Exposing PseudoAstronomy

November 27, 2017

Podcast Episode 168: Common (and False) Fine-Tuned Universe Beliefs, Discussed


Fine-tuned Universe:
Not just for creationists
Anymore. Let’s see …

Fine-tuning of the universe to allow us to exist has tended to be a focused argument by young-Earth creationists, but it’s also used by other folks to generally argue that we are special. In this episode, I discuss four categories of claims that fit into this broad argument.

An exploration into four groups of fine-tuning arguments used by some to say that we are special: Solar outbursts, habitable zone, lunar origin and effects, and giant planets and impacts on Earth.

Fine-Tuning Image

Fine-Tuning Image

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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.

April 24, 2012

Podcast Episode 32: Billy Meier UFO Case, Interview with Derek Bartholomaus


This episode is a rather long interview (around an hour-twenty) with the researcher Derek Bartholomaus. Derek has spent time during the past eleven years looking into the UFO and related claims of Billy Meier, and much of his research is published on his website. I found it really interesting, and I hope you do, too. It’s an “intro” episode because in the future, I’ll talk about one or two of the claimed predictions of Billy Meier that deal with astronomy, but I thought it’d be good to introduce the topic first.

And now for the disclaimer: This kind of topic is very much like the Apollo Moon Hoax conspiracy ideas. There are many, many claims that go into it. An investigator could spend a year meticulously showing that one of the claims made is completely wrong, and people who believe in the case will just move onto the next claim.

In this interview, we talk about several of the major – and one or two of the minor – claims made to allegedly prove alien contact within the Billy Meier material. I think that Derek presented enough evidence to at least convincingly show that a subset of those are false or made up. The question should be, then, if these are some of the main claims put forward, and they’re wrong, then why should you believe others? Why should you spend the time looking into other ones if these were supposedly iron-clad and they fall apart under scrutiny?

This is more a rhetorical question – I’m not going to really answer peoples’ comments to this post. I will also take this opportunity to point out my comments policy. If, in my opinion, your comments violate that policy, they may be rejected or removed without warning.

I would also remind people in an episode such as this about claimed arguments from authority. All because a guy (or gal) with a Ph.D. or M.S. or whatever says something or does something, it does not mean that it’s true or accurate or done correctly. You always need corroboration, and when that corroboration comes out to show you were wrong, you need to look into it more.

Similarly, if someone is misquoted, one should make efforts to correct that. If someone says, “I never said what so-and-so says I did,” and yet so-and-so continues to make that claim when it’s the opposite of what that person thinks, that should be taken into account when evaluating a story.

April 5, 2012

Thoughts on Creationist Astronomer Dr. Hugh Ross on Coast to Coast


Introduction

I expected to listen to April 1’s Coast to Coast AM broadcast and experience many head-banging moments. After all, Dr. Hugh Ross, the guest, is a creationist. And he’s an astronomer.

I think the problem is that I mixed up Hugh Ross with Russell Humphreys; the latter is a young-Earth creationist, while the former is an old-Earth creationist (both are astronomers by training).

The interview was something I found interesting and more believable than many Coast to Coast broadcasts (though that’s not saying much). I think the root reason is that I could see where Hugh was coming from, I could understand and relate to him and he wasn’t just ignoring science. He had a lot of good points that were based in the tenants of observational knowledge and I really only disagreed with him on some of his conclusions. Below, I point out two instances that stuck in my mind.

Creationism vs. Evolution

At about 14 minutes into the second hour, Dr. Ross stated, “I think one reason why there’s so much controversy over creation/evolution, is you get people taking a few verses out of the bible, and one book, and then trying to integrate that with a few facts from one scientific discipline. what you really need to do is integrate all the scientific disciplines with all the books of the bible.”

This statement is so true and it’s something that you can see almost every day in young-Earth creationist or Intelligent Design writings: They constantly refer to Darwin’s writings as if the state of the science has not changed in over 150 years. I also think this may have been a thinly veiled swipe at Answers in Genesis which, oddly enough, takes all their answers from Genesis (the first book of the Jewish and Christian bibles); with AiG, if anything conflicts with “In the beginning, God created …” then it’s wrong.

