Thunderblog - Michael Goodspeed
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The Skeptical Inquirer Embarrasses Itself

October 19, 2008

Most people who take an interest in alternative scientific issues have heard of the publication the Skeptical Inquirer (SI). Founded in the mid 1970's by Marcello Truzzi (also the co-founder of CSICOP), SI's purpose is to attempt to debunk non-mainstream views of nature and science. Interestingly, it was Truzzi who wanted to allow proponents of "paranormal" ideas to occasionally contribute material to SI -- an opinion that resulted in a no-confidence vote against Truzzi, and his subsequent resignation. Perhaps this fiasco helped shape Truzzi's view of "pseudoskeptics" -- individuals who, in Truzzi's words, “shout their objections but don't take proper note of what is going on.

In 2006, CSICOP co-founder Paul Kurtz listed what he claims are four-long standing policies of the Skeptical Inquirer:
  1. to criticize claims of the paranormal and pseudoscience
  2. to replicate the methods of scientific inquiry and the nature of the scientific outlook
  3. to seek a balanced view of science in the mass media
  4. to teach critical thinking in the schools
Unfortunately, SI fails on every test except for policy number one -- the magazine's contributors do gleefully "criticize" proponents of alternative ideas, taking every opportunity to publish polemical rampages against challenges to orthodoxy in the theoretical sciences.

It was inevitable that one of the world's most visible "skeptic" media would eventually react to the Electric Universe hypothesis. In the past four years, since the establishment of the website, a global movement has arisen, attracting scholars, scientists, and independent researchers around the world-- and tens of thousands of well educated, intellectually curious newcomers.

The EU model has grown too prominent to be ignored. But did the "skeptics" educate themselves on the subject before jumping in?  The question is answered by Robert Sheaffer's submission, titled “Electric Asteroid Zaps Earth,” published in the May/June 2008 edition of SI.

Following SI's well-worn template, Sheaffer starts with a quintessential straw man -- the Internet fiasco that surrounded the asteroid TU24. In January of this year, an Internet group calling itself made a YouTube video that claimed to speak on behalf of Electric Universe principles. As I pointed out in two separate Internet postings, the Thunderbolts group had nothing to do with the presentation, and we felt it was quite clear that the video's creator(s) had no understanding at all of the EU model, nor did we expect any noticeable effects from the asteroid (I'll elaborate more on this as I continue).

[EDITOR'S IMPORTANT NOTE: Do NOT try to go now to the site, it now contains a malicious software download which may infiltrate your computer and allow unscrupulous people to misuse your personal information. This download masquerades as a spyware warning encouraging you to click on "ok" to download their program to "fix" your (supposedly) infiltrated computer. If you have already gone to the site, only click on the red crosses in the top right-hand corner of the pop-up boxes to 'back out' without compromising your security.]

While Sheaffer acknowledges that Thunderbolts rejected the TU24 rumours, he writes of the provocateurs:
...for members of Thoth, an online bulletin  board (www., it was a matter of grave concern. As a group on the fringes of the 'electric universe' movement, they were claiming that because asteroids allegedly have a powerful electric charge, the close approach of asteroid 2007 TU24 was going to zap Earth with all kinds of nasty effects.
But what "group" is he referring to? If you Google “electric universe” and “thoth” all of the top pages refer to a newsletter originated by my father Dave Talbott in the mid-1990's, devoted to discussions of catastrophism, the electric universe, and plasma cosmology. No one associated with that newsletter (which subsequently transitioned to the Thunderbolts Project), had anything to do with the uninformed Internet claims about TU24.

In fact the identity of the mysterious "Thoth" group Sheaffer cites, while providing him with such a convenient straw man, remains unknown. In an article pretending to speak for good science, the citation of such a source is an indefensible tactic. Following the same tactic, we would ask Sheaffer how he feels about one author who claims that aliens utilize black holes to travel through time. Do critics of black hole theory have the prerogative of tainting the "consensus view" with such nonsense?

