Exposing PseudoAstronomy

January 16, 2014

Quadcopters Mistaken as UFOs, Redux

Filed under: skepticism,ufo — Stuart Robbins @ 4:44 am
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Short post, so I’ll dispense with the usual subject headings. Several months ago, I wrote a blog post wherein I surmised that many (not most, not all, but many) UFO reports might, in fact, be hobby “toys” (albeit expensive ones). “Toys” as in quadcopters and related flying remote controlled craft.

Numerous comments that I did not permit through were from some very ardent UFOs = aliens proponents, and others who entirely missed the point and were off-topic. Some comments that were submitted argued that no one could possibly mistake a quadcopter flying a few 10s m (~100 ft?) up with lights on the bottom as a UFO.

They are wrong.

And to show they are wrong, I provide two anecdotes. Before you scream, “anecdotes aren’t evidence!” the knee-jerk reaction in this case is wrong. The claim was made that quadcopters and related craft could not be mistaken as UFOs. Therefore any single anecdote where they are will falsify that claim.

The first example came after the second, temporally, but it’s the shortest. I was at Bondi Beach in Sydney, Australia, last week, and it was night. I was waiting for the bus, while enjoying a lovely gelato (they use the word “lovely” a lot here). I looked towards the beach because I saw something odd out of my peripheral vision. I turned to see dancing lights, about five of them, hovering, moving slowly, then changing direction quickly, and generally performing acrobatic feats that certainly “no terrestrial craft could do!” Fortunately, it passed in front of a tree and so I was able to instantly recognize that it was a few meters away rather than thousands, and surmise that it was a quadcopter. I had fallen victim to the phenomenon myself.

The second anecdote is a bit more frustrating and emberassing because of what caused it. For my Australia trip, I ended up getting a DJI Phantom quadcopter because it was compact, sturdy, easy to travel with, and had a built-in holder for my GoPro camera. Unfortunately, I did not realize that there is a known issue with them suddenly deciding to fly away, no longer responding to the controller.

I was flying it the third night I was in Melbourne, just up in my friend’s sister’s tiny backyard, in the dense neighborhood of Albert Park. Was doing fine, was getting nice video and stills of sunset over the beach (~800 m away) and the city (opposite direction, several km away), when the quadcopter just darted off towards the beach. The control did not work. I’ll spare you the agonizing search and flyering and just jump to the fact that we DID get it back two days later. It landed on the garage roof of a house about 500 m (~0.3 miles) away, and the father and children recovered it about 10 minutes later. It now has my name and phone number in big characters on the hull.

But, while flyering and narrowing down where it landed based on neighbor reports, several said they thought it was a UFO. Yes, they used those initials, U-F-O. One even remarked that she had said out loud, “Wow, UFOs are real!” when she saw it flying overhead because all they could see were the green and red lights on the bottom.

So, there you have it. Again: I’m not saying that people who mistake these as aliens are stupid, that they are ignorant. Nor am I saying that every UFO sighting is a quadcopter or related craft.

However, I think that it’s very telling what happened in these two cases, and that it shows people need to be ever more careful in jumping to the UFO = aliens conclusion without considering all the much more likely – and very terrestrial – explanations.

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October 15, 2013

A New Revelation on UFOs and More Evidence They Aren’t Aliens

Filed under: skepticism,ufo — Stuart Robbins @ 11:18 am
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Introduction

I tend not to write that much on UFOs = aliens. Of the now 25 posts (including this) that are tagged “UFO” on this blog, very few actually deal directly with the issue. The reason is fairly simple: There’s no new evidence, and what evidence there is, leaves much to be desired.

Let me be very specific about my terms here: When I say “UFO,” I mean an “unidentified flying object.” As in an object, in the sky, that appears to be flying, that is unidentified. When I say “UFOs = aliens,” I mean the belief that about half Americans share that UFOs are alien craft. Obviously the former is real. The latter is what people argue about.

Primary Evidence

The vast majority of UFOs = aliens “evidence” is in the form of eyewitness reports. UFOs = aliens researchers often tout these from “highly credible” witness despite those witness accounts claiming things that are impossible for them to know: Height, speed, and size of the “craft.” For details on why that is impossible, I will direct you to my Podcast Episode 2.

