Exposing PseudoAstronomy

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.

July 9, 2015

Podcast Episode 136 – How Science Journalists Go from Scientists to the Public (#NewHorizons)


Media embeds
On New Horizons describe
Good commun’cation.

I was able to sit down with one of the public outreach and one of the science journalists who are embedded with NASA’s New Horizons mission. I had a very brief conversation with them about how they work to convey what we give them into something that the public can easily consume and get excited about.

It’s a very brief (bonus) episode, but I think it’s very topical, and it’s something that I’ve been curious about.

On a personal note, one of the people on the interview – Ron Cowen – is a man whose work I grew up reading on the pages of Science News. It was neat to finally meet him. And so’s not to be lopsided, the other person, David Aguilar, has been incredibly generous with his time when I’ve had questions or wanted to get involved with the public outreach efforts, making time to talk with me when he easily could (and sometimes, probably should) have told me that he was too busy.

May 9, 2015

The Reality Check Podcast Episode 348 – Me on Exoplanets, Others on Other Stuff


Episode 348 of “The Reality Check,” a weekly Canadian podcast that explores a wide range of scientific controversies and curiosities using science and critical thinking, is posted, and I take the first (and longest) of the three segments, where I discuss exoplanets.

I was originally contacted to discuss this topic because the hosts had some skepticism about the hype that we get every few weeks or months about how we are just on the verge of discovering an Earth-like exoplanet. The issue is that “Earth-like” can have a lot of different requirements and qualifications: Do you mean Earth-sized? Earth-like orbit? Habitable zone around the star? Atmosphere like ours? Etc.

Unfortunately, for my linear thinking, that meant I had to spend about 20 minutes going through an overview of how we find exoplanets, what the limitations are of each technique, and what information about the planet each technique can give us, and how different techniques and follow-up observations can be used to give complementary information (for example, if you detect an exoplanet using the transit method, you can use the radial velocity method to get the mass of the planet, and if you detect an atmosphere with the transit method, you could use spectroscopy with the Hubble Space Telescope to measure the atmosphere’s composition).

And for the record, when I practiced the segment without interruptions, it was 11 minutes. It stretched into almost 30 minutes on the show. And for regular listeners of TRC, you should recognize a quote from former-host Elan (I think) that I incorporated into the end of my segment.

It was toward the end that I finally got to the question about whether media reporting is hype. And, to put it concisely: Yes. But with that said, we really do, at this point, finally have the technology to detect an Earth-sized planet (and have) in an Earth-like orbit (have not) with potentially an Earth-like atmosphere (have not, and this tech may not *quite* be there, but if it isn’t, it’s close).

I haven’t listened to it yet, but of course I was there when it was being recorded, and I don’t remember embarrassing myself too much. They do tend to all talk more slowly, though, when recording at 1x versus how I listen to podcasts at about 1.2–1.3x. Also, three of the 4 outtakes (they have outtakes at the end of the show) are things I said or contributed — I guess I was humorous (or humourous? since it’s Canadian?).

I will add that doing a panel show is VERY different from doing a monologue as is my normal podcast. Or even doing an interview on the podcast. The dynamics are (obviously) completely different, and you almost have to build in pauses to what you’re talking about in case of questions from others. I think I stepped over some people, too. For example, there was one point maybe half-way through my segment where I stopped and asked if anyone was there because I wanted to make sure my internet connection (and theirs’) was still up since we had been having issues. They were all there, but then there were something like 3-4 questions that they asked because they had just been developing while I was talking and not pausing enough to let them ask.

If they’re kind enough to invite me back, I’ll keep this in mind and build that in. And work more at editing myself down.

Oh yes— There were two other segments. One was a guessing game as to “which came first,” while the other segment was about whether you should plan to visit Israel last if you go to the Middle East because other countries won’t let you in if you have an Israeli stamp in your passport.

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