Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Here's a Test: Can You Spot Fake News?

Below are three stories I've seen on Facebook today. Can you tell which, if any, are real? Read them all. Pass this on to your friends to test their ability to spot fake news. 

Number 1: 

Super Blue Blood Moon was Nothing. Watch for this coming in April.

While everyone is still excited about the “Super blue blood moon” of January 30, astronomer Holly Smoot of the famed Malomar Observatory says we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
Mark your calendar for the night of April 1.
“The moon slowly presents different sides of itself toward Earth,” she says. “The last time this particular Moonscape was observable from Earth during a full moon was February 29, 1613.”
On that night, long before the invention of photography, Dutch astronomer and artist Jan Vandegauss caught a representation of that side of the full moon in oil paints. Astronomers ever since have debated what Vandegauss’ painting is trying to represent, as well as what to call it. Some German astronomers derided it, calling it ‘Vandegauss’ bagel.’ Others have claimed it is in fact a flaw in the canvas, not at all an exact representation of what Vandegauss actually painted.
Vandegauss apparently believed the painting spoke for itself. While he left copious notations about other astronomical observations during his short lifetime – he died at 23 – no notes have been found about his famed ‘bagel moon.’
Smoot says astronomers at her own California based Malomar Observatory have taken to calling it the ‘navel orange moon.’
By whatever name, it will be a sight not observed in over 400 years. On April 1, the ‘navel orange moon’ or ‘bagel moon’ will rise at 11:02 in the evening on the east coast, 8:13 p.m. in California. Check your local listings to see what time to watch for it in your area.
Help get the word out. Share this on all your social media.

Number 2: 

Woman Tries to Bring Emotional Support Peacock on United Flight

United Airlines denied a woman's efforts to bring a peacock onto a flight departing from Newark Liberty International Airport. 
According to Live and Let's Fly, the woman said the peacock was an emotional-support animal, allowed to fly for free. While the woman also offered to pay for the peacock's ticket, the blog said, United would not let the animal onto the flight.
United said in a statement to Business Insider: "This animal did not meet guidelines for a number of reasons, including its weight and size. We explained this to the customer on three separate occasions before she arrived at the airport."
Number 3: 
CDC Doctor: 'Disastrous' flu shot is causing deadly outbreak.

Some of the patients I’ve administered the flu shot to this year have died,” the doctor said, adding “I don’t care who you are, this scares the crap out of me.”
We have seen people dying across the country of the flu, and one thing nearly all of them have in common is they got the flu shot.”
Scientists were worried this year’s flu season was going to be rough and their fears have been proven well founded. The flu season is off to a record-breaking start, with the CDC reporting widespread flu activity from coast to coast. Many health officials believe that 2018 will ultimately be the worst flu outbreak that we have experienced since 1918.

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So: how did you do? Did you spot the fakes? Do you know how to spot fake news? 
Let’s start with the vaccine story. Regardless whether you are pro- or con- vaccine, there are some obvious signs this is fake. Reporters live by the motto “who, what, where, when, how and why.” ‘A CDC doctor’ who is never named? Where did he supposedly make this statement? When? Where are the facts? There are none.
This is one of the fastest spreading articles on Facebook this week. Why was it written? Simple: money. The creator of this story may have spent a couple hours writing it. The vast majority of readers don’t click on ads but some will, and he gets a few cents every time a reader clicks on an ad in his story. Depending on your browser, you might be looking at 30 ads on that one page.
Suppose vaccines do work. (Again, as I said, I’m not taking a position.) If a vaccine could save someone’s life, and this ‘reporter’ scared someone off from getting it and they subsequently died, should the ‘reporter’ be held responsible?
The peacock story, amazingly, is real.
Willis Hawley and Reed Smoot. 
The ‘bagel moon’ story, I made that up. (Took me almost an hour to create that artwork – pretty good, isn’t it?) It has already spread to several dozen pages on Facebook. Unlike the vaccine story, I did put in names, places and dates. However, if you took a minute on Google, you’d discover that Mallomar is a cookie, Palomar is the observatory; Hawley Smoot was the name of a Tariff Act (Thanks Ferris Bueller!), there was no February 29th in 1613 and degauss is an electronic process for demagnetizing a TV screen.

Hopefully, the worst thing that will come out of it will be people looking at the moon on April Fool’s Day. 

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Thursday, January 25, 2018

You Need to Understand Radio-carbon Dating

Last week I read this in an Israeli newspaper:

“A massive tower that defended [Jerusalem’s] main water source – which was thought to have been built in the Middle Bronze Age, nearly 4,000 years ago – [Carbon dating results] have shown the structure likely dates back only to the ninth century B.C.E.”

