Exposing PseudoAstronomy

August 17, 2015

#NewHorizons #PlutoFlyby – The Pseudoscience Flows #11 — Geometry Proves Aliens


This is the last planned post in this series of posts of pseudoscience related to the New Horizons Pluto flyby, until at least we get more images in a few weeks. This is also hopefully the last post that uses Richard Hoagland’s statements as an example of a style of claims made about New Horizons -related pseudoscience, at least for awhile. This particular one is NOT unique to claims that Mr. Hoagland has made about New Horizons and what the images show about the surface of Pluto and Charon; rather, he has made this particular claim about practically every solid body in the solar system: Geometry = artificial.

Let’s start looking at this claim as Richard makes it, for on its surface, it seems like it might make sense. Richard, whenever bringing this up, does not claim credit for it. Rather, he says that this comes from Carl Sagan (argument from authority), that when some of the first satellite photos of Earth were returned, Carl searched for any signs of intelligent life, and the only thing he could find was a dark logging road in Canada in contrast against white snow. That it was long and linear.

Hence came the maxim: Intelligence will reveal itself on a planetary surface by creating geometry. I have paraphrased it slightly, but unfortunately I don’t have the audio in front of me so I can’t state it exactly. But really, that’s the claim: If you see regular, repeating geometry, it requires life.

Now again, on its surface, this makes sense. People certainly make geometric patterns (it’s easier to drive on a straight road, for example, and we like to make square or angular buildings). We see nice geometric patterns in the animal and plant kingdom, too, including seemingly complex patterns such as spirals and the Fibonacci Sequence (which turns out to be an optimal pattern for leaves to get sunlight, and you see it (for example) in the patterns of seeds on a sunflower).

Life can and often does certainly create geometric patterns.

But so does non-life. The Grand Canyon is an excellent example of a fractal — an incredibly complex geometric shape. As do clouds, snowflakes, mountains, river deltas, and waterfalls. Valleys have a characteristic size given the environment, creating patterns of undulating waves. Sand dunes also have a characteristic wavelength and create undulating patterns. Individual mountains have nice, regular geometric shapes within the fractal pattern mentioned above. And so on.

In my particular field of study, we can look at impact craters. These are typically circles. Or ellipses. On Mars, there’s a certain type of crater that produces ejecta that looks like petals on a flower with nice broad, sinuous, regular perimeters. We also get craters forming all in a row, either from the impact or breaking up into a string of objects or ejecta from the crater itself producing them. These can have very regular, V-shaped ridges between them formed by overlapping ejecta curtains during formation. There’s also the famous “Meteor Crater” in Arizona which is practically a square: This was made by pre-existing faults that controlled the shape as the crater was formed, and we see these elsewhere, too. In fact, I was just in Arizona for a conference and you see plenty of flat-topped mesas which sharp, angular edges that form the drop-off of a cliff, controlled by veins of material with slightly different strengths.

These are all very regular “geometries.”

You do not need life to create “geometry.”

In fact, this kind of claim is so common in many fields of pseudoscience that it has a basic logical fallacy to describe it: The Single Cause Fallacy.

From its name and this blog post so far, you can probably guess what that is, but I’ll elaborate. It tends to go in this form:

  1. Item A can be caused by Thing B.
  2. I observe Item A.
  3. Therefore, Thing B was the cause.

This ignores the obvious: Many other things could be the cause of Item A, I just assumed that it was Thing B for whatever reason.

In this particular case, Richard and other people observe something that they have classified into the nebulous and ill-defined term “geometry.” And because life can give rise to geometric patterns, they conclude life made this “geometry.”

As opposed to a natural process that we see not only at home on Earth, with myriad examples, but all over the solar system, as well.

As opposed also to – in some cases that he and others have claimed – what really could be an intelligent cause: computer compression artifacts and/or electronic noise (think speaker static) in the camera detector.

My bet for some of the stuff shown across the internet is in that last category. My bet for all the rest is in that first category, that it’s simple, basic, geologic (and other natural) processes that can easily create regular geometric patterns.

While Richard is fond of quoting Carl Sagan when it helps him, he needs to remember other things that Carl also said: Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Pictures of features that could very easily be described by known, does-not-require-intelligence-to-explain-them phenomena do not qualify as that extraordinary evidence.

August 16, 2015

#NewHorizons #PlutoFlyby – The Pseudoscience Flows #9 — Young-Earth Creationist Take, Part 2


Terry Hurlbut Advocating Walter Brown’s Hydroplate Nonsense

In my Part 1 of this lengthy series of probably 11 posts, I talked about the machinations of Terry Hurlbut, one of the primary editors of Conservapedia and (I think) the founder of the incredibly ad-rich Conservative News and Views website that espouses über-right wing ideals and young-Earth creationism. He said that Pluto is red therefore it’s rusty therefore it formed from material ejected from Earth during Noah’s Flood.

In a follow-up post, Terry followed the same protocol as before, grabbing onto one tiny finding, saying it’s impossible to explain with modern science, therefore Pluto was launched from Earth during the Flood.

In this case, the finding was carbon monoxide (CO) ice, found in the “heart” area now informally known as Tombaugh Regio. Terry explains this by saying that during the Flood, Pluto and Charon formed by material ejected from Earth, which heated as they contracted, burning the plant matter that was also ejected. The gases released from the burning plants included CO, which fell as “rain” onto the surface of Pluto in what he claims is a basin that is now Tombaugh Regio.

Okay, I know I try to avoid ad hominem attacks on this blog, but I had to fight my brain to type that last paragraph. It’s so ridiculous, that unless one actually is familiar with Terry’s writings on his own sites and elsewhere, one would think it’s a really bad Poe or Onion article.

Terry tries to emphasize in his article that neither NASA, SwRI, nor JHU/APL (the three institutions involved in the mission) have tried to explain the CO ice. Therefore, we don’t know now and therefore Terry’s idea is the only one out there.

The thing is, we don’t have all the data taken yet. The data we do have is lossy-compressed. And scientists by their nature are very cautious about publishing hypotheses about something without doing a lot of tests of those hypotheses. AND within the mission itself, there’s the situation that it’s better to put out obvious findings now and save the possible interpretations later once we have more time to look at the better data and talk with more people and amongst ourselves.

Put in that context, it’s perfectly reasonable to expect that NASA would put out the press release about unambiguous findings of concentrations in one area of Pluto of CO (as in we found it, it’s in ice form, and it’s concentrated in one particular area) and have that be the press release, rather than add unnecessarily to it several possible models to explain it but “more data are needed, stay tuned several months until we get that data to test it.” That’s kinda a downer to close out a press release.

Institute for Creation Research Advocating Pluto’s a Comet

In a perhaps more mainstream young-Earth creationist venue, the Institute for Creation Research also has a take on the New Horizons mission. Jake Hebert wrote their article, “New Horizons, Pluto, and the Age of the Solar System.” It is a fascinating read if one looks at it from the standpoint of starting with one topic and twisting it into something completely different to argue against in a no less wrong way than most other creationist writings.

Here’s the train of thought:

  1. New Horizons went to Pluto.
  2. Secular scientists are going to tell a materialistic story without a deity about it but aren’t saying that so’s to avoid offending the taxpayer.
  3. That means we don’t understand how the solar system formed.
  4. New Horizons will yield information about Kuiper Belt Objects.
  5. These are comets.
  6. Insert everything that creationists have written about comets over the years that they think shows comets prove the universe (or at least the solar system) is less than 6000 years old.

Not only is it a strawman argument on their part, but by equating Pluto with comets means not only that everything THEY have written about comets over the years applies, but also everything that scientists – such as myself – have also written that thoroughly debunks their arguments applies.

For a taste of these, I refer you to my blog (post 1, post 2, or post 3) and/or my podcast (episode 3). Rehashing all those ideas here is gratuitous and a waste of space. And, there’s a reason why those are some of my earliest blog post and earliest podcast episode: They’re simple to debunk.

Answers in Genesis Telling You Half-, Leading Truths

Finally, another of the Big Three creationist institutions is Ken Ham’s Answers in Genesis. Danny Faulkner wrote their article on New Horizons, “Pluto’s Surface Is Young!”

