Exposing PseudoAstronomy

April 1, 2011

April Fools: A Serious Post for the Day


Introduction

In the past, I’ve had a bit of obvious fun on April 1 with my posts, such as last year’s where I explained how I had seen the light and was giving up science. And apparently it wasn’t too obvious to all that I was joking, as Michael Horn apparently thought I was serious.

Anyway, this year I thought I would use the day to look over several ideas and concepts that I address on this blog or that, in general, the modern skeptical movement takes issue with. The purpose of this is that, often, people who believe in any of these topics will claim that skeptics can’t have their pet idea be true because it would upset their worldview, destroy everything they “believe” in, etc. On the contrary, I would absolutely love for many of these things to be true. Let’s take a look …

Near-Death Experiences, Spirit Contacts, Ghosts

Any and all of these things, if real (and by “real” for NDEs I mean they actually cannot be explained by biology), would mean that there is some form of existence after we die in this one. Seriously, I would be delighted if this were true. I don’t care what people say about how I can’t have this be true because it would mean there’s accountability, or that I can’t just do anything in this life ’cause I’d be reincarnated as a cockroach, or whatever.

Living for maybe 75 years and then ceasing to exist is a scary thought. Occasionally late at night, it crops up in my mind and I get freaked out. But that doesn’t mean that I believe that there is a form of existence after this one. I see no hard, reproducible evidence for it, and all the purported evidence that people have put forth is generally easily refuted (especially when we’re talking about ghosts and mediums).

But I would love it to be true. I asked a friend of mine once what he believed and he unabashedly said he was an atheist. As did his wife, who had grown up in some form of Christianity in a very conservative town. I asked her why, and if that meant she didn’t believe in life after death, either. She explained the usual reasons, but then it was this that got me: “No, I don’t think there’s life after death. But believe me, if someone were taking a vote and if I had any say in the matter, I would vote ‘yes.'”

I agree: If I have a vote in the matter of whether there will be a life after this one, I would vote “yes, I want there to be one.” But do I actually believe there is one? No.

Present-Day Visitation by UFOs and Aliens

In what you’ll quickly discover is a theme with this post, I think this would be cool, assuming of course some sort of benevolence as opposed to an Independence Day style of alien invasion. More Vulcans, less Borg. But do I think that tiny light in the sky that I happen to not be able to explain at the moment is an alien craft? No. Do I “believe” the Betty & Barney Hill story? No. Do I think Billy Meier’s laughable evidence is proof of visitation? No.

Ancient Aliens and Alien Artifacts in the Solar System

Following from the last section, this would again be pretty cool. Though I find it odd some people think Earth was the brothel of the galaxy eons ago and the idea that deviant aliens came here to make sweet sweet monkey love is wacked out. Again, actual real evidence of alien visitation in the past would be very neat. Evidence of an alien civilization on Mars or some other body in the solar system would likewise, I think, be cause of great interest and people would flock to it.

Does that mean I think the Nazca Lines are ancient alien landing strips? No. Or that aliens built the pyramids? No. Just because we may not have a mundane explanation for something now does not mean that “aliens did it.” Or, following perhaps a frequent refrain of creationists, it does not mean that “aliensdidit” (a la “goddidit”). Similarly, Richard C. Hoagland’s ideas of crystal tunnels and ancient sculptures on Mars, Andrew Baggiago’s ideas of fossils on Mars, and – closer to home – Hoagland’s “Data’s Head” find on the moon are obvious and clear examples of pareidolia and bad image processing, not the desired evidence of ancient advanced civilizations.

Young-Earth Creationism

To be perfectly fair, I really don’t “care” how old Earth is. As far as I’m concerned, I only “know” for sure that it’s just under 28 years old. Or really, it could have been created just a second ago but with the appearance of age and with all of our individual memories forged and everything made with the appearance of age. After all, that’s what you have to believe to be a young-Earth creationist, that every single piece of geologic, historical, astronomical, archaeologic, etc. evidence that points to a planet – much less solar system, galaxy, and universe – older than 6000 years was planted there by some sick, twisted omnipotent being to make us scratch our heads in the fashion of a chimp. Or you have to invent new science that doesn’t fit with anything else in order to make your models work out.

