So there’s this recent incident which just stepped smack dab right into the middle of one of my prevailing fascinations…

I’ve always had this obsession with the speed of bullshit. That’s to say: the speed at which a spectacularly wrong idea can spread, in the face of all the evidence that contradicts it, purely because there’s something about it people find appealing.

Yes, I’ve done my article on crop circles and the legends that surround them—the fascinating question there being: why is it so difficult to find the more prosaic explanation that a coupla guys with strings and boards started doing them as a gag after a few pints (and eventually confessed, and even demonstrated convincingly how they’d done it)? Why is it so hard to find that bit of signal in the overwhelming soup of noise that swamps it—the noise being several manure trucks full of fantastical woo about aliens and new age energy fields?

The speculation is: there’s something about certain ideas. Because they’re fantastical, they spread, and never mind how unlikely they are. If it’s exotic, new, and strange, people want to pass it on… and never mind there’s no evidence, or, as frequently, evidence to the contrary.

It’s often insidious… Yes, I confessed, just an article ago, to doing a few bad strips on the ‘lemming mass suicide’ thing some fifteen years ago… even though someone had pointed out maybe a few minutes into the work on the first one that this was just a myth. And I’m not the only one. There are a lot of strips on lemming suicides, despite the fact the whole story got started by a film crew in the late fifties… who may have heard some weird story about the phenomenon, and then, apparently, decided to stage just such an event… Forcing the lemmings off a cliff and filming it…

(Yes, apparently, some animals were harmed in the making of that film…)

The lemming thing is probably a classic case, actually. Yes, the real information is out there, but you’re not likely to hear that unless you go looking for it… And that’s partly, probably, because the myth is just such an interesting story, so readily illustrated, cartoonable, and so on, it spreads, to the detriment of the truth of the matter.

And here we have, again, just this last few days, the genesis of a myth, and damned if I’m not just a bit fascinated, watching it from so close.

See, there was this paper in the Astrophysical Journal way back in 2003. Full citation is: Majewski, Steven R.; Skrutskie, M. F.; Weinberg, Martin D. et al, “A 2MASS All-Sky View of the Sagittarius Dwarf Galaxy: I. Morphology of the Sagittarius Core and Tidal Arms”, The Astrophysical Journal 599 1082 (2003). There’s a preprint online (PDF), if you’re curious about the whole thing… what it basically says is: the Milky Way is currently in the process of devouring a small, nearby elliptical galaxy, the Sagittarius Dwarf Elliptical Galaxy (short form: Sag DEG). The trail of debris from this encounter—a trail of stars ripped out of the Sag DEG by the Milky Way—is a big, long curving thingy that passes right through the disk of the Milky Way—and among the cool things about this: that tail of debris passes fairly close to our current position in the disk.

There’s a pattern, I might add, to a certain form of pseudoscience. It has a way of starting from something already rather cool (those facts, up there above, from the paper), and trying to ‘improve’ upon them, make them cooler still. It’s sort of a fish story phenomenon. No matter how big the fish is you’ve caught, you always want to tell people it’s just that little bit bigger, at least…

And this is one of those cases, apparently…

Enter the embellisher. Relatively recently, one ‘Matthew Perkins Erwin’, publishing in (of all places) a site called ‘Curezone’—which looks, incidentally, for all the world like a clearing house of slightly scary alternative healthcare woo—herbal cancer treatments and the like—and no, they don’t get a link outside the necessary reference to the Perkins’ article, as I don’t want to encourage them—anyway, this Perkins Erwin character, apparently catching up on his astronomy reading, got around to reading the 2003 Majewski et al paper (or mebbe just the announcement), and came to a startling conclusion…

He concluded our Sun is a member of the Sag DEG stream.

Yep. Perkins Erwin sez our sun isn’t from this galaxy.

Now, you might be wondering on what basis our ‘researcher’ concluded this… And apparently, it’s not much… Seems he looked at the fact that the Sun is near the spot where the stream comes through the disk (sorta true—tho’ later studies put it a few tens of kiloparsecs away, that’s still sorta close in galactic terms—and interesting, but hardly a clincher), and the fact that our solar system’s plane is tilted some sixty degrees relative to the galactic plane (also true, but irrelevant, and I’ll get to that)…

And… that would be it.

He’s since embellished on those points, a little, mind you. Read his latest comically credulous post on the subject, and he’s got other stuff in there, now… an Australian news article that says the solar system isn’t moving in the direction relative to the rest of the galaxy that we once thought (wrong, actually, and I’ll get to that, too), and a wire service story describing a paper speculating on the event that actually touched off the original gravitational collapse of the protostellar nebula that became our solar system… And, amusingly, in his current posting, he also references… ta da!… himself again… Which, I guess, is probably necessary, if you’re looking for supporting references to a crackpot theory you yourself started…

And, of course, there’s also some stuff in there about Mayan astronomy, some fun new agey noise on energy levels, and, of course, how all this is what causes global warming. Because, y’know, it wouldn’t be proper crackpottery otherwise…

It’s since spread from there, of course, the way bullshit generally does. One Dan Eden of ‘Viewzone’ … another woo-infested site, apparently, though I’m not clear on whether they’re affiliated with CureZone—has now done a story on it. His story was every bit as weirdly credulous as was Perkins Erwin’s… and ends in a similarly long, fun, new agey cloud of incomprehensible fog about energy levels and so on… I think I lost a few points of IQ just reading it.

