Category: Debunking

Debunking vaccine myths

By Phil Plait | September 10, 2012 9:30 am

My friend Dr. Rachael Dunlop is a tireless promoter of science and fighter of antivaccination propaganda. I somehow missed this when she wrote it last November, but she put together a fantastic article tearing apart a whole passel of antivax lies: "9 vaccination myths busted. With Science". It’s basically one-stop shopping for the truth about vaccines.

We need people talking about the need for vaccines more than ever right now. Measles cases have nearly doubled over last year in the UK. My hometown of Boulder is suffering through an outbreak of pertussis. California is on its way to having serious epidemics due to lower vaccination rates. In North Carolina just a few days ago, a two month old infant died from pertussis.

Let me repeat that: babies die because of diseases that can be prevented by a simple vaccination. Factually-bereft antivaxxers – cough cough Meryl Dorey cough – claim that no one dies from these diseases any more. They are wrong.

Antivaccination beliefs are bad science, pure and simple. Vaccines don’t cause autism. They don’t have toxins in them that can hurt you in the doses given. They don’t overtax the immune system. Read Rachie’s article to get the truth.

What vaccines do is save millions, hundreds of millions, of lives. They protect us from diseases that used to ravage entire populations. And they save babies’ lives.

We need to keep up our herd immunity if we are to keep ourselves healthy, and that includes adults. Talk to your board-certified doctor and see if you need a booster. Please.


Related Posts:

- Washington pertussis outbreak is very, very bad
- UPDATE: partial Complete success with American Airlines!
- Whooping cough outbreak in Boulder
- Stop antivaxxers. Now.

Cruisegeddon

By Phil Plait | September 8, 2012 7:00 am

Looking for something fun to do in late December when the world doesn’t end? Then you might consider going on a Not The End of the World Cruise.

This is a brilliant idea: a bunch of astronomers and other scientists are doing a cruise package to take place over the silly "Mayan end of the world" date of December 22, 2012. And where are they sailing? Why, the Caribbean, of course, including Cozumel, an island off the Yucatan Peninsula.

The guest list is a good one: authors David Brin and Robert J Sawyer; Star Trek writer Andre Bormanis; astronaut Steve Hawley (he literally placed Hubble into orbit); my friends the astronomers Michelle Thaller, Kevin Grazier, Doug Duncan, Timothy and Stephanie Slater; and more.

Also attending will be Fraser Cain and Pamela Gay from Astronomy Cast! In fact, when you book the trip, tell them "Astronomy Cast sent me" and Fraser will give you a special gift on the cruise. And no, I have no idea what it is. Probably a goat or something.

Anyway, I really wish I could do this, but I’m otherwise occupied at that time (no, not hiding in a bunker). But don’t let that stop you: go book your cabin!

Bill Nye: creationism is bad for children

By Phil Plait | August 30, 2012 6:30 am

Bill Nye speaks the truth.

[Video credit: Big Think]

In science, it’s rare that you can actually state with certainty that something is wrong. Young-Earth creationism is wrong. The Universe is old.

However, I’ll disagree with Bill over one thing, and I’ll throw Neil Tyson into the mix too. First, here’s something Neil said about adults, children, and nonsense (from an image that’s gone around the web a few times):

Funny, Neil and Bill are saying the same thing, essentially, but Neil is saying he doesn’t worry about the kids, while Bill is saying he doesn’t worry about the adults.

I worry about both, for, oddly enough, the reasons Bill and Neil both give. We have entrenched adults teaching things to their kids that are clearly wrong, and will be damaging to them and others. Creationism, global warming denial, antivaccination, ridiculous ideas about women and their bodies… it’s a cycle from adults to kids who then grow up to teach more kids.

We need to break this cycle. Make sure the education kids get in school is reality-based. Keep religion (or the lack thereof) out of schools. Vote fundamentalists out of office. And keep making sure the facts are out there and our voices are heard. Facts aren’t enough. Science has facts on its side, but they’re simply not enough. We need to make our stories personal, emotional, and make sure they stick.

And I’d love to agree with Bill when he says that in the future creationism will go away. I sure hope so. But YEC’s been around for a while now, and is as strong as ever – after all, there are creationists on the US House of Representatives’ Committee on Science! Still, maybe Bill’s right. But it’s up to us to make sure his prediction comes true.


