Exposing PseudoAstronomy

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.

December 29, 2008

Answers in Genesis Year-End Review of Astronomy – An Assessment


Introduction

Answers in Genesis (AiG), a young-Earth creationism think tank headed by Ken Ham (the folks that built the creationism “museum” within an hour’s drive of my hometown), has published their Year in Review for 2008, featuring a recap of their biggest headlines.

They address 13 main points, the first four being astronomy related. While they are mostly fairly benign in and of themselves, I thought I’d briefly address them myself and express my own opinions about their take on them.

(1) In Search of the Big Bang

The top of their list is a story about the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), an experiment that was unfortunately taken off-line until at least next summer due to a helium leak. The purpose of the LHC, operated by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), is to conduct four main experiments for the purpose of creating densities and energy levels (in very tiny volumes of space) that approach what physicists think the universe was like soon after the Big Bang.

Possibly because the LHC was never fully functional, this AiG wrap-up really has nothing much to say about it. Rather, the author devoted half the space to an ad hominem, non sequitur attack at something that (by the nature of it being a non sequitur) is not related to the LHC operations nor experiments at all.

(2) Water, Water Everywhere

NASA’s mantra has been “Follow the Water” for several years now, something that I addressed in this blog post. Briefly, the main reasoning is that the search for life is perceived to be “sexy” and something that inspires the public, and then hopefully congressional purse strings. The relation between water and life is that every form of life that we know of requires water in order to be active. Hence, we are most likely – based on our experience here – to find extraterrestrial life where there is extraterrestrial water. And it is much easier to find water than it is to just start searching for life.

With that in mind, AiG’s article then states, “Evolutionists seem to believe that observing the ingredients of life is evidence that those ingredients could self-organize. Taking this logic into the kitchen, couldn’t we say that since we observe flour, sugar, eggs, and the like, cakes are able to mix and bake themselves?”

There are two logical fallacies here, one for each sentence. The first is a straw man. As I have just explained, us “evolutionists” (“evilutionists?”) do not believe that observing ingredients for life is evidence that they could self-organize. We’re simply narrowing the search.

For example, let’s say that you were going shopping for a new shirt. The first thing you would do is to figure out where the stores are that sell clothes. The second would be to then systemmatically go from one to the other until you found one that sells shirts, and then from those you would search for a shirt you liked. That’s what astronomers are doing with the search for life. What you would not do is just go from store to store – be it a video store, grocery store, pet store, etc. – in search of your shirt because there’s no point in looking for a shirt in a store that doesn’t sell clothes.

The second fallacy is a false analogy. Putting out ingredients for a cake on a kitchen counter and then expecting them to assemble into a baked cake is just stupid. And that’s not what we’re saying happened with life. First off, origin of life study is not evolution. But besides that, what the current ideas for origin of life are is that you had molecules (not macroscopic cups of flour and sugar and eggs) that over time (as in not in the hour you leave them on your counter) happened to come together via external forces (as in not doing nothing with the ingredients sitting on your counter) to make a self-contained, self-replicating-capable protocell.

That’s very different from a cake magically assembling and baking itself.

(3) Earth Versus the Other Worlds

This section is just a massive two-paragraph argument from ignorance (not meant as an insult, but as a formal logical fallacy). This year was impressive in exoplanet research, which included the first real imaging of exoplanetary systems (one from Keck, the other from the Hubble Space Telescope) and the lightest-mass planet yet, one about 5 times Earth’s mass.

One of the many difficulties in finding exoplanets is that our methods work best with massive planets that are very close to their parent stars. And — gasp!! — that’s what we’ve found so far!! We, quite simply, do not have the technology to detect Earth-like planets yet. It’s really as plain as that. Saying that they don’t exist is a conclusion from complete lack of data – an argument from ignorance.

With that in mind, I will simply provide AiG’s section on this and then move on:

Exoplanets (planets outside of our solar system) have become one of the hottest topics of late in astronomy, as secular “astrobiologists” search for Earth-like planets among the stars. This year, we covered Super-Earths and the search for Earth’s twin; planets MOA-2007-BLG-192L, WASP-12b, and “Vulcan”; and the first-ever true “sighting” of an exoplanet.

Yet all this time, we’re still learning about how special Earth and our solar system are. As we wrote in July, “[I]n spite of the evidence that Earth is indeed unique and that the existence of life on Earth is no mere accident, evolutionists cling by faith to their worldview,” and (separately), “Everything we learn continues to point to the fact that Earth and its astronomical environment are anything but ordinary—in fact, our planet and solar system are unique.”

(4) Our Friend Phoenix

This is pretty similar to the first news item on the LHC – they’re grasping at straws:

As for most of Phoenix’s discoveries, we said in July that, “though [they don’t] prove the possibility of life, [they don’t] disprove it, either—and thus evolutionists use it as a basis for clinging to the hope that evidence of life may some day be found (and prove an evolutionary origin for life on Mars and elsewhere).”

What do they mean by “clinging to … hope” about finding ET life? Personally, I’m not big on astrobiology. It doesn’t interest me a huge amount. I think it’s a fascinating question, but I also think that influenza is fascinating and I’m glad other people are out there researching it but not me. But Phoenix had as much to do about “finding life” as finding water on Enceladus (a moon of Saturn). The instruments on the craft were not designed to detect life, they were designed to look for water (on Phoenix) and do general chemical analysis (on Phoenix and Cassini). I’m still not completely honed in on logical fallacies, but my call on this is pretty much an argument from ignorance wrapped up in a non sequitur.

