Exposing PseudoAstronomy

August 17, 2015

#NewHorizons #PlutoFlyby – The Pseudoscience Flows #11 — Geometry Proves Aliens


This is the last planned post in this series of posts of pseudoscience related to the New Horizons Pluto flyby, until at least we get more images in a few weeks. This is also hopefully the last post that uses Richard Hoagland’s statements as an example of a style of claims made about New Horizons -related pseudoscience, at least for awhile. This particular one is NOT unique to claims that Mr. Hoagland has made about New Horizons and what the images show about the surface of Pluto and Charon; rather, he has made this particular claim about practically every solid body in the solar system: Geometry = artificial.

Let’s start looking at this claim as Richard makes it, for on its surface, it seems like it might make sense. Richard, whenever bringing this up, does not claim credit for it. Rather, he says that this comes from Carl Sagan (argument from authority), that when some of the first satellite photos of Earth were returned, Carl searched for any signs of intelligent life, and the only thing he could find was a dark logging road in Canada in contrast against white snow. That it was long and linear.

Hence came the maxim: Intelligence will reveal itself on a planetary surface by creating geometry. I have paraphrased it slightly, but unfortunately I don’t have the audio in front of me so I can’t state it exactly. But really, that’s the claim: If you see regular, repeating geometry, it requires life.

Now again, on its surface, this makes sense. People certainly make geometric patterns (it’s easier to drive on a straight road, for example, and we like to make square or angular buildings). We see nice geometric patterns in the animal and plant kingdom, too, including seemingly complex patterns such as spirals and the Fibonacci Sequence (which turns out to be an optimal pattern for leaves to get sunlight, and you see it (for example) in the patterns of seeds on a sunflower).

Life can and often does certainly create geometric patterns.

But so does non-life. The Grand Canyon is an excellent example of a fractal — an incredibly complex geometric shape. As do clouds, snowflakes, mountains, river deltas, and waterfalls. Valleys have a characteristic size given the environment, creating patterns of undulating waves. Sand dunes also have a characteristic wavelength and create undulating patterns. Individual mountains have nice, regular geometric shapes within the fractal pattern mentioned above. And so on.

In my particular field of study, we can look at impact craters. These are typically circles. Or ellipses. On Mars, there’s a certain type of crater that produces ejecta that looks like petals on a flower with nice broad, sinuous, regular perimeters. We also get craters forming all in a row, either from the impact or breaking up into a string of objects or ejecta from the crater itself producing them. These can have very regular, V-shaped ridges between them formed by overlapping ejecta curtains during formation. There’s also the famous “Meteor Crater” in Arizona which is practically a square: This was made by pre-existing faults that controlled the shape as the crater was formed, and we see these elsewhere, too. In fact, I was just in Arizona for a conference and you see plenty of flat-topped mesas which sharp, angular edges that form the drop-off of a cliff, controlled by veins of material with slightly different strengths.

These are all very regular “geometries.”

You do not need life to create “geometry.”

In fact, this kind of claim is so common in many fields of pseudoscience that it has a basic logical fallacy to describe it: The Single Cause Fallacy.

From its name and this blog post so far, you can probably guess what that is, but I’ll elaborate. It tends to go in this form:

  1. Item A can be caused by Thing B.
  2. I observe Item A.
  3. Therefore, Thing B was the cause.

This ignores the obvious: Many other things could be the cause of Item A, I just assumed that it was Thing B for whatever reason.

In this particular case, Richard and other people observe something that they have classified into the nebulous and ill-defined term “geometry.” And because life can give rise to geometric patterns, they conclude life made this “geometry.”

As opposed to a natural process that we see not only at home on Earth, with myriad examples, but all over the solar system, as well.

As opposed also to – in some cases that he and others have claimed – what really could be an intelligent cause: computer compression artifacts and/or electronic noise (think speaker static) in the camera detector.

My bet for some of the stuff shown across the internet is in that last category. My bet for all the rest is in that first category, that it’s simple, basic, geologic (and other natural) processes that can easily create regular geometric patterns.

While Richard is fond of quoting Carl Sagan when it helps him, he needs to remember other things that Carl also said: Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Pictures of features that could very easily be described by known, does-not-require-intelligence-to-explain-them phenomena do not qualify as that extraordinary evidence.

August 15, 2015

Remember Pink Energy Beam of Power Promoted by Richard Hoagland? Camera Quirks to Blame


I wrote a post on December 2, 2012, talking about how Richard Hoagland claimed that there was a giant pink energy beam from a Mexican pyramid. I don’t remember exactly what Richard’s point was, but knowing him it probably had to do with “hyperdimensional physics.”

At the time, I spent many words showing how it could be faked in computer software and why I was (a) doubtful of it being genuine from the camera, and (b) of course dubious that it “meant” anything out of the ordinary. I also showed (c) that it had been tampered with between the original that was posted online and the version that Richard posted.

In the Comments to that post, it was pointed out to me that there could easily be another explanation: Rolling shutter. This is where, instead of a camera taking a single shot where each pixel is exposed at the same instant, the pixels are exposed in rows or columns and read out over a finite period of time.

This can produce really weird effects, such as this famous one of an airplane propeller.

It looks like, while my analysis was valid (the image was tampered with, one could easily reproduce the effect in computer software, and standard chain-of-custody questions were not answered), the culprit really was the rolling shutter effect.

Sharon Hill over at Doubtful News has published an identical effect (pink vertical beam) taken with the same kind of camera, but unambiguously in the middle of a city and caused by a distant beam of lightning.

Seems like case closed. I wonder if Richard Hoagland, Linda Moulton Howe, and others who promoted the 2012 picture will issue a retraction. Pretty sure I know the answer.