The state of scientific understanding changes. If it didn’t then every scientist would be out of a job. I don’t think that Dr. Ross would go so far as to say that Christian theology is also constantly changing, but it’s refreshing to listen to someone who is willing to work towards reconciling one small phrase in context with everything else and not just what else is in that book.

UFOs

In the first half of the third hour of the program, and throughout hour four, Noory asked Ross about UFOs. Pretty much every caller who was on during the fourth hour who disagreed with something Ross had said was disagreeing with his position on UFOs; this is likely because Coast to Coast was practically build upon the UFO=aliens phenomenon, and it is still a core part of the show.

Ross’s take on the issue is similar to many other creationist people or super-religious Christians that I’ve heard before: He thinks they’re demons trying to deceive us.

He pointed out, yet again, several things that I agree with but then we reached different conclusions. One of the main points he made is that the alleged technology that UFO spotters “see” keeps pace with Earth technology at the time. In the early 1900s it was blimps, in the mid-1900s it was biplanes, in the 1970s it was people with crazy hairdos, and now it’s typical of the science fiction of the day with disks and flashing lights that defy gravity, much like the classic Close Encounters of the Third Kind movie, or more recently, Independence Day.

He also pointed out that the alleged UFO contactees’ claims of where these beings come from has kept pace with the popular science fiction of the day — first from the Moon, then Mars, then Venus, and now other star systems.

(And yes, I realize that there will be an exception to these that someone can point to — I’m talking about the vast majority of claims at the time.)

My broad conclusion from this is hoaxters, dreams, frauds, random guessing, and other things that then borrow from the popular science fiction of the day.

Ross’s broad conclusion from this is that, because all these beings are lying (since they’re always just ahead of our technology), they’re demons (fallen angels) trying to lead us astray from the path of his god.

It’s intriguing to see this kind of disparate conclusion, and I think for once the Answers in Genesis’s cartoon of, “We look at the same evidence but have different world views” really does apply (as opposed to it applying to AiG’s claim to support young-Earth creationism … that’s a case where they may look at the same evidence but then throw it out if it doesn’t support their worldview).

Here we have a case where I look at the world in the sense that, “You need to supply convincing, unambiguous, irrefutable, testable, and repeatable evidence that shows UFOs are not unidentified, but they really are identifiable as alien craft. Until then, my default is that they are explainable through well known and understood human cognitive biases and issues.”

Ross is approaching it in the sense that, “You need to supply convincing, unambiguous, irrefutable, testable, and repeatable evidence that shows UFOs are not unidentified, but they really are identifiable as alien craft. Until then, my default is I believe what the Bible tells me and I can easily fit these into Satin’s plan for deceiving mankind.”

And I’m okay with that. As long as people are willing to look at the evidence, I will admit that the conclusions you draw are likely going to be heavily influenced by your worldview. If you are a Christian biblical creationist, then you are likely going to see these as demonic deceptions because that will add less new information to your worldview than UFOs=aliens.

Final Thoughts

As I said at the beginning, I expected to have a lot to write about here. Instead, I found Dr. Ross to be a seemingly reasonable person. He seemed like the kind of guy that I could sit with at a conference and we could argue about points but it would be a reasonable discussion. As opposed to the impression I get with many young-Earth creationists or other people on Coast to Coast where I get the distinct impression that trying to talk with them would be like having a conversation with a petunia.

September 26, 2011

Logical Fallacies: Argument from Persecution


Introduction

Continuing my very old series on logical fallacies, this post is on the kind of fallacy that is not usually on most peoples’ top lists, but it’s one that fits in with a lot of the things I talk about on this blog. In general, it’s a form of the non sequitur, meaning that the argument doesn’t really have anything to do with the actual material being discussed; instead, it’s meant to play more on peoples’ emotions. As we all know from Spock on Star Trek emotions are not logical.

