Exposing PseudoAstronomy

March 22, 2014

Podcast Episode 104: Pyramids on Mars

Pyramids on Mars
Could be made by aliens
Or, just by nature.

I’ve wanted to do an episode on the pyramids on Mars for quite awhile, so, here ’tis. It’s also good to get this researched and put out because it will be a chapter in an eBook I’m working on (yet another project that hopefully will have a better ending than many of my others). So, if you have any suggestions for it, please let me know so that I can incorporate changes in this episode into the eBook chapter.

With that in mind, this is a very straight-forward episode with of course the obligatory C2C clips. It’s also brought to you by:

  • Fallacy of the Single Cause
  • Argument from Authority
  • Argument from Ignorance
  • Proving a Negative

All that said, I will be interviewed on the “Reality Remix” internet radio on Wednesday, Marcy 26, at 11:00PM EDT (March 27, 3AM UTC) … sorry for the late notice. I will try to record it and if I’m able and allowed, I will post a copy when it’s all said and done. To listen live, go to their website!

February 17, 2014

Interview for a Japanese Program on the Apollo Moon Hoax


Two weeks ago, I was contacted by a Japanese production company, asking me if I’d be willing to do a short interview for a program that they are producing – and probably broadcasting – around March or April. In Japan.

I agreed, and I was sent a few different questions to get an idea of what I should prepare. I had only heard of some of them, so I did some research and, as a way to prep, I wrote up “brief” responses. Obviously I wasn’t reading while being recorded, but it was a way to organize my thoughts.

And get a free blog post. So, here are ten interview questions and my responses, as prepared. On the show, they weren’t all asked, and a few additional ones were, so I don’t think I’m pre-empting anything by putting these online. Please note that the questions were originally in Japanese, translated into English, and I have edited them a bit for grammar.

Interview Questions and Answers

1. Why did the moon landing conspiracy surface? Did it start with the 1976 book written by Kaysing Conspiracy?

For anything before the internet era, it’s really hard to pin down the start of anything — all you can do is find the earliest example, but there could always be something before that that you simply could not find.

Bill Kaysing’s book in 1976 was the first book to claim that it was a conspiracy, yes, and the very fringe Flat Earth Society was one of the first organizations to do so in 1980.

However, there are various people who were NASA watchers back during the Apollo era who have variously claimed that even in the late 1960s, there were some people who were claiming that it was all a hoax. But, in terms of contemporary, printed material with a definite copyright date, Kaysing’s book was the first.

2. Do you know what the initial reaction to Kaysing’s book when it was just released was?

[No …]

3. Following the book’s publish, the movie, Capricorn One, was released. Do you think the movie was released because of the public’s initial reaction to the Kaysing’s book?

It’s likely it was written due to general hoax sentiment, not due to Kaysing’s book in particular, but it would be interesting to have gotten a contemporary interview with writer-director Peter Hyams to learn his motivation. He said, “There was one event of really enormous importance that had almost no witnesses. And the only verification we have . . . came from a TV camera.”

It’s important to mention that NASA actually helped with the production of the movie, loaning them equipment as props, including a prototype lunar module. If NASA were trying to cover up an Apollo conspiracy, one might think they would not have helped make a movie about them covering up a Mars landing conspiracy.

Do you know how much attention the book and movie received at that time? Was there any media coverage about it?

I don’t know about the book, but the movie became one of the most successful independent films of 1978.

4. The conspiracy theory surfaced in the 70s, and media brought it back again in the late 1990s and early 2000s, such as FOX’s TV special program, “Conspiracy Theory” and the book, “Dark Moon,” which are about the moon landing conspiracy. Why do you think the media covered this topic again after decades?

I’m not sure, but the 1990s saw a resurgence of missions of the Moon and Mars by the United States. People who believed in the hoax could then use that to gain traction. And, if you find a sympathetic producer, or even one who thinks that they can get ratings by making something so sensational like the FOX docudrama, then you can get your show made.

5. The points that conspiracy theorists bring up: Despite the fact that there was a large amount of thrust, there was no blast crater left on the moon.

There’s no real reason to have expected a “blast crater” in the sense of an explosion. There was some disturbance of the ground under the nozzle, but it was a blast as in a blast of air.

You can also use very basic math to show why you wouldn’t expect one: If you use the specifications, you can show that the pressure under the engine was only about half a pound per square inch. The average adult when walking exerts about three times that pressure. When you clap your hands together, you exert more pressure than the lunar module’s engines did on the surface of the Moon.

If astronauts did land, there should have been a large amount of dust floating around, yet we can see no sign of dust on the space suits or their surroundings.

