Exposing PseudoAstronomy

May 9, 2015

The Reality Check Podcast Episode 348 – Me on Exoplanets, Others on Other Stuff

Episode 348 of “The Reality Check,” a weekly Canadian podcast that explores a wide range of scientific controversies and curiosities using science and critical thinking, is posted, and I take the first (and longest) of the three segments, where I discuss exoplanets.

I was originally contacted to discuss this topic because the hosts had some skepticism about the hype that we get every few weeks or months about how we are just on the verge of discovering an Earth-like exoplanet. The issue is that “Earth-like” can have a lot of different requirements and qualifications: Do you mean Earth-sized? Earth-like orbit? Habitable zone around the star? Atmosphere like ours? Etc.

Unfortunately, for my linear thinking, that meant I had to spend about 20 minutes going through an overview of how we find exoplanets, what the limitations are of each technique, and what information about the planet each technique can give us, and how different techniques and follow-up observations can be used to give complementary information (for example, if you detect an exoplanet using the transit method, you can use the radial velocity method to get the mass of the planet, and if you detect an atmosphere with the transit method, you could use spectroscopy with the Hubble Space Telescope to measure the atmosphere’s composition).

And for the record, when I practiced the segment without interruptions, it was 11 minutes. It stretched into almost 30 minutes on the show. And for regular listeners of TRC, you should recognize a quote from former-host Elan (I think) that I incorporated into the end of my segment.

It was toward the end that I finally got to the question about whether media reporting is hype. And, to put it concisely: Yes. But with that said, we really do, at this point, finally have the technology to detect an Earth-sized planet (and have) in an Earth-like orbit (have not) with potentially an Earth-like atmosphere (have not, and this tech may not *quite* be there, but if it isn’t, it’s close).

I haven’t listened to it yet, but of course I was there when it was being recorded, and I don’t remember embarrassing myself too much. They do tend to all talk more slowly, though, when recording at 1x versus how I listen to podcasts at about 1.2–1.3x. Also, three of the 4 outtakes (they have outtakes at the end of the show) are things I said or contributed — I guess I was humorous (or humourous? since it’s Canadian?).

I will add that doing a panel show is VERY different from doing a monologue as is my normal podcast. Or even doing an interview on the podcast. The dynamics are (obviously) completely different, and you almost have to build in pauses to what you’re talking about in case of questions from others. I think I stepped over some people, too. For example, there was one point maybe half-way through my segment where I stopped and asked if anyone was there because I wanted to make sure my internet connection (and theirs’) was still up since we had been having issues. They were all there, but then there were something like 3-4 questions that they asked because they had just been developing while I was talking and not pausing enough to let them ask.

If they’re kind enough to invite me back, I’ll keep this in mind and build that in. And work more at editing myself down.

Oh yes— There were two other segments. One was a guessing game as to “which came first,” while the other segment was about whether you should plan to visit Israel last if you go to the Middle East because other countries won’t let you in if you have an Israeli stamp in your passport.

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

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.

November 16, 2012

Podcast Episode 55: Interview on Extraterrestrial Life with Dr. Brian Hynek

This nearly hour-long interview on a just-over one-hour episode is with the V-est of VIPs, my boss and former thesis advisor, Dr. Brian Hynek.

Brian is a professor in geological sciences at the University of Colorado, Boulder, where he studies Mars with a focus on understanding how and when Mars could have been habitable by life as we know it. This research program includes studying craters (me!), valley networks, other evidence for water, and traipsing around Earth for analogues for Mars, including studying extremophiles on active volcanoes.

The interview is mostly main-stream, covering a lot of the basics, but we get into some of the “PR Fails” of NASA, including the GFAJ-1 “arsenic” bacteria from two years ago and the ALH84001 Martian meteorite “nano-bacteria.” And, no discussion about Mars would be complete without a Hoagland name-drop once or twice.

Since this is an interview episode, and since it’s an hour long, only the Puzzler segment is present in addition to the main interview.

July 12, 2012

Phosphorus-Replacing Bacteria (with Arsenic) Falsified – Creationists React


About a year.5 ago, I wrote a parody of the response of the creationist, intelligent design, and UFO crowd to the announcement of a paper that had been published – and for which NASA held a large press conference – about the discovery of arsenic-based bacteria. (Note that I had some real responses by the creationist and UFO folks in the comments section of that post.)

I presented the announcement on this blog in the context of creationism and UFO=aliens folks because, after all, the implication (and the whole reason that NASA held a big press conference) was that if there is this bacteria that can replace one of the key atoms (phosphorus) in DNA with another atom (arsenic), it has serious implications for extraterrestrial biology. For example, a perhaps obvious implication is that you could thrive in an arsenic-rich environment as opposed to a phosphorus-rich environment.

At the time, this was a HUGELY controversial claim – as well it should have been (which I’ll discuss more in a bit). Many biologists criticized the study’s authors because they did not do some basic tests that would have made their case more convincing. The Skeptics Guide to the Universe spent nearly half an episode discussing why the original study’s authors did not do as much work on it as they should have.

Perhaps most egregious, the study’s authors were incredibly unprepared for the every expected media frenzy that followed. When questioned, the lead author responded with (paraphrased), “I don’t have those slides with me, I left them at home because I didn’t think I’d need them.” Also, there was (paraphrased), “That’s a conversation that should play out in the scientific literature.” I’m sorry, but that’s a really naïve response to someone if you’re in the middle of a press conference about your work.

