Exposing PseudoAstronomy

February 16, 2015

Podcast Episode 126: The Facts and Misconceptions Behind Funding in Science, with Dr. Pamela Gay @starstryder


The sordid subject
Of the coin: How scientists
Are – and are not – paid.

This is another episode where I don’t focus on debunking a specific topic of astronomy, geology, or physics pseudoscience, but rather I focus on a topic of misconceptions related to science in general: How scientists are funded. This is done via an interview and bit of discussion with Dr. Pamela Gay, who cohosts the very famous “AstronomyCast” podcast and is the director of CosmoQuest.

The topics are varied, but it remains focused on some of the misconceptions of how research is funded and the real process behind it. It’s also a bit depressing, but I can’t always have light-hearted topics like Planet X isn’t coming to kill you.

Since this is an interview, it is a somewhat longer episode (54 minutes), there is no transcript, and there are no other segments.

The episodes for the next two months should be focused on Comet Hale-Bopp and have a brief interlude of another interview with the chair of the program committee for a major planetary science conference, and what they do when they get submissions that seem like pseudoscience.

January 1, 2015

Podcast Episode 123: The Science and Pseudoscience of Communicating with Aliens with @KarenStollznow


Karen Stollznow talks
‘Bout the issues of ET
Communication.

I wanted to start the New Year off on a lighter and different kind of topic, so I interviewed linguist, Dr. Karen Stollznow, about alien communication. This was based a bit on her TAM 2014 talk, and we got into a lot of issues not only with how communication is portrayed in popular media, but how communication is problematic amongst people on our own planet, different language groups on our own planet, and different species on our own planet. We then discussed – within that context – some people who claim they are in contact with aliens and how linguistic analysis shows the claimed languages to be poorly constructed variations on what they already know.

This interview was only meant to be a half hour long, but even after editing, it is just under an hour. That editing included removing a headset issue and two phone calls from my mother (family emergency). I tried to find a possible natural break to get it to two 30-minute episodes, but I found none: the conversation flowed very well, I thought.

There are no other segments in this episode because it is just over an hour long. The next episode should be about black hole denial.

December 30, 2014

My First Infographic: What Have Our Planetary Space Probes Photographed Since 1970?



Introduction

This has been over two months in the making: I’m finally releasing my first infographic. It’s entitled, “Planets and Major Moons: Distribution of Non-Lander Spacecraft Photos Since 1970.” (Suitable for printing on A-size paper with a bit of top and bottom margin to spare.) The purpose is to show the number of images taken by different space probes of the planets (and major satellites), the percentage of the total images that were for each body, and for each body, the percentage taken by each different spacecraft.

PDF Version of Spacecraft Imagery Infographic (3.5 MB)
PNG Version of Spacecraft Imagery Infographic (4.7 MB)

Number of Images of Planets Taken by Spacecraft Infographic

Number of Images of Planets Taken by Spacecraft Infographic

Development Process

I’ve been wanting to create infographics for awhile. Really good ones are few and far between, especially for astronomy, but the good ones are often amazing works of art. I don’t pretend that this is an amazing work of art, but hopefully it’s not ugly.

To me, the key is to have a lot of information crammed into a small space in an easy-to-understand way that you don’t have to be an expert to interpret. In my work, I deal a lot with multi-dimensional datasets and so already I have to come up with ways of displaying a lot of information in as few figures as possible and yet still make them readable.

The Idea

An idea that I came up with is based on the claim that “NASA hides all its pictures!” (This is often, hypocritically, almost immediately followed up with NASA spacecraft imagery showing claimed UFOs and other pseudoscientific claims.)

And so, I wanted to investigate this: How many images really have been taken and are available publicly, for free, on the internet? After several days of research, I had the results, and I assembled them into the above infographic.

The Numbers

I was surprised by some of the numbers and I was not surprised by others. One thing that did not surprise me was that the outer planets have very few photographs (relatively speaking) of them, while most imagery has focused on Mars and the Moon (fully 86%).

But, I was not prepared for how very few photographs were taken by our early probes to the outer solar system. Pioneers 10 and 11 were the first craft to venture out, and yet, because of the (now) archaic method of imaging and slow bandwidth, they collectively took a mere 72 images of both Jupiter and Saturn. Compare that with the ongoing Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter around the moon, which has publicly released over 1.1 million images.

You can also see the marked effect of the Galileo high-gain antenna failure: Only 7.4% of the photos we have of Jupiter were taken by Galileo, despite it being an orbiter in the 1990s. Compare that with the Cassini orbiter of Saturn, which has returned nearly 50 times as many images, despite no dramatic change in technology between the two craft. This means that only 0.4% of our images of planets and moons are of Jupiter, while 1.9% are of Saturn.

