Exposing PseudoAstronomy

April 1, 2015

Podcast Episode 129: The Saga of Comet Hale-Bopp and its Fugacious Companion, Part 3


Great Comet Hale-Bopp,
Part 3: The cult members’ death
And continued bull.

Second in the three-part series: The saga of the great and powerful Comet Hale-Bopp and the conspiracy, mystery, intrigue, lies, schemes, hoaxes, and suicides that accompanied it. The idea came when I started listening to a new Art Bell set of interviews that I had obtained, and I realized early in the episode (November 14, 1996) that I was listening to THE interview that started the whole thing. I found another dozen or so interviews and decided to make an episode out of it that has blossomed into three episodes.

The three episodes are meant to be stand-alone in that they don’t need the others to be understandable. But, put them together and they tell the story in a lot more depth. This third part is all about the “meat” of the issue: The tragic suicide of the cult members of Heaven’s Gate. I devote the first half to them and the second half to a discussion of the continued pseudoscience related to Comet Hale-Bopp that persisted after their deaths.

The logical fallacy of the episode is the Straw Man.

Looking ahead, the next episode is an interview with Dave Draper on potentially pseudoscientific conference submissions and what the program committee of a conference does when they get work that appears to be pseudoscience.

Looking back, I was a guest panelist on episode 342 of The Reality Check podcast. It was fun, and I recommend checking them out.

And, finally, I plan to do a small tribute to Leonard Nimoy on the episode 131, due out on May 1. The tribute will be from you: If he or any of his characters affected you (especially as perhaps related to an interest in science or astronomy or critical thinking), please send in a few sentences. Or, record no more than 30—60 seconds and send the file to me.

March 14, 2015

Podcast Episode 128: The Saga of Comet Hale-Bopp and its Fugacious Companion, Part 2


Great Comet Hale-Bopp,
Part 2: On remote viewing
The comet’s partner.

Second in the three-part series: The saga of the great and powerful Comet Hale-Bopp and the conspiracy, mystery, intrigue, lies, schemes, hoaxes, and suicides that accompanied it. The idea came when I started listening to a new Art Bell set of interviews that I had obtained, and I realized early in the episode (November 14, 1996) that I was listening to THE interview that started the whole thing. I found another dozen or so interviews and decided to make an episode out of it that has blossomed into three episodes.

The three episodes are meant to be stand-alone in that they don’t need the others to be understandable. But, put them together and they tell the story in a lot more depth. This second part is about one of the primary drivers behind the Hale-Bopp companion, Courtney Brown, and his remote viewing claims. While he provided the hoaxed photographs to Art Bell and Whitley Strieber (per Part 1), he claimed that all of his evidence for the companion was “good data” and based on remote viewing.

Part 3 will be on the Heaven’s Gate cult and aftermath and continued conspiracy, including a brief entry by Richard Hoagland.

I have decided that, while I may do my interview with Dave Draper on potentially pseudoscientific conference abstracts before Parts 2 or 3 are finished, I will wait to put it out, such that Parts 1-3 will be back-to-back-to-back.

While there was one logical fallacy in the episode (argument from authority), I instead used the segment to discuss part of the skeptical toolkit: The BS Meter. And, what should trigger it and what you should do about it. The bottom-line is that you should question any claim that sets off your BS meter, and even when something seems innocuous and small and not even part of what could have led to the anomalous result, you should still check it.

And, finally, I plan to do a small tribute to Leonard Nimoy, no earlier than April 1. The tribute will be from you: If he or any of his characters affected you (especially as perhaps related to an interest in science or astronomy or critical thinking), please send in a few sentences. Or, record no more than 30—60 seconds and send the file to me. I will read/play them either on episode 130 or 131.

Finally, this episode is coming out a bit early because I’m leaving for a week for a planetary science conference and won’t be able to do much of anything else while I’m there.

March 2, 2015

Podcast Episode 127: The Saga of Comet Hale-Bopp and its Fugacious Companion, Part 1


Great Comet Hale-Bopp,
Part 1: On the claimed photos
Of your companion.