Even the title of his article betrays the author's ignorance of the Electric Universe. The difference between a comet and an asteroid in an Electric Universe has been stated repeatedly by proponents of the hypothesis. Outside a very limited context, no one has ever discussed asteroids as "charged bodies." Charge is relative to environment. The only time charge would come into play meaningfully is when an asteroid of sufficient size moves on an unusually elliptical orbit through the radial electric field of the Sun (i.e., unusual for an asteroid). If it is unable to adjust to the changing electrical environment, it may take on subtle cometary characteristics, exhibiting a modest coma, as has now been observed in more than one instance. But a small asteroid moving on a modestly elliptical orbit will not become electrically active because it will simply adjust to the small change in ambient charge. Not so, a comet nucleus a mile or more in diameter and rushing toward the inner solar system from its outer reaches, where it has acquired a strong negative charge (i.e., a strong negative charge relative to the more positive charge of the Sun's immediate environment). This is why, as consistently observed, the "Great Comets" are always on long-elliptical orbits.

The difference between an asteroid and a comet is made explicitly clear in the book, The Electric Universe, by Thornhill and Talbott. But Sheaffer starts with a fundamental misunderstanding (or deliberate misrepresentation), then descends into uninformed and misleading polemic, counting on the likelihood that most of his readers have never actually considered any published material on the subject.

After wasting two lengthy paragraphs on the TU24 absurdity (clearly the inspiration for his editorial, which is, after all, entitled, “Electric Asteroid Zaps Earth”) Sheaffer attempts to pull off a second ruse by evoking the name of Immanuel Velikovsky. He writes, “If this sounds vaguely familiar, it might be because the 'electric universe' is much like Velikovsky without using the V-word.

Sheaffer assumes that by simply mentioning Velikovsky, there is no need for him to discuss any factual evidence presented by EU proponents. Just the loose "similarity" of certain tenets to Velikovsky’s is sufficient, since everyone already "knows" that his notions of planetary catastrophe have been refuted. What he does not address are the findings of those who have examined the Velikovsky question most thoroughly and who are undeniably the best critics of Velikovsky. These researchers have demonstrated certain inescapable conclusions. They have shown that Velikovsky was wrong on numerous specifics. But on several of his most fundamental claims, all of the evidence accumulated by historical investigation and by space age exploration lines up in Velikvosky's favor. This is the fact that the zealots for "consensus" science do not want you to know.

Velikovsky was correct, for example, in claiming that, in early historical times, electromagnetic forces were far more active in the solar system than at present (a fact demonstrated unequivocally by Dr. Anthony Peratt’s study noted below). And he was correct in claiming that cultures the world over remembered the planet Venus as a great comet. If you are not aware that these are factual statements -- not interpretations or theoretical conclusions -- do you really want to let Sheaffer take advantage of your limited field of view? The onus is on Sheaffer to produce a fundamental misstatement of fact by those whom he so cavalierly dismisses -- no citation of unidentified Internet rumour-mongers allowed.

What most frightens the anti-Electric Universe zealots is the large numbers of well-qualified scholars and scientists that are gravitating toward the Thunderbolts Project. Seeds of active interest are now present within most of the major divisions of NASA, in plasma science laboratories, and in numerous universities. Many have never read Velikovsky, nor even heard his name in some instances. Some would prefer that Velikovsky never be mentioned, due to the public relations success of Velikovsky's critics in the mid-seventies. In numerous ways the present movement has left the Velikovsky question behind -- though it would be senseless to imagine that the truth about the Velikovsky controversy could remain hidden forever.

