Category: Debunking

Flatly wrong global warming denial

By Phil Plait | October 23, 2012 10:24 am

Sometimes climate change deniers make it all too easy.

The UK paper Daily Mail has a long history of courting climate change denial, and apparently it has no wish to change. It recently posted an atrocious article called "Global warming stopped 16 years ago, reveals Met Office report quietly released… and here is the chart to prove it". The article was written by David Rose, who wrote a pretty inaccurate article earlier this year on a similar topic.

In fact, this new article was so blatantly wrong that the MET office – the national weather service for the UK – wrote a rebuttal to it detailing the flaws. To start with, they point out they did recently update their global temperature databases, but that’s a very different thing than "quietly releasing a report", as Rose claims. Cue the conspiracy music!

It gets worse from there. They take on his points one at a time and take them down. I highly recommend reading them. And if you haven’t gotten your fill of it, or you’re still not convinced, you can check out The Carbon Brief’s article that gives more details on Rose’s denial.

Or you can read the takedown by Skeptical Science.

Or by Open Mind. In fact, let’s take a closer look at that.

Tamino, the author of Open Mind, shows just how Rose picks and chooses his data to make it look like global warming stopped years ago. In the picture here, the top graph shows what Rose says the temperature looks like: flat across the past 15 years or so. But that’s terribly misleading: the starting point he chose falsely makes the graph look flat. The bottom one shows the true situation as Tamino describes it. You have to go farther into the past to find a reasonable starting point, and when you do, you see what looked flat is actually a rising temperature over time.

To do what Rose did in that upper graph is to strain reality (and credulity) past the breaking point. It’s almost as if Rose specifically chose the data that he liked and rejected the rest. That’s a big no-no in the reality-based world. Tamino thoroughly vaporizes Rose’s article, showing that it’s wrong in its most basic assumptions, its methodology, and its conclusions.

But other than that…

This article is just another in a long line of climate change denials that fiddles with the data to make it look like the Earth isn’t warming up. But it adds up. This kind of nonsense is damaging to real efforts to do something real about a real problem. And venues like the Daily Mail are all too happy to fan the fire while the world burns.


Related Posts:

- The US Congress Anti-Science Committee
- Republican candidates, global warming, evolution, and reality
- Is it hot in here, or is it just global warming?
- Let those global warming dollars flow

PUNY Helicarrier!

By Phil Plait | October 17, 2012 11:09 am

I’m no Loki (I look terrible in a helmet with long curving horns), but I still know how to take down S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Helicarrier. My pal Veronica Belmont asked me to come on her TechFeed show "Fact or Fictional" to talk about whether the ginormous turbo-fan driven Helicarrier from the Avengers movie could actually fly. SPOILERS: yes, kinda, but at grave cost to the planet below it.

It turns out that just to power the thing would take about a trillion Watts – enough to supply electricity to a billion homes. That might prove detrimental to the environment. Worse, the air blasted downward from the fans would have to be moving supersonically to support the tremendous weight of the Helicarrier, so it would pulverize anything near where it was landing.

And don’t even get me started on Iron Man kick starting that one engine. The centrifugal force alone would reduce him to the size of a soggy jelly bean inside that suit.

And before I get accused of nerdgassing about the movie, note well that what I bet most people would think is the craziest thing about the Helicarrier – its ability to cloak – actually strikes me as being possible. It’s a bit tougher than getting a 100,000 ton carrier off the ground without utterly destroying everything within a hundred square kilometers, but still not outright nuts. It’s all in the video.

And heck, I loved the movie. If you want nerdgassing, read what I have to say about "Armageddon"


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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Debunking, Geekery, Humor

Space Leap of Faith

By Phil Plait | October 16, 2012 11:44 am

On Sunday, skydiver Felix Baumgartner stepped out of a high-altitude balloon and plummeted 40 kilometers back to Earth. I wanted to watch it live but missed it due to an appointment I had to keep. I heard it was heart-pounding, and Twitter went nuts over it. I wish I had seen it!

Still, my feelings on it are mixed. While I really am glad it got people excited, I couldn’t shake the feeling it wasn’t more than a stunt. A cool stunt, but a stunt. It was plugged as a way to learn more about spacesuits and all that, but I had my doubts. Having it sponsored by a sugary caffeinated energy drink marketed to teens also made me a bit wary.

I was thinking of writing something up about it, but then my friend and space historian Amy Shira Teitel wrote an excellent piece crystallizing my thoughts, so go read her article for more in that vein (which is also mirrored on Discover Magazine’s blog The Crux).

But what I really wanted to write about was this image I saw around Twitter and Facebook:

Why do I want to write about this? Because, in a nutshell, it’s everything wrong about attitudes on our space program. If I sound a little peeved, I am. Here’s why.

