Exposing PseudoAstronomy

March 26, 2015

Science Conferences (#LPSC2015), Ivory Gates, and Who Gets In


Introduction

On this blog and in my podcast, I talk a lot about pseudoscience. I talk a lot about pseudoscientists. But I don’t think I’ve talked explicitly much about what really separates a pseudoscientist from a real scientist, nor have I talked about basic thresholds for being considered a real scientist.

Last week, I was at the annual Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC), a conference that is the largest planetary science conference in the US, annually drawing over 1500 planetary (non-Earth-studying) scientists and receiving around 2000 abstract submissions.

Among those were at least two that bordered on pseudoscientific. I’m going to be interviewing the program committee chair in an upcoming podcast episode, so I’ll leave a discussion of what happens when they get those kinds of submissions to that interview.

But, in the meantime, I’m going to discuss what happened when one of these persons set up his presentation, in contrast with the standards of the field and conference, to illustrate how one should not behave if they want to be taken seriously by the scientific community.

Who Am I Talking About

In this particular case, I’m talking about John E. Brandenburg, a person whose claims about Mars being host to an intelligent civilization before they got nuked, I discussed in Episode 86 of my podcast. I also discussed his claims in the Feedback portion of Episode 93 and in the New News of Episode 121.

However, I want this blog post to stand on its own. Without any other background information, other than I’ve discussed his claims before, let’s take a look at just what he did at this conference.

Abstracts

Everyone speaking at LPSC is required to submit an abstract. The standard is two pages (which is fairly long for most conferences) that outlines what your work is and what you will be talking about. That way the program committee can decide if you will get a talk or a poster presentation (you don’t always get a talk, so by default you will get a poster) and the order of the session.

To give you an idea of what an abstract looks like, here’s one that I submitted to the most recent LPSC about progress on my work into studying the crater population of Saturn’s satellites. That is the standard template.

John Brandenburg submitted two abstracts, “Evidence for Large, Anomalous Nuclear Explosions on Mars in the Past” and “The NMS (New Mars Synthesis), Recent Data from Gale Crater and NWA 7034: Evidence for a Persistent Biologically Stabilized Greenhouse on Mars.”

So, there you go. I will note that these do not use the standard templates, and the copy-editing isn’t great, but not everything one spits out is going to be gold. There’s also the pet peeve of mine of using Excel for science graphs (see his first abstract), but again, others do it so Dr. Brandenburg hasn’t done anything yet that others don’t do.

Poster Session

LPSC 2015 Poster by John E. Brandenburg

LPSC 2015 Poster by John E. Brandenburg

I don’t know if he requested a talk, but he got a poster. He was scheduled for the first of two poster sessions, which was on Tuesday night. Each night has well over 600 poster presentations, where you set up your poster and then wait twiddling your fingers, hoping that people will at least read it and maybe even talk with you. I went through that for the abstract I linked to of mine, but on Thursday night. You can get an idea of what it looks like if you’re busy from some of the royalty-free images here.

The poster sessions are from 6:00P.M. until 9:00P.M. You are expected to be there the entire time. You are also expected to set up your poster before that time, and most people set up their poster the day before. For example, I set my Thursday poster up on Wednesday just after lunch. (The e-mailed instructions state, “Poster presenters are expected to be present at their poster on their assigned evening.”)

John Brandenburg began to set up his poster at about 7:55P.M. on Tuesday evening. It was a long, very tedious process, where he spent 45 minutes doing so, not completing his set up until 8:40P.M., only 20 minutes before the poster session ended and – to be honest – many people had already left for late-night drinks.

John Brandenburg Setting Up His Poster at LPSC in 2015

John Brandenburg Setting Up His Poster at LPSC in 2015

After he finished setting up, he left for a few minutes to get a beer from the cash bar.

His Poster

Let’s be fair: Not everyone has access to or money to spend on a poster printer. Those are the large-format printers that take paper spanning around 36″–44″ across and can print something of arbitrary length. LPSC allows up to 44″ by 44″.

But, as I said, some people can’t do that. Instead, some will effectively create a talk in presentation software (e.g., PowerPoint or Keynote) and then print that out on standard 8.5″x11″ sheets of paper and tack those up. It doesn’t look great, but it gets the point across.

That was John Brandenburg’s approach.

Among other things, I noted the following in terms of non-standard items:

  • Nothing was referenced. This is important in science for anything that is not new work. Considering he posted many images from other peoples’ papers, this is a big no-no.
  • One slide part showed “the” Face on Mars, another claimed face, and a “pyramid.”

