Exposing PseudoAstronomy

April 3, 2017

Podcast Episode 160: Apollo Hoax: The US Flag Waving, and the Moon of No Return

Apollo Moon Hoax:
Why does the US flag wave?
And, why no return?

A return to a tried-and-true subject of skepticism: the Apollo Moon Hoax. In this shorter episode, I discuss two of the most common claims that you may hear: Why does the US flag appear to be waving in photographs, and if we went to the moon, why haven’t we been back?

There are no additional segments in this episode, and it is significantly shorter than my recent standard. This is also the episode for the second half of March.

Moon Hoax Poster

Moon Hoax Poster


March 8, 2016

The Abuse of Paralipsis in Pseudoscience

I was reading an article tonight by a scholar of American political rhetoric who was philosophizing about why Donald Trump seems to be able to get away with saying things that no other candidate does. I personally don’t understand it (for example, how Trump can get away with saying that if he stood on 5th Ave. and shot someone, people would still vote for him), but I did learn a new word: Paralipsis.

The author of the article I was reading about Donald Trump described it as, “a device that enables him to publicly say things that he can later disavow – without ever having to take responsibility for his words.”

When I read that, I thought, “But pseudoscientists do that, too!” (Yes, I think in grammatically almost-correct sentences.) In fact, I wrote about this in 2010 with reference to Richard Hoagland and Neil Adams, and I mentioned the phenomenon a bit in my lengthy post last year about when I called into Richard’s radio program. In the latter, I addressed this phenomenon as Richard primarily manifests it by using the weasel term “model,” for “as Richard tends to implement it [the term ‘model’], it is a crutch to fall back on when he is shown to be undeniably wrong.”

I think my conclusion from that 2010piece is still quite apt, whether to politicians or pseudoscientists, but it’s nice now to have a word to stick onto the phenomenon:

“[Pseudoscientists] should stand behind what they say or not say it at all. Creating a whole elaborate “alternative” scenario, and then extolling the cop-out of, “But I’m not an expert, I’m just putting this out there,” and falling back on it when confronted is disingenuous, slippery, and sleazy. Pretending that you are effectively musing out loud when in fact you are actively and consistently promoting yourself is more annoying than the loud and proud true believers. At least they have the guts to really stand behind what they claim.”

November 30, 2015

Podcast Episode 144: Why We Know About Things Far Away but Not Nearby, and Lots of New News

How can we know ’bout
Stuff far ‘way but not nearby?
Big conspiracy?

The return! This episode has a shorter main segment in favor of having some new news, all of them sent in by listeners. In the episode, I address a claim that I hear in many different contexts that basically boils down to, “How can we know about far away stuff but we don’t even know about close stuff!” I provide two examples, many analogies, an experiment you can do yourself, and my usual dry, witless humor.

The logical fallacies segment discusses the False Equivalence fallacy.

For the New News, I talk about the exosystem discovery by Kepler that made the news in mid-October, space law and possible violations by bills in the US Congress, and the new farthest known object in the solar system.

And yes, this is episode 144, there has not yet been an episode 143. It will come out “soon.” Where “soon” is an undefined unit of time, and it will be back-dated to November 1.

March 22, 2015

Should NASA Fund Old Missions In Operation, or New Missions in Development?


This was my seventh post to the JREF’s Swift blog, published last week. I wrote it while I was at the annual Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC) and was reading the news and listening to the (perpetual) budget issues at NASA.

The Post

Last week, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden testified before the Senate Subcommittee responsible for NASA’s budget. In response to questions about the funding of Mars rover missions, The Planetary Society blog reported that Bolden stated the following:

“We cannot continue to operate instruments and missions whose time has passed, because I won’t be able to put something like InSight on Mars in 2016 … I have to make choices.”

This is an interesting statement and sentiment, and it’s one that I’ve wrestled with myself for several years. The question really boils down to this: Should NASA continue to fund proven missions well past their design lifetime that are still successfully operating, or should they “pull the plug” and move the funding (that they never originally budgeted for in the first place) to some other project, one that uses technology a decade newer? And, to make it more relevant to the JREF, if funding is pulled, will it spark a new conspiracy?

The context of this particular mission is that the Mars Exploration Rovers were twins – Spirit and Opportunity – with nominal lifetimes of 90 days. They landed on Mars a decade ago. Spirit died a few years ago, Opportunity is still functional and returning science information. It has gone through several extended missions, meaning that the money was never originally budgeted to pay for operations (mission control, planning, time on the deep space networks, and of course the scientists). Meaning that the money to fund them now eats into other previously planned programs.

Because the MERs landed on Mars a decade ago, the technology in them is at least a decade and a half old. Think about it: That was before the iPod, before most people had multi-CPU computers, and still well before digital cameras were mainstream. Contrast that with what one has available now to build a new mission, and you start to see some of the issues.

On the one hand, you have a still-operating mission. It’s there. On Mars. Still returning usable data. The cost to build it and launch it and make sure everything is working right is done, paid for, and will never have to be paid for again.

But, on the other hand, the money to keep it going prevents new missions, with better technology, with a new and different goal, from even getting off the ground and having the potential to do new science.