But, briefly, all you can do is measure the angular speed and size of the object, but without knowing the physical speed or size or distance, you cannot convert the angular measurement into a physical measurement. Ergo, anyone who states they saw a craft that was, for example, a mile wide, 100 miles up, and traveling at 5000 miles per hour is wrong (intentionally or not). They have no way of knowing if it was that far away or just something that was 100 ft up, 1 ft wide, and traveling at 50 ft per hour instead. (This is, again, unless they have an independent way of measuring the actual value for one of those or have a solid frame of reference, such as if it went behind a tree, then you know it was at least as far away as that tree.)

The primary other evidence for a UFO = alien craft typically is in the eyewitness stating they saw the craft do something that is impossible for terrestrial aircraft (which hopefully readers recognize as a classic argument from ignorance (you don’t know something, therefore you assume it’s something by default)). For example, the object would be seen to stop, or hover, or dart in various directions much faster than an airplane could.

Another common claim is that the craft is silent. Therefore, it’s either very far away, or it’s some sort of anti-gravity non-engine propulsion (usually one or the other is claimed by the witness, not either-or).

Very often, no physical craft is ever seen. It’s just lights in the dark night sky. And the lights are constant, not blinking like an airplane.

I’m Building a Toy

A few months ago, I saw some amazing video done by a guy who put a camera on a quadcopter and flew it over Niagra Falls. Since I do a lot of landscape photography, this seemed like a very neat new/different approach that I could get into: Fly the camera over the landscape and take shots from vantage points I couldn’t possibly get to. (Note that quadcopters have been around for nearly 100 years.)

I’m opting for a build-your-own approach and the parts are finally shipping (except for the flight control board, which is still on back-order). In the meantime, I’ve been learning how to fly on a mini version, the Blade mQX. With the Blade, I’ve been able to fly several hundred feet up, and my starting point is 6000 ft above sea level.

I’ve also been able to dart all over the place. For photography – and especially videography – you don’t want to do that, but it’s a good way to learn how to really control the craft, to do crazy things with it. And with something cheap like the Blade with several spare parts on-hand, it’s okay if I crash (and you will crash if you haven’t flown one before). Here’s just one of many videos on YouTube showing the kind of flying you can do with a quadcopter.

One issue with quadcopters – or at least something that I’m mildly worried about – is what happens if I don’t know which way is forward anymore? I’m getting bright orange propellers for the back and bright green for the front, but 500ft up, will I see that? So, I got running lights to put along the arms. Again, green and orange. That way, hopefully I’ll be able to see which way is forward and which is backward. That way, when I push the controller for it to go left, it goes left instead of right or away from me or towards me or in some other direction. Other people just put one light at the end of each arm, under the motors.

Put These Together: UFOs = Quadcopters

Take a look at this video of a quadcopter with a few lights flying at night. He went a bit out there in terms of lighting, but the effect is fairly clear: This is the kind of behavior described by many UFOs = aliens eyewitnesses:

  • The craft is silent (if you’re more than 100 ft away, you can’t hear a quadcopter).
  • The craft is lit.
  • It performs aerobatics.

You can also cut the power for the lights. You can zoom it up. You can bring it down. You can also build a hexcopter (6 arms) instead and light only three legs, giving you three lights for the typical “triangular craft.”

Final Thoughts

I’m not saying that aliens / ETs do not exist.

I’m not saying that some UFOs could be alien / ET craft.

I’m not saying that all UFOs are actually hobbyist heli/quad/hex/octo/etc. copters.

What I am saying is that there is an extraordinary claim (those lights in the sky that I don’t know what they are are actually extraterrestrial craft) that lacks ANY extraordinary evidence (eyewitness arguments from ignorance). That argument from ignorance is commonly of the form, “No terrestrial aircraft could possibly do what I saw that UFO do!” That argument from ignorance also frequently contains meaningless conjecture on the size, distance, and speed of a few lights in the sky.

What I am saying is that quadcopters and similar toys that a lot of people build and fly for fun are out there (for some reason my brother is now getting into it, and my dad’s been thinking about it for awhile, and now I’m building one), but many people have never heard of them (I hadn’t until a few months ago). And, if you put lights on them (which many do) and fly them at night for fun (which many do), they behave exactly the way that these eyewitnesses say their UFO did in those kinds of UFO = aliens cases.

What I am saying is that I would not be surprised if many UFO reports are actually hobbyist aircraft like these.

September 5, 2013

Public Talk Tomorrow at the Tellus Science Museum (Georgia, USA) on Imaging UFOs, Ghosts, and Other Stuff

Filed under: image analysis — Stuart Robbins @ 7:30 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,

I’m sorry for the incredibly late notice. Stuff happens, as we all know.

