Exposing PseudoAstronomy

April 1, 2015

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

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

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

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

The logical fallacy of the episode is the Straw Man.

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

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

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

March 14, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 5, 2015

Martian Ocean News: “Who Said it First?,” Press Releases, and Correct by Association


It’s a press office’s and officer’s job to make what they are writing about sound interesting, exciting, and get you to read it. That’s fairly undisputed. And, most press officers are not experts in the fields that they write press releases for. And, most of the people they talk to will tell them something, and the press officer will try to come up with an interesting angle that they think helps generate interest, often not realizing that they are changing the story.

One class of examples is when they spin something in such a way as to make it seem as though this is completely new, revolutionary, and never been done before. Even if it has. Many times. Over and over.

I speak, of course, of the news today from press release #15-032 that “NASA Research Suggests Mars Once Had More Water than Earth’s Arctic Ocean.”


I wrote about this phenomenon two years ago in the post, “How Astronomers Are, According to Popular Press, Constantly Discovering the Same Thing.”

I should have rephrased that title to indicate that it’s not just according to the popular press, but according to NASA’s own press releases.

And, that’s an issue, even forgetting all the pseudoscience and even implications for normal people: It minimizes the many scientists’ work before this that found the exact same thing.

Mars Ocean

Now, I don’t want to minimize the latest work. It found the same thing, but it was by a completely different method. Previous work looked at mineralogy of rocks, other work looked at morphology (the way things look) of geologic features, others looked at simple elevation and roughness, and others (such as my former thesis advisor, four years ago) looked at the elevation of deltas and showed they were very similar, all implying an ancient ocean.

The work announced earlier today instead looked at the chemistry of the atmosphere and based on the ratios of heavy water (extra neutron in one of the hydrogen atoms) to normal water, they determined that a whole lotta water had been lost to space because the heavier water stays behind, and Martian ices today are HUGELY enriched relative to other sources in the solar system.

But, as someone pointed out to me moments after posting this, even the heavy water result is not new and unique, it’s been done before, as shown in this paper from 1988.

It’s really nice when completely independent ways of looking at things converge on very similar conclusions. That bolsters the strength of all of them and makes it more likely that that conclusion is the correct model.

Being First, Again

But then there’s the general population problem. Even completely non-astronomy friends of mine (argument from anecdote, perhaps) are starting to ask me, “Haven’t we already discovered this?” and they’re asking me how the latest work is new … again.

But beyond that, there’s the pseudoscience aspect, the people who come out of the woodwork to claim that they “did it first” and therefore they should receive the credit, and because they “thought of it first,” before it was officially announced (again) by this latest press release, their other work is real. (Hence the “argument by association” fallacy in the title of this blog post.)

Let’s look at an example, in case you don’t believe me. About the ocean on Mars. Back when I was in grad school, I had to give a talk for a class on the evolution of Mars’ hydrosphere — a literature review, really. That was Spring of 2006. My main source of information was a paper published in the planetary science journal Icarus by S.M. Clifford and T.J. Parker entitled, “The Evolution of the Martian Hydrosphere: Implications for the Fate of a Primordial Ocean and the Current State of the Northern Plains.” My second source of information was a paper published in the other main planetary science journal, the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets by M.H. Carr and J.W. Head, entitled, “Oceans on Mars: An Assessment of the Observational Evidence and Possible Fate.”

The copyright dates for these two papers were 2001 and 2003.

Just skimming through the references, there’s a paper from 1991 entitled, “Ancient Oceans, Ice Sheets, and the Hydrologic Cycle on Mars.” Another from 1998 testing the possibility of shorelines from topography data. Several by Michael Carr hypothesizing about Mars having been water-rich from the 1980s and many by Scott Clifford from the 1990s about the same thing. Most really specifically testing newer hypotheses about massive oceans are from the late 1990s when we first got topography information (meaning you could start to tell if features you thought were ocean shorelines were at the same elevation).

So, the scientific community was finding good evidence for oceans on Mars at least in the late 1990s, and pretty good circumstantial evidence in the 1980s. Massive floods in the 1970s. And evidence for lots of flowing water in the past pretty much since the first images came back in the 1960s. That’s a fact based on the literature review.

That fact is ignored (doing a literature review would require actual work) by people who want to say that they predicted the ocean, but they predicted it based on Mars being the moon of a now-exploded planet that is the asteroid belt. I speak, of course, of Mike Bara, who on his blog wrote a post this eve entitled, “NASA ‘Discovers’ Martian Ocean that Hoagland and Bara Predicted 14 Years Ago.”

Perhaps you understand now where I’m going with this.

Mr. Hoagland and Bara wrote a document in 2001 wherein they claimed Mars had oceans near the equator, that large volcanic complexes are remnant tidal bulges from when Mars was tidally locked with Planet V, and that the northern plains smooth because that’s where the water went after Planet V blew up.

To quote from Mike’s blog:

The fact is that this ocean was actually discovered and predicted by myself and Richard Hoagland over 14 years ago in our Mars Tidal Model paper published on http://www.enterprisemission.com.

