Exposing PseudoAstronomy

March 2, 2013

Podcast #67: Russian Meteor Conspiracies


I first said I wouldn’t do it, then I did it: Chelyabinsk meteor conspiracies! The episode is just a tad longer than the last one at a bit under 25 minutes.

The topics covered, besides setting the scene and what’s really known about the meteor, I talk about the coincidence of time; the coincidence of location; the conspiracies of missiles, UFOs, and Planet X; whether it was sent by some p—ed off deity; and the unfortunate scam that’s cropped up.

Besides all that, there’s a bit of feedback that lends itself to one of the (yes, of the two!!) puzzlers. And a quick announcement or two (depending on how you count ’em) rounds out the episode. One of those announcements is that I will only be doing two episodes this month. Somehow I managed to put out 4 last month despite writing 3 grants, but this month is just insane along with 8 days of travel in the latter half. Sorry.

Remember that Expat will be on the next episode talking about some of the conspiracies related to politics, secrets, and engineering of Richard C. Hoagland. If you have something you really want me to ask him, feel free to send it in (or comment below).

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May 23, 2012

Episode 37 – Follow-up (Interview!) on Space Law


Episode 37 has been posted. It’s a ~45-minute interview with a lawyer pair where we discuss space law for the past and how it may need to change for the future. It is a somewhat unusual episode for me, but I honestly found it fascinating and I hope that you do, too.

March 17, 2012

Podcast Episode 27: Stellar Scams


Day late, 20 hrs of work left to do before I leave for the airport in 10 hours … sorry. This episode is about buying star names and land on other planets.

This week, I’m introducing a new, alternative segment to the puzzler. My tentative name for it is “Fact or Fake.” This totally original idea that is not ripped off from any other popular skeptical podcasts is where I will present you with two to four items, based loosely around the topic in the main segment, and you need to figure out which is or are fact, and which is or are fake.

The reason for this segment shift is that the puzzlers are sometimes really really hard to come up with, hence why I’ve been soliciting ideas for the past few episodes. This doesn’t mean that the Puzzler is retired — if I can come up with a puzzler that’s good for the topic of the episode, then I’ll use it. If I can’t, then I’ll do this new segment. That said, the NEXT episode is going to be an overview of the asteroid belt, and whether it was ever a planet. If you can think of a good puzzler for that, please send it in.

This is my first attempt at this thing, so let me know what you think.

November 10, 2010

Follow-Up 2: Major American University Advertising Pseudoscience


Introduction

This is going to be a quick post, and for background, you should take a look at the original post about this issue and the first follow-up.

Sweetheart Deals

It was brought to my attention very early this morning that there is an article on the Sports Business Journal about PowerForce bracelets (subscription required). The article states, in part:

“Power Force, a brand of ion-infused wristbands, has struck sponsorship and advertising deals with more than 100 colleges that will give the company exposure through radio broadcasts, in-stadium signage and on-campus displays. The seven-figure deals … will give Power Force marketing and media rights at most of the nation’s top colleges. On each of the campuses where Power Force made a deal, it will be recognized as the official supplier or preferred supplier of ion-infused products. … Power Force is in the process of supplying the licensed wristbands to the schools’ bookstores and other retail outlets around campus. The company also has begun to set up retail centers under tents on college football game days where it has rights near the stadium.”

Final Thoughts

In today’s society, money talks. Multi-million dollar sponsorship, if the article is accurate, could perhaps be why the CU-Boulder Director of Media Relations and Spokesperson was reluctant to say anything bad about them.

I still think it’s not a valid excuse, and this also continues to raise the interesting question about who is funding these guys. If these were “seven-figure deals” with 100 schools, that’s one hundred million to just under one billion dollars in capital that they have put up. For a company whose website is not very good (duplicated logos at the bottom, links not working or going to the wrong page at the bottom, unreadable font sizes, disappearing press releases that weren’t linked properly the first time, etc.), one really does wonder.

Oh, and in browsing the company’s legal page, I came across this gem:

“Unless we give you written permission in advance, any other use of this website, its content and its information, including linking or framing to this website, is strictly prohibited.”

Oops.

