Exposing PseudoAstronomy

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.

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.

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.

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.

September 18, 2015

NASA Releases of My Work, and Recent Interviews/Cohosts of/by Me


Introduction

I’m allowed a bit of self-promotion on my own blog, right?

With that in mind, I’ve been really, really busy lately with work, but I’ve also been pretty busy with the public outreach stuff I do (e.g., this blog, the podcast, etc.). Over the past two months, I have been a guest on no less than four podcasts/shows. And, I have had three NASA releases of my work. And, over the next few weeks, I’ll be on two more shows.

This post is putting them all in one place and to give a little of my own commentary.

NASA Releases of My Work

In the last three weeks, I have had just as many releases of – or that have included some part of – my work, all dealing with graphics products.

New Horizons Flythrough Animation — First up was a release on the New Horizons blog of a ~23-second animation I produced that is a very-close-to-realistic fly through that shows what you may have seen if you were riding with New Horizons during the month of July. I say “very close” because it’s not exact, for reasons I discuss in that post. What might be scientifically perfect might be cinematically horrible, such as because we went from so far away to so close to the planetary body, it would look like you’re crashing and everything goes out of focus for a few seconds (since we don’t have the highest res stuff yet on the ground to fill that in).

1/3 Sphere of Pluto Showing Off Latest Images — This was the “cover photo” of a press release on September 10. By “cover photo,” I mean it was the glamor shot that was at the top of the press release and, since most news sources just copy press releases, it was the top photo on pretty much every news outlet I saw that carried the story. With that said, my name wasn’t on it. That’s okay, I know I made it and now you do, too. But this was really something that was made for the team by the team. Alan Stern, the PI of the mission, told one of the deputies of the Geology & Geophysics Investigation Science Theme Team (GGI STT) that he wanted this kind of product, and someone should make it. Three of us who had made these kinds of products before were e-mailed, we sent in some versions, and I think it was mainly because I was most in front of my computer that I was able to iterate enough and get something that Alan liked and he and NASA went with.

“Aerial Tour” of Pluto Encounter Hemisphere — This came out today and was featured as another blog post on the New Horizons website. I think that Alan is basically using the “blog” to showcase the work of us early career scientists, since so far, of the four posts up, by three authors, all three of us are in the first decade of our post-graduate work. Anyway, I suggest reading the release because it really summarizes everything I wanted to say about it. Other than a bit more background on how it came about:

During the encounter month of July, I was asked to create the flythrough movie, and I did, but then I was asked at the last minute to create a flythrough movie that then zoomed in and focused on a flyover of a specific geologic feature. Over-stressed and over-tired, I was not able to do it despite working on it for 12 hours straight. In the end, Alan went with something created from a screen capture from Google Earth. Admittedly pretty disappointing from my point of view. Then, see above — the 1/3 sphere of Pluto showing off the latest images. I thought that’s what Alan was initially asking for, and I came up with a new way of doing it in the 3D software (instead of flying the camera around, have the camera fixed and just rotate the sphere to keep the constant elevation — so much easier). I sent that off and was told they just wanted an image. So after I got the image finalized, I revisited the idea of flying over the most recent mosaic that we had, and, well, the rest you can see at the link!

Already Published Guest Appearances

Steve Warner’s “Dark City”— Here’s the direct link to this two-hour ten-minute interview. Steve’s show is available as a podcast, direct download, and it is broadcast on Art Bell’s “Dark Matter” network. I met Steve through the “BellGab” forum and I think it was he who directly messaged me first, back in January or February of this year, when he asked me for any tips or background information I could give him about Mars because he was going to interview John Brandenburg about his “Mars was nuked” idea. Since then, we had messaged on and off, and I dropped many subtle hints that I would be interested in coming on his show (subtle as in, “Steve, I would love to be on your show and talk about [x], when’s a good time?”).

Of the roughly eight “non-mainstream” themed shows I listen to, Steve, I think, is in the top two or three for what I view as fairness to the guest and to actual science. After listening to Coast to Coast AM for over a decade now with George Noory and hearing George give his trite “exactly!” “that’s right!” “of course!” and other phrases, it’s a very welcome change to hear someone actually question the guest if something they say doesn’t seem to make sense.

So I finally nagged enough and Steve had me on after a one-hour “pre-show” where we talked about various things and I think he was trying to get a feeling for whether it would work or not.

