Exposing PseudoAstronomy

June 5, 2016

Astounding Evidence that Creationism Is a “Science Stopper” – Click Here to Find Out How, with Pluto and Friends!

Okay, so I’m not great at the click-bait headlines.

I was glancing through some of the young-Earth Creationist mainstream sites, as I do with some regularity, and I came across the Institute for Creation Research’s “Looking Back at Pluto” by Jason Lisle. Being involved with New Horizons (though this blog is completely separate from that work/employment), and given that Dr. Lisle graduated from the same school and program I did (but a summer before I got there), I had to click.

Jason goes through some of the interesting things we found at Pluto. In particular, he highlights: (1) The craterless (as far as we can tell) Sputnik Planum area (which he mistakes for Tombaugh Regio), (2) the polygonal terrain in Sputnik Planum that is likely due to convection, (3) giant ice mountains and cliffs and canyons, (4) potential cryovolcanoes, (5) dark red area at Charon’s north pole, and (6) some of its small satellites spin really fast.

For Realz scientists are studying these features, developing hypotheses to explain them, and testing those in the lab and/or with the data returned by New Horizons. And some of them just aren’t mysteries at all because Jason hasn’t done his homework.

For example, for point (1), going in we expected that Pluto may be devoid of many craters because its surface is constantly sublimating (turning from ice to gas) as material gets transported around the body from the summer pole to the winter pole. (Pluto, like Uranus, is tilted on its side so right now the north pole is in constant sunlight.) Jason also said that having the encounter hemisphere be the bright “heart” was “by providence,” but it was specifically planned years in advance based on the (now primitive) maps we had from the Hubble Space Telescope — that area displayed the largest ranges of brightness, so it was the area we wanted to see up-close the most. It’s not providence, it was planning exactly the way you would when doing Real Science.

Another example is point (6), where yes, we would expect satellites to not rotate really fast because tidal effects should slow down the spin rates over long periods of time. If I can replace gravity for magnetism for a moment, imagine holding a strong magnet in place, and several inches away have a bar magnet that is on a post that it can spin freely around but it can’t get closer to or farther from the magnet you’re holding. Spin the bar magnet. It’s going to slow its spin pretty quickly to align with the one you’re holding. That’s kinda sorta how moons tidally lock and slow their spin except the force is gravity rather than magnets.

Anyway, at least one of the moons spins on its axis, fully, in about half a day. Is it young? Maybe possibly but unlikely … but that particular moon also has giant craters on it, so it’s just – if not more – likely that it recently (as in within the last few million years) got whacked by a large piece of debris that simply spun it up, increasing its rotation rate.

I can’t discuss papers that have been submitted by other authors on the team, but there are very plausible, natural explanations for several of the other features Jason lists, that are currently undergoing peer review, with conclusions based upon the available evidence.

As for the attempt at click-bait title? Here’s how Jason ends his article:

These are perplexing problems for secular formation scenarios. However, Christians delight in seeing the Lord’s creativity continually revealed.

In other words, his brand of Christians just STOP at the observation, attribute it to their god, and move on. How is that not a science stopper?

April 30, 2016

My Interview on “The Space Show” from Friday, April 29, 2016, Now Archived

Here’s the permanent link for the interview.

We discussed a very wide range of topics related to planetary astronomy and some other astronomy, and there was one caller. From the Higgs field, to Pluto and New Horizons, and craters on the moon to other space exploration.

Perhaps otherwise, it’s easiest just to copy the e-mail that the host, David Livingston, e-mailed me:

1. http://www.thespaceshow.com. You can find your program in the Recent Show section. Right now your show is currently the first one listed but it will move down a space with each show added.

2. The Space Show blog for listener and guest comments has been integrated with The Space Show archive for your show. Here, listeners can ask questions and post comments both during the live interview as well as on the archived program. As the guest, you can do the same. If there are interesting posts on the blog/comment section of the archives, I will be sure to call them to your attention. Your program will move down a line with each new program that is archived. Please note that one must have either a free Disqus account or access comments through one of their social media accounts as we do not permit anonymous posts.

