Exposing PseudoAstronomy

February 25, 2015

Why Do Young-Earth Creationists Even Try to Pretend at Science?


There are a few main young-Earth (Christian) creationism organizations in the world that rise to the top in terms of reach and output and attempt to use science to justify their beliefs. Among those I would name three: Answers in Genesis (US-based, headed by Ken Ham), Institute for Creation Research (US-based, founded by Duane Gish), and Australia-based Creation Ministries International (which I think was also founded by Ken Ham, but AiG and CMI severed ties several years ago, fairly acrimoniously).

Over the past eight years, I have dealt with articles by all three, and other. In fact, my early posts mostly consisted of ripping through YEC claims. That’s mostly fallen by the wayside as posts have (regrettably) decreased over the years as I became more and more busy with work, but occasionally I’ll still see something that I want to comment on.

But more on that momentarily.

What these Big Three do, among other things, is attempt to do science and/or report on science. They’ve realized that as each new scientific discovery has borne out that contradicts their sacred tome, more and more people will leave their strict, literal interpretation of their religious writings.

Ergo, they have to try to show that science somehow supports something that they’ve said and believe.

I’ve also done numerous posts on this blog about the scientific process and why – to be a good scientist – you must also be a skeptic: You must find a way to remove your own bias(es) from the experiment. You must be able to objectively look at the data and also try to disprove what you want to think is the case in order to see if the data are ambiguous or really do exclusively support the conclusion. You have to think of all the other interpretations and gather observational evidence that those explanations are not valid. The process is not infallible, but it’s a heck of a lot better than a dogmatic approach.

Which, despite all the façade, is what creation “science” really is. And, surprisingly, I couldn’t’ve said it better myself than what Creation Ministries International wrote a few days ago in trying to answer a reader’s question about when stars were formed:

“what you propose is clearly ‘science’-driven not text-driven”

Blasted “science!” Always interfering with the Bible! (or at least their reading of it)

But, realizing it or not, this clearly demonstrates that what YECs do is not science: They start with their conclusion and will modify or massage or tweak or somehow shove the data into that hole to make it come out right. Or, simply deny that it exists (such as Kent Hovind denying there are reversals in Earth’s magnetic field, or almost all YECs denying accuracy of radiometric dating). This handy flowchart I made several years ago sums it up nicely:

Flow Chart Showing Faith-Based "Science"

Flow Chart Showing Faith-Based “Science”

February 16, 2015

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


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

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

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

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

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

February 4, 2015

New Horizon’s First Images of Pluto from Its Approach Phase – What’s Going On?


Introduction

New Horizons is a spacecraft headed to Pluto. It launched nearly a decade ago, but it will arrive in July of this year and do a fly through the system. Doing lots of amazing science.

One of the instruments is LORRI, a long-focal-length camera that will be the prime imager for much of the mission because it will be able to take the highest spatial resolution images. It will also be used (was being used and is being used, too) for optical navigation — make sure we’re headed in the right direction.

Just a few minutes ago, on the anniversary of Clyde Tombaugh’s birth (the guy who discovered Pluto), NASA released the first image from LORRI of Pluto and its main satellite, Charon, taken during the Approach Phase. There’s a lot going on here – one point in particular that I just know is prone to misunderstanding later on – so I want to talk a bit about this image.

Disclaimer

I am involved with the New Horizons mission. I am not a NASA employee. This is my personal blog and everything on it is my opinion, are my words, and is done completely independently (time-wise, resource-wise, person-wise) from my work on New Horizons. In fact, it is on record that this blog is legally distinct from my professional work. Nothing I say here should be taken as an official statement by NASA or the New Horizons team.

Resolution / Pixel Scale

That out of the way, let’s get to the meat of this post. Also, I’m going to use “resolution” and “pixel scale” a bit loosely here, so pedants need to forgive me right away.

LORRI is an amazing camera. It is a 1024×1024 pixel detector, and each pixel has an effective angular size of 4.95 µrad (micro radians, or about 1.02 arcsec). 1 arcsec is about the width of a human hair from 10 meters (33ft) away. (source)

At the moment, New Horizons is around 200,000,000 km away from Pluto. That’s okay, it still has 5.5 months to get there. Pluto is approximately 1180 km in radius. That means, from some simple trigonometry (remember SOHCAHTOA?), Pluto is about 1.2 arcsec in radius, or 2.4 arcsec in diameter. Charon is very roughly half Pluto’s diameter, so it’s around 1.2 arcsec in diameter. Charon and Pluto orbit on opposite sides of their center of mass, which means they are around 8.6 Plutos away from each other, or around 9.1 arcsec separated.