It’s easy to say, “Well, just increase NASA’s budget!” Easy to say, not so easy to get Congress to do. Delays and cost over-runs in both the James Webb Space Telescope and the Mars Curiosity rover both were not made up by Congress and so ate into other parts of the budget, such as basic scientific research funding (what I rely on to put food on the table).

If NASA were to simply “turn off” MER Opportunity, it would not be the first still-functional mission that NASA has effectively killed. There are several in recent times, but perhaps most interesting to me is the Apollo seismic network. The Apollo astronauts on later missions installed and activated seismic stations on the lunar surface to detect moonquakes. No, there are no buildings on the moon that we needed to warn, but rather whenever there was a quake – from something impacting to tides between it and Earth and the sun – the stations would pick it up and scientists on Earth would be able to use the data to slowly build up a picture of the interior of our nearest celestial neighbor. It’s a little like the way an ultrasound works, and it’s earthquake data on our own planet that lets us know about the interior structure of Earth.

When NASA ran out of funding for it after a few years after the Apollo program ended, they shut down the network, despite the fact that it was still returning good, usable data, and with each new quake we learned a little more about the structure of the moon’s interior. A consequence of this – besides a loss to basic scientific research – is that conspiracies about NASA finding the moon is hollow have become widespread among the astronomical pseudoscientific world. The thinking goes that they found it “rang like a bell” (which had more to do with the loosely packed surface material) and therefore either shut down the network so we wouldn’t know it was hollow, or they kept the network going but in secret.

Anyway, that bit of conspiracy aside, this really is a serious issue and serious question of where our monetary priorities should be. Assuming NASA’s budget is static and will not be changed to keep these long-lived missions operational, then what should a good administrator do? Should they keep the proven mission going? Or should they kill it and fund the new mission? Or, should they fund both and pull money from other parts of the budget, like education, or human spaceflight, or basic research?

I have my own opinion on this, but I’ll keep it to myself. I just know I wouldn’t want to be in Charley Bolden’s shoes when he makes that decision and has to not only answer to Congress, but to many scientists who will see their budgets cut, yet again.

Letter to the Editor

After the above post, I got an e-mail:

Stuart, what about the possibility of (for future missions, it’s probably too late to do something like this for Opportunity) turning operations for “expired but still viable” missions over to amateur (or private professional) research groups. After the official funded mission is over, could a bid process be set up to allow such groups (which would have their own private funding) to take over the control, data collection, and analysis from such “defunct” missions? Such a handoff would free NASA’s budget for contemporary / future missions, and also give other groups access to hardware / settings (Mars, for example) that their budgets would certainly not allow for. What are your thoughts in this regard?

Here was my response:

While this seems like a great idea on its face, you run into a lot of legal issues. In particular, ITAR-restricted information. That would put a stop to your scenario right away.

Beyond that, there are broader questions of how open the information would be once the data are gathered by an independent, private company. Though, one could of course argue that the company paid for it, therefore they should have the right to own it.

There are also some communications issues. The Deep Space Network is the only set of antennas that can record signals as faint as those sent by interplanetary craft. That’s a public (inter-governmental) group, so if the DSN brings down the data, are there licensing issues? I don’t know the answer to that, but it strikes me as a potential question.

Finally, you have “parts” of spacecraft that are still important and NASA (or other governments) still use even if they can’t fund all the other “parts.” For example, while MAVEN (around Mars now) has a suite of instruments for studding the atmosphere, they are only funded for one Earth year and must submit an extended mission request to operate beyond that. But even if that request is denied, the craft itself will still be kept active and act as a communications relay. It’s just that the science instruments won’t be collecting and transmitting data, and there won’t be money for scientists to analyze it.

It’s a very … perhaps “annoying” and “frustrating” … situation to be in, but unfortunately the solution isn’t as simple as just selling the craft to someone else.

May 20, 2013

Academic Freedom versus Stupidity

Short post … This post is my musing on an article I read today about Harvard students seeking a probe into how a Ph.D. was awarded to a stupid thesis. My words, but allow me to explain.

Some may remember the new a few weeks ago that the Heritage Foundation, a “think tank” that is very very right of the political spectrum (recently hired Jim DeMint, a leading member of the Tea Party movement), released a report saying that an immigration policy being debated in the United States Congress would cost the country $5.3 trillion. (It won’t.)

The report was primarily authored by Jason Richwine, a man who was awarded a Ph.D. in public policy in 2009 from Harvard. The report based most of its findings on Richwine’s Ph.D. thesis that stated hispanic immigrants have lower IQs than the “native white population” of the US, and that the lower IQ would persist for many generations. I recommend going to the Washington Post article I linked to above for direct quotes from the thesis. Oh, and after the outcry over the report, Richwine resigned from the Heritage Foundation.

The purpose of this post is about the article, which states 1200 students petitioned the President of Harvard to probe how Richwine could have been awarded a Ph.D. on a topic such as that with a conclusion such as that. The question raises an interesting conundrum on the interplay of politics, factual veracity, and academic freedom.

