Exposing PseudoAstronomy

September 21, 2014

Philosophy: On Skepticism and Challengers


Introduction

I’m taking a break because I don’t want to work on this proposal at the moment. I’m great at procrastination, when I get around to it.

Anyway, I want to muse philosophical-like for a few minutes, reacting to some recent things I’ve heard regarding skepticism and people challenging your views.

“Healthy” Skepticism

George Noory, the now >1 decade primary host of late-night paranormal radio program Coast to Coast AM, had Dr. Judy Wood on his program for the first two hours of his “tribute” to the September 11, 2001 (I refuse to call it “9/11” because I think that trivializes it — we all have our quirks) terrorist attacks. Judy Wood is author of the book, “Where Did the Towers Go?” Her thesis is that a directed “zero-point energy” weapon “dustified” the towers, or that they suffered “dustification.”

It was a very difficult interview for George, I’m sure, since Judy refused to speculate on anything. I’m also growing slightly more convinced that he may have questions written down on cue cards because he asked the exact same question a few minutes apart (“how much energy is required to ‘dustify’ the towers?”) and she refused to speculate both times. Just repeating what she “knows she knows that she knows.” She is also incredibly defensive and clearly doesn’t know what the word “theory” is.

All that aside, early in the interview, George did a tiny disclaimer saying that they always get people writing or calling in saying that doing shows like that is unpatriotic and/or disrespectful to everyone who died in the attacks and the aftermath. But, that it’s healthy to have skepticism and to always question the official story.

*cough*

Okay, George, you are correct in theory (yes, I used that word purposely), but completely wrong in practice. Skepticism does not mean doubting or denying or not accepting everything. Skepticism, as we use the term today, means to not accept something unless we have good evidence to do so. It’s a method of investigation, to look into claims, examine the evidence, and put it in context with all the other evidence and plausibility given what has been established about the way the world works.

At least, that’s how I tend to define it, and it’s how I tend to practice it.

Do I believe “the government” on everything? No. For example, President Obama recently announced that the US is going to take on ISIS in some form or fashion, but that there would be “no boots on the ground.” Given past experience when politicians have said that, and given the realities of ISIS and the Middle East area in general, I’m … shall we say … “skeptical,” and I will reserve acceptance of his statement until it actually plays out.

Do I believe that NASA “tampers” with photographs of the moon to “airbrush out” ancient ruins and alien artifacts, or do I accept what “they” give us? (I put “they” in quotes because “NASA” is an organizational administration within the federal government; it’s the people involved who do everything, and it’s contractors and grant awardees who deal with data and other things.) I accept what they give us. I tend to not question it.

Why? Because of past experience and my own experience in investigating the claims to the contrary. I look at other images of the area from multiple spacecraft. From spacecraft from other countries. They are consistent. They don’t show different kinds of anomalies you’d need in order to have the scenario that the conspiracists claim is happening. They do show what you’d expect if the data were faithfully represented, as it was taken, after standard spacecraft and basic data reduction steps (like correcting for geometric distortion based on how the spacecraft was pointed, or removing artifacts from dust on the lens).

George, there is a difference between healthy skepticism – looking into claims – and beating a dead horse. Or beating over 3000 dead victims to a terrorist attack.

There is no plausibility to Dr. Wood’s arguments. Her claims made to back them up are factually wrong. (Expat has addressed some of them in his blog, here, here, here, and here.) She is ridiculously defensive, refuses to delve further into her model to actually back it up, and has a name for herself only because people like you give her airtime to promote her ideas. True skepticism is to examine the arguments from both sides and draw a conclusion based on what’s real and what’s most probable. Which has been done by thousands of people who debunk every single claim the conspiracists make about the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. But you won’t go to them. You bring on Dr. Wood, or people from the Architects and Engineers for Truth.

A one-sided investigation is not faithful, not genuine, and is disrespectful to everyone.

Challenging Your Conclusions

In a related vein, but completely different context, I was reading through my RSS news feeds and came upon the headline to the effect (because it’s disappeared from my feed since I started to write this): Michelle Obama explains to school children that challenges [probably, though I read it as “challengers”] are a good thing.

