Bad astronomy. Real bad.

29 June 2007

With all due apologies to Phil Plait, natch.

Having worked in astronomy education for a while now, I figured I was done being blindsided by conspiracy theories on work-related topics. I’ve dealt with the basics: face on Mars, Moon landings, UFOs, and so on. But this is a new one for me.

I glanced at a local broadsheet that favors conspiracy theories today, and it appears that they have taken a break from ad hominem attacks on elected officials to devote a few valuable column-inches to astoundingly ill-conceived pseudoscientific innuendo. Under the title “An Inconvenient Truth,” they ran a picture of Jupiter with pretty good resolution (bands, festoons, Red Spot and Red Spot Jr visible).

The caption for the photo was great in an awful sort of way, and I quote here for your reading pleasure:

Photo of Jupiter, taken from Keck Telescope on Mauna Kea, shows two giant storms passing each other. The smaller one is new, evidence of global warming on Jupiter. After seeing photos like this, some might get the silly idea that global warming is caused by the Sun. So, to protect us from our own ignorance, the ‘activists’ are trying to shut down the telescope.


I think a good place to start is by tallying up what is correct. First of all, there is a Keck Observatory on Mauna Kea, though it actually is comprised of two telescopes. Second, the picture appears to be a legitimate Keck image, taken on 20 July 2006 using their adaptive optics system. Here’s the UCBerkeley press release for the image, as well. Gemini took a similar picture about a week earlier. It is true that while the Great Red Spot has been observed for at least a hundred and fifty three hundred years or so, the smaller storm resulted from a merger in 2000 of three other storms first observed around 1930. Lastly, there are certainly some people who self-identify as activitsts and are trying to shut down the telescope, but their role in ignorance protection remains unclear to me, dear reader.

And that brings us to the far more dubious conclusions breathlessly implied in the text. While I don’t claim to be an expert in planetary atmospheres, I know some people who do. And I’ve never heard those people talk about global warming in conjunction with Jupiter. Venus, sure, it is quite literally a poster child for the runaway greenhouse effect. But not Jupiter. And in any case, new storms don’t automatically denote climate change.

Next, the global warming-Sun connection. There are lots of factors involved in climate change. It’s a complicated business, to be sure. And there is some room for debate an inquiry into mechanisms. But I’m not going to deal here with a point-by-point analysis of the evidence. Unless you’ve got a cycle named after you, go read this.

Lastly, and perhaps most accusation-laden, the claim that people who are covering up the natural causes of global warming will stop at nothing, including silencing those meddling NASA scientists trying to bring us the truth.

Let’s pause for a moment and allow that ouroboronic argument to chase its own tail. Meanwhile, check this out.


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