Exposing PseudoAstronomy

October 4, 2016

Podcast Episode 149: Modern Flat-Earth Thought, Part 2 (U.N. Flag and Airplane Flights)


“Modern Flat Earth Thought”
On maps, flags, and airplane flights …
Does it make sense? No.

Back to the flat Earth, this time discussing map projections and the United Nations flag, and then how some flat Earth proponents use and abuse airplane flight paths to argue that the planet is flat and looks just like the United Nations flag. I want to thank Michael R. (@SkepticalBelg on Twitter) for for reviewing and making several corrections to my text on how the airline industry works.

This was a particularly long episode, nearly a full hour. I also recorded this in a hotel room, and it sounds like I was too close to the microphone and at an angle at times and the room echoed, so my apologies for the audio quality in this episode. It was still better than the audio in the last episode, which was recorded on a phone outside, but it’s not perfect.

There are three additional short segments in this episode, the first being logical fallacies (detailing the argument against antiquity), second being feedback (the correction(s) from Episode 147), and the announcement to thank Michael.

Flat Earth Graphic

Flat Earth Graphic

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September 5, 2016

Podcast Episode 145: Modern Flat Earth “Thought,” Part 1


“Modern Flat Earth Thought”
Might be a contradiction
Of terms, but let’s see!

Back from hiatus, a roughly 45-minute episode on a few ideas promoted by the very new (since about 2014) breed of flat-Earth proponents. I go into depth on human perception and then focus on both Earth’s curvature and the overall shape of the planet. This Part 1 exclusively features clips from Eric Dubay, but future episodes will include other luminaries in the movement.

There are three other segments beyond the main one: Logical Fallacy (focusing on the False Dichotomy), Feedback (from James F. related to the Ringmakers of Saturn by Norman Bergrun), and a brief announcement.

For those returning listeners, thank you for sticking with the podcast through the very long hiatus. For those new listeners, thanks for checking it out.

I hope that you enjoy this episode.

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 #10 — Crrow777 Thinks It’s ALL Fake


Introduction

I really don’t want to give this one much time. “Crrow777” as he is known on YouTube, or just “Crrow” in interviews, is (from what I can tell) rising somewhat in the conspiracy world for reasons that I don’t understand. Among other things, he thinks the moon (Earth’s moon) is a hologram.

I have listened to some of his material, and I have heard several of the interviews he has given. I think he believes what he is saying. I don’t know beyond that what his mental state may be.

For this and other reasons, not the least of which is that the claims he makes are insane, I don’t want to feed the birds beyond what I need to to quickly debunk his foray into Pluto and New Horizons.

I have seen two additional Pluto videos on YouTube of his that go beyond the first one he posted. I’m only going to focus on that first one: “Crow Images vs NASA Images – Pluto is Only at Disneyland.” His videos typically get on the order of 10,000 views. This one has nearly 100,000 because it was picked up by various news outlets who did want to give him more attention.

The Claim

It really boils down to this: Because he can get from Earth (what he thinks) are better images of Jupiter and Jupiter’s moons than what NASA was showing of Pluto from New Horizons several days before encounter, New Horizons is fake.

The Explanation: Very Basic, Middle School Math

He’s wrong.

First off, in his first video, he is fully focused on saying that Jupiter in his camera and telescope is better than Pluto from the LORRI instrument on New Horizons. In his second video, he commits the logical fallacy of Moving the Goalpost and claims that what he really was talking about was Jupiter’s moons, not Jupiter.

Let’s do some really basic math. Jupiter was near the opposite side of the sun as Earth in mid-July, meaning it was around 900,000,000 km from us. Pluto was very roughly 5,000,000,000 km from us, or around 5.5x farther.

Jupiter’s radius is about 71,000 km (on average). Pluto’s radius is around 1190 km. So Jupiter is around 60x bigger in size.

Take 60x bigger and 5.5x farther from Earth, Pluto is going to look around 330x smaller than Jupiter.

Okay, but what about from New Horizons? The first images that he complains about and said were an “insult to your intelligence” were from late May, when New Horizons was about 50,000,000 km away from Pluto, or about 18x closer than we were to Jupiter. Except, he wasn’t showing you LORRI images. He was showing you MVIC images, which have a much worse pixel scale.

It’s the second animation he shows, about 3:45 into the video, which is from LORRI from April, when New Horizons was about 110,000,000 km, or 9x closer than we are to Jupiter.

