Exposing PseudoAstronomy

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.”

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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 7, 2016

Revising History to Try to Sound Credible


At the risk of all my blog posts of 2016 – so far – seeming to be about certain individuals … here’s another one. John Brandenburg. For those who haven’t followed my blog or don’t remember this individual, see this post for the relevant information for this post. For his “science,” see this podcast.

One of the more unique things about Dr. Brandenburg among pseudoscientists is that one of his major claims of evidence that his ideas are correct is that he claims he presents at scientific conferences, and no one challenges him. I have heard him make that claim multiple times in practically every interview I have heard him give.

As I was mapping craters on the moon last night, I was listening to Coast to Coast AM from December 29, 2015. Dr. Brandenburg was on, and during the first hour, around 26 minutes in, he claimed that he was at the premier planetary science conference in 2015 and presented his results. See first link in this blog post. In that post, I documented his attendance (he was at his poster for 15 minutes) and VERY few people came by because he showed up almost at closing time and took over a half hour to slowly set up his presentations.

On C2CAM, however, he claimed that he presented his work, “held fort,” and “no one contradicted me.” And that “finally,” a scientist asked, “did they do it themselves?” (apparently referring to Dr. Brandenburg’s thesis that Mars was nuked).

Now, it is entirely possible that someone asked Dr. Brandenburg that during the very few minutes of conversation I did not hear. However, based on my observations, I sincerely doubt anyone was serious, if it happened at all. As for having “held fort” and “no one contradicted me,” if we want to go with the analogy of holding a fort against an attack, Dr. Brandenburg’s actual attendance record was closer to a snowball fight where people build forts, no one actually attacks, and John showed up just before everyone was going inside for hot cocoa because it was cold. As for no one contradicting him, perhaps it’s because they recognized pseudoscience when they see it, and because he showed up so late, he had literally less than a dozen people pass by and look at his work.

This isn’t the first time I’ve documented revisionist history, however, so far as Dr. Brandenburg’s recollection of his attendance at LPSC; see this post and search for “Brandenburg” and you’ll see what I mean.

Why am I writing about this? Well, in the faster and leaner attempt for this blog this year (also for me personally, which is why I need to get back to the elliptical), I’m going to be writing these short posts based on things I hear while listening to various podcasts and radio shows that I use for material for this blog and podcast, anyway.

If you make a claim, it’s fair game for investigation. If your claim contradicts a documented record, it’s fair game for me to point that out. If I’ve investigated your claims before, I may preferentially choose episodes of audio files to listen to where you speak.

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.

July 22, 2015

#NewHorizons #PlutoFlyby – The Pseudoscience Flows #6: Data Download


Introduction

I know I’ve promised other parts to this series, but this one will be quick* and I want to get it out there because it feeds into a lot of varied and various conspiracies related to NASA’s New Horizons mission to the Pluto-Charon system, and I’ve even seen many misconceptions on normal science blogs / websites (not to be named): Where’s the data!?

Deep breath people: It’s coming. Slowly.

*I thought it would be quick, but it turned out to be nearly 2000 words. Oops…

The Slowness of Spacecraft Data Transfer

Every space mission – save for one very recent, experimental one – relays data via radio signal. In other words, light. The amount of power that the spacecraft can muster goes into figuring out the data rate it can sustain. Think of it a bit like this: If you have the Bat Signal, but you were using a flashlight, you’d be lucky if someone could just see the flashlight aimed up at the sky. There’s no way they could see details of a bat cut-out. But if you use a really really bright spotlight, you can see it farther, and you can even stick a detailed bat cutout over its front and you can make out that cutout.

Perhaps a bad analogy, but that’s kinda the idea here: If you have a very strong signal, then you can include a lot of detail really quickly. If you have a weak signal, then the data rate is slower. Oh– better analogy: bad wifi reception. You know you have low signal strength when it gets really slow.