Stuart Robbins Tellus Science Museum Talk Title Slide

Stuart Robbins Tellus Science Museum Talk Title SlideTellus Science Museum Talk Title Slide

Anyway, in about 22.5 hrs, Friday night at 7PM (EDT) on September 6, I will be giving an abridged version of the TAM 2013 workshop that Bryan and I did two months ago. A teeny bit of new material, but a lot had to be cut to bring it down to 45 minutes. I think it’s still an interesting talk, features a live camera demo illustrating image noise, and it goes through lots of common phenomena that occur in photos today that have mundane explanations (which I’ll demonstrate) but that many people claim are PROOF (with a capital “P”) of ghosts, UFOs, a binary companion to the sun, reptilians, and various other things.

If you’re in the greater Atlanta, GA area, anywhere near the Tellus Science Museum, come on by! There will be a ~15-minute Q&A and the museum will be open extra-late and I’ll chat with everyone I can who wants discuss the talk or related stuff!

July 3, 2013

Preview of #TAM2013 Workshop 1A: “How Your Camera Lies to You: From Ghosts to UFOs, a Skeptics’ Guide to Photography”


The Amazing Meeting www.amazingmeeting.com #TAM2013

WORKSHOP 1A • HOW YOUR CAMERA LIES TO YOU • 8:00-9:30A.M.

So much “evidence” today for paranormal claims stems from photographic and vidographic depictions.  The vast majority of these are based on well known but unidentified anomalies based in photographs and videos are made, while many others are intentional hoaxes.  We’ll take you through many of the key anomaly types by using actual claims that are made based on them.  We’ll also show you how real scientists know about these and are able to remove a lot of them from their data.  Finally, we’ll take you through some actual hoaxes and discuss ways to determine how they were done and why they are more likely to be hoaxes than real.  This will be interactive: We’ll be asking you to participate along the way and see if you can figure out how some of our examples were done.

TAM 2013 Workshop 1A Title Slide

TAM 2013 Workshop 1A Title Slide: “How Your Camera Lies to You: From Ghosts to UFOs, a Skeptics’ Guide to Photography”

 


Introduction

As I announced a few months ago, and is now apparent at the top of the official schedule, I will be co-presenting a workshop entitled “How Your Camera Lies to You: From Ghosts to UFOs, a Skeptics’ Guide to Photography.”

I’ve now presented two drafts of the workshop in talk form at the Denver and Colorado Springs Skepticamps, and Bryan (the co-presenter) and I have met a few times and are near a final version. As such, I want to give a preview of what you can expect if you come (and if you’re going to TAM and will be there Thursday morning, you should definitely go to this workshop!).

Original Description

First, we’ll take you through a brief history of photography, from daguerrotypes to polaroids to cameras around Mercury, to learn about how images are taken and processed. In the next phase, we’ll show you processing tips and tricks and what Photoshop is really doing when you tell it to “Reduce Noise” or “Auto-Levels” and how every processing step can introduce more anomalies. During the last third of the workshop, we’ll go through numerous examples of claimed paranormal, supernatural, or alien images and take you through how to analyze them to figure out what’s really going on. This workshop will be interactive with the audience being asked to guess what manipulation has been applied and how they would start to analyze each new image for what may be really shown.

That was the description that I wrote back in January when originally planning this. I’m a very linear thinker. The idea of talking about how cameras work, then anomalies that take place due to how they work, and then paranormal claims based on those anomalies made total sense to me and is probably still how I would do it if I were teaching a university course.

Revising

Bryan is a much more abstract thinker. His talks are frequently a lot of pictures up that he and Baxter just talk through and discuss, sometimes forgetting that they even included them in the presentation. The workshop has ended up being something of a mesh of the two that I think works out better than either extreme.

Here is a revised description:

So much “evidence” today for paranormal claims stems from photographic and vidographic depictions.  The vast majority of these are based on well known but unidentified anomalies based in photographs and videos are made, while many others are intentional hoaxes.  We’ll take you through many of the key anomaly types by using actual claims that are made based on them.  We’ll also show you how real scientists know about these and are able to remove a lot of them from their data.  Finally, we’ll take you through some actual hoaxes and discuss ways to determine how they were done and why they are more likely to be hoaxes than real.  This will be interactive: We’ll be asking you to participate along the way and see if you can figure out how some of our examples were done.