August 5, 2015

Why I Called Richard Hoagland’s Radio Show Today, Why I Used a Pseudonym, and What We Learned


Introduction

Warning: This is a long post. It references several other blog posts I’ve written, and two audio clips. That said …

Richard Hoagland has his own radio program now, “The Other Side of Midnight,” on Art Bell’s “Dark Matter Digital Network.” It’s a two-hour program that programmatically airs live, Monday through Friday, from 1AM until 3AM Mountain Time (hence it really airs Tuesday through Saturday in the US except Hawai’i). It is young, only in its third week, but already many patterns have emerged.

Readers of this blog and listeners to my podcast will know that I have critiqued many of Richard Hoagland’s claims in the past. Heck, the tree of episodes of my podcast even has a specific section for Richard Hoagland’s claims that I’ve addressed.

Last night / this morning, Richard had open lines calls. I made it through and was on for just about 13.5 minutes. Here’s why I called, why I was “Robert from Wisconsin,” and what we learned. Oh, and the reason why I’m outing myself here is that someone already e-mailed Richard and told him it was me.

Why Richard — Aren’t I Beating Up on Him?

Right off the bat, one might ask why Richard occupies a whole category of my astronomical interest in fringe claims. There really are two reasons, but first off, if you’re asking this question and you think I’m beating up on him, you should ask yourself, “Does Stuart have to justify why he focuses on any particular claimant or set of claims? Does he not have a right to do any he wants that interest him?”

In addition, I recommend you read this blog post: “Do Skeptics Hate the People They Debunk?”

That out of the way, there are, as I said, two reasons. First, Art Bell and Coast to Coast AM. And, Richard was one of the more frequent guests on said late-night paranormal program for nearly two decades. I spent a lot of time listening, and hence listening to Richard Hoagland. One is usually wont to focus on something that they hear more often than things they don’t.

Second, you can hardly swing a dead mouse in planetary science fringe claims and NOT hit a topic that Richard Hoagland has dipped into. He is prolific. And, I study planetary geology and, even more specifically, images and image analysis. Richard Hoagland focuses on claimed “geologic” features on other planets and moons and asteroids and comets, and he uses image analysis (faultily, I’d argue, but uses it nonetheless).

So, because of what I listen to, and because of his own prolific behavior in the fields that I focus on, Richard Hoagland rises to the top in terms of claimants that I tend to focus on.

Why Did I Call?

I called Richard’s radio program because I have often been encouraged to call into programs that he is on to ask him questions. This has been by fans of Richard, and/or by fans of my own material. Occasionally, it’s been in the form of “put up or shut up,” that I shouldn’t be arguing to no one, I should ask him specifically for explanations or justifications of his claims rather than just writing about them here or podcasting about them.

In addition, I’ve been encouraged by many people to “debate” Richard. That’s a separate topic entirely, but as a flavor, I wanted to see what would happen if I were to call, and attempt to just discuss one or two very specific topics with him, to get an idea of how a debate might play out. More on that in the “What I Learned” section of this post.

Why Was I “Robert from Wisconsin” Instead of “Stuart from Colorado”

I’ve never really known if Richard knows of me or not. Some people never “Google” themselves or never hear about people who speak of them. If I had called two shows earlier, I would have used my real name. But I didn’t, and here’s why:

John E Brandenburg was on Richard’s program the night of August 3/4, the show immediately prior to the one I called into. I have both written on this blog about Dr. Brandenburg and his claims and presentation, and I have podcasted about his main thesis, that Mars was nuked.

Back in March of this year, Dr. Brandenburg “presented” his ideas at a science conference. I documented it extensively on this blog because of issues I have of lending legitimacy to fringe ideas by “letting” them into science conferences. It’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t scenario: If you let them present, they claim legitimacy (as Dr. Brandenburg has done extensively, for in every interview I’ve heard of his on more than 4 radio programs, he cites presentations at science conferences as lending legitimacy to his claims), or if you don’t let them in they claim censorship.

However, despite my documentation of his presentation at the March conference, his recitation of those events contradicts reality. And, his statements of the conference, made just under two weeks apart, contradict themselves.

Here’s Coast to Coast, July 27, 2015:

“I was most recently at the Lunar [and] Planetary Science Conference, the premier conference on planetary science. I presented the paper as a poster paper for two hours. I got a lot of people [who] came up and looked at it. And uh, other planetary scientists, and no one contradicted me. No one said, ‘Oh, you got this wrong,’ or ‘That’s because of this,’ or something like that. Finally, one fellow just said, ‘Did they do it to themselves, or did somebody else do it?’ And I hadn’t even mentioned the term ‘aliens’ or ‘civilization’ at all. But it was obvious to him that something had targeted Mars for absolute destruction.”

Versus Richard’s program, August 4, 2015:

“I went and presented this stuff at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Houston in this March, and I got a lotta– I presented as a poster, they-they let me present it as a poster, and, uh– The best and the brightest, I could tell, came to my poster and argued with me and uh, we went back and forth, and finally nobody had any other explanation for the pattern of data on Mars.”

To me those seem mutually exclusive (either no one contradicted him or said he was wrong, or people argued with him). And it flies in the face of what I documented a few days after the fact, where he set up and was at his “posters” for no more than 15 minutes and only spent half that time actually at his poster and talked to perhaps one dozen random stragglers.

Anyway … In response to that blog post, at the end of June of this year, I was asked by another radio host if I would do a debate with Dr. Brandenburg. Here was my response, in full:

Thank you for your invitation to debate Dr. Brandenburg, live. I am going to have to decline. While I stand by what I wrote and my opinion about his ideas, doing a live debate on this topic is not something that I can do. The reason is subject matter expertise.