There actually shouldn’t have been. This is a case where your every-day experience on Earth does not prepare you for what to expect on the Moon. If I take dust and blow on it in this room, it billows out and slowly falls down after swirling around for a long time.

But, there’s no air on the Moon. Any particle that’s kicked up will go up and then drop right back down. There’s no air to suspend the dust. In fact, you can go to movies of the lunar rover and see it kick up dust and fall right back down to the surface which requires the vacuum of the Moon rather than an air-filled sound stage on Earth.

6. About the “identical background” claims on Apollo 16 mission footage, how do you dispel this claim? Some people (such as Phil Plait) have said that it’s just a simple error with the video. They say that Erick Jones, who is the editor of the Apollo Lunar Surface Journal, says that those two clips were taken about only a few mins apart. According to our research, the “identical background” video clips were taken from the NASA-sponsored documentary video, “Nothing so Hidden.” And the documentary is produced by other production company outside of NASA. Therefore, our understanding is that it’s an error on editing stage of production: the production company took wrong clips and audio and used in the documentary. What do you think of our theory?

Makes sense. This is an innate problem with conspiracies: You have to suppose this vast maniacal group of people trying to hide the truth, so you can’t trust them on anything. And yet, this claim requires you to trust an original claim that was shown to be in err and not trust the correction.

There was a lot of footage taken on the Moon, a lot of audio and video. Stuff gets mislabeled, put in the wrong box, or edited wrong in production of documentaries afterward. Despite all attempts, the people involved were only human, and mistakes are bound to happen. You shouldn’t contribute to a conspiracy what simple human error can very easily explain.

-How did NASA usually archive footage back then during the Apollo project

[Explanation courtesy of “Expat” of the Dork Mission blog, who worked with the BBC during the Apollo era on the Apollo missions.]

Everything was transferred to 16mm film, by the kinescope process. A contractor, The AV Corporation of Seabrook (just a few miles from JSC, or MSFC as it was then known) handled all media requests. They had a pretty good catalog. No doubt there were also copies for internal use. By the time I made a documentary about Skylab, AVCorp was out of the picture and NASA’s own film editors worked with me to search the archive.

If mastering on film seems illogical by today’s standards, it wasn’t back then. The point is that film is independent of TV line standards. In those days transcoding between the US and European standards was a highly imperfect process. All our documentaries were produced on film anyway, so a video release would just have been a nuisance for us and the end result would have been degraded.

As late as 1981, when I was location producer for the BBC coverage of STS-1, I had BBC engineers getting on my case and refusing to transmit images shot by a US-based ENG (video) crew. We had to go through a ridiculous pantomime pretending that it was a film crew instead. By the time we sent the material back to London via satellite, how could they tell?

-For what purpose did NASA produce these documentary videos of the Apollo project?

A better question would be, why wouldn’t they? Practically every government agency has a public relations department, tasked with disseminating their work to the public and gathering support and more funding. In addition, Apollo returned a lot of useful science that we’re still using today – including myself in my own research – but it was also a world-wide public relations endeavor to prove that the United States was better than the Soviets. Of course you’re going to make documentaries and put out material to make people aware of it and such a triumph of human engineering.

7. Why do these theories continue to surface even until today? Do you think it’s because we now have easier access to footage from space? Is it a sense of distrust of NASA?

I think there are a lot of reasons. One is of course a distrust of government. Another reason is that people like to think they know secrets, and a conspiracy is a big secret.

Another reason is that a lot of the lines of evidence that people point to for the hoax are not easily explained because they are contrary to our experience on Earth. For example, one claim is that there should have been stars in the sky because the sky is black, so it must have been night like on Earth and at night you can see stars. But, the sky is black because there’s no atmosphere, it was actually daytime, and the cameras were set to properly expose the lunar surface and astronauts for day. You can’t capture photos of stars with those settings. But, the time I just took to explain that was much, much longer than just throwing out the, “there should be stars!” claim and it’s much easier given our every-day experience to think that there should be stars, rather than take the time to understand why there aren’t.

8. Why hasn’t NASA given their opinion on the Apollo moon-landing hoax ever since 2001? (What is the reason NASA doesn’t answer the conspiracy theorists?)

I would guess because they don’t want to give it any more publicity. It’s a lose-lose-lose situation for NASA:

a. If there is no official statement, conspiracy people will point to that and say that NASA won’t even defend themselves.

b. But if there is an official statement, then conspiracy theorists will say that NASA took the time to respond to them so there must be a controversy and they must be hiding something and you can’t trust anything the government says anyway.

c. In addition to that, Congress will wonder why they should be paying NASA to respond to ridiculous claims, and so NASA risks having their budget cut.