So, simple math: Jupiter is 60x bigger, New Horizons was 9x closer, so Jupiter would STILL, if the optics were all the same, be about 6.5x bigger than what he’s doing in his back yard.

Except, the optics are not the same. I don’t know the field of view of his specific telescope. The build of the telescope changes the field of view, as does the camera size. LORRI has a field of view of 0.3° (about 60% the size of Earth’s full moon). It also has a 1024×1024 pixel detector, or 1 megapixels.

Crrow777 looks like he was using a dSLR camera, which typically has around 20 megapixels. That means that his resolving power – the ability to see a certain number of pixels across a feature – is going to be around 4-5x that of LORRI (take the square-root of the number of pixels, which is area, to get length).

So, not only is Jupiter going to still be 6.5x bigger if the telescopes are the same, but due to the number of pixels in his camera, it will be about 30x more pixels across than how New Horizons is seeing Pluto.

Other Stuff

He also complains that he has city lights and an atmosphere to deal with. But, he’s using techniques which help get around that, which those LORRI images he was showing were not using.

He also (around 4:30 in the video) just starts to rant about the images being an insult to peoples’ intelligence. I think his basic misunderstandings are an insult to peoples’ intelligence.

He also complains (5 min) that these are “high resolution” from NASA but as he defines “high resolution,” meaning you can “get down and resolve detail on these things,” then under his definition – which is different from the term as NASA was using it – they aren’t.

Except they are. We could resolve features on months out that we had never been able to resolve before. And days out, which are the ones he complains about at that time stamp, we were resolving surface features. It’s not “junk” (his term). All because he doesn’t understand something doesn’t mean the incredibly hard work and dedication by hundreds of people was all fake.

Final Thoughts

Okay, I’ve gotten myself angry at this point. I’ve said my bit, but I’ll say it again:

Just because you don’t know basic math, basic optics, and basic technology doesn’t mean that everything is a conspiracy. Instead of everyone lying, maybe it’s YOU who needs to actually do a little extra work and learn something instead of acting crazy.

Post Script

I took a look at his second video. Nothing really new in it except probably 80% of it is ranting and raving about The Masons and that nobody should trust The Government. One of the very few new things in it was ranting that there were better than 1 Mpx cameras available at the time New Horizons was built. This ignores two things: You have to go to the initial proposal – not when the craft was built and certainly not launched – and you have to look at what is tried and true technology that is capable of surviving the much harsher environment of space (temperature extremes and radiation). You can’t just go to the local camera store, buy a camera off the shelf, and fly it to Pluto. Ranting about should’ve-been-able-to-do-that shows you know absolutely nothing about how space missions work and how the technology on those missions is selected, built, and tested.

I also took a look at his third, rather short video, claiming that the colorized full-frame Pluto images was faked because if you invert the colors and increase the levels, you see a blockiness around the edge of the disk. Again: All because YOU don’t know anything about what’s going on doesn’t mean it’s a fraud.

This was a lossy JPG B&W image, with MUCH lower resolution color data overlaid on it, and then saved and exported again with lossy JPG compression. If he had BOTHERED TO READ THE CAPTION, he would know this.

#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.

January 16, 2013

Podcast Episode 61: Special Pleading with Large Impacts


A complaint I’ve heard is that the invoking of giant asteroid impacts to explain some odd solar system features (Venus upside-down, Uranus on its side, etc.) is just special pleading and as crazy if not more so than the pseudoscience ideas, like Velikovsky. While I obviously have my own opinion about Velikovsky in particular, I wanted to take an episode to talk about why giant impacts are used to explain some things, and whether we have a real reason to do so or if it’s just our own way of making stuff up.

There isn’t a new puzzler, though the one from last episode – send in your favorite planetary pareidolia – is still going on.

September 26, 2011

Logical Fallacies: Argument from Persecution


Introduction

Continuing my very old series on logical fallacies, this post is on the kind of fallacy that is not usually on most peoples’ top lists, but it’s one that fits in with a lot of the things I talk about on this blog. In general, it’s a form of the non sequitur, meaning that the argument doesn’t really have anything to do with the actual material being discussed; instead, it’s meant to play more on peoples’ emotions. As we all know from Spock on Star Trek emotions are not logical.

Basic Explanation

The argument from persecution is generally of the form, “My views are being persecuted, therefore they are correct.” Sometimes it has the post script, “After all, no one would put in this much effort to denounce my views if there weren’t something to them.” This addendum is effectively a “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire” fallacy.