For example, if we were to debate about the chronology of the Moon or Mars, especially from impact craters, I’d be all for it because that is my research area. If we were to debate on the “Face” or “Pyramids” on Mars, I could do that reasonably well because it is something that I have heavily researched over the years and know the topic and arguments well (though I know Richard Hoagland’s and Mike Bara’s arguments about it better than John Brandenburg’s). The same goes for Planet X, image analysis, the “true color” of Mars, and some other topics.

However, I am not a spectroscopist. I’m not a nuclear engineer. When I have addressed Dr. Brandenburg’s claims, I have had to do external research for each claim. The same goes for the two e-mail exchanges I have had with him. While I am still confident in my conclusions based on that research and what I know about related subjects (e.g., his implication about the age of Lyot crater and that being one of his favored nuke sites — it doesn’t work with the chronology he needs), this method is not conducive to a live debate, and therefore I decline.

If you are referring specifically to my points about how to behave at a scientific conference and Dr. Brandenburg’s presentation there, there is nothing to debate. What I stated is objective fact, and I have documentation for much of what I stated.

If you would like me for a different program to discuss something I named in the second paragraph or is aligned with my research (http://about.sjrdesign.net), then I’d be happy to discuss it further.

In that response, I clearly laid out that Dr. Brandenburg is not someone I’m comfortable debating live because of the subject matter expertise in that area, versus other things I could debate live. I think that’s pretty clear.

However, in the same interview on Richard Hoagland’s show, starting 1/3 of the way through the second hour, there was this exchange. (The audio is posted here.)

JEB: “I’ve had one, one uh Mars blogger go after me.”

RCH: “Who?”

JEB: “I challenged him– This guy named Stuart Robbins.”

RCH: “Oh! Yes! [grunts/groans]”

JEB: “Well I challenged him for– to a debate–”

RCH: [chair squeaks on floor]

JEB: “He won’t debate me.”

RCH: “He won’t debate you? Now that’s interesting. Because he has challenged uh Bara to a debate. [laughs]”

JEB: “Well. He should cha– he, you know, I– I’m– I’ve challenged him to a debate, he won’t debate me!”

RCH: “Uh, does he say why?

[Either the stream loops, or they just repeated verbatim the last two sentences.]

JEB: “Um. [pause] He-he– he basically told a third party he felt he didn’t have enough expertise.”

RCH: “Wait-wait-wait a minute. He doesn’t have enough expertise, but he can– [during this time, JEB was talking over/under RCH, here’s where JEB started to dominate]”

JEB: “[reconstructed: he has enough expertise to criticize my work] but he doesn’t have enough expertise to– He’s just a [unintelligible] troll.”

RCH: “Well yes, he is a troll. You know– is he–”

JEB: [again, here’s where JEB started to dominate over RCH since they were speaking at the same time] “and I so, anyway so, um–”

RCH: “John, John, hang on. Is this the same Stuart Robbins astronomer who is attached to the New Horizons mission in Boulder, at Southwest Research Institute?”

JEB: “Oh, of course he is!”

RCH: “That’s the guy.”

JEB: “Yes!”

RCH: “He mentioned me and Keith Laney in connection with our Pluto discussions the other morning. Out of all the people in all the gin joints et cetera, [JEB laughs] for some reason he brings up us because we’re discussing arcologies visible– John, you gotta look at these Pluto images! Everything we’ve seen at Cydonia that’s in ruin, horrible ruin, is in such better condition at Pluto, and the images are not the highest res!”

They called me a “troll.” Now let me make it clear, I’m not protesting that term. If what I do is their definition of “troll,” so be it. For the record, before last night, I had never communicated personally with Richard, and John has only initiated contact with me before. And my dictionary’s definition of “troll” with respect to the internet is: “make a deliberately offensive or provocative online posting with the aim of upsetting someone or eliciting an angry response from them.” I’ve never had the aim of upsetting someone with my Exposing PseudoAstronomy work, nor eliciting an angry response, so I don’t think I fit the definition of “troll.” If Richard or John want to play scientist (uh oh, did I just troll?), then they need to recognize when something is aimed at them versus their claims, and they need to know how to take criticism of their ideas and come back with better evidence of those ideas, not just call someone an “idiot,” “hater,” or in this case “troll.”

But besides the name-calling, John completely misrepresented my response to the radio host in terms of why I declined a debate.

So the reason that I used a pseudonym when calling Richard this morning was that I didn’t want him to reject my call because of who I am, nor did I want him to enter the conversation with preconceived ideas. You might disagree with that reasoning. It was also 2AM my time and I was falling asleep. But I stand by using a pseudonym for the reasons explained above.

What I Talked About

Colorado is a one-party consent state, so I can legally post the full audio of my call without worrying about fair use of nearly 14 minutes of a radio broadcast. Here is the audio, in its 4.2 MB “glory.”

My intent was not to really argue with Richard. There was also no real point in going on and saying who I was and I’d like to debate him, that’s incredibly confrontational and I saw no reason for it. Instead, I wanted to ask him about two things specifically:

  1. Why does Richard keep calling things a “model” as opposed to putting his £1 down and saying whether he thinks something or another is true?
  2. Why has Richard not identified (or searched, if he has) his lunar “glass towers” in any imagery other than scanned Apollo photographs or small, JPG’d Chinese photographs of the moon?

Let me explain each …

#1 might seem trivial, and indeed, Richard tried to say exactly what I knew he would say but I didn’t get the chance to be specific: He said that he says “model” because it is a “model based on data” and subject to change based on more data. This is very scientific. And on its face, is the hallmark of someone following the scientific process.

