Exposing PseudoAstronomy

January 14, 2017

Podcast Episode 155: New Science: Evidence for the Mandela Effect?

Mandela Effect,
Evidence of real’ty
Changes? No, not quite.

A shorter, bit more light-hearted episode to start off 2017, a look at the “Mandela Effect” phenomenon. This is not a detailed examination of the claims, nor is it a thorough debunking, however. Instead, I briefly describe what’s going on and then give an example of how people have used basic updates to our knowledge about astronomy to make the claim that the entirety of reality has been rewritten but they remember it the way it used to be. (Yes, I wish I were making this up; no, I’m not making this up.)

I think I finally got the bugs in my microphone worked out, or at least a work-around to the bugs, and I think the audio sounds pretty reasonable for once. The episode has three additional segments, including the logical fallacy (argument from popularity), follow-up from episode 146 (Marshall Masters still is predicting Planet X will kill us all later this year), and an announcement that I Was recently on the podcast, “Monster Talk,” discussing Planet X.

Artist Map of the Milky Way Galaxy

Artist Map of the Milky Way Galaxy

November 30, 2016

Podcast Episode 152: Modern Flat Earth Thought, Part 3 (Young-Earth Creationists Debunking Flat Earth)

Wow! Young-Earth Christians
Still get some science correct:
A flat Earth is wrong.

Finally out, the second episode for November 2016 just before December hits, is another flat Earth episode. In this one, I make a positive case for Earth being round rather than a negative case for it not being flat. It’s rare that I do these kinds of episodes, but I thought this one in particular would be interesting because I use a young-Earth creationism website to make the argument. As young-Earth creationists tend to reject a lot of modern science, I thought this an interesting pairing. Lots of different lines of evidence are made, including eclipses, ships at sea, parallax, and star visibility.

There are three additional short segments in this episode, the first being logical fallacies (where I went through, very briefly, the three that were talked about in the episode; this was completely unscripted, unlike normal), second being an announcement about why the episode was late (depressed about the US election, then got sick and you may be able to hear a stuffy nose in the episode), and third being feedback: No, I’m not going to debate a flat-Earth proponent.

And, no episode would be complete without microphone issues. I have a new computer I was using and it sounds like when I started doing the three smaller segments, every time I would pause the recording and then re-start, there was some static. Fun times.

Flat Earth Graphic

Flat Earth Graphic

July 22, 2016

For Fun, Some Numerology About NASA, Courtesy of Richard Hoagland

I’ve mentioned before that Richard Hoagland’s claims can really be broken down in to four main categories: Numerology, Conspiracy, Pareidolia, and Shoddy Image Analysis.

In this post, I’m going to give you a small taste of the first one so that you can see just how silly it really is. This comes from his radio program from the morning of July 20, where he was discussing the anniversary of NASA’s Viking 1 lander on Mars, approximately 17 minutes into the broadcast (commercials removed):

… the 40th anniversary of the Viking mission, and the 47th anniversary of Apollo 11. And if you think NASA doesn’t do things ritualistically, 47, of course, is part of 19.47, and 40 is 1 more than 39; it’s canonically 40, you know, Old and New Testament, so the numbers, the numerology of NASA is well in operation because, obviously, it was not accidental that Viking was landed on the exact same anniversary date, July 20, as Apollo 11.

Let’s get the only factual statement about NASA out of the way in the above: Yes, NASA does like anniversaries, and it does like major US holidays. So does everyone. It’s a dream from public outreach’s point of view. That’s not unique to NASA. Moving on …

For the above to make any sense, you must realize that Richard loves the number 19.5 because it fits into his magical worldview. It’s really 19.47… (extra numbers after it), but he often rounds to 19.5.

So, what he’s done is removed the whole “19” part to claim that “47” is part of his system of numerology, therefore this particular anniversary of Apollo 11 is important. Of course, this makes absolutely no sense; it’s like me saying that I’m 25 years old, but I’m going to remove the “2” because the “5” lines up with how many knocks I do on a door, therefore 5 is important and syncs up with my age. It’s just stupid.

For “39,” you multiply 19.5 (remember, we rounded) by 2 to get 39. But to get the number to make any sense in Richard’s convoluted system, he had to add 1 because this is the 40th anniversary of Viking.

Now, granted, if you make up an entire numerological system and claim it’s significant, I suppose it may not be entirely fair for me to argue that he’s added yet another ad hoc rule to get to the numbers he wants. Why he didn’t say that the Apollo mission, 11, shows that “1” is important, evidenced by the repetition of the number “1” in it, therefore you can take the “1” from Apollo 11 and subtract it from the anniversary of Viking 1 (another 1!!!), which is 40-1, and you get 39. That makes much more sense than Richard’s ad hoc reason to subtract 1.

This isn’t the first time Richard has done this, though. Some of you may remember his infamous numerology of Comet Elenin in 2011 that proved by 1 in 46.5 BILLION chances that it wasn’t a spaceship.

If it weren’t so sad that people actually believe him, it’d be funny.

July 28, 2014

Astrology: What’s the Harm?


I’ve very rarely covered astrology on this blog (~5% of posts get tagged with it), mostly because there’s very little to say about it beyond the standard, “It doesn’t work!”, “There’s no physical reason why it should work,” and “Different astrology systems around the world conflict with each other but claim similar results, therefore it’s standard ‘psychic’ cold reading.”