I’ve been working on this episode for awhile: The saga of the great and powerful Comet Hale-Bopp and the conspiracy, mystery, intrigue, lies, schemes, hoaxes, and suicides that accompanied it. The idea came when I started listening to a new Art Bell set of interviews that I had obtained, and I realized early in the episode (November 14, 1996) that I was listening to THE interview that started the whole thing. I found another dozen or so interviews and decided to make an episode out of it. About three months and over 10,000 words of notes and transcripts later, this is the release of Part 1 of what will be a three-part series on Hale-Bopp.

The three episodes are meant to be stand-alone in that they don’t need the others to be understandable. But, put them together and they tell the story in a lot more depth. This first part is about the image – the “hard science” – claims about the companion. Next one will be on the remote viewing claims and aftermath, and the third will be on the Heaven’s Gate cult and aftermath and continued conspiracy, including a brief entry by Richard Hoagland.

I have decided that, while I may do my interview with Dave Draper on potentially pseudoscientific conference abstracts before Parts 2 or 3 are finished, I will wait to put it out, such that Parts 1-3 will be back-to-back-to-back.

There were two logical fallacies pointed out in this episode: Argument against authority, and correlation ≠ causation (cum hoc ergo propter hoc).

And, finally, I plan to do a small tribute to Leonard Nimoy, no earlier than April 1. The tribute will be from you: If he or any of his characters affected you (especially as perhaps related to an interest in science or astronomy or critical thinking), please send in a few sentences. Or, record no more than 30—60 seconds and send the file to me. I will read/play them either on episode 129, 130, or 131.

July 14, 2014

No, Yellowstone Is (Probably) Not About to Erupt

Filed under: doomsday,geology,skepticism,volcano — Stuart Robbins @ 10:51 am
Tags: , , , , , ,

This post falls under the pre-emptive part for bad media reporting in the charter of this blog. Many media sources are reporting that roads are melting in Yellowstone National Park, in this particular case, closing one of the more popular areas off.

The obvious implication for any “Earth Changes” conspiracy person is that the Yellowstone supervolcano (supervolcano being a term invented just a few years ago in a TV special) is gonna blow. Which means that most of North America will be completely uninhabitable after people within a several hundred kilometer radius die very, very quickly from the event. And worldwide severe weather changes because of the massive amounts of ash.

I want to nip that in the bud, so to speak. At issue is statistics and probability. The Yellowstone area is the site of a massive volcano (for Earth, with a caldera 10s of miles across. Just for the record, that would be a somewhat small volcano on Mars, where for example the Arsia Mons volcano has a caldera that is about 100 km in diameter (~65 miles). Last year, it was reported that the magma chamber under Yellowstone – which is responsible for all the thermal features – is twice as large as previously thought (which isn’t as dangerous as it seems).

The large “supervolcanic” eruptions took place 2.1 Mya, 1.3 Mya, and 0.64 May (millions of years ago). And OHMYGAWD if you take an average of 3 WE ARE OVERDUE FOR A MASSIVE ERUPTION AMIRIGHT!!!!!

Except there’s the rub. We have never observed a supervolcano erupt. I hate to bring in Ken Ham’s “Were you there?” thing, but this is really a case where it’s very difficult for volcanologists to understand how these erupt, the frequency with which they erupt, how to predict when/if they’ll erupt, and what the precursors are to an eruption. It should also be noted that Yellowstone has had smaller eruptions more recently than 640,000 years ago, such as flows that have been dated to 70,000 years old.

Anyway, Yellowstone is an active thermal feature. Hydrothermal because water is involved. It’s no secret that it could explode again. What is lesser known is that it may never explode again. We just don’t know. But what is also clear is that we have no way to predict it. And not knowing means that there’s a certain argument from ignorance fallacy that can be invoked — because scientists don’t know (or won’t tell us because of the conspiracy), then the doomsday guy making the definite claim can clearly know better and tell us what’s gonna happen. (FYI, that’s sarcasm.)

But why don’t the latest thermal melting of roads mean that it’s gonna erupt?

Because it happens frequently. Earthquakes happen there frequently. Sulfur dissolving away metal grates happens there frequently. Like, every year. And that whole video thing last year of bison all stampeding out of the park because they knew it was gonna erupt? That was a video of bison running INTO the park, but that didn’t stop conspiracy and doomsday websites.