While it’s been pointed out to me that I did ramble and digress somewhat, I think that it was still interesting. We addressed a wide variety of subjects, and Steve pushed me in ways that I hadn’t been pushed before. For example, on the idea of who’s ideas should you pay attention to? Being an idealistic skeptic, I wanted to answer that every idea deserves a fair hearing, at least to the extent of “has this been debunked before, and/or does it have any plausibility whatsoever to look further into?” But being a scientist and realistic person, I wanted to answer that there comes a point where I really don’t care what some like, say, Deepak Chopra claims, I will NEVER pay attention to it and seriously investigate the claim as whether it could be realistic. Everything he’s said is such nonsense that it’s a waste of time and energy to devote to it.

It’s an extreme example of Chopra (and not used in the episode), but it becomes a problem when you realize that there could always be a tiny chance that the “armchair scientist” who doesn’t follow mainstream processes, doesn’t publish, doesn’t talk with people except paranormal radio hosts, etc., might stumble across a real thing. But because they have followed the general path and methods that most of us dismiss as pseudoscience, they won’t even be taken seriously.

Anyway, this is a lot longer than I intended to devote to each show, so let’s move on.

The Ottawa Skeptics’ “The Reality Check”— I was on Episode 363 where we discussed New Horizons, facts and fiction. For this and the next two, I gave a disclaimer at the beginning due to my position on the New Horizons science team. This was my third appearance on the show, and it was completely unscripted (except the disclaimer) on my end. The hosts peppered me with a few questions, some just about the mission and data itself, and others were about some of the pseudoscience and conspiracies that any regular readers here are well familiar with by now. Several questions were sent in by listeners.

Mike Bohler’s “A Skeptic’s Guide to Conspiracy”— Episode 56 was mine for this show, the first time I’d been on, though Mike has mentioned my work frequently in the past on his show. We discussed New Horizons again, though Mike took a completely different approach. His questions brought the discussion through from the beginning: What did we know about the Pluto system before, how did we know it, what was New Horizons designed to find out and how, ad what is it finding out? And then in contrast to that, how does some of the pseudoscience not fit in and why? It was enjoyable – and long – and very little material overlapped “The Reality Check” episode.

Karl Mamer’s “The Conspiracy Skeptic”— Doing my annual contractual duty as Astronomer Royale, I was on Karl’s show for about an hour. Note that the link is just to his website, which last I checked was not updated with this year’s episodes, so you’ll probably need to go to his RSS feed to get the episode. On the show we also discussed New Horizons and conspiracies related to it, but again, I don’t think there was much overlap of material between it and the other two interviews about the mission. Karl’s interviews tend to focus (at least with me) less on specifics and more on the gestalt of the claims and common themes of the claims and common mistakes in reasoning that lead to those pseudoscientific claims. It was on Karl’s show (that came out after Mike’s but was recorded before his) that I came up with the epiphany that I don’t think most of the claims I’ve addressed related to New Horizons were even “necessary” to the overall idea. Rather, I think for most, the person had the pseudoscience already in their mind, and the New Horizons mission just gave hem a jumping off point from which to take that conspiracy and run with it, just tailored to Pluto.

Upcoming Shows

On Sunday, September 27, live from noon until 1:30PM PDT (3-4:30 EDT), I will be on “The Space Show.” I think we will be talking about my science work (my real job).

The first weekend of October, I will be interviewed by “The Haunted Skeptic” who has a very nascent podcast which also airs on Art Bell’s network. I was put in touch with the host (Amy) through – oddly enough – the producer for Richard Hoagland’s radio program. I’m not sure what we’ll be talking about yet.

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.

August 16, 2015

#NewHorizons #PlutoFlyby – The Pseudoscience Flows #9 — Young-Earth Creationist Take, Part 2


Terry Hurlbut Advocating Walter Brown’s Hydroplate Nonsense

In my Part 1 of this lengthy series of probably 11 posts, I talked about the machinations of Terry Hurlbut, one of the primary editors of Conservapedia and (I think) the founder of the incredibly ad-rich Conservative News and Views website that espouses über-right wing ideals and young-Earth creationism. He said that Pluto is red therefore it’s rusty therefore it formed from material ejected from Earth during Noah’s Flood.

