Exposing PseudoAstronomy

November 7, 2014

The Myth that Skepticism is Easy


Introduction

There’s a lot of finger-wagging on both sides of the skeptics vs believers “debate.” To the point where people who believe in things like bigfoot and ghosts are already going to say from my terminology in the first sentence that I’m biasing this entire blog post. Well, get your own blog. Or be polite about it in the comments.

Anywho, there is the frequent claim that I hear on various shows and read in various places that “being a skeptic is the easiest thing in the world: All you have to do is say ‘no.’” Perhaps obviously, I disagree, and this post is about why.

Terminology

First, I must define my terms. I do not consider someone who just comes out and blurts “that’s not true” or “that’s not real” without evidence to be a skeptic. There is a difference between a skeptic and a denier. I consider:

Skeptic: Someone who approaches a question from a position of looking for evidence and making a conclusion based on the preponderance of the evidence, which can and should include all past evidence for plausibility of various explanations of that question.

Denier: Just says “no.”

Notice that there is a difference here. A skeptic can be someone who just says “no,” but it must be able to be backed up based on an examination of the evidence. For example, these days, I just say “no” automatically to most claims that the latest rock seen on Mars is a skull or a face or a fossil or a water valve. (The water valve ended up being the impression of a Phillips head screwdriver, but it’s much easier just to not do any research into the instrument and claim it’s a miniaturized water valve, because, ya know, it looks like one!) I can say that while still fitting my definition of “skeptic” because I actually have investigated this class of claims ad nauseam on this blog and on my podcast, and at a glance I can usually tell what class of misconception it fits into (usually either poor image analysis and/or pareidolia).

It’s Not Easy Being a Skeptic

It’s not.

No, really, it’s not.

Seriously.

For a completely selfish and capitalist reason, it’s not financially rewarding, which is very different from pseudoscience. I listen to people on Coast to Coast AM who publish a book every year – and those are the slow ones – about talking to dolphins, or searching for Atlantis, or making things up about archaeology or astronomy. It would be so easy, so cheap, and so much less time for me to write a book where I just make things up than to write a book that’s about real stuff that requires real research.

Now, I realize that I’ve painted with a very broad brushstroke here. I’m not saying that all people who many of us would classify as “pseudoscientists” publish quick and easy books where they just make things up and don’t do research. Some put a lot of time and energy into their books, and that is a separate category. But, next time you’re at a bookstore (they still have those, right?), take a look at the New Age or Spiritual sections. Count the number of books, amount of shelf space. Then go to the Skeptical section. Can’t find it? There’s a reason for that. You may be lucky to find Carl Sagan or Michael Shermer in the Science section. Or perhaps just in the broad Non-Fiction.

With that aside, being a skeptic – a real skeptic (with full knowledge of the No True Scotsman fallacy … see Terminology above) – takes a lot of work. It is trivially easy for someone to look at a rock in the latest image from Mars and claim that it’s a mechanical pump. Or a fossil of a sea star. And it will get posted on UFO Sightings Daily, and maybe even get picked up by a small online newspaper, and then maybe even by the Huffington Post. Yes, this has happened before.

Meanwhile, to do a proper skeptical investigation, we have to bring in information about how cameras work, how images from spacecraft are sent to Earth and processed, how color compositing works, how image resizing works, and what pareidolia is. It has taken me longer just to write that sentence listing the things you have to do than it would for me to look at a photo taken by an Apollo astronaut, see blooper, and send an e-mail to a UFO outlet online.

And then there’s actually doing the work. Fortunately, I’ve covered a lot of that material in podcasts #47, #48, #73, and #74. FYI, that’s nearly 3 hours of listening pleasure. All to investigate one single claim.

So, Is Skepticism Easy?

No.

Wrap Up

See what I did there? With the “No”? Anyway …

For those reasons, it really does bug me when I hear people say, or read when people write, that being a skeptic is easy. So much easier than being what they term a “true investigator.”

