Exposing PseudoAstronomy

October 16, 2015

Podcast Episode 142: Who’s on First? Origin of Ideas in Science


With water on Mars,
Discovered again, we look
At who did what first.

It’s been a month, and this is back-dated by over two weeks, but I wanted to put out an episode about the pitfalls of trying to figure out and remember who did what first. In the episode, I gave five examples of how this kind of discussion is important, such as who founds entire fields of science (or mathematics), giving credit where it’s due and remembering past research, pseudoscientists taking credit for things, alleged alien contactees taking credit for things, and preserving institutional memory in science.

The logical fallacies segment discusses the Moving the Goalpost fallacy.

I also revisit the 440 Hz conspiracy by asking you to listen to three tones, strewn throughout the podcast, to see if you can tell the difference. Playing two right in a row last time was too easy for everyone who wrote in.

Finally, yes, this is back-dated, and no, I am really really busy these days and don’t expect this to improve. I will likely take November-dated episodes off, putting out another episode some time in the next 6-7 weeks that’s dated October 16, and then return with December episodes. Next week I go on trip #13 for the year and the following week is #14, in mid-November I head back East for #15 and in December I have a conference that will bring the total to 16 trips this year. Never again.

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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.

January 9, 2013

How Astronomers Are, According to Popular Press, Constantly Discovering the Same Thing


Introduction

This post was prompted by a bit of discussion both at work and on my blog lately.

Regarding the blog, the question has come up of when people have known different things, and laypeople going to popular press to determine when stuff has been discovered.

Regarding work, an e-mail was sent out yesterday with one of the senior scientists wondering what the big deal was with a press release claiming to have discovered something new, but he pointed out a paper from 1984 that said the same thing.

So I thought I’d talk a bit about why the media (and official science organizations’ press offices) keep announcing a “new discovery” when it’s, in fact, a very old discovery.

Example from Yesterday: “NASA, ESA Telescopes Find Evidence for Asteroid Belt Around Vega”

On January 8, 2013, NASA released a press statement #13-006, “NASA, ESA Telescopes Find Evidence for Asteroid Belt Around Vega.”

If you read it, the very first part of the very first sentence states: “Astronomers have discovered what appears to be a large asteroid belt around the star Vega.” If you read further, it’s all about implications, comparing it with other recent discoveries, and what questions future studies hope to answer.

It all seems as though this is a very new and interesting finding, and as a press release (and from NASA, no less), it was picked up by many news outlets (looks like at least 35 from a Google News search as of posting this).

I’m not trying to minimize these researchers’ work, and if you want to read their paper, it’s posted here.

But, turn the clock back 30 years. In June 1984, in the journal Science – one of the preeminent journals in the world – there was a paper published by Paul R. Weissman with the title, “The Vega Particulate Shell: Comets or Asteroids?”

If you read the abstract, it states: “The [IRAS] science team has discovered a shell of particulate material around the star Vega. … The Vega shell is probably a ring of cometary bodies … . … A possible hot inner shell around Vega may be an asteroid-like belt of material a few astronomical units [the distance between Earth and the Sun] from the star.”

We didn’t have the internet back then, but based on a Google News archive, at least one newspaper, the Boston Globe, mentioned it in October 1984.

It is true that these are not exactly the same thing. It’s true that the new data are much better 30 years later. But the basic idea is the same: We knew 30 years ago that Vega had a debris disk around it of at least cometary and maybe asteroidal material as well.

Ergo, the press release title is misleading. And, anyone who does a news search who’s looking for when particular things may have been discovered – or at least probably discovered – in science will be mislead … in this case, by 30 years.

Why?

Listening to The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe podcast, I have definitely become somewhat jaded with news reporting. Having had my own press release come out about some of my work last year, I have had my own issues (a simple comma missing in the final copy – removed after I had approved it – completely changed the meaning to make it seem like I was talking about ice volcanoes on Mars).

Given my experience, my best guess is that it’s the press officers’ job to get as much publicity for their subject as possible. And we’re lucky if we get to see the final version before it gets sent out. A press release with the headline, “NASA, ESA Telescopes Re-Find [or Confirm] Stuff Found 30 Years Ago” is not going to stoke public interest.

For a topic closer to my own research, it’s the same case with water on Mars. We had darn good evidence back in the late 1960s and ’70s after the first spacecraft images were returned that there had been large amounts of surface water on Mars in its past. But, every few months it seems, a press release comes out stating that a new study has “discovered” water on Mars (or in Mars, or recently on or in Mars, etc.). It’s become something of a running gag during weekly science discussions.

Final Thoughts

To those who did the original (or previous additional “new discovery”), it’s frustrating they don’t get credit. It’s also somewhat insulting. The new Vega paper in this case doesn’t even cite Weissman’s work.

To be fair, this isn’t a huge issue. It’s not media misreporting something major, it’s just a short memory span. But, to those of us who do research in the field or closely related fields, it’s another example of marketing spin taking precedence over honesty. And for laypeople trying to figure out when something was known or discovered, it makes it seems as though everything was much more recently known than it actually was.

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