Exposing PseudoAstronomy

January 27, 2016

Scientific Fields Are Never Solitary, in a Vacuum


One of the more annoying claims made by pseudoscientists is that because scientists are so specialized these days, that they cannot “see the forest for the trees” as the metaphor goes. But they, as outsiders, totally can and therefore show that all of science is wrong. Or something like that.

It is true that sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-…-sub fields do exist, and these days that’s a manifestation of really how far we’ve come in science. Back in the day (say, 400 years ago), we knew comparatively so little that someone could study for a few years and get a good understanding of the state of human scientific knowledge. These days, you need an advanced degree to understand a sub-field of science, such as physics:optics, or psychology:adolescent (the colon indicating the sub-field).

If you want to work in a field, you pretty much must specialize, otherwise you will never be out of school because you won’t know enough about that broader topic.

But we always have to incorporate other fields of study, even if we don’t realize we’re doing it. I’ve tried to point out in my podcast and blog how tugging at one string by a pseudoscientist unravels so many other strings in unrelated subjects that it completely disproves their point about being able to have a broad knowledge base from which to draw new connections.

But that’s a long-winded way to get to why I’m even talking about this. I’m home right now for a period of 10 days, between travel, and I’m using the time to convene a working group. A working group is sort of like a mini-workshop. Where a workshop, in science, tends to be a specialized conference convened where people give presentations meant more to explore a topic rather than to brag about their latest research.

Last May, I convened a workshop entitled, “Workshop on Issues in Crater Studies and the Dating of Planetary Surfaces.” Succinctly, it was intended as a step back from the minutia we deal with to look at the original problems we were trying to solve, how we tried to 50 years ago, why we did it the way we did then, and what we’re trying to do now with craters and what outstanding problems we still have. I was able to bring in several founders of the field (since it really got going in the 1950s and 60s), and we addressed a wide range of issues.

Among those was statistics. We’re doing statistics the way we did it in the 1970s, before we had computers and when people had to draw graphs in papers by hand. We realized that the field of statistics has changed considerably and the way we were doing things and are doing things is not necessarily completely correct, nor is it necessarily the best way.

So, I also had money to bring in three statisticians to the workshop to learn.

And this week, since five of us crater people who work in the Boulder area were at the workshop and are interested in bringing in this completely unrelated (but related) field of statistics into planetary geophysics, we’re holding a working group. The five of us, one of the statisticians who is local, and one of the statisticians who I flew in from Los Alamos.

And it’s fascinating. If nothing else (because I’m sure no one reading this cares about statistics of crater populations), I find it fascinating to watch the interaction between the statisticians and the planetary scientists. We know some of our issues, and we are completely steeped in our language to describe it. They know stats, and they are constantly bringing in similar problems in other fields that are solved certain ways to see if it can apply. It’s taken a year to almost get on the same page just with what we mean when we talk about different graphs.

And they sometimes come up with potential solutions, but then we say “no” because it completely misrepresents the physical situation.

Today, after working all morning and being brought back up to speed yesterday, one of the surprising things that we (planetary scientists) had to grasp was that we may need to start thinking about craters – at least the population of craters, the ensemble – in a completely different way: Rather than discrete objects which we observe (with a definite location and size), think of them as a probability, where each observation is actually a distribution (albeit narrow). If we can do that, then we can bring in a huge field of well established statistics to deal with some of our fundamental problems with how we work with craters. Like simple things … like how we really should be assigning uncertainty to our measurements and results.

And throughout this, there was the constant nagging question in the back of my head of how we’re going to convince the entire field that this is the proper way to go — if it’s the proper way to go. Fortunately in our working group we have one of the founders of the field, so if we can convince him, we can figure out how to write up the paper to convince others.

This is a long post … and it’s a lot of stream of consciousness. From it though, I want you to get a few things:

  1. Even in highly specialized disciplines, they must always be informed by and incorporate other disciplines, even in completely different fields (astronomy/geology:planetary-gephysics:surface-processes:impact-craters:crater-populations … meet mathematics:statistics:[huge list of stuff they’re bringing in]).
  2. Sometimes, to update a field of study and bring it in line with what’s known in others, you have to think of the problem in a completely new way, but one that remains informed by its roots and always in what we’re really trying to understand (as in, they can model whatever, but we constrain them by keeping it physically meaningful and realistic).
  3. There’s always inertia in a field of study, but there are always ways to bring about change if that change gets you to a more correct methodology or answer.

