Exposing PseudoAstronomy

October 1, 2017

Podcast Episode 165: Little Things in Space

True or near vacuum pressures,
Temperature in space.

A long-planned episode that gets back to the roots of ferreting out misconceptions (though three tied together): Little Things in Space!!! This episode, if you couldn’t get it from the haiku, covers the concept of microgravity, vacuum, and temperature (what does temperature mean if there’s nothing there to experience it?). There are no additional segments.




March 19, 2017

Podcast Episode 159: A Proposal for the Geologic Definition of “Planet,” Interview with Kirby Runyon

Definition of
Planet: Useful in science?
Or, just pedantry?

Sorry for the delay again, but I have an interview that’s just under an hour this time on a new proposal for a geophysical definition of the word “planet.”

In 2006, the International Astronomical Union sparked an uproar and furious debate among scientists and non-scientists alike when they voted for a definition of the word, planet. Numerous proposals since that time have been made for the definition of that term. Eleven years later, a new proposal has gotten a lot of media attention and in this episode, we discuss that new proposed definition. This is closer to a friendly debate style because the guest and I have different points of view on this issue.

There are no additional segments in this episode, but the interview runs 51 minutes. This is also the episode for the first half of March.

Poor Pluto

Poor Pluto

January 30, 2017

Podcast Episode 156: The Scientific Method— How We Get to What We Know

The Scientific
Method: Technique for finding
What’s true, and what’s not.

Another roughly half-hour episode based around the idea of how we know what we know … in other words, the Scientific Method. It’s an episode wrapped up in some underlying subtext — that’s all I’ll say about it. There are no real other segments in this episode.

Sorry Not Sorry Meme

Sorry Not Sorry Meme

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.”

September 21, 2014

Philosophy: On Skepticism and Challengers


I’m taking a break because I don’t want to work on this proposal at the moment. I’m great at procrastination, when I get around to it.

Anyway, I want to muse philosophical-like for a few minutes, reacting to some recent things I’ve heard regarding skepticism and people challenging your views.

“Healthy” Skepticism

George Noory, the now >1 decade primary host of late-night paranormal radio program Coast to Coast AM, had Dr. Judy Wood on his program for the first two hours of his “tribute” to the September 11, 2001 (I refuse to call it “9/11” because I think that trivializes it — we all have our quirks) terrorist attacks. Judy Wood is author of the book, “Where Did the Towers Go?” Her thesis is that a directed “zero-point energy” weapon “dustified” the towers, or that they suffered “dustification.”

It was a very difficult interview for George, I’m sure, since Judy refused to speculate on anything. I’m also growing slightly more convinced that he may have questions written down on cue cards because he asked the exact same question a few minutes apart (“how much energy is required to ‘dustify’ the towers?”) and she refused to speculate both times. Just repeating what she “knows she knows that she knows.” She is also incredibly defensive and clearly doesn’t know what the word “theory” is.

All that aside, early in the interview, George did a tiny disclaimer saying that they always get people writing or calling in saying that doing shows like that is unpatriotic and/or disrespectful to everyone who died in the attacks and the aftermath. But, that it’s healthy to have skepticism and to always question the official story.


Okay, George, you are correct in theory (yes, I used that word purposely), but completely wrong in practice. Skepticism does not mean doubting or denying or not accepting everything. Skepticism, as we use the term today, means to not accept something unless we have good evidence to do so. It’s a method of investigation, to look into claims, examine the evidence, and put it in context with all the other evidence and plausibility given what has been established about the way the world works.

At least, that’s how I tend to define it, and it’s how I tend to practice it.

Do I believe “the government” on everything? No. For example, President Obama recently announced that the US is going to take on ISIS in some form or fashion, but that there would be “no boots on the ground.” Given past experience when politicians have said that, and given the realities of ISIS and the Middle East area in general, I’m … shall we say … “skeptical,” and I will reserve acceptance of his statement until it actually plays out.

