Exposing PseudoAstronomy

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 21, 2016

On the Hubbub Yesterday About a New Planet X


I’m assuming you’re living in a box if you didn’t see the headlines yesterday, in which case you wouldn’t be reading this blog. But … it was announced in many headlines, based on a paper appearing in the Astronomical Journal (yes, a real journal), that dynamic evidence of an unseen planet had been found in the outer solar system.

Unfortunately, much of the mainstream media got it wrong. I saw headlines such as, “Researchers Find Possible Ninth Planet Beyond Neptune.” That’s wrong.

And, of course, the pseudoscientists get it wrong, too, with some claiming that it proves hyperdimensional physics (whatever that means) and the fission model for planet formation (that planets are spat out of the sun in twins). You can probably guess who’s talking about that.

But here’s what really happened, for people are sending me lots of links (seriously, you can stop sending me links about this). We have a few observations of a few objects out beyond Neptune. I think the number of known, observed Kuiper Belt Objects is around 400. That’s not a lot when models suggest there should be billions to trillions of these objects.

But, based on those that we have observed, there are six in particular that have some similarities in the orbits. And an unseen planet, somewhere around 1-10 times the mass of Neptune, on an elliptical orbit that takes it as close as 7 times farther from the sun than Neptune (so 200 times farther than Earth) and as far as 600-1200 times the Earth-sun distance, could cause those similarities. The two astronomers who wrote the paper calculate there’s only a 1 in 15,000 chance that the similarities in those six objects’ orbits is random chance.

Color me skeptical.

Here’s the thing: I don’t like these dynamical arguments. They rely on many assumptions based on very few things being observed. These particular scientists are about as mainstream as you can get, but one of them, Mike Brown, is well known for being provocative to the point of stirring up upblic controversy to promote his work. For example, he wrote the book, “How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming.” It also might not be purely coincidental that the news came out the day after the New Horizons spacecraft’s tenth anniversary of launch.

The bottom-line is that this is not an observation of a body. This is dynamical arguments suggestive of a body based on numerous assumptions based on very few observations of a suspected population of bodies.

That doesn’t mean it’s wrong. But that doesn’t mean it’s right. And CalTech’s PR machine has been working over-time to pump this story out as much as they can, which also perturbs me.

January 19, 2016

How Answers in Genesis Ignores Reality, Pretends You’re Dumb, to Get Money for Its “Ark Encounter”


I think in addition to my attempt to be leaner and faster on this blog in 2016, I’m going to be more direct. Hence the title of this blog post.

For those who don’t know, Answers in Genesis (AiG) is probably one of the three biggest anti-think tanks for young-Earth creationism in the world. They have a large creationism museum in Kentucky, about a 45-minute drive from where I grew up a bit north of Cincinnati, Ohio. They are currently building an “Ark Encounter” theme park based on, as you can probably guess, the Judeo-Christian story of Noah’s Ark.

I’ve been following The Friendly Atheist blog posts about this for several years. To be direct, based on their reporting, AiG has been trying to break the law many, many times during the building process. And it’s mostly all having to do with money.

In effect, they can’t build it on their own. They don’t have enough. So they’ve been trying to get tax breaks and other things to help them build. Problem is (for them), even in Kentucky they sometimes respect separation of church and state and refused to let a religious organization that would discriminate based on religion have access to public funds.

So, as an example, they were eligible for state funds of some sort several years ago so long as they would not discriminate in their hiring. Then, someone (I forget, possibly the ACLU) pointed out that all employees would have to be hired through the AiG creation museum and hence sign a statement of faith to prove they are religious. They got smacked down and the money was taken away.

Now they have a new scheme. And, this was just pointed out in a large essay in Newsweek by journalist Lindsay Tucker. Tucker demonstrates how AiG has been manipulating things to, in the end, still get taxpayer money to support their very clearly religious endeavor.

Ken Ham, the guy in charge of AiG, hit back at Newsweek by manipulating information under the assumption that you are stupid.

I found out about this because The Friendly Atheist blog has a very lengthy post by Tracey Moody hitting back at Ken Ham. Here’s an excerpt, where “TIF” is the tax breaks, and the double-block is from Ken Ham’s blog post:

Ham insists on describing the TIF in a condescending manner in his post, even conceding that he hardly understands it himself. But not understanding a topic never stopped him before. Why start now?