Basic Explanation

The argument from persecution is generally of the form, “My views are being persecuted, therefore they are correct.” Sometimes it has the post script, “After all, no one would put in this much effort to denounce my views if there weren’t something to them.” This addendum is effectively a “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire” fallacy.

Variant: The Galileo Argument

A special form of this type of fallacy is sometimes given its own name, “The Galileo Argument.” The idea stems from Galileo’s own persecution by the Catholic Church in the early 1600s, and the way it is invoked is often, “Everyone’s saying I’m wrong, but that’s what everyone said about Galileo, too!” The conclusion they want you to draw is that they are correct, just as Galileo was.

A very quick rebuttal to this, besides it being a logical fallacy, is that Galileo actually had solid observational data that anyone could easily employ to see that he was correct.

Example from Young-Earth Creationism

A decent, recent example from the YEC front comes from the Creation Ministries International article from September 21, 2011, entitled, “Heavyweights move to ban creation.” With subject headings such as “Desperate to quash dissent,” the CMI article has the general tone of one who is persecuted, though finding a proper, clear example explicitly within the article is somewhat difficult.

Instead, I direct you to the comments, where Patrick states, “Rejoice in persecution… the opposition will increase and the Lord will provide new openings. The enemy will be confounded, but those who seek the Lord will renew their strength.”

Or Victor: “It is indeed disingenuous on the part of BHA to quote “All children should be free to grow up in a world where they are allowed to question, doubt, think freely, and reach their own conclusions about what they believe” when this is exactly what they are suppressing in terms of questioning “Evolution[.]””

Final Thoughts

This is usually a fairly easy logical fallacy to pick out (though I will admit that my examples above are not as clear as I would like them to be), and many people beyond YECs use it. Another rather large class are UFOlogists, and they’re often the ones who like to add the hasty conclusion / where there’s smoke there’s fire to their claims.

August 13, 2010

Why You Can’t Believe ANYONE Who Says They Know the Size and Distance of a UFO


Introduction

Hi all, sorry that I haven’t been writing for a few weeks, I’ve been really busy with work, with a revised impetus to finish my Ph.D. ASAP since I have a possible offer of a post-doc.

Anyway, the topic for today is UFOs. UFOs are actually a subject that I have specifically avoided on this blog for the most part because they encompass a huge set of phenomena, from abductions, to sightings, to anal probing, to alien-human hybrids, to reptilians under the Denver airport and more. Yeah, a lot of stuff.

This particular post will be very focused on a single subject: Why you can’t believe any report that states a UFO’s size, distance, and speed. And also, for the purpose of this post, if it wasn’t already obvious, UFO is a place-holder for what people think are IFOs … identified flying objects as alien craft. An “actual” UFO is just that – an unidentified flying object, not an, “I saw a UFO that was a craft with 3 lights on it and it was 100 meters long!” That’s an identification.

Size, Distance, and Speed

These are three characteristics of a moving object that are often used in UFO reports, either any two of them, or all three. For example, a UFO report witness may state, “I saw a craft that was 3 miles across, maybe 1000 feet up but moving very slowly, unlike any aircraft we have.”

Such a report, however, has no basis in reality.

There, I said it. Quite dismissive, isn’t it? However, once you understand the basic idea, you’ll see why any report or witness that claims any two or all three of these qualities is either simply naïve or just making it up.

We’ll Start with Speed

When a police officer measures your speed, they do so when you are usually several tens or hundreds of feet away, either with a laser or radar or something similar. When they’re doing this, you must be moving either towards (usually, so they can get behind you and catch you) or away from the police officer. And not just in that general direction, but almost directly towards or away.

Why? No, it’s not just because roads are generally straight, it’s because if you are moving at a diagonal, the police officer will only get a measurement of the velocity towards or away from them. Your velocity across their line of sight cannot be measured by their device.

Similarly, that is the first problem with a UFO report that claims a speed. Let’s for the moment say the object actually is a flying craft. Even so, The observer will only be able to estimate the speed across their line of sight, so effectively left-right and/or up-down. Any motion towards or away from them cannot be measured accurately because it would rely upon the trigonometry of calculating the change in size of the object due to perspective.

