Exposing PseudoAstronomy

October 28, 2012

When You Worry that Any Bone Tossed Will Set Off Conspiracists: NASA Video on Fomalhaut b


Intro

Sorry the blog’s been a bit bare lately. As mentioned in my podcast, I’ve been very busy the last two months. Hopefully things will die down a bit in mid- to late-November after most of my stuff is due, such as three faculty applications.

Anyway, this is just a short, fun, and scary post ’bout a video that NASA’s animation group recently posted: “Zombie Fomalhaut b: Study of Hubble Data Revives a ‘Dead’ Exoplanet.”

Halloween

For those of you who live outside of normal society, three days from today is October 30, my father’s birthday, and the day after that is October 31, the Big Candy holiday of Halloween. The dead and scary and related are celebrated and ultra-conservative Christians protest it as worshipping a guy named Stan. Or maybe they left out the “a” and meant Satan. Anyway …

Fomalhaut b

Fomalhaut is a star – a rather bright star as seen from Earth that’s about 25 light-years away. It made headlines in 2008 with the potential discovery of an actually imaged planet around the star. Following convention, the planet was termed Fomalhaut b.

Fomalhaut b

Fomalhaut b

However, controversy came earlier this year when, despite the apparent solid observations in visible light, it was difficult if not impossible to be seen in infrared light. It should have been prominent in IR light (which is where most people actually go for direct-exoplanet imaging) because planets are “warm” and so glow relatively brightly in the IR while stars are much brighter in the visible. Hence, the lack of an IR detection raised some significant issues.

But, a recent reanalysis shows that it probably is real, it’s just smaller than previously thought. And follow-up observations are being made. That’s what you can get from the neat-o 2 min 08 sec video I linked to.

Conspiracy

If you watch the video, it’s obviously meant to be humorous and in the spirit common to Halloween in the US. But, if you watch the last 10 seconds, they show a disk-shaped 1950s-style UFO passing by Earth.

Yes, obviously it’s meant to be Halloween-y. But I guess when you’ve been listening to and watching conspiracy people for any length of time, you worry that ANY sort of thing like this from any “official” government body, especially NASA, is going to be latched onto and taken as an admission or a leak or whatever to support their ideas.

Take John Glenn. He appeared on an episode of Frasier and he stated:

“Back in those glory days, I was very uncomfortable when they asked us to say things we didn’t want to say and deny other things. Some people asked, you know, were you alone out there? We never gave the real answer, and yet we see things out there, strange things, but we know what we saw out there. And we couldn’t really say anything. The bosses were really afraid of this, they were afraid of the War of the Worlds type stuff, and about panic in the streets. So, we had to keep quiet. And now we only see these things in our nightmares or maybe in the movies, and some of them are pretty close to being the truth.”

Richard C. Hoagland, Face-on-Mars-guy extraordinaire, has used this many times to support his conspiracy claims. And yet, if you actually WATCH the episode, the entire point was to show the comedy of an argument between two of the show’s main characters, Roz and Frasier, that they are so self-absorbed in their own squabbling that they miss the sensational statement by John Glenn.

Conspiracists such as Hoagland, Mike Bara, or David Wilcock miss the entire point that this was a scripted show and not an off-the-cuff admission of ET life. Expat over at the Dork Mission blog has a good summary and goes into a bit more detail about this than I do above.

Final Thoughts

To return to my point, the NASA video is funny, and it shows how science works: This is a process of finding evidence to support a claim, testing it, and trying to figure out what’s really going on. The video was released just a few days ago obviously in the spirit of a US holiday. But just as the Frasier show was clearly scripted comedy but was used by UFO nuts, I worry that a few animation guys having fun may also be used by conspiracy / UFO folks to support their own claims.

September 26, 2012

What’s a Skeptic?


This short post is meant to be a bit interactive, at least through the comments. The subject is, what is a skeptic?

I use the term to describe myself: I’m a skeptic. Or, perhaps just like the PC term being that someone “has schizophrenia” versus “are schizophrenic,” I am skeptical. I would put forward that a good scientist is skeptical, and that anyone who is a critical thinker is skeptical.

But people like Alex Tsakiris, George Noory, Mike Bara, and others whom scientists would generally term “pseudoscientists” also say that they themselves are skeptical, and that people like me are “close-minded skeptics/debunkers.” Meanwhile, people like Michael Horn claim that “skepticism” is a religion.

I could go through lengthy etymology and modern usage that might make an English major or a language scholar swoon, but no one else, really. Instead, this is how I define the term, and why I think that people such as those whom I term “pseudoscientists” are anything but skeptical:

To be skeptical means to reserve judgement on the veracity of a new claim that is different from what has been previously established. The established idea is effectively the null hypothesis — the idea that will stand if the new one is shown to not have enough supporting evidence. The evidence for the new claim must be evaluated on its own merits, and if valid, it must be weighed against the evidence for the established idea. To be accepted, the new idea must have at least as much evidence for it as the old claim, and it should also explain why the evidence in support of the old claim is faulty and/or be evidence for the new claim just as well. Any idea that’s rejected is always subject to re-analysis upon submission of additional data.

So, for example, if someone makes a claim that — oh, I dunno — there’s a kilometer-sized ziggurat on the Moon, that’s the new claim. The null hypothesis is that there is no ziggurat on the Moon. There are many different lines of argument that support the null hypothesis (no one to build it, no astronaut talking about it, no other photographs showing it), while there is one photo circulating the internet that is the evidence for it. When examining that individual photograph, many anomalies come up that indicate it is more likely than not that the ziggurat in that one image is fake. With doubts as to the authenticity of the single image with the ziggurat, the evidence for it is very small, and it is completely overshadowed by the evidence for the null hypothesis.

Ergo, as someone who is skeptical, I adopt the position that there is no ziggurat, though that position is always subject to revision based on new data.

As another example, one could take astrology. The null hypothesis is that astrology does not work, and there is no known physical mechanism that would allow it to work. Evidence that people have put forward for astrology working is, in sum and substance, anecdotal (“I got a reading and it was accurate!”). In fact, I saw an astrologer recently argue that because more people believe in astrology than any one religion, and since Americans spend $hundreds of millions of dollars on astrology per year, that it’s real. Meanwhile, every large, controlled experiment that has tried to test the validity of astrological predictions has shown a negative result.

Ergo, as someone who is skeptical, I adopt the position that astrology does not make accurate, specific predictions, though that position is always subject to revision based on new data.

As a scientist, I operate the same way. When I write a paper, I have to provide evidence to support my conclusions. If my conclusions contradict previous work, I have to go through the evidence that others have used to support their conclusions and show that it was wrong, wrongly interpreted, and/or can support my conclusions just as well. If I can’t do this, then no one is going to believe me over the established results that do have evidence.

Anyway, these are my musings on the subject. The idea for this post came while listening to yet another pseudoscientist (who shall remain nameless …) claim to a large audience, “Hey, I’m a true skeptic – not like those debunkers – and that’s why I can openly look at the evidence for [paranormal claim] and accept it!”

What are your thoughts? Do you agree, disagree, and why?

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