Rough Topic List and Outline

There’s a lot of stuff that I wanted to fit in this workshop. Heck– I’ve done two podcast episodes dedicated to this material and most of the stuff I discussed in them didn’t make it into the workshop. This could easily have been four hours long if I had my way, but I don’t think anyone would want to go to that. So, Bryan and I have settled on a few of the anomaly types that we think form the majority of ghost-type and astronomy-type claims out there (and can also be applied to other claims), then I get to talk about how astronomers process photographs, and then we’ve settled on five hoaxes to round the workshop out — two ghost-type, three astronomy.

I should preface this list that it is still subject to revision, and it may be truncated if we run short on time. But, as currently planned, the topic list of anomaly types is:

  • Double Exposure
  • Forced Perspective
  • Long Exposures & “Night Mode”
  • Obstructions in the Optical Path
  • Optical Reflection and Refraction
  • Lens Flares
  • Hot Pixels
  • Noise
  • Pareidolia
  • Finite Resolution
  • Compression

Examples of these include, but are by no means exhaustive: Cities on Mars and the Moon, ghosts, reptilians, geoglyphs, orbs, UFOs, and Planet X.

Interactivity

Workshops, as opposed to TAM talks and panels, are meant to be interactive. Or at least, they are supposed to be (many aren’t *cough*ScienceBasedMedicine*cough*).

We have some planned, besides the obvious, “Please interrupt us if you have a question!” and questions at the end, and send any feedback to us at this email. One is where we ask if anyone can find the ghost in some images. Another is for all the hoaxes, asking the audience to spot the red flags and what the steps of investigation should be or could be. During some of the anomalies discussion (bulk of the workshop, probably the first ~50-60 minutes), we’ll be doing a live photography demo and asking in some of the cases what you/they (the audience) thinks may be going on — even though we’ll be giving the broad category (like, “crap on the lens”), the question of exactly what’s going on is still not always obvious.

Final Thoughts

This should be a really cool workshop, one that I don’t think has been done at TAM in a long time, if ever. You have a pro and semi-pro photographer (I’ve sold some stuff!) and this year’s only TAM presenter who’s an actual astrophysicist (me!). We’re also the first workshop, a great way to launch your TAM-affiliated activities.

So, if you’re going, come to the workshop! Ask questions ‘n’ other things! There may be delicious prizes!

If you’re not going, but you think this’ll be interesting, help spread the word (Twitter, Facebook, direct e-mailing to friends who are attending, sky writing, smoke signals, etc.).

September 26, 2012

What’s a Skeptic?


This short post is meant to be a bit interactive, at least through the comments. The subject is, what is a skeptic?

I use the term to describe myself: I’m a skeptic. Or, perhaps just like the PC term being that someone “has schizophrenia” versus “are schizophrenic,” I am skeptical. I would put forward that a good scientist is skeptical, and that anyone who is a critical thinker is skeptical.

But people like Alex Tsakiris, George Noory, Mike Bara, and others whom scientists would generally term “pseudoscientists” also say that they themselves are skeptical, and that people like me are “close-minded skeptics/debunkers.” Meanwhile, people like Michael Horn claim that “skepticism” is a religion.

I could go through lengthy etymology and modern usage that might make an English major or a language scholar swoon, but no one else, really. Instead, this is how I define the term, and why I think that people such as those whom I term “pseudoscientists” are anything but skeptical:

To be skeptical means to reserve judgement on the veracity of a new claim that is different from what has been previously established. The established idea is effectively the null hypothesis — the idea that will stand if the new one is shown to not have enough supporting evidence. The evidence for the new claim must be evaluated on its own merits, and if valid, it must be weighed against the evidence for the established idea. To be accepted, the new idea must have at least as much evidence for it as the old claim, and it should also explain why the evidence in support of the old claim is faulty and/or be evidence for the new claim just as well. Any idea that’s rejected is always subject to re-analysis upon submission of additional data.

So, for example, if someone makes a claim that — oh, I dunno — there’s a kilometer-sized ziggurat on the Moon, that’s the new claim. The null hypothesis is that there is no ziggurat on the Moon. There are many different lines of argument that support the null hypothesis (no one to build it, no astronaut talking about it, no other photographs showing it), while there is one photo circulating the internet that is the evidence for it. When examining that individual photograph, many anomalies come up that indicate it is more likely than not that the ziggurat in that one image is fake. With doubts as to the authenticity of the single image with the ziggurat, the evidence for it is very small, and it is completely overshadowed by the evidence for the null hypothesis.