John Brandenburg Highlighting the "Face" on Mars and Pyramids on Mars at LPSC 2015

John Brandenburg Highlighting the “Face” on Mars and Pyramids on Mars at LPSC 2015

Okay, so really two, but that first one (referencing) is a big issue for science if you want to be taken seriously and not tick people off (and came up when I engaged him — more on that later). And the second one, well, ditto.

The “Face” came up once, when I was eavesdropping on him talking with someone else: John was explaining blast site antipodes (the opposite point on the planet to some feature or event) and he then pointed to those photos and remarked, “And that’s to remind you of what’s there;” he added a knowing nod when saying that. The implication’s obvious, but he seemed unwilling to say it out loud, potentially for fear of seeming even crazier.

Rubber-Necking

Different people do poster sessions in different ways, but most people tend to walk through the aisles of posters and slowly skim over titles, perhaps pausing on one that seems interesting, maybe lingering a bit to read it, before moving on. Unless they are really interested, in which case they’ll stay and ask questions or generally engage the presenter, if the presenter is there.

While Dr. Brandenburg was getting his beer, I saw a few people walk by and effectively rubber-neck. I also saw their eyes go wide and then move on.

If They Don’t Come to You, Go to Them

I will admit at this point that I hid my name badge. There was a non-zero chance that Dr. Brandenburg would recognize my name based on my blog and podcast and e-mail exchanges we had. I didn’t want that to come up, I wanted to observe what happened without him knowing that a “skeptic” who had criticized his work before was there watching.

What I saw was that after Dr. Brandenburg came back with his beer, he waited a minute or two and then approached the two people standing across from him who were at their own posters. The friends I was with told me I should’ve written it down, and I wish I had, but what I remember from an hour later when I wrote down my notes was that he said, almost exactly: “It must be tough facing [or “being opposite?”] all this for the whole night.”  I really wish I had written it down then because this could be seen as really creepy – especially since at least one of those two people was a woman – though he really was referring to the posters he just put up and not something else.

For the next roughly 15 minutes (since that was all that was left of the poster session), when passers by would not engage him, he engaged people at surrounding posters, asking them about their work. That is reasonably fair, though a bit unconventional: The goal is to get people to come to your poster and talk about your work, especially when you only have 15 minutes left.

John Brandenburg's Discussion at LPSC 2015 that Mars was Nuked

John Brandenburg’s Discussion at LPSC 2015 that Mars was Nuked

One of the people he engaged was a friend of mine at her poster. I took the opportunity to slip around and take some photographs of his “poster” for future use, such as in this blog post. When I asked my friend later about what he talked about, she stated that he seemed surprised about some of her findings and remarked that it was, well, surprising. Unfazed, she told him “no” that it wasn’t surprising, most of the stuff she found was common and expected. It was another part that was surprising that she hadn’t yet mentioned to him.

This is not in itself a big issue: I have no idea what she’s doing. It’s not my field. But, it is very related to what Dr. Brandenburg claims his field is, and related to his second abstract. So this actually is a big issue: He tried to “talk the talk,” and he failed. He demonstrated ignorance of field that he should know if he’s talking about a very closely related one on his “poster.”

My friend also said that John seemed drunk, but she wasn’t sure if that was his personality. That did not surprise me. I wrote in a forum after listening to his interview on “Dark City” from February 2015: “Affect: For some reason, I find his constant laughs very off putting. I don’t know why. It has nothing to do with his arguments, but it makes it sound like he doesn’t take this seriously. I hear this in all of his interviews.”

Another commenter on the forum stated, in response: “I’d read the comment about his laughter before I listened to the show so was “analyzing” it as it occurred. It happened more frequently and for longer periods as the show continued. In my professional opinion, I think he started the interview with a 6 pack in front of him. By last call at the end of the show, he sounded like a someone who was regretfully set to go home after spending a few hours telling his ideas to the guy next to him at the bar.”

You, the reader might consider this gratuitous. Perhaps. but, it added to the general gestalt of Dr. Brandenburg’s presentation and interactions, and it adds to the general group of things not to do if you want to be taken seriously by the scientific community. I’ve seen people drunk at LPSC. I have never seen someone drunk who is presenting. I’m also not saying Dr. Brandenburg was drunk, rather it was the impression a few of us had, and a few of us who have listened to his various interviews have had.

