Exposing PseudoAstronomy

July 14, 2012

Some Astronomical Errors at TAM 2012


Introduction

As some of you know, I’m attending the James Randi Education Foundation’s annual skeptics meeting, “The Amazing Meeting” (TAM) this year for the first time. I’m excited to be here, meeting people I’ve grown to look up to for the past few years, getting thrown a shirt last night by Penn Jillette without even having to flash my moobs, gushing at idols, etc.

That said, in the absolute least bitter/arrogant way possible, and with all due respect, I’ve been amazed at the astronomy (and astronomy-related) mistakes that have made their way into talks at this conference.

Edited to Add (07/20/2012): I put an “Addendum” at the end of the post to explain a bit more about McGaha’s errors.

“Astronomy for Skeptics: Investigating ‘Lights’ in the Sky” Workshop

To be perfectly blunt, James McGaha’s workshop was bad. The workshop as a whole was scattered content-wise, not cohesive, and very little of the workshop focused on the advertised content. Besides this, roughly half of his informational statements were factually wrong.

After calming down after the workshop, I wrote down some of the main errors I remembered. Among them …

McGaha stated that the Maya didn’t have any math, they could only count, and that’s what the Long Count calendar was, just a count. True, that’s what the Long Count was, simply a count of days in multiples of 20 and 18 and 13. But the Maya – while not nearly as sophisticated as modern mathematicians despite what new-agers want to think – had a very complex mathematics system for their time. They could count, yes, but they could do things with those counts, and they could make astronomical predictions spanning hundreds of years with a good understanding of celestial cycles.

Technologically, McGaha claimed that all GPS compasses cannot actually tell direction via GPS, that they have a small magnetometer in them that must be calibrated every time. This may be true for some. Might be true for your cellphone, your tablet, and some GPS stand-alone devices. But I have a nice field GPS. It tells direction in part by simply seeing how I’ve walked the last few steps and thus taking a difference of the latitude and longitude in order to tell what direction I’m going. No calibration required. He also said that if you hold a battery close to it, it will throw the reading off. Um, no.

After he was finished doing demos with a two-inch device to a room of 300 people, he got into some photography stuff. Among many other things, McGaha consistently messed up “pixel scale” and “resolution” as well as focus and depth of field. I’m not going to get too much into the latter because I was busy with something else while he was going over it, but for the former … “pixel scale” is when you say something like how many pixels per unit of measure. Like, each pixel in a photo is 2 inches in real life of the object being imaged. Resolution, on the other hand, is how many pixels are there. A high-resolution photo is saying that it’s something like 26 megapixels versus 1.3. It may be the most out of focus, poorly imaged thing where you can’t separate two broad barn doors, but it’s still high resolution.

Later, McGaha tried to demonstrate the motions of the stars through the sky with some laser pointers. He got it wrong. He also had a graphic in his slide show trying to show how we define the coordinate system on the sky. His diagram was a bit wrong in how the celestial poles are defined (not from your local north/south, but exactly from Earth’s rotational axis projected onto the sky).

Finally, one of the last things that he talked about was how your eye tells color. He stated that your eye cannot figure out the color of a monochromatic light source directly, that it needs a comparison source to tell. That’s wrong. He also said that with a monochromatic light source, if you change the intensity, your eye will perceive a different color. Um, no. Take a 5mW and 25mW green laser pointer and your eye will see the same color, not different ones.

Ben Radford and 2012

This was a talk I went to because I wanted to see how a non-astronomer skeptic approached the topic. His half-hour talk was basically a run-down of previous failed doomsday predictions, the classes of doomsday prophetic ideas, some humorous clips and quotes from proponents of this particular one, and then a very very cursory (like, 5 minutes or so) overview of how this got started and the Mayan calendar.