This happened maybe a decade ago when NASA was going to pay James Oberg, an American space journalist and historian, to write a book dispelling the hoax claims. And NASA lost-lost-lost: First, conspiracy people said it was a disinformation campaign; second, Congress wondered why NASA was spending money to do this; and third, when NASA cancelled it because of the outcry on all fronts, the conspiracists claimed NASA cancelled it because it really was a hoax.

Not Related to the Moon Hoax

9. There are still images taken by the Voyager of Saturn that Dr. Norman Bergrun, as author of “Ringmakers of Saturn”, claimed to show a UFO. What do you he possibly mistook it for? This is an example article about Dr. Burgrun’s claim.

Bergrun’s process was to take photos that were published in things like newspapers and magazines, put them under a microscope, and take a photo of them through the microscope’s eyepiece, and then look for weird tings. When going through that process, you are going to find weird things. Every example of a spaceship or alien or whatever that he has can be VERY easily explained by dust or gunk getting in the photo, or uneven illumination, or film grain, and the anomalies he found do not appear in ANY other version of the images.

In fact, one such example that Bergrun points to as a UFO is a bright speck in the bottom of an image, except the bottom part of that image is clearly NOT part of the image that Voyager took because the rings cut-off about 20% of the way from the bottom. This shows that the photo he’s using is a reproduction, including blank area, and he’s pointing to image anomalies caught in that duplication.

– And there are the 1996 infrared photos by the Hubble Space Telescope in 1996 [SJR– actually, 1995], and some people insist that that is a UFO. What do you think of it? What do you think it possibly is? The refereed photos are shown here.

They look like moons to me. Each exposure was 5 minutes long, and stuff moves in 5 minutes. In fact, one of the outer-most moons that’s within the rings, Atlas, goes around Saturn every 14 hours. In the time that photo with Hubble was taken, it went about 0.6% of its orbit, which would mean it should be a bit elongated. Every moon interior to it would be even longer because they would have moved farther in its orbit in the same amount of time.

10. In addition, there is now footage that NASA releases to the public on their homepage, and this footage or stills sometime show space debris or mini-jets that NASA has captured. Then, some people look at those debris or mini-jets, and introduce them as UFOs on the Internet. Why do you think people often do that?

I think people “want to believe.” They are going to look for any sort of anomaly or object they can’t explain and then say that, because they don’t know what it is, it is aliens. In skepticism, we call this an “Argument from Ignorance” – they are ignorant of what it really is, so they make up what it is in a way that fits their preconceived ideas.

Final Thoughts

The interview was more focused on the origin of the conspiracy and a bit more on general conspiracies than on debunking particular claims made by hoax proponents. I have no idea how I came off on camera – this was my first “real” moving-picture-type interview other than for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science that I did at TAM last year that has yet to be put online (but apparently they ARE working on it!). We’ll see.

They might send me a DVD copy when it comes out. I know my mom wants a copy.

January 16, 2014

Quadcopters Mistaken as UFOs, Redux

Filed under: skepticism,ufo — Stuart Robbins @ 4:44 am
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Short post, so I’ll dispense with the usual subject headings. Several months ago, I wrote a blog post wherein I surmised that many (not most, not all, but many) UFO reports might, in fact, be hobby “toys” (albeit expensive ones). “Toys” as in quadcopters and related flying remote controlled craft.

Numerous comments that I did not permit through were from some very ardent UFOs = aliens proponents, and others who entirely missed the point and were off-topic. Some comments that were submitted argued that no one could possibly mistake a quadcopter flying a few 10s m (~100 ft?) up with lights on the bottom as a UFO.

They are wrong.

And to show they are wrong, I provide two anecdotes. Before you scream, “anecdotes aren’t evidence!” the knee-jerk reaction in this case is wrong. The claim was made that quadcopters and related craft could not be mistaken as UFOs. Therefore any single anecdote where they are will falsify that claim.

The first example came after the second, temporally, but it’s the shortest. I was at Bondi Beach in Sydney, Australia, last week, and it was night. I was waiting for the bus, while enjoying a lovely gelato (they use the word “lovely” a lot here). I looked towards the beach because I saw something odd out of my peripheral vision. I turned to see dancing lights, about five of them, hovering, moving slowly, then changing direction quickly, and generally performing acrobatic feats that certainly “no terrestrial craft could do!” Fortunately, it passed in front of a tree and so I was able to instantly recognize that it was a few meters away rather than thousands, and surmise that it was a quadcopter. I had fallen victim to the phenomenon myself.

The second anecdote is a bit more frustrating and emberassing because of what caused it. For my Australia trip, I ended up getting a DJI Phantom quadcopter because it was compact, sturdy, easy to travel with, and had a built-in holder for my GoPro camera. Unfortunately, I did not realize that there is a known issue with them suddenly deciding to fly away, no longer responding to the controller.

