Exposing PseudoAstronomy

December 5, 2014

How to Not Understand Science and Use that to Say Science Is Wrong


Introduction

Given the large amount of work I spent on my two-part 1.75-hr podcast episodes on James McCanney’s “science,” I thought it appropriate to get a Swift blog post out of the effort. This post was geared more towards a general audience and so I used one of McCanney’s quotes to discuss a common problem that we face as scientists, we face as science communicators, and we face as skeptics (where “we” is a different group in those three instances, and I consider myself a member of each).

This is reproduced from what I originally sent the editor on the JREF Swift blog.

Swift Blog Post #3

As a scientist and attempted science communicator (and skeptic in my copious free time), one of the difficulties I face is that science is not other-people-friendly. In fact, most of us work on tasks so specific that we often face difficulties explaining what we do to colleagues, much less people who are not scientists, so it’s rarely even other-scientists-slightly-outside-our-field-friendly.

Since I also play a skeptic on the internet, I have the added issue that terms, phrases, and analogies I may try to use to explain a concept could very easily be misconstrued by a pseudoscientist to support their pet idea. For example, if I talk about an “image anomaly,” to other scientists, this means something like a spot of dust on the lens (usually appears as a darker doughnut shape on the image) or a cosmic ray that makes a bright spot or streak. To a pseudoscientist, it could mean an apartment complex on Mars or an alien space ship near the sun.

This especially becomes an issue when people use those misconceptions to turn around and say that some well established model in science is wrong, and spread those views.

For example, I recently completed a two-part podcast series (episode part 1, part 2) on the ideas and misconceptions of “Professor” James McCanney (I place “Professor” in quotes because he is introduced as such, but he has not taught for over 30 years after he was fired from two teaching jobs, and he does not have a doctorate). Mr. McCanney has many misconceptions about the universe, but one that struck me was this, stated on the Coast to Coast AM radio program on 30 August, 2007:

“When astronomers take their picture of the universe, and they start looking back, and they say, uh– ‘We’re looking back in time,’ and now scientists say they’ve seen objects that are only 500 million years after the Big Bang. But the only problem is they’re in all directions, when we look out in all directions. So if you actually were seeing objects that were only 500 million years after the Big Bang, they would have to be consolidating in some location in the sky near where the original Big Bang had to be. But that’s not the case, they’re all over the sky.”

This was one of his primary stated reasons for saying the Big Bang was wrong, doesn’t make sense, and observations do not support it.

The problem is that this is a gross misunderstanding of the science, and because of that misunderstanding, he concludes that the science is wrong. This example is, in part, a manifestation of an issue we scientists face: Trying to explain a geometrically and spatially complicated idea that goes against your every-day experience.

The analogy in common culture for the Big Bang is that it’s an explosion. In our every-day experience, explosions happen at a specific place. Therefore, if the Big Bang was an explosion, shouldn’t it have happened in a certain place? Ergo, shouldn’t what Mr. McCanney said – that we should see stuff only get younger towards the original spot of that explosion – be correct? And if the evidence doesn’t show that, doesn’t it mean the Big Bang is wrong?

Herein lies the problem with your every-day experience: The Big Bang model holds that the universe did not “start somewhere,” but rather it “started the somewhere.” You cannot have the event that created the universe – all of space and time as we know it – happen within the universe itself. It’s like saying that you, yourself, started in your big toe, or your ear, and grew out from that. But you didn’t: Your entire physical self started with your entire physical self (a single cell) – you cannot point to a specific part of yourself where you started.

The same is the case with the universe. The reason why there is no center of the universe, or no specific spot where we can look towards where the Big Bang occurred, is that it was an explosion of space, not in space.

Another common analogy that’s used is to think of a balloon. The surface of that balloon is a 2D representation of the 3D universe. That 2D representation is warped in 3D, just as our 3D universe is likely warped in 4D or higher spatial dimensions. If you think of a squished, completely deflated balloon, you could say that it’s just a tiny speck and that surface (our universe) doesn’t yet exist. Now, blow air into the balloon, and the surface exists and expands. If you were on that surface and you looked in any direction, you would see the surface. If light travelled really slowly, then you would see that surface as it appeared further back in time.

And that’s what we see when we look out into the universe: As we look farther and farther away, we look further and further back in time, and we see a much younger universe. In all directions. Including the cosmic microwave background radiation, which if what the universe “looked like” just about 380,000 years after the Big Bang.

This observation is what one should and would predict if the Big Bang is the correct model for the initial stages of the universe’s existence.

To bring this full-circle, this kind of observation – the very one Mr. McCanney says contradicts the Big Bang and that’s one reason why he doesn’t believe it – is actually an observation that supports the Big Bang.

But, trying to grasp why this is what you should predict from the Big Bang model is not easy. It goes against what you normally think of when you think “explosion.” Or of really anything happening in the universe, which, by definition, is everything we’ve ever observed or experienced. It is a common misunderstanding, but it’s one that comes from an attempt to simplify the science in a way to easily explain it to non-scientists.

That’s why, as skeptics, we always need to be aware of simplifications and analogies used by science communicators: While it may be done with the best of intentions to try to convey a complex concept, it can introduce further misunderstandings. And, given the right person (or wrong person, depending on your point of view), that misunderstanding can be used to promote pseudoscience.

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December 1, 2014

Podcast Episode 121: James McCanney’s Views on Other Stuff in the Universe, Part 2


Some random claims based on
Electric Universe thinking
By James McCanney.

The long-awaited sequel to the critically-acclaimed (ha!) first part on James McCanney’s ideas about stuff. As I said last time, I’ve wanted to talk about James McCanney’s ideas ever since I heard him on Coast to Coast AM, and doing so isn’t hard — he’s been on the show dozens of times over the last two decades. I’ve heard him talk about a lot of things, but I mostly remembered him sounding like a broken record talking about how comets “discharge the solar capacitor.” This episode gets at many of his other ideas, though there are still many others and I reserve the right to do a Part 3 in the future.

