Exposing PseudoAstronomy

September 16, 2012

Podcast Episode #51: The Fake Story of Planet X, Part 4 (Nancy Lieder)

Episode 2 of 2 for September is now posted, another in the series on the Fake Story of Planet X, this time the the saga of Nancy Lieder from 2003.

Yes, it’s an older case by over a decade, and very, very few people still take Nancy and her ZetaTalk site seriously.

But, I think it’s important for the sake of “complete” coverage of the Planet X phenomenon, of which she has been a major part. I also think that it’s informative of what’s going on today with doomsday ideas related to Planet X and 2012: The same crap that she spouted back then for the pole shift she said would happen in 2003, people are still using today for 2012.

Other segments: Feedback, Puzzler, Announcements.


July 14, 2012

Some Astronomical Errors at TAM 2012


As some of you know, I’m attending the James Randi Education Foundation’s annual skeptics meeting, “The Amazing Meeting” (TAM) this year for the first time. I’m excited to be here, meeting people I’ve grown to look up to for the past few years, getting thrown a shirt last night by Penn Jillette without even having to flash my moobs, gushing at idols, etc.

That said, in the absolute least bitter/arrogant way possible, and with all due respect, I’ve been amazed at the astronomy (and astronomy-related) mistakes that have made their way into talks at this conference.

Edited to Add (07/20/2012): I put an “Addendum” at the end of the post to explain a bit more about McGaha’s errors.

“Astronomy for Skeptics: Investigating ‘Lights’ in the Sky” Workshop

To be perfectly blunt, James McGaha’s workshop was bad. The workshop as a whole was scattered content-wise, not cohesive, and very little of the workshop focused on the advertised content. Besides this, roughly half of his informational statements were factually wrong.

After calming down after the workshop, I wrote down some of the main errors I remembered. Among them …

McGaha stated that the Maya didn’t have any math, they could only count, and that’s what the Long Count calendar was, just a count. True, that’s what the Long Count was, simply a count of days in multiples of 20 and 18 and 13. But the Maya – while not nearly as sophisticated as modern mathematicians despite what new-agers want to think – had a very complex mathematics system for their time. They could count, yes, but they could do things with those counts, and they could make astronomical predictions spanning hundreds of years with a good understanding of celestial cycles.

Technologically, McGaha claimed that all GPS compasses cannot actually tell direction via GPS, that they have a small magnetometer in them that must be calibrated every time. This may be true for some. Might be true for your cellphone, your tablet, and some GPS stand-alone devices. But I have a nice field GPS. It tells direction in part by simply seeing how I’ve walked the last few steps and thus taking a difference of the latitude and longitude in order to tell what direction I’m going. No calibration required. He also said that if you hold a battery close to it, it will throw the reading off. Um, no.

After he was finished doing demos with a two-inch device to a room of 300 people, he got into some photography stuff. Among many other things, McGaha consistently messed up “pixel scale” and “resolution” as well as focus and depth of field. I’m not going to get too much into the latter because I was busy with something else while he was going over it, but for the former … “pixel scale” is when you say something like how many pixels per unit of measure. Like, each pixel in a photo is 2 inches in real life of the object being imaged. Resolution, on the other hand, is how many pixels are there. A high-resolution photo is saying that it’s something like 26 megapixels versus 1.3. It may be the most out of focus, poorly imaged thing where you can’t separate two broad barn doors, but it’s still high resolution.

Later, McGaha tried to demonstrate the motions of the stars through the sky with some laser pointers. He got it wrong. He also had a graphic in his slide show trying to show how we define the coordinate system on the sky. His diagram was a bit wrong in how the celestial poles are defined (not from your local north/south, but exactly from Earth’s rotational axis projected onto the sky).