No, in fairness, just as there are some paranormalists who do write lengthy tomes that are full of real investigation (at which point I would mainly just argue with the conclusions), I do know that there are investigators who do do a lot of real investigation. Graham Hancock springs to mind. I fully disagree with practically everything the man has said. But, he has done a lot of real work, and I have to acknowledge and give him credit for that.

But, people like him, on the paranormal side, are very few and very far between. Most that you hear from are fully on the quick-’n’-dirty claim side, where it really is much, much easier to not be a skeptic.

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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!

March 8, 2010

Is Debunking a Fringe Person Still Worth It?


Introduction

This morning, I received an IM from a friend congratulating me on the 100,000+ reads on my blog. I responded with a bit of surprise, saying that I didn’t realize she read my blog. Her response was that she has an RSS feed of it and skims what I write when there’s a new post.

This particular friend happens to be the person I briefly consulted for my two-part (eventually three-part) series on the astrologer Terry Nazon (here and here), because this friend practices astrology as a hobby.

Somewhat fearful, I asked her what she thought of the two blog posts about Ms. Nazon. Her response was, “I think that you were probably debunking a hack astrologer.” That led me to quickly justify why I did it, but I think it does raise a decent question: Should one spend the time debunking someone who is on the fringe of their particular pseudoscientific belief system?

Why I Think the Answer Is “Maybe”

I think that there are several reasons both do to this and not to do it. On the “not” side there’s the obvious time-waste component for relatively little gain if they’re on the fringe. There’s the lack of applicability to the underlying field you’re trying to refute. Another con is that you run the risk of presenting a straw man argument – though I try to make very clear that I am only addressing specific claims, not the entire field.

On the “do it” side, I think there are stronger arguments, providing you have the time. The first I thought of is that this person is still making their claims and they do have an audience. In Ms. Nazan’s case, she was going to be featured on an internationally syndicated radio show that reaches literally millions of people every night on over 525 radio stations. Many of her website page headings (her site, her blog, her Facebook) bill her as “Terry Nazon World Famous Astrologer” with the word “Celebrity” sometimes thrown in there. She also apparently makes enough money to run her website.

That led me to the second reason: She’s bilking people out of a heck of a lot of money. I’ll repeat the numbers – at least the current ones on her website – which are $4.99 per minute, $75 for an e-mail reading, $75 for a 15-minute reading, $150 for a 30-minute reading, and $330 for a 60-minute phone reading. I am still amazed at that – I cannot grasp that people are willing to throw that much money at her for something that says at the bottom of her website in very small print, “For entertainment purposes only,” and for someone who was absolutely so demonstrably wrong in her claims (as I illustrated here and here). A three-hour reading from her costs more than my month’s rent.

Third – and this is more minor – you get experience picking through arguments in a logical, methodical way.

And for me, that’s really enough. If (1) the person has a name for themselves and an audience, and (2) there actually is harm being done – in this case separating people from their money during a recession – then I think they’re fair game. It doesn’t matter whether they’re on the fringe of their particular field. You still get the experience of debunking someone, and hopefully some of the people being harmed will at least begin to doubt what they’re about to do. If by my blog posts I have stopped one person from contacting Terry Nazon for a reading, then I will be pretty happy and consider it worth it.

Similarly, despite using some of the more fringe claims of 2012 and Planet X stuff to address some of the more basic claims people make, my blog generally gets ~150-250 hits a day from people searching for information on the subject, or linking to my blog from forums or bulletin boards as a resource to learn what’s really not going to happen. I have actually received e-mails from people who say that they were very worried and my blog helped them to calm down from the hysteria that they were approaching. And of course the Comments section posts are nice, too.

What Do You Think?

This is where I normally sum up my position, but I think I already did that. Rather, I’ll use this quick ending to ask you, the reader, what do you think about this? Should people bother to spend time debunking more fringe claims in a field? Or is it just a waste of time? Please answer in the Comments!

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