Exposing PseudoAstronomy

April 3, 2017

Podcast Episode 160: Apollo Hoax: The US Flag Waving, and the Moon of No Return


Apollo Moon Hoax:
Why does the US flag wave?
And, why no return?

A return to a tried-and-true subject of skepticism: the Apollo Moon Hoax. In this shorter episode, I discuss two of the most common claims that you may hear: Why does the US flag appear to be waving in photographs, and if we went to the moon, why haven’t we been back?

There are no additional segments in this episode, and it is significantly shorter than my recent standard. This is also the episode for the second half of March.

Moon Hoax Poster

Moon Hoax Poster

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March 8, 2016

The Abuse of Paralipsis in Pseudoscience


I was reading an article tonight by a scholar of American political rhetoric who was philosophizing about why Donald Trump seems to be able to get away with saying things that no other candidate does. I personally don’t understand it (for example, how Trump can get away with saying that if he stood on 5th Ave. and shot someone, people would still vote for him), but I did learn a new word: Paralipsis.

The author of the article I was reading about Donald Trump described it as, “a device that enables him to publicly say things that he can later disavow – without ever having to take responsibility for his words.”

When I read that, I thought, “But pseudoscientists do that, too!” (Yes, I think in grammatically almost-correct sentences.) In fact, I wrote about this in 2010 with reference to Richard Hoagland and Neil Adams, and I mentioned the phenomenon a bit in my lengthy post last year about when I called into Richard’s radio program. In the latter, I addressed this phenomenon as Richard primarily manifests it by using the weasel term “model,” for “as Richard tends to implement it [the term ‘model’], it is a crutch to fall back on when he is shown to be undeniably wrong.”

I think my conclusion from that 2010piece is still quite apt, whether to politicians or pseudoscientists, but it’s nice now to have a word to stick onto the phenomenon:

“[Pseudoscientists] should stand behind what they say or not say it at all. Creating a whole elaborate “alternative” scenario, and then extolling the cop-out of, “But I’m not an expert, I’m just putting this out there,” and falling back on it when confronted is disingenuous, slippery, and sleazy. Pretending that you are effectively musing out loud when in fact you are actively and consistently promoting yourself is more annoying than the loud and proud true believers. At least they have the guts to really stand behind what they claim.”

November 30, 2015

Podcast Episode 144: Why We Know About Things Far Away but Not Nearby, and Lots of New News


How can we know ’bout
Stuff far ‘way but not nearby?
Big conspiracy?

The return! This episode has a shorter main segment in favor of having some new news, all of them sent in by listeners. In the episode, I address a claim that I hear in many different contexts that basically boils down to, “How can we know about far away stuff but we don’t even know about close stuff!” I provide two examples, many analogies, an experiment you can do yourself, and my usual dry, witless humor.

The logical fallacies segment discusses the False Equivalence fallacy.

For the New News, I talk about the exosystem discovery by Kepler that made the news in mid-October, space law and possible violations by bills in the US Congress, and the new farthest known object in the solar system.

And yes, this is episode 144, there has not yet been an episode 143. It will come out “soon.” Where “soon” is an undefined unit of time, and it will be back-dated to November 1.

March 22, 2015

Should NASA Fund Old Missions In Operation, or New Missions in Development?


Introduction

This was my seventh post to the JREF’s Swift blog, published last week. I wrote it while I was at the annual Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC) and was reading the news and listening to the (perpetual) budget issues at NASA.

The Post

Last week, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden testified before the Senate Subcommittee responsible for NASA’s budget. In response to questions about the funding of Mars rover missions, The Planetary Society blog reported that Bolden stated the following:

“We cannot continue to operate instruments and missions whose time has passed, because I won’t be able to put something like InSight on Mars in 2016 … I have to make choices.”

This is an interesting statement and sentiment, and it’s one that I’ve wrestled with myself for several years. The question really boils down to this: Should NASA continue to fund proven missions well past their design lifetime that are still successfully operating, or should they “pull the plug” and move the funding (that they never originally budgeted for in the first place) to some other project, one that uses technology a decade newer? And, to make it more relevant to the JREF, if funding is pulled, will it spark a new conspiracy?

