Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Bad Astronomy by Phillip Plait

Source of book: I own this.

If you haven’t already discovered Phil Plait, you really should. Seriously. Plait has worked as an astronomer (including research work on data from the Hubble Space Telescope), teacher, and writer. I read his other book, Death From The Skies a couple of years ago, and it was outstanding. I have even introduced kids to that book, because it is - in addition to an entertaining read - a fairly good basic introduction to astronomy and astrophysics.

I also should recommend Plait’s excellent video series, Crash Course Astronomy. These videos take the viewer from moon phases through neutron stars, black holes, and dark energy in a tour of the universe in 46 episodes. I plan to use them for my kids when we next do an astronomy unit. 

Bad Astronomy is actually Plait’s first book, and grew out of his blog by the same name where he debunked bad science and pseudoscience in the area of astronomy. These range from his opening chapter on balancing eggs on the equinox to bad science in movies. Along the way, he discusses questions such as why the moon looks bigger near the horizon, whether toilets swirl different directions in the northern and southern hemispheres (no), astrology, young earth creationism, whether the moon landing was faked (no), and which common idioms are actually based on truth.

Plait tackles two related phenomena in this book. The first is a general lack of scientific knowledge in the United States. It isn’t just that we do not know our science, but that we think it is okay to be scientifically illiterate.

To illustrate this point, Plait describes a news broadcast back in 1994 when Matt Lauer read a story about an experiment that the space shuttle was conducting in space. The experiment wasn’t that complicated (dragging a shield to clear small particles, then conducting tests in that ultra-vacuum environment), but Lauer clearly was just reading without having a clue what he was talking about. The other persons on the broadcast, Katie Couric and Bryant Gumbel, made a joke about it. As Plait points out, these are three of the most famous journalists -  household names everyone knows. “Think about that for a moment: three of America’s most famous journalists, and they actually laughed at their own ignorance in science! How would this be different if, say, the report had been about Serbia, and they laughed at how none of them knew where it was?”

This is the problem. It is “cute” to be scientifically ignorant. (Also to be ignorant in math  - and the two are related.) I have found it frustrating when discussing topics which involve science, from “alternative” medicine scams to the age of the earth, that many, many people do not know basic high school level science, and don’t care. Shouldn’t this be as embarrassing as not knowing how to read?

The second phenomenon is that of blind acceptance of ludicrous claims. Plait is a big advocate for “scientific skepticism,” the practice of questioning whether claims are supported by actual empirical evidence. Don’t confuse this with philosophical skepticism (questioning our ability to have any knowledge of the world),  methodological skepticism (dating from Descartes, a doubting of one’s beliefs as a method of thinking about them), or even religious skepticism. I am, I am suspecting, a bit of a rare bird, because I myself am a big fan of scientific skepticism but am also a religious person. I believe my type was more common in the past, but things have gotten polarized as of late, alas.

Just for fun, I should mention that in addition to Plait, I am a fan of Mythbusters, the television show that tests urban myths and other claims using the scientific method. But scientific skepticism isn’t just a modern phenomenon. Sir Thomas Browne (17th Century), Michel de Montaigne (16th Century), Antoine Lavoisier (the chemist who named the elements oxygen and hydrogen), and Benjamin Franklin. The key essence of the philosophy is “prove it.” But it isn’t just skepticism. Scientific skepticism also fights against pseudoskeptics, like AIDS denialists and others who pretend to just be “asking questions” while really pushing an alternative to scientifically established facts.

Chief among these at this time are the anti-vaxxers, who Plait has done his best to debunk.

The point of Bad Astronomy isn’t to mock those who believe silly things. If anything, Plait is more generous, granting a certain sort of common sense to some myths. After all, things often do look a certain way, until one applies the scientific method to them. (For example, holding a pencil eraser against the moon at arm’s length demonstrates that the moon is the same size wherever it is.) One can particularly see this in Plait’s approach to young earth creationism. Here in the book - and also on his blog - he states up front that he is non-religious. But he doesn’t attack religion. In fact, if all my religious friends were as generous toward atheists as Plait is toward religious people, the world would be a far better place. Plait limits himself to debunking the scientific claims. His problem is when YEC believers misuse and misstate science to “prove” their points.

I have no intention of discussing their arguments based on the Bible. I leave that to experts on religion and interpreting various ancient texts. I also have no desire to insult, denigrate, or argue against anyone’s religious beliefs, as long as they do not use scientific data incorrectly to support these beliefs.

And then he goes on to tackle a few of claims made by YEC advocates, showing that they leave out crucial information, lie about what the data says, and fail (or refuse) to acknowledge any evidence that contradicts their beliefs.

