Exposing PseudoAstronomy

July 23, 2015

Podcast Episode 137 – Why Earth Is Old, Without Radiometric Dating


Finding age of Earth
Does not require just Rad-
ioactiv’ty.

The next episode! It was actually recorded three weeks ago, but I was so busy with New Horizons that I never got time to edit and then post it. So, here we go, the different ways scientists got minimum ages for Earth – without using radioactivity as a technique.

Plus two feedbacks! For a half-hour fun-pack!

June 2, 2015

Podcast Episode 133: Element 115 and the Credibility of Bob Lazar’s Claims


Ununpentium’s
Existence: Does it save Bob
Lazar’s U’FO claims?

A return to the roots of the podcast: A simple exploration of a claim, and what was found. Sort of. The first third of the episode is a look into the story of Bob Lazar, a man who is often credited (in part) with re-invigorating the UFO community in the late 1980s / early 1990s. It’s important for context, because embedded within that story is a general lack of credibility for his claims.

Enter element 115, which when it was discovered in 2003, became a rallying point for Bob Lazar’s supporters: The very existence of something that had not yet been discovered when Bob Lazar made the claim, means that his claims must be true. We see this a lot of times in the UFO field, but I really focused in this episode on this specific claim and the specific set of claims about element 115 made by Bob Lazar, before its “mainstream” discovery.

This episode does get a little technical because I talk about some basic particle physics, but I think it’s on par with most of my other episodes in terms of technical jargon and concepts.

And, that’s about it. There’s a short logical fallacy segment, where I ask your help in identifying the main logical fallacy for the episode, which I’ll then discuss next time.

It’s also important to note that the podcast is on Stitcher, and I should’ve checked my stats before I mentioned them at the end of the episode: I’m now on 33 peoples’ playlists and I’m ranked in the 3000s, not on 22 peoples’ playlists and ranked in the 5000s. Not bad for only being entered in late March and not doing much to promote it.

May 26, 2015

Podcast Episode 132 – In Search Of Planet X (Live from Denver ComicCon)


In Search: Planet X.
An overview of common
Ideas about it.

This episode is another recording of one of my live presentations, modeled a little after Leonard Nimoy’s “In Search Of” television series. It was presented in front of a live audience at the Denver ComicCon on May 24, 2015, to about 75-100 people. I was bordered on two sides by other sessions that had more people and a lot of laughter, so I played to that a little bit when there were opportune moments. I also suffered a minor A/V issue in the middle but recovered, so you’ll hear some fumbling there.

Unfortunately, there is also some popping that comes in about 10 minutes into the recording. I exploited all the filters that I know of in my Audacity toolkit, and they are less of an issue than they were, but they are definitely present.

I also need to announce that it is that time of year when work is going to get crazy, so episodes may come out a little less regularly, especially during July. I’m still going to keep to the two per month schedule, but they may not be out on exactly the first and sixteenth of the month.

And with that in mind, I have to head to the airport in 45 minutes for more work, after just being back home for 3.5 days. So …

February 1, 2015

Podcast Episode 125: The Black Hole Conspiracy


Black holes: Are these dense,
Massive objects for realz, or
Are they just Sci Fi?

This is a bit different from a straight-up old-school “debunking” episode where the emphasis is more on the process of science and process of elimination rather than solid, cannot-be-dismissed evidence for something. That’s because, by definition (we think), black holes cannot be directly observed. That’s why I use a part of a blog post by Mike Bara as a very rough outline to go through some of the theoretical reasons for why we think black holes exist and then some of the observational evidence from material interacting with the theoretical objects.

This episode continues the Logical Fallacies segment and introduces you to the Burden of Proof fallacy. Which is a tricky one. There are also some old stalwarts like Argument from incredulity, argument from ridicule, ad hominem, straw man, and argument from authority.

And, for the first time in what seems like a year, there’s Q&A!!!