You can also see the marked success of modern spacecraft and the huge volumes of images that (I repeat) are publicly available. The pie slices in the infographic are color-coded by approximate spacecraft operation era. Well over 90% of all images were taken after 1995, and the current suite of the latest NASA spacecraft (MESSENGER around Mercury, Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter around the Moon, and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter around Mars) account for a sizable fraction of the returned data for that body — especially MESSENGER, which accounts for 98.1% of all Mercury images.

What was I most surprised by? The Clementine mission to the moon. It returned and has publicly archived just shy of 1.5 million images of the lunar surface. I expected the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter to have surpassed that. And, it still may, as it continues to operate and return data. We shall see.

Why the Conspiracy Theorists Are Wrong

As I said, one of the primary reasons I made this was to investigate the claim by conspiracy theorists that these space agencies hide photographs. The blame rests almost entirely on NASA by most conspiracists’ accounts. This infographic proves them wrong in two significant ways.

First, at least for the Moon, Mars, and Venus, sizable numbers of images have been taken by and publicly released by non-NASA sources. I specifically have data from the European Space Agency (SMART-1, Venus Express, and Mars Express), and Japanese Space Agency (SELENE / Kaguya). While both the Indian and Chinese space agencies have also sent spacecraft to the moon and Mars (Mars for the Indians with the recently-in-orbit “MOM” craft), and Russia has sent craft to Venus, Moon, and Mars, I could not find the public repositories – if they exist – for these missions. Therefore, I could not include them. But, a lack of those two does not affect the overall point, that non-NASA agencies have released photos of these bodies.

Second, as I’ve repeated throughout this post, these are the publicly released images. Not private. Public. To public archives. In the bottom-left corner, I have the sources for all of these numbers. (Please note that they were compiled in late October and may have increased a bit for ongoing missions — I’ll update periodically, as necessary.)

The total number of lunar images? About 3 million.

Mars? Around 1.6 million. Venus? Over 350,000. Mercury? Over 210,000.

It’s hard to claim that NASA hides lots of images when these numbers are staring you in the face.

What Conspiracists Could Still Claim

I think the only “out” at this point, given this information (and if they acknowledge this information), is for conspiracists to claim that NASA and other space agencies simply obfuscate the “interesting” stuff. I suppose that’s possible, though they’d need armies of people to do it on the millions of returned images. And they apparently do a pretty bad job considering all the images that conspiracists post, claiming that features within them are of alien-origin.

It’s amazing how the “powers that be” are so powerful, and yet so sloppy. Apparently.

What This Infographic Does Not Show

I had to decide to clip a lot of information. We’ve imaged a lot of asteroids and a lot of comets. Those are out. We have had landers on the three closest bodies (Moon, Mars, Venus). Those images were not included.

Also, I focused on visible-light images, mostly. There are some instruments that take more UV images, or far-IR images, or various other wavelengths, but this infographic focused on the visible or near-visible light camera data.

Pretty much the only exception to this is for the Magellan mission at Venus, which took radar swaths of the planet to “image” the surface. I included this because, in early test audiences, I did not have Venus at all, and they requested it. Then, I did not include Magellan, but the test audiences wondered what happened to it. Describing why that data was not present made things wordy and more cluttered, so I, in the end, simply included it and put a footnote explaining the Magellan data.

This also fails to show the volume of data as measured by or approximated by (for the older craft) pixel count. If I were doing this by amount of pixels returned, the Moon and Mars would be far larger in comparison, and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter would be much larger fractions of their respective bodies.

Final Thoughts

I’m releasing this under the Creative Commons license with attribution required, non-commercial distribution, and no derivative works (please see the CC stamp at the bottom of the infographic). This is so that I can at least have some semblance of version control (see release date at lower right).

I hope you find it useful and interesting. And at least somewhat purdy. If you like it, share it.

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.

November 7, 2014

The Myth that Skepticism is Easy


Introduction

There’s a lot of finger-wagging on both sides of the skeptics vs believers “debate.” To the point where people who believe in things like bigfoot and ghosts are already going to say from my terminology in the first sentence that I’m biasing this entire blog post. Well, get your own blog. Or be polite about it in the comments.

Anywho, there is the frequent claim that I hear on various shows and read in various places that “being a skeptic is the easiest thing in the world: All you have to do is say ‘no.’” Perhaps obviously, I disagree, and this post is about why.

Terminology

First, I must define my terms. I do not consider someone who just comes out and blurts “that’s not true” or “that’s not real” without evidence to be a skeptic. There is a difference between a skeptic and a denier. I consider:

Skeptic: Someone who approaches a question from a position of looking for evidence and making a conclusion based on the preponderance of the evidence, which can and should include all past evidence for plausibility of various explanations of that question.

Denier: Just says “no.”

