On this blog and in my podcast, I talk a lot about pseudoscience. I talk a lot about pseudoscientists. But I don’t think I’ve talked explicitly much about what really separates a pseudoscientist from a real scientist, nor have I talked about basic thresholds for being considered a real scientist.
Last week, I was at the annual Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC), a conference that is the largest planetary science conference in the US, annually drawing over 1500 planetary (non-Earth-studying) scientists and receiving around 2000 abstract submissions.
Among those were at least two that bordered on pseudoscientific. I’m going to be interviewing the program committee chair in an upcoming podcast episode, so I’ll leave a discussion of what happens when they get those kinds of submissions to that interview.
But, in the meantime, I’m going to discuss what happened when one of these persons set up his presentation, in contrast with the standards of the field and conference, to illustrate how one should not behave if they want to be taken seriously by the scientific community.
Who Am I Talking About
In this particular case, I’m talking about John E. Brandenburg, a person whose claims about Mars being host to an intelligent civilization before they got nuked, I discussed in Episode 86 of my podcast. I also discussed his claims in the Feedback portion of Episode 93 and in the New News of Episode 121.
However, I want this blog post to stand on its own. Without any other background information, other than I’ve discussed his claims before, let’s take a look at just what he did at this conference.
Everyone speaking at LPSC is required to submit an abstract. The standard is two pages (which is fairly long for most conferences) that outlines what your work is and what you will be talking about. That way the program committee can decide if you will get a talk or a poster presentation (you don’t always get a talk, so by default you will get a poster) and the order of the session.
To give you an idea of what an abstract looks like, here’s one that I submitted to the most recent LPSC about progress on my work into studying the crater population of Saturn’s satellites. That is the standard template.
John Brandenburg submitted two abstracts, “Evidence for Large, Anomalous Nuclear Explosions on Mars in the Past” and “The NMS (New Mars Synthesis), Recent Data from Gale Crater and NWA 7034: Evidence for a Persistent Biologically Stabilized Greenhouse on Mars.”
So, there you go. I will note that these do not use the standard templates, and the copy-editing isn’t great, but not everything one spits out is going to be gold. There’s also the pet peeve of mine of using Excel for science graphs (see his first abstract), but again, others do it so Dr. Brandenburg hasn’t done anything yet that others don’t do.
I don’t know if he requested a talk, but he got a poster. He was scheduled for the first of two poster sessions, which was on Tuesday night. Each night has well over 600 poster presentations, where you set up your poster and then wait twiddling your fingers, hoping that people will at least read it and maybe even talk with you. I went through that for the abstract I linked to of mine, but on Thursday night. You can get an idea of what it looks like if you’re busy from some of the royalty-free images here.
The poster sessions are from 6:00P.M. until 9:00P.M. You are expected to be there the entire time. You are also expected to set up your poster before that time, and most people set up their poster the day before. For example, I set my Thursday poster up on Wednesday just after lunch. (The e-mailed instructions state, “Poster presenters are expected to be present at their poster on their assigned evening.”)
John Brandenburg began to set up his poster at about 7:55P.M. on Tuesday evening. It was a long, very tedious process, where he spent 45 minutes doing so, not completing his set up until 8:40P.M., only 20 minutes before the poster session ended and – to be honest – many people had already left for late-night drinks.After he finished setting up, he left for a few minutes to get a beer from the cash bar.
Let’s be fair: Not everyone has access to or money to spend on a poster printer. Those are the large-format printers that take paper spanning around 36″–44″ across and can print something of arbitrary length. LPSC allows up to 44″ by 44″.
But, as I said, some people can’t do that. Instead, some will effectively create a talk in presentation software (e.g., PowerPoint or Keynote) and then print that out on standard 8.5″x11″ sheets of paper and tack those up. It doesn’t look great, but it gets the point across.
That was John Brandenburg’s approach.
Among other things, I noted the following in terms of non-standard items:
- Nothing was referenced. This is important in science for anything that is not new work. Considering he posted many images from other peoples’ papers, this is a big no-no.
slidepart showed “the” Face on Mars, another claimed face, and a “pyramid.”
The “Face” came up once, when I was eavesdropping on him talking with someone else: John was explaining blast site antipodes (the opposite point on the planet to some feature or event) and he then pointed to those photos and remarked, “And that’s to remind you of what’s there;” he added a knowing nod when saying that. The implication’s obvious, but he seemed unwilling to say it out loud, potentially for fear of seeming even crazier.