I think that in the coming decades, young-Earthers are going to be looked upon the same as flat-Earthers: People who ignore all evidence to the contrary, invent ways around what they can, and otherwise stick their fingers in their ears and shout, “La La La! I can’t hear you!”

Magic (Powers/Abilities like psychokinesis, Elves, Fairies, etc.)

I’ll be honest here (as elsewhere) and admit to a guilty pleasure: The TV show Charmed was one of my favorites. And I’m a Harry Potter fan, though that’s more socially acceptable for a guy. Anyway, I love the idea of magic existing, either out in the open or the concept of a hidden world “beyond the veil” that exists alongside our everyday lives but is hidden from us normal folks. In fact, for the past 4 years I’ve been working on and off on my own novel exploring that idea. But here you have the problem of not just a lack of even shaky evidence or suggestions that it’s true, but a solid lack of any suggestions that it’s true beyond the stray anecdote from the mentally questionable.

[Pick Your] Conspiracy Theory

Conspiracy theories are interesting because many of them actually could be true when first broached. It’s when people ignore all evidence to the contrary of a conspiracy theory that it begins to get stupid. For example, the Apollo Moon landings. Every claim by conspiracy theorists have been appropriately answered by reasonable explanations that adequately fit the model that the astronauts landed on the moon. And now we have Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter images of the Apollo landing sites. This particular conspiracy theory may have made some sense WAY back in the day, but no anyone who clings to it is willfully ignorant or simply delusional. There really is no other, kinder way to say it.

2012 Doomsday

Do I want this one to be true? Of course not. I want to see the solar eclipse in 2017. I have plans set for 2013. I’d prefer not to die in some cataclysm at the end of next year. Does my desire for this not to happen cloud my judgement on whether it will? No. Again, much like with the conspiracy theories above, every idea put forward by 2012 doomsdayers has been shown to be simply wrong, not physically possible, or just an outright lie. If there were actual evidence or even a physical mechanism that could occur, then I would reevaluate my conclusion and start eating more ice cream and Doritos.

Vaccines Cause Autism

Actually, I think it would be great if there were any kind of simple cause of autism, be it the thimerosal that was used as a preservative in childhood vaccines, parents playing Beethoven to the pregnant mom’s stomach, or solar flares. Unfortunately, there isn’t. Thimerosal was removed from most vaccines in the US a decade ago, and autism rates didn’t go down at all. No one knows what actually causes autism, but it’s definitely not vaccines. Concerned parents should be concerned, but they shouldn’t blame something that protects a child’s health and has conclusively been shown by every study to not cause autism.

Final Thoughts

That about wraps it up. Now, yes, this was posted on April 1st. No, this is not a “fake” nor joke post. In the end, this really boils down to this message for a “true believer” who harps on the “skeptics:” Get over yourselves. We are not “scared” that your-supernatural-belief-of-choice may be true. We would welcome it. Instead of wasting everyone’s time with that straw man, how about actually addressing the legitimate criticisms of the methodology instead of the claims?

What I’ve written above are my honest thoughts on the issues. What are yours?

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December 1, 2009

Logical Fallacies: Moving the Goalpost


Introduction

In my continuing series on logical fallacies, in this post I’m going to address the relatively more rare fallacy of “Moving the Goalpost” (AKA, “Shifting the Goalpost”).

What Is “Moving the Goalpost?”

The “Moving the Goalpost” logical fallacy is another one that has a fairly descriptive name. It is the case when Person A makes a claim, Person B refutes it, and Person A moves on to a new or revised claim, generally without acknowledging or responding to Person B’s refutation. Hence, the goalpost of the claim has been shifted or moved in order to keep the claim alive.