Notice that there is a difference here. A skeptic can be someone who just says “no,” but it must be able to be backed up based on an examination of the evidence. For example, these days, I just say “no” automatically to most claims that the latest rock seen on Mars is a skull or a face or a fossil or a water valve. (The water valve ended up being the impression of a Phillips head screwdriver, but it’s much easier just to not do any research into the instrument and claim it’s a miniaturized water valve, because, ya know, it looks like one!) I can say that while still fitting my definition of “skeptic” because I actually have investigated this class of claims ad nauseam on this blog and on my podcast, and at a glance I can usually tell what class of misconception it fits into (usually either poor image analysis and/or pareidolia).

It’s Not Easy Being a Skeptic

It’s not.

No, really, it’s not.

Seriously.

For a completely selfish and capitalist reason, it’s not financially rewarding, which is very different from pseudoscience. I listen to people on Coast to Coast AM who publish a book every year – and those are the slow ones – about talking to dolphins, or searching for Atlantis, or making things up about archaeology or astronomy. It would be so easy, so cheap, and so much less time for me to write a book where I just make things up than to write a book that’s about real stuff that requires real research.

Now, I realize that I’ve painted with a very broad brushstroke here. I’m not saying that all people who many of us would classify as “pseudoscientists” publish quick and easy books where they just make things up and don’t do research. Some put a lot of time and energy into their books, and that is a separate category. But, next time you’re at a bookstore (they still have those, right?), take a look at the New Age or Spiritual sections. Count the number of books, amount of shelf space. Then go to the Skeptical section. Can’t find it? There’s a reason for that. You may be lucky to find Carl Sagan or Michael Shermer in the Science section. Or perhaps just in the broad Non-Fiction.

With that aside, being a skeptic – a real skeptic (with full knowledge of the No True Scotsman fallacy … see Terminology above) – takes a lot of work. It is trivially easy for someone to look at a rock in the latest image from Mars and claim that it’s a mechanical pump. Or a fossil of a sea star. And it will get posted on UFO Sightings Daily, and maybe even get picked up by a small online newspaper, and then maybe even by the Huffington Post. Yes, this has happened before.

Meanwhile, to do a proper skeptical investigation, we have to bring in information about how cameras work, how images from spacecraft are sent to Earth and processed, how color compositing works, how image resizing works, and what pareidolia is. It has taken me longer just to write that sentence listing the things you have to do than it would for me to look at a photo taken by an Apollo astronaut, see blooper, and send an e-mail to a UFO outlet online.

And then there’s actually doing the work. Fortunately, I’ve covered a lot of that material in podcasts #47, #48, #73, and #74. FYI, that’s nearly 3 hours of listening pleasure. All to investigate one single claim.

So, Is Skepticism Easy?

No.

Wrap Up

See what I did there? With the “No”? Anyway …

For those reasons, it really does bug me when I hear people say, or read when people write, that being a skeptic is easy. So much easier than being what they term a “true investigator.”

No, in fairness, just as there are some paranormalists who do write lengthy tomes that are full of real investigation (at which point I would mainly just argue with the conclusions), I do know that there are investigators who do do a lot of real investigation. Graham Hancock springs to mind. I fully disagree with practically everything the man has said. But, he has done a lot of real work, and I have to acknowledge and give him credit for that.

But, people like him, on the paranormal side, are very few and very far between. Most that you hear from are fully on the quick-’n’-dirty claim side, where it really is much, much easier to not be a skeptic.

September 19, 2014

A Quick Post on Pareidolia


First, the subject of this post: A study into pareidolia has won an Ig Nobel Prize. (If you don’t know what the Ig Nobels are, go to the link and read.) This study has six authors and is published in the journal Cortex: “Seeing Jesus in toast: Neural and behavioral correlates of face pareidolia.” (sorry, it’s behind a paywall)

Why am I posting about this? Well, some of my run-ins over the years have involved Mike Bara, most notably with respect to a lunar ziggurat (his belief in a step pyramid on the far side of the moon). The argument, which took place over the course of several months, never involved pareidolia, but in the course of the argument, Mike made this statement:

“The actual truth is that there is no such thing as “Pareidolia.” It’s just a phony academic sounding word the debunkers made up to fool people into thinking there is scholarly weight behind the concept. It’s actually a complete sham. … The word was actually first coined by a douchebag debunker (is that my first “douchebag” in this piece?! I must be getting soft) named Steven Goldstein in a 1994 issue of Skeptical Inquirer. Since then, every major debunker from Oberg to “Dr. Phil” has fallen back on it, but it is still a load of B.S. There is no such thing.”

In other words, very explicitly stating that pareidolia does not exist. He thinks it’s a made-up term (it’s not, or it isn’t any more made up than any other word in language) for a made-up thing. When pressed about this point, Mike has claimed that his stance is at least partly based on the “fact” that there are no scientific studies that talk about pareidolia. That there are neurological disorders about people seeing things that aren’t real, but nothing on pareidolia.

