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Astronomical Pseudo-Science: A Skeptic's Resource List


4. The "Face" on Mars

A popular "government conspiracy" theory held that NASA has actually discovered a human face (as well as pyramids and other structures) on Mars, but was withholding crucial information from the public about the profound implications of this discovery. The real story is a lot less exciting and involves a perfectly natural geologic formation on the red planet. In spring 1998, the Mars Observer spacecraft took a much more detailed close-up image of the region in question, and found no evidence of anything that looked unnatural or like a face.

Morrison, D. "MGS Photographs 'Face on Mars'" in Skeptical Inquirer, Jul/Aug. 1998, p. 23.

Morrison, D. "UFO's and Aliens in Space" in Skeptical Inquirer, Jan/Feb. 2009, p. 30. An update on the "face" on Mars, and a bit about supposed astronaut encounters with aliens. (See: )

Sagan, Carl "The Man in the Moon and the Face on Mars," Chapter 3 of his book, The Demon-Haunted World. 1995, Random House.

Posner, G. "The Face Behind the Face on Mars: A Skeptical Look at Richard Hoagland" in Skeptical Inquirer, Nov/Dec. 2000, p. 20. The full story of the writer who has spread the myth.

Posner, G. "Putting a Better Face on the 'Face' on Mars" in Skeptical Inquirer, May/June 2001, p. 65. Update.

NASA Educational Discussion of "Face":

Just for fun, here are a few more "faces" on Mars, as found in old images:

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5. The Full Moon and Lunacy

The idea that more crazy behavior takes place during a full moon is well ingrained in folk wisdom. Statistical tests, however, show that there is no such effect, except perhaps in the mind of witnesses and with legends that associate the Sun with good and the Moon with evil. Since the full moon is bright and up all night long, it is more likely to reveal events that also happen during other phases, but are more likely to go undetected.

Moonstruck: (An overview of the many studies.)

Branham, R. "Did the Moon Sink the Titanic?" in Skeptical Inquirer, Jul/Aug. 1995, vol. 19, no. 4, p. 30.

Byrnes, G. & Kelly, I. "Crisis Calls and Lunar Cycles: A 20-Year Review" in Psychological Reports, vol. 71, p. 779 (1992).

Culver, R., et al. "Moon Mechanisms and Myths: A Critical Appraisal of Explanations of Purported Lunar Effects on Human Behavior" in Psychological Reports, vol. 62, p. 683 (1988).

Kelly, I., et al. "The Moon Was Full and Nothing Happened" in Skeptical Inquirer, Winter 1985-86, vol. 10, p. 129.

Kelly, I., et al. "World-wide Disasters and Moon Phases" in Skeptical Inquirer, Spring 1990, vol. 14, no. 3, p. 298.

Rotton, J. "Moonshine" in Skeptical Inquirer, May/June 1997, p. 44. A detailed review of a book by the most famous author who has claimed connections. (On-line at:

Rotton, J. & Kelly, I. "The Lunacy of It All: Lunar Phases and Human Behavior" in Mercury, May/June 1986, p. 1988.

Full Moon and Lunar Effects: (Part of the Skeptical Dictionary site.)

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6. The Dogon Tribe and Sirius B

Several popular authors have touted the story of an African tribe that somehow acquired knowledge of the dim white-dwarf star around Sirius (which is visible only with the aid of larger telescopes.) Some see this as evidence of extraterrestrial visitors, but the real explanation probably involves the European visitors who were gathering information about the tribe and had read about the discovery of Sirius B before they left and discussed it with the tribe.

Brecher, K. "Sirius Enigmas" in Brecher, Kenneth & Feirtag, M., eds. Astronomy of the Ancients. 1979, MIT Press.

Krupp, E. "Observatories of the Gods and Other Astronomical Fantasies" in Krupp, E.C., ed. In Search of Ancient Astronomies. 1977, Doubleday. Debunks von Daniken and Velikovsky's ideas, as well as the Sirius myth.

Ortiz de Montellano, B. "The Dogon People Revisited" in Skeptical Inquirer, Nov/Dec. 1996, p. 39. Excellent up-to-date review.

Ridpath, I. "Investigating the Sirius Mystery" in Skeptical Inquirer, Fall 1978, p. 56.

Sagan, Carl "White Dwarfs and Little Green Men" in Broca's Brain. 1979, Random House.

Sirius Matters: The Chandra Observatory site has a short, skeptical introduction to this issue.

Sirius Mystery: Space journalist James Oberg takes a skeptical look in an excerpt from a 1982 book.

The Skeptical Dictionary Entry on the Dogon:

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