Exposing PseudoAstronomy

March 26, 2013

Why I Do What I Do


Introduction

First post back from the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, probably the second-largest annual gathering of planetary scientists in the world, and largest of those with a non-Earth focus (December AGU being more terrestrial geology). Whilst I was away, The Star Spot podcast posted an interview I did with them a month or so ago. It focuses mainly on different ideas about Planet X, about which I’ve both written and podcasted extensively.

At the end of the interview, I was asked, effectively, why I do what I do. I admit I hadn’t had much sleep before the interview, and I didn’t exactly have my A-game on. And so I may have come off as being somewhat more self-centered than normal. I have been asked this a few times before, like last year when going back-and forth with Mike Bara about that whole lunar ziggurat thing.

So, here’s the self-reflective but hopefully not as self-centered post. And the announcement of me being interviewed.

Being a Better Scientist

Let’s get this one out of the way because it’s what I mostly answered with when interviewed. One of the things needed to be a good scientist is the ability to ask good questions (let’s not get started on the, “There’s no such thing as a bad question!” because there really are). You have to be able to ask those questions and then investigate them. You have to have a high threshold for evidence. In my opinion, a good scientist needs to set a high threshold for the acceptance of new conclusions and needs to think about what may be mitigating factors.

What I mean by this is that you have to be skeptical. At least one commentator to my blog likes to claim that being skeptical is the antithesis of being a good scientist. That particular person couldn’t be more wrong. While Mike Bara has definitely flung more mud at me, the harshest substantive critiques of what I’ve written have always come from reviewers of papers I’ve written.

That’s what we do: When we sit down to review a paper that describes someone’s data and conclusions, we question everything. Does their data make sense in light of what’s been done before? Do they reference what’s been done before? Does their data description match their diagrams? Does the way in which the data were gathered make sense? Are their conclusions supported by the data? Are they reaching in their conclusions beyond what they have evidence for?

And those are just the big-picture questions. Most reviewers will also bluntly tell you that your grammar is bad, that the paper is poorly written, the figures are illegible, and so-on. I once had a reviewer say that my use of a three-word term once in a 10,000-word paper made everyone in the field look stupid.

This bit of a digression gets back to my main point: Scientists are skeptical, whether they self-identify with that term or not. If you cannot learn how to support your conclusions, if you can’t think of holes others might poke in your arguments and pre-emptively fill those holes, and if you can’t deal with people picking apart your work, you’re not going to make it in science.

Every little claim that I look into, every argument by a young-Earth creationist or UFOlogist that I pick apart, helps me hone my own skills in sorting through evidence and figuring out how to back up my own claims better.

Public Outreach

Yes, to you the public, who are not scientists, it is important to convey good science and to NOT convey and anti-convey (is that a term?) bad science. Not just for the broader utopian goals of a more intellectual society that’s better informed, but let’s face it: It also comes down to money. Pretty much all astronomy-related science is supported by government grants. I should not have to compete with someone like Richard Hoagland for a grant to do research when his stuff is clearly pseudoscience. But, to someone who is uninformed and who doesn’t know the tools and methods and background of how science is done and what he’s claiming, Hoagland’s nonsense may seem just as valid as what I do.

Case in point is that the National Institutes of Health have their “Complimentary and Alternative Medicine” division/institute/thing that actually DOES dole out money for studies into things that have been shown by the normal rules of evidence to not help treat nor cure anything. Real doctors and medical researchers have to compete against chiropractors and homeopathists for a dwindling pool of federal funds. And that’s sad.

I hope that by doing what I do, I can help people realize what science is, what good science is, and how to tell it from bad science.

Applicability to Every-Day Life: Critical Thinking

What this really teaches is critical thinking. Let’s say that you didn’t believe me that Planet X wasn’t going to cause a pole shift on December 21, 2012. I went through numerous posts on it and I got many people writing in the comments that we were all going to die. It’s late March 2013, so clearly they were wrong.

But, clearly they at least read some of what I wrote. It’s not always the conclusion that matters. But, what always matters is the process. The process that I try to go through in my blog and podcast when dissecting claims really boils down to critical thinking. No, not thinking critically (as in badly) about something, but thinking about it in detail and analyzing it in all ways possible.

That method of going through a claim in agonizing detail, showing what it would have to be in order to be correct, showing what it would mean for completely unrelated fields and applications (like, if magnetic therapy bracelets worked, you would explode when you go into an MRI), is – more than most other things – what I hope people get from the work I do here.

You probably aren’t going to come up against someone who’s going to make you decide between whether Billy Meier’s dinosaur photos are of real dinosaurs or of a childrens’ book and depending on your answer you stand to lose $1M or something like that. But, let’s say you’re going to invest money in a high-risk venture. You’ll be thrown a bunch of marketing hype. If you have the critical thinking tools and know where to look for the background knowledge, you could save yourself from quite a bit of financial loss. Perpetual motion scams companies do this all the time, trying to bilk rich people who don’t know any better out of their ¢a$h.