Different people do poster sessions in different ways, but most people tend to walk through the aisles of posters and slowly skim over titles, perhaps pausing on one that seems interesting, maybe lingering a bit to read it, before moving on. Unless they are really interested, in which case they’ll stay and ask questions or generally engage the presenter, if the presenter is there.
While Dr. Brandenburg was getting his beer, I saw a few people walk by and effectively rubber-neck. I also saw their eyes go wide and then move on.
If They Don’t Come to You, Go to Them
I will admit at this point that I hid my name badge. There was a non-zero chance that Dr. Brandenburg would recognize my name based on my blog and podcast and e-mail exchanges we had. I didn’t want that to come up, I wanted to observe what happened without him knowing that a “skeptic” who had criticized his work before was there watching.
What I saw was that after Dr. Brandenburg came back with his beer, he waited a minute or two and then approached the two people standing across from him who were at their own posters. The friends I was with told me I should’ve written it down, and I wish I had, but what I remember from an hour later when I wrote down my notes was that he said, almost exactly: “It must be tough facing [or “being opposite?”] all this for the whole night.” I really wish I had written it down then because this could be seen as really creepy – especially since at least one of those two people was a woman – though he really was referring to the posters he just put up and not something else.
For the next roughly 15 minutes (since that was all that was left of the poster session), when passers by would not engage him, he engaged people at surrounding posters, asking them about their work. That is reasonably fair, though a bit unconventional: The goal is to get people to come to your poster and talk about your work, especially when you only have 15 minutes left.One of the people he engaged was a friend of mine at her poster. I took the opportunity to slip around and take some photographs of his “poster” for future use, such as in this blog post. When I asked my friend later about what he talked about, she stated that he seemed surprised about some of her findings and remarked that it was, well, surprising. Unfazed, she told him “no” that it wasn’t surprising, most of the stuff she found was common and expected. It was another part that was surprising that she hadn’t yet mentioned to him.
This is not in itself a big issue: I have no idea what she’s doing. It’s not my field. But, it is very related to what Dr. Brandenburg claims his field is, and related to his second abstract. So this actually is a big issue: He tried to “talk the talk,” and he failed. He demonstrated ignorance of field that he should know if he’s talking about a very closely related one on his “poster.”
My friend also said that John seemed drunk, but she wasn’t sure if that was his personality. That did not surprise me. I wrote in a forum after listening to his interview on “Dark City” from February 2015: “Affect: For some reason, I find his constant laughs very off putting. I don’t know why. It has nothing to do with his arguments, but it makes it sound like he doesn’t take this seriously. I hear this in all of his interviews.”
Another commenter on the forum stated, in response: “I’d read the comment about his laughter before I listened to the show so was “analyzing” it as it occurred. It happened more frequently and for longer periods as the show continued. In my professional opinion, I think he started the interview with a 6 pack in front of him. By last call at the end of the show, he sounded like a someone who was regretfully set to go home after spending a few hours telling his ideas to the guy next to him at the bar.”
You, the reader might consider this gratuitous. Perhaps. but, it added to the general gestalt of Dr. Brandenburg’s presentation and interactions, and it adds to the general group of things not to do if you want to be taken seriously by the scientific community. I’ve seen people drunk at LPSC. I have never seen someone drunk who is presenting. I’m also not saying Dr. Brandenburg was drunk, rather it was the impression a few of us had, and a few of us who have listened to his various interviews have had.
Enter the Dragon’s Lair
I finally gave in while he was talking with some other people at his “posters” and joined them. He made his case, and the people seemed unconvinced. At the end, the guy asked for a photo of his poster and John was happy to oblige and offered to be in it, too. From my perspective, I figured this was going in the “Crazy Times at LPSC” album, but of course my own views color that assumption.The only engagement I gave was when John Brandenburg mentioned trinitite. I was prepared for that. It’s a recent addition to his claimed evidence for a nuclear blast on Mars, for trinitite “is the glassy residue left on the desert floor after the plutonium-based Trinity nuclear bomb test on July 16, 1945, near Alamogordo, New Mexico.” In other words, we’ve only seen it on Earth as a result from a nuclear blast. If we see it on Mars, that’d be interesting evidence for a nuclear blast, though we’d still need to do work to determine if there’s any other way to make it. That’s how science works.
I was prepared for the trinitite claim because in that recent interview on “Dark City,” he said that he had found it on Mars. So, when he brought it up from his “poster,” he presented a map showing it was all over the northern hemisphere of Mars near the north polar layered deposits. I jumped on that and asked what his source was. He responded by reiterating what trinitite is (and that it’s only found at nuclear blast sites), and I told him no, I wanted to know what detected it and how. He stuttered and didn’t remember but said it’s in his abstract — this is one reason why I said it’s important to provide references on your poster. Not only did that effectively stop the conversation because I couldn’t ask further, but it also allowed him to punt it back to the abstract and avoid questions.