But, this story has been making the rounds lately, and it’s rare I get to even peripherally address a “What’s the Harm?” with respect to astronomy-based pseudoscience, so let’s get into it.

The Story

From the BBC: Astrology-Loving MP Seeks Health Answers in the Stars. The story is about David Tredinnick.

Insert collective groan.

Okay, let’s get this out of the way: Astrology does not work. I have addressed this numerous times on this blog (here and here) and once on my podcast (Episode 6).

If you don’t like that, well, I also scored numerous astrologers’ predictions to see how well they do at predicting things. They don’t work. For example: in 2010, 2011, and not only once, but twice in 2012.

It lacks a mechanism (which in itself isn’t a deal-killer because there could always be something we don’t know about), but it also simply and utterly fails whenever it is tested.

So What?

Normally, I honestly don’t care that much. Yes, it’s annoying to me as a scientist, and as a critical thinker. Yes, I think it leads to magical thinking. And people spend money on bull Taurus. But in general, beyond time wasted, money wasted, and it being a gateway to other magical thinking, there is little harm in this.

Except when someone asks what I do and I say that I’m an astronomer and they say, “Oh, I heard that Mercury was in retrograde now, what does that mean?” Which is why I now tell people that I’m a volcanologist who studies volcanoes in Hawai’i.

So, live and let live. In general.

And then this guy comes in and messes with that mentality:

A Conservative MP has spoken of his belief in astrology and his desire to incorporate it into medicine.

David Tredinnick said he had spent 20 years studying astrology and healthcare and was convinced it could work. The MP for Bosworth, a member of the health committee and the science and technology committee, said he was not afraid of ridicule or abuse. “There is no logic in attacking something that has a proven track record,” he told BBC News.

…Recalling the experience in the House of Commons, he said he had been invited to take part because of his “radical agenda” on complementary medicine – he is vice-chairman of the government’s herbals working group. … “I am absolutely convinced that those who look at the map of the sky for the day that they were born and receive some professional guidance will find out a lot about themselves and it will make their lives easier,” he told MPs.

… [H]e now wanted to promote astrology, which was not just predicting the future but gaining an insight into personal problems. He stopped short of suggesting astrological readings on the NHS, but said he wanted to raise awareness of it as an alternative among patients and clinicians.

(I removed some of the paragraph breaks, since the BBC seems to think that every sentence needs its own paragraph.)

So, yeah …

The Response …

… has been ridicule. As it should. Some of the skeptical bloggers took a crack at it, like Sharon over at Doubtful News, and today a guest post by Andy Wasley at The Friendly Atheist.

I don’t think it’s worth me spending time going through every single sentence in there and how he’s wrong. I’ll leave that “as an exercise to the reader,” as the saying goes, or for you to pull out the particularly ridiculous bits in the Comments.

The Problem

I’m not going to pretend that we don’t have (in my opinion) idiots on the US Congress and Senate. Some of the people sitting on Science committees are about as anti-science as you can get, rejecting evidence-based science in favor of everything but. So it’s nice to point out a tu quoque that other countries have their loons, too.

The problem is that if this were any normal person, it’d be another eye-roller. But he’s not a normal person. Or, he is, but he’s not in a normal position. He’s a member of the UK Parliament’s Health and Science & Technology Committees (that’s Health Committee, and Science & Technology Committee). And he believes in altmed and astrology. And he thinks that astrology not only has a proven track record of success (despite all objective tests), but he seems to want to implement it in some way in some official capacity.

This is a man who has serious power to control policy and money in the UK.

And, this is not only not an isolated case, but it’s also a good example of the common phenomenon where one form of magical thinking makes way for others. In this case, I don’t know what came first, but it’s very likely that either his belief in astrology made believing in altmed easier, or his belief in altmed made his belief in astrology easier.

These kinds of things rarely are seen in isolation. The thinking goes like this (and I’m not just surmising or musing here, I’ve heard people say it): If they start to accept one thing that’s “outside the mainstream” or something “scientists keep telling us is wrong, well” (the thinking goes), “what else have they been trying to hide from us? What else that they say is fake is really real?” It might sound like the “slippery slope” fallacy, but it’s not. One kind of pseudoscience belief is often a gateway into others.


And normally, as I said towards the beginning, I wouldn’t care. Do what you want, believe what you want, so long as you’re not really harming other people. And generally I’d prefer if you not harm yourself, but you have the right in most countries to do that, at least in some form or another if not all forms. (E.g., you might be institutionalized if you try to slit your wrists, you may have your child taken away from you if you insist on praying for them to get better from cancer instead of having chemo.)

But this is a case where one kind of magical thinking has lead to another. And this guy has power to affect £millions ($millions x1.7) and millions of people.

And he’s not alone.

So, while belief in astronomy-based pseudoscience may not be on the forefront of what most skeptics consider to be important, I would argue that it should be. We shouldn’t discriminate or rank or prioritize quite as much as some may try. Convincing someone when they’re 14 that astrology is Taurus-poop may just prevent them from trying a raw food juicing diet to cure themselves of pancreatic cancer 40 years later. Or from passing a resolution when they’re on a school board in 30 years that creationism should be taught alongside evolution.

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