In a follow-up post, Terry followed the same protocol as before, grabbing onto one tiny finding, saying it’s impossible to explain with modern science, therefore Pluto was launched from Earth during the Flood.

In this case, the finding was carbon monoxide (CO) ice, found in the “heart” area now informally known as Tombaugh Regio. Terry explains this by saying that during the Flood, Pluto and Charon formed by material ejected from Earth, which heated as they contracted, burning the plant matter that was also ejected. The gases released from the burning plants included CO, which fell as “rain” onto the surface of Pluto in what he claims is a basin that is now Tombaugh Regio.

Okay, I know I try to avoid ad hominem attacks on this blog, but I had to fight my brain to type that last paragraph. It’s so ridiculous, that unless one actually is familiar with Terry’s writings on his own sites and elsewhere, one would think it’s a really bad Poe or Onion article.

Terry tries to emphasize in his article that neither NASA, SwRI, nor JHU/APL (the three institutions involved in the mission) have tried to explain the CO ice. Therefore, we don’t know now and therefore Terry’s idea is the only one out there.

The thing is, we don’t have all the data taken yet. The data we do have is lossy-compressed. And scientists by their nature are very cautious about publishing hypotheses about something without doing a lot of tests of those hypotheses. AND within the mission itself, there’s the situation that it’s better to put out obvious findings now and save the possible interpretations later once we have more time to look at the better data and talk with more people and amongst ourselves.

Put in that context, it’s perfectly reasonable to expect that NASA would put out the press release about unambiguous findings of concentrations in one area of Pluto of CO (as in we found it, it’s in ice form, and it’s concentrated in one particular area) and have that be the press release, rather than add unnecessarily to it several possible models to explain it but “more data are needed, stay tuned several months until we get that data to test it.” That’s kinda a downer to close out a press release.

Institute for Creation Research Advocating Pluto’s a Comet

In a perhaps more mainstream young-Earth creationist venue, the Institute for Creation Research also has a take on the New Horizons mission. Jake Hebert wrote their article, “New Horizons, Pluto, and the Age of the Solar System.” It is a fascinating read if one looks at it from the standpoint of starting with one topic and twisting it into something completely different to argue against in a no less wrong way than most other creationist writings.

Here’s the train of thought:

  1. New Horizons went to Pluto.
  2. Secular scientists are going to tell a materialistic story without a deity about it but aren’t saying that so’s to avoid offending the taxpayer.
  3. That means we don’t understand how the solar system formed.
  4. New Horizons will yield information about Kuiper Belt Objects.
  5. These are comets.
  6. Insert everything that creationists have written about comets over the years that they think shows comets prove the universe (or at least the solar system) is less than 6000 years old.

Not only is it a strawman argument on their part, but by equating Pluto with comets means not only that everything THEY have written about comets over the years applies, but also everything that scientists – such as myself – have also written that thoroughly debunks their arguments applies.

For a taste of these, I refer you to my blog (post 1, post 2, or post 3) and/or my podcast (episode 3). Rehashing all those ideas here is gratuitous and a waste of space. And, there’s a reason why those are some of my earliest blog post and earliest podcast episode: They’re simple to debunk.

Answers in Genesis Telling You Half-, Leading Truths

Finally, another of the Big Three creationist institutions is Ken Ham’s Answers in Genesis. Danny Faulkner wrote their article on New Horizons, “Pluto’s Surface Is Young!”

Sigh.

Here is the first argument that Danny is making: Pluto has relatively few craters, therefore it must be young:

[S]cientists have found far fewer craters than they expected. […] Being far from the sun, Pluto ought to be very cold and hence not have experienced recent volcanism. Any primordial heat would have long ago dissipated, if the solar system were 4.5 billion years old. [… T]here ought not to be any significant geological activity sufficient to remove craters on Pluto’s surface. Compounding this problem for a 4.5-billion-year age for the solar system is the fact that Pluto is located in a particularly crowded part of the solar system. […] Therefore, Pluto ought to be undergoing impacts today at a higher rate than most other objects in other portions of the solar system. Planetary scientists who are committed to belief in a 4.5-billion-year-old solar system are at a complete loss to explain the lack of craters on Pluto.

Part of this is exactly the same argument (at least in part) that I debunked here, in my post about Venus, several years ago: “Venus and the Battle of Uniformitarianism (A Creationist Argument).”