Do I believe that NASA “tampers” with photographs of the moon to “airbrush out” ancient ruins and alien artifacts, or do I accept what “they” give us? (I put “they” in quotes because “NASA” is an organizational administration within the federal government; it’s the people involved who do everything, and it’s contractors and grant awardees who deal with data and other things.) I accept what they give us. I tend to not question it.

Why? Because of past experience and my own experience in investigating the claims to the contrary. I look at other images of the area from multiple spacecraft. From spacecraft from other countries. They are consistent. They don’t show different kinds of anomalies you’d need in order to have the scenario that the conspiracists claim is happening. They do show what you’d expect if the data were faithfully represented, as it was taken, after standard spacecraft and basic data reduction steps (like correcting for geometric distortion based on how the spacecraft was pointed, or removing artifacts from dust on the lens).

George, there is a difference between healthy skepticism – looking into claims – and beating a dead horse. Or beating over 3000 dead victims to a terrorist attack.

There is no plausibility to Dr. Wood’s arguments. Her claims made to back them up are factually wrong. (Expat has addressed some of them in his blog, here, here, here, and here.) She is ridiculously defensive, refuses to delve further into her model to actually back it up, and has a name for herself only because people like you give her airtime to promote her ideas. True skepticism is to examine the arguments from both sides and draw a conclusion based on what’s real and what’s most probable. Which has been done by thousands of people who debunk every single claim the conspiracists make about the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. But you won’t go to them. You bring on Dr. Wood, or people from the Architects and Engineers for Truth.

A one-sided investigation is not faithful, not genuine, and is disrespectful to everyone.

Challenging Your Conclusions

In a related vein, but completely different context, I was reading through my RSS news feeds and came upon the headline to the effect (because it’s disappeared from my feed since I started to write this): Michelle Obama explains to school children that challenges [probably, though I read it as “challengers”] are a good thing.

So true. Most people in the skeptical movement know that this is “a True.” Most scientists know this is “a True.” Most pseudoscientists are vehemently against being challenged.

I’ll take the subject of my last blog post to illustrate this example, not that I want to pick on him per se, but he’s the last person I listened to in detail that I can use to illustrate this point, other than Dr. Wood, who I discussed much more than I want to in the above section. Mike Bara.

Mike was somewhat recently on another late-night (though not quite as late) internet radio program, “Fade to Black,” where Jimmy Church is the host. It’s on Art Bell’s “Dark Matter Radio Network,” where I was also a guest several months ago. I have since called in twice to the program, both times to discuss the possibility of debating Mike Bara on some of his claims.

The very brief backstory on that is Mike was on Coast to Coast, and basically attacked me. I called in, George said he’d arrange a debate, then stopped responding to my e-mails. A year later, the same thing happened, and George actually e-mailed me (I couldn’t call in because I lost power that night — happens sometimes in the mountains of Colorado, though we now have a generator), he wanted to arrange a debate, he claimed on air that I had stopped responding to his e-mails … and then he stopped responding to mine so the debate never happened. Later, I learned that it was Mike who may have dropped his acceptance. I related that to Jimmy.

Jimmy asked Mike if he’d be willing to debate me, and Mike’s response was effectively, “what do I get out of it?” Mike opined that what I (Stuart) would get out of it is a platform and attention which, according to Mike, I so desperately want (or maybe that’s Michael Horn’s claim about me … I get some of what each says is my motivation a bit confused). Meanwhile, Mike already has attention, so he said that he wouldn’t get anything out of it and therefore didn’t want to do it. Jimmy countered that it would make great radio (which I agree with).

I did call in, but unfortunately Mike got dropped when Jimmy tried to bring me in. It was the last 10 minutes of the program, anyway, so I told Jimmy what I thought we both (me and Mike) would get out of it: We would each have to back up what we say, and when challenged, it forces us in a radio setting to make our arguments concise, easily understandable, and actually back up what we’re saying.

