Exposing PseudoAstronomy

October 4, 2016

Podcast Episode 149: Modern Flat-Earth Thought, Part 2 (U.N. Flag and Airplane Flights)

“Modern Flat Earth Thought”
On maps, flags, and airplane flights …
Does it make sense? No.

Back to the flat Earth, this time discussing map projections and the United Nations flag, and then how some flat Earth proponents use and abuse airplane flight paths to argue that the planet is flat and looks just like the United Nations flag. I want to thank Michael R. (@SkepticalBelg on Twitter) for for reviewing and making several corrections to my text on how the airline industry works.

This was a particularly long episode, nearly a full hour. I also recorded this in a hotel room, and it sounds like I was too close to the microphone and at an angle at times and the room echoed, so my apologies for the audio quality in this episode. It was still better than the audio in the last episode, which was recorded on a phone outside, but it’s not perfect.

There are three additional short segments in this episode, the first being logical fallacies (detailing the argument against antiquity), second being feedback (the correction(s) from Episode 147), and the announcement to thank Michael.

Flat Earth Graphic

Flat Earth Graphic

September 5, 2016

Podcast Episode 145: Modern Flat Earth “Thought,” Part 1

“Modern Flat Earth Thought”
Might be a contradiction
Of terms, but let’s see!

Back from hiatus, a roughly 45-minute episode on a few ideas promoted by the very new (since about 2014) breed of flat-Earth proponents. I go into depth on human perception and then focus on both Earth’s curvature and the overall shape of the planet. This Part 1 exclusively features clips from Eric Dubay, but future episodes will include other luminaries in the movement.

There are three other segments beyond the main one: Logical Fallacy (focusing on the False Dichotomy), Feedback (from James F. related to the Ringmakers of Saturn by Norman Bergrun), and a brief announcement.

For those returning listeners, thank you for sticking with the podcast through the very long hiatus. For those new listeners, thanks for checking it out.

I hope that you enjoy this episode.

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.

January 16, 2013

Podcast Episode 61: Special Pleading with Large Impacts

A complaint I’ve heard is that the invoking of giant asteroid impacts to explain some odd solar system features (Venus upside-down, Uranus on its side, etc.) is just special pleading and as crazy if not more so than the pseudoscience ideas, like Velikovsky. While I obviously have my own opinion about Velikovsky in particular, I wanted to take an episode to talk about why giant impacts are used to explain some things, and whether we have a real reason to do so or if it’s just our own way of making stuff up.

There isn’t a new puzzler, though the one from last episode – send in your favorite planetary pareidolia – is still going on.

September 26, 2012

What’s a Skeptic?

This short post is meant to be a bit interactive, at least through the comments. The subject is, what is a skeptic?

I use the term to describe myself: I’m a skeptic. Or, perhaps just like the PC term being that someone “has schizophrenia” versus “are schizophrenic,” I am skeptical. I would put forward that a good scientist is skeptical, and that anyone who is a critical thinker is skeptical.

But people like Alex Tsakiris, George Noory, Mike Bara, and others whom scientists would generally term “pseudoscientists” also say that they themselves are skeptical, and that people like me are “close-minded skeptics/debunkers.” Meanwhile, people like Michael Horn claim that “skepticism” is a religion.

I could go through lengthy etymology and modern usage that might make an English major or a language scholar swoon, but no one else, really. Instead, this is how I define the term, and why I think that people such as those whom I term “pseudoscientists” are anything but skeptical:

To be skeptical means to reserve judgement on the veracity of a new claim that is different from what has been previously established. The established idea is effectively the null hypothesis — the idea that will stand if the new one is shown to not have enough supporting evidence. The evidence for the new claim must be evaluated on its own merits, and if valid, it must be weighed against the evidence for the established idea. To be accepted, the new idea must have at least as much evidence for it as the old claim, and it should also explain why the evidence in support of the old claim is faulty and/or be evidence for the new claim just as well. Any idea that’s rejected is always subject to re-analysis upon submission of additional data.

