Exposing PseudoAstronomy

April 23, 2015

How Do We Know How Old Stuff Is on the Moon?


Introduction

While this movie is branded under “Exposing PseudoAstronomy” for legal reasons, it has less to do with popular misconceptions/conspiracies/hoaxes and more to do with real science. This is my third more modern, lots of CGI movie, and my second to explain a research paper that I wrote.

In the movie, I go through how the lunar crater chronology is the fundamental basis for how we estimate the ages of surface events across the solar system. I also explain how my work affects the lunar crater chronology and what can be done to better constrain it.

I’m still waiting for a young-Earth creationist to claim that because of a factor of 2 uncertainty, 4.5 billion becomes 6.019 thousand.

I also wrote a blog post about this for The Planetary Society. Because it was posted there over two weeks ago, I think it’s fair game to repost here. You can click on any of the images for larger versions, and all of them are screenshots from the YouTube movie.

Planetary Society Blog Post

Three years ago, I started a project to replicate work done by various groups in the 1970s and 1980s. When the project was completed, the result implied that much of what we think we know about when events happened in the solar system were wrong, needing to be shifted by up to 1 billion years. I presented this in a talk at the recent Lunar and Planetary Science Conference at 8:30 AM, when most people were learning about the latest results from Ceres.

The project started simply enough: I downloaded some of the amazing images taken by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter’s Wide-Angle Camera (WAC) that showed the Apollo and Luna landing sites. Then, I identified and measured the craters (my dissertation work included creating a massive global crater database of Mars, numbering about 640,000 craters).

The reason to do this is that craters are the only proxy we have for ages on solid surfaces in the solar system. We can determine the relative age of one surface to another (is it older or younger?) by looking at which has more craters: The surface with more craters will be older because, when you assume that craters will form randomly across the body, then the surface with more craters has had more time to accumulate them.

How to Use Craters to Understand Ages

Basic principle behind this work. (Background image © NASA/ASU; composite © S.J. Robbins.)

If we want to use craters for an absolute timeline – as in, actually put numbers on it – then we need some way to tie it to real ages. This was made possible only by the United States’ Apollo and the USSR’s Luna missions that returned rocks from the moon that could be radiometrically dated in labs on Earth.

With these radiometric ages, we then identify the craters on the surface those rocks were gathered and say that a surface with that many craters per unit area is that old.

That’s the lunar crater chronology: The spatial density of craters larger than a standard size versus radiometric age (we use 1 km as that standard size). This crater chronology is then scaled and used as a basis for the chronology across the rest of the solar system. When you hear someone say that something on the surface of Mars is X number of years old, chances are that’s based on the lunar samples from the 1960s and 70s and the crater counting done 40 years ago.

Apollo 15 Landing Site

Example landing site area, Apollo 15 (yellow star). Blue outlined areas indicate regions on which craters were identified, blue shaded areas were removed because they are a different type of impact crater, and blue circles are the craters mapped and measured. (Background image © NASA/ASU; data and composite © S.J. Robbins.)

And, that’s where my project came in. While the rock samples have continued to be analyzed over the decades, the craters were not. It’s easy to assume that the researchers back then did a great job, but by the same token, science is about replication and re-testing and we have developed new ways of doing things in the crater community since the Apollo era. A simple example is that the crater chronology requires a spatial density, and therefore you need to know the area of the surface on which you have identified craters. Over the past 40 years, we have better understood the shape of the moon and now have computers to allow for much more precise area calculations. This can result in changes by 10s of percent in some cases.

When I had finished my reanalysis, my results differed for many of the landing sites, in some cases by a factor of 2 from what the standard is in the field. I was surprised. I checked my work and couldn’t find any mistakes. So, I combed through the literature and looked to see what other people had published. I ended up finding a range of values, and only in one case was my result at the extreme low or high of all the published results. I showed my work to colleagues and none of them could find any issue with it. So, eventually I published it, early last year.