I’m still doing my listening “research” for the Hale-Bopp episodes, which is looking like there’s so much material that I may turn it into a three-parter. We’ll see. Hard to say at this point. It’s slated to be the next episode, but I may have to postpone that if I haven’t finished listening in time, and I’ll do a different episode instead. I’m also trying to line up at least two future interviews, but given past experience, I’m loathe to announce them before they’re recorded.

October 29, 2014

The Deathbed Confession Phenomenon, and I’m Blogging at JREF’s Swift


As I continue to emerge from my seclusion from writing 5 grant proposals, a new development is that I am now included in the roster of bloggers on the James Randi Education Foundation (JREF) Swift blog. I’m not entirely sure how often I’ll be able to do it, but with 400-1000 -word posts and me already doing the weekly ATS 3-hour radio program Saturday nights, hopefully some time overlap can be arranged.

That said, my first post is about deathbed confessions, and why I find them unconvincing in terms of revealing anything outside the mainstream. I’m going to include the posts here in part because the Swift blog comments are closed. The posts here will not have been edited from what I send Sharon Hill (who does the actual posting) or have the images, so go there for the pretty pics.

Since this is my first Swift post, I wanted to give a brief introduction. I’m a self-termed “astro/geophysicist” with a Ph.D. in geophysics but a background more in astrophysics. Given my background, I tend to focus on pseudoscience and skepticism as applied to astronomy, geology, and physics. One regular activity of mine is that I’m a member of the studio of “ATS Live,” the premier three-hour live weekly show of the Above Top Secret website (one of the most popular conspiracy websites in the world); I’m the token skeptic.

On last weekend’s show (October 25, 2014), one of the topics we discussed was the deathbed confession of “Area 51 scientist,” Boyd Bushman. Within a few weeks of his death this past August, Mr. Bushman was recorded in numerous clips making various claims about how he worked on things such as antigravity, UFOs, and other classic pseudoscience claims related to what could be loosely termed, “new physics.”

I think this is an excellent example of why I find the “deathbed confession” phenomenon completely unconvincing, especially as related to paranormal-type claims.

People who want to believe tend to cite two reasons that deathbed confessions should be considered good evidence for their claims. First is the classic argument from authority, especially in the case of Boyd Bushman who’s reasonably well known in the UFO community and “was a retired Senior Scientist for Lockheed Martin.” He was awarded patents and defense contracts. Sounds impressive.

To be brief, the argument form authority is meaningless in terms of the veracity of the actual information; claims and information need to stand on their own and be verified regardless of the person who is making it. My favorite example is that Isaac Newton who (by most metrics) founded modern physics, believed in alchemy.

With this in mind, I don’t even need to start on the path of investigating Mr. Bushman’s claims of employment and background, which many people have called into question.

The second reason people tend to believe deathbed confessions is, “they have nothing to lose!” After all, the person making the deathbed confession is – barring something miraculous – dying. Being killed by the Men in Black at that point is no longer a threat because they’re about to die anyway.

While this certainly makes sense, there are plenty of other reasons why a deathbed confession would actually not be reliable. For one, at least for those who are older and close to death, senility can play a role. It is a normal part of aging, and for the record, Mr. Bushman was 78 when he died. I’m not claiming that senility played a role in this case, I’m merely raising it as a complicating factor of an older person’s testimony.

That aside, a deathbed confession can be a good time to solidify one’s reputation and use the deathbed confession phenomenon and the belief in its veracity to double-down on the claim to increase peoples’ belief in it.

The thinking could easily be, “People really believe that people are 100% honest on their deathbed, so I’m going to make sure I go out with a ‘bang’ and make my claims yet again. People who didn’t believe me before might this time because they’ll think I’m telling the truth ’cause I’m about to die.”

However, in addition to explaining why the common reasons to believe deathbed confession testimony are unconvincing, there’s a better reason why the testimony is not useful: They’re doing it wrong.