So, for example, if someone makes a claim that — oh, I dunno — there’s a kilometer-sized ziggurat on the Moon, that’s the new claim. The null hypothesis is that there is no ziggurat on the Moon. There are many different lines of argument that support the null hypothesis (no one to build it, no astronaut talking about it, no other photographs showing it), while there is one photo circulating the internet that is the evidence for it. When examining that individual photograph, many anomalies come up that indicate it is more likely than not that the ziggurat in that one image is fake. With doubts as to the authenticity of the single image with the ziggurat, the evidence for it is very small, and it is completely overshadowed by the evidence for the null hypothesis.

Ergo, as someone who is skeptical, I adopt the position that there is no ziggurat, though that position is always subject to revision based on new data.

As another example, one could take astrology. The null hypothesis is that astrology does not work, and there is no known physical mechanism that would allow it to work. Evidence that people have put forward for astrology working is, in sum and substance, anecdotal (“I got a reading and it was accurate!”). In fact, I saw an astrologer recently argue that because more people believe in astrology than any one religion, and since Americans spend $hundreds of millions of dollars on astrology per year, that it’s real. Meanwhile, every large, controlled experiment that has tried to test the validity of astrological predictions has shown a negative result.

Ergo, as someone who is skeptical, I adopt the position that astrology does not make accurate, specific predictions, though that position is always subject to revision based on new data.

As a scientist, I operate the same way. When I write a paper, I have to provide evidence to support my conclusions. If my conclusions contradict previous work, I have to go through the evidence that others have used to support their conclusions and show that it was wrong, wrongly interpreted, and/or can support my conclusions just as well. If I can’t do this, then no one is going to believe me over the established results that do have evidence.

Anyway, these are my musings on the subject. The idea for this post came while listening to yet another pseudoscientist (who shall remain nameless …) claim to a large audience, “Hey, I’m a true skeptic – not like those debunkers – and that’s why I can openly look at the evidence for [paranormal claim] and accept it!”

What are your thoughts? Do you agree, disagree, and why?

April 25, 2012

Argument from Authority Strikes Again at Creation Ministries International

Just a short post here – it always amazes me when people use such an obvious argument from authority to try to bolster their position. I mean, it’s not as if we don’t do it, either, or people don’t do it every day. Any time the local news brings on their talking-head expert to talk about something, that’s an argument from authority. If that expert is effectively reciting the consensus, then it’s not an argument from authority as much, that talking head was just a mouthpiece for the consensus (see my post on argument from authority vs. the scientific consensus).

But then we get into stuff that’s a controversy – either real or manufactured. Young-Earth creationism is definitely a controversy versus the scientific establishment, though I would consider it in the realm of the “manufactured” type because almost none who objectively examine observable evidence will come to the YEC side — by its nature, as I’ve pointed out many times on this blog before, YEC relies on ignoring evidence to make its case.

Anyway, in my nightly perusal of creationist websites, I came across the latest posting Creation Ministries International (CMI): “Archaeologist confirms creation and the Bible.”

I’m not really sure how you could get around the idea that the title of the article (and its content if you bother to read it) is 100% an argument from authority. It’s literally a, “Look, we have this archaeologist we can trot forward (or actually not anymore ’cause he died on April 4), and our expert who’s in this real science field says young-Earth creationism is real!”

Okay, I’m a Ph.D. astronomer, I say young-Earth creationism is fake, and the universe is 13.7 billion years old. Unfortunately, if he and I were to both testify in front of Congress, I have a feeling that Congress would conclude that the Universe is 6.850003 billion years old (the average of the two).

This post was brought to you by the logical fallacies Argument from Authority, False Balance, and Middle Ground.

November 2, 2011

The Many Stars of the Heavens … Are Young?


In my unofficial rivalry with a high school student, it looks like I’m finally getting a post up before him about the latest from Brian Thomas and the Institute for Creation Research’s “Daily Science Updates.” Though it’s really an unfair challenge because he’s in a land Down Under and wakes up about the same time that these suckers go up on the ICR’s website. I’m supposed to be in bed.

This post today is about the IRC’s post, “New Study Can’t Explain Blue Stragglers’ Youth.”