This post is also my way of updating you all on what I’ve been doing, partially, work-wise for the past few days and why the podcast still hasn’t come out with a new episode in over a month.

January 21, 2016

On the Hubbub Yesterday About a New Planet X


I’m assuming you’re living in a box if you didn’t see the headlines yesterday, in which case you wouldn’t be reading this blog. But … it was announced in many headlines, based on a paper appearing in the Astronomical Journal (yes, a real journal), that dynamic evidence of an unseen planet had been found in the outer solar system.

Unfortunately, much of the mainstream media got it wrong. I saw headlines such as, “Researchers Find Possible Ninth Planet Beyond Neptune.” That’s wrong.

And, of course, the pseudoscientists get it wrong, too, with some claiming that it proves hyperdimensional physics (whatever that means) and the fission model for planet formation (that planets are spat out of the sun in twins). You can probably guess who’s talking about that.

But here’s what really happened, for people are sending me lots of links (seriously, you can stop sending me links about this). We have a few observations of a few objects out beyond Neptune. I think the number of known, observed Kuiper Belt Objects is around 400. That’s not a lot when models suggest there should be billions to trillions of these objects.

But, based on those that we have observed, there are six in particular that have some similarities in the orbits. And an unseen planet, somewhere around 1-10 times the mass of Neptune, on an elliptical orbit that takes it as close as 7 times farther from the sun than Neptune (so 200 times farther than Earth) and as far as 600-1200 times the Earth-sun distance, could cause those similarities. The two astronomers who wrote the paper calculate there’s only a 1 in 15,000 chance that the similarities in those six objects’ orbits is random chance.

Color me skeptical.

Here’s the thing: I don’t like these dynamical arguments. They rely on many assumptions based on very few things being observed. These particular scientists are about as mainstream as you can get, but one of them, Mike Brown, is well known for being provocative to the point of stirring up upblic controversy to promote his work. For example, he wrote the book, “How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming.” It also might not be purely coincidental that the news came out the day after the New Horizons spacecraft’s tenth anniversary of launch.

The bottom-line is that this is not an observation of a body. This is dynamical arguments suggestive of a body based on numerous assumptions based on very few observations of a suspected population of bodies.

That doesn’t mean it’s wrong. But that doesn’t mean it’s right. And CalTech’s PR machine has been working over-time to pump this story out as much as they can, which also perturbs me.

January 10, 2016

Some Real Science: Lots of Grunt Work, Moon Craters


Over the last few days, I’ve been hunkering down due to the deadline for abstract submission to the premier planetary science conference, the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference. It’s held annually in March in Houston, TX. Everyone is allowed to submit up to two first-author abstracts, and I have, for the last couple years, done two. This year’s not an exception. I’ll post about my New Horizons -related one later.

This post is about my abstract entitled, “Developing a Global Lunar Crater Database, Complete for Craters ≥1 km.” Because the file sizes have to be <1 MB, the figures are low resolution.

There are many, many different purposes to conferences, though the primary is “communication with colleagues.” Within that are many different things, like talking about your research and getting ideas. Another is to be able to show colleagues what you are doing so that, if your name happens to come in, say, a grant application, they might just recognize it.

For LPSC this year, my non-New Horizons abstract is in that category. I’m setting myself up for writing a grant later this year to build a lunar crater catalog that contains a lot of information about roughly 1 million craters on the moon. It’s been rejected for a couple years, and one of the underlying reasons is that I don’t know how many craters there are, therefore I can’t give a good, accurate work effort estimate to do all the information-gathering about each crater.

This abstract is meant to answer part of that. I’ve been leveraging bits and pieces of funding from different sources over the last year to do the initial mapping part — identifying the craters and locating them and measuring their diameters. For this abstract, I’ve roughly 28% of the moon done. For the March conference, I’m hoping to be closer to 50%, and by the time the grants are due this autumn, 100% so I know how many craters I have to do more stuff with.

Two more things I want to talk about in this slightly longer post. First is grunt work. Science is not easy. Science is rarely glamorous. Science is sitting down and 99% of what you do no one will ever know about because it’s only the results – not that big data-gathering process – that form the bulk of your paper. Methods sections are usually <25% of a paper because relatively few people care about that in comparison with your results.