Following his invocation of Velikovsky, Sheaffer reduces the EU hypothesis to a grotesque caricature:
As is usually the case with such grandiose theorizing about ancient history, the really interesting stuff occurred well before any convincing, permanent records of it could be made, and the phenomenon seems determined to never occur again in this age where most everything gets recorded.
But the truth is that a massive library of permanent evidence exists. This record is incomprehensible to scholars applying the assumption that Sheaffer takes as gospel; seen for what it is, however, there is no rational ground for disputing the scientific conclusion. But based on Sheaffer's caricature, would you even suspect that this might be so?
By way of proof, the authors offer up numerous Native American and other ancient rock carvings of a squatting man that proponents claim greatly resembles a 'plasma instability.' Apparently these ancient people witnessed 'an episode of high-energy plasma incursion into Earth's atmosphere' and made drawings of it, which unenlightened anthropologists mistook as squatting human figures. Other familiar drawings from antiquity, including the famous Athenian Owl, are plasma discharges as well.
This mischaracterization of the evidence is not only ridiculously distorted, but unethical. It is surely no accident that Sheaffer makes no mention of Dr. Anthony Peratt of Los Alamos Laboratories -- a fatal omission, given the extraordinary significance of Peratt's research. Since Peratt has never read Velikovsky and has shown no interest in Velikovsky's theories, to lump their work together is a shameful, underhanded tactic. Worse, Sheaffer does not even acknowledge what Peratt has already demonstrated conclusively. 

Crucial omission is no less an offence than misstatement. Here is some background that Sheaffer has not bothered to research: In 2000, Dave Talbott sent to Dr. Peratt -- a leading expert on high-energy plasma discharge -- an enigmatic pictograph from Kayenta, Arizona. 
Rock art carving from Kayenta Arizona
Rock art carving from Kayenta Arizona
In conventional terms, the pictograph is beyond rational explanation. But Talbott sent it to Peratt with confidence that it could be understood electrically. No one in plasma science possesses greater expertise on the unique forms of high-energy plasma instabilities than Dr. Peratt. And Peratt immediately recognized the pictograph's every detail as a feature of a violently evolving plasma discharge, a form produced both in laboratory discharge experiments and supercomputer simulations. Since that initial communication, Peratt has devoted his life to a rigorous scientific investigation involving dozens of professional and amateur volunteers, gathering rock art images from around the world with precise global positioning data. 

Thousands of petrogylphs have been entered into a supercomputer to determine if the computer, independent of human interpretation, can identify the embedded patterns. Because the petrogylphs come from around the world (implying different perspectives of the ancient observers) there is no possibility that the computer could contrive a meaningful three-dimensional presentation at the level of detail required, unless the artists were in fact observing the same form from different vantage points. Peratt's work on this subject has been published in the most respected peer-reviewed journal on high-energy plasma physics, the IEEE Transactions on Plasma Science. 

When it comes to addressing the science of the Electric Universe, Sheaffer resorts to mere heckling. Again and again, he offers empty proclamations, erecting then tearing down one straw man after another. Here is his caricature of the electric sun hypothesis:
...stars are not thermonuclear engines! This is obvious when the Sun is looked at from an electrical discharge perspective. The galactic currents that create the stars persist to power them. Stars behave as electrodes in a galactic glow discharge. Bright stars like our Sun are great concentrated balls of lightning! The matter inside stars becomes positively charged as electrons drift toward the surface.
This misrepresentation of the Electric Universe ignores everything known about glow discharge phenomena and electric circuits. The Electric Universe model does not propose that the Sun “becomes positively charged as electrons drift toward the surface.” It's ironic that Sheaffer employs here the familiar loose reasoning seen in so much orthodox guesswork today.  Following the kind of logic popularly applied to magnetars, jetted stars, galactic jets, and countless other electrical phenomena in space, he might as well speculate that the high pressure caused by gravitation acting on protons could cause some "charge separation" via the electrons being squeezed toward the surface. Bizarre speculations of this sort are, in fact, regularly presented as "confirmed theory" in NASA press releases. Lacking training in the dynamics of plasma discharge, they can only think of the nineteenth century mechanics of charge separation. And in Sheaffer’s exposition, the following proves the point:

Concerning the Electric Sun and electric comets, Sheaffer writes;
What isn't explained is why the 'positively-charged' sun doesn't suck all of the 'negatively-charged' comets directly into it faster than a speeding bullet.
Actually, this is explained but Sheaffer doesn't get it, or is too lazy to find out. As EU proponents have observed on numerous instances (including many pages on this website) electrical events in space don't depend on simplistic "electrostatic" forces, but upon the dynamic behavior of plasma. Charged bodies in plasma form double-layer (Langmuir) sheaths that effectively shield them from each other unless the sheaths touch. Further, it is electric currents in space, following the direction of ambient magnetic fields, that provide the essential circuitry. The electric current density required, though immeasurably small throughout the vast volume of the heliosphere, is easily sufficient, when focused down, to light the Sun. But how does Sheaffer propose to answer the question without addressing any of the defining features of the Sun -- the very features that have endlessly troubled solar physicists, but are predictable under the electric model? 

