Exposing PseudoAstronomy

March 9, 2018

Even Science Reporters Are Circumventing Scientific Process


I study impact craters (those circle thingies on other planets, moons, asteroids, comets, etc.). A colleague recently pointed out a manuscript to me that demonstrated a new method to do something with craters. (I’m being purposely vague here to protect the situation.) It was an interesting manuscript, but it was submitted to an open archive (arxiv.org) where anyone can submit pretty much anything that seems sciencey. It has not been through the peer-review process.

Peer-review is not perfect. I’ve written about it before on this blog and discussed it on my podcast. But the purpose of peer-review is to weed out stuff that is obviously wrong. Things that may seem good to a general researcher, but to someone else who really knows the field, it clearly has issues. Other purposes of peer-review are to make sure the work is placed in proper context (usually by citing the reviewers’ works, but that’s a separate issue), making sure that the authors of the manuscript have explained themselves well, that their methods make sense, that they have explored alternative interpretations of their data, etc. In other words, do science “right.” Where “right” is in quotes because there is no formal set of rules by which one must play, but there are general guidelines and important pillars which people should uphold.

After it passes peer-review – if it passes peer-review – then it may be accepted by a journal and published. Some stuff that gets through peer-review is great. Some stuff is utter crap because the process isn’t perfect and because we don’t know everything, and the prevailing scientific opinion can shift with new information.

That is upended in today’s cut-throat world of journalism and a desire to be the first to publish about something that seems new and interesting.

I was contacted yesterday by a freelance reporter for the publication New Scientist. I’m not going to say the reporter’s name, but I have no qualms stating the publication. The reporter, coincidentally, wanted me to comment on the manuscript that had been submitted to arxiv.org. I refused. Here is what I wrote:

Thank you for writing. I am generally happy to comment about crater papers, and I would be happy to comment on this manuscript should it be accepted by the peer-review process. My concern at the moment is that the manuscript is only on an open server to which anyone can submit and it has not been vetted by researchers in the field beyond the authors themselves. The authors also used [specifics redacted] which have some significant omissions, and how that affects their results needs to be assessed by people who know all the ins and outs of their methods, which is not me.

I strongly recommend that you refrain from publishing about this work until it has made it through the peer-review process. It is easy to get excited about new techniques, but at the moment, it has not been vetted by other experts in the field, such that I think writing about it now is premature.

The reporter responded that I had a valid concern, he appreciated my advice, and he would discuss it with his editor.

Then just a few minutes ago, I heard from another friend in the field that she had been asked to comment for the story. She is taking a similar approach, which I greatly appreciate.

But this identifies, to me, a significant problem that those in both the scientific community and skeptic community have pointed out for years: Journalists don’t seem to care about vetting the science about which they write. Now, this could be an isolated example of an over-zealous reporter given the “OK” by their editor. Except it’s not. Too often we see articles about work just at the very edge of the field that offers great marvels and promises, only to hear nothing more from it because it was all based on extraordinarily preliminary efforts. Craters aren’t going to affect your daily life. But the issue here is a symptom of a greater problem. And I think that only if scientists and the reading public demand that reporters stop doing this will we see any sort of change.

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March 19, 2017

Podcast Episode 159: A Proposal for the Geologic Definition of “Planet,” Interview with Kirby Runyon


Definition of
Planet: Useful in science?
Or, just pedantry?

Sorry for the delay again, but I have an interview that’s just under an hour this time on a new proposal for a geophysical definition of the word “planet.”

In 2006, the International Astronomical Union sparked an uproar and furious debate among scientists and non-scientists alike when they voted for a definition of the word, planet. Numerous proposals since that time have been made for the definition of that term. Eleven years later, a new proposal has gotten a lot of media attention and in this episode, we discuss that new proposed definition. This is closer to a friendly debate style because the guest and I have different points of view on this issue.

There are no additional segments in this episode, but the interview runs 51 minutes. This is also the episode for the first half of March.