And trust me, sitting down and drawing circles for hundreds of hours on end is NOT glamorous. But the results are cool.

Second is why we care – why are the results "cool." One reason is that it just looks cool — seeing all those dots that indicate a crater, and seeing all the patterns that emerge tell us a lot about the different history of those areas of the moon. The main one is ages (more craters = older). But we can also do things like better understand what's hit the moon in the past, and hence what is likely to hit Earth in the future. We can study different materials even, which is why the second figure is devoted to permanently shadowed regions where there might be water (areas that never see the sun act as cold traps for water molecules).

Anyway, this is turning out longer than I wanted, so to wrap it up … that's one thing that has been occupying a lot of my time over the last few days. One down, one to go.

January 6, 2016

Ever Heard of the EQ Peg Hoax?


Today, despite being sick since Friday, I finally finished a massive project of mapping about 48,000 impact craters on a region of Mercury for a mapping project that I’m a Co-I (co-investigator) on. Because a lot of what I do involves pretty much literally drawing circles, I listen to a lot of audio, and I recently began digging in my unlistened Coast to Coast AM archives.

I found from late 1998 the curious case of a claimed intelligent signal from the star EQ Peg, which is around 20 light-years away. Surprisingly, this was first promoted by the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation). Richard Hoagland was a proponent of it on the show, and even when it was determined to be a hoax, and the astronomer whose name was used was on the show saying someone used his name without his knowledge, Richard continued to promote some sort of conspiracy surrounding it. As did others, but they weren’t interviewed on C2CAM.

I was in high school when this all happened, and I never ever heard of it before a few days ago. I’m curious if any of you who may be a bit older than I remember it. I think it is probably worth putting in the queue for a podcast episode in the future.

As another interesting tidbit during this saga (I listened to about 7 hours of Richard talking about this across the month of November 1998), I found it interesting that Richard repeated a couple times that it’s “okay” to be wrong, just so long as you’re right more often than wrong. Yeah … that might be a separate blog post. I’ll just say for the sake of this four-paragraph’er that there comes a point where there’s right, versus wrong, versus wrong but thinking you’re right because you don’t know what you’re doing and you have a severe case of Confirmation Bias-itus.

January 5, 2016

No Planet X, Yet, Despite Marshall Masters’ Predictions


Last weekend, Trebor wrote in the comments to podcast 109 on this blog that we should be able to see Planet X by now, according to Marshall Masters. I had to dig — I last addressed his claims in 2014, where he stated in no uncertain terms that things would get very bad in 2015 and we would certainly see Planet X in 2015.

It’s 2016. Nada.

I’m getting a bit tired of this “unsinkable rubber duckie” phenomenon because we keep seeing this, and the same people just push the dates back and back and back. Masters was last on C2C on May 21, 2015. What particularly annoys me and why I think that certain talk show hosts lack any intellectual honesty, is that they do not hold their guests’ footsies to the fire and confront them on failed predictions.

Now, of course, I could be wrong in this case; we’ll see if George Noory has him back (I’m sure he will) and what happens during that show. But I would be very, very surprised if he confronts Masters’ failures year after year for predicting when this mythical Planet X will make doom and gloom.

December 13, 2015

Podcast Episode 143: Round-Table Discussion with New Horizons Early Career Scientists


A round-table talk
‘Tween seven New Horizons
Scientists … ’bout stuff!

The missing episode!!! And the interview I’ve been promising for months between myself and six other early career scientists is finally posted. It took only 5% the time of New Horizons to reach Pluto, this podcast from the time it was recorded to the time it’s being posted. It also “only” took 6 hours to edit. Why? Because of needing to cut some things out, someone constantly knocking the table (I know who you are …), legitimate outtakes, and severe noise level differences.

Excuses aside, I’m glad that this is finally up, and I enjoyed actually listening to it (4x through during editing). It brought back memories from July and I think it gives insight into how us “grunts” or “minions” or, perhaps just “early career scientists” viewed the mission and what we did during that month of hectic excitement.

There are no other segments in this podcast episode, for the interview / round-table itself is 59 minutes 59.5 seconds. If you stay after the end music and how you can get in touch with the show / me, there is roughly 3.3 additional minutes of outtakes. These are not always rated G.

I hope that you enjoy this episode.