Sigh.

Here is the first argument that Danny is making: Pluto has relatively few craters, therefore it must be young:

[S]cientists have found far fewer craters than they expected. […] Being far from the sun, Pluto ought to be very cold and hence not have experienced recent volcanism. Any primordial heat would have long ago dissipated, if the solar system were 4.5 billion years old. [… T]here ought not to be any significant geological activity sufficient to remove craters on Pluto’s surface. Compounding this problem for a 4.5-billion-year age for the solar system is the fact that Pluto is located in a particularly crowded part of the solar system. […] Therefore, Pluto ought to be undergoing impacts today at a higher rate than most other objects in other portions of the solar system. Planetary scientists who are committed to belief in a 4.5-billion-year-old solar system are at a complete loss to explain the lack of craters on Pluto.

Part of this is exactly the same argument (at least in part) that I debunked here, in my post about Venus, several years ago: “Venus and the Battle of Uniformitarianism (A Creationist Argument).”

First, Pluto does not have ZERO craters. It has many; it’s just Tombaugh Regio that has no unambiguous craters in the region that we’ve seen with the lossy JPG artifacting covering it. That means it likely has no craters >10 km in diameter, meaning it could still have plenty that are smaller.

Second, the whole way we get our crater chronology starts from the moon (which Danny acknowledges, and he actually gives a reasonable overview of the subject). We do see heavily cratered areas of Pluto. So if we see some areas that have a huge number of craters relative to other areas, it just means that the one with few craters (or maybe none) is much younger. How much younger, though? If Danny wants to say that the heavily cratered areas are 6000 years old, does that mean that the “heart” region of Pluto was created yesterday? Again — see the Venus blog post.

To bypass some more of the quote and get to the last statement, this is common among creationists: God of the Gaps. Set up a scenario and say someone can’t explain something and then say GodDidIt. Except, we have plenty of ideas of why there may be no craters over some parts. One of the main ones has to do with the second argument (in three paragraphs): The atmosphere. It’s tiny, but it cycles. Pluto is tilted almost like Uranus, except more. So for 124 years we have one pole facing the sun, and for 124 years the other. During this time, it’s likely that the ices on the surface near the sunward pole sublimate (turn from solid to gas) and some get deposited on the pole that’s in night. This gives you a “surface” that is literally no more than a hundred years old.

In fact, going into this, I was warned that several models predicted that there may be very few craters on Pluto simply because of this process, of not only ices being deposited as many, many layers of frost, but also because when they sublimate, they are removing that surface that had been cratered! So some predictions going in were that Pluto may have a few very large, shallow craters, but nothing else. Obviously that’s not the case, Pluto is more interesting, but to say that we “are at a complete loss to explain the lack [not!] of craters on Pluto” is bullocks.

Here is the second argument that Danny made: Pluto is outgassing nitrogen, and therefore it’s young because it is a body of finite size and because there should be some activity that releases the nitrogen.

Yes, Pluto was found to be outgassing molecular nitrogen gas. Though “outgassing” is the wrong word here — perhaps an honest mistake, but it’s wrong nonetheless. It’s that nitrogen gas is escaping from the surface, not being outgassed from below the surface (that we know of). So this is a classic creationist argument: Take the current rate for something, multiply it by 4.5 billion years, and claim it’s impossible. They do that with Earth’s moon. But in this case, Danny didn’t even do that simple math, even if it is wrong (the current rate may not be what it was in the past). 500 tons per hour means very roughly 2*1019 kg over 4.5 billion years. Pluto is 1.3*1022 kg. That means it would have lost a mere 0.15% of its mass due to nitrogen escaping over 4.5 billion years if the current rate has been the rate for 4.5 billion years.

Not a problem.

The third argument has to do with the very tall, 3.3 km high mountains observed on Pluto, where Danny argues that if Pluto is warm enough to have geologic activity to account for those first two things, it can’t be cold enough to support ice mountains.

The mountains are interesting. I don’t even remember if there are solid ideas yet in the team as to how they may have formed, but this is yet another example where scientists look for something to explain an observation, and creationists leap to GodDidIt. Regardless, though, both of the prior two arguments can be explained at least in part by atmospheric processes rather than geologic, therefore this is moot.

Finally, he argues that Charon has fewer craters than expected, and a large chasm, therefore it’s young, too.

Problem if we take this approach: How can Charon be older than Pluto? If we’re using the metric of craters (and incorrectly per the standard young-Earth creationist), and Charon has more than Pluto, then Pluto is even younger than 6000 years old, right? What is he trying to say here, that Pluto formed a few minutes before Clyde Tombaugh discovered it?

I’m also not quite sure where he’s getting that Charon has fewer craters than expected. I don’t remember this being discussed, but it’s possible I missed it. A lot of the issue for Charon (and Pluto, for that matter) is our ability to identify craters in these images. Most imaging is with the sun almost directly overhead. Meaning we can’t pick out craters very easily. Especially when all we have is lossy, JPG-compressed images. Think of photographing the full moon of Earth and then compressing it to 100 kb to send to your grandmother who’s running Windows 95 with a 56k modem. Not easy.

Charon probably has more craters than Pluto (no atmosphere). But our ability to find them right now is significantly hindered. That in mind, I’ve already identified a few hundred. Same on Pluto.

August 5, 2015

Why I Called Richard Hoagland’s Radio Show Today, Why I Used a Pseudonym, and What We Learned


Introduction

Warning: This is a long post. It references several other blog posts I’ve written, and two audio clips. That said …

Richard Hoagland has his own radio program now, “The Other Side of Midnight,” on Art Bell’s “Dark Matter Digital Network.” It’s a two-hour program that programmatically airs live, Monday through Friday, from 1AM until 3AM Mountain Time (hence it really airs Tuesday through Saturday in the US except Hawai’i). It is young, only in its third week, but already many patterns have emerged.

Readers of this blog and listeners to my podcast will know that I have critiqued many of Richard Hoagland’s claims in the past. Heck, the tree of episodes of my podcast even has a specific section for Richard Hoagland’s claims that I’ve addressed.

Last night / this morning, Richard had open lines calls. I made it through and was on for just about 13.5 minutes. Here’s why I called, why I was “Robert from Wisconsin,” and what we learned. Oh, and the reason why I’m outing myself here is that someone already e-mailed Richard and told him it was me.

Why Richard — Aren’t I Beating Up on Him?

Right off the bat, one might ask why Richard occupies a whole category of my astronomical interest in fringe claims. There really are two reasons, but first off, if you’re asking this question and you think I’m beating up on him, you should ask yourself, “Does Stuart have to justify why he focuses on any particular claimant or set of claims? Does he not have a right to do any he wants that interest him?”

In addition, I recommend you read this blog post: “Do Skeptics Hate the People They Debunk?”

That out of the way, there are, as I said, two reasons. First, Art Bell and Coast to Coast AM. And, Richard was one of the more frequent guests on said late-night paranormal program for nearly two decades. I spent a lot of time listening, and hence listening to Richard Hoagland. One is usually wont to focus on something that they hear more often than things they don’t.

Second, you can hardly swing a dead mouse in planetary science fringe claims and NOT hit a topic that Richard Hoagland has dipped into. He is prolific. And, I study planetary geology and, even more specifically, images and image analysis. Richard Hoagland focuses on claimed “geologic” features on other planets and moons and asteroids and comets, and he uses image analysis (faultily, I’d argue, but uses it nonetheless).

So, because of what I listen to, and because of his own prolific behavior in the fields that I focus on, Richard Hoagland rises to the top in terms of claimants that I tend to focus on.

Why Did I Call?

I called Richard’s radio program because I have often been encouraged to call into programs that he is on to ask him questions. This has been by fans of Richard, and/or by fans of my own material. Occasionally, it’s been in the form of “put up or shut up,” that I shouldn’t be arguing to no one, I should ask him specifically for explanations or justifications of his claims rather than just writing about them here or podcasting about them.

