Exposing PseudoAstronomy

December 31, 2016

Podcast Episode 154: Impact Crater Pseudoscience Mishmash


Impact cratering
Is neat, but crazies like to
Abuse the science.

To end 2016, we have some crater-related pseudoscience. This is an episode where I talked about three different claims related to impact craters and how two of them misuse and abuse impact craters as a way to make their brand of pseudoscience make sense, in their own minds. The third claim falls under the “bad headlines” category and I get to address the Gambler’s Fallacy.

I’m still experimenting with a new microphone setup and you can hear the audio change tone noticeably part-way through. That’s when I moved my computer from off to the side so I was talking into the side of the microphone to more in front of me so I was talking into the top of the microphone. I also have a new laptop and figured out that the clicking/crackling that’s been in some recent episodes is when I stop recording, start again, and for a few seconds, every fraction of a second, the computer just records nothing for a much tinier fraction of a second. In this episode, I spent an extra half-hour editing all those out so there’s much less of it.

Artistic Rendering of Asteroid Impacting Earth

Artistic Rendering of Asteroid Impacting Earth

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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 9, 2013

How Astronomers Are, According to Popular Press, Constantly Discovering the Same Thing


Introduction

This post was prompted by a bit of discussion both at work and on my blog lately.

Regarding the blog, the question has come up of when people have known different things, and laypeople going to popular press to determine when stuff has been discovered.

Regarding work, an e-mail was sent out yesterday with one of the senior scientists wondering what the big deal was with a press release claiming to have discovered something new, but he pointed out a paper from 1984 that said the same thing.

So I thought I’d talk a bit about why the media (and official science organizations’ press offices) keep announcing a “new discovery” when it’s, in fact, a very old discovery.

Example from Yesterday: “NASA, ESA Telescopes Find Evidence for Asteroid Belt Around Vega”

On January 8, 2013, NASA released a press statement #13-006, “NASA, ESA Telescopes Find Evidence for Asteroid Belt Around Vega.”

If you read it, the very first part of the very first sentence states: “Astronomers have discovered what appears to be a large asteroid belt around the star Vega.” If you read further, it’s all about implications, comparing it with other recent discoveries, and what questions future studies hope to answer.

It all seems as though this is a very new and interesting finding, and as a press release (and from NASA, no less), it was picked up by many news outlets (looks like at least 35 from a Google News search as of posting this).

I’m not trying to minimize these researchers’ work, and if you want to read their paper, it’s posted here.

But, turn the clock back 30 years. In June 1984, in the journal Science – one of the preeminent journals in the world – there was a paper published by Paul R. Weissman with the title, “The Vega Particulate Shell: Comets or Asteroids?”

If you read the abstract, it states: “The [IRAS] science team has discovered a shell of particulate material around the star Vega. … The Vega shell is probably a ring of cometary bodies … . … A possible hot inner shell around Vega may be an asteroid-like belt of material a few astronomical units [the distance between Earth and the Sun] from the star.”

We didn’t have the internet back then, but based on a Google News archive, at least one newspaper, the Boston Globe, mentioned it in October 1984.

It is true that these are not exactly the same thing. It’s true that the new data are much better 30 years later. But the basic idea is the same: We knew 30 years ago that Vega had a debris disk around it of at least cometary and maybe asteroidal material as well.

Ergo, the press release title is misleading. And, anyone who does a news search who’s looking for when particular things may have been discovered – or at least probably discovered – in science will be mislead … in this case, by 30 years.

Why?

Listening to The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe podcast, I have definitely become somewhat jaded with news reporting. Having had my own press release come out about some of my work last year, I have had my own issues (a simple comma missing in the final copy – removed after I had approved it – completely changed the meaning to make it seem like I was talking about ice volcanoes on Mars).

Given my experience, my best guess is that it’s the press officers’ job to get as much publicity for their subject as possible. And we’re lucky if we get to see the final version before it gets sent out. A press release with the headline, “NASA, ESA Telescopes Re-Find [or Confirm] Stuff Found 30 Years Ago” is not going to stoke public interest.

For a topic closer to my own research, it’s the same case with water on Mars. We had darn good evidence back in the late 1960s and ’70s after the first spacecraft images were returned that there had been large amounts of surface water on Mars in its past. But, every few months it seems, a press release comes out stating that a new study has “discovered” water on Mars (or in Mars, or recently on or in Mars, etc.). It’s become something of a running gag during weekly science discussions.

Final Thoughts

To those who did the original (or previous additional “new discovery”), it’s frustrating they don’t get credit. It’s also somewhat insulting. The new Vega paper in this case doesn’t even cite Weissman’s work.

To be fair, this isn’t a huge issue. It’s not media misreporting something major, it’s just a short memory span. But, to those of us who do research in the field or closely related fields, it’s another example of marketing spin taking precedence over honesty. And for laypeople trying to figure out when something was known or discovered, it makes it seems as though everything was much more recently known than it actually was.