The Lunar Crater Chronologies

The new (blue) and old (red) chronologies and the data used to fit the model. The vertical axis shows the spatial density of impact craters larger than or equal to 1 km in diameter, and the horizontal axis shows the age of the surface from radiometric dating of collected rock samples. (© S.J. Robbins)

When I fit my crater data to the radiometric ages, my fit function showed a difference with the standard that has been used for three decades: Surfaces assigned a model age of about 3.5 to 3.7 billion years under the old chronology were older, by up to 200 million years. And, surfaces younger than about 3.4 billion years under the old chronology are younger, by up to about 1 billion years.

Differences Between the Lunar Crater Chronologies

The new and old chronologies in blue and red (top), and the difference between them in terms of model surface age. (© S.J. Robbins)

There are a lot of implications for this. One is that volcanism on the terrestrial planets may have extended to more recent times. This would imply that the planets’ cores stayed warmer longer. Another implication is that the large reservoirs of water thought to exist around 3 billion years ago may have existed for another 500 million years, with implications then for favorable environments for life.

But, something that I added near the end of my LPSC talk was the question, “Am I right?” The answer is an unsatisfying, “I don’t know.” I of course would not have published it if I thought I was wrong. But by the same token, this type of science is not about one person being right and another being wrong. It’s about developing a model to fit the data and for that model to be successively improved as it gets incrementally closer to explaining reality.

And, there are ways to improve the lunar chronology. One that I’m a big advocate of is more lunar exploration: We need more data, more samples gathered from known locations on the moon’s surface. We can then date those samples – either in situ or in labs on Earth – and along with crater measurements add more tie points to the lunar crater chronology function. Right now, there is a glaring gap in the sample collection, one that spans 2 to 3 billion years of lunar history. A single point in there could help differentiate between my model and the classic model. And more data would be even better.

Until we land robotic missions to send back samples from other planets or that can date samples there, the moon is still our key to ages across the solar system.

February 25, 2015

Why Do Young-Earth Creationists Even Try to Pretend at Science?


There are a few main young-Earth (Christian) creationism organizations in the world that rise to the top in terms of reach and output and attempt to use science to justify their beliefs. Among those I would name three: Answers in Genesis (US-based, headed by Ken Ham), Institute for Creation Research (US-based, founded by Duane Gish), and Australia-based Creation Ministries International (which I think was also founded by Ken Ham, but AiG and CMI severed ties several years ago, fairly acrimoniously).

Over the past eight years, I have dealt with articles by all three, and other. In fact, my early posts mostly consisted of ripping through YEC claims. That’s mostly fallen by the wayside as posts have (regrettably) decreased over the years as I became more and more busy with work, but occasionally I’ll still see something that I want to comment on.

But more on that momentarily.

What these Big Three do, among other things, is attempt to do science and/or report on science. They’ve realized that as each new scientific discovery has borne out that contradicts their sacred tome, more and more people will leave their strict, literal interpretation of their religious writings.

Ergo, they have to try to show that science somehow supports something that they’ve said and believe.

I’ve also done numerous posts on this blog about the scientific process and why – to be a good scientist – you must also be a skeptic: You must find a way to remove your own bias(es) from the experiment. You must be able to objectively look at the data and also try to disprove what you want to think is the case in order to see if the data are ambiguous or really do exclusively support the conclusion. You have to think of all the other interpretations and gather observational evidence that those explanations are not valid. The process is not infallible, but it’s a heck of a lot better than a dogmatic approach.

Which, despite all the façade, is what creation “science” really is. And, surprisingly, I couldn’t’ve said it better myself than what Creation Ministries International wrote a few days ago in trying to answer a reader’s question about when stars were formed:

“what you propose is clearly ‘science’-driven not text-driven”

Blasted “science!” Always interfering with the Bible! (or at least their reading of it)

But, realizing it or not, this clearly demonstrates that what YECs do is not science: They start with their conclusion and will modify or massage or tweak or somehow shove the data into that hole to make it come out right. Or, simply deny that it exists (such as Kent Hovind denying there are reversals in Earth’s magnetic field, or almost all YECs denying accuracy of radiometric dating). This handy flowchart I made several years ago sums it up nicely:

Flow Chart Showing Faith-Based "Science"

Flow Chart Showing Faith-Based “Science”

January 17, 2015

Podcast Episode 124: The Astronomical Distance Ladder


Measuring distance
In the Universe: A fun
Science episode!