About Stars

Stars are important. Perhaps that much should be obvious to everyone. In the current epoch of the universe, stars are what provide energy to allow some minor things like, say, life to exist. Stars are formed generally with a set amount of gases, and the vast majority of this gas is hydrogen. In the core of stars – roughly the inner 10% in a sun-like star – temperatures and pressures are high enough for fusion to occur which is what provides energy.

It also prevents the stars from collapsing. Stars are a balancing between outward pressure from heat and energy versus the collapsing force of gravity. Gravity compresses the gas until fusion begins and counters it. In small stars, there is less force of gravity, and so the pressures and temperatures are lower and fusion goes on more slowly. In large stars, there is a larger force from gravity, the pressures and temperatures are much higher, and fusion goes on at a much faster rate and over a larger portion of the star in order to prevent collapse.

This means that even though smaller stars – say, red dwarfs – are significantly lighter than the sun, they will be able to continue to fuse hydrogen for roughly 10 trillion years as opposed to the sun which has an estimated lifetime of 10 billion years.

Contrast that with the gigantic stars – blue supergiants – which are generally up to about 50 times the mass of the sun, and these will go through their nuclear fuel in roughly 10 million years. In each of these (red dwarfs, yellow dwarfs like the sun, blue supergiants), we’re dealing with a factor of one thousand difference in expected lifetime because of the different pace of fusion.

Blue Stragglers

Surrounding our galaxy, there are roughly 175 known groups of stars called globular clusters. These are tight groupings of many hundreds of thousands to millions of stars that generally all formed at once (astronomically speaking) and lack any interstellar material from which to form new stars. There are different ideas for how these originated – some think they were just clouds of gas that collapsed into dense clusters of stars, similar to open clusters, while others think they may be the cores of small dwarf galaxies that were consumed by our galaxy.

What’s known is that effectively every globular cluster surrounding our galaxy is very old, on the order of 10 billion years. In fact, before we had good models of stellar evolution, there was a disconnect in cosmology where we thought globular clusters were older than the universe (obviously that could not be true). It’s important to note in a post about this particular subject that these have since been reconciled both by better estimates for the universe’s age and better stellar models.

The point is that globulars around our galaxy are old (many around Andromeda are young, but this post is not about them). The problem is that most globular clusters contain a few blue supergiant stars known as “blue stragglers.” These are, well, blue supergiant stars. Given what I said above, these should not exist in an old star cluster because they should have exploded 10 billion minus 10 million years ago.

The same can be said about some open clusters in our galaxy, except that open clusters are usually young and they contain fewer members. Open clusters usually form within the plane of the galaxy, and over the course of a few hundred thousand to hundred million years, the member stars disperse due to interactions with other stars. So, most are young and most happily contain blue supergiant stars that are no problem for stellar evolution models.

There are a few exceptions, and one of them is discussed in the article that’s the subject of this post.

NGC 188 is well above the plane of the galaxy, so it has managed to stay together for about 7 billion years. All the members formed at about the same time, except that it contains some of those blue stragglers. So again, we have a question that needs answering: How do you get stars that are supposed to have lifetimes at 10 million years in a cluster that’s 7 billion years old?

Enter Brian Thomas and the Young-Earth Creationists to the Rescue!

Mr. Thomas’ article is responding to a recent Nature paper entitled, “A mass transfer origin for blue stragglers in NGC 188 as revealed by half-solar-mass companions.” With the wonders of the internet, you can read the paper yourself for free here (it’s short, but it’s pretty technical).

Now, to start off with, when I was an undergraduate just a very very few short years ago, because I’m not old, we were taught that the likely explanation for blue stragglers was that they were a second generation of stars within open clusters. These days, it appears as though the most promising explanations are either a collision between two stars that produces a massive enough result to make a blue supergiant, and/or a star in a close binary system that siphons off material from a companion to give it enough mass to turn into a blue supergiant.

This paper, in particular, that Thomas references was looking at the latter explanation. Through their observations, they have statistically ruled out the merger as the likely explanation and settle on mass transfer as the more likely of the two. They end their paper by saying mergers of triplets may happen, though. Remember: Clusters are dense and so binary and trinary systems are not uncommon.

The problem with this, according to Thomas, is:

“Nothing explains the many blue stragglers that are not binary stars and yet exist near and far throughout the universe. Could they have received recent “youthfulness” through collisions with other stars?”