Variant: The Galileo Argument

A special form of this type of fallacy is sometimes given its own name, “The Galileo Argument.” The idea stems from Galileo’s own persecution by the Catholic Church in the early 1600s, and the way it is invoked is often, “Everyone’s saying I’m wrong, but that’s what everyone said about Galileo, too!” The conclusion they want you to draw is that they are correct, just as Galileo was.

A very quick rebuttal to this, besides it being a logical fallacy, is that Galileo actually had solid observational data that anyone could easily employ to see that he was correct.

Example from Young-Earth Creationism

A decent, recent example from the YEC front comes from the Creation Ministries International article from September 21, 2011, entitled, “Heavyweights move to ban creation.” With subject headings such as “Desperate to quash dissent,” the CMI article has the general tone of one who is persecuted, though finding a proper, clear example explicitly within the article is somewhat difficult.

Instead, I direct you to the comments, where Patrick states, “Rejoice in persecution… the opposition will increase and the Lord will provide new openings. The enemy will be confounded, but those who seek the Lord will renew their strength.”

Or Victor: “It is indeed disingenuous on the part of BHA to quote “All children should be free to grow up in a world where they are allowed to question, doubt, think freely, and reach their own conclusions about what they believe” when this is exactly what they are suppressing in terms of questioning “Evolution[.]””

Final Thoughts

This is usually a fairly easy logical fallacy to pick out (though I will admit that my examples above are not as clear as I would like them to be), and many people beyond YECs use it. Another rather large class are UFOlogists, and they’re often the ones who like to add the hasty conclusion / where there’s smoke there’s fire to their claims.

September 1, 2011

Logical Fallacies: Argument from Authority versus the Scientific Consensus


Introduction

I haven’t done a post in almost two years to add to my very incomplete series on logical fallacies and fallacious argument techniques. However, due to recent posts – especially in the comments section – on my blog, I thought this would be a good time to re-visit the specific and very common logical fallacy of the “argument from authority,” and I want to then contrast that against the “scientific consensus.” They are not the same thing.

In actuality, I have addressed this difference before, albeit it was in the very early days of my blog and I want to pull out more specific examples and be more explicit this time.

The Argument from Authority

The argument from authority is really a very simple logical fallacy to spot: Person A has seeming authority in some subject, therefore Person B needs to believe what they say.

An example from the Apollo Moon Hoax lexicon is that David Groves, Ph.D. (the authority) showed in a study that the radiation experienced by astronauts would have rendered their photographic film damaged beyond repair (exposed) so they could not have possibly taken the pictures that NASA claims. He has a Ph.D., therefore he’s right. Except, not. His study did not use the same camera, film, nor shielding that NASA did. He exposed the film to 1000 times the strength of radiation for 100x as long (effectively). Not exactly a valid experiment to demonstrate what is claimed.

Another example, courtesy of Answers in Genesis, is that they have a Ph.D. astrophysicist on staff, “Dr. Jason Lisle, Ph.D.” Yes, his Ph.D. is valid, was in the actual science field, and he graduated a year before I entered grad school from the same department I got my degree in. Does that make his creationist writings any more valid than a guy ranting on the street? No. Does that make his claims that the fact we can argue with logic means the Bible is true (yes, he does claim that)? No.

Or, to use a contrived example from my first post on this subject, I could make the claim that Dr. Crusher is an expert on human anatomy. The fallacy then goes that if I were to say to my friends that Dr. Crusher says the neck bone is connected to the foot bone, then it must be true because she’s an expert in that field. But, obviously this is not true. In other words, the validity of the claim does not follow from the credibility of the source.

Other Examples of Argument from Authority

Isaac Newton: One of my favorite examples of the argument from authority is that of Isaac Newton. By pretty much any account and all measures, Newton was the founder of modern physics and mathematics. He didn’t just codify calculus, gravity, and motion, but also optics. He truly is one of the most important people and most authoritative people in modern science. If anyone is an authority, he is.

But then, Newton was a fervent believer in alchemy. He thought that you could turn ordinary, cheap metals (for example) into more valuable ones like gold if you combined them with the right chemicals. He pursued this as much as he pursued figuring out why we have tides.

If Newton were alive today, I would likely believe anything he said about physics (at least classical physics). But alchemy? No. I’d call him out on that pseudoscience just as much as I call out Terry Nazon on her made-up astrology. It doesn’t matter if he is revered and respected — individual arguments from authority are a logical fallacy for a reason, and citing an individual who claims one thing that does not make sense given what we know about the universe is as bad an argument as “’cause I said so, that’s why!”