While I’m gratified that NASA has finally admitted that Hoagland and me were correct all those years ago, I wish they’d get the details right. […] All of this is covered in our Mars Tidal Model paper that we published online in 2001 after it was rejected by scientific journals because there was “no scientific evidence” to support our ideas.

Hmm. We seem to have overcome that problem, haven’t we NASA…?

The conclusion you are supposed to draw is pretty clear, and Mike’s Facebook followers consider him vindicated.

The “only” problems are that Hoagland and Bara were not the first (as I demonstrated above), and none of the scientific research at all places the possible ancient global ocean anywhere that Hoagland or Bara want it until after Planet V would have exploded. That’s ignoring all the timing problems and everything else that’s pseudoscientific about the paper (that’s beyond the scope of this blog post).

But, because NASA has now “admitted” that Mars likely had a large ocean at some point in its past, you should infer that Mike Bara and Richard Hoagland were right. Uh huh …

Final Thoughts

The above is just one example of a pseudoscientician (I’m all for neologisms) uses this kind of “discovered for the first time! (again)” press release to advance their claims. There are other examples, as well, such as those who claim to have predicted or “stated as fact” these kinds of things many years ago through various divining methods — be it psychic gifts, talking to transcendent beings, or just good ol’-fashioned aliens — but I think my point is made.

This kind of press release does a disservice to the scientists who produced this result before, to the public who wonders why their tax money is spent finding the same thing again, and to pseudoscientists who use it to advance their own claims via association.

And that’s my opinion … until I discover something amazing for the first time, again, and want my own press release.

March 2, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 4, 2015

New Horizon’s First Images of Pluto from Its Approach Phase – What’s Going On?


New Horizons is a spacecraft headed to Pluto. It launched nearly a decade ago, but it will arrive in July of this year and do a fly through the system. Doing lots of amazing science.

One of the instruments is LORRI, a long-focal-length camera that will be the prime imager for much of the mission because it will be able to take the highest spatial resolution images. It will also be used (was being used and is being used, too) for optical navigation — make sure we’re headed in the right direction.

Just a few minutes ago, on the anniversary of Clyde Tombaugh’s birth (the guy who discovered Pluto), NASA released the first image from LORRI of Pluto and its main satellite, Charon, taken during the Approach Phase. There’s a lot going on here – one point in particular that I just know is prone to misunderstanding later on – so I want to talk a bit about this image.


I am involved with the New Horizons mission. I am not a NASA employee. This is my personal blog and everything on it is my opinion, are my words, and is done completely independently (time-wise, resource-wise, person-wise) from my work on New Horizons. In fact, it is on record that this blog is legally distinct from my professional work. Nothing I say here should be taken as an official statement by NASA or the New Horizons team.

Resolution / Pixel Scale

That out of the way, let’s get to the meat of this post. Also, I’m going to use “resolution” and “pixel scale” a bit loosely here, so pedants need to forgive me right away.

LORRI is an amazing camera. It is a 1024×1024 pixel detector, and each pixel has an effective angular size of 4.95 µrad (micro radians, or about 1.02 arcsec). 1 arcsec is about the width of a human hair from 10 meters (33ft) away. (source)

At the moment, New Horizons is around 200,000,000 km away from Pluto. That’s okay, it still has 5.5 months to get there. Pluto is approximately 1180 km in radius. That means, from some simple trigonometry (remember SOHCAHTOA?), Pluto is about 1.2 arcsec in radius, or 2.4 arcsec in diameter. Charon is very roughly half Pluto’s diameter, so it’s around 1.2 arcsec in diameter. Charon and Pluto orbit on opposite sides of their center of mass, which means they are around 8.6 Plutos away from each other, or around 9.1 arcsec separated.

Okay, lots of numbers there. Basically, that means that right now, if we had perfect optics, Pluto is about 2 pixels across, Charon 1, and they’d be around 8 pixels away from each other, max (since their orientation on the plane of the sky is not perpendicular to the spacecraft right now).

(No) Perfect Optics

No such thing exists. Given the best, most perfect optics ever, you can never get infinitely fine details. This is because light will behave as a wave, and give rise to Airy disks and patterns meaning that the light will spread out as it travels through the optics. Unless you had an infinitely wide optical system.

When you factor everything together about the optics and system and detector and other things, from a point source of light, you get a point-spread function (PSF). This is the practical, measured spreading out of the light. In astronomy, we often measure the PSF based on fitting a Gaussian distribution to a star, since a star should be a point source and just cover one, single pixel.

With a telescope aperture of 208mm for LORRI, and a passband of light centered around 0.6 µm (red light), the Airy disk should be around 1.22*0.0006/208 = 6.8 µrad. That’s around 1.4 LORRI pixels. Amazing coincidence!

Actually, not. When designing an instrument, you typically want to just about over-sample the Airy disk. You don’t want to under-sample because then you’re losing valuable resolution and information. You don’t want to over-sample because then you’re just wasting money on a detector that is too “good” for your optics, and other issues that come about when you have small pixels. So, designing a system that’s around 1-3 pixels per Airy disk is good.

When you go to a practical PSF, it’s going to be a bit bigger just because no system is perfect.