In addition, I’ve been encouraged by many people to “debate” Richard. That’s a separate topic entirely, but as a flavor, I wanted to see what would happen if I were to call, and attempt to just discuss one or two very specific topics with him, to get an idea of how a debate might play out. More on that in the “What I Learned” section of this post.

Why Was I “Robert from Wisconsin” Instead of “Stuart from Colorado”

I’ve never really known if Richard knows of me or not. Some people never “Google” themselves or never hear about people who speak of them. If I had called two shows earlier, I would have used my real name. But I didn’t, and here’s why:

John E Brandenburg was on Richard’s program the night of August 3/4, the show immediately prior to the one I called into. I have both written on this blog about Dr. Brandenburg and his claims and presentation, and I have podcasted about his main thesis, that Mars was nuked.

Back in March of this year, Dr. Brandenburg “presented” his ideas at a science conference. I documented it extensively on this blog because of issues I have of lending legitimacy to fringe ideas by “letting” them into science conferences. It’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t scenario: If you let them present, they claim legitimacy (as Dr. Brandenburg has done extensively, for in every interview I’ve heard of his on more than 4 radio programs, he cites presentations at science conferences as lending legitimacy to his claims), or if you don’t let them in they claim censorship.

However, despite my documentation of his presentation at the March conference, his recitation of those events contradicts reality. And, his statements of the conference, made just under two weeks apart, contradict themselves.

Here’s Coast to Coast, July 27, 2015:

“I was most recently at the Lunar [and] Planetary Science Conference, the premier conference on planetary science. I presented the paper as a poster paper for two hours. I got a lot of people [who] came up and looked at it. And uh, other planetary scientists, and no one contradicted me. No one said, ‘Oh, you got this wrong,’ or ‘That’s because of this,’ or something like that. Finally, one fellow just said, ‘Did they do it to themselves, or did somebody else do it?’ And I hadn’t even mentioned the term ‘aliens’ or ‘civilization’ at all. But it was obvious to him that something had targeted Mars for absolute destruction.”

Versus Richard’s program, August 4, 2015:

“I went and presented this stuff at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Houston in this March, and I got a lotta– I presented as a poster, they-they let me present it as a poster, and, uh– The best and the brightest, I could tell, came to my poster and argued with me and uh, we went back and forth, and finally nobody had any other explanation for the pattern of data on Mars.”

To me those seem mutually exclusive (either no one contradicted him or said he was wrong, or people argued with him). And it flies in the face of what I documented a few days after the fact, where he set up and was at his “posters” for no more than 15 minutes and only spent half that time actually at his poster and talked to perhaps one dozen random stragglers.

Anyway … In response to that blog post, at the end of June of this year, I was asked by another radio host if I would do a debate with Dr. Brandenburg. Here was my response, in full:

Thank you for your invitation to debate Dr. Brandenburg, live. I am going to have to decline. While I stand by what I wrote and my opinion about his ideas, doing a live debate on this topic is not something that I can do. The reason is subject matter expertise.

For example, if we were to debate about the chronology of the Moon or Mars, especially from impact craters, I’d be all for it because that is my research area. If we were to debate on the “Face” or “Pyramids” on Mars, I could do that reasonably well because it is something that I have heavily researched over the years and know the topic and arguments well (though I know Richard Hoagland’s and Mike Bara’s arguments about it better than John Brandenburg’s). The same goes for Planet X, image analysis, the “true color” of Mars, and some other topics.

However, I am not a spectroscopist. I’m not a nuclear engineer. When I have addressed Dr. Brandenburg’s claims, I have had to do external research for each claim. The same goes for the two e-mail exchanges I have had with him. While I am still confident in my conclusions based on that research and what I know about related subjects (e.g., his implication about the age of Lyot crater and that being one of his favored nuke sites — it doesn’t work with the chronology he needs), this method is not conducive to a live debate, and therefore I decline.

If you are referring specifically to my points about how to behave at a scientific conference and Dr. Brandenburg’s presentation there, there is nothing to debate. What I stated is objective fact, and I have documentation for much of what I stated.

If you would like me for a different program to discuss something I named in the second paragraph or is aligned with my research (http://about.sjrdesign.net), then I’d be happy to discuss it further.

In that response, I clearly laid out that Dr. Brandenburg is not someone I’m comfortable debating live because of the subject matter expertise in that area, versus other things I could debate live. I think that’s pretty clear.

However, in the same interview on Richard Hoagland’s show, starting 1/3 of the way through the second hour, there was this exchange. (The audio is posted here.)

JEB: “I’ve had one, one uh Mars blogger go after me.”

RCH: “Who?”

JEB: “I challenged him– This guy named Stuart Robbins.”

RCH: “Oh! Yes! [grunts/groans]”

JEB: “Well I challenged him for– to a debate–”

RCH: [chair squeaks on floor]

JEB: “He won’t debate me.”

RCH: “He won’t debate you? Now that’s interesting. Because he has challenged uh Bara to a debate. [laughs]”

JEB: “Well. He should cha– he, you know, I– I’m– I’ve challenged him to a debate, he won’t debate me!”

RCH: “Uh, does he say why?

[Either the stream loops, or they just repeated verbatim the last two sentences.]

JEB: “Um. [pause] He-he– he basically told a third party he felt he didn’t have enough expertise.”

RCH: “Wait-wait-wait a minute. He doesn’t have enough expertise, but he can– [during this time, JEB was talking over/under RCH, here’s where JEB started to dominate]”

JEB: “[reconstructed: he has enough expertise to criticize my work] but he doesn’t have enough expertise to– He’s just a [unintelligible] troll.”

RCH: “Well yes, he is a troll. You know– is he–”

JEB: [again, here’s where JEB started to dominate over RCH since they were speaking at the same time] “and I so, anyway so, um–”

RCH: “John, John, hang on. Is this the same Stuart Robbins astronomer who is attached to the New Horizons mission in Boulder, at Southwest Research Institute?”

JEB: “Oh, of course he is!”

RCH: “That’s the guy.”

JEB: “Yes!”

RCH: “He mentioned me and Keith Laney in connection with our Pluto discussions the other morning. Out of all the people in all the gin joints et cetera, [JEB laughs] for some reason he brings up us because we’re discussing arcologies visible– John, you gotta look at these Pluto images! Everything we’ve seen at Cydonia that’s in ruin, horrible ruin, is in such better condition at Pluto, and the images are not the highest res!”

They called me a “troll.” Now let me make it clear, I’m not protesting that term. If what I do is their definition of “troll,” so be it. For the record, before last night, I had never communicated personally with Richard, and John has only initiated contact with me before. And my dictionary’s definition of “troll” with respect to the internet is: “make a deliberately offensive or provocative online posting with the aim of upsetting someone or eliciting an angry response from them.” I’ve never had the aim of upsetting someone with my Exposing PseudoAstronomy work, nor eliciting an angry response, so I don’t think I fit the definition of “troll.” If Richard or John want to play scientist (uh oh, did I just troll?), then they need to recognize when something is aimed at them versus their claims, and they need to know how to take criticism of their ideas and come back with better evidence of those ideas, not just call someone an “idiot,” “hater,” or in this case “troll.”

But besides the name-calling, John completely misrepresented my response to the radio host in terms of why I declined a debate.

So the reason that I used a pseudonym when calling Richard this morning was that I didn’t want him to reject my call because of who I am, nor did I want him to enter the conversation with preconceived ideas. You might disagree with that reasoning. It was also 2AM my time and I was falling asleep. But I stand by using a pseudonym for the reasons explained above.

What I Talked About

Colorado is a one-party consent state, so I can legally post the full audio of my call without worrying about fair use of nearly 14 minutes of a radio broadcast. Here is the audio, in its 4.2 MB “glory.”

My intent was not to really argue with Richard. There was also no real point in going on and saying who I was and I’d like to debate him, that’s incredibly confrontational and I saw no reason for it. Instead, I wanted to ask him about two things specifically:

  1. Why does Richard keep calling things a “model” as opposed to putting his £1 down and saying whether he thinks something or another is true?
  2. Why has Richard not identified (or searched, if he has) his lunar “glass towers” in any imagery other than scanned Apollo photographs or small, JPG’d Chinese photographs of the moon?