Finally, one of the last things that he talked about was how your eye tells color. He stated that your eye cannot figure out the color of a monochromatic light source directly, that it needs a comparison source to tell. That’s wrong. He also said that with a monochromatic light source, if you change the intensity, your eye will perceive a different color. Um, no. Take a 5mW and 25mW green laser pointer and your eye will see the same color, not different ones.

Ben Radford and 2012

This was a talk I went to because I wanted to see how a non-astronomer skeptic approached the topic. His half-hour talk was basically a run-down of previous failed doomsday predictions, the classes of doomsday prophetic ideas, some humorous clips and quotes from proponents of this particular one, and then a very very cursory (like, 5 minutes or so) overview of how this got started and the Mayan calendar.

There honestly (and unfortunately) wasn’t much meat to the talk, but when he did talk about the Maya, he made some mistakes. One was saying that the Long Count does end this year. This is wrong. It ends one of the 5125 parts of its cycle, but it ticks over to the next “one up digit” of it (like going from 9999 to 10,000). Another mistake was that Ben appeared not to know that this “next tick” may not be this year. It’s based on a correlation that may be wrong, and likely is based on the latest research. It could be easily off by any multiple of 52 years.

A third error in Ben’s talk was his statement that the “end date” only comes from one Mayan inscription. This was correct until a few months ago. Recently, archaeologists discovered another inscription from very roughly 1000 years ago that referred to it. Not a major issue, but it negated (or seriously minimized) his point, and for someone who is an investigator putting together a talk for a major skeptics conference, I was somewhat disappointed.

Ben also seemed to not realize that this meme did not start with recent movies and and books. It has a definite starting point in the 70s and a bit earlier with a few specific people (such as José Argüellas or John Major Jenkins or Zecharia Sitchen). He held up recent books, not the ones that started it.

Oh, and Ben, Tabasco sauce is not made in Mexico. It’s “produced by US-based McIlhenny Company of Avery Island, Louisiana” — check Wikipedia.

I was okay with Ben not doing astronomy nor a summary of what people thought would happen. I was okay with the direction of his talk because, as I said, I wanted to see how a non-astronomer approached it. But factual errors and a lack of research from someone like Ben Radford was disappointing.

Final Thoughts

I realize this post may have sounded a bit annoyed and crotchety. But this is a skeptics conference where we’re pointing out where OTHER people are making mistakes. We should not be making our own.


Several people have asked me how McGaha got the motions of the sky wrong. Here’s a short, abridged list:

  • He didn’t know which way was north in the room even though he had just been demonstrating compasses for the past ten minutes.
  • Second, he was trying to show motions of the stars about the north celestial pole with laser pointers but instead of continuously rotating his hand to show them moving around the pole, he just rotated back and forth, effectively running time forwards and backwards. Having taught intro astro for people who don’t know astronomy, they WILL think that’s the actual motion if that’s how you demo it.
  • Third, he said that no matter where you are on Earth, no matter what time of year, the stars will always rise 23.5° relative to straight up from the horizon. This is very wrong. For example, at either pole, stars will never rise nor set, but they will move in a circle at the same elevation in your sky.

July 8, 2012

Podcast Episode 43: The Fake Story of Planet X, Part 3

In this episode, I return to the 2012 / Planet X mythos with another installment (at least 5 total are planned) about “The Fake Story of Planet X.” This particular one is a conspiracy claim where folks think that Planet X is coming from the south pole which is why we can’t see it. Except that the government knows about it so built a telescope down there to observe it.

This episode also includes a bit of new news, Q&A, a puzzler (yay!), and a single announcement. Since I’m writing next week’s episode today and need to record it today/tomorrow, I am holding off on Feedback likely until July 24. Note that the solution to this episode’s puzzler will be discussed in the July 24 one so that people have enough time to participate in the puzzler (hint hint, nudge nudge).

March 26, 2012

Podcast Episode 28: The Fake Story of Planet X, Part 2 (Gilbert Eriksen’s Wormwood)

In yet another belated episode, here’s Part 2 of the fake story of Planet X, brought to you by Gilbert Eriksen as opposed to Zecharia Sitchen. That is all.