So true. Most people in the skeptical movement know that this is “a True.” Most scientists know this is “a True.” Most pseudoscientists are vehemently against being challenged.

I’ll take the subject of my last blog post to illustrate this example, not that I want to pick on him per se, but he’s the last person I listened to in detail that I can use to illustrate this point, other than Dr. Wood, who I discussed much more than I want to in the above section. Mike Bara.

Mike was somewhat recently on another late-night (though not quite as late) internet radio program, “Fade to Black,” where Jimmy Church is the host. It’s on Art Bell’s “Dark Matter Radio Network,” where I was also a guest several months ago. I have since called in twice to the program, both times to discuss the possibility of debating Mike Bara on some of his claims.

The very brief backstory on that is Mike was on Coast to Coast, and basically attacked me. I called in, George said he’d arrange a debate, then stopped responding to my e-mails. A year later, the same thing happened, and George actually e-mailed me (I couldn’t call in because I lost power that night — happens sometimes in the mountains of Colorado, though we now have a generator), he wanted to arrange a debate, he claimed on air that I had stopped responding to his e-mails … and then he stopped responding to mine so the debate never happened. Later, I learned that it was Mike who may have dropped his acceptance. I related that to Jimmy.

Jimmy asked Mike if he’d be willing to debate me, and Mike’s response was effectively, “what do I get out of it?” Mike opined that what I (Stuart) would get out of it is a platform and attention which, according to Mike, I so desperately want (or maybe that’s Michael Horn’s claim about me … I get some of what each says is my motivation a bit confused). Meanwhile, Mike already has attention, so he said that he wouldn’t get anything out of it and therefore didn’t want to do it. Jimmy countered that it would make great radio (which I agree with).

I did call in, but unfortunately Mike got dropped when Jimmy tried to bring me in. It was the last 10 minutes of the program, anyway, so I told Jimmy what I thought we both (me and Mike) would get out of it: We would each have to back up what we say, and when challenged, it forces us in a radio setting to make our arguments concise, easily understandable, and actually back up what we’re saying.

That’s what we do in science: We have to back up what we say. We expect to get challenged, we expect to have people doubt our work, we expect to have people check our work, and we expect people to challenge our conclusions. Only the best ideas that can stand up to such scrutiny survive. That’s how science progresses. That’s where pseudoscience fails. Science is not a democracy, and it is not a communistic system where every idea is the same and equal as every other idea. It’s a meritocracy. Only the ideas that have merit, that stand up to scrutiny, survive.

The point of science is to develop a model of how the world works. If your model clearly does not describe how the world works and make successful predictions (and have repeatable evidence and have evidence that actually stands up to scrutiny), then it gets dropped.

Final Thoughts

I hope you found these musings at least mildly interesting. And let me know if you agree or disagree. Challenge my ideas, but if you do so, make sure you back them up!

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January 1, 2012

Podcast Episode 17: Gregg Braden and Data Mining


Quick post for a new Gregorian calendar year: Episode 17 of my podcast is now posted. This is a ~31-minute episode that focuses on two of the claims of Gregg Braden (which you may remember from this blog post about 45 days ago). I also use it as a case-study for the fallacious way of arguing known as “data mining.”

October 14, 2011

The New-Age Conspiratorial World of Gregg Braden


Introduction

I started listening to Coast to Coast AM somewhat regularly when I started to “get into” modern science-based skepticism. I wanted to know what the “true-believers” thought and to learn about all sorts of ideas that are out there. Often, the ideas are anti-“establishment,” which is why they are a supporter of Ron Paul or “alternative medicine.” Often they’re “new-agey.” Sometimes they’re both.

Sometimes they’re so over the top that you have a difficult time believing people actually think that. Sometimes the people on the show (often, actually) will distort the actual facts to support their claims. Sometimes they will make them up.

