Category Archives: Science Outreach

A Rough Guide to Spotting Bad Science

A Rough Guide to Spotting Bad Science:

The vast majority of people will get their science news from online news site articles, and rarely delve into the research that the article is based on. Personally, I think it’s therefore important that people are capable of spotting bad scientific methods, or realising when articles are being economical with the conclusions drawn from research, and that’s what this graphic aims to do. Note that this is not a comprehensive overview, nor is it implied that the presence of one of the points noted automatically means that the research should be disregarded. This is merely intended to provide a rough guide to things to be alert to when either reading science articles or evaluating research.

Cosmos Wars

CosmosStageThe creationists really don’t like the new Cosmos series. Of course, I’m sure they didn’t like the original either. CCCosmos Wars, Episode III: Revenge of the Silliness:

But this sense of wonder does not touch the hearts of those who reflexively dismiss scientific findings as merely “materialistic” threats to their faith. They have no interest in knowing more about Halley’s Comet, or Andromeda’s trajectory, or indeed even in stimulating young leaners.

No, creationists took to the air this week to complain that their ideas were not getting equal time on Cosmos.

Danny Faulkner, an astronomer with the creationist organization Answers in Genesis, appeared on The Janet Mefferd Show to complain that “consideration of special creation is definitely not open for discussion” on Cosmos. The host added,

“…when you have so many scientists who simply do not accept Darwinian evolution it seems to me that that might be something to throw in there, you know, the old, ‘some scientists say this, others disagree and think this,’ but that’s not even allowed.”

Actually, it is allowed. If creationist astronomers want to fund and produce a major television series that refutes Cosmos, they are perfectly free to do so.

New York Times Cosmos Review

Cosmos rebootA great write up of the Cosmos reboot!

“‘Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey’ comes at a critical moment for a society that is increasingly fragmented. If we are going to decide big issues, like eating genetically modified food, fracking for natural gas, responding to the prospect of drastic climate change, exploring space or engaging in ambitious science research, we are going to have to start from some common experience.”

Eastern Ozarks Astronomical Society Updates!

I’m very happy to report that our work towards building an organizational advocate for astronomy and science in Madison County is coming along! Lots of tidbits to report. We’ve had a good bit of support on our Facebook discussion group as well as the new community group set-up on FB. You can never have enough Facebook pages can you? Actually, I’m pretty sure you can. Frances Madeson was kind enough to feature me on her blog in a post aptly titled, Throw me to the Coyotes. I know, that does not sound astronomy related but I assure you, it is. I’m honored to have been interviewed by her.

EOAS member Corey Warner of Studio 222 designed a fantastic logo for us and Karen Whitener was interviewed, for J-98, for one of the regional radio stations which will be airing the spot several times so that will help get the word out as well. Thanks to Scott Kubala of J-98 for taking an interest in our project. I also set up the Eastern Ozarks Astronomical Society website to seal the deal!

We’ve got many evenings ahead of us and I expect that they will each be filled with the joy that seems to come with the shared exploration of the universe. Dark Skies!

Exploring the Universe Together

NGC 4594, the Sombrero Galaxy

Recently Kaleesha put up a pretty fantastic couple of posts. The first, Creation, the Big Bang or Both? is one in which she shares her current attempts to better understand the Big Bang. It has been very interesting to read about her intellectual journey since her rejection of Christianity several months ago and inspiring to see her push on in her search for truth. In her second post, Astronomical Scattershooting (what a great phrase, eh?), she provided a wonderful description of her current explorations of the universe as an amateur astronomer. My  post here is something that grew out of my initial comment to her on her blog.

What I enjoy most about being an amateur astronomer is learning about the Universe through a blended process of observing distant objects  and then reading about those objects in the Wikipedia which is usually supplemented by a related episode of Astronomy Cast.  It adds so much to my life to be able to look up through a telescope and view the Sombrero galaxy, to really take it in and ponder its existence.  I wonder, who may be there and are they looking out in this direction?  In my last viewing of that galaxy I spent nearly 30 minutes allowing my eyes to adjust and taking the time to notice the details. After a time of looking through the scope and seeing so many beautiful objects, supplemented by the research, I can say that now when I look up with my naked eyes I see it all very differently. There is now a deeper awareness brewing in me, fermenting knowledge, of the details and I more fully appreciate what I see and the emotions I experience as a result.

But of course we don’t explore this Universe alone do we? At the forefront we have a global community of scientists cooperating and collaborating and challenging one another through this amazing process we call science. This open community, based on finding the mistakes and correcting the theories and adding in the details as they are discovered with newer, better instrumentation, sets the example for how we can better get at the truth. It is a never ending process, an ongoing adventure and exploration of our Universe and one we can all take part in. Those of us that are not scientists have a role as well.