Okay, lots of numbers there. Basically, that means that right now, if we had perfect optics, Pluto is about 2 pixels across, Charon 1, and they’d be around 8 pixels away from each other, max (since their orientation on the plane of the sky is not perpendicular to the spacecraft right now).

(No) Perfect Optics

No such thing exists. Given the best, most perfect optics ever, you can never get infinitely fine details. This is because light will behave as a wave, and give rise to Airy disks and patterns meaning that the light will spread out as it travels through the optics. Unless you had an infinitely wide optical system.

When you factor everything together about the optics and system and detector and other things, from a point source of light, you get a point-spread function (PSF). This is the practical, measured spreading out of the light. In astronomy, we often measure the PSF based on fitting a Gaussian distribution to a star, since a star should be a point source and just cover one, single pixel.

With a telescope aperture of 208mm for LORRI, and a passband of light centered around 0.6 µm (red light), the Airy disk should be around 1.22*0.0006/208 = 6.8 µrad. That’s around 1.4 LORRI pixels. Amazing coincidence!

Actually, not. When designing an instrument, you typically want to just about over-sample the Airy disk. You don’t want to under-sample because then you’re losing valuable resolution and information. You don’t want to over-sample because then you’re just wasting money on a detector that is too “good” for your optics, and other issues that come about when you have small pixels. So, designing a system that’s around 1-3 pixels per Airy disk is good.

When you go to a practical PSF, it’s going to be a bit bigger just because no system is perfect.

What’s the Point?

Oh yeah, back to Pluto.

First New Horizons Image of Pluto and Charon from Approach Phase

First New Horizons Image of Pluto and Charon from Approach Phase (©NASA/APL/SwRI)

Let’s put these parts together: Right now, Pluto should be around 2 pixels across, Charon 1, and a separation of around 7-8 pixels. But, add in the PSFs due to the laws of optics. That means that the light should now be spread out a bit more.

And that is why this image looks like it does. It’s also been enlarged by 4x, such that each original LORRI pixel has now been resampled. So, if you look at the image NASA released, and you blow it up a lot, Pluto looks like it’s around ten pixels across, and Charon around five.

To repeat: The released image shows Pluto to be around 10 pixels wide, and Charon around 5. Despite the theoretical values now (2 pixels and 1 pixel, respectively). That’s because (1) the PSF spreads the light out because we live in a world with real and not ideal optics, and (2) the released image was enlarged by a factor of 4.

Moving Forward

New Horizons is zipping quickly along. In May, it will surpass all previous images taken and we will truly be in new territory and a new era of discovery (so far as imaging the Pluto system — note that the other instruments have already taken a lot of data and are learning new things). That best image that exists so far of Pluto shows Pluto to be approximately 8 pixels across.

And that’s why I started this post out by stating, “one point in particular that I just know is prone to misunderstanding later on.” So, today, NASA released an image that shows Pluto with as many pixels across as what it will take in late May, when it will have that number of pixels across.

See why I wanted to bring this up now? I can just hear the pseudoscientists claiming that NASA is lying about the power of the New Horizons telescopes, they’re deliberately down-sizing images (later, based on images released now), and various other things. While they’ll still almost certainly say that, at least you know now why that’s not the case, and what’s really going on now versus then.

There are only 2 (well, about 4, since it’s 2×2) “real” pixels in the Pluto disk right now, the others are interpolated based on expanding the size to make the image look nice for this release, celebrating the image and Clyde Tombaugh’s birthday. In four months, we’ll have all these pixels, but they won’t be based on a computer algorithm, they’ll be “real” pixels across Pluto taken by LORRI. Convolved (“smeared”) with a PSF that’s about 1.5-2 pixels.

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.

January 17, 2015

Podcast Episode 124: The Astronomical Distance Ladder


Measuring distance
In the Universe: A fun
Science episode!

