Exposing PseudoAstronomy

August 23, 2016

Yeah … So, About NASA Saying All Research Funded By It Will Be Online, Free …


Intro

This story has been making the round quite a bit over the last five days. You can find it on various news sites, but here’s the actual press release: NASA Unveils New Public Web Portal for Research Results

Seems great, right? All federally funded research results will be made available for free. As I think it should be. The problem is that this press release is not only short on details, it lacks any and all details for those of us who carry out that research. Before getting to what I mean here, I need to give you five pieces of background information.

Background

1) I, personally, am an outlier in my field where I believe that not only the results, but the raw data that most people normally would not release should be made available to anyone who asks. I’ve posted about this before on this blog. I also have a very strong track record of doing so, so I don’t just “talk the talk” on this issue. So, as you read this, don’t think that I’m against the new policy.

2) As of 2013, the US Executive Branch’s OMB (Office of Management and Budget) directed all federal agencies to make the research they fund publicly accessible, for free. As in, the public has already paid for it once, they shouldn’t have to pay for it twice. So any policy like this is not just magnanimous of a particular federal agency, it’s been mandated by the Office of the President.

3) As of 2015, NASA started to comply with this in terms of data gathered, computer code written, and other things that researchers do to get the results that they publish. All of that stuff has to be released. And you have to detail how this will be done and how you comply with the mandate in what is called a “Data Management Plan” (DMP). In 2016, instead of this being a paragraph on the cover sheet of your proposal, it’s now a 2-page requirement except for some specific programs. I just applied to one and here’s my DMP so you can see what it’s like:

After the database is complete and validated, it will be released to the community in six formats on four distribution sites: (1) The PDS’s Imaging and Cartography Node in PDS4 format; (2) Lunaserv as a layer file which will make it available to any WMS-enabled software (e.g., JMARS, ArcGIS); (3) JMoon/JMARS in their own layer file format; (4) and on the PI’s own established website (http://craters.sjrdesign.net) as a searchable form and in PDS4, CSV ASCII, and GIS shapefile. Finally, there will be one peer-reviewed publication “announcing” the database, describing what it contains, and how it was built for referencing and to further publicize the database. Letters of support for the first three are included in this proposal.

These fit the PDART requirement for archiving independence, sustainability, open availability, searchability, citability, standards-compliant for the sub-field (preeminence), and standard format (standardization), for we are including the default PDS as our primary distribution. The additional venues and formats increase the availability to the community. Because the only code we will use are generic algorithms not developed under PDART, the code will not be archived (verified with PDART program officer, Sarah Noble, June 27, 2016), but it will be described in our publication.

4) NASA is already one of the most open federal agencies about their data. All spacecraft data is made available, for free, PDS. It might be a bit difficult to navigate, but there is literally terabytes of data there, all for free, for you to download and work with. I rely on it for most of my research.

5) Other fields and federal agencies already do what the latest NASA press release says, and it’s been in place for a long time. The issue in part is that journals we publish in have monopolies on the field, and they charge us to publish and then you to read. Win-win for them. The NIH (National Institutes of Health) have a policy that all research papers have to be made available, for free, to the public, through “PubMed,” but they let the journals have a one-year proprietary period.

Implementation?

With that all said and out of the way, what the heck does this latest press release mean?! The scientists (like me) have not had any clarification or any information about this. Does this mean NASA has worked out a deal (like the NIH has) with journals? Do I need to remember 1+ year after publication to submit to NASA’s website for this, or will it be done automatically? Does this only apply to new grants (since it’s not in my contract with NASA to do it for ones that I already have funded)? Will it apply retroactively? What about past research that’s been published for decades? Does this require the “Open Access” publication option for journals, which can cost upwards of $3000 that I need to include in my budgets?

And, why does NASA’s portal for this go through the NIH?!?! (the website they link to for this is https://www.nihms.nih.gov/db/sub.cgi)

And those are just the questions I thought of within a few minutes of reading the press release.

So, let me repeat, so that there is no ambiguity here: I’m all for this. I don’t like that the journals have a monopoly and it’s pay to publish and pay to read and legally I can’t even give you a PDF copy of the paper I wrote but published with them. I also think that all the data we generate should be made public, and the public should have access to the results.

But, this is like a … scratch that, it pretty much IS a mandate by press release with no information on to what it applies, to whom it applies, nor how it applies. Until then, that’s really all this is: A press release.

August 18, 2016

Has Yahoo! Finally Hit Rock Bottom, with Horoscopes in its Science Feed?


Jerry Coyne reports today that Yahoo!’s science news feed is reporting on astrology. Not that it’s Taurus excrement, but an article with the headline, “Tonight’s full moon and upcoming lunar eclipse are going to bring about some CHANGE” is full of astrological bull crap.

