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The Face on Mars: Where Would "Skeptics" Be Without It? (Updated)

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The mainstream skeptical community, composed of such entities as the Skeptics Society and the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, rallies around a few notorious icons in order to prove its debunking prowess. Foremost among these are the alleged Roswell crash and the Face on Mars (both of which receive their share of recycled wrath in the current edition of "Skeptic" magazine).

Unfortunately, both "Skeptic" and CSICOP's "Skeptical Inquirer" are curiously unenlightening publications. Instead of taking on pseudoscience and popular delusion (and few in our media-soaked culture would argue that we're adrift in a veritable sea of the latter) with finesse and wit, their articles are routinely devoted to the same subjects: tried-and-true straw men that move ideology as effectively as Wal-Mart moves power tools and dog food. To the self-proclaimed skeptical elite this repetition is somehow reassuring, like attending a church service every Sunday to sing the same comforting hymns. Among the favorite "debunking" topics:

1.) Why it's improbable (if not impossible) that aliens are visiting us, therefore neatly excluding attention from the continuing spectacle of UFOs in our skies.

2.) How sleep paralysis and similar states explain all perceived alien abductions.

3.) How a weather balloon and a healthy dose of mass hysteria fooled an elite air base into thinking it had recovered pieces of a "flying saucer."

4.) How "tricks of light and shadow" conspire to create illusory "faces" on other planets.

Ironically, the so-called "fame" of the Face on Mars can probably be more correctly attributed to the repeated "debunkings" it receives in the pages of skeptical publications than to appearances in popular culture, which are scarce at best. Most people don't realize there is a face-like formation on Mars until they stumble across a page devoted to its nonexistence in an astronomy book.

The mission of the hard-core debunkers is not to separate truth from fiction, but rather rouse components of the fringe-science pantheon from their complacent slumber and then slaughter them for all to see. The articles in the "Skeptical Inquirer" denouncing UFOs, crop circles and Martian megaliths are presented with all the candor and good taste of medieval witch-burnings.

Skeptics often seize upon the worst available imagery to "make their case," as they did after NASA/JPL released this "contrast enhanced" image of the Face in 1998 (left). Image courtesy Lan Fleming.

"Skeptic" sometimes aspires to a commendable (if condescending) "educational outreach" modality. But make no mistake: "Skeptic" is written for those who have made up their minds, not neutral parties. The current cover story on the Roswell incident is a case in point. Essentially, it's a watered-down reprint of the Air Force's 1997 "Case Closed" report on the controversial events in Roswell, New Mexico in 1947. The question that bubbles instantly to mind after reading it: Why bother? If the case has been "closed" since 1997, why the loud cover story in 2003?

Even mainstream news publications poked fun at the Air Force's attempt to explain apparent alien bodies by citing balloon tests involving "anthropomorphic dummies." Yet "Skeptic" seems frozen in time, recounting the dummy story as if it had just broken.

Most magazine editors would concede that this is pitifully bad journalism. But "Skeptic" isn't out to conduct journalism so much as to issue official doctrine -- even if this means repeating itself. The goal, as always, is to reassure. This overriding agenda has a debilitating effect on objectivity.

For example, selective omission is not only tolerated, but actively encouraged. Witness an issue of the "Skeptical Inquirer" a few years ago when the Roswell case was hot news. CSICOP relied on the testimony of Gerald Anderson, a known hoaxer who claimed to have seen a crashed space vehicle and alien bodies, in order to strengthen the already-ludicrous "anthropomorphic dummy" explanation.

Before exposed as a charlatan by the UFO community, Anderson had described alien corpses in a manner that vaguely coincided with the acceptable mainstream view: that the "aliens" were humanoid mannequins tossed out of airplanes. The "Inquirer" knew perfectly well that Anderson had been debunked (and moreover, not by one of their own). But since a single element of his otherwise unlikely story melded with its own conclusion, his testimony was craftily "repurposed."

Readers who had actually followed the Roswell controversy and had taken the time to weigh the evidence constituted only a small percentage of the magazine's readership, so the risk of the truth emerging about Anderson's "testimony" was deemed low. But staunch "SI" readers would simply never recognize the magazine's mauling of the facts. And that, it would seem, was precisely what CSICOP intended.

