Exposing PseudoAstronomy

February 4, 2017

Podcast Episode 157: Special Cross-Over with The Reality Check, Astronomy Edition

Altern’tive Title:
Yes, Virginia, there really
Is a Canada.

An episode three months in the making, a cross-over with the crew of The Reality Check (Cheque?) podcast: Astronomy! I had wanted to have the group on this podcast because they had been so generous over the last few years having me on several times, but I couldn’t figure out a good angle. Then, someone (sorry, forget who, but it wasn’t me) suggested we just do a TRC-style show but with astronomy topics. The Reality Check, for those of you who do not know, is a weekly Canadian show that is now just under a half-hour that has four hosts and typically three completely random segments per show. It’s almost nine years old, and it’s kept with that basic format throughout its entire run.

For almost all the segments, I asked them to choose topics from various requests that I’ve gotten over the years. We also did a quiz, in TRC style, that gave me a new appreciation for those on the show who conduct those quizzes every few episode. It clocks in at a little over an hour, which is still short considering that my original audio was nearly 1 hour 50 minutes. Pat Roach, the producer of TRC, did the first cut at merging everyones’ audio and cutting out all the stutters and restarts, so a big thanks to him because I did very little after his first cut.

Totally Not Creepy Podcast Cross-Over Episode

Totally Not Creepy Podcast Cross-Over Episode

January 2, 2017

Still No ET Disclosure!

I was listening to some very old Coast to Coast AM shows last night, from May of 2001. Richard Hoagland was a very frequent guest at that time (he has since been banned, but that’s an entirely different story). In this particular broadcast, Richard claimed that his statement in 2000 that 2001 would be “the year of disclosure” was completely accurate and he’d bet the farm on it.

In this context, “disclosure” means that the US government would officially admit that everything Richard has said about ancient civilizations existing throughout the solar system is true.

He said the same thing about 2010, 2011, and 2012. He said in 2013 that 2012 was the year of disclosure. He’s repeated since then that each year would be the year of disclosure.

He appeared on Howard Hughes’ “The Unexplained” a few weeks ago and claimed that President Obama, on January 1, 2017, in the afternoon, would reveal ET life had been found because it was 19.5 days from when he would no longer be in office (thanks for the tip from @JenniferRaff). (See here and here for why 19.5 is important to Richard.)

It’s January 2, in the afternoon as I write this. Still nothing.

The question is, how long are people going to continue to buy into those who continuously make false, charlatan-like statements? I, unfortunately, have a very dim outlook on the answer to that rhetorical question.

UFO in Washington (The Day the Earth Stood Still)

UFO in Washington (The Day the Earth Stood Still)

September 5, 2016

Recent Guest Spots (@trc_podcast and @dissonance_pod) and the Return of the Podcast, Slightly Delayed

This past week, I was a guest on two podcasts.

First off, Episode 413 of The Reality Check included me in their middle segment (sandwiched between helium-infused beer and whether Scrooge McDuck could really swim through money … yeah, I don’t know, how they pick these, either). I was primarily on to talk about the new exoplanet discovery around Proxima Centauri. I also updated the crew about New Horizons and we briefly talked about the non- but very much hyped-signal from possible ETs that is really really stupid (failure on all parts in this one, both the media and the astronomers involved, in my opinion).

Second, I was a guest on Episode 313 of Cognitive Dissonance to discuss Chapter 12 of David Icke’s 1999 book, “The Biggest Secret.” They were incredibly generous and even named their episode, “Exposing Pseudoastronomy.” The segment is from 27:30 to 53:15 on the podcast (mentioning this because their podcasts tend to run over an hour, while TRC is 27-28 minutes these days).

From this appearance, first, a warning: The podcast is explicit. They have a disclaimer up front for a reason. I tend to not be a very explicit person (it’s not just an act I put on for my podcast), but the segment (and very much the rest of the show) is not something I’d recommend for family listening (as opposed to TRC or my own podcast). Second, the sense of humor of the hosts is not for everyone. My housemate can’t stand it. My parents enjoy it. Your mileage may vary.