As citizens of our planet it is our responsibility to make our own effort to learn and to explore. It is our responsibility to reach out, to share and engage with one another and with the knowledge being produced. The internet is allowing for increased communication between the public and the scientific community. For those interested in astronomy and related fields there are the sites I mentioned a couple days ago: CosmoQuest,  the Planetary Society and the Citizen Science Alliance, all of which have at their core mission an attempt to engage the public and even to create a space for them to participate. Most of these groups are also involved with Google+ hangouts which allow for real-time video conferencing with the scientists doing the work. If you can’t be around to watch live they are all archived on YouTube. For example, here’s the Planetary Society’s Channel.

There is an essential trait that we need to borrow from the scientific community before we can move forward: a willingness to embrace our mistakes and our ignorance. It seems to have become a common cultural trait to fear our fallibility but such fear holds us back from moving forward as individuals as well as collectively. Not so in the scientific community which is based upon a willingness to fail and a recognition that with failure comes knowledge and a better understanding of the Universe. It is in the moment of embracing failure, mistakes, and ignorance that we grow.

It is perhaps one of the great failings of the past 60 years that we have come to think of ourselves as alone and with that we have come to feel isolated, alienated. In that kind of world it is easy to become fearful and when we live in a culture of fear and insecurity we tend to avoid failure. We avoid growth out of fear of failure and we avoid accepting our mistakes because to do so is to admit we are fallible.

Fortunately, for us, the Universe that we actually inhabit is not one in which we can ever be alone or alienated, at least not physically. We might come to feel separated and alone in our minds due to our perception and our culture, but as far as the reality of the physical Universe that we live in, we are all very much connected:

When I look up at the night sky and I know that, yes, we are part of this Universe, we are in this Universe, but perhaps more important than most of those facts is that the Universe is in us. When I reflect on that fact, I look up — many people feel small, because they’re small, the Universe is big — but I feel big, because my atoms came from those stars. There’s a level of connectivity — that’s really what you want in life. You want to feel connected, you want to feel relevant. You want to feel like you’re a participant in the goings on and activities and events around you. That’s precisely what we are, just by being alive.” – Neil DeGrasse Tyson

It is natural for us to share what we know or think we know and it is natural for us to be curious. It is these natural desires, coupled with critical thought and the scientific method that we can lift ourselves up and, just as importantly, lift one another up. We have great challenges before us but in teaching one another and encouraging one another we can do remarkable things. In our cooperation we have the opportunity to co-create something beautiful: each other.

We truly are in this together. There is no such thing as alone in this Universe and the sooner we remember that, feel that, and understand that, the sooner we can get on being whole again. We are but one species sharing this planet sharing this cosmos. I did not know Kaleesha or her husband or children until just a couple months ago and am thankful to Bill (another of our community and local librarian) for sending them my way when they indicated interest in astronomy. As a result they have become an important part of our little outpost of science advocates in this out of the way rural community. As long as I’m expressing my appreciation I think I’ll also mention how happy I am to have connected to Frances, Russ, Angie and Karen, all humans with which I am grateful to have met since moving to this little corner of the Universe and who have shared the exploration with me.

Eastern Ozarks Astronomy Society First Night!

A brief report on what was happening in Madison County Missouri last night. It was one of those nights that just seemed… perfect. This was our first group viewing session since forming the Eastern Ozarks Astronomy Society which kinda makes it seem official and made it seem something of an occasion.

My friend Russ Middleton got some great photos and one of our new members, Kaleesha, and her girls had a look at a nice variety of nebulae: Orion, Pac Man, Eskimo and M1, the Crab. We also took a look at Jupiter and ended the group viewing with Bode’s Nebulae, M81 and M82. Lots of great astronomy talk about the Cosmic Microwave Background, the Bing Bang, and how astronomers (and science in general) come to know things through the scientific method.

After everyone left I warmed up inside for a couple hours and went back out after the moon set. I logged 13 galaxies, a planetary nebula and a globular cluster, M68. Five of those were Messiers bringing my total on that list to 103, just 7 more to go! Messier 104, the Sombrero, was really impressive and with averted vision I was able to make out the dust lane. M68, was really beautiful with many of its stars nicely resolved. I also added nine more to my list of viewed Herschels, bringing me up to 241 out of 400.

The last object viewed from 4:20-5am was Saturn. This was, by far, the best view of the planet I’ve ever had in my life and honestly, I think I could have cried but it would have ruined the view so I didn’t let it happen. It was so otherworldly, and yet, so familiar an image. Viewing Saturn is always special but when it is so perfectly clear, it can be much more.

I saw at least 5 of the moons as well as the Cassini Division in the rings, a first for me. Also saw clouds/color bands, another first for me. Sometimes language fails me.

