Exposing PseudoAstronomy

May 2, 2016

On the (In)Ability of Scientists to Give Good Public Talks


When I was an undergraduate student at Case Western Reserve University, the now-more-famous physicist Lawrence Krauss was head of the Physics department. Somehow, he managed to arrange a panel of about six Nobel Prize Winners (probably in physics) to give a panel discussion. I don’t even remember the topic.

What I do remember was my expectation going in and my reality coming out.

My expectation going in was extreme excitement, getting to sit in an auditorium and listen to these men (sorry ladies, it was all men) who pretty much literally had done the research that was recognized as being ground-breaking and reached the top of their field.

I came out thinking that it sucked.

Not a-one of those guys could give a coherent discussion or answer to questions, or do it in a way that was engaging to us in the audience. It was horribly disappointing. (And if one or two of them could, unfortunately that memory has been erased by those who could not.)

Right now, I’m listening to a radio program from April 08 where Will Farrar and Richard Hoagland discussed – in particular to this post – a talk that Chris Russell gave a talk during Space Science Week in Washington, D.C., just a day or so earlier.

Dr. Chris Russell is the PI (the head science-and-everything-else guy) in charge of NASA’s Dawn mission to Vesta and Ceres.

In particular, Will remarked that he was unimpressed with Dr. Russell’s talk, that practically every-other-word was “um” or “uh,” and he was not alone in thinking this. Richard Hoagland posited that this was because he was choosing his words carefully — in effect, to make sure he wouldn’t be giving away any of the NASA secrets like city ruins on these bodies.

Or, Dr. Russell just isn’t a good public speaker. And I’ll say it: I have been to two lectures that Dr. Russell has given. I would not elect to go to a third. What Will noticed is par for the course, in my experience, for Dr. Russell’s talks.

I’m reminded of a saying that we like to use in skepticism: Don’t attribute to conspiracy what can easily be contributed to incompetence. (One of the examples most often used is the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the US illustrating government incompetence rather than a ridiculously high level of competence to carry out such a coordinated, secret attack.)

I’m not saying that Dr. Russell is incompetent – far from it, for he is a wildly successful scientist – but a good, engaging public speaker, he is not. It has nothing to do with a vast conspiracy to hide The Truth, it’s just that public speaking is a completely different skill set from being able to do good science, and not every scientist is a good public speaker.

April 30, 2016

My Interview on “The Space Show” from Friday, April 29, 2016, Now Archived


Here’s the permanent link for the interview.

We discussed a very wide range of topics related to planetary astronomy and some other astronomy, and there was one caller. From the Higgs field, to Pluto and New Horizons, and craters on the moon to other space exploration.

Perhaps otherwise, it’s easiest just to copy the e-mail that the host, David Livingston, e-mailed me:

1. http://www.thespaceshow.com. You can find your program in the Recent Show section. Right now your show is currently the first one listed but it will move down a space with each show added.

2. The Space Show blog for listener and guest comments has been integrated with The Space Show archive for your show. Here, listeners can ask questions and post comments both during the live interview as well as on the archived program. As the guest, you can do the same. If there are interesting posts on the blog/comment section of the archives, I will be sure to call them to your attention. Your program will move down a line with each new program that is archived. Please note that one must have either a free Disqus account or access comments through one of their social media accounts as we do not permit anonymous posts.

3. The program is now podcasting.

4. Finally, the permanent URL on our website for your program for linking, quoting, etc. is: http://www.thespaceshow.com/show/29-apr-2016/broadcast-2692-dr.-stuart-robbins. Do not upload full audio or video shows to any website including YouTube & your own sites but you are certainly free to link the Space Show program on space relevant sites.

April 28, 2016

Interview Tomorrow: The Space Show

Filed under: astronomy,interview,skepticism — Stuart Robbins @ 5:23 pm
Tags: , , , ,

Tomorrow (morning, US time), I will be the guest on The Space Show. It’s my second appearance.

This is a live radio program and it is a call-in program. An agenda / line of questions has not been set; if I had to guess it’ll start out with (besides the introduction), a, “What have you been up to since we last spoke in mid-September?”

The program is 9:30-11:00AM, PDT. Here’s the link to listen live.

March 15, 2016

Neat Animation of Moon’s North Pole with LASER Altimetry – And Artifacts


I’ll be attending a µSymposium before the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference this coming weekend, and I just got a reminder e-mail today. Included in that e-mail was a link to an animation that shows Shackleton crater, a crater that is ON the moon’s north pole. As such, its interior is in permanent shadow.