Even if that were true (it’s not — at the very least, the above-mentioned paper proves that), just because a term is not described in medical studies with clinical research (and it is, the above-mentioned paper proves that) does not mean the phenomenon is not real.

I’m looking out my window now and I see a cloud that looks exactly like a mouse, complete with two ears, a snout, an eye, and a long body with tail. That doesn’t mean there is a giant mouse in the sky, nor does that mean that my brain is subject to some rare neurological disorder. It means I’m like every other person: My brain subconsciously (or consciously sometimes) tries desperately to fit randomness into something familiar.

That’s what pareidolia is, and it is a real phenomenon regardless of what you want to call it and regardless of whether scientific studies use the term or have researched it. (As a side-note, there are plenty of real phenomena and real things that have not been specifically and formally researched – much less published – in the broad disciplines of science. I’m in the midst of writing several research proposals at the moment, and a key part to these is past work — in several cases, there simply isn’t any, I’ll be the first person to study them. That’s part of the point of science.)

Now, if Mike happens to see this post and deign to respond, I suspect he will claim it’s one study, or it’s done by skeptics, or some such thing, and continue to deny that pareidolia exists. Why? I of course cannot know the workings of his mind, but I would suspect that it’s because that admission would then require a re-evaluation of most of what he claims, since much of his “evidence” for ancient aliens on the moon and Mars and elsewhere is simply pareidolia. Such as the tank or airplane hanger on the moon, or cities and faces on Mars. And he’s unwilling to do that, so he fights very hard to defend his claim that pareidolia is not only a made up term, but a made up phenomenon that doesn’t exist.

Remember that the next time you see Micky Mouse on Mercury, or a smiley face with a colon and close-parenthesis : )


Side-Note: I wanted to give you all a brief update on my silence lately. I’m still very busy. I’m in the middle of proposal-writing season and just submitted a grant proposal on Wednesday, have another due in 2 weeks, and two more due three weeks after that. Plus, I’m changing jobs, which means desperately trying to tie up several projects on one end while starting others on the other end. I am very much hoping to get back to things after the October 3 proposal is due, but I’m not sure yet if that’ll be when everything calms down or if it’ll be a bit longer.

September 1, 2014

Podcast Episode 117: Eyewitness Accounts and UFOs, Interview with Dr. Elizabeth Loftus


Human memory,
UFO reports, and their
Reli’bility.

Finally, a new episode is out. I saw Dr. Elizabeth Loftus talk at TAM this year, and I asked her to come on the podcast to discuss her research into human memory and how malleable human memory is, with implications for UFO reports.

I tend not to discuss UFO = aliens much on my blog or podcast. That’s because so much of the claimed evidence these days has mostly to do with eyewitness reports which I really find fairly unconvincing. I also find the Argument from Authority angle – that this was a report made by a “trained observer” or someone with “impeccable credentials” – very off-putting, for it really doesn’t mean their memory is any better than anyone else’s, it’s just an attempt by the proponent to make it sound more trustworthy.

What Dr. Loftus discusses in the roughly 15-minute interview are some of the details of her research over the past three decades into how much human memory can be manipulated. She hasn’t studied UFO reports in particular, so could not directly comment on that, but she is familiar enough with them and with the topic of how to interview a witness and how manipulate memory in general that she could comment on it.

Due to ongoing ridiculously large and numerous time commitments, I’m not sure how many episodes I can put out this month, so it’s possible that this one is it. Hopefully not, but we’ll see.

July 6, 2013

Forgiveness, or Why I Like Stargate but Not Hoagland, Creationists, Planet Xers, etc.


Introduction

I’ve thought about writing this post for awhile but never got around to it. Now, I’m writing it instead of going to bed.

If you couldn’t figure it out from the title, the purpose of this post is to discuss why I like some television shows and movies that incorporate some bad science and am willing to forgive that versus why I dislike the purveyance of bad science by people such as creationists, UFOlogists, IDers, Planet Xers, or individuals like Richard Hoagland, Nancy Lieder, Maurice Cotterell, or Whitley Strieber — to name a few.

In other words, why I forgive some, but I don’t forgive others.

For Entertainment Purposes Only

We’ve all seen this or heard this line, especially if we read the 2-pt print at the bottom of many websites for, e.g., astrologers. For them, though, it’s to keep themselves legal. For science fiction shows such as Star Trek, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, or Stargate, that really is the intent: To entertain. Well, to make money for the network, but to tell an entertaining story.