Because this episode runs nearly 55 minutes, the only additional segment is two New News items (one sent in by Graham and the other by Callum (@ApproxPurified). Also, I plan on the next episode to be about conspiracies surrounding the Rosetta mission and its now host comet, so if you happen to see something relevant, please let me know before December 12, 2014.

P.S. My internet connection is being flaky — please let me know if you have issues downloading this episode or getting it to show up in iTunes or another RSS reader.

November 18, 2014

Episode 120: James McCanney’s Views on Comets, Part 1


Comets: Are they weird,
Electrical phenom’na,
Or just dirty snow?

My first personal foray into electric universe claims (don’t forget part 1 and 2 intros via an interview with Tom Bridgman). I’ve wanted to talk about James McCanney’s ideas ever since I heard him on Coast to Coast AM, and doing so isn’t hard — he’s been on the show dozens of times over the last two decades. I’ve heard him talk about a lot of things, but I mostly remembered him sounding like a broken record talking about how comets “discharge the solar capacitor.”

I’ve been putting him off for awhile because I really really don’t like Electricity & Magnetism, so doing this was going to be a bit out of my comfort zone. It ended up not being that far out, thanks in part to generous help by Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy website and the 2012 Hoax website.

However, listening to Coast to Coast for clips took a very long time. Two straight days, listening at 1.7–2.5x speed. I took pages of notes, including numerous direct quotes. I mined these and wrote an incredibly lengthy episode that used 18 clips totaling nearly 15 minutes.

Then I decided to split it into two parts. This first part covers just his ideas about comets. This episode also has a Q&A (first time in many episodes) and Feedback.

June 4, 2013

My Additional Project: C2C Watch Blog … Reprinted Post on James McCanney


Introduction

A few weeks ago, while on my 40-minute morning walk to burn 260 calories – the number in an average-sized doughnut (yes, I count calories in units of doughnuts), I was absolutely disgusted by Coast to Coast fill-in host John B. Wells and his guest, Steve Pieczenik, talking about stupid things such as the government will charge you for having a baby because of gene patents, but then just disgusting things like “no child was killed at Sandy Hook.” I mean, stuff that you might expect to hear out of a psychopath (and I’m using the definition here – someone who is characterized by antisocial behavior, a diminished capacity for remorse, and poor behavioral controls).

It was really disgusting.

That’s when I reached out to a few people and decided to start a community blog, Coast to Coast AM Watch. The idea is that those of us who sometimes listen to the program and hear something particularly outrageous can blog about it and post real information. (And if you think this is you and you can contribute, let me know and I’ll set you up with an account.)

To cross-pollenate a bit, I am going to sometimes cross-post. So, here is a post I wrote a few days ago on James McCanney. I haven’t written about him before on this blog before because he’s a bit like Hoagland: He’s built up such a mythology that it’s very difficult in just a single post to get into it all. I do plan to put out a podcast episode later this year about some of his main stuff.

Note that I plan to be a bit more snarky on that blog, and this post reflects it.

The Cross-Post

James McCanney is a not infrequent guest on C2C, usually for a quick news blurb in the first hour, or for an hour here-and-there. May 23 saw him in the third hour with questions from the audience in the second half of that.

Trying to explain McCanney’s misconceptions is a bit like saying you’re going to spend an hour debunking Answers in Genesis: It can’t be done. Nearly every sentence he says is just plain wrong. Until I do my own podcast summarizing some of the major issues, I’ll direct you to Phil Plait’s take-down of about half a dozen of them.

In the spirit of this blog, where just a few things that catch our ears each show are things we want to address, I’m going to take on a claim he made in the early part of the hour. To summarize, he stated that we had weird weather in the US throughout Spring and early Summer. Since McCanny believes that all weather on Earth has to do with electrical interactions with stuff in the solar system, he searched and searched for something to explain it. And lo!– he found Saturn. That’s right … somehow, an electrical connection with the ringed planet made it snow here in America in the spring. The occasional teacher in me says: Please show your work.

That’s a problem with people like McCanney: They claim to make all these predictions (some of which are bound to come true) and therefore claim to overthrow all of science and yet they haven’t shown how the math works out.

In this case, let’s assume we believe Maxwell’s equations and that electricity follows an inverse-square law for intensity (it’s called a “law” for a reason, mind you — it’s a fact that the intensity of electricity falls off with the square of the distance, so if you’re 5x farther away from something, the intensity is 1/25 (1/52)).

Let’s also assume that we have a spacecraft that, gee, operates on electricity that’s in orbit of Saturn. Which we do. It’s called Cassini and has been in orbit since 2004. Cassini does not orbit in a nice, circular orbit, but it’s widely variable. From what a quick search got me, we can put a very rough number of 1 million km from Saturn. For a very round number, Saturn’s a bit over 1 billion km from Earth.

Now let’s apply the inverse-square law: ( (1 billion) / (1 million) )2 = (1 thousand)2 = 1 million.

So an electrical connection with Saturn, at Earth, would necessarily have had to have been 1 million times stronger at Cassini. Even if we’re talking some sort of directed energy weapon like a Star Trek phaser, the electrical discharge from Saturn would have had to have done something to Saturn’s magnetosphere that would have affected Cassini. You can’t get out of this. A 1 million-fold increase of electrical output magically happening from Saturn would have fried Cassini, and yet it’s still operating just as well as before.

That’s about as kindly as I can put this, that it’s just WRONG. And you can now see why a debunking of McCanney would take a very very long time: Just from those two or three sentences, I spent 500+ words.

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