Enter the Dragon’s Lair

I finally gave in while he was talking with some other people at his “posters” and joined them. He made his case, and the people seemed unconvinced.  At the end, the guy asked for a photo of his poster and John was happy to oblige and offered to be in it, too. From my perspective, I figured this was going in the “Crazy Times at LPSC” album, but of course my own views color that assumption.

John Brandenburg Claims Trinitie Is Wide-Spread on Mars, Using Unreferenced Figure that Only Shows Volcanic Glass

John Brandenburg Claims Trinitie Is Wide-Spread on Mars, Using Unreferenced Figure that Only Shows Volcanic Glass

The only engagement I gave was when John Brandenburg mentioned trinitite. I was prepared for that. It’s a recent addition to his claimed evidence for a nuclear blast on Mars, for trinitite “is the glassy residue left on the desert floor after the plutonium-based Trinity nuclear bomb test on July 16, 1945, near Alamogordo, New Mexico.” In other words, we’ve only seen it on Earth as a result from a nuclear blast. If we see it on Mars, that’d be interesting evidence for a nuclear blast, though we’d still need to do work to determine if there’s any other way to make it. That’s how science works.

I was prepared for the trinitite claim because in that recent interview on “Dark City,” he said that he had found it on Mars. So, when he brought it up from his “poster,” he presented a map showing it was all over the northern hemisphere of Mars near the north polar layered deposits. I jumped on that and asked what his source was.  He responded by reiterating what trinitite is (and that it’s only found at nuclear blast sites), and I told him no, I wanted to know what detected it and how.  He stuttered and didn’t remember but said it’s in his abstract — this is one reason why I said it’s important to provide references on your poster. Not only did that effectively stop the conversation because I couldn’t ask further, but it also allowed him to punt it back to the abstract and avoid questions.

The issue for me going into this was that trinitite is a very specific kind of glass, and it’s nearly impossible to pick up from orbit with the instruments we have around Mars today. First, the spectral signature of trinitite is very close to glass, so I would want to see how the researchers would have differentiated between them with orbiting probes. Second, if there had been trinitite discovered (and I did my homework and could not find any papers that mentioned Mars and trinitite), I would think I would be able to find it. Because, well, it’s only found on Earth near nuclear blast sites, so one would think it’d get a big press release.

After the poster session, I looked up his abstract and I found the reference. It’s a paper in “Geology” by Horgan and Bell from 2012, though he cited it as being from 2014 (as I said, sloppy abstracts).  The abstract of this paper is inconsistent with what Dr. Brandenburg says it says. Specifically, he claims (but the paper says otherwise) that the glass is only found there on Mars (they say it’s likely widespread), the glass is solid hunks of glass (versus just glass mixed into the regolith like we see all over Earth in volcanoes), and that it’s acid-etched glass and therefore trinitite (they say it’s iron-bearing glass and silica-enriched leached rinds on glass). So, his smoking gun has a common, mundane explanation. You don’t need a crazy explanation for a mundane (yet still new — not to belittle the authors’ work) observation when the mundane explanation will work (that it’s just volcanic glass that we see everywhere on Earth).

In a bit of fairness, John did say (direct quote) when introducing the claim of trinitite: “They” think it’s volcanic glass, “perfectly reasonable.  But, it also looks like trinitite.”

Closing

Over the last two years, LPSC has been a little trigger-happy about shutting down the poster session at 9:00 sharp. I remember being in there at my poster talking with people well past 9:30 before, but only in past years. This year, at 9:02, a volunteer told him he needed to take down his poster or they were going to take down everything that was left up.

In fairness to the volunteer, this was also in the instructions to presenters that was e-mailed out, that if posters were left after the end of the poster session, they would be “discarded.”

John responded, “What would you DO with it if you took it down?!”

He may have just been trying to be funny, but that capped off the encounter for me in terms of not following the instructions and seeming to think he’s special.

Hallmarks of a Pseudoscientist

John Brandenburg's LPSC 2015 Poster, Bastardizing Martian Chronology

John Brandenburg’s LPSC 2015 Poster, Bastardizing Martian Chronology

In his e-mails to me, John Brandenburg has clearly implied that he wants to and thinks he should be taken seriously. In those e-mail exchanges, however, he has failed to back up the majority of his claims, and he has failed to put together a cogent, cohesive story that does not conflict with well established other things (such as Martian chronology).

What I observed was more of the same at LPSC, and this illustrates a general failure to adhere to the standards of how a scientist should not only behave and present their information, but also present themselves.