An episode over two years in the making: The Astronomical Distance Ladder!!!!! (insert many cheers) In all seriousness, I have wanted to do this episode since autumn (August-ish) 2012, but I haven’t been able to find a good hook. Convicted and jailed felon, Kent Hovind, provided that for me on January 6, 1998, in a Coast to Coast AM episode I got my hands on. And so we have this episode. It is long. Those of you who like longer episodes, this is nearly an hour long. It did not intend it to be this long, but, well, that’s what happens when I get excited about a topic that’s not incredibly straight-forward.

I also guessed off the top of my head that an object with a redshift value of z = 1.4 would be about 10 billion light-years away. According to Wolfram Alpha, it’s 9.1 billion l-y lookback time, so take THAT, Prof. Morrison! (It’s been literally a decade since I thought about what z equals what distance, so I’m pretty impressed that I got that pretty close.)

I do want to apologize about the sound quality in this one and the variable volume levels (I tried to even them out in post-processing). I was recording during sustained 20mph winds with gusts over 50mph. So, I had a lot of background noise I was dealing with that varied in intensity.

This episode has three additional segments: New News related to a precision measurement of Saturn’s position, a new Logical Fallacies segment, and Feedback (one clarification, one negative and my response).

For the new Logical Fallacies segment, I’ll say what I said in the episode: “I’m open to feedback including overwhelming negative feedback on whether this was at all useful or is worth keeping in some modified way, and also if I’ve made any mistakes.” The fallacies discussed in detail for the episode are Argument from (Personal) Incredulity and Appeal to Ridicule. I got into how both of these are classes of Red Herring fallacies and the former is a sub-type of Red Herring, the Genetic. I also pointed out that additional fallacies in Mr. Hovind’s argument were the False Precision Fallacy, Appeal Against Authority, and False Analogy.

Edited to Add (January 21, 2015): The Raw Story has an article up today explaining a bit more about Kent Hovind, and that he is trying to testify before Congress (though he’s still in federal prison) about the IRS being a bunch of meanies.

July 22, 2014

Everyone’s Talking About Ken Ham Denigrating Space Exploration — Let’s Stop Talking About It


Okay folks, this is going to be a short post because I’m sick of it already. People are talking about Ken Ham, the CEO of Answers in Genesis who “debated” Bill Nye in February, wrote on his blog yesterday that space exploration is silly because it’s a search for aliens who don’t exist and would be damned anyway because of Jesus’ Love™. (I’m paraphrasing here.) If you really need a link, I’ll point you to Jerry Coyne’s blog post on it.

Ham may believe this. I wouldn’t be surprised. But you know what? I don’t care. And neither should you. And you shouldn’t be talking about it, and you shouldn’t be linking to his site (which is why I am not).

True — I have talked about AiG’s work in the past on this blog and in my podcast. But it was a specific science claim where we could learn something about science by exploring the claim.

This is just stupid. This seems almost certainly a cry for publicity under the adage “Any publicity is good publicity!” He had to know it would create controversy and that people would ridicule him. But in doing so, he would get publicity. People talking about him and his ministry and his (by most accounts) failing museum. The Bill Nye debate was almost six months ago, and they saw an immense surge in support and donations around that time, so much that their failing fundraising effort (such that they were issuing junk bonds) for a Noah’s Ark theme park suddenly was viable and they raised all their money.

Let me repeat: What Ken Ham said here was stupid. We know it was stupid. Even if he’s right that there’s no alien life out there, exploring space to learn more about the world/universe in which we live is worth it for its own sake. Now, can we stop talking about how stupid Ham was in saying this? Can we stop giving him publicity? I’ve dealt with pseudoscientists (or just idiots) who just say inflammatory things to get publicity. You haven’t heard about a lot of it on here – especially some recent stuff – precisely because I don’t want to give them publicity.

