Wednesday 20 August 2008

Skeptics in the Pub (18/8/08)

On Monday evening I went to Skeptics in the Pub: . This was the second time I’ve attended. Last time, last month, I wrote about it here: .

I arrived early at the Penderel’s Oak, but was momentarily taken aback because it has a new signboard; it’s been renamed the Left-Brain Arms. Clustered outside on the street were a group of customers huddling in self-conscious poses as they had a quick irrationality break (It’s not been easy for them since the ban. The pub’s landlord scoffed at my idea of setting up a separate irrational-thinking bar.) As before the cellar bar was enthusiastically crowded. The attendees looked fresh-faced and optimistic. These are people living the Skeptic Dream! They wear Skeptic clothes and eat Skeptic food; they drive Skeptic cars and ride on Skeptic buses! Their MBA’s were pinned like figureheads to their chests, scintillating in the dusky wash of the overhead ceiling lights. I tried to order my usual tipple from the bar, but the barmaid curtly informed me: “I’m sorry, Sir; we’re only serving Skeptic drinks here tonight.” So I settled down with a cool, refreshing pint of James Randi Bitter and listened to the speaker.

Doug Ellison is a multimedia designer for e-learning, but in his spare time is a space enthusiast. He runs a web forum dedicated to sharing and developing practical ideas for exploring the solar system: . The subject of his address that evening was Mars. It’s a planet that has come to symbolize all that is alien and unreachable, but in fact Mars is more similar to Earth than any other planet we’ve discovered so far. It rotates only a little bit slower so the Martian day is a mere 40 minutes longer. It is the only other place in the universe where it is known that you will find liquid water, albeit not much. Today it is very arid and its atmosphere is 100 times thinner than Earth’s, but its surface shows signs that in the distant past it had a thicker atmosphere with a large amount of water: rivers, lakes and even oceans. It was once very Earth-like and life could have emerged there. Unfortunately without a strong magnetic field the water soon evaporated into space. With a magnetic field to protect it from solar radiation Mars might have been like Earth today, a blue-green planet! The question of whether life did ever occur there, or even that it might still be there, is one of the biggest questions in modern science. As a result Mars has been targeted with dozens of space probes from several different nations. Today there is a virtually permanent robotic presence there and the USA, Russia and China all have manned missions on their drawing boards. But Ellison believes that the increasing interest in the Red Planet has a dark side: what he calls “crap”. This “crap” is the astonishing theory that there is more to Mars than what official science tells us and that the space agencies involved in its exploration are covering something up. The most prominent figure in alternative Martian investigation is Richard Hoagland and Ellison doesn’t mince his words when he mentions Hoagland: “I hate him so much!” He's an unequivocal and very cynical believer in the Strong Hoaglandic Principle, that the man is a money-grabbing blackguard, pure and simple. He’s talking nonsense and he knows it, but doesn’t care because it sells books and DVD’s! (The Weak Hoaglandic Principle states that he’s talking nonsense, but that he is honestly deluded and really thinks that what he’s saying is true.) Ellison denies that a conspiracy is possible because there’s more than one space agency involved nowadays, not just NASA. The European Space Agency and others would have to be in on the plot for it to work; too many people would have to know, making the conspiracy unacceptably top-heavy. (This is one of the criticisms of the Moon-landing hoax theory too, not a criticism I accept for reasons I state below). The idea that the data from Mars is subject to censorship is, according to Ellison, wrong because the signal from Mars Express and other relay satellites in Mars orbit is made available unedited on the Net just 30 minutes after it arrives. There is no human interference in the data-stream. To demonstrate this he put up a photo on the projector screen that had just been sent from Spirit. Apparently if you have the right receiver you can pick up the signal yourself at home, bypassing all the usual channels; somebody in Belgium has done just that! He also demonstrated that the notion that the pictures taken on Mars prove that NASA are lying about the atmosphere being thin and poisonous, and that the planet really has a thick, breathable atmosphere, are misunderstandings based on the various effects of photograph processing. For example in some of the Mars photos the sky looks blue, but this is simply because the “Pancam” cameras with which the Spirit Rover and other probes are equipped have a separate blue-filtered field. This part of his research is very persuasive and it became obvious to me that some of the ideas of the Martian cover-up based on photo-colour are wrong; here’s a good example of the kind of notions he debunked: I'm sold! They are genuine photos. (but whether they are genuine photos of the real Martian surface is another matter; as is whether the Martian surface depicted is both real and natural; but that’s a long story, beyond the immediate scope of this article!) However I don’t share Ellison’s confidence that a conspiracy is out of the question just because many different space agencies from many different nations are involved. Corruption is far more insidious, durable and widespread than is commonly known. I have witnessed firsthand, in very benign-looking institutions, the most appalling deceit, destruction and social violence concealed under a frighteningly thin veneer. I was also dismayed at how willing so many people are to turn a blind eye. The “just get on with your job and don’t rock the boat” ethic is a commonly-upheld one indeed. The recent organized child abuse scandals in North Wales and the Channel Islands are a good example. Some space agencies also have a few skeletons in their cupboard, and as far as NASA is concerned it is an ossuary! NASA works on classified military operations and always has done, from launching spy satellites to “Star Wars” experiments. They’ve employed some very dodgy characters and given fame and respectability to people who really belong in jail! In my opinion NASA has not earned the people’s trust.