However, as Richard tends to implement it, it is a crutch to fall back on when he is shown to be undeniably. For example, that comet Elenin was a spaceship was a “model” that Richard insisted, based on the “data” at the time, but Richard insisted that it was really true, and he used language such as “undeniable” and “proof.” He’s since generally refused to address it after Elenin broke up. Meanwhile, his latest and “greatest” stuff about archologies on Pluto are also a “model” that he insists is real based on the “data” that he has.

You might be asking where I’m going with this since it seems like he’s doing exactly what I said should be done. This is subtle, so stick with me (and you may disagree). A scientist will say that they have built a model based on the data, and they think it’s true because there is not contradictory data. As soon as some comes up, they change their model. Richard, on the other hand, seems to use the term “model” to mean “Absolute Fact” when he comes up with it and fervently insists it’s real (using additional words like “prove” and “undeniable”) – despite issues raised by other people about it – but then when it turns out to be false based on overwhelming evidence against it, he’ll explain it away by saying, “that was just a model, a scenario.”

You simply can’t have it both ways, but Richard seems to try.

#2. Moving on, the second point is something Expat has written more about than I, but I addressed in a very extensive blog post a year ago, “Is Camera Noise Evidence for Ancient Advanced Civilization on the Moon?” Unfortunately, at 2:20AM, I said “JPEG artifacts” instead of “camera noise” which I’m kicking myself for now.

But here was the point I was trying to get across: Inconsistency. Richard claims there are glass towers on the moon. His evidence A is Apollo photographs of the lunar sky that were in an album of Ken Johnston for decades and then he scanned at home. His evidence B is the Chinese images that I linked to in the blog post in the previous paragraph.

The question I was trying to get across is that he has these two missions’ data, but that the anomalies he’s seeing could be fairly easily explained by something mundane: Dirt on the photos or scanner for Apollo, and detector noise, optical effects, and compression artifacts for the Chinese images.

It’s not possible today to get literally original images of Apollo, they are stored in vaults that ain’t no one touchin’. The Chinese space program – like most government things in China, is very closed, and the at least claimed original, raw images from the spacecraft are not available in any public archive I’ve found.

So my attempted question was simple: Has he seen these features in ANY of the OTHER space missions’ digital images that you can get in at least what is claimed as original, raw format? E.g., any from Clementine, Lunar Prospector, Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, Kaguya, Chandrayaan-1, etc.?

Once I finally was able to sort of get the question out in mangled form (more on that in the next section of this post), Richard’s response was, how do we know that those official raw images are really real and unaltered? You can just have a computer do a levels clip to remove the glass towers.

But that’s where the inconsistency is: It appears as though Richard is arguing that official images that show what he wants them to show are real and original, but those that don’t show what he wants them to show are altered. It’s a tautology, a circular argument:

  1. How do you know if those features are real?
  2. If they are on an official image, does the image show those features?
  3. If not, then the image has been faked. If the image shows those features, then the image is real. Therefore, since the image is real, the features are real.

Or something very close to that. In other words, you can’t use the premise that the only real, unaltered images are ones that show your features of interest as the criteria for whether your features of interest are real. It’s also highly suspicious that the only images that Richard says he sees his features in are ones that really are more simply explained by some other process, rather than those images that scientists would actually use from other spacecraft.

Or, perhaps it’s the assumed major premise fallacy. Regardless, hopefully you have gotten my point, and it’s what I was trying to get across in my call.

What Did I Learn?

From listening to over two decades of Richard’s interviews, I knew the basics of what to expect, that Richard would (1) allow me very little time to speak, and (2) tend to go on unrelated tangents. I thought I was prepared.

If you listen to the audio, I encourage you to time how long I spoke versus Richard. I also encourage you to count how many times I attempted to ask my second question, and how many times Richard went on a tangent.

So one thing I learned is that I canNOT – even if offered – debate Richard on his own program without a fair moderator. Even when Richard is hosting a normal show with a single guest, Richard spends at least an equal time talking as the guest, if not more. That’s untenable in a debate, to be both a debater and the host. Let’s put it this way: He’s so passionate about his claims that he has demonstrated an inability to self-moderate and keep himself on-topic and to a time limit.

Another thing I learned was that if Richard wants to tell a story, he will tell it, regardless of what you’re trying to ask. Seriously, listen to the audio. Then see the above paragraph. I don’t think I’m being unfair in this statement.

This makes the third thing I learned, that it is very, VERY difficult to ask a question that’s longer than one sentence. Because I kept trying to set up my second question by giving the preamble that people have found holes with his Apollo and Chinese images (background) that he should look to images that are unambiguous with his critics (question/statement), he kept jumping on to try to explain tangents related to the background statement that really didn’t have anything to do with my question.

This is yet more reason why any debate would need to be very, very structured. Not only with an independent moderator, but also with topics prepared ahead of time such that the moderator would keep the debaters to them. Even when I made the side-comment about much of the Apollo photographs referenced by conspiracists being film positives rather than negatives, Richard went on a roughly 2-minute tangent (guessing here, I haven’t re-listened to time it). Those tangents add up and really don’t add anything to the conversation.

Another thing I learned is that Richard will use semantics to explain something or make a point, regardless of its validity. For example, “model.” For another example, when I was trying to ask my second question for the Nth time, Richard said that his critics are “idiots” who think that his glass structures on the moon that he sees in Apollo images could be dirt on the photos or scanner. I said that they have an “explanation” for it, and Richard said they didn’t. I said that’s semantics — they do have an actual explanation, he just may disagree with it, and it may be valid or invalid, but they do have an explanation. Richard again said that was wrong, and that he wasn’t playing semantics. He was. According to my dictionary, “explanation” is “a reason or justification given for an action or belief.” It says nothing about that being a valid action or belief.