3. The program is now podcasting.

4. Finally, the permanent URL on our website for your program for linking, quoting, etc. is: http://www.thespaceshow.com/show/29-apr-2016/broadcast-2692-dr.-stuart-robbins. Do not upload full audio or video shows to any website including YouTube & your own sites but you are certainly free to link the Space Show program on space relevant sites.

March 15, 2016

Neat Animation of Moon’s North Pole with LASER Altimetry – And Artifacts

I’ll be attending a µSymposium before the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference this coming weekend, and I just got a reminder e-mail today. Included in that e-mail was a link to an animation that shows Shackleton crater, a crater that is ON the moon’s north pole. As such, its interior is in permanent shadow.

BUT!! The Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter instrument (LOLA) on the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) has plenty of data that allow it to be viewed: Click Me!.

I find this very neat — until the last decade, we could never see stuff in permanent shadow because we didn’t have the instrumentation. LOLA and LROC have allowed us to do that. And there are thousands of craters in permanent shadow on the moon that may hide water (which is what I’ll be presenting at the µSymposium).

For reference, the north pole of the moon is just about smack dab at the 10:30 position on the large crater’s rim. Just inside the rim, along a line from that small crater just outside the rim to the center of the crater.

But for pseudoscience, you may also notice that there are some artifacts in the data. There are radial streaks from the center of the frame (usually). There’s a prominent one diagonally from upper right to lower left on the upper wall of Shackleton itself. Others are more prominent towards the edges of the animation.

These are not lunar roads nor subways nor trollies nor anything else made by an ancient civilization. They are artifacts in the data itself. LOLA is very well calibrated, and the “average” (root-mean-square) uncertainty is under 5 meters in elevation data. But some tracks (orbits) are a bit off. And since LOLA is fundamentally measuring the time it takes light to bounce off the surface from a laser beam from the craft, it needs to know exactly where the craft was to get an accurate surface elevation.

And some are off by a bit. These manifest in this kind of product as ridges or troughs that are perfectly in a straight line, along the line of the orbital track. It’s something that scientists who use these data see and ignore because we know exactly what they are. But pseudoscientists will look at line artifacts like this, or at image seems in a mosaic, and claim things like they are artificial tram lines.

January 27, 2016

Scientific Fields Are Never Solitary, in a Vacuum

One of the more annoying claims made by pseudoscientists is that because scientists are so specialized these days, that they cannot “see the forest for the trees” as the metaphor goes. But they, as outsiders, totally can and therefore show that all of science is wrong. Or something like that.

It is true that sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-…-sub fields do exist, and these days that’s a manifestation of really how far we’ve come in science. Back in the day (say, 400 years ago), we knew comparatively so little that someone could study for a few years and get a good understanding of the state of human scientific knowledge. These days, you need an advanced degree to understand a sub-field of science, such as physics:optics, or psychology:adolescent (the colon indicating the sub-field).

If you want to work in a field, you pretty much must specialize, otherwise you will never be out of school because you won’t know enough about that broader topic.

But we always have to incorporate other fields of study, even if we don’t realize we’re doing it. I’ve tried to point out in my podcast and blog how tugging at one string by a pseudoscientist unravels so many other strings in unrelated subjects that it completely disproves their point about being able to have a broad knowledge base from which to draw new connections.

But that’s a long-winded way to get to why I’m even talking about this. I’m home right now for a period of 10 days, between travel, and I’m using the time to convene a working group. A working group is sort of like a mini-workshop. Where a workshop, in science, tends to be a specialized conference convened where people give presentations meant more to explore a topic rather than to brag about their latest research.