I think that Gene Roddenberry was right in that, to tell a good story, it usually has to be about humans and the human condition. That was part of his impetus for having Spock in TOS and TAS, Data in TNG, and later directors to have Kes / 7 of 9 and Neelix in VOY, the various non-humans in DS9, and we’ll ignore That-Series-Which-Must-Not-Be-Named. These were the outsiders looking in on and commenting on and reacting to the humans and how they dealt with new situations.

Star Wars is similar: It can really be boiled down to the classic Hero’s Journey and is about humans fighting for freedom and survival. Stargate is similar, as well, having Teal’c as the alien character looking in for SG-1, Teyla on ATL, and then UNI failed for many reasons, but I think the lack of that non-human character looking in contributed.

Is the science perfect? Abso-friggin’-lutely not. I recently (last week) re-watched the original Stargate movie and then first three episodes of SG-1. In the first episode, the scientist character (Sam Carter, played by the amazing actress Amanda Tapping) has a conversation with the archaeologist (Daniel Jackson, played by the actor Michael Shanks:

Sam: According to the expanding universe model, all bodies in the universe are constantly moving apart.

Daniel: So in the thousands of years since the Stargate was built-

Sam: All the coordinates could have changed.

Daniel: But why does it still work between Abydos and Earth?

Sam: Abydos is probably the closest planet in the network to Earth. I mean, the closer they are, the less the difference in relative position due to expansion. The further away, the greater the difference. In a few thousand more years, it won’t work between Earth and Abydos either.

Daniel: Unless you can adjust for the displacement.

Sam: Right. Now with this map as a base, that should be easy. All we have to do is correct for Doppler shift. Then I should be able to arrive at a computer model that will predict the adjustments necessary to get the Gate working again.

Purists might say there’s nothing wrong with that, in the movie they clearly state Abydos is in a distant galaxy. But, in the TV series, and later in this first episode, they clearly state the Stargate system operates within the Milky Way. You have to have much more power and “dial” an extra glyph to get outside the Galaxy.

Ergo, the expanding universe does not apply in anyway. Sam in supposed to be an astrophysicist. An intro astronomy major would know that this line makes no sense, that galaxies are gravitationally bound objects in this epoch of the universe. Stellar drift – which the script writers use later in the series perhaps because they were told expanding universe doesn’t apply – is a very plausible explanation. But, that doesn’t change the fact that I rolled my eyes and shook my head when I heard that line.

And the follow-up of using Doppler shift to correct for it is equally fallacious: If you’re going to a distant galaxy where expansion plays a role, Doppler shift only gets you the radial velocity towards/away from Earth. You still have to know the Hubble Constant – which they didn’t in the 1990s when SG-1 started – to convert that to a distance, and you would need to know the motion across the sky, which you can’t really get for a distant galaxy (though it would be small relatively speaking).

In other words, the science is wrong. But it wasn’t as though the entire plot hinged upon it. It wasn’t as though the producers were trying to tell us that this is what’s really going on in the world (unlike what William Henry may think).

As such, I’m willing to forgive this kind of thing for the broader entertainment value, just like I’m willing to forgive the fact that everyone somehow speaks English all across the galaxy.

Movies I sometimes hold to a higher standard. For example, I saw the new Star Trek: Into Darkness movie a few weeks ago. Towards the end, the Enterprise is in orbit of Earth, but at the distance of the Moon. No engines. From the shot, they are implying that it is orbiting at the same speed as the Moon around Earth In the space of a half hour or so, the ship is plunging through Earth’s atmosphere, sure to crash. Sorry, but no. Being at the distance of the Moon and traveling at the same velocity is a stable orbit. Or, it took the Apollo astronauts three days to get to the Moon, and three days to get back, under powered travel. Not 20 minutes. No way the ship would be plunging through Earth’s atmosphere so soon. And that bothered me. Perhaps because it was a higher-budget endeavor than a weekly TV show. But, I still enjoyed the movie and it didn’t affect my opinion of it overall.

Then the Others

And then there are the ones of whom and of what I spoke in the second paragraph. They make factual mistakes, too. Like Mike Bara talking about how Mars’ orbit is elliptical because of its large distance difference from Earth, or that the surface of Earth is darker than clouds because light takes more time to reach it than clouds when the camera is in space (and oceans are darkest “because the light has to travel all the way to the ocean floor before it is reflected back to the camera.”

But, they try to sell that “science” as reality, and that’s all they’re selling. Sitchen was not creating an alternate world with an alien race that created humans and lived on a planet that swings near Earth every 3600 years and trying to make money with sci-fi. He really thought that is true.

In-so doing, and in perpetuating their own mythologies as real, they in fact do harm. I’ve often stated in my podcast and blog that bad astronomy is much less harmful than things like bad medicine where people really die because they take a homeopathic pill rather than get chemo. Very rare for someone to die because of astronomy pseudoscience.