Let’s say I had a bunch of secrets of exotic physics and decided to do a deathbed confession. Here’s what I would say: “I’ve been working on antigravity and warp field physics for the last 50 years, in secret, with the US government.” Then, instead of showing photos of a spaceship or a blurry alien – if even that as opposed to just speaking to the camera – I would add: “And, here are the equations. Here is a diagram for how you build a device. Here is a working model. Here is exactly how you put everything together.”

In other words, it shouldn’t matter who I am, what my experience is, or what pretty (or ugly) picture I show. What I need to show is HOW to do it. Saying something doesn’t make it so. I need to give enough information for someone else to verify it and duplicate it. Otherwise, what’s the point? To show I’m smarter than everyone else and I’m just letting you know that before I die?

That’s why I find this whole deathbed confession thing unconvincing and, perhaps more importantly, unuseful: We have no more information than we had before. We have no way to verify any of the information claimed. No way to test or duplicate it. At *best*, we have another person claiming this stuff is real, and while he or she may be proven out with the passage of time, their “confession” contributed absolutely nothing to that advancement.

Until then, it’s no better than any other pseudoscientific claim.

July 21, 2014

Podcast Episode 116: The Electric Universe, Part 2, with Dr. Tom Bridgman


Sun models from the
Electric Universe. Do
The predictions work?

Practically on time comes part 2 of the two-part overview of the Electric Universe. This one is also a bit heavy with the math, so I recommend heading over to Tom’s site for more information and many, many more details.

So, um, with the deadline for a major grant program coming up in a few days, that’s it folks!

July 11, 2014

Podcast Episode 115: The Electric Universe, Part 1, with Dr. Tom Bridgman


Overview of the
Electric Universe! Been
A long time coming.

Happy TAM for all those who are here in Vegas, and attending TAM. As my own kick-off, since (for those who don’t know) today’s the first official day of stuff, we have Episode 115 of the podcast, the Electric Universe, Part 1. Part 2 will be out later this month where we’ll get more into the electric sun ideas, and why they fail. In other words, while this episode is an overview of the concept, and a lot of the history, the next episode is going to get more to specific examples of predictions and how the data fail to support them.

And, that’s about it. I’m writing this a day ahead of time, sitting in the Las Vegas airport for an hour.5 waiting for the airport shuttle so I don’t have to pay for a taxi. And I got 3 hours of sleep last night. So …

Oh, and the interview, for those who don’t read the title of the blog post, is with Dr. Tom Bridgman of the “Dealing with Creationism in Astronomy” blog.

June 2, 2014

Request for Questions: Electric Universe


In what promises to be as epic – or even more-so – than when the Flintsones met the Jetsons or if the Love Boat ever went to Fantasy Island, Exposing PseudoAstronomy will be meeting up with Crank Astronomy / Dealing with Creationism in Astronomy for a future episode or possibly two, or possibly more down the road.

I will be interviewing Tom Bridgman in a few weeks for at least one episode to be released in July. His area of expertise is the bane of my existence – electricity and magnetism – and he has talked a lot about the electric universe (or “EU”) idea on his blog before. I’ve gotten a lot of requests from listeners and readers to talk about this, but there’s no way I can do it justice.

I think Tom can.

We’re going to talk briefly about the history of EU and then probably about the “electric sun” phenomenon, but he and I want to open this up to any questions that you, the readers/listeners, may have for me to ask or topics for him to talk about. IF there are a lot, perhaps we’ll go longer and split into multiple episodes.

Please use the Comments here to put down topics/questions for discussion.

April 9, 2014

The Pseudoscience of Whipping Cream


On Saturday, I had baked a honey ginger sponge cake. As a recipe with no added fat (the only non-negligible fat being from egg yolks), the cake is somewhat dry. So, I usually serve it with whipped cream and berries. Quite good, when it turns out right (about 10-20% of the time, it somehow separates and a weird rubbery eggy layer forms on the bottom).