Moving on, the New Horizons REX antenna does not have a huge amount of power. New Horizons launched with less plutonium for power than originally intended, and it needs power for running the spacecraft. It has so little power for the antenna that only the 70 meter dishes in NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN) are big enough to receive the signal at Earth, which is a paltry 3 * 10-19 Watts. (Compare that with a 100 W light bulb.) To me, first off, it’s amazing that we can even receive that faint of a signal.

But once you get over that amazement, the DSN also has to be able to detect changes in that tiny signal. That’s how we get data. Like blinking your flashlight in Morse code, or putting the Bat Signal stencil up. If we have very little signal strength, we can’t change our signal very quickly, or the DSN may not be able to read it. Change more slowly, then they will.

For planning purposes, we were able to send data at 1296 bits per second. I’m old enough (sigh…) to remember dial-up modems in the 1990s. My family’s first modem was the dreaded 14.4 kbps modem which was painfully slow at pulling up AOL’s e-mail. Or Hamster Dance. But even that was over 10 times faster than New Horizons’ data rate. And, let’s convert it to real things, bytes. There are 8 bits to a byte. 1296 bits per second is only 162 bytes per second. I have a thumbdrive attached to my computer that holds 64 GB, or 64 gigabytes. It would take about 4572 hours, at the average New Horizons download rate, to fill that fairly modest thumb drive. That’s 190 days.

Keep in mind that the spacecraft is still taking data. Keep in mind that there are only 3 70m DSN dishes at the correct latitudes to see the spacecraft, ever, from Earth. Keep in mind that there are other missions out there that need the DSN to communicate with Earth. Keep in mind that 1296 is an average planning bit rate, and while the Canberra and Goldstone dishes get more like 2000 bps, Madrid tends to get less due to the elevation of the spacecraft above the horizon.

So, from the get-go, just from considering the data rate (power requirements on the spacecraft, distance to the spacecraft, and timetable of receiving stations on Earth), one should be able to see that it will take a painfully long time to get the data from the spacecraft.

While we could keep up with the data rate and did a large download a month before encounter (which is why data weren’t taken in late May), there’s no way we could get all the data during encounter very soon after it, which is why the craft flew with two 8 GB storage drives, and it filled up 60 Gb during encounter (see what I did there, switching between bit and byte?).

There’s Other Data Besides Images!

And that’s any kind of data. There aren’t just images and “pretty pictures” that many of us want. There is one B&W camera on the craft, but there’s also a color camera, two spectrometers, a dust counter, two plasma instruments, the antenna itself took data, and there’s basic spacecraft housekeeping and telemetry that says things like, “Yes, I really did fire my thrusters at this time when you wanted me to!”

Basic Download Plan

I can discuss this because the basics have been made public. It’s just not “sexy” like pretty pictures so it’s not that easily findable.

Leading up to encounter, data were prioritized as though we were going to lose the spacecraft at any time, so the most important, “Tier 1” science data were downloaded first. And, critical optical navigation images.

After encounter, the same thing happened, where compression algorithms were used on the data on-board the spacecraft and that lossy-compressed data were sent back to Earth to fulfill as many Tier 1 science goals as possible. That’s how – and why – in the last week we’ve already revolutionized what we know about Pluto. Those first high-res (0.4 km/px) images of the surface were planned out based on Hubble Space Telescope maps of the surface and the spacecraft timing and trajectory to get images that cover different brightness and color patches. (Which takes care of another, minor conspiracy that I’ve seen that claims we “knew” where to point the cameras because the Secret Space Program had leaked us information about what would be interesting.)

But now that we’re more than a week from closest approach, thoughts are turning to what to do next. Originally, a “browse” data set of all the lossy data (only the imagers and spectrometers store lossy-compressed in addition to lossless) were going to be returned first, along with the lossless data from other instruments. That would at least let us at least understand the surface at a lossy JPG quality and for the plasma folks to do their science.

But now people are discussing scrapping that and bringing down the lossless data instead, albeit many times slower because of the larger file sizes.

Planning, Fairness

But, believe it or not, planning of what’s downloaded when is made no more than a few weeks out (except for the closest approach weeks). Right now, we’re working on the late August / September load of commands and deciding what data to bring down in what order.