What’s the Point?

Oh yeah, back to Pluto.

First New Horizons Image of Pluto and Charon from Approach Phase

First New Horizons Image of Pluto and Charon from Approach Phase (©NASA/APL/SwRI)

Let’s put these parts together: Right now, Pluto should be around 2 pixels across, Charon 1, and a separation of around 7-8 pixels. But, add in the PSFs due to the laws of optics. That means that the light should now be spread out a bit more.

And that is why this image looks like it does. It’s also been enlarged by 4x, such that each original LORRI pixel has now been resampled. So, if you look at the image NASA released, and you blow it up a lot, Pluto looks like it’s around ten pixels across, and Charon around five.

To repeat: The released image shows Pluto to be around 10 pixels wide, and Charon around 5. Despite the theoretical values now (2 pixels and 1 pixel, respectively). That’s because (1) the PSF spreads the light out because we live in a world with real and not ideal optics, and (2) the released image was enlarged by a factor of 4.

Moving Forward

New Horizons is zipping quickly along. In May, it will surpass all previous images taken and we will truly be in new territory and a new era of discovery (so far as imaging the Pluto system — note that the other instruments have already taken a lot of data and are learning new things). That best image that exists so far of Pluto shows Pluto to be approximately 8 pixels across.

And that’s why I started this post out by stating, “one point in particular that I just know is prone to misunderstanding later on.” So, today, NASA released an image that shows Pluto with as many pixels across as what it will take in late May, when it will have that number of pixels across.

See why I wanted to bring this up now? I can just hear the pseudoscientists claiming that NASA is lying about the power of the New Horizons telescopes, they’re deliberately down-sizing images (later, based on images released now), and various other things. While they’ll still almost certainly say that, at least you know now why that’s not the case, and what’s really going on now versus then.

There are only 2 (well, about 4, since it’s 2×2) “real” pixels in the Pluto disk right now, the others are interpolated based on expanding the size to make the image look nice for this release, celebrating the image and Clyde Tombaugh’s birthday. In four months, we’ll have all these pixels, but they won’t be based on a computer algorithm, they’ll be “real” pixels across Pluto taken by LORRI. Convolved (“smeared”) with a PSF that’s about 1.5-2 pixels.

January 24, 2015

The Titles of Research Grants, Out of Any Context, Makes Taxpayers Angry


I originally wrote this post yesterday for my other, much smaller blog, WND Watch. However, I think I did a pretty good job of explaining federal grants and problems with publicizing what the research is. So, I’m copying most of it over here.

The Post

Federal research grants are important. They provide money for a huge range of scientific research that otherwise would not be done. We, as a society, have decided that they are good, though both the left and right and everyone in between may disagree about specific programs.

Because they are public, certain laws and regulations exist whereby the public gets to know what their tax money is going to. And, there exist many websites that will let you search them. Here’s one that I have found useful because it links to the search forms for what looks like all federal research funding agencies.

What information is shown is somewhat variable, but in general, you will find: The funding agency, the PI (principle investigator), the PI’s institution, Co-Is (co-investigators), the date the funding starts, the date the funding ends, the amount of funding, and an abstract that describes the research that was provided within the proposal. You won’t find the actual proposal because it contains proprietary information — not only sometimes classified information, but also the ideas and methodology behind the proposal (so the team doesn’t get “scooped”), and even the layout and style of the proposal itself (trust me, there are many ways to write a proposal, and some of them are very effective, while others are very ineffective).

The problem with this information is that to a non-expert, and without any of the broader context of the many pages explaining what the proposal may do and the implications for it beyond the immediate research, the proposal easily looks like a waste of money to the average person. And, despite a tiny fraction of the federal budget going to research grants, various bloggers, reporters, and even congresspersons will often pull up a random title and claim that it’s an amazing example of government waste.

Such seems to have been the case with a Free Beacon article titled, “Feds Spent $432,000 Studying Gay Hookup Apps” with the subtitle, “NIH project studied ‘arousal’ of gay men when using Grindr.” The image is of two men, ostensibly gay, laying on each other and smiling.

The World Net Daily subtitle is the same, but they slightly modified the title: “Feds Spent $432,000 Studying ‘Gay’-Hookup Apps.” See, they added a hyphen and put “gay” in “quotes” because “gay” is scary and fake and a choice, because it’s WND.

There are three distinct problems here, and I don’t know if there’s a good solution to any of them: (1) There is no context, making it easy to complain; (2) titles of proposals are often whimsical; and (3) people don’t realize that less than half of the money goes to the actual researcher(s).

The first issue is that when we write grant proposals, we write them at a level where someone in our field or closely related field can understand them. When I write a crater-related proposal, I try to generalize the abstract to explain to a general person familiar with planetary geology what I plan to do and why. I then spend several pages within the proposal giving background information so that someone who models the interiors of planets would be able to understand why I want to do an observational study of impact craters.

I don’t write my abstract so that someone who has a 9-5 job working for a law firm, or working retail, or who works in Congress, would understand it. That would simply require “dumbing it down” too much. I don’t mean to imply that those people are dumb; rather, we have a very limited amount of space to explain why we want to do the research, how we’re going to do it, the broader implications, the proposal team, the management structure, and justify the budget. If we also had to write it at a level that anyone could understand it, we’d never be able to get into details.