As a short listed recap:

  • Arrival with an hour left in the poster session, way too long to set up, and only 15 minutes after getting a beer to present his work.
  • Drunk affect, if not actually drunk when you are supposed to be presenting.
  • Presenting known pseudoscience in an attempt to bolster your science claims (face and pyramids on Mars — sorry conspiracists reading this blog, it is: see here, here, here, or here).
  • Failure to demonstrate knowledge of the field you’re talking about.
  • Failure to reference others’ work you are using, especially when copying their images.
  • Making unsubstantiated other claims that are used in support of your claim, especially when your side-claim flies in the face of the generally accepted state of the field.

Final Thoughts

This has been a long post, but I hope that it gives you some insight into what (not) to do if you are going to be taken seriously at a scientific conference. Scientists really are open minded about new ideas (again, I know most people who aren’t skeptics or scientists reading this blog are going to think I’m crazy to say that, but we really are).

We scientists just demand better evidence than the average person because we know how easy it is to be fooled, how easy it is to let our own biases get in the way, and we know that the new ideas have to not only explain the observations better than the previous ideas but also have to mesh with everything else that may seem unrelated but still would be affected by that new idea. And write long, run-on sentences.

But, while we’re open to new ideas, we also have certain standards. And, we expect you to play by the same rules that we do.

John E. Brandenburg does not and he did not do that at LPSC last week.

I don’t know what will happen if he submits abstracts to LPSC next year, but I hope that the program committee takes note of how he behaved this year and will use that to make an informed decision next year. He now has a documented case (here) of abusing the privilege of presenting at a scientific conference.

And you, the reader, can see what that abuse is like. While these conferences are not meant to be gates closed to everyone but those “in the club,” they are still a privilege that one is granted to attend, it is not a right.

March 22, 2015

Should NASA Fund Old Missions In Operation, or New Missions in Development?


Introduction

This was my seventh post to the JREF’s Swift blog, published last week. I wrote it while I was at the annual Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC) and was reading the news and listening to the (perpetual) budget issues at NASA.

The Post

Last week, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden testified before the Senate Subcommittee responsible for NASA’s budget. In response to questions about the funding of Mars rover missions, The Planetary Society blog reported that Bolden stated the following:

“We cannot continue to operate instruments and missions whose time has passed, because I won’t be able to put something like InSight on Mars in 2016 … I have to make choices.”

This is an interesting statement and sentiment, and it’s one that I’ve wrestled with myself for several years. The question really boils down to this: Should NASA continue to fund proven missions well past their design lifetime that are still successfully operating, or should they “pull the plug” and move the funding (that they never originally budgeted for in the first place) to some other project, one that uses technology a decade newer? And, to make it more relevant to the JREF, if funding is pulled, will it spark a new conspiracy?

The context of this particular mission is that the Mars Exploration Rovers were twins – Spirit and Opportunity – with nominal lifetimes of 90 days. They landed on Mars a decade ago. Spirit died a few years ago, Opportunity is still functional and returning science information. It has gone through several extended missions, meaning that the money was never originally budgeted to pay for operations (mission control, planning, time on the deep space networks, and of course the scientists). Meaning that the money to fund them now eats into other previously planned programs.

Because the MERs landed on Mars a decade ago, the technology in them is at least a decade and a half old. Think about it: That was before the iPod, before most people had multi-CPU computers, and still well before digital cameras were mainstream. Contrast that with what one has available now to build a new mission, and you start to see some of the issues.

On the one hand, you have a still-operating mission. It’s there. On Mars. Still returning usable data. The cost to build it and launch it and make sure everything is working right is done, paid for, and will never have to be paid for again.

But, on the other hand, the money to keep it going prevents new missions, with better technology, with a new and different goal, from even getting off the ground and having the potential to do new science.

It’s easy to say, “Well, just increase NASA’s budget!” Easy to say, not so easy to get Congress to do. Delays and cost over-runs in both the James Webb Space Telescope and the Mars Curiosity rover both were not made up by Congress and so ate into other parts of the budget, such as basic scientific research funding (what I rely on to put food on the table).

If NASA were to simply “turn off” MER Opportunity, it would not be the first still-functional mission that NASA has effectively killed. There are several in recent times, but perhaps most interesting to me is the Apollo seismic network. The Apollo astronauts on later missions installed and activated seismic stations on the lunar surface to detect moonquakes. No, there are no buildings on the moon that we needed to warn, but rather whenever there was a quake – from something impacting to tides between it and Earth and the sun – the stations would pick it up and scientists on Earth would be able to use the data to slowly build up a picture of the interior of our nearest celestial neighbor. It’s a little like the way an ultrasound works, and it’s earthquake data on our own planet that lets us know about the interior structure of Earth.