I’m not actually sure where Thomas is coming from here. By definition, blue stragglers kinda need to be a member of a cluster of stars because otherwise they wouldn’t be blue stragglers. The reason we know they “shouldn’t” be so young is that we need a cluster that all formed at the same time from which to say, “Oh, every star in here formed at the same time, the bulk age is 5 billion years, therefore giant massive blue stars are out of place.” Perhaps Peter can provide context for this.

Moving forward to the next-to-last paragraph of the ICR article:

“So, isolated blue stars could not have received their young looks from a binary system, since by definition they have no binary from which to siphon fuel. They probably didn’t receive their youthful appearance from collisions, either, according to these results. And though the binary blue stragglers may have siphoned fuel from nearby partners, the idea that 12 of 16 only did so recently—after an imagined 7-billion-year wait—defies reasonable odds.”

At some point in skepticism and debunking, we simply have to ask, “Show your work/math.” Brian, show your math here. How did you calculate what are “reasonable odds?” We’re talking about a cluster with over 10,000 stars in a tightly confined space. Brian is presenting a specific, statistical claim. He needs to back it up with data before it’s even worth going into further.

It’s like me saying it’s mathematically impossible for 100 billion trees to exist on this planet. Okay, fine, but before anyone should accept that or take my word for it, they should demand to see evidence.

But, at least in that article (I see no link to “further math” nor “supplemental material”), he does not. Rather, the next sentence is “goddidit.” Err, sorry, it’s: “Thus, the best explanation is still the most straightforward one—blue straggler stars look young because they are young.” Yeah — what I said: “Goddidit.”

Edited to Add: Solstation.com has a nice illustration showing the two different models:

Missing the Forrest for the Tree

I find it interesting when young-Earth creationists use star ages to argue for a creation only a few thousand years ago. The whole “problem” with blue stragglers is that they are in a system that is otherwise dated to be several billion years old. And yet creationists don’t address that big, glaring contradiction to their “model.” Or in discussing supernovae and why there appear to be “too few” of them for the age of the galaxy (let alone universe), they miss the entire fact that supernovae occur at the end of a massive star’s death which takes at least 10 million (not thousand) years to happen.

Or that there exist neutron stars and black holes, which are the remnants from these explosions which would have again taken at least 10 million years to happen.

Or that there exist white dwarfs, which are the remnants from a sun-like star at the end of its life, and yet that takes several billion years to form.

At that point, for creationists, they must simply revert to God as Loki, the Norse trickster god. God made everything with the appearance of age to trick us. That’s not the kind of god that I think deserves to be worshiped. Nor, actually, do I quite understand why an omnipotent being has such a personality insecurity and low self-esteem to need to be worshiped. But I digress from astronomy here.

Final Thoughts

Why and how blue stragglers exist is an open question in modern astrophysics. It’s an interesting question, and it’s one that may not have a single answer. The latest paper seems to indicate that at least in this cluster, binary collisions are not the likely formation mechanism. It may be elsewhere. It could be trinary. It could be mass siphoning. We don’t know. But never should we revert to and replace “we don’t know” with “goddidit.” That simply stops science in its tracks and leaves willful ignorance in its wake.

September 26, 2011

Logical Fallacies: Argument from Persecution


Continuing my very old series on logical fallacies, this post is on the kind of fallacy that is not usually on most peoples’ top lists, but it’s one that fits in with a lot of the things I talk about on this blog. In general, it’s a form of the non sequitur, meaning that the argument doesn’t really have anything to do with the actual material being discussed; instead, it’s meant to play more on peoples’ emotions. As we all know from Spock on Star Trek emotions are not logical.

Basic Explanation

The argument from persecution is generally of the form, “My views are being persecuted, therefore they are correct.” Sometimes it has the post script, “After all, no one would put in this much effort to denounce my views if there weren’t something to them.” This addendum is effectively a “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire” fallacy.

Variant: The Galileo Argument

A special form of this type of fallacy is sometimes given its own name, “The Galileo Argument.” The idea stems from Galileo’s own persecution by the Catholic Church in the early 1600s, and the way it is invoked is often, “Everyone’s saying I’m wrong, but that’s what everyone said about Galileo, too!” The conclusion they want you to draw is that they are correct, just as Galileo was.