Ergo, as someone who is skeptical, I adopt the position that there is no ziggurat, though that position is always subject to revision based on new data.

As another example, one could take astrology. The null hypothesis is that astrology does not work, and there is no known physical mechanism that would allow it to work. Evidence that people have put forward for astrology working is, in sum and substance, anecdotal (“I got a reading and it was accurate!”). In fact, I saw an astrologer recently argue that because more people believe in astrology than any one religion, and since Americans spend $hundreds of millions of dollars on astrology per year, that it’s real. Meanwhile, every large, controlled experiment that has tried to test the validity of astrological predictions has shown a negative result.

Ergo, as someone who is skeptical, I adopt the position that astrology does not make accurate, specific predictions, though that position is always subject to revision based on new data.

As a scientist, I operate the same way. When I write a paper, I have to provide evidence to support my conclusions. If my conclusions contradict previous work, I have to go through the evidence that others have used to support their conclusions and show that it was wrong, wrongly interpreted, and/or can support my conclusions just as well. If I can’t do this, then no one is going to believe me over the established results that do have evidence.

Anyway, these are my musings on the subject. The idea for this post came while listening to yet another pseudoscientist (who shall remain nameless …) claim to a large audience, “Hey, I’m a true skeptic – not like those debunkers – and that’s why I can openly look at the evidence for [paranormal claim] and accept it!”

What are your thoughts? Do you agree, disagree, and why?

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.

January 16, 2012

Podcast Episode 19: John Lear (and Some of His Claims)


The long-delayed episode 19 is now posted: John Lear. John is the son of the famous inventor of the Lear Jet but just kinda threw out all credibility when he bought into … UFOs, aliens, cities on the Moon and Mars and Venus and Mercury and Pluto and Neptune etc., a soul catcher on the moon, the Kennedy conspiracy, 9/11 “truth,” crop circles, and many other things – those are just naming a few.

In the episode – which may be a Part 1 if people want more (comments people, feedback people!) – I talk about three of his claims: The atmosphere of Venus, the atmosphere of the moon, and lunar formation. I also spend a fair amount of time finally getting into details about pareidolia, including a short spelling lesson.

Also what bears announcing is that I now have a Facebook page for the podcast (and blog). And, I now have a Twitter account for the podcast/blog: @PseudoAstro .

October 6, 2011

The Cult of Apple, and Steve Jobs

Filed under: cults,doomsday,ufo — Stuart Robbins @ 3:42 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Introduction

Everyone seems to be talking about Steve Jobs’ death yesterday (Wednesday, October 5, 2011). Even President Obama. I figured that there was absolutely nothing I could add to the discussion that was in any way related to Apple or Steve Jobs, but then I thought about the whole cult angle.

We rarely see cults in regards to astronomy, geology, or physics, but they do occasionally crop up. The Heaven’s Gate cult – the group that committed suicide because they believed a space ship was behind Comet Hale-Bopp – is the one most often cited for astronomy “what’s the harm?” questions.

I thought I’d give my readers my opinion about cults, what qualifies as a cult, and whether anything going on now-a-days in astronomy would qualify in my opinion.

First, on Apple and Me

I’m a Mac guy. A friend in college called me the “Mac Daddy” and I was effectively her tech support. I was the Mac club’s secretary for a year and VP another year. I have owned three Apple laptops and two Apple desktops in this millennium, and I have owned two iPod classics, two nanos, and one Touch. I will very likely be getting an iPad version 3 when it comes out next year. I have a few t-shirts (all given to me for free) and one jacket (again, free). I use two Microsoft programs only (Word and Excel) except I had to load up Windows via Parallels for the work I do since GIS products on the Mac are absolutely horrible.

That said, I do not consider myself “in the cult of Apple / Steve Jobs.” Why? I’ll get into the exact reasons a bit more specifically below, but for now, there are several reasons. Mainly, I am not blinded by devotion to the brand/products.

I find many faults with the software: I hate how 10.7 is merging with the iOS as I’m a power user and need actual access to things other than “apps;” I don’t like the whole “apps” shortening; iAm sick of iPrefixes; Apple’s version of a lot of software (Aperture, Pages, Numbers) I think is a poor substitute for the other brands.