Dr. Richard B. Hoover, Ph.D. from NASA: First reported widely on FOX news in early March, 2011, Dr. Richard B. Hoover, “an astrobiologist with NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center,” found life on a meteorite. He published his findings in the “peer-reviewed” Journal of Cosmology. This was very quickly torn apart by most scientists in the field and in related fields where we (yes, I participated) pointed out that he was seeing pareidolia shapes in rocks, his findings were not verified nor replicable by his peers in the field, and that the Journal of Cosmology is one of the crackpot “journals” in astronomy.

JoC is a fringe journal at best. To quote PZ Myers, “it isn’t a real science journal at all, but is the ginned-up website of a small group of crank academics obsessed with the idea of Hoyle and Wickramasinghe that life originated in outer space and simply rained down on Earth.” In response to Hoover’s paper, it contacted the editors of Science and Nature to put together a panel of experts to evaluate the claims. Then it stated, “any refusal to cooperate, no matter what the excuse [will be] vindication for the Journal of Cosmology and the Hoover paper, and an acknowledgment that the editorial policies of the Journal of Cosmology are beyond reproach.” With that, they clearly cross into the tactics used by many pseudoscientists whereby either (a) they wear out the critics to the point the critics just don’t care anymore, or (b) the critics never cared enough in the first place to dignify the original challenge because it was so fringe to begin with.

With that said, the JoC’s editorial board is made of seven Ph.D.s, one who is the director of the center for astrobiology at Cardiff, one from NASA JPL, one who is the senior research scientist in the science directorate at NASA Langley, and another who is the head of the department of computer science at Oklahoma State University. Seems “highly qualified.” But, this is another example of a few who put together a journal being an argument from authority. I actually looked up one of the Ph.D.s because he is in my former department here at CU-Boulder. Looking further into him, there’s really nothing to find other than he’s emeritus faculty — basically retired but still hangs around. His personal website was last updated in 2001.

So we have another case where all because someone is a NASA scientist, all because someone is a department chair, all because someone is a center director, it does not mean that all of their claims can be taken as true.

Similarly, if you can convince a NASA scientist, an imaging professional, someone at the CDC, someone who runs the computers for a major NASA mission, or someone who builds spacecraft that your particular claim is true, that does not mean that everyone else needs to believe it.

My 8th Grade Science Teacher: We started out 8th grade science with going around the room and saying what our parents did for a living. The teacher then told us that he used to work in the local hospital. For some reason, that seemed to convey some authority at the time. In hindsight, I think he was trying to make himself feel good.

That authority quickly vanished during our astronomy unit when he explained to us that the moon was three times farther away from Earth than the sun, a kilometer is longer than a mile, and that to stop a space ship in space you shut off the engines and wait for it to wander near a planet and have the planet’s gravity slow you down. After some checking, his job at the local hospital turned out to be in security. Obviously, this was a case where a stated authority (working at a hospital) and a presumed authority (being the teacher) could not mask gross incompetence.

Scientific Consensus: NOT An Argument from Authority

In contrast, the scientific consensus is not an argument from authority. There are a couple of ways to think about this. The most basic and concise is that the scientific consensus is not based on an individual’s or small group’s credibility.

A more lengthy way to think about this is that the scientific community is convinced by evidence, not by individual charisma nor authority. I’ve said it many, many times before in this blog, and I’ve written at least a whole post on it, that contrary to seemingly popular opinion, scientists want to create new paradigms. They want to be able to convince their colleagues and detractors that they are correct. Upholding the status quo means you are guaranteed to be forgotten. And, the only way you are going to convince everyone that you are correct is to provide them with overwhelmingly convincing evidence and to show that your new model/idea explains all of the evidence that the previous one did at least as well, if not better.

Once this is done, the people who are experts in the field will be convinced. They can then go out and convince others in related fields that this is the actual way things work. Again — it’s not an authority, they are convincing people by the evidence. This process continues to trickle throughout the scientific community until there is a broad consensus on that issue.

By that point, what is a lay person to do? Should they trust Dr. Linus Pauling, a twice Nobel Laureate who claimed that high doses of Vitamin C basically prevented almost all illnesses and cured many diseases, including cancer? Or should they trust the scientific consensus – a group of tens of thousands of medical professionals who have read and been convinced by the research – that Pauling was deluded?

I’m not saying that you should trust the consensus view blindly. Try to understand it. Understand why the consensus is what it is. What is the evidence that has convinced everyone? At that point, if you still think they may be wrong, then figure out why the consensus view is not convinced by the evidence that you are. It is highly likely that you are misunderstanding something, not thousands of people who have spent their lives studying the issue.