I think that the only reason we’re hearing about this particular example is that it melted a road to a popular feature. Keep in mind that very little percentage of the park is a road. So if a capricious thermal feature is going to migrate around and warm a part of the ground to the melting point of asphalt, the likelihood of it being a road is very small. Meaning the likelihood of it being a popular road is even smaller. Meaning the likelihood of it being something that’s widely reported is even smaller.

So … is Yellowstone gonna blow? Maybe. But this latest event should NOT be construed as an increase in activity that indicates an imminent eruption.

May 12, 2014

Podcast Episode 109: The Fake Story of Planet X, Part 9 – Marshall Masters


Conspiracy shrouds
Planet X in mystery.
Perpetual DDDDOOOOOOOOOOOMMMMMMMM.

In this episode, we get Marshall Masters’ version of Planet X. There’s honestly not too much new with his view except that he brings in lots of various ideas of Planet X to make a non-cohesive argument and salts it generously with a whole lotta conspiracy. Graham requested the topic, and because I wanted to do something interesting, I explored a somewhat different way of introducing it with a suggestion from Mike Bohler.

Let me know what you think of the intro. And, does anyone recognize the music at the ~1-minute mark?

There’s also a New News segment, courtesy of Flip.

April 14, 2014

As We Approach the Era of the Blood Moon Tetrad, Here’s What You Need to Know


Introduction

Coming out of the 2012 (Mayan apocalypse) non-event, many of us wondered what the next doomsday would be. At the time, I said in several interviews that I didn’t know. This “blood moons” thing, however, seems to have grasped the attention of many, and since it has another 18 months to play out, I anticipate it might grow considerably. I hope not, because it’s silly, but we’ll see.

For those just coming here from an internet search, and you haven’t followed this blog at all, a few months ago I put out a podcast episode that thoroughly addressed this issue. I suggest it as a starting point.

The purpose of this blog post is to briefly summarize those issues again, and to go over a few small things that I did not address in that episode. And to say, once again, there is absolutely nothing to worry about, the whole thing smacks of people for thousands of years fearing comets or eclipses because they didn’t understand them. This time, we understand them, but some people still irrationally fear them.

Edited to Add: Conspiracy Skeptic Karl Mamer interviewed me and got the interview up really fast. It’s an hour:15 about these issues.

Terminology

Tetrad: Lunar eclipses can be penumbral (it just dims a bit), partial (only part of the moon is in total shadow), or total (full moon is in Earth’s shadow). They can happen in any order or combination, but when four lunar eclipses in a row are total, that’s called a “tetrad.”

Blood Moon: A spooky/scary -sounding name for a total lunar eclipse because the only light that can reach the moon is filtered through Earth’s atmosphere, leaving only long wavelengths of light, the red light. So, the moon appears dark and red. Yeah, scary.

Lunar Eclipses

Very briefly, the moon orbits Earth, and the plane of its orbit is tilted about 5.1° relative to Earth’s path around the sun. So, it crosses that path twice in its orbit (called nodes). Only on those points could an eclipse possibly occur. And, only when those points happen during a new or full moon do you actually get an eclipse.

When it happens during a new moon, that’s a solar eclipse. Full moon, it’s a lunar eclipse. If a part of the moon would see the sun partially eclipsed by Earth, that’s a penumbral eclipse and you just get a small dimming. If a part of the moon would see the sun totally eclipsed by Earth, then that part is totally eclipsed, called an umbral eclipse. When the whole moon is in an umbral eclipse, it’s a total eclipse.

Eclipse Seasons

Because of the way the moon’s orbit works and the nodes line up, if you have an eclipse, you will likely have the other kind (solar or lunar) 2 weeks earlier or later. And, then they go out of alignment. Six months later, they’re back in alignment, and so you’ll usually get another 2 or 3 eclipses, 2 weeks apart.

And, the whole thing repeats something like every 18.6 years.

Jewish Calendar and Holidays

The Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar, meaning that new moons start a new month and full moons are in the middle of the month.

Most Jewish holidays are tied to the Jewish calendar and happen on either the first of the month or on the middle day of the month.