But, astronomy pseudoscience is where it can start. Someone listens to James McCanney and electric universe stuff and thinks, “Well that’s weird, I’ve never heard about this before from ‘establishment’ scientists, but this guy has degrees, he has a platform, maybe there’s more to this.”

Bad science in any form is like a gateway drug: If you’re credulous about one thing and you don’t go through the critical thinking necessary to understand why it’s wrong, it opens you up to being taken advantage of by pseudoscience that can do a lot more physical harm.

Final Thoughts

I think that’s why I give science fiction shows and movies a free pass when they get the science wrong (in most cases), but I don’t give people like Richard Hoagland a pass: It’s all about intent.

Stargate is meant to entertain and they usually try to get the science right. Richard Hoagland, on the other hand, does not. He tries to sell you books, sell his appearance on TV shows and conferences, and various other ways of making money on perpetuating a misunderstanding of how science is done and the conclusions from its process.

And I think this is a good post to leave you with as I get ready for TAM 2013!

May 26, 2013

Properly Designing an Experiment to Measure Richard Hoagland’s Torsion Field, If It Were Real


Introduction

Warning: This is a long post, and it’s a rough draft for a future podcast episode. But it’s something I’ve wanted to write about for a long time.

Richard C. Hoagland has claimed now for at least a decade that there exists a “hyperdimensional torsion physics” which is based partly on spinning stuff. In his mind, the greater black governmental forces know about this and use it and keep it secret from us. It’s the key to “free energy” and anti-gravity and many other things.

Some of his strongest evidence is based on the frequency of a tuning fork inside a 40+ year-old watch. The purpose of this post is to assume Richard is correct, examine how an experiment using such a watch would need to be designed to provide evidence for his claim, and then to examine the evidence from it that Richard has provided.

Predictions

Richard has often stated, “Science is nothing if not predictions.” He’s also stated, “Science is nothing if not numbers” or sometimes “… data.” He is fairly correct in this statement, or at least the first and the last: For any hypothesis to be useful, it must be testable. It must make a prediction and that prediction must be tested.

Over the years, he has made innumerable claims about what his hyperdimensional or torsion physics “does” and predicts, though most of his predictions have come after the observation which invalidates them as predictions, or at least it renders them useless.

In particular, for this experiment we’re going to design, Hoagland has claimed that when a mass (such as a ball or planet) spins, it creates a “torsion field” that changes the inertia of other objects; he generally equates inertia with masss. Inertia isn’t actually mass, it’s the resistance of any object to a change in its motion. For our purposes here, we’ll even give him the benefit of the doubt, as either one is hypothetically testable with his tuning fork -based watch.

So, his specific claim, as I have seen it, is that the mass of an object will change based on its orientation relative to a massive spinning object. In other words, if you are oriented along the axis of spin of, say, Earth, then your mass will change one way (increase or decrease), and if you are oriented perpendicular to that axis of spin, your mass will change the other way.

Let’s simplify things even further from this more specific claim that complicates things: An object will change its mass in some direction in some orientation relative to a spinning object. This is part of the prediction we need to test.

According to Richard, the other part of this prediction is that to actually see this change, big spinning objects have to align in order to increase or decrease the mass from what we normally see. So, for example, if your baseball is on Earth, it has its mass based on it being on Earth as Earth is spinning the way it does. But, if, say, Venus aligns with the sun and transits (as it did back in July 2012), then the mass will change from what it normally is. Or, like during a solar eclipse. This is the other part of the prediction we need to test.

Hoagland also has other claims, like you have to be at sacred or “high energy” sites or somewhere “near” ±N·19.5° on Earth (where N is an integer multiple, and “near” means you can be ±8° or so from that multiple … so much for a specific prediction). For example, this apparently justifies his begging for people to pay for him and his significant other to go to Egypt last year during that Venus transit. Or taking his equipment on December 21, 2012 (when there wasn’t anything special alignment-wise…) to Chichen Itza, or going at some random time to Stonehenge. Yes, this is beginning to sound even more like magic, but for the purposes of our experimental design, let’s leave this part alone, at least for now.

Designing an Experiment: Equipment

“Expat” goes into much more detail on the specifics of Hoagland’s equipment, here.

To put it briefly, Richard uses a >40-year-old Accutron watch which has a small tuning fork in it that provides the basic unit of time for the watch. A tuning fork’s vibration rate (the frequency) is dependent on several things, including the length of the prongs, material used, and its moment of inertia. So, if mass changes, or its moment of inertia changes, then the tuning fork will change frequency. Meaning that the watch will run either fast or slow.

The second piece of equipment is a laptop computer, with diagnostic software that can read the frequency of the watch, and a connection to the watch.

So, we have the basic setup with a basic premise: During an astronomical alignment event, Hoagland’s Accutron watch should deviate from its expected frequency.

