Exposing PseudoAstronomy

June 17, 2011

A Fancy Sign Does Not Good Science Make


Introduction

As my first post since my hiatus to finish my degree, I thought I’d bring up a timely topic. Over on the Moon Zoo forums, one of our most active volunteers and forum moderators, a woman who goes by the name of Jules, posted about her time at the Times Cheltenham Science Festival.

From the Festival, Jules posted about her own outreach with Moon Zoo (and those other zoos …). She also took a photo of a particular sign:

Moon Sign at Cheltenham Science Festival

Moon Sign at Cheltenham Science Festival - Original credit, Jules W.

You can click the image to enlarge it. I strongly suggest reading it before moving on.

Let’s Look at the Text

The particular offensive paragraph is the fourth:

“As you have noticed the Moon goes through a number of phases, from full Moon, though to new Moon and back to full Moon. This is because as the Moon orbits, the sunlight that makes it visible can be blocked by the Earth. This means that the amount of the Moon that is illuminated depends upon where the Moon is along its orbit.”

Interesting. I would ask why you can see the sun and moon in the sky at the same time if Earth’s shadow is blocking light, causing the Moon’s phases.

You can also think about a lunar eclipse, such as the one that was visible just this week from most of Europe, Africa, and Asia.

What’s Wrong with This

If you haven’t caught on yet, this is not why we have phases of the moon. The moon orbits Earth approximately once a month. As it orbits, one half is lit by the sun, and the other half is in its own shadow, just as Earth is always half-lit by the sun and half in its own shadow for night. Since the moon keeps one face always looking at Earth, it is slowly rotating relative to the sun and so each point on its surface goes through about two weeks of daylight and two weeks of night.

For a really cool movie illustrating this made by an amazing graphic artist, educator, and scientist, check out this link (22 MB, MOV format).

In other words, this sign is wrong. Blatantly wrong. Clearly wrong. Any little amount of thought put in would indicate that this is wrong (why do we see the moon in any phase other than full at the same time as the sun? we shouldn’t if Earth’s shadow is what causes the phases …).

And yet this sign looks nice, is shiny, has several corporate sponsors, and is presented at a large science festival.

Two More Things

The poster also lists a distance to the Moon as 384,000 km. This is correct. Until Jules pointed out to me that the sign claims this is the distance between the Moon and Sun (which is 149,600,000 km ± 384,000). The 384,000 km is the distance between Earth and the Moon.

A final incorrect statement has to do with the third paragraph which states that the moon having the same side facing Earth has been “very useful as astronomers have been able to map the surface of the Moon using telescopes.” This doesn’t really make sense. I suppose one may be able to claim that it would take us twice as long to map the Moon if we saw the whole thing, but then the nice part would be we’d be able to map the whole thing. We had to wait for the first Soviet flyby to return photographs of the lunar far side before we could even begin to guess what it was like.

Final Thoughts

This gets to the heart of two of the main reasons I do this blog. (1) It shows that all because you have a big fancy sign does not mean that you are right. People have to be ever-vigilant and questioning or they risk falling for something like this. (2) I think people learn better by examining misconceptions / mistakes that they make or others have made. The sign is clearly wrong, but you may not have known why it was wrong — it may have just sounded weird. So now with the actual explanation for phases, you can contrast that with the sign’s explanation which can make it easier to remember.

On a related theme, this sign actually reminds me of a sign I saw in a science museum a few years ago. It was talking about the force of a car crash and how much destructive power a 60 mph (100 kph) car crash has. And then the museum decided to throw in another line about how, “But, according to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, if conditions had been a little different the accident may not have happened at all!”

Yes, that was a science museum. Using a fallacious appeal to quantum mechanics.

Keep a lookout, folks, these things are everywhere. To distort a phrase, the price of knowledge is eternal vigilance against pseudoscience.

November 23, 2010

Please, Don’t Appeal to Quantum Mechanics to Propagate Your Pseudoscience


Introduction

There is no formal logical fallacy that I know of called “Appeal to Quantum Mechanics,” but I think it should be on the books. It is a frequently utilized term by purveyors of New Age beliefs and other ideas to try to make their ideas seem more sciencey when, in fact, to anyone who actually knows quantum mechanics and slaved away for tens of hours a week on QM homework, it just makes them sound stupid.