October 18, 2011

The Sad State of Media Reporting and Basic Math

Filed under: media reporting — Stuart Robbins @ 8:22 pm
Tags: , , ,

This is a quickie post. It’s also a minor rant.

This evening, I was reading the 668 headlines that had accumulated in my RSS feeder over the past 10ish hours. I skim over most and click on the 1 out of maybe every 25-50 stories that interest me to then read while eating dinner. (That’s 2-4% of the stories.)

If there are a lot to read at once, such as tonight, I go through each source individually. ABC news is usually first after I check blogs and Apple rumor sites. ABC had a story headlined, “Woman’s $200,000 Cell Bill No Mistake,” and the short summary was, “Florida woman shocked by $200,000 cell phone bill; company agrees to 88 percent discount.” I was minorly interested because I’m sure we all remember reading those stories of people with crazy kids who over-txt or whatever. I clicked. But before clicking, I did the math with a calculator to figure out what she’d still have to pay. 88% discount on $200,000 should mean she pays 12%, or $24,000. That’s still a lot. Click the story and find out she has to pay $2,500. Um, 2500/200000 = 0.0125, or 1.25% of the original bill, meaning the company gave her a 98.75% discount.

I shook my head and scoffed at another bad story from ABC.

Then I got to the Washington Post’s RSS feed and saw the SAME STORY. This time, the headline of their story was ABC’s subheader: “Florida woman shocked by $200,000 cell phone bill; company agrees to 88 percent discount.”

Um … I clicked. Read the exact same story. Came to the bottom and the byline was the Associated Press. Meaning that the AP sent out this story, all these news sources picked up on it and just ran it without thinking, likely without actually reading. The actual original story from a local news station (before AP picked it up) was about how the person contacted their local public help guy who became a consumer advocate on the woman’s behalf. I actually really like those kinds of stories. The original story also had nothing to do with percentages, so it was all the AP who added in that math problem.

Now, I’m okay with some basic, stupid math errors. Likely the person did 2500/200000, saw 0.0125 as the result, and then did mental math of 1-0.125 with the decimal point moved over one. Okay. We all make basic mistakes sometimes. I have an issue when this basic math mistake is repeated over and over again in major news outlets in a story that is 131 words long and takes 30 seconds to read for me, and I’m a slow reader.

As I mentioned back in my post about Dark of the Moon movie, it’s just lazy, and it insults the intelligence of the audience.

September 24, 2011

Follow-Up on the Dino-Killing Asteroid


Introduction

Last night, after making my post “What’s Going on with the Dinosaur-Killing Asteroid?” I contacted the lead author from the original 2007 paper, Bill Bottke (in the interest of full disclosure, I actually collaborate with him and see him about once a week, including yesterday morning).

I asked Bill if he would be willing to glance over the short post and let me know if I got any of the science outrageously wrong. His reply was a bit more than I had expected of a simple “yes” or “no,” where he instead wrote a more elaborate explanation of what was going on. I asked if I could post his response to my blog as an addendum and instead, he sent a more detailed reply for me to post. Since it was somewhat lengthier than the original post, I figured I’d just make a separate one. What follows is Dr. Bottke’s reply, slightly edited for grammar/spelling as he requested.

Note: You should read my original post before reading Dr. Bottke’s response.

Bottke’s Reaction

First of all, this is science, and not every idea is going to work. One has to do the best one can with the available data, and some models do not survive first contact with new observations.

With that said, let me try to realistically assess where we are and where we are not.

From the dynamical end of things, having a smaller parent body and smaller family members means things can get out of the main belt faster than before. If anything, this moves the impact closer to the peak of the impact spike distribution, which is good for our 2007 model. Moreover, many potential impactors can now get out by being injected directly into the “escape hatch” right on top of the family. We did not model direct injection in detail in 2007 because the K/T hit appeared to be made in the tail of the Baptistina shower — those results would not impact our work. Now that things have changed, we can examine this more closely.

Overall, I find it highly suspicious that K/T occurred in the middle of the Baptistina asteroid shower. Asteroid showers are very rare in solar system history, though coincidences do happen in nature. This makes me think the new results could potentially strengthen our story, not weaken it.

A smaller asteroid means there are fewer large projectiles in the Baptsitina population. This hurts our original model. Interestingly, though, new estimates of Ir (iridium) and Os (osmium) associated with K/T that came out after our paper suggest the impactor may have had a diameter 4-6 km, not 10 km, so this may all be a wash. Impact energy is strongly a function of velocity, and impact velocities on Earth can be very high for asteroids, so there is not necessarily a contradiction here. For those that want to know more, see recent papers by Frank Kyte and Paquay et al. (2008) (“Determining Chondritic Impactor Size from the Marine Osmium Isotope Record” in Science).