A very quick rebuttal to this, besides it being a logical fallacy, is that Galileo actually had solid observational data that anyone could easily employ to see that he was correct.

Example from Young-Earth Creationism

A decent, recent example from the YEC front comes from the Creation Ministries International article from September 21, 2011, entitled, “Heavyweights move to ban creation.” With subject headings such as “Desperate to quash dissent,” the CMI article has the general tone of one who is persecuted, though finding a proper, clear example explicitly within the article is somewhat difficult.

Instead, I direct you to the comments, where Patrick states, “Rejoice in persecution… the opposition will increase and the Lord will provide new openings. The enemy will be confounded, but those who seek the Lord will renew their strength.”

Or Victor: “It is indeed disingenuous on the part of BHA to quote “All children should be free to grow up in a world where they are allowed to question, doubt, think freely, and reach their own conclusions about what they believe” when this is exactly what they are suppressing in terms of questioning “Evolution[.]””

Final Thoughts

This is usually a fairly easy logical fallacy to pick out (though I will admit that my examples above are not as clear as I would like them to be), and many people beyond YECs use it. Another rather large class are UFOlogists, and they’re often the ones who like to add the hasty conclusion / where there’s smoke there’s fire to their claims.

September 1, 2011

Logical Fallacies: Argument from Authority versus the Scientific Consensus


I haven’t done a post in almost two years to add to my very incomplete series on logical fallacies and fallacious argument techniques. However, due to recent posts – especially in the comments section – on my blog, I thought this would be a good time to re-visit the specific and very common logical fallacy of the “argument from authority,” and I want to then contrast that against the “scientific consensus.” They are not the same thing.

In actuality, I have addressed this difference before, albeit it was in the very early days of my blog and I want to pull out more specific examples and be more explicit this time.

The Argument from Authority

The argument from authority is really a very simple logical fallacy to spot: Person A has seeming authority in some subject, therefore Person B needs to believe what they say.

An example from the Apollo Moon Hoax lexicon is that David Groves, Ph.D. (the authority) showed in a study that the radiation experienced by astronauts would have rendered their photographic film damaged beyond repair (exposed) so they could not have possibly taken the pictures that NASA claims. He has a Ph.D., therefore he’s right. Except, not. His study did not use the same camera, film, nor shielding that NASA did. He exposed the film to 1000 times the strength of radiation for 100x as long (effectively). Not exactly a valid experiment to demonstrate what is claimed.

Another example, courtesy of Answers in Genesis, is that they have a Ph.D. astrophysicist on staff, “Dr. Jason Lisle, Ph.D.” Yes, his Ph.D. is valid, was in the actual science field, and he graduated a year before I entered grad school from the same department I got my degree in. Does that make his creationist writings any more valid than a guy ranting on the street? No. Does that make his claims that the fact we can argue with logic means the Bible is true (yes, he does claim that)? No.

Or, to use a contrived example from my first post on this subject, I could make the claim that Dr. Crusher is an expert on human anatomy. The fallacy then goes that if I were to say to my friends that Dr. Crusher says the neck bone is connected to the foot bone, then it must be true because she’s an expert in that field. But, obviously this is not true. In other words, the validity of the claim does not follow from the credibility of the source.

Other Examples of Argument from Authority

Isaac Newton: One of my favorite examples of the argument from authority is that of Isaac Newton. By pretty much any account and all measures, Newton was the founder of modern physics and mathematics. He didn’t just codify calculus, gravity, and motion, but also optics. He truly is one of the most important people and most authoritative people in modern science. If anyone is an authority, he is.

But then, Newton was a fervent believer in alchemy. He thought that you could turn ordinary, cheap metals (for example) into more valuable ones like gold if you combined them with the right chemicals. He pursued this as much as he pursued figuring out why we have tides.

