Exposing PseudoAstronomy

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

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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 9, 2015

Podcast Episode 136 – How Science Journalists Go from Scientists to the Public (#NewHorizons)


Media embeds
On New Horizons describe
Good commun’cation.

I was able to sit down with one of the public outreach and one of the science journalists who are embedded with NASA’s New Horizons mission. I had a very brief conversation with them about how they work to convey what we give them into something that the public can easily consume and get excited about.

It’s a very brief (bonus) episode, but I think it’s very topical, and it’s something that I’ve been curious about.

On a personal note, one of the people on the interview – Ron Cowen – is a man whose work I grew up reading on the pages of Science News. It was neat to finally meet him. And so’s not to be lopsided, the other person, David Aguilar, has been incredibly generous with his time when I’ve had questions or wanted to get involved with the public outreach efforts, making time to talk with me when he easily could (and sometimes, probably should) have told me that he was too busy.

July 1, 2015

Podcast Episode 135: How New Horizons Takes Photographs, Interview with Dr. John Spencer #NewHorizons


How New Horizons’
Imaging team works with the
Spacecraft photographs.

You asked for it, you got it: A podcast episode about the New Horizons spacecraft mission to Pluto. If I was going to do an episode, I wanted it to be something that you’re not going to get from NASA, not going to get from a random website about the mission or the cameras … something different and unique.

I think we did that with this episode, which is an interview with Dr. John Spencer who has been one of the primary mission planners, is co-deputy of the geology science team, and leads the search for hazards. We recorded this on June 01, but none of it is out of date other than speculation about new moons or rings – or any hazards – found. As you know from press releases, none have been found as this goes to press, though as this goes out, John Spencer and his team are actively working on the latest batch of data to be downlinked from the craft to search for more.

Anyway, the episode focuses on image processing – real image processing – and how we work with spacecraft data, and we touch a little bit on image-based conspiracies and how we’re at least going to try to not give conspiracy theorists their standard, easy ammunition (like painting over image anomalies to give a pure black area so they can claim “NASA is blacking out part of their images!!!”).

I’m hoping to bring you at least another one or two episodes about New Horizons, but we’ll see. There should be at least one more episode to come out in July despite me being home only 8 days of the month.

Disclaimer: While I am involved in the New Horizons mission, my podcast work (and anything branded under “Exposing PseudoAstronomy”) is completely separate from my work efforts. The views and opinions expressed on this episode are completely my own and don’t reflect NASA, other mission personnel, nor Southwest Research Institute.

June 2, 2015

Podcast Episode 133: Element 115 and the Credibility of Bob Lazar’s Claims


Ununpentium’s
Existence: Does it save Bob
Lazar’s U’FO claims?

A return to the roots of the podcast: A simple exploration of a claim, and what was found. Sort of. The first third of the episode is a look into the story of Bob Lazar, a man who is often credited (in part) with re-invigorating the UFO community in the late 1980s / early 1990s. It’s important for context, because embedded within that story is a general lack of credibility for his claims.

Enter element 115, which when it was discovered in 2003, became a rallying point for Bob Lazar’s supporters: The very existence of something that had not yet been discovered when Bob Lazar made the claim, means that his claims must be true. We see this a lot of times in the UFO field, but I really focused in this episode on this specific claim and the specific set of claims about element 115 made by Bob Lazar, before its “mainstream” discovery.

This episode does get a little technical because I talk about some basic particle physics, but I think it’s on par with most of my other episodes in terms of technical jargon and concepts.

And, that’s about it. There’s a short logical fallacy segment, where I ask your help in identifying the main logical fallacy for the episode, which I’ll then discuss next time.

It’s also important to note that the podcast is on Stitcher, and I should’ve checked my stats before I mentioned them at the end of the episode: I’m now on 33 peoples’ playlists and I’m ranked in the 3000s, not on 22 peoples’ playlists and ranked in the 5000s. Not bad for only being entered in late March and not doing much to promote it.

May 26, 2015

Podcast Episode 132 – In Search Of Planet X (Live from Denver ComicCon)


In Search: Planet X.
An overview of common
Ideas about it.

This episode is another recording of one of my live presentations, modeled a little after Leonard Nimoy’s “In Search Of” television series. It was presented in front of a live audience at the Denver ComicCon on May 24, 2015, to about 75-100 people. I was bordered on two sides by other sessions that had more people and a lot of laughter, so I played to that a little bit when there were opportune moments. I also suffered a minor A/V issue in the middle but recovered, so you’ll hear some fumbling there.

Unfortunately, there is also some popping that comes in about 10 minutes into the recording. I exploited all the filters that I know of in my Audacity toolkit, and they are less of an issue than they were, but they are definitely present.

I also need to announce that it is that time of year when work is going to get crazy, so episodes may come out a little less regularly, especially during July. I’m still going to keep to the two per month schedule, but they may not be out on exactly the first and sixteenth of the month.

And with that in mind, I have to head to the airport in 45 minutes for more work, after just being back home for 3.5 days. So …

May 9, 2015

The Reality Check Podcast Episode 348 – Me on Exoplanets, Others on Other Stuff


Episode 348 of “The Reality Check,” a weekly Canadian podcast that explores a wide range of scientific controversies and curiosities using science and critical thinking, is posted, and I take the first (and longest) of the three segments, where I discuss exoplanets.

