Exposing PseudoAstronomy

March 9, 2018

Even Science Reporters Are Circumventing Scientific Process

I study impact craters (those circle thingies on other planets, moons, asteroids, comets, etc.). A colleague recently pointed out a manuscript to me that demonstrated a new method to do something with craters. (I’m being purposely vague here to protect the situation.) It was an interesting manuscript, but it was submitted to an open archive (arxiv.org) where anyone can submit pretty much anything that seems sciencey. It has not been through the peer-review process.

Peer-review is not perfect. I’ve written about it before on this blog and discussed it on my podcast. But the purpose of peer-review is to weed out stuff that is obviously wrong. Things that may seem good to a general researcher, but to someone else who really knows the field, it clearly has issues. Other purposes of peer-review are to make sure the work is placed in proper context (usually by citing the reviewers’ works, but that’s a separate issue), making sure that the authors of the manuscript have explained themselves well, that their methods make sense, that they have explored alternative interpretations of their data, etc. In other words, do science “right.” Where “right” is in quotes because there is no formal set of rules by which one must play, but there are general guidelines and important pillars which people should uphold.

After it passes peer-review – if it passes peer-review – then it may be accepted by a journal and published. Some stuff that gets through peer-review is great. Some stuff is utter crap because the process isn’t perfect and because we don’t know everything, and the prevailing scientific opinion can shift with new information.

That is upended in today’s cut-throat world of journalism and a desire to be the first to publish about something that seems new and interesting.

I was contacted yesterday by a freelance reporter for the publication New Scientist. I’m not going to say the reporter’s name, but I have no qualms stating the publication. The reporter, coincidentally, wanted me to comment on the manuscript that had been submitted to arxiv.org. I refused. Here is what I wrote:

Thank you for writing. I am generally happy to comment about crater papers, and I would be happy to comment on this manuscript should it be accepted by the peer-review process. My concern at the moment is that the manuscript is only on an open server to which anyone can submit and it has not been vetted by researchers in the field beyond the authors themselves. The authors also used [specifics redacted] which have some significant omissions, and how that affects their results needs to be assessed by people who know all the ins and outs of their methods, which is not me.

I strongly recommend that you refrain from publishing about this work until it has made it through the peer-review process. It is easy to get excited about new techniques, but at the moment, it has not been vetted by other experts in the field, such that I think writing about it now is premature.

The reporter responded that I had a valid concern, he appreciated my advice, and he would discuss it with his editor.

Then just a few minutes ago, I heard from another friend in the field that she had been asked to comment for the story. She is taking a similar approach, which I greatly appreciate.

But this identifies, to me, a significant problem that those in both the scientific community and skeptic community have pointed out for years: Journalists don’t seem to care about vetting the science about which they write. Now, this could be an isolated example of an over-zealous reporter given the “OK” by their editor. Except it’s not. Too often we see articles about work just at the very edge of the field that offers great marvels and promises, only to hear nothing more from it because it was all based on extraordinarily preliminary efforts. Craters aren’t going to affect your daily life. But the issue here is a symptom of a greater problem. And I think that only if scientists and the reading public demand that reporters stop doing this will we see any sort of change.


November 27, 2017

Podcast Episode 168: Common (and False) Fine-Tuned Universe Beliefs, Discussed

Fine-tuned Universe:
Not just for creationists
Anymore. Let’s see …

Fine-tuning of the universe to allow us to exist has tended to be a focused argument by young-Earth creationists, but it’s also used by other folks to generally argue that we are special. In this episode, I discuss four categories of claims that fit into this broad argument.

An exploration into four groups of fine-tuning arguments used by some to say that we are special: Solar outbursts, habitable zone, lunar origin and effects, and giant planets and impacts on Earth.

Fine-Tuning Image

Fine-Tuning Image

December 31, 2016

Podcast Episode 154: Impact Crater Pseudoscience Mishmash

Impact cratering
Is neat, but crazies like to
Abuse the science.