Let me explain each …

#1 might seem trivial, and indeed, Richard tried to say exactly what I knew he would say but I didn’t get the chance to be specific: He said that he says “model” because it is a “model based on data” and subject to change based on more data. This is very scientific. And on its face, is the hallmark of someone following the scientific process.

However, as Richard tends to implement it, it is a crutch to fall back on when he is shown to be undeniably. For example, that comet Elenin was a spaceship was a “model” that Richard insisted, based on the “data” at the time, but Richard insisted that it was really true, and he used language such as “undeniable” and “proof.” He’s since generally refused to address it after Elenin broke up. Meanwhile, his latest and “greatest” stuff about archologies on Pluto are also a “model” that he insists is real based on the “data” that he has.

You might be asking where I’m going with this since it seems like he’s doing exactly what I said should be done. This is subtle, so stick with me (and you may disagree). A scientist will say that they have built a model based on the data, and they think it’s true because there is not contradictory data. As soon as some comes up, they change their model. Richard, on the other hand, seems to use the term “model” to mean “Absolute Fact” when he comes up with it and fervently insists it’s real (using additional words like “prove” and “undeniable”) – despite issues raised by other people about it – but then when it turns out to be false based on overwhelming evidence against it, he’ll explain it away by saying, “that was just a model, a scenario.”

You simply can’t have it both ways, but Richard seems to try.

#2. Moving on, the second point is something Expat has written more about than I, but I addressed in a very extensive blog post a year ago, “Is Camera Noise Evidence for Ancient Advanced Civilization on the Moon?” Unfortunately, at 2:20AM, I said “JPEG artifacts” instead of “camera noise” which I’m kicking myself for now.

But here was the point I was trying to get across: Inconsistency. Richard claims there are glass towers on the moon. His evidence A is Apollo photographs of the lunar sky that were in an album of Ken Johnston for decades and then he scanned at home. His evidence B is the Chinese images that I linked to in the blog post in the previous paragraph.

The question I was trying to get across is that he has these two missions’ data, but that the anomalies he’s seeing could be fairly easily explained by something mundane: Dirt on the photos or scanner for Apollo, and detector noise, optical effects, and compression artifacts for the Chinese images.

It’s not possible today to get literally original images of Apollo, they are stored in vaults that ain’t no one touchin’. The Chinese space program – like most government things in China, is very closed, and the at least claimed original, raw images from the spacecraft are not available in any public archive I’ve found.

So my attempted question was simple: Has he seen these features in ANY of the OTHER space missions’ digital images that you can get in at least what is claimed as original, raw format? E.g., any from Clementine, Lunar Prospector, Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, Kaguya, Chandrayaan-1, etc.?

Once I finally was able to sort of get the question out in mangled form (more on that in the next section of this post), Richard’s response was, how do we know that those official raw images are really real and unaltered? You can just have a computer do a levels clip to remove the glass towers.

But that’s where the inconsistency is: It appears as though Richard is arguing that official images that show what he wants them to show are real and original, but those that don’t show what he wants them to show are altered. It’s a tautology, a circular argument:

  1. How do you know if those features are real?
  2. If they are on an official image, does the image show those features?
  3. If not, then the image has been faked. If the image shows those features, then the image is real. Therefore, since the image is real, the features are real.

Or something very close to that. In other words, you can’t use the premise that the only real, unaltered images are ones that show your features of interest as the criteria for whether your features of interest are real. It’s also highly suspicious that the only images that Richard says he sees his features in are ones that really are more simply explained by some other process, rather than those images that scientists would actually use from other spacecraft.

Or, perhaps it’s the assumed major premise fallacy. Regardless, hopefully you have gotten my point, and it’s what I was trying to get across in my call.

What Did I Learn?

From listening to over two decades of Richard’s interviews, I knew the basics of what to expect, that Richard would (1) allow me very little time to speak, and (2) tend to go on unrelated tangents. I thought I was prepared.

If you listen to the audio, I encourage you to time how long I spoke versus Richard. I also encourage you to count how many times I attempted to ask my second question, and how many times Richard went on a tangent.

So one thing I learned is that I canNOT – even if offered – debate Richard on his own program without a fair moderator. Even when Richard is hosting a normal show with a single guest, Richard spends at least an equal time talking as the guest, if not more. That’s untenable in a debate, to be both a debater and the host. Let’s put it this way: He’s so passionate about his claims that he has demonstrated an inability to self-moderate and keep himself on-topic and to a time limit.

Another thing I learned was that if Richard wants to tell a story, he will tell it, regardless of what you’re trying to ask. Seriously, listen to the audio. Then see the above paragraph. I don’t think I’m being unfair in this statement.

This makes the third thing I learned, that it is very, VERY difficult to ask a question that’s longer than one sentence. Because I kept trying to set up my second question by giving the preamble that people have found holes with his Apollo and Chinese images (background) that he should look to images that are unambiguous with his critics (question/statement), he kept jumping on to try to explain tangents related to the background statement that really didn’t have anything to do with my question.

This is yet more reason why any debate would need to be very, very structured. Not only with an independent moderator, but also with topics prepared ahead of time such that the moderator would keep the debaters to them. Even when I made the side-comment about much of the Apollo photographs referenced by conspiracists being film positives rather than negatives, Richard went on a roughly 2-minute tangent (guessing here, I haven’t re-listened to time it). Those tangents add up and really don’t add anything to the conversation.

Another thing I learned is that Richard will use semantics to explain something or make a point, regardless of its validity. For example, “model.” For another example, when I was trying to ask my second question for the Nth time, Richard said that his critics are “idiots” who think that his glass structures on the moon that he sees in Apollo images could be dirt on the photos or scanner. I said that they have an “explanation” for it, and Richard said they didn’t. I said that’s semantics — they do have an actual explanation, he just may disagree with it, and it may be valid or invalid, but they do have an explanation. Richard again said that was wrong, and that he wasn’t playing semantics. He was. According to my dictionary, “explanation” is “a reason or justification given for an action or belief.” It says nothing about that being a valid action or belief.

Final Thoughts

That’s a lot of text, over 3300 words. And I may add a bit as the day progresses and I think of more things.

I’m not going to go through the call and dissect it bit-by-bit, there’s no real reason for that.

But, there you have it, why I called in (encouraged to do-so), why I used a pseudonym (he called me a troll and I didn’t want that to bias the call), and some of what I learned.

Oh, and add to Lessons Learned: I need to use my good microphone, and I need to have a drink of water next to me. My voice was higher than normal during the call.

July 23, 2015

#NewHorizons #PlutoFlyby – The Pseudoscience Flows #7: Very Few Craters ‘Cause of Pluto’s Orbit


I swear this time, a very quick post. As with the last one, I’ve seen this claim not only on science forums but also pseudoscience forums and radio. The form goes like this: Pluto has surprisingly few craters because its orbit is inclined 17° relative to the plane of the solar system, where most impactors would be.

I’ve said it before (especially with respect to global warming deniers), and I’ll say it again here: Scientists, in general, are not stupid.

We take that into account. We also take the very low impact speeds into account. And the expected porosity of impactors. And potentially different impactor populations. In fact, Sarah Greenstreet’s thesis work was just published a few months ago, “Impact and cratering rates on Pluto,” that explicitly models a s— -load of different possible impactor populations and therefore possible crater populations, explicitly integrating the orbit of Pluto through time that – ¡gasp! – takes into account its orbital inclination. As an aside, I don’t know what “blogs” Richard Hoagland happens to be reading, but I can guarantee that scientists involved on the mission science team are not assuming that the impact rate and type at Pluto are the same for the inner solar system.

And besides that, it’s not entirely “surprising” that it has so few craters. This was predicted at least over a year ago to be a consequence of sublimating and refreezing of the atmosphere. What is surprising is the relatively few craters on Charon, though the one decent pixel scale image with favorable sun for mapping craters that we have so far does show many dozen.

Scientists unfortunately often forget that they know lots of stuff that other people don’t know, and things are taken for granted. I think, unfortunately, that when people have remarked about the “surprisingly few” craters observed on Pluto, that is taking into account Pluto’s orbital characteristics. It’s implicit, because it’s a “duh” point for those who tend to talk about it, and they forget to mention that this is implicit.