Therefore, by definition, most Jewish holidays will happen during either a new moon or a full moon. Therefore, by definition, the likelihood of a lunar or solar eclipse happening exactly on a Jewish holiday is much, much higher than for holidays based on a solar calendar.

Aside: Who’s Behind the Phenomenon?

That would be Pastor Mark Biltz. He originated this back around 2008, and it got very little attention. That’s changed.

Biltz’s story is that he went to NASA’s website and saw that there were these eclipses and tetrads, he saw that some of the tetrads happened during Jewish holidays, in his mind he thought that some of those resulted in doom (more on that later).

When he relates the story, he makes a big deal about how the data all comes from NASA in an apparent argument from authority. While it’s true that you can get a whole bunch of eclipse data from NASA, Pastor Biltz apparently has some issues reading big bold text. For example, he claims that NASA posts eclipse data for the “past 5000 years.” Except, it’s for the past 4000 and next 1000.

It’s a minor issue, but it calls into question how good he is at reading even less obvious signs which is the entire basis for his claims. (And Pastor Biltz claimed that Christopher Columbus was Jewish – he insisted on it – despite the fact he was a Roman Catholic. Again, signs of poor scholarship and a willingness to warp something to fit his ideas.)

More to This Phenomena: How Often Do Lunar Eclipses Occur?

Pastor Biltz claims that NASA data shows that 3479 total lunar eclipses have happened in the past 5000 years. It’s actually past 4000 and next 1000, but, whatever. He says that this means you only get an average of 1 total lunar eclipse every 1.5 years (it’s 1.4, but moving on), but OMG we get 4 in the space of only 18 months this time!!!!

This sounds like it’s way over the average. Which it is. But, using an average is the wrong statistics for this on the short-term. Eclipse seasons and the way the orbits work out mean that you typically get these occurring in spurts. You get a lot of penumbral, then a few total. Or, 2-3 total, then 1 partial, 2 total, 5 penumbral. Before this April, we had 1 partial, 1 penumbral, 1 partial, and 2 penumbral. No total eclipses for 2.5 years!!!!

My point is that it’s fine to say that, on average, these happen once every 1.5 years over the long term. But, then going ahead and using that to say that a particular year, two years, or even decade is above or below “average” is an abuse of the statistics.

More to This Phenomena: How Often Do Tetrads Occur?

There’s no nice, simple formula predictor that gives you a way to figure this out. Happily, Universe Today has a nice table. It shows that during the 11th-13th, 17th-19th, 23rd-24th, and 28th-29th centuries, there are 0. 14th there were 6, 15th there were 4, 16th there were 6, and 20th there were 5. This century, we get a whopping 8, and next century we get 4.

So, they are not exceedingly rare, but, they’re not that common. This generation has or will see several. Our great-great-great-great grandparents saw none.

More to This Phenomena: How Often Do Tetradal (is that a word?) Eclipses Occur on (Major) Jewish Holidays?

Well, because tetrads are relatively rare, and they tend to precess through the months (because lunar eclipses precess through the months), it is somewhat more rare than tetrads. But again, by definition, it is likely that they will happen on Jewish holidays. Not necessarily major ones, but on Jewish holidays. This time, they just so happen to fall on major ones.

More to This Phenomena: What Happened Last Time?

So, the last time the tetrad happened during Passover, Sukkot, Passover, Sukkot, was April 24, 1967 – October 6, 1968. Pastor Biltz says the big thing that happened to Israel during that time was the 6-day war, which was June 5-10, 1967. So, during the “blood moon season,” but not during or even really near any eclipse (in fact, about as far as you could get – 3 months before and 3 months after the next/last one). And, based on an objective look at the history, Israel won. And Israel increased its land holdings significantly. I wouldn’t call that a “bad” thing for Israel.

What about before that? The previous tetrad also happened over two successive Passovers and Sukkots, and that was April 13, 1949 – September 26, 1950. What does Pastor Biltz point to as the major bad event concerning Israel that this Sign in the Heavens pointed to? Israel was founded. May 14, 1948. 11 months before the first eclipse in that tetrad.

Ummm … not a bad thing for Israel, and the fact that he has to search nearly a year to find something significant makes me, well, skeptical.