Not only that, but the picture they use is of an annular solar eclipse. Notice that a “solar eclipse” does not equal a “lunar eclipse.” An annular solar eclipse is when the moon is near apogee (farthest point from Earth) so it appears smaller than the sun’s disk and therefore cannot completely cover it, leaving a ring of solar illumination around it.

Not only that, but the “eclipse” this month is not a lunar eclipse at all, and the one next month is a penumbral eclipse — unless you have a camera and are very carefully looking at the brightness, you will not notice any change.

Fortunately, the vast majority of the 250+ comments (as of the time of this writing) take Yahoo! to task over this.

Though I will let an astrologer have the last word. To the currently highest-rated comment, by “Tia” with 104 up-votes and two down-votes, and 15 replies, “gypsyshookar” (which I originally read as “gypsyhooker”) wrote:

“While I agree with you, as a very experienced and certified astrologer, we have it on our own authority that this qualifies astrologically as an eclipse with eclipse effects. However, it is NOT astronomy which focuses mainly on the observable physical phenomena of rocks in space. Astrology, on the other hand, is based on the observable correlation of life and events on Earth with the placement of the planets. FYI, astronomy is based on the earlier astrology and not the other way around. And before you pooh-pooh astrology, I suggest you take a course in it from an accredited astrologer such as myself, whose name is followed by something like BA,MCL, or better yet PhD. When scorned by a colleague for his belief in astrology, Sir Isaac Newton replied: “I have studied it, Sir. You have NOT.””

May 2, 2016

On the (In)Ability of Scientists to Give Good Public Talks


When I was an undergraduate student at Case Western Reserve University, the now-more-famous physicist Lawrence Krauss was head of the Physics department. Somehow, he managed to arrange a panel of about six Nobel Prize Winners (probably in physics) to give a panel discussion. I don’t even remember the topic.

What I do remember was my expectation going in and my reality coming out.

My expectation going in was extreme excitement, getting to sit in an auditorium and listen to these men (sorry ladies, it was all men) who pretty much literally had done the research that was recognized as being ground-breaking and reached the top of their field.

I came out thinking that it sucked.

Not a-one of those guys could give a coherent discussion or answer to questions, or do it in a way that was engaging to us in the audience. It was horribly disappointing. (And if one or two of them could, unfortunately that memory has been erased by those who could not.)

Right now, I’m listening to a radio program from April 08 where Will Farrar and Richard Hoagland discussed – in particular to this post – a talk that Chris Russell gave a talk during Space Science Week in Washington, D.C., just a day or so earlier.

Dr. Chris Russell is the PI (the head science-and-everything-else guy) in charge of NASA’s Dawn mission to Vesta and Ceres.

In particular, Will remarked that he was unimpressed with Dr. Russell’s talk, that practically every-other-word was “um” or “uh,” and he was not alone in thinking this. Richard Hoagland posited that this was because he was choosing his words carefully — in effect, to make sure he wouldn’t be giving away any of the NASA secrets like city ruins on these bodies.

Or, Dr. Russell just isn’t a good public speaker. And I’ll say it: I have been to two lectures that Dr. Russell has given. I would not elect to go to a third. What Will noticed is par for the course, in my experience, for Dr. Russell’s talks.

I’m reminded of a saying that we like to use in skepticism: Don’t attribute to conspiracy what can easily be contributed to incompetence. (One of the examples most often used is the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the US illustrating government incompetence rather than a ridiculously high level of competence to carry out such a coordinated, secret attack.)

I’m not saying that Dr. Russell is incompetent – far from it, for he is a wildly successful scientist – but a good, engaging public speaker, he is not. It has nothing to do with a vast conspiracy to hide The Truth, it’s just that public speaking is a completely different skill set from being able to do good science, and not every scientist is a good public speaker.

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 6, 2016

Ever Heard of the EQ Peg Hoax?


Today, despite being sick since Friday, I finally finished a massive project of mapping about 48,000 impact craters on a region of Mercury for a mapping project that I’m a Co-I (co-investigator) on. Because a lot of what I do involves pretty much literally drawing circles, I listen to a lot of audio, and I recently began digging in my unlistened Coast to Coast AM archives.

I found from late 1998 the curious case of a claimed intelligent signal from the star EQ Peg, which is around 20 light-years away. Surprisingly, this was first promoted by the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation). Richard Hoagland was a proponent of it on the show, and even when it was determined to be a hoax, and the astronomer whose name was used was on the show saying someone used his name without his knowledge, Richard continued to promote some sort of conspiracy surrounding it. As did others, but they weren’t interviewed on C2CAM.

I was in high school when this all happened, and I never ever heard of it before a few days ago. I’m curious if any of you who may be a bit older than I remember it. I think it is probably worth putting in the queue for a podcast episode in the future.

As another interesting tidbit during this saga (I listened to about 7 hours of Richard talking about this across the month of November 1998), I found it interesting that Richard repeated a couple times that it’s “okay” to be wrong, just so long as you’re right more often than wrong. Yeah … that might be a separate blog post. I’ll just say for the sake of this four-paragraph’er that there comes a point where there’s right, versus wrong, versus wrong but thinking you’re right because you don’t know what you’re doing and you have a severe case of Confirmation Bias-itus.