And finally, from the Cognitive Dissonance appearance, I asked to discuss chapter 12 because it seemed to have content most similar to what I talk about on this blog and my podcast, specifically a section on the hollow earth idea. We barely talked about that (as in, this was not an interview about the science and pseudoscience of the hollow earth). But, because I put in so much effort (and took so many notes!!) on Mr. Icke’s claims in this chapter, I expect to have an episode of my own podcast dedicated to his claims on the hollow Earth, potentially within a month.

Which gets me to the second part of this post, my podcast. I had fully intended – and hinted, and explicitly stated to several people – to relaunch the podcast on September 1. And then, last Monday, August 29, I got sick with strep throat. And then after starting antibiotics on Tuesday, I scratched my throat eating something I shouldn’t have on Wednesday; combined with canker sores, let’s just say that my mouth has not been conducive to recording a podcast this past week (I’m sure this is TMI). That said, yesterday (Sunday) morning was the first better morning in several days, and today is better, too. I expect to record soon – possibly later today – and do another episode for September 16, resuming the twice a month cadence. Soon …

January 6, 2016

Ever Heard of the EQ Peg Hoax?

Today, despite being sick since Friday, I finally finished a massive project of mapping about 48,000 impact craters on a region of Mercury for a mapping project that I’m a Co-I (co-investigator) on. Because a lot of what I do involves pretty much literally drawing circles, I listen to a lot of audio, and I recently began digging in my unlistened Coast to Coast AM archives.

I found from late 1998 the curious case of a claimed intelligent signal from the star EQ Peg, which is around 20 light-years away. Surprisingly, this was first promoted by the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation). Richard Hoagland was a proponent of it on the show, and even when it was determined to be a hoax, and the astronomer whose name was used was on the show saying someone used his name without his knowledge, Richard continued to promote some sort of conspiracy surrounding it. As did others, but they weren’t interviewed on C2CAM.

I was in high school when this all happened, and I never ever heard of it before a few days ago. I’m curious if any of you who may be a bit older than I remember it. I think it is probably worth putting in the queue for a podcast episode in the future.

As another interesting tidbit during this saga (I listened to about 7 hours of Richard talking about this across the month of November 1998), I found it interesting that Richard repeated a couple times that it’s “okay” to be wrong, just so long as you’re right more often than wrong. Yeah … that might be a separate blog post. I’ll just say for the sake of this four-paragraph’er that there comes a point where there’s right, versus wrong, versus wrong but thinking you’re right because you don’t know what you’re doing and you have a severe case of Confirmation Bias-itus.

January 8, 2015

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

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

Ahem …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I kid you not.

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

January 1, 2015

Podcast Episode 123: The Science and Pseudoscience of Communicating with Aliens with @KarenStollznow

Karen Stollznow talks
‘Bout the issues of ET

I wanted to start the New Year off on a lighter and different kind of topic, so I interviewed linguist, Dr. Karen Stollznow, about alien communication. This was based a bit on her TAM 2014 talk, and we got into a lot of issues not only with how communication is portrayed in popular media, but how communication is problematic amongst people on our own planet, different language groups on our own planet, and different species on our own planet. We then discussed – within that context – some people who claim they are in contact with aliens and how linguistic analysis shows the claimed languages to be poorly constructed variations on what they already know.

This interview was only meant to be a half hour long, but even after editing, it is just under an hour. That editing included removing a headset issue and two phone calls from my mother (family emergency). I tried to find a possible natural break to get it to two 30-minute episodes, but I found none: the conversation flowed very well, I thought.

There are no other segments in this episode because it is just over an hour long. The next episode should be about black hole denial.

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.

February 22, 2014

Podcast Episode 101: The Chualar Barley Field Crop Circle

Chualar crop circle
Was claimed by many as “real.”
Or, was it a stunt?