Retrodiction, Prediction, Cherry-Picking …

By this point, it should be very clear how I feel about this issue. But, let’s put it another way: You have a somewhat rare event, and you find something bad (or good) that happened during or within a year of that event, and say the two are related (correlation = causation fallacy). That is what Pastor Biltz has done. Nothing more, nothing less.

Why do I say this? Well, I took a simple internet search of “Timeline of Jewish History” and, nicely, Wikipedia has something on that. Yeah, some of you may not like Wikipedia, but regardless, you can still use it as a starting point. And, gasp!! pretty much every year, something important happens to Jews. Or, same thing with a timeline of Israeli history.

My point is that if your criteria is vague (“something” has/will happen) and you’re allowed to include events that happened practically within a year of the event that already lasts 18 months (so you have 42 months, or 3.5 years to find something), well, I’m unimpressed. Now, if something catastrophic that was a once-in-a-lifetime event happened exactly on the date that these tetrads started but only on the tetrads that coincided with the major Jewish holidays, then I might be more interested and look more closely.

But, let’s take a look at the last tetrad: May 4, 1985 – October 17, 1986. Biltz doesn’t say anything about that because the cycle happened +1 month from the Jewish holidays. Looking at those timelines of Jewish and Israeli history, the First Intifada started in 1987, just a year after the tetrad ended!

Or what about the importance of 1982, when Israel withdrew from the Sinai Peninsula? Or 1956, the war which brought Israel into the Sinai in the first place?

And Yet, There’s More!

Pastor Biltz has many other bits and pieces that feed into this. For example, that 2015 is a Shmita year, every 7 years when Jews are supposed to let their fields lie fallow. Oh, and all debts, except foreign ones, are remitted.

Biltz claims that the last one (Sept. 13, 2007 – Sept 29, 2008) finished just as the Dow fell 7%! And the one before that (Sept. ?, 2000 – Sept. 17, 2001) the Dow fell 7.1%! Not being able to carry this much further, he pointed to the one in 1994 (Sept. ?, 1993 – Sept. 5, 1994) when, not on the last day of the Shmita, but sorta in the middle, Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 hit Jupiter with 21 fragments (it was actually many more than that, but hey, 21/3 = 7 so we get 7 again, so don’t let facts get in the way) in July 16-22, 1994.

Again, retrodiction.

Final(?) Thoughts

This is a really long post. And there’s a lot of stuff that Biltz and many others (such as John Hagee) have heaped onto this non-significant (but still neat!) astronomical event. I’ve tried in this post and the podcast to cover the major components and claims, and hopefully set some of you (who may have come here from an internet search for more information, or referred here by a friend) at ease.

Let me try to summarize more succinctly: The Jewish calendar is defined such that most holidays must happen during new or full moons, and lunar eclipses can only happen during full moons. Total lunar eclipses are called by fear-mongers “blood moons.” Yes, a tetrad is somewhat rare, and because elf the way things line up, it’s more rare that it will happen on the Jewish holidays, but not ridiculously rare because of the way the calendar is defined. But besides that, nothing bad happened the last two times. The time correlation that he and others have attempted to draw is flimsy and reeks of vague retrodiction to fit the story he/they want to tell. In fact, based on the events named, good stuff happened for the Jews and Israel.

So, I recommend that if you’re in a part of the world where you can enjoy this and the weather cooperates, go outside, take a look up, take your camera, and enjoy this not-everyday neat celestial event.

September 1, 2013

Podcast Episode 85: Blood Moons, Jewish Holidays, and the End of All Things


Blood Moons and Jewish Fests,
Their combination brings fear,
But don’t worry … much.

This is a classic-form episode. I state the claim, go through background info, and when you understand the background information, the claim falls away. It’s also just a tad under 30 minutes, returning to my roughly average length. The episode also has some feedback and a puzzler.

And I apologize to anyone who speaks עברית.

June 17, 2013

Podcast #77: 2012 Back-Peddling


Twenty-twelve doomsday
Is said and done. What doomsday
Is next, yet to come?

A just-over half-hour episode reviewing some peoples’ failed predictions for the 2012 “doomsday” that did not happen, and their response (or lack-there-of) when it didn’t. A few notes on this episode:

(1) I sound a bit stuffed up in this episode because I recorded it just after I woke up and couldn’t seem to clear my nose. I’m fine health-wise (so far’s I know).