The main hit to the 2007 story from the recent WISE work is composition. If Baptistina and its family members turn out to be a different asteroid composition than we suggested in our 2007 paper, we cannot link the family to the limited compositional information we have on the K/T impactor. From Cr (chromium) studies of K/T terrains on Earth, it looks like the impactor was a particular kind of carbonaceous chondrite. A high albedo (reflectivity) for Baptistina could suggest it is not actually this composition. Preliminary spectra for Baptistina family members may also work against it being a carbonaceous chondrite, though most of the family has not been examined from a spectral standpoint. Observers have mainly looked at asteroids near Baptistina, not “in it” as defined by our paper, and interlopers in this part of the main belt are a major pain to deal with. What observers need to do is look at the prominent “clouds” of objects observed for the family, where interlopers are less of an issue. This should be dealt with in the near future.

Note that if Baptistina family members turn out to have a radically different composition than carbonaceous chondrite, it would imply we were strongly misled by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey colors for Baptistina. Nearly 300 objects have been examined, and they have been classified as C/X-types of asteroids, which link to most objects as carbonaceous chondrite-like objects (see Parker et al., 2008).

There is also the surprising and unusual possibility that some asteroids that look like carbonaceous chondrites may have higher albedos that we expect. For example, interesting work on (21) Lutetia, which was recently visited by the Rosetta spacecraft, has a high albedo and a composition that many say looks like a carbonaceous chondrite. For those that know and love asteroid taxonomy, K-types asteroids look like they may be able to produce many kinds of carbonaceous chondrites, yet they are spectrally similar in many ways to those asteroids that may produce ordinary chondrites.

Note that even if composition is knocked away, one could question whether Cr is diagnostic, or whether different parts of the asteroid could have different Cr signatures. However, this strikes me as a desperation ploy, and I will do no more than mention it until new information on Cr comes to the fore.

Final Thoughts

With that response from Bill – more technical than I normally have in my blog but I think important for those who are interested – I’ll close out by reminding readers of what he stated at the beginning and what I have stated many times on this blog: This is how science works. We make observations, gather data, create models, make predictions, and in light of the evidence revise our models or make new ones. Contrast that with the way many creationists, conspiracy theorists, UFOlogists, astrologers, etc. work.

September 23, 2011

What’s Going on with the Dinosaur-Killing Asteroid?


Introduction

A NASA press release spawned many, many headlines this week in pretty much all newspapers and online news sites, both major and minor, with variations on the theme of, “The origin of dino-killing rock is back to being a mystery.” If somehow you managed to miss the news, I invite you to read the BBC version, though you could also read the original NASA press release.

So, what’s going on here? Is this another case of the media blowing headlines out their collective … well, mouths? Or is there something to this where we’re no longer sure what may have ended the dinosaurs?

2007 Paper

As may have been obvious from the way I worded the question, the answer is very much the former: Headlines are meant to grab you and to be sensationalist so you’ll read the story. Stretching the story or even missing the point are generally irrelevant.

The actual story goes this way: In 2007, Bill Bottke and two co-authors had a paper in the journal Nature entitled, “An asteroid breakup 160 Myr ago as the probable source of the K/T impactor.” The article was actually much more than that, and an extension from their conclusions was that based upon their modeling, the timing for an asteroid breakup would work dynamically for spawning the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs.

Yes, the asteroid theory for the destruction of the dinosaurs is still valid, it is still by far the best one out there and the one that fits the most data the best. So let’s get that sensationalist headline grabber out of the way.

Again, the crux of the Bottke et al. article was that they dynamically modeled an asteroid family (a group of asteroids that travel together and likely formed from an original, larger asteroid, that broke up). This particular family is called the Baptistina family. Based on an assumed brightness for the asteroids, they can estimate their mass and subsequent sizes. Based on how spread out the family is, they can model when it broke up, and the mass also factors into this calculations. Based on all these, their results show that the Baptistina family formation event could have spawned the asteroid that we pretty much “know” resulted in the destruction of the dinosaurs.

Edited to Add: I have a follow-up post from the author of the 2007 paper, Bill Bottke.

2011 Paper

This brings us to the press release and subsequent hubbub this week. The new paper talks about a lot of things, but what’s most applicable is that they have a better measurement of the brightness of these asteroids, and it’s around a factor of 5 times brighter than what Bottke et al. assumed (based on some of this paper’s teams own assumptions, though it’s likely a more accurate result).

The result is that there is much less mass and smaller sizes of the asteroids in the Baptistina family. Meaning that it disperses more quickly (so would have broken up more recently). And finally meaning that the likelihood that it was the source of the asteroid that led to the death of the dinosaurs is much smaller.

To Repeat

No, this does not mean that an asteroid didn’t wipe them out. It does not mean it was a comet. It does not mean it was aliens. It does not mean it was volcanoes. It does not mean it was the Earth growing in size so the dinosaurs got crushed under their own weight. It does not mean it was [insert: whatever the person you read before coming here invented].

It means that the likelihood that the impactor is from the formation event of this family of asteroids is now significantly smaller.

Final Thoughts

Really, that’s about it. But “Higher reflectivity of asteroid family means scientists less certain of the source of the asteroid that likely killed the dinosaurs” does not a good headline make. Oh well.

Edited to Add: I have a follow-up post from the author of the 2007 paper, Bill Bottke.

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