Therefore, what makes it into the abstract that would be made public should I win the grant will rarely make sense to a general person just picking it up randomly.

Similarly, we often write titles to try to stand out to the review panels. Something fun and whimsical, for example, to make someone smile. For example, one might entitle a proposal, “Studying Martian ‘Holes in One.'”

A congressional staffer or random blogger may pick that up thinking, “Wow, why is NASA funding something about golf on Mars?” In reality, my proposal is about studying meter- and decameter scale craters in a broad statistical study to try to understand where they are most common, how dense they are, and therefore what the likelihood is that a a future spacecraft may inadvertently land in one. This happened with the MER Opportunity when it landed on Mars eleven years ago. It turned out to be good because the crater’s walls let Opportunity see a lot of otherwise buried layers, and it was able to get out of the crater. But if the crater were a little steeper, or a little smaller, then the rover would not have been able to escape or it may have fallen over and not have been able to righten itself.

Now it seems much more important: You send a half-$billion craft to Mars, you’re going to be more willing to fund a $300k study into impact crater hazards for landing, right? But, a layperson may never get past the title and flag it for government waste.

And that leads into the third issue: We don’t get that money. On a proposal I wrote several years ago, just as an example, the total budget for the three-year proposal was $328k. Salary was $127k, a little over one-third of the total amount. That was my salary as a graduate student half-time for 1 year, and postdoc half-time for 2 years, and my then-advsior for 1 month each year. What did the other money go to? The vast majority was institutional overhead, which covers administration staff salary, budget office salary, building rent, lights, computer support, custodial staff, etc. Then there were benefits, like health insurance, life insurance, and retirement. There was also money in there for a new computer and software licenses so I could do the work. About $10k was travel to conferences and another $6k was publication costs: After all, I could do the most ground-breaking study ever, but if I never told anyone about it, then what’s the point?

So, while a study may look like it costs a lot, and overhead rates vary considerably across different institutions (and are generally higher at private companies versus public universities), a very very general rule-of-thumb is to divide the total amount by 3, and that’s salary.

That brings us back to the article in question. Now that you have all that in mind, let’s look at it. Using the NIH (National Institutes of Health) search form, here’s the grant, awarded to Dr. Karolynn Siegel, entitled, “Use of Smartphones Applications for Partnering Among MSM.” MSM is “men who have sex with men” (since many men are unwilling to identify as bi or gay but do have sex with other men).

While Free Beacon doesn’t seem to have much of a spin, and it does not allow comments so I can’t quite tell which end of the political spectrum it’s on, WND clearly does have an agenda: This study is a waste because who cares about gays (or “gays”) hooking up? What benefit could there possibly be!?

Well, take a moment and think more broadly about it from both a social and medical standpoint: Smartphones and GPS-enabled devices have drastically changed how we interact, so from a social standpoint we need research to better understand that phenomenon. From a health standpoint, it’s dramatically increased the ease of casual sex, especially among gay men where there is still a stigma of trolling the bars or streets for a partner. Heterosexuals have their own app (Tinder), and so the findings from a study of gay males hooking up could have implications for straight men and women, too. And, casual sex will increase the risk of STDs (sexually transmitted diseases). So, from a public health standpoint, understanding a strong new vector for how diseases spread is the first step to trying to determine ways to minimize that risk. Both for straight and gay persons.

If the blogger or WND had bothered to read the abstract on the NIH site, they would have found that (emphasis mine):

The study aims are: 1. Examine how and why smartphone applications are used for sexual partnering, the situations and locations in which they are used, in order to gain insights into how these use patterns might contribute to sexual risk behaviors. 2. Investigate the process by which MSM use smartphone applications to find sexual partners (i.e., who they look for, how they present themselves, how they communicate, extent of safer sex negotiation,and disclosure) to gain insights into how this process may contribute to sexual risk behaviors. 3. Investigate the sexual and emotional states (e.g., more/less urgency, arousal, impulsivity) that MSM experience when seeking or meeting sexual partners using smartphone applications and gain insights into how these states may contribute to sexual risk behaviors. 4. Examine the perceived need and acceptability of a smartphone delivered intervention and assess what MSM perceive as needed components for a smartphone-based sexual risk reduction intervention.

It also contains a public health relevance statement (likely unique to the NIH, since I don’t have to do that for NASA).

Meanwhile, the cost – $432k – may seem high. But, divide by three, and we’re down to around $150k salary. For a medical researcher, working for two years, at maybe half or a third of their time on this particular grant, that doesn’t seem very high anymore. Especially if most of it is given to graduate students who will be conducting the actual interviews with the 60 MSM in the study and Dr. Siegel is there for a month a year to supervise and then more at the end to crunch the data. In medical studies, there’s also money that is sometimes paid out to participants as compensation (I have no idea if that’s the case in this study, but I know it happens in others).