If Newton were alive today, I would likely believe anything he said about physics (at least classical physics). But alchemy? No. I’d call him out on that pseudoscience just as much as I call out Terry Nazon on her made-up astrology. It doesn’t matter if he is revered and respected — individual arguments from authority are a logical fallacy for a reason, and citing an individual who claims one thing that does not make sense given what we know about the universe is as bad an argument as “’cause I said so, that’s why!”

Dr. Richard B. Hoover, Ph.D. from NASA: First reported widely on FOX news in early March, 2011, Dr. Richard B. Hoover, “an astrobiologist with NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center,” found life on a meteorite. He published his findings in the “peer-reviewed” Journal of Cosmology. This was very quickly torn apart by most scientists in the field and in related fields where we (yes, I participated) pointed out that he was seeing pareidolia shapes in rocks, his findings were not verified nor replicable by his peers in the field, and that the Journal of Cosmology is one of the crackpot “journals” in astronomy.

JoC is a fringe journal at best. To quote PZ Myers, “it isn’t a real science journal at all, but is the ginned-up website of a small group of crank academics obsessed with the idea of Hoyle and Wickramasinghe that life originated in outer space and simply rained down on Earth.” In response to Hoover’s paper, it contacted the editors of Science and Nature to put together a panel of experts to evaluate the claims. Then it stated, “any refusal to cooperate, no matter what the excuse [will be] vindication for the Journal of Cosmology and the Hoover paper, and an acknowledgment that the editorial policies of the Journal of Cosmology are beyond reproach.” With that, they clearly cross into the tactics used by many pseudoscientists whereby either (a) they wear out the critics to the point the critics just don’t care anymore, or (b) the critics never cared enough in the first place to dignify the original challenge because it was so fringe to begin with.

With that said, the JoC’s editorial board is made of seven Ph.D.s, one who is the director of the center for astrobiology at Cardiff, one from NASA JPL, one who is the senior research scientist in the science directorate at NASA Langley, and another who is the head of the department of computer science at Oklahoma State University. Seems “highly qualified.” But, this is another example of a few who put together a journal being an argument from authority. I actually looked up one of the Ph.D.s because he is in my former department here at CU-Boulder. Looking further into him, there’s really nothing to find other than he’s emeritus faculty — basically retired but still hangs around. His personal website was last updated in 2001.

So we have another case where all because someone is a NASA scientist, all because someone is a department chair, all because someone is a center director, it does not mean that all of their claims can be taken as true.

Similarly, if you can convince a NASA scientist, an imaging professional, someone at the CDC, someone who runs the computers for a major NASA mission, or someone who builds spacecraft that your particular claim is true, that does not mean that everyone else needs to believe it.

My 8th Grade Science Teacher: We started out 8th grade science with going around the room and saying what our parents did for a living. The teacher then told us that he used to work in the local hospital. For some reason, that seemed to convey some authority at the time. In hindsight, I think he was trying to make himself feel good.

That authority quickly vanished during our astronomy unit when he explained to us that the moon was three times farther away from Earth than the sun, a kilometer is longer than a mile, and that to stop a space ship in space you shut off the engines and wait for it to wander near a planet and have the planet’s gravity slow you down. After some checking, his job at the local hospital turned out to be in security. Obviously, this was a case where a stated authority (working at a hospital) and a presumed authority (being the teacher) could not mask gross incompetence.

Scientific Consensus: NOT An Argument from Authority

In contrast, the scientific consensus is not an argument from authority. There are a couple of ways to think about this. The most basic and concise is that the scientific consensus is not based on an individual’s or small group’s credibility.

A more lengthy way to think about this is that the scientific community is convinced by evidence, not by individual charisma nor authority. I’ve said it many, many times before in this blog, and I’ve written at least a whole post on it, that contrary to seemingly popular opinion, scientists want to create new paradigms. They want to be able to convince their colleagues and detractors that they are correct. Upholding the status quo means you are guaranteed to be forgotten. And, the only way you are going to convince everyone that you are correct is to provide them with overwhelmingly convincing evidence and to show that your new model/idea explains all of the evidence that the previous one did at least as well, if not better.

Once this is done, the people who are experts in the field will be convinced. They can then go out and convince others in related fields that this is the actual way things work. Again — it’s not an authority, they are convincing people by the evidence. This process continues to trickle throughout the scientific community until there is a broad consensus on that issue.

