Exposing PseudoAstronomy

March 9, 2018

Even Science Reporters Are Circumventing Scientific Process

I study impact craters (those circle thingies on other planets, moons, asteroids, comets, etc.). A colleague recently pointed out a manuscript to me that demonstrated a new method to do something with craters. (I’m being purposely vague here to protect the situation.) It was an interesting manuscript, but it was submitted to an open archive (arxiv.org) where anyone can submit pretty much anything that seems sciencey. It has not been through the peer-review process.

Peer-review is not perfect. I’ve written about it before on this blog and discussed it on my podcast. But the purpose of peer-review is to weed out stuff that is obviously wrong. Things that may seem good to a general researcher, but to someone else who really knows the field, it clearly has issues. Other purposes of peer-review are to make sure the work is placed in proper context (usually by citing the reviewers’ works, but that’s a separate issue), making sure that the authors of the manuscript have explained themselves well, that their methods make sense, that they have explored alternative interpretations of their data, etc. In other words, do science “right.” Where “right” is in quotes because there is no formal set of rules by which one must play, but there are general guidelines and important pillars which people should uphold.

After it passes peer-review – if it passes peer-review – then it may be accepted by a journal and published. Some stuff that gets through peer-review is great. Some stuff is utter crap because the process isn’t perfect and because we don’t know everything, and the prevailing scientific opinion can shift with new information.

That is upended in today’s cut-throat world of journalism and a desire to be the first to publish about something that seems new and interesting.

I was contacted yesterday by a freelance reporter for the publication New Scientist. I’m not going to say the reporter’s name, but I have no qualms stating the publication. The reporter, coincidentally, wanted me to comment on the manuscript that had been submitted to arxiv.org. I refused. Here is what I wrote:

Thank you for writing. I am generally happy to comment about crater papers, and I would be happy to comment on this manuscript should it be accepted by the peer-review process. My concern at the moment is that the manuscript is only on an open server to which anyone can submit and it has not been vetted by researchers in the field beyond the authors themselves. The authors also used [specifics redacted] which have some significant omissions, and how that affects their results needs to be assessed by people who know all the ins and outs of their methods, which is not me.

I strongly recommend that you refrain from publishing about this work until it has made it through the peer-review process. It is easy to get excited about new techniques, but at the moment, it has not been vetted by other experts in the field, such that I think writing about it now is premature.

The reporter responded that I had a valid concern, he appreciated my advice, and he would discuss it with his editor.

Then just a few minutes ago, I heard from another friend in the field that she had been asked to comment for the story. She is taking a similar approach, which I greatly appreciate.

But this identifies, to me, a significant problem that those in both the scientific community and skeptic community have pointed out for years: Journalists don’t seem to care about vetting the science about which they write. Now, this could be an isolated example of an over-zealous reporter given the “OK” by their editor. Except it’s not. Too often we see articles about work just at the very edge of the field that offers great marvels and promises, only to hear nothing more from it because it was all based on extraordinarily preliminary efforts. Craters aren’t going to affect your daily life. But the issue here is a symptom of a greater problem. And I think that only if scientists and the reading public demand that reporters stop doing this will we see any sort of change.


September 24, 2017

Podcast Episode 164: The World Didn’t End on September 23, 2017

Doomsday yet again!
The story of this one, though,
Has a surprise end.

A much shorter episode this time, announcing what you already know: We survived doomsday, again (yay!). But, the story of this particular doomsday claim may surprise you — it did me. But I could be wrong, so please let me know if you have additional information beyond what I found (listen to the episode for more of what I’m talking about).

Meanwhile, this is either a bonus episode or the episode for the second half of September. I haven’t decided yet because I’m not sure if I can get out another episode before the beginning of October. My 10-day vacation in Utah was great, but it requires a lot of catch-up at work.

There are no additional segments.

Gallifrey in the Skies of Earth (from Doctor Who episode S04E18)

Gallifrey in the Skies of Earth (from Doctor Who episode S04E18)

September 1, 2017

Podcast Episode 163: Modern Eclipse Lunacy, Part 1

Solar Eclipses:
Even in the modern day,
Lunacy exists.