Final Thoughts

Skepticism, to me, is a process. It’s not a conclusion, it’s starting point and a process. I use it in my every-day work, and the more I practice it, the better (hopefully) I get.

I also happen to be in a position where I know more than the average person about a narrow topic range. My hope is that by showing where people go wrong in their thinking, I can help others avoid mistakes. People often learn better by understanding how they got the wrong answer than being told the right answer. That’s the goal here: Understanding the critical thinking process to be better equipped to deal with things that might not be so obvious in the future.

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October 10, 2011

Making the Rounds … Another Interview of Me (with someone else, too!)


Here’s a quickie post to let anyone who is interested know that I have been interviewed by my frenemy “Parrot,” AKA “The Dumbass” (he calls himself that) for his new podcast, the Invisible Sky Monster (which I think is a thinly veiled allusion to atheism, but that’s just a hunch). I was interviewed along with Rebecca O’Neill of the Skeprechauns podcast.

The topics we discussed were highly varied, spanning things such as the organic and natural food movements, death of Steve Jobs, “alternative” medicine, the role of critical thinking in life, and womens’ place in society the amount of advocacy that we each personally feel is appropriate or not for apparent minority groups in society at large and in groups/movements (specifically related to women in skepticism, but I expanded it a bit to homosexual advocacy, too).

VERY little astronomy was discussed in this discussion, which lasts about 75 minutes, so if you’re interested in learning my views on some other things, this podcast episode is well worth a listen. Just don’t give it a 4-star rating in iTunes*.

*This will make sense if you listen to the first few minutes.


I also want to clarify my position on this last point (advocacy of minority or under-represented groups) because I don’t think I made it very well in the last 6 minutes of the episode. My personal views are ideally along the lines of “live and let live.” I think that if you push too hard for any one thing that is not an objective fact, you risk a very vocal counter-movement and appearing to be militant and intolerant yourself (since we’re talking about social interactions and groups here, that’s not an “objective fact” like Earth is round).

This does not mean that I don’t think people should be able to join whatever group they want, nor do I think that it’s “okay” that women are highly under-represented in academia or other things because of some real or perceived bias. Again, in the “live and let live” approach, ideally, there wouldn’t be any sort of bias and so there wouldn’t need to be any sort of advocacy on behalf of an under-represented group.

I think all should be welcome and all should feel free to join or not if they want to, regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, etc. But I, personally, am not a huge fan of the rallies and workshops and endless meetings of how to fix a problem that may not actually exist. And I say this as a member of an under-represented group, one that is actively discriminated against by the majority.

December 7, 2010

“I’m Just Putting it Out There …”


Introduction

While drawing circles for my ever-elusive crater database so I can graduate, I was listening to an old Coast to Coast AM episode that featured Neal Adams as a guest. For those of you who do not know, Neal Adams made a name for himself decades ago bringing the character Batman back from a comical character to the dark knight that we know and love today.

But Adams is infamously known for something else: He is a proponent of a whole new field of physics he created in order to explain that Earth, and indeed all the planets, are expanding and creating new matter in their cores.

This post is not about that, however, but rather about the refrain by a branch of pseudoscientists, “I’m just putting it out there …”

The Refrain

I’ve heard this a few times. It’s not done by many die-hard people, such as anti-vaxers, or vehement conspiracy theorists who state their positions with absolute and unwavering conviction, often in a very in-your-face way.

Rather, it is a more insidious method of promoting their particular pseudoscience that comes off as appearing rather humble. My case study here is, as stated in the intro, Neal Adams. Throughout his interview on March 16, 2006, and other interviews of him that I have heard (such as on one of the first Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe episodes), Adams will make some very wild claims, but then he gives the appearance of being humble and backing away. He will make his claim and then state, “But I don’t want you to necessarily believe me. I’m just a comic book artist. I’m just putting this out there.”

Richard C. Hoagland – the “face on Mars” guy – does the same thing frequently where he will talk for hours about some new implication for his special brand of crazy (“hyperdimensional physics”) and then say, “George, I’m just putting this out there for our listeners so they have the information and can do their own research.” More arm-chair conspiracy theorists will also do this: “I’m just putting it out there that shadows should be parallel but aren’t in the Apollo photos.”

False Modesty

To a point, one can accept that. I’m finishing up a paper at the moment about secondary cratering on Mars (I briefly talked about these in my post on why there is no crisis in crater age-dating). In my research, I discovered a new phenomenon related to these craters, and in the paper I suggest a possible explanation – a hypothesis that could be tested by more work (plea$e fund m€!). I’m “putting it out there.”

