Exposing PseudoAstronomy

March 5, 2015

Martian Ocean News: “Who Said it First?,” Press Releases, and Correct by Association


Introduction

It’s a press office’s and officer’s job to make what they are writing about sound interesting, exciting, and get you to read it. That’s fairly undisputed. And, most press officers are not experts in the fields that they write press releases for. And, most of the people they talk to will tell them something, and the press officer will try to come up with an interesting angle that they think helps generate interest, often not realizing that they are changing the story.

One class of examples is when they spin something in such a way as to make it seem as though this is completely new, revolutionary, and never been done before. Even if it has. Many times. Over and over.

I speak, of course, of the news today from press release #15-032 that “NASA Research Suggests Mars Once Had More Water than Earth’s Arctic Ocean.”

Again

I wrote about this phenomenon two years ago in the post, “How Astronomers Are, According to Popular Press, Constantly Discovering the Same Thing.”

I should have rephrased that title to indicate that it’s not just according to the popular press, but according to NASA’s own press releases.

And, that’s an issue, even forgetting all the pseudoscience and even implications for normal people: It minimizes the many scientists’ work before this that found the exact same thing.

Mars Ocean

Now, I don’t want to minimize the latest work. It found the same thing, but it was by a completely different method. Previous work looked at mineralogy of rocks, other work looked at morphology (the way things look) of geologic features, others looked at simple elevation and roughness, and others (such as my former thesis advisor, four years ago) looked at the elevation of deltas and showed they were very similar, all implying an ancient ocean.

The work announced earlier today instead looked at the chemistry of the atmosphere and based on the ratios of heavy water (extra neutron in one of the hydrogen atoms) to normal water, they determined that a whole lotta water had been lost to space because the heavier water stays behind, and Martian ices today are HUGELY enriched relative to other sources in the solar system.

But, as someone pointed out to me moments after posting this, even the heavy water result is not new and unique, it’s been done before, as shown in this paper from 1988.

It’s really nice when completely independent ways of looking at things converge on very similar conclusions. That bolsters the strength of all of them and makes it more likely that that conclusion is the correct model.

Being First, Again

But then there’s the general population problem. Even completely non-astronomy friends of mine (argument from anecdote, perhaps) are starting to ask me, “Haven’t we already discovered this?” and they’re asking me how the latest work is new … again.

But beyond that, there’s the pseudoscience aspect, the people who come out of the woodwork to claim that they “did it first” and therefore they should receive the credit, and because they “thought of it first,” before it was officially announced (again) by this latest press release, their other work is real. (Hence the “argument by association” fallacy in the title of this blog post.)

Let’s look at an example, in case you don’t believe me. About the ocean on Mars. Back when I was in grad school, I had to give a talk for a class on the evolution of Mars’ hydrosphere — a literature review, really. That was Spring of 2006. My main source of information was a paper published in the planetary science journal Icarus by S.M. Clifford and T.J. Parker entitled, “The Evolution of the Martian Hydrosphere: Implications for the Fate of a Primordial Ocean and the Current State of the Northern Plains.” My second source of information was a paper published in the other main planetary science journal, the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets by M.H. Carr and J.W. Head, entitled, “Oceans on Mars: An Assessment of the Observational Evidence and Possible Fate.”

The copyright dates for these two papers were 2001 and 2003.

Just skimming through the references, there’s a paper from 1991 entitled, “Ancient Oceans, Ice Sheets, and the Hydrologic Cycle on Mars.” Another from 1998 testing the possibility of shorelines from topography data. Several by Michael Carr hypothesizing about Mars having been water-rich from the 1980s and many by Scott Clifford from the 1990s about the same thing. Most really specifically testing newer hypotheses about massive oceans are from the late 1990s when we first got topography information (meaning you could start to tell if features you thought were ocean shorelines were at the same elevation).

So, the scientific community was finding good evidence for oceans on Mars at least in the late 1990s, and pretty good circumstantial evidence in the 1980s. Massive floods in the 1970s. That’s a fact based on the literature review.