This meme was started in a tweet by revulv. I suspect it was just a joke, and to be honest it’s funny enough; I smirked when I read it. But someone took that joke and added the picture, and then it got spread around. And I can tell by the comments I’m seeing people really think it’s true – this idea has been around since the Shuttle retired, and it’s unfair. It’s simply not true.

First, as Amy points out in her post, Baumgartner’s jump was a record breaker, but he wasn’t in space. Our atmosphere thins out with height, and doesn’t really have an edge where air ends and vacuum begins. Because of this, there’s an arbitrarily agreed-upon height where we say space "starts" – it’s called the Kármán line, and it’s 100 km (62 miles) above sea level. Baumgartner was less than half that high. When I talked about his jump I used the phrase "edge of space", which is probably fair. He was in a pretty good vacuum by ground standards, but in space itself he was not.

Second, he wasn’t in orbit. A lot of folks confuse being in orbit and being in space, which is understandable. When we say something is in space that means it’s just higher than that arbitrary limit. You can get there via rocket by going straight up 100 km and then back down, for example. That’s a suborbital flight.

But being in orbit is different. An orbit is where you are free-falling around the Earth. Think of it this way: in orbit the Earth is pulling you down to the surface, but you’re going fast enough sideways that you never actually hit (to paraphrase Douglas Adams: orbiting is learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss). Your velocity down and your velocity to the side add together to give you a circular (or elliptical) path.

Baumgartner used a balloon to go straight up. He wasn’t in orbit.

And that’s two of the three things that bother me about that meme picture: he wasn’t in space, and he wasn’t in orbit, two things the US has rockets that can do.

Now, some people will point out that in fact the US cannot do that, at least not with people. We don’t have any rockets rated for human flight into space.

That’s true, but brings up my third point, the most important, what a lot of people don’t seem to get: you need to add the words "right now" to the end of that sentence.

We can’t launch humans into space right now. But in just a few years we’ll have that ability. In spades.

SpaceX is working on making sure their Falcon 9 rocket is human-rated for flight – even as I write these words they have a Dragon capsule berthed to the International Space Station. ATK is another. There’s also Sierra Nevada, Blue Origin (which just had a successful engine firing test), XCORR, and others. Let’s not forget Virgin Galactic, too. [Update: D'oh! Shame on me, and ironic too: I forgot to add Boeing and ULA's work on this as well.]

Both SpaceX and ATK think they’ll be ready to take people into orbit in 2015. Virgin Galactic and XCORR may be ready to do commercial suborbital flights before that date. [Note added after posting: I want to be clear; these are not NASA programs, but some have contracts with NASA, and I'm talking about the US as a nation, not necessarily as a government space program.]

The Space Shuttle was retired in 2011. We’re in the middle of what’s planned to be a five year gap where the US can’t take humans into space. Mind you, when the Apollo program shut down there was a nine year gap before we had a program to take humans to space again (with the exception of a few Saturn flights to orbit for Skylab and the Apollo-Soyuz mission; even then there was a six year gap until the Shuttle launches began).

My point? Things aren’t nearly as bad as people think. Yes, the Shuttle is retired, but to be brutally honest, while it’s an amazing machine, it could not nor would it ever be capable of taking humans beyond low-Earth orbit. It also cost way more than promised, and couldn’t launch as often as promised. I’ve made this point before, and it’s one we need to remember. Getting to space is not easy, and if we want to do it we have to do it right.

And let’s not forget we are still throwing rovers at Mars, probes at Jupiter, and one satellite after another into Earth orbit. We’re still going into space, if by proxy. Humans won’t have to wait much longer.

We need to learn from the past and keep our eyes on the future. By looking at the past we can see by comparison things are not so bad right now; we’re just in a lull before the storm. We’ll soon have not just the capability to put humans in space, but many capabilities to do it! Space travel will be easier and cheaper than it ever has been since the dawn of the Space Age.

My goal is to see nothing less than the permanent colonization of space by human beings, and I strongly suspect we are not that far from achieving it.

Image credits: Baumgartner pic via Red Bull; orbit diagram via Wikimedia Commons.


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Big Picture Science: Doomsday live show

By Phil Plait | October 11, 2012 9:00 am

My friends at SETI’s Big Picture Science podcast – what used to be called the Are We Alone radio show – want to put together a live show for the October 27 Bay Area Science Festival, a huge public gathering of folks where they can learn about science. They plan on holding a lively panel of astronomers, climate scientists, and other experts about the facts behind doomsday theories (such as they are).

But they need help to raise the funds to do this. They need $4000, so they started a Kickstarter fund to help. They’re almost there – as I write this they’re only $600 away, with a couple of days left to go – though of course with more funds they can do more.

