Signal to Noise

In Pseudoscience by Brian Koberlein21 Comments

My professional work focuses on two things: astrophysics and science communication.  In astrophysics the challenge is often to distinguish the signal from the noise.  That is, you sift through large amounts of observational data to find the useful bit of data that tells you something about the universe.  Find the transit of a planet in the flickering of a star, find a simple relationship between a galaxy’s brightness and the mass of its central black hole.  You have to sift through a great deal of information to get to the kernel of truth.

In science communication the opposite is true.   Even in your own narrow field you review a topic to make sure your understanding is correct, and you have to synthesize a topic down to something that is understandable to people with no training in your field while still being meaningful and accurate.  It’s something I’m still learning to do, and I don’t always do well. Communicating science takes time to do well, which is why I don’t post everyday.

But often that signal is overpowered by noise.  Take for example a short video that has gone viral recently, seen below.  It claims to show the motion of the solar system through space, and it has over 1.4 million views on YouTube.  It is also completely wrong on multiple points.  Just to name a few:

1. Jupiter is in the wrong place.  The video has it located between Neptune and Pluto, when it is between Mars and Saturn.

2. The video asserts the heliocentric model is wrong because the sun moves through space.  Not true.

3. It has the Sun moving along its axis (relative to what?), when this is not how the Sun moves in the galaxy.

4. It visualizes the planets lagging behind the Sun, which is not accurate.

5. It asserts the Sun drags planets along through space (in its wake), which is totally wrong.

6. It confuses vortex (circular fluid motion) with helix (a spiral path).

7. It makes wild claims about how spirals equate to life and asserts this leads to some new interpretation of physics.

In short, it is fringe theory science-babble wrapped in pretty animation.  The majority of those viewers will watch it, accept it and move on.  And with 1.4 million views and climbing, the video has spread more misconceptions in a day than I or most other scientists could counter in a year.  Pretty noise that overwhelms the signal.

So in the effort of helping people find the signal in the noise, if you’ve shared this video or given it a “like” +1, make a post on your feed stating that it isn’t accurate, or share a post that outlines why it isn’t accurate.  Help counter the idea that the solar system is a living spiral that scientists don’t really understand.

And if there are any animation people able to make beautiful animations like this, I’d love to work with you to make some videos that are beautiful and scientifically accurate.

More signal, less noise.

Comments

  1. I did in fact make an accurate version of this, but I didn’t put too much effort into it because I’m lazy… it’s tempting to to try. However, it seems to me is that the majority of people like the video because it shows the Solar System moving through space, which has never before been depicted – at least not in quite such a pretty way. So I’m hopeful that the psuedoscientific mumbo-jumbo message was not really adopted by too many people.
    http://www.rhysy.net/solar-system-vortex.htm
    (I should update this to note that the planets are in the wrong place, which is just silly)

    1. “So I’m hopeful that the psuedoscientific mumbo-jumbo message was not really adopted by too many people.”

      Unfortunately, the comments on DjSadhu’s videos show that many people do adopt the message that astronomers don’t understand the Solar System very well, and that DjSadhu is bringing to the table a fresh, new, entirely scientific perspective that astronomers are trying to suppress because they aren’t the ones who though of it.

      1. I should have added that in his replies to comments that are made on his videos, DjSadhu routinely casts doubt on scientists’ understanding of the solar system, and promotes Electric Universe ideas. For example, he said the following in response to a comment that criticized the claim that the Sun “drags” the planets.

        “Lots of folks overreact to the term ‘drag’ – call it what you want, gravity, bending of spacetime, electric attraction, anything. The specific mechanism is open for debate, but to me it is clear that the sun causes everything within the heliosphere to move with it. The gravitational/electric influences from the sun are by far the strongest forces that act on the planets.” (open http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0jHsq36_NTU, then view all of the replies to his first comment, then search for the one to James92453 that starts “Aayght cool.”)