Designing an Experiment: Baseline

After we have designed an experiment and obtained equipment, usually the bulk of time is spent testing and calibrating that equipment. That’s what would need to be done in our hypothetical experiment here.

What this means is that we need to look up when there are no alignments that should affect our results, and then hook the watch up to the computer and measure the frequency. For a long time. Much longer than you expect to use the watch during the actual experiment.

You need to do this to understand how the equipment acts under normal circumstances. Without that, you can’t know if it acts differently – which is what your prediction is – during your time when you think it should. For example, let’s say that I only turn on a special fancy light over my special table when I have important people over for dinner. I notice that it flickers every time. I conclude that the light only flickers when there are important people there. Unfortunately, without the baseline measurement (turning on the light when there AREN’T important people there and seeing if it flickers), then my conclusion is invalidated.

So, in our hypothetical experiment, we test the watch. If it deviates at all from the manufacturer’s specifications during our baseline measurements (say, a 24-hour test), then we need to get a new one. Or we need to, say, make sure that the cables connecting the watch to the computer are connected properly and aren’t prone to surges or something else that could throw off the measurement. Make sure the software is working properly. Maybe try using a different computer.

In other words, we need to make sure that all of our equipment behaves as expected during our baseline measurements when nothing that our hypothesis predicts should affect it is going on.

Lots of statistical analyses would then be run to characterize the baseline behavior to compare with the later experiment and determine if it is statistically different.

Designing an Experiment: Running It

After we have working equipment, verified equipment, and a well documented and analyzed baseline, we then perform our actual measurements. Say, turn on our experiment during a solar eclipse. Or, if you want to follow the claim that we need to do this at some “high energy site,” then you’d need to take your equipment there and also get a baseline just to make sure that you haven’t broken your equipment in transit or messed up the setup.

Then, you gather your data. You run the experiment in the exact same way as you ran it before when doing your baseline.

Data Analysis

In our basic experiment, with our basic premise, the data analysis should be fairly easy.

Remember that the prediction is that, during the alignment event, the inertia of the tuning fork changes. Maybe it’s just me, but based on this premise, here’s what I would expect to see during the transit of Venus across the sun (if the hypothesis were true): The computer would record data identical to the baseline while Venus is away from the sun. When Venus makes contact with the sun’s disk, you would start to see a deviation that would increase until Venus’ disk is fully within the sun’s. Then, it would be at a steady, different value from the baseline for the duration of the transit. Or perhaps increase slowly until Venus is most inside the sun’s disk, then decreasing slightly until Venus’ limb makes contact with the sun’s. Then you’d get a rapid return to baseline as Venus’ disk exits the sun’s and you’d have a steady baseline thereafter.

If the change is very slight, this is where the statistics come in: You need to determine whether the variation you see is different enough from baseline to be considered a real effect. Let’s say, for example, during baseline measurements the average frequency is 360 Hz but that it deviates between 357 and 363 fairly often. So your range is 360±3 Hz (we’re simplifying things here). You do this for a very long time, getting, say, 24 hrs of data and you take a reading every 0.1 seconds, so you have 864,000 data points — a fairly large number from which to get a robust statistical average.

Now let’s say that from your location, the Venus transit lasted only 1 minute (they last many hours, but I’m using this as an example; bear with me). You have 600 data points. You get results that vary around 360 Hz, but it may trend to 365, or have a spike down to 300, and then flatten around 358. Do you have enough data points (only 600) to get a meaningful average? To get a meaningful average that you can say is statistically different enough from 360±3 Hz that this is a meaningful result?

In physics, we usually use a 5-sigma significance, meaning that, if 360±3 Hz represents our average ± 1 standard deviation (1 standard deviation means that about 68% of the datapoints will be in that range), then 5-sigma is 360±15 Hz. 5-sigma means that 99.999927% of the data will be in that range. This means that, to be a significant difference, we have to have an average during the Venus transit of, say, 400±10 Hz (where 1-sigma = 2 here, so 5-sigma = 10 Hz).

Instead, in the scenario I described two paragraphs ago, you’d probably get an average around 362 with a 5-sigma of ±50 Hz. This is NOT statistically significant. That means the null hypothesis – that there is no hyperdimensional physics -driven torsion field – must be concluded.

How could you get better statistics? You’d need different equipment. A turning fork that is more consistently 360 Hz (so better manufacturing = more expensive). A longer event. Maybe a faster reader so instead of reading the turning fork’s frequency every 0.1 seconds, you can read it every 0.01 seconds. Those are the only ways I can think of.

Repeat!

Despite what one may think or want, regardless of how extraordinary one’s results are, you have to repeat them. Over and over again. Preferably other, independent groups with independent equipment does the repetition. One experiment by one person does not a radical change in physics make.

What Does Richard Hoagland’s Data Look Like?