When NASA ran out of funding for it after a few years after the Apollo program ended, they shut down the network, despite the fact that it was still returning good, usable data, and with each new quake we learned a little more about the structure of the moon’s interior. A consequence of this – besides a loss to basic scientific research – is that conspiracies about NASA finding the moon is hollow have become widespread among the astronomical pseudoscientific world. The thinking goes that they found it “rang like a bell” (which had more to do with the loosely packed surface material) and therefore either shut down the network so we wouldn’t know it was hollow, or they kept the network going but in secret.

Anyway, that bit of conspiracy aside, this really is a serious issue and serious question of where our monetary priorities should be. Assuming NASA’s budget is static and will not be changed to keep these long-lived missions operational, then what should a good administrator do? Should they keep the proven mission going? Or should they kill it and fund the new mission? Or, should they fund both and pull money from other parts of the budget, like education, or human spaceflight, or basic research?

I have my own opinion on this, but I’ll keep it to myself. I just know I wouldn’t want to be in Charley Bolden’s shoes when he makes that decision and has to not only answer to Congress, but to many scientists who will see their budgets cut, yet again.

Letter to the Editor

After the above post, I got an e-mail:

Stuart, what about the possibility of (for future missions, it’s probably too late to do something like this for Opportunity) turning operations for “expired but still viable” missions over to amateur (or private professional) research groups. After the official funded mission is over, could a bid process be set up to allow such groups (which would have their own private funding) to take over the control, data collection, and analysis from such “defunct” missions? Such a handoff would free NASA’s budget for contemporary / future missions, and also give other groups access to hardware / settings (Mars, for example) that their budgets would certainly not allow for. What are your thoughts in this regard?

Here was my response:

While this seems like a great idea on its face, you run into a lot of legal issues. In particular, ITAR-restricted information. That would put a stop to your scenario right away.

Beyond that, there are broader questions of how open the information would be once the data are gathered by an independent, private company. Though, one could of course argue that the company paid for it, therefore they should have the right to own it.

There are also some communications issues. The Deep Space Network is the only set of antennas that can record signals as faint as those sent by interplanetary craft. That’s a public (inter-governmental) group, so if the DSN brings down the data, are there licensing issues? I don’t know the answer to that, but it strikes me as a potential question.

Finally, you have “parts” of spacecraft that are still important and NASA (or other governments) still use even if they can’t fund all the other “parts.” For example, while MAVEN (around Mars now) has a suite of instruments for studding the atmosphere, they are only funded for one Earth year and must submit an extended mission request to operate beyond that. But even if that request is denied, the craft itself will still be kept active and act as a communications relay. It’s just that the science instruments won’t be collecting and transmitting data, and there won’t be money for scientists to analyze it.

It’s a very … perhaps “annoying” and “frustrating” … situation to be in, but unfortunately the solution isn’t as simple as just selling the craft to someone else.

March 14, 2015

Podcast Episode 128: The Saga of Comet Hale-Bopp and its Fugacious Companion, Part 2


Great Comet Hale-Bopp,
Part 2: On remote viewing
The comet’s partner.

Second in the three-part series: The saga of the great and powerful Comet Hale-Bopp and the conspiracy, mystery, intrigue, lies, schemes, hoaxes, and suicides that accompanied it. The idea came when I started listening to a new Art Bell set of interviews that I had obtained, and I realized early in the episode (November 14, 1996) that I was listening to THE interview that started the whole thing. I found another dozen or so interviews and decided to make an episode out of it that has blossomed into three episodes.

The three episodes are meant to be stand-alone in that they don’t need the others to be understandable. But, put them together and they tell the story in a lot more depth. This second part is about one of the primary drivers behind the Hale-Bopp companion, Courtney Brown, and his remote viewing claims. While he provided the hoaxed photographs to Art Bell and Whitley Strieber (per Part 1), he claimed that all of his evidence for the companion was “good data” and based on remote viewing.

Part 3 will be on the Heaven’s Gate cult and aftermath and continued conspiracy, including a brief entry by Richard Hoagland.

I have decided that, while I may do my interview with Dave Draper on potentially pseudoscientific conference abstracts before Parts 2 or 3 are finished, I will wait to put it out, such that Parts 1-3 will be back-to-back-to-back.