The context of this particular mission is that the Mars Exploration Rovers were twins – Spirit and Opportunity – with nominal lifetimes of 90 days. They landed on Mars a decade ago. Spirit died a few years ago, Opportunity is still functional and returning science information. It has gone through several extended missions, meaning that the money was never originally budgeted to pay for operations (mission control, planning, time on the deep space networks, and of course the scientists). Meaning that the money to fund them now eats into other previously planned programs.

Because the MERs landed on Mars a decade ago, the technology in them is at least a decade and a half old. Think about it: That was before the iPod, before most people had multi-CPU computers, and still well before digital cameras were mainstream. Contrast that with what one has available now to build a new mission, and you start to see some of the issues.

On the one hand, you have a still-operating mission. It’s there. On Mars. Still returning usable data. The cost to build it and launch it and make sure everything is working right is done, paid for, and will never have to be paid for again.

But, on the other hand, the money to keep it going prevents new missions, with better technology, with a new and different goal, from even getting off the ground and having the potential to do new science.

It’s easy to say, “Well, just increase NASA’s budget!” Easy to say, not so easy to get Congress to do. Delays and cost over-runs in both the James Webb Space Telescope and the Mars Curiosity rover both were not made up by Congress and so ate into other parts of the budget, such as basic scientific research funding (what I rely on to put food on the table).

If NASA were to simply “turn off” MER Opportunity, it would not be the first still-functional mission that NASA has effectively killed. There are several in recent times, but perhaps most interesting to me is the Apollo seismic network. The Apollo astronauts on later missions installed and activated seismic stations on the lunar surface to detect moonquakes. No, there are no buildings on the moon that we needed to warn, but rather whenever there was a quake – from something impacting to tides between it and Earth and the sun – the stations would pick it up and scientists on Earth would be able to use the data to slowly build up a picture of the interior of our nearest celestial neighbor. It’s a little like the way an ultrasound works, and it’s earthquake data on our own planet that lets us know about the interior structure of Earth.

When NASA ran out of funding for it after a few years after the Apollo program ended, they shut down the network, despite the fact that it was still returning good, usable data, and with each new quake we learned a little more about the structure of the moon’s interior. A consequence of this – besides a loss to basic scientific research – is that conspiracies about NASA finding the moon is hollow have become widespread among the astronomical pseudoscientific world. The thinking goes that they found it “rang like a bell” (which had more to do with the loosely packed surface material) and therefore either shut down the network so we wouldn’t know it was hollow, or they kept the network going but in secret.

Anyway, that bit of conspiracy aside, this really is a serious issue and serious question of where our monetary priorities should be. Assuming NASA’s budget is static and will not be changed to keep these long-lived missions operational, then what should a good administrator do? Should they keep the proven mission going? Or should they kill it and fund the new mission? Or, should they fund both and pull money from other parts of the budget, like education, or human spaceflight, or basic research?

I have my own opinion on this, but I’ll keep it to myself. I just know I wouldn’t want to be in Charley Bolden’s shoes when he makes that decision and has to not only answer to Congress, but to many scientists who will see their budgets cut, yet again.

Letter to the Editor

After the above post, I got an e-mail:

Stuart, what about the possibility of (for future missions, it’s probably too late to do something like this for Opportunity) turning operations for “expired but still viable” missions over to amateur (or private professional) research groups. After the official funded mission is over, could a bid process be set up to allow such groups (which would have their own private funding) to take over the control, data collection, and analysis from such “defunct” missions? Such a handoff would free NASA’s budget for contemporary / future missions, and also give other groups access to hardware / settings (Mars, for example) that their budgets would certainly not allow for. What are your thoughts in this regard?

Here was my response:

While this seems like a great idea on its face, you run into a lot of legal issues. In particular, ITAR-restricted information. That would put a stop to your scenario right away.

Beyond that, there are broader questions of how open the information would be once the data are gathered by an independent, private company. Though, one could of course argue that the company paid for it, therefore they should have the right to own it.

There are also some communications issues. The Deep Space Network is the only set of antennas that can record signals as faint as those sent by interplanetary craft. That’s a public (inter-governmental) group, so if the DSN brings down the data, are there licensing issues? I don’t know the answer to that, but it strikes me as a potential question.