To end 2016, we have some crater-related pseudoscience. This is an episode where I talked about three different claims related to impact craters and how two of them misuse and abuse impact craters as a way to make their brand of pseudoscience make sense, in their own minds. The third claim falls under the “bad headlines” category and I get to address the Gambler’s Fallacy.

I’m still experimenting with a new microphone setup and you can hear the audio change tone noticeably part-way through. That’s when I moved my computer from off to the side so I was talking into the side of the microphone to more in front of me so I was talking into the top of the microphone. I also have a new laptop and figured out that the clicking/crackling that’s been in some recent episodes is when I stop recording, start again, and for a few seconds, every fraction of a second, the computer just records nothing for a much tinier fraction of a second. In this episode, I spent an extra half-hour editing all those out so there’s much less of it.

Artistic Rendering of Asteroid Impacting Earth

Artistic Rendering of Asteroid Impacting Earth


April 30, 2016

My Interview on “The Space Show” from Friday, April 29, 2016, Now Archived

Here’s the permanent link for the interview.

We discussed a very wide range of topics related to planetary astronomy and some other astronomy, and there was one caller. From the Higgs field, to Pluto and New Horizons, and craters on the moon to other space exploration.

Perhaps otherwise, it’s easiest just to copy the e-mail that the host, David Livingston, e-mailed me:

1. http://www.thespaceshow.com. You can find your program in the Recent Show section. Right now your show is currently the first one listed but it will move down a space with each show added.

2. The Space Show blog for listener and guest comments has been integrated with The Space Show archive for your show. Here, listeners can ask questions and post comments both during the live interview as well as on the archived program. As the guest, you can do the same. If there are interesting posts on the blog/comment section of the archives, I will be sure to call them to your attention. Your program will move down a line with each new program that is archived. Please note that one must have either a free Disqus account or access comments through one of their social media accounts as we do not permit anonymous posts.

3. The program is now podcasting.

4. Finally, the permanent URL on our website for your program for linking, quoting, etc. is: http://www.thespaceshow.com/show/29-apr-2016/broadcast-2692-dr.-stuart-robbins. Do not upload full audio or video shows to any website including YouTube & your own sites but you are certainly free to link the Space Show program on space relevant sites.


January 27, 2016

Scientific Fields Are Never Solitary, in a Vacuum

One of the more annoying claims made by pseudoscientists is that because scientists are so specialized these days, that they cannot “see the forest for the trees” as the metaphor goes. But they, as outsiders, totally can and therefore show that all of science is wrong. Or something like that.

It is true that sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-…-sub fields do exist, and these days that’s a manifestation of really how far we’ve come in science. Back in the day (say, 400 years ago), we knew comparatively so little that someone could study for a few years and get a good understanding of the state of human scientific knowledge. These days, you need an advanced degree to understand a sub-field of science, such as physics:optics, or psychology:adolescent (the colon indicating the sub-field).

If you want to work in a field, you pretty much must specialize, otherwise you will never be out of school because you won’t know enough about that broader topic.

But we always have to incorporate other fields of study, even if we don’t realize we’re doing it. I’ve tried to point out in my podcast and blog how tugging at one string by a pseudoscientist unravels so many other strings in unrelated subjects that it completely disproves their point about being able to have a broad knowledge base from which to draw new connections.

But that’s a long-winded way to get to why I’m even talking about this. I’m home right now for a period of 10 days, between travel, and I’m using the time to convene a working group. A working group is sort of like a mini-workshop. Where a workshop, in science, tends to be a specialized conference convened where people give presentations meant more to explore a topic rather than to brag about their latest research.

Last May, I convened a workshop entitled, “Workshop on Issues in Crater Studies and the Dating of Planetary Surfaces.” Succinctly, it was intended as a step back from the minutia we deal with to look at the original problems we were trying to solve, how we tried to 50 years ago, why we did it the way we did then, and what we’re trying to do now with craters and what outstanding problems we still have. I was able to bring in several founders of the field (since it really got going in the 1950s and 60s), and we addressed a wide range of issues.

Among those was statistics. We’re doing statistics the way we did it in the 1970s, before we had computers and when people had to draw graphs in papers by hand. We realized that the field of statistics has changed considerably and the way we were doing things and are doing things is not necessarily completely correct, nor is it necessarily the best way.