Poor Pluto

Poor Pluto

January 30, 2017

Podcast Episode 156: The Scientific Method— How We Get to What We Know


The Scientific
Method: Technique for finding
What’s true, and what’s not.

Another roughly half-hour episode based around the idea of how we know what we know … in other words, the Scientific Method. It’s an episode wrapped up in some underlying subtext — that’s all I’ll say about it. There are no real other segments in this episode.

Sorry Not Sorry Meme

Sorry Not Sorry Meme

December 31, 2016

Podcast Episode 154: Impact Crater Pseudoscience Mishmash


Impact cratering
Is neat, but crazies like to
Abuse the science.

To end 2016, we have some crater-related pseudoscience. This is an episode where I talked about three different claims related to impact craters and how two of them misuse and abuse impact craters as a way to make their brand of pseudoscience make sense, in their own minds. The third claim falls under the “bad headlines” category and I get to address the Gambler’s Fallacy.

I’m still experimenting with a new microphone setup and you can hear the audio change tone noticeably part-way through. That’s when I moved my computer from off to the side so I was talking into the side of the microphone to more in front of me so I was talking into the top of the microphone. I also have a new laptop and figured out that the clicking/crackling that’s been in some recent episodes is when I stop recording, start again, and for a few seconds, every fraction of a second, the computer just records nothing for a much tinier fraction of a second. In this episode, I spent an extra half-hour editing all those out so there’s much less of it.

Artistic Rendering of Asteroid Impacting Earth

Artistic Rendering of Asteroid Impacting Earth

August 18, 2016

Has Yahoo! Finally Hit Rock Bottom, with Horoscopes in its Science Feed?


Jerry Coyne reports today that Yahoo!’s science news feed is reporting on astrology. Not that it’s Taurus excrement, but an article with the headline, “Tonight’s full moon and upcoming lunar eclipse are going to bring about some CHANGE” is full of astrological bull crap.

Not only that, but the picture they use is of an annular solar eclipse. Notice that a “solar eclipse” does not equal a “lunar eclipse.” An annular solar eclipse is when the moon is near apogee (farthest point from Earth) so it appears smaller than the sun’s disk and therefore cannot completely cover it, leaving a ring of solar illumination around it.

Not only that, but the “eclipse” this month is not a lunar eclipse at all, and the one next month is a penumbral eclipse — unless you have a camera and are very carefully looking at the brightness, you will not notice any change.

Fortunately, the vast majority of the 250+ comments (as of the time of this writing) take Yahoo! to task over this.

Though I will let an astrologer have the last word. To the currently highest-rated comment, by “Tia” with 104 up-votes and two down-votes, and 15 replies, “gypsyshookar” (which I originally read as “gypsyhooker”) wrote:

“While I agree with you, as a very experienced and certified astrologer, we have it on our own authority that this qualifies astrologically as an eclipse with eclipse effects. However, it is NOT astronomy which focuses mainly on the observable physical phenomena of rocks in space. Astrology, on the other hand, is based on the observable correlation of life and events on Earth with the placement of the planets. FYI, astronomy is based on the earlier astrology and not the other way around. And before you pooh-pooh astrology, I suggest you take a course in it from an accredited astrologer such as myself, whose name is followed by something like BA,MCL, or better yet PhD. When scorned by a colleague for his belief in astrology, Sir Isaac Newton replied: “I have studied it, Sir. You have NOT.””

January 21, 2016

On the Hubbub Yesterday About a New Planet X


I’m assuming you’re living in a box if you didn’t see the headlines yesterday, in which case you wouldn’t be reading this blog. But … it was announced in many headlines, based on a paper appearing in the Astronomical Journal (yes, a real journal), that dynamic evidence of an unseen planet had been found in the outer solar system.

Unfortunately, much of the mainstream media got it wrong. I saw headlines such as, “Researchers Find Possible Ninth Planet Beyond Neptune.” That’s wrong.

And, of course, the pseudoscientists get it wrong, too, with some claiming that it proves hyperdimensional physics (whatever that means) and the fission model for planet formation (that planets are spat out of the sun in twins). You can probably guess who’s talking about that.