Last May, I convened a workshop entitled, “Workshop on Issues in Crater Studies and the Dating of Planetary Surfaces.” Succinctly, it was intended as a step back from the minutia we deal with to look at the original problems we were trying to solve, how we tried to 50 years ago, why we did it the way we did then, and what we’re trying to do now with craters and what outstanding problems we still have. I was able to bring in several founders of the field (since it really got going in the 1950s and 60s), and we addressed a wide range of issues.

Among those was statistics. We’re doing statistics the way we did it in the 1970s, before we had computers and when people had to draw graphs in papers by hand. We realized that the field of statistics has changed considerably and the way we were doing things and are doing things is not necessarily completely correct, nor is it necessarily the best way.

So, I also had money to bring in three statisticians to the workshop to learn.

And this week, since five of us crater people who work in the Boulder area were at the workshop and are interested in bringing in this completely unrelated (but related) field of statistics into planetary geophysics, we’re holding a working group. The five of us, one of the statisticians who is local, and one of the statisticians who I flew in from Los Alamos.

And it’s fascinating. If nothing else (because I’m sure no one reading this cares about statistics of crater populations), I find it fascinating to watch the interaction between the statisticians and the planetary scientists. We know some of our issues, and we are completely steeped in our language to describe it. They know stats, and they are constantly bringing in similar problems in other fields that are solved certain ways to see if it can apply. It’s taken a year to almost get on the same page just with what we mean when we talk about different graphs.

And they sometimes come up with potential solutions, but then we say “no” because it completely misrepresents the physical situation.

Today, after working all morning and being brought back up to speed yesterday, one of the surprising things that we (planetary scientists) had to grasp was that we may need to start thinking about craters – at least the population of craters, the ensemble – in a completely different way: Rather than discrete objects which we observe (with a definite location and size), think of them as a probability, where each observation is actually a distribution (albeit narrow). If we can do that, then we can bring in a huge field of well established statistics to deal with some of our fundamental problems with how we work with craters. Like simple things … like how we really should be assigning uncertainty to our measurements and results.

And throughout this, there was the constant nagging question in the back of my head of how we’re going to convince the entire field that this is the proper way to go — if it’s the proper way to go. Fortunately in our working group we have one of the founders of the field, so if we can convince him, we can figure out how to write up the paper to convince others.

This is a long post … and it’s a lot of stream of consciousness. From it though, I want you to get a few things:

  1. Even in highly specialized disciplines, they must always be informed by and incorporate other disciplines, even in completely different fields (astronomy/geology:planetary-gephysics:surface-processes:impact-craters:crater-populations … meet mathematics:statistics:[huge list of stuff they’re bringing in]).
  2. Sometimes, to update a field of study and bring it in line with what’s known in others, you have to think of the problem in a completely new way, but one that remains informed by its roots and always in what we’re really trying to understand (as in, they can model whatever, but we constrain them by keeping it physically meaningful and realistic).
  3. There’s always inertia in a field of study, but there are always ways to bring about change if that change gets you to a more correct methodology or answer.

This post is also my way of updating you all on what I’ve been doing, partially, work-wise for the past few days and why the podcast still hasn’t come out with a new episode in over a month.

January 10, 2016

Some Real Science: Lots of Grunt Work, Moon Craters

Over the last few days, I’ve been hunkering down due to the deadline for abstract submission to the premier planetary science conference, the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference. It’s held annually in March in Houston, TX. Everyone is allowed to submit up to two first-author abstracts, and I have, for the last couple years, done two. This year’s not an exception. I’ll post about my New Horizons -related one later.

This post is about my abstract entitled, “Developing a Global Lunar Crater Database, Complete for Craters ≥1 km.” Because the file sizes have to be <1 MB, the figures are low resolution.

There are many, many different purposes to conferences, though the primary is “communication with colleagues.” Within that are many different things, like talking about your research and getting ideas. Another is to be able to show colleagues what you are doing so that, if your name happens to come in, say, a grant application, they might just recognize it.