(2) Yes, this was delayed. I submitted a quarter-million-dollar grant due on Friday the 14th and a 78-page, 19,500-word paper on Friday, too. Now is catch-up on everything I put off. So yes, the episode has been back-dated by six (yikes!) days, and I do expect to be putting out an episode on the 21st of the month (on geocentrism). This of course also means I’m WAY behind on responding to feedback if you’ve e-mailed me.

(3) I’ve been wanting to do this episode for a long time. I had grand ideas about holding people accountable and going through dozens of examples. This isn’t that. It’s a bit disappointing. At least to me … let me know what you think.

There’s no puzzler this episode, but there is a lengthy A to a Q. Here’s the main announcement at the end, similar to the one at the end of the last episode: If you’re going to TAM, I’m planning another li’l get-together, probably Saturday night during dinner time, in a suite in the hotel. Assuming this happens and it’s more than just me and one or two other persons, I’m also going to try to record it and the hope is for it to be sorta a Q&A and/or discussion or something like that about the general topics of the show. You can tell this is incredibly well planned at the moment. IF you’re at all interested, send me an e-mail so I can give you updates.

January 24, 2013

Podcast Episode #62: Interview with Bill Hudson About 2012hoax.org


The Alexa web traffic tracking service currently has 2012hoax.org as among the top 120,000 most-visited sites in the world. (In contrast, my own domain, sjrdesign.net, is currently #3,578,209. whitehouse.gov is #1644 in the world and 435 in the US.)

In episode 62 of my podcast, I interview the man behind 2012hoax.org, and we discuss his motivation behind creating it, some of the stats, most contentious articles, and his favorite 2012 back-peddlers (so far). We also discuss his latest work, Cosmophobia.org (where 2012hoax.org is redirecting).

January 7, 2013

No, Asteroid 99942 Apophis Won’t Kill Us This Week


Introduction

Unfortunately, the UK’s The Guardian has a misleading title in an article that came out today (January 7, 2013): “Apophis – a ‘potentially hazardous’ asteroid – flies by Earth on Wednesday.”

Now, technically, the headline is correct. For awhile, asteroid 99942 Apophis (or just “Apophis” for short) was potentially dangerous with as much as a 1 in 37 chance as calculated in December 2004 of striking Earth in 2029. Then, the worry was that in 2029 during a close approach, it might pass through a very narrow region in 3D space that would alter its orbit so it would come back in April 2036 and strike Earth.

Apophis’ Orbit

To be clear, from hundreds (if not thousands) of observations at this point, the chance of it striking Earth in 2029 is as close to 0 as you can get, and the chances of it striking in 2036 is about 1 in 250,000. Yes, 2029 will be a very close approach, with estimates being it passing by at only 5.6 times the radius of Earth. But that’s not a hit.

So what’s all this then about 2013?

It’s just a close approach. It’s the closest approach in awhile and it will let us refine its orbit even more.

Why do we need lots of observations over a very long time to get a better orbit? It’s like watching a hot air balloon in the sky: If you observe it for 3 seconds, you can get a very rough idea of how fast it’s going and where it’s headed. But if you watch it for 3 minutes, you’ll have a much better idea. And if you watch it for 3 hours, even better. It’s the same idea with asteroids, or really anything else.

That’s why this Wednesday, January 9, with its closest approach in awhile and for awhile, is important. The closer it is, the better we can pin-point its position and so the more accurate orbit we can derive in the future. We can also get a better estimate of its size. But, this approach is perfectly safe – Apophis’ closest approach this year will take it about 37-38 times farther than the moon.

Final Thoughts

I wasn’t even going to comment on this, but I’ve already seen people asking on various forums based on The Guardian‘s headline. So, there it is. Yes, technically Apophis is “potentially dangerous” because, based on our current orbit estimates, there’s a 0.0004% chance of it striking Earth in 2036. But no, the world is not going to end in 2 days after just “narrowly” surviving the “Mayan apocalypse.”

I’m hoping that the author of the article, Stuart Clark, didn’t select it. He’s written popular astronomy books and various other things, so he should know better unless he was trying to drum up page views. I’m guessing it was some editor.

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