November 30, 2015

Podcast Episode 144: Why We Know About Things Far Away but Not Nearby, and Lots of New News


How can we know ’bout
Stuff far ‘way but not nearby?
Big conspiracy?

The return! This episode has a shorter main segment in favor of having some new news, all of them sent in by listeners. In the episode, I address a claim that I hear in many different contexts that basically boils down to, “How can we know about far away stuff but we don’t even know about close stuff!” I provide two examples, many analogies, an experiment you can do yourself, and my usual dry, witless humor.

The logical fallacies segment discusses the False Equivalence fallacy.

For the New News, I talk about the exosystem discovery by Kepler that made the news in mid-October, space law and possible violations by bills in the US Congress, and the new farthest known object in the solar system.

And yes, this is episode 144, there has not yet been an episode 143. It will come out “soon.” Where “soon” is an undefined unit of time, and it will be back-dated to November 1.

October 16, 2015

Podcast Episode 142: Who’s on First? Origin of Ideas in Science


With water on Mars,
Discovered again, we look
At who did what first.

It’s been a month, and this is back-dated by over two weeks, but I wanted to put out an episode about the pitfalls of trying to figure out and remember who did what first. In the episode, I gave five examples of how this kind of discussion is important, such as who founds entire fields of science (or mathematics), giving credit where it’s due and remembering past research, pseudoscientists taking credit for things, alleged alien contactees taking credit for things, and preserving institutional memory in science.

The logical fallacies segment discusses the Moving the Goalpost fallacy.

I also revisit the 440 Hz conspiracy by asking you to listen to three tones, strewn throughout the podcast, to see if you can tell the difference. Playing two right in a row last time was too easy for everyone who wrote in.

Finally, yes, this is back-dated, and no, I am really really busy these days and don’t expect this to improve. I will likely take November-dated episodes off, putting out another episode some time in the next 6-7 weeks that’s dated October 16, and then return with December episodes. Next week I go on trip #13 for the year and the following week is #14, in mid-November I head back East for #15 and in December I have a conference that will bring the total to 16 trips this year. Never again.

October 1, 2015

A New Interview and New Movie from New Horizons Data


Quick post before I get back to work (next podcast episode hopefully out this weekend).

First up, I was interviewed live for about 100 minutes on this past Sunday on David Livingston’s “The Space Show.” We spent the first half talking about my research (impact craters) and the second half about the education & public outreach that I do. Since it was live, and a call-in show, there was one call and many e-mailed questions that I responded to. There’s also an associated blog, so you can comment on the interview there if you wish.

Second, NASA has put out a press release about Charon (Pluto’s largest companion). There is a flyover animation of some of its many varied features, and I was the one who made the animation.

We have images of some areas of Charon from two different vantage points, as New Horizons flew by the body, and so we have a very, very early digital terrain / elevation model (DTM). I was able to use this in a non-exaggerated view of what it would be like to fly low through its massive canyon.

It looks a bit like an early 3D video game because of the somewhat low resolution, but I think it’s still pretty neat, and we should get better quality over the next few months as we better understand the surface and camera models.

September 23, 2015

A Piece of Lint Becomes a 10-Mile High Tower on the Moon


Introduction

I subscribe to Expat’s “Dork Mission” blog in my RSS reader, and so I’m privy to people other than Richard Hoagland that he has made an hobby of watching and looking for perversions of rationality. One such set of claims is by a self-titled “civilian intelligence analyst,” Robert Morningstar.

Robert Morningstar (or M* as he occasionally signs things and I’ll use for short) was on Richard Hoagland’s radio program on September 3, and on the program he discussed many things, but there was one in particular that I’d seen Expat discuss before, but I’d never really investigated myself.

The claim is so bizarre that I wanted to share it with you.

The Claim: Big Ben on the Moon

Robert has made this claim for at least a year, that he has found what he terms “Big Ben” (named for the famous London landmark), but on the Moon. He found this while analyzing lunar photographs. The object is 10 miles high, according to his analysis.

It was only when I heard how he did his analysis and I looked at the photos he presents, myself, that I decided this blog post was worth it.

The Photo

First off, it’s difficult to know what photographs he used in terms of catalog numbers. Robert, like many in his field of anomaly hunting, does not provide documentation to allow independent analysis, rather he only presents the image in and of itself. This also means I can’t go find other versions of it that might be earlier generations, nor can I find the highest quality nor resolution.