Back and pumping out a 42-minute episode on some of the crazy surrounding the recent lunar eclipse, crazy that you’re not going to hear from other sources. This past eclipse on August 21, 2017, was perhaps one of the most-hyped and most-viewed solar eclipses in human history. As with any such mass-sighted event, pseudoscience is bound to rear its ugly head. In this episode, I address doom and gloom, earthquake predictions, astrologic predictions, Planet X predictions, and other topics related to the eclipse.

There’s one additional segment, and that’s about where I’ve been (literally).

Solar Eclipse from August 21, 2017 (©Stuart Robbins)

Solar Eclipse from August 21, 2017 (©Stuart Robbins)

November 6, 2016

Podcast Episode 151: The Fake Story of Planet X, Part X – Nancy Leider Redux and Planet Nine Claims of 2016

Nancy Leider: Still
Claiming Planet X will kill.
But … what’s “Planet Nine”?

Yet another Planet X episode, this time addressing one of the originators of the doom-and-gloom mythos for Planet X, Nancy Leider. I also use Nancy Leider’s latest claims as a springboard to talk about some of the real science announcements, papers, and headlines that have been in 2016 about possible (real) additional planets in our solar system.

There is only one very brief additional segment in this episode, keeping it at just a little over 30 minutes long.

Distant Planet Artistic Rendering

Distant Planet Artistic Rendering

October 4, 2016

Podcast Episode 149: Modern Flat-Earth Thought, Part 2 (U.N. Flag and Airplane Flights)

“Modern Flat Earth Thought”
On maps, flags, and airplane flights …
Does it make sense? No.

Back to the flat Earth, this time discussing map projections and the United Nations flag, and then how some flat Earth proponents use and abuse airplane flight paths to argue that the planet is flat and looks just like the United Nations flag. I want to thank Michael R. (@SkepticalBelg on Twitter) for for reviewing and making several corrections to my text on how the airline industry works.

This was a particularly long episode, nearly a full hour. I also recorded this in a hotel room, and it sounds like I was too close to the microphone and at an angle at times and the room echoed, so my apologies for the audio quality in this episode. It was still better than the audio in the last episode, which was recorded on a phone outside, but it’s not perfect.

There are three additional short segments in this episode, the first being logical fallacies (detailing the argument against antiquity), second being feedback (the correction(s) from Episode 147), and the announcement to thank Michael.

Flat Earth Graphic

Flat Earth Graphic

September 26, 2016

Podcast Episode 148: (BONUS) X-Rays from Pluto

Does discovering
X-rays from Pluto change all
We know and hold dear?

First interview episode since The Return, an interview about the discovery of x-rays coming from the vicinity of Pluto. I talk with one of the main authors of the paper announcing the observation of x-rays from Pluto, and we discussed why the find is not severely unexpected, and while it’s interesting it is not something that is completely unexplained. In fact, there’s a very good, natural explanation.

As what was intended to be a 5-10 minute interview ended up running about 50 minutes. Hopefully it was worth it. Note that this was recorded really ad hoc, outside on a university campus, using both an iPod Touch and Samsung Galaxy S5. Interestingly, the iPod performed better relative to noise, but it had a low-end filter; the Samsung had a high-end filter. Therefore, I lined up the audio precisely and combined both so you get better audio, and I tried to lower the relative intensity of each recording if one was picking up the wind more than the other.

There are no additional segments in this episode.

I hope that you enjoy this episode.


September 14, 2016

Podcast 146: BONUS: Tracking Failed Planet X Predictions of Marshall Masters

Marshall Masters’ doom
And gloom from Planet X, is
Wrong, false, fake, and dumb.

This is a “bonus” episode which was originally going to be short but ended up being nearly 20 minutes. I document every Coast to Coast AM interview that Marshall Masters has ever given (since late 2011, plus one from 2003) and pulled out clips where he specifically put a time table for when Planet X and doom and gloom would strike. Each time, it’s about a year away. Each time, he’s wrong. Why should his interview from 13 hours ago be any different? And at what point does the interviewer have a responsibility to hold him accountable?

Gallifrey in the Skies of Earth (from Doctor Who episode S04E18)

Gallifrey in the Skies of Earth (from Doctor Who episode S04E18)

September 5, 2016

Podcast Episode 145: Modern Flat Earth “Thought,” Part 1

“Modern Flat Earth Thought”
Might be a contradiction
Of terms, but let’s see!

