Little Pyramid(iots) on Mars… Again

Everyone knows about the so-called Face on Mars, and in the same general area (Cydonia) of the Red Planet there are objects some have called pyramids on Mars. Better resolutions images demonstrate that there really was no monumental face on Mars, and the pyramidal structures are most likely caused by prevailing winds that erode the sides of mountains or some other directional eroding forces as seen on Earth (cf. Matterhorn).

But there seems to be a new pyramid in town, captured by the Curiosity Rover. The claim that we may have here some artificial structure seems to have first appeared on, though basing it on a YouTube video, and has been spreading to other, more popular websites. All I can say is, “really? This is exciting?”

First off, from this one image you can’t even say it’s pyramidal in shape. The back side that is unseen could be rounded or otherwise out of the needed shape. We also don’t know about the shape of the rock under the sand. Lastly, with the shadow I can’t really tell that the dark side is flat or not. Even calling it a pyramid cannot be fully justified.

Also, look at the scale here. It was captured not too far away from the Mars rover, and other rocks in the background and foreground give you an idea of how large the “pyramid” is. Mind you, the Rover itself at its highest is about seven feet above the ground, and the base of the rover is about two feet above. These are rocks that the rover could potentially drive over but will probably be avoided.

But that hasn’t stopped the wild speculation. It’s being suggested as either some sort of land marker for directional purposes or the top of some much larger structure, the top of a pyramid. If it’s a marker, then it’s a bad design since it fails to be larger than the surrounding rocks and thus impossible to be distinguished by a traveler. And supposing there is some large pyramid underneath the soil is just groundless (*pun intended*) speculation.

It seems we have speculation built upon seeing what we want to see. The person that made the original video also found the head of Obama on Mars. It doesn’t seem like that much a resemblance to me, but perhaps all black people look the same to this person? Come on, man! #BlackRocksMatter

Still, what are the chances of finding such a rock of this size on Mars? Given the millions of such objects and the millions of ways a picture could be taken to given the appearances of pyramidal shapes, not to mention the pattern-seeking ways of the human mind, it seems like a pretty darn close to 100%. A pyramidal rock just isn’t that strange a thing to exist (eg., here). Heck, after a little bit of looking, and I see that a pyramidal rock was found on Mars by Curiosity back in 2012! But in this case, you can see it’s not smooth on all sides and almost certainly a natural formation (the person in that link saying it looks “melted” on one side really should take a look at lava).

Looks like we have a combo of pareidolia and pyramidiocy.

The Star and the Skeptical Christmas–The Star of Bethlehem

The holidays are approaching fast, and the first snows are coming over the United States. The ever-expanding day of Christmas will truly be here soon. And all around the world, both preachers and even some scientists will be talking about a perennial subject: the Star of Bethlehem and what it could have been. Since the 1930s, planetaria the globe over have had presentations of what planet or exploding star could have been the famed light that brought wise men from the East to a lowly crib in a tiny town in Judea.

But can science really explain this celebrated celestial event? Is it something actually miraculous or a literary artifice? How can someone tell? Moreover, why is this a subject that draws both astronomers and theologians to ask these sorts of questions?

All that and more is considered in The Star of Bethlehem: A Skeptical View. Not only covering all of the major and minor hypotheses to explain the meaning and motions of the Star, including the extraterrestrial, it investigates what was possibly on the mind of the ancient author of the Gospel story and what is in mind for many others that continue to pursue this subject. The Star of Bethlehem was also the subject of a major conference at the University of Groningen, and the major conclusions of SoB: ASV find support by experts in many fields.

So this holiday, learn about fascinating astronomical science, history, religion, cultures from the Romans to the Persians to the ancient Jews, and also understand a bit more about how science and religion interact through history and today.

Author: Dr. Aaron Adair is a professor of physics at Merrimack College, where he both teaches and conducts education research, along with continuing investigations of ancient religions and the heavens. He received his PhD from Ohio State University and worked as a planetarium show presenter at Michigan State University. He has previously published on the subject of the Star in Zygon and was an invited speaker to the University of Groningen’s conference on the Star.

Praise for SoB: ASV:
“Well researched, scientifically reasoned, elegantly concise, this book will long be required reading on the ‘Star of Bethlehem’. Full of fascinating historical facts, and better informed and more careful than any other book on the subject, this should be on the shelf of everyone interested in that legendary celestial event.” Richard Carrier, Ph.D., author of Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus.

“A fascinating and readable feat of hardcore historical legwork and keen scientific analysis.” David Fitzgerald, author of The Complete Heretic’s Guide to Western Religion: The Mormons.

“…tightly-argued, well-reasoned…. Adair masterfully demonstrates why every effort to rationalize the Star thus far has failed…. A concise and rigorous must-read for anyone interested in religion, history, and modern efforts to understand the past.” Jason Colavito, author of The Cult of Alien Gods.