Final Thoughts

That’s a lot of text, over 3300 words. And I may add a bit as the day progresses and I think of more things.

I’m not going to go through the call and dissect it bit-by-bit, there’s no real reason for that.

But, there you have it, why I called in (encouraged to do-so), why I used a pseudonym (he called me a troll and I didn’t want that to bias the call), and some of what I learned.

Oh, and add to Lessons Learned: I need to use my good microphone, and I need to have a drink of water next to me. My voice was higher than normal during the call.

July 26, 2015

#NewHorizons #PlutoFlyby – The Pseudoscience Flows #8: Where Are the High-Res Pictures?


This will be another short post, but it’ll hopefully tide you over while I’m home for 3.5 days before headed back to Maryland for a New Horizons Science Team Meeting. First off, you should read my Part 6 post about how the data are being downloaded from the New Horizons probe to Earth.

With that said, Richard Hoagland has moved up in the world and has his own radio program on Art Bell’s network. Richard gets 10 hours per week (2 hrs per week night). I finally figured out my recording software and so was listening today to his Friday night / Saturday morning broadcast where he had on his significant other (Robin Falkov) and amateur image processor and image anomaly = intelligent artifact finder Keith Laney. But that’s somewhat beside the point, for this is the pseudoscience for this post:

  1. Richard Hoagland thinks that if he were managing the mission and the the probe might die tomorrow, he would send back the best pixel scale images first.
  2. Therefore, we must have done that.
  3. But, they are not being released.
  4. Therefore, “NASA” is hiding these 70-80 meter per pixel images because “NASA” is trying to figure out what all the buildings mean.

Spot anything wrong with that line of reasoning? How about steps 1 and 2, the basic premise.

Richard Hoagland is wrong.

From a fundamental standpoint, besides everything I wrote in that part 6 blog post. If you’re in charge of the mission, and you fear there is a small possibility that your probe might die, you would want to bring down the most representative data, and the data that will tell you the most about different things across the body rather than a tiny less-than-one-percent-of-the-surface-area image that would itself take many hours to downlink without lossy compression.

And – ¡gasp! – that’s what we did! We brought down images that give us the broadest possible view, and we brought down data from the other instruments that do the same. Remember: New Horizons doesn’t just have a black-and-white camera. It has seven other science instruments!

Besides that, more organizationally and methodically, there are literally hundreds of individual science questions/goals that we had for New Horizons’ data to answer. Every single observation made was linked to one or more of those goals. And, those goals were prioritized not only into four main tiers*, but within each tier they were prioritized, as well. Each was audited multiple times by many different mission scientists and very carefully worded and planned. And — guess what! — 70-80 m/px images of a tiny area of Pluto are not in the Tier 1 goals. So, when you want to prioritize your data downlink during that crucial few-days period after the closest approach, you’re going to bring down the data to answer the most Tier 1 goals/questions.

So … yeah. Richard is wrong in his conspiracy because his assumptions are wrong which he assumes are correct. Put another way: Richard thinks something, which (to him) makes it fact, and then he makes conclusions of conspiracy based on that “fact.” But his basic thinks is wrong, therefore everything else that came after that thinks is wrong.

*This is why after the “anomaly” during the July 4 weekend, the announcement was made that “No Tier 1 goals will be affected.” That’s because the data that would have been taken during those few days were not crucial to any of those goals/questions. One observation, for example, was a “family portrait” that would be the last time New Horizons could fit the entire system in a LORRI field of view. That was more for public outreach, so it was a 3.9.x goal, but it also would have helped determine orbits of outer satellites which means it doubled as a tier 2 goal.

July 21, 2015

#NewHorizons #PlutoFlyby – The Pseudoscience Flows #5 — My Own Error


I’m going to shift a bit here, though the next two posts on this topic are already planned (though Sharon over at Doubtful News just pre-empted me tonight on the Crrow777 stuff that’s hit Newsweek). Instead of discussing pseudoscience that I’ve seen elsewhere, I’m going to discuss my own. Not pseudoscience, per se, but where science can go wrong when you have little sleep and are under extreme pressure to do things quickly.

But before I get specifically to this, I want to emphasize: News reports that there are “no craters on Pluto” are wrong. There are clearly impact craters. It’s that there are no unambiguously yet observed impact craters on Sputnik Planum. That out of the way:

I made a boo-boo. But, science is ultimately self-correcting because if it’s wrong, then when people try to duplicate it, they will get different results …

I generally study impact craters (among other things). One of my primary science areas of research for the Pluto-Charon system is to understand their crater populations to tease out what the impacts are like out there 40AU from home and what the geologic history of the bodies are. To do that, you have to map craters. I’m going to be focusing on that in the coming months (and currently) and I’m also going to be focusing on how our mapping changes as we start to get lossless data and higher pixel-scale data (not higher “resolution,” for “resolution” means number of pixels, while “pixel scale” refers to the length per pixel). This latter focus has been something I’ve been publishing on in the last year.

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, images right now are being sent down lossy compressed. Meaning they are full of JPEG artifacts that wash out a lot of small features … like impact craters. So when mapping, I’m assigning a subjective confidence level that indicates how certain I am that a feature is a crater or not. Since we have repeat imagery, already, I’m going over each area multiple times, blindly, with the different images.