        Recent comments on his videos (and yours) at the Electric Universe site “Thunderbolts Forum” (http://www.thunderbolts.info/forum/phpBB3/viewtopic.php?f=3&t=14781&sid=d040ab91ef61347e23c91dcd0ff8df1d) are also worth reading, especially the comment by Dragoneye, a long-time member of Thunderbolts who claims to know DjSadhu personally, and also DjSadhu’s motivations for making the videos:
        http://www.thunderbolts.info/forum/phpBB3/viewtopic.php?f=3&t=14781&start=15#p93297 .

        1. (You’ll have to forgive me for not reading the comments, but I’ve already done enough of that. There’s only so much pseudoscience I can take.)

          Certainly there will be people who make the effort to go to Sadhu’s website and are convinced by the anti-science message. No doubt at all that this happens, but… are they the majority ? I somehow doubt it. There will be a selection effect at work : anyone who’s taken the time and trouble to post a comment is more likely to have visited the website than someone who just clicks, “like” and then walks away.

          In the GIF version, there’s not really any crazy anti-heliocentric message. Almost all of the details are wrong (planets in the wrong tilt, planets in the wrong order, exaggerated planet speed…) but the most basic point – that the Solar System moves through space – is correct. For the vast majority of people, who simply see the GIF and then immediately click on something else, I strongly suspect that no harm is done.

          The YouTube video version is worse. He does outright claim that the heliocentric model is incorrect and states that the “Sun is like a comet, dragging the planets in its wake.” Obviously, this is nonsense. But is that really the take-home message from the video that most people get ? I don’t think so. The Sun is never _shown_ to be “dragging” the planets. So to my mind it’s just saying that the heliocentric model is incomplete, and the “dragging planets” thing it just a rather poor piece of poetic description.

          Now, just to be clear, the model on which Sadhu based his video is gibberish, pure and simple. Fortunately he didn’t do a very good job of depicting it. It is absolutely worth stating repeatedly that his model is incorrect, and it’s important to fight against the promotion of anti-science messages. I’m just not convinced, however, that the majority of viewers really get this.

          1. “I’m just not convinced, however, that the majority of viewers really get this.”

            They don’t need to be a majority. Even 10% of 1.5 million viewers is a lot of people. Several teachers have commented that they intend to use DjSadhu’s “wonderful” videos in their classes. One such viewer is a PhD candidate in science education at a major university, who promotes the videos as part of an “innovative” curriculum that his department is developing. That’s the kind of information that you miss if you don’t read viewers’ comments. Therefore, your suspicion that the video does “the vast majority” no harm is just that: a mere suspicion.

            In contrast to that suspicion, there is the incontrovertible fact that DjSadhu’s videos are inaccurate, and produced to promote an anti-science agenda, including soliciting support for nutcase David Icke (see the end of his second video). DjSadhu is also on record as stating that at least some of the Apollo missions were fake. That statement, in isteslf, defames the hundreds of thousand of scientists, technicians, and layment who worked on the Apollo program.

            Put all of that together, and the scientist’s duty to condemn the videos is clear.

          2. “Therefore, your suspicion that the video does “the vast majority” no harm is just that: a mere suspicion.”

            Not quite. From my own experience I know that the number of people who simply click “like” and do nothing else is very different to those who take the time and trouble to read the full accompanying article. That appears to be the case for this video too. On YouTube it has 1,477,560 hits… but only 3,420 comments. That’s just 0.2%. Moreover, even a cursory glance at them (which honestly is all I have time for) reveals that certainly not all of those comments are supportive of the video (though as I’ve said, there’s a selection effect as to who posts a comment, making it very difficult to judge the true opinions of the silent majority). Even the number of “likes” is only 0.6%.

            His website has a mere 87 comments. Since less than 1% of viewers can even be bothered to click “like”, let alone post a comment, I remain unconvinced that anything remotely like 10-15% go away believing that some dude on the internet has overthrown science.