Let’s start with the most direct thing: I don’t think his degree should be rescinded unless, upon examination, there is evidence of fraud. All because someone is wrong doesn’t mean that their thesis must be withdrawn after the fact.

With that said, it would be interesting to know who was on the thesis committee, who signed off on the thesis, and possibly what their views are. Which gets into the much murkier area of academic freedom (real academic freedom, not the faux stuff pushed by the “Intelligent” Design movement). The concept of academic freedom is that one should be able to pursue research regardless of how politically incorrect or unpopular it may be.

Clearly, the conclusions in his thesis are unpopular and politically incorrect (unless you’re a Tea Party member). Objectively, I can’t state that he’s wrong because I don’t have the data and haven’t seen studies that speak to the contrary. My gut, and what I’ve seen of other studies throughout the years, would indicate that he IS wrong. In that case, we exit from the area of academic freedom and journey to the area of tainted or incomplete results to bolster a politically motivated conclusion. Journeying to the murky area of where fraud might come in.

To cut this rambling short, I’ve laid out my musings on this subject above. Why am I writing it on the “Exposing PseudoAstronomy” blog? Because I often deal with cases of outright fraud and deceit that are much more obvious (think Hoagland blowing up an image, increasing the brightness, and claiming JPEG compression artifacts are actually cities).

This, however, is a different case: An actual Ph.D., awarded by one of the most prestigious institutions in the world, for a thesis that by all indications was done through all the proper hoops and channels, and yet seems to be completely wrong. To the point that over 1000 members of the student body have taken the almost unprecedented step of petitioning both the university President and the dean of the college (School of Government), requesting a probe of how it was awarded.

What are your thoughts on this situation?

April 18, 2013

The State of NASA Funding for Research


I debated for awhile about whether I should write this kind of post or not. It’s not really related to the topic of “pseudoastronomy,” though when I thought about it more, a popular claim amongst the “alternative” people is that scientists have practically unlimited funding and they are paid such to uphold the status quo.

I had my link, I write this post. 🙂

How Scientists Get Funding

First, I recommend you read this post, “Where Do Scientists Get Funded” (though hopefully the grammar in the post is better than the title — not sure how I came up with that title).

The jist of the post is that we live in a time that only started maybe 100 or so years ago where governments realized that for a healthy society, a progressive society, and one that can keep ahead in the world, the government needs to support basic research and development. And by “support,” I mean “fund with money.”

There are numerous science and science-related fields that do NOT rely significantly on government support. Engineering is perhaps an obvious one. Medical research pulls from both. Geology pulls from both but probably dollar-wise, industries such as oil, gas, and coal fund the most geological research (I’m guessing here, so don’t yell at me if my numbers are wrong).

Then there are fields where the majority of the funding comes from government research. In broad brush strokes, I would say that the “basic science” fields such as physics, astronomy, most of chemistry, and similar disciplines get most of their funding through government grants. Why? Probably because the benefit to industry isn’t as obvious. Why should a company like Boeing care about how many extrasolar planets are out there?

I can say pretty much without fear of being wrong that the vast majority of professional astronomers in the USA are funded through NASA and/or NSF grants.

Let’s talk about how you get a NASA grant.

Getting a NASA Grant

In February each year, NASA releases the call for proposals to their massive “ROSES” program (Research Opportunities in Space and Earth Sciences). ROSES has dozens of sub-programs that distribute awards ranging from $50k/yr for light research to several $million/yr for instrument and/or missions. Separately, there are also calls for institutes (like NASA Astrobiology Institute, or the NASA Lunar Science Institute) which are generally around $1-2 million/yr, and there are calls for mission proposals (which as we learned with Curiosity can cost several $billion over a decade or so).

That overview aside, most basic research is funded through ROSES. ROSES has 102 separate programs you can apply to, though not all of them are available every year.

The basic research ones, such as those that I apply to like LASER (lunar stuff), MDAP (Mars Data Analysis Program), or PGG (Planetary Geology and Geophysics), tell you that they expect to give X number of new awards this funding cycle that will average $100,000 per year. So if I’m writing a 3-year proposal to PGG, I should try to get my total budget to be about $300,000 regardless of what I’m doing or how many people I’m supporting or what my institution charges in overhead (usually 2-3x what I would get in salary) or how many trips I need to go on or what equipment I need.

Then you write the proposal, submit it, and cross your fingers. A panel reviews the proposal and decides what they think its scientific merit is, how cost effective it is, and whether it’s relevant to that program (for example, if >20% of your proposal is to analyze existing Mars data, then you can’t apply to MFRP because it’s not relevant to MFRP (Mars Fundamental Research PRogram); or, if you don’t include some of the required material like a CV, we vote non-compliance which goes in relevance). Each panel is actually broken into several sub-panels, like within LASER you may have a geology sub-panel, exosphere sub-panel, materials sub-panel, and geophysics sub-panel. (I have never been on a LASER panel so I’m guessing here based on other ones I’ve been on, but due to confidentiality I can’t say what those are.)

Each sub-panel then ranks the proposals based on their scores (scores are 1-5) and also gives them a word grade based on the score, from Excellent (5) to Poor (1). You can also get split scores like Very Good / Good (3.5). Anything below Good (3) is considered unfundable no matter how much money is available.