Podcast Episode 137 – Why Earth Is Old, Without Radiometric Dating


Finding age of Earth
Does not require just Rad-
ioactiv’ty.

The next episode! It was actually recorded three weeks ago, but I was so busy with New Horizons that I never got time to edit and then post it. So, here we go, the different ways scientists got minimum ages for Earth – without using radioactivity as a technique.

Plus two feedbacks! For a half-hour fun-pack!

July 21, 2015

#NewHorizons #PlutoFlyby – The Pseudoscience Flows #5 — My Own Error


I’m going to shift a bit here, though the next two posts on this topic are already planned (though Sharon over at Doubtful News just pre-empted me tonight on the Crrow777 stuff that’s hit Newsweek). Instead of discussing pseudoscience that I’ve seen elsewhere, I’m going to discuss my own. Not pseudoscience, per se, but where science can go wrong when you have little sleep and are under extreme pressure to do things quickly.

But before I get specifically to this, I want to emphasize: News reports that there are “no craters on Pluto” are wrong. There are clearly impact craters. It’s that there are no unambiguously yet observed impact craters on Sputnik Planum. That out of the way:

I made a boo-boo. But, science is ultimately self-correcting because if it’s wrong, then when people try to duplicate it, they will get different results …

I generally study impact craters (among other things). One of my primary science areas of research for the Pluto-Charon system is to understand their crater populations to tease out what the impacts are like out there 40AU from home and what the geologic history of the bodies are. To do that, you have to map craters. I’m going to be focusing on that in the coming months (and currently) and I’m also going to be focusing on how our mapping changes as we start to get lossless data and higher pixel-scale data (not higher “resolution,” for “resolution” means number of pixels, while “pixel scale” refers to the length per pixel). This latter focus has been something I’ve been publishing on in the last year.

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, images right now are being sent down lossy compressed. Meaning they are full of JPEG artifacts that wash out a lot of small features … like impact craters. So when mapping, I’m assigning a subjective confidence level that indicates how certain I am that a feature is a crater or not. Since we have repeat imagery, already, I’m going over each area multiple times, blindly, with the different images.

One area that’s hit the news is Sputnik Planum, on the “left” side of the bright albedo feature Tombaugh Regio. It’s bright, and it’s young, and we know it’s relatively young because it has no unambiguous impact craters in the images that we have so far. I’m very careful with that phrasing: unambiguous impact craters in the images that we have so far.

Except, I thought I found one. A rather large one. But I didn’t.

When I initially mapped it in the image that came down a week ago (the full-frame image that was unveiled the morning of the encounter), I gave it a confidence level of 4 out of 5. We had the lossy-compressed JPEG version of the image, and after we had attempted to remove some of the JPEG artifacts through Fourier Transform truncation and then deconvolved it with the point-spread function of the camera (the camera inherently blurs things a teeny bit), it looked like a crater, and I was pretty certain it was a crater. Since it was many pixels wide and the image had a pixel scale of 3.8 km/px, that is a significantly sized crater, at least 30 km in diameter.

Except, it wasn’t. We have since gotten a mosaic at 2.2 km/px of the planet, and we have gotten higher pixel scale images at 400 m/px that have not yet been released. In none of these is that very large, very obvious crater present.

What happened?

We made a tiny artifact bigger by image processing. It was a simple cosmic ray hit.

Here’s what happened:

  1. Cosmic ray hit the detector, meaning there was a very bright pixel with a lot of electrons in it.
  2. This detector has the annoying property that if you have a bright spot, a dark streak forms behind it. You can see this in all of the over-exposed hazards search images. So the bright pixel now had a dark streak behind it.
  3. This was lossy JPG compressed on the spacecraft by a severe amount. Heavy JPG compression can make things “ring” because it represents the data as a series of cosine waves.
  4. One of our basic image processors took that image and first deconvolved it, sharpening the ringing JPEG noise.
  5. He then looked at the image in frequency space and made a series of clips that when brought back into spatial space (what we’re used to) will dampen a lot of the obvious JPG blockiness and make for an image that is more aesthetic and helps to make out a lot more features because you don’t have the 8×8 grid of JPG blocks dominating.

This is perfectly reasonable to do, and so long as you understand the kinds of artifacts that it can introduce and don’t over-interpret it, you’re fine.

Unfortunately, it makes this particular kind of cosmic ray hit on this particular detector look like a very clear, very obvious impact crater. Despite my best efforts at not over-interpreting early images that clearly showed artifacts from the image processing, I over-interpreted this feature.

Fortunately, it never made it into a press release or a paper (though I will be talking about it in a paper I’ll be writing as a cautionary tale), but when doing stuff like this, I’m always reminded of how (and this is going to sound arrogant) I’m different from a pseudoscientist, and how working on skepticism for the past (nearly) decade has helped me to become a better scientist. Someone like Richard Hoagland, Mike Bara, Keith Laney, or the guy I talked about in the last blog post probably would not hesitate to make a big deal out of these kinds of features.

To be blunt, I’m a crater expert. I am considered to be an expert in mapping impact craters due to my experience at mapping over 1 million impact craters across 7 solar system bodies (so far). Yet, I made this significant mistake. What separates me from the pseudoscientist, though, is that when I was presenting this to people, I said that this looks very much like a certain crater, but we need to wait to see the uncompressed version of the image, and we need to wait for the higher-resolution maps before saying it’s certain. And if it isn’t, “it will be very interesting to figure out why it isn’t a crater.” I specifically said that in a team meeting on Sunday.

Many things right now are provisional simply because of the very lossy image compression. Features like craters are particularly difficult to tease out, unless they are very large and very obvious (as are many). Contrast that with the people trumpeting “geometric structures” on Pluto and Charon in these images. Of course there are “geometric structures” that were “artificially created” … all in the lossy JPG compression algorithm! I keep thinking I’m repeating myself with this — and I am — but people still keep making this claim.

But, I’m perfectly willing to be corrected. In fact, I have now written 1000 words about how and why I was wrong, and the exact reasons and process that led me to that erroneous conclusion: Based on better data, I can re-examine things and see what went on and if it’s real. Contrast that with what I listened to earlier today which was a discussion between Richard Hoagland, Keith Laney, and the host of Skywatchers Radio. This quote involves all three men, talking about the Norgay Montes image released last week, and where one stops and the other starts doesn’t really matter, for all three were complicit in this train of thought:

“Look around in that image. You will be amazed. The more you look, the more you’ll see. It’s pretty incredible. Blow the image up as much as possible and look at every little part of that image. There’s so much artificial stuff in there! Again, as denoted by the geometry.”

QED

July 18, 2015

#NewHorizons #PlutoFlyby — The Pseudoscience Flows, Part 3


Introduction

I honestly haven’t seen this one that I remember — yet (I’m working on very little sleep and 14+ hour days right now) — but I suspect it’s only a matter of time from more conservative religious conspiracists: The naming scheme for Pluto and Charon. Some background is needed …

Names

In planetary science, one might wonder why we care about naming things. It seems to be a remarkably human-centric thing, for why should we have to feel like we need to stick a name on everything?

The answer is ease of communication. If you say “Tycho crater” to just about any planetary scientist, they know the exact lunar crater you’re talking about. Same with “Copernicus crater,” or “Mare Imbrium.” The alternative is something like, “The big crater with bright rays near the bottom of the moon if the north is up.” Or something like that.

Other than historic objects, things these days on planetary surfaces generally only get named if there’s a reason for it: As in, it’s an interesting feature that we’re going to be talking about a lot. Not every feature on every body is named.

International Astronomical Union (IAU) Policy for Pluto System

Because Pluto is the Roman god of the underworld, and Charon is the Greek ferryman of the dead to the underworld, the International Astronomical Union — the only official naming body in the world for naming stuff in the solar system and beyond — decided that the theme of “underworld” is going to stick, at least for major features. Sometimes this varies, but more on that later.

There is a sizable component of conservative Christians who think that any naming, or any reference, to such is an affront to their god, that it is occultism, Satan worship, etc.

