Exposing PseudoAstronomy

October 29, 2014

The Deathbed Confession Phenomenon, and I’m Blogging at JREF’s Swift

As I continue to emerge from my seclusion from writing 5 grant proposals, a new development is that I am now included in the roster of bloggers on the James Randi Education Foundation (JREF) Swift blog. I’m not entirely sure how often I’ll be able to do it, but with 400-1000 -word posts and me already doing the weekly ATS 3-hour radio program Saturday nights, hopefully some time overlap can be arranged.

That said, my first post is about deathbed confessions, and why I find them unconvincing in terms of revealing anything outside the mainstream. I’m going to include the posts here in part because the Swift blog comments are closed. The posts here will not have been edited from what I send Sharon Hill (who does the actual posting) or have the images, so go there for the pretty pics.

Since this is my first Swift post, I wanted to give a brief introduction. I’m a self-termed “astro/geophysicist” with a Ph.D. in geophysics but a background more in astrophysics. Given my background, I tend to focus on pseudoscience and skepticism as applied to astronomy, geology, and physics. One regular activity of mine is that I’m a member of the studio of “ATS Live,” the premier three-hour live weekly show of the Above Top Secret website (one of the most popular conspiracy websites in the world); I’m the token skeptic.

On last weekend’s show (October 25, 2014), one of the topics we discussed was the deathbed confession of “Area 51 scientist,” Boyd Bushman. Within a few weeks of his death this past August, Mr. Bushman was recorded in numerous clips making various claims about how he worked on things such as antigravity, UFOs, and other classic pseudoscience claims related to what could be loosely termed, “new physics.”

I think this is an excellent example of why I find the “deathbed confession” phenomenon completely unconvincing, especially as related to paranormal-type claims.

People who want to believe tend to cite two reasons that deathbed confessions should be considered good evidence for their claims. First is the classic argument from authority, especially in the case of Boyd Bushman who’s reasonably well known in the UFO community and “was a retired Senior Scientist for Lockheed Martin.” He was awarded patents and defense contracts. Sounds impressive.

To be brief, the argument form authority is meaningless in terms of the veracity of the actual information; claims and information need to stand on their own and be verified regardless of the person who is making it. My favorite example is that Isaac Newton who (by most metrics) founded modern physics, believed in alchemy.

With this in mind, I don’t even need to start on the path of investigating Mr. Bushman’s claims of employment and background, which many people have called into question.

The second reason people tend to believe deathbed confessions is, “they have nothing to lose!” After all, the person making the deathbed confession is – barring something miraculous – dying. Being killed by the Men in Black at that point is no longer a threat because they’re about to die anyway.

While this certainly makes sense, there are plenty of other reasons why a deathbed confession would actually not be reliable. For one, at least for those who are older and close to death, senility can play a role. It is a normal part of aging, and for the record, Mr. Bushman was 78 when he died. I’m not claiming that senility played a role in this case, I’m merely raising it as a complicating factor of an older person’s testimony.

That aside, a deathbed confession can be a good time to solidify one’s reputation and use the deathbed confession phenomenon and the belief in its veracity to double-down on the claim to increase peoples’ belief in it.

The thinking could easily be, “People really believe that people are 100% honest on their deathbed, so I’m going to make sure I go out with a ‘bang’ and make my claims yet again. People who didn’t believe me before might this time because they’ll think I’m telling the truth ’cause I’m about to die.”

However, in addition to explaining why the common reasons to believe deathbed confession testimony are unconvincing, there’s a better reason why the testimony is not useful: They’re doing it wrong.

Let’s say I had a bunch of secrets of exotic physics and decided to do a deathbed confession. Here’s what I would say: “I’ve been working on antigravity and warp field physics for the last 50 years, in secret, with the US government.” Then, instead of showing photos of a spaceship or a blurry alien – if even that as opposed to just speaking to the camera – I would add: “And, here are the equations. Here is a diagram for how you build a device. Here is a working model. Here is exactly how you put everything together.”

In other words, it shouldn’t matter who I am, what my experience is, or what pretty (or ugly) picture I show. What I need to show is HOW to do it. Saying something doesn’t make it so. I need to give enough information for someone else to verify it and duplicate it. Otherwise, what’s the point? To show I’m smarter than everyone else and I’m just letting you know that before I die?