The first time it’s said, one may accept it. Perhaps the second. But when it is repeated every 10 minutes for three hours, it gets annoying. And it is hollow. And it’s simply a “get out of a corner free” card.

For example, Adams was claiming that you can start with a hydrogen atom (a proton) and by adding a neutron create helium (which is wrong — helium is 2 protons). When a caller confronted him about that, Adams backtracked and appeared to show complete deference to the caller and again reiterated, “I’m just a comic book author, I believe you.” Yet in future interviews I’ve heard and read, and in his current material, Adams claims the same or similar things. When called on pretty much all his claims, he’ll repeat the Argument from Personal Incredulity (“well that just doesn’t make sense to me”), sometimes appear to accept the arguments of his confronter, and then when the conversation is over he’ll go back to what he said before.

More information is usually good. I’m having oral surgery next week to extract two wisdom teeth and I’ve been reading up a lot on the effects of N2O versus IV sedation and what I can expect for recovery (twinkie and ice cream diet for 4 days, here I come!). But the dental websites I’m reading are not trying to convince me that they’re correct and then saying, “Oh, by the way, I’m a law student and have no expertise in this subject, but I’m just putting this information out there.”

Final Thoughts

Neal Adams – and people like him – should stand behind what they say or not say it at all. Creating a whole elaborate “alternative” scenario, and then extolling the cop-out of, “But I’m not an expert, I’m just putting this out there,” and falling back on it when confronted is disingenuous, slippery, and sleazy. Pretending that you are effectively musing out loud when in fact you are actively and consistently promoting yourself is more annoying than the loud and proud true believers. At least they have the guts to really stand behind what they claim.

For skeptics, this is yet another catch phrase to be aware of. If someone is promoting an idea but constantly qualifies it with, “I’m just putting this information out there, you don’t have to believe me but isn’t this interesting …” be wary! Do your own independent research on the subject, post in a skeptics forum, or ask an actual expert in the field. Don’t rely upon an artist who thinks he has independently rewritten all the physics textbooks to have any factual knowledge about the subject.

May 31, 2010

How to Teach Science versus Pseudoscience — Follow-Up


Introduction

Two posts ago, I wrote a post soliciting advice on how to teach science versus pseudoscience to a class of college undergraduates in an astronomy for non-majors introductory course. I received several replies, though apparently some people had problems leaving comments on the blog … to the point that they tried to leave a comment and I didn’t get any sort of notification — WordPress didn’t record it at all.

Not sure what’s going on there, but if that happens here, I’ll give out my e-mail address and you can e-mail me.

What I’ve Done for the Lecture

It was interesting trying to meld disparate advice into a lecture format that seems to sorta kinda make sense. For the moment, I’ve decided to:

  1. Start with the infamous “Rainbow Lady” YouTube video of the woman thinking there’s a government conspiracy to make water coming out of her sprinkler show a rainbow. The purpose is to have the students try to frame the scenario in a scientific way. An observation is shown, how can they go about figuring out what’s going on? I have prompt questions written to myself to try to steer the conversation towards what experiments could they do, is it simpler to explain it through known phenomenon or a government conspiracy, is it possible to disprove a conspiracy, and is it possible to prove that diffraction is the explanation — answers to the last two being “no” which will lead into …
  2. What is a theory? Differentiating between every-day use and scientific use including the “this can never be proven” part.
  3. What is science? Starting out with a quote by Einstein and then outlining the scientific method.
  4. Flowchart of the scientific method. And I have decided that I will be posting my lectures on the course website as PDFs*.
  5. Finish off the “What Is Science?” part with the facts/observations < hypothesis < law < theory hierarchy.
  6. What is pseudoscience? I’ve written two slides on many common parts of pseudoscientific claims/beliefs/ideas/”theories.” End with a much shorter flow chart.
  7. End with two main types of pseudoscience that will be addressed in the course (mainly through the required writing assignment). Those would be (1) Claims that argue against science or an established concept/idea, and (2) Claims that make you go, “WTF did that come from?”

*I know this is a point of contention among many instructors. I was forever against it. I recently heard though from people who actually do do research in astronomy education that their data shows posting lecture notes does not change their class attendance. Also, since lecture will nominally be only half of any given class period, group work and class discussions comprising the rest will mean that just printing out the lectures and not attending class will not get them a good grade. Posting the lectures online will also let them not have to spend time copying down word-for-word what’s on the screen but focus more on the explanation and discussion.

Other Things I Considered

A few weeks ago I heard an amazing caller on the Coast to Coast AM radio show. In the space of 2 minutes, he talked about how Earth’s atmosphere was lost and flash-froze all the animals due to Earth losing all gravity and coupling to the moon’s off-center core and the moon retreating and …. . Needless to say, I cut that clip out and was going to use it as an example and have the class discuss it. However, I’ve now decided that I’m going to use it, but I’m going to use it as a test question later on in the course after we’ve talked about gravity, Earth, the moon, and atmospheres.