That’s what we do in science: We have to back up what we say. We expect to get challenged, we expect to have people doubt our work, we expect to have people check our work, and we expect people to challenge our conclusions. Only the best ideas that can stand up to such scrutiny survive. That’s how science progresses. That’s where pseudoscience fails. Science is not a democracy, and it is not a communistic system where every idea is the same and equal as every other idea. It’s a meritocracy. Only the ideas that have merit, that stand up to scrutiny, survive.

The point of science is to develop a model of how the world works. If your model clearly does not describe how the world works and make successful predictions (and have repeatable evidence and have evidence that actually stands up to scrutiny), then it gets dropped.

Final Thoughts

I hope you found these musings at least mildly interesting. And let me know if you agree or disagree. Challenge my ideas, but if you do so, make sure you back them up!

September 19, 2014

A Quick Post on Pareidolia

First, the subject of this post: A study into pareidolia has won an Ig Nobel Prize. (If you don’t know what the Ig Nobels are, go to the link and read.) This study has six authors and is published in the journal Cortex: “Seeing Jesus in toast: Neural and behavioral correlates of face pareidolia.” (sorry, it’s behind a paywall)

Why am I posting about this? Well, some of my run-ins over the years have involved Mike Bara, most notably with respect to a lunar ziggurat (his belief in a step pyramid on the far side of the moon). The argument, which took place over the course of several months, never involved pareidolia, but in the course of the argument, Mike made this statement:

“The actual truth is that there is no such thing as “Pareidolia.” It’s just a phony academic sounding word the debunkers made up to fool people into thinking there is scholarly weight behind the concept. It’s actually a complete sham. … The word was actually first coined by a douchebag debunker (is that my first “douchebag” in this piece?! I must be getting soft) named Steven Goldstein in a 1994 issue of Skeptical Inquirer. Since then, every major debunker from Oberg to “Dr. Phil” has fallen back on it, but it is still a load of B.S. There is no such thing.”

In other words, very explicitly stating that pareidolia does not exist. He thinks it’s a made-up term (it’s not, or it isn’t any more made up than any other word in language) for a made-up thing. When pressed about this point, Mike has claimed that his stance is at least partly based on the “fact” that there are no scientific studies that talk about pareidolia. That there are neurological disorders about people seeing things that aren’t real, but nothing on pareidolia.

Even if that were true (it’s not — at the very least, the above-mentioned paper proves that), just because a term is not described in medical studies with clinical research (and it is, the above-mentioned paper proves that) does not mean the phenomenon is not real.

I’m looking out my window now and I see a cloud that looks exactly like a mouse, complete with two ears, a snout, an eye, and a long body with tail. That doesn’t mean there is a giant mouse in the sky, nor does that mean that my brain is subject to some rare neurological disorder. It means I’m like every other person: My brain subconsciously (or consciously sometimes) tries desperately to fit randomness into something familiar.

That’s what pareidolia is, and it is a real phenomenon regardless of what you want to call it and regardless of whether scientific studies use the term or have researched it. (As a side-note, there are plenty of real phenomena and real things that have not been specifically and formally researched – much less published – in the broad disciplines of science. I’m in the midst of writing several research proposals at the moment, and a key part to these is past work — in several cases, there simply isn’t any, I’ll be the first person to study them. That’s part of the point of science.)

Now, if Mike happens to see this post and deign to respond, I suspect he will claim it’s one study, or it’s done by skeptics, or some such thing, and continue to deny that pareidolia exists. Why? I of course cannot know the workings of his mind, but I would suspect that it’s because that admission would then require a re-evaluation of most of what he claims, since much of his “evidence” for ancient aliens on the moon and Mars and elsewhere is simply pareidolia. Such as the tank or airplane hanger on the moon, or cities and faces on Mars. And he’s unwilling to do that, so he fights very hard to defend his claim that pareidolia is not only a made up term, but a made up phenomenon that doesn’t exist.