Each of the four science theme teams (geology geophysics & imaging (GGI), atmospheres, composition (COMP), and particles & plasma (P&P)) puts together a list of their top priorities based on what we’ve seen so far. The Pluto Encounter Planning (PEP) team then sits down and looks at how much they can bring down in what time and puts things in order. The sequencers then take that and try to make it happen in the test computers. Then we iterate. Then it gets reviewed. Extensively. Only then does it get uploaded to the spacecraft to execute.

But besides that priority list, it’s the Principle Investigator who decides how much data each science team gets. For example, while I’m on PEP (it’s what I was initially hired to do), I’ve been adopted by GGI. Wearing my GGI hat, I want images from the LORRI instrument. All the time, and only LORRI. I don’t care what the plasma instrument PEPSSI recorded. But by the same token, the P&P folks don’t care anything about images, they want to know what their instruments recorded as the craft passed through the Pluto system to see how the solar wind interacted with escaping particles from Pluto – or even if it did. (Which it did, as was released in a press conference last Friday.)

So Alan Stern has to make the decision of how to be “fair” to so many competing interests within the large – and broad – science team. So while COMP may want to have 5 DSN playback tracks in a row to bring back just one of their very large spectra data cubes, Alan has to make sure that GGI gets their images and P&P gets their data, too.

The Plan

The decision was made several months ago that after this initial batch of data – what we saw last week, what we see this week – that all of the “low speed” data will come down in August. That’s housekeeping & telemetry, that’s things like how many dark pixels are in any given LORRI image, it’s the two plasma instruments and data recorded by the antenna and dust counter, and that’s about it. After that, we get back to the imagers and spectrometers, per the balance discussed above.

And since it’s not sequenced, and it’s not public, I can’t tell you any more than that.

So we are, unfortunately, not going to see any new images for practically a month, beyond the two navigation images that should come down tomorrow and Friday.

Conspiracy!

Due to the nature of this blog, obviously this is going to fuel conspiracies: NASA’s hiding the data, NASA’s manipulating the data, NASA’s [whatevering] the data, etc.

It’s just not true.

I have known for years that these conspiracies about NASA somehow intercepting the data and manipulating it before even us naïve scientists can get our hands on it would be very difficult, but being on this mission has made me realize that it’s even more difficult to somehow support that conspiracy than I had thought.

Literally, as the data are received by the DSN – before it’s even completely downloaded – it’s on our processing servers and in the processing high-cadence pipeline. On Monday morning when we were supposed to get four new images, we were literally sitting in the GGI room hitting the refresh button and marveling over each new line of pixels that we were getting back in practically real-time. To use a religious analogy, it was every Christmas morning rolled into a one-hour marathon of hitting the refresh button.

And we were all there watching — over 20 of us. And other science team members kept coming in to look.

The idea of secretly having one or two people intercepting the data, “airbrushing” things in or out of it, and only then giving it from On High to the scientists just shows how out of touch from reality conspiracists are. (By the way, I use the term “airbrushing” here because that’s how many conspiracists still talk. Obviously, no one is physically airbrushing things anymore — and I doubt anyone younger than 30 even knows what a real airbrush is.)

To sustain the conspiracy, I can only see one of two choices: (1) Either all of us scientists are in on it, in which case it becomes ridiculously large and unsustainable and scientists suck at keeping secrets about exciting new things, or (2) somehow there’s super secret advanced tech that intercepts the spacecraft signal and at the speed of light “airbrushes” things out and retransmits it to the DSN to get into our processing pipeline. Because we know when stuff is supposed to appear on Earth. Because we write the sequence that does it.

Final Thoughts

Not that I expect this to convince any conspiracy theorist of their folly. The lack of image data for the next month, and the lossy JPG data we have now all contribute to the little anomalies that don’t immediately make sense, and the average conspiracist can easily spin into something that it’s not.