Alright, I’m making this longer than it needs to be … so we rank the proposals and set a “water line” of “MUST FUND” and “Please Fund If There’s Money!” Then we send that to the program director who makes their recommendation to some other people at NASA.

What this all means is you propose, it’s reviewed, ranked, and then decided on. The problem these days is where that water line is, and why it keeps raising.

Falling Funding

NASA, as a federal agency, is beholden both to Congress for setting its budget, and the President for setting its direction and priorities (though sometimes Congress mandates some priorities in the bills it passes). NASA’s budget has been effectively stagnant relative to or decreasing relative to inflation for the past few years. And yet, it has been mandated each funding cycle to change direction and fund something new.

For example, the latest is some asteroid mission that made the news a week or three ago. That money has to come from somewhere. Each year that NASA gets more money, though, a large portion of that is already earmarked for stuff that it has already committed to. And yet with each new mandate, new funding for it is not provided. So, like someone who just got a flat tire but is on a fixed income and already has other bills, the money for that unforeseen expense has to come from something else. Usually, that’s SMD (Science Mission Directorate). Which funds the basic research. Which funds a lot of astronomers.

See where I’m going?

For the last several years, the fraction of successful proposals has been falling at NASA. To the programs that I apply, this past year, the success rate was roughly 17%. This is down from around 25-30%. That may still seem like a lot. Let’s put it a different way.

When I was on some grant review panels, our sub-panel had around 17-19 proposals. We were told that out of our sub-panel, we may get to fund up to 4 or 5 in one program I was on, and 3 in another I was on. Those were lucky – that was a 25% one where the program director had somehow managed to earmark more funds for their program. That means that about 15 of those others, despite some getting Very Good or Very Good / Good scores, were rejected.

New Lows

I work in a lab with on the order of 100 other research scientists. We were recently sent an e-mail asking us to come talk with the director of research if we were having funding issues. After I went to talk with him, he told me that this is the worst he’s seen it in over 30 years. As of that time, 1 RA (Research Associate) was below 100% funding. But, within the next 6 months, >10% of people are in jeopardy.

Meanwhile, NASA’s had travel freezes, pretty much all state institutes have had hiring freezes (so if someone quits or retires, that person cannot be replaced), and now the President’s budget recommendation calls for all education and public outreach to be removed from individual agencies that actually do that kind of research (like NASA, or the Department of Agriculture or Energy), and moved to either the Department of Education (formal education), National Science Foundation (education research), and the Smithsonian (outreach).

The way it currently works is that the researchers actually doing the research partner with people and pay people from the same grants to do education and outreach about that research. For example, every single space mission has a mandatory Education and Public Outreach (EPO) component that funds basic things like their website, and free educational material for teachers. If this proposal were taken and implemented as-is, the likely scenario is that all that money would be zero’ed out (or maybe just all future missions, and the current ones would be grandfathered in), and then all new EPO would have to be proposed through the DOE, NSF, or Smithsonian.

I can see trimming the fat of bureaucracy, but this seems like instead of trimming the fat off a cut of beef to get to the meat, they’re just throwing the steak away and going with chicken. An entirely different animal that will take a long time to get used to and, regardless, can’t fit the same needs as the old one, no matter how hard it tries.

Final Thoughts

I understand that as a somewhat political post, people are going to say that there’s no problem here, that scientists should “get real jobs” and/or not rely on someone else’s tax dollars to pay their salary. Fine. This post is not for you.

For other people who do think that funding basic science research is important, I’m writing this post to give you more of an insight into the process and insight into current problems that we face now. Obviously, this post has been written with specifics that are near and dear to me in mind. With that said, funding rates from the National Institutes of Health are roughly 5%. And somehow homeopathists can get NIH funds.

I also write this with a nod towards Pamela Gay’s blog post from last night, “Fighting Funding Cuts and Sequestration,” though I think the original title (based on the URL) also had an, “And Fighting for Our Lives” at the end. Her post is a direct request for funding support for her various projects. I want to be clear that I am not asking for donations in my post, nor am I begging you to make a donation to her. I will say that I am involved with one of her projects, “CosmoQuest,” which is generating data that we’re using for research and, in fact, right now writing a paper on that should be submitted to a journal late next month (11 coauthors … it takes awhile to get everyone to sign off on a paper).

If, after reading this, you think this is an okay situation, that’s your prerogative. If you don’t, then I recommend that you contact your congressperson and/or senator and tell them that. And feel free to mention the fact that if young scientists today can’t get research funding, they only have two options: Find work in their field in another country, or choose a different career. In either case, that means that in 2-3 decades, the US will be faced with a serious deficit of those people, the very ones we need to stay ahead. In their stead, we’ll have people who think that pink beams of energy were photographed coming out of pyramids, that there’s a ziggurat on the moon, that clouds from space appear brighter than land because light from them takes less time to reach the camera, or that comets prove the universe is 6000 years old.

