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War Of The Words

From: UFO UpDates - Toronto <ufoupdates.nul>
Date: Tue, 16 Mar 2004 08:39:27 -0500
Fwd Date: Tue, 16 Mar 2004 08:39:27 -0500
Subject: War Of The Words

Source: Space.Com


15 March 2004

War Of The Words: Scientist Attacks Alien Claims

By Robert Roy Britt
Senior Science Writer

Astronomer Philip Plait is tired of radio personality Richard
Hoagland's claims. He's had enough of Hoagland's assertions that
NASA is covering up evidence of extraterrestrial life, that the
infamous Face on Mars was built by sentient aliens and, of late,
that otherworldly machine parts are embedded in the red planet's

And then there's the mile-long translucent Martian worm.

On Hoagland's web site, there are several images from various
space probes said to possibly show evidence for ET. Recent Mars
rover photos include not just rocks, Hoagland and other
contributors maintain, but common objects that might tell of
alien civilization -- a bowl, a stove, a piston.

Hoagland has since 1983, he says, led "an outside scientific
team in a critically acclaimed independent analysis of possible
intelligently-designed artifacts" on other worlds, using
spacecraft data from NASA and other missions.

Plait, author of "Bad Astronomy" (Wiley & Sons, 2002), which
debunks space myths and common factual misconceptions, had for
years not countered Hoagland directly, because he did not want
to give a man he calls a "pseudoscientist" the "air time that he
so desperately seeks."

But last week Plait took his intellectual gloves off.

Shapes in the clouds

Plait has two words for the latest claims of alien objects on
Mars. The first is "garbage." The second and more scientific
word is "pareidolia." This is the same phenomenon that makes us
see animals or other familiar objects in clouds.

"It's pretty common," Plait said of pareidolia. "Just a few
months ago, a water spot on my shower curtain took on the
uncanny form of the face of Vladimir Lenin." Plait took a
picture of the liquid Lenin and uses it illustrate his
contention that, though objects on the surface of Mars can
sometimes take on interesting shapes, they are just a bunch of

"Hoagland's claims irritate me because he is promoting
uncritical thinking," Plait told SPACE.com . "He doesn't want
you to think about what you're seeing. He's trying to bamboozle
you into believing what he's saying."

Critical thinking is the foundation of science, but Plait thinks
it's also an important skill for anyone trying to navigate
modern society. "Hoagland is eroding away at that ability."

Hoagland says the names given to objects shown on his web site
are nicknames, just as the rover scientists came up with
"blueberries" to describe small spherical objects on Mars.

"We are not saying there are stoves or pistons on Mars,"
Hoagland said in a telephone interview. "Absolutely not. When we
began looking at these objects, what struck us was how
remarkably symmetrical, how remarkably designed-looking, how
remarkably manufactured some of these things looked."

Hoagland's web site, however, does not make this distinction
with many rover images. A headline on the home page flatly
states that some objects on Mars are non-natural: "Spirit Sees
(and Still Ignores) More Artificial Junk." And the caption to
one reads, plainly, "an Unmistakable Machined Fitting." Another
caption reads: "When is a Rock Not a Rock? When They Come in
pairs!" And another: "A Collection of Mechanical Bits."

Hoagland said he suggested to scientists on the rover team that
they go study the objects up close to determine their
composition. "NASA chose not to," he said. "So we have a hanging
mystery. We don't know what these things are. We'll never know
what these things are."

Hoagland is routinely critical of Stephen Squyres, a Cornell
University astronomer who is mission manager for the Mars rover
mission. Squyres did not respond to a SPACE.com query regarding
Hoagland's claims.

It should be pointed out that NASA is not in the practice of
commanding its rovers based on suggestions from people outside
the agency or from beyond the Spirit and Opportunity science
teams, which together include dozens of leading geologists and
other scientists from inside the agency and from universities
around the country.