Another side-rule is that no name should be duplicated.

Process

There are lots of “levels” of names. There’s the official IAU name. There are provisional, recommended names to the IAU. There are “for fun” names used within the science team. And there are “would be nice” names used by individual people.

As an example of the last item, there are many craters right now on Pluto and Charon named “Robbins” with a lot of numbers after it. For a friend, there are two “Banks” craters (one because I’m not sure if it’s real because of JPG compression artifacts). But that’s just for fun.

The more formal process, those other three levels I mentioned at the beginning of this section, varies somewhat. In the case with New Horizons and the Pluto-Charon system, a public website was launched months ago where people could both recommend and vote on names.

This was vetted by a very small group within the New Horizons science team, raking names by popularity, looking for gender and ethic biases, removing incredibly offensive names, and removing those used elsewhere (e.g., there’s a “Lonely Mountain” on Titan, so even though we’ve been referring to one on Pluto lately in the team, it cannot be recommended as an official name to the IAU, but this falls into the third category of “for fun” by the team).

So, the biggest stuff is going to get the most popular names from the list. And by “get,” I’m talking about that that second level, the recommended-to-the-IAU level. Which I think pre-approved “Tombaugh Reggio” before-hand. But beyond that, all names must be submitted to the IAU, and hence they are called “provisional names” until the IAU approves or rejects them.

The “Offending” Name(s)

Right off the bat, I figure that there will be some groups that are offended already by the “underworld” theme. But I read some very über-right-wing Christian / conservative websites. One of the beliefs among them is that anything “new age,” anything they perceive as pagan or “occult,” is Satanic, and therefore directly opposed to their version of a deity.

Enter Cthulhu (pronounced something like “coo-THOO-loo”). It was a deity created by H.P. Lovecraft. To quote from Wikipedia: “Lovecraft depicts Cthulhu as a gigantic entity worshiped by cultists. Cthulhu’s anatomy is described as part octopus, part man, and part dragon.”

Lovecraft himself is often viewed by these über-conservative Christians as an occultist/cultist himself, and the fact that a major low-reflectivity feature on Pluto that has been provisionally named after a “demonic” deity that Lovecraft dreamed up is likely going to not sit well with them.

However, my understanding is that it was selected because it was one of the most popular names in the voting.

Final Thoughts

Well, that’s it for now. Back to work. I expect to do at least two more of these, another about young-Earth creationists’ take on this and another about Crrow777’s take on this (he’s been getting a lot more press lately, so even though I really don’t want to give him more because question his mental fidelity).

May 2, 2015

Podcast Episode 131 – Clip Show #3: Blood Moons, Ceres’ Bright Spots, MESSENGER’s Death, and Funding in Science Follow-Up


Blood moons, science cash,
And spacecraft conspiracies
Are topics du jour.

Clip Show #3 is a big catch-up on several miscellaneous topics: The latest lunar eclipse, Ceres’ mysterious bright spots, MESSENGER’s death plunge into Mercury, and a large follow-up to episode 126 which was my interview with Dr. Pamela Gay about funding in science. This episode also had a logical fallacy section – cherry picking and anomaly hunting – and a feedback/Q&A about whether NASA has created a Warp Drive, and finally my long-foreshadowed tribute to Leonard Nimoy, with how he or his characters influenced myself and you in some way.

There’s really not too much else to say about this episode. The next one will likely by about Big Bang Denial (along similar lines to episode 125 about Black Hole Denial and a future one about Dark Matter Denial). And, this Friday/Saturday, I should be back on “The Reality Check” podcast discussing exoplanets and that we’ve been on the cusp of detecting an Earth-like planet … for many years.

April 23, 2015

How Do We Know How Old Stuff Is on the Moon?


Introduction

While this movie is branded under “Exposing PseudoAstronomy” for legal reasons, it has less to do with popular misconceptions/conspiracies/hoaxes and more to do with real science. This is my third more modern, lots of CGI movie, and my second to explain a research paper that I wrote.

In the movie, I go through how the lunar crater chronology is the fundamental basis for how we estimate the ages of surface events across the solar system. I also explain how my work affects the lunar crater chronology and what can be done to better constrain it.

I’m still waiting for a young-Earth creationist to claim that because of a factor of 2 uncertainty, 4.5 billion becomes 6.019 thousand.

I also wrote a blog post about this for The Planetary Society. Because it was posted there over two weeks ago, I think it’s fair game to repost here. You can click on any of the images for larger versions, and all of them are screenshots from the YouTube movie.

Planetary Society Blog Post

Three years ago, I started a project to replicate work done by various groups in the 1970s and 1980s. When the project was completed, the result implied that much of what we think we know about when events happened in the solar system were wrong, needing to be shifted by up to 1 billion years. I presented this in a talk at the recent Lunar and Planetary Science Conference at 8:30 AM, when most people were learning about the latest results from Ceres.

The project started simply enough: I downloaded some of the amazing images taken by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter’s Wide-Angle Camera (WAC) that showed the Apollo and Luna landing sites. Then, I identified and measured the craters (my dissertation work included creating a massive global crater database of Mars, numbering about 640,000 craters).

The reason to do this is that craters are the only proxy we have for ages on solid surfaces in the solar system. We can determine the relative age of one surface to another (is it older or younger?) by looking at which has more craters: The surface with more craters will be older because, when you assume that craters will form randomly across the body, then the surface with more craters has had more time to accumulate them.

How to Use Craters to Understand Ages

Basic principle behind this work. (Background image © NASA/ASU; composite © S.J. Robbins.)

If we want to use craters for an absolute timeline – as in, actually put numbers on it – then we need some way to tie it to real ages. This was made possible only by the United States’ Apollo and the USSR’s Luna missions that returned rocks from the moon that could be radiometrically dated in labs on Earth.

With these radiometric ages, we then identify the craters on the surface those rocks were gathered and say that a surface with that many craters per unit area is that old.

That’s the lunar crater chronology: The spatial density of craters larger than a standard size versus radiometric age (we use 1 km as that standard size). This crater chronology is then scaled and used as a basis for the chronology across the rest of the solar system. When you hear someone say that something on the surface of Mars is X number of years old, chances are that’s based on the lunar samples from the 1960s and 70s and the crater counting done 40 years ago.

Apollo 15 Landing Site

Example landing site area, Apollo 15 (yellow star). Blue outlined areas indicate regions on which craters were identified, blue shaded areas were removed because they are a different type of impact crater, and blue circles are the craters mapped and measured. (Background image © NASA/ASU; data and composite © S.J. Robbins.)

And, that’s where my project came in. While the rock samples have continued to be analyzed over the decades, the craters were not. It’s easy to assume that the researchers back then did a great job, but by the same token, science is about replication and re-testing and we have developed new ways of doing things in the crater community since the Apollo era. A simple example is that the crater chronology requires a spatial density, and therefore you need to know the area of the surface on which you have identified craters. Over the past 40 years, we have better understood the shape of the moon and now have computers to allow for much more precise area calculations. This can result in changes by 10s of percent in some cases.

When I had finished my reanalysis, my results differed for many of the landing sites, in some cases by a factor of 2 from what the standard is in the field. I was surprised. I checked my work and couldn’t find any mistakes. So, I combed through the literature and looked to see what other people had published. I ended up finding a range of values, and only in one case was my result at the extreme low or high of all the published results. I showed my work to colleagues and none of them could find any issue with it. So, eventually I published it, early last year.

The Lunar Crater Chronologies

The new (blue) and old (red) chronologies and the data used to fit the model. The vertical axis shows the spatial density of impact craters larger than or equal to 1 km in diameter, and the horizontal axis shows the age of the surface from radiometric dating of collected rock samples. (© S.J. Robbins)

When I fit my crater data to the radiometric ages, my fit function showed a difference with the standard that has been used for three decades: Surfaces assigned a model age of about 3.5 to 3.7 billion years under the old chronology were older, by up to 200 million years. And, surfaces younger than about 3.4 billion years under the old chronology are younger, by up to about 1 billion years.