I was flying it the third night I was in Melbourne, just up in my friend’s sister’s tiny backyard, in the dense neighborhood of Albert Park. Was doing fine, was getting nice video and stills of sunset over the beach (~800 m away) and the city (opposite direction, several km away), when the quadcopter just darted off towards the beach. The control did not work. I’ll spare you the agonizing search and flyering and just jump to the fact that we DID get it back two days later. It landed on the garage roof of a house about 500 m (~0.3 miles) away, and the father and children recovered it about 10 minutes later. It now has my name and phone number in big characters on the hull.

But, while flyering and narrowing down where it landed based on neighbor reports, several said they thought it was a UFO. Yes, they used those initials, U-F-O. One even remarked that she had said out loud, “Wow, UFOs are real!” when she saw it flying overhead because all they could see were the green and red lights on the bottom.

So, there you have it. Again: I’m not saying that people who mistake these as aliens are stupid, that they are ignorant. Nor am I saying that every UFO sighting is a quadcopter or related craft.

However, I think that it’s very telling what happened in these two cases, and that it shows people need to be ever more careful in jumping to the UFO = aliens conclusion without considering all the much more likely – and very terrestrial – explanations.

October 15, 2013

A New Revelation on UFOs and More Evidence They Aren’t Aliens

Filed under: skepticism,ufo — Stuart Robbins @ 11:18 am
Tags: , , , , , , , ,


I tend not to write that much on UFOs = aliens. Of the now 25 posts (including this) that are tagged “UFO” on this blog, very few actually deal directly with the issue. The reason is fairly simple: There’s no new evidence, and what evidence there is, leaves much to be desired.

Let me be very specific about my terms here: When I say “UFO,” I mean an “unidentified flying object.” As in an object, in the sky, that appears to be flying, that is unidentified. When I say “UFOs = aliens,” I mean the belief that about half Americans share that UFOs are alien craft. Obviously the former is real. The latter is what people argue about.

Primary Evidence

The vast majority of UFOs = aliens “evidence” is in the form of eyewitness reports. UFOs = aliens researchers often tout these from “highly credible” witness despite those witness accounts claiming things that are impossible for them to know: Height, speed, and size of the “craft.” For details on why that is impossible, I will direct you to my Podcast Episode 2.

But, briefly, all you can do is measure the angular speed and size of the object, but without knowing the physical speed or size or distance, you cannot convert the angular measurement into a physical measurement. Ergo, anyone who states they saw a craft that was, for example, a mile wide, 100 miles up, and traveling at 5000 miles per hour is wrong (intentionally or not). They have no way of knowing if it was that far away or just something that was 100 ft up, 1 ft wide, and traveling at 50 ft per hour instead. (This is, again, unless they have an independent way of measuring the actual value for one of those or have a solid frame of reference, such as if it went behind a tree, then you know it was at least as far away as that tree.)

The primary other evidence for a UFO = alien craft typically is in the eyewitness stating they saw the craft do something that is impossible for terrestrial aircraft (which hopefully readers recognize as a classic argument from ignorance (you don’t know something, therefore you assume it’s something by default)). For example, the object would be seen to stop, or hover, or dart in various directions much faster than an airplane could.

Another common claim is that the craft is silent. Therefore, it’s either very far away, or it’s some sort of anti-gravity non-engine propulsion (usually one or the other is claimed by the witness, not either-or).

Very often, no physical craft is ever seen. It’s just lights in the dark night sky. And the lights are constant, not blinking like an airplane.

I’m Building a Toy

A few months ago, I saw some amazing video done by a guy who put a camera on a quadcopter and flew it over Niagra Falls. Since I do a lot of landscape photography, this seemed like a very neat new/different approach that I could get into: Fly the camera over the landscape and take shots from vantage points I couldn’t possibly get to. (Note that quadcopters have been around for nearly 100 years.)

I’m opting for a build-your-own approach and the parts are finally shipping (except for the flight control board, which is still on back-order). In the meantime, I’ve been learning how to fly on a mini version, the Blade mQX. With the Blade, I’ve been able to fly several hundred feet up, and my starting point is 6000 ft above sea level.

I’ve also been able to dart all over the place. For photography – and especially videography – you don’t want to do that, but it’s a good way to learn how to really control the craft, to do crazy things with it. And with something cheap like the Blade with several spare parts on-hand, it’s okay if I crash (and you will crash if you haven’t flown one before). Here’s just one of many videos on YouTube showing the kind of flying you can do with a quadcopter.