November 7, 2010

Follow-Up 1: Major American University Advertising Pseudoscience


Introduction

This post is a follow-up to my first post from two weeks ago, “Major American University Advertising Pseudoscience?” I strongly suggest reading it first.

If you don’t, a very brief summary is:

  • The University of Colorado at Boulder (CU-Boulder) is a Research I university with 4 Nobel Prize winners on staff, 3 in physics and 1 in chemistry.
  • CU-Boulder has licensed Power|Force to use CU’s logo on PowerForce’s products and CU-Boulder is actively advertising for the product.
  • The product is a bracelet that, in the company’s own words, was “developed to work with your body’s natural inner force … [because] within each Power Force powerband are ions that work with your body’s energy.”
  • This is a fundamentally meaningless statement and in the opinion of many, fraud.
  • This was pointed out to CU-Boulder administration, which replied in an e-mail claiming that magnetic therapy (no mention of ions) is a clinically verified science.
  • See my first post as to why that is not true.

Edited to Add: Rachael, the respondee, has posted her reply to the correspondence I copy below on her own blog. I recommend you read it. I found it humorous that in both of our follow-up posts, we switched around where originally I was the aloof, polite, rational one and she was snarky, and for this follow-up I was more flippant while she was more diplomatic.

Further Correspondence

I was one of three people whom the original person notified of the advertising of PowerForce by CU-Boulder during football games (that person prefers to remain anonymous, but I have verified the basic claims in my previous post). One of the other people was less lazy than I, and in addition to writing her own blog post about this, sent a letter onto CU-Boulder’s administration. Her reply (and I have received permission to include the reply on my blog as well as post her name), comes not from the Chancellor’s e-mail this time, but Bronson Hilliard, the “Director of Media Relations and Spokesperson” at CU-Boulder.

Dear Rachael:

Allow me to answer your query regarding the University’s athletic marketing of the “Power Force” Power Band.

First, let me explain that the previous response that went out to a few individuals who e-mailed Chancellor DiStefano was supposed to be a reply on behalf of the chancellor by a staff member in our Buffalo Sports Properties office, not areply from the chancellor himself. I apologize for the way the reply was worded – it was confusing as to who the author actually was.

Regarding your query: members of the senior administration staff have carefully reviewed your concerns, looked into the University’s contract with the company that markets the bands, examined our peer universities’ relationships with the company, and reached the following conclusions:

· As you suggest, the claims of the company regarding the efficacy of the band aren’t based on firm scientific ground. However, the band is being marketed by through the athletic department as a novelty with affinity-inspired athletic branding that is unique to CU Athletics. The symbol it uses – the charging Ralphie – represents CU sports teams, not the university as a whole, and certainly not its research entities.

· In the same spirit, our sports-labeled products include everything from sweat bands to golf tees tolawn gnomes. These are all designed to create affinity and build school spirit, not to be literal representations of the University and its academic work.

· Likewise, the company is offering the same Powerforce Power Bands for universities that include Cal, Penn State, Missouri, Pitt and a host of other peer schools. These are quality institutions that, like us, have elected to promote a novelty item with an athletic logo for affinity and commercial purposes.

I appreciate your concern and that of your fellow graduate students and otherskeptics. Your respect for science and the scientific method is manifest inyour concern, and your dedication to advancing our highest academic values is impressive.

We do not believe in the end, however, that novelty items like the “Power Force Power Band” are threats to these values.

Sincerely,

Bronson R. Hilliard, director of media relations and spokesperson
University of Colorado at Boulder

An Analysis of Mr. Hilliard’s E-Mail

In this analysis, I am going to translate Mr. Hilliard’s message from that of a media relations person to what it actually says (implies) to those of us who have been pursuing this. My translations are in quotes, my comments are not in quotes. Note that I am not actually claiming that Mr. Hilliard actually said the things I put in quotes, these are just my translations from what I infer.

First Paragraph Translation: I’m not certain to what this is referring, perhaps Rachael in her original e-mail accidentally complained that the message about magnetic healing came from the Chancellor, which it actually did, though in the form of a forward from someone else. Regardless, this paragraph is unimportant as it is stated.