I find faults with the hardware, mainly the price and subsequent huge profit margin for Apple (their RAM is well over 2x as expensive as any competition). And their veil of secrecy and tactics to maintain it are obnoxious and may be illegal (that whole thing where Apple employees convinced the SF PD to get them to someone’s house where they searched for a missing prototype thing? I hope the guy wins a massive settlement).

I put all that there because I wanted to lay my cards on the table. I’m a fan of Apple products, but I find them far from perfect and I do not consider Steve Jobs – alive or dead – my Dear Leader.

What’s a Cult?

Many people smarter than I and actually having degrees rather than a four-fifths-finished minor in psychology have studied and written about cults. I’ll direct you RationalWiki for a more thorough discussion if you’re interested.

In the end, though, it’s a spectrum. And different people have different definitions and different qualifiers for when they consider something to be a cult. For example, at what point is a system of beliefs a “religion” versus a “cult?” In the play and movie “Angels in America,” the line goes something like, “Any religion younger than a few thousand years is just a cult” (that was paraphrased, I don’t remember the exact line). Many Christians still consider Mormons to be a cult*, and I know at least one Jew who considers Christians to be a cult.

*Edited to Add: A day after I wrote this blog post, this article was in the New York Times: Perry Ally Calls Mormonism ‘a Cult’.

In my book, though, I look for a few specific things:

  • Is there a charismatic leader who people believe without thought?
  • Do they try to isolate you from anyone outside of it?
  • Do they have different beliefs at different levels, especially those inside versus outside?

That’s really it — I look for three things. I try to keep it simple. I know on some lists there are over 60. Maybe a fourth on my list would be “are former members talked incredibly negatively about, to the point of encouraging harmful acts against them?”

Now, granted, MANY of other peoples’ items fit into my first, such as “the leader is always right,” “the leader is beyond reproach,” “the leader has a direct line of communication with the divine,” “the leader’s dictates are absolute” … that sort of thing.

When you put these together, no, I was/am not in a cult. And I think very few people would ever consider Apple to be a legitimate cult under most psychological/social definitions of a cult.

Are There Astronomy-Related Cults Today?

I’m sure there are a few VERY small ones out there. They will usually crop up around a predicted astronomical event that is observed, such as what happened with Hale-Bopp. People who follow the idea of the “Hopi Blue Star Prophecy” may possibly qualify, in time, if a leader emerges to capitalize on it. However, I think that this type of cult could be lumped into the category of general “doomsday cults,” it just so happens that there’s something in the sky that is part of their belief system.

UFO cults actually occasionally crop up, though even those would rarely fit more than one of the criteria I look for. These usually center around a single individual or pair who claim to have had an extraterrestrial encounter. Their story touches people and the people giving the story are usually highly charismatic and seem sincere.

Betty and Barney Hill are a good example, where for many years, despite their story changing, people believed everything they said. Even today, they have a “sort of” cult following where people think that they represent the most convincing evidence for alien abductions. This is despite that later in life they were highly marginalized by the UFO community, to the point where Betty Hill was nearly jeered off the stage at a convention several years ago.

Final Thoughts

If you’ve made it this far, pat yourself on the back. This post was more a stream-of-consciousness and thanks for coming along for the ride.

Getting back to the beginning and the news du jour, I think that Steve Jobs co-founded a great company, brought it back from the brink of failure in the mid-1990s, and oversaw some amazing product developments. I hope that Apple will be able to continue to innovate as before even without his leadership.

August 15, 2011

Podcast Episode Two Is Up: You Can’t Know the Distance, Size, and Speed of UFOs

Filed under: podcast,ufo — Stuart Robbins @ 7:46 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,

I wanted to announce that the second episode of my Exposing PseudoAstronomy podcast has been posted now to both the website and the RSS feed. The episode is a bit different than my last one (the dark side of the moon), as I’m now getting into the more “interesting” (read: “controversial”) topics.

I have addressed this one before on the blog, but this episode is an example where a podcast really works much better than a blog since I can include audio of people actually making the claims (and I’m an educator and claim fair use for those who want to cry copyright issues).

I got a new microphone, hopefully it sounds better this time, less tin-y, and I give you the solution to the first episode’s puzzler. Give it a listen and please give me any feedback you want, either here, on the website for the podcast, the SGU message board thread I set up, or to podcast at sjrdesign.net.

And yes, I do plan on doing mini-posts here to announce when new episodes are up.

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