Dr. Aaron Adair, Star of Bethlehem Press Kit

My Talk for Skeptics in the Pub, Cologne on the Star of Bethlehem

Along with the big Star of Bethlehem conference in Groningen, I was in Cologne before that to give a talk about the same subject to Skeptics in the Pub. That talk was also recorded and edited nicely by the folks there, and that is now up on YouTube. (Note: the intro is in German, but my talk is in English.)

Only downside with this was that I did not do my best to stay close to the microphone, and that means my voice goes in and out a fair bit. I’m used to talking with my voice picked up by different devices, so I’ll need to remember that for the future. Still, you can get all the contents of my talk reasonably well, and the presentation went really smoothly. Plus, great folks at SiTP Koeln. They had some really good questions, but it doesn’t look like the Q&A was recorded.

I also didn’t know this before I went there, but Cologne is the city were, allegedly, the bodies of the Three Kings/Magi are kept; the city’s coat of arms reflects this, and the cathedral with those bodies is a UNESCO site, and it is a lovely building. 2014-10-22 10.22.50

A bit of review of me and my talk can be found here and here (auf Deutch). Hopefully I can find an excuse and go again to this group.

Also, the holidays are approaching, so if your group needs a speaker on a timely subject, let me know.

My #AncientAliens Chat on Paranormal Review Radio is Up

As mentioned previously, I was on the Internet radio show, Paranormal Review Radio, this previous Friday. I think all went rather well. The hosts let me say things at length, and the questions I thought were interesting ones. Most importantly I enjoyed myself in the process, and I must have left a good impression since they said they would want to have me on again.

You can listen to the interview/chat now here. I am on for about an hour and a half, and the hosts carry on for another thirty-ish minutes. They have some speculations to try and resolve some of the issues I brought up with the Ancient Alien Theory, and it gives me some ideas about how to talk about the subject in the future with even better agility. I don’t know when I will talk about the subject again, though it will come up in my Star of Bethlehem talk in Cologne in a few weeks. You are coming to that, right?

Check Out Paranormal Podcasts at Blog Talk Radio with ParanormalReview on BlogTalkRadio

More #AncientAliens Talk on Paranormal Review Radio with Me this Friday

I know everyone loved my talk at Illini about aliens, especially of the ancient sort, but unfortunately not everyone in the world could be there. But this Friday, Sept 26 at 10 pm EST, I will be on Paranormal Review Radio to talk about the subject and perhaps debunk the idea.

They have also produced a fun little promotional video.

I’m not totally sure what to expect, and I’ll be on my own as the skeptic. Jason Colavito was also asked to join, but he probably won’t be able to make it. Unfortunate, since he knows the material orders of magnitude better than I do. But at worst, I think this will be fun.

So, listen in or at least cheer me on.

My Upcoming Talk about Science, Religion, the Star of Bethlehem in Cologne (Köln)

Several months ago I was asked to participate on a conference about the Star of Bethlehem at the University of Groningen. But before I get there, I will be stopping in Cologne (Köln) in Germany to give a lecture for the Skeptics in the Pub group there. My lecture will be in English, if for no other reason than my German is nothing to listen to (one can say ein Bier, bitte only so many times). Besides the links above see the Post by The Star of Bethlehem: A Skeptical View book page.

Hope you can come and check it all out! And if you are in Germany, Denmark, or the Netherlands (and maybe France) and have a skeptic/humanist/atheist/religious studies group, contact me ASAP if you want me to make a tour stop. I need to buy plane tickets really soon.

Critical Thinking and Expert Consensus

Here’s a problem: how to you know what is right if you don’t explore the question for yourself?

While we should strive to only accept those things which we can verify for ourselves, that is simply impossible to do in all things. We can’t all do our own cancer treatment studies, for example. Doing just one such study takes huge amounts of time, money, effort, and knowledge in getting results and interpreting them. And that would be just one study. What about food safety, or discoveries in modern physics? It’s implausible that you will be trying to double-check that you can create your own superconductor at higher temperatures.

So either you have to be ignorant about so much that is important in the modern world, or you need to accept the work done by others. But how reliable can that be? We know individuals lie or are mistaken all the time, and being an expert or well-experienced in a field doesn’t stop that from happening. It’s easy to point to examples in recent times, such as scientists paid to argue against the connection between smoking and lung cancer as well as other examples detailed in Merchants of Doubt. However, one of the authors of that book, Naomi Oreskes, argues that we should still trust the scientific enterprise as she details well in this TED talk.

Simple summary of why we trust science.