Another thing I considered was to have an example from the other infamous YouTube clip of “Dr. Werner” trying to explain how homeopathy works. If you don’t know the clip, I recommend watching about the first 6.5 minutes. It’s precious. But, I decided that even if I could cut it down to the first 3 min 40 sec, it was too far afield for the class and the history majors may feel lost to the finer points that “Steven Hawkings” didn’t come up with string theory and that mass cannot simply be crossed out of E=m*c2 to make E=c2. Oh, and the lecture already has 11 slides and with discussion that’ll probably put me at 20 minutes already.

From another suggestion, I thought I may start with a magic trick to show the importance of careful observation, how your senses can be fooled, how you think what’s going on isn’t actually going on, and the importance then of careful observation and testing. I was actually pretty into magic early on in my life and I have amassed quite a bit of tricks. The one I was going to show has to do with disappearing water into a cup. I’m not going to go further in case I actually do end up doing the trick and someone in my class finds this blog. But, I for now have decided against that because (1) I’m not sure how a group with a median age of 21 will respond, and (2) I can’t think of a good transition between it and the Rainbow Lady or another good place in the lecture to put it.

Another idea I had was to start out with an observation. Someone weighs themselves, gets a weight, takes a shower, dries off, gets a weight that’s 0.5 lbs more, and then weighs themselves a half hour later and gets the same weight as the first time. How would they go about figuring out what’s going on? I decided against that because it’s a minor thing that’s not really on-point and I think the Rainbow Lady can be better-used to accomplish the same goal.

Final Thoughts

Thanks again for all those who replied or tried to reply. I still have about 22 hours before the class, so if anyone has further advice or comments on what I’ve decided to do so far, please let me know. Post in the comments here, and then copy your comment (before submitting!) and if it doesn’t go through, send me an e-mail to the address provided above.

May 25, 2010

How to Teach Science versus Pseudoscience?


Introduction

Some people who read this blog may have noticed another paucity of posts lately. I have the usual excuses – finishing up a paper and submitting it, being busy with research – and then unusual excuses – I went on a camping trip to Yellowstone National Park for a week, and I’m prepping to teach a class next month.

It’s the latter that is the reason for this post. I’m teaching my first class ever as Instructor of Record, meaning I have complete control over what’s taught and how. The class is a “summermester” meaning that it is every day for the entire month of June — June 1 through July 2, 11:00-12:35. The class is “General Astronomy: Solar System” for non-majors without a lab component. Checking the roster shows that, at the moment, there are about 25 students signed up, 1 freshman, 3 sophomores, about 15 juniors, and the rest seniors. Most are liberal arts students, but there are some from the sciences.

One of the assignments that I have already written is a course-long writing assignment. It requires the students to look into one of four modern popular astronomy-related pseudosciences — Planet X and 2012, The Apollo Moon Hoax, Is the Universe <6000 Years Old?, and The Hollo Earth "Theory."

Application of Critical Thinking

I will be passing out this assignment the first day of class. I will also be requiring intermediate progress items: (1) At the end of the first week (only 4 days into the class) they need to turn in an outline of their paper that lists the topic, sub-topics they’ll discuss, and at least 3 references they’ll use; (2) at the end of the 3rd week, a rough draft to me; and (3) at the end of the 4th week, a close to final draft that they’ll exchange with someone who’s NOT doing their topic, read over the weekend, and then peer-review on Monday.

As you can see, there is a reasonable emphasis on this paper. I also hope to gear the class towards an Astronomy Cast -inspired “How do we know what we know?” approach, and I plan to bring in pseudoscience topics that are related to homeworks and tests (I’m a fan of Phil Plait’s question of, “How can I state with great confidence that over 95% of violent crimes occur within 1 week of the full or new moon?”).

How to Teach?

The point of this post is to solicit advice from readers: How can I actually write an introductory lecture on this subject? I want the lecture to be no more than 20 minutes, and I would like it to teach science from pseudoscience without (a) getting preachy and (b) WITHOUT examples at the beginning. The last half of the lecture can be examples (good class discussion starters!), but I would really like to introduce the topic without falling into debunking.

I do have a wonderful 2-minute clip from a Coast to Coast AM caller who rambled about Earth’s gravity field collapsing pushing the moon away removing our atmosphere which flash-froze animals that I plan on playing towards the end.

My thoughts so far are showing the scientific method flow chart, or maybe asking the class how they would go about showing something is “true,” contrast that with methods employed by pseudoscience proponents … but those ideas are fairly vague. I start in a week; if people have advice, I’m interested in hearing (reading) it!

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