Junk Science Reporting Drives Me Crazy

It’s been a while since I had a good rant, so I’m going to indulge. Please feel free to skip this one if you like. I occasionally go off on a rant when I run into an especially irritating bit of so-called “journalism”, and this is one of those instances.

When I was going through my various news sources this morning while having my coffee, I ran across a news item at Motherboard, part of Vice.com, about Proxima Centauri and it’s newly discovered planet, b. You can click here to jump over and read it yourself. The headline reads: “Our Closest Earthlike Planet Appears to be Covered in Water”

As I read it I frowned a lot. I might go so far as to say I was seriously irked. Unless someone, somewhere, had come up with something entirely new and unexpected, what they were implying in this little piece was irresponsible and so lacking in any kind of facts that it was pure fiction.  And yes, they use weasel words like ‘could’, ‘possibly’, ‘may’. Technically the article doesn’t come right out and lie, but it is seriously misleading, perhaps deliberately so in order to generate clickbait headlines.

Let me give you some background for you non-astronomers out there. Proxima Centauri is the star closest to us. It is a very tiny and very dim red dwarf star about 4.2 light years away from Earth. While that is close in astronomical terms, in human terms it is very, very far away indeed. Light moves at 186,000 miles per second. Light takes 4.2 years to go from Earth to Proxima. I will leave it to you to figure out exactly how far that is. My calculator doesn’t have enough zeroes.

They recently discovered Proxima has a planet. They immediately gave it the amazingly creative name Proxima b. What we know about this new planet is, well, not much, really. We know it’s about 1.3 times the mass of the Earth. We know it’s between 0.9 and 1.44 times the diameter of the Earth. We know it orbits Proxima at a distance that is one tenth the distance of Mercury to our sun. We know how fast it goes around it’s star. We know it is tidally locked to it’s star. That means the same face of the planet is always facing the star. One side of the planet is in perpetual light, the other side is in perpetual dark.

Or I thought that’s all we knew until I saw this article. This article implies that B is covered with planet spanning oceans teaming with life. There’s liquid water everywhere, and because there’s water, there must be life! Oh my!

Now just a minute here. Really? I follow astronomy news fairly closely. If these discoveries had been made, why weren’t they all over the actual astronomical press? Something smells a wee bit odd here.

And here’s another thing that set off alarm bells. The quotes are all generic, never attributed to a specific person, but they instead use terms like “researchers said”, and “the research team said”, and “scientists concluded”. That kind of thing starts to set off alarm bells with me. It’s been my experience that legitimate news stories almost always give actual names, and if not the name of the person being quoted, at least the name of the press agent or the name of the spokesperson.

Then I started running into other rather odd things.

The Motherboard article posts a link to what supposedly was the original press release from the Marseille Astrophysics Laboratory which appeared in Agence Presse France, the French press agency. But when I click in the link, the APF’s website tells me there is no such story. So I started running searches on the APF’s news website, plugging in terms like Proxima, Proxima Centauri, Proxima B, the research group’s name, the university’s name, and found nothing. Not a single story anywhere on the APF’s website concerning Proxima’s planet, these researchers… Nothing. Unless I missed something, or wasn’t using the search engine properly, the story Motherboard quotes over at APF doesn’t exist according to APF. In fact, there is nothing anywhere on APF about Proxima at all that I could find after running extensive searches of its entire news site.

I freely admit that I might have been using their site wrong, was using their search engine wrong. So I did some more hunting for other related stories from other sources and found a lot of sciencey related popular websites with this same story. But all shared the same troubling traits. No actual names, vague references to universities and research organizations, quotes, again not from real people, but from “scientists” and “researchers.” Even more troubling, many of the stories in these websites were virtually identical, and I mean word for word identical in some cases, indicating that a lot of these places were engaging in good old fashioned cut and paste plagiarism.

I was getting increasingly obsessed with finding out what the hell was going on. Finally, I went to CNRS, the French science research organization, which supposedly was the source of all of this, and once I’d tracked down the actual original sources, I discovered what I had started to suspect already.

What the CNRS actually said about Proxima b bore little or no resemblance to what the media sources were claiming. What the CNRS actually said, if my horrible French and Google Translate haven’t failed me, is that we really know nothing about Proxima B except the few facts I already told told you about.  But that if you make a whole lot of assumptions that are probably wrong, and if those assumptions are correct, which they probably aren’t, and if the planet has an atmosphere, which we don’t know, and if the planet has a magnetic field, which we also don’t know, Proxima B might be capable of having liquid water, maybe even large amounts of it, and if it has water, which we don’t know, it might have a chance to develop some sort of life. Maybe. But we don’t really know.

This is considerably different from the Motherboard headline that says “Our Closest Earthlike Planet Appears to be Covered in Water”. In fact, I have yet to find any legitimate scientist of science organization that has said any such thing.