July 9, 2015

Podcast Episode 136 – How Science Journalists Go from Scientists to the Public (#NewHorizons)


Media embeds
On New Horizons describe
Good commun’cation.

I was able to sit down with one of the public outreach and one of the science journalists who are embedded with NASA’s New Horizons mission. I had a very brief conversation with them about how they work to convey what we give them into something that the public can easily consume and get excited about.

It’s a very brief (bonus) episode, but I think it’s very topical, and it’s something that I’ve been curious about.

On a personal note, one of the people on the interview – Ron Cowen – is a man whose work I grew up reading on the pages of Science News. It was neat to finally meet him. And so’s not to be lopsided, the other person, David Aguilar, has been incredibly generous with his time when I’ve had questions or wanted to get involved with the public outreach efforts, making time to talk with me when he easily could (and sometimes, probably should) have told me that he was too busy.

July 1, 2015

Podcast Episode 135: How New Horizons Takes Photographs, Interview with Dr. John Spencer #NewHorizons


How New Horizons’
Imaging team works with the
Spacecraft photographs.

You asked for it, you got it: A podcast episode about the New Horizons spacecraft mission to Pluto. If I was going to do an episode, I wanted it to be something that you’re not going to get from NASA, not going to get from a random website about the mission or the cameras … something different and unique.

I think we did that with this episode, which is an interview with Dr. John Spencer who has been one of the primary mission planners, is co-deputy of the geology science team, and leads the search for hazards. We recorded this on June 01, but none of it is out of date other than speculation about new moons or rings – or any hazards – found. As you know from press releases, none have been found as this goes to press, though as this goes out, John Spencer and his team are actively working on the latest batch of data to be downlinked from the craft to search for more.

Anyway, the episode focuses on image processing – real image processing – and how we work with spacecraft data, and we touch a little bit on image-based conspiracies and how we’re at least going to try to not give conspiracy theorists their standard, easy ammunition (like painting over image anomalies to give a pure black area so they can claim “NASA is blacking out part of their images!!!”).

I’m hoping to bring you at least another one or two episodes about New Horizons, but we’ll see. There should be at least one more episode to come out in July despite me being home only 8 days of the month.

Disclaimer: While I am involved in the New Horizons mission, my podcast work (and anything branded under “Exposing PseudoAstronomy”) is completely separate from my work efforts. The views and opinions expressed on this episode are completely my own and don’t reflect NASA, other mission personnel, nor Southwest Research Institute.

May 26, 2015

Podcast Episode 132 – In Search Of Planet X (Live from Denver ComicCon)


In Search: Planet X.
An overview of common
Ideas about it.

This episode is another recording of one of my live presentations, modeled a little after Leonard Nimoy’s “In Search Of” television series. It was presented in front of a live audience at the Denver ComicCon on May 24, 2015, to about 75-100 people. I was bordered on two sides by other sessions that had more people and a lot of laughter, so I played to that a little bit when there were opportune moments. I also suffered a minor A/V issue in the middle but recovered, so you’ll hear some fumbling there.

Unfortunately, there is also some popping that comes in about 10 minutes into the recording. I exploited all the filters that I know of in my Audacity toolkit, and they are less of an issue than they were, but they are definitely present.

I also need to announce that it is that time of year when work is going to get crazy, so episodes may come out a little less regularly, especially during July. I’m still going to keep to the two per month schedule, but they may not be out on exactly the first and sixteenth of the month.

And with that in mind, I have to head to the airport in 45 minutes for more work, after just being back home for 3.5 days. So …

April 16, 2015

Podcast Episode 130: Dealing with Pseudoscience at Scientific Conferences (and #LPSC2015)


The Iv’ry Tower
Of science: Who can get in,
And who remains out?

Second in the three-part series: Have you ever wondered how decisions are made about who can and who cannot present at a scientific conference? Then listen to this episode! I interviewed Dr. Dave Draper, who chairs the program selection committee for the largest annual planetary science conference in the world. We talked about a lot of things, from the basics on the (incredibly minimal) requirements of submitting a presentation request to how decisions are made. We also discussed a few hypotheticals using real-world examples of pseudoscience that I’ve talked about on the blog and podcast.