So, I also had money to bring in three statisticians to the workshop to learn.

And this week, since five of us crater people who work in the Boulder area were at the workshop and are interested in bringing in this completely unrelated (but related) field of statistics into planetary geophysics, we’re holding a working group. The five of us, one of the statisticians who is local, and one of the statisticians who I flew in from Los Alamos.

And it’s fascinating. If nothing else (because I’m sure no one reading this cares about statistics of crater populations), I find it fascinating to watch the interaction between the statisticians and the planetary scientists. We know some of our issues, and we are completely steeped in our language to describe it. They know stats, and they are constantly bringing in similar problems in other fields that are solved certain ways to see if it can apply. It’s taken a year to almost get on the same page just with what we mean when we talk about different graphs.

And they sometimes come up with potential solutions, but then we say “no” because it completely misrepresents the physical situation.

Today, after working all morning and being brought back up to speed yesterday, one of the surprising things that we (planetary scientists) had to grasp was that we may need to start thinking about craters – at least the population of craters, the ensemble – in a completely different way: Rather than discrete objects which we observe (with a definite location and size), think of them as a probability, where each observation is actually a distribution (albeit narrow). If we can do that, then we can bring in a huge field of well established statistics to deal with some of our fundamental problems with how we work with craters. Like simple things … like how we really should be assigning uncertainty to our measurements and results.

And throughout this, there was the constant nagging question in the back of my head of how we’re going to convince the entire field that this is the proper way to go — if it’s the proper way to go. Fortunately in our working group we have one of the founders of the field, so if we can convince him, we can figure out how to write up the paper to convince others.

This is a long post … and it’s a lot of stream of consciousness. From it though, I want you to get a few things:

  1. Even in highly specialized disciplines, they must always be informed by and incorporate other disciplines, even in completely different fields (astronomy/geology:planetary-gephysics:surface-processes:impact-craters:crater-populations … meet mathematics:statistics:[huge list of stuff they’re bringing in]).
  2. Sometimes, to update a field of study and bring it in line with what’s known in others, you have to think of the problem in a completely new way, but one that remains informed by its roots and always in what we’re really trying to understand (as in, they can model whatever, but we constrain them by keeping it physically meaningful and realistic).
  3. There’s always inertia in a field of study, but there are always ways to bring about change if that change gets you to a more correct methodology or answer.

This post is also my way of updating you all on what I’ve been doing, partially, work-wise for the past few days and why the podcast still hasn’t come out with a new episode in over a month.


January 10, 2016

Some Real Science: Lots of Grunt Work, Moon Craters

Over the last few days, I’ve been hunkering down due to the deadline for abstract submission to the premier planetary science conference, the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference. It’s held annually in March in Houston, TX. Everyone is allowed to submit up to two first-author abstracts, and I have, for the last couple years, done two. This year’s not an exception. I’ll post about my New Horizons -related one later.

This post is about my abstract entitled, “Developing a Global Lunar Crater Database, Complete for Craters ≥1 km.” Because the file sizes have to be <1 MB, the figures are low resolution.

There are many, many different purposes to conferences, though the primary is “communication with colleagues.” Within that are many different things, like talking about your research and getting ideas. Another is to be able to show colleagues what you are doing so that, if your name happens to come in, say, a grant application, they might just recognize it.

For LPSC this year, my non-New Horizons abstract is in that category. I’m setting myself up for writing a grant later this year to build a lunar crater catalog that contains a lot of information about roughly 1 million craters on the moon. It’s been rejected for a couple years, and one of the underlying reasons is that I don’t know how many craters there are, therefore I can’t give a good, accurate work effort estimate to do all the information-gathering about each crater.

This abstract is meant to answer part of that. I’ve been leveraging bits and pieces of funding from different sources over the last year to do the initial mapping part — identifying the craters and locating them and measuring their diameters. For this abstract, I’ve roughly 28% of the moon done. For the March conference, I’m hoping to be closer to 50%, and by the time the grants are due this autumn, 100% so I know how many craters I have to do more stuff with.