There is, in fact, no evidence that it has any water at all. There is no evidence it has an atmosphere. The only things we know about the planet at all are it’s approximate mass, it’s approximate size, it’s distance from its star, and it’s orbital period.

If you look at the actual facts, what we do know about Proxima Centauri and its planet, the preliminary data indicates exactly the opposite. Everything we know about it so far tends to contradict everything the Motherboard article claims is possible.

B is very, very close to it’s star. And while Proxima Centauri is a very small, very dim star, it is still a star. Even worse it is a flare star. That means it regularly blasts surrounding space with high intensity radiation and stellar mass ejections. This means that solar radiation and stellar mass ejections would have eroded away any atmosphere and water that the planet might have had billions of years ago.

Some people are trying to get around this fact by claiming B has a magnetic field strong enough to protect it from it’s star, a field similar to the one that protects Earth.

But not only is there no evidence at all to indicate it has a magnetic field, simple physics tells us it pretty much can’t have a magnetic field. A planet’s magnetic field is generated by the rotation of its molten iron core. But Proxima B doesn’t rotate. It’s tidally locked to it’s star. If it doesn’t rotate, it can’t have a magnetic field. Period.

Junk science reporting drives me crazy.

 

The Age of Stupid

Some people like to classify different periods of human development in terms of ‘ages’. We’ve had the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, the Iron Age, the Steam Age, the Space Age, the Nuclear Age.

According to a friend of mine, we have entered what will be the last age of humanity, the Age of Stupid. And one of the problems is, well, this kind of attitude:

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This quote from William James, a philosopher and psychologist from back around the end of the 19th century, pretty much sums up what’s going on these days. This quote was bogus at the time, and it is bogus now.

Belief does not create  fact. Belief does not alter the facts.

But that doesn’t stop millions of people from thinking that it does.

We seem to have come to a point in human evolution where a lot of people think that belief does indeed equal fact, is even superior to fact. All you have to do is turn on the television, listen to the radio, read on the internet, and you can see that.

Sometimes when I see the list of people who, for whatever reason, accept belief over fact, I despair about the future of the human race. I see it every single day. The anti-vaxxers, the creationists, the climate change deniers, the scammers selling phony cures, the conspiracy theorists… The list goes on and on. And the apparently endless string of politicians willing to exploit the ‘true believers’.

How did it happen? How did we evolve a culture where the claims of a former Playboy model are given more credibility than those of actual doctors? When did the beliefs of someone like Ken “Jesus rode a dinosaur’ Ham become more credible than those of actual geologists, paleontologists and biologists? How did we end up in a world where people share the ‘outrage’ of the “Food Babe” when she expressed horror that there was nitrogen in the air of an aircraft she was in?

Do we really live in the “Age of Stupid”?

 

 

The Fermi Paradox: Where the Hell Is Everyone?

I’m beginning to become a bit — irritated with astronomers, and especially with astronomy publications like, well, Astronomy Magazine, Sky & Telescope, the BBC’s Sky at Night. Even with NASA, the space program in general, and a lot of astronomers and astrophysicists in general, who start babbling like little children about stuff when they should really know better. The ‘mainstream’ media is even worse, of course.

It’s this whole life thing. As in life out there, on other planets, other star systems, other galaxies.

Every once in a while some news outlet that really should know better pops up a headline like “Life on Europa!” or “Life in Oceans Under Pluto!” or “Life Floating in Clouds in Venus” or, “Life Discovered at the Republican Convention”. It’s just — just silly. (Especially that last one.).

I’m sorry, but it is. And they really should know better. Even worse, most of them do know better.

The popular press and even otherwise allegedly rational real live scientists with actual degrees from actual universities who have actual jobs doing sciency stuff, have just gotten silly over this whole life thing.

So let’s talk about the Fermi Paradox for a bit. (Wondered when I was going to get around to getting to the point of the title up there at the top, didn’t you? Relax. It takes me a while sometimes but eventually I get to the point. Sometimes. Maybe.)

The Fermi Paradox has been floating around for a long time now. Jump over to Wikipedia and go look it up. I’ll wait. I don’t have anything going on at the moment. I’ll just babble along here until you get back. While you’re at it, look up the Drake Equation over there too…

I’m an amateur astronomer with actual telescopes and everything. I love astronomy. Fun stuff, astronomy. Nothing better than sitting around outside, shivering, your feet gradually turning to ice, wondering if your health insurance covers having your toes amputated because they turned black, chipping the frost off your scope while you try to get a picture of Jupiter that doesn’t have a bloody airplane track across the middle of it. Great fun. Highly educational and all that stuff. Highly recommended. I’m also a science fiction fan. I discovered SF when I was about 9 years old and never looked back. I grew up in a fantasy world filled with starships, exotic aliens, odd characters, bizarre societies, horrific space battles throwing planets at people, time travel, time paradoxes, alternate universes, time travel to alternate universes, time travel for the purposes of, well, weird sex. Have you read Heinlein’s later stuff? Oh my…

So I’ve more or less been living in a universe full of life. I’d love to live in a universe full of that stuff. Well, except when the Fnezeer come to, well, eat us. That I probably wouldn’ like.