Remember that the next time you see Micky Mouse on Mercury, or a smiley face with a colon and close-parenthesis : )

Side-Note: I wanted to give you all a brief update on my silence lately. I’m still very busy. I’m in the middle of proposal-writing season and just submitted a grant proposal on Wednesday, have another due in 2 weeks, and two more due three weeks after that. Plus, I’m changing jobs, which means desperately trying to tie up several projects on one end while starting others on the other end. I am very much hoping to get back to things after the October 3 proposal is due, but I’m not sure yet if that’ll be when everything calms down or if it’ll be a bit longer.

December 1, 2013

Podcast Episode 94: Error and Uncertainty in Science

Episodes. Hopefully not
A boring topic?

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

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

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

October 25, 2013

Planetary Orbits and Terms, 101


I’ve been made aware lately that some people who profess certain types of pseudoscientific beliefs, such as Mars’ orbit being ridiculously eccentric (highly elliptical), do not understand basic orbital terminology and geometry.

With that in mind, I thought this would be a good post not only because of that, but also towards a general explanation of terms for people who hear them from time-to-time who may not have known what they meant. I should also probably mention (normally goes without saying) that these are basic terms and definitions and are not unique to me and are not unique to any given field.

Terms! (Vocab Words!!)

Some geometry terms, parts of an ellipse:

  • Major Axis: The longest axis of an ellipse (goes through the center).
  • Minor Axis: The shortest axis of an ellipse (goes through the center).
  • Foci/Focus(es): All ellipses have two foci, or two “focuses.” The foci have the property (or ellipses have the property) such that if you add the distance between the point and each focus, every point along the ellipse will have the same distance. This leads to the “pins and string” method of drawing an ellipse. In a circle – a special form of an ellipse, the two foci are in the same location, the center.
  • Center: The point exactly between the two foci. And the intersection of both the major and minor axes.
  • Eccentricity of Ellipse: Always between 0 (a perfect circle) and 1 (a line). It is defined as the SQRT(1-(minor/major)^2).

Some astronomy terms, parts of an ellipse:

  • Semi-Major Axis: Half the longest axis of an ellipse (starts from the center or edge, goes to the edge or center).
  • Semi-Minor Axis: Half the shortest axis of an ellipse (starts from the center or edge, goes to the edge or center).
  • (Primary) Focus: In the solar system, the sun is at one focus of the ellipse for all planetary orbits, and there is nothing physical in the second focus. For moons orbiting planets, the “primary” focus is the planet, there is nothing physical at the other focus.
  • Eccentricity of Orbit: Eccentricity of an orbit is typically defined as: (apoapsis – periapsis) / (apoapsis + periapsis).
  • Ellipticity: Rarely used, sometimes confused with eccentricity. Ellipticity is just major/minor axis and is always a value greater than 1 (1 = circle). A value of 2 would mean the major axis is twice as long as the major axis, though in this case the eccentricity would be 0.87.

Some astronomy terms, other parts of an orbit:

  • Peri-: Prefix meaning “closest.” If you’re a planet on an orbit around the sun, your perihelion is the closest approach to the sun. If you’re around Earth, it’s perigee, moon is perilune, Jupiter is perijov, and I’m sure there are others. Generic term for any body is “periapsis.” Periapsis can be calculated as the semi-major axis multiplied by (1-eccentricity).
  • Apo-/Ap-: Prefix meaning “farthest.” If you’re a planet on an orbit around the sun, your aphelion is the farthest approach from the sun. If you’re around Earth, it’s apogee, moon is apolune, Jupiter is apojov, and I’m sure there are others. Generic term for any body is “apoapsis.” Apoapsis can be calculated as the semi-major axis multiplied by (1+eccentricity).

Some perspective terms. These are visual things, as viewed from one object relative to another. Formally as parts of an orbit, for orbital mechanics, they are irrelevant.