Ellison then went on to address some other Martian scoops that he thinks have been blown out of all proportion by the media, like the “Sedimentary Sasquatch”. I didn’t know it was called that, but I’ve heard about it and written about it myself: . With the passing of time since I wrote the article, this object looks less convincing. It could be simply a “cloud-teddy”; our brains’ visual centre tends to seek out recognizable shapes in random chaotic images. The continued media interest in gimmicky curiosities like this actually begins to feel a bit like a “public relations exercise” to me. What better way to make people reject any real Martian anomalies than to focus their attention on something so obviously unimpressive and easy to disprove? Other anomalous objects that have been spotted in Mars photos are actually just parts of the spacecraft that have been jettisoned in their descent, like the heat-shield and parachute.

For a while I thought Ellison was going to avoid the most famous alternative Mars investigation subject of all: the Face on Mars, but he didn’t disappoint. He views the Face in a very similar way to the “Sedimentary Sasquatch”, a cloud-teddy; and to support his opinion, he put up pics of many other face-like objects on the surface of Mars that none of the "conspiracy theorists" point to. The Face dates back to the 1976 Viking mission, where it was spotted at a press conference. Since then more recent pictures of the Face have been published by modern craft like the Mars Global Surveyor; or at least NASA have told us that's what they are. Here are some of them: . It looks a lot less face-like and more like a cloud-teddy now; Ellison thinks that’s all it is. However, I once again disagree with Ellison’s assertion that this closes the case. The original Viking images were subjected to fractal analysis, a military system that was used on spy-plane and satellite photos to spot enemy tanks in the Gulf War. The system is specifically designed to eliminate the natural cloud-teddy function of human vision. It concluded that the Face was the most unnatural object for hundreds of miles around. Other researchers have also analyzed the more recent Face pictures and disagreed that it is natural. This vid is very interesting. I jumped out of my seat when they fist showed the Face!: . “The Face on Mars is not artificial!” exclaimed Ellison “This is what artificial objects look like!” and he showed us a Google Earth picture of the Egyptian Pyramids. But I wonder what the Pyramids will look like in the future. If the Face on Mars is the creation of an extinct Martian civilization then it is extremely old, billions of years old, maybe even predating life on Earth itself, let alone terrestrial human civilization! I wonder how “artificial” the Pyramids will look after a few more millennia of environmental weathering. So you see, it’s not a suitable comparison. As far as Hoagland goes I personally believe in the “Super-Weak Hoaglandic Principle”; in that I believe he’s genuine about what he says, what’s more he’s not talking complete nonsense either. But I certainly don’t go along with all his views. I concur with Ellison’s opinion that “Topogly” is all bollocks. You can generate significant mathematical constants out of almost anything, so long as you have enough points to link angles between! But there are some interesting “coincidences” with Cydonia which involve far more basic mathematical geography (or to be pedantic: “Areography”) and deserve further study in my view: The complex lies on the 120th Meridian, taking Olympus Mons as the prime one; that’s exactly one third of the way round the planet. The whole complex around the Face matches the layout of ancient monuments on Earth, like the Avebury circle and its environs in Wiltshire; the resemblance is uncanny! Of course you could put it down to “coincidence”, but if you do that why not do the same for the Mona Lisa? You could claim it wasn’t really a portrait at all; it’s just that Leonardo spilled a few pots of paint onto a canvas by accident! That’s the big problem with Coincidence Theory: where’s the cut-off point?