While there was one logical fallacy in the episode (argument from authority), I instead used the segment to discuss part of the skeptical toolkit: The BS Meter. And, what should trigger it and what you should do about it. The bottom-line is that you should question any claim that sets off your BS meter, and even when something seems innocuous and small and not even part of what could have led to the anomalous result, you should still check it.

And, finally, I plan to do a small tribute to Leonard Nimoy, no earlier than April 1. The tribute will be from you: If he or any of his characters affected you (especially as perhaps related to an interest in science or astronomy or critical thinking), please send in a few sentences. Or, record no more than 30—60 seconds and send the file to me. I will read/play them either on episode 130 or 131.

Finally, this episode is coming out a bit early because I’m leaving for a week for a planetary science conference and won’t be able to do much of anything else while I’m there.

March 2, 2015

Podcast Episode 127: The Saga of Comet Hale-Bopp and its Fugacious Companion, Part 1


Great Comet Hale-Bopp,
Part 1: On the claimed photos
Of your companion.

I’ve been working on this episode for awhile: The saga of the great and powerful Comet Hale-Bopp and the conspiracy, mystery, intrigue, lies, schemes, hoaxes, and suicides that accompanied it. The idea came when I started listening to a new Art Bell set of interviews that I had obtained, and I realized early in the episode (November 14, 1996) that I was listening to THE interview that started the whole thing. I found another dozen or so interviews and decided to make an episode out of it. About three months and over 10,000 words of notes and transcripts later, this is the release of Part 1 of what will be a three-part series on Hale-Bopp.

The three episodes are meant to be stand-alone in that they don’t need the others to be understandable. But, put them together and they tell the story in a lot more depth. This first part is about the image – the “hard science” – claims about the companion. Next one will be on the remote viewing claims and aftermath, and the third will be on the Heaven’s Gate cult and aftermath and continued conspiracy, including a brief entry by Richard Hoagland.

I have decided that, while I may do my interview with Dave Draper on potentially pseudoscientific conference abstracts before Parts 2 or 3 are finished, I will wait to put it out, such that Parts 1-3 will be back-to-back-to-back.

There were two logical fallacies pointed out in this episode: Argument against authority, and correlation ≠ causation (cum hoc ergo propter hoc).

And, finally, I plan to do a small tribute to Leonard Nimoy, no earlier than April 1. The tribute will be from you: If he or any of his characters affected you (especially as perhaps related to an interest in science or astronomy or critical thinking), please send in a few sentences. Or, record no more than 30—60 seconds and send the file to me. I will read/play them either on episode 129, 130, or 131.

February 1, 2015

Podcast Episode 125: The Black Hole Conspiracy


Black holes: Are these dense,
Massive objects for realz, or
Are they just Sci Fi?

This is a bit different from a straight-up old-school “debunking” episode where the emphasis is more on the process of science and process of elimination rather than solid, cannot-be-dismissed evidence for something. That’s because, by definition (we think), black holes cannot be directly observed. That’s why I use a part of a blog post by Mike Bara as a very rough outline to go through some of the theoretical reasons for why we think black holes exist and then some of the observational evidence from material interacting with the theoretical objects.

This episode continues the Logical Fallacies segment and introduces you to the Burden of Proof fallacy. Which is a tricky one. There are also some old stalwarts like Argument from incredulity, argument from ridicule, ad hominem, straw man, and argument from authority.

And, for the first time in what seems like a year, there’s Q&A!!!

I’m still doing my listening “research” for the Hale-Bopp episodes, which is looking like there’s so much material that I may turn it into a three-parter. We’ll see. Hard to say at this point. It’s slated to be the next episode, but I may have to postpone that if I haven’t finished listening in time, and I’ll do a different episode instead. I’m also trying to line up at least two future interviews, but given past experience, I’m loathe to announce them before they’re recorded.

January 8, 2015

A Follow-Up on the Boyd Bushman Alien Video Claims: The Debunkings Are Part of the Conspiracy


I’m doing these out of order, so my fifth post for the JREF’s Swift blog, which went up on December 31, 2014, was a follow-up to the Boyd Bushman affair. Before I recite the post below, I’d like to point out that when Sharon on Doubtful News posted this to her blog (since she’s the editor of Swift), it became the most-viewed Doubtful News post of the year. Not bad!

Ahem …

My first post for the JREF Swift blog dealt with the apparent deathbed confessions of Boyd Bushman, in which the alleged senior scientist for Lockheed Martin made vast claims about flying saucers, aliens, and other related topics. That post focused on why I find deathbed confessions, in general, to be unconvincing.