  • Conjunction: When one object appears at the same location in space as another object, as seen from a third object. For example, when viewed from Mars, if the moon Phobos appears in front of the sun (so you get an eclipse), then this is a conjunction.
  • Inferior Conjunction: When the conjunction happens such that the object conjuncting is physically “in front of” the other object as seen from the third. In the previous example, a moon creating a solar eclipse (blocking part of the sun) is always in an inferior conjunction with the sun.
  • Superior Conjunction: When the conjunction happens such that the object conjuncting is physically “behind” the other object as seen from the third. In the previous example, when the moon creates a solar eclipse (blocks part of the sun), the sun is in superior conjunction. As another example, when Mars appears to go behind the sun as seen from Earth, and so we can’t get any data back from spacecraft, Mars is in superior conjunction.
  • Opposition: When one object appears in the opposite location in space as another object, as seen from a third object. For example, when viewed from Earth, a full moon is in opposition to the sun, because as the sun sets, the full moon rises, so they are directly opposite each other in the sky.

As a matter of orbital mechanics, an inferior planet (one inside Earth’s orbit) can never be in opposition with the sun. And, as a matter of orbital mechanics, a superior planet (one outside Earth’s orbit) can never be at an inferior conjunction with the sun (appear between Earth and the Sun).

Applying These Terms

Let’s look at Earth’s orbit. Earth’s perihelion is 147 million km, the aphelion is 152 million km. The eccentricity is therefore 0.017 ((152-147)/(152+147) = 0.017). The major axis is aphelion+perihelion = 299 million km. The semi-major axis (what’s often quoted as Earth’s “average distance” from the Sun) is 299/2 ≈150 million km.

Notice that these have nothing to do with conjunction or opposition — by definition, and in practicality, they cannot, because opposition and conjunction requires three objects, not two. Earth and the sun could be in conjunction or opposition from a given third object / vantage point at any time regardless of where Earth is in its orbit.

Applying These Terms to Mars

We have a bit more we can do here if we consider Earth’s vantage point when looking at Mars and the Sun.

As before, we can look at its orbit in isolation, independent of Earth, because looking at it in some other way does not make any sense. Mars’ perihelion is about 207 million km. Mars’ aphelion is about 249 million km. (By the way, these two bits of data are available pretty much anywhere online, but I tend to use the very basic table at NASA’s Planetary Fact Sheet.) With those two numbers, we can calculate others. For example, Mars’ eccentricity is easily calculated to be 0.094: (249-207)/(249+207)=0.09. Much larger than Earth’s, but not as large as Mercury’s (0.21) or Pluto (0.24) or most comets and even Earth-crossing asteroids. We can also calculate its semi-major axis: (249+207)/2 ≈ 228 million km, which is what NASA lists as the distance from the Sun of Mars.

We can also look at the terms opposition and conjunction. Opposition is when Mars appears opposite in the sky relative to the sun. Physically, this happens with Sun-Earth-Mars would appear in a line to someone looking down/across/up towards the solar system. This means Earth can be any distance from the sun (between its perihelion and aphelion) and Mars can be any distance from the sun (between its perihelion and aphelion). It doesn’t matter. However, Earth and Mars, along their orbits, are the closest they will ever get. This means that Mars opposition means Mars will be anywhere from 102 million km from Earth to 55 million km from Earth (a factor of nearly 2 difference!). This is calculated simply by taking Mars’ aphelion minus Earth’s perihelion (249-147=102) and Mars’ perihelion minus Earth’s aphelion (207-152=55). As in, the closest, physically, that Mars can be to Earth is when opposition just happens to coincide with when Mars is at its perihelion and Earth is at its aphelion. The farthest, physically, that Mars can be from Earth during opposition is when opposition happens to coincide with when Earth is at aphelion and Mars is at aphelion.

Conjunction is when Mars appears at the same spot in the sky relative to the sun. Because it’s a superior planet (outside Earth’s orbit), it can only be in superior conjunction (on the opposite side of the sun as from Earth). This means that, during opposition, Mars can be anywhere from 354 million km to 401 million km from Earth. This closest would be when conjunction just happens to coincide with when both Earth and Mars are at perihelion; the farthest is when conjunction happens when both are at aphelion.