The thing is, I know that is fantasy. It isn’t real, all that stuff. The zooming starships, the aliens with tentacles, the time travel incest (what the hell was Heinlein thinking?) the alien races around every corner… They’re made up. They don’t exist. Unfortunately a lot of the news media and, it seems, NASA and real actual astronomers and stuff, haven’t figured that out, or that’s what it looks like if you some of the stuff they’re pushing.

Oh, you’re back. Good!

Let’s get back to the Fermi thing, then now that you got done over at Wikipedia.

The Fermi Paradox basically asks the question, if life is as common as a lot of people think it is, where the hell is it? Why haven’t we found any? And why the hell hasn’t it found us?

Considering the age of the universe, the ginormous (that apparently is a real word, I had no idea) number of galaxies, the even more ginormous number of stars in those galaxies, and the even furtherly more intensely ginormous (now that I found out it’s a real word I’m going to use it a lot, damn it) number of planets, somebody, from somewhere, should have come ringing our doorbell to try to sell us something or try to convert us to worshiping a giant space turtle or talk us into a time share out in the Wompel Galaxy or something.

Only they haven’t. There isn’t even a single sign that there’s anyone out there. Granted, the universe is a really, really big place. But if you run the math, a single, high tech civilization, could colonize an entire galaxy in a surprisingly short amount of time, maybe four, five million years. Sounds like a long time, but species even here on Earth have been around and essentially unchanged for far longer than that.

Of course maybe they’re busy, or just don’t care.  Like these alleged life forms might look up and go “meh, the hell with all that noise”, and get on with important things. Like, oh, I don’t know, frelking, let’s say. I have no idea what frelking is, but it’s like really, really important to them and it’s way more important than stars and stuff like that. So they give up on the whole space thing and get with some serious frelking. Probably has something to do with sex, I imagine.

So that’s one theory about why no one has come to try to sell us time shares or convert us or eat us or something. They don’t give a flying fig.

This space travel stuff all assumes that the race in question thinks it’s important. And maybe it is. To us. Well, some of us, anyway. But that’s us. They, if they’re out there, don’t care, maybe. That’s the point. They are going to look different, think different, have different priorities. Like frelking. They don’t care.

The point is that they come up with all these excuses to rationalize why we haven’t seen anything out there. And they do have a valid point. I mean, frelking is really, really fun. Maybe.

But the other thing that no one seems to want to bring up, is that maybe there isn’t anyone out there. Just flat out isn’t.

Yes, I know, statically speaking it is a virtual certainty that there is something alive out there, somewhere. But we have  scientists going off the deep end claiming there’s life everywhere almost.

So where is it? We don’t exactly have a good track record finding it, do we. Let’s see, well, there’s Earth, that has life (whether it’s intelligent or not is up for debate) And then there’s… well, that’s about it. One planet out of eight (nine if you’re a Pluto fan).

It’s entirely possible that Earth is just a fluke. For all we know life is an aberration that the universe gets rid of as soon as it can conveniently bash it with a rock.

And let’s talk about the intelligence thing. We want intelligent life, too. Well, come on, let’s face it. Intelligence really isn’t much of a survival trait, now is it? When it comes down to survival as a species, one could argue that intelligence is even a drawback, because the most successful species, the ones that have been around the longest, for tens of millions of years, function almost entirely on instinct, pre-programmed behaviors, not on intelligence.

I understand that it is statistically likely there is life out there. It is statistically likely that some kind of intelligent life is out there. But it seems increasingly likely that you’re not going to find it by just turning over a rock as some scientists are claiming.

But they keep at it. “Inhabitable planet found!” “Conditions on Europa favorable to life” and… It’s just silly. I’m sorry, it is. We know better. They know better.

So why do they do it?

Money, I suspect. Trying to drum up interest to get funding, get grants, convince congress to increase NASA’s budget. They figure we’re too stupid to understand things like pulsars and event horizons and how important the measurements of high energy particles is or why it’s important we understand what the hell happened to Venus to turn it into an acidic furnace from Dante’s Inferno. But, well, hey, they say, that alien movie made a hell of a lot of money. So did that Star Trek Clone Laser thingie that was in the theaters. So people like aliens, right? So, well, okay we can’t make it all up, but we can maybe pretend kind of that there’s something out there so they give us money.

Look, just stop it, all right? Stop with the phony press releases about life on space rocks. Stop with the phony press releases about planets made of diamond and places where it rains iron and all that. It’s hype and you know it. We know it. They know it.

Just tell us what you’re doing. Tell us why you think it’s important. Tell us why we should think it’s important. Stop trying to sell us space unicorns that we all know are b.s. Maybe you’ll be surprised.