Not that NASA is not to blame. I would hope that it’s the NASA press office that made most of the mistakes here, but as an organization, NASA should have more safeguards in place for this sort of thing if they’re going to hold a MAJOR press conference about a new study.

Now, time has passed, and new studies have been done on these bacteria, and the end result is what most had thought at the time: The claim was pretty much falsified. This has been shown in several now-published articles in prestigious scientific journals.

Media Reaction Now

Most “mainstream” media outlets are often criticized by scientists and skeptics because they rarely do follow-up articles. It makes sense to their profit margins because the stories that people are most likely to read are the “more interesting” original stories that have the sexy new result — regardless of whether that result turns out to be accurate or not in the end. Three years later if fifty new studies come out that all refute the original, it’s unlikely that it will be reported because no one cares anymore (except us).

With that said, you can probably expect the reaction in the media from these papers: Almost non-existent.

Original Authors’ Reaction Now

I can understand how one would feel if a major paper of theirs’ was later disproven, especially when there was a media frenzy surrounding it and it practically made their career. The original paper’s first author is now on a NASA fellowship, for example. Her public response has been that there was probably contamination in the transport process of the bacteria from her lab to the independent ones, so she still believes her results.

Young-Earth Creationist Claims Now

Meanwhile, creationists are pulling an, “I told you so” with these new papers. It’s another case where the reporting has been reasonably good from the creationists, likely because it’s a result that they think supports their beliefs. Creation Ministries International calls this “A Publicity Stunt Gone Bad” in one of their sub-headings on the new papers.

For background as to why, as I’ve written about before, young-Earth creationists tend to completely reject any idea that life exists off-Earth. My understanding on the reason for this is two-fold. First, it’s because the Bible says nothing about God creating life anywhere except Earth. Second, it’s because Jesus would apparently have had to reincarnate on every planet with life and die for their sins, too, and again the Bible says nothing about this.

So, when the initial study came out, the creationists didn’t like it and reported what the dissent side said more than the press release side. Now, they feel vindicated.

How Science Works

I’m writing this blog post while sitting in a workshop discussion at “The Amaz!ng Meeting” (TAM) 10, and Steve Novella is currently talking about how journalism fails these days because they report on EVERY preliminary study as though it is now THE answer. The lay public gets the idea that, “Oh, this paper is out, there’s a press release, it’s picked up in the media, it must now be what Science Sez.” This is even though, to quote Steve just 15 seconds ago, “Most of the preliminary studies are wrong … not only [are they] mostly wrong, but [they’re] mostly falsely positive[s] … and that’s massively misleading.”

This is more applicable in medicine (what Steve is talking about at the moment), but it’s applicable in probably every field of science. And, it definitely applies to this case.

Science is messy. It is a process that is usually long and involved. It takes time, it takes repetition, and it takes many people doing independent replications of the original work to verify the result (or, often, refute it).

The internet is a wonderful thing for science with collaboration and the ability of scientists to talk directly with the public. That’s what this blog is, in part — I’m a scientist talking directly with you. But it also means that, for one of the first times in history, the average person sees the intermediate science results before they become consensus. They see the mess.

The public is used to scientists knowing what they’re talking about and being The Authority on an issue, and most don’t realize that it’s really a long process that takes time and many different and independent studies. They learn about Newton’s Laws of motion and don’t understand it took years of development and trial-and-error to figure them out. They know about the atomic bomb, but they don’t realize it was a massive effort with many people working and many tests that failed or false leads that never worked out.

That’s really what this is: An example of how science works. It is self-correcting. It may take time, but in the end, it’s self-correcting.

Final Thoughts

And since this blog post is in part about creationism, I do feel the need to point out that Christianity is not self-correcting. That is pretty much the definition of dogma. People may ignore some of its tenants (how many different fibers are in your clothes today?), but those rules and apparent laws and facts are still part of the religion.

Why do our textbooks cost more? Because we revise them in light of new information. Bibles are cheap to produce because they don’t have to pay authors to revise them when new data is available.

That’s what this is: The scientific process in action. A paper was published that suggested a radical departure from what we thought was established, people disagreed with its methods and conclusions, and they did their own independent analyses. Many of those have now been done and are published, and as far as most scientists are now concerned, the original paper has been falsified. The scientific consensus is that we do not have any examples of bacteria that have replaced the phosphorus in their DNA with arsenic. Case 99% closed.

Except for the UFO people and conspiracy people who have incorporated it into their mythos. I’m sure they’ll still be referencing the arsenic-based life paper for years to come.

December 19, 2011

Follow-Up on Creationists Not Liking ET Life


In my last post, “Creationists Really Don’t Like ET Life,” I talked some about the philosophy young-Earth creationists (YECs) seem to have about ET life and discussed a few specific factually wrong statements that an article from Creation Ministries International had on its website regarding the discovery of the planet Kepler-22b.

In the “Final Thoughts” section, I stated that I had submitted feedback to them pointing out the two factual mistakes, and that I would post here if I actually got any reaction. I didn’t expect one.