The Bushman story got a lot of press in the weeks that followed, and it was trumpeted on many websites and blogs as well as radio shows. One of them was an interview of David Sereda, conducted by George Noory on November 2, 2014, on the late-night paranormal radio program Coast to Coast AM (C2C).

C2C currently describes Mr. Sereda on their website as a “scientist, filmmaker, and spiritual explorer.” Mr. Sereda could best be categorized as a “new age” person, and if you are interested in some of his claims, I invite you to look towards the two episodes of my podcast that I devoted to his ideas (part 1, part 2). Suffice to say, he makes a lot of paranormal claims, but his evidence for them is severely lacking. Perhaps it’s because he claims that people – including himself – only use 5% of their brain.

Subtle digs and background information aside, Mr. Sereda had a different take on the Bushman story. Mr. Sereda claimed to have met Bushman many times and that he interviewed him in 2007 for a documentary (that Mr. Sereda has yet to release).

Besides background information into the scientist (which goes against some claims that the Boyd Bushman shown in the “confessions” was not the “real” Bushman who worked at Lockheed Martin), Mr. Sereda had a different take on the claimed photos of the aliens that Bushman presented. Specifically in the recordings, Bushman showed photographs that he claimed were of aliens. The internet quickly erupted with photos of identical “aliens;” too bad they were plastic dolls.

And so, that claim at least appeared to be debunked. And, if he’s showing photos of plastic dolls and claiming they are real, it does cast a bad light on the rest of Bushman’s claims. (Even though we should, if we were to be 100% fair, evaluate each individual claim in isolation.)

But, Mr. Sereda had an answer to this: The dolls were made by disinformation people. To quote from the C2C description of the evening’s show:

“Bushman alleged he had true photographs of the preserved alien from Roswell, and Sereda concluded there was possibly some authenticity to his claims, as the face in the Bushman photo contained unique irregularities, while the knock-off dolls, sold at places like K-mart, could have been part of a smear or disinformation campaign to discredit the actual photo. Further, Sereda suggested that the alien body was likely preserved with chemicals and plastics, creating the effect of the darkened eyes and rings around them, as fluid was lost from the body.”

That’s right. Way back in the day after the aliens were brought to Area 51 (or, actually, the real Area 51 in Write Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio), the Men in Black anticipated that someone would leak photos of the aliens. That over the next several decades, a vast “disclosure” network would grow and find these photos and present them as evidence of aliens landing. But, to counteract that effort by the not-yet-created disclosure movement, the Men in Black decided that the best way to confuse the issue would be to create dolls of the real aliens. And, they chose plastic not because it was cheap, but because the preservation method used at the time on the aliens rendered a plastic-like appearance (or maybe it was a happy coincidence). That way, when the real alien photos were leaked, the silly debunkers would point to the dolls and say that the real alien photos are just photos of dolls. (cue evil laughter)

I kid you not.

Thus goes the conspiracy mindset, and it’s something that I think I first heard from Dr. Steve Novella: Once you get deep enough and invested enough in the conspiracy, nothing can persuade you that you are wrong. All evidence for the conspiracy is of course evidence for the conspiracy. But, all evidence against the conspiracy was planted by disinformation agents, and therefore it, too, is evidence for the conspiracy.

December 16, 2014

Podcast Episode 122: Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko and Rosetta Conspiracies


Conspiracies of
Comet 67P …
Few, but they are weird.

A timely and listener-requested episode! What’s not to love!? In the episode I talk about several of the conspiracies I’ve seen surrounding the Rosetta mission and Comet 67P. From artificiality (Hoagland makes a guest appearance) to singing so as to raise our consciousness to angelic levels when 2012 failed, I spend nearly a half hour going through 2 to 4 claims (depending on how you count them) that have been making the rounds. I also get to touch on image analysis.

There is also one New News segment this episode, and it refers to the death of the Venus Express mission around (oddly enough) Venus. The news relates to the episodes on uncertainty. Not sure what the connection is? Listen to the episode! The episode also comes in at just over 30 minutes, my target length.

November 14, 2014

The Good and Bad of NASA Publishing Spacecraft Images Online


This was my second blog post for Swift, published late last week:

You wouldn’t know it by listening to many conspiracy theorists, but NASA is by far the most open space agency in the world when it comes to publishing data from spacecraft. By law, the teams that built and run the instruments on these missions must publish their data within six months of it being taken, except in rare cases when an additional six-month extension can be granted.