With all that in mind, practically speaking, the distance between Earth and Mars during conjunction and opposition varies from event to event. Because each have different years, while perihelion and aphelion tend to happen at the same longitude in their orbit (time of year — as in perihelion for Earth is in January every year, so aphelion is in July every year), the time of year that opposition and conjunction occur vary from event to event.

Earth and Mars orbiting the sun.

Earth and Mars orbiting the sun.

This is shown to some extent in this animation from Wikipedia. You can see how oppositions and conjunctions will vary from year-to-year and that the distance will, as well, given Mars’ orbital distance changing much more than Earth’s.

Some may remember back in July 2003 when opposition happened almost exactly when Earth was at aphelion and Mars at perihelion. It was widely reported, such as in this NASA press release, and it’s been widely hoaxed since then. Opposition since 2003 has not been as bright because Mars has not been as close to its perihelion and Earth has not been as close to its aphelion. They won’t line up again like that for roughly 60,000 years.


This has been a lengthy explanation, but I hope that I’ve explained everything clearly by this point. Importantly, one should not confuse opposition with perihelion, and one should not confuse conjunction with aphelion. After all, Mercury and Venus cannot be in in opposition, ever, and yet both have perihelion and aphelion points, by definition.

For those wondering where this is coming from, well, back in 2011, I wrote a lengthy post about some of Mike Bara’s claims, and the last one was his definition of an ellipse. He claimed that Mars has an orbital eccentricity that is very high. Specifically, he wrote, “In fact, Mars’s orbit is so eccentric that its distance from Earth goes from 34 million miles at its closest to 249 million miles at its greatest.” Mike uses this as evidence to support his idea that planets are birthed in pairs, flung off via fission from the sun.

What he was referring to was the average distance between the two during opposition and conjunction. Which, as I’ve just explained (and explained with diagrams in that post), has nothing to do with perihelion and aphelion, which are how you get eccentricity. Opposition and conjunction have nothing to do with aphelion and perihelion. More recently on his blog, he has attacked me while defending his claim that Mars is on a highly eccentric orbit. Note that I never said Mars’ orbit is not eccentric (see 3 paragraphs below: “Except …”). It has the second-highest eccentricity of any planet (since Pluto is not a planet). It’s half as eccentric as Mercury yet around 6 times as eccentric as Earth’s. But, it’s 0.09 because of its min and max distances from the Sun, not its min and max distances from Earth.

Venus has the lowest eccentricity of any planet (0.007), and yet its minimum distance from Earth (its aphelion, our perihelion) is a mere 38 million km, and its farthest distance from Earth (both aphelion) is 261 million km, a factor of almost 7 difference.

But, getting back to what Mike versus I wrote, Mike wrote: “Now, let’s examine your statement that “It’s really simply incredibly stupid of Mike to claim that Mars’ orbit is highly eccentric.” Oh really?” Mike then goes on to point out that its orbit is the second-highest eccentricity-wise. And then wrote: “Excluding Pluto, which is no longer considered a planet, Mars orbit is the 2nd most elliptical of all the “planets.” You can see from the graph that it is far more eccentric than Earth’s, exactly as I characterized it. Put another way, Earth’s relative distance to the Sun varies by only about 3.1 million miles in the course of one orbit (year). Mars’ orbit, by contrast, varies by as much as 26.5 million miles over the course of a Martian year. Obviously, Mars’ orbit is more eccentric by an order of magnitude. How Stuart fails to grasp this I do not know. Maybe he’s just stupid.”

Except, what I wrote is quote-mined in that context. What I wrote, if you go to my original post, was this: “It’s really simply incredibly stupid of Mike to claim that Mars’ orbit is highly eccentric because it comes as close as about 0.38 A.U. (“astronomical unit” is the distance between the sun and Earth) but goes as far as 2.67 A.U.” Given the diagram that accompanied that text, it was clear those numbers are relative to Earth. I stand by that statement when it’s read in full context. It’s not eccentric because of its distance from Earth during opposition versus conjunction, it’s eccentric because of its distance from the sun during aphelion and perihelion. In fact, when calling me stupid for not grasping Mars’ eccentric orbit, Mike directly quotes the numbers that support what I stated and not what he did.