Sheaffer does not understand why EU proponents generally think of all bodies in the solar system as "positively-charged," while other bodies are simply less positively-charged than the Sun. The insulating plasma wall, or "double layer," of the heliosphere, at the outer reaches of the Sun's electrical influence, is what separates the more positively charged region of the Sun from the more negatively charged region of interstellar space. There is no "grandiose theorizing" in such principles, just well-documented plasma science.

But can we be confident that subtle electric currents flow across cosmic distances? The answer is clear, because the magnetic fields now seen everywhere we look in space can only be created by electric currents -- subtle, yes; but unquestionably active even on the largest scale we can observe with radio telescopes by their radio emissions.

Of course, the scientific mainstream has yet to reckon with the fact of electric currents in space. Why? Because electric neutrality across interplanetary, interstellar, and intergalactic space is the foundation of modern, gravity-only theory. And the apologists for gravity-only theory do not seem to realize that the foundation has already collapsed. Thus, Sheaffer writes,'s no mistake to assume that two bodies are electrically neutral when gravitation alone, the weakest fundamental force, fully explains their motions, as well as those of every other known astronomical object.
Here again, a gross misrepresentation of fact. Gravitational theory merely describes present planetary motions mathematically. Gravity itself remains a mysterious force with no real explanation. Nor does gravity "fully explain" orbital dynamics, especially orbital stability. It seems that too few planetary scientists are bothered by a fundamental, fatal problem -- no N body gravitational system-- where N is greater than two -- is theoretically stable with just one attractive force -- gravity. EU theorists propose a simple electric dipole model of gravity such that charge exchange between planets during a close encounter -- something that does not occur today but assuredly did occur in the past -- acts to modify their gravity and orbits in such a way as to restore stability. As evidence of this mechanism, we know that visibly discharging comets do modify their orbits. 

And one might ask Sheaffer, just how does gravity "braid" the rings of Jupiter, or maintain the filamentary streamers of the jets from Saturn's moon Enceladus. And why do the charged particles of the "solar wind" virtually ignore gravity? Numerous examples of the defiance of gravity have already been given by the electrical theorists.

But Sheaffer is oblivious to decades of discovery in plasma science. He writes, 
Even a small deviation from electrical neutrality would result in massive forces of Coulomb repulsion or attraction far overpowering the gravitational force, and this simply is not occurring. At any given time, there are always a few comets in the inner solar system. If these bodies had a negative charge as is claimed, Coulomb's Law dictates that they would repel each other across great distances, far overpowering the effects of the  sun's gravity.
Not so. "Coulomb repulsion" is an electrostatic model that has nothing to do with the Electric Universe model. Again, the author has neither considered nor understood the model he so vigorously dismisses. He shows no understanding of double-layer sheaths that effectively isolate and insulate the charged bodies. This is one of the most basic plasma behavior principles. I'm tempted to now cut and paste roughly half of the book The Electric Universe (by Thornhill and Talbott) to thoroughly make the point, but would the facts even register with Sheaffer?

Sheaffer continues:
Physicists tell us that the electrical force is 2.27 x 10^39 times stronger than the force of gravity. This is an enormous difference, the electrical elephant vastly overpowering the gravitational flea. Yet the motions of every object in our solar system are explained by gravitation alone, dutifully obeying Newton while ignoring Faraday and Coulomb. How is it possible that the much weaker force operates to the exclusion of the overpoweringly stronger one? The answer is simple: celestial bodies are electrically neutral with respect to each other to a uniformity far greater than one part in 10^39. And the 'Electric Universe' is codswollop, with or without gods hurling thunderbolts.
It is fitting that Sheaffer concludes the above vituperation with pure derision. Electric neutrality "explains" virtually nothing that we observe in our solar system -- not the behaviors of comets that have completely baffled astronomers (but which are explicitly predicted by the EU model); not the acceleration of the solar wind away from the Sun, not the anomalous superheated shell of the Sun's corona, and not the massive proton storms that buckle and deform the Earth's double-layer sheath; not the anomalous weather and atmospheric phenomena we see on the planets, including the global dust storms on Mars, the "inexplicable" hot spots on both poles of Saturn, the "stringy" plasma tail of Venus, and the super lightning bolts from Earth TO SPACE; and countless other phenomena documented exhaustively on this website.