I can think of no better way to spend a night than this.

Advocating for Science Literacy and Reason

I’ve always been a big fan of getting at the truth of things no matter how inconvenient or uncomfortable we may be getting there. It’s something I’ve insisted on and many times in my life it has caused me a good bit of trouble. That said, I don’t feel I have much choice in the matter. It’s the activist and the radical in me. It is, perhaps sad, that insisting on the truth might, today, be considered radical. I suppose when you look at the definition of “radical” it does speak to the search for truth. According to the New Oxford American dictionary, radical is: “relating to or affecting the fundamental nature of something; far-reaching or thorough.”

In recent months my small town life got a bit rough in terms of some of my relationships. Specifically, those relationships which I’d developed with local conservatives. It was my intent to cross lines, to try to relate to my fellow humans as humans regardless of their political or cultural leanings. As a result, I’d gotten to be “friends” with quite a few folks that I tended not to agree with on many things. They knew and I knew those differences existed but we made a go of it. But eventually those differences presented themselves front and center and some of those friendships ended in turmoil.

What I am coming face to face with in rural Missouri is the hard truth that many rural residents are not comfortable with having their beliefs challenged, most notably their religious beliefs. Some are able to co-exist with science and accept the possibility that their belief in a higher power can be retained along with an acceptance of science. Others don’t seem able to bridge the gap but tend to remain neutral. Some are resistant to the point of hostility.

I have pondering for some time what seems to be an innate tension that exists between religion and science. This is a very real and very serious problem and manifests itself in important and basic elements of science education, namely the teaching of the Big Bang, evolution and climate science. Creationism and intelligent design (a version of creationism promoted by the Discovery Institute) are not, in any way, valid alternatives to evolution. Nor does the fundamentalist Christian community provide any kind of explanation or description of the origin of the universe and yet, they have established an influence in public education on this as well. While the U.S. has downgraded and simplified math and science education other countries are making great progress.

My intent here is to explicitly advocate for science literacy and reason. Evolution, the Big Bang, climate change are all areas of science that have been, to a great degree, settled. While there are many in this and other rural areas who do understand the importance of science as a method for understanding the world and as a basis of progress, there are many who do not. A part of the problem comes from the churches, from organized religion who are crossing lines in terms of social and political advocacy which cannot be tolerated. Another part of the problem is the confused and sloppy thinking that comes from religious belief. I would argue that religion, as it is based on faith, actually requires a level of rejection of reason and the scientific method. At the core, science is the search for truth while religion is advocacy of a belief in something that can never be shown to be true.

I’d like to explicitly support a few organizations that are doing important work that you can support and in some cases actually participate in via citizen science projects.

CosmoQuest is one of my favorites. From their website:

Our goal is to create a community of people bent on together advancing our understanding of the universe; a community of people who are participating in doing science, who can explain why what they do matters, and what questions they are helping to answer. We want to create a community, and here is where we invite all of you to be a part of what we’re doing.

There are lots of ways to get involved: You can contribute to science, take a class, join a conversation, or just help us spread the word by sharing about us on social media sites.

Like every community, we are constantly changing to reflect our members. This website will constantly be growing and adding new features. Overtime, we’re going to bring together all the components of a research learning environment (aka grad school), from content in the form of classes, resources, and a blog, to research in the form of citizen science, to social engagement through a forum, social media, and real world activities.

Another is the National Center for Science Education.

The National Center for Science Education (NCSE) is a not-for-profit, membership organization providing information and resources for schools, parents, and concerned citizens working to keep evolution and climate science in public school science education. We educate the press and public about the scientific and educational aspects of controversies surrounding the teaching of evolution and climate change, and supply needed information and advice to defend good science education at local, state, and national levels. Our 4500 members are scientists, teachers, clergy, and citizens with diverse religious and political affiliations.

Last but not least is The Planetary Society, co-founded by Carl Sagan and currently headed by Bill Nigh.

The Planetary Society sponsors projects that will seed innovative space technologies, nurture creative young minds, and be a vital advocate for our future in space.

Why we do it
Our Mission is to create a better future by exploring other worlds and understanding our own.

Current projects include:

  • Fighting for funding in Congress
  • Developing new technologies to deflect asteroids
  • Hunting for Earth-like planets
  • Searching for intelligent life in the Universe
  • Creating a global network of EarthDials
  • And flying our very own solar sail spacecraft, Lightsail-1.

Interested in getting your hands dirty with some citizen science? Of course you are! Check out the Zooniverse which is a project of the Citizen Science Alliance.

The Zooniverse began with a single project, Galaxy Zoo , which was launched in July 2007. The Galaxy Zoo team had expected a fairly quiet life, but were overwhelmed and overawed by the response to the project. Once they’d recovered from their server buckling under the strain, they set about planning the future!