That fact is ignored (doing a literature review would require actual work) by people who want to say that they predicted the ocean, but they predicted it based on Mars being the moon of a now-exploded planet that is the asteroid belt. I speak, of course, of Mike Bara, who on his blog wrote a post this eve entitled, “NASA ‘Discovers’ Martian Ocean that Hoagland and Bara Predicted 14 Years Ago.”

Perhaps you understand now where I’m going with this.

Mr. Hoagland and Bara wrote a document in 2001 wherein they claimed Mars had oceans near the equator, that large volcanic complexes are remnant tidal bulges from when Mars was tidally locked with Planet V, and that the northern plains smooth because that’s where the water went after Planet V blew up.

To quote from Mike’s blog:

The fact is that this ocean was actually discovered and predicted by myself and Richard Hoagland over 14 years ago in our Mars Tidal Model paper published on http://www.enterprisemission.com.

While I’m gratified that NASA has finally admitted that Hoagland and me were correct all those years ago, I wish they’d get the details right. […] All of this is covered in our Mars Tidal Model paper that we published online in 2001 after it was rejected by scientific journals because there was “no scientific evidence” to support our ideas.

Hmm. We seem to have overcome that problem, haven’t we NASA…?

The conclusion you are supposed to draw is pretty clear, and Mike’s Facebook followers consider him vindicated.

The “only” problems are that Hoagland and Bara were not the first (as I demonstrated above), and none of the scientific research at all places the possible ancient global ocean anywhere that Hoagland or Bara want it until after Planet V would have exploded. That’s ignoring all the timing problems and everything else that’s pseudoscientific about the paper (that’s beyond the scope of this blog post).

But, because NASA has now “admitted” that Mars likely had a large ocean at some point in its past, you should infer that Mike Bara and Richard Hoagland were right. Uh huh …

Final Thoughts

The above is just one example of a pseudoscientician (I’m all for neologisms) uses this kind of “discovered for the first time! (again)” press release to advance their claims. There are other examples, as well, such as those who claim to have predicted or “stated as fact” these kinds of things many years ago through various divining methods — be it psychic gifts, talking to transcendent beings, or just good ol’-fashioned aliens — but I think my point is made.

This kind of press release does a disservice to the scientists who produced this result before, to the public who wonders why their tax money is spent finding the same thing again, and to pseudoscientists who use it to advance their own claims via association.

And that’s my opinion … until I discover something amazing for the first time, again, and want my own press release.

November 29, 2012

Mercurian Ice Confirms Noah’s Flood! (or something like that)


Introduction

It’s that time of the quarter where I profusely apologize for not posting a lot, and where I look back at the blog and worry that it’s just turning into an announcement place for my podcast, which I’m really hoping to avoid. Those things aside …

The issue of Science this week has a rather large number of articles that I find interesting, among them one on Saturn’s rings, the age of the Grand Canyon, and one that’s gotten a lot of press: confirmation of ice at Mercury’s poles.

For more on the actual discovery of Mercurian ice (or more, confirmation, since we were already pretty sure it was there), Phil Plait (“The Bad Astronomer”) has a good blog post up about it. I’m going to assume that you have the background of that for the rest of this post.

Meanwhile, it didn’t take long for someone to use this for their own pet pseudoscience.

How’d the Ice Get There?

We know for a fact that chunks of ice and chunks of rock fly about the solar system and crash into things. Look at nearly any solid body in the solar system and you see impact craters that are a testament to that fact. Look at the asteroids and comets we see today and there is a clear mechanism that still exists and impact cratering is an ongoing process.

In the inner solar system, it is estimated that very, very roughly 10ish% of all impacts are from comets. In the outer solar system, the fraction is likely much larger, but that’s a different topic.

Comets are made of ice and rock, and when they hit an object, some of the ice can be captured. If the environment is stable for ice (as in, it’s below the freezing point of water and there’s enough pressure to keep it from sublimating – turning directly from a solid to a gas), then the ice will remain. Paradoxically, while Mercury is the closest known planet to the sun, there are areas of its poles that are in permanent shadow and hence, ice can be stable if it’s buried under something.

