Category: Skepticism

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.

Related posts:

- Great Tyson’s ghost!
- Ghostly spectacles
- Dork Tower busts ghosts
- A cosmic Halloween gallery: things that go BOO in the night

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Debunking, Skepticism
MORE ABOUT: ghosts, haunted house

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.

You Are the Future of Skepticism

By Phil Plait | September 4, 2012 7:00 am

My friend Tim Farley is a tireless promoter and advocate of critical thinking. He writes the What’s The Harm? website, categorizing the appalling harm done by antiscience. He created a This Day in Skeptic History app. His most important work is probably the development of Skeptical Software Tools that make it easier and more efficient to be a skeptic.

He spoke at TAM 2012 about these tools, and what each of us can do to make the world a more reality-based place. That video is now available online:

He makes a lot of excellent points; in fact, I find really nothing there to disagree with. We do waste a lot of effort and time online – in many cases trying to score cheap points when there are far more effective things we could be doing. And there are tools that can help make that happen – Tim talks about quite a few in his TAM talk. I use Web of Trust myself, and I’ve been meaning to look more into rbutr. You should take a look yourself.

When you find something attacking reality, it’s easy complain about it on Twitter or Facebook. It feels good and makes you think you’ve accomplished something. But there’s a reason this is called slacktivism. One of the most important things we can do is follow through. That’s why when I talk about antivaxxers I almost always tell people to talk to their board-certified doctor and see if they need to get their boosters, and put my arm where my mouth is. That’s why I will often tell people to contact their representatives in government about issues – and then do so myself. That’s why I went into Boulder a few weeks ago and helped get people to send letters to Congress in support of NASA’s planetary exploration… and that worked.

What issue burns in your mind? And what exactly have you done about it?

Related Posts:

- Pamela Gay: Make the World Better
- Followup: Antivaxxers, airlines, and ailments
- How to get kids to think critically
- It must be true. I heard it on the Internet.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Antiscience, Piece of mind, Skepticism

Arctic sea ice extent now at record low levels

By Phil Plait | August 27, 2012 6:25 am

I’ve been holding off writing about this until it was official, and now it is: the area of the arctic covered by sea ice has reached a record low.

[Click to embiggen.]

"Sea ice extent" is (more or less) a measure of the amount of ice covering the sea surface. It’s measured using satellite data; the area is divided into many bins, and sea ice extent is calculated by adding up all the bins with more than 15% ice in them. Every year the ice starts to grow in the autumn and melts in the summer, so you get a sine-wave curve of extent every year.

Satellite observations began in 1979. In the graph above, the dark line is the average summer extent for the period 1979 – 2000. The gray area around it is the measurement uncertainty (2σ if you want to be exact). The dashed green line is the extent for 2007 – the previous record low year – and the blue line is 2012. I added the red line so you can compare 2007 to now. The data numbers show the record is broken, though on the graph they look tied. [UPDATE: The new plot made by the NSIDC for August 26 clearly shows the extent is now lower than the lowest point in 2007.]

As you can see, we’re still on the way down, weeks ahead of the date of the lowest extent in 2007. The minimum extent in 2007 was reached on September 16. In 2011 – which had the second-lowest extent on record, essentially equaling that of 2007 – lowest extent happened on September 9. This year it was August 25.

Notice any trend there? I don’t want to make too much of the idea that it’s happening earlier every year because there aren’t enough data points, but it’s consistent with the Earth’s temperature increasing. The massive heat wave that melted so much ice in Greenland this summer may have something to do with this as well.

Here’s a map from the National Snow and Ice Data Center showing the extent for August 25, 2012. The orange line is again the average for August 25 taken over the years 1979 – 2000. White shows ice, blue is ocean, gray is land; you can see Greenland directly below the ice, with Canada and the US to the lower left. Obviously, the sea ice extent for August 25 is way, way below average compared to the past.

I’ll be honest: this map and graph are making me unhappy. The fantastic website Skeptical Science has more about this. The most worrisome aspect of this to me is how this accelerates. Ice is bright white, so it reflects sunlight. Sea water is much darker and absorbs that light. So the more ice you lose, the darker overall the arctic gets, and the faster it melts.

Of course; we’ll hear the usual excuses and cherry-picking from the denier set, but here are the facts:

The Earth is warming up. The rate of warming has increased in the past century or so. This corresponds to the time of the Industrial Revolution, when we started dumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Greenhouse gases warm the planet (hence the name) — if they didn’t we’d have an average temperature below the freezing point of water. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas which is dumped into the atmosphere by humans to the tune of 30 billion tons per year, 100 times the amount from volcanoes. And finally, approximately 97% of climatologists who actually study climate agree that global warming is real, and caused by humans.

Far from being a fluctuation, these records getting broken are more likely a trend, and it’s more likely we’ll see more of them.

Graph and image credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center

Related Posts:

- 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

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

The silencing of hate

By Phil Plait | August 20, 2012 11:16 am

[I wrote this article for my friend Amy Roth, aka SurlyAmy, who has asked leaders in the field of skepticism to write about the recent surge of anti-women rhetoric. She posted my article on the Skepchicks site, and you can find links to the whole series of articles at the bottom of that post. I'm posting my piece here on my blog as well because this is a very important topic, and I want as many people to see it as possible.]