Sheaffer's inglorious polemic can be summarized as follows: He has not presented the Electric Universe model at all. All we get is pure hubris and self-deception, one straw man heaped upon another. He repeatedly uses the spurious appeal to mathematical proofs when the first requirement is to use a model that describes things actually happening in nature. The Electric Universe is based on the advanced textbook Physics of the Plasma Universe, the insights of Hannes Alfvén -- the "father" of plasma physics -- and the research of electrical engineers into low-pressure gas discharge phenomena.

The measure of a good theory is its success at predicting unexpected findings. Sheaffer has fraudulently omitted all of the best evidence for the model -- including, perhaps most importantly, the innumerable successful predictions made by Wal Thornhill and other EU proponents. It is this last point that most discredits Sheaffer's approach. As repeatedly documented on this site (and now documented for posterity on our Predictions Page), the EU model has been vastly more successful than the "mainstream" one(s) at predicting unanticipated discoveries in space. Nowhere does Sheaffer acknowledge Thornhill's explicit predictions prior to the Deep Impact event; nor his prediction of "hot spots" on both poles of Saturn; what we would see beneath the clouds of Titan; the "moving volcanic plumes" of Jupiter's moon Io; the packed congregations of "dust devils" in large scale Martian dust storms. The best test of any scientific model is its ability to predict outcomes. What is necessary here is simple common sense. Compare the predictive success of the Electric Universe with the endless shock and surprise of NASA scientists in the face of milestone discoveries. The unacknowledged truth is that no mainstream theory or theorist has come close to the predictive success of the Electric Universe in explicitly anticipating the surprises of the space age.

The Skeptical Inquirer claims to speak for science, reason, and a well-educated public. But along with other apologists for archaic science it continues to promote an illusion -- the tacit suggestion that its readers are more literate and more "scientific."  Here a rude awakening may be called for. Consider the most esteemed sites on the Internet devoted to debunking challenges to the scientific mainstream, the “Bad Astronomy” website, and the “Bad Astronomy/Universe Today Forum” (BAUT).

Some statistics according to in September had over 62,000 visitors, easily defeating the BAUT forum, which had 35,000 visitors (we also defeated, though the site no longer posts new material). But what of the education levels? As noted by the Quantcast report (a rough panel estimate), the site appeals primarily to an older male demographic, which means that the great majority of its visitors are the "head of the household."  Surely the same could be said of the Bad Astronomy site and the BAUT Forum. Therefore, the relative educational levels of the heads of household, given by Quantcast, should be of interest. Of course one might think that Thunderbolts’ greater web traffic might bring down the averages of its audience’s education level. But as can seen below, educational levels of Thunderbolts' visitors are far above those of visitors to both and the BAUT Forum.
Quantcast demographics, Bad Astronomy
Bad Astronomy
Quantcast demographics, BAUT forum
BAUT Forum
Quantcast demographics,
Indeed, the education levels of Thunderbolts visitors rank significantly higher than those for,, Universe -- and even beat Scientific American ( by a substantial margin.

If this data comes as a surprise to you, that is surely because, for far too long, scientific orthodoxy has worked in pernicious serendipity with the world's pseudo-skeptics, offering up absurd caricatures of legitimate challenges to long-standing ideologies in the theoretical sciences. Regardless of whether one ultimately accepts the propositions of the Electric Universe, all scientists of good conscience must object to this kind of "yellow journalism," intended not to enlighten the public, but to mislead and confuse them about one of the most important fields of investigation in science today.

Michael Goodspeed
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Michael Goodspeed
Michael Goodspeed is a freelance journalist who lives in Beaverton, Oregon

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