The Response

But I got one. My comment to them, in full, with my full name was:

Hi, I just wanted to let you know you have at least two factual errors in your article. First, “astrobiology” was coined in English in 1903 from the French according to the Online Etymology Dictionary (http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=astrobiology). NASA was not created until 1958, and NASA’s Origins program was not formed until the 1990s (http://history.nasa.gov/factsheet.htm), well after this term was in use.

Second, exoplanets have been directly imaged, over three years ago. A simple Google search for “exoplanet imaged” yields headlines like, “Astronomers Capture First Exoplanet Images” and “Hubble Takes First Visible Light Image of Extrasolar Planet.”

I recommend correcting your article.

In my e-mail inbox this morning, in its entirety:

Dear Mr Robbins

Thank you for your constructive criticism.

All the same, I don’t think there are errors that you claim. It may well be that “astrobiology” is not a new term, but it is a new field of research as the article claimed. Similarly, one could call “computers” a very new development, certainly for most of the public. But the word “computer” is actually over two centuries older than the word “dinosaur”.

As for the other claimed error, We don’t deny the existence of extrasolar planets, as should be clear from articles on http://creation.com/solar-exoplanet-qa, and a recent overview article in Creation magazine. But this doesn’t mean all claims are right; so the phrase is not wrong. We wrote a while ago http://creation.com/focus-211, and indeed it’s about the very man quoted in the article you wanted us to find:

Paul Kalas, of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany, is one evolutionist who believes that other planets will be found. But he asks whether many claims are the result of ‘planet mania.’

This is ‘a bias among astronomers in which every cavity and blob, even a wiggle, in circumstellar dust disks [disks surrounding a star] is taken as evidence for extrasolar planets.’

Kalas also points out there are huge leaps in logic. For example, some astronomers argued that a star called HR 4796 is the right age to form planets, so certain observations should be explained by planets. Kalas points out that this is like a doctor diagnosing cancer because you are the right age to have cancer.

The Argumentum ad Googlem is something of a fallacy in itself. The rare point image of a planet is fairly recent but again a point of light is a bit different from a real surface image. Until fairly recently, even stars were only seen as points of light; only in the last 15 years has an actual surface of a star been seen, and that was the huge supergiant Betelgeuse. Hubble was very excited at the time http://zuserver2.star.ucl.ac.uk/~idh/apod/ap960122.html “the first direct picture of the surface of a star other than the Sun. ”
The article has now been re-worded a bit to incorporate the above.


Jonathan Sarfati

You may vaguely recognize that name as I mocked him in this post for listing his full name and title in a CMI article he wrote on Earth’s magnetic field: “Dr Jonathan D. Sarfati B.Sc. (Hons.), Ph.D., F.M.”

Is Astrobiology a New Term?

No, as I discussed last time, it’s not. This is the text of the CMI article I was critiquing:

NASA’s Origins program is dedicated to looking for habitable planets that might harbor life. Their endeavours spawned a new field of research called ‘astrobiology’, which is to specifically search for the evolution of life wherever it might occur in the universe.

I can see now that perhaps they weren’t saying NASA invented a term, but now unequivocally they are claiming it spawned “a new field of research.” To quote from a conference abstract entitled, “Some elements for the history of astrobiology:”

A study about life in the Universe [appeared] in a French journal of popular science as early as 1935 (Sternfeld 1935). … As early as 1941 the word “astrobiology’ was defined by Lafleur as “The consideration of life in the universe elsewhere than on Earth.” … The first American symposium in astrobiology was held in 1957 (Wilson, and following papers, 1958) … . Astrobiology is not a science as young as generally thought.

The Correction

Out of potential interest to readers, here is the exact text of the original CMI posting (I was critiquing the second sentence):

Although many extrasolar planets are assumed to exist, we should keep in mind the methods used to detect them. Firstly, we have never witnessed or directly observed (i.e. with our eyes through a telescope) a planet outside of our own solar system. They are presumed to exist through indirect methods of observation. In the case of this latest find, Kepler 22b was detected using the transit method. This is where the planet’s host or nearby star’s light is seen to dim when the alleged planet passes in front of it and between our line of sight from the earth.

The new posting states, with some links left in, and strikethroughs indicating removal and underline being additions (my markup):

Although many extrasolar planets are assumed to exist, we should keep in mind the methods used to detect them. Firstly, we have never witnessed or directly observed (i.e. with our eyes through a telescope) a planet outside of our own solar system. They are presumed to exist through indirect methods of observation. In the case of this latest find, Kepler 22b was detected using the transit method. This is where the planet’s host or nearby star’s light is seen to dim when the alleged planet passes in front of it and between our line of sight from the earth. We have not seen the surface of a planet directly. In fact, until recently, not seen stars as anything but points of light. Only in 1996 did the Hubble Space Telescope see “the first direct picture of the surface of a star other than the Sun”—the red supergiant Betelgeuse, 1000 times the sun’s diameter. However, in 2008, a planet was observed from direct light reflection around the big, close, white star Fomalhaut.

Final Thoughts

First, no, I’m not going to respond as I don’t think it’s worth belaboring the point further. I was impressed I got a response at all.

I still disagree with the first one on NASA founding astrobiology for the reasons I pointed out above (it’s wrong …).

I’m impressed that they actually corrected the other point. It goes from pure denial originally to a basic news report that they seem to be struggling to spin their way but not really being sure how to do so anymore. Originally it was “None exist, we can’t see them,” to “Okay, some definitely exist but we still don’t think these others do and even if we do we can’t see their surface so so what?” It’s potentially colored by my own view of YECs, but it seems like a 5-year-old who’s lost an argument but still trying to stamp away with some thoughts of dignity.