I’ve spent an excruciating >1700 words above explaining how you’d need to design and conduct an experiment with Richard’s apparatus and the basic form of his hypothesis. And why you have to do some of those more boring steps (like baseline measurements and statistical analysis).

To-date, Richard claims to have conducted about ten trials. One was at Coral Castle in Florida back I think during the 2004 Venus transit, another was outside Alburqueque in New Mexico during the 2012 Venus transit. Another in Hawai’i during a solar eclipse, another at Stonehenge during something, another in Mexico during December 21, 2012, etc., etc.

For all of these, he has neither stated that he has performed baseline measurements, nor has he presented any such baseline data. So, right off the bat, his results – whatever they are – are meaningless because we don’t know how his equipment behaves under normal circumstances … I don’t know if the light above my special table flickers at all times or just when those important people are over.

He also has not shown all his data, despite promises to do so.

Here’s one plot that he says was taken at Coral Castle during the Venus transit back in 2004, and it’s typical of the kinds of graphs he shows, though this one has a bit more wiggling going on:

My reading of this figure shows that his watch appears to have a baseline frequency of around 360 Hz, as it should. The average, however, states to be 361.611 Hz, though we don’t know how long that’s an average. The instability is 12.3 minutes per day, meaning it’s not a great watch.

On the actual graph, we see an apparent steady rate at around that 360 Hz, but we see spikes in the left half that deviate up to around ±0.3 Hz, and then we see a series of deviations during the time Venus is leaving the disk of the sun. But we see that the effect continues AFTER Venus is no longer in front of the sun. We see that it continues even more-so than during that change from Venus’ disk leaving the sun’s and more than when Venus was in front of the sun. We also see that the rough steady rate when Venus is in front of the sun is the same Hz as the apparent steady rate when Venus is off the sun’s disk.

From the scroll bar at the bottom, we can also see he’s not showing us all the data he collected, that he DID run it after Venus exited the sun’s disk, but we’re only seeing a 1.4-hr window.

Interestingly, we also have this:

Same location, same Accutron, some of the same time, same number of samples, same average rate, same last reading.

But DIFFERENT traces that are supposed to be happening at the same time! Maybe he mislabeled something. I’d prefer not to say that he faked his data. At the very least, this calls into question A LOT of his work in this.

What Conclusions Can Be Drawn from Richard’s Public Data?

None.

As I stated above, the lack of any baseline measurements automatically mean his data is useless because we don’t know how the watch acts under “normal” circumstances.

That aside, looking at his data that he has released in picture form (as in, we don’t have something like a time-series text file we can graph and run statistics on), it does not behave as one would predict from Richard’s hypothesis.

Other plots he presents from other events show even more steady state readings and then spikes up to 465 Hz at random times during or near when his special times are supposed to be. None of those are what one would predict from his hypothesis.

What Conclusions does Richard Draw from His Data?

“stunning ‘physics anomalies'”

“staggering technological implications of these simple torsion measurements — for REAL ‘free energy’ … for REAL ‘anti-gravity’ … for REAL ‘civilian inheritance of the riches of an entire solar system …'”

“These Enterprise Accutron results, painstakingly recorded in 2004, now overwhelmingly confirm– We DO live in a Hyperdimensional Solar System … with ALL those attendant implications.”

Et cetera.

Final Thoughts

First, as with all scientific endeavors, please let me know if I’ve left anything out or if I’ve made a mistake.

With that said, I’ll repeat that this is something I’ve been wanting to write about for a long time, and I finally had the three hours to do it (with some breaks). The craziness of claiming significant results from what – by all honest appearances – looks like a broken watch is the height of gall, ignorance, or some other words that I won’t say.

With Richard, I know he knows better because it’s been pointed out many times that what he needs to do to make his experiment valid.

But this also gets to a broader issue of a so-called “amateur scientist” who may wish to conduct an experiment to try to “prove” their non-mainstream idea: They have to do this extra stuff. Doing your experiment and getting weird results does not prove anything. This is also why doing science is hard and why maybe <5% of it is the glamorous press release and cool results. So much of it is testing, data gathering, and data reduction and then repeating over and over again.

Richard (and others) seem to think they can do a quick experiment and then that magically overturns centuries of "established" science. It doesn't.

May 1, 2013

Podcast #73 – Image Analysis for Skeptics: From Faces to Pyramids (Live Talk)


The mysterious
Veil on phographs, Lifted
in this episode.

This episode was filmed in front of a live studio audience at this year’s Denver Skepticamp last weekend. The episode is a short version of a workshop that Bryan Bonner and I will be co-leading at TAM this summer. As such, feedback is solicited! (as usual)

I’ve posted the materials (slides and two movies) to the shownotes page for this episode.

Since this was a live talk, the normal other segments were not done.

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