This long rambling introduction is to point out all of the things that various C2C guests bring. The one I’m going to discuss here brings in all of them. This is a somewhat long post, but there is a lot to say about Gregg Braden. If you’re wondering who this person is, I’m not going to give a short bio section, rather I’m going to illustrate his views through time throughout this post, like dipping a candle in successive colors.

Through Time

I first got curious about this person last weekend when I was looking at the C2C schedule for the week ahead and saw he was on. I did a search through the ~135 gigabytes of episodes I have of C2C for the past two decades. His name popped up not infrequently, so I started to listen to him starting with his 1999 interview conducted by Art Bell. (Note that he had been on earlier shows, at least dating back to 1992, but I do not have those.)

I listened to about 16 hours of interview, and then I re-listened to about half of them to pull out the quotes and points I wanted to use for this (and maybe an eventual podcast).

The “Early” Years – Pre-2001

Okay, technically I only had one episode from February 5, 1999, and then the next was in 2006. But based on later material, things changed for Braden in the few years after Sept. 11, 2001. I’ll talk about that later.

During this earlier time, Braden comes off as your standard new-agey anti-establishment person: Darwinism is evil, consciousness rules. There really wasn’t much unique about his message.

He was an avid advocate of “free energy” devices, claimed there was copious evidence that our DNA was currently evolving rapidly even though he doesn’t “believe” in evolution, that through consciousness we can “activate junk DNA” and do kewl stuff, and generally ranted for four whole hours on how scientists won’t let the “real” knowledge out to the general public. Fairly run-of-the mill, really.

May 6, 2006 Interview

In this interview, I noticed something of a shift in Braden’s attitude. While he was still hawking his books and advocating his ideas, he seemed to have shifted more towards alleged evidence for his claims and “research” he was doing. This was much more evident in the later interviews (next section).

January 6, 2008 Interview

Now we really got into the idea of “let’s throw out some sciencey stuff that sounds more real than what I peddled a decade ago” (no, he didn’t actually say that, that was my impression).

He makes a few interesting claims. The first I noted down is during hour 2 of the program at 17 minutes into the hour, he states that Nature (one of the top science journals in the world) published a study by Silvertooth in volume 322, August 26, 1986, page 590. It’s actually August 14, but I’ll forgive that. (Here’s the “study,” subscription required.) Problem is that this was not an article Nature “published,” it’s a letter that they included that spans less than 1/3 of a page. In it, Ernest W. Silvertooth claims to have conducted an experiment that proved there is an “ether” through which light propagates, disproving General Relativity, and the famous Michelson-Morley Experiment (conducted where I got my undergraduate degree … a century earlier).

Interesting. It’s a letter to the editor. Not peer-reviewed. Silvertooth’s name shows up on Anti-Relativity.com. And the only way he got a paper out is by publishing it himself. And yet Braden claims this is undeniable proof that scientists won’t let the secrets of the universe out and that this guy irrefutably showed that the standard ideas are not real.

However, he takes this a step further to say that the “ether” is not just a medium through which light travels, rather it’s the general consciousness field in which we all exist.

Later in the interview, in hour 3, starting at 8:25 in, he states:

“What our own science has found is that our heart is the strongest electrical field generator in the body, and it is the strongest magnetic field generator in the body, and the reason that’s important is our physical world hinges largely on electric and magnetic fields. … [In atoms,] if we change EITHER the electric or magnetic field, we can change and influence the way that atom behaves, and our heart creates BOTH, not just one or the other. …

“(9:37) And this is why feelings in our heart are so much more powerful than thoughts in our mind, because our own science now is telling us that our heart creates electrical fields that are 60-100x stronger than the fields of our brain. … And magnetic fields 5000x stronger from our heart than those of the brain, and that explains to us why thoughts aren’t as powerful … and it’s much easier to heal and create peace and alter our physical reality from our hearts than it is through our thoughts, and our hearts are where we have the feelings, and the beliefs, that communicate with this field and connects everything.”