And then, despite how utterly off the wall these sources obviously are, a few mainstream media types picked it up. And one of the original postings got some pretty good numbers at Digg, and so on, and so on… and in no time, we’ve got ourselves a going concern: a live, crackpot theory, with media coverage, vociferous adherents, and so on…

Again, I say: the speed of bullshit, it’s a thing to behold.

Anyway… Phil Plait—aka the Bad Astronomer—heard about this, and did a debunking the other day. And a fine debunking it is—in three parts—see parts one, two, and three, if you’re interested…

I’ll summarize a few things I think you might want to know about this: 1) contrary to that ABC article Perkins Erwin is citing, the sun orbits the nucleus of the Milky Way in the plane of the Milky Way’s disk, just like the vast majority of its neighbours, exactly unlike members of the Sag DEG stream, which plunge through it at a steep angle. 2) The ABC article that says we aren’t moving in the direction we thought we were totally mangled the paper in Science it purports to cover (which doesn’t say any such thing… rather, it says the magnetic field in this area of the Milky Way doesn’t point quite the way we thought it did—I’ve now read the whole paper—to which I can give you a link… tho’ not access, sorry), and 3) there’s really no reason to think the fact that our solar system’s plane is tilted relative to the galactic plane has anything to do with anything whatsoever… since as far as we know, solar system orientations are probably pretty much random—binary star system orbital orientations are, for example (PDF)… as are the few extrasolar systems for which we actually have data… somethin’ I’m pretty familiar with, after working the extrasolar planet catalogue into Gienah a few weeks back.

But here’s the funny part. The debunking is good, the debunking is thorough… all the points above are raised, apart from a few others. The lead author of the 2003 study has even happily updated his web page on the subject, said: no, our 2003 study did not say the sun comes from the Sag DEG stream… and points to Plait’s debunking. And our dear Mr. Perkins Erwin has even shown up at Bad Astronomy to comment on this stuff, so he clearly has read these criticisms, should know he’s barking up the wrong tree…

And he’s still trying to sell it.

And folk are posting in at Bad Astronomy (tho’ yes, they may actually be sock puppets) and whining about how ‘rude’ Plait apparently was, in taking this apart…

… and, of course, certain monumentally credulous/dishonest global warming contrarians are taking the story as an excuse to say global warming isn’t anthropogenic, including several who post in various fringe media sites…

And, generally, it looks to me like the story is going to take off, in certain ‘we want to believe’ circles, anyway, despite the fact that the debunkings are easily found, and the source story is obviously, blatantly credulous… And, presumably, it will keep coming up again and again like a bad lemming suicide myth unto the end of recorded time.

I figure there’s probably a reason or two for this. On the global warming side, of course, there are a lot of purblind slash shamelessly dishonest morons who’ll take any bullshit story, however hilariously silly, and take it as support for their contention that global warming isn’t an anthropogenic phenomenon. Seriously, it’s more than a bit comical… these yahoos would seriously take any explanation however cracked that absolved them from oh, actually doing something about it. You could probably tell ‘em the ghost of Elvis done did it, and they’d eat it right up:

‘Hey… you silly egghead scientists: sez right here in Ghosts Quarterly that Elvis done did it! So I guess all these durn carbon emission reductions ain’t gonna do a thing! Haw! Guess those ghost busters shore showed YEW!…’

Beyond this, I expect, it’s just that it is, after all, a sorta wild, colourful story. Makes everything just that little bit more interesting, that little bit more exotic. Like a kid who’d love to believe he’s adopted… not necessarily ‘cause he’s got anything against his parents, so much as that would be such a good story, some of us would apparently love to believe we’re not from here, in this big, big way. It’s alluring, in its odd way.

Anyway. I figure I’ve done my bit. I posted in a bit at Bad Astronomy re orbital inclinations. I’ve written to the lead author of the paper on the local magnetic field, asked her if she could please contact the news organization that so mangled the story on her paper, tell ‘em they got it wrong. I figure a correction on that story should cut one of the legs out from under the post still up at CureZone…

But like I said: these things grow legs fast. And I honestly wonder if it’s even possible, now, to stop this from taking off.

Mebbe I’ll check back in a month, do a few Google searches, see what comes up on top.

Think of it as a study… trying to put some bounds on the speed of bullshit.

Addendum: Someone purporting to be the very Matthew Perkins Erwin in question has recently contacted me and requested that I remove this article (well… technically, he referred to removing the ‘site’ while referring specifically to the article URL… but he seems a bit fuzzy on a lot of things, so I’m going to assume he meant the article specifically). As he raised no specific objections whatsoever to the material, and as I’m generally comfortable that this material is accurate, I’ve rejected his request, and suggested if he does have any specific objections about the accuracy of the material, he can let me know… I also suggested he might try the comments section if he believes he’s got anything of substance to say, here. Stay tuned, I guess.

Also in the funny pages: presumably the same guy again, one ‘Matt’ has been posting more in Bad Astronomy’s comments threads. Think it’s fair to say it’s not been going so well for him (which may explain why he isn’t trying to address this publically in the comments section, actually… he doesn’t do himself any favours when he tries that stuff)… most recently, he went on a fairly standard rant about how everyone’s all brainwashed by the status quo, and then walked rather easily into contradicting himself on the significance to his conjecture of the Opher et al paper… see my comment in the chain on this, if you wish (oh… tho’… moderately embarrassing… I got the lead author’s name wrong in that comment, but I had it right a few comments above, so I figure it’s clear enough… mea sorta culpe. Anyway, suffice to say, I think he’s pretty much done himself entirely in that forum, anyway… Remains to be seen, I guess, how this continues to fly through the fringe press et al.)