And so, we went from a sensationalist headline that clearly is meant to drum up a specific reaction (government waste! who cares about gays!?) but that’s because it leaves out any form of context as to the broader implications of this kind of study and why it’s being done. It also completely ignores that the amount of money in the federal budget for government-funded scientific research is somewhere around 3.4%. (FY2015 budget is around $3.97T, but science is $135B, and just under half of that is defense, leaving 1.8% for non-defense.)

The Obligatory WND Annoyance

And, World Net Daily got that reaction. In the 22 hours the article on their site has been posted, they have gotten 42 comments. They broadly fit into saying that President Obama is gay (which is another odd conspiracy they’ve been floating for years, and remember that being gay on WND is bad), that this is government waste of tax money, and that the study is stupid because it’s about The Gays.

Ignoring the first, some examples of the second are:

    • dan690: “The government says there is no room in the budget for cuts. Here is an excellent example of where to cut and there are thousands more.”
    • Tomas Cruz: “And they wonder why we reject every call for more taxes for this or that because it ends up with this nonsense.”
    • James Frost: “What the hell is going on with our officials? They spend our money on conducting such stupid research. But what`s the use? They`d better spend money on veterans, poor families, security measures. This gays have too much public attention!”

And examples of the third are:

    • Sharknado: “A government of perverts…just great…thanks a lot.”
    • ThoLawn: “What was the purpose to spend (waste indeed) half of million dollars to interview all that gays? What they’re going to do with that “research” results? Would it help to solve any problems? What a stupidity…”
    • HardCorePress: “Talk about in your face government sponsored hommoman wanna pump a guys *** pervertedness. This type of blatant sin has been seen by God and God will send his wrath upon this country. May it be nuclear fire to cleanse the cancerous mass of homosexuality (the pinnacle of debauchery and Obamanibale hedonism).”

December 16, 2014

Podcast Episode 122: Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko and Rosetta Conspiracies

Conspiracies of
Comet 67P …
Few, but they are weird.

A timely and listener-requested episode! What’s not to love!? In the episode I talk about several of the conspiracies I’ve seen surrounding the Rosetta mission and Comet 67P. From artificiality (Hoagland makes a guest appearance) to singing so as to raise our consciousness to angelic levels when 2012 failed, I spend nearly a half hour going through 2 to 4 claims (depending on how you count them) that have been making the rounds. I also get to touch on image analysis.

There is also one New News segment this episode, and it refers to the death of the Venus Express mission around (oddly enough) Venus. The news relates to the episodes on uncertainty. Not sure what the connection is? Listen to the episode! The episode also comes in at just over 30 minutes, my target length.

December 5, 2014

How to Not Understand Science and Use that to Say Science Is Wrong


Given the large amount of work I spent on my two-part 1.75-hr podcast episodes on James McCanney’s “science,” I thought it appropriate to get a Swift blog post out of the effort. This post was geared more towards a general audience and so I used one of McCanney’s quotes to discuss a common problem that we face as scientists, we face as science communicators, and we face as skeptics (where “we” is a different group in those three instances, and I consider myself a member of each).

This is reproduced from what I originally sent the editor on the JREF Swift blog.

Swift Blog Post #3

As a scientist and attempted science communicator (and skeptic in my copious free time), one of the difficulties I face is that science is not other-people-friendly. In fact, most of us work on tasks so specific that we often face difficulties explaining what we do to colleagues, much less people who are not scientists, so it’s rarely even other-scientists-slightly-outside-our-field-friendly.

Since I also play a skeptic on the internet, I have the added issue that terms, phrases, and analogies I may try to use to explain a concept could very easily be misconstrued by a pseudoscientist to support their pet idea. For example, if I talk about an “image anomaly,” to other scientists, this means something like a spot of dust on the lens (usually appears as a darker doughnut shape on the image) or a cosmic ray that makes a bright spot or streak. To a pseudoscientist, it could mean an apartment complex on Mars or an alien space ship near the sun.

This especially becomes an issue when people use those misconceptions to turn around and say that some well established model in science is wrong, and spread those views.

For example, I recently completed a two-part podcast series (episode part 1, part 2) on the ideas and misconceptions of “Professor” James McCanney (I place “Professor” in quotes because he is introduced as such, but he has not taught for over 30 years after he was fired from two teaching jobs, and he does not have a doctorate). Mr. McCanney has many misconceptions about the universe, but one that struck me was this, stated on the Coast to Coast AM radio program on 30 August, 2007:

“When astronomers take their picture of the universe, and they start looking back, and they say, uh– ‘We’re looking back in time,’ and now scientists say they’ve seen objects that are only 500 million years after the Big Bang. But the only problem is they’re in all directions, when we look out in all directions. So if you actually were seeing objects that were only 500 million years after the Big Bang, they would have to be consolidating in some location in the sky near where the original Big Bang had to be. But that’s not the case, they’re all over the sky.”

This was one of his primary stated reasons for saying the Big Bang was wrong, doesn’t make sense, and observations do not support it.

The problem is that this is a gross misunderstanding of the science, and because of that misunderstanding, he concludes that the science is wrong. This example is, in part, a manifestation of an issue we scientists face: Trying to explain a geometrically and spatially complicated idea that goes against your every-day experience.