Second Paragraph Translation: “Here’s what we’ve decided:”

Third Paragraph / First Bullet Translation: “Agreed, PowerForce’s claims are meaningless, but I’m being as cagey as I can in stating that. But we’re not actually claiming it works, we’re just marketing it. Oh, and by the way, that CU logo? That doesn’t actually represent CU.” I would consider this an Inconsistency fallacy. Another person has suggested it’s simply an “absurdity” fallacy (not a formal logical fallacy, mind you, but one that works just as well). This claim might be, on paper, true, but anyone in the general public who sees any logo related to CU is not going to separate a sports logo from an academic logo or whatever Mr. Hilliard is claiming.

Fourth Paragraph / Second Bullet Translation: “I hope that what I’m saying is convincing you. ‘Cause, you know, we market other stuff like clothing with the CU logo but I’m saying that those don’t represent the University, either. I mean, a hoodie can really be risqué and we don’t want people to think CU administration really wants to present that image!” Alright, I may have gone slightly over the top with that translation, but in all seriousness, how naïve can a director of media relations be? Or how naïve does he seriously expect us to be? This is a False Equivalency fallacy. He’s attempting to shift the burden of proof to us, which I would claim that I (and others involved in this) have more than met (again, see my first post on this). What my/our point, though, is how can the bracelet and its extraordinary claims be considered a “novelty” that’s simply “designed to create an affinity and build school spirit” if they are being sold with the $29 price tag that claims it comes with magical ions … versus sweatpants that cost the same in the CU bookstore as they would at Target; this is not the same thing (the false equivalency fallacy). No one claims that the garden gnomes that CU sells are going to be like the garden gnomes in Harry Potter, but the claims that come with the bracelets are about as magical as that book/movie series.

Fifth Paragraph / Third Bullet Translation: “By the way, lots of other kewl skools also license this stuff, why don’t you go bug them? We’re just doin’ what everybody else is.” Follow-up: “Oh, everyone else is jumping off a cliff? Sure! I’d love to!” Yeah, that’s pretty much what it boils down to, a very very Skeptics 101 fallacy of Argument ad Populum (AKA Argument from Popularity). As a fellow skeptic pointed out in e-mail to me, this is actually an opportunity for CU-Boulder to take the high road and show these other schools that they are giving their name and logo to this company. As opposed to taking what many may consider a coward’s approach: hiding behind these other schools and jumping on the “everybody’s doin’ it!” bandwagon.

Sixth Paragraph Translation: “By the way, the space bar on my computer isn’t working. But isn’t it cute that there are some of you trying to pursue this? [Insert some trite compliments.]” I don’t think much more needs to be said about this paragraph but I in my infinite verbosity will, anyway. If what preceded it had been different – perhaps owning up and taking some responsibility – then this paragraph would not have come off quite as patronizing as it does. It also was interesting that a Director of Media Relations and Spokesperson for CU-Boulder with a student-staff-administration population of well over 40,000 wouldn’t check over his e-mail to look for mistakes as simple as missing spaces between words.

Seventh Paragraph Translation: “For all those reasons, we’re not doing anything about this.”

Final Thoughts

Mr. Hilliard’s e-mail, whether intended or not, and whether ignorantly or not, is naïve in the middle and patronizing at the end. He seems to not realize – or hopes that we don’t realize – that people aren’t going to think of these as “novelty items” in the same way they are going to buy a golf tee as a “novelty item” or a CU-Boulder logo-infused shot glass as a novelty item. Any normal person is going to (1) see a CU logo and (5) assume CU is endorsing it, skipping all those intermediate steps Mr. Hilliard seems to think will lead them to a different conclusion. No one is claiming that a CU-logo-branded mug is going to imbue your morning coffee with extra energetic forces to get you through the day, and because of that charge you an extra $20. But that’s the basic claim of PowerForce – a fairly meaningless jumble of words sewn together like magnetic poetry on your refrigerator.

Rather than actually stand up and admit that there is a problem here that needs to be addressed, this latest e-mail adds yet another layer of naïveté on CU-Boulder, this time in the office (via the Director) of Media Relations. It now seems that this issue has been studied (re: “members of the senior administration staff have carefully reviewed your concerns”) and they are happy with (a) actively promoting a pseudoscientific product, (b) being associated with a company that – to anyone who knows the basics of human physiology and/or chemistry and/or physics and/or critical thinking – is making things up, and (c) allowing that company to market products with the University’s logo and name.