BUT!! The Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter instrument (LOLA) on the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) has plenty of data that allow it to be viewed: Click Me!.

I find this very neat — until the last decade, we could never see stuff in permanent shadow because we didn’t have the instrumentation. LOLA and LROC have allowed us to do that. And there are thousands of craters in permanent shadow on the moon that may hide water (which is what I’ll be presenting at the µSymposium).

For reference, the north pole of the moon is just about smack dab at the 10:30 position on the large crater’s rim. Just inside the rim, along a line from that small crater just outside the rim to the center of the crater.

But for pseudoscience, you may also notice that there are some artifacts in the data. There are radial streaks from the center of the frame (usually). There’s a prominent one diagonally from upper right to lower left on the upper wall of Shackleton itself. Others are more prominent towards the edges of the animation.

These are not lunar roads nor subways nor trollies nor anything else made by an ancient civilization. They are artifacts in the data itself. LOLA is very well calibrated, and the “average” (root-mean-square) uncertainty is under 5 meters in elevation data. But some tracks (orbits) are a bit off. And since LOLA is fundamentally measuring the time it takes light to bounce off the surface from a laser beam from the craft, it needs to know exactly where the craft was to get an accurate surface elevation.

And some are off by a bit. These manifest in this kind of product as ridges or troughs that are perfectly in a straight line, along the line of the orbital track. It’s something that scientists who use these data see and ignore because we know exactly what they are. But pseudoscientists will look at line artifacts like this, or at image seems in a mosaic, and claim things like they are artificial tram lines.

March 14, 2016

“They Hate or Fear Me” — The Refrain of the Pseudoscientist


I like to argue. I was never on a debate team, but I would get worked up over things whilst growing up, in college, or graduate school over which I had no control nor power to affect. A common refrain of my father’s, in response to that was, “Harbor your emotional energies.”

Fear and hatred are powerful emotions. As soon as you use observe them in conversation, it colors the entire tone. Just the use of the terms affect your own emotions.

Emotion is also a much easier response than logical thinking. It comes from a more basic, instinctual part of the human brain than conscious thought. Rather than try to address an argument or claim with thought, it’s simply easier to say that the person making that claim hates or fears you, immediately appealing to your audience’s own more instinctual level of lack-of-thought.

That, I think, is part of why we often see that from pseudoscientists when skeptics address their claims. I saw it a lot from Mike Bara back in the lunar ziggurat days almost four years ago (see this blog post where I address the issue of manufactured “hate”). I continue to see it in other areas, such as manufactured fear by anti-GMO or anti-vaccine proponents, appealing to the emotion of fear rather than a logical argument for their position.

And tonight, Ken Ham over at Answers In Genesis (AiG) which is building a claimed replica of Noah’s Ark in Kentucky, USA, has created a new term: Arkophobia.

I really don’t want to link to AiG, so I won’t. But the thrust of the post is this:

The bottom line with the secularist opposition? Arkophobia is so widespread because “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). Secularists are in rebellion against their Creator. The fact that He has the right to tell them, through His Word, what is right (e.g., marriage is one man for one woman) and what is wrong (e.g., abortion is murder) angers them.

Secularists oppose the Ark because they are afraid of the Ark’s goal: to proclaim the everlasting gospel.

That’s right: Ham is claiming that people who are against him building this ark are against him because they hate him.

It’s so much easier than really answering why they spend millions of dollars on a theme park rather than give it to the poor, or answer legitimate questions about potential fraud in trying to get tax incentives.

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.”

March 5, 2016

Do as I Say, Not as I Do to Find “Real” Image Anomalies


I finally submitted my first paper for peer-review in practically two years — roughly 350 hours in the last roughly 2 months to analyze the data and write and edit a paper on the craters on Pluto, Charon, Nix and Hydra. So now, in preparation for the big Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in two weeks, I have a few months of other, lunar, work to do in the next 12 days.

So, I’ve started to catch up with Richard Hoagland’s “The Other Side of Midnight” program. The “barely lovable” (as Art Bell has said) folks over at BellGab pointed me to a particular evening of January 30, 2016, where Richard had some of his imaging guys (yes, all guys) on talking about how to expose fakes. As in, people who fake anomalies in space images.

You can probably imagine that my eyebrows did more than rise just a bit.