June 14, 2014

Podcast Episode 112: Is Mercury’s Magnetic Field Decaying? Does that Prove Recent Creation?


Magnetic field of
Mercury: Has it decreased
Or just stayed the same?

For this episode, we return to an old stalwart of the blog: Young-Earth creationism, and I examine the relatively recent claim that Mercury’s magnetic field is decaying, therefore God.

It’s a bit of a nuanced topic, since, to understand it, we have to get into magnetic fields and how you measure them around planets. Hopefully my squishy water balloon analogies make sense.

It’s a bit of a shorter episode, three days late, but I’ve been pretty busy catching up with work that I let slide while I was working on the Cydonia movie.

Oh, and the logical fallacies in the episode are: Cherry picking, and quote-mining.

March 12, 2014

Podcast Episode 103: Does Jupiter Support Young-Earth Creationism?


Jupiter, gas giant:
Why do you oh-so confound
Evolution? Hmmmm?

Young-Earth creationism! Jupiter! What else do you need for a fun episode? (Other than an engaging host?) I had not planned on doing this episode, and I realize that it’s a day late. Why? Because I was going to do an episode entitled, “ε, Newton, Einstein, and Schrödinger.” And I had it mostly written. And then I looked back at episode 64 on quantum nonsense and realized that everything I was going to put in this new episode had already been done as the last section of the main segment in that episode. This was realized at about 6PM last night.

So, I quickly dug up an older blog post and converted it to an episode, had to go to sleep, woke up to the roofers (new roof due to flood damage), and got to record tonight). Here ’tis.

It has been requested (Hi Dori) that I post the current plan of upcoming episodes. This is highly subject to change (see above), but right now, they are:

  • Episode 104 – Pyramids on Mars – 2014/03/21
  • Episode 105 – Solar System Mysteries that were PseudoSolved, Part 3 – 2014/04/01
  • Episode 106 – James McCaney (General, Conspiracy, Electric Universe) – 2014/04/11
  • Episode 107 – The Fake Story of Planet X, Part 9 (Marshall Masters) – 2014/04/21
  • Episode 108 – The Norway Spiral – 2014/05/01
  • Episode 109 – Practical Application of Uncertainty – Orbits and Spacecraft Observations – 2014/05/11

February 27, 2014

Follow-Up on Saturn’s Moon Titan, its Craters, and its “Youth”


As a quick follow-up to my last blog post, a reader wrote in and their comment was published on the Creation.com website. From Mark V. of New Zealand:

You mentioned that Titan has fewer impact craters than would be expected. Does this mean that a moon or a planet which has a lot of impact craters such as earth’s moon Mercury Mars etc. is therefore old? I would suggest that the reason for the few craters is Saturn, which with its much higher gravity, would draw the various comets meteors etc away from Titan.

The CMI (Creation.com / Creation Ministries International) astronomy guy, Jonathan Sarfati, responded (links removed):

In answer to your question, no it does not. This would be committing the fallacy of denying the antecedent, as explained in Logic and Creation. The explanation for lots of craters on the moon is a brief intense swarm of meteoroids, travelling on parallel paths, probably during the Flood year. This is supported by ghost craters, evidence of rapid succession of impacts, and by the fact that 11 of the 12 maria are in one quadrant, evidence that the major impacts occurred before the moon had even moved far enough in one orbit (month) to show a different face to the swarm. See On the origin of lunar maria and A biblically-based cratering theory.

In my original blog post, I said there were two alternative ideas to cratering that would save the creationist idea behind this article:

The alternative is that the crater calibration stuff is off, and radiometric dating is wrong. So, the Moon is not 4 billion years old, it’s 6000 years old. With the crater population of Titan, that means Titan can only be, oh, around 15-150 years old. Except that it was discovered in 1655.

Or, the entire crater calibration stuff is completely wrong. Which means you can’t use it to say Titan’s surface is young, which is what he is claiming — that it is young because scientists are showing it’s young because it has few craters.