We also have the Director of Media Relations and Spokesperson for CU committing at least three formal logical fallacies: Inconsistency, False Equivalency, and Argument ad populum.

Yet again, I would call on all of you to contact the administration and let them know what you think. Alternatively or in addition to, you might do so at some of the other schools that license PowerForce, especially if your own school is swept up in this.

I also encourage you to get the word out. WordPress in the last several weeks added the common “sharing” buttons that let you tweet/facebook/digg/reddit/stumbleupon/wordpress my posts to let others know about them. Even if you don’t want to get directly involved by contacting school administrations, I encourage you to pass this post along via any or any combination of those links that are pretty easy to use. Someone among your hundreds of Facebook friends or Twitter followers may decide to send a message along to the administration.

Edited to Add: Rachael, the respondee, has posted her reply to the correspondence I copied above on her own blog. I recommend you read it. I found it humorous that in both of our follow-up posts, we switched around where originally I was the aloof, polite, rational one and she was snarky, and for this follow-up I was more flippant while she was more diplomatic.

October 27, 2010

Major American University Advertising Pseudoscience?


Introduction

I will start this post with two disclaimers.

First, I am not a medical professional, nor student, nor have I had any medical training beyond a wonderfully taught class in high school on human anatomy and physiology. That is why I link to those who do have that necessary expertise for some points in this post. I do have the physics background, though, and use that where appropriate.

Second, I will be discussing the contents of two e-mails that were not sent to nor from me but were forwarded to me by the initial sender. I have received their (being gender neutral) permission to post the contents and while I have no way of guaranteeing the validity, I do think they are genuine since I know the person who sent them fairly well. I have also verified the main claims contained in the initial e-mail. I will also be anonymizing them for some liability reasons except for the name of the Chancellor (since that’s easy enough for anyone to look up, anyway).

With that out of the way, I am a graduate student at the University of Colorado at Boulder (CU-Boulder), for those of you who have not been reading this blog very long or have not checked the “About” page. For those who are unfamiliar with the university, it boasts roughly 30,000 undergraduate students and somewhere around 6,000 graduate students. The university has four Nobel laureates, three of them are in physics and one in chemistry. It is a Research I university meaning that faculty who want to do more research than teaching will go here, and it is fairly prestigious. The university is also reasonably famous (maybe a tad infamous, too) for its sports, and the entire campus pretty much shuts down itself and the nearby streets when there’s a football game. Now comes the disappointing part.

Edited to Add: I have written a follow-up post with the response of the Media Relations Director and Spokesperson at CU-Boulder. It’s not encouraging.

Initial E-Mail

Mr. Chancellor, Mr. Athletic Director, and esteemed regents:

Today I attended a football game at my alma mater CU-Boulder. I felt a moment of pride as I passed by Wayne [sic] Physics and saw the sign noting CU’s three nobel prize winners in physics. This feeling was countered by one of chagrin when I saw that CU was promoting a plastic wrist band called “Power Force” as “the preferred wrist band of CU athletics.” This promotion was done on the video screen (complete with a photo of the power force band) and with the announcer promoting this product. It was, to my memory, the only product that was promoted during the game in such a fashion during today’s game. I have had an opportunity to examine the website for this Power Force. They are selling rubber (or rubberized plastic, it does not actually say) wrist bands with collegiate logos for $28.99.