Example of Moving the Goalpost from Young-Earth Creationism

I’m not going to spend much time here because (a) I’ve been accused of using this logical fallacy series to dwell too much on Creationism, and (b) I kinda agree and want to incorporate other fields of pseudo astronomy into my examples.

The classic case of Moving the Goalpost in YEC (young-Earth creationism) is commonly known as the “Gish Gallop,” so-named for Duane Gish, the former vice president of the Institute for Creation Research (ICR). In debates, Gish would very commonly spout out many, many claims, half-truths, misrepresentations, and lies that take just a few seconds or minutes to state, while his opponent would be left trying to boil down 15-minute answers to something quick that is digestible to the audience. When a claim was refuted, Gish would quickly move on to the next claim without answering the objections raised by his opponents (reference 1, reference 2).

Example of Moving the Goalpost from the Apollo Moon Landing Hoax Believers

A very similar debate tactic is used by many conspiracy theorists, and the people who promote the idea that the United States never landed men on the moon are no exception. In debates, they will often raise a claim, and then when that claim is explained away, they will not acknowledge it nor try to explain away the explanation, but will simply move on to the next claim, often with a transitional phrase of, “Okay, what about this? …”

Rather than stay with that original goalpost of their original claim, they will move on to the next one.

Another example of this fallacy but as represented by a different phenomenon is by the case study moon hoax claim of, “If Apollo really landed on the moon, then why haven’t we taken pictures of it?” This claim is easily explained away with a very simple understanding of optics that you learn in any introductory high school or college physics class, and I have already done so in my blog post, “The Apollo Moon Hoax: Why Haven’t Any Pictures Been Taken of the Landing Sites?”

However, scientists, skeptics, and even many in the general public have maintained that it was simply a matter of time before we had a space craft in orbit of the moon that actually would have a high enough resolution camera to take photographs of the Apollo landing sites and show the relics. NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which went into orbit this year (2009), was just such a craft and over the summer, NASA released photographs of several of the landing sites, showing the relics.

Now, logically, that case would be closed. The hoax claim was answered originally, and it was now even answered “better” with real photographs showing just what they said wouldn’t exist.

However, the Moving the Goalpost fallacy struck again and what many of us said would happen did: The hoax proponents who have actually spoken on these photographs have simply claimed that NASA has faked (“Photoshopped”) them. The goalpost hath been moved.

Non-Astronomy Example of Moving the Goalpost from Vaccines Give You Autism Crowds

Very very rarely have I strayed away from astronomy topics and claims on this blog, but this example of Moving the Goalpost was simply too good to pass up. For many years throughout the 1990s, a group of people claimed that the thimerosal mercury-based preservative in vaccines caused children to have autism. They lobbied hard for the preservative to be removed from all childhood vaccines, claiming that that would eliminate or greatly reduce apparently rising rates of childhood autism.

They made a VERY testable claim and prediction. And by about 2003, thimerosal was removed from all childhood vaccinations, at least in the US.

Again, logically, one would think that the claim had been disproven. Their cause, thimerosal, had been removed, so their claimed effect, autism, should be greatly reduced. Autism rates continued to be the same, not even a statistical blip due to the removal of thimerosal. Yet the anti-vaccination movement persists today, still claiming that vaccines give children autism, though now they will usually claim it’s due to diverse “toxins” in the vaccines. And still, some will claim that it’s the thimerosal in the vaccines … a case which now is simply a lie. Again, they have shifted the goalpost, not acknowledging they were wrong about thimerosal, but moving on to some other claim.

Final Thoughts

Moving the Goalpost is a little harder to spot than some of the other fallacies I have addressed, such as the ubiquitous ad hominem. But, it’s still a fairly easy one to observe and is mainly evidenced in two different ways. The first is moving from claim to claim without answering any refutations. The second is staying on the same claim and just repeating it without acknowledging the evidence presented against it.

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