Differences Between the Lunar Crater Chronologies

The new and old chronologies in blue and red (top), and the difference between them in terms of model surface age. (© S.J. Robbins)

There are a lot of implications for this. One is that volcanism on the terrestrial planets may have extended to more recent times. This would imply that the planets’ cores stayed warmer longer. Another implication is that the large reservoirs of water thought to exist around 3 billion years ago may have existed for another 500 million years, with implications then for favorable environments for life.

But, something that I added near the end of my LPSC talk was the question, “Am I right?” The answer is an unsatisfying, “I don’t know.” I of course would not have published it if I thought I was wrong. But by the same token, this type of science is not about one person being right and another being wrong. It’s about developing a model to fit the data and for that model to be successively improved as it gets incrementally closer to explaining reality.

And, there are ways to improve the lunar chronology. One that I’m a big advocate of is more lunar exploration: We need more data, more samples gathered from known locations on the moon’s surface. We can then date those samples – either in situ or in labs on Earth – and along with crater measurements add more tie points to the lunar crater chronology function. Right now, there is a glaring gap in the sample collection, one that spans 2 to 3 billion years of lunar history. A single point in there could help differentiate between my model and the classic model. And more data would be even better.

Until we land robotic missions to send back samples from other planets or that can date samples there, the moon is still our key to ages across the solar system.

March 26, 2015

Science Conferences (#LPSC2015), Ivory Gates, and Who Gets In


Introduction

On this blog and in my podcast, I talk a lot about pseudoscience. I talk a lot about pseudoscientists. But I don’t think I’ve talked explicitly much about what really separates a pseudoscientist from a real scientist, nor have I talked about basic thresholds for being considered a real scientist.

Last week, I was at the annual Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC), a conference that is the largest planetary science conference in the US, annually drawing over 1500 planetary (non-Earth-studying) scientists and receiving around 2000 abstract submissions.

Among those were at least two that bordered on pseudoscientific. I’m going to be interviewing the program committee chair in an upcoming podcast episode, so I’ll leave a discussion of what happens when they get those kinds of submissions to that interview.

But, in the meantime, I’m going to discuss what happened when one of these persons set up his presentation, in contrast with the standards of the field and conference, to illustrate how one should not behave if they want to be taken seriously by the scientific community.

Who Am I Talking About

In this particular case, I’m talking about John E. Brandenburg, a person whose claims about Mars being host to an intelligent civilization before they got nuked, I discussed in Episode 86 of my podcast. I also discussed his claims in the Feedback portion of Episode 93 and in the New News of Episode 121.

However, I want this blog post to stand on its own. Without any other background information, other than I’ve discussed his claims before, let’s take a look at just what he did at this conference.

Abstracts

Everyone speaking at LPSC is required to submit an abstract. The standard is two pages (which is fairly long for most conferences) that outlines what your work is and what you will be talking about. That way the program committee can decide if you will get a talk or a poster presentation (you don’t always get a talk, so by default you will get a poster) and the order of the session.

To give you an idea of what an abstract looks like, here’s one that I submitted to the most recent LPSC about progress on my work into studying the crater population of Saturn’s satellites. That is the standard template.

John Brandenburg submitted two abstracts, “Evidence for Large, Anomalous Nuclear Explosions on Mars in the Past” and “The NMS (New Mars Synthesis), Recent Data from Gale Crater and NWA 7034: Evidence for a Persistent Biologically Stabilized Greenhouse on Mars.”

So, there you go. I will note that these do not use the standard templates, and the copy-editing isn’t great, but not everything one spits out is going to be gold. There’s also the pet peeve of mine of using Excel for science graphs (see his first abstract), but again, others do it so Dr. Brandenburg hasn’t done anything yet that others don’t do.

Poster Session

LPSC 2015 Poster by John E. Brandenburg

LPSC 2015 Poster by John E. Brandenburg

I don’t know if he requested a talk, but he got a poster. He was scheduled for the first of two poster sessions, which was on Tuesday night. Each night has well over 600 poster presentations, where you set up your poster and then wait twiddling your fingers, hoping that people will at least read it and maybe even talk with you. I went through that for the abstract I linked to of mine, but on Thursday night. You can get an idea of what it looks like if you’re busy from some of the royalty-free images here.

The poster sessions are from 6:00P.M. until 9:00P.M. You are expected to be there the entire time. You are also expected to set up your poster before that time, and most people set up their poster the day before. For example, I set my Thursday poster up on Wednesday just after lunch. (The e-mailed instructions state, “Poster presenters are expected to be present at their poster on their assigned evening.”)

John Brandenburg began to set up his poster at about 7:55P.M. on Tuesday evening. It was a long, very tedious process, where he spent 45 minutes doing so, not completing his set up until 8:40P.M., only 20 minutes before the poster session ended and – to be honest – many people had already left for late-night drinks.

John Brandenburg Setting Up His Poster at LPSC in 2015

John Brandenburg Setting Up His Poster at LPSC in 2015

After he finished setting up, he left for a few minutes to get a beer from the cash bar.

His Poster

Let’s be fair: Not everyone has access to or money to spend on a poster printer. Those are the large-format printers that take paper spanning around 36″–44″ across and can print something of arbitrary length. LPSC allows up to 44″ by 44″.

But, as I said, some people can’t do that. Instead, some will effectively create a talk in presentation software (e.g., PowerPoint or Keynote) and then print that out on standard 8.5″x11″ sheets of paper and tack those up. It doesn’t look great, but it gets the point across.

That was John Brandenburg’s approach.

Among other things, I noted the following in terms of non-standard items:

  • Nothing was referenced. This is important in science for anything that is not new work. Considering he posted many images from other peoples’ papers, this is a big no-no.
  • One slide part showed “the” Face on Mars, another claimed face, and a “pyramid.”

John Brandenburg Highlighting the "Face" on Mars and Pyramids on Mars at LPSC 2015

John Brandenburg Highlighting the “Face” on Mars and Pyramids on Mars at LPSC 2015

Okay, so really two, but that first one (referencing) is a big issue for science if you want to be taken seriously and not tick people off (and came up when I engaged him — more on that later). And the second one, well, ditto.

The “Face” came up once, when I was eavesdropping on him talking with someone else: John was explaining blast site antipodes (the opposite point on the planet to some feature or event) and he then pointed to those photos and remarked, “And that’s to remind you of what’s there;” he added a knowing nod when saying that. The implication’s obvious, but he seemed unwilling to say it out loud, potentially for fear of seeming even crazier.

Rubber-Necking

Different people do poster sessions in different ways, but most people tend to walk through the aisles of posters and slowly skim over titles, perhaps pausing on one that seems interesting, maybe lingering a bit to read it, before moving on. Unless they are really interested, in which case they’ll stay and ask questions or generally engage the presenter, if the presenter is there.

While Dr. Brandenburg was getting his beer, I saw a few people walk by and effectively rubber-neck. I also saw their eyes go wide and then move on.

If They Don’t Come to You, Go to Them

I will admit at this point that I hid my name badge. There was a non-zero chance that Dr. Brandenburg would recognize my name based on my blog and podcast and e-mail exchanges we had. I didn’t want that to come up, I wanted to observe what happened without him knowing that a “skeptic” who had criticized his work before was there watching.

What I saw was that after Dr. Brandenburg came back with his beer, he waited a minute or two and then approached the two people standing across from him who were at their own posters. The friends I was with told me I should’ve written it down, and I wish I had, but what I remember from an hour later when I wrote down my notes was that he said, almost exactly: “It must be tough facing [or “being opposite?”] all this for the whole night.”  I really wish I had written it down then because this could be seen as really creepy – especially since at least one of those two people was a woman – though he really was referring to the posters he just put up and not something else.

For the next roughly 15 minutes (since that was all that was left of the poster session), when passers by would not engage him, he engaged people at surrounding posters, asking them about their work. That is reasonably fair, though a bit unconventional: The goal is to get people to come to your poster and talk about your work, especially when you only have 15 minutes left.