The website justifies this price with the following advertising copy: “Power Force Power Bands the Official Power Band of Collegiate Licensed Schools. Power Force, LLC is licensed to distribute team merchandise for more than 100 college teams. Power Force’s Innovative Products were developed to work with your body’s natural inner force. Within each Power Force powerband are ions that work with your body’s energy to give you confidence from within. Your inner force is limitless. Channel this force with Power Force powerband. Power Your Inner Force.” It does not take more than a rudimentary understanding of human anatomy and physiology to understand that there is no such thing as a “natural inner force” and that imbuing a plastic wrist band with some kind of ion is not going to have any effect on the human body whatsoever (except–I guess–if the ions were somehow toxic and would poison the wearer, which I doubt is the case here). The claim by the Power Force company as to the efficacy of this product is clearly pseudoscientific mumbo jumbo. It is extremely disappointing to see a university of CU’s caliber publicly and proudly associate itself with this kind of product, and with this kind of pseudoscientific claim. You are quite clearly (and apparently proudly) involved in selling a … overpriced product that cannot work in the way that its sales people claim. … This is no different than having the “preferred palm reader of CU Athletics” or the “preferred psychic medium of CU Athletics.”

I would also note that the website for Power Force brags that it is the official wristband of a great many universities. I don’t know how so many universities have been horns-waggled into an association with this dubious business partner, but I urge you to reconsider CU’s association, for the good name of the University that all of us love.

The website for this Power Force company is: http://www.powerforcellc.com/

Thank you for your consideration.

[Name]
CU graduate, BA A&S [year].

Emphasis is mine. Ellipses have been added to avoid liability issues.

Response

Dear [Name],
I asked our athletic department for an explanation for you regarding how products receive permission to use the CU logo and its endorsement. Buffalo Sports Properties owns the rights to all the advertising and sponsorship opportunities so this is their response.

“The company Powerforce went through all of the appropriate channels for approval to use the CU marks and logos. They applied for the CU license through CLC and based on the company’s information, goals and objectives, a license was granted. Additionally, the company has paid for a sponsorship with CU Athletics, which is the product was [sic] promoted on the video board.

As for the actual product, there has been research about magnetic therapy and its effects on pain, stress, fatigue, and concentration. While I don’t have access to our campus library (which may have better access to scientific research), here are two links to websites with articles about magnetic therapy.
http://www.articlesbase.com/medicine-articles/magnetic-bracelet-therapy-case-study-by-dr-carlos-vallbona-usa-2268067.html
http://www.magnetictherapyfacts.org/magnetic_therapy_research.asp

Thanks,
[First Name]
[Full Name]
Buffalo Sports Properties
[Phone]

Thank you for your interest and support of CU.

Go Buffs!

Philip P. DiStefano, Chancellor
University of Colorado Boulder

Ions

What are these mysterious “ions”? Put very simply, all atoms have at least one proton. If an atom does not have the same number of electrons as it does protons, then it is an ion. This will give the atom a net positive or net negative charge (if number of electrons is less than protons, then positive; if electrons are more than protons, then negative).

Now, it is true that ions in the body play an important role – an essential role – in allowing cell membranes to function as they should and in the basic function of muscle and nerve cells. I’m not going into more detail there because that’s beyond my expertise and it’s unimportant to this post. What is important is that while ions are essential, the phrase, “ions … work with your body’s natural inner force” is absolutely meaningless.

What inner force? There are four fundamental forces of nature — gravity, electromagnetic, and the strong and weak nuclear forces. So maybe they mean electromagnetic force. Except that the ions in a bracelet aren’t going to affect you in any way, pretty much no matter how strong they try to make them (assuming they actually do “put ions” into their product). For example, the multi-million dollar machines hospitals use called MRIs (magnetic resonance imaging) create electromagnetic fields that are thousands of times stronger than a refrigerator magnet, yet they don’t affect your health.

One sentence later, the marketing claim for PowerForce changes: “… [I]ons … work with your body’s energy …” But we’re faced with a similar problem. What energy? I’ll refer you to Skeptoid Episode #1 – New Age Energy for a good discussion on that.

Magnetic Supposed-Therapy

Interestingly, the response quoted by the Chancellor has nothing to do with ions. Rather, the person moved the goalpost to discuss magnetic therapy. This lends credence to my supposition that PowerForce is advocating that the “force” their products work through is the electromagnetic.

It’s also interesting to note that the responder thinks that the CU library may have “better access to scientific research” on magnetic therapy. I’ll tell you that they have better access than the average person to medical journals, but magnetic therapy studies that are actually done with large sample sizes and are double-blinded show null results. I recommend listening to QuackCast episode #15 that has a 33-minute discussion of the main claims of magnet therapy and why they are all untrue.