By that point, what is a lay person to do? Should they trust Dr. Linus Pauling, a twice Nobel Laureate who claimed that high doses of Vitamin C basically prevented almost all illnesses and cured many diseases, including cancer? Or should they trust the scientific consensus – a group of tens of thousands of medical professionals who have read and been convinced by the research – that Pauling was deluded?

I’m not saying that you should trust the consensus view blindly. Try to understand it. Understand why the consensus is what it is. What is the evidence that has convinced everyone? At that point, if you still think they may be wrong, then figure out why the consensus view is not convinced by the evidence that you are. It is highly likely that you are misunderstanding something, not thousands of people who have spent their lives studying the issue.

The Scientific Consensus is Not Infallible

That all being said, scientists will usually be the first (as in, not the last) to admit that the consensus is fallible and that their views can be changed by the evidence. That is how new paradigms happen. Plate tectonic theory was laughed at for about two decades before overwhelming evidence for it was presented that changed the entire consensus opinion within just a few years. The same was true with the death of the dinosaurs — there were many different hypotheses out there but when the iridium layer was found at the K/T boundary and the crater was finally discovered off the Yucatan peninsula, the scientific consensus changed very rapidly in light of the evidence.

Certain scientific paradigms/consensuses (according to spell-check, that is the plural of “consensus” even though it sounds wrong, but who am I to argue with spell-check?) that we hold now could very likely change in the future. What is unlikely, though, is for them to change to something for which there is currently very convincing evidence that it is not the case. An example of this would be astrology – there is absolutely no mechanism for it to work, and all statistically robust studies show that it fails to produce results better than chance.

Final Thoughts

In the end, the argument from authority is quite an easy logical fallacy to spot. Differentiating it from the scientific consensus is not as easy, and understanding the difference between the fallacious argument from authority and the non-fallacious scientific consensus is even harder. Steve Novella has a post on this topic from about a year ago, and I recommend reading it if you’re still a bit confused about the difference.

What should also be re-emphasized is that you should never take anything on blind faith/authority. If you hear an argument from authority, investigate the claim. If you hear a scientific consensus that you disagree with, first understand the evidence that convinced the scientists, and then figure out why you disagree. If you think you have solid evidence to the contrary, it has not been shown to be wrong, and your model can explain all of the data that the currently accepted model does at least as well, then present it and try to convince them. But also be humble enough to realize that the evidence that convinces you, when it may be pointed out by people within that scientific community that it’s wrong, actually is probably wrong. At the very least, you should admit that people disagree with you and find faults because of [insert reason].

That’s what scientists do, too.

August 11, 2011

Propagating Science Versus Propagating Anti-Science

This post is more of a conversation with my reader(s), you. I was listening to an episode of the ID: The Future podcast (a pro-“Intelligent” Design production) today. The episode that was put out today is entitled, “Birds of a Feather: Darwinian Evolution Stumped by Novel Features.” While listening to the podcast, it was the standard: Casey Luskin (one of their lawyers and the most common host of the ‘cast) was complaining that, yet again, evolution somehow couldn’t answer a question he had; in this case, it was with bird feathers.

While listening to the ‘cast while drawing squiggly lines around craters in what qualifies as “work” for me these days, I found myself thinking, “Sigh, another episode bashing evolution.” (For those of you wondering, yes, I really do speak the word “sigh” to myself sometimes.)

And that got me thinking – and became the subject of this post: Many of the Cristian-style arguments I dissect on this blog (ID or YEC — that’s Intelligent Design or young-Earth creationism for those of you just joining) are simply arguments against science, and usually aimed at being against evolution even though they rarely have anything to do with evolution.