One issue with quadcopters – or at least something that I’m mildly worried about – is what happens if I don’t know which way is forward anymore? I’m getting bright orange propellers for the back and bright green for the front, but 500ft up, will I see that? So, I got running lights to put along the arms. Again, green and orange. That way, hopefully I’ll be able to see which way is forward and which is backward. That way, when I push the controller for it to go left, it goes left instead of right or away from me or towards me or in some other direction. Other people just put one light at the end of each arm, under the motors.

Put These Together: UFOs = Quadcopters

Take a look at this video of a quadcopter with a few lights flying at night. He went a bit out there in terms of lighting, but the effect is fairly clear: This is the kind of behavior described by many UFOs = aliens eyewitnesses:

  • The craft is silent (if you’re more than 100 ft away, you can’t hear a quadcopter).
  • The craft is lit.
  • It performs aerobatics.

You can also cut the power for the lights. You can zoom it up. You can bring it down. You can also build a hexcopter (6 arms) instead and light only three legs, giving you three lights for the typical “triangular craft.”

Final Thoughts

I’m not saying that aliens / ETs do not exist.

I’m not saying that some UFOs could be alien / ET craft.

I’m not saying that all UFOs are actually hobbyist heli/quad/hex/octo/etc. copters.

What I am saying is that there is an extraordinary claim (those lights in the sky that I don’t know what they are are actually extraterrestrial craft) that lacks ANY extraordinary evidence (eyewitness arguments from ignorance). That argument from ignorance is commonly of the form, “No terrestrial aircraft could possibly do what I saw that UFO do!” That argument from ignorance also frequently contains meaningless conjecture on the size, distance, and speed of a few lights in the sky.

What I am saying is that quadcopters and similar toys that a lot of people build and fly for fun are out there (for some reason my brother is now getting into it, and my dad’s been thinking about it for awhile, and now I’m building one), but many people have never heard of them (I hadn’t until a few months ago). And, if you put lights on them (which many do) and fly them at night for fun (which many do), they behave exactly the way that these eyewitnesses say their UFO did in those kinds of UFO = aliens cases.

What I am saying is that I would not be surprised if many UFO reports are actually hobbyist aircraft like these.

April 24, 2013

Podcast #72: Solar System Mysteries “Solved” by PseudoScience, Part 1 – Iapetus

Exploding planets,
Alien spaceships … Why is
Iapetus weird?

The subject of this episode is Saturn’s moon, Iapetus, and two mysteries about it that various branches of pseudoscience have claimed to solve: the brightness dichotomy via an exploded planet, and the equatorial ridge via a spaceship.

This is the first of what I plan to be a series much like “The Fake Story of Planet X” series — different mysteries of the solar system that have a pseudoscientific explanation and may or may not have a real science (agreed upon) explanation. Let me know what you think of the concept. Future ideas for shows are the Pioneer Anomaly and Mars’ crustal dichotomy.

Otherwise, there’s a bit of feedback and then I get into the puzzler from last time and one announcement.

Well, I sorta snuck in a second announcement — I’m headed to Australia, December 18 – January 20. I’ll be centered in Melbourne (which I enjoy pronouncing as “Mel-born-EE”) for most of the trip though should make it up to Sydney (I wanna see the Great Barrier Reef!). So, dinner in each city if I can round up enough interest. I’m slowly learning that Australia is not just a 5-hr drive across, so I’m less likely to make it to the eastern half. We’ll see if I can increase my Australian listenership in the meantime to make a dinner here or there worth organizing.

August 2, 2012

Podcast Episode 46: Immanuel Velikovsky’s “Worlds in Collision”

The many times requested episode on Immanuel Velikovsky has arrived, and it’s arrived for the first anniversary of my podcast. Yup, the first episode, on the “dark side” of the moon, came out August 1, 2011. Hard to believe that it’s been a year.

This episode’s main segment is over 20 minutes long, and yet it’s an incredibly abridged episode discussing a distillation of his ideas from “Worlds in Collision,” his first book. I go over some of Velikovsky’s bio, the politics surrounding him when he introduced his book in 1950, and then a few of the lines of evidence he used plus several refutations of his argument.

This episode may seem a tad preachy at some points. It’s hard when talking about Velikovsky to address his evidence because there really is none for his claims, so I used it to discuss how one should and should not go about science, and how Velikovsky failed at it. Rather than using available observations and making his ideas, and then forming testable predictions from them, he instead threw out most branches of science and relied on scattered myths throughout the world for his evidence. Sorry, that ain’t how it’s done.