The episode, like most of my interviews have been, is nearly an hour long, but I found it an interesting discussion and learned some things, so hopefully you will, too. There were not other segments in this episode, though I did do a follow-up because of what happened to air on Coast to Coast that evening, a mere 12 hours after Dave and I had finished recording, and it led me to disagree with him at least a bit on one point.

The next episode is going to be a bit of a catch-up on things that have been piling up since I started the Hale-Bopp saga back in March. I’ll do a bit of pseudoscience with whether or not the lunar eclipse we had in April was really a full one – and implications for the “Blood Moon” crapola – a lot of feedback including discussion about some points raised by Pamela Gay in episode 130, and the Leonard Nimoy tribute.

March 26, 2015

Science Conferences (#LPSC2015), Ivory Gates, and Who Gets In


Introduction

On this blog and in my podcast, I talk a lot about pseudoscience. I talk a lot about pseudoscientists. But I don’t think I’ve talked explicitly much about what really separates a pseudoscientist from a real scientist, nor have I talked about basic thresholds for being considered a real scientist.

Last week, I was at the annual Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC), a conference that is the largest planetary science conference in the US, annually drawing over 1500 planetary (non-Earth-studying) scientists and receiving around 2000 abstract submissions.

Among those were at least two that bordered on pseudoscientific. I’m going to be interviewing the program committee chair in an upcoming podcast episode, so I’ll leave a discussion of what happens when they get those kinds of submissions to that interview.

But, in the meantime, I’m going to discuss what happened when one of these persons set up his presentation, in contrast with the standards of the field and conference, to illustrate how one should not behave if they want to be taken seriously by the scientific community.

Who Am I Talking About

In this particular case, I’m talking about John E. Brandenburg, a person whose claims about Mars being host to an intelligent civilization before they got nuked, I discussed in Episode 86 of my podcast. I also discussed his claims in the Feedback portion of Episode 93 and in the New News of Episode 121.

However, I want this blog post to stand on its own. Without any other background information, other than I’ve discussed his claims before, let’s take a look at just what he did at this conference.

Abstracts

Everyone speaking at LPSC is required to submit an abstract. The standard is two pages (which is fairly long for most conferences) that outlines what your work is and what you will be talking about. That way the program committee can decide if you will get a talk or a poster presentation (you don’t always get a talk, so by default you will get a poster) and the order of the session.

To give you an idea of what an abstract looks like, here’s one that I submitted to the most recent LPSC about progress on my work into studying the crater population of Saturn’s satellites. That is the standard template.

John Brandenburg submitted two abstracts, “Evidence for Large, Anomalous Nuclear Explosions on Mars in the Past” and “The NMS (New Mars Synthesis), Recent Data from Gale Crater and NWA 7034: Evidence for a Persistent Biologically Stabilized Greenhouse on Mars.”

So, there you go. I will note that these do not use the standard templates, and the copy-editing isn’t great, but not everything one spits out is going to be gold. There’s also the pet peeve of mine of using Excel for science graphs (see his first abstract), but again, others do it so Dr. Brandenburg hasn’t done anything yet that others don’t do.

Poster Session

LPSC 2015 Poster by John E. Brandenburg

LPSC 2015 Poster by John E. Brandenburg

I don’t know if he requested a talk, but he got a poster. He was scheduled for the first of two poster sessions, which was on Tuesday night. Each night has well over 600 poster presentations, where you set up your poster and then wait twiddling your fingers, hoping that people will at least read it and maybe even talk with you. I went through that for the abstract I linked to of mine, but on Thursday night. You can get an idea of what it looks like if you’re busy from some of the royalty-free images here.

The poster sessions are from 6:00P.M. until 9:00P.M. You are expected to be there the entire time. You are also expected to set up your poster before that time, and most people set up their poster the day before. For example, I set my Thursday poster up on Wednesday just after lunch. (The e-mailed instructions state, “Poster presenters are expected to be present at their poster on their assigned evening.”)