December 26, 2011

New Interview of Me on “Point of Inquiry” Podcast

Quick post to let you know that Karen Stollznow interviewed me for the December 26th episode – last of 2011 – of Point of Inquiry podcast. The subject matter was a summary of the 2012 phenomenon and associated phenomena, and it was appropriately titled, “The End of the World as We Know It.” It’s very, very roughly a 42.62-minute podcast, about the length of my own (so less detail on each subject). Enjoy!

And for reference, I figure it’s time to update my list of 2012 posts so far:

I have also written a few posts that are tangentially related to the 2012 subject:

And my podcast episodes so far on 2012:

November 6, 2010

Planet X and 2012: My Posts So Far


In roughly 19 hours, I will be interviewed on the radio program “Amerika Now.” It is a four-hour (~2 hr 45 min without commercials) radio program broadcast from Fort Collins, Colorado, and I will be “live” in-studio. It will be from 10:00 PM through 2:00 AM Saturday into Sunday evening/morning Eastern Daylight Time for the US (8:00 PM Saturday – 12:00 AM MDT, my local time). It is a call-in program (1-800-259-5791). One can listen to it live on the radio, streamed over the internet, or you can download individual hours of it from this page after it has been aired (I don’t know how soon, though it shouldn’t be more than a day or two).

Interview Topic

The episode is going to focus on the “popular” 2012 phenomenon. As such, I thought it was high time I did another listing of all relevant 2012 posts I have made on this blog:

I have also written a few posts that are tangentially related to the 2012 subject:

I will likely be referring to these during the program. For example, I may, after describing what the sky looks like on December 21, 2012, and that there’s no galactic center alignment, say, “And if you go to my blog, linked from this show’s website, you can go to my post “Planet X and 2012: What The Sky Looks Like On December 21, 2012,” and click on the image and see a star chart of what it looks like rather than going off my verbal description.” Hopefully I’ll be that cogent when actually on the air in the late evening hours (he says, writing this at 1 AM).

Full Disclosure

No, I’m not talking about the government “coming clean on UFOs.” I want to put this in writing, up front, for anyone who may ask, imply, infer, or conspiracize:

1. I am technically a government employee because (a) I am a graduate student on a stipend at a state school in the U.S. that receives state and federal money, and (b) the grant from which I draw salary is funded by NASA. However, I am further removed from being “in” the government than a person behind the counter at the post office. The only thing I have been told I am not allowed to talk about is space mission specifics to foreigners. Since I do not work on any missions, that does not apply to me in any way. I’m about as much a government employee as a bus driver (if the bus company is not privately owned).

2. I do not claim in any way to represent the University of Colorado, the Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences department, nor the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics. No, I was not told I had to say this, I’m just saying it because I find it humorous when other people do and wanted the opportunity to say it myself.

3. There is no spot on my tax form for “secret government hush money.” If I were being paid to “keep quiet,” I would live in a nicer apartment and drive a better car. And my car would have less dings in it. And I would have a nicer couch rather than a decades-old one I inherited from another grad student. And I would’ve bought Honey Maid graham crackers at the grocery store on Monday instead of Kroger (store) brand.

4. I am not trying to sell anything. I have no books out, no e-books out, no websites with advertisements that give me money, and no movies/films/etc. If you want to be very peripheral, I am trying to excite and keep public interest in astronomy because – let’s face it – astronomy research is mostly paid with federal money which is subject to you, the voters.

5. My goal in doing this is solely to help promote the public understanding of science with a hope that it may also assuage some fear related to 2012: How science works, how science is done, and specifically how it is not done. Depending upon the questions during the program, I may or may not be directly talking about this subject, and I may or may not also address the limitations of science (some 2012 beliefs are purely metaphysical and cannot possibly be addressed by the methodologies of science — and this has always been my position).