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.

August 20, 2015

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


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

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

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

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

July 26, 2015

#NewHorizons #PlutoFlyby – The Pseudoscience Flows #8: Where Are the High-Res Pictures?


This will be another short post, but it’ll hopefully tide you over while I’m home for 3.5 days before headed back to Maryland for a New Horizons Science Team Meeting. First off, you should read my Part 6 post about how the data are being downloaded from the New Horizons probe to Earth.

With that said, Richard Hoagland has moved up in the world and has his own radio program on Art Bell’s network. Richard gets 10 hours per week (2 hrs per week night). I finally figured out my recording software and so was listening today to his Friday night / Saturday morning broadcast where he had on his significant other (Robin Falkov) and amateur image processor and image anomaly = intelligent artifact finder Keith Laney. But that’s somewhat beside the point, for this is the pseudoscience for this post:

  1. Richard Hoagland thinks that if he were managing the mission and the the probe might die tomorrow, he would send back the best pixel scale images first.
  2. Therefore, we must have done that.
  3. But, they are not being released.
  4. Therefore, “NASA” is hiding these 70-80 meter per pixel images because “NASA” is trying to figure out what all the buildings mean.

Spot anything wrong with that line of reasoning? How about steps 1 and 2, the basic premise.

Richard Hoagland is wrong.

From a fundamental standpoint, besides everything I wrote in that part 6 blog post. If you’re in charge of the mission, and you fear there is a small possibility that your probe might die, you would want to bring down the most representative data, and the data that will tell you the most about different things across the body rather than a tiny less-than-one-percent-of-the-surface-area image that would itself take many hours to downlink without lossy compression.

And – ¡gasp! – that’s what we did! We brought down images that give us the broadest possible view, and we brought down data from the other instruments that do the same. Remember: New Horizons doesn’t just have a black-and-white camera. It has seven other science instruments!

Besides that, more organizationally and methodically, there are literally hundreds of individual science questions/goals that we had for New Horizons’ data to answer. Every single observation made was linked to one or more of those goals. And, those goals were prioritized not only into four main tiers*, but within each tier they were prioritized, as well. Each was audited multiple times by many different mission scientists and very carefully worded and planned. And — guess what! — 70-80 m/px images of a tiny area of Pluto are not in the Tier 1 goals. So, when you want to prioritize your data downlink during that crucial few-days period after the closest approach, you’re going to bring down the data to answer the most Tier 1 goals/questions.

So … yeah. Richard is wrong in his conspiracy because his assumptions are wrong which he assumes are correct. Put another way: Richard thinks something, which (to him) makes it fact, and then he makes conclusions of conspiracy based on that “fact.” But his basic thinks is wrong, therefore everything else that came after that thinks is wrong.

*This is why after the “anomaly” during the July 4 weekend, the announcement was made that “No Tier 1 goals will be affected.” That’s because the data that would have been taken during those few days were not crucial to any of those goals/questions. One observation, for example, was a “family portrait” that would be the last time New Horizons could fit the entire system in a LORRI field of view. That was more for public outreach, so it was a 3.9.x goal, but it also would have helped determine orbits of outer satellites which means it doubled as a tier 2 goal.

July 14, 2015

#NewHorizons – The Pseudoscience Flows, Part 2


“Of course, I have no proof of this …”

Thus just said Keith Laney on Richard C. Hoagland’s internet radio program on Art Bell’s Dark Matter radio network. He was shocked an hour ago at the incredible details being revealed in the publicly released images this morning. Then, about 10 minutes ago, we had a NASA guy come into our geology room and tell us that we were so popular that we crashed NASA’s website. I knew that it was a matter of moments before the conspiracy folks would spin something.

And so, they did: NASA was releasing such good stuff and such “revealing” images of Pluto (despite them being lossy JPGs of lossy JPGs — the lossless version of this image will be downloaded probably the first week of August), that their website was shut down by Those In Control.

Sigh.

Also, two misconceptions: Richard spent quite a bit of time complaining and being mystified that there was no live radio signal from the craft. New Horizons has one moving part, the door to the Alice instrument. That’s it. Other craft usually have a science platform that can be rotated. New Horizons doesn’t. So we can either take data of Pluto and its system, or talk to Earth. Guess which we’re going to do when we’re closest?

It was another moment of arrogance, actually, on Richard’s part. He was astounded that no news media were asking this question during the NASA press conference. He remarked that the reason that HE thought of the question as opposed to the news media was that he has a lot more experience in this sort of thing. No … it’s because they know how to read Wikipedia.

The other misconception is not just Richard’s but is being played across many different media: The signal tonight is a “phone home” of the spacecraft health. Data won’t be until many, many hours later.

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