Got all that? I warned you he’s a new-ager. But he made some specific statements. The easy first one to check on is the field strength of the heart and brain. According to this source, the brain’s value is on the order of 0.1-1.0 pT, or picoTesla (10-12 = 1 pico). And according to this source, the strength of the heart is around 10 pT. So he’s sorta right in his first statement that at the extremes, the heart’s magnetic field at the surface of the body is 100x stronger than the brain’s. But not 5000x as he states a few sentences later. And it bears mentioning that Earth’s field is on the order of 10-4 T at Earth’s surface, or 107 times stronger than the human heart’s as measured from the surface of the body.

He also was talking about how magnetic and electric fields are different, which I really don’t want to get into in this post, but basically he’s stretching the truth.

The kicker comes about 14 minutes 55 seconds into the episode where he states:

“This is how science is kinda backing into the fact that we are connected with our world. They’re seeing that the human heart – literally – can change the physical stuff our physical world is made of through this electric and magnetic fields. And they’re also finding that we’re literally tuned to layers of the atmosphere of the Earth through these fields.”

Yeah. Please show your work.

March 17, 2009 Interview

At this point, he is invested more fully in the idea of his Institute of HeartMath and Global Coherence project and he starts to bring in alleged evidence for his claims. This was where I really got interested, and frankly it’s about the only part that really gets into the topics I discuss on this blog (astronomy, physics, geology).

Its within these that he adopts the standard “amateur science” motif that we ridicule in skepticism: He misinterprets basic data and misrepresents other data (one could call it lying, but that implies I actually know that he knew he was doing these things, and I don’t — at the very least, he is sorely mistaken and data-mines).

I already addressed the whole atom an magnetic field and electric field and heart-brain fields with the 2006 interview. And evolution with the 1999 interview. He also talks about 2012 in this one, but there’s really nothing new he contributes to the mythos so I don’t want to go into it here.

He also makes a specific reference to another Nature paper about the Milky Way’s black hole and energy shooting towards us, saying it’s by “Rhode and Miller” in volume 434, October 2004. Problem is that volume 434 is for March-April 2005, and October 2004 is in volume 431. I searched all and could not find it. So much for that.

He even carries on again with a basic rant 15 minutes in about how the ancients knew everything and we know nothing. But I’m not going to go into that, either

Nay, the one I want to talk about here comes from this rather lengthy quote from the March 17, 2009 interview:

“2001, scientists were measuring the geomagnetic field of the Earth, from two satellites, one int he Northern Hemisphere, one in the Southern Hemisphere, called GOES … . Every 30 minutes they send back a signal that tells the strength of the magnetic field … and it fluctuates, but it’s always within this range. And in 2001, all of a sudden, there was a big spike in this field, and scientists said, ‘Well, you know, what happened to the magnetic field of the Earth to create this change?’ They overlaid the data onto the calendar, and it’s probably no surprise to our listeners, that the date was Sept. 11, 2001. And it was 15 minutes after the first plane struck the first tower in the World Trade Center that the magnetic fields of the Earth showed this big spike. …

“That led to a series of studies that showed that it was the collective emotions of humans on this planet that had such a profound effect on the magnetic field of the Earth that our satellites, 22,000 miles above the surface, detected this change, and these scientists said, ‘Woah! That means that we are literally … part of the field that sustains the life on Earth.’ That led to a series of experiments that showed that when many people learn to create this quality of emotion inside of their hearts that the magnetic fields of the Earth convey this change to all life on Earth, and that is what I think the opportunity of our time in history is all about.”

In fact, he has this in print, in his book Fractal Time a short excerpt I found on scribd.com:

“September 2001, two geostationary operational environmental satellites (GOES) orbiting the earth detected a rise in global magnetism that forever changed the way scientists view our world and us. The GOES-8 and GOES-10 each showed a powerful spike of Earth’s magnetic-field strength in the readings they broadcast every 30 minutes. It was the magnitude of the spikes and the time they occurred that first called them to the scientists’ attention.

“From a location of about 22,300 miles above the equator, GOES-8 detected the first surge, followed by an upward trend in the readings that topped out at nearly 50 units (nanoteslas) higher than any that had been typical for the same time previously. The time was 9a.m. eastern standard time, 15 minutes after the first plane hit the World Trade Center and about 15 minutes before the second impact.”