But here’s what really happened, for people are sending me lots of links (seriously, you can stop sending me links about this). We have a few observations of a few objects out beyond Neptune. I think the number of known, observed Kuiper Belt Objects is around 400. That’s not a lot when models suggest there should be billions to trillions of these objects.

But, based on those that we have observed, there are six in particular that have some similarities in the orbits. And an unseen planet, somewhere around 1-10 times the mass of Neptune, on an elliptical orbit that takes it as close as 7 times farther from the sun than Neptune (so 200 times farther than Earth) and as far as 600-1200 times the Earth-sun distance, could cause those similarities. The two astronomers who wrote the paper calculate there’s only a 1 in 15,000 chance that the similarities in those six objects’ orbits is random chance.

Color me skeptical.

Here’s the thing: I don’t like these dynamical arguments. They rely on many assumptions based on very few things being observed. These particular scientists are about as mainstream as you can get, but one of them, Mike Brown, is well known for being provocative to the point of stirring up upblic controversy to promote his work. For example, he wrote the book, “How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming.” It also might not be purely coincidental that the news came out the day after the New Horizons spacecraft’s tenth anniversary of launch.

The bottom-line is that this is not an observation of a body. This is dynamical arguments suggestive of a body based on numerous assumptions based on very few observations of a suspected population of bodies.

That doesn’t mean it’s wrong. But that doesn’t mean it’s right. And CalTech’s PR machine has been working over-time to pump this story out as much as they can, which also perturbs me.

January 6, 2016

Ever Heard of the EQ Peg Hoax?


Today, despite being sick since Friday, I finally finished a massive project of mapping about 48,000 impact craters on a region of Mercury for a mapping project that I’m a Co-I (co-investigator) on. Because a lot of what I do involves pretty much literally drawing circles, I listen to a lot of audio, and I recently began digging in my unlistened Coast to Coast AM archives.

I found from late 1998 the curious case of a claimed intelligent signal from the star EQ Peg, which is around 20 light-years away. Surprisingly, this was first promoted by the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation). Richard Hoagland was a proponent of it on the show, and even when it was determined to be a hoax, and the astronomer whose name was used was on the show saying someone used his name without his knowledge, Richard continued to promote some sort of conspiracy surrounding it. As did others, but they weren’t interviewed on C2CAM.

I was in high school when this all happened, and I never ever heard of it before a few days ago. I’m curious if any of you who may be a bit older than I remember it. I think it is probably worth putting in the queue for a podcast episode in the future.

As another interesting tidbit during this saga (I listened to about 7 hours of Richard talking about this across the month of November 1998), I found it interesting that Richard repeated a couple times that it’s “okay” to be wrong, just so long as you’re right more often than wrong. Yeah … that might be a separate blog post. I’ll just say for the sake of this four-paragraph’er that there comes a point where there’s right, versus wrong, versus wrong but thinking you’re right because you don’t know what you’re doing and you have a severe case of Confirmation Bias-itus.

December 13, 2015

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


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

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

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

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

I hope that you enjoy this episode.

October 16, 2015

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


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

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

The logical fallacies segment discusses the Moving the Goalpost fallacy.

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

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

August 20, 2015

Podcast Episode 138: New Horizons Pluto Encounter Conspiracies, Part 1


New Horizons’ pass
Through the Pluto system: Lots
Of crazy ensued.

FINALLY! It’s out! Only 3 weeks overdue! The “August 1” episode is about the New Horizons mission to Pluto and some of the conspiracies and pseudoscience and bad media reporting related to it.

To be fair, all of these I have written about in my 11-part series. However, I know some people never read blogs and only listen to podcasts, and vice versa. So, I’m double-dipping. I don’t care. 🙂

And it’s late at night, so I’ll close this brief post out by saying that I was recently interviewed on Steve Warner’s “Dark City” podcast, which you can directly listen to at this link. If you liked it, make sure you tell Steve by contacting him through his website.

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