When writing that, I specifically left out the special pleading idea even though I thought that CMI would probably try to use that in responding to anyone’s question. Which they did. The special pleading is that, “Hey, we actually can’t use the Moon as a guide to cratering because its craters came in a quick, special burst!” (that some creationists attribute to Noah’s Flood because, well, ¿why not?)

I left that out because it’s really a form of my second alternative: The crater calibration techniques are bogus, you can’t use them. By Jonathan Sarfati claiming that the lunar cratering is unique and special, it means that the cratering calibration is way off because cratering chronology is BASED on the Moon. And, if it’s off, if we don’t know how to calibrate any ages with craters, then you can’t possibly use them to say Titan’s surface is young or old, which is the basis of the claim that the CMI article is based on.

So again, this doesn’t solve the problem, it introduces more problems and shows yet again that the young-Earth creation model is internally inconsistent.

You can be a young-Earth creationist and claim Titan is young (you’ll be wrong, but you can claim it). Just don’t use the crater chronology to do it. If you do, you’ll wind up going in circles as I’ve demonstrated in this and the previous post. Why? Because it’s inherently inconsistent to do so. If the consequence of a CONSISTENT crater chronology were that Titan’s surface was <6000 years old, then that would be the mainstream science thinking on the subject. It's not. Because the crater chronology doesn't show it, if you use a consistent chronology across solar system bodies.

February 24, 2014

Under a Creationist’s Reasoning, Titan (moon of Saturn) Is Just a Few Years Old


Introduction

I’m always amazed at the penchant for young-Earth creationists (YECs) to use science for part of their argument and creationism for another part, when it relies on the science being right, but they’re arguing that the science is wrong.

If that was confusing to you, let me explain …

Crater-Age Modeling

The basic idea behind using craters to estimate the age of a surface is that, if you have an older surface, it’s been around longer and has had more time to accumulate more craters. So, more craters = older.

We can use samples from the Moon to correlate crater densities with absolute ages and get a model for how many craters of a certain size equals a certain age.

That’s the basics … if you want more, see my podcast, episodes 40 and 41: Crater Age Dating Explained, Part 1 and Crater Age Dating and Young-Earth Creationism, Part 2.

So, we have, from the moon, the idea that a heavily cratered surface equates to one that’s been around for billions of years. This REQUIRES radiometric dating to be correct and the basics of crater age-modeling to be correct.

The implication is that a surface that has just a few craters is much younger.

Titan

Titan is Saturn’s largest moon, its atmosphere is thicker than Earth’s, and the Cassini and Huygens probes have shown that its surface is geologically active. It also has very few impact craters.

YEC

Enter David Coppedge, a man I’ve talked about on this blog quite a bit. His latest writing was published by Creation Ministries International, “Saving the ‘Billions of Years’ Age of Titan.”

In his article, he is keying in on a recent popular article that explains that Titan’s surface looks young, and there are a few ways that it can still be geologically active (as in have a young surface, like Earth) and still have formed over 4 billion years ago.

The problem is that, for us to say it looks young, that’s because of the few impact craters. Versus old, that’s because of radiometric dating and then the calibration to lots of impact craters on the Moon. For Coppedge to say (effectively) “Yes, scientists are right, Titan’s surface looks young because it has few impact craters,” then he is REQUIRED to accept the basics of the crater chronology system, which he clearly doesn’t. Because, if Titan is young because it has few craters as he is agreeing with, then the Moon and other bodies must be much older under that same crater chronology system.

Yes, confusing. To get to point B, he must accept A. He thinks B is true, but he does not think A is true. Hence the confusing cognitive dissonance he just ignores.

Alternative

The alternative is that the crater calibration stuff is off, and radiometric dating is wrong. So, the Moon is not 4 billion years old, it’s 6000 years old. With the crater population of Titan, that means Titan can only be, oh, around 15-150 years old. Except that it was discovered in 1655.