The issue for me going into this was that trinitite is a very specific kind of glass, and it’s nearly impossible to pick up from orbit with the instruments we have around Mars today. First, the spectral signature of trinitite is very close to glass, so I would want to see how the researchers would have differentiated between them with orbiting probes. Second, if there had been trinitite discovered (and I did my homework and could not find any papers that mentioned Mars and trinitite), I would think I would be able to find it. Because, well, it’s only found on Earth near nuclear blast sites, so one would think it’d get a big press release.
After the poster session, I looked up his abstract and I found the reference. It’s a paper in “Geology” by Horgan and Bell from 2012, though he cited it as being from 2014 (as I said, sloppy abstracts). The abstract of this paper is inconsistent with what Dr. Brandenburg says it says. Specifically, he claims (but the paper says otherwise) that the glass is only found there on Mars (they say it’s likely widespread), the glass is solid hunks of glass (versus just glass mixed into the regolith like we see all over Earth in volcanoes), and that it’s acid-etched glass and therefore trinitite (they say it’s iron-bearing glass and silica-enriched leached rinds on glass). So, his smoking gun has a common, mundane explanation. You don’t need a crazy explanation for a mundane (yet still new — not to belittle the authors’ work) observation when the mundane explanation will work (that it’s just volcanic glass that we see everywhere on Earth).
In a bit of fairness, John did say (direct quote) when introducing the claim of trinitite: “They” think it’s volcanic glass, “perfectly reasonable. But, it also looks like trinitite.”
Over the last two years, LPSC has been a little trigger-happy about shutting down the poster session at 9:00 sharp. I remember being in there at my poster talking with people well past 9:30 before, but only in past years. This year, at 9:02, a volunteer told him he needed to take down his poster or they were going to take down everything that was left up.
In fairness to the volunteer, this was also in the instructions to presenters that was e-mailed out, that if posters were left after the end of the poster session, they would be “discarded.”
John responded, “What would you DO with it if you took it down?!”
He may have just been trying to be funny, but that capped off the encounter for me in terms of not following the instructions and seeming to think he’s special.
Hallmarks of a PseudoscientistIn his e-mails to me, John Brandenburg has clearly implied that he wants to and thinks he should be taken seriously. In those e-mail exchanges, however, he has failed to back up the majority of his claims, and he has failed to put together a cogent, cohesive story that does not conflict with well established other things (such as Martian chronology).
What I observed was more of the same at LPSC, and this illustrates a general failure to adhere to the standards of how a scientist should not only behave and present their information, but also present themselves.
As a short listed recap:
- Arrival with an hour left in the poster session, way too long to set up, and only 15 minutes after getting a beer to present his work.
- Drunk affect, if not actually drunk when you are supposed to be presenting.
- Presenting known pseudoscience in an attempt to bolster your science claims (face and pyramids on Mars — sorry conspiracists reading this blog, it is: see here, here, here, or here).
- Failure to demonstrate knowledge of the field you’re talking about.
- Failure to reference others’ work you are using, especially when copying their images.
- Making unsubstantiated other claims that are used in support of your claim, especially when your side-claim flies in the face of the generally accepted state of the field.
This has been a long post, but I hope that it gives you some insight into what (not) to do if you are going to be taken seriously at a scientific conference. Scientists really are open minded about new ideas (again, I know most people who aren’t skeptics or scientists reading this blog are going to think I’m crazy to say that, but we really are).
We scientists just demand better evidence than the average person because we know how easy it is to be fooled, how easy it is to let our own biases get in the way, and we know that the new ideas have to not only explain the observations better than the previous ideas but also have to mesh with everything else that may seem unrelated but still would be affected by that new idea. And write long, run-on sentences.
But, while we’re open to new ideas, we also have certain standards. And, we expect you to play by the same rules that we do.
John E. Brandenburg does not and he did not do that at LPSC last week.
I don’t know what will happen if he submits abstracts to LPSC next year, but I hope that the program committee takes note of how he behaved this year and will use that to make an informed decision next year. He now has a documented case (here) of abusing the privilege of presenting at a scientific conference.
And you, the reader, can see what that abuse is like. While these conferences are not meant to be gates closed to everyone but those “in the club,” they are still a privilege that one is granted to attend, it is not a right.