October 11, 2012

A Post About Not Posts – NASA Grant Review Panels and Confidentiality


I was recently asked to serve on a NASA grant review panel. What that means is that I’m expected to independently read several scientific proposals (ideally within my area or remotely within my area of expertise), write up what I think of them and whether I think they should be funded, and then fly to Washington, D.C., to meet with other people and as a group, over the course of a week, make a recommendation to the program officer about what should be funded.

I was planning to do a series of blog posts talking about this process — the details of how it works, as I was going through it. I thought it would be helpful to everyone to understand how it works — both the general public and young scientists. The plan was to anonymize everything.

When I ran this by the program manager, I was told that the desire for confidentiality was paramount, and he was not comfortable with me blogging about it. Hence, I’m making this post, before the panel meets, to avoid any tainting by that, and to describe why I won’t be blogging about it.


I can immediately hear conspiracy theorists screaming that I’m a NASA stooge, that NASA wants to keep everything secret, that it’s public money so taxpayers should be able to know every detail of the process, etc. Here’s why that’s not true, and why everything needs to be kept confidential. You’ll notice that I haven’t even said what grant review panel I’m on.

Confidentiality – Good for the Reviewers

Let’s say I review a proposal. Let’s say I think it’s absolutely horrible and I detail an enormous numbers of flaws in it and I submit that to the panel. Now let’s say that my review is made public.

Remember: These are my peers. Of the proposals I’ve been asked to review, I know pretty much at least one person on the proposal personally (I’ve met them before or worked with them, or something like that). So from the start, it could obviously hurt any interpersonal relationships.

Remember: These are my peers. In science, we have peer-review before anything gets published. Let’s say that that person whose proposal I panned is a reviewer on a paper I submit a year later, or even an editor at the journal I submitted the paper to. Even though everyone usually tries to be as objective as possible, it’s hard to believe that a public criticism of their proposal by me would not affect their review of my paper. Keep in mind that these proposals for NASA research grants are in the neighborhood of $100,000 requests per year, and the grants usually go for 3 or 4 years (my last proposal was for a 3-year, $448,000 grant).

Or let’s say that in three years, I apply to their school or institution for a job. Even if they are not on the search committee or not directly involved in the hiring, they can still easily affect others’ views of me.

Now let’s say that I give the proposal glowing reviews. I tell the panel that if this proposal is funded, it will change our views of the universe in a fundamental way, this person is the next Einstein, huge paradigm shifts, etc. I argue with everyone and adamantly state that it should be funded. And that review is made public.

The same scenarios happen, only in the opposite way. That person would no longer see me for my research, but that I gave them a good review and helped them (maybe) to get money to fund their research. They would be biased towards me as opposed to against me, and may not be able to judge me fairly against other people who may be more qualified for something. Yes, good for me, but not really fair overall.

What this really boils down to is the same thing with why peer-review of research papers is usually anonymous: Politics and personalities. It can be hard to be honest and objective in a review – especially a negative review – when you know that the person is going to see it.

Confidentiality – Good for the Proposers

At this very early point in my career (I’ve had my Ph.D. for about 18 months now), I have written 3 grant proposals as PI (Principal Investigator, meaning that I’m the one in charge, responsible for everything, and probably doing most of the work). I’ve been on 8 proposals as a Co-I though 3 of them were as a grad student when I would have been a PI if allowed (Co-Investigator, meaning I would get money from the proposal and be in charge of doing some work for it). I’ve been on 4 proposals as a Collaborator (meaning that I’ll provide a supporting role or dataset and have agreed to help the PI and Co-I(s) with a specific task if they are funded, but I won’t get any money from it).

In every single case, I was proposing, we were proposing, or they were proposing new research in an area that had not been explored before. Possibly in an area that had never been thought of before. In one example, I was proposing my own model for something that no one had thought of before, and I was seeking funding to carry out data-gathering to see if my model was supported.

When I submitted those proposals, I expected that no one would see them except for the review panel and program director. I expected that they would not in any way be made public, in any stretch of the imagination. Even by some blogger somewhere who let it slip that he had read a proposal by a redacted person at a redacted institution that was going to look at whether a particular type of crater ejecta could form from atmospheric vortices rather than water.

As soon as my novel approach/ideas are out there, someone else could take them or start working on them and beat me to the punch. Maybe that someone knows of a way to do it faster than I, already has a lab set up, an army of students to throw at the project, and a month later could finish it while I’m still waiting to hear back about funding.

In research, it’s publish or perish, it’s a meritocracy, and if someone publishes first, they usually get the credit. And something like this happened to one of my former officemates (it wasn’t from a NASA review panel, it was that someone overheard her talking in a bar during a conference about work she was going to start).

(Note: The model I mentioned three paragraphs up was proposed in the 1970s, so I’m not giving anything away by putting it in there — I’m giving a “for instance.”)

Final Thoughts

Unfortunately, that’s it for this. I may do a post related to this on the issue of Conflicts of Interest, which are generic to the research process and not just grant proposals. But, I’ll of course honor the program manager’s request and not blog about more details of the process.

When we agree to be a reviewer, we have to sign documents stating that after the panel meets, we will destroy all documents we have that relate to it, including deleting all computer files.