As the first anniversary episode, I go over some obligatory stats at the end. I’m relying on all of you to increase them for August 1, 2013. 🙂

January 8, 2012

Podcast Episode 18: Ancient Aliens Interview with The Dumbass

Episode 18 of my podcast has been posted. This episode is another interview one, this time with “Parrot,” AKA “Dumbass” who has spent a lot of time on his blog and podcast going over many of the claims by ancient aliens proponents.

First, we address some of the broad reasons for aliens to visit us in the past, such as enslavement, a tourist stop, or as a brothel.

The bulk of the episode discusses some of the main evidential claims put forward, including: Pyramids, the “golden flyer,” the Christian Bible, Nazca lines, Face on Mars, a spaceship painting from A.D. 776, and bone calendars from 30,000 years ago.

The next subject we addressed were about some of the people involved in the ancient aliens phenomenon and some of their specific takes. These were Giorgio Tsoukalos, Graham Hancock, Robert Bauval, David Hatcher Childress, and Christopher Dunn.

We wrapped up the ~70-minute interview with a summary of some of the broad reasons for ancient aliens and why people think they came here: argument from ignorance, argument from personal incredulity, making things up, and especially anomaly hunting.

August 7, 2011

Mercury’s Uniqueness Revealed by MESSENGER: Does It Mean a Recent Creation?


An interesting thing that happens when you’re defending your thesis and consequently not blogging for a few months is that other blogs can crop up that tend to cover similar material. In this case, there is a blog entitled, “Eye on the ICR” run by a high school student from New Zealand. Ah, if only we had blogs back when I was in high school … though I probably wouldn’t have been writing against creationism as my topic of choice.

Anyway, this New Zealander seems to take great delight in ripping to shreds the news postings by the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) writers. Much as I do. Unfortunately, he’s posted his before me! (And I couldn’t find his name on the site, so throughout this post, he’s the “high school student.”)

Whatever … he’s still a high schooler, I’m a Ph.D. astronomer. Hopefully I can add something to the conversation he started. We’ll see.

Mysterious Mercury

This post is yet another about the “science” writer, Mr. Brian Thomas, and in this case his ICR article, “Messenger Spacecraft Confirms: Mercury Is Unique.” First off, the name “MESSENGER” is an acronym that stands for “MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry and Ranging.” In other words, you need to capitalize it, unless you’re writing for the BBC which doesn’t seem to capitalize acronyms. Ah, we’re off to a good start.

After the title, Mr. Thomas does his normal routine of spending a paragraph or two (in this case one) giving some very brief background about the subject. It’s okay, something you’d get in a normal news article but which most third graders know.

Then we get to the line that those who are familiar with young-Earth creationist (YEC) writings know is the kicker: “Mercury possesses unique characteristics … clues point in the opposite direction to what astronomers expected.” Yes, that’s right, because something is not exactly as a model predicts, God did it. That’s basically what the remaining six paragraphs say.

A High Density

The third paragraph presents Mr. Thomas’ first problem-of-choice: Mercury’s high density and large core. The issue is that Mercury does have a high overall density. In fact, it is the second highest of any planet at 5.43 grams per cubic centimeter (water = 1); only Earth is more dense, at 5.52. But, Mr. Thomas quotes Spike Psarris from 2004 claiming, “according to naturalistic origins models, ‘Mercury can’t be anywhere near as dense as it actually is.'”

For my very loyal readers (hi Joe, Susan, Karl), you might remember that I discussed Spike Psarris twice (here and here) in ripping apart a 12-minute video segment he produced on why Jupiter needs God to have created it 6000 years ago.

In skepticism, we often give YECs and Intelligent Design (ID) proponents the proud title of the best examples of quote miners. In this case, a creationist (Brian Thomas) is quote mining another creationist (Spike Psarris). Spike does indeed say that in his 2004 article. But he actually goes on to explain that we have a perfectly reasonable natural model for how Mercury got as dense as it did. Granted, Spike in his own special way then tries to rip it to shreds through an argument from personal incredulity, but that’s somewhat beside the point for this post.

For those wondering, the “evilutionist” way of explaining this is that Mercury was involved in a massive collision early in its history that stripped away all of its crust and a large portion of its outer mantle, leaving behind the core of an originally much larger planet along with some mantle material. We know that these kinds of large collisions happened in the early solar system, there is an enormous amount of evidence for that, so it is perfectly plausible that this is what happened on Mercury. Despite what Spike says.

Too Much Sulfur?

Paragraph four of Mr. Thomas’ article states, “assuming that the planet formed naturally and close to the then-forming sun, lighter-weight elements like sulfur should have been ‘lost in space,’ … and yet Mercury has ‘high levels’ of sulfur.” Hmm. I guess that means evolution can’t be true and God created everything 6000 years ago.