Related Posts:

- Akin breakin’ science
- Texas creationist McLeroy spins the educational disaster he created
- Jindal dooms Louisiana

MORE ABOUT: Bill Nye, creationism

Update: New NASA map of sea ice minimum

By Phil Plait | August 27, 2012 12:12 pm

Earlier, I wrote that arctic sea ice had yesterday reached record low levels, blowing through the previous lowest-seen minimum in 2007, even though there’s still a lot of melting left to go.

NASA just released this visualization of the arctic region showing just how bad it is:

The white area is the extent of sea ice as of August 26, 2012. The orange line is the average minimum extent from 1979 – 2010, the time covered by satellite observations. In other words, every year they measure the outline of the ice when it reaches its minimum, usually in September, and then averaged those positions for that timespan.

As you can see, we’ve been well below the usual minimum ice extent for some time – not just where we usually are this time of year, but the actual minimum amount… and we still have weeks of melting yet to go.

I want to note that this does not necessarily mean we’ll see sea level rising from this. That ice is floating on the water, and in general when ice melts the water level stays the same. You can see this for yourself: put ice in a glass, then fill it with water. Mark the level. Wait until the ice melts and you’ll see the level hasn’t changed. The ice displaces (pushes aside) an amount of water exactly equal to its own weight, so when it melts that water fills up the same volume the ice displaced. The level stays the same.

However, because ice is frozen fresh water, and the sea is salt water, floating ice may actually raise the sea level a bit. Still, the far bigger concern is ice on land that melts and flows into the ocean. That certainly can raise the sea level. Greenland has the second largest reservoir of frozen water on Earth, and it’s seeing unprecedented melting.

So yeah, global warming is a concern, no matter how many people deny it. And it’s not something we should blow off and worry about later. It’s happening now.

Image credit: Scientific Visualization Studio, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center


Related Posts:

- Arctic sea ice now at record low levels
- Arctic ice at second-lowest extent since 1979
- Sea ice, coming and going
- As arctic ice shrinks, so does a denier claim
- Our ice is disappearing

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Antiscience, Debunking, NASA, Piece of mind

Jump!

By Phil Plait | August 25, 2012 7:00 am

I have a very odd coincidence to report.

I like getting fun questions from folks, the kind that take a little bit of math and physics to explain, but wind up taking you to fun places. A common question like that is, "What would happen if everyone in China jumped all at once?" Would it throw the Earth out of orbit? Would it cause an earthquake? Would it do anything?

The answer is, essentially, no. I tackled this a few years back; there was this announcement by a group that wanted to get 600 million people to all jump at once so that the Earth would be pushed farther from the Sun and global warming would be solved.

Um, yeah. They called it World Jump Day, and I made quick work of it. Nothing at all would happen, for lots of reasons. Still, it’s fun to think about, right? And it turns out World Jump Day was something of a prank anyway.

And that’s where the coincidence I mentioned comes in. I recently happened to see a video done by vsauce asking this very question. He handles it really well in an entertaining video:

My opinion: science is always better when Felicia Day makes a cameo! And, of course, vsauce is right.

So anyway, I liked the video, and made a note to myself to write it up on the blog here. And then, literally the next day, what happens? My pal Randall Munroe (of xkcd fame) goes and writes about this very topic for his "what if?" series!

Although, to be fair, Randall takes it in a slightly different direction. Still. Weird.

Of course, coincidences happen all the time. It’s a big world out there, with lots of things going on. There’s bound to be the seemingly-spooky overlap or two between ‘em.

And as a final note, if you want to read more about the gnarly math of millions of people jumping, Dot Physics has you covered.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Debunking, Geekery, Humor, Science

Planetary alignment pyramid scheme

By Phil Plait | August 20, 2012 12:46 pm

What the heck is in the air this past week? First we see a simulated image of the sky from Mars go massively viral because people thought it actually showed Earth in the Martian sky, then a clearly Photoshopped pic of two "Suns" setting on Mars gets passed around.

And now a new slice of oddness enters the field: a picture of a planetary alignment over the Giza Pyramids, saying this only happens once every 2737 years. Because planetary alignments and the pyramids play such a large role in New Age/astrological beliefs, there is clearly some sort of spiritual message implied here.

Well, I hate to be a thricely-bursting-bubble person, but here we go again, again. Let me be clear: while there will be an event more-or-less like this in December, and it should be pretty and quite cool to see, the claims being made are somewhat exaggerated. The picture itself isn’t real, and the planets won’t really look like that from Giza. Also, alignments like this happen fairly often, though to be fair getting them spaced out to fit over the pyramids in this way probably is relatively rare.