The Scientific Consensus is Not Infallible

That all being said, scientists will usually be the first (as in, not the last) to admit that the consensus is fallible and that their views can be changed by the evidence. That is how new paradigms happen. Plate tectonic theory was laughed at for about two decades before overwhelming evidence for it was presented that changed the entire consensus opinion within just a few years. The same was true with the death of the dinosaurs — there were many different hypotheses out there but when the iridium layer was found at the K/T boundary and the crater was finally discovered off the Yucatan peninsula, the scientific consensus changed very rapidly in light of the evidence.

Certain scientific paradigms/consensuses (according to spell-check, that is the plural of “consensus” even though it sounds wrong, but who am I to argue with spell-check?) that we hold now could very likely change in the future. What is unlikely, though, is for them to change to something for which there is currently very convincing evidence that it is not the case. An example of this would be astrology – there is absolutely no mechanism for it to work, and all statistically robust studies show that it fails to produce results better than chance.

Final Thoughts

In the end, the argument from authority is quite an easy logical fallacy to spot. Differentiating it from the scientific consensus is not as easy, and understanding the difference between the fallacious argument from authority and the non-fallacious scientific consensus is even harder. Steve Novella has a post on this topic from about a year ago, and I recommend reading it if you’re still a bit confused about the difference.

What should also be re-emphasized is that you should never take anything on blind faith/authority. If you hear an argument from authority, investigate the claim. If you hear a scientific consensus that you disagree with, first understand the evidence that convinced the scientists, and then figure out why you disagree. If you think you have solid evidence to the contrary, it has not been shown to be wrong, and your model can explain all of the data that the currently accepted model does at least as well, then present it and try to convince them. But also be humble enough to realize that the evidence that convinces you, when it may be pointed out by people within that scientific community that it’s wrong, actually is probably wrong. At the very least, you should admit that people disagree with you and find faults because of [insert reason].

That’s what scientists do, too.

August 24, 2011

Eroding Continents, Uniformitarianism vs. Catastrophism, and Young-Earth Creationism


Introduction

Recently, I’ve done a lot of posts on young-Earth creationism (YEC), and the majority of those have been based on the Institute for Creation Research’s daily “science” updates (or as the Eye on ICR blog calls them, “daily pseudoscience updates” or “DpSU”). As such, when yet another geology-related one came out this week, I was going to ignore it. Especially because said Eye on ICR blog already covered it (don’t you have homework, Peter?).

But then I read this particular “DpSU” again, entitled “Continents Should Have Eroded Long Ago,” and I decided that, actually, there was something I wanted to cover from it.

The Obligatory Summary and Wrongness of the ICR Article

I do have to briefly summarize these points before I get to the larger issue I wanted to address. Basically, in said article, the “science” writer Brian Thomas talks about a recent paper that estimates the rate of erosion of continental crust material. The paper, by Eric Portenga and Paul Bierman, is freely available for anyone to read and it is in a legitimate publication (as in it’s not something like the “Answers Research Journal” or “Creation Science” or “Origins”).

The paper itself is actually somewhat interesting. It’s about 7 pages long, has big pretty full-color images, and may be somewhat understandable to someone without any background in the field (I do apologize, but even though I swore I never would, I do lose track of how much background the general public has in these areas). I should also note that this paper is a metanalysis of previously published data, so the authors themselves did not go into the field but rather pulled a lot (1599) numbers from the literature. The paper was really comparing two different erosion rates, that of rock outcrops to those of basins. To quote the very first page, they found “Drainage basin and outcrop erosion rates both vary by climate zone, rock type, and tectonic setting.”

But, they calculated an average erosion rate of 12±1.3 meters per million years (or 12±1.3 micrometers per year) though the median was 5.4 µm/yr. This large difference of a factor of ~2x between the average and median (median is the middle number of a sorted list) indicates that the data are highly skewed towards lower erosion rates. They found erosion rates within drainage basins to be about a factor of 20x larger with a 218±35 meters per million years (218±35 µm/yr) average, or 54 µm/yr for the median (again indicating a skew towards slower rates). They then discuss variations in different locations, as I mentioned in the previous paragraph, and have more discussion in the paper than I want to put here.

So, that’s what the authors of the paper found.