What the hell is going on in the online community?

If you’ve been reading or paying attention at all to any of the online cultures like skepticism or general geekery (scifi, gaming, convention-going, and so on), you’ll have seen astonishing and depressing displays of sexism. That’s been true for a long time. But recently some sort of sea change has occurred, and what we’re seeing now is a marked increase in outright misogyny and thuggery.

The examples are so distressingly ubiquitous I hardly need point them out. A woman gamer wants to make a documentary showing misogyny in video games, and she gets rape and death threats. Rebecca Watson calmly and rationally tells men not to hit on women in enclosed spaces and reaps a supernova of hate and irrational vitriol. And now we’re seeing death threats, rape threats, all kinds of violent threats, against women who are simply trying to improve the way they are treated at meetings as well as online.

This. Must. Stop.

I am a skeptic and a scientist. I know what’s it like to feel anger and frustration toward implacable forces I think are threatening my way of existence. You may feel this way about many things as well. And while you and I may disagree on some of these topics, the way to work out our disagreements is through the exchange of ideas via honorable words and actions.

Threats, dickery, bullying, hate, insults, mob-baiting, and humiliation are not honorable actions and must not be used. You want to change my mind? You want to win my heart to your cause? Then argue your case logically and based on evidence. If you have to resort to the kind of crap we’re seeing now, then maybe your convictions aren’t as rationally based as you think they are.

Look, I know people are angry. Some of them have the right to be. As I have said many times, anger is natural, anger can be warranted, and anger can be a great motivator. But it must not lead to hatred. Unfocused anger, uncontrolled anger, cannot lead anywhere but away from a goal. Once hatred leaks in through those cracks, rational discussion is dead.

I have seen precious few discussions on this where sooner or later (and usually sooner) the comments don’t devolve into spittle-flecked rhetoric. Even if the original article is well-reasoned, thoughtful, calm, and rational, the comments quickly fall apart. That is what hate does.

That’s unfortunate, but that’s the internet. There’s not a whole lot that can be done about that in general, because you cannot control how others act. But here’s what can be done in particular: you can control how you act. Don’t let the anger, don’t let the hate, get the better of you.

Internet discussion devolves quickly, but discussions in person tend not to. We know when we are facing another living, breathing, feeling person, but that knowledge is easily overwhelmed by emotion online. But the two are not separate: raging emotions online have real life consequences. Threats and bullying online don’t just go out into the ether. They affect real people, and can cause a lifetime of damage.

Don’t let the hate get the better of you.

I’ve been quiet about this up until now for many reasons. Whenever I dip my toes into this miasma the overwhelming response is been vicious and hateful. Even many people who claim to be critical thinkers dive into the ichor and become part of it.

But I decided I can’t stand by and watch this anymore, and that’s why I’m writing this now. My friend, Surly Amy, has been posting a series of articles by men speaking out against this incredibly disturbing trend toward violent rhetoric, and the post by Dale McGowan, Executive Director of Foundation Beyond Belief, really struck home:

Silently shaking my head does nothing. The women under this kind of attack can’t hear my head rattling, so they can only assume I don’t care, when I actually care deeply. I think it’s the difficulty of putting this massive, deranged genie back in the bottle that keeps so many of us quiet. But that’s a poor excuse that only keeps the victims feeling isolated and besieged.


If you threaten violence against someone you disagree with, then you are not a critical thinker. You are not a skeptic. And you are most certainly not a decent human being.

If you disagree with someone, fine. You may be right, you may be wrong. But if, when expressing your disagreement, you bully, threaten, verbally or mentally abuse the person you’re arguing with, then you’re doing it wrong, and you need to stop.

Maybe you’ve heard me say this before, but it’s just as relevant now as it was in 2010, and it always will be: Don’t Be A Dick. If we can just start there, we’ll get a lot farther along the path of understanding and mutual benefit. And from there we can get on with the real work of making the world a better place. For everyone.

The most amazing contrast of the 21st century

By Phil Plait | August 16, 2012 10:30 am

While NASA and JPL put a nuclear powered laser-eyed roving chem lab on another planet, Kentucky legislators want to teach kids that the world is 6000 years old, and Missouri wants schoolchildren to be able to stick their fingers in their ears if their teachers discusses evolution.

I think I’ll just leave this here.

Related Posts:

- Tennessee passes law allowing creationism in the classroom
- Louisiana fights back against creationist legislators
- A win for reality in Texas!
- States of educational decay

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

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

Reminder: Dragon*Con Star Party August 30

By Phil Plait | August 8, 2012 1:13 pm

Just a quick reminder: there are still some tickets left for the pre-Dragon*Con Atlanta Skeptics Star Party on Thursday evening, August 30.

I have details in an earlier post. The proceeds go to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. I’ll be speaking there, as will Dr. Nicole Gugliucci, and there will be spacey music by Marian Call and George Hrab!

I hope to see lots of BABloggees there. It’ll be a great time!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Geekery, Skepticism
MORE ABOUT: Dragon*Con, star party

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