Since I am not a medical person, I will merely state and explain my favorite: The most common is that magnetic bracelets will help the flow of blood because your blood (specifically the hemoglobin molecule in the red blood cells) contains iron. The only problem with this is that the iron in the hemoglobin is nearly completely magnetically neutral. If it wasn’t, then if you went in to get an MRI, your blood would explosively exit your body and coat the inside of the machine. It’s really that simple.

I went to the two links that were recommended by the Buffalo Sports Properties responder. The first has an ad at the top that promises to teach you to “use your own body’s healing power to end chronic tendonitis pain.” The second is fairly obviously an umbrella page for pro-magnet therapy folks. While not necessarily wrong to use this as evidence, it is wrong to use them if you actually read their studies. The first is a self-study and is meaningless since it was completely unblinded. The second is a report on another study that in itself is meaningless and one would need to examine the initial study. The third is from the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine … hardly a mainstream journal that is accepted by most medical professionals.

For magnetic therapy to actually be true, it must be physically plausible, requiring a mechanism. From a physics standpoint, it does not, at least not in any of the ways promoted. Again, one of the easiest ways to almost literally blast any claim to its efficacy is to take it to the logical conclusion: Put the person in an MRI and the effects should be magnified significantly. And yet decades of MRI use has failed to show any kind of results claimed by magnetic therapy proponents.

Edited to add: A good, recent meta-analysis of magnet therapy.

Final Thoughts: What We’re Left

We are left with either knowingly or unknowingly ignorant marketing and promotion. If unknowing, it’s embarrassing at a bare minimum and should be corrected when pointed out. If knowing, then I would, in my opinion, say this probably gets into the realm of fraud (by the PowerForce company).

It’s ridiculous that a university as prestigious as CU, with three physics and one chemistry Nobel laureates on faculty, would sink to the level of unabashedly lending its name, logos, and promotional space to such an obviously untrue product and set of claims. I can understand someone over in the Buffalo Sports Properties office being ignorant of physics, chemistry, and human physiology and being swayed by big words, sciencey-sounding claims, and falling prey to the argument from popularity of dozens of universities on their bandwagon.

I may even be able to understand a Chancellor maybe not wanting to deal with looking further into the issue. But that’s part of his job. Any kind of promotion of pseudoscience by any academic institution should not be tolerated.

I have checked the PowerForce website and they do offer the CU bracelet. Their main marketing page does make the claims quoted in the initial e-mail. I encourage anyone and everyone who thinks that a university should not promote pseudoscience to contact the CU-Boulder administration and let them know.

If you do contact them, I recommend sticking to the basic fact that CU allows PowerForce to license their name and logo, that CU unabashedly advertises for them, and that the claims are demonstrably wrong. Details of the initial e-mail I presented and the narrative that followed are less important than the basic idea of an academic institution advertising pseudoscience.

Or, if you go to, are employed by, or are affiliated with another university, I encourage you to check out PowerForce’s website and see if they have yours listed. And then contact your own university’s administration.

Edited to Add: Now that you have read this, I have written a follow-up post with the response of the Media Relations Director and Spokesperson at CU-Boulder. It’s not encouraging.

March 8, 2010

Is Debunking a Fringe Person Still Worth It?


Introduction

This morning, I received an IM from a friend congratulating me on the 100,000+ reads on my blog. I responded with a bit of surprise, saying that I didn’t realize she read my blog. Her response was that she has an RSS feed of it and skims what I write when there’s a new post.

This particular friend happens to be the person I briefly consulted for my two-part (eventually three-part) series on the astrologer Terry Nazon (here and here), because this friend practices astrology as a hobby.

Somewhat fearful, I asked her what she thought of the two blog posts about Ms. Nazon. Her response was, “I think that you were probably debunking a hack astrologer.” That led me to quickly justify why I did it, but I think it does raise a decent question: Should one spend the time debunking someone who is on the fringe of their particular pseudoscientific belief system?