That’s why I find this whole deathbed confession thing unconvincing and, perhaps more importantly, unuseful: We have no more information than we had before. We have no way to verify any of the information claimed. No way to test or duplicate it. At *best*, we have another person claiming this stuff is real, and while he or she may be proven out with the passage of time, their “confession” contributed absolutely nothing to that advancement.

Until then, it’s no better than any other pseudoscientific claim.

October 14, 2008

The Dangers of Believing that Our Technology is Reverse-Engineered from Aliens

Sorry that I haven’t posted in awhile, I’ve been bouncing around between two conferences and one consulting job in the last few weeks.

Anyway, this post is going to be a quickie, and, as the title suggests, I want to address why it’s “dangerous” to believe that all/some/parts of our “advanced” technologies are either given to us by aliens or reverse-engineered from alien technology, such as from crashed ships.

First, I want to very briefly address the logic behind aliens crash-landing on Earth with this simple scenario:  You have an incredibly advanced and intelligent race of creatures.  They have mastered space travel and either by getting around Relativity they can travel faster than light to other stars or they have built crafts that can travel and sustain generations of them for the thousands or tens or hundreds of thousands of years required to travel between stars.  So they’re really advanced (did I already mention that?).

They’ve managed to get to our pale blue dot of a planet, and then suddenly, they just crash.  They can navigate interstellar space, they can get off their own planet, yet for some reason they just crash land on Earth.  And not just once.  Many many times if you believe all the reports of crashed “saucers.”  It simply doesn’t make sense from a logical standpoint.

Anyway, I was just listening to the Sept. 23 2008 episode of Coast-to-Coast AM (a 4-hr radio show that I sometimes listen to to get ideas for this blog), and the guest, Dr. Shelley Kaehr, who is a person who advocates the apparent power of gem healing (that’s for another blog, I’m not going to address the pseudoscience of gem healing), was talking during the third hour of the show about extraterrestrials and her own views of cosmology and earth changes and frequencies around our planet changing (which is the whole mechanism for her energy/gem healing).

But what really stuck out above all this was when she was discussing how her 92-year-old grandmother had grown up on a farm and now she was able to send e-mails and text messages.  In this context, she stated, “The rapid changes that we’ve had are just — it’s unbelieveable.  You have to know there’s reverse-engineering from alien intelligence going on and you have to think that the planet must be speeding up or … the frequency of the planet getting higher and different and time speeding up …”

From there it really just deteriorates into such a lack of understanding of physics that I really don’t want to get into it.  What I want to address is, as I stated above, the idea of reverse-engineering alien technology.

As I stated earlier in this post, first off, the idea that we actually have technology from an extra-terrestrial civilization is very highly unlikely.  I will not say that it’s impossible, it is simply improbable (see my post on CERN about scientific certainty).

But there is a real danger to believing this:  If you believe that many or all of our technological advances are not actually the result of human ingenuity, but rather they are simply handed to us, then your expectations of humanity and of yourself diminish greatly.  Put more simply, you lose faith in your own ability to solve problems.

Think of this from the standpoint of a math homework:  A teacher only assigns even problems for a math assignment.  It just so happens that all the answers to the even problems are in the back of the book.  The student then, rather than actually figuring out how to solve the problems themselves, simply looks in the back of the book for the answers.  They have the answers, but they have no idea how to actually get them.  They may then go through life simply doubting their own ability to discover the answers to things and just wait for someone to show them the back of the book.

Admittedly, this is a small stretch to connect this situation to reverse-engineering alien technology.  Perhaps an example from psychology will help illustrate it better:  It’s been said by someone in the Vatican that Hitler and all of the Nazis were possessed by either Satan or multiple demons (I can’t actually find the quote at the moment).  They say that is the only explanation for the great evils of the German Holocaust.  The harm in believing that is you have now taken the human component out of it.  You now have a reason NOT to think that humans are actually capable of genocide, and rather than realize that about the human condition, you are relegated to a happy land where all people are good, and anything bad that happens is the result of some demonic influence.  This removes any personal responsibility (can you imagine if courts accepted that as a defense against murder?).

It’s the same idea here:  If you no longer think that humans can come up with this technology on their own, then you will be constantly waiting for some alien to hand you the next technological advance instead of going out there and doing the research and testing to find it yourself.  As someone in a basic science field, this idea is both dangers and disappointing to know that people hold.

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