In particular, Oreskes says we should put our trust not in individuals experts but scientific consensus, a wisdom of the crowd of experts in a subject. And the reason that the scientific consensus should be given weight rather than, say, the consensus of astrologers on their subject, is because of the nature and values of science, especially its organized skepticism. So, if there is a group of people with expertise in a subject, and if that community of experts evaluates a claim and it goes through debate and is analyzed with good data and skeptical inquiry, and that group comes to a consensus, those of us outside of that group have good reason to trust the results of that group; at the very least, it is much more likely that they are right than wrong, and you are unable to determine otherwise.

Or are you?

The question now arises as to when might you have reason to doubt the consensus? Perhaps now those outside of the group doing the research can evaluate the claims because so much of the data and analysis papers are online we can go figure it out for ourselves. The problem is, that is much harder than one thinks. That point is made well in Harry Collins’s book Are We all Scientific Experts Now? With the particular example of so-called Climategate, we see what happens when emails by the researchers are cherry-picked and misunderstood to mean something dastardly. Additionally, Collins shows the healthcare disaster in South Africa when the president of that country did his research online and then denied the use of anti-retroviral drugs to alleviate the spread of HIV to newborn children. Doubting the consensus to go with the minority report or fringe view tends to lead to misunderstanding and even suffering.

But why do people outside of the expert researchers fail to examine the evidence properly? And are we doomed to just trust the consensus no matter what? What can a regular person do to make sure that they have justified reason to trust any or all given consensuses? About two months ago, Richard Carrier posted a blog entry on that subject on how to evaluate an argument from consensus, and since then he has discussed the question in a few different places, in particular this video chat on Inspiring Doubt.

Carrier does make good points about when a consensus may not be a reliable consensus (if the experts haven’t evaluated the methods critically or having considered the opposing arguments, which is why astrologers cannot be trusted when they state astrology works), but one thing in particular comes up in that blog post and his interview: our use of critical thinking skills to evaluate the arguments of the experts, especially if against a fringe view. And while it is true that if you can see someone continuously using fallacious arguments you have reason to doubt the strength of that person’s position, there is trouble with using critical thinking. This is in part to something echoed by Chris Hallquist, Julia Galef, and Luke Muehlhauser, and in part it is related to the talk I will be giving at the upcoming SSA East conference next weekend.

So, what is wrong with critical thinking?  Continue reading

Appearing in Illinois to talk about Physics and Aliens

Next week I will be in Illinois to give a couple of talks quite unrelated to each other.

First, on Wednesday of next week (April 23rd), I will be giving a presentation related to my physics education research at Illinois State University. I will focus on the origins of physical intuitions, such as why students continually believe that motion requires an active force contra Newton’s first law. There will be some nice history of science along with my own data collection that went into my thesis. Hopefully I can get this published in the not too distant future. I don’t think this talk will be open to the public and if mostly geared for undergrad physics students.

My other talk is the next day at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for the student group, the Illini Secular Student Alliance. This will be about aliens/ETs and if they have been visiting us. This will be similar to a talk I gave to my local SSA group a few years ago (video here), but I have updated several things and go much more into the modern UFO phenomenon. The focus will still be largely on the “ancient astronaut theory” and there will be much-deserved reference to the efforts of Jason Colavito, Michael Heiser, and Robert Sheaffer. You can also see some of the things I have previously written about with respect to this subject here. The talk is more open and it should be recorded; once the video goes up I will post that.

Later this year I am slated to give another talk here in Columbus, and I still have the Star of Bethlehem Conference in the Netherlands in October. So, I will get to provide lots of jibber-jabber. If you want more, feel free to ask. 🙂

Astrology News on the Radio in Canada with Me

Yesterday while I was working on things, my phone went off, saying I had a call from Alberta. I’m pretty sure this is the first time I’ve received any calls from Canada on my phone, so it was surprising. But more importantly it wasn’t a crank call; rather, it was a radio station in Calgary that was going to be talking about a new study on how many people in the US think astrology is legit science. You can look at this study here.

It is part of a larger science literacy study by the National Science Foundation, and they ask about astrology as a benchmark for the acceptance of pseudo-scientific beliefs. Why astrology? In part because it is very much bunk, and numerous studies show that astrologers cannot predict personal characteristics better than chance, and the agreement between astrologers, even using the same astrological methods, agree little more than at the level of chance. (I discuss this a bit in my book, The Star of Bethlehem: A Skeptical View). In part also because the idea of astrology is nearly omnipresent; a horoscope is found in just about every major newspaper, it’s on the front pages of other news sites, and it has a fair bit of popular press because of celebrity endorsement, such as pop singer Katy Perry. So belief in astrology as scientific or a useful practice can be a good barometer for non-scientific belief acceptance.

The recent study shows that still a small majority of Americans think that astrology is “not at all scientific”, but it is at a recent low. Over at Mother Jones, Chris Mooney provides these graphs for how rejection of astrology has changed over the years and how acceptance of astrology appears among different age demographics.