Finally, you have “parts” of spacecraft that are still important and NASA (or other governments) still use even if they can’t fund all the other “parts.” For example, while MAVEN (around Mars now) has a suite of instruments for studding the atmosphere, they are only funded for one Earth year and must submit an extended mission request to operate beyond that. But even if that request is denied, the craft itself will still be kept active and act as a communications relay. It’s just that the science instruments won’t be collecting and transmitting data, and there won’t be money for scientists to analyze it.

It’s a very … perhaps “annoying” and “frustrating” … situation to be in, but unfortunately the solution isn’t as simple as just selling the craft to someone else.

May 20, 2013

Academic Freedom versus Stupidity


Short post … This post is my musing on an article I read today about Harvard students seeking a probe into how a Ph.D. was awarded to a stupid thesis. My words, but allow me to explain.

Some may remember the new a few weeks ago that the Heritage Foundation, a “think tank” that is very very right of the political spectrum (recently hired Jim DeMint, a leading member of the Tea Party movement), released a report saying that an immigration policy being debated in the United States Congress would cost the country $5.3 trillion. (It won’t.)

The report was primarily authored by Jason Richwine, a man who was awarded a Ph.D. in public policy in 2009 from Harvard. The report based most of its findings on Richwine’s Ph.D. thesis that stated hispanic immigrants have lower IQs than the “native white population” of the US, and that the lower IQ would persist for many generations. I recommend going to the Washington Post article I linked to above for direct quotes from the thesis. Oh, and after the outcry over the report, Richwine resigned from the Heritage Foundation.

The purpose of this post is about the article, which states 1200 students petitioned the President of Harvard to probe how Richwine could have been awarded a Ph.D. on a topic such as that with a conclusion such as that. The question raises an interesting conundrum on the interplay of politics, factual veracity, and academic freedom.

Let’s start with the most direct thing: I don’t think his degree should be rescinded unless, upon examination, there is evidence of fraud. All because someone is wrong doesn’t mean that their thesis must be withdrawn after the fact.

With that said, it would be interesting to know who was on the thesis committee, who signed off on the thesis, and possibly what their views are. Which gets into the much murkier area of academic freedom (real academic freedom, not the faux stuff pushed by the “Intelligent” Design movement). The concept of academic freedom is that one should be able to pursue research regardless of how politically incorrect or unpopular it may be.

Clearly, the conclusions in his thesis are unpopular and politically incorrect (unless you’re a Tea Party member). Objectively, I can’t state that he’s wrong because I don’t have the data and haven’t seen studies that speak to the contrary. My gut, and what I’ve seen of other studies throughout the years, would indicate that he IS wrong. In that case, we exit from the area of academic freedom and journey to the area of tainted or incomplete results to bolster a politically motivated conclusion. Journeying to the murky area of where fraud might come in.

To cut this rambling short, I’ve laid out my musings on this subject above. Why am I writing it on the “Exposing PseudoAstronomy” blog? Because I often deal with cases of outright fraud and deceit that are much more obvious (think Hoagland blowing up an image, increasing the brightness, and claiming JPEG compression artifacts are actually cities).

This, however, is a different case: An actual Ph.D., awarded by one of the most prestigious institutions in the world, for a thesis that by all indications was done through all the proper hoops and channels, and yet seems to be completely wrong. To the point that over 1000 members of the student body have taken the almost unprecedented step of petitioning both the university President and the dean of the college (School of Government), requesting a probe of how it was awarded.

What are your thoughts on this situation?

January 26, 2012

Newt to the Moon and Mars?


Introduction

When I first started this blog back in 2008, one of the things I said I’d be writing about is bad astronomy in the media. I’d say that bad astronomy by a (somehow) front-runner for the US Republican presidential nomination is close enough (example article).

And by the way, this post is going to have some politics in it; if you disagree with my particular politics, as long as you’re civil, comments will go through, but I honestly don’t really care if you disagree with my politics.

Seriously?

Newt Gingrich is known for saying grandiose things. I wasn’t really paying attention to politics when I was in middle school so I don’t know if by “grandiose” people mean “stupid,” but this would definitely count. In what is either pure delusion – in which case he should not be President – or over-the-top pandering (which would be typical for a politician), Gingrich was on Florida’s space coast and said that, if he were president, by 2021 (the end of his second term), we would have a permanent base on the moon and “regular” flights to Mars.