I was originally contacted to discuss this topic because the hosts had some skepticism about the hype that we get every few weeks or months about how we are just on the verge of discovering an Earth-like exoplanet. The issue is that “Earth-like” can have a lot of different requirements and qualifications: Do you mean Earth-sized? Earth-like orbit? Habitable zone around the star? Atmosphere like ours? Etc.

Unfortunately, for my linear thinking, that meant I had to spend about 20 minutes going through an overview of how we find exoplanets, what the limitations are of each technique, and what information about the planet each technique can give us, and how different techniques and follow-up observations can be used to give complementary information (for example, if you detect an exoplanet using the transit method, you can use the radial velocity method to get the mass of the planet, and if you detect an atmosphere with the transit method, you could use spectroscopy with the Hubble Space Telescope to measure the atmosphere’s composition).

And for the record, when I practiced the segment without interruptions, it was 11 minutes. It stretched into almost 30 minutes on the show. And for regular listeners of TRC, you should recognize a quote from former-host Elan (I think) that I incorporated into the end of my segment.

It was toward the end that I finally got to the question about whether media reporting is hype. And, to put it concisely: Yes. But with that said, we really do, at this point, finally have the technology to detect an Earth-sized planet (and have) in an Earth-like orbit (have not) with potentially an Earth-like atmosphere (have not, and this tech may not *quite* be there, but if it isn’t, it’s close).

I haven’t listened to it yet, but of course I was there when it was being recorded, and I don’t remember embarrassing myself too much. They do tend to all talk more slowly, though, when recording at 1x versus how I listen to podcasts at about 1.2–1.3x. Also, three of the 4 outtakes (they have outtakes at the end of the show) are things I said or contributed — I guess I was humorous (or humourous? since it’s Canadian?).

I will add that doing a panel show is VERY different from doing a monologue as is my normal podcast. Or even doing an interview on the podcast. The dynamics are (obviously) completely different, and you almost have to build in pauses to what you’re talking about in case of questions from others. I think I stepped over some people, too. For example, there was one point maybe half-way through my segment where I stopped and asked if anyone was there because I wanted to make sure my internet connection (and theirs’) was still up since we had been having issues. They were all there, but then there were something like 3-4 questions that they asked because they had just been developing while I was talking and not pausing enough to let them ask.

If they’re kind enough to invite me back, I’ll keep this in mind and build that in. And work more at editing myself down.

Oh yes— There were two other segments. One was a guessing game as to “which came first,” while the other segment was about whether you should plan to visit Israel last if you go to the Middle East because other countries won’t let you in if you have an Israeli stamp in your passport.

May 2, 2015

Podcast Episode 131 – Clip Show #3: Blood Moons, Ceres’ Bright Spots, MESSENGER’s Death, and Funding in Science Follow-Up


Blood moons, science cash,
And spacecraft conspiracies
Are topics du jour.

Clip Show #3 is a big catch-up on several miscellaneous topics: The latest lunar eclipse, Ceres’ mysterious bright spots, MESSENGER’s death plunge into Mercury, and a large follow-up to episode 126 which was my interview with Dr. Pamela Gay about funding in science. This episode also had a logical fallacy section – cherry picking and anomaly hunting – and a feedback/Q&A about whether NASA has created a Warp Drive, and finally my long-foreshadowed tribute to Leonard Nimoy, with how he or his characters influenced myself and you in some way.

There’s really not too much else to say about this episode. The next one will likely by about Big Bang Denial (along similar lines to episode 125 about Black Hole Denial and a future one about Dark Matter Denial). And, this Friday/Saturday, I should be back on “The Reality Check” podcast discussing exoplanets and that we’ve been on the cusp of detecting an Earth-like planet … for many years.

April 16, 2015

Podcast Episode 130: Dealing with Pseudoscience at Scientific Conferences (and #LPSC2015)


The Iv’ry Tower
Of science: Who can get in,
And who remains out?

Second in the three-part series: Have you ever wondered how decisions are made about who can and who cannot present at a scientific conference? Then listen to this episode! I interviewed Dr. Dave Draper, who chairs the program selection committee for the largest annual planetary science conference in the world. We talked about a lot of things, from the basics on the (incredibly minimal) requirements of submitting a presentation request to how decisions are made. We also discussed a few hypotheticals using real-world examples of pseudoscience that I’ve talked about on the blog and podcast.

The episode, like most of my interviews have been, is nearly an hour long, but I found it an interesting discussion and learned some things, so hopefully you will, too. There were not other segments in this episode, though I did do a follow-up because of what happened to air on Coast to Coast that evening, a mere 12 hours after Dave and I had finished recording, and it led me to disagree with him at least a bit on one point.

The next episode is going to be a bit of a catch-up on things that have been piling up since I started the Hale-Bopp saga back in March. I’ll do a bit of pseudoscience with whether or not the lunar eclipse we had in April was really a full one – and implications for the “Blood Moon” crapola – a lot of feedback including discussion about some points raised by Pamela Gay in episode 130, and the Leonard Nimoy tribute.

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.

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