Citation Needed

In Pseudoscience by Brian Koberlein8 Comments

I get a lot of email from folks with pseudoscience claims. It could be that the Earth is actually flat, or that the Sun is powered by electricity, or that Einstein was wrong about gravity. Bonus points if the email also calls me an idiot or part of the astronomical illuminati. But in the world of pseudoscience another popular approach is to make a claim based upon some image. There’s no referenced source or clear history of the image, just a picture and a claim. But even for pseudoscience, this is just being lazy, because in the information age images can often be tracked to their source with minimal effort.

Hmmm. What could it be?

Let’s look at an example. Here’s an image I got in the mail this week. It looks like some strange winged planet or star, and it is claimed this is an image of Nibiru. Depending on who you listen to, Nibiru is red dwarf near the Sun, or a hidden planet in the outer solar system, or the Sun’s stellar companion. The only thing Nibiru folks seem to agree upon is that it’s heading our way and could kill us all. If you do a quick Google image search, sure enough you find several YouTube videos and blog posts claiming it’s an image of Nibiru. None of them give any source to the image, so no joy there.

But there are a few things we can tell from the image right off the bat. The first that it’s in color, so it’s probably a composite false-color image. In astronomy we don’t take color images, we take black and white images at specific wavelength ranges. If we want a color image, we have to combine images taken at different wavelengths to create a color image. Sometimes this is done with the goal of making the image as true to life as possible, but often we create “false color” images to make certain features more prominent. We do this because we want to capture as much light as possible, and color digital cameras aren’t very good at that. There is also some text written on the side:

IRIS 1473:3 (NI2b) 2003UB313

The object as seen in Google Sky. Credit: DSS Consortium, SDSS, NASA/ESA, as screencapped from Google Sky.

It all looks official and government like, but was probably added to the image, since raw images aren’t stamped on the image. They are usually FITS files that have the timestamp and such as metadata. IRIS is the name of a solar satellite, the Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph. But it wasn’t even launched until June of 2013. 2003UB313 is the designation for the dwarf planet Eris, and NI2b might refer to nickel boride. It’s hard to say. IRIS couldn’t have taken an image in 2003, and Eris doesn’t remotely look like this. But going through the Google Image links, I came across a reference noting that the object could be seen in Google Sky, at Right Ascension 5h 42m 21.0s, and Declination 22° 36′ 45.7.  Sure enough, if you look up that location, you find a similar object. Now we’re getting somewhere.

Our mystery object as captured by the POSS I. Credit: STScI Digitized Sky Survey

As an interesting side note, several of the Nibiru posts talk about a conspiracy where Google blocked out that section of Google Sky when people found it, presumably to hide Nibiru from the general public. But Google is very clear about its sources. They give credit to the DSS Consortium, SDSS and NASA/ESA. The DSS Consortium is a Digitized Sky Survey that has digitized photographic plates from early sky surveys, most significantly the Palomar Observatory Sky Survey (POSS). The initial sky survey (POSS I) was done in 1958. A second, higher resolution survey (POSS II) was done in the 1980s and 1990s. These have been digitized and are freely available to the general public. Pick what part of the sky you want to see, and you can get the actual images. The only catch is that the site wants locations in decimal degrees rather than the old school hours, minutes, seconds. I could convert it by hand, but why not let an online converter do the heavy lifting. Bada bing, bada boom, and we have RA: 85.5875, DEC: 22.6125. Plug these into the online DSS archive, and we have our images. By default the site gives you the raw FITS files, which is what astronomers use, but it will also give you a GIF if you like. The resolution is pretty low, but it does confirm that this is the object in question.

Left: DSS color composite. Middle: 2MASS composite. Right: WISE composite. Credit: ADS All Sky Survey

The nice thing about sky surveys is that they are still doing them, and most of the data is publicly available. So why not look up the object in other surveys? One good resource is the ADS All Sky Survey, which has data from several sources. The nice thing about this particular site is that once you find your object, you can select images from several sky surveys. The image above shows three of them. The one on the left uses the DSS data we found before to create a “real color” image. The middle image uses data from the Two Micron All-Sky Survey (2MASS), which focuses on infrared wavelengths close to the visible spectrum. The image on the right is from the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE), which looks at longer infrared wavelengths.

It’s pretty clear that this object is bright in the infrared as well as the visible, and that the odd wing features are most apparent at visible wavelengths. This is a common characteristic of T Tauri type stars. These are young stars still in the process of forming. Unlike our Sun, which generates its heat from nuclear fusion, T Tauri stars are generating heat through their own gravitational weight. They tend to be brighter and warmer than main sequence stars of a similar mass, and they also tend to be near other gas and dust. The light from the star often reflects off this dust, creating bright reflection nebulae. This would explain the wing-like feature near the star.

Just to be sure, we can look up the object on an astronomical database known as SIMBAD (the Set of Identifications, Measurements, and Bibliography for Astronomical Data). If it is a known object, it will likely be listed there. Entering in the RA and Dec we got from the Nibiru fans, it looks like SIMBAD finds 2 objects: GN 05.39.2, which is a reflection nebula, 2MASS J05422123+2236471, which is a T Tauri type star. It has an apparent magnitude of about 12, and is probably about 700 to 1,000 light years away. We’ll know its exact distance when the Gaia spacecraft starts releasing its data. At magnitude 12, it can even be seen with a small telescope in dark rural skies. Amateur astronomer Scott Ferguson has not only done this, he’s made videos showing his work.