As I said, that’s the first problem with speed. The second problem with it is the crux of this issue and why size and distance are impossible to report.

Angles

Anything you see in your vision covers a certain angle. Let’s take a computer monitor, since if you’re reading this chances are you are familiar with a computer monitor. As you read this sentence, if your face is fairly close to the monitor, then the letters are relatively large, covering a large angle across your vision. Now if you move your head away from the screen, then the letters cover a smaller angle of your vision, and hence appear smaller.

You have an innate sense of how far away the screen is from your head. Chances are that you can extend your arm and touch the screen. It’s probably between 1 and 4 feet from you (0.3-1 meter). Because you know how far it is from you, you also can estimate its size. You also have context to estimate its size. It’s probably sitting on a desk, or if you’re on a laptop then maybe on a couch, desk, your lap, or unfortunately an airplane tray table. Years of experience have taught you how large the objects around you are, and you can place the computer screen within that context to estimate its size.

Let’s extend this to a different place, the produce section of your local grocery. You grab a small pepper, let’s say a serrano. You hold the serrano pepper up to your face, and it appears rather large. You look at the far wall over to the heads of iceberg lettuce. Relative to the lettuce, the pepper looks much larger — it covers a larger angle of your vision. But you know that serrano peppers are smaller than heads of iceberg lettuce. You have context, and you have every day experience, and you know how far away these objects are from you because you have easy things you can measure by.

Take it to the Sky

In the sky, things are different. Very different. You have no context. You cannot reach out your hand and measure how far away something is. You don’t know how large objects are because you cannot take a measuring stick there and use it. If a fly were buzzing two inches (5 cm) from your face, it would look bigger than an airplane flying at 30,000 ft (9 km). Similarly, a bird flying 100 ft up (30 m) will look gigantic relative to the international space station.

This is why you cannot measure the size nor distance of a UFO. Its size depends upon its distance, and its distance depends upon its size. And, its speed depends upon its distance (a kid on a tricycle just outside your house will appear to move faster than a car on a highway 10 miles (15 km) away).

If you don’t know how far away the UFO is, which you don’t because you have no way to measure it, then you cannot know how large it is physically. You are solely relying on the apparent angular size. Similarly, if you don’t know how big it is, which you can’t know because you have no context, then you have no way to estimate how far away it is.

Final Thoughts

Once you understand this concept, it is very, very easy to understand why skeptics will dismiss all reports of this kind of information (size, distance, and speed). It is also easy to understand why skeptics are unimpressed when an eyewitness — be they a hillbilly farmer, a metropolitan police chief, or an astronaut — state that a UFO they saw was 3 miles across, or a kilometer across and zipping through the sky faster than any known aircraft.

It’s, quite simply, not possible to know, unless you can physically measure at least either the actual distance to the object or its physical – not angular – size.

December 11, 2009

Logical Fallacies: Reductio ad absurdum


Introduction

In my continuing series on logical fallacies, this post is about a more subtle fallacy that is usually harder to catch than, say an ad hominem, and that’s the reductio ad absurdum.

What is the “Reductio ad absurdum” Fallacy?

The Latin term reductio ad absurdum literally translates to, “reduction to the absurd.” In formal logic, the reductio ad absurdum is actually a legitimate argument, but it is often applied fallaciously. The fallacy follows the idea that if the premises of someone’s argument are taken as true, then it necessarily will lead to absurd conclusions.

This is a fairly good fallacy to remember when watching courtroom drama series, as lawyers may try to use this fallacy to show that a witness is lying. For example, a witness could make a claim on the stand, such as, “I know she was driving a blue cars.”

Lawyer: “How do you know this?”

Witness: “Because I’m an interior decorator and I always notice the colors of cars on the road.”

Lawyer: “Oh really? Can you tell us then, when you came to court today, what was the color the car that parked in front of you? To your left? Your right? What was the color of the car that was behind you on the freeway? [etc.]”