The analogy in common culture for the Big Bang is that it’s an explosion. In our every-day experience, explosions happen at a specific place. Therefore, if the Big Bang was an explosion, shouldn’t it have happened in a certain place? Ergo, shouldn’t what Mr. McCanney said – that we should see stuff only get younger towards the original spot of that explosion – be correct? And if the evidence doesn’t show that, doesn’t it mean the Big Bang is wrong?

Herein lies the problem with your every-day experience: The Big Bang model holds that the universe did not “start somewhere,” but rather it “started the somewhere.” You cannot have the event that created the universe – all of space and time as we know it – happen within the universe itself. It’s like saying that you, yourself, started in your big toe, or your ear, and grew out from that. But you didn’t: Your entire physical self started with your entire physical self (a single cell) – you cannot point to a specific part of yourself where you started.

The same is the case with the universe. The reason why there is no center of the universe, or no specific spot where we can look towards where the Big Bang occurred, is that it was an explosion of space, not in space.

Another common analogy that’s used is to think of a balloon. The surface of that balloon is a 2D representation of the 3D universe. That 2D representation is warped in 3D, just as our 3D universe is likely warped in 4D or higher spatial dimensions. If you think of a squished, completely deflated balloon, you could say that it’s just a tiny speck and that surface (our universe) doesn’t yet exist. Now, blow air into the balloon, and the surface exists and expands. If you were on that surface and you looked in any direction, you would see the surface. If light travelled really slowly, then you would see that surface as it appeared further back in time.

And that’s what we see when we look out into the universe: As we look farther and farther away, we look further and further back in time, and we see a much younger universe. In all directions. Including the cosmic microwave background radiation, which if what the universe “looked like” just about 380,000 years after the Big Bang.

This observation is what one should and would predict if the Big Bang is the correct model for the initial stages of the universe’s existence.

To bring this full-circle, this kind of observation – the very one Mr. McCanney says contradicts the Big Bang and that’s one reason why he doesn’t believe it – is actually an observation that supports the Big Bang.

But, trying to grasp why this is what you should predict from the Big Bang model is not easy. It goes against what you normally think of when you think “explosion.” Or of really anything happening in the universe, which, by definition, is everything we’ve ever observed or experienced. It is a common misunderstanding, but it’s one that comes from an attempt to simplify the science in a way to easily explain it to non-scientists.

That’s why, as skeptics, we always need to be aware of simplifications and analogies used by science communicators: While it may be done with the best of intentions to try to convey a complex concept, it can introduce further misunderstandings. And, given the right person (or wrong person, depending on your point of view), that misunderstanding can be used to promote pseudoscience.

November 28, 2014

The Decline of Time Magazine: From A to Z (Astrology to Zen)


When I took AP English History in 1999-2000, we were required to have a subscription to either Newsweek or Time Magazine.

When I worked in the public library during most of high school, I admired the large, full-page covers of Time and I considered it to be one of the premier news magazines of the, well, time. There are even books of its covers and what they represent of America’s and the world’s history.

After I graduated high school and began to read news on a regular basis, Time and CNN were my primary news sources.

But, the Age of the Internet and shifts in emphasis have, in my opinion, led to a significant decline in Time. From its shift of investigative journalism to columnist opinions, and from lengthy reports to quick, ~5-paragraph summaries, it’s a change, and not for the better.

But worst of all, this kind of change allows for more credulous and – dare I say – pseudoscience reporting to masquerade as “news” under the still generally well-respective umbrella that is Time. Phil Plait beat me back in early October when he posted about Laura Stampler writing columns on astrology, but the latest is Charlotte Alter writing a completely credulous column that parrots Deepak Chopra.

Laura Stampler Parrots AstrologyZone’s Susan Miller

Two days in a row, on October 7 and 8, 2014, Time‘s Laura Stampler wrote two “interviews” she did with AstrologyZone’s Susan Miller. I place the word “interview” in quotes because it was the level of hard journalism that one might expect from talking to the television: Miller said what she wanted to say about astrology, and Stampler wrote it down.

For example, here are paragraphs 2 through 7 of the first piece on Astrologer Susan Miller On Why You Should Pay Attention to the Lunar Eclipse”:

“It’s called a blood moon, but I don’t want people to be agitated by that,” popular astrologer Susan Miller tells TIME. And while the April 15 lunar eclipse signaled a time of conflict and even tragedy — Miller notes that was the day day Boko Haram kidnapped 276 schoolgirls in Nigeria and the day before a South Korean ferry capsized leaving 300 dead and missing — “this one is much more gentle.”

In fact, Miller says the change that the Oct. 8 lunar eclipse brings, although shocking at first, will even be good, at least according to the stars. To understand why, we asked her all the questions you’d want to ask a famous astrologer.

“This eclipse is a full moon so something is coming from to an ending or culmination,” she explains.

“Eclipses are non-negotiable,” Miller says. “They end something and they brings something else. But it really needed to end… There’s a shock factor first, and then a solution that turns out to be so good that you realize, wait a minute, this is a blessing.