Contrast that with the Chinese and Indian space agencies, which still haven’t openly published data from missions that completed several years ago. Japan is better, as is the European Space Agency (ESA), but neither of them supply data as readily and easily as NASA.

In addition to the rules for depositing the raw, unprocessed data, NASA’s PR department, along with the PR arms of most missions, publish some of the data online almost as soon as it’s taken. This is great for the public; it’s also terrible for skeptics.

Allow me to explain by way of example: The LCROSS mission. This was the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite that infamously sparked conspiracies that NASA was “bombing” the moon. The mission was to launch a projectile at the lunar south pole where there are permanently shadowed regions, and have the spacecraft fly through the plume formed by the projectile’s impact to try to detect water. If water were found, it would be a boon for crewed missions to the moon because astronauts could mine the water there instead of bringing their own.

The big event took place the night (in the US) of October 9, 2009. Within just a few days, photographs taken by the spacecraft were published by NASA online.

This was really good for the public. We got to see early results of what had been a very hyped event with observing parties taking place across the nation, including at the White House. It helped keep public interest longer than just one evening. It shared data with the people who paid for it: taxpayers.

LCROSS Landing Site

LCROSS Landing Site

So what’s the problem? These images show several things: The most basic of photographic processing without things like dust on the camera removed (which is always done for science images), color (the camera was black-and-white, so the color is completely an artifact of the press release image), brightness enhanced a lot such that most of the surface is white, and the PR release image is a JPG file format, meaning that there are JPG compression artifacts that manifest as blocky blobs.

For most of us, that doesn’t matter. We get the point that this is showing a bright glow caused by the impact of the spacecraft’s projectile. In NASA’s before shots, that bright glow is not present. A tiny flash of light that the world was watching for, with tens of thousands of people across the night side of the Earth staring upwards. (Unfortunately, it was cloudy where I was.)

Pseudscientists, on the other hand, don’t get that. There exists a large group of space anomalists that look for anything in a space photograph that they don’t immediately understand and use that to claim fill-in-the-blank. One of the most prolifically published modern people who practice this is Richard C. Hoagland. He took the NASA press release, increased the brightness even more, and claimed that the rectilinear, colored structures, were in reality infrastructure (tubes and pipes) by the “secret space program” and that the public space program had bombed them because the folks at NASA had finally found out about the secret bases on the Moon.

NASA Image PIA10214 with a Close-Up of "BigFoot"

NASA Image PIA10214 with a Close-Up of “BigFoot”

This will seem absurd to most people. But not to some. And, this is just one example; innumerable others exist. Every image published online in the easy-to-access public websites of the Mars rovers are poured over by anomaly hunters in the same way. Among other things, they search for rocks that are then said to look like apartment complexes, fossils, Bigfoot, all kinds of terrestrial and aqueous animal life, boots, a pump, and very recently, a water shut-off valve (to just name a few). Most of these are basic examples of pareidolia (creating a pattern in otherwise random data), or imprints actually caused by the rover equipment, but these are usually facilitated by the low-resolution and highly compressed JPG image format.

Do I think that NASA should stop being so open? No. I think that people are always going to find ways to find anomalies in images and claim it means something special. It’s the nature of the phenomenon, and pseudoscientists are always going to find something anomalous with something. And, the moment that NASA starts to restrict access to data, claims of censorship and hiding things will become even louder than they currently are.

I’m part of the planning team for the New Horizons mission that will reach Pluto in July of 2015. When the PI (Principle Investigator) of the mission, Alan Stern, announced that some of the data would be released on the web as low-resolution JPG images as soon as we get them, I have to admit I cringed just a little bit. And I felt bad for doing it. Dr. Stern has the absolute best of intentions, and he wants to keep people interested in the mission and share the data and let people see results from what is probably a once-in-a-lifetime mission, especially since the data downlink to Earth is going to be done over several weeks (due to the craft’s vast distance from Earth).

But, he will be making it very easy for anomaly hunters to find anomalies made by an intelligence — just not understanding that that intelligence was the software that produced the image.

Going forward, I don’t think there’s any good solution. But, this is something the skeptical community should be aware of, and it shows that there’s always a downside to things, even when you think there isn’t.

November 3, 2014

Podcast Episode 119: The Norway Spiral


The Norway Spiral
Is now a catch-all for lots
Of diff’rent ideas.

The long-expected but -delayed Norway Spiral episode is out. It has a little bit for everyone, nearly 5 minutes of Richard Hoagland, and I leave you to make up your own mind in the end.

October 29, 2014

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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