Hopefully you can see from the above discussion* that even though I assured the program manager that I would anonymize everything and not discuss specific proposal ideas, that he or she was still uncomfortable with the idea and requested I not blog about it.


*I’m sure there are other reasons, as well, for why confidentiality is necessary in these kinds of things. But, those are the main ones that I can think of.

July 19, 2012

Free Science for All! (in England, Anyway)


I’ll introduce this post by saying that, the more I age, the more my political/social/financial ideas turn somewhat libertarian. Not that I support Ron Paul, not that I support a teensy tiny impotent government, but I think that some models of business are antiquated and that many redundant bureaucracies need to be eliminated.

Why am I discussing politics? It’s because of how scientific journals work. A new proposal in Britain indicates we might be in for a change, and I think for the better.

How Journals Work

For at least the past several decades, if not century or two, most main-stream scientific journals would work as follows: Author writes paper, editor evaluates paper, editor rejects or sends out for independent review, reviews go back-and-forth for a bit, then paper is ultimately accepted or rejected.

At this point, or even upon initial submission, the author is required to sign over all copyright claims to the paper that they wrote. The journal then owns the copyright. The journal will publish the paper, maintain it in their archives, and has all rights of distribution and reproduction.

The author also has to pay the journal to publish their paper in what we call “page fees.” This can cost upwards of several thousand dollars (my last two papers were $2400 and $2600, respectively). In the past, authors were given personal “preprints” that usually numbered 50ish gratis after which they had to pay for more; they could then give these to colleagues. Otherwise, the authors had to pay for a copy of their paper. Nowadays, this is handled by author personal copy PDFs, and we are still legally forbidden from keeping copies of papers on our personal websites (though most violate this).

To recap: Author does work, then has to pay journal to publish their paper, journal owns all copyrights and author cannot distribute nor can colleagues get a copy unless they or their institution subscribes to the journal. The public getting free access? –forget about it.

Given my first paragraph in the intro, you can guess how I feel about this model. (I think it’s antiquated and outdated and we need something new, if you couldn’t tell). I understand that it was a model that probably worked well for awhile and I can understand the purpose in, say, the 1930s – and maybe even the 1990s – but not today.

It should also be noted that most of us are now funded through government agencies/institutes and that our grants pay both for our work. As in, public money paying for us to do research, then paying for us to publish them, but the publications being closed to people unless they pay for it yet again.

Open Access Journals

There are several journals that do not have paywalls, and I applaud them. Unfortunately, they are usually lower-tier journals that authors do not want to publish in because they have a low Impact Factor (IF) – a measure of how often articles from them are cited. (The journal Science has an IF of around 49, Nature has 52, while the highest IF planetary journal that’s NOT affiliated with either of those is around 3.5-4.0.)

There are some exceptions. The Astrophysical Journal is one of them, as is Astronomy and Astrophysics. These are two major astrophysics journals and their articles are generally free. But, no big planetary journal follows this model, and I do not know about other fields. Science and Nature, the two highest IF journals in the world, do not have open access.

The United Kingdom Takes Notice

Apparently, someone in the UK has taken notice of this and decided they agree with me. Well, not me specifically, but their thinking is similar to mine. To quote:

“Currently, scientists and members of the public have to pay the leading scientific journals to see research that has already been paid for from the public purse. Under new proposals the government will pay publishers a fee each time a paper is published. In return the research will be available to those who wish to see it. The total cost of the subsidy is estimated to be £50m a year which will be taken from funds that would otherwise have been spent on research.”

That last line makes sense to me. I’ve submitted two grants to NASA this year, and in the budget section, I had to guesstimate how many papers would come from the research, in what journal(s) I would publish them, and how much it would cost. Then this cost per year was added as a line-item to the budget. If I didn’t have to do that, it would make budgeting a tad easier and it would throw out several middlemen.

Final Thoughts

There are of course critics of this. And publishers will likely be ticked. I doubt the current model can survive too much longer, but I also doubt that the proposal in the UK will survive in exactly its current form, and I’m sure it will be even longer before it catches on in other countries.

I hope that it does, though, at least in some form that preserves the intent. I recently had a press release about some of my research, and several journalists asked me for a copy of the paper. I could not provide it to them legally because I had not been given my personal author copy yet, and I think that’s bad.

January 26, 2012

Newt to the Moon and Mars?


When I first started this blog back in 2008, one of the things I said I’d be writing about is bad astronomy in the media. I’d say that bad astronomy by a (somehow) front-runner for the US Republican presidential nomination is close enough (example article).

And by the way, this post is going to have some politics in it; if you disagree with my particular politics, as long as you’re civil, comments will go through, but I honestly don’t really care if you disagree with my politics.


Newt Gingrich is known for saying grandiose things. I wasn’t really paying attention to politics when I was in middle school so I don’t know if by “grandiose” people mean “stupid,” but this would definitely count. In what is either pure delusion – in which case he should not be President – or over-the-top pandering (which would be typical for a politician), Gingrich was on Florida’s space coast and said that, if he were president, by 2021 (the end of his second term), we would have a permanent base on the moon and “regular” flights to Mars.