Most people do not understand this complicated incentive (called Tax Increment Financing) that is common across the nation, and I hope I won’t lose you here. …

Now, we simply don’t mention the TIF to reporters because perhaps 1 in 1,000 readers would even know what it is, it is highly complicated, and I don’t understand it all myself. …

At the risk of your eyes glazing over regarding this TIF matter…

He’s setting the stage to make us feel too dumb to understand what’s going on — the same trick his whole Creation ministry is based upon. But it’s not as complicated as he makes it sound.

I recommend reading it if you have the time. I thought it was very informative and clearly demonstrates how AiG is manipulating things.

As for why it’s on this blog, well, I deal with young-Earth creationists manipulating science on this blog quite a lot. This isn’t science, but it’s perhaps just as important – if not more-so – than science because it’s public policy and it’s tens of millions of dollars that is currently going to a discriminatory, manipulative religious organization. Fortunately, I don’t live in Kentucky and my tax money is not directly contributing to this effort. But I hope that if any of you do live in Kentucky, you will voice your concern to the appropriate legislators.

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.

January 7, 2016

Revising History to Try to Sound Credible


At the risk of all my blog posts of 2016 – so far – seeming to be about certain individuals … here’s another one. John Brandenburg. For those who haven’t followed my blog or don’t remember this individual, see this post for the relevant information for this post. For his “science,” see this podcast.

One of the more unique things about Dr. Brandenburg among pseudoscientists is that one of his major claims of evidence that his ideas are correct is that he claims he presents at scientific conferences, and no one challenges him. I have heard him make that claim multiple times in practically every interview I have heard him give.

As I was mapping craters on the moon last night, I was listening to Coast to Coast AM from December 29, 2015. Dr. Brandenburg was on, and during the first hour, around 26 minutes in, he claimed that he was at the premier planetary science conference in 2015 and presented his results. See first link in this blog post. In that post, I documented his attendance (he was at his poster for 15 minutes) and VERY few people came by because he showed up almost at closing time and took over a half hour to slowly set up his presentations.

On C2CAM, however, he claimed that he presented his work, “held fort,” and “no one contradicted me.” And that “finally,” a scientist asked, “did they do it themselves?” (apparently referring to Dr. Brandenburg’s thesis that Mars was nuked).

Now, it is entirely possible that someone asked Dr. Brandenburg that during the very few minutes of conversation I did not hear. However, based on my observations, I sincerely doubt anyone was serious, if it happened at all. As for having “held fort” and “no one contradicted me,” if we want to go with the analogy of holding a fort against an attack, Dr. Brandenburg’s actual attendance record was closer to a snowball fight where people build forts, no one actually attacks, and John showed up just before everyone was going inside for hot cocoa because it was cold. As for no one contradicting him, perhaps it’s because they recognized pseudoscience when they see it, and because he showed up so late, he had literally less than a dozen people pass by and look at his work.

This isn’t the first time I’ve documented revisionist history, however, so far as Dr. Brandenburg’s recollection of his attendance at LPSC; see this post and search for “Brandenburg” and you’ll see what I mean.

Why am I writing about this? Well, in the faster and leaner attempt for this blog this year (also for me personally, which is why I need to get back to the elliptical), I’m going to be writing these short posts based on things I hear while listening to various podcasts and radio shows that I use for material for this blog and podcast, anyway.

If you make a claim, it’s fair game for investigation. If your claim contradicts a documented record, it’s fair game for me to point that out. If I’ve investigated your claims before, I may preferentially choose episodes of audio files to listen to where you speak.

January 5, 2016

No Planet X, Yet, Despite Marshall Masters’ Predictions


Last weekend, Trebor wrote in the comments to podcast 109 on this blog that we should be able to see Planet X by now, according to Marshall Masters. I had to dig — I last addressed his claims in 2014, where he stated in no uncertain terms that things would get very bad in 2015 and we would certainly see Planet X in 2015.

It’s 2016. Nada.

I’m getting a bit tired of this “unsinkable rubber duckie” phenomenon because we keep seeing this, and the same people just push the dates back and back and back. Masters was last on C2C on May 21, 2015. What particularly annoys me and why I think that certain talk show hosts lack any intellectual honesty, is that they do not hold their guests’ footsies to the fire and confront them on failed predictions.

Now, of course, I could be wrong in this case; we’ll see if George Noory has him back (I’m sure he will) and what happens during that show. But I would be very, very surprised if he confronts Masters’ failures year after year for predicting when this mythical Planet X will make doom and gloom.