John Brandenburg began to set up his poster at about 7:55P.M. on Tuesday evening. It was a long, very tedious process, where he spent 45 minutes doing so, not completing his set up until 8:40P.M., only 20 minutes before the poster session ended and – to be honest – many people had already left for late-night drinks.

John Brandenburg Setting Up His Poster at LPSC in 2015

John Brandenburg Setting Up His Poster at LPSC in 2015

After he finished setting up, he left for a few minutes to get a beer from the cash bar.

His Poster

Let’s be fair: Not everyone has access to or money to spend on a poster printer. Those are the large-format printers that take paper spanning around 36″–44″ across and can print something of arbitrary length. LPSC allows up to 44″ by 44″.

But, as I said, some people can’t do that. Instead, some will effectively create a talk in presentation software (e.g., PowerPoint or Keynote) and then print that out on standard 8.5″x11″ sheets of paper and tack those up. It doesn’t look great, but it gets the point across.

That was John Brandenburg’s approach.

Among other things, I noted the following in terms of non-standard items:

  • Nothing was referenced. This is important in science for anything that is not new work. Considering he posted many images from other peoples’ papers, this is a big no-no.
  • One slide part showed “the” Face on Mars, another claimed face, and a “pyramid.”

John Brandenburg Highlighting the "Face" on Mars and Pyramids on Mars at LPSC 2015

John Brandenburg Highlighting the “Face” on Mars and Pyramids on Mars at LPSC 2015

Okay, so really two, but that first one (referencing) is a big issue for science if you want to be taken seriously and not tick people off (and came up when I engaged him — more on that later). And the second one, well, ditto.

The “Face” came up once, when I was eavesdropping on him talking with someone else: John was explaining blast site antipodes (the opposite point on the planet to some feature or event) and he then pointed to those photos and remarked, “And that’s to remind you of what’s there;” he added a knowing nod when saying that. The implication’s obvious, but he seemed unwilling to say it out loud, potentially for fear of seeming even crazier.

Rubber-Necking

Different people do poster sessions in different ways, but most people tend to walk through the aisles of posters and slowly skim over titles, perhaps pausing on one that seems interesting, maybe lingering a bit to read it, before moving on. Unless they are really interested, in which case they’ll stay and ask questions or generally engage the presenter, if the presenter is there.

While Dr. Brandenburg was getting his beer, I saw a few people walk by and effectively rubber-neck. I also saw their eyes go wide and then move on.

If They Don’t Come to You, Go to Them

I will admit at this point that I hid my name badge. There was a non-zero chance that Dr. Brandenburg would recognize my name based on my blog and podcast and e-mail exchanges we had. I didn’t want that to come up, I wanted to observe what happened without him knowing that a “skeptic” who had criticized his work before was there watching.

What I saw was that after Dr. Brandenburg came back with his beer, he waited a minute or two and then approached the two people standing across from him who were at their own posters. The friends I was with told me I should’ve written it down, and I wish I had, but what I remember from an hour later when I wrote down my notes was that he said, almost exactly: “It must be tough facing [or “being opposite?”] all this for the whole night.”  I really wish I had written it down then because this could be seen as really creepy – especially since at least one of those two people was a woman – though he really was referring to the posters he just put up and not something else.

For the next roughly 15 minutes (since that was all that was left of the poster session), when passers by would not engage him, he engaged people at surrounding posters, asking them about their work. That is reasonably fair, though a bit unconventional: The goal is to get people to come to your poster and talk about your work, especially when you only have 15 minutes left.

John Brandenburg's Discussion at LPSC 2015 that Mars was Nuked

John Brandenburg’s Discussion at LPSC 2015 that Mars was Nuked

One of the people he engaged was a friend of mine at her poster. I took the opportunity to slip around and take some photographs of his “poster” for future use, such as in this blog post. When I asked my friend later about what he talked about, she stated that he seemed surprised about some of her findings and remarked that it was, well, surprising. Unfazed, she told him “no” that it wasn’t surprising, most of the stuff she found was common and expected. It was another part that was surprising that she hadn’t yet mentioned to him.