Two more things I want to talk about in this slightly longer post. First is grunt work. Science is not easy. Science is rarely glamorous. Science is sitting down and 99% of what you do no one will ever know about because it’s only the results – not that big data-gathering process – that form the bulk of your paper. Methods sections are usually <25% of a paper because relatively few people care about that in comparison with your results.

And trust me, sitting down and drawing circles for hundreds of hours on end is NOT glamorous. But the results are cool.

Second is why we care – why are the results "cool." One reason is that it just looks cool — seeing all those dots that indicate a crater, and seeing all the patterns that emerge tell us a lot about the different history of those areas of the moon. The main one is ages (more craters = older). But we can also do things like better understand what's hit the moon in the past, and hence what is likely to hit Earth in the future. We can study different materials even, which is why the second figure is devoted to permanently shadowed regions where there might be water (areas that never see the sun act as cold traps for water molecules).

Anyway, this is turning out longer than I wanted, so to wrap it up … that's one thing that has been occupying a lot of my time over the last few days. One down, one to go.


December 13, 2015

Podcast Episode 143: Round-Table Discussion with New Horizons Early Career Scientists

A round-table talk
‘Tween seven New Horizons
Scientists … ’bout stuff!

The missing episode!!! And the interview I’ve been promising for months between myself and six other early career scientists is finally posted. It took only 5% the time of New Horizons to reach Pluto, this podcast from the time it was recorded to the time it’s being posted. It also “only” took 6 hours to edit. Why? Because of needing to cut some things out, someone constantly knocking the table (I know who you are …), legitimate outtakes, and severe noise level differences.

Excuses aside, I’m glad that this is finally up, and I enjoyed actually listening to it (4x through during editing). It brought back memories from July and I think it gives insight into how us “grunts” or “minions” or, perhaps just “early career scientists” viewed the mission and what we did during that month of hectic excitement.

There are no other segments in this podcast episode, for the interview / round-table itself is 59 minutes 59.5 seconds. If you stay after the end music and how you can get in touch with the show / me, there is roughly 3.3 additional minutes of outtakes. These are not always rated G.

I hope that you enjoy this episode.


October 1, 2015

A New Interview and New Movie from New Horizons Data

Quick post before I get back to work (next podcast episode hopefully out this weekend).

First up, I was interviewed live for about 100 minutes on this past Sunday on David Livingston’s “The Space Show.” We spent the first half talking about my research (impact craters) and the second half about the education & public outreach that I do. Since it was live, and a call-in show, there was one call and many e-mailed questions that I responded to. There’s also an associated blog, so you can comment on the interview there if you wish.

Second, NASA has put out a press release about Charon (Pluto’s largest companion). There is a flyover animation of some of its many varied features, and I was the one who made the animation.

We have images of some areas of Charon from two different vantage points, as New Horizons flew by the body, and so we have a very, very early digital terrain / elevation model (DTM). I was able to use this in a non-exaggerated view of what it would be like to fly low through its massive canyon.

It looks a bit like an early 3D video game because of the somewhat low resolution, but I think it’s still pretty neat, and we should get better quality over the next few months as we better understand the surface and camera models.


August 20, 2015

Podcast Episode 138: New Horizons Pluto Encounter Conspiracies, Part 1

New Horizons’ pass
Through the Pluto system: Lots
Of crazy ensued.

FINALLY! It’s out! Only 3 weeks overdue! The “August 1” episode is about the New Horizons mission to Pluto and some of the conspiracies and pseudoscience and bad media reporting related to it.

To be fair, all of these I have written about in my 11-part series. However, I know some people never read blogs and only listen to podcasts, and vice versa. So, I’m double-dipping. I don’t care. 🙂

And it’s late at night, so I’ll close this brief post out by saying that I was recently interviewed on Steve Warner’s “Dark City” podcast, which you can directly listen to at this link. If you liked it, make sure you tell Steve by contacting him through his website.