I’ll admit that I firmly agree with Plait on this. I once embraced the YEC viewpoint. What changed for me was when I got far enough along in my science education to start evaluating the claims. I had already embraced an old earth by the time I graduated high school. Once the internet became available to me, I was able to search out additional sources, and the whole thing fell apart. There were too many outright lies in the YEC information. (Similarly, despite my family’s embrace of “alternative” medicine, I found that the materials often couldn’t even get high school chemistry right. It was obvious at some point that the whole thing was a highly lucrative scam.)

In a way, then - and this is the lawyer speaking too - what this world needs is a lot less credulity and a lot more skepticism. This political season has been ample demonstration of that fact, with so many willing to just accept what someone says without thinking it through and checking out the actual facts.

In summary, then, what this book does is make a compelling argument for actually testing and looking stuff up before accepting claims. Depending on one’s prior knowledge, this book could either be a revelation, or just a confirmation of one’s own research. In my case, I did learn some things. For example, I had not thought through exactly why there would be no visible stars in photographs of astronauts on the moon. (It’s all about photography and how bright the astronauts were in direct sunlight.) There are lots of fun tidbits for everyone. However, I think that the real strength of this book is going to be sharing it with my kids and with others who wish to understand why some things are simply not credible. One hopes it can be an antidote to the culture of “post first, question later - or probably never.”

And maybe, one can only hope, it can at least convince a few people that scientific illiteracy isn’t funny.


A few random things:

Seriously, Death From the Skies is really great. One of my 11 year old friends read it and discovered a thirst for more knowledge about relativity and astrophysics. Science is great stuff!

On a related note, Crash Course Astronomy is very, very good. I thought I had a pretty decent grasp of the basic concepts, but Plait includes so many things discovered just since we put the Hubble in orbit that prove the universe is even more amazing than I knew. Plait has that rare and invaluable gift of taking complex topics and making them understandable without dumbing them down. Obviously, this isn’t a graduate level physics course or anything, but for those of us outside of the scientific world, it is a great introduction to important concepts.

Also, Plait’s blog (Bad Astronomy) is now hosted by Slate Magazine. It is worth following for the astonishingly beautiful photographs of the universe he posts.

I also cite Plait to my friends who think all atheists are abrasive like Richard Dawkins. (No diss on Dawkins’ scientific work - he’s legit. But he is abrasive, and even other atheists consider him sexist.) Plait has such a sense of wonder that his love for his topics is contagious. He also is great at keeping his focus on things that can be proven or disproven, a distinction that all of us of whatever faith or no faith should keep in mind. There is far more we have in common anyway.

I read this book during our recent camping trip at Pinnacles National Park. Although I didn’t do a post about this particular trip, I have written several posts about past trips. Pinnacles is fairly close to where I live, and it is a truly magical place. From the soaring condors, so close to extinction when I was a kid, to the atmospheric talus caves, to the rocks and spires of a volcano, extinct for 20 million years, and displaced from a part of itself by 180 miles due to the movement of the San Andreas Fault. I have written about it a few times before, and you can find those posts here, on my National Parks and Monuments page. The geology of Pinnacles was one reason I rejected Young Earth Creationism. The natural history of the rocks is visible, and the forces necessary to drag the plates so far would have been too cataclysmic to have occurred instantaneously. 

This too is on point - particularly in light of the history presented in The History of Pi. Recently, this person was elected to the Texas Board of Education. Fact: I am a Christian. Also Fact: this is disturbing to me beyond belief, that someone who so flagrantly denies the validity of empirical evidence would be put in charge of determining curriculum. Phil Plait is right about the widespread acceptance of scientific ignorance. 

I have to mention this as well: Plait gives a shout out to the a number of great sources for further information. Among these is none other than Nick Strobel, who teaches Astronomy and other stuff here at our local junior college, Bakersfield College. The kids and I have attended some of Strobel’s lectures at the planetarium. He is great with kids, and an educator in the best sense of the word. My wife took a unit from him on the physics of Star Trek back when she was in nursing school. For anyone who believes the community college system - or state schools in general are inferior, I submit Nick Strobel, and many other outstanding educators who devote their lives to doing the hard work of individual education in places that give them no glory and often inferior pay. These are the good guys, and what they do for humanity deserves far more credit than it gets. (For what it is worth, Strobel is also in my camp on the YEC debate. He is a Methodist who vehemently objects to the teaching of literalist/fundamentalist doctrine as science.)


  1. I have a friend who's studying to be an astronomer. I wonder if he's ever heard of Phillip Plait and his works.

    Thanks for bringing this man to my attention. I will be checking out his stuff in due course

  2. <3 Phil Plait. Because reasons (girlchild, 70s, small town, better at words than math, etc). He made science accessible and welcoming to me again and I love him for it.