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.

November 8, 2011

Proof in Science versus the Media, Comets and Water, and Creationism


Introduction

How Earth got its water is an ongoing question in solar system evolution. A new study suggests comets are more likely to be the answer than previously thought. But could the answer simply be too hard for us to figure out; should we just not worry, and can we simply say that a loving God did it?

The Problem

When the solar system formed, there was a basic temperature gradient — it was hot in the center, where the sun was forming, and it got cooler as you went farther away from the nascent star. The location in the solar nebula that was about 100°C (212°F), is called the “Frost Line” where the water molecule would no longer be a volatile gas, but it would be a liquid and could be accreted to a forming object in an appreciable quantity. The frost line is about where the asteroid belt is.

Hence the problem: If liquid water could not form where Earth was, then how did Earth become the relatively water-rich world it is today?

A Solution?

For the last few decades, the favored solution has been delivery by comets. Comets are mostly water-ice, we know they impact objects, and we know that the impact rate was much higher in the very early solar system than it is today (in fact, I’m attending a workshop on the early solar system bombardment history in February where the focus will be on this).

A problem with this has to do with what’s called the deuterium/hydrogen ratio. Basically, water comes in two forms, “normal” water which is the familiar H2O (two hydrogen atoms and an oxygen atom), and HDO (one hydrogen, one deuterium, and one oxygen). The latter is known as “heavy water” and you may have heard about it in relation to nuclear fusion.

Deuterium is a heavy form of hydrogen. A normal hydrogen atom has one proton in the nucleus. Deuterium has one proton plus a neutron, making its mass about twice that of a normal hydrogen atom … hence “heavy water” when it’s incorporated into the water molecule. It’s still considered hydrogen because the number of protons is what determines what atom it is. (And for those who like the extra credit information, tritium would be one proton and two neutrons.)

Getting back to the problem, the deuterium/hydrogen ratio (abbr. as D/H) is the normal ratio of heavy water molecules to normal water molecules found on an object. Earth’s oceans have a D/H of about 1.56 x 10-4, or basically a bit more than 1 out of every 10,000 water molecules is heavy water. Comets, though, have been measured to be about (2.96±0.25)x10-4, or around 70% too high. Asteroids are too low at (1.4±0.1)x10-4.

So where did the water come from?

New Proof that Comets Watered the Earth

So proclaimed the title of an October 11, 2011 Time article. That’s right, “Proof.”

My problem with this statement is that we never have absolute “proof” in science. We have evidence that adds to the “conclusivity” (yes, I just made up a word) of a hypothesis. Proofs are in mathematics. Proofs never apply to real life. If you’re interested in this subject, I’ve written probably two relevant posts on it (post 1, post 2).

The article in question (Hartogh et al. 2011) is about a recent Nature Letter (a very short paper) that measured the D/H value in a comet named 103P/Hartley 2. The D/H measured in that comet came out to be (1.61±0.24)x10-4 … which overlaps with Earth. This particular comet was from a different part of the solar system than previous comets with a D/H measurement, which is part of why this is a new result and why it was hyped up a bit.

The effect of this work is to revitalize the comets delivering water hypothesis, clearing up one of the biggest problems with it: We now do have a potential source for water that matches a significant constraint.

If you’re interested in reading more about it, other than the title, I do suggest the Time article.

But I Thought Goddidit

This brings us to the Answers in Genesis’ “News to Note” from October 15, 2011, specifically the second item. They don’t necessarily dispute the basic science of the article, rather the “view:”

“Nevertheless, in an effort to avoid a biblical explanation for the origin of all things—in other words, God as Creator—many cling to this explanation despite its aberrant physics. While the isotope ratios in the comets and asteroids are of scientific interest, they tell us nothing about the origin of the solar system. …

“The Bible explains the origin of the water on Earth and the origin of the entire universe. And the time of this Creation, about six thousand years ago, does not exceed maximum comet lifespans or demand a hypothetical birthplace to replenish them. … [God] made the Earth with its generous supply of water, not as a hot molten world that would boil away its water. After providing the Earth with an atmosphere, dry land, and plant life, He created the solar system and the other stars. He specifies that He made the sun, moon, and stars on the fourth day of Creation week. There is no way to blend the Genesis account of Creation with secular ideas of cosmology such as the big bang and the nebular hypothesis without calling God a liar.”

I really don’t think at this point that I need to go into detail about this and my position on it. It really is interesting to see, though, how these people are so willing to stick their heads in the sand and would be perfectly content in the Dark Ages of Europe a thousand years ago.

Final Thoughts

This was an interesting piece of science news, one that I knew some creationist somewhere was going to have an issue with, and one that I hoped the news media would not spin too broadly. I was right on the first, wrong on the second. With the latter point, these things are subtle, but using words like “proof” or “prove,” “hypothesis” versus “theory,” and “believe” versus “think” are words that shape significantly the public perception of science, how it works, and how “definitive” it is.