One of the most amazing things about astronomy is how accessible the data is. Most of the data from large telescopes and sky surveys are publicly available for free. Any site who posts an image like the one sent to me without providing sources is simply being lazy. Science isn’t about being lazy, it’s about getting things right, and that’s one of the reasons citations are always needed.


  1. One thing I have always wondered about is, why is it that pseudoscience and conspiracy flourishes in the United States but is all but absent from pretty much any other country I can think of?

    1. Author

      It’s not. Other countries have anti-vaxxers and homeopathic medicine, and young earth creationism is popular in more religious Muslim countries. America might be the loudest, but they are hardly alone.

    2. We are here in New Zealand and we have, for example, climate change deniers just as well. Not many, but they do exist. I think the reason why conspiracy appears to be an U.S. issue these days is because there is a very famous U.S. personality who isn’t afraid of shouting as loud as he can, blaming science, journalists and intellectuals for all the evil of this world and doing it with a self esteem and self-righteousness the world has hardly ever experienced before. If facts are declared as “Fake News” and absolute nonsense is being represented as “Alternative Facts” by the very highest office within a country then the rest of the world is associating this country with the things you have mentioned.

      1. Kia ora, Tino,
        Well, I think we could take up many pixels on why the U.S. seems to be the loudest when it comes to denying much well established science. First off is their pre-eminent place as the world’s most powerful nation. So what comes out of there is bound to be reported more than the same stories from elsewhere. Secondly, is that they are heavily dependent on fossil fuels. And the companies who trade in those fuels are very powerful, and many are U.S. based. And they tend to stick a fair bit of money into backing politicians in the U.S. It is not in their interests for the real science to go unchallenged. Even if they have to make stuff up. Which they do.
        Of course, that is just the climate science debate. Of all the developed western nations, the U.S. also seems to be the most ‘problematic’ when it comes to such things as evolutionary theory. This, in my view, is due to the high levels of religious belief in that country, compared to other developed western nations. And, again, this finds its way into the political arena. I very much doubt that a self proclaimed atheist could ever get elected in that country. Whereas, in Britain, NZ, Germany, France etc., nobody would bat an eyelid. Of course the denial of evolution on biblical grounds, then follows on into other sciences that impact on the fundamentalist beliefs of a decent percentage of the population; geology and palaeoanthropology, for instance. I’m not sure that this manifests itself at a governmental level quite so much as the climate science debate. It has less of an economic impact. However, you often hear stories of creationist science trying to be foisted upon people via the school curriculum at state or local government level, as we saw in the Dover school ID nonsense. Thankfully, the founders of that country were wise enough to separate church and state. Something that, bizarrely, hasn’t yet happened in a far more atheistic country like Britain!
        Anyway, that’s my 2 cents. In closing may I say: God bless America! 😉

        1. Thanks for your reply Ian. I agree with you fully on your first paragraph and neither do I really disagree with you on your second paragraph. I just feel a bit squirmy to bring religion and science discussions together. This usually doesn’t end too well. And to be fair – this blog isn’t the best place for this discussion either. Ignoring this for a second, I would like to say that there have been great scientists of all personal beliefs and that this is everybodies personal thing. There have been whole societies, greatly scientific advanced, which had their own religious beliefs. The good old Greeks for example.

          Personally though, and that’s only my individual opinion, I always struggled with one thing. I can’t understand how you can have specific values and base your life on a specific religious belief based on something which you can’t really observe and you are not suppose to question either and accept this as it is, purely because. And then you try to be a scientist or at least a scientific thinking person where everything is up to be questioned and challenged while your version of truth potentially shifts with every new observation. I don’t know how those two different mind sets can easily be mingled within one person. That is the main reason I keep my kids away from any religious school for example. I think it is a cultural mind set clash. But that is every persons own business.

          I have never been to the U.S. so I can’t really judge what is going on there. My opinion is purely based on what I read online and talking to two of my friends who were born and raised in the U.S. But from what I gather – with my limited horizon on that matter – it seems that Christian extremism finds the most nutritious soil within the states.

  2. The link under “Sun is powered by electricity” leads to a perfectly normal study of effect of electrons on comet tails. Probably you meant some more outlandish EU theory?

    1. Yes, Aldor, I suspect Brian meant to link to the long running Electric Universe thread:
      However, if you would like some hearty laughs at what passes for ‘science’ among these people, I would suggest looking up their ‘Electric Comet’ idea (it is not even close to being a hypothesis!). Incredibly bad ‘science’, built upon a shocking lack of knowledge of previous findings. Highly amusing and, of course, it all comes back to their belief in the works of the loon Velikovsky. I highly recommend checking it out, if you haven’t already!

  3. Wait, so you’re trying to tell me that the Electric Nibiru ISN’T flat?
    More NASALUMINATI “consensus” fiction, eh?

    We all know that Columbus sailed off the edge of the world, and the Americas were actually colonized by the reptillian Zeta Reticuli entities.

    Go ahead and pull my other leg, while you’re at it, “Professor”…

    But really, this is an excellent example of facts vs “what’s obvious”. Just like the numerous examples of how Birkland currents are everywhere. One of my closest friends is an electrical engineer. And a staunch EU believer. Because he trusts his eyes and barely cohesive Youtube videos more than the hard mathematics.
    It’s remarkably easy for some people, who are otherwise very logical and intelligent, to fall into the WoO trap.

Leave a Reply