Based on the fiducials (crosshairs) faintly visible in the photograph, I think this was Apollo. From searching through Expat’s blog, I found I was correct, it’s Apollo image AS17-M-2366.

To wit, here is the photograph that he claims hosts “Big Ben,” which I got at higher resolution than from Richard Hoagland’s site from another site where M* was interviewed:

AS17-M-2366 Early Scan

AS17-M-2366 Early Scan (click to embiggen)

If you don’t see much, that’s not surprising. What Robert is calling “Big Ben” is a small apparent bright protrusion from the upper-left of the moon’s limb. Here is the enlargement that he provided to Richard:

“Big Ben on the Moon” According to Robert Morningstar (click to embiggen)

He Analyzed a Photograph of His Computer Screen

Let that heading sink in a moment. What Robert did, as he stated on-air, and is evident from the obvious slightly rotated-from-vertical pixels in the second image, is he took the first photo (likely higher resolution than I have, but again I don’t know what the photo is so I can’t look), he likely enlarged it on his computer screen (if he didn’t, that doesn’t matter for this analysis), and he then took a digital camera and took a photograph of his computer screen.

It’s from that photograph of his computer screen that he then did any and all subsequent analysis.

This is one of those cases where I’m literally at a loss for words. It’s almost a situation of Not Even Wrong. To put it as succinctly and briefly as I can, he has introduced a substantial amount of completely unnecessary artifacts into the image that the idea that he thinks this is a proper way to analyze an image makes me question every single other claim he might ever make in the future.

Put another way, he has somewhat close-ish to original “pixels” in the original image (again, this is a somewhat early scan of an early copy of an Apollo photograph). Why would you then go and take a picture of your computer screen and analyze that picture?!

Lint

Beyond the ridiculousness of analyzing a photo of his computer screen that was showing a digital image, there is a big red flag that indicates this is simply a bit of contamination (lint, dust, etc.) on the scanner that was used to scan the print: Just under 600 pixels away, there is a very obvious piece of lint on the print, a bright bit that’s 1-pixel-wide that has a slight bend at the end:

Lint in AS17-M-2366

Lint in AS17-M-2366 (click to embiggen)

Lint. Just like “Big Ben.”

And, as others on Expat’s blog have pointed out, in the next frame of that sequence of photographs (AS17-M-2367), from that scan generation, the approximate same pattern of lint has moved off the limb of the moon by what would be ~1000 km:

Moving Lint in Apollo Photograph Scans

Moving Lint

And, in classic pseudoscientific fashion, M* does not look for other scans of the same photograph and show us that the feature is still there, nor does he present us with any images from a half dozen other spacecraft that have photographed the entire moon since Apollo and shown us that the feature is still present.

In fact, towards the former point, Arizona State University is in the process of scanning all the Apollo photographs at much higher resolution than had been done years ago by the Lunar & Planetary Institute (LPI). Here’s the link to AS17-M-2366 where you can download a 1.2 GB version of the image, or you can browse a 660 KB or 11 MB version.

You’ll note that, if you take a look, those pieces of lint are gone. Now I suspect that if confronted by this, Robert would just say that it’s been removed by The Powers that Be to hide it and give fodder to debunkers like me.

Final Thoughts

Here’s the problem: If your only evidence is one version of one photograph, and no other version of that photograph, the next photograph in the series that shows almost the exact same area, nor any other photograph of that area shows the feature, chances are your first photograph is the one that’s wrong, not every other one.

Given that, and given the above, here’s another reason why I don’t have a problem classifying M* as a pseudoscientist. This is a quote from him when he was on a radio program discussing “Big Ben:”

Now these debunkers, they claim that that’s dust on the film, or an anomaly in the emulsion. Again, I’m just showing you a picture that was taken by Apollo 17 — a picture that’s been in the archives for 42 years and I just happen to be the one that found it and recognized it, so I show it to you. And what do you think that looks like? I told you what I think it looks like, so I named it that. I named it “Big Ben on the Moon.”

In that, he completely avoids the content of the criticisms of his claim, and he goes even one more step backwards: He seems unable to even consider that it might not be on the original image: “a picture that’s been in the archives for 42 years.”

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and a feature that looks like lint, only found in one version of one photograph, that looks like lint in other areas of the photograph, and compounded with “analysis” of that feature on a photograph of that image being displayed on a computer screen, does not extraordinary evidence make.

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