Why I Think the Answer Is “Maybe”

I think that there are several reasons both do to this and not to do it. On the “not” side there’s the obvious time-waste component for relatively little gain if they’re on the fringe. There’s the lack of applicability to the underlying field you’re trying to refute. Another con is that you run the risk of presenting a straw man argument – though I try to make very clear that I am only addressing specific claims, not the entire field.

On the “do it” side, I think there are stronger arguments, providing you have the time. The first I thought of is that this person is still making their claims and they do have an audience. In Ms. Nazan’s case, she was going to be featured on an internationally syndicated radio show that reaches literally millions of people every night on over 525 radio stations. Many of her website page headings (her site, her blog, her Facebook) bill her as “Terry Nazon World Famous Astrologer” with the word “Celebrity” sometimes thrown in there. She also apparently makes enough money to run her website.

That led me to the second reason: She’s bilking people out of a heck of a lot of money. I’ll repeat the numbers – at least the current ones on her website – which are $4.99 per minute, $75 for an e-mail reading, $75 for a 15-minute reading, $150 for a 30-minute reading, and $330 for a 60-minute phone reading. I am still amazed at that – I cannot grasp that people are willing to throw that much money at her for something that says at the bottom of her website in very small print, “For entertainment purposes only,” and for someone who was absolutely so demonstrably wrong in her claims (as I illustrated here and here). A three-hour reading from her costs more than my month’s rent.

Third – and this is more minor – you get experience picking through arguments in a logical, methodical way.

And for me, that’s really enough. If (1) the person has a name for themselves and an audience, and (2) there actually is harm being done – in this case separating people from their money during a recession – then I think they’re fair game. It doesn’t matter whether they’re on the fringe of their particular field. You still get the experience of debunking someone, and hopefully some of the people being harmed will at least begin to doubt what they’re about to do. If by my blog posts I have stopped one person from contacting Terry Nazon for a reading, then I will be pretty happy and consider it worth it.

Similarly, despite using some of the more fringe claims of 2012 and Planet X stuff to address some of the more basic claims people make, my blog generally gets ~150-250 hits a day from people searching for information on the subject, or linking to my blog from forums or bulletin boards as a resource to learn what’s really not going to happen. I have actually received e-mails from people who say that they were very worried and my blog helped them to calm down from the hysteria that they were approaching. And of course the Comments section posts are nice, too.

What Do You Think?

This is where I normally sum up my position, but I think I already did that. Rather, I’ll use this quick ending to ask you, the reader, what do you think about this? Should people bother to spend time debunking more fringe claims in a field? Or is it just a waste of time? Please answer in the Comments!

November 9, 2008

Do *NOT* “Buy” Stars

Filed under: scams,terminology — Stuart Robbins @ 5:41 pm
Tags: , , , , ,

Introduction

Christmas is coming and so I thought this would be a somewhat timely post (yes, I realize there are other winter holidays, and I myself am Jewish, but let’s be honest here – most presents are Christmas presents).  I am also experimenting with a slightly new format for each blog post, starting with this one, so please let me know what you think about it by posting in the Comments section.

The purpose of this blog post is:  Please, PLEASE, PLEASE, do NOT try to buy stars!

 

Background

Many years ago, a company started up called the “International Star Registry” (ISR).  A few years later, a copycat company started, called “Buy the Stars” (BtS).  Over the years, a few others have cropped up, such as “Star Namer,” or “Star Deed,” but I’m mainly going to address the first two.  The basic premise behind these companies is that if you pay them a certain amount of money, they will officially register a star with your name on it, or any name on it that you want.

 

What’s Actually Going On

They’re taking your money and sending you a piece of paper that with a little experimentation you could make in Photoshop or Illustrator or your graphics program of choice.  Seriously.  That’s about it.

The only officially recognized group that can name celestial objects is the International Astronomical Union, a group of astronomers from all over the world.  They’re the ones who classify objects (like planets vs. dwarf planets) and who name objects.  They are the only group in the world that astronomers actually listen to in terms of what’s called what.

When you send either star registry company money, they will pick out a generally very faint star, one that very likely cannot be seen without the use of a telescope (usually fainter than the planet Pluto).  The faintness of the star is alluded to on both sites since neither of them actually answer the question of, “Can I see my star?”  Rather, BtS answers the question of, “Will I be able to see the constellation?” while ISR has a discussion of Visual Magnitude (the brightness scale astronomers use, where larger numbers are fainter objects).