There honestly (and unfortunately) wasn’t much meat to the talk, but when he did talk about the Maya, he made some mistakes. One was saying that the Long Count does end this year. This is wrong. It ends one of the 5125 parts of its cycle, but it ticks over to the next “one up digit” of it (like going from 9999 to 10,000). Another mistake was that Ben appeared not to know that this “next tick” may not be this year. It’s based on a correlation that may be wrong, and likely is based on the latest research. It could be easily off by any multiple of 52 years.

A third error in Ben’s talk was his statement that the “end date” only comes from one Mayan inscription. This was correct until a few months ago. Recently, archaeologists discovered another inscription from very roughly 1000 years ago that referred to it. Not a major issue, but it negated (or seriously minimized) his point, and for someone who is an investigator putting together a talk for a major skeptics conference, I was somewhat disappointed.

Ben also seemed to not realize that this meme did not start with recent movies and and books. It has a definite starting point in the 70s and a bit earlier with a few specific people (such as José Argüellas or John Major Jenkins or Zecharia Sitchen). He held up recent books, not the ones that started it.

Oh, and Ben, Tabasco sauce is not made in Mexico. It’s “produced by US-based McIlhenny Company of Avery Island, Louisiana” — check Wikipedia.

I was okay with Ben not doing astronomy nor a summary of what people thought would happen. I was okay with the direction of his talk because, as I said, I wanted to see how a non-astronomer approached it. But factual errors and a lack of research from someone like Ben Radford was disappointing.

Final Thoughts

I realize this post may have sounded a bit annoyed and crotchety. But this is a skeptics conference where we’re pointing out where OTHER people are making mistakes. We should not be making our own.

Addendum

Several people have asked me how McGaha got the motions of the sky wrong. Here’s a short, abridged list:

  • He didn’t know which way was north in the room even though he had just been demonstrating compasses for the past ten minutes.
  • Second, he was trying to show motions of the stars about the north celestial pole with laser pointers but instead of continuously rotating his hand to show them moving around the pole, he just rotated back and forth, effectively running time forwards and backwards. Having taught intro astro for people who don’t know astronomy, they WILL think that’s the actual motion if that’s how you demo it.
  • Third, he said that no matter where you are on Earth, no matter what time of year, the stars will always rise 23.5° relative to straight up from the horizon. This is very wrong. For example, at either pole, stars will never rise nor set, but they will move in a circle at the same elevation in your sky.
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July 8, 2012

Podcast Episode 43: The Fake Story of Planet X, Part 3


In this episode, I return to the 2012 / Planet X mythos with another installment (at least 5 total are planned) about “The Fake Story of Planet X.” This particular one is a conspiracy claim where folks think that Planet X is coming from the south pole which is why we can’t see it. Except that the government knows about it so built a telescope down there to observe it.

This episode also includes a bit of new news, Q&A, a puzzler (yay!), and a single announcement. Since I’m writing next week’s episode today and need to record it today/tomorrow, I am holding off on Feedback likely until July 24. Note that the solution to this episode’s puzzler will be discussed in the July 24 one so that people have enough time to participate in the puzzler (hint hint, nudge nudge).

December 26, 2011

New Interview of Me on “Point of Inquiry” Podcast


Quick post to let you know that Karen Stollznow interviewed me for the December 26th episode – last of 2011 – of Point of Inquiry podcast. The subject matter was a summary of the 2012 phenomenon and associated phenomena, and it was appropriately titled, “The End of the World as We Know It.” It’s very, very roughly a 42.62-minute podcast, about the length of my own (so less detail on each subject). Enjoy!

And for reference, I figure it’s time to update my list of 2012 posts so far:

I have also written a few posts that are tangentially related to the 2012 subject:

And my podcast episodes so far on 2012:

November 6, 2010

Planet X and 2012: My Posts So Far


Introduction

In roughly 19 hours, I will be interviewed on the radio program “Amerika Now.” It is a four-hour (~2 hr 45 min without commercials) radio program broadcast from Fort Collins, Colorado, and I will be “live” in-studio. It will be from 10:00 PM through 2:00 AM Saturday into Sunday evening/morning Eastern Daylight Time for the US (8:00 PM Saturday – 12:00 AM MDT, my local time). It is a call-in program (1-800-259-5791). One can listen to it live on the radio, streamed over the internet, or you can download individual hours of it from this page after it has been aired (I don’t know how soon, though it shouldn’t be more than a day or two).