I’m less than 20 minutes into the episode and already I’ve spotted some of the most ridiculous duplicity in what they are saying. Richard Hoagland and Will Farrar are saying over and over again that you have to go to the original data before you can say anything is real or not.

And they’ve pointed out some good examples, like the anomalies in Hale crater on Mars are all caused by the 3D projection and image compression done by the Mars Express images and it’s not there in the originals.

I’ll say it again: Richard stated on this program that doing any analysis on anything BUT the original images is completely useless. In fact, here’s one example, at about 16 minutes 15 seconds into the recording:

Will Farrar: “They’re going to claim they didn’t go out to get the thing…”

Richard Hoagland: “They didn’t go out and get, what? The original data?”

WF: “The raw. Yeah, the raw data, that’s–”

RH: “Well then it’s pointless! You blow them away on that basis alone! You can’t do science on second, third, fourth, fifth sources, you gotta go to the original. That’s the first rule!”

Another example, about 29 minutes 50 seconds into my recording, jumping off of Keith Laney saying that the first thing to do is get the raw data, Richard stated, “Yeah, that’s the first thing we all do! When we see something interesting – those of who who know how to do this ’cause we’ve been at this awhile – the first thing you do is go and find the NASA original. … Find the original. Do not go by what’s on the web. Never ever just go by what’s on the web, unless it is connected to original data step by step by step.”

I’m not 100% sure what he means by that last “unless…” part, unless it’s his way of giving himself an out. It’s hopelessly vague, for anyone could say that any product they make where they find an anomaly is from the original data and they can tell you the step-by-step process to get there. This was also at least the fifth time he talked about this, but the first time he gave himself the “unless,” so let’s proceed without it.

(Almost) everything that Richard has promulgated over the last few years is based on non-original images. To just mention just three, for examples:

(1) Everything he and others have done with Pluto and Charon has been done with third-generation data, at best. That is, raw data (1st) compressed on the craft, either lossy or lossless (2nd), and the posted lossy (a second layer of lossy) on public websites (3rd). The first batch of truly raw data will be released in April 2016, and it will only be what was on Earth as of encounter. Therefore, by Richard’s own rules, every analysis that he and others have done finding anomalies on Pluto and Charon is “pointless.”

(2) Everything he and others have done with Ceres and claims of cities and crashed spacecraft … see example 1 above. I’m not on the Dawn team, so I don’t know when their first or second batch of raw data will be publicly released. Therefore, by Richard’s own rules, every analysis that he and others have done finding anomalies on Ceres is “pointless.”

(3) His analysis of Chang’e 3 images claiming that there are giant glass structures on the moon was done with JPG-compressed images published on Chinese military websites. Not raw data. He claimed that this was proof that his analysis of Apollo images (which were 5th generation, at best, it’s been estimated) showing giant glass towers on the moon was real. Therefore, by Richard’s own rules, every analysis that he and others have done claiming from Apollo and Chang-e 3 images that there are giant glass cities on the moon is “pointless.”

Well … that was fun.

P.S. Around 15 minutes into the second hour of the program, Richard stated that you can’t possibly do any analysis on anything that’s only 30 pixels across. Well then, Expat’s deconstruction notwithstanding, Richard’s own statement completely disqualifies “Data’s Head” that he thinks he found in an image from Apollo on the moon that he claims shows an android’s head. It’s perhaps 15 pixels across, max.

January 27, 2016

Scientific Fields Are Never Solitary, in a Vacuum


One of the more annoying claims made by pseudoscientists is that because scientists are so specialized these days, that they cannot “see the forest for the trees” as the metaphor goes. But they, as outsiders, totally can and therefore show that all of science is wrong. Or something like that.

It is true that sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-…-sub fields do exist, and these days that’s a manifestation of really how far we’ve come in science. Back in the day (say, 400 years ago), we knew comparatively so little that someone could study for a few years and get a good understanding of the state of human scientific knowledge. These days, you need an advanced degree to understand a sub-field of science, such as physics:optics, or psychology:adolescent (the colon indicating the sub-field).

If you want to work in a field, you pretty much must specialize, otherwise you will never be out of school because you won’t know enough about that broader topic.

But we always have to incorporate other fields of study, even if we don’t realize we’re doing it. I’ve tried to point out in my podcast and blog how tugging at one string by a pseudoscientist unravels so many other strings in unrelated subjects that it completely disproves their point about being able to have a broad knowledge base from which to draw new connections.