Wrap-Up

I won’t be doing my own year-end astronomy news review, partly because I just started this blog in September. Personally, I may say that the biggest pseudoastro news would relate to either the conspiracies surrounding the LHC or Edgar Mitchell’s take on UFOs (he’s a former Apollo astronaut, so the UFO community used him as a massive argument from authority to back up their claims).

Consequently, I’m going to just address other folks’ wrap-ups, if they exist. And AiG has provided my first opportunity to do so. They bring up some very important advances in astronomy, but as usual, their interpretation is steeped in fallacies and misunderstandings.

October 23, 2008

NASA’s “Follow the Water,” Ice Detected by Phoenix on Mars, and Noah’s Flood


Since this is my first post in regards to an Answers in Genesis (AiG) article, I want to give a few brief comments on creationist articles that I pick to critique on this blog. In general, I plan to use materials from two main sources – the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) and the Answers in Genesis (AiG). Both try to use astronomy to promote creationism, but they are different in the way they do it. From my observations, ICR radio is fairly preachy, giving quick snippets of just enough astronomy to raise questions and then saying that it supports creation. ICR articles, however, seem much more intent on putting forth half-truths and incomplete stories (like the solar neutrino problem) and then having the reader question the scientific standards on their own.

AiG, on the other hand, is the most extreme. They present the astronomy information, then quickly turn it around saying it either fits or does not fit with a literal interpretation of the Bible, and if it does fit they say it’s real, and if it doesn’t then they say there are problems with it and it must be false because it does not fit with a literal reading of the Bible.

Since I am attempting to keep this blog fairly neutral when it comes to religion, deities, and other related matters, I will not be talking about “God’s plan on Earth,” or whether the biblical worldview is supported by astronomy or not. Only when specific falsehoods, half-truths, misleading statements, or false assumptions are made will I address them in relation to astronomy.


This entry is in specific response to the “More Ice on Mars?” article from Answers in Genesis, written by Peter Galling on June 23, 2008.

This article discusses the recent findings of NASA’s Mars Phoenix lander, a mission to Mars that has been operating since May 2008, analyzing the Mars surface and shallow subsurface (within a meter of the surface). One of the major science goals was to find evidence of water-ice (as opposed to carbon dioxide ice (“dry ice”)). It successfully did that, digging trenches and finding white material that disappeared (sublimated – turning from a solid directly into a gas) within a few days of exposure. For more information on the Phoenix mission, visit the Phoenix Mars Mission Homepage.

What I want to address with this post is the middle of the article, as the first part mainly outlines my previous paragraph:

“If Nasa has indeed found … ice on Mars, it would not be a major surprise for young-earth creationists. … In fact, this particular icy discovery should cause a cold feeling for evolutionists, who would much prefer to find liquid water but instead have found only this scant evidence of subsurface ice.”

Alright, let’s pause here. That first sentence, I have no real comment on – I mainly quoted it for context. The second quoted sentence is very close to a straw man argument, the logical fallacy where you create a claim to argue against, though the claim isn’t actually made by the other side. I say it’s “almost” a straw man because it’s true that it would be an amazing discovery that planetary scientists and astrobiologists would delight over if liquid water were found on Mars. BUT, almost no one actually thinks that liquid water on Mars exists today.

In fact, it is not possible for liquid water to exist on Mars’ surface, as any professional planetary scientist knows. That’s because water requires two things to exist in a liquid form – the right temperature and the right pressure. First, the temperature is too cold, so any water would almost instantly freeze at Mars’ surface temperature. Second, the atmospheric pressure of Mars is very small, and any water that was exposed to the surface would almost instantly sublimate (turn directly into a gas).

What is possible is for liquid water to exist in some form beneath the Mars crust. There, the temperature would be higher and the pressure greater such that liquid water could exist. It could also be mixed with salts which would lower the freezing point, as well.

So yes, while we would “prefer” to find liquid water, no one thought that Mars Phoenix would find it.

Next, I will address this:

“[T]he very idea that liquid or frozen water on Mars is a ‘big thing’ comes straight from the evolutionary faith that where there’s water, life will follow. In fact, that’s the entire premise of today’s Martian landers.”

This is confusing correlation with causation, another logical fallacy (assuming that it’s an honest mistake). NASA – and astronomers – do not think that where there’s water there’s life. That’s a fairly ridiculous assumption that everywhere there’s water you’ll find life. What they do think is that water is a requirement for life. Every single form of life that we know of requires water to live. That is why NASA’s mantra these days is “Follow the Water.” If we want to try to find extraterrestrial life, then we should be looking where there are things that we think life requires … an energy source, water, and physical conditions that can sustain it (such as protection from high levels of radiation).

That is why we are trying to find where water ice is today, where liquid water may be today, and especially where liquid water may have once existed on the surface of Mars (when it was warmer and its atmosphere was heavier). It would be those places that would be most likely to have once harbored life as we know it and we have the greatest chance of finding it. It’s not because we think that wherever there’s water life will magically spring up.

Finally, that’s not the “entire premise” of all of the Mars landers today. Yes, it is the guiding premise, and it may even be the main mission statement. But, missions are generally only selected if they can serve multiple tasks and yield information to answer multiple questions.

For example, the science mission of Phoenix has three stated questions to answer: (1) Can the martian arctic support life? (2) What is the history of water at the landing site? and (3) How is the martian climate affected by polar dynamics. You’ll notice that only one of those deals with life, two of them with water, and the third one is completely different. Phoenix doesn’t even have instruments that could detect life (such as derivatives of the Viking lander experiments).

The last third of the AiG article discusses Noah’s Flood extending to Mars, making statements about biblical worldviews as a framework for understanding astronomy, and other religious statements that really don’t address much astronomy, hence I will not address them.

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