when we write grant proposals, we write them at a level where someone in our field or closely related field can understand them. When I write a crater-related proposal, I try to generalize the abstract to explain to a general person familiar with planetary geology what I plan to do and why. I then spend several pages within the proposal giving background information so that someone who models the interiors of planets would be able to understand why I want to do an observational study of impact craters.

I don’t write my abstract so that someone who has a 9-5 job working for a law firm, or working retail, or who works in Congress, would understand it. That would simply require “dumbing it down” too much. I don’t mean to imply that those people are dumb; rather, we have a very limited amount of space to explain why we want to do the research, how we’re going to do it, the broader implications, the proposal team, the management structure, and justify the budget. If we also had to write it at a level that anyone could understand it, we’d never be able to get into details.

Therefore, what makes it into the abstract that would be made public should I win the grant will rarely make sense to a general person just picking it up randomly.

Similarly, we often write titles to try to stand out to the review panels. Something fun and whimsical, for example, to make someone smile. For example, one might entitle a proposal, “Studying Martian ‘Holes in One.'”

A congressional staffer or random blogger may pick that up thinking, “Wow, why is NASA funding something about golf on Mars?” In reality, my proposal is about studying meter- and decameter scale craters in a broad statistical study to try to understand where they are most common, how dense they are, and therefore what the likelihood is that a a future spacecraft may inadvertently land in one. This happened with the MER Opportunity when it landed on Mars eleven years ago. It turned out to be good because the crater’s walls let Opportunity see a lot of otherwise buried layers, and it was able to get out of the crater. But if the crater were a little steeper, or a little smaller, then the rover would not have been able to escape or it may have fallen over and not have been able to righten itself.

Now it seems much more important: You send a half-$billion craft to Mars, you’re going to be more willing to fund a $300k study into impact crater hazards for landing, right? But, a layperson may never get past the title and flag it for government waste.

And that leads into the third issue: We don’t get that money. On a proposal I wrote several years ago, just as an example, the total budget for the three-year proposal was $328k. Salary was $127k, a little over one-third of the total amount. That was my salary as a graduate student half-time for 1 year, and postdoc half-time for 2 years, and my then-advsior for 1 month each year. What did the other money go to? The vast majority was institutional overhead, which covers administration staff salary, budget office salary, building rent, lights, computer support, custodial staff, etc. Then there were benefits, like health insurance, life insurance, and retirement. There was also money in there for a new computer and software licenses so I could do the work. About $10k was travel to conferences and another $6k was publication costs: After all, I could do the most ground-breaking study ever, but if I never told anyone about it, then what’s the point?

So, while a study may look like it costs a lot, and overhead rates vary considerably across different institutions (and are generally higher at private companies versus public universities), a very very general rule-of-thumb is to divide the total amount by 3, and that’s salary.

That brings us back to the article in question. Now that you have all that in mind, let’s look at it. Using the NIH (National Institutes of Health) search form, here’s the grant, awarded to Dr. Karolynn Siegel, entitled, “Use of Smartphones Applications for Partnering Among MSM.” MSM is “men who have sex with men” (since many men are unwilling to identify as bi or gay but do have sex with other men).

While Free Beacon doesn’t seem to have much of a spin, and it does not allow comments so I can’t quite tell which end of the political spectrum it’s on, WND clearly does have an agenda: This study is a waste because who cares about gays (or “gays”) hooking up? What benefit could there possibly be!?

Well, take a moment and think more broadly about it from both a social and medical standpoint: Smartphones and GPS-enabled devices have drastically changed how we interact, so from a social standpoint we need research to better understand that phenomenon. From a health standpoint, it’s dramatically increased the ease of casual sex, especially among gay men where there is still a stigma of trolling the bars or streets for a partner. Heterosexuals have their own app (Tinder), and so the findings from a study of gay males hooking up could have implications for straight men and women, too. And, casual sex will increase the risk of STDs (sexually transmitted diseases). So, from a public health standpoint, understanding a strong new vector for how diseases spread is the first step to trying to determine ways to minimize that risk. Both for straight and gay persons.

If the blogger or WND had bothered to read the abstract on the NIH site, they would have found that (emphasis mine):

The study aims are: 1. Examine how and why smartphone applications are used for sexual partnering, the situations and locations in which they are used, in order to gain insights into how these use patterns might contribute to sexual risk behaviors. 2. Investigate the process by which MSM use smartphone applications to find sexual partners (i.e., who they look for, how they present themselves, how they communicate, extent of safer sex negotiation,and disclosure) to gain insights into how this process may contribute to sexual risk behaviors. 3. Investigate the sexual and emotional states (e.g., more/less urgency, arousal, impulsivity) that MSM experience when seeking or meeting sexual partners using smartphone applications and gain insights into how these states may contribute to sexual risk behaviors. 4. Examine the perceived need and acceptability of a smartphone delivered intervention and assess what MSM perceive as needed components for a smartphone-based sexual risk reduction intervention.