Why this Is Not Possible Politically

To put it succinctly, Congress is a nearly non-functional mess with a large fraction completely unwilling to spend any more money nor raise any taxes. (Speaking of which, can anyone get me a good deal on TurboTax 2011? My taxes are going to be complicated this year with all the government disinfo money stuff.) This is a statement of fact.

Congress could not agree on a billion dollars or so for the James Webb Space Telescope. The Apollo program cost many $10s billion, and at its height in 1966, NASA’s budget was 4.41% of the federal. Lately, we’ve been hovering around 0.6%. Call me a cynic or pessimist, but I don’t see any Republican – nor most Democrats – voting to appropriate $50-100 billion to get to the moon in 8 years with a permanent base and regular trips to Mars.

Why this Is Not Possible Legally

I’m not sure how much of a snag this would put in Swingrich’s plans, but the Outer Space Treaty forbids any signatory government from owning any land off Earth. So how we would have a permanent lunar base and grant them statehood (something else Gingrich wants) would probably require pulling out of this treaty. I’m not entirely sure how that works, but I think Congress would also need to be in on that. (Someone correct me if I’m wrong – it’s been awhile since I’ve read the Constitution.)

Why this Is Not Possible Logistically

Let’s assume Congress gives us the money and the UN its blessing. Logistically speaking, with the amount of bureaucracy and infrastructure in place, you cannot build the equipment (also see below), hire and train the people, and figure out all the other logistical things that need to happen to make this happen. That is, unless you completely gut the bureaucracy (that’s a separate issue) and replace it with something lean that gets things done quickly. Perhaps a DARPA model?

The next generation space capsules had to wait for the shuttle to stop so they could use that infrastructure. The death of the Orion capsule took something like another year before that program could be completely mothballed. Changing direction yet again would add significant time to this stuff.

And let’s not forget all of the commissions and committees that would need to be set up to study the issue and write up their reports before funding would happen, and don’t forget the obligatory 3-month extensions, either.

Why this Is Not “Possible” Scientifically/Technologically

And then we get into this area. So many ways to go here. We could start with lunar dust being a huge issue, getting through almost every seal, with just ideas and laboratory experiments on how to deal with it (magnetic fields or microwaving it are the two I’m familiar with off the top of my head).

What about a propulsion system? If we use the Apollo-style giant rockets, what about building them? Transporting them? Re-kajiggering them to upgrade them for +50 years tech?

What about the actual craft to the moon that can lug stuff for a lunar base – not just people, but food, water, equipment, building supplies? There aren’t any trees on the moon, you can’t just go out like the old American Frontier and chop down some logs and build yourself a cabin. These are things that have been thought of, but none of them have really been tested nor built.

How about a big one – radiation? Radiation is not a huge issue during a solar minimum for a 2-week trip to the moon. But a 6-month voyage to Mars, plus time there under an atmosphere that won’t protect you, plus the trip back, carries a huge radiation problem not just from the sun but from cosmic rays and the like. In this case, the problem has been thought of, but I have not read anything that suggests that anyone’s solved it, even on paper.

Final Thoughts

If it wasn’t obvious, I don’t like Newt. I don’t like most politicians, especially when they are pandering beyond normal stupidity. This was one of those cases. Or Newt is just incredibly ignorant. Either way, this is one of the more obvious empty promises that I hope comes back to bite him in debates. Romney or Obama, if you’re reading this, you should be taking notes.

P.S. I don’t agree with Santorum on much of anything (I suppose I agree with him that air is generally a good thing to breathe), but I do agree with what he said here: “The idea that anybody’s going out and talking about brand new, very expensive schemes to spend more money at a time when we do not have our fiscal house in order in my opinion is playing crass politics and not being realistic with the people of this country as to the nature and gravity of the problem.”

Followup: This has been getting a lot more play in the media in the last day or so. Every article I read basically treated it as a joke – as in Newt Gingrich was the joke for proposing such a stupid idea. Here’s a nice paragraph from Time, as it’s along my line of thinking:

“Leave aside for a moment that the professor, politician and former not-a-lobbyist for Freddie Mac either doesn’t understand that “grand” and “grandiose” are two very different things, or does understand and is copping to more delusion and fabulism than one might want in a president. The real problem is that Gingrich often doesn’t seem to get that merely being willing to say any damn thing is not the same as being able to do any damn thing, especially when the challenges you’re taking on don’t involve just political rivals and government policy, but the hard laws of engineering and physics, which are a wee bit less amenable to jawboning and deal-making.”