Miller recalls when she had a houseguest who “spent the whole year crying on my couch,” coincidentally over the course of a series of five eclipses. On the first eclipse, her husband asked for a divorce. On the second, he told her that he wanted to sell the house. Come the third the house was sold, fourth the property was split, and on the final eclipse the divorce was finalized.

The second piece, the next day, wasn’t much better. Well, really was somewhat worse. The title was, “Why the Most Famous Astrologer in the Universe Says You Shouldn’t Buy an iPhone Right Now.” Here are just two paragraphs as a sampler:

“I’m such an Apple addict, I love everything they come out with, but it’s not the right time,” Miller, founder of Astrology Zone, tells TIME. “I know that everybody wants to buy the iPhone 6, but you’ve got to wait.”

Why? Mercury is in retrograde between October 4 and 25 — and that period of cosmic slowing, when the planet appears to be traveling backwards, is notorious for misunderstandings and technological failings. “It’s not a good time to buy an electronic item,” Miller says. “Sometimes you can make the wrong decision or you buy something and you never use it and you say to yourself, ‘Gosh, that was a bad purchase.’ You bought the wrong model or then it goes on sale the following week, or something happens… [iPhones are] going to continue to have little software bugs.”

Readers of my blog should know by this point that astrology carries zero weight with me or with any other scientist. It is magical thinking, confirmation bias, and vaguely worded nonsense that can apply to most people who hear it. It also uses science-babble (akin to techno-babble on something like Star Trek where they use sciencey-sounding terms and phrases in various combinations and contexts that render them meaningless).

Having a major news source have any author posting about it in this kind of credulous “reporting” is worrying, among other adverbs.

Charlotte Alter Parrots Deepak Chopra

I haven’t really talked about Deepak Chopra on this blog before. That’s mostly because Chopra is primarily in the New Age “field” and tries to talk about medicine. And the nebulous concept of “consciousness.” His only real foray into astronomy or physics is to be a worse abuser of terms and concepts than astrologers, especially of anything “quantum.” I honestly simply haven’t considered him worth addressing on this blog.

However, in the context of bad media reporting, after Laura’s horrible pieces on astrology, I was watching for other examples, and this morning at the airport while looking through my RSS feed, I saw this headline: “Deepak Chopra on Why Gratitude Is Good for You.”

Sigh. (Yes, I literally sighed when I saw the headline.)

The “article” is by Charlotte Alter. It consists of six paragraphs. One of them is a sentence fragment introduction. The fifth is a paragraph that appears to be from one of Chopra’s books. In other words, this one isn’t even an “interview” with him, rather this is Charlotte reporting on what Chopra has written in the past about gratitude and why it’s “good for you.”

In her third paragraph, she wrote: “Chopra, who most recently wrote The Future of God: A Practical Approach to Spirituality for Our Times, says expressing gratitude on Thanksgiving isn’t just tradition — it’s also good for the body and spirit. And in a month when many Americans may be feeling worried or disappointed (about everything from the severe weather, to the unrest in Ferguson and the disturbing allegations against Bill Cosby), an effort to be more grateful can help get rid of those “toxic” feelings, if just for one night. “Anger and hostility can be inflammatory not only in your mind but in your body,” he said. “Gratitude is healing. It expands your awareness and shifts your focus from something that’s actually hurting you to something that is healing.””

This is why there are websites that randomly generate “Chopraisms,” combining random words into phrases that sound a lot like what Chopra sells.

Alter concludes with these three paragraphs:

But it’s not enough to just gorge yourself on sweet potatoes and bicker over the drumstick– you have to actually deliberately practice gratitude in order to reap the spiritual benefits.

“You can do a simple meditation where you quiet your mind, put your attention in your hear and just ask yourself ‘what am i grateful for?’ If you just ask the question in your own stillness, things will come up…You don’t have to go looking for the answer, you just have to ask the question and then allow any sensation, image, feeling or thought to come to you…People who practice this kind of ritual, they have a boost in their immune functioning, a shift in their hormones, it’s pretty interesting what happens even at the level of cell markers of information…This kind of thing actually has very powerful biological consequences.”

So stop stressing about how much pie you’re eating and focus instead on what’s good in your life. It’s healthy.

I’m not sure if the poor grammar is in the original Chopra writing or if Charlotte did some bad copying. I’m also not sure how you would “put your attention in your hear.” But I guess I’m just a mean skeptical scientist.

Decline of the News Industry

I don’t know if Ms. Alter is a good reporter or a stay-at-home occasional freelance writer who submits random blog posts to news sources in the hope of making a few bucks if they’re published. The same goes for Ms. Stampler.

But, once you have a reputation as a good company in whatever your field may be, allowing stupidity to be done in your name is a sure way to ruin your reputation.

It’s also a way for pseudoscientists to claim an undeserved reputation. Being published in these kinds of outlets lends undeserved credibility that can then be cited as evidence of veracity as a form of argument from authority: “Hey! I got published in X (which has a great reputation), therefore I should be taken more seriously now!”

I’m probably preaching to the choir here, though. Most of us know traditional media is dying, and they need to look for other ways of making revenue.