Philip Plait is an astronomer who develops space-related
classroom materials at Sonoma State University in California and
also works in public outreach on various NASA missions. He
spends his spare time working to right the cosmic wrongs -- big
and small -- promulgated by the popular media and around the
Internet. He is frequently invited to talk to large gatherings
of astronomers, who appreciate his efforts to correct mistakes
in the popular media.

Lately, Plait has heard Hoagland explain his views frequently on
the late-night Coast to Coast AM radio show, which is heard on
hundreds of stations. Meanwhile, a phenomenal flow of images
from NASA's Mars rovers has created a cottage industry in
scientific speculation about the red planet, at Hoagland's web
site and elsewhere.

"I've let this fester long enough," Plait wrote recently on his
web site, badastronomy.com. "This kind of pseudoscience is like
a virus. At low levels, it's no big deal, but when it reaches a
certain threshold it becomes sickening."

Plait works to debunk several specific alien-related claims made
on Hoagland's web site, enterprisemission.com. (Not all of the
scenarios are suggested by Hoagland himself.)

Here are snapshots of two arguments:

    * An image from the Mars Global Surveyor is said on
Hoagland's site to be a gargantuan, glass-like worm that's a
mile long. Plain as a pig in the clouds, the image does indeed
evoke the shape and features of a worm at the bottom of a
canyon. Evenly spaced arcs even resemble ribs. Plait says the
most likely explanation for the rib-like features is that
they're sand dunes, created by wind blowing through the valley.

    * An apparent bit of spacecraft debris from the rover
mission, photographed by Spirit, was dubbed a "bunny" by some.
Hoagland later said the bunny had been optically removed by
NASA. Plait points out that NASA scientists said the object
appeared to be lightweight, and thinks "it is far more likely it
simply blew away in the Martian wind."

Credentials questioned

Plait and other scientists question Hoagland's credentials and
say he is prone to inflating his accomplishments.

Hoagland did not graduate from college. "I didn't actually get a
degree," he said last week. He says he was "possibly the
youngest museum curator in the country" in the mid-1960s at age
19. He is a science writer with a keen interest in space.

Hoagland lists among his awards having received the Angstrom
Medal for Excellence in Science. But there's a catch.

Uppsala University in Sweden, with approval from Royal Swedish
Academy of Sciences, gives out the Angstrom Prize, which
includes a medal and a cash award, given in the honor of 18th
Century Swedish scientist Anders-Jonas Angstrom. Hoagland's
medal, however, came from the separate Angstrom Foundation
Aktiebolag (AFAB). This is a privately-owned company with no
connection to Uppsala University or the Royal Swedish Academy of

"There were no scientists involved in that decision," says Ralph
Greenberg, a professor of mathematics at the University of
Washington. Others who have researched Hoagland's medal say it
carries little if any merit and was not awarded by scientists or
a scientific organization.

Greenberg began looking into Hoagland's background for another

In a January 1980 article in the popular magazine Star & Sky,
Hoagland wrote of the possibility of an ocean of water under the
ice of Jupiter's moon Europa and that life might have arisen
there. Hoagland says today that the article presented "a radical
new theory," and his web site states Hoagland "is the originator
of this remarkable idea." The web site also states Hoagland
"became the first to propose ... the possible existence of deep
ocean life under the global ice shield perpetually surrounding
the enigmatic moon of Jupiter, Europa."

Greenberg heard Hoagland's claim and did a review of scientific
literature (Star & Sky, now defunct, was not a scientific
journal) and other writings and lectures. Greenberg found that
the ideas of water and life under Europa had both been put forth
before January 1980.

The first known suggestion that Europa might harbor a liquid
ocean was in a 1971 paper by John S. Lewis in the widely
respected science journal Icarus. The idea was discussed in
other papers in the mid-1970s by Lewis and by other scientists.

The possibility of that Europa's hypothesized ocean could
support life was discussed in June 1979 -- six months before
Hoagland's article -- by Benton Clark at a conference at NASA's
Ames Research Center.