It also contains a public health relevance statement (likely unique to the NIH, since I don’t have to do that for NASA).

Meanwhile, the cost – $432k – may seem high. But, divide by three, and we’re down to around $150k salary. For a medical researcher, working for two years, at maybe half or a third of their time on this particular grant, that doesn’t seem very high anymore. Especially if most of it is given to graduate students who will be conducting the actual interviews with the 60 MSM in the study and Dr. Siegel is there for a month a year to supervise and then more at the end to crunch the data. In medical studies, there’s also money that is sometimes paid out to participants as compensation (I have no idea if that’s the case in this study, but I know it happens in others).

And so, we went from a sensationalist headline that clearly is meant to drum up a specific reaction (government waste! who cares about gays!?) but that’s because it leaves out any form of context as to the broader implications of this kind of study and why it’s being done. It also completely ignores that the amount of money in the federal budget for government-funded scientific research is somewhere around 3.4%. (FY2015 budget is around $3.97T, but science is $135B, and just under half of that is defense, leaving 1.8% for non-defense.)

The Obligatory WND Annoyance

And, World Net Daily got that reaction. In the 22 hours the article on their site has been posted, they have gotten 42 comments. They broadly fit into saying that President Obama is gay (which is another odd conspiracy they’ve been floating for years, and remember that being gay on WND is bad), that this is government waste of tax money, and that the study is stupid because it’s about The Gays.

Ignoring the first, some examples of the second are:

    • dan690: “The government says there is no room in the budget for cuts. Here is an excellent example of where to cut and there are thousands more.”
    • Tomas Cruz: “And they wonder why we reject every call for more taxes for this or that because it ends up with this nonsense.”
    • James Frost: “What the hell is going on with our officials? They spend our money on conducting such stupid research. But what`s the use? They`d better spend money on veterans, poor families, security measures. This gays have too much public attention!”

And examples of the third are:

    • Sharknado: “A government of perverts…just great…thanks a lot.”
    • ThoLawn: “What was the purpose to spend (waste indeed) half of million dollars to interview all that gays? What they’re going to do with that “research” results? Would it help to solve any problems? What a stupidity…”
    • HardCorePress: “Talk about in your face government sponsored hommoman wanna pump a guys *** pervertedness. This type of blatant sin has been seen by God and God will send his wrath upon this country. May it be nuclear fire to cleanse the cancerous mass of homosexuality (the pinnacle of debauchery and Obamanibale hedonism).”

January 17, 2015

Podcast Episode 124: The Astronomical Distance Ladder


Measuring distance
In the Universe: A fun
Science episode!

An episode over two years in the making: The Astronomical Distance Ladder!!!!! (insert many cheers) In all seriousness, I have wanted to do this episode since autumn (August-ish) 2012, but I haven’t been able to find a good hook. Convicted and jailed felon, Kent Hovind, provided that for me on January 6, 1998, in a Coast to Coast AM episode I got my hands on. And so we have this episode. It is long. Those of you who like longer episodes, this is nearly an hour long. It did not intend it to be this long, but, well, that’s what happens when I get excited about a topic that’s not incredibly straight-forward.

I also guessed off the top of my head that an object with a redshift value of z = 1.4 would be about 10 billion light-years away. According to Wolfram Alpha, it’s 9.1 billion l-y lookback time, so take THAT, Prof. Morrison! (It’s been literally a decade since I thought about what z equals what distance, so I’m pretty impressed that I got that pretty close.)

I do want to apologize about the sound quality in this one and the variable volume levels (I tried to even them out in post-processing). I was recording during sustained 20mph winds with gusts over 50mph. So, I had a lot of background noise I was dealing with that varied in intensity.

This episode has three additional segments: New News related to a precision measurement of Saturn’s position, a new Logical Fallacies segment, and Feedback (one clarification, one negative and my response).

For the new Logical Fallacies segment, I’ll say what I said in the episode: “I’m open to feedback including overwhelming negative feedback on whether this was at all useful or is worth keeping in some modified way, and also if I’ve made any mistakes.” The fallacies discussed in detail for the episode are Argument from (Personal) Incredulity and Appeal to Ridicule. I got into how both of these are classes of Red Herring fallacies and the former is a sub-type of Red Herring, the Genetic. I also pointed out that additional fallacies in Mr. Hovind’s argument were the False Precision Fallacy, Appeal Against Authority, and False Analogy.

Edited to Add (January 21, 2015): The Raw Story has an article up today explaining a bit more about Kent Hovind, and that he is trying to testify before Congress (though he’s still in federal prison) about the IRS being a bunch of meanies.