I also wasn’t aware of an “argumentum ad Googlem.” Fascinating logical fallacy, though I think incorrectly applied in this case. I was pointing out that if they were at all familiar with the topic or had done any simple research, they would have not made a factual mistake of stating that no planet had been directly imaged. Now, if I were trying to use the argument to say they needed to include the Pacific Northwest tree octopus, then that might be considered an “argumentum ad Googlem.”

December 17, 2011

Young-Earth Creationists Really Don’t Like ET Life


Sometimes, I’m fascinated with young-Earth creationist (YEC) positions on certain topics. It kinda falls under the category of “Why are you wasting energy worrying about THIS?” Like with Conservapedia taking the time to complain that black holes are liberal pseudoscience.

The issue du jour has to do with extraterrestrial life. For some reason, YECs just can’t even entertain the idea that there may be other life off this planet that did not originate here.

Possible Explanation

I think that the root of this is in a literal interpretation (yes, interpretation) of the Bible. Which shouldn’t be a surprise, but stick with me a moment longer. YECs and other biblical literalists like to say that everything in the Bible is 100% True exactly as it was written by their deity. In the Bible, it apparently says that Jesus died for all our sins and they were all the sins of mankind. Well obviously that means that Jesus did not die for aliens’ sins and therefore aliens don’t exist.

Other Bible readers have no problem with ET life, though. They say things like the Bible was written for us and just left out all the stuff about aliens. That believing life isn’t out there is limiting their god because why couldn’t it have created life out there, too?

YECs counter that the Heavens Declare the Glory of God (I think that’s a psalm or something) and that Jesus would have had to go to every planet with intelligent life and died for the sins of that species and the Bible doesn’t say anything about that. Since the Bible is a complete record of all that stuff, then since it’s not in there, it didn’t happen (I swear folks, I’m not making this up). I guess that means that cars aren’t real but wizards are.

As evidence for my hypothesis, I offer a full CMI article on the subject or several quotes:

“The Vatican astronomer’s comments about the possible existence of extraterrestrial life are the inevitable outcomes of allowing man’s word preeminence over God’s Word, instead of using the Bible as our starting point with which to interpret the universe.” from AiG.

Or “As we’ve written before, the Bible does not teach that God did not create life beyond earth; it is silent on that possibility. Yet, reading Scripture holistically, the implication is that earth (and especially humanity) is at the center of the cosmic stage. That view, combined with the lack of evidence for either evolution or extraterrestrial life, leaves us quite doubtful about ET—truly skeptical, unlike many modern scientists who have put their faith in evolution.” from AiG.

“Creation scientists maintain that we will never receive messages or entertain intergalactic visitors from deep space simply because there are no such civilizations out there. “As far as the Scriptures are concerned, they teach unequivocally that the earth is uniquely the abode of man [Psalm 115:16 and Acts 17:20]… It seems grotesque and blasphemous to suggest that the tragedy of Calvary’s cross should be repeated on millions of other planets, for the benefit of other unknown and hypothetical members of God’s creation.”5 Theoretical speculations and imaginative evolution-based predictions aside, all research beyond Earth has shown that when it comes to organic life — we’re it.” from ICR.

Full Disclosure

Even though I don’t think it’s relevant, I figured I should insert my own opinion on the issue. After all, it’s only fair considering that I’m analyzing someone else’s. I’m an ET life agnostic. I personally think that the hypothesis that ET life exists is not science because it is not falsifiable – we can never prove it doesn’t exist because you can always say, “Well, we just can’t detect it yet.”

Does that mean I don’t think it’s out there? I think it’s possible. I think that the study of extremophiles – lifeforms that exist in seemingly toxic environments like extremely acidic or temperatures above boiling or below freezing – is really interesting. I think the recent studies that have found amino acids on asteroids is really neat.

I also do think that if life arose here, it’s quite likely to have arisen elsewhere. But that’s really as far as I’m willing to go on the issue.

The Topic At-Hand

The reason for this blog post is a Creation Ministries International (CMI) article on the subject that came out December 15 entitled, “Has the Kepler spacecraft found an ‘alien world’?” This was followed up today by the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) article “Another ‘Goldilocks’ Planet Stirs ET Hopes” I’m going to focus more on the CMI article because Peter already talked about the ICR one.

First, I’m actually a bit surprised it took over a week since the press release for CMI and then ICR to come out with their take on the discovery of Kepler-22b, the first Earth-sized (ish) planet that orbits within the habitable zone around its parent star (the distance needed for the temperature range such that H2) can be in a liquid state). It’s a neat discovery and of course all the news stories – perhaps rightly – played up the astrobiology/ET possibilities.

After all, for life to exist as we understand it, we basically need two things — first, a liquid to act as a solvent and medium for metabolic reactions, and second, an energy gradient that metabolic reactions can take advantage of. This may sound different from how you learned it in school (I know it’s different from how I learned it) where you were probably taught that life needed some protection, water, and sunlight. Well, the first isn’t really true (bacteria survived for years on the moon being exposed to the vacuum and radiation of space), the second one doesn’t need to be water but we still think it’s the most likely, and the third one really just means energy where we use sunlight but you could take advantage of favorable chemistry, too, or geothermal heat.