"It's clear that [Hoagland] deserves no credit for proposing an
ocean under the ice on Europa," Greenberg told SPACE.com . And
regarding the notion of life: "Others before him wrote on the
same topic with more merit."

Greenberg says Hoagland deserves some credit for helping to
popularize the Europa ideas. But he is bothered that Hoagland
does not make an effort to set the record straight.

"He never made it quite clear that this was not his original
idea in any sense," Greenberg said. "I think it's really
shameful that he hasn't been willing to make it crystal clear."

Greenberg continues: "I don't think [Hoagland] really has any
scientific credentials. He's not a trained scientist in any
sense. He knows some facts. I don't think he has any depth of
knowledge. But he's a good talker, and maybe gives the
impression that he knows more and understands more than he
really does."

Hoagland said Greenberg's comments "are obviously being
viciously spun for the blatant political purpose of destroying
my credibility at this key moment -- when our criticisms of NASA
and the current rover mission are gaining legs. This is what
someone is apparently quite concerned about."

Hoagland said via e-mail over the weekend that his claim to an
ocean at Europa was the first to be based on Voyager 1 and 2
imagery of Europa, from flybys in March and July 1979, and that
his 1980 article was specifically referring to a previous paper
that said any water on Europa had likely become frozen.

"The question of who's first is tricky," Hoagland said.
"Clearly, I was not the first (nor have I ever claimed to be) to
propose an original liquid ocean for Europa. But I do maintain I
was the first to recognize in the new Voyager data that it might
still be liquid."

Greenberg points to the astronomer Carl Sagan as someone who had
discussed the Europa ideas with other scientists in the mid-
1970s. "But, I knew Carl -- and worked with him -- for decades,"
Hoagland says. "And he never once told me I was trespassing on
his turf, even after the Star & Sky piece was published."
Hoagland also says the author Arthur C. Clarke has mentioned him
as the originator of the life-on-Europa idea.

The Face on Mars

Hoagland is perhaps best known for promoting the Viking
Orbiter's "Face on Mars" image as evidence for an alien
civilization. Interestingly it was NASA that started discussion
over the face-like features. Here's how NASA's original caption
read when the image was released in 1976: "Shadows in the rock
formation give the illusion of a nose and mouth. Planetary
geologists attribute the origin of the formation to purely
natural processes."

Hoagland finds interest in much more than the Face itself. He
maintains that drawing lines between features in the Cydonia
region around the face creates angles that involve complex
mathematical formulas and geometric relationships that could
only point to intelligent construction.

His web site's mission statement argues that the Face is
surrounded by "crumbling high tech pyramids ... possible former
environmental arcologies left by someone who tried to make Mars
home... long before our fleeting, recent visits." The statement
then says there is disturbing evidence "of a profound,
deliberately politically-motivated cover-up of this important
data by both major spacefaring nations."

Plait analyzes the math and methodology. He says the precision
of angles and distances that Hoagland claims is greater than is
possible given the images from which Hoagland works. Moreover,
Plait wonders why Hoagland picks certain hills to include in his
diagrams instead of other nearby hills that appear
indistinguishable. Hoagland could be benefiting, he says, by
picking the points that, through random chance, indeed form

"Any random set of numbers, when played with as Hoagland did,
will yield many coincidental mathematical relationships," Plait
says. "His mathematical analysis is so full of holes, flaws, and
misdirection that it is completely worthless."

Hoagland, in response, said Plait should talk with others who
have checked the math and shown it to be solid.

"There is a reasonable hypothesis that there could have been an
ancient civilization on Mars," Hoagland said, adding that the
idea has a lot of adherents around the world. "At no point has
NASA chosen to address this scientifically."

His beef with NASA is that the space agency should conduct
systematic studies -- based on standards that he would be
involved in setting -- to answer the questions he poses.

Hoagland says that as his group's effort has come closer to
figuring out "the truth regarding the science and politics of
'extraterrestrial artifacts in the solar system,'" the
opposition has become "rabid and relentless."

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