Like it or not, you need to understand radio-carbon dating. Nearly every field of science relies on it. Archaeologists in particular count on carbon dating to help them determine the age of many of the artifacts they dig up.
What is it? How does it work?
At this moment, powerful cosmic particles from somewhere out in the Milky Way are striking Earth’s upper atmosphere. They combine with nitrogen atoms to form unstable Carbon 14 atoms – unstable in the sense that the C-14 atoms slowly decay back to nitrogen.
The C-14 and the more stable C-12 carbon atoms combine with oxygen atoms to form carbon dioxide. The ratio between the two types of carbon dioxide is - currently - one trillion to 1.
Both types of carbon dioxide are breathed in by living plants. Animals, of course, breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide. However, animals collect C-12 and C-14 from the plants they eat. So animals and humans, like plants, are assumed to have the same one trillion to 1 ratio of C-12 to C-14. Obviously, rocks cannot be measured by a carbon clock.
(The archaeologists in Jerusalem had to have dated some piece of wood they found, not the stones the tower is built from. It was the piece of wood, or technically, the death of the tree the wood came from, that dated to David’s day, not the tower.)
When a plant or animal dies, it stops taking in carbon. It is assumed that the C-12 remains stable for the rest of eternity, but its C-14 decays.
It is assumed that all plants take in C-12 and C-14 in the same amounts and with the same ratio. It is further assumed that the ratio has remained constant; that is, that a plant living, say, 6000 years ago took up one C-14 atom to every one trillion C-12 atoms, just as plants do today.
The rate of decay – that is, the rate at which C-14 leeches away – is currently measured at one half every 5,700 years. And it is assumed that it has always been the same. So if you were to analyze a sample of 100 trillion carbon atoms from a modern plant, 100 of them would be C-14 atoms. If you looked at 100 trillion atoms of a 5,700 year-old plant you would only count fifty C-14 atoms – half the original amount. 100 trillion atoms from a plant 11,400 years old would have only twenty-five C-14 atoms, and so on.
Simple, right? The lower the amount of C-14, the older the sample. Given all that, any sample more than a few thousand years old will have a microscopically small amount of C-14... one might even say an "immeasurably small amount." And, of course, when you are measuring things in atoms, the samples (and the machinery) are subject to contamination.
According to, scientists use oxalic acid made from sugar beets known to have been harvested in 1955 to calibrate their tests. They also use wood from a tree known to have been cut in 1890, “unaffected by fossil fuel effects.”
Wait: What?
Yup. Turns out that changes to the atmosphere mess with the carbon levels. Scientists assume that, prior to the fossil fuel age there were no significant changes to the atmosphere. That explains that reference to the ‘1955 sugar beet oxalic acid,’ as well: atmospheric testing of hydrogen bombs in the fifties significantly altered the levels of C-12 and C-14 in the atmosphere.
Notice all the assumptions involved: For the carbon clock to be reliable, the amount of the mysterious cosmic rays striking the atmosphere from the unknown space source would have to remain constant over tens of thousands of years. Have they? Who knows? The scientists admit they know little about them.
In addition, cosmic rays are greatly affected by magnetic fields – both that of the earth and that of the sun. The magnetic fields, in fact, are the reason scientists can only say the cosmic rays come from 'somewhere in the galaxy' – because each magnetic field they pass on their way to Earth changes their direction and their intensity

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Earth's magnetic field fluctuates dramatically. The sun’s does as well.
Let’s take it a step further. For much of Earth's geologic history a dense shroud of water, dust or other debris covered the planet. Would this have affected cosmic rays striking the atmosphere? Absolutely. Would that have altered the relative amounts of nitrogen, oxygen, and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere? Again, yes.
Atmospheric oxygen is believed to have been as low as 15%, and as high as 35%, at various points in geologic history. The nitrogen level went down when oxygen went up, and vice versa. Carbon dioxide levels changed nearly every time a volcano erupted. When humans began cooking and heating with fire (6,000 years ago according to the Bible or 350,000 years ago according to science) carbon dioxide climbed. When we began using fossil fuels, CO2 really jumped. Atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons in the 1950s also greatly affected levels of C-14 in the atmosphere.
So how can anyone say that the ratio of C-14 to ordinary carbon in a plant living today is the same as the ratio in a plant that lived thousands of years ago?
The scientists themselves, who lean so heavily on the radiocarbon clock, need to read the work of other scientists:
  • A large and sudden increase in radiocarbon around AD 773 is documented in coral skeletons from the South China Sea…forming a spike of 45% in late spring, followed by two smaller spikes. The carbon anomalies coincide with an historic comet collision with the Earth's atmosphere on 17 January AD 773.” –
  • “We find [in annual rings of Japanese cedar trees] a rapid increase of about 12% in the C-14 content from a.d. 774 to 775, which is about 20 times larger than the change attributed to ordinary solar modulation.” – Nature, June 2012
  • “The rate of carbon 14 radioactive decay may have been different in the past. The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere may have been different in the past. The assumption of a constant ratio of C-14 to C-12 is invalid; equilibrium would require about 30,000 years, (or 50,000 years according to this mathematician) and the C-14/C-12 ratio appears to be increasing still.” –
That last part there, about “equilibrium,” is important. If all the assumptions were true, 30,000-50,000 years after the C-14 process began, whenever that was, the atmosphere should have reached equilibrium… it should have reached a point where the C-14 decayed away at the same rate at which it is being generated. Otherwise, by now we’d be swimming in C-14.
But it is still increasing. Which can ONLY mean:
  1. The C-14 process – cosmic rays reaching the atmosphere, the atmosphere containing the present-day levels of nitrogen, oxygen, and CO2, the C-14 being absorbed by plants then decaying out, etc. – that process began less than 30,000 years ago… or
  2. The theory on which Carbon 14 dating is based, is just wrong
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