Yes, those were long. The bottom-line claim here is that Earth’s magnetic field was altered by human emotion during the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York City. This is similar to claims by the Global Consciousness Project, but different. The nice thing is that this is highly objective data that’s easy to find and check. Which I did. I even contacted the institution that runs the GOES to get a bit of help and information (thanks to Dan Wilkinson and Ted Haberman).

For brief background, GOES are and have been many different satellites, and they are periodically launched and decommissioned as one wears out and technology advances. We’re now on GOES 11 and 13 as the main two, though GOES 12, 14, and 15 are in orbit. In September 2001, GOES 8 and 10 were in operation (it looks like there were some issues with GOES 11 at that time).

These satellites orbit at about 6.6 Earth radii from the planet, and our magnetic field extends to about 10 Earth radii, so it is correct that they can measure the magnetic field, and they do contain instruments to measure magnetic fields at their location. Though they send back data that’s binned in 5-minute intervals, not 30-minute intervals.

The data that Braden and others present at their Global Coherence Institute is the exact image below (I’m directing to their web site so you know I’m not making it up).

Global Coherence Image for GOES Data on Sept. 11, 2001

Global Coherence Image for GOES Data on Sept. 11, 2001

Looks kinda interesting. The field is varying between about 50 and 125 nT (nanoTeslas) in the four days leading up to Sept. 11, 2001, and then it spikes to 173 nT as seen from one satellite and 153 nT as seen from another. Then it seems to vary slightly more than it had in the few days after. Do we have something here? Are they making these data up?

Actually, they’re not. The data do show that spike. You can view it for yourself here for GOES 8 or here for GOES 10.

So now the logical question in evaluating this claim is, “They’re showing a week-long window. What does the field look like at other times? What’s the normal variability?” And let’s avoid any idea they might claim of contamination from the craziness of that month.

To answer that, I chose a random month and I skipped back to June 2001. The data I show below (all data is on that site, specifically downloaded from here) show that the normal variations for the magnetic field are about 60-125 nT (so that agrees with the Sept. 2001 baseline), but in this random month of June, there were spikes all the way up to 186 nT (higher than Sept. 11, 2001 by about 15 nT). Hmm.

GOES Magnetic Data, June 2001

GOES Magnetic Data, June 2001

In fact, since I have the data in my grubby little hands, I can actually do some basic statistics. The average from GOES 8 during June 2001 was 113 nT, and from GOES 10 it was 97 nT. The standard deviations were ±10.6 and ±14.6 nT, respectively. In September 2001, the averages and standard deviations were 109±14.2 nT and 95±20 nT. So they agree with each other. September 2001 was not an odd month at all.

I then chose a different random month and year, January 1998 (the Global Consciousness Project people would probably say they’d expect at least two significant events during this month, one for the new US Congress taking office and one for New Year’s Day). Or November 2007. Both of those months’ data are displayed below. The maxima were 173 for GOES 9 in January 1998 (but a minimum of only 22 nT!) and 188 nT in November 2007 with GOES 11 (there was some data drop-out in the last week of the month from GOES 10).

GOES Magnetic Data, January 1998

GOES Magnetic Data, January 1998

GOES Magnetic Data, November 2007

GOES Magnetic Data, November 2007

The inescapable conclusion at this point is – as I said before – at best it’s “window-shopping” or data-mining. At worst it’s willful deceit of their audience. As is clearly shown by these data, the September 11, 2001, “spike” in Earth’s magnetic field is not an abnormal “spike,” but rather we see fluctuations even larger than that several times a month.

Final Thoughts

This actually brings me back a bit to what I consider “fair game” in terms of skepticism and this blog. I’m okay if you want to be a creationist, a UFO believer, a new-ager, or whatever (so long as you don’t try to force your beliefs on me). But when you actually start to point towards observable, checkable evidence for your claims, it’s totally fair game. And as I’ve shown here, Braden would be much better off sticking to his random new-agey claims than trying to use science to back them up.

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