An episode over two years in the making: The Astronomical Distance Ladder!!!!! (insert many cheers) In all seriousness, I have wanted to do this episode since autumn (August-ish) 2012, but I haven’t been able to find a good hook. Convicted and jailed felon, Kent Hovind, provided that for me on January 6, 1998, in a Coast to Coast AM episode I got my hands on. And so we have this episode. It is long. Those of you who like longer episodes, this is nearly an hour long. It did not intend it to be this long, but, well, that’s what happens when I get excited about a topic that’s not incredibly straight-forward.

I also guessed off the top of my head that an object with a redshift value of z = 1.4 would be about 10 billion light-years away. According to Wolfram Alpha, it’s 9.1 billion l-y lookback time, so take THAT, Prof. Morrison! (It’s been literally a decade since I thought about what z equals what distance, so I’m pretty impressed that I got that pretty close.)

I do want to apologize about the sound quality in this one and the variable volume levels (I tried to even them out in post-processing). I was recording during sustained 20mph winds with gusts over 50mph. So, I had a lot of background noise I was dealing with that varied in intensity.

This episode has three additional segments: New News related to a precision measurement of Saturn’s position, a new Logical Fallacies segment, and Feedback (one clarification, one negative and my response).

For the new Logical Fallacies segment, I’ll say what I said in the episode: “I’m open to feedback including overwhelming negative feedback on whether this was at all useful or is worth keeping in some modified way, and also if I’ve made any mistakes.” The fallacies discussed in detail for the episode are Argument from (Personal) Incredulity and Appeal to Ridicule. I got into how both of these are classes of Red Herring fallacies and the former is a sub-type of Red Herring, the Genetic. I also pointed out that additional fallacies in Mr. Hovind’s argument were the False Precision Fallacy, Appeal Against Authority, and False Analogy.

Edited to Add (January 21, 2015): The Raw Story has an article up today explaining a bit more about Kent Hovind, and that he is trying to testify before Congress (though he’s still in federal prison) about the IRS being a bunch of meanies.

January 8, 2015

A Follow-Up on the Boyd Bushman Alien Video Claims: The Debunkings Are Part of the Conspiracy


I’m doing these out of order, so my fifth post for the JREF’s Swift blog, which went up on December 31, 2014, was a follow-up to the Boyd Bushman affair. Before I recite the post below, I’d like to point out that when Sharon on Doubtful News posted this to her blog (since she’s the editor of Swift), it became the most-viewed Doubtful News post of the year. Not bad!

Ahem …

My first post for the JREF Swift blog dealt with the apparent deathbed confessions of Boyd Bushman, in which the alleged senior scientist for Lockheed Martin made vast claims about flying saucers, aliens, and other related topics. That post focused on why I find deathbed confessions, in general, to be unconvincing.

The Bushman story got a lot of press in the weeks that followed, and it was trumpeted on many websites and blogs as well as radio shows. One of them was an interview of David Sereda, conducted by George Noory on November 2, 2014, on the late-night paranormal radio program Coast to Coast AM (C2C).

C2C currently describes Mr. Sereda on their website as a “scientist, filmmaker, and spiritual explorer.” Mr. Sereda could best be categorized as a “new age” person, and if you are interested in some of his claims, I invite you to look towards the two episodes of my podcast that I devoted to his ideas (part 1, part 2). Suffice to say, he makes a lot of paranormal claims, but his evidence for them is severely lacking. Perhaps it’s because he claims that people – including himself – only use 5% of their brain.

Subtle digs and background information aside, Mr. Sereda had a different take on the Bushman story. Mr. Sereda claimed to have met Bushman many times and that he interviewed him in 2007 for a documentary (that Mr. Sereda has yet to release).

Besides background information into the scientist (which goes against some claims that the Boyd Bushman shown in the “confessions” was not the “real” Bushman who worked at Lockheed Martin), Mr. Sereda had a different take on the claimed photos of the aliens that Bushman presented. Specifically in the recordings, Bushman showed photographs that he claimed were of aliens. The internet quickly erupted with photos of identical “aliens;” too bad they were plastic dolls.

And so, that claim at least appeared to be debunked. And, if he’s showing photos of plastic dolls and claiming they are real, it does cast a bad light on the rest of Bushman’s claims. (Even though we should, if we were to be 100% fair, evaluate each individual claim in isolation.)