August 17, 2011

The Science that Should Never Have Been So Politicized: Global Climate Change


Introduction

This is actually going to be a fairly short post, and it occurred to me to write it after seeing this headline, “In New Hampshire, Perry Calls Global Warming ‘A Scientific Theory That Has Not Been Proven.'”

Climate Change

I’ll start with the obvious: Global climate change is about as real as it gets, and the change is a general warming trend. It is the state of the science. Well over 95% of scientists who actually study climate science agree that global climate change is happening, and they agree that humans are helping it along a lot more than would be happening via any natural processes. For what it’s worth, even George Noory, the host of the paranormal radio show Coast to Coast AM, agrees that global warming is real (though he doesn’t think humans are the main cause).

What I’ve just very briefly summarized is the science. As in the vast overwhelming majority of the evidence and models and data point to this. Science is neutral politically. Unfortunately, politicians have made it not.

Politicization

This is actually something that I don’t quite understand. It seems as though the general theme in American politics is that Democrats are on the “side” of science while Republicans tend to be “against” science. This has been evidenced throughout the past several decades via the positions and votes of politicians on both sides of the aisle, and I think that most people who follow this in any way would agree, regardless of their political leanings. (I will admit that I generally vote on the liberal side of issues, but I don’t think that that should matter for the sake of this post.)

Where this has really come to the fore probably more-so than almost any other topic (bar, perhaps, the EPA), is on global warming: Democrats say it’s real, Republicans vehemently deny it.

As an aside, I can understand fully if Republicans were to accept that the science shows global warming is real, but that it would be cost-prohibitive to do something about it. I may disagree with that stance, but that would be political and something for the politicians perhaps to figure out. More likely the economists, but anyway, it’s a consequence of the science that they disagree with, not the basic, fundamental science for which they have no background with which they can evaluate it (I think last I heard that there were three physicists in Congress? and even a physicist is not a climatologist despite the fact many like to think they know everything).

Rick Perry

Enter the latest Republican science denier, Rick Perry. For those who have been deaf to news in the last few months, Rick Perry is the current, third-term governor of Texas. He is also, by many accounts, a young-Earth creationist, having stacked the state Board of Education with young-Earth creationists, and having recently held an evangelical Christian rally called “The Response” to effectively pray away America’s problems. Enough background …

The ABS blog story I linked to above starts out with, “At his first stop in the first primary state, Texas Gov. Rick Perry questioned the validity of scientific claims of global warming.” I would like to know when Rick Perry did his graduate work on climate science or any related field. Any.

The quote from Perry, specifically, is:

“I do believe that the issue of global warming has been politicized. I think there are a substantial number of scientists who have manipulated data so that they will have dollars rolling in to their — to their projects. And I think we’re seeing almost weekly or even daily scientists who are coming forward and questioning the original idea that man made global warming is what is causing the climate to change. Yes, our climate’s changed, they’ve been changing ever since the Earth was formed. … I don’t think from my perspective that I want America to be engaged in spending that much money on still a scientific theory that has not been proven and from my perspective is more and more being put into question.”

Perry fails to realize three things. First, scientists are generally not like politicians: We don’t change our views to pander to people to make them happy or to get money from them. Second, the scientists who are “coming forward and questioning … man made global warming” are generally not climate scientists. They’re engineers or weathermen or physicists, not climate scientists. It’s like the Discovery Institute (Intelligent Design -central) and their “Dissent from Darwinism” list that contains the name of scientists who “doubt darwinism” when <1% of the people on that list are actually biologists. Finally, Perry obviously has not read my post about what scientists mean by the term “theory.” (Hint: It doesn’t mean “some idea I came up with while channeling Jeshuah and can throw away just as easily.”

Final Thoughts

I expect that this post isn’t going to change anyone’s mind about anything. People who already accept science will continue to accept it. People who don’t will continue to not. And the political machine will continue to distort, ignore, stifle, or try to destroy science when it suits their particular message of the hour.

But, I’ve now said what I wanted to on this for the moment, and I haven’t done a global warming post in awhile.

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