August 17, 2015

#NewHorizons #PlutoFlyby – The Pseudoscience Flows #11 — Geometry Proves Aliens

This is the last planned post in this series of posts of pseudoscience related to the New Horizons Pluto flyby, until at least we get more images in a few weeks. This is also hopefully the last post that uses Richard Hoagland’s statements as an example of a style of claims made about New Horizons -related pseudoscience, at least for awhile. This particular one is NOT unique to claims that Mr. Hoagland has made about New Horizons and what the images show about the surface of Pluto and Charon; rather, he has made this particular claim about practically every solid body in the solar system: Geometry = artificial.

Let’s start looking at this claim as Richard makes it, for on its surface, it seems like it might make sense. Richard, whenever bringing this up, does not claim credit for it. Rather, he says that this comes from Carl Sagan (argument from authority), that when some of the first satellite photos of Earth were returned, Carl searched for any signs of intelligent life, and the only thing he could find was a dark logging road in Canada in contrast against white snow. That it was long and linear.

Hence came the maxim: Intelligence will reveal itself on a planetary surface by creating geometry. I have paraphrased it slightly, but unfortunately I don’t have the audio in front of me so I can’t state it exactly. But really, that’s the claim: If you see regular, repeating geometry, it requires life.

Now again, on its surface, this makes sense. People certainly make geometric patterns (it’s easier to drive on a straight road, for example, and we like to make square or angular buildings). We see nice geometric patterns in the animal and plant kingdom, too, including seemingly complex patterns such as spirals and the Fibonacci Sequence (which turns out to be an optimal pattern for leaves to get sunlight, and you see it (for example) in the patterns of seeds on a sunflower).

Life can and often does certainly create geometric patterns.

But so does non-life. The Grand Canyon is an excellent example of a fractal — an incredibly complex geometric shape. As do clouds, snowflakes, mountains, river deltas, and waterfalls. Valleys have a characteristic size given the environment, creating patterns of undulating waves. Sand dunes also have a characteristic wavelength and create undulating patterns. Individual mountains have nice, regular geometric shapes within the fractal pattern mentioned above. And so on.

In my particular field of study, we can look at impact craters. These are typically circles. Or ellipses. On Mars, there’s a certain type of crater that produces ejecta that looks like petals on a flower with nice broad, sinuous, regular perimeters. We also get craters forming all in a row, either from the impact or breaking up into a string of objects or ejecta from the crater itself producing them. These can have very regular, V-shaped ridges between them formed by overlapping ejecta curtains during formation. There’s also the famous “Meteor Crater” in Arizona which is practically a square: This was made by pre-existing faults that controlled the shape as the crater was formed, and we see these elsewhere, too. In fact, I was just in Arizona for a conference and you see plenty of flat-topped mesas which sharp, angular edges that form the drop-off of a cliff, controlled by veins of material with slightly different strengths.

These are all very regular “geometries.”

You do not need life to create “geometry.”

In fact, this kind of claim is so common in many fields of pseudoscience that it has a basic logical fallacy to describe it: The Single Cause Fallacy.

From its name and this blog post so far, you can probably guess what that is, but I’ll elaborate. It tends to go in this form:

  1. Item A can be caused by Thing B.
  2. I observe Item A.
  3. Therefore, Thing B was the cause.

This ignores the obvious: Many other things could be the cause of Item A, I just assumed that it was Thing B for whatever reason.

In this particular case, Richard and other people observe something that they have classified into the nebulous and ill-defined term “geometry.” And because life can give rise to geometric patterns, they conclude life made this “geometry.”

As opposed to a natural process that we see not only at home on Earth, with myriad examples, but all over the solar system, as well.

As opposed also to – in some cases that he and others have claimed – what really could be an intelligent cause: computer compression artifacts and/or electronic noise (think speaker static) in the camera detector.

My bet for some of the stuff shown across the internet is in that last category. My bet for all the rest is in that first category, that it’s simple, basic, geologic (and other natural) processes that can easily create regular geometric patterns.

While Richard is fond of quoting Carl Sagan when it helps him, he needs to remember other things that Carl also said: Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Pictures of features that could very easily be described by known, does-not-require-intelligence-to-explain-them phenomena do not qualify as that extraordinary evidence.

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