But, Mr. Sereda had an answer to this: The dolls were made by disinformation people. To quote from the C2C description of the evening’s show:

“Bushman alleged he had true photographs of the preserved alien from Roswell, and Sereda concluded there was possibly some authenticity to his claims, as the face in the Bushman photo contained unique irregularities, while the knock-off dolls, sold at places like K-mart, could have been part of a smear or disinformation campaign to discredit the actual photo. Further, Sereda suggested that the alien body was likely preserved with chemicals and plastics, creating the effect of the darkened eyes and rings around them, as fluid was lost from the body.”

That’s right. Way back in the day after the aliens were brought to Area 51 (or, actually, the real Area 51 in Write Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio), the Men in Black anticipated that someone would leak photos of the aliens. That over the next several decades, a vast “disclosure” network would grow and find these photos and present them as evidence of aliens landing. But, to counteract that effort by the not-yet-created disclosure movement, the Men in Black decided that the best way to confuse the issue would be to create dolls of the real aliens. And, they chose plastic not because it was cheap, but because the preservation method used at the time on the aliens rendered a plastic-like appearance (or maybe it was a happy coincidence). That way, when the real alien photos were leaked, the silly debunkers would point to the dolls and say that the real alien photos are just photos of dolls. (cue evil laughter)

I kid you not.

Thus goes the conspiracy mindset, and it’s something that I think I first heard from Dr. Steve Novella: Once you get deep enough and invested enough in the conspiracy, nothing can persuade you that you are wrong. All evidence for the conspiracy is of course evidence for the conspiracy. But, all evidence against the conspiracy was planted by disinformation agents, and therefore it, too, is evidence for the conspiracy.

January 1, 2015

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


Karen Stollznow talks
‘Bout the issues of ET
Communication.

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

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

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

December 30, 2014

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



Introduction

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

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

Number of Images of Planets Taken by Spacecraft Infographic

Number of Images of Planets Taken by Spacecraft Infographic

Development Process

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

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

The Idea

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

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

The Numbers

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

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

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

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

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

Why the Conspiracy Theorists Are Wrong

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

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

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

The total number of lunar images? About 3 million.

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

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

What Conspiracists Could Still Claim

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

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

What This Infographic Does Not Show

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

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

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

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

Final Thoughts

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

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

December 16, 2014

Podcast Episode 122: Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko and Rosetta Conspiracies


Conspiracies of
Comet 67P …
Few, but they are weird.

A timely and listener-requested episode! What’s not to love!? In the episode I talk about several of the conspiracies I’ve seen surrounding the Rosetta mission and Comet 67P. From artificiality (Hoagland makes a guest appearance) to singing so as to raise our consciousness to angelic levels when 2012 failed, I spend nearly a half hour going through 2 to 4 claims (depending on how you count them) that have been making the rounds. I also get to touch on image analysis.

There is also one New News segment this episode, and it refers to the death of the Venus Express mission around (oddly enough) Venus. The news relates to the episodes on uncertainty. Not sure what the connection is? Listen to the episode! The episode also comes in at just over 30 minutes, my target length.

December 5, 2014

How to Not Understand Science and Use that to Say Science Is Wrong


Introduction

Given the large amount of work I spent on my two-part 1.75-hr podcast episodes on James McCanney’s “science,” I thought it appropriate to get a Swift blog post out of the effort. This post was geared more towards a general audience and so I used one of McCanney’s quotes to discuss a common problem that we face as scientists, we face as science communicators, and we face as skeptics (where “we” is a different group in those three instances, and I consider myself a member of each).

This is reproduced from what I originally sent the editor on the JREF Swift blog.

Swift Blog Post #3

As a scientist and attempted science communicator (and skeptic in my copious free time), one of the difficulties I face is that science is not other-people-friendly. In fact, most of us work on tasks so specific that we often face difficulties explaining what we do to colleagues, much less people who are not scientists, so it’s rarely even other-scientists-slightly-outside-our-field-friendly.