Anyway, my point was that the media spin was somewhat hyped, but I don’t blame them. NASA is a public governmental agency that requires the good will of Congress to remain funded and so whenever it can play up stories that are of interest to the public, it will. And a story like that is so much more interesting than Britney Spears being the first person to get a million friends on Google+ that just came out today.

Studying Astrobiology

The third paragraph, though, of the CMI article states: “NASA’s Origins program is dedicated to looking for habitable planets that might harbor life. Their endeavours spawned a new field of research called ‘astrobiology’, which is to specifically search for the evolution of life wherever it might occur in the universe.”

This is wrong. According to NASA, the Origins program began in the 1990s. According to the online etymology dictionary, “astrobiology” was formed in the English language in 1903, well before NASA was founded over half a century later (1958).

The next paragraph of the CMI article is a not subtle hint that life on Earth is complex and CMI thinks that NASA should be studying that to show that only God coulddadoneit.

Then we get to the crux of the issue: Evolution. Apparently, the entire endeavor of astrobiology is to prove evolution is true because as we all know, abiogenesis or even a non-abiogenetic origin of life has anything to do with evolution. (For those of you who could not tell my tone in the written word, that was sarcasm. Origin of life study has NOTHING to do with evolution.)

The sixth paragraph of the CMI article deals with money. The Kepler observatory, which is what made the discovery of this planet, cost $600 million to build and launch. Gosh. That’s a lot of money. For that money, we could fund people to do research on the ground. Ahem … I couldn’t find any solid numbers, but as an example of some that were repeated when I searched (source), the city of Boston Catholic Archdioces alone has around $600 million in assets. That’s just the Catholic church. In one city in the US. Or we have, “The Catholic church, once all her assets have been put together, is the most formidable stockbroker in the world,” according to a church official. Or “The Vatican’s treasure of solid gold has been estimated by the United Nations World Magazine to amount to several billion dollars.”

Finally: “The Catholic church is the biggest financial power, wealth accumulator and property owner in existence. She is a greater possessor of material riches than any other single institution, corporation, bank, giant trust, government or state of the whole globe. The pope, as the visible ruler of this immense amassment of wealth, is consequently the richest individual of the twentieth century. No one can realistically assess how much he is worth in terms of billions of dollars.”

In contrast, NASA’s annual budget for FY2011 is $18.724 billion. The science division gets $5.006 billion of that (source). I think if a religious organization wants to study life, it has more means to do so than NASA. So stop complaining.

Do Extrasolar Planets (Exoplanets) Exist


But following the reasoning they use with comets, I guess I’m not surprised that they question the existence of exoplanets. CMI states, “Firstly, we have never witnessed or directly observed (i.e. with our eyes through a telescope) a planet outside of our own solar system. They are presumed to exist through indirect methods of observation.”

Again … wrong. Spend 2 seconds on Google and you come up with headlines like, “Astronomers Capture First Exoplanet Images,” or “First True Exoplanet Images” … you know, vague and hard to understand headlines. From 2008 (this is why I felt it important to point out that CMI’s article was posted on December 15, 2011).

The Rest

The rest of the CMI article is basically reverting to the standard, “Science has made mistakes before therefore what we say God did he did.” Yes, I may be sounding irreverent, but they’re irreverent towards me (or my field, anyway).

They also have a whole section on, “Should Christians be concerned by this?” Again, I’ll go back to my beginning statement that this is just one of those cases where I can’t figure out why YECs feel the huge need to fight and argue against it. If the Bible contains everything about the universe, then why doesn’t it talk about computers? But it does imply it’s okay to offer up your daughters to an angry mob. Sigh. But Biblical weirdness isn’t quite the subject of this post.

Final Thoughts

The article as I’m viewing it now has two comments posted. One of them is from Jack of Australia who basically asks about the Fermi Paradox: If aliens exist, then we should’ve found them by now? The author of the CMI article responded and gushed at Jack answering with normal complaints against science.

Paul in the UK is the other commenter who just takes the article a bit further emphasizing that us evil scientists will believe anything so long as God is not a part of it.

I’ve actually submitted a comment because I find the factual mistakes somewhat annoying. and I’m curious to see what they’ll do. I’m hypothesizing that they will ignore it, especially because I’m putting in my full name. In the event they don’t, then I will post about it.

Edited to Add: And here’s the follow-up.

April 1, 2011

April Fools: A Serious Post for the Day


In the past, I’ve had a bit of obvious fun on April 1 with my posts, such as last year’s where I explained how I had seen the light and was giving up science. And apparently it wasn’t too obvious to all that I was joking, as Michael Horn apparently thought I was serious.

Anyway, this year I thought I would use the day to look over several ideas and concepts that I address on this blog or that, in general, the modern skeptical movement takes issue with. The purpose of this is that, often, people who believe in any of these topics will claim that skeptics can’t have their pet idea be true because it would upset their worldview, destroy everything they “believe” in, etc. On the contrary, I would absolutely love for many of these things to be true. Let’s take a look …

Near-Death Experiences, Spirit Contacts, Ghosts

Any and all of these things, if real (and by “real” for NDEs I mean they actually cannot be explained by biology), would mean that there is some form of existence after we die in this one. Seriously, I would be delighted if this were true. I don’t care what people say about how I can’t have this be true because it would mean there’s accountability, or that I can’t just do anything in this life ’cause I’d be reincarnated as a cockroach, or whatever.