Final Thoughts

The radio show is described as: “Amerika Now’s refreshing and provocative discussions take both a serious and ‘tongue-in-cheek’ look at the headlines of the day as well as regularly featuring top-name guests in the fields of politics and political cover-ups, spirituality and philosophy, economics, science and global environmental issues, the paranormal, and other topics of keen interest to the listeners.”

From the episodes I have listened to, it seems much like a smaller version of Coast to Coast AM, for the topics generally trend towards paranormal, spiritual / intention, alt med, and sometimes conspiracy theories. The hosts are friendly towards these topics.

I expect that the interview will be interesting, and I think it will be a learning experience for all involved (I’m including myself in that!). I have never done an interview for – for lack of a better short, encompassing term – a “pro-alternative” program. My lectures and shows in the past have always been for the general public or skeptics groups, and my interviews other than newspapers have been for skeptical podcasts or radio shows (I have those as plural, but I’ve only been interviewed for one podcast and one radio show, though multiple episodes of each … though I should be in a video podcast episode that’s due out in a month or so).

I hope the program goes well and is interesting. I encourage you to listen to it … at least at the moment. That may change afterwards (I always have a hard time listening to myself do an interview). 🙂

October 31, 2010

Planet X and 2012: When Is “2012,” Anyway?


I was gone for over a week, without much e-mail contact nor modern things like air conditioning or heat. Which would have come in handy in sub-40° temperatures sleeping in a tent. During that week, it came to my attention afterwards that a chapter in a new book by Gerardo Aldana – an actual professor at a university (of California) as opposed to an “independent amateur scientist” – casts doubt on the alignment between the Gregorian calendar and the Mayan Long Count calendar.

What does this mean? “2012” doomsday via the Mayans may have happened up to 100 years ago. Interesting … we’re all still here.


As I explained nearly two years ago in my “Primer on the Mayan Calendar,”, we don’t know for sure when the Mayan Long Count calendar started relative to the calendar that most of the world uses today. The very basic way these two calendars are lined up is based on the timing of known events that were recorded in both, and then counting the years forwards or backwards.

For example, if I say that today is October 31, 2010, on the Gregorian calendar, how would you know what day it is on the Hebrew calendar if you didn’t have someone keeping track? Let’s say that, also, American independence was recorded on the Gregorian calendar (it wasn’t, it was Julian, but let’s just be nice) as July 4, 1776. It also happened to be recorded by a living Jew as 17 Tamuz, 5536. Now, you may not know what today is, but you can count the number of days since July 4, 1776, and get an idea what day today is on the Hebrew calendar.

Getting back to the issue at hand, the correlation to get December 20, 2012 = on the Mayan long count was based on work done a few centuries ago based on colonial documents (1500s) written in both Mayan and the Latin alphabet. It was later bolstered by an American linguist and anthropologist, Floyd Lounsbury, who did work with a Mayan almanac that charted important celestial events of the planet Venus.

Current Work

The latest work is by Prof. Gerardo Aldana of the University of California – Santa Barbara, who is a professor of Chicana and Chicano studies. In his book, Calendars and Years II: Astronomy and Time in the Ancient and Medieval World, he casts doubt on the correlation with the Venus tables. If the Venus tables’ interpretation is not correct, then that casts serious doubt on the historic correlations, since those were always less certain than the astronomical data.

Unhappily for doomsday proponents, perhaps, Aldana does not provide a new correlation, but simply the incremental work suggesting the old one is wrong.

Final Thoughts: What This Means

As I did mention in my original post on the Mayan Calendar, and as I suggested above, doing this kind of work is very difficult. There are many assumptions that need to be made, and there is often conflicting data. Fellow blogger and my internet acquaintance Johan Normark writes more on this issue in his post, “2012: The Long Count may be off by at least 60 days,” and I highly recommend reading it as he actually studies the subject.

