Exposing PseudoAstronomy

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.

January 14, 2009

Pareidolia – The Face on Mars


Introduction

Way back in the earlier days of planetary exploration, there was a plucky little pair of spacecraft known as Viking 1 and 2 that photographed much of Mars between about 1976 and 1980. They returned thousands of photographs that provided the first global mosaics of the planet and are still sometimes used today (such as in my own research where there are gaps in the higher-resolution THEMIS coverage).

Among the regions photographed is Cydonia Mensae, named after a history city-state in Crete, that lies in the northern hemisphere. The region is very odd, geologically, lying on the border between very old regions and very young regions of the planet. Among the features in this odd region, however, is the infamous Face on Mars.

Pareidolia

Pareidolia is a fairly interesting facet of human psychology. Put very succinctly, it is the phenomenon where people find patterns where there are none. One of the most common, every-day examples is seeing things in clouds, like a duck or a car or your Aunt Beatrice.

Astronomy is really all about pareidolia – pattern recognition. Every single constellation is due to pareidolia (except triangulum, which is just a triangle of stars). Most of the common names of clusters and nebulae are due to pareidolia (North American nebula, Wild Duck cluster, or Coat Hanger Cluster, for example).

One of the features of pareidolia is that people will recognize a human face in almost anything. That’s the whole concept behind “smilies” that are in so many instant messages and internet forums these days. Two dots and an arc make a “very obvious” smiley face: : ). It can be made even more convincing by adding a line: : – ). Or a circle around it: ☺. Or, WordPress seems to actually insert the smiley for me unless I add spaces, so: :).

I go through this exercise as a prelude to the “face on Mars” because all it is is an example of pareidolia wrapped up in conspiracy and sacred cows.

Viking’s Face on Mars

Face on Mars from Viking

Face on Mars from Viking

The image on the right is the infamous face on Mars, as seen from Viking. It’s a feature that’s just about 70 pixels in height. It is also full of data drop-outs — that’s what all the black dots are. And that’s why this face appears to have a nostril. In fact, when I look at this image, I see the nostril there and my brain automatically thinks that it’s part of the image. But I ignore the other black dots. Again, just an example of really how pareidolia works.

Now, to nip this in the butt from the onset, it was NASA who first said this looked like a face. When it was released, people drew attention to the feature and pointed out that it looked like a face. However, it was dismissed as pareidolia by the Viking chief scientist, Gerry Soffen, who said it was a “[trick] of light and shadow.”

It was NOT later that someone else thought it did and NASA was all hush-hush about it. Among others, Richard Hoagland is probably the main proponent of this, and he sees it as evidence of a long-lost martian civilization. He also sees pyramids, ruined cities, tunnels, and other features on the planet. He also believes that there is an ancient civilization on the moon and that the Apollo astronauts were sent there to retrieve artifacts from it. This post is meant to talk about the face, though, and not meant to get into Hoagland’s beliefs (that could fill a book, and he has … I will likely address some of his ideas in future posts).

Newer, High-Resolution, Different Sun-Angle Images

As the heading of this section suggests, the face has been imaged again over the last 30 years. Craft such as the Mars Global Surveyor, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and Mars Express have all photographed parts of the planet, including the “face,” and including a 3-D perspective simulation:

Face on Mars - from Mars Global Surveyor

Face on Mars - from Mars Global Surveyor

Face on Mars - from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter

Face on Mars - from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter

3-D Projection of the Face on Mars - from Mars Express

3-D Projection of the Face on Mars - from Mars Express

From each of these, you can make out the features that gave rise to the original pareidolia effect of a face, but you can also now see that it’s really just a rock formation. It is not a well-carved human face. It was, as Soffen put it, just a trick of the shadows.

Accusations of “Processing” to Remove the “Face”

To be blunt, Hoagland has often accused NASA and others of either not processing images at all or processing them too much and removing “evidence” for his ideas. He has done this so many times in so many ways and writes so much about it (for example, here) that I really would rather not spend the time to go through every single one of his claims. Rather, I will give a brief overview of what “processing” images means in astronomy.

When most people take an image with a digital camera these days, they click the shutter, take the photo, plug it into their computer, and save it, maybe printing it or posting it on some social networking site. That’s really about it.

However, when astronomers take images, there is a standard procedure to take. First, the data from the camera has to be relayed to Earth. Because bandwidth is limited, it is often compressed. When it reaches Earth, image artifacts are removed in a known, set, mathematical way to remove things like bad pixels, an uneven sensitivity in the detector, dust on the camera lens, and other things.

If it’s a color image, then all of the different colors have to be processed in the above manner. Then they are each assigned a color and merged. VERY RARELY are images presented in “true color” – what the human eye would see. Often, one of the color channels is infrared (which we can’t see) or ultra-violet (which we can’t see) or the visible color filters do not match the color receptors in the human eye. They are usually combined to enhance certain colors or features to make them stand out better for later analysis. Usually, only when images are re-processed later for press releases are they done to approximate “true color.” They are also further compressed – usually shrunk in size and saved with lossy image JPG compression – before released.

With this in mind, any accusation that the original images that show the face were “unprocessed” and the latest ones are, or vice versa, is ridiculous. It’s simply not true, and setting up a straw man to argue from.

Final Thoughts

The “Face on Mars” is an excellent example of the pareidolia phenomenon. There are others in astronomy – and on Mars – which I will address in other postings, but this one is the classic. I hope that this post has shown you how the brain can be deceived as well as given you an overview of some of the conspiracy claims surrounding the “face” feature.

For more information on pareidolia, I highly recommend the “SGU 5×5” 6-minute podcast on the subject, “Skepticism 101 – Pareidolia” from Sept. 24, 2008 (note – link is for an MP3 file).

For more detailed information on standard astronomical image processing, I even more highly recommend a page from my photography site, “Creating Astrophotos.” It focuses more on images from telescopes than spacecraft, but the basic concepts and processes are the same.

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