John Brandenburg's Discussion at LPSC 2015 that Mars was Nuked

John Brandenburg’s Discussion at LPSC 2015 that Mars was Nuked

One of the people he engaged was a friend of mine at her poster. I took the opportunity to slip around and take some photographs of his “poster” for future use, such as in this blog post. When I asked my friend later about what he talked about, she stated that he seemed surprised about some of her findings and remarked that it was, well, surprising. Unfazed, she told him “no” that it wasn’t surprising, most of the stuff she found was common and expected. It was another part that was surprising that she hadn’t yet mentioned to him.

This is not in itself a big issue: I have no idea what she’s doing. It’s not my field. But, it is very related to what Dr. Brandenburg claims his field is, and related to his second abstract. So this actually is a big issue: He tried to “talk the talk,” and he failed. He demonstrated ignorance of field that he should know if he’s talking about a very closely related one on his “poster.”

My friend also said that John seemed drunk, but she wasn’t sure if that was his personality. That did not surprise me. I wrote in a forum after listening to his interview on “Dark City” from February 2015: “Affect: For some reason, I find his constant laughs very off putting. I don’t know why. It has nothing to do with his arguments, but it makes it sound like he doesn’t take this seriously. I hear this in all of his interviews.”

Another commenter on the forum stated, in response: “I’d read the comment about his laughter before I listened to the show so was “analyzing” it as it occurred. It happened more frequently and for longer periods as the show continued. In my professional opinion, I think he started the interview with a 6 pack in front of him. By last call at the end of the show, he sounded like a someone who was regretfully set to go home after spending a few hours telling his ideas to the guy next to him at the bar.”

You, the reader might consider this gratuitous. Perhaps. but, it added to the general gestalt of Dr. Brandenburg’s presentation and interactions, and it adds to the general group of things not to do if you want to be taken seriously by the scientific community. I’ve seen people drunk at LPSC. I have never seen someone drunk who is presenting. I’m also not saying Dr. Brandenburg was drunk, rather it was the impression a few of us had, and a few of us who have listened to his various interviews have had.

Enter the Dragon’s Lair

I finally gave in while he was talking with some other people at his “posters” and joined them. He made his case, and the people seemed unconvinced.  At the end, the guy asked for a photo of his poster and John was happy to oblige and offered to be in it, too. From my perspective, I figured this was going in the “Crazy Times at LPSC” album, but of course my own views color that assumption.

John Brandenburg Claims Trinitie Is Wide-Spread on Mars, Using Unreferenced Figure that Only Shows Volcanic Glass

John Brandenburg Claims Trinitie Is Wide-Spread on Mars, Using Unreferenced Figure that Only Shows Volcanic Glass

The only engagement I gave was when John Brandenburg mentioned trinitite. I was prepared for that. It’s a recent addition to his claimed evidence for a nuclear blast on Mars, for trinitite “is the glassy residue left on the desert floor after the plutonium-based Trinity nuclear bomb test on July 16, 1945, near Alamogordo, New Mexico.” In other words, we’ve only seen it on Earth as a result from a nuclear blast. If we see it on Mars, that’d be interesting evidence for a nuclear blast, though we’d still need to do work to determine if there’s any other way to make it. That’s how science works.

I was prepared for the trinitite claim because in that recent interview on “Dark City,” he said that he had found it on Mars. So, when he brought it up from his “poster,” he presented a map showing it was all over the northern hemisphere of Mars near the north polar layered deposits. I jumped on that and asked what his source was.  He responded by reiterating what trinitite is (and that it’s only found at nuclear blast sites), and I told him no, I wanted to know what detected it and how.  He stuttered and didn’t remember but said it’s in his abstract — this is one reason why I said it’s important to provide references on your poster. Not only did that effectively stop the conversation because I couldn’t ask further, but it also allowed him to punt it back to the abstract and avoid questions.

The issue for me going into this was that trinitite is a very specific kind of glass, and it’s nearly impossible to pick up from orbit with the instruments we have around Mars today. First, the spectral signature of trinitite is very close to glass, so I would want to see how the researchers would have differentiated between them with orbiting probes. Second, if there had been trinitite discovered (and I did my homework and could not find any papers that mentioned Mars and trinitite), I would think I would be able to find it. Because, well, it’s only found on Earth near nuclear blast sites, so one would think it’d get a big press release.

After the poster session, I looked up his abstract and I found the reference. It’s a paper in “Geology” by Horgan and Bell from 2012, though he cited it as being from 2014 (as I said, sloppy abstracts).  The abstract of this paper is inconsistent with what Dr. Brandenburg says it says. Specifically, he claims (but the paper says otherwise) that the glass is only found there on Mars (they say it’s likely widespread), the glass is solid hunks of glass (versus just glass mixed into the regolith like we see all over Earth in volcanoes), and that it’s acid-etched glass and therefore trinitite (they say it’s iron-bearing glass and silica-enriched leached rinds on glass). So, his smoking gun has a common, mundane explanation. You don’t need a crazy explanation for a mundane (yet still new — not to belittle the authors’ work) observation when the mundane explanation will work (that it’s just volcanic glass that we see everywhere on Earth).

In a bit of fairness, John did say (direct quote) when introducing the claim of trinitite: “They” think it’s volcanic glass, “perfectly reasonable.  But, it also looks like trinitite.”

Closing

Over the last two years, LPSC has been a little trigger-happy about shutting down the poster session at 9:00 sharp. I remember being in there at my poster talking with people well past 9:30 before, but only in past years. This year, at 9:02, a volunteer told him he needed to take down his poster or they were going to take down everything that was left up.

In fairness to the volunteer, this was also in the instructions to presenters that was e-mailed out, that if posters were left after the end of the poster session, they would be “discarded.”

John responded, “What would you DO with it if you took it down?!”

He may have just been trying to be funny, but that capped off the encounter for me in terms of not following the instructions and seeming to think he’s special.

Hallmarks of a Pseudoscientist

John Brandenburg's LPSC 2015 Poster, Bastardizing Martian Chronology

John Brandenburg’s LPSC 2015 Poster, Bastardizing Martian Chronology

In his e-mails to me, John Brandenburg has clearly implied that he wants to and thinks he should be taken seriously. In those e-mail exchanges, however, he has failed to back up the majority of his claims, and he has failed to put together a cogent, cohesive story that does not conflict with well established other things (such as Martian chronology).

What I observed was more of the same at LPSC, and this illustrates a general failure to adhere to the standards of how a scientist should not only behave and present their information, but also present themselves.

As a short listed recap:

  • Arrival with an hour left in the poster session, way too long to set up, and only 15 minutes after getting a beer to present his work.
  • Drunk affect, if not actually drunk when you are supposed to be presenting.
  • Presenting known pseudoscience in an attempt to bolster your science claims (face and pyramids on Mars — sorry conspiracists reading this blog, it is: see here, here, here, or here).
  • Failure to demonstrate knowledge of the field you’re talking about.
  • Failure to reference others’ work you are using, especially when copying their images.
  • Making unsubstantiated other claims that are used in support of your claim, especially when your side-claim flies in the face of the generally accepted state of the field.

Final Thoughts

This has been a long post, but I hope that it gives you some insight into what (not) to do if you are going to be taken seriously at a scientific conference. Scientists really are open minded about new ideas (again, I know most people who aren’t skeptics or scientists reading this blog are going to think I’m crazy to say that, but we really are).

We scientists just demand better evidence than the average person because we know how easy it is to be fooled, how easy it is to let our own biases get in the way, and we know that the new ideas have to not only explain the observations better than the previous ideas but also have to mesh with everything else that may seem unrelated but still would be affected by that new idea. And write long, run-on sentences.

But, while we’re open to new ideas, we also have certain standards. And, we expect you to play by the same rules that we do.

John E. Brandenburg does not and he did not do that at LPSC last week.

I don’t know what will happen if he submits abstracts to LPSC next year, but I hope that the program committee takes note of how he behaved this year and will use that to make an informed decision next year. He now has a documented case (here) of abusing the privilege of presenting at a scientific conference.

And you, the reader, can see what that abuse is like. While these conferences are not meant to be gates closed to everyone but those “in the club,” they are still a privilege that one is granted to attend, it is not a right.

Next Page »

The Rubric Theme. Blog at WordPress.com.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,662 other followers