One area that’s hit the news is Sputnik Planum, on the “left” side of the bright albedo feature Tombaugh Regio. It’s bright, and it’s young, and we know it’s relatively young because it has no unambiguous impact craters in the images that we have so far. I’m very careful with that phrasing: unambiguous impact craters in the images that we have so far.

Except, I thought I found one. A rather large one. But I didn’t.

When I initially mapped it in the image that came down a week ago (the full-frame image that was unveiled the morning of the encounter), I gave it a confidence level of 4 out of 5. We had the lossy-compressed JPEG version of the image, and after we had attempted to remove some of the JPEG artifacts through Fourier Transform truncation and then deconvolved it with the point-spread function of the camera (the camera inherently blurs things a teeny bit), it looked like a crater, and I was pretty certain it was a crater. Since it was many pixels wide and the image had a pixel scale of 3.8 km/px, that is a significantly sized crater, at least 30 km in diameter.

Except, it wasn’t. We have since gotten a mosaic at 2.2 km/px of the planet, and we have gotten higher pixel scale images at 400 m/px that have not yet been released. In none of these is that very large, very obvious crater present.

What happened?

We made a tiny artifact bigger by image processing. It was a simple cosmic ray hit.

Here’s what happened:

  1. Cosmic ray hit the detector, meaning there was a very bright pixel with a lot of electrons in it.
  2. This detector has the annoying property that if you have a bright spot, a dark streak forms behind it. You can see this in all of the over-exposed hazards search images. So the bright pixel now had a dark streak behind it.
  3. This was lossy JPG compressed on the spacecraft by a severe amount. Heavy JPG compression can make things “ring” because it represents the data as a series of cosine waves.
  4. One of our basic image processors took that image and first deconvolved it, sharpening the ringing JPEG noise.
  5. He then looked at the image in frequency space and made a series of clips that when brought back into spatial space (what we’re used to) will dampen a lot of the obvious JPG blockiness and make for an image that is more aesthetic and helps to make out a lot more features because you don’t have the 8×8 grid of JPG blocks dominating.

This is perfectly reasonable to do, and so long as you understand the kinds of artifacts that it can introduce and don’t over-interpret it, you’re fine.

Unfortunately, it makes this particular kind of cosmic ray hit on this particular detector look like a very clear, very obvious impact crater. Despite my best efforts at not over-interpreting early images that clearly showed artifacts from the image processing, I over-interpreted this feature.

Fortunately, it never made it into a press release or a paper (though I will be talking about it in a paper I’ll be writing as a cautionary tale), but when doing stuff like this, I’m always reminded of how (and this is going to sound arrogant) I’m different from a pseudoscientist, and how working on skepticism for the past (nearly) decade has helped me to become a better scientist. Someone like Richard Hoagland, Mike Bara, Keith Laney, or the guy I talked about in the last blog post probably would not hesitate to make a big deal out of these kinds of features.

To be blunt, I’m a crater expert. I am considered to be an expert in mapping impact craters due to my experience at mapping over 1 million impact craters across 7 solar system bodies (so far). Yet, I made this significant mistake. What separates me from the pseudoscientist, though, is that when I was presenting this to people, I said that this looks very much like a certain crater, but we need to wait to see the uncompressed version of the image, and we need to wait for the higher-resolution maps before saying it’s certain. And if it isn’t, “it will be very interesting to figure out why it isn’t a crater.” I specifically said that in a team meeting on Sunday.

Many things right now are provisional simply because of the very lossy image compression. Features like craters are particularly difficult to tease out, unless they are very large and very obvious (as are many). Contrast that with the people trumpeting “geometric structures” on Pluto and Charon in these images. Of course there are “geometric structures” that were “artificially created” … all in the lossy JPG compression algorithm! I keep thinking I’m repeating myself with this — and I am — but people still keep making this claim.

But, I’m perfectly willing to be corrected. In fact, I have now written 1000 words about how and why I was wrong, and the exact reasons and process that led me to that erroneous conclusion: Based on better data, I can re-examine things and see what went on and if it’s real. Contrast that with what I listened to earlier today which was a discussion between Richard Hoagland, Keith Laney, and the host of Skywatchers Radio. This quote involves all three men, talking about the Norgay Montes image released last week, and where one stops and the other starts doesn’t really matter, for all three were complicit in this train of thought:

“Look around in that image. You will be amazed. The more you look, the more you’ll see. It’s pretty incredible. Blow the image up as much as possible and look at every little part of that image. There’s so much artificial stuff in there! Again, as denoted by the geometry.”

QED

July 14, 2015

#NewHorizons – The Pseudoscience Flows, Part 2


“Of course, I have no proof of this …”

Thus just said Keith Laney on Richard C. Hoagland’s internet radio program on Art Bell’s Dark Matter radio network. He was shocked an hour ago at the incredible details being revealed in the publicly released images this morning. Then, about 10 minutes ago, we had a NASA guy come into our geology room and tell us that we were so popular that we crashed NASA’s website. I knew that it was a matter of moments before the conspiracy folks would spin something.

And so, they did: NASA was releasing such good stuff and such “revealing” images of Pluto (despite them being lossy JPGs of lossy JPGs — the lossless version of this image will be downloaded probably the first week of August), that their website was shut down by Those In Control.

Sigh.

Also, two misconceptions: Richard spent quite a bit of time complaining and being mystified that there was no live radio signal from the craft. New Horizons has one moving part, the door to the Alice instrument. That’s it. Other craft usually have a science platform that can be rotated. New Horizons doesn’t. So we can either take data of Pluto and its system, or talk to Earth. Guess which we’re going to do when we’re closest?

It was another moment of arrogance, actually, on Richard’s part. He was astounded that no news media were asking this question during the NASA press conference. He remarked that the reason that HE thought of the question as opposed to the news media was that he has a lot more experience in this sort of thing. No … it’s because they know how to read Wikipedia.