Why this Is Not Possible Politically

To put it succinctly, Congress is a nearly non-functional mess with a large fraction completely unwilling to spend any more money nor raise any taxes. (Speaking of which, can anyone get me a good deal on TurboTax 2011? My taxes are going to be complicated this year with all the government disinfo money stuff.) This is a statement of fact.

Congress could not agree on a billion dollars or so for the James Webb Space Telescope. The Apollo program cost many $10s billion, and at its height in 1966, NASA’s budget was 4.41% of the federal. Lately, we’ve been hovering around 0.6%. Call me a cynic or pessimist, but I don’t see any Republican – nor most Democrats – voting to appropriate $50-100 billion to get to the moon in 8 years with a permanent base and regular trips to Mars.

Why this Is Not Possible Legally

I’m not sure how much of a snag this would put in Swingrich’s plans, but the Outer Space Treaty forbids any signatory government from owning any land off Earth. So how we would have a permanent lunar base and grant them statehood (something else Gingrich wants) would probably require pulling out of this treaty. I’m not entirely sure how that works, but I think Congress would also need to be in on that. (Someone correct me if I’m wrong – it’s been awhile since I’ve read the Constitution.)

Why this Is Not Possible Logistically

Let’s assume Congress gives us the money and the UN its blessing. Logistically speaking, with the amount of bureaucracy and infrastructure in place, you cannot build the equipment (also see below), hire and train the people, and figure out all the other logistical things that need to happen to make this happen. That is, unless you completely gut the bureaucracy (that’s a separate issue) and replace it with something lean that gets things done quickly. Perhaps a DARPA model?

The next generation space capsules had to wait for the shuttle to stop so they could use that infrastructure. The death of the Orion capsule took something like another year before that program could be completely mothballed. Changing direction yet again would add significant time to this stuff.

And let’s not forget all of the commissions and committees that would need to be set up to study the issue and write up their reports before funding would happen, and don’t forget the obligatory 3-month extensions, either.

Why this Is Not “Possible” Scientifically/Technologically

And then we get into this area. So many ways to go here. We could start with lunar dust being a huge issue, getting through almost every seal, with just ideas and laboratory experiments on how to deal with it (magnetic fields or microwaving it are the two I’m familiar with off the top of my head).

What about a propulsion system? If we use the Apollo-style giant rockets, what about building them? Transporting them? Re-kajiggering them to upgrade them for +50 years tech?

What about the actual craft to the moon that can lug stuff for a lunar base – not just people, but food, water, equipment, building supplies? There aren’t any trees on the moon, you can’t just go out like the old American Frontier and chop down some logs and build yourself a cabin. These are things that have been thought of, but none of them have really been tested nor built.

How about a big one – radiation? Radiation is not a huge issue during a solar minimum for a 2-week trip to the moon. But a 6-month voyage to Mars, plus time there under an atmosphere that won’t protect you, plus the trip back, carries a huge radiation problem not just from the sun but from cosmic rays and the like. In this case, the problem has been thought of, but I have not read anything that suggests that anyone’s solved it, even on paper.

Final Thoughts

If it wasn’t obvious, I don’t like Newt. I don’t like most politicians, especially when they are pandering beyond normal stupidity. This was one of those cases. Or Newt is just incredibly ignorant. Either way, this is one of the more obvious empty promises that I hope comes back to bite him in debates. Romney or Obama, if you’re reading this, you should be taking notes.

P.S. I don’t agree with Santorum on much of anything (I suppose I agree with him that air is generally a good thing to breathe), but I do agree with what he said here: “The idea that anybody’s going out and talking about brand new, very expensive schemes to spend more money at a time when we do not have our fiscal house in order in my opinion is playing crass politics and not being realistic with the people of this country as to the nature and gravity of the problem.”

Followup: This has been getting a lot more play in the media in the last day or so. Every article I read basically treated it as a joke – as in Newt Gingrich was the joke for proposing such a stupid idea. Here’s a nice paragraph from Time, as it’s along my line of thinking:

“Leave aside for a moment that the professor, politician and former not-a-lobbyist for Freddie Mac either doesn’t understand that “grand” and “grandiose” are two very different things, or does understand and is copping to more delusion and fabulism than one might want in a president. The real problem is that Gingrich often doesn’t seem to get that merely being willing to say any damn thing is not the same as being able to do any damn thing, especially when the challenges you’re taking on don’t involve just political rivals and government policy, but the hard laws of engineering and physics, which are a wee bit less amenable to jawboning and deal-making.”

October 24, 2011

What Does It Mean to Be “Anti-Science?”


In my and other skeptically minded blogs, you will often read us either explicitly or by implication state that something we’re arguing against is unscientific, or it is anti-science. In the current political climate, you will often hear the Republican party being referred to as the “Anti-Science Party” by its detractors. Phil Plait has been a good example of that over the past several months with his numerous posts about climate change denial within the crop of Republican presidential candidates.

But what does “anti-science” actually mean? In the latest episode of the ID The Future podcast, the new host David Boze rants discusses for about 16 minutes that “anti-science” is actually a political term meant to stymie detractors of “Darwinian Evolution.”