January 4, 2016

Richard Hoagland: As Slippery in 1998 as He Is Now


I suppose I might get called a “troll” for that kind of subject line, and I also am at risk for this post seeming to be an ad hominem, but I think it’s important to show how pseudoscientists argue when confronted by, well, any challenge to their claims. “Slippery” is the thought that came to mind yesterday while listening to an old Coast to Coast AM episode from May 26, 1998.

During the interview, Art Bell brought up one of Richard Hoagland’s critics, Ralph Greenberg, then and now a mathematics professor at the University of Washington. Prof. Greenberg heavily criticized Richard’s mathematical claims about the Cydonia region of Mars, something that I have done, as well. Basically showing that Richard was drawing lines that he claimed were significant and ignoring ones that weren’t.

Art said that Prof. Greenberg was sending him e-mail after e-mail and wanted to debate Richard Hoagland, on-air. What followed was many, many minutes of what really is best described as Richard being “slippery.” Richard ended up really arguing, in the end, that the math he claims to have found at Cydonia is meaningless because he’s moved beyond that, and Prof. Greenberg was still mired in the past and refused to consider any new arguments about things Richard was making. Which I classify as “slippery” – as well as, in hindsight knowing how things have played out over the subsequent 17 years, “disingenuous.”

Basically, Prof. Greenberg wanted to debate a specific claim. Richard wouldn’t even entertain that. Because he’s “moved beyond” it (despite clearly not). Whenever Art tried to bring it up in a different way, Richard kept saying different things to that effect, and he misrepresented Prof. Greenberg’s claims.

And, Richard does the same thing today. An excellent example is from 2010, when Richard claimed that an earthquake happened right at 19.5° on Earth. The actual center was at 18.5° N latitude, not 19.5°. When called out on that, Richard said, “I was thinking of geodetic latitude – not geographic – the latitudes change because the Earth is not a perfect sphere, it’s an oblate spheroid.”

Slippery. Why? Because it’s something that sounds plausible to almost anyone. It’s a term that seems like it could be correct. Problem is, as Expat pointed out at the time, this shifts his latitude by a mere 0.1°. Not 1.0°. And, if that were the case, everything else that he claims is at 19.5° (because that’s a magic number for him), he suddenly loses because he used geographic, not geodetic, latitude.

They are completely different kinds of examples, but I think that this illustrates well that while I may disagree with practically everything Richard Hoagland has said or done over the years, I must admit that he’s quick on his feet and clearly able to slip through peoples’ lines of defense, getting them to move on to a topic more favorable to him.

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.

November 30, 2015

Podcast Episode 144: Why We Know About Things Far Away but Not Nearby, and Lots of New News


How can we know ’bout
Stuff far ‘way but not nearby?
Big conspiracy?

The return! This episode has a shorter main segment in favor of having some new news, all of them sent in by listeners. In the episode, I address a claim that I hear in many different contexts that basically boils down to, “How can we know about far away stuff but we don’t even know about close stuff!” I provide two examples, many analogies, an experiment you can do yourself, and my usual dry, witless humor.

The logical fallacies segment discusses the False Equivalence fallacy.

For the New News, I talk about the exosystem discovery by Kepler that made the news in mid-October, space law and possible violations by bills in the US Congress, and the new farthest known object in the solar system.

And yes, this is episode 144, there has not yet been an episode 143. It will come out “soon.” Where “soon” is an undefined unit of time, and it will be back-dated to November 1.

October 16, 2015

Podcast Episode 142: Who’s on First? Origin of Ideas in Science


With water on Mars,
Discovered again, we look
At who did what first.

It’s been a month, and this is back-dated by over two weeks, but I wanted to put out an episode about the pitfalls of trying to figure out and remember who did what first. In the episode, I gave five examples of how this kind of discussion is important, such as who founds entire fields of science (or mathematics), giving credit where it’s due and remembering past research, pseudoscientists taking credit for things, alleged alien contactees taking credit for things, and preserving institutional memory in science.

The logical fallacies segment discusses the Moving the Goalpost fallacy.

I also revisit the 440 Hz conspiracy by asking you to listen to three tones, strewn throughout the podcast, to see if you can tell the difference. Playing two right in a row last time was too easy for everyone who wrote in.

Finally, yes, this is back-dated, and no, I am really really busy these days and don’t expect this to improve. I will likely take November-dated episodes off, putting out another episode some time in the next 6-7 weeks that’s dated October 16, and then return with December episodes. Next week I go on trip #13 for the year and the following week is #14, in mid-November I head back East for #15 and in December I have a conference that will bring the total to 16 trips this year. Never again.

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