The other misconception is not just Richard’s but is being played across many different media: The signal tonight is a “phone home” of the spacecraft health. Data won’t be until many, many hours later.

July 13, 2015

#NewHorizons – The Pseudoscience Flows


Introduction

Sigh. We knew this would happen. But I’m always intrigued as to what form it will really take. I’ve been monitoring some sites, some people, and here’s some that I’ve found so far. Two mainly.

Pluto was ejected from Earth during the Great Flood

Ol’ Terry Hurlbut, one of the premier editors/contributors to Conservapedia, is a young-Earth creationist. He has an Examiner.com site and his own ConservativeNewsAndViews.com site which duplicates said Examiner content and has contributions from other, like-minded über-right-wingers and young-Earth creationists. His contribution is fairly straight-forward: Pluto formed recently – but not as recently as Earth – during Noah’s Flood. Why?

Well: Pluto is red. Rusty red. Therefore it has rust. Therefore it must have iron that was in an oxygen-rich environment. Therefore it came from Earth. QED

Richard Hoagland

Richard is a moving target these days. There’s a lot of drama – the basics of which have to do with the feud between Art Bell and the program he founded but its current incarnation, Coast to Coast AM. Steve Warner, host of the “Dark City” internet radio program (also on Art Bell’s network), got a two-hour interview with Richard late last week and it went up just two days ago.

Richard himself will have (or depending on when you read this, has had) a 6 5 hour special from 3-9 2-7AM PDT on Tuesday morning, July 14, the morning of the flyby. He offered a preview on the “Dark City” interview, and I jotted down a few notes:

1. The Pluto system is young or artificial: Because no rings or tiny moons have yet been found, as was predicted (and therefore “MUST” be found IF the system is natural), then the bodies are either made of material that does not produce rings or tiny moons (ergo artificial) OR it’s incredibly young (ergo artificial).

2. Richard thinks it was created by a Type II civilization (can harness the energy of a solar system) that died 65 million years ago and so isn’t enough time to accumulate rings / tiny moons. It has archives/libraries where our “true” history is stored, and it didn’t suffer from the exploding planet that created the asteroid belt at that time which is also why neither Pluto nor Charon should have many craters.

3. He expects the “regular, geometric patterns” that are evidence of this civilization to be prominent. He also thinks the cantaloupe terrain on Triton is buildings buried by methane ice that NASA released but just never mentioned, and he expects to see more of it on Pluto.

4. “We’ve already found some staggering, repeating, right-angle geometry that has no business being there, and yet no one has commented about it because they don’t know what to say!”

5. The “weird computer outage” was a warning to NASA to not show what’s really there … from “somebody.” Either Alan Stern (the mission PI) will go along with it, or he’ll show what’s really there. Because of the IAU controversy, Richard is betting on Alan’s integrity to show “us” what’s really there. (Note: Richard says this about every PI or non-US country for every space mission. If Richard can pull the noise out of the images the way he wants to find “regular geometry,” Alan has integrity and Richard wins. If Richard can’t pull it out, Alan was threatened and Richard wins.)

6. The IAU vote was done to increase public engagement (through controversy / soap opera) of Pluto so that Alan can do the big reveal that it has alien archives on it in a few days.

To Be Continued?

I’m incredibly busy these days, so I’m not sure if I’ll have time to post more of these. But, I wanted to let you know what I’ve found so far that’s the most “coherent.”

March 5, 2015

Martian Ocean News: “Who Said it First?,” Press Releases, and Correct by Association


Introduction

It’s a press office’s and officer’s job to make what they are writing about sound interesting, exciting, and get you to read it. That’s fairly undisputed. And, most press officers are not experts in the fields that they write press releases for. And, most of the people they talk to will tell them something, and the press officer will try to come up with an interesting angle that they think helps generate interest, often not realizing that they are changing the story.

One class of examples is when they spin something in such a way as to make it seem as though this is completely new, revolutionary, and never been done before. Even if it has. Many times. Over and over.

I speak, of course, of the news today from press release #15-032 that “NASA Research Suggests Mars Once Had More Water than Earth’s Arctic Ocean.”

Again

I wrote about this phenomenon two years ago in the post, “How Astronomers Are, According to Popular Press, Constantly Discovering the Same Thing.”

I should have rephrased that title to indicate that it’s not just according to the popular press, but according to NASA’s own press releases.

And, that’s an issue, even forgetting all the pseudoscience and even implications for normal people: It minimizes the many scientists’ work before this that found the exact same thing.

Mars Ocean

Now, I don’t want to minimize the latest work. It found the same thing, but it was by a completely different method. Previous work looked at mineralogy of rocks, other work looked at morphology (the way things look) of geologic features, others looked at simple elevation and roughness, and others (such as my former thesis advisor, four years ago) looked at the elevation of deltas and showed they were very similar, all implying an ancient ocean.

The work announced earlier today instead looked at the chemistry of the atmosphere and based on the ratios of heavy water (extra neutron in one of the hydrogen atoms) to normal water, they determined that a whole lotta water had been lost to space because the heavier water stays behind, and Martian ices today are HUGELY enriched relative to other sources in the solar system.

But, as someone pointed out to me moments after posting this, even the heavy water result is not new and unique, it’s been done before, as shown in this paper from 1988.

It’s really nice when completely independent ways of looking at things converge on very similar conclusions. That bolsters the strength of all of them and makes it more likely that that conclusion is the correct model.