Where Mr. Thomas comes in is the following: “According to the study, the average erosion rate for outcrops was 40 feet every one million years. The average thickness of continental crust above sea level can be estimated at about 623 meters, or 2,044 feet. To erode 2,000 feet of crust at 40 feet per one million years would require only 50 million years. So, if the earth is billions of years old, why is its surface not completely flat?” He does the same with basins and claims that this puts a limit at 3 million years.

He then shoots down the idea that geologic uplift is happening with a 1986 paper by a creationist in a creationist publication and then states, “The fact that mountains and even continents still exist is testimony to the young age of the earth. It looks as though the continents cannot be billions of years old, because they would all have eroded in a fraction of that time. And yet they still stand tall.”

Well, one problem with this is simply that, even if we assume everything he wrote is true, we could still easily have a million-year-old planet, no problem, not a 10,000-year-old one.

Another problem is simply that he’s wrong wrong wrong. Did I mention he’s wrong? He ignores things like isostasy where regions of continents are still moving upwards from the last ice age. He ignores volcanism and how volcanoes build mountains (do I really have to cite a source for that?). He ignores that fact that non-volcanic mountain ranges are still growing, where, for example, the Himalayans are growing at a rate of about 6 cm/yr (2.4 inches/year). For those who are really really bad at math, 6 cm/yr is much larger than 5 µm/yr — larger by a factor of 12,000. More than enough to keep up with erosion.

Now, I really don’t think I have to go much further in showing the sheer willful ignorance of Mr. Thomas on this topic. But this feeds into a much larger one that is near and dear to every YEC’s God-given heart.

Uniformitarianism versus Catastrophism

I can almost guarantee that you will never hear the terms “uniformitarianism” nor “catastrophism” unless you pay attention to creationist writings or you delve very deep into the history of philosophy of science or, specifically, geology.

Over-simplified, uniformitarianism is the notion that all processes that exist now are the same as they have been. Creationists assume this when they say the Moon cannot have formed 4.5 billion years ago because it is currently moving away from Earth at a rate of about 1 inch per year and if you run the numbers backwards (assuming uniformitarianism), then it crashes into Earth way before 4.5 billion years ago.

In contrast, catastrophism is the opposite, where rates of change will change, sometimes being faster and sometimes slower.

What I find fascinating is that YECs will use catastrophism to explain practically everything in their view of natural history. God stretched out the heavens so we get away from the “distant starlight problem.” God made the world and all that stuff in a day or two so we don’t have to deal with formation times of the solar system. The flood explains the Grand Canyon, sedimentary rock layers, Earth’s magnetic field reversals, and lots of other things. All fall under catastrophism.

As a consequence of this embrace, they deride us evilutionists for assuming uniformitarianism. Hence uniformitarianism is assumed with the speed of light, universal constants, radiometric dating, continental drift, etc.

And yet, when given the opportunity to take a bit of modern science and twist it to their own agenda (as in the case of this paper), they assume uniformitarianism! Thomas’ assumption that the basins would be flat within 3 million years is based on the currently observed rates. Same with the continents. And same with several other topics I’ve addressed in this blog over the past three years.

Final Thoughts

I realize that those of you who are not YECs are going to read the above section and think, “What do you expect? Creationists are never consistent with the facts, they distort them to suit their argument-of-the-minute.”

Fair enough. But, I find it enlightening and, yes, even slightly exciting to find yet another inconsistency in their arguments. Granted, the argument in the particular article of this post is completely wrong based on very basic geology that I think most third graders have learned (if you know about volcanoes, you know his argument is wrong). But, it also exposes this inconsistency.

When it suits them, the catastrophic Flood explains everything we can throw. But when it suits them, they take a modern scientific measurement, assume a dramatically flat uniformitarian extrapolation, and hence show that Earth can’t be as old as it is.

Now, it’s been awhile since I’ve pointed out formal logical fallacies, so correct me if I’m wrong, but I think there are two basic ones here. The first is a reductio ad absurdum where he’s reduced the study’s results far beyond what the authors intended. The second would be a basic straw man where, as a consequence of reducing the study to something stupid, they’re extrapolating it to argue a point that is obviously false but was never intended to be made.

Edited to Add …

I can’t believe I left this out, that that plucky guy over at Eye on ICR pointed it out quite well: The paper that Mr. Thomas is pulling the latest erosion estimates from relied upon 10Be-based ages. It’s not important to go into the mechanics for this particular method here, suffice to say this is a radiometric-based age. But, wait a sec, creationists – including Mr. Thomas – very frequently argue against radiometric ages because they seem to think they don’t work! (Check out, for example, “Radiometric Dating: Making Sense of the Patterns” from AiG, “Radioisotopes and the Age of the Earth” from AiG, “Feedback: Dating Techniques” from AiG, “Fluctuations Show Radioisotope Decay Is Unreliable” from ICR, “The Sun Alters Radioactive Decay Rates” from ICR, “Dating in conflict: Which ‘age’ will you trust?” from CMI, or “Nuclear physicist embraces biblical creation” from CMI, if you don’t happen to believe me.)