As with pretty much the rest of this article – and I’ll just point it out here for the time-being – Mr. Thomas does not actually make an independent argument for a 6000-year-old universe created by God. He simply tries to cast doubt on his own – highly limited – understanding of planetary astronomy. Anyway, moving forward …

Yes, one of the interesting discoveries of MESSENGER is that it detected high levels of sulfur on Mercury. And yes, Mercury likely formed close to the sun, well inside the temperature line where we would expect lighter elements and molecules to be gaseous and not condense and be incorporated in large quantities into forming planets. Except, well, obviously they did. And there are numerous ways of getting them to these planets — remember I talked in the last section about lots of massive collisions? This is the way we think Earth got most of its water.

Magnetic Fields

Paragraphs five and six talks about the magnetosphere of Mercury:

In the Space.com Q&A, Solomon commented, “I’m now fascinated by the magnetosphere.” And it is small wonder that he is, because for many years the “dynamo theory” (which has since been shown to be false) was the only explanation offered for magnetic fields on rocky planets that are supposed to be billions of years old. However, this theory requires a molten magma core. And Mercury is so small — only slightly larger than the moon — that its core should have cooled into a solid millions of years ago. Therefore, it should not have a magnetic field at all … . And yet it does.

Messenger’s new magnetic measurements fail to explain why Mercury has a magnetic field. Instead, they add ammunition against a naturalistic origin for the planet. Scientists did not expect to discover that Mercury’s magnetic field is lopsided, but the 2011 Messenger data showed that it is stronger in the north than it is in the south. What natural process would cause that?

I actually want to disassemble the second part first, in that the “magnetic measurements fail to explain why Mercury has a magnetic field.” As a science writer, Mr. Thomas should know that measurements (data) do not explain anything. Data are data (“data” is the plural form of “datum”). They have no explanatory power in and of themselves, the data simply are what they are. It is how the data fit into models that will then support or refute them.

Further, on the lopsidedness of the field. I know I’ve said this before, but for new readers and returning ones who like the reminder: That’s what science is!! We want to find something we can’t immediately explain because that means that we can then go try to figure out why it is the way it is! It’s only YECs that don’t want anything that doesn’t fit with their own Goddidit model because that would mean that, gasp!, maybe goddidn’tdoit. In fact, Mr. Thomas, in what is obviously meant to imply that goddidit, asks the exact question that I’m sure that mission scientists are trying to answer: What process causes a lopsided magnetic field?

Okay, back to the first paragraph quoted above. I’m not even sure I really need to go into this too much. Suffice to say, yes, the fact Mercury has a strong magnetic field was a surprise when it was discovered, and it is actually one of the main questions that drove the MESSENGER instrument suite choices that will try to gather the data that will be used to test and further develop models to explain why it has an active magnetic field. Obviously, ongoing scientific research is just too much for Mr. Thomas to handle, though, because he clearly wants these observations to force us evolutionary astronomers (I still don’t understand what evolution has to do with astronomy) to throw up our hands and admit that his God did it.

Oh yeah, and the whole “dynamo theory which has since been shown to be false” is him blowing out his you-know-what. That’s about the only outright lie I came across in this article.

Final Thoughts

I’m not sure what it takes to be a science writer with ICR. I actually looked over their site for a job description or any information related to jobs, and all I found were bible versus from the Book of Jobs. Go figure. Regardless, I don’t think the requirements can be much, especially any knowledge of science. In the next-to-last paragraph, Mr. Thomas clearly shows his ignorance: “If nature formed the planets from the same cloud of space debris, then why are they not uniform in constitution, orientation, and placement?”

I have explained to 6-year-olds why there are differences in objects in the solar system even though they formed from the same “cloud of space debris.” And they understood it. (One of the big reasons is that, as the sun heated up, it caused a temperature gradient in the cloud that resulted in significant compositional differences in the inner and outer solar system.)

Mr. Thomas, please, do your homework next time. And by that, I mean read something other than the bible or Spike Psarris. But, I suppose when you’re content with a god of the gaps outlook on everything in life, actually learning something new is not important.

Oh, and in all seriousness, check out the Eye on ICR blog if you like reading this kinda thing. A high school student willing to take on the ICR, even if it’s just in a blog, and point out their foolishness is pretty cool. When I was in high school, the only creationists I confronted were classmates (ah, I still remember 7th grade when I made a girl cry just by saying that we didn’t know why the Big Bang happened, but who created God?).