The logic above is the logic of the self-same cults and quacks would-be "debunkers" endlessly lament. When you commit yourself to an organization's definition of "skepticism" -- which in practice is seldom the correct definition -- you run the risk of being taken for many long rides. Your reward is a certain smugness and a vicarious sense of intellectual infallibility. After all, it's much more academically becoming to be seen reading the latest "Skeptic" than, say, "UFO Universe."

The "Picasso Face," a distorted rendering of the image above achieved by gross misuse of orthorectification ("nostril" features are at far right instead of center). This image has become the "final word" for most debunkers despite high-resolution overhead imagery.

The new issue of "Skeptic" features a rote "debunking" of the Face on Mars in its "Junior Skeptic" section. This issue's "Junior Skeptic" is committed to banishing all notions of interstellar flight from impressionable young minds by raising such anthropocentric biases as cost -- as if beings from another star system will inevitably share the financial infrastructure of the modern United States.

The editors at "Skeptic" should -- and probably do -- know better. After all, ancient Egyptians built incredibly "expensive" pyramids because they were considered a necessary and defining aspect of their culture. Might not interstellar flight be a suitably defining characteristic of an advanced extraterrestrial civilization?

Junior Skeptics are also treated to a side-by-side comparison of the Face on Mars as photographed by the Viking mission in 1976 and by the Mars Global Surveyor in 2001 and told that what they’re seeing is a "hill." No resources or references are given, and the images featured are of the "thumbnail" variety, which of course eliminates any sort of fair-minded assessment by enterprising youngters who might otherwise (gasp!) pursue the subject. This is precisely "Skeptic’s" intent, and it perfectly reflects the myopic "fact-management" regime controlled by mainstream "skepticism."

All of this results in an ugly false dichotomy between so-called "skeptics" and so-called "true believers." Of course, many indeed believe that the Face is an extraterrestrial monument. And there may even be some soft-spoken souls at the Skeptics Society and CSICOP who aren't totally unwilling to take a good look at the evidence favoring artificiality. But lightweight dismissals of the sort found in "Junior Skeptic" continue to be the rule. Illustrated books on space exploration include snide, seemingly devastating comments about the Face almost as if under obligation.

The editors and writers behind such lofty sentiments think they’re acting out of a pursuit of scientific truth, and this is where pop-skepticism is most hurtful. By fostering a spurious "us vs. them" mentality toward the anomalous, the producers of Skepticism(tm) provide an unprepared audience with an instant dogmatic certainty that specific things simply cannot be and that those who suggest otherwise are, by definition, hucksters and pseudoscientists.

When the "Skeptical Inquirer" ran a recent cover article on the Face (which it subjected to an interesting graphical filter to help stifle the feature’s likeness), it didn’t have much to say about the Face at all. Rather, it dissected the merits and motivations of Richard Hoagland, who, rightly or wrongly, is considered the most readily apparent personality behind the Cydonia controversy. Attacking the messenger is always easier than confronting a genuine enigma.

Skeptics groups rail against "pseudoscience." But perhaps the time has come for independent thinkers, armed with real knowledge as opposed to false preconceptions, to begin questioning the agenda behind pseudoskepticism.

Note: I explore the politics of pseudoskepticism in this essay.


New Image of the "Face" Withheld by NASA? (Note: False alarm . . . kind of. After reading, see next post.)

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An obscure USGS URL showing image "e_1701041.imq.jpg" (see "Related links") was discovered and sent to me by an anonymous source. Preliminary investigation suggests that it is quite real and taken and/or released in April of 2003 by the Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) satellite. In addition to showing the Face, the image reveals a nearby mesa in unprecedented detail along with a fin-like object that seems to shelter some sort of weathered structure. Bright equidistant lines are abundant.

The portion of the image containing the Face, though high-contrast, reveals a significant level of detail when subjected to image processing techniques. Probably the most readily apparent secondary detail is the western "eye," which appears as a blunt pyramidal shape surrounded by an almond-shaped ring and radiating cells. This, along with other detail, coincides with earlier orbital snaphots.

The last officially released photo of the Face formation was disappointingly partial. It is interesting that this image, withheld from public inspection, depicts the Face in its entirety. Such accuracy tends to suggest that acquiring high-resolution images of the Face is not only easier than NASA/MSSS would have the public believe, but that NASA has an abiding interest in studying the Cydonia region. The reasons for the space agency's near-silence on the Cydonia issue, in light of the image above, are far from trivial.

