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Episode 130 - Dealing with Pseudoscience at Scientific Conferences

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Recap: Who can present at a scientific conference is often shrouded in mystery to non-scientists, and it is viewed as an Ivory Gate by pseudoscientists. In this episode, we hear from the program committee chair of the largest planetary science conference in the world, Dr. Dave Draper, about how selections are made and what happens when ideas against the mainstream are submitted for presentations at these meetings.

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Episode Summary

Dave Draper is the Manager of the Astromaterials Research Office at NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. His scientific background is in experimental simulation of the formation of planetary interiors and how they generate the mostly igneous materials that make up the bulk of planetary sample collections. He is also a current member of the Planetary Science Subcommittee of the NASA Advisory Council, and for the last several years, he has chaired the program committee for the largest annual planetary science conference in the US, if not the world, the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference that takes place every March in Houston, TX.

There is no transcript as this was an interview episode. Below is an outline of the topics and questions that we discussed.

  • Many of the listeners have probably attended some sort of conference in the past, like a skeptics conference, maybe a comics conference, or a Disney conference, but very few have attended a science conference. Can you explain what some of the big differences are?
  • Your role specifically for the past several years has been to the the program committee chair for the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (“LPSC”), one of the largest planetary science conferences in the world. What is the initial step for someone to try to present at LPSC, what is that minimum requirement?
  • When you and the rest of the program committee meet in your gold-plated ivory tower after all the abstracts are in, what do you do? How do you go about figuring out who can present?
  • How do you decide who will present a talk versus a poster?
  • How do you decide what kind of abstracts are rejected? What is that minimum set of criteria that people must meet to not be rejected? Do you have to be at an academic institution, have a degree, etc.; or if you don’t, is your abstract given special scrutiny if you don’t have a Dr. in front of your name?
  • What do you do when you get an abstract that is, as one might say, “against the mainstream?” What criteria do you use to evaluate it and decide if it were to get accepted or rejected?
  • If you reject it, how do you inform the author, and is there any recourse for them?
  • If you accept it, do you put any strings on it that acceptance, or would you when planning the talks or posters put them in any particular place in the order because their idea is not considered mainstream?
  • Let’s talk about a hypothetical. Say I have a person who submits an abstract claiming that the moon is a hologram. He provides screenshots of video he took showing the surface wavering in a line-scan-like situation. He doesn’t try to address any of the reasons people may come up with to say that he’s wrong, like tides, but he presents some very basic evidence. What would you do with that abstract?
  • Let’s do another one. Say you have a submission that claims the moon is hollow. They cite the Apollo seismic data and quotes where someone reported that the moon “rang like a bell.” They bring in mass estimates and some hand wavy reason that might seem like it could form that way, so they have some theoretical argument and observational argument. What would you do with that abstract?
  • And for a third, say you have someone who submits an abstract claiming that Mars was a moon of a now-missing planet. They present crater evidence of the southern hemisphere being blasted with craters from the explosion, arguing that the crater chronology is off because of this missing planet having exploded. They point to Iapetus’ brightness dichotomy and say that was blasted, too. They point to the asteroid belt and say that it’s a remnant. They then have a concluding paragraph that acknowledges the mainstream idea of what went on but still argue that their model can fit with most of the data, and that the data it can’t fit with should be re-examined or may fit with a modification of his model, he just wants to get it out there. What would you do with that abstract?
  • As a next-to-final question after these hypotheticals, when considering these kinds of abstracts, are you cognizant of the idea of damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t? As in, if you accept the abstract, then someone who you’re pretty sure is a pseudoscientist can claim that they presented their work at a scientific conference? Whereas if you reject it, they’ll claim that the gateway is guarded by stodgy scientists stuck in their ways who refuse to accept anything different?
  • Finally, anything else you think the listeners should know?

At the end of the episode, I added this:

Thanks again to Dr. Dave Draper for joining us for over an hour when one includes computer crashes and other things, and while he was fighting a cold.

The evening after I recorded this interview with Dr. Draper, Richard C. Hoagland appeared on Coast to Coast AM, interviewed by Richard Syrett. Richard Hoagland was ostensibly on to talk about nukes on Mars, which was because of the following: [Clip from Coast to Coast AM, March 27, 2015, hour 1, starting 01:45]:

“About a week and a half ago, a plasma physicist […] presented a controversial theory at the 46th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Houston, TX. Dr. John Brandenburg says the evidence is incontrovertible an ancient Mars civilization was wiped out by a nuclear bomb. Now, at the conference, he didn’t go into a lot of detail about the uh, the alien races per se, he pointed to a number of artifacts that he says are remnants of an intelligent society, but here’s where it gets interesting.

“He warned we should all be fearful of an attack from this supposedly hostile alien race that wiped out these same martians. He went on to explain that a thin layer of radioactive substances, including uranium, thorium, and radioactive potassium on the surface of the red planet provide evidence for his theory. And nuclear isotopes in the atmosphere apparently resemble hydrogen bomb tests which he says occurred in two places on Mars, Cydonia Mensa and Galaxius Chaos. He says we have now found evidence of the nuclear melt glass, trinitite, formed uh, on Earth at the site of nuclear weapons airbursts. They were found at both sides of the hypothesized [Mars] explosions and all this was presented at the afore-mentioned conference.”

It’s because of this kind of thing that I disagree with Dr. Draper a bit. Dave made the comment during the interview that he doesn’t think that the fringe proud that would be impressed by hearing that a certain person presented at a scientific conference is large enough to really matter, especially for something like planetary science.

Like it or not, in its heyday, Coast to Coast AM drew in the tens of millions of listeners per night, though I’ve now heard it’s closer to hundreds of thousands of listeners on any given night. It’s said to be the largest late-night talk show in the world.

And, because someone presented their work at LPSC, that was used by the host as a badge of credibility, inferred, assumed, and implied to mean that the views are being taken somewhat seriously by the broader scientific community. Which they are not.

With that in mind, I may be a bit hyper-sensitive to the issue.

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