After a bit of a break due to the monumental effort in Episode 100, I bring you #101, my first foray into crop circles. I’ve wanted to do a crop circle episode for a LOOOOONG time, I think originally scheduled as far back as to be episode 16 in late 2011. But, this is the first time that I’ve found a good example of credulous reporting, “professional crop circle researchers” pulling out all the stops to say that this couldn’t possibly have been done by humans, the big reveal that it WAS done by humans, and the subsequent denial.

The episode was brought to you by:

  • Sacred Cows
  • Argument from Ignorance
  • Anomaly Hunting
  • Argument from Authority

Anyway, ‘n-joy and as always, let me know what you think (constructive criticisms, not rants, please).

November 16, 2012

Podcast Episode 55: Interview on Extraterrestrial Life with Dr. Brian Hynek

This nearly hour-long interview on a just-over one-hour episode is with the V-est of VIPs, my boss and former thesis advisor, Dr. Brian Hynek.

Brian is a professor in geological sciences at the University of Colorado, Boulder, where he studies Mars with a focus on understanding how and when Mars could have been habitable by life as we know it. This research program includes studying craters (me!), valley networks, other evidence for water, and traipsing around Earth for analogues for Mars, including studying extremophiles on active volcanoes.

The interview is mostly main-stream, covering a lot of the basics, but we get into some of the “PR Fails” of NASA, including the GFAJ-1 “arsenic” bacteria from two years ago and the ALH84001 Martian meteorite “nano-bacteria.” And, no discussion about Mars would be complete without a Hoagland name-drop once or twice.

Since this is an interview episode, and since it’s an hour long, only the Puzzler segment is present in addition to the main interview.

July 12, 2012

Phosphorus-Replacing Bacteria (with Arsenic) Falsified – Creationists React


About a year.5 ago, I wrote a parody of the response of the creationist, intelligent design, and UFO crowd to the announcement of a paper that had been published – and for which NASA held a large press conference – about the discovery of arsenic-based bacteria. (Note that I had some real responses by the creationist and UFO folks in the comments section of that post.)

I presented the announcement on this blog in the context of creationism and UFO=aliens folks because, after all, the implication (and the whole reason that NASA held a big press conference) was that if there is this bacteria that can replace one of the key atoms (phosphorus) in DNA with another atom (arsenic), it has serious implications for extraterrestrial biology. For example, a perhaps obvious implication is that you could thrive in an arsenic-rich environment as opposed to a phosphorus-rich environment.

At the time, this was a HUGELY controversial claim – as well it should have been (which I’ll discuss more in a bit). Many biologists criticized the study’s authors because they did not do some basic tests that would have made their case more convincing. The Skeptics Guide to the Universe spent nearly half an episode discussing why the original study’s authors did not do as much work on it as they should have.

Perhaps most egregious, the study’s authors were incredibly unprepared for the every expected media frenzy that followed. When questioned, the lead author responded with (paraphrased), “I don’t have those slides with me, I left them at home because I didn’t think I’d need them.” Also, there was (paraphrased), “That’s a conversation that should play out in the scientific literature.” I’m sorry, but that’s a really naïve response to someone if you’re in the middle of a press conference about your work.

Not that NASA is not to blame. I would hope that it’s the NASA press office that made most of the mistakes here, but as an organization, NASA should have more safeguards in place for this sort of thing if they’re going to hold a MAJOR press conference about a new study.

Now, time has passed, and new studies have been done on these bacteria, and the end result is what most had thought at the time: The claim was pretty much falsified. This has been shown in several now-published articles in prestigious scientific journals.

Media Reaction Now

Most “mainstream” media outlets are often criticized by scientists and skeptics because they rarely do follow-up articles. It makes sense to their profit margins because the stories that people are most likely to read are the “more interesting” original stories that have the sexy new result — regardless of whether that result turns out to be accurate or not in the end. Three years later if fifty new studies come out that all refute the original, it’s unlikely that it will be reported because no one cares anymore (except us).