For LPSC this year, my non-New Horizons abstract is in that category. I’m setting myself up for writing a grant later this year to build a lunar crater catalog that contains a lot of information about roughly 1 million craters on the moon. It’s been rejected for a couple years, and one of the underlying reasons is that I don’t know how many craters there are, therefore I can’t give a good, accurate work effort estimate to do all the information-gathering about each crater.

This abstract is meant to answer part of that. I’ve been leveraging bits and pieces of funding from different sources over the last year to do the initial mapping part — identifying the craters and locating them and measuring their diameters. For this abstract, I’ve roughly 28% of the moon done. For the March conference, I’m hoping to be closer to 50%, and by the time the grants are due this autumn, 100% so I know how many craters I have to do more stuff with.

Two more things I want to talk about in this slightly longer post. First is grunt work. Science is not easy. Science is rarely glamorous. Science is sitting down and 99% of what you do no one will ever know about because it’s only the results – not that big data-gathering process – that form the bulk of your paper. Methods sections are usually <25% of a paper because relatively few people care about that in comparison with your results.

And trust me, sitting down and drawing circles for hundreds of hours on end is NOT glamorous. But the results are cool.

Second is why we care – why are the results "cool." One reason is that it just looks cool — seeing all those dots that indicate a crater, and seeing all the patterns that emerge tell us a lot about the different history of those areas of the moon. The main one is ages (more craters = older). But we can also do things like better understand what's hit the moon in the past, and hence what is likely to hit Earth in the future. We can study different materials even, which is why the second figure is devoted to permanently shadowed regions where there might be water (areas that never see the sun act as cold traps for water molecules).

Anyway, this is turning out longer than I wanted, so to wrap it up … that's one thing that has been occupying a lot of my time over the last few days. One down, one to go.

December 13, 2015

Podcast Episode 143: Round-Table Discussion with New Horizons Early Career Scientists

A round-table talk
‘Tween seven New Horizons
Scientists … ’bout stuff!

The missing episode!!! And the interview I’ve been promising for months between myself and six other early career scientists is finally posted. It took only 5% the time of New Horizons to reach Pluto, this podcast from the time it was recorded to the time it’s being posted. It also “only” took 6 hours to edit. Why? Because of needing to cut some things out, someone constantly knocking the table (I know who you are …), legitimate outtakes, and severe noise level differences.

Excuses aside, I’m glad that this is finally up, and I enjoyed actually listening to it (4x through during editing). It brought back memories from July and I think it gives insight into how us “grunts” or “minions” or, perhaps just “early career scientists” viewed the mission and what we did during that month of hectic excitement.

There are no other segments in this podcast episode, for the interview / round-table itself is 59 minutes 59.5 seconds. If you stay after the end music and how you can get in touch with the show / me, there is roughly 3.3 additional minutes of outtakes. These are not always rated G.

I hope that you enjoy this episode.

October 16, 2015

Podcast Episode 142: Who’s on First? Origin of Ideas in Science

With water on Mars,
Discovered again, we look
At who did what first.

It’s been a month, and this is back-dated by over two weeks, but I wanted to put out an episode about the pitfalls of trying to figure out and remember who did what first. In the episode, I gave five examples of how this kind of discussion is important, such as who founds entire fields of science (or mathematics), giving credit where it’s due and remembering past research, pseudoscientists taking credit for things, alleged alien contactees taking credit for things, and preserving institutional memory in science.

The logical fallacies segment discusses the Moving the Goalpost fallacy.

I also revisit the 440 Hz conspiracy by asking you to listen to three tones, strewn throughout the podcast, to see if you can tell the difference. Playing two right in a row last time was too easy for everyone who wrote in.

Finally, yes, this is back-dated, and no, I am really really busy these days and don’t expect this to improve. I will likely take November-dated episodes off, putting out another episode some time in the next 6-7 weeks that’s dated October 16, and then return with December episodes. Next week I go on trip #13 for the year and the following week is #14, in mid-November I head back East for #15 and in December I have a conference that will bring the total to 16 trips this year. Never again.

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!”


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


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 wrong. 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.

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