So, the very simplified model is that a comet strikes, ice from the comet melts/vaporizes, some is trapped by the planet’s gravity and re-solidifies in a permanently shadowed region, it’s covered by other debris from the impact, and you have stable ice that isn’t going anywhere.

A smaller part of the story but that’s relevant to this particular pseudoscience is that some of the material that’s covering the polar ice is organic material. As in, “compounds composed of carbon, hydrogen, and other elements with chain or ring structures” according to one online definition (my last chemistry class was 10th grade …). We are NOT talking about dead plants and animals.

Where does organic material come from? It can obviously come from living things, but several studies in the past few years have shown that organic materials can seemingly easily form in space and be carried on asteroids or comets. It’s possible that that is one contribution to the seeding of life on Earth …

Noah’s Flood

… or at least, that’s if you’re a naturalistic secular heathen.

According to Mercury Ice Find Renews Old Riddle, organic material means that it’s former living things. Which means that organic material was delivered via panspermia (life was seeded / transferred here from space). Which means that if you’re a secular heathen, you must equate panspermia with abiogenesis, but then of course, “abiogenesis could not possibly explain the organic layer on the Mercury ice [because t]he primordial soup would be far too cold.” Or something like that — I didn’t quite follow the train of thought.

The only possible explanation that makes sense, according to Terry Hurlbut, who is also a frequent contributor to Conservapedia, is the “Hydroplate Theory” (and I only use the term “theory” here because that’s what he’s called it).

To those fortunate enough to not be well versed in this, let me try to briefly explain it. The hydroplate … I’m sorry, I can’t say it, so I’ll just use “idea” … the hydroplate idea was originated by Walt Brown in an attempt to explain Noah’s Flood’s implications across the solar system. In other words, we see lots of stuff across the solar system, Noah’s flood is one of the most catastrophic things in the Judeo-Christian Bible, ergo maybe it can explain lots of seemingly catastrophic things across the solar system.

Brown’s idea is that, originally, around 6000 years ago, today’s terrestrial ocean was very deep underground, about 10 miles (15 km) or so. Then God had a hissy fit decided to kill almost everyone and everything about 4400 years ago, and after Noah got all those animals in his ark, God cracked Earth’s crust and the water burst out. It apparently, somehow, was under so much pressure, that not only did it cover Earth, but it threw enormous amounts of water, rock, and mud – 1% of Earth’s weight! – into space. Besides doing other things, that water, rock, and mud that was thrown into space are comets and asteroids that we see today. The comets being in all sorts of crazy orbits is evidence for this.

So, the organics obviously came from Earth.

And: “Brown confirmed today that the Mercury ice confirms his theory. That means the Mercury ice confirms creation, not abiogenesis or panspermia, as the origin of life.” QED

Seriously?

Yes.

No, Seriously?

Yes. These people really believe this. I feel like I need that disclaimer that South Park used in their Scientology episode: “THIS IS WHAT SCIENTOLOGISTS ACTUALLY BELIEVE.” Except in this case, “This is what some conservative, Biblical literalists actually believe.”

There are so many basic things wrong with this that it’s hard to know where to really start. I suppose I could just mention one and leave it at that, with full knowledge that Brown and his supporters have an open challenge to refute his idea and crow that no one ever has taken them up on it. No, I’m not interested in taking him up on it, either, if one of them happens to be reading this.

But moving on, one basic counter-argument against this is one of the arguments against a frequent Planet X: the asteroids today are, for the most part, dynamically stable in orbits that don’t intersect Earth. In other words, if you take Brown’s scenario, even if you have a now stable field of asteroids produced from this Flood event, either the aphelion or perihelion (farthest or closest) distance from the sun of the orbit would have to be Earth’s orbit, baring orbital interactions with other bodies.

Yes, there are a few thousand asteroids that cross Earth’s orbit, and some even do have orbital elements that I described. But millions of asteroids reside in the asteroid belt and do not come anywhere near Earth. And the asteroid belt shows families (groups) of asteroids that have dynamical lifetimes on the order of millions of years. They’re also all relatively in the same plane, but I guess Brown could say somehow that Earth shot them all out as a “belt” of material before shooting the would-be comets out in all directions.