I should also emphasize that this is one person’s analysis, and it was published in the popular literature as opposed to scientific (though in archaeology, the standards may be a bit different than in “hard sciences,” and I am led to understand from Johan’s post that he has been publishing this idea for a few years). Regardless, I am always wary of a single person’s analysis, and one should always withhold judgement until the other experts in the field can weigh in on it (even if it supports your own conclusions!). However, this is another piece that does add to the idea that the December 21, 2012 = may not be the correct alignment.

I have already shown that all of the major physical claims of doomsday proponents will not be happening around that time, and this is a nice addition to the story — that the supposed “triggering event” may not even be happening at the suggested time, either.

Will this change anything? Very very unlikely. I would be surprised if even one true believer were swayed by this new analysis. Fence-sitters, perhaps, but people who are invested in this idea will not change. After all, many still cling to the idea that a solar event will happen in 2012 because about 8 years ago, that was when it was predicted the height of solar activity would be in the next sunspot cycle. But forecasts for the last three years by the same people have shown that the height of solar activity will be in 2013 to 2014 instead … and yet out of the hundreds of people I’ve listened to spout doomsday ideas, only one has actually incorporated this new data into it.

July 19, 2010

Upcoming Public Talk on 2012 Doomsday – Fiske Planetarium, CU-Boulder, Colorado

I rarely do plugs on my blog, but this one has two parts to it so I thought I’d go ahead. I’ll be doing a public lecture / planetarium show this Friday, July 23, starting at 8:00PM at Fiske Planetarium on the University of Colorado at Boulder campus. The show will be about 2012 with the short title: “Doomsday 2012.” In the talk, I will be discussing:

  • History of the 2012 phenomenon.
  • Geographic Pole Shifts (and Planet X).
  • Magnetic Pole Shifts.
  • Galactic Alignments.
  • “Something” on the Sun.

Should be fun! The poster advertisement is shown in the image on the right. It was hastily put together by me after a misunderstanding today. I had seen a cool image that the planetarium was using to advertise the program, and I figured they had made their own poster, even though I had told them I wanted to make it (since, personally, I hadn’t been a fan of their posters in the past). Since I saw this image advertising the event on their website, I figured they had just forgotten. And also, I liked it, so I didn’t say anything.

I went to practice the talk today at the planetarium (and work out timing for various effects and use of the star projector) and noticed that the poster wasn’t hanging up. So I sent an e-mail asking about it and asking if I could have a copy for personal use. The reply came that they thought I was doing the poster. Sigh.

So I said that I was planning on it, saw they had one on the site, and assumed it was all done. Nope, that was just a small image they’d found online and was about 100×150 pixels … not quite the right size for a 20″x30″ poster. And their graphics guy was out until Wednesday.

So, I spent an hour this afternoon and came up with what you see. It’s not great, and it’s not as cool as the one they had found online, but it gets the message across.

Anyway, another reason (that second one I mentioned) for this post is that I had my fourth interview with a news paper in the last few years. The local newspaper, the Daily Camera contacted me last Friday and asked if they could interview me for a “5 Questions” column about the show. The reporter actually asked me 9 questions and chose the shortest 5 or so, leaving out a few that I thought were much more interesting, but that’s typical of news reporters. There are also two language issues I have with the introduction.

First, he calls me a “self-proclaimed skeptic” which to me sounds similar to a “self-proclaimed [insert topic of your choice].” I dunno, maybe I’m just being over-sensitive. The other is that he makes the ever-common mistake of referring to 2012 doomsday proposals as “theories” instead of “hypotheses” or really just “random nut-job suppositions.” Oh well.

The local skeptics group (Mile-High Skeptics) will be at the show and I’ll be joining them for drinks (FOOD) afterwards. So, if you’re in the area, come on by! I do have to mention that ticket prices are $6 for adults, $3.50 for children/seniors, and $5 for students with ID. Not that expensive, and – come on! – what else are you going to be doing on a Friday night?

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