After over half a decade of fighting, the science-/evidence-based medicine crowd has succeeded in making that the term people use for what had been generally referred to “western” medicine. It’s a long battle, but maybe some day we’ll be able to get people to use some of these basic science terms correctly. At least when referring to science.

August 3, 2011

A Creationist Ramble About Water in Space


Introduction

Ah, back to my bread-and-butter, young-Earth creationism and the ramblings writings of Brian Thomas over at the Institute for Creation Research (ICR). I actually have 4 of these posts in the queue to write about from recent stories posted there and at Creation.com, but I will try to intersperse some other stuff as a mental break for you.

This particular story, “Water Near Edge of Universe Bolsters Creation Cosmology” is really more of a rambling from our dear “science writer” over at ICR. As such, this will be a comparatively short blog entry.

The Article

Most of Mr. Thomas’ articles start with a paragraph or two of the science news that initiated his reaction, and then it goes into why an apparently literal, young-Earth interpretation of the Christian Bible is still valid. (I say “apparently literal” not to be flippant, but because there are many old-Earth creationists who also state their interpretation is literal.) This particular article, however, just goes right into it after the first sentence. The first paragraph states:

“A tremendous cloud of water vapor envelops a quasar [a giant actively feeding black hole] in distant space, according to new reports. Where did the water come from? A straightforward understanding of the biblical account of creation provides a possible answer and suggests that this may be the first of more such discoveries.”

His justification comes from Genesis 1:6, stating, “God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters” (I’m taking his word on that, I didn’t actually look it up). Of course, the logical conclusion is that the waters above the firmament means the waters around this quasar. Of course, he didn’t state this quite as succinctly as I:

“But physicist D. Russell Humphreys proposed in his landmark 1994 book Starlight and Time that waters above the firmament instead referred to a tremendously huge sphere of water, the remnants of which exist today outside all the stars in a bounded and expanded universe. … Perhaps the waters spoken of in Genesis 1:6 are these ‘waters that be above the heavens,’ presumably located “above” the stars.Is there any water near the edge of the universe that would illustrate this possibility? Actually, yes[, this quasar]. … This water was not found outside the stars, but associated with a quasar, so it is probably not direct evidence of any Psalm 148:4 “above the heavens” waters. However, it is a billion light-years farther away than the previous distance record for detected water, and less than two billion light-years from the outermost edge.”

As I stated, his is not quite as succinct as mine.

What’s Really Going on Here?

I’m not entirely sure. This is not a case of a creationist twisting the science to fit their biblical view. Rather, it almost seems the opposite – a creationist adapting the Bible to fit the new science discovery. I don’t have any problem with that.

But Wait, There’s More!

I knew it couldn’t be that good. Mr. Thomas had to end with something I was going to have issue with. In this case, it’s with something completely unrelated, the Pioneer anomaly:

“In fact, the Pioneer anomaly, an unexplained slowing of the Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11 spacecraft on their way out of the solar system, is already well-explained by the overwhelming mass of a proposed sphere of water above the heavens.”

Except it’s not an anomaly anymore. It was figured out months ago, and paper after paper confirms the new interpretation. For quick background, the anomaly was that the twin Pioneer 10 and 11 craft, currently well outside the orbit of Pluto, are not where they should be. This was based on all measurements of effects from gravity, light pressure, heat generation, measurement errors, etc. Many people suggested various (real) scientific possibilities, such as we may not understand gravity as well as we thought (there may be extra terms that come into play at such large scales — a perfectly valid hypothesis), there may be an unknown body tugging them, etc.

The creationists, of course, put forth their own idea, with most saying that it was because the speed of light changes (this is required so as to not make a mean God that would create light in transit to us and make us pesky astronomers think that objects are billions of light-years away — an obvious problem for a 6000-year-old universe).

Except, here we have the article stating, “Pioneer Anomaly Solved By 1970s Computer Graphics Technique.” Basically, the uneven heat radiation from the craft can account for the very tiny difference in what was observed versus predicted. This is follow-up work from 2008 that almost solved it. Case pretty much closed. I’m surprised that Mr. Thomas, a science writer, didn’t know about this or choose to acknowledge it.

Edited to Add: Also, as Phil Plait (the “Bad Astronomer”) pointed out in the Comments section below, the second half of that sentence is sorely mistaken, as well. As I wrote above, the standard creationist model to explain the anomaly was a variable speed of light. It seems as though Mr. Thomas opted for a different one, the “unknown mass” I alluded to. The problem is that the mass tugging on the craft would need to be in a particular position to exert a net pull such as an unseen Kuiper Belt Object. The problem is that Mr. Thomas suggests that it’s a “sphere of water” encircling us, which would exert no net pull on the craft, thus not solving the supposed anomaly.

Final Thoughts

As I said in the third section, I really didn’t have too much of an issue with this article. It pulls in actual new science and shows how it can work fine within their belief system without denying nor modifying the science in question.

Also as I said, the creationists have put out quite a few astronomy/geophysics-related articles lately, and I’ll be posting about them hopefully shortly. And hopefully I’ll find something else short to talk about so it’s not just four articles in a row about the young-Earth creationists.

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