Whatever Ellison and anyone else asserts, the truth is that there is an opaque veil that covers human activity in space and that when the authorities tell us what space is like and show us data to support their claims, we have to take their word for it to a large extent. We can’t see what’s going on out on Mars with our own eyes! We have to rely on authorities and trust them. I’ve stated above that I think that space authorities have the means and opportunity to conduct a hoax. How? And what is there to cover up? Well, I can’t elaborate on that in this article. But seeing as they have a means and opportunity, do they have the motive as well? Well, imagine for a moment the effect it would have on our society if it was announced that we had absolute proof of intelligent extraterrestrial life, even if it was extinct; what would happen to our political, religious and social structures? There are some very powerful people in the world whose only mission is to hang on to that power at all costs. Public acknowledgement that intelligent life “Out There” is real could threaten it in many ways; and there are psychological PR studies that say this in as many words, like the Brookings Institute Report of 1961. I’ll be writing a lot about that in the future. Let’s assume for a moment that official History is correct and that the Mariner and Viking missions really were humanity’s first encounter with the Red Planet (I’m not certain of that they were, but that’s a story for another time!). The pics come back showing the Face on Mars, NASA say: “Oh dear! What are we going to do!? Everyone can see a relic of alien intelligence!” They can’t airbrush it out in future publications, nor can they from pictures from future missions because anyone looking would spot the Face’s absence, so the solution?: downplay it and seed false data and disinformation.

I had a chat with Ellison after the lecture and got on rather well with him, but this is probably because I held back a lot of my opinions! He said: “Mars is an amazing and intriguing enough place already without inventing secret conspiracies about it.” That’s true... not that this is a reason to declare that there can’t possibly be any conspiracies when there could be, but I see what he means. He is currently reading one of my favourite novels. The Mars Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson ( ). Unlike me, Ellison is only interested in the nuts-and-bolts scientific aspect to the story whereas I also appreciate its exploration of sociology and politics. It’s an amazing sci-fi book that is set in official future History (Just in case anyone’s thinking that I don’t read normal books!). Unlike my first visit to SITP I managed to strike up some conversations with the other patrons. I had a good chat with a nice bloke called Colin and also met a friendly fellow called Jack of Kent who runs his own blog: . He’s posted comments on my first SITP article, see above. He explained to me that the reason people were so reserved and standoffish at the last SITP was because that’s what Londoners tend to be; it’s a habit. I can accept that after having a much more social experience there this time. I also admit that I have suffered a bit from paranoia and prejudice because of the Skepper who’s been harassing me for the last three years! The latest SITP has reassured me that not all Skeppers are like him! I’ll look forward to the one next month and hope I can go along!


Jenn said...

Really excellent piece of writing, thank you Ben.

Ben Emlyn-Jones said...

Thanks, Jenn.

Jack of Kent said...

This is a good and amusing account of a really fun evening. I thought the speaker was perhaps the best one SitP has had for a while - informative and charismatic.

As I mentioned to you at the evening - London is like that. SitP meetings are certainly not unique in that respect. The sheer everyday crush of people mean that most people are reserved just to cope.

Ben Emlyn-Jones said...

Thanks, Jack.

Yeah, I take your point about London. I've noticed that about the city during my visits there. The density of people is far higher than in Oxford. Walking along a street or on the Tube you're literally shoulder-to-shoulder with everyone else.

Londoners seem quite fearless when it comes to crossing the road, dodging bumpers and sidling along the white lines, or standing on the Tube platform! They perch on the edge with their toes almost hanging over the track, reading a newspaper while trains thunder by mere inches away from their knuckles!

w.e.cousins said...

Sheer genius. I am in awe.

Ben Emlyn-Jones said...

That's priase indeed, Miss Cousins. Thank you!

I knew I was good, but genuis?... I'm blushing now!

kerstin said...

good stuff ben
as usual
hope to see you in pushy ole London very soon...

Ben Emlyn-Jones said...

Thanks, ML. I hope to see you soon too.

Until then, don't fall off a Tube platform! :-)

Auberon said...

Very helpful piece of writing, much thanks for the article.
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