With that said, you can probably expect the reaction in the media from these papers: Almost non-existent.

Original Authors’ Reaction Now

I can understand how one would feel if a major paper of theirs’ was later disproven, especially when there was a media frenzy surrounding it and it practically made their career. The original paper’s first author is now on a NASA fellowship, for example. Her public response has been that there was probably contamination in the transport process of the bacteria from her lab to the independent ones, so she still believes her results.

Young-Earth Creationist Claims Now

Meanwhile, creationists are pulling an, “I told you so” with these new papers. It’s another case where the reporting has been reasonably good from the creationists, likely because it’s a result that they think supports their beliefs. Creation Ministries International calls this “A Publicity Stunt Gone Bad” in one of their sub-headings on the new papers.

For background as to why, as I’ve written about before, young-Earth creationists tend to completely reject any idea that life exists off-Earth. My understanding on the reason for this is two-fold. First, it’s because the Bible says nothing about God creating life anywhere except Earth. Second, it’s because Jesus would apparently have had to reincarnate on every planet with life and die for their sins, too, and again the Bible says nothing about this.

So, when the initial study came out, the creationists didn’t like it and reported what the dissent side said more than the press release side. Now, they feel vindicated.

How Science Works

I’m writing this blog post while sitting in a workshop discussion at “The Amaz!ng Meeting” (TAM) 10, and Steve Novella is currently talking about how journalism fails these days because they report on EVERY preliminary study as though it is now THE answer. The lay public gets the idea that, “Oh, this paper is out, there’s a press release, it’s picked up in the media, it must now be what Science Sez.” This is even though, to quote Steve just 15 seconds ago, “Most of the preliminary studies are wrong … not only [are they] mostly wrong, but [they’re] mostly falsely positive[s] … and that’s massively misleading.”

This is more applicable in medicine (what Steve is talking about at the moment), but it’s applicable in probably every field of science. And, it definitely applies to this case.

Science is messy. It is a process that is usually long and involved. It takes time, it takes repetition, and it takes many people doing independent replications of the original work to verify the result (or, often, refute it).

The internet is a wonderful thing for science with collaboration and the ability of scientists to talk directly with the public. That’s what this blog is, in part — I’m a scientist talking directly with you. But it also means that, for one of the first times in history, the average person sees the intermediate science results before they become consensus. They see the mess.

The public is used to scientists knowing what they’re talking about and being The Authority on an issue, and most don’t realize that it’s really a long process that takes time and many different and independent studies. They learn about Newton’s Laws of motion and don’t understand it took years of development and trial-and-error to figure them out. They know about the atomic bomb, but they don’t realize it was a massive effort with many people working and many tests that failed or false leads that never worked out.

That’s really what this is: An example of how science works. It is self-correcting. It may take time, but in the end, it’s self-correcting.

Final Thoughts

And since this blog post is in part about creationism, I do feel the need to point out that Christianity is not self-correcting. That is pretty much the definition of dogma. People may ignore some of its tenants (how many different fibers are in your clothes today?), but those rules and apparent laws and facts are still part of the religion.

Why do our textbooks cost more? Because we revise them in light of new information. Bibles are cheap to produce because they don’t have to pay authors to revise them when new data is available.

That’s what this is: The scientific process in action. A paper was published that suggested a radical departure from what we thought was established, people disagreed with its methods and conclusions, and they did their own independent analyses. Many of those have now been done and are published, and as far as most scientists are now concerned, the original paper has been falsified. The scientific consensus is that we do not have any examples of bacteria that have replaced the phosphorus in their DNA with arsenic. Case 99% closed.

Except for the UFO people and conspiracy people who have incorporated it into their mythos. I’m sure they’ll still be referencing the arsenic-based life paper for years to come.

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