But that’s a long-winded way to get to why I’m even talking about this. I’m home right now for a period of 10 days, between travel, and I’m using the time to convene a working group. A working group is sort of like a mini-workshop. Where a workshop, in science, tends to be a specialized conference convened where people give presentations meant more to explore a topic rather than to brag about their latest research.

Last May, I convened a workshop entitled, “Workshop on Issues in Crater Studies and the Dating of Planetary Surfaces.” Succinctly, it was intended as a step back from the minutia we deal with to look at the original problems we were trying to solve, how we tried to 50 years ago, why we did it the way we did then, and what we’re trying to do now with craters and what outstanding problems we still have. I was able to bring in several founders of the field (since it really got going in the 1950s and 60s), and we addressed a wide range of issues.

Among those was statistics. We’re doing statistics the way we did it in the 1970s, before we had computers and when people had to draw graphs in papers by hand. We realized that the field of statistics has changed considerably and the way we were doing things and are doing things is not necessarily completely correct, nor is it necessarily the best way.

So, I also had money to bring in three statisticians to the workshop to learn.

And this week, since five of us crater people who work in the Boulder area were at the workshop and are interested in bringing in this completely unrelated (but related) field of statistics into planetary geophysics, we’re holding a working group. The five of us, one of the statisticians who is local, and one of the statisticians who I flew in from Los Alamos.

And it’s fascinating. If nothing else (because I’m sure no one reading this cares about statistics of crater populations), I find it fascinating to watch the interaction between the statisticians and the planetary scientists. We know some of our issues, and we are completely steeped in our language to describe it. They know stats, and they are constantly bringing in similar problems in other fields that are solved certain ways to see if it can apply. It’s taken a year to almost get on the same page just with what we mean when we talk about different graphs.

And they sometimes come up with potential solutions, but then we say “no” because it completely misrepresents the physical situation.

Today, after working all morning and being brought back up to speed yesterday, one of the surprising things that we (planetary scientists) had to grasp was that we may need to start thinking about craters – at least the population of craters, the ensemble – in a completely different way: Rather than discrete objects which we observe (with a definite location and size), think of them as a probability, where each observation is actually a distribution (albeit narrow). If we can do that, then we can bring in a huge field of well established statistics to deal with some of our fundamental problems with how we work with craters. Like simple things … like how we really should be assigning uncertainty to our measurements and results.

And throughout this, there was the constant nagging question in the back of my head of how we’re going to convince the entire field that this is the proper way to go — if it’s the proper way to go. Fortunately in our working group we have one of the founders of the field, so if we can convince him, we can figure out how to write up the paper to convince others.

This is a long post … and it’s a lot of stream of consciousness. From it though, I want you to get a few things:

  1. Even in highly specialized disciplines, they must always be informed by and incorporate other disciplines, even in completely different fields (astronomy/geology:planetary-gephysics:surface-processes:impact-craters:crater-populations … meet mathematics:statistics:[huge list of stuff they’re bringing in]).
  2. Sometimes, to update a field of study and bring it in line with what’s known in others, you have to think of the problem in a completely new way, but one that remains informed by its roots and always in what we’re really trying to understand (as in, they can model whatever, but we constrain them by keeping it physically meaningful and realistic).
  3. There’s always inertia in a field of study, but there are always ways to bring about change if that change gets you to a more correct methodology or answer.

This post is also my way of updating you all on what I’ve been doing, partially, work-wise for the past few days and why the podcast still hasn’t come out with a new episode in over a month.

January 21, 2016

On the Hubbub Yesterday About a New Planet X


I’m assuming you’re living in a box if you didn’t see the headlines yesterday, in which case you wouldn’t be reading this blog. But … it was announced in many headlines, based on a paper appearing in the Astronomical Journal (yes, a real journal), that dynamic evidence of an unseen planet had been found in the outer solar system.

Unfortunately, much of the mainstream media got it wrong. I saw headlines such as, “Researchers Find Possible Ninth Planet Beyond Neptune.” That’s wrong.

And, of course, the pseudoscientists get it wrong, too, with some claiming that it proves hyperdimensional physics (whatever that means) and the fission model for planet formation (that planets are spat out of the sun in twins). You can probably guess who’s talking about that.

But here’s what really happened, for people are sending me lots of links (seriously, you can stop sending me links about this). We have a few observations of a few objects out beyond Neptune. I think the number of known, observed Kuiper Belt Objects is around 400. That’s not a lot when models suggest there should be billions to trillions of these objects.