Living for maybe 75 years and then ceasing to exist is a scary thought. Occasionally late at night, it crops up in my mind and I get freaked out. But that doesn’t mean that I believe that there is a form of existence after this one. I see no hard, reproducible evidence for it, and all the purported evidence that people have put forth is generally easily refuted (especially when we’re talking about ghosts and mediums).

But I would love it to be true. I asked a friend of mine once what he believed and he unabashedly said he was an atheist. As did his wife, who had grown up in some form of Christianity in a very conservative town. I asked her why, and if that meant she didn’t believe in life after death, either. She explained the usual reasons, but then it was this that got me: “No, I don’t think there’s life after death. But believe me, if someone were taking a vote and if I had any say in the matter, I would vote ‘yes.'”

I agree: If I have a vote in the matter of whether there will be a life after this one, I would vote “yes, I want there to be one.” But do I actually believe there is one? No.

Present-Day Visitation by UFOs and Aliens

In what you’ll quickly discover is a theme with this post, I think this would be cool, assuming of course some sort of benevolence as opposed to an Independence Day style of alien invasion. More Vulcans, less Borg. But do I think that tiny light in the sky that I happen to not be able to explain at the moment is an alien craft? No. Do I “believe” the Betty & Barney Hill story? No. Do I think Billy Meier’s laughable evidence is proof of visitation? No.

Ancient Aliens and Alien Artifacts in the Solar System

Following from the last section, this would again be pretty cool. Though I find it odd some people think Earth was the brothel of the galaxy eons ago and the idea that deviant aliens came here to make sweet sweet monkey love is wacked out. Again, actual real evidence of alien visitation in the past would be very neat. Evidence of an alien civilization on Mars or some other body in the solar system would likewise, I think, be cause of great interest and people would flock to it.

Does that mean I think the Nazca Lines are ancient alien landing strips? No. Or that aliens built the pyramids? No. Just because we may not have a mundane explanation for something now does not mean that “aliens did it.” Or, following perhaps a frequent refrain of creationists, it does not mean that “aliensdidit” (a la “goddidit”). Similarly, Richard C. Hoagland’s ideas of crystal tunnels and ancient sculptures on Mars, Andrew Baggiago’s ideas of fossils on Mars, and – closer to home – Hoagland’s “Data’s Head” find on the moon are obvious and clear examples of pareidolia and bad image processing, not the desired evidence of ancient advanced civilizations.

Young-Earth Creationism

To be perfectly fair, I really don’t “care” how old Earth is. As far as I’m concerned, I only “know” for sure that it’s just under 28 years old. Or really, it could have been created just a second ago but with the appearance of age and with all of our individual memories forged and everything made with the appearance of age. After all, that’s what you have to believe to be a young-Earth creationist, that every single piece of geologic, historical, astronomical, archaeologic, etc. evidence that points to a planet – much less solar system, galaxy, and universe – older than 6000 years was planted there by some sick, twisted omnipotent being to make us scratch our heads in the fashion of a chimp. Or you have to invent new science that doesn’t fit with anything else in order to make your models work out.

I think that in the coming decades, young-Earthers are going to be looked upon the same as flat-Earthers: People who ignore all evidence to the contrary, invent ways around what they can, and otherwise stick their fingers in their ears and shout, “La La La! I can’t hear you!”

Magic (Powers/Abilities like psychokinesis, Elves, Fairies, etc.)

I’ll be honest here (as elsewhere) and admit to a guilty pleasure: The TV show Charmed was one of my favorites. And I’m a Harry Potter fan, though that’s more socially acceptable for a guy. Anyway, I love the idea of magic existing, either out in the open or the concept of a hidden world “beyond the veil” that exists alongside our everyday lives but is hidden from us normal folks. In fact, for the past 4 years I’ve been working on and off on my own novel exploring that idea. But here you have the problem of not just a lack of even shaky evidence or suggestions that it’s true, but a solid lack of any suggestions that it’s true beyond the stray anecdote from the mentally questionable.

[Pick Your] Conspiracy Theory

Conspiracy theories are interesting because many of them actually could be true when first broached. It’s when people ignore all evidence to the contrary of a conspiracy theory that it begins to get stupid. For example, the Apollo Moon landings. Every claim by conspiracy theorists have been appropriately answered by reasonable explanations that adequately fit the model that the astronauts landed on the moon. And now we have Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter images of the Apollo landing sites. This particular conspiracy theory may have made some sense WAY back in the day, but no anyone who clings to it is willfully ignorant or simply delusional. There really is no other, kinder way to say it.

2012 Doomsday

Do I want this one to be true? Of course not. I want to see the solar eclipse in 2017. I have plans set for 2013. I’d prefer not to die in some cataclysm at the end of next year. Does my desire for this not to happen cloud my judgement on whether it will? No. Again, much like with the conspiracy theories above, every idea put forward by 2012 doomsdayers has been shown to be simply wrong, not physically possible, or just an outright lie. If there were actual evidence or even a physical mechanism that could occur, then I would reevaluate my conclusion and start eating more ice cream and Doritos.