However, I’m reminded of the Murphy Brown episode where the news crew of FYI decided to have “ladies of the night” on along with some concerned mothers’ group and it erupted into a cat fight. The crew felt like dirt after doing it, but then they saw that their ratings were the highest they had ever been. They excitedly talked about other, similar ideas and more controversy and spectacle … and then they had another moment of, “What the heck are we doing here? We used to be serious news people and now look at us.” The episode ended with them pondering the trade-off between serious journalism and sensationalism and easy ratings.

I worry that Time is not that introspective.

Now, if only those damn kids would get off my lawn…

November 14, 2014

The Good and Bad of NASA Publishing Spacecraft Images Online

This was my second blog post for Swift, published late last week:

You wouldn’t know it by listening to many conspiracy theorists, but NASA is by far the most open space agency in the world when it comes to publishing data from spacecraft. By law, the teams that built and run the instruments on these missions must publish their data within six months of it being taken, except in rare cases when an additional six-month extension can be granted.

Contrast that with the Chinese and Indian space agencies, which still haven’t openly published data from missions that completed several years ago. Japan is better, as is the European Space Agency (ESA), but neither of them supply data as readily and easily as NASA.

In addition to the rules for depositing the raw, unprocessed data, NASA’s PR department, along with the PR arms of most missions, publish some of the data online almost as soon as it’s taken. This is great for the public; it’s also terrible for skeptics.

Allow me to explain by way of example: The LCROSS mission. This was the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite that infamously sparked conspiracies that NASA was “bombing” the moon. The mission was to launch a projectile at the lunar south pole where there are permanently shadowed regions, and have the spacecraft fly through the plume formed by the projectile’s impact to try to detect water. If water were found, it would be a boon for crewed missions to the moon because astronauts could mine the water there instead of bringing their own.

The big event took place the night (in the US) of October 9, 2009. Within just a few days, photographs taken by the spacecraft were published by NASA online.

This was really good for the public. We got to see early results of what had been a very hyped event with observing parties taking place across the nation, including at the White House. It helped keep public interest longer than just one evening. It shared data with the people who paid for it: taxpayers.

LCROSS Landing Site

LCROSS Landing Site

So what’s the problem? These images show several things: The most basic of photographic processing without things like dust on the camera removed (which is always done for science images), color (the camera was black-and-white, so the color is completely an artifact of the press release image), brightness enhanced a lot such that most of the surface is white, and the PR release image is a JPG file format, meaning that there are JPG compression artifacts that manifest as blocky blobs.

For most of us, that doesn’t matter. We get the point that this is showing a bright glow caused by the impact of the spacecraft’s projectile. In NASA’s before shots, that bright glow is not present. A tiny flash of light that the world was watching for, with tens of thousands of people across the night side of the Earth staring upwards. (Unfortunately, it was cloudy where I was.)

Pseudscientists, on the other hand, don’t get that. There exists a large group of space anomalists that look for anything in a space photograph that they don’t immediately understand and use that to claim fill-in-the-blank. One of the most prolifically published modern people who practice this is Richard C. Hoagland. He took the NASA press release, increased the brightness even more, and claimed that the rectilinear, colored structures, were in reality infrastructure (tubes and pipes) by the “secret space program” and that the public space program had bombed them because the folks at NASA had finally found out about the secret bases on the Moon.

NASA Image PIA10214 with a Close-Up of "BigFoot"

NASA Image PIA10214 with a Close-Up of “BigFoot”

This will seem absurd to most people. But not to some. And, this is just one example; innumerable others exist. Every image published online in the easy-to-access public websites of the Mars rovers are poured over by anomaly hunters in the same way. Among other things, they search for rocks that are then said to look like apartment complexes, fossils, Bigfoot, all kinds of terrestrial and aqueous animal life, boots, a pump, and very recently, a water shut-off valve (to just name a few). Most of these are basic examples of pareidolia (creating a pattern in otherwise random data), or imprints actually caused by the rover equipment, but these are usually facilitated by the low-resolution and highly compressed JPG image format.

Do I think that NASA should stop being so open? No. I think that people are always going to find ways to find anomalies in images and claim it means something special. It’s the nature of the phenomenon, and pseudoscientists are always going to find something anomalous with something. And, the moment that NASA starts to restrict access to data, claims of censorship and hiding things will become even louder than they currently are.

I’m part of the planning team for the New Horizons mission that will reach Pluto in July of 2015. When the PI (Principle Investigator) of the mission, Alan Stern, announced that some of the data would be released on the web as low-resolution JPG images as soon as we get them, I have to admit I cringed just a little bit. And I felt bad for doing it. Dr. Stern has the absolute best of intentions, and he wants to keep people interested in the mission and share the data and let people see results from what is probably a once-in-a-lifetime mission, especially since the data downlink to Earth is going to be done over several weeks (due to the craft’s vast distance from Earth).

But, he will be making it very easy for anomaly hunters to find anomalies made by an intelligence — just not understanding that that intelligence was the software that produced the image.

Going forward, I don’t think there’s any good solution. But, this is something the skeptical community should be aware of, and it shows that there’s always a downside to things, even when you think there isn’t.

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