The lawyer has just used a reductio ad absurdum in this rather contrived example to show that the witness’s testimony that they “always notice the colors of cars” is very likely to be a false premise because when it is followed to its logical extent (that they would be able to answer the lawyer’s question about every car they saw that day) it is an absurd claim.

Example from UFOlogy

An admittedly contrived example from a UFOlogist could be had in the following statement by them: “If you’re so skeptical that you need to see proof with your own eyes of an alien body before you’ll believe that they exist, then how do you believe in the existence of Paris? Or of a dodo bird? Or an echidna? You’ve never seen them, how do you know they exist?”

The person has just used the reductio ad absurdum fallaciously because they assumed there was only one premise – that I required the proof of the alien body to see with my own eyes. Rather, I would accept other evidence, such as a gazillion verifiable photographs, independent corroboration, real hard evidence that has been examined by the bulk of the scientific community that studies such things and has reached the conclusion that it is real.

For example, the existence of Paris is something that I have seen in books, magazines, and movies. I’ve read about it in history books, my parents have been there, and I’ve met people who claim they come from that city. It has apparently been an integral part of the world’s history for at least a few centuries. To me, that is enough evidence that I can trust that Paris exists.

(This example will actually work with any pseudoscientific field where the skeptic actually wants real hard evidence of the phenomenon, I just happened to apply it to UFOs.)

Final Thoughts

The reductio ad absurdum argument can be used logically so long as one understands what they are doing. The false use of it will usually occur when one assumes a limited initial premise to the claim (in the above example, that I would only “believe it when I see it”).

December 9, 2009

Logical Fallacies: Argument from Ignorance (or, Ad ignorantiam)


Introduction

In my ever-increasing series on logical fallacies, this post is going to discuss a rather large class of fallacies, underwhich the God of the Gaps fallacy falls — Argument from Ignorance.

What is the “Argument from Ignorance” Fallacy?

The Latin term for the fallacy is ad ignorantiam. The Argument from Ignorance is – yet again – a fallacy that is aptly named: It is an argument that is made from pure ignorance about a subject purely because of that ignorance. The basic structure of the argument is that there is an observation, that observation is unexplained (ignorance), and so someone will insert their own explanation with certitude.

Example from UFOlogy

Okay, first I have to make this side-comment: I write these posts in a separate text editor because I don’t like how little WordPress displays on the screen. I use Apple’s “Text Edit” program which automatically underlines words that are misspelled. Apparently, UFOs = aliens is so popular in our culture that “UFOlogy” is considered a real word in Apple’s built-in dictionary. Sigh.

Anyway … in the realm of pseudoastronomy (which Apple’s dictionary says is not a real word), UFOlogy folks are some of the biggest users of the Argument from Ignorance (unless you consider the sub-type of God of the Gaps, in which case it’s the young-Earth creationists). Most UFOlogists will generally follow the following “logic:” (1) Someone sees something in the sky. (2) They cannot explain what it is. (3) They make a report of it and their friendly neighborhood UFOlogist sees it. (4) If they pursue it, they will generally say that it is very likely to be an alien craft. This is despite any actual evidence of, well, anything other than an “eyewitness report” of something that that eyewitness could not explain.

This is a classic example of the Argument from Ignorance because they have taken an unknown (the UFO) and without any evidence have stated that it is likely to be an alien craft.

It is just as likely that they are demons (I have heard a Catholic monk claim this).

Or it is just as likely that they are the souls of people who have just died going up to the spirit world (I have also heard this claim made).

Or (now bear with me here …) it could much more easily be something they couldn’t identify, such as a satellite, a meteor, another celestial object, a white bird (I have 3 times seen what initially were UFOs making all sorts of weird moves only to watch a little longer as they headed towards a light source and were just a flock of white birds), a firefly, or something else.

Final Thoughts

The Argument from Ignorance has many sub-types, though really I think the God of the Gaps is the most often-used of the sub-types. It is pretty easy to spot as long as you pause after someone has made a claim and figure out if they have backed it up with anything. If not, then it could very well be an argument from ignorance.

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