This is not in itself a big issue: I have no idea what she’s doing. It’s not my field. But, it is very related to what Dr. Brandenburg claims his field is, and related to his second abstract. So this actually is a big issue: He tried to “talk the talk,” and he failed. He demonstrated ignorance of field that he should know if he’s talking about a very closely related one on his “poster.”

My friend also said that John seemed drunk, but she wasn’t sure if that was his personality. That did not surprise me. I wrote in a forum after listening to his interview on “Dark City” from February 2015: “Affect: For some reason, I find his constant laughs very off putting. I don’t know why. It has nothing to do with his arguments, but it makes it sound like he doesn’t take this seriously. I hear this in all of his interviews.”

Another commenter on the forum stated, in response: “I’d read the comment about his laughter before I listened to the show so was “analyzing” it as it occurred. It happened more frequently and for longer periods as the show continued. In my professional opinion, I think he started the interview with a 6 pack in front of him. By last call at the end of the show, he sounded like a someone who was regretfully set to go home after spending a few hours telling his ideas to the guy next to him at the bar.”

You, the reader might consider this gratuitous. Perhaps. but, it added to the general gestalt of Dr. Brandenburg’s presentation and interactions, and it adds to the general group of things not to do if you want to be taken seriously by the scientific community. I’ve seen people drunk at LPSC. I have never seen someone drunk who is presenting. I’m also not saying Dr. Brandenburg was drunk, rather it was the impression a few of us had, and a few of us who have listened to his various interviews have had.

Enter the Dragon’s Lair

I finally gave in while he was talking with some other people at his “posters” and joined them. He made his case, and the people seemed unconvinced.  At the end, the guy asked for a photo of his poster and John was happy to oblige and offered to be in it, too. From my perspective, I figured this was going in the “Crazy Times at LPSC” album, but of course my own views color that assumption.

John Brandenburg Claims Trinitie Is Wide-Spread on Mars, Using Unreferenced Figure that Only Shows Volcanic Glass

John Brandenburg Claims Trinitie Is Wide-Spread on Mars, Using Unreferenced Figure that Only Shows Volcanic Glass

The only engagement I gave was when John Brandenburg mentioned trinitite. I was prepared for that. It’s a recent addition to his claimed evidence for a nuclear blast on Mars, for trinitite “is the glassy residue left on the desert floor after the plutonium-based Trinity nuclear bomb test on July 16, 1945, near Alamogordo, New Mexico.” In other words, we’ve only seen it on Earth as a result from a nuclear blast. If we see it on Mars, that’d be interesting evidence for a nuclear blast, though we’d still need to do work to determine if there’s any other way to make it. That’s how science works.

I was prepared for the trinitite claim because in that recent interview on “Dark City,” he said that he had found it on Mars. So, when he brought it up from his “poster,” he presented a map showing it was all over the northern hemisphere of Mars near the north polar layered deposits. I jumped on that and asked what his source was.  He responded by reiterating what trinitite is (and that it’s only found at nuclear blast sites), and I told him no, I wanted to know what detected it and how.  He stuttered and didn’t remember but said it’s in his abstract — this is one reason why I said it’s important to provide references on your poster. Not only did that effectively stop the conversation because I couldn’t ask further, but it also allowed him to punt it back to the abstract and avoid questions.

The issue for me going into this was that trinitite is a very specific kind of glass, and it’s nearly impossible to pick up from orbit with the instruments we have around Mars today. First, the spectral signature of trinitite is very close to glass, so I would want to see how the researchers would have differentiated between them with orbiting probes. Second, if there had been trinitite discovered (and I did my homework and could not find any papers that mentioned Mars and trinitite), I would think I would be able to find it. Because, well, it’s only found on Earth near nuclear blast sites, so one would think it’d get a big press release.