So yeah, I guess we can believe radiometric dates when they support creationism, but otherwise they’re wrong and full of flaws. Hmm. This is actually something that I often point out when I give a public lecture on these kinds of topics, and one that I’ll be doing when I give my Apollo Moon Hoax talk in a few days: Science presents a cohesive story. Pseudoscience does not. You either have these flaws in radiometric dating that doom it (as creationists almost always argue), or you can trust the scientists to know what they’re doing and take the results from that (as Thomas is doing in this one instance). You really can’t have it both ways.

August 7, 2011

Mercury’s Uniqueness Revealed by MESSENGER: Does It Mean a Recent Creation?


Introduction

An interesting thing that happens when you’re defending your thesis and consequently not blogging for a few months is that other blogs can crop up that tend to cover similar material. In this case, there is a blog entitled, “Eye on the ICR” run by a high school student from New Zealand. Ah, if only we had blogs back when I was in high school … though I probably wouldn’t have been writing against creationism as my topic of choice.

Anyway, this New Zealander seems to take great delight in ripping to shreds the news postings by the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) writers. Much as I do. Unfortunately, he’s posted his before me! (And I couldn’t find his name on the site, so throughout this post, he’s the “high school student.”)

Whatever … he’s still a high schooler, I’m a Ph.D. astronomer. Hopefully I can add something to the conversation he started. We’ll see.

Mysterious Mercury

This post is yet another about the “science” writer, Mr. Brian Thomas, and in this case his ICR article, “Messenger Spacecraft Confirms: Mercury Is Unique.” First off, the name “MESSENGER” is an acronym that stands for “MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry and Ranging.” In other words, you need to capitalize it, unless you’re writing for the BBC which doesn’t seem to capitalize acronyms. Ah, we’re off to a good start.

After the title, Mr. Thomas does his normal routine of spending a paragraph or two (in this case one) giving some very brief background about the subject. It’s okay, something you’d get in a normal news article but which most third graders know.

Then we get to the line that those who are familiar with young-Earth creationist (YEC) writings know is the kicker: “Mercury possesses unique characteristics … clues point in the opposite direction to what astronomers expected.” Yes, that’s right, because something is not exactly as a model predicts, God did it. That’s basically what the remaining six paragraphs say.

A High Density

The third paragraph presents Mr. Thomas’ first problem-of-choice: Mercury’s high density and large core. The issue is that Mercury does have a high overall density. In fact, it is the second highest of any planet at 5.43 grams per cubic centimeter (water = 1); only Earth is more dense, at 5.52. But, Mr. Thomas quotes Spike Psarris from 2004 claiming, “according to naturalistic origins models, ‘Mercury can’t be anywhere near as dense as it actually is.'”

For my very loyal readers (hi Joe, Susan, Karl), you might remember that I discussed Spike Psarris twice (here and here) in ripping apart a 12-minute video segment he produced on why Jupiter needs God to have created it 6000 years ago.

In skepticism, we often give YECs and Intelligent Design (ID) proponents the proud title of the best examples of quote miners. In this case, a creationist (Brian Thomas) is quote mining another creationist (Spike Psarris). Spike does indeed say that in his 2004 article. But he actually goes on to explain that we have a perfectly reasonable natural model for how Mercury got as dense as it did. Granted, Spike in his own special way then tries to rip it to shreds through an argument from personal incredulity, but that’s somewhat beside the point for this post.

For those wondering, the “evilutionist” way of explaining this is that Mercury was involved in a massive collision early in its history that stripped away all of its crust and a large portion of its outer mantle, leaving behind the core of an originally much larger planet along with some mantle material. We know that these kinds of large collisions happened in the early solar system, there is an enormous amount of evidence for that, so it is perfectly plausible that this is what happened on Mercury. Despite what Spike says.

Too Much Sulfur?

Paragraph four of Mr. Thomas’ article states, “assuming that the planet formed naturally and close to the then-forming sun, lighter-weight elements like sulfur should have been ‘lost in space,’ … and yet Mercury has ‘high levels’ of sulfur.” Hmm. I guess that means evolution can’t be true and God created everything 6000 years ago.