Final Thoughts

I suspect that if Mike reads this, he will still claim that I am mistaken somehow. It’s odd that he would fight so much over something so trivial instead of just admitting he made a mistake and moving on. After all, he claimed later in his attack that it’s not even important to his overall point.

Why then am I devoting time to pointing out and not moving on from something so trivial? Because I consider this to be the heart of this blog and what I do as education and public outreach: Using a real-life example of where someone goes wrong in their thinking to teach something. In this case, I had the context to get into some basics of orbits and definitions that people don’t often learn or remember if they had learned it. And, with the idea of how NOT to apply these terms, I find that people usually better remember how to use them correctly.

But, I don’t expect Mike to agree. Why? Well, his latest is that he’s promoting his new book, “Ancient Aliens on Mars” (there, Mike, I gave you a plug). He has put up a Picasa album with, I presume, images from the book (considering that’s the title of the album). In the second set of five images, he goes over ellipses. With specific notes to me. And, makes the same, fundamental mistakes. Including one figure labeled “”Perihelion” or Opposition” with the caption “Explanation of Mars Opposition, for Stuart Robbins.” And, there is another image showing “Aphelion” which just shows conjunction, and it has been captioned “Pay attention Stuart.”

Yup, I paid attention, and Mike, you’re still wrong in your terms and definitions. And I have been much more polite about it than you.

April 3, 2013

Is the Scientific Method a Part of Science?


You probably all remember it, and I can almost guarantee that you were all taught it if you went through any sort of standard American education system (with full recognition for my non-USAian readers). It’s called the Scientific Method.

That thing where you start with a question, form a hypothesis, do an experiment, see if it supports or refutes your hypothesis, iterate, etc. This thing:

Flow Chart showing the Scientific Method

Flow Chart showing the Scientific Method

The question is, does anyone outside of Middle and High School science class actually use it?

A Science Fair Question

I recently judged a middle and high school science fair here in Boulder, CO (USA). The difference in what you see between the two, at least at this science fair, is dramatic: High schoolers are doing undergraduate-level (college) work and often-times novel research while middle schoolers are doing things like, “Does recycled paper hold more weight than non-recycled?” High schoolers are presenting their work on colorful posters with data and graphs and ongoing research questions, while middle schoolers have a board labeled with “Hypothesis,” “Method,” “Data,” and “Conclusions.”

I was asked by a member of the public, after I had finished judging, why that was. He wanted to know why the high school students seemed to have forsaken the entire process and methodology of science, not having those steps clearly laid out.

My answer at the time – very spur-of-the-moment because he was stuttering and I had to catch a bus – was that it IS there in the high school work, but it was more implicit than explicit. That often in research, we have an idea of something and then go about gathering data for it and see what happens: It’s more of an exploration into what the data may show rather than setting out on some narrow path.

That was about a month ago, and I haven’t thought much more about it. But, the Wired article today made me think this would be a good topic for a blog post where I could wax philosophical a bit and see where my own thoughts lay.


A disclaimer up-front (in-middle?) is that I’m an astronomer (planetary geophysicist?). This might be field-specific. The Wired article even mentions astronomy in its list of obvious cases where the Scientific Method is usually not used:

Look at just about any astronomy “experiment”. Most of the cool things in astronomy are also discovered and then a model is created. So, the question comes second. How do you do a traditional experiment on star formation? I guess you could start with some hydrogen and let it go – right? Well, that might take a while.

That said, I’m sure that other fields have the same issues, and it’s really just a big grey area. What I’m going to talk about, that is. Some fields may be more towards one end of the greyscale than the other.

A Recent Paper I Co-Authored

I recently was a co-author on a paper entitled, “ Distribution of Early, Middle, and Late Noachian cratered surfaces in the Martian highlands: Implications for resurfacing events and processes.” The paper was probably the only professional paper I have ever been an author on that explicitly laid out Hypotheses, tests for those hypotheses, what the conclusion would be depending on the results, then the Data, then the Conclusions. And it was a really good way to write THAT paper. But not necessarily other papers.