The thing to note is that astrology has a far greater acceptance among millennials verses other age demographics.

So, what is going on here?

Back to that phone call, I was invited onto 770 AM CHQR for a chat with hosts Angela Kokott and Dave Taylor about this new finding, why people buy into astrology, and why it seems to be growing. You can listen to the whole show by going to this website and picking the date of Feb 13 and at 3 PM to listen to the right show. I get on the air about 11.5 minutes in, give or take. The audio file will not be up for long, so go get it now!

To explain the growth, especially among young people, I said that it may partially be explained by the changing religious demographics. Millennials are more willing to reject traditional forms of religion, and branches of evangelical Christianity usually have only bad things to say about astrology, keeping their flocks away from it. Another factor, that I didn’t mention on the air, was that there has been recent economic and political stress, and such things often cause people to look for answers in domains that are outside what is mainstream or accepted by the elites (i.e., scientists). Compare the data from the late 1970s/early 1980s. The US had gone through the terrible Vietnam War, the Nixon resignation, stagflation, and failures of foreign policy under Carter in both Iran and Afghanistan. No wonder it was boom times for pseudo-science in that period, not to mention the counter culture movement that grew up in the 1960s. So, with the current issues of the sluggish economy after a world-wide banking debacle, the bailout of the super-rich, the continuing flat wages of most workers who can even get work, and a gridlock federal government, it isn’t looking like the elites of the country can do anything right. That makes things rife for pseudo-scientific ideas to gain a foothold.

This is also frightening because the decline in belief in astrology through the 1980s and 1990s was in part because of the organizing of skeptical groups to show it doesn’t work. In Nature, there was a paper published showing astrology didn’t work, and other well-designed studies showed similar results. The group CSICOP (now CSI) was getting well-organized after earlier issues dealing with astrology. But now a lot of that progress seems to have been reversed. This certainly will require a lot of work on the part of skeptic groups, but it won’t be easy considering that there is usually not the best amount of communication between believers in astrology and its detractors.

It’s not something that needs more study. Astrology has been shown by dozens of well-designed studies to not work better than what is expected by chance. Moreover, the apparent successes of horoscope “predictions” can be seen as either using statements that fit anyone (called Barnum statements, see the Forer Effect), or there is the use of cold reading, where the participant is asked by the astrologer vague or leading questions for the participant to place their answer in such a way as it appears that the astrologer knew the answer from the horoscope. And let’s not forget that for astrology to work you have to break the fundamental laws of physics, a non-trivial issue. But for someone that really believes, that won’t change things. Just like with creationists, it isn’t the evidence for astrology that attracts people but some other need it apparently fulfills, such as telling you something about yourself or your purpose. I recommended some ways of talking to people to get them to reason out of astrology before, but I may need to do something more in depth to really make it work. And it looks like of people my age and younger, they need to hear it.

(Also note: one of the authors of the study is John Besley of Michigan State University, my alma mater. Go Green!)

Where are the 2012 Doomers? — Update via Stuart Robbins

It has been almost exactly six months since the end of the world on Dec 21, 2012. And of course, that end failed to happen. As every skeptic felt afterward, it was an apocalyptic fail. I had done a look to see what the response was from those that believed in earth-shattering changes for that date five months ago to the day. What was impressive was the incredible silence by (former) advocates. The websites were not updated, and little traffic existed that I could find to direct me to something new.

Now a similar (though probably even more thorough) look has been done by astronomer and pseudo-astronomy debunker, Stuart Robbins of the Exposing PseudoAstronomy Podcast. While a couple of people have said that after Dec 21 of last year, we now have the option to open ourselves up to new, spiritual energies or similar non-empirical statements, the chief response seems to be the one I found: silence.

I had earlier figured that because the 2012 movement didn’t really have any other uniting forces as other cults do (i.e. a moral code, a social support group, etc.) it would not do well after the prophetic failure. And it looks like only those that latched 2012 with some sort of spiritual event have found any way to reinterpret the apparent non-event of the winter solstice. The rest have drifted away, and the phenomenon has been all but forgotten.

The question now is what will be the next big apocalyptic prediction. I’m betting in the future a revised version of the Maya calendar end-times will emerge. This is because there is some uncertainty about the correlation between the Maya calendar and the modern, Gregorian one we use, so it could be that the end of the longest period of the calendar is decades into the future. So if someone takes that later date as gospel (and why should they have to take the most probable reading of Maya scholars, after all?), with the failure of 2012 long forgotten it could reemerge. There is plenty of time for such an idea to set roots. After all, the 2012 phenomenon started in the 1960s or 70s and started getting big in the 90s. I won’t predict this sort of thing will happen, but it is worth having some vigilance and point out this catastrophic failure of a catastrophe to prevent people getting suckered in again.