As with pretty much the rest of this article – and I’ll just point it out here for the time-being – Mr. Thomas does not actually make an independent argument for a 6000-year-old universe created by God. He simply tries to cast doubt on his own – highly limited – understanding of planetary astronomy. Anyway, moving forward …

Yes, one of the interesting discoveries of MESSENGER is that it detected high levels of sulfur on Mercury. And yes, Mercury likely formed close to the sun, well inside the temperature line where we would expect lighter elements and molecules to be gaseous and not condense and be incorporated in large quantities into forming planets. Except, well, obviously they did. And there are numerous ways of getting them to these planets — remember I talked in the last section about lots of massive collisions? This is the way we think Earth got most of its water.

Magnetic Fields

Paragraphs five and six talks about the magnetosphere of Mercury:

In the Space.com Q&A, Solomon commented, “I’m now fascinated by the magnetosphere.” And it is small wonder that he is, because for many years the “dynamo theory” (which has since been shown to be false) was the only explanation offered for magnetic fields on rocky planets that are supposed to be billions of years old. However, this theory requires a molten magma core. And Mercury is so small — only slightly larger than the moon — that its core should have cooled into a solid millions of years ago. Therefore, it should not have a magnetic field at all … . And yet it does.

Messenger’s new magnetic measurements fail to explain why Mercury has a magnetic field. Instead, they add ammunition against a naturalistic origin for the planet. Scientists did not expect to discover that Mercury’s magnetic field is lopsided, but the 2011 Messenger data showed that it is stronger in the north than it is in the south. What natural process would cause that?

I actually want to disassemble the second part first, in that the “magnetic measurements fail to explain why Mercury has a magnetic field.” As a science writer, Mr. Thomas should know that measurements (data) do not explain anything. Data are data (“data” is the plural form of “datum”). They have no explanatory power in and of themselves, the data simply are what they are. It is how the data fit into models that will then support or refute them.

Further, on the lopsidedness of the field. I know I’ve said this before, but for new readers and returning ones who like the reminder: That’s what science is!! We want to find something we can’t immediately explain because that means that we can then go try to figure out why it is the way it is! It’s only YECs that don’t want anything that doesn’t fit with their own Goddidit model because that would mean that, gasp!, maybe goddidn’tdoit. In fact, Mr. Thomas, in what is obviously meant to imply that goddidit, asks the exact question that I’m sure that mission scientists are trying to answer: What process causes a lopsided magnetic field?

Okay, back to the first paragraph quoted above. I’m not even sure I really need to go into this too much. Suffice to say, yes, the fact Mercury has a strong magnetic field was a surprise when it was discovered, and it is actually one of the main questions that drove the MESSENGER instrument suite choices that will try to gather the data that will be used to test and further develop models to explain why it has an active magnetic field. Obviously, ongoing scientific research is just too much for Mr. Thomas to handle, though, because he clearly wants these observations to force us evolutionary astronomers (I still don’t understand what evolution has to do with astronomy) to throw up our hands and admit that his God did it.

Oh yeah, and the whole “dynamo theory which has since been shown to be false” is him blowing out his you-know-what. That’s about the only outright lie I came across in this article.

Final Thoughts

I’m not sure what it takes to be a science writer with ICR. I actually looked over their site for a job description or any information related to jobs, and all I found were bible versus from the Book of Jobs. Go figure. Regardless, I don’t think the requirements can be much, especially any knowledge of science. In the next-to-last paragraph, Mr. Thomas clearly shows his ignorance: “If nature formed the planets from the same cloud of space debris, then why are they not uniform in constitution, orientation, and placement?”

I have explained to 6-year-olds why there are differences in objects in the solar system even though they formed from the same “cloud of space debris.” And they understood it. (One of the big reasons is that, as the sun heated up, it caused a temperature gradient in the cloud that resulted in significant compositional differences in the inner and outer solar system.)

Mr. Thomas, please, do your homework next time. And by that, I mean read something other than the bible or Spike Psarris. But, I suppose when you’re content with a god of the gaps outlook on everything in life, actually learning something new is not important.

Oh, and in all seriousness, check out the Eye on ICR blog if you like reading this kinda thing. A high school student willing to take on the ICR, even if it’s just in a blog, and point out their foolishness is pretty cool. When I was in high school, the only creationists I confronted were classmates (ah, I still remember 7th grade when I made a girl cry just by saying that we didn’t know why the Big Bang happened, but who created God?).

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