            HOWEVER…

            ” Several teachers have commented that they intend to use DjSadhu’s “wonderful” videos in their classes. One such viewer is a PhD candidate in science education at a major university, who promotes the videos as part of an “innovative” curriculum that his department is developing. ”

            That is an excellent point. Teaching this nonsense in a science class (or heck, _any_ class) is on a par with teaching creationism. And I entirely agree with you that scientists have a duty to debunk ravings like this, hence the whole blog post and alternative GIF. My only disagreement is that I don’t think the video became popular, or remains popular, because of its anti-science message, rather this happens because it’s pretty and shows something people have never seen before. It is very unfortunate that any teacher would think to use this video (and I concede the point that reading the comments _can_ be worthwhile if you have the time), but I don’t think the video itself is nearly as successful at promoting its anti-science agenda as its author would have liked.

  2. Hello Dr. Koberlein,

    Like you, I recognize that DjSadhu’s videos “spread more misconceptions in a day than [you] or most other scientists could counter in a year.” Therefore, since learning of those videos, I have worked actively to “help counter the idea that the solar system is a living spiral that scientists don’t really understand.”

    Actually, DjSadhu has long been aware of most of the errors that you point out, and seems simply not to care. However, as the following video documents, he’s finally backing away from his “vortex” claims (or more accurately, he’s denying that he ever made them), probably because he can no longer avoid admitting that they are demonstrably false:

    Alternative-Science Fans! Take the “Eclipses of Jupiter’s Moons” Challenge!
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V-RPbzwUjh8

    One of the wildest things about DjSadhu is that on his websites, he defamed real scientists by attacking their competence and accusing them of being part of an Establishment conspiracy to suppress knowledge of the Sun’s movement, and now he whines because the people he defamed (and continues to defame) aren’t nice to him. Unfortunately, many people really do see him as an innocent, persecuted victim.

    To counter that particular claim of Dj’s, I made the following video, which links several pre-DjSadhu materials on the Sun’s motion:

    “What is the Sun’s True Motion?”
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EMLttq1ToPw

    Note that Dj has also knowingly misrepresented NASA reports as supporting the “vortex”,
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E0LjD9dew74
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HpfYXJPM-tE ,

    and ignored these data that show that the planets simply do not trail behind the Sun:
    “Vortex Solar System Refuted by Solar Conjunctions”
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7LIlhd1w0Hs .

    I will be grateful for any comments that you might have on my materials.

    P.S.: As I recall, you posted a similar critique of DjSadhu’s videos many months ago. I’m happy that you’ve now posted the same observations it in this more-convenient form, so that I can use it to refute one of DjSadhu’s responses to laymen like me: that every critique of his videos is nothing more than a re-hash of Phil Plait’s column on Slate. (http://www.slate.com/blogs/bad_astronomy/2013/03/04/vortex_motion_viral_video_showing_sun_s_motion_through_galaxy_is_wrong.html)

  3. A new video that might be useful:

    Vortex Solar System Spirals to Doom as DjSadhu throws Bhat Model Under Bus

  4. Regardless of how accurate the placements of planets are or the relativity of the Sun, the FACT is that our Sun is not stationary. Even if you want facts that i may not prove to you yet, i know that that video holds some truth. The suns or stars in our milky way galaxy rotate around the center of the milky way. If they didn’t, it would not make sense. Dont ask me how but i am convinced beyond reasonable doubt. It’s your job to prove me right.

    There’s something grandeur abt life that Scientists never get to understand and keep fighting to get numbers and facts straight.

    1. Author

      The fact that the Sun moves through the galaxy is not what the video claims. It claims the solar system moves in a vortex and that this has some significant meaning, which is completely wrong. It is also not the job of science to “prove you right”. If you make the claim, the burden is on you to prove it. Finally, understanding science does not somehow kill the grandeur of the universe. If anything it enhances it.

      1. Gotta agree with Nix. While what the video claims may be inaccurate as you say, there is still the fact that the heliocentric model does not take into account the fact that the sun is moving as well. This is the first time it has ever been depicted, and that is what is holding peoples attention and spreading the video, not psuedo-science about a vortex. Its up to science to show us laymen a model that takes into account this obvious fact about our sun moving.