Busting your Cheops

Here’s the picture making the rounds:

It clearly shows the three pyramids in Giza, Egypt, with three planets above them. There are various versions of this picture I’ve seen; most are like this with almost no explanation. Some say the planets are Mercury, Venus, and Saturn, and some mention this is what it will look like on December 3rd, 2012, just before sunrise.

First, this obviously cannot be an actual photo if the event hasn’t happened yet! This must be a Photoshop job. That’s fine if it’s only to show what things are supposed to look like, and no one is claiming this is an actual photo.

However, it hardly matters. There are lots of other problems with this planetary alignment claim.


What’s your angle?

The first thing I did when I saw this was ask: is there really going to be a close conjunction of three planets on December 3rd?

The answer is yes! Mercury, Venus, and Saturn will all be within a relatively small distance of each other in the sky on that date. This isn’t a particularly tight configuration like Venus and Jupiter were earlier this year – in this case, they’ll be 14 degrees apart, nearly 30 times the width of the full Moon on the sky – but it’s still pretty nifty.

The second thing I did, though, was ask myself: will they really look like that in the sky as seen from Giza?

The answer this time is no. I used the software planetarium program SkySafari to show what the three planets would look like in the sky before sunrise on December 3rd as seen from the location of the pyramids, and got this:

In this picture, the yellow line is the ecliptic, the path of the Sun in the sky through the year. The green horizontal line is the horizon, and the three planets are labeled.

Note the angle of the planets: in the picture going viral, the planets are much closer to horizontal, but in reality the line connecting the planets is at a much steeper angle. It’s nearly vertical, in fact. This may not seem like a big deal, but having the planets closer to horizontal like in the viral picture is more spectacular than what will really happen, exaggerating the claim.

Not only that, but in the pyramid picture the planets are almost exactly on a line, like beads on a string. But as you can see in the picture above, they’re not nearly that colinear. Again it’s looking like the pyramid picture is exaggerating the situation.


Mirror, mirror

I noticed something else funny as well.

Here’s a satellite view of the three pyramids, courtesy Google maps:

Read More

No, that's not a picture of a double sunset on Mars

By Phil Plait | August 13, 2012 12:52 pm

So Curiosity’s been on the Martian surface for a week, and we’re already seeing faked images touted as being real. The other day it was a more-or-less honest mistake of people spreading around a computer-generated view from Mars – originally meant just to show what the skyline looked like from there – thinking it was real.

Now though, we have what’s clearly an actual fake. Here’s the shot, getting passed around on various Tumblrs:

Now, I’ll note it’s not crazy to think this shot might be real; the Sun is very bright and in many cameras you can get reflections inside the optics, causing this double-Sun effect. It happens all the time. So you wouldn’t really be seeing two suns setting – just one real one and one that’s an internal reflection.

But that’s not what’s going on here, as I knew right away. That’s because I’m familiar with this picture:

That shot is also of the sunset, but it really is from Mars! It was taken by the Spirit rover in May 2005, a spectacular shot of the Sun setting over the Martian landscape.

And that’s where you’ll find the proof of double-sunset-fakery. Compare the double-sunset picture with the real one from Spirit, and you’ll see the profile of the landscape on the horizon is exactly the same. Clearly, the double-sunset pic was faked, adding in the second Sun. In fact, you can see that both images of the "Sun" in the double sunset picture don’t match the real one. In other words, both images of the Sun were faked.

Also, I couldn’t help but think the faked Sun images looked kinda familiar to me as well. Recognize them? Perhaps the picture here will help place them. Clearly, the faker must have come from some wretched hive of scum and villainy.

It may be this picture was created as a joke and got out into the wild, or maybe it was done on purpose to fool people. As usual with things like this, tracing it back to the original is a bit tough (though the Martian skyline picture from earlier was able to be pedigreed). I’ve seen it on several sites now, and I’ve gotten email and tweets about it. It was easy to debunk, so why not?

I don’t know if this image will go viral like the previous unreal one did; this is so obviously hoaxed that it may not have the same sort of traction. Still, it sometimes helps to get ahead of the curve here, and dowse these things with reality before they spread out of hand.

So if you see someone posting that image, send ‘em here. That way, we will crush the hoaxers with one swift stroke.