This post is another about Andrew D. Basiago, in particular his interview on the Coast to Coast AM radio show from November 11, 2010. In it, he discussed his supposed involvement in “Project Pegasus,” alleged the early time travel work done by the U.S. government. For those of you who have a very good memory, you may recall I have discussed Andrew Basiago before in the context of his pareidolia-fueled claims of discovering alien life on Mars and demanding that National Geographic publish what he found after blowing up images 5000%, stretching them, and then wildly extrapolating.

Statements by Andrew Basiago

The following are direct quotes from Basiago, mostly from hour 3 of the broadcast:

“In fact, I spent four ‘phantom summers’ in New Mexico … . There was an extensive cover-up of our summers in New Mexico, uh, in this sort of quantum displacement sort of way.”

“I was involved in actual wormholing where I was moving through the quantum tunnel.”

“So the very act of sending the same child or different child to the same ‘event’ was – I guess as a result of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle – changing that event a little bit.”

“Actually, what happens is when you go back and visit yourself in the past, you’re somebody from the future visiting your alpha-timeline, then if you interfere with your past at that moment, um, basically Schrödinger’s cat takes over and a new timeline branches off that’s affected by your visit, but then you return to the future that you left.”

George Noory: “Did anything go wrong with Project Pegasus? Anything?”
Basiago: “… Certainly the notion that propagating holographs of past and future events somehow destabilizes the quantum hologram, that was suggested by the Dan Burisch testimony, provided to Project Camelot, is not true.”

What Is Quantum Mechanics?

Without going through math and a lot of explanation that is not the focus of this blog post, quantum mechanics is basically the physics of the very small. We’re talking about what happens on atomic scales, what happens with electrons (sub-atomic particles), and light. We are not talking about time, space-time, nor any object on the macro-scopic scale, where “macroscopic” means in this context objects that are about the size of a cell or larger (collections of millions of atoms).

Quantum mechanics is weird. In fact, it almost fits the very definition of “weird” since many of the observations at atomic scales defies our concept of how objects “should” act. I think this is why a lot of purveyors of modern pseudoscience rely on an appeal to quantum mechanics to describe how their ideas work: Since most people don’t understand quantum mechanics beyond the “things get weird” part, people are more willing to accept a “quantum mechanics says this can happen” claim and just trust it.

But quantum mechanics is not magic. You cannot use quantum mechanics to argue that psychic powers work. Or that time travel is possible. Or even that information (which also has a very specific definition) can be transmitted instantaneously.

Quantum mechanics has a very specific set of rules and governing equations that have been verified to be correct to within measurement capabilities. (Hence it is also a “theory” in the scientific sense.)

Because quantum mechanics does not make sense to many people in our every-day world, physicists have come up with some analogies that are used to describe some of the consequences of the field. For example …

Schrödinger’s Cat: One of the consequences of quantum mechanics is that a particle‘s state will not be known until it is observed. I remind you that in this field, “particle” and “observed” have very specific definitions and cannot be extrapolated to, for example, “person calling the telephone” and “picking up the phone” (yes, people do make that extrapolation). In fact, the consequences of this had three different interpretations in the early days of the field, where the Copenhägen interpretation was that the particle actually exists in all states until it is observed. This turns out to be the actual way it works (experimentally determined a few decades ago), but in the early days there were two competing ideas, one being that it exists in a particular state, we just don’t know what it is until it is measured. This is where the famous Einstein quote comes from: “God doesn’t play dice with the universe.”

In order to think of this from a more familiar scenario rather than an electron’s energy level, the idea of Schrödinger’s cat is used, where Schrödinger is effectively the founder of quantum mechanics: A cat is placed in a sealed box from which no information can escape. A piece of radioactive material is placed in there before it’s sealed, where the release of the poison is a purely random process (governed by quantum mechanics). After the box is sealed, an outsider cannot know whether the cat is alive or dead because they do not know if the poison has killed the cat. Therefore, for mathematical purposes, the cat is described as both alive and dead. It is only after the box is opened and you make the observation that you know which is the case.