For example, here are the ten most recent original episodes from the ID: The Future podcast (least recent to most recent):

  • Discussing the New Exoplanet With Astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez
  • ID Scientist Douglas Axe Responds to His Critics
  • Evolutionary Biologist Richard Sternberg discusses modern genomics and junk DNA
  • Scientific Reasons to Reject an Atheistic Worldview
  • Discussion and commentary on publisher Failing to comply with Texas science standards
  • Recent articles confirm the thesis of Jonathan Wells’ The Myth of Junk DNA
  • Anders Behring Breivik Shows That Ideas Really Do Have Consequences
  • Threatening the Pharyngula–The Debate With PZ Myers on Evidence from Embryology
  • Pseudogenes Shrink Gaps for Theistic Darwinian Evolutionists Collins & Giberson
  • Birds of a Feather: Darwinian Evolution Stumped by Novel Features

First, I must say that if you look at the ‘cast episode list in iTunes or wherever, you will see other episodes. But, they are ALL repeats of earlier episodes from 1-4 years ago that I have weeded out of the list. I mean, come on, are they that lazy? They’ve had 10 original episodes since May and yet they post 3 episodes a week? But I digress …

Looking at the titles for these episodes, I see one episode that is pro-ID, one that is pseudo-legal, and eight that are anti-evolution (where “evolution” here is defined as they do, so I’m counting the astronomy episode because in it they argue Earth and the solar system and universe are ID’ed). In other words, the preponderance of the episodes are not advancing their cause, they are arguing against someone else’s. In this case, that “someone” else is the vast majority of the world’s scientists.

Let’s take a look at the Institute for Creation Research (ICR)’s last 10 news articles:

  • Evolutionary Paradox: Embryos Resist Tinkering
  • Laetoli Footprints Out of Step with Evolution
  • Evolution Delays Discovery of Dolphin Sensory Ability
  • More Evidence Neandertals Were Human
  • Did Natural Gas Take Millions of Years to Form?
  • Early Bird Gets the Boot: Researchers Reclassify Archaeopteryx
  • Origin of Cells Study Uses Bad Science
  • Water Near Edge of Universe Bolsters Creation Cosmology
  • Fluctuations Show Radioisotope Decay Is Unreliable
  • Messenger Spacecraft Confirms: Mercury Is Unique

By my count, we have only one post that promotes Christianity or creationism directly (and I talked about that one here in my post on “A Creationist Ramble About Water in Space”). All of them are anti-science.

Now, to be fair, some sources do have a slightly more “pro”-creationism bent than these two. Answers in Genesis is one of them (guess where they look for their answers to questions) where the last 10 articles are about half promoting their worldview, the other half arguing against the secular one. And, when I listen to the paranormal radio show Coast to Coast AM, it is almost all promoting of their view rather than anti-promoting science, though the guests will often spend maybe 5-10% of their time taking digs at the establishment (especially “Big Pharma,” scientists in their “Ivory Towers,” peer review, and those pesky things called “logic” and “evidence”).

But this got me to thinking that these other groups — the two I pointed out being the Discovery Institute and ICR — really don’t actually promote their worldview. They just try to dismantle science. In doing so, they seem to be hoping that you, the reader/listener, will accept their false dichotomy, accept their premise that science is wrong, and therefore embrace a god of the gaps and think that their view that they haven’t actually promoted in that article/’cast is true.

Now, before you go thinking that I’m a hypocrite, I don’t actually think I’m doing the same thing, even though the majority of my posts on this blog are anti-their anti-arguments. In my posts, I try to explain what the relevant science is, provide you with logic and evidence, and while I usually do tell you what you “should” take as the “truth” (even though science is never after and cannot give you Truth with a capital “T”), I will often tell you not to take my word for it but to do your own investigation by using independent evidence and logic. ♩Take a look, ♬it’s in a book, a ♪ … but I digress again.

Then again, one reason I started this blog is because I do like to spread edjumication around, and I think that one of the best ways to actually learn and remember something is by seeing where others get it wrong in an odd way. So for example, in my last post, I talked at length about Earth’s presently decaying magnetic field and how YECs use that to argue for a recently created world. I could have just written a short blog post about geomagnetic reversals, flux, and excursions, but Wikipedia has kinda already done that for me. Or, I could do what I did, which is present the basics of the science, show how people have used it incorrectly, and then you may find it a more interesting way of learning the information and remembering it a bit longer.

And thus, this is a conversation with you: What do you think? Do you think that this kind of writing that I do is the same as the anti-propaganda that the IDers and YECs use? Or is it different? Is either a valid argument? Let me know what you think in the Comments section!

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