Since I also play a skeptic on the internet, I have the added issue that terms, phrases, and analogies I may try to use to explain a concept could very easily be misconstrued by a pseudoscientist to support their pet idea. For example, if I talk about an “image anomaly,” to other scientists, this means something like a spot of dust on the lens (usually appears as a darker doughnut shape on the image) or a cosmic ray that makes a bright spot or streak. To a pseudoscientist, it could mean an apartment complex on Mars or an alien space ship near the sun.

This especially becomes an issue when people use those misconceptions to turn around and say that some well established model in science is wrong, and spread those views.

For example, I recently completed a two-part podcast series (episode part 1, part 2) on the ideas and misconceptions of “Professor” James McCanney (I place “Professor” in quotes because he is introduced as such, but he has not taught for over 30 years after he was fired from two teaching jobs, and he does not have a doctorate). Mr. McCanney has many misconceptions about the universe, but one that struck me was this, stated on the Coast to Coast AM radio program on 30 August, 2007:

“When astronomers take their picture of the universe, and they start looking back, and they say, uh– ‘We’re looking back in time,’ and now scientists say they’ve seen objects that are only 500 million years after the Big Bang. But the only problem is they’re in all directions, when we look out in all directions. So if you actually were seeing objects that were only 500 million years after the Big Bang, they would have to be consolidating in some location in the sky near where the original Big Bang had to be. But that’s not the case, they’re all over the sky.”

This was one of his primary stated reasons for saying the Big Bang was wrong, doesn’t make sense, and observations do not support it.

The problem is that this is a gross misunderstanding of the science, and because of that misunderstanding, he concludes that the science is wrong. This example is, in part, a manifestation of an issue we scientists face: Trying to explain a geometrically and spatially complicated idea that goes against your every-day experience.

The analogy in common culture for the Big Bang is that it’s an explosion. In our every-day experience, explosions happen at a specific place. Therefore, if the Big Bang was an explosion, shouldn’t it have happened in a certain place? Ergo, shouldn’t what Mr. McCanney said – that we should see stuff only get younger towards the original spot of that explosion – be correct? And if the evidence doesn’t show that, doesn’t it mean the Big Bang is wrong?

Herein lies the problem with your every-day experience: The Big Bang model holds that the universe did not “start somewhere,” but rather it “started the somewhere.” You cannot have the event that created the universe – all of space and time as we know it – happen within the universe itself. It’s like saying that you, yourself, started in your big toe, or your ear, and grew out from that. But you didn’t: Your entire physical self started with your entire physical self (a single cell) – you cannot point to a specific part of yourself where you started.

The same is the case with the universe. The reason why there is no center of the universe, or no specific spot where we can look towards where the Big Bang occurred, is that it was an explosion of space, not in space.

Another common analogy that’s used is to think of a balloon. The surface of that balloon is a 2D representation of the 3D universe. That 2D representation is warped in 3D, just as our 3D universe is likely warped in 4D or higher spatial dimensions. If you think of a squished, completely deflated balloon, you could say that it’s just a tiny speck and that surface (our universe) doesn’t yet exist. Now, blow air into the balloon, and the surface exists and expands. If you were on that surface and you looked in any direction, you would see the surface. If light travelled really slowly, then you would see that surface as it appeared further back in time.

And that’s what we see when we look out into the universe: As we look farther and farther away, we look further and further back in time, and we see a much younger universe. In all directions. Including the cosmic microwave background radiation, which if what the universe “looked like” just about 380,000 years after the Big Bang.

This observation is what one should and would predict if the Big Bang is the correct model for the initial stages of the universe’s existence.

To bring this full-circle, this kind of observation – the very one Mr. McCanney says contradicts the Big Bang and that’s one reason why he doesn’t believe it – is actually an observation that supports the Big Bang.

But, trying to grasp why this is what you should predict from the Big Bang model is not easy. It goes against what you normally think of when you think “explosion.” Or of really anything happening in the universe, which, by definition, is everything we’ve ever observed or experienced. It is a common misunderstanding, but it’s one that comes from an attempt to simplify the science in a way to easily explain it to non-scientists.

That’s why, as skeptics, we always need to be aware of simplifications and analogies used by science communicators: While it may be done with the best of intentions to try to convey a complex concept, it can introduce further misunderstandings. And, given the right person (or wrong person, depending on your point of view), that misunderstanding can be used to promote pseudoscience.

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