First, Pluto does not have ZERO craters. It has many; it’s just Tombaugh Regio that has no unambiguous craters in the region that we’ve seen with the lossy JPG artifacting covering it. That means it likely has no craters >10 km in diameter, meaning it could still have plenty that are smaller.

Second, the whole way we get our crater chronology starts from the moon (which Danny acknowledges, and he actually gives a reasonable overview of the subject). We do see heavily cratered areas of Pluto. So if we see some areas that have a huge number of craters relative to other areas, it just means that the one with few craters (or maybe none) is much younger. How much younger, though? If Danny wants to say that the heavily cratered areas are 6000 years old, does that mean that the “heart” region of Pluto was created yesterday? Again — see the Venus blog post.

To bypass some more of the quote and get to the last statement, this is common among creationists: God of the Gaps. Set up a scenario and say someone can’t explain something and then say GodDidIt. Except, we have plenty of ideas of why there may be no craters over some parts. One of the main ones has to do with the second argument (in three paragraphs): The atmosphere. It’s tiny, but it cycles. Pluto is tilted almost like Uranus, except more. So for 124 years we have one pole facing the sun, and for 124 years the other. During this time, it’s likely that the ices on the surface near the sunward pole sublimate (turn from solid to gas) and some get deposited on the pole that’s in night. This gives you a “surface” that is literally no more than a hundred years old.

In fact, going into this, I was warned that several models predicted that there may be very few craters on Pluto simply because of this process, of not only ices being deposited as many, many layers of frost, but also because when they sublimate, they are removing that surface that had been cratered! So some predictions going in were that Pluto may have a few very large, shallow craters, but nothing else. Obviously that’s not the case, Pluto is more interesting, but to say that we “are at a complete loss to explain the lack [not!] of craters on Pluto” is bullocks.

Here is the second argument that Danny made: Pluto is outgassing nitrogen, and therefore it’s young because it is a body of finite size and because there should be some activity that releases the nitrogen.

Yes, Pluto was found to be outgassing molecular nitrogen gas. Though “outgassing” is the wrong word here — perhaps an honest mistake, but it’s wrong nonetheless. It’s that nitrogen gas is escaping from the surface, not being outgassed from below the surface (that we know of). So this is a classic creationist argument: Take the current rate for something, multiply it by 4.5 billion years, and claim it’s impossible. They do that with Earth’s moon. But in this case, Danny didn’t even do that simple math, even if it is wrong (the current rate may not be what it was in the past). 500 tons per hour means very roughly 2*1019 kg over 4.5 billion years. Pluto is 1.3*1022 kg. That means it would have lost a mere 0.15% of its mass due to nitrogen escaping over 4.5 billion years if the current rate has been the rate for 4.5 billion years.

Not a problem.

The third argument has to do with the very tall, 3.3 km high mountains observed on Pluto, where Danny argues that if Pluto is warm enough to have geologic activity to account for those first two things, it can’t be cold enough to support ice mountains.

The mountains are interesting. I don’t even remember if there are solid ideas yet in the team as to how they may have formed, but this is yet another example where scientists look for something to explain an observation, and creationists leap to GodDidIt. Regardless, though, both of the prior two arguments can be explained at least in part by atmospheric processes rather than geologic, therefore this is moot.

Finally, he argues that Charon has fewer craters than expected, and a large chasm, therefore it’s young, too.

Problem if we take this approach: How can Charon be older than Pluto? If we’re using the metric of craters (and incorrectly per the standard young-Earth creationist), and Charon has more than Pluto, then Pluto is even younger than 6000 years old, right? What is he trying to say here, that Pluto formed a few minutes before Clyde Tombaugh discovered it?

I’m also not quite sure where he’s getting that Charon has fewer craters than expected. I don’t remember this being discussed, but it’s possible I missed it. A lot of the issue for Charon (and Pluto, for that matter) is our ability to identify craters in these images. Most imaging is with the sun almost directly overhead. Meaning we can’t pick out craters very easily. Especially when all we have is lossy, JPG-compressed images. Think of photographing the full moon of Earth and then compressing it to 100 kb to send to your grandmother who’s running Windows 95 with a 56k modem. Not easy.

Charon probably has more craters than Pluto (no atmosphere). But our ability to find them right now is significantly hindered. That in mind, I’ve already identified a few hundred. Same on Pluto.

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