Interview Topic

The episode is going to focus on the “popular” 2012 phenomenon. As such, I thought it was high time I did another listing of all relevant 2012 posts I have made on this blog:

I have also written a few posts that are tangentially related to the 2012 subject:

I will likely be referring to these during the program. For example, I may, after describing what the sky looks like on December 21, 2012, and that there’s no galactic center alignment, say, “And if you go to my blog, linked from this show’s website, you can go to my post “Planet X and 2012: What The Sky Looks Like On December 21, 2012,” and click on the image and see a star chart of what it looks like rather than going off my verbal description.” Hopefully I’ll be that cogent when actually on the air in the late evening hours (he says, writing this at 1 AM).

Full Disclosure

No, I’m not talking about the government “coming clean on UFOs.” I want to put this in writing, up front, for anyone who may ask, imply, infer, or conspiracize:

1. I am technically a government employee because (a) I am a graduate student on a stipend at a state school in the U.S. that receives state and federal money, and (b) the grant from which I draw salary is funded by NASA. However, I am further removed from being “in” the government than a person behind the counter at the post office. The only thing I have been told I am not allowed to talk about is space mission specifics to foreigners. Since I do not work on any missions, that does not apply to me in any way. I’m about as much a government employee as a bus driver (if the bus company is not privately owned).

2. I do not claim in any way to represent the University of Colorado, the Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences department, nor the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics. No, I was not told I had to say this, I’m just saying it because I find it humorous when other people do and wanted the opportunity to say it myself.

3. There is no spot on my tax form for “secret government hush money.” If I were being paid to “keep quiet,” I would live in a nicer apartment and drive a better car. And my car would have less dings in it. And I would have a nicer couch rather than a decades-old one I inherited from another grad student. And I would’ve bought Honey Maid graham crackers at the grocery store on Monday instead of Kroger (store) brand.

4. I am not trying to sell anything. I have no books out, no e-books out, no websites with advertisements that give me money, and no movies/films/etc. If you want to be very peripheral, I am trying to excite and keep public interest in astronomy because – let’s face it – astronomy research is mostly paid with federal money which is subject to you, the voters.

5. My goal in doing this is solely to help promote the public understanding of science with a hope that it may also assuage some fear related to 2012: How science works, how science is done, and specifically how it is not done. Depending upon the questions during the program, I may or may not be directly talking about this subject, and I may or may not also address the limitations of science (some 2012 beliefs are purely metaphysical and cannot possibly be addressed by the methodologies of science — and this has always been my position).

Final Thoughts

The radio show is described as: “Amerika Now’s refreshing and provocative discussions take both a serious and ‘tongue-in-cheek’ look at the headlines of the day as well as regularly featuring top-name guests in the fields of politics and political cover-ups, spirituality and philosophy, economics, science and global environmental issues, the paranormal, and other topics of keen interest to the listeners.”

From the episodes I have listened to, it seems much like a smaller version of Coast to Coast AM, for the topics generally trend towards paranormal, spiritual / intention, alt med, and sometimes conspiracy theories. The hosts are friendly towards these topics.

I expect that the interview will be interesting, and I think it will be a learning experience for all involved (I’m including myself in that!). I have never done an interview for – for lack of a better short, encompassing term – a “pro-alternative” program. My lectures and shows in the past have always been for the general public or skeptics groups, and my interviews other than newspapers have been for skeptical podcasts or radio shows (I have those as plural, but I’ve only been interviewed for one podcast and one radio show, though multiple episodes of each … though I should be in a video podcast episode that’s due out in a month or so).

I hope the program goes well and is interesting. I encourage you to listen to it … at least at the moment. That may change afterwards (I always have a hard time listening to myself do an interview). 🙂

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