September 4, 2010

Stephen Hawking, God, and Design, and the Universe


I know I haven’t written for awhile, and unfortunately, you can expect more of the same sporadic posts probably for the next several months. I apologize. Just keep this in your RSS reader and you’ll get ’em when they come out. Blog’s not dead, just me. 🙂

Anyway, if you had to pick one topic this week that’s in the news other than politics, it would probably be Stephen Hawking and the conjecture that the universe does not need a god to have come about or be as it is. I know folks are probably tired about this, but I thought I would give a few brief observations, hopefully ones that aren’t actually in most news outlets.

My Thoughts

First, I agree. I do not think there’s any hard, scientific evidence that you need a god to create the universe or to have it turn out as it is. You’ll note I wrote “think,” not “believe.” This particular word choice is one that I’ll hopefully address in another short, future post.

Anyway, what really brought on this post was I was yet again listening to an episode of Coast to Coast AM where the host, George Noory, brought on a theologian to react. Only, in a very C2C twist, this particular theologian, Dr. Barry Downing, thinks that the Bible is the inspired word of space aliens who talked to Moses through maybe some sort of hologram of the burning bush.

Moving on … George stated effectively, “I don’t see how you can look at the universe and all that it contains and think that there wasn’t some sort of designer or planner or plan.”

That got me thinking: Well, what would a universe look like if it hadn’t been planned? How would we know? What would the difference(s) be?

I think what George and many people forget is that we have a sample size of 1. If you think the universe did not have a creator nor planner nor plan, then this is what it looks like without one and hence we don’t need one to explain it. If you believe that the universe did have a creator or planner or plan, then this is what it looks like with one and hence we do need one to explain it.

Very circular reasoning here. Perhaps an argument from ignorance, perhaps a tautology. Or begging the question / unstated major premise. So many logical fallacies to choose from!

Final Thoughts

I the end, I think this debate is a bit silly. I think the reactions of condemnation from world religious leaders was a “necessary” response to a statement by someone as famous as Stephen Hawking. And Hawking does have a book he’s trying to sell.

I think this is a fairly futile argument because neither side is going to be able to convince the other for the simple reasons I stated above: Those who believe this universe’s form could only arise from a guiding hand or noodly appendage are always going to cling to that design argument. Those who think this arises from random chance or underlying physical laws that we do not yet know will continue to think that.

But it does make for headlines and gives people something to talk about other than the latest Paris Hilton snafu.

December 9, 2009

Logical Fallacies: Argument from Ignorance (or, Ad ignorantiam)


In my ever-increasing series on logical fallacies, this post is going to discuss a rather large class of fallacies, underwhich the God of the Gaps fallacy falls — Argument from Ignorance.

What is the “Argument from Ignorance” Fallacy?

The Latin term for the fallacy is ad ignorantiam. The Argument from Ignorance is – yet again – a fallacy that is aptly named: It is an argument that is made from pure ignorance about a subject purely because of that ignorance. The basic structure of the argument is that there is an observation, that observation is unexplained (ignorance), and so someone will insert their own explanation with certitude.

Example from UFOlogy

Okay, first I have to make this side-comment: I write these posts in a separate text editor because I don’t like how little WordPress displays on the screen. I use Apple’s “Text Edit” program which automatically underlines words that are misspelled. Apparently, UFOs = aliens is so popular in our culture that “UFOlogy” is considered a real word in Apple’s built-in dictionary. Sigh.

Anyway … in the realm of pseudoastronomy (which Apple’s dictionary says is not a real word), UFOlogy folks are some of the biggest users of the Argument from Ignorance (unless you consider the sub-type of God of the Gaps, in which case it’s the young-Earth creationists). Most UFOlogists will generally follow the following “logic:” (1) Someone sees something in the sky. (2) They cannot explain what it is. (3) They make a report of it and their friendly neighborhood UFOlogist sees it. (4) If they pursue it, they will generally say that it is very likely to be an alien craft. This is despite any actual evidence of, well, anything other than an “eyewitness report” of something that that eyewitness could not explain.

This is a classic example of the Argument from Ignorance because they have taken an unknown (the UFO) and without any evidence have stated that it is likely to be an alien craft.

It is just as likely that they are demons (I have heard a Catholic monk claim this).

Or it is just as likely that they are the souls of people who have just died going up to the spirit world (I have also heard this claim made).

Or (now bear with me here …) it could much more easily be something they couldn’t identify, such as a satellite, a meteor, another celestial object, a white bird (I have 3 times seen what initially were UFOs making all sorts of weird moves only to watch a little longer as they headed towards a light source and were just a flock of white birds), a firefly, or something else.

Final Thoughts

The Argument from Ignorance has many sub-types, though really I think the God of the Gaps is the most often-used of the sub-types. It is pretty easy to spot as long as you pause after someone has made a claim and figure out if they have backed it up with anything. If not, then it could very well be an argument from ignorance.

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