Exposing PseudoAstronomy

March 28, 2010

When Encyclopedias Are Bad: A Closer Look at Conservapedia – “Mars”


Last week, I wrote an article about how Conservapedia calls “black holes” and “dark matter” “liberal pseudoscience” in a very “huh?” moment. It still is confusing to me why they would waste mental energy on calling those things “liberal pseudoscience.” But I digress.

I thought I might take a closer look at some of their actual astronomy articles. Since I’ve been studying Mars for the last 4 years fairly in-depth, looking at their article on Mars seemed like a natural article to take a peek at.

I found what I expected – creationism and “problems for evolutionists” – but I also found what I didn’t expect – gross errors in information and zero references to back up most of what was stated.

The Good

I’ll start out by showing that I’m not completely out to “diss” Conservapedia. Their article has some good things. It correctly states that Mars is the 4th planet from the sun, for example. It gives the interesting factoid that researchers with missions on the planet will often adopt a “Mars day” work schedule that’s about a 25-hr day (as opposed to Earth’s 24-hr day). It talks correctly about what causes seasons on Mars. It even (mostly) correctly discusses the whole “face on Mars” issue.

The “Eh, That’s Wrong, But It’s Minor”

Let’s first deal with some assertions. Specifically, near the beginning, it states that Mars’ 26-month synodic period makes it a “particularly difficult object to explore, [sic]because opportunities to launch a rocket probe to Mars occur so far apart in time.” Rather, Mars is pretty much the easiest planet or planet-like object to get to by spacecraft, except for our moon. It’s close by, there’s NO WAY that the world’s space programs are funded enough to make craft to visit the planet more often than every ~1.5-2 years, and we can actually land on it and survive as opposed to the actual closest planet to us – Venus.

Towards the end, it discusses exploration of Mars. It states, “Mars has been the subject of more attempts to explore it, and more failures, than any other planet.” This is wrong. To-date, at least based on NASA’s Chronology of Venus Exploration and Chronology of Mars Exploration, Mars has had 40 missions, while Venus 43. Minor, but still a mistake.

Under their “Young Mars Creation Model” (see below for more on that), it states, “Discoveries by the Mars Excursion Rover Opportunity have led …” Unfortunately for Conservapedia, The MER craft acronym stands for, “Mars Exploration Rover,” not “Excursion.” Minor, but slightly humorous.

The Bad

Note: This section will not address the creationist stuff, look to the next for that.

I was reading through the page and the biggest thing to stand out was the following two paragraphs:

“Mars contains the largest of three major geologic features in the Solar System. The largest impact basin, the largest volcanoes and the largest canyon are all found on Mars and in a clear relationship to each other. This relationship provides the key to understanding Martian geology.

“Mars’ largest impact basin is called Hellas. As shown in the topography map, on exactly the other side of Mars from Hellas is Mount Alba Patera, the largest volcano by surface area. This antipodal juxtaposition suggests that the Hellas impact caused the eruptions of Alba Patera and the volcanoes of the Tharsis plateau to the south and southwest. To the east is found the gigantic rift valley called Valles Marineris.”

Alright, there are a few things here. First, a very minor one. “Alba Patera” is the name of the volcano, not “Mount Alba Patera.” When features were originally assigned names when we got the first good images back from spacecraft, “Mons” (singular) / “Montes” (plural) were given to very large and obvious mountains, “Patera” (singular) / “Paterae” (plural) were assigned to very large, irregularly shaped features, and “Tholus” (singular) / “Tholi” (plural) were assigned to “small” mountains or hills. Nothing has two designations. And later imagery revealed some of the montes, paterae, and tholi were volcanoes.

Moving on, I don’t want to concentrate on the whole Alba Patera is antipodal to Hellas Basin. Suffice to say, the ages don’t really work out. It’s possible, but it is no way a given that this is the case.