To put it a third way: The vast majority of asteroids in the solar system, that Brown claims would have been produced in this event, have orbits that are not what they would need to be given his scenario, and in fact contradict it.

Final Thoughts

I’m somewhat sick (thanks Mom, Dad) and high on IBUprofen and Sudafed (the real stuff), so this post may have had a rather large “snark factor.”

And I’ll admit that sometimes Biblical literalists make some seemingly good arguments that are more difficult to tease apart, or subtle arguments that you have to think about for awhile, or very technical ones that require a specialist to get into.

But this is not one of them. This is grasping at straws. This is just, well, really “out there.” It’s about at the level of the lunar ziggurat, or a “psychic” claiming that they see the letter “P” but it could also be turned around to be a “b” or on its side to be a wheelbarrow and – oh look! someone used a shovel and a “P” can look like a shovel so I’m right!

Ice on Mercury was not an unexpected find confirmation because it was already discovered via radar from Earth about two decades ago. The detection from MESSENGER in orbit of Mercury is not insignificant, and it adds new constraints and new data to help refine models, but the “hydroplate ‘theory'” is not one of them.

June 29, 2012

An Interview with Me About Lunar and Martian Craters


Quick announcement ’cause I forgot to do it earlier and I forgot to mention it on the last podcast: Nancy Atkinson, a reporter of Universe Today (among other things), interviewed me last-minute last week about lunar and martian craters. The interview’s about 15 minutes long and was broadcast to both 365 Days of Astronomy podcast and the NLSI (NASA Lunar Science Institute) podcast.

Link to NLSI podcast page.

Link to 365 Days of Astronomy page.

The description, as Nancy wrote it:

Description: It’s a showdown! The Moon Vs. Mars. These are two very different planetary bodies. But there’s one thing they have very much in common: both are covered with craters. So how do the two compare in the crater department? With us to give us some blow by blow insight is Stuart Robbins, a researcher at the University of Colorado Boulder and the Southwest Research Institute, and he also works with the CosmoQuest Moon Mappers citizen science project.

Bio: NLSI brings together leading lunar scientists from around the world to further NASA lunar science and exploration.

Stuart Robbins in a Planetary Geologist with a PhD in Astronomy. He works at the Southwest Research Institute and the University of Colorado, Boulder and is the science lead for the Moon Mappers project.

June 26, 2012

Podcast Episode 41: Craters and Creationism, Part 2


In a slightly delayed offering, episode 41 has been posted. Sorry to say that episodes over the next month may be delayed by a few days, as well, for I have several trips coming up and won’t have my equipment with me.

As the title suggests, this episodes details a few claims by creationists to try to argue that craters really show the solar system is only 6000 years old instead of the solar system being around 4.5 billion. It may get a bit technical at times — sorry.

June 16, 2012

Podcast Episode 40: Crater Age Dating Explained, Part 1


This is a bit of a longer episode. ‘Cause, this is what I do.

I give you a pretty detailed overview of how crater age dating works, the difference between absolute and relative age dating, how we can assign absolute ages to the relative ages of craters, how geologic mapping works and why it’s important for crater age dating, and then many of the known problems and caveats with the method.

Finally, there’s an open question about the puzzler: Is it worth doing? I wanted to do it initially to get interaction between me and the listeners. But participation has been around 1 for each. So if you have any opinion regarding the Puzzler, please let me know in the Comments to this post.

June 9, 2012

Podcast Episode 39: Young-Earth Creationist Attempted Refutations of Radiometric Dating


A slightly delayed episode is finally up. Part 2 of the series of 2 on radiometric dating, part 2 of the series of 4 (this month’s theme) on dating techniques. I talk about four of the main categories of claims that young-Earth creationist arguments fall into in their attempts to refute radiometric dating.

It’s also the first regularly formatted episode since #35, including the main segment, new news, Q&A, feedback, puzzler, and announcements.

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