This is being done by my good friends SETI astronomer Seth Shostak and science journalist Molly Bentley, and I support them. In fact, I’ve done many a segment of the Big Picture Science podcast: Seth and I do a roughly once per month interview called Brains on Vacation (see Related Posts below). So I know this show does good work, and the live show will be really fun, entertaining, and of course educational. In a good way!

Go check out their Kickstarter and beam them some cash if you can. Thanks!


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- Big Picture Science: Antivaxxers (and updates)
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Veronicarmageddon

By Phil Plait | October 10, 2012 2:01 pm

My pal Veronica Belmont hosts a show on TechFeed called Fact or Fictional, where she investigates the science of a movie based on viewer suggestions. She recently took on the wonderful fantastic gawd-awful piece of festering offal "Armageddon", talking to scientist Joe Hanson, who writes the terrific It’s OK to Be Smart blog.

Let’s just say they agree with me about the movie:

Yay! That was fun. This pretty much follows my own recent thoughts on the movie, as well as my original review of it when it came out in 1998.

If you want to learn how we’d really prevent an asteroid impact, and why we need to take this seriously, I gave a TEDxBoulder talk about it. It’s a real threat, but one we can prevent if we choose to do so.


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- Astronomy Veronica Anemone
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Vaccines: opinions are not facts

By Phil Plait | October 9, 2012 10:07 am

There’s an old phrase among critical thinkers: you’re entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts*. The idea is that these are two different things: opinions are matters of taste or subjective conclusions, while facts stand outside that, independent of what you think or how you may be biased.

You can have an opinion that Quisp cereal is, to you, the best breakfast food of all time. But you can’t have the opinion that evolution isn’t real. That latter is not an opinion; it’s objectively wrong. You can have the opinion that the evidence for evolution doesn’t satisfy you, or that evolution feels wrong to you. But disbelieving evolution is not an opinion.

The same can be said for many other topics of critical thinking.

Deakin University Philosophy lecturer Patrick Stokes makes just this case in a well-written piece called No, You’re Not Entitled to Your Opinion. For his basic example of this he uses the modern antivaccination movement, specifically Meryl Dorey and the Orwellain-named Australian Vaccination Network, or AVN.

Dorey’s name is familiar to regular readers: she spews antivax nonsense at nearly relativistic velocities, able to say more provably wrong and blatantly dangerous things than any given antiscience advocate after eight cups of coffee (just how dangerous the antivax movement is has been written about ably by my friend Seth Mnookin in Parade magazine). She never comes within a glancing blow of reality, and has been shown to her face that whatshe says is wrong, but stubbornly refuses to back down. She claims vaccines are connected to autism, that vaccines contain dangerous levels of toxins, that vaccines hurt human immune systems. None of these things is true. Reasonable Hank, who is outspoken about Dorey, has an exhaustive list of the awful things she’s said and done.

But some media pay attention to her, and in Australia the rate of pertussis is skyrocketing. Babies have died from this illness – not that Dorey actually believes that. Despite this, some media let Dorey rant on with her medical health conspiracy theories, citing "balance" when doing their stories. This is, simply, crap. Talking to doctors and researchers with years of experience in public health, and then Dorey (who has zero qualifications to discuss this topic) gives her de facto equal footing with reality. It would be like having astronauts interviewed about the space station, then talking to a UFO hunter.

Specifically, the article by Stokes I linked above takes the station WIN-TV to task for interviewing Dorey, and lays out just why this was a boneheaded thing to do (the ABC program Media Watch did an outstanding job destroying WIN-TV and Dorey, too). His bottom line: sure, you get to have an opinion, but don’t confuse it with fact, and don’t think you have a right to state your opinion in the media.

Predictably, and with predictable results, Dorey herself has jumped into the fray on the comments to the article. She has an uncanny ability to completely miss the point of what’s being said, and as usual is tone-deaf to what’s being said. It’s fascinating, in its own way.

I don’t think Dorey will ever change. I’ll note too that there are groups out there looking for the real causes of autism; the Autism Science Foundation is one. They even have a page up showing no connection between autism and vaccines. It’s wonderful and refreshing, and we should praise them for it. I have, like here and here. They’re good folks.

And remember another stock phrase in the critical thinking community: Keep an open mind, but not so open your brain falls out.

Image credit: Shutterstock (jimmi)


* The phrase is generally attributed to NY Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan.


Related Posts:

- Stop antivaxxers. Now.
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SpaceFest IV interview

By Phil Plait | September 29, 2012 7:00 am

In May I attended SpaceFest IV, a gathering of space enthusiasts, astronauts (who, I suppose, are legit space enthusiasts), astronomers, and more. It’s a lot of fun, and great to see old friends and meet new science geeks. I missed last year’s, unfortunately, but was happy to be able to go this year again.