Image Credits: Mars sunset: NASA/JPL/Texas A&M/Cornell; Tatooine: Uncle Owen’s Wedding Photography Service (now defunct).


Related Posts:

- An unreal Mars skyline
- Gallery: Curiosity’s triumphant first week on Mars
- Astronomers discover a wretched hive of scum and villainy
- Hoagland = lose

Get your badastro to Mars!

By Phil Plait | August 11, 2012 7:00 am

My pal Annalee Newitz over at io9 asked me to come on her show "We Come From the Future" and talk about how Mars is treated in movies. The program aired on Friday, and is up on YouTube:

That was a lot of fun! I tried to think of a movie where Mars is actually depicted correctly as it is now: low gravity, cold, almost no air. I couldn’t think of a single movie where that happens. I went on Twitter and asked the folks who follow me what they thought, and got lots of suggestions. Unfortunately, no movie suggested that I had seen was entirely accurate.

"Mission to Mars" was close, but they had a dust devil pick up astronauts and even tear one in half. Granted, it’s implied that was an outcome of alien tech, but dust devils on Mars simply aren’t that strong. Also, that movie got so much science wrong I don’t really feel like cutting it much slack.

Most other movies forgo showing Mars’s 0.38 Earth gravity due to the difficulty in portraying it well. Some, like "Robinson Crusoe on Mars" – which I loved as a kid – gives Mars enough air to breathe if you take oxygen supplements. I’ll note that I also just saw "John Carter" and actually quite liked it. I knew it was epic, sweeping fantasy going in, so I was able to not worry too much about the scientific booboos.

Doctor Who has had several episodes take place on Mars including the recent "Waters of Mars". That too was close – the Doctor was in a spacesuit – but gravity was clearly Earth-normal. Sigh.

A lot of people suggested "Watchmen", but only a few minutes were on Mars, and the gravity was unclear. Also, I suspect that Dr. Manhattan could’ve manipulated the gravity, so it doesn’t really count.

At the end of the show, Annalee challenged HBO to make a good Mars series. The obvious place to start is Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars trilogy. And unlike Game of Thrones, they wouldn’t have to wait for more books to be written!

Post Script: I’ve reviewed the science in lots of movies, including a few dealing with Mars. Here are my reviews of Red Planet and Mission to Mars.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Debunking, Geekery, SciFi, TV/Movies

An unreal Mars skyline

By Phil Plait | August 10, 2012 9:59 am

Well folks, it’s been a while, so it’s time for a good ol’ fashioned BA debunking.

This morning I got an email from BABloggee Joshua Frost as well as a note on Twitter from scifi author Diane Duane telling me about a picture making the rounds on teh interwebz, purporting to be taken from Mars. It shows the Martian landscape at twilight, and claims that the three lights in the sky are Earth, Venus, and Jupiter:

Pretty, isn’t it? You can find endless copies of it online; just search on the term "mars skyline". It’s been picked up on tons of Tumblrs and other social media.

But yeah, there’s just one problem: it’s not real.

I knew right away it wasn’t legit, but it’s hard to say exactly how. I’ve run into this problem before; I have a lot of experience looking at space images, and you just get a sense of what’s real and what isn’t. This one screams fake. The landscape color is a bit too saturated for Mars*. The sky’s the wrong color. The clouds are too numerous, the wrong color as well, and they have that "rendered by software" look to them.

But that’s not proof, of course. Gut sense may not be a bad place to start, but it makes for lousy evidence. The thing is, there is solid evidence the picture isn’t real! Look to the lower left corner of the image; see the letters there? Here’s a zoom:

See? The arrow points to the letters, and I zoomed in and enhanced the brightness and contrast a bit. The letters are "NE". As in, "northeast".

This is exactly what you see when you use planetarium software on a computer to display the sky. Programs like Starry Night, SkySafari, and so on will put the cardinal directions (north, south, and so on) along the horizon to indicate what direction you’re looking. And many of them will display the appearance of the sky from other planets. It’s clear that’s what we have here: a rendered view from Mars using planetarium software. I’m not sure which one (there are quite a few packages available) but I bet someone out there in BAland would recognize it. Any takers?