After the poster session, I looked up his abstract and I found the reference. It’s a paper in “Geology” by Horgan and Bell from 2012, though he cited it as being from 2014 (as I said, sloppy abstracts).  The abstract of this paper is inconsistent with what Dr. Brandenburg says it says. Specifically, he claims (but the paper says otherwise) that the glass is only found there on Mars (they say it’s likely widespread), the glass is solid hunks of glass (versus just glass mixed into the regolith like we see all over Earth in volcanoes), and that it’s acid-etched glass and therefore trinitite (they say it’s iron-bearing glass and silica-enriched leached rinds on glass). So, his smoking gun has a common, mundane explanation. You don’t need a crazy explanation for a mundane (yet still new — not to belittle the authors’ work) observation when the mundane explanation will work (that it’s just volcanic glass that we see everywhere on Earth).

In a bit of fairness, John did say (direct quote) when introducing the claim of trinitite: “They” think it’s volcanic glass, “perfectly reasonable.  But, it also looks like trinitite.”

Closing

Over the last two years, LPSC has been a little trigger-happy about shutting down the poster session at 9:00 sharp. I remember being in there at my poster talking with people well past 9:30 before, but only in past years. This year, at 9:02, a volunteer told him he needed to take down his poster or they were going to take down everything that was left up.

In fairness to the volunteer, this was also in the instructions to presenters that was e-mailed out, that if posters were left after the end of the poster session, they would be “discarded.”

John responded, “What would you DO with it if you took it down?!”

He may have just been trying to be funny, but that capped off the encounter for me in terms of not following the instructions and seeming to think he’s special.

Hallmarks of a Pseudoscientist

John Brandenburg's LPSC 2015 Poster, Bastardizing Martian Chronology

John Brandenburg’s LPSC 2015 Poster, Bastardizing Martian Chronology

In his e-mails to me, John Brandenburg has clearly implied that he wants to and thinks he should be taken seriously. In those e-mail exchanges, however, he has failed to back up the majority of his claims, and he has failed to put together a cogent, cohesive story that does not conflict with well established other things (such as Martian chronology).

What I observed was more of the same at LPSC, and this illustrates a general failure to adhere to the standards of how a scientist should not only behave and present their information, but also present themselves.

As a short listed recap:

  • Arrival with an hour left in the poster session, way too long to set up, and only 15 minutes after getting a beer to present his work.
  • Drunk affect, if not actually drunk when you are supposed to be presenting.
  • Presenting known pseudoscience in an attempt to bolster your science claims (face and pyramids on Mars — sorry conspiracists reading this blog, it is: see here, here, here, or here).
  • Failure to demonstrate knowledge of the field you’re talking about.
  • Failure to reference others’ work you are using, especially when copying their images.
  • Making unsubstantiated other claims that are used in support of your claim, especially when your side-claim flies in the face of the generally accepted state of the field.

Final Thoughts

This has been a long post, but I hope that it gives you some insight into what (not) to do if you are going to be taken seriously at a scientific conference. Scientists really are open minded about new ideas (again, I know most people who aren’t skeptics or scientists reading this blog are going to think I’m crazy to say that, but we really are).

We scientists just demand better evidence than the average person because we know how easy it is to be fooled, how easy it is to let our own biases get in the way, and we know that the new ideas have to not only explain the observations better than the previous ideas but also have to mesh with everything else that may seem unrelated but still would be affected by that new idea. And write long, run-on sentences.

But, while we’re open to new ideas, we also have certain standards. And, we expect you to play by the same rules that we do.

John E. Brandenburg does not and he did not do that at LPSC last week.

I don’t know what will happen if he submits abstracts to LPSC next year, but I hope that the program committee takes note of how he behaved this year and will use that to make an informed decision next year. He now has a documented case (here) of abusing the privilege of presenting at a scientific conference.

And you, the reader, can see what that abuse is like. While these conferences are not meant to be gates closed to everyone but those “in the club,” they are still a privilege that one is granted to attend, it is not a right.

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