Being First, Again

But then there’s the general population problem. Even completely non-astronomy friends of mine (argument from anecdote, perhaps) are starting to ask me, “Haven’t we already discovered this?” and they’re asking me how the latest work is new … again.

But beyond that, there’s the pseudoscience aspect, the people who come out of the woodwork to claim that they “did it first” and therefore they should receive the credit, and because they “thought of it first,” before it was officially announced (again) by this latest press release, their other work is real. (Hence the “argument by association” fallacy in the title of this blog post.)

Let’s look at an example, in case you don’t believe me. About the ocean on Mars. Back when I was in grad school, I had to give a talk for a class on the evolution of Mars’ hydrosphere — a literature review, really. That was Spring of 2006. My main source of information was a paper published in the planetary science journal Icarus by S.M. Clifford and T.J. Parker entitled, “The Evolution of the Martian Hydrosphere: Implications for the Fate of a Primordial Ocean and the Current State of the Northern Plains.” My second source of information was a paper published in the other main planetary science journal, the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets by M.H. Carr and J.W. Head, entitled, “Oceans on Mars: An Assessment of the Observational Evidence and Possible Fate.”

The copyright dates for these two papers were 2001 and 2003.

Just skimming through the references, there’s a paper from 1991 entitled, “Ancient Oceans, Ice Sheets, and the Hydrologic Cycle on Mars.” Another from 1998 testing the possibility of shorelines from topography data. Several by Michael Carr hypothesizing about Mars having been water-rich from the 1980s and many by Scott Clifford from the 1990s about the same thing. Most really specifically testing newer hypotheses about massive oceans are from the late 1990s when we first got topography information (meaning you could start to tell if features you thought were ocean shorelines were at the same elevation).

So, the scientific community was finding good evidence for oceans on Mars at least in the late 1990s, and pretty good circumstantial evidence in the 1980s. Massive floods in the 1970s. And evidence for lots of flowing water in the past pretty much since the first images came back in the 1960s. That’s a fact based on the literature review.

That fact is ignored (doing a literature review would require actual work) by people who want to say that they predicted the ocean, but they predicted it based on Mars being the moon of a now-exploded planet that is the asteroid belt. I speak, of course, of Mike Bara, who on his blog wrote a post this eve entitled, “NASA ‘Discovers’ Martian Ocean that Hoagland and Bara Predicted 14 Years Ago.”

Perhaps you understand now where I’m going with this.

Mr. Hoagland and Bara wrote a document in 2001 wherein they claimed Mars had oceans near the equator, that large volcanic complexes are remnant tidal bulges from when Mars was tidally locked with Planet V, and that the northern plains smooth because that’s where the water went after Planet V blew up.

To quote from Mike’s blog:

The fact is that this ocean was actually discovered and predicted by myself and Richard Hoagland over 14 years ago in our Mars Tidal Model paper published on http://www.enterprisemission.com.

While I’m gratified that NASA has finally admitted that Hoagland and me were correct all those years ago, I wish they’d get the details right. […] All of this is covered in our Mars Tidal Model paper that we published online in 2001 after it was rejected by scientific journals because there was “no scientific evidence” to support our ideas.

Hmm. We seem to have overcome that problem, haven’t we NASA…?

The conclusion you are supposed to draw is pretty clear, and Mike’s Facebook followers consider him vindicated.

The “only” problems are that Hoagland and Bara were not the first (as I demonstrated above), and none of the scientific research at all places the possible ancient global ocean anywhere that Hoagland or Bara want it until after Planet V would have exploded. That’s ignoring all the timing problems and everything else that’s pseudoscientific about the paper (that’s beyond the scope of this blog post).

But, because NASA has now “admitted” that Mars likely had a large ocean at some point in its past, you should infer that Mike Bara and Richard Hoagland were right. Uh huh …

Final Thoughts

The above is just one example of a pseudoscientician (I’m all for neologisms) uses this kind of “discovered for the first time! (again)” press release to advance their claims. There are other examples, as well, such as those who claim to have predicted or “stated as fact” these kinds of things many years ago through various divining methods — be it psychic gifts, talking to transcendent beings, or just good ol’-fashioned aliens — but I think my point is made.

This kind of press release does a disservice to the scientists who produced this result before, to the public who wonders why their tax money is spent finding the same thing again, and to pseudoscientists who use it to advance their own claims via association.

And that’s my opinion … until I discover something amazing for the first time, again, and want my own press release.

November 3, 2014

Podcast Episode 119: The Norway Spiral


The Norway Spiral
Is now a catch-all for lots
Of diff’rent ideas.

The long-expected but -delayed Norway Spiral episode is out. It has a little bit for everyone, nearly 5 minutes of Richard Hoagland, and I leave you to make up your own mind in the end.

March 22, 2014

Podcast Episode 104: Pyramids on Mars


Pyramids on Mars
Could be made by aliens
Or, just by nature.

I’ve wanted to do an episode on the pyramids on Mars for quite awhile, so, here ’tis. It’s also good to get this researched and put out because it will be a chapter in an eBook I’m working on (yet another project that hopefully will have a better ending than many of my others). So, if you have any suggestions for it, please let me know so that I can incorporate changes in this episode into the eBook chapter.

With that in mind, this is a very straight-forward episode with of course the obligatory C2C clips. It’s also brought to you by:

  • Fallacy of the Single Cause
  • Argument from Authority
  • Argument from Ignorance
  • Proving a Negative

All that said, I will be interviewed on the “Reality Remix” internet radio on Wednesday, Marcy 26, at 11:00PM EDT (March 27, 3AM UTC) … sorry for the late notice. I will try to record it and if I’m able and allowed, I will post a copy when it’s all said and done. To listen live, go to their website!

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