While I was there I was interviewed about the Mayan apocalypse, Symphony of Science, and building a real Enterprise. It was an eclectic series of questions.

There are also video interviews of my friends Dan Durda and Meteorite Man Geoff Notkin, too.

I hope there’ll be another SpaceFest next year! I had a lot of fun, and I bet a lot of you reading this would too.


Related Posts:

- Come to Space Fest IV!
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Two talks in the Old Dominion!

By Phil Plait | September 26, 2012 12:30 pm

This week sees me returning to the state I grew up in: Virginia.

I’ll be at James Madison University Thursday, September 27 to give my "2012: We’re All (not) Gonna Die!" talk – basically destroying the Mayan December 21, 2012 apocalypse nonsense – at 7:00 p.m at the Wilson Hall Auditorium. Admission is free and open to the public.

The talk is sponsored by the John C. Wells Planetarium, JMU Department of Physics & Astronomy, College of Science & Mathematics, and the JMU Center for STEM Education & Outreach. They even made the awesome poster seen here! [Click to Kukulkanenate.]

Then, the next day – Friday, September 28 – I’ll be at my alma mater, the University of Virginia, to be the keynote speaker for the 2012 Forum for Interdisciplinary Dialogue called "Fact, Fiction, and Supposition"! I’m honored to be a part of this event sponsored by the Jefferson Scholars Foundation and the Jefferson Graduate Fellows at the University of Virginia.

That talk is also open to the public, and will be at 16:00 at The Jefferson Scholars Foundation Hall. They’ve set up a Facebook page for the event if you like that sort of thing. My good friend Dr. Nicole Gugliucci (and UVa alumna) will be speaking the next day there, too!

I haven’t been back to central Virginia in a good long time, so it’ll be nice to see it again. I hope the trees are turning now! And I hope to see some of you Wahoos there, too.


Related Posts:

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Let those global warming dollars flow

By Phil Plait | September 20, 2012 11:00 am

One of the weirdest (and by that I mean most ridiculous) claims I’ve heard from global warming deniers is the idea that somehow there is a cabal of scientists making up all the information we see about climate change.

First, scientists aren’t very good at that sort of collusion. As Ben Franklin said, "Three people can keep a secret if two of them are dead." Scientists as a rule tend to abhor misleading people or out-and-out lying. And those who do tend to be caught by the peer-review process.

Anyway, ignoring the idea that tens of thousands of scientists are playing a Jedi mind trick on the rest of us without a single one of them betraying the secret (and no, Climategate and its sequel don’t count since that was all trumped up smoke and mirrors by the denier crowd), the real reason this claim is ludicrous is because of its supernova-bright irony: a lot of the deniers can be traced to having fossil fuel funding.

Or, as this infographic from Occupy Posters puts it so succinctly:

Mind you, this isn’t supposed to be evidence that global warming deniers are paid frauds. It’s simply using Occam’s Razor, asking which makes more sense. Taken that way, it just shows the idea that scientists are on the wrong side of this is really silly.

Incidentally, guess who’s funding Mitt Romney’s campaign to the tune of tens of millions of dollars? Anyone? Bueller?

With the arctic melting earlier and deeper every year, with temperatures rising, with extreme weather more common, with glaciers retreating, with sea level rising, with droughts ravaging the US, reality is diverging more and more from the claims of the deniers.


Related Posts:

- Case closed: “Climategate” was manufactured
- Climategate 2: More ado about nothing. Again.
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Unhaunting a house

By Phil Plait | September 12, 2012 11:00 am

One of the major problems with skepticism is that many times it’s used as a blunt object. Smashing someone over their head with facts rarely if ever changes their mind, and can even make them dig in even more.

Sometimes, most times, a more subtle approach is warranted. That’s why I was so tickled to get an email from my sister (hi Marci!) about a page on an advice website called Manage My Life. The page in question is called Cures for a Haunted House, and starts off this way:

Fall is here, the leaves are changing, the nights are growing long, and something is happening inside your home. Your neck prickles in certain rooms. Doors open by themselves. Strange noises come from inside the walls. Visions of plummeting property values dance through your head as you wonder: is my house haunted?

Probably not.

It then lists several tongue-in-cheek signs of a "haunting", like creaky noises, cold spots, and so on… and tells you what the usual causes are (thermal compression and expansion of wood, drafts, critters in the walls, and so on). So they not only use an interest in paranormal to give you good advice, they sneak in some pretty solid skeptical thinking in there as well!

Pretty cool. I really wish more people selling advice did this, instead of exactly the reverse.


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- Great Tyson’s ghost!
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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Debunking, Skepticism
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