Vaccines Cause Autism

Actually, I think it would be great if there were any kind of simple cause of autism, be it the thimerosal that was used as a preservative in childhood vaccines, parents playing Beethoven to the pregnant mom’s stomach, or solar flares. Unfortunately, there isn’t. Thimerosal was removed from most vaccines in the US a decade ago, and autism rates didn’t go down at all. No one knows what actually causes autism, but it’s definitely not vaccines. Concerned parents should be concerned, but they shouldn’t blame something that protects a child’s health and has conclusively been shown by every study to not cause autism.

Final Thoughts

That about wraps it up. Now, yes, this was posted on April 1st. No, this is not a “fake” nor joke post. In the end, this really boils down to this message for a “true believer” who harps on the “skeptics:” Get over yourselves. We are not “scared” that your-supernatural-belief-of-choice may be true. We would welcome it. Instead of wasting everyone’s time with that straw man, how about actually addressing the legitimate criticisms of the methodology instead of the claims?

What I’ve written above are my honest thoughts on the issues. What are yours?

December 2, 2010

NASA’s Announcement of Arsenic Life: A Parody by Creationists, Intelligent Design, and UFO Crowd


In this blog, I try to be reasonably respectful to the claims made by other people, meticulously breaking down fantastic claims and showing how they do not fit the science, data, observations, etc.

This post is a bit different. It is meant to parody what I fully expect will be done in the next few days with today’s announcement by NASA of the discovery of life using arsenic in place of phosphorus in cells. I’m not going to get much into that and its implications, since practically every science news source is talking about it.

Instead, I’m going to provide three parodied views that I expect will be taken up almost verbatim in the next few days. If you get offended by parody, are a young-Earth creationist, etc., by further reading you are removing me from liability for the bile that may build up in your gut.

Creationist Response

The discovery of a new form of life by evolutionist NASA researchers today shows just how much our glorious Creator can do that Darwin never thought possible. All life that scientists had known of until now operates with a few basic atoms, and evolutionary researchers had thought that substitution of any one of these would be impossible, especially substitution of the poisonous element arsenic.

But in a lake in California, a research team discovered the inconceivable: A bacterium that survives on arsenic instead of phosphorus.

The response from evolutionists is once again to “rewrite the textbooks,” NASA’s astrobiology website proclaiming, “Get Your Biology Textbook…and an Eraser!” A biogeochemist associated with the research calls it “fantastic.”

But as Christians we know that God can do anything He wants. If evolutionists don’t want to constantly be “erasing” words in their textbook, then they should take up the unchanging and infallible Word of our Lord as written in the Bible. It should not surprise us that discoveries such as this will be made because they are only a further testament to the glory and wonders of our Creator.

Intelligent Design Response

Evolutionists are hailing a new discovery today of a microbe named GFAJ-1 that has the remarkable property of using arsenic in place of phosphorus in its metabolism. All life as known before and described by Darwin uses phosphorus — the six elements essential to life were thought to be carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and sulfur. In fact, in the energy molecule of cells – ATP – the P stands for phosphorus, and the DNA double helix is intelligently designed with a phosphorus molecule.

Arsenic is so poisonous to life because it is easily confused for phosphorus and used in its place by cells, killing them.

Until now. This microbe, of the marine family Halomonadaceae, was placed in a growth medium of arsenate and it thrived, completely baffling darwinists who were studying it.

How could such a system arise with no simpler precursor? The system needed to use arsenic could not have arisen through random evolutionary chance because of the myriad of places in the cell that use phosphorus. The ability to use it in one location in the cell would still be poisonous to another.

In celebrating this, evolutionists are glossing over the fact that it shows yet again how improbably Darwin’s theory really is.

UFO Response

It seems like it’s from an episode of the Twilight Zone, a bacteria that survives on poison. All life from planet Earth uses six essential atoms, but scientists from the space agency NASA today announced the discovery of a strange form that substitutes one of those – phosphorus – with arsenic.

The scientists are claiming that this has huge implications for the field of astrobiology, or at least the civilian one. Of course they completely ignore all the hundreds of thousands of UFO sighting reports, cattle mutilations, crop circles, government coverups, crashes like Roswell and Bentwaters, and abduction stories that we know prove alien life already exists.

But at least this is a first step. The “red rain” from India was apparently not convincing enough, but now the scientists are embracing the idea that this is unlike any life they have discovered before. This is just a small step in the road to full disclosure.

Final Thoughts

Well that was fun. I hope you at least laughed a little. If not, I apologize for my unrefined parody-ing skilz. And, by the way, if you do find any print reports from any of the crowds I identified above in the next few days about this event, feel free to post links in the Comments section. I’d be interested to see how well I did. Though I will note that I purposely went a bit overboard on all of them, or at least tried to.

November 5, 2009

Pareidolia and Pixellation … Or, Why Blowing Up Photographs Beyond 100% Resolution Is Bad


Pareidolia: (noun) /pærɪˈdoʊliə/ — The tendency to interpret a vague stimulus as something known to the viewer; such as interpreting marks on Mars as canals or seeing shapes in clouds. From the Greek para- (“beside,” “with,” or “alongside”—meaning, in this context, something faulty or wrong (as in paraphasia, disordered speech)) and eidolon (“image”; the diminutive of eidos (“image,” “form,” “shape”)).

Pareidolia is something that I addressed in my “Pareidolia – The Face on Mars” post in January 2009. In this post, however, I’ll be addressing a different twist on pareidolia that has a different genesis given the modern age of computers, where everyone with an internet connection can be an armchair geologist.