The ISR will then compile it in their book, Your Place in the Cosmos, put it in their own database, and that’s the extent of the registration process.  However, they are at least reasonably forward about the officiality of their service, stating:

Q:  Will the scientific community recognize my star name?

A:  No.  We are a private company that provides Gift Packages.  Astronomers will not recognize your name because your name is published only in our Star catalog.  We periodically print a book called Your Place in the Cosmos © which lists the stars that we have named.

BtS is not as straight-forward, and in my own personal opinion, they are deceitful.  They do not tell you that your name will not be recognized; in answer to the question, “Do I really get a star named after me?” they state (emphasis mine):

BuyTheStars is an official star registration company and all records of stars named and sold are sent to the international star name and registry in Dallas, TX . Once you have purchased and named your star, the details are sent and permanently recorded in the database. Once this process has been completed, we verify the billing information provided to us and forward it to the international database in Dallas. Once completed, a certificate (and package) is sent out to you (or the addressee) detailing the stars [sic] location and new name. This name will be the new internationally recognized name for the star under the coordinates specified on the certificate. You can then be satisfied knowing that you (or the persons whom you named the star(s) after) will join the thousands who have already secured their place in the heavens.

Again, for clarity, this “internationally recognized name” is only recognized by their company.  It is not recognized by anyone who actually studies astronomy.

In addition, and this is more of an aside, you really should NOT buy stuff off of a website that does not know English grammar.  The apostrophe is missing in “detailing the stars location” in the text I quoted above.  In their “Why name a star with us?” page, they used the wrong homophone: “So, if your looking …” using “your” instead of “you’re.”  This may seem like a silly nit-pick, but seriously, if they write like a middle or high school student, why should you trust them with your money?

 

What’s the Harm?

This is often a question asked that’s more related to “alternative” medicine pseudoscience, like, “What’s the harm of homeopathy even if it’s just water like you say?”

The harm of “buying” these stars is two-fold.

(1)  They take your money.  The cheapest “package” on the ISR is $54.00, and the cheapest from BtS is $54.95 (at the time of writing this).  For an average family of 4, that’s half a week’s groceries, or maybe a tank of gas (as I’m writing this).  It’s also the cost of a nicely illustrated astronomy book, or maybe 2-3 paperbacks.  Or a trip to the zoo, or an amusement park.  Or a nice dinner out.  If you’re looking for a present for someone, please buy something that’s more meaningful.

(2)  Sentimentality from those who think they’re really getting a star named after them.  What I mean here is something like the following story:  Two people have been married for over 50 years, and one of them dies .  The one left is devastated, and hears from a friend that they can get a bright, shining star in the sky named after their loved one for all to see.  So they buy a package.  Later, perhaps, even a few years later, they go to a public planetarium or observatory and ask the projector operator or telescope operator to see “their” star.  What’s the operator supposed to do?  Tell them they wasted their money, they don’t actually have a star; or try to find the tiny faint object, indistinct from its neighbors; or lie to the person and point out a nice bright object and say, “Yep, that’s it, there’s ‘Fred.'”

My own personal experience with this rip-off is that my high school, a year after I graduated, “bought” three stars for students who had done well on some national test or something (I honestly don’t remember the exact reason).  That’s right, folks, public school funds, at least over $165 worth (the cost of 2 new textbooks), were spent on this.

 

Final Thoughts

Seriously, the bottom-line here is that this is a scam.  I’ll be very careful here, though – it is not a “scam” in the legal sense (though I think BtS comes very very close) because they do not actually promise that astronomers will recognize your purchase.  Rather, it is a “scam” in the sense that it is very misleading to the public, with people being led to think that it is now an official name that will is “recorded ‘forever’ in existence,” to quote another blogger on WordPress.

The only “official” way these are recognized is within their own company and their own products.  They take your money, enter something in a database, and send you a pretty piece of paper and maybe a booklet and a starchart with “your” star circled.  Please do NOT give them any more money, unless you want to pay for a pretty piece of paper.

But, you don’t need to take my word for it:

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