Interestingly, fiddling with some of software I have that displays solar system planetary positions, I found that a couple of years ago (mid-2010) the view from Mars right after sunset would show Venus, Earth, and Jupiter lined up something like that. Had you been on Mars looking west you would’ve seen something very much like the vista in the picture. Thing is, had one of the rovers taken this picture, it would’ve been all over the web at the time… including here on Bad Astronomy. I wouldn’t have passed up the chance to post a picture that cool. [Note: there is a real picture of the Earth seen by a Mars rover: from Spirit, in 2004, inset above.]

Mind you, the picture itself isn’t a hoax! It’s just a computer generated image probably meant to represent a real scene. But it got spread around the net, and before you know it people think it’s real.

I’ll note that I love that people think images like this are so beautiful and interesting that they pass them around and get a sense of wonder from them. But it bugs me that it’s possible that an unreal picture gets treated as real. In this case there’s no harm done, but it’s not hard to imagine a case where a forged image showing something damaging to someone’s reputation gets treated as real and spreads like wildfire. It’s happened before, many times.

The problem here is that people pass it from one place to another without attribution, without a link to the original source (usually it’s linked to the place they got it from, one link down the line in a very long chain). In this case, I searched for a while and still have no idea where the original for this came from. It got picked up wholesale from blog to blog and Tumblr to Tumblr so rapidly that the pedigree of it got lost. Maybe someone more patient than me can find the source.

I’ve been fooled on Twitter by fake posts before, too. Everyone has at some point. I’m just glad to be able to interject a little dose of reality in this case.

And remember: we have actual, real, amazing, breath-taking images coming from Mars right now. And the fact that they are real, and mean we have a presence on another world, is far more moving and stirring than any fake could ever be.


* I’ll note that the color of the landscape in the picture does look similar to that from the old Viking images of Mars from the 1970s. The color of those images was probably too saturated when displayed, in my opinion; getting the color right in those old shots was actually fairly tough.


Related Posts:

- An unreal picture of sunset at the north pole
- A fake and a real view of the solar eclipse… FROM SPACE!
- NASA FAKED A SHUTTLE IMAGE!!!!! (a joke post I put up that some folks took seriously; see the followup post for more silliness)
- Holy UFO hoax!
- Latvian meteorite impact: fake

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Debunking, Pretty pictures, Skepticism

Washington pertussis outbreak is very, very bad

By Phil Plait | July 24, 2012 9:42 am

This is one of the scariest graphs I’ve seen in a long time.

This plot, from the CDC, shows probable and confirmed cases of pertussis – whooping cough – in the state of Washington from 2011 through June 2012. Last year’s numbers are the short, light-blue-grey rectangles, and this year’s are the dark blue. The plot is by week, so you can see the 2011 numbers slowly growing across the year; then this year’s numbers suddenly taking a huge leap upward. They are reporting the new rate as 13 times larger than last year. Note that 83% of these cases have been confirmed as being pertussis, while 17% are probable. The drop in recent weeks is due to a lag in complete reporting of cases.

Got that? There are 13 times as many people – more than 2500 in total so far – getting pertussis right now as there were last year at this time in Washington.

Some of this increase may be attributable to the pertussis bacterium growing a resistance to the vaccine and booster. However, it’s curious that Washington state has seen such a large jump; the incidence of pertussis overall in that state is nine times higher than the national average.

Why would this be? Well, it so happens that the antivax movement is quite strong in Washington state, and it also so happens that parents are choosing not to vaccinate their children in higher numbers there than the rest of the nation.

There may be other factors, but it’s clear that people who don’t vaccinate are at least partially to blame for this. Maybe it’s due to religious reasons, or the large number of antivaxxers who still blame autism on vaccines, when we know for sure that’s not the case. Either way, when vaccine rates get too low, herd immunity is compromised, and we see more pertussis cases, even among those who are vaccinated.

Pertussis is a terrible, terrible disease. It puts infants at grave risk of dying, and eight infants so far this year have been killed by pertussis in the US. Even if it doesn’t kill them, it’s a horrible thing to put them through.

Vaccines save lives. Talk to your board-certified doctor and find out if you need one, or a booster. I did, and my whole family is up-to-date with their vaccinations. I refuse to be a part of spreading a disease that can kill anyone, let alone babies, and I refuse to be silent about it.

Tip o’ the needle to Steven Saltzberg at Genomics, Evolution, and Pseudoscience and mims on Twitter.


Related Posts:

- Not vaccinated? No kisses!
- Whooping cough outbreak in Boulder
- Pertussis can kill, and you can help stop it
- Pertussis and measles are coming back

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