In this particular case study, I will not be talking about Richard Hoagland and his glass cities on the moon and Mars, but rather a more obscure person, Andrew Basiago, of his self-made “Mars Anomaly Research Society.” In 2008, he put out a “research paper” entitled, “THE DISCOVERY OF LIFE ON MARS,” with the first sentence of the abstract being five simple words, “There is life on Mars.”

His evidence? Read further to find out …

What Does Basiago Say He Found, in General?

Basiago is a lawyer and self-described “amateur scientist.” In late 2008, he made headlines by complaining that National Geographic was refusing to publish his work. The following quote is from his press release:

“I was astonished by what I found,” he said. “There, on the Red Planet, were beings in blue bodysuits and the abstract artwork of a Martian civilization. I was looking at the first evidence of life beyond Earth!”

In his letter to the National Geographic Society, the lawyer writes that careful evaluation of PIA10214 reveals “a cosmic treasure trove of pictographic evidence of life on Mars, including humanoid beings, animal species, carved statues, and built structures.”

According to Basiago, the humanoid beings photographed in PIA10214 have bulbous heads and elongated bodies, like the extraterrestrials described in alien contact accounts. Some have two arms and legs like human beings, while others have multiple appendages and segmented or larval bodies, as if they are human-insect hybrids.

Here are two news stories about it (link 1, link 2).

The original image in question can be found here.

A Famous Photo

This photograph, or panorama of photographs, from Mars was taken by the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) “Spirit” during the last few months of 2007. It is within the Gusev Crater on Mars on the plateau that NASA has named, “Home Plate.” What makes this photograph interesting is that it itself caught the news cycle due to a fairly “obvious” piece of pareidolia, the “Big Foot” on Mars.

If you download the full version of the panorama from NASA, the “Big Foot” is located about 30″ down, 12″ over (2150 px down, 850 px over to the right). Below is a FULL-RESOLUTION version of just that section. Note that the figure itself is about 37 px tall and 18 px wide. At full resolution. And, it really does look like a person sitting with a hand resting on one knee.

NASA Image PIA10214 with a Close-Up of "Big Foot"

However, with MER Spirit having photographed well over a million rocks on the planet, some are bound to look like something that we’re familiar with. Just like the cloud I saw today looked a lot like Mr. Spock.

While the image of “Big Foot” on Mars garnered some press on its own and made the rounds on Coast to Coast AM, it quickly came out that the rock in question was just a few inches tall and it fairly quickly dropped from the public consciousness.

Expanding Beyond 100% Size

The etymology of the word “pixel” dates back to the 1960s, when it became an abbreviation for “picture element.” In other words, the smallest part of a picture. The smallest “piece” of information that was recorded. A pixel cannot be subdivided into more than one pixel to yield more data because it simply does not exist in the image.

And yet, graphics programs have no problem expanding an image beyond that 100% scale, to make 1 pixel into 2, 3, 4, or more. Software does this through a variety of algorithms, and it may really look like it has smoothly added information to the image, but it has not. It has also introduced artifacts through the expansion process that were not previously there. If, for example, you expand a photograph to 250% its original size, and then you shrink it back to the original 100%, you will not have the same photograph you started with, and you will have lost a little bit of information.

This basic concept is not something that Basiago seems to understand. He took NASA photograph PIA10214 and blew up various parts of it, stretching objects that may have originally been only 5 pixels tall and 7 pixels wide into something 50x that size. In other cases, he has stretched the aspect ratio, making the image much wider or taller than it should be if given a simple expansion.

Let’s look at two examples. In the example below, Basiago describes as: “These and other animals on Mars defy classification by any known system on Earth. We would include among the new forms of fauna on Mars the animal whose giraffe-like head can be seen peering from behind the cliff literally within feet of Spirit. This animal has red lips, a patch of blue beneath its bulging eyes, and a crest atop its head like some dinosaurs. Even the most spirited disinformation that this report will inspire will have difficulty finding a mundane, non-biological explanation for The Spying Giraffe.”

Basiago Pareidolia Example 1

Basiago Pareidolia Example 1

In this second example below, Basiago describes: “Maybe the creatures seen – including both living plesiosaurs (left) and dead ones (right) – are plesiosaurs that survived on Mars the extinction that befell plesiosaurs on Earth.”

Basiago Pareidolia Example 2

Basiago Pareidolia Example 2

I’ve been kind with these examples. In the many, many photographic blow-ups that he includes in his paper, these are among the best few that actually sorta kinda look like what he claims. However, any normal reader with pretty much any amount of common sense can tell that these are simply rocks. Or, at the very least, one would need higher-resolution photographs to really tell anything, as opposed to just blowing up a low-resolution image (e.g., the far-right one in the first example).

Final Thoughts

What automatically enters my mind when someone claims they see something anomalous in a photograph, or that they see “data’s head” on the moon or subway systems on Mars, I first think “pareidolia,” and my second thought is, “what’s the resolution?” In other words, is the object they’re describing actually fully resolved, or are they stretching the pixels to bring out something that’s not really there? As was the case in the examples of “amateur scientist” Andrew Basiago, both of these were at play, and what he was really looking at was simply a bunch of rocks.

Next Page »

The Rubric Theme. Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,715 other followers