A Recent Paper I Wrote

I had a paper that was recently accepted (too recently to supply a link). The paper was about estimating and modeling the ages of the largest craters on Mars. There was an Introduction, Methods, Data, and Conclusions. There was no Hypothesis. It was effectively a, “Here is something we can explore with this database, let’s do it and put these numbers out there and then OTHER people may be able to do something with those numbers (or we can) in future work.” There really was no hypothesis to investigate. Trying to make one up to suit the Scientific Method would have been contrived.

This is also something the Wired article mentions:

… often the results of a scientific study are often presented in the format of the scientific method (even though it might not have been carried out in that way). This makes it seem like just about all research in science follows the scientific method.

This is especially the case in medical journals, but not necessarily elsewhere.

Change the “Scientific Method?”

The Wired article offers this as the “new” method:

New Scientific Method (via Wired)

Here’s the accompanying justification:

There are a lot of key elements, but I think I could boil it down to this: make models of stuff. Really, that is what we do in science. We try to make equations or conceptual ideas or computer programs that can agree with real life and predict future events in real life. That is science.

I will preface this next part by saying I am NOT up-to-date on the latest pedagogy of teaching and I am NOT trained in teaching methods (other than 50+ hours of Graduate Teacher Program certification during grad school plus teaching several classes, including two as instructor of record).

That in mind, I think that this is a good idea in later years of grade school education. In the early years, I think that the methodology of the Scientific Method helps get across the basic idea and concepts of how science works, while later on you can get to how it practically works.

Let me explain with an example: In third grade, I was taught about the planets in the solar system plus the sun, plus there are asteroids, plus there are random comets. In eighth grade, I was taught a bit more astronomy and the solar system was a bit messier, but still we had those nine planets (this was pre-2006) and the sun and comets and asteroids plus moons and rings.

Then you get into undergrad and grad school, and you learn about streaming particles coming from the sun, that we can be thought of as being in the sun’s outer-most atmosphere. You get taught about magnetic fields and plasmas. Zodiacal light. The Kuiper Belt, Oort Cloud, asteroid resonances, water is everywhere and not just on Earth, and all sorts of other complications that get into how things really work.

To me, that’s how I think the scientific method should be taught. You start with the rigid formality early on, and I think that’s important because at that level you are really duplicating things that are already well known (e.g. Hypothesis: A ping pong ball will fall at the same rate as a bowling ball) and you can follow that straight-forward methodology of designing an experiment, collecting data, and confirming or rejecting the hypothesis. Let’s put it bluntly: You don’t do cutting-edge science in middle school.

In high school — in a high school with good science education — you actually do start to learn more about the details of different ideas and concepts and solid answers are no longer necessarily known. You want to find out, so you might design an experiment after seeing something weird, and then gather data to try to figure out what’s going on.

That’s how science usually works in the real world, and I think it’s a natural progression from the basic process, and I still think that basic process is implicit, if not explicit, in how science is usually done.

I just got back from a major science conference two weeks ago, and I sat through several dozen talks and viewed several hundred poster presentations. I honestly can’t remember a single one that was designed like a middle school science fair with those key steps from the Scientific Method.

Of course, another aspect is that if we get rid of it, we can’t make comics like this that show how it’s “really” done (sorry, I forget where I found this):

How the Scientific Method Really Works

How the Scientific Method Really Works
(click to embiggen)

Final Thoughts

That said, this has been a ~1400-word essay on what I think about this subject. I don’t expect much to change in the near future, especially since – as the Wired article points out – this is firmly entrenched in the textbooks and in Middle School Science Fair How-To guides.

But, I’m curious as to what you think. Do you think the Scientific Method is useful, useless, or somewhere in-between? Do you think it should be taught and/or used in schools? Do you think it should be used in science fairs? Do you think professional scientists should use it more explicitly more often?

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