The Claim

The entire podcast can really be summarized by what David states starting at 15 minutes 28 seconds into the episode: “The anti-science label is clearly a political tool designed to eliminate debate between proponents of intelligent design and proponents of Darwinian evolution. And, since we’ve demonstrated the common use of this label is false, when you hear it being hurled at those who disagree with Darwinian evolution, you can point out it’s unscientific to use the term.”

The Evidence

David spends the 15 minutes before this in a very scripted argument for his case. As his evidence, he focuses on pretty much the single – at least the most outspoken – candidate for the Republican presidential nomination who has called his fellow candidates out as being “anti-science.” This man would be John Huntsman, President Obama’s former ambassador to China, and a man whom Conservapedia refers to as a “RINO” (Republican in name only).

Huntsman has very publicly stated that he accepts the evidence for evolution and trusts climate scientists that climate change is real, that overall it is warming, and humans are very likely a major contributor to it currently. This is as opposed to the rest of the candidates who, as a whole, deny climate change at all and are mostly biblical creationists (at least the most outspoken ones are).

In his main statements, and especially in the ones that David Boze used for this podcast episode, Huntsman has clearly focused on climate change and evolution. David even states that in the middle of the podcast before saying that, for brevity, he’s going to cut out the comments on global warming.

He then focuses entirely on the evolution parts. And uses that to say that clearly all Huntsman is talking about as “anti-science” is people who don’t fully accept an “atheistic Darwinian evolution.”

David goes into some of the US’s founding fathers, including Benjamin Franklin (since Huntsman did), and laughingly says that Franklin was not an evolutionist (obviously not since Darwin’s theory was not published until 1859). He talks about Abraham Lincoln (since Huntsman brought him up as an example of a non-anti-science Republican), and says that evolution was not high on Lincoln’s domestic policy. Again, obviously not since the theory was published only two years before the civil war. Brings of Nixon, Reagan, and Bush (again, since Huntsman did) and points out that clearly a scientific dark age did not happen when any of these men were in the White House (though this is an arguable point with the later Bush), the implication being that they were not strict atheistic evolutionists therefore under Huntsman’s alleged position, they should have brought down Western society.

All this is evidence, according to David Boze, that the term “anti-science” means “doubts Darwin” and is a political label and doesn’t mean anything else.

Can We Say “Cherry Pick” and “Persecution Complex?”

If you’ve read this far, you’ve probably figured out from my tone that David has committed some HUGE leaps in logic that betray his ideology and doom his position. Two very obvious ones are cherry picking and at least a persecution complex if not an outright argument from persecution.

Mr. Boze has chosen ONE example of ONE person using the term “anti-science.” He has cherry-picked that ONE person’s use to focus on ONE topic, despite clearly stating just a few minutes earlier that he had used it in reference to TWO topics. That in and of itself should lead an objective, curious, and interested person to doubt his conclusions.

What Does “Anti-Science” Actually Mean?

The reality of the term is that we use it to mean anyone who disagrees with basic, objective, scientific data and disagrees with established scientific theories (where I use the term “theory” as a scientist). In politics these days, yes, it is mainly used in reference to climate change and evolution. Less frequently in politics, it is also used in regards to health care (especially vaccinations), abortion, energy policy, education policy, the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), and even basic mathematics.

I tend to use it – again either explicitly or implied – to refer to some people or ideas I discuss on my blog. I do try not to over-use it or paint with too broad a brushstroke. I don’t think that someone like Richard Hoagland, for example, is anti-science; I think he’s just deluded. Same with Andrew Basiago.

I wouldn’t even label most astrologers nor UFOlogists as anti-science except for maybe when they pull the special pleading argument of, “Oh, well you can’t test this because it’s untestable within the current scientific paradigm.” Right. It works until there’s a skeptic in the room and then it magically fails. Have you met my pet invisible dragon?

However, I talk about young-Earth creationism quite a bit here, and I would consider most creationists to be anti-science. They use science only when it can bolster their position, and misinterpret or plain ol’ deny it when it disagrees with their position and beliefs. That’s anti-science.

And yet, I label them as anti-science not because of their position on evolution, but because of their stances on comets, magnetic field data, the moon’s recession rate, basic physics of spiral galaxies, cosmology, and a slew of other topics. I have never actually directly addressed evolution in a post on this blog. I may have talked about it peripherally, such as in this post, but it’s never been the focus.

Surely my use of the term “anti-science” is just as valid as John Huntsman’s, which is surely more valid than the quote-mined version that David used.

Final Thoughts

Anti-science means, in my book, that you refuse to accept basic fundamental scientific methodology and/or results. It can be on a specific, sacred cow topic of yours such as whether or not Earth is hollow. It can be on broad topics based on your framework of biblical literal-ness. Being “anti-science” does not mean that you have to reject everything discovered in the last ~400 years.

And that’s where David Boze’s foray into the topic, I think, fails. He has an ideological persecution complex, sees it used in one way by a politician, focuses on half of that person’s argument, and then claims that anti-science means that you don’t accept atheistic evolution.

Sorry, David, my faith is not strong enough for those leaps.

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