Back from hiatus, a roughly 45-minute episode on a few ideas promoted by the very new (since about 2014) breed of flat-Earth proponents. I go into depth on human perception and then focus on both Earth’s curvature and the overall shape of the planet. This Part 1 exclusively features clips from Eric Dubay, but future episodes will include other luminaries in the movement.

There are three other segments beyond the main one: Logical Fallacy (focusing on the False Dichotomy), Feedback (from James F. related to the Ringmakers of Saturn by Norman Bergrun), and a brief announcement.

For those returning listeners, thank you for sticking with the podcast through the very long hiatus. For those new listeners, thanks for checking it out.

I hope that you enjoy this episode.

Recent Guest Spots (@trc_podcast and @dissonance_pod) and the Return of the Podcast, Slightly Delayed

This past week, I was a guest on two podcasts.

First off, Episode 413 of The Reality Check included me in their middle segment (sandwiched between helium-infused beer and whether Scrooge McDuck could really swim through money … yeah, I don’t know, how they pick these, either). I was primarily on to talk about the new exoplanet discovery around Proxima Centauri. I also updated the crew about New Horizons and we briefly talked about the non- but very much hyped-signal from possible ETs that is really really stupid (failure on all parts in this one, both the media and the astronomers involved, in my opinion).

Second, I was a guest on Episode 313 of Cognitive Dissonance to discuss Chapter 12 of David Icke’s 1999 book, “The Biggest Secret.” They were incredibly generous and even named their episode, “Exposing Pseudoastronomy.” The segment is from 27:30 to 53:15 on the podcast (mentioning this because their podcasts tend to run over an hour, while TRC is 27-28 minutes these days).

From this appearance, first, a warning: The podcast is explicit. They have a disclaimer up front for a reason. I tend to not be a very explicit person (it’s not just an act I put on for my podcast), but the segment (and very much the rest of the show) is not something I’d recommend for family listening (as opposed to TRC or my own podcast). Second, the sense of humor of the hosts is not for everyone. My housemate can’t stand it. My parents enjoy it. Your mileage may vary.

And finally, from the Cognitive Dissonance appearance, I asked to discuss chapter 12 because it seemed to have content most similar to what I talk about on this blog and my podcast, specifically a section on the hollow earth idea. We barely talked about that (as in, this was not an interview about the science and pseudoscience of the hollow earth). But, because I put in so much effort (and took so many notes!!) on Mr. Icke’s claims in this chapter, I expect to have an episode of my own podcast dedicated to his claims on the hollow Earth, potentially within a month.

Which gets me to the second part of this post, my podcast. I had fully intended – and hinted, and explicitly stated to several people – to relaunch the podcast on September 1. And then, last Monday, August 29, I got sick with strep throat. And then after starting antibiotics on Tuesday, I scratched my throat eating something I shouldn’t have on Wednesday; combined with canker sores, let’s just say that my mouth has not been conducive to recording a podcast this past week (I’m sure this is TMI). That said, yesterday (Sunday) morning was the first better morning in several days, and today is better, too. I expect to record soon – possibly later today – and do another episode for September 16, resuming the twice a month cadence. Soon …

August 4, 2016

Face on Mars, Face on Hawaii – Pareidolia is Real, Get Over It

News this week that hasn’t been political has included information about Hawaii’s volcanoes finally spilling lava into the ocean again, for the first time in several years. And, a video of one of the calderas has been making the rounds, uploaded to Vimeo and shot by Mick Kalber.

Volcano in Hawaii, USA, Showing a Smiling Paredolia (Mick Kalber)

Volcano in Hawaii, USA, Showing a Smiling Paredolia (Mick Kalber)

One of the main ways this has become viral is pareidolia at work, with headlines such as “Hawaiian Volcano Smiles at Photographer” and such other whimsical things.

Obviously, the volcano, caldera, and lava are not smiling. It’s the human brain trying to make a familiar pattern out of randomness. Which it very happily does. Visually, it’s generic pareidolia. If it were audio noise and you thought you heard something (the ghost hunter’s infamous “EVP” or Electronic Voice Phenomenon), that would be audio pareidolia.

Everyone does it. And yet, there are still some noted pseudoscientists have consistently refused to believe that it’s real. After all, almost their entire repertoire of claims would be blasted away if they admitted that a bit of the right shade here and a bit of the right shade there and something random will appear to be something familiar.

The phenomenon of pareidolia is real. Get over it.

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