January 8, 2015

A Follow-Up on the Boyd Bushman Alien Video Claims: The Debunkings Are Part of the Conspiracy


I’m doing these out of order, so my fifth post for the JREF’s Swift blog, which went up on December 31, 2014, was a follow-up to the Boyd Bushman affair. Before I recite the post below, I’d like to point out that when Sharon on Doubtful News posted this to her blog (since she’s the editor of Swift), it became the most-viewed Doubtful News post of the year. Not bad!

Ahem …

My first post for the JREF Swift blog dealt with the apparent deathbed confessions of Boyd Bushman, in which the alleged senior scientist for Lockheed Martin made vast claims about flying saucers, aliens, and other related topics. That post focused on why I find deathbed confessions, in general, to be unconvincing.

The Bushman story got a lot of press in the weeks that followed, and it was trumpeted on many websites and blogs as well as radio shows. One of them was an interview of David Sereda, conducted by George Noory on November 2, 2014, on the late-night paranormal radio program Coast to Coast AM (C2C).

C2C currently describes Mr. Sereda on their website as a “scientist, filmmaker, and spiritual explorer.” Mr. Sereda could best be categorized as a “new age” person, and if you are interested in some of his claims, I invite you to look towards the two episodes of my podcast that I devoted to his ideas (part 1, part 2). Suffice to say, he makes a lot of paranormal claims, but his evidence for them is severely lacking. Perhaps it’s because he claims that people – including himself – only use 5% of their brain.

Subtle digs and background information aside, Mr. Sereda had a different take on the Bushman story. Mr. Sereda claimed to have met Bushman many times and that he interviewed him in 2007 for a documentary (that Mr. Sereda has yet to release).

Besides background information into the scientist (which goes against some claims that the Boyd Bushman shown in the “confessions” was not the “real” Bushman who worked at Lockheed Martin), Mr. Sereda had a different take on the claimed photos of the aliens that Bushman presented. Specifically in the recordings, Bushman showed photographs that he claimed were of aliens. The internet quickly erupted with photos of identical “aliens;” too bad they were plastic dolls.

And so, that claim at least appeared to be debunked. And, if he’s showing photos of plastic dolls and claiming they are real, it does cast a bad light on the rest of Bushman’s claims. (Even though we should, if we were to be 100% fair, evaluate each individual claim in isolation.)

But, Mr. Sereda had an answer to this: The dolls were made by disinformation people. To quote from the C2C description of the evening’s show:

“Bushman alleged he had true photographs of the preserved alien from Roswell, and Sereda concluded there was possibly some authenticity to his claims, as the face in the Bushman photo contained unique irregularities, while the knock-off dolls, sold at places like K-mart, could have been part of a smear or disinformation campaign to discredit the actual photo. Further, Sereda suggested that the alien body was likely preserved with chemicals and plastics, creating the effect of the darkened eyes and rings around them, as fluid was lost from the body.”

That’s right. Way back in the day after the aliens were brought to Area 51 (or, actually, the real Area 51 in Write Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio), the Men in Black anticipated that someone would leak photos of the aliens. That over the next several decades, a vast “disclosure” network would grow and find these photos and present them as evidence of aliens landing. But, to counteract that effort by the not-yet-created disclosure movement, the Men in Black decided that the best way to confuse the issue would be to create dolls of the real aliens. And, they chose plastic not because it was cheap, but because the preservation method used at the time on the aliens rendered a plastic-like appearance (or maybe it was a happy coincidence). That way, when the real alien photos were leaked, the silly debunkers would point to the dolls and say that the real alien photos are just photos of dolls. (cue evil laughter)

I kid you not.

Thus goes the conspiracy mindset, and it’s something that I think I first heard from Dr. Steve Novella: Once you get deep enough and invested enough in the conspiracy, nothing can persuade you that you are wrong. All evidence for the conspiracy is of course evidence for the conspiracy. But, all evidence against the conspiracy was planted by disinformation agents, and therefore it, too, is evidence for the conspiracy.

January 1, 2015

Podcast Episode 123: The Science and Pseudoscience of Communicating with Aliens with @KarenStollznow


Karen Stollznow talks
‘Bout the issues of ET
Communication.

I wanted to start the New Year off on a lighter and different kind of topic, so I interviewed linguist, Dr. Karen Stollznow, about alien communication. This was based a bit on her TAM 2014 talk, and we got into a lot of issues not only with how communication is portrayed in popular media, but how communication is problematic amongst people on our own planet, different language groups on our own planet, and different species on our own planet. We then discussed – within that context – some people who claim they are in contact with aliens and how linguistic analysis shows the claimed languages to be poorly constructed variations on what they already know.

This interview was only meant to be a half hour long, but even after editing, it is just under an hour. That editing included removing a headset issue and two phone calls from my mother (family emergency). I tried to find a possible natural break to get it to two 30-minute episodes, but I found none: the conversation flowed very well, I thought.

There are no other segments in this episode because it is just over an hour long. The next episode should be about black hole denial.

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