Definition of “Quantum:” In physics, quantum does not mean “magic” nor “[fill in the blank with something].” It has a very specific definition: A discrete quantity, usually of energy. In fact, the whole field of quantum mechanics is based around the idea that energy cannot come in a pure spectrum of intervals, but it can only happen in discrete – albeit very small – packets. This was a very novel idea 100 years ago and it still surprises many people. But, that’s what “quantum” means, no more, and no less. Putting it in front of another word does not make that other word suddenly mean something different. In fact, as it is normally applied, it makes the other word meaningless.

Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle: Again, this has a very specific definition – and a mathematical one at that: Δx·Δpħ/2. What this means in words is that the change in position times the change in momentum must be greater than or equal to half of h-bar, where h-bar is h/(2·π), where h is Planck’s constant (a very small number). Unless you’re a physicist or have really studied the field, you are probably thinking some combination of, “huh?” and/or “what the heck does that mean?” In plainer English, the consequence of this is that when we measure a particle’s position or momentum, the more precise we measure that value, the less precisely we can know the other. This is not because of our measuring equipment, rather it seems to be a general rule of the universe, that the particle’s other quantity really, literally, becomes less defined and knowable.

Let’s Apply This to That

Now that you have taken a crash course in quantum mechanics, let’s take another look at some of Basiago’s comments:

Basiago: “In fact, I spent four ‘phantom summers’ in New Mexico … . There was an extensive cover-up of our summers in New Mexico, uh, in this sort of quantum displacement sort of way.”
Analysis: Sticking “quantum” in front of “displacement” makes it next to meaningless. If anything, a “quantum displacement” would mean that he has physically moved less than the width of an atom.

Basiago: “I was involved in actual wormholing where I was moving through the quantum tunnel.”
Analysis: Again, sticking “quantum” this time in front of “tunnel” still makes this a meaningless phrase. “Quantum” does not have anything to do with, effectively, the fabric of the universe, and wormholes are more of an application of General Relativity, something very different from quantum mechanics.

Basiago: “So the very act of sending the same child or different child to the same ‘event’ was – I guess as a result of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle – changing that event a little bit.”
Analysis: Now that you know what the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle is – you cannot know both the position and momentum of a particle to arbitrarily high precision – you can see that the idea of time travel paradoxes has nothing to do with it. This is an appeal to a scientific term and equation that has zero bearing on the claim, showing (a) his lack of understanding of quantum mechanics, and (b) fairly good evidence (if you didn’t have it already) that his claims are made up.

Basiago: “Actually, what happens is when you go back and visit yourself in the past, you’re somebody from the future visiting your alpha-timeline, then if you interfere with your past at that moment, um, basically Schrödinger’s cat takes over and a new timeline branches off that’s affected by your visit, but then you return to the future that you left.”
Analysis: This is very much like the above example where Basiago made a conjecture from his story and then inserted a thought exercise from quantum mechanics to try to make it sound more believable, when in actuality the insertion shows again he has no idea what he’s talking about.

Noory: “Did anything go wrong with Project Pegasus? Anything?”
Basiago: “… Certainly the notion that propagating holographs of past and future events somehow destabilizes the quantum hologram, that was suggested by the Dan Burisch testimony, provided to Project Camelot, is not true.”
Analysis: This is another example of the first two where Basiago has inserted the word “quantum” into his sentence in the apparent hope to make it sound more sciencey and hence believable when, again, it makes the phrase even more meaningless than it would be without it.

Final Thoughts

Please, whenever anyone uses any form of appeal to quantum mechanics to explain their fringe claim, do a little bit of research to figure out what the term actually means and whether it applies to that situation. I have tried in this post to point out the three most commonly used quantum mechanics terms that have been borrowed by today’s pseudoscience in the hope that you are now armed with some of the information necessary to critically analyze various claims.

And for those of you who are prone to make these kinds of claims, a few words of advice: Stop using quantum mechanics. It does not mean, “Anything you can dream up, I can do.”

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