Or, the entire crater calibration stuff is completely wrong. Which means you can’t use it to say Titan’s surface is young, which is what he is claiming — that it is young because scientists are showing it’s young because it has few craters.

Final Thoughts

Does anyone have a headache now? I think I gave myself one.

February 2, 2014

Because Volcanoes Can Form Quickly Means … Jesus and Young Earth?


Introduction

I have a vast number of young-Earth creationism articles to write about, but this one, just put out by creation.com, will be quick.

Background

I remember learning about the Volcán de Parícutin in grade school: In 1943, a Mexican farmer was in his field and suddenly a fissure opened and a volcano literally rose to over 100 meters high over the next few days, destroying the field and neighboring villages (the villages of Parícutin and San Juan Parangaricutiro).

It was a story that I believed unquestioningly (as many children do), but then wondered if it was real later on, and then looked up the details.

In the first year, the volcano grew to 336 meters (1102 ft), and by 1952, it reached a final height of 424 meters (1391 ft) and has been dormant since. It likely was formed from a small branch of a much larger volcanic feature and magma chamber, and that branch has likely collapsed and the volcán will never erupt again.

Therefore Recent Creation

The entire thrust of Jonathan O’Brien’s article is that because this volcano formed in the space of a few years, it means that everything on Earth can form in just a few years and you don’t need “millions of years” (there’s an entire section of the article called “Millions of years not needed”) to form geologic features:

They assert that most geological features took many thousands or millions of years to form. Yet we know from actual eyewitness testimony that Mount Parícutin took only 9 years to form, from beginning to extinction, with most of its growth having occurred in the first year. With much larger forces at work in the earth’s crust, as occurred during the terrible year of the global Flood, even the largest geographical features we see in the world today would have formed in months, weeks or even days.

Straw Man and Technique Misuse

This is a straw man. Geologists don’t claim that “most geological features took many thousands or millions of years to form,” at least not the way that Mr. O’Brien is implying. Non-volcanic mountains? Yes. Some volcanoes? Yes. The Hawai’ian island chain? Yes.

But geologists have various ways of estimating how long different processes take. One way for volcanoes is to look at the layers of material and the kinds of plants and/or animals trapped within them. Another way is radiometric dating, such as Rb/Sr dating. With a half-life on the order of 50 billion years for rubidium-87, that means the technique is only usable on features that are 10s to 100s of thousands of years old, at a minimum, with current laboratory techniques.

I mention this because of the feedback to the article … of the five comments, four of them are mocking radiometric dating, along the lines of “Nic G.” from Australia: “Has any radiometric dating been carried out at the site? That’d make for some confronting results.”

This is a common tactic of creationists who try to show that radiometric dating methods are flawed: Misusing a technique with known constraints, and going outside those constraints. The most famous example (probably) is that of Mt. St. Helens, where a creationist got a sample of rock from the 1986 eruption and sent it to a lab and got ages of 340,000 to 2,800,000 years.

Final Thoughts

What’s somewhat reassuring is that I’ve addressed all this kind of stuff before on this blog. This is reassuring because it shows that there really are very, very few “new” arguments for young-Earth creationism, that they stick to a set script of explanations that have been debunked an innumerable amount of times in more ways than you can think of. Perhaps that’s the price for placing your belief system on text from 1500-5000 years ago that refuses to be updated.

November 11, 2013

Podcast Episode 92: Spiral Galaxies and a Young Universe


Spiral Galaxies,
Young-Earth Creationists … a
Potent mixture here.

I managed to get this episode on young-Earth creationism out on time, somehow. It is not the expected episode on the Pioneer Anomaly, but, well, that required some work. This topic I could do more quickly and get out on time.

As I gear up to do an episode every few days in prep for my trip to Australia, Dec. 16 – Jan. 21, it’s going to be probably more of the same, and I have a lot of interviews slated for that time (yet to be recorded … most are yet to be confirmed, so we’ll see). I’m trying to figure out how to make an episode about the peer review process and an episode about uncertainties and errors sound interesting, for those are the next two planned at the moment.

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