So, I went to the ‘fridge and pulled out a half pint (why don’t they just call it a cup?) of cream and put it in the mixer – as I’ve done many times – with some powdered sugar and vanilla extract. Five minutes later, I had aerated cream. Ten minutes later, I had aerated cream. Why wouldn’t my cream whip!?

I scoured the internet. Yes, I had bought cream, not whole milk. Yes, I had chilled the bowl. Yes, I even tried sprinkling gelatin and making sure the mixer was oriented along a magnetic field line but not anti-parallel to the nearest lay line. Okay, not that last bit.

This is where I encountered some of the oddest pseudoscience in awhile, people trying to give advice or reasons why cream wouldn’t whip up. Among them were:

  • I should add a touch of lemon extract (an acid) to help break down bonds.
  • Add cream of tartar.
  • Add gelatin.
  • Use a copper bowl instead of stainless steel.
  • You can’t use Pasteurized – and especially not ultra pasteurized – cream.
  • Could be that the cows had an off-week.
  • You have to start the mixer at a low speed.
  • You can’t add the sugar at the beginning, you have to add it after it’s started to get fluffy.
  • You have to add sugar at the beginning (“it wont whip on it’s own”).
  • The bowl wasn’t cold enough (“They must be super cold.”).
  • You have to use the whisk attachment, not the egg beaters attachment.
  • Cream that had been frozen won’t whip.

I can, with practically 100% certainty, say that all of those are bulls–t. The real reason why my cream wouldn’t whip? I accidentally bought Table Cream instead of Whipping or Heavy Cream, meaning the butterfat content was 18% instead of 30-38%.

There is a very basic physics to this: Whipped cream is a fat-stabilized foam, meaning that you have to beat tiny air bubbles into the fat matrix of the cream. If there is not enough fat, then they cannot support the air, and the air will simply diffuse out. If there is enough fat, then they can trap the air. The one bit in the above list that was sort of correct is that colder fat will hold the air a little better (they’re somewhat stickier), so it does help a bit if your cream is just above freezing and you use a cold bowl to keep it colder longer. However, that is far from necessary. And, cream of tartar is a general stabilizer in whipped things, so that could help, but it is not a fat substitute — you still need to be able to whip the cream to begin with, the cream of tartar will just help keep it whipped once you’re done.

Everything else in that list is wrong. Acids can denature fats and so it can actually PREVENT the cream from whipping. Gelatin could work if you do it right — it has to be dissolved first in the liquid, and if you add it directly to the whipping cream, you’ll just get granules of gelatin. Pasteurization has nothing to do with changing the structure of the fat, same with the cows having an off-week or the cream having been frozen at some point in the past. The mixer starting at low speed just means it won’t splash as much and it will take longer. The two sugar claims are contradictory, and it doesn’t matter how you get the air in so long as it’s tiny air bubbles.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that pseudoscience crops up everywhere. But, I was amazed at the amount of it for something so simple as whipping cream, and that only on one site out of the dozen that I looked at did someone suggest ensuring that the cream was 30-38% butterfat, and that even if it says “cream” on the container, it can be below that and won’t whip.

December 1, 2013

Podcast Episode 94: Error and Uncertainty in Science


Terminology
Episodes. Hopefully not
A boring topic?

Another unconventional episode, this one focuses on terminology and what is meant by “accuracy,” “precision,” “error,” and “uncertainty” in science. And, especially, different sources and types of error.

The episode also – surprisingly given my time constraints right now – has all of the other usual segments: Q&A (about asteroid Apophis), Feedback about the Data Quality Act, and even a Puzzler! (Thanks to Leonard for sending in the puzzler for this episode.) And the obligatory Coast to Coast AM clip.

I also talk a bit about meetup plans in Australia, especially the Launceston Skeptics in the Pub on January 2, 2014, where I’ll be talking about the Lunar Ziggurat saga, not only from a skeptical point of view, but from an astronomical one as well as from a more social science point of view — dealing with “the crazies.” I have not yet started to write the presentation, but I personally think it’s fascinating, how it’s playing out in my head.

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