Rather, I want to focus on the other information given on Hellas: According to this article, Hellas Basin is the largest crater on Mars, and it’s the largest crater in the solar system. Wow.

In a word: NO.

First off, let’s put some numbers down. Hellas Basin< is very roughly 2200 km across and about 9 km deep (it’s difficult to measure the diameter because no one actually knows where the rim is, so you have different people making different estimates). For comparison, that’s just friggin’ big. It’s well over half the size of the United States.

But it’s not the biggest in the solar system, and it’s not even Mars’ largest.

Check out Utopia Planitia on Mars. It’s pretty much due north of Hellas, and it pre-dates Hellas by roughly 400 million years. It is also roughly 50% larger than Hellas, having a diameter of about 3300 km and being about 4-5 km deep on present-day Mars. Now that’s big. But to be fair, I suppose that Conservapedia’s article can be saved if we say that by “biggest” they mean “deepest.” Oh, and if you want to play around on Mars, looking at various features, I highly recommend Google Mars.

Anyway, Utopia is by far the largest impact basin on Mars. Or is it? The largest topographic feature on Mars is its crustal dichotomy – the north is low and flat and young (at least its visible surface), while the south is high and hilly and old. Again, check out Google Mars and zoom out. There have been many, many explanations proposed for this dichotomy, but the latest one to be shown to be viable is that of a really really big impact, very early in Mars’ history. Being a guy who studies craters, I like this idea, but I do think it has awhile to be shown somewhat conclusively. In this case, it is possible that even Utopia is just second place to an impact “basin” that covers nearly half the planet.

Moving on, though, we have the moon. Discovered on the lunar far side about 50 years ago resides the South Pole-Aitken Basin. This thing is also big. It’s about 2300 km in diameter – so bigger across than Hellas but not Utopia – but a whopping 13 km deep. So now, our goal of saving Conservapedia’s article by saying “biggest” means “deepest” doesn’t work, either. Oh, and there’s also Google Moon to have fun with.

The Creationist Take

In any normal article talking about Mars, I don’t think anyone would expect sections about young-Earth creationism. But, *gasp*, Conservapedia does.

It first shows up in the discussion about Mars’ magnetic field. There is none. There are pockets of crustal magnetism that locally are stronger than Earth’s, but there is no global magnetic field. In the section on Mars’ “magnetosphere,” it directly refers to Russell Humphreys, who is a creationist whose ideas I’ve discussed on this blog before.

It next comes up in the entire section on, “Problems for Uniformitarian Theories” (that’s code for old-Earth) that talks again about Mars’ magnetic field. Except, rather, it talks more about how Mercury’s magnetic field is an open question for astronomers rather than Mars’.

Finally, we get to the entire section, “Young Mars Creation Model.” I’m not entirely certain how anything that they discuss in the section actually supports their conclusion of: “This shows that, like Earth, Mars has evidence that it is only a few thousands of years old and not 4.6 billion years old.”

It does state, “The dating of [Hellas basin formation triggering Alba Patera’s volcanism] from craters places it at about the time of the Great Flood on Earth.” Of course, this is completely uncited. But being someone who actually studies craters on Mars and has the largest database of said craters in existence, I can unequivocally state that the craters on Mars’ present-day surface show it to be ancient – over 4 billion years old.

Final Thoughts

Perhaps I’m being unfair. After all, the editor of the page that put up the bulk of the information I talked about has no background in astronomy. Rather, he’s in charge of Conservapedia’s attempt to re-write the Bible. And in the spirit of Wikis, perhaps I should attempt to edit the page myself to make the corrections (fat chance …).

But rather, I think this serves as an example of two things. First, it’s another example of how Conservapedia should not by any stretch of the imagination be considered a good source for scientific information.

Second, it shows that encyclopedias in general should not be taken as gospel. Students should not use them as their source material. They may use them as a starting point, but they need to look at the references, evaluate them, and in the end find actual original source material.

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.