Galaxy Zoo was important because not only was it incredibly popular, but it produced many unique scientific results, ranging from individual, serendipitous discoveries to those using classifications that depend on the input of everyone who’s visited the site. This commitment to producing real research – so that you know that we’re not wasting your time – is at the heart of everything we do.

Real Science Online
The Zooniverse and the suite of projects it contains is produced, maintained and developed by the Citizen Science Alliance. The member institutions of the CSA work with many academic and other partners around the world to produce projects that use the efforts and ability of volunteers to help scientists and researchers deal with the flood of data that confronts them.

My favorite thus far is Planet Hunters which I have participating in. It’s very easy and exciting to know that I’m actually doing some of the preliminary work required to find planets around distant stars.

Of course there are others but these are the ones I wanted to mention today.

Observational Astronomy: The basic skills of science

I’ll be honest, when I ordered my telescope in September I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I had no agenda other than to have a way to look more closely at planets, galaxies and other objects in the night sky. Pretty simple really. After the first few sessions with the telescope I started thinking that I should keep track of the objects I was viewing. I started doing that but then realized I could probably be recording more than a simple list of what I was viewing. So I started keeping track of the date and time of the observations. Well, why not note which eye pieces I was using too? Ok. Check.

At the two week mark I’d done enough reading to see that there were organized observational “programs”, essentially, lists created to help guide and teach amateur astronomers how to go about learning observational astronomy. So I did a bit of checking and saw that in those programs they also record atmospheric conditions such as “transparency” and “seeing” as well as free form observational notes. Okay, why not?

Fast forward to today.  I’ve been consistently recording each observation, 211 thus far, but realized that I was not recording much in the way of a free form description. Some people sketch what they see and I may try that in the future but for now I’d rather use words. The problem? I don’t really have the skills to properly describe what I’m seeing. More to the point, I don’t have the vocabulary which, in a sense, is also the instruction set for observation. The vocabulary is the framework. While this is just the most basic example of one step of the scientific method I think it is useful to recognize it as such. Amateur astronomy, if combined with just a little bit of discipline, can be a valuable experiential tool for learning observation skills.

So, I spent the morning searching around and have made some progress. Because I am a nerd I must of course share in the hopes that someone will find this useful. This particular bit of information is specifically helpful for the observation of deep sky objects. Planetary and other solar system observation of comets and meteor showers is a different set of concerns and techniques!

The below is just one page from a nice set of very informative pdfs over at Astronomy Logs.


  • Did you use direct or averted vision?
  • What is the overall shape?
  • Is the core noticeable, compact, stellar ? Can structure be seen in the galaxy, mottling, bright or dark patches or lanes?
  • Are the outer edges sharp or diffuse? Identify any other DSO in the field.

Globular Clusters

  • Did you use direct or averted vision?
  • Is the core bright, compact, or not distinguishable? Is it highly or loosely concentrated?
  • Is any part of it resolved into stars, averted vision or not, or does it show mottling, or stars resolved at the edges?
  • Identify any other DSO in the field.

Open Clusters

  • Is it easily distinguished from the background stars, is it well defined?
  • Is there a overall shape?
  • How many stars can you count in the cluster?
  • Are the stars concentrated in any one area?
  • Is the cluster fully resolved or is background nebulosity noticed?
  • Are there areas where stars are absent in the cluster? Are there any brighter stars in the cluster and do
  • any stand out in color?
  • Identify any other DSO in the field.

Open Cluster/ Nebulosity

  • Did you use direct or averted vision to view the cluster and nebulosity, are filters needed? What is the overall shape?
  • Are the outer edges sharply defined?
  • Can both the cluster and nebulosity be seen with direct vision, or is averted vision or filters needed? What is the overall shape?
  • Are the outer edges sharply defined?
  • Are the stars concentrated in any one area?
  • Is the cluster embedded in the nebulosity or is there a distinct separation?
  • Is any part of the nebula brighter or more concentrated?
  • Are there any voids or dark patches or lanes, bright filaments or streamers in the nebulosity?
  • Identify any other DSO in the field.


  • Did you use direct or averted vision? filters needed? What is the overall shape?
  • Are the outer edges sharply defined?
  • Is any part of the nebula brighter or more concentrated?
  • Are there any voids or dark patches or lanes, bright filaments or streamers in the nebulosity?
  • Is there an open cluster nearby or involved or any obvious stars involved with the nebulosity? Identify any other DSO in the field.

Planetary Nebula

  • What is the overall shape, is it disk shaped or more stellar?
  • Are the edges sharp or diffuse?
  • Is it easy or difficult to identify in the field?
  • What is the color of the Planetary?
  • Is the center brighter, darker or uniform brightness as the edges?
  • Identify any other DSO in the field.