But, based on those that we have observed, there are six in particular that have some similarities in the orbits. And an unseen planet, somewhere around 1-10 times the mass of Neptune, on an elliptical orbit that takes it as close as 7 times farther from the sun than Neptune (so 200 times farther than Earth) and as far as 600-1200 times the Earth-sun distance, could cause those similarities. The two astronomers who wrote the paper calculate there’s only a 1 in 15,000 chance that the similarities in those six objects’ orbits is random chance.

Color me skeptical.

Here’s the thing: I don’t like these dynamical arguments. They rely on many assumptions based on very few things being observed. These particular scientists are about as mainstream as you can get, but one of them, Mike Brown, is well known for being provocative to the point of stirring up upblic controversy to promote his work. For example, he wrote the book, “How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming.” It also might not be purely coincidental that the news came out the day after the New Horizons spacecraft’s tenth anniversary of launch.

The bottom-line is that this is not an observation of a body. This is dynamical arguments suggestive of a body based on numerous assumptions based on very few observations of a suspected population of bodies.

That doesn’t mean it’s wrong. But that doesn’t mean it’s right. And CalTech’s PR machine has been working over-time to pump this story out as much as they can, which also perturbs me.

January 19, 2016

How Answers in Genesis Ignores Reality, Pretends You’re Dumb, to Get Money for Its “Ark Encounter”


I think in addition to my attempt to be leaner and faster on this blog in 2016, I’m going to be more direct. Hence the title of this blog post.

For those who don’t know, Answers in Genesis (AiG) is probably one of the three biggest anti-think tanks for young-Earth creationism in the world. They have a large creationism museum in Kentucky, about a 45-minute drive from where I grew up a bit north of Cincinnati, Ohio. They are currently building an “Ark Encounter” theme park based on, as you can probably guess, the Judeo-Christian story of Noah’s Ark.

I’ve been following The Friendly Atheist blog posts about this for several years. To be direct, based on their reporting, AiG has been trying to break the law many, many times during the building process. And it’s mostly all having to do with money.

In effect, they can’t build it on their own. They don’t have enough. So they’ve been trying to get tax breaks and other things to help them build. Problem is (for them), even in Kentucky they sometimes respect separation of church and state and refused to let a religious organization that would discriminate based on religion have access to public funds.

So, as an example, they were eligible for state funds of some sort several years ago so long as they would not discriminate in their hiring. Then, someone (I forget, possibly the ACLU) pointed out that all employees would have to be hired through the AiG creation museum and hence sign a statement of faith to prove they are religious. They got smacked down and the money was taken away.

Now they have a new scheme. And, this was just pointed out in a large essay in Newsweek by journalist Lindsay Tucker. Tucker demonstrates how AiG has been manipulating things to, in the end, still get taxpayer money to support their very clearly religious endeavor.

Ken Ham, the guy in charge of AiG, hit back at Newsweek by manipulating information under the assumption that you are stupid.

I found out about this because The Friendly Atheist blog has a very lengthy post by Tracey Moody hitting back at Ken Ham. Here’s an excerpt, where “TIF” is the tax breaks, and the double-block is from Ken Ham’s blog post:

Ham insists on describing the TIF in a condescending manner in his post, even conceding that he hardly understands it himself. But not understanding a topic never stopped him before. Why start now?

Most people do not understand this complicated incentive (called Tax Increment Financing) that is common across the nation, and I hope I won’t lose you here. …

Now, we simply don’t mention the TIF to reporters because perhaps 1 in 1,000 readers would even know what it is, it is highly complicated, and I don’t understand it all myself. …

At the risk of your eyes glazing over regarding this TIF matter…

He’s setting the stage to make us feel too dumb to understand what’s going on — the same trick his whole Creation ministry is based upon. But it’s not as complicated as he makes it sound.

I recommend reading it if you have the time. I thought it was very informative and clearly demonstrates how AiG is manipulating things.

As for why it’s on this blog, well, I deal with young-Earth creationists manipulating science on this blog quite a lot. This isn’t science, but it’s perhaps just as important – if not more-so – than science because it’s public policy and it’s tens of millions of dollars that is currently going to a discriminatory, manipulative religious organization. Fortunately, I don’t live in Kentucky and my tax money is not directly contributing to this effort. But I hope that if any of you do live in Kentucky, you will voice your concern to the appropriate legislators.

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