        1. Author

          This is not the first time it has ever been depicted. The motion of the Sun through the galaxy and the galaxy relative to others has long been represented in various media. This is just a flashy animation, and one that is horribly wrong. I think it insults people’s intelligence to argue that a pseudoscience video is vindicated because “at least is shows the Sun moving.” We don’t need to use lies to spread the truth.

  5. The entire video is fun to watch, but I don’t quite get the spiral DNA , Spiral Sea Shells and the water spiral. Water is not living or has lived. So by the creators animations his entire premise is wrong –everyone knows pictures are the truth right? What is the point of this video besides the wow effect that those who do not know science like to feel that wow feeling ? I also note the sun has a tail like a comet, so why is the suns tail not observed when we can observe comets tails ?

  6. 70000km /h with respect to what? I guess, our solar system is moving around the blackhole in milky galaxy and milky galaxy is moving around sth else… I think only way to compute the absolute velocity might be with respect to the big-bang point (if that point is not moving bcz in case of multi universe theory that point might be moving too)….

    1. See the link in my very first comment. It doesn’t include the motion of the Milky Way through the Universe though, however, if I remember correctly, I had to decrease the Sun’s speed around the center of the Milky Way by a factor of 2 to get a nice image. Without this you basically just see a series of straight lines – it’s very uninteresting.

      Actually, there is no theoretical center of the Big Bang, it happened everywhere.
      http://www.fromquarkstoquasars.com/where-did-the-big-bang-happen-wheres-the-center-of-the-universe/

      1. Rhys, your model is also a vortex or cork screw shape is you wish. But is should be modified too, for the following reasons:
        1. Speed and direction of Sun’s movement rotating in Milky Way should be included. Your vortex is even more complicated, because of disk angle you incorporate.
        Positioning theoretical view point outside of solar system without rotation (use center of Milky Way or “telephoto view” from other galaxy)

        2. Since it is known that universe is expanding and Milky Way is speeding itself at 1.3 million miles per hour (2.1 million km/hr)! – Earth movement trajectory would be way more complicated than cork screw shape. However this model also should be available to public.. ( http://astrosociety.org/edu/publications/tnl/71/howfast.html )

  7. You guys think that everything that is not hard science is to be dismissed as pseudoscience. Wake up, the world is big, there are many ways to reflect reality, science hasn’t got the final answers. Einstein knew that, everybody should know that. It covers only a very narrow band, the observable, the measurable, the quantifiable. But what about all the rest? Spirit, Soul, morals, beauty, love, it is all real, more real than any matter, and it is all there. But it does not register in your kind of pseudoscience. So be a little humble and not quite so pedantic.

    This is illustrated philosophy, and you may not like the philosophy, but still the picture is accurate in the sense that it awakens a new image and a new sense of the cosmos, one that has not been commonly known before. Acknowledge and rejoice that somebody made the efford. The argument about life and spirals is an analogy, we use them all the time. It may not be a proven fact that the universe or the solar system is a living entitity, but neither is the opposite supposition, that it is all just dead stuff and chemical reactions.

    These are philosophical assertions, not scientific ones. But the facts of science reads very different under each of these suppositions. Acknowledge that, and we might find basis for a healthy dialogue about the basic nature of reality.

    Personally I believe that the death metaphor has had its time. I find it suffocating and highly destructive. When you treat everything as if it was dead, chances are that everything will end up dying. Now it’s time to start thinking in terms of life and living systems. This is the philosphical direction that this video points to, and that’s all there is to it.

    1. Author

      The video very clearly makes scientific claims. It states outright that traditional science is incorrect and this idea is right. That claim simply isn’t true. Claims are pseudoscientific not because they aren’t scientific. Lots of things aren’t scientific, nor claim to be. But when nonsense is presented as science and uses scientific jargon to give the impression that it is science, then it is pseudoscience and should be called out.

    2. The reason it isn’t scientific is because it makes inaccurate claims as others have pointed out, and what was correct isn’t anything new. Invoking philosophy doesn’t change how incorrect it is.

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