Prior to the loss of the Mars Observer in the early 1990s, NASA assured the public that images of the Face, if taken, would become public domain. Again, during the continuing Mars Global Surveyor mission, NASA officials promised interested parties that not only would new images of Cydonia be immediately uploaded onto the Internet, but that imaging opportunities would be announced in advance.

Clearly, these promises have been fictitious. NASA has flagrantly defied its own pledge and in so doing revealed a curious interest in a region that it claims is without significant scientific interest. From this, one conclusion can be safely drawn: Someone within the NASA bureaucracy thinks Cydonia is sufficiently interesting to warrant repeated (and secretive) examination.

Not bad for a "trick of light."


Processed Version of e_1701041.imq.jpg at MSSS

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processed version of the image discussed above appears at Malin Space Science Systems' website. This "cleaner" and more accessible version was posted in early April, without fanfare. Besides the Face, seen in its entirety for the first time since 2001, the MSSS image shows the controversial "Coathanger" feature in high resolution (the "fin-like object" mentioned in the previous post).

It seems that while the particular file format of the e_1701041.imq.jpg is in fact unique to the USGS indexing system, the image has indeed been made public, contrary to yesterday's assessment. So while my "coverup" allegations suffer a blow, my arguments pretaining to NASA's public accountability remain valid. While the striking image on the MSSS site is available for all to see, it was inserted into the MSSS online catalogue with utmost quiet . . . so quietly that yesterday's encounter with the raw file convinced me I that was dealing with an unreleased image. (To my knowledge, the existence of this image was unknown apart from a few anomalists, who have confessed puzzlement. Fortunately, the ancillary data "missing" from the USGS site is readily available from MSSS.)

As image processor Chris Joseph notes, e_1701041.imq.jpg allows the creation of a true stereo pair when matched to 2001's E03-00824: a first for Face researchers (above). Joseph stresses that this is not a proper scientific study of the two images, but it's a step in the right direction. To see the full size comparison, visit Joseph's site (and get ready to squint).

In summary, e_1701041.imq.jpg would seem to be "never-before-seen" in a merely technical sense. This is not completely without interest to Mars anomaly research, but it does not reflect the sort of covert study implicated in the the previous post. However, the new Face image's silent debut in the MSSS catalogue is cause for concern. Without forewarning, how is the public to know when new images of controversial features are made available? And why would MSSS go to the trouble to rephotograph the Face -- a feature it has pronounced as perfectly natural and uninteresting -- of its own choosing? Other images of the Face, including 1998's "catbox" and last year's flawed MOLA rendering, were released along with predictable official "debunking" campaigns. In fact, it was all-too-easy to believe that urge to "debunk" came before the need to objectively address strange morphologies on the Cydonia plain.

The e_1701041.imq.jpg image is unique in that it was taken without pressure from external parties (such as the Formal Action Committee for Extra-Terrestrial Studies). Further, it was released almost "invisibly." One might infer that NASA indeed has an unspoken interest in the Face, and that e_1701041.imq.jpg is evidence of a quiet campaign to learn more about the Cydonia region without causing a stir among independent researchers. The spectacle of MSSS reimaging Cydonia and releasing the results sans the usual attempt to "scotch this thing for good" (arguably NASA's raison d'etre in 1998) is almost surreal. Nevertheless, this might be what we are seeing.

Martian "Cacti"?

The new Face image isn't the only oddity greeting visitors to the USGS' labyrinthine file directory. Check out these apparent cactus-like formations:

Click here to visit the MSSS counterpart site. I bears noting that as more curious people rummage through the USGS index, additional images of possible life-forms have surfaced.

Yet Another "Buried" Face Image . . .

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Thanks to Keith Laney for pointing out the following Malin Space Science Systems release:

Oddly, Malin Space Science Systems seems to have a sincere, however inexplicable, interest in "tricks of light and shadow." Whether this new image, also released in early April, is due to fortuitous positioning of the Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft or part of a semi-secret official study of the Cydonia region in unknown.


A Martian's-Eye View of Earth

By now, many people have seen the quietly awe-inspiring sequence of images taken of the Solar System by the Mars Global Surveyor. The most popular of these images, naturally, is a poignant look back to Earth, our home planet, featuring a partially illuminated Moon against the timeless backdrop of interplanetary space.

The Earth and Moon viewed from Mars orbit.

Like the classic photograph of the Earth from space taken by astronauts (and featured in a recent issue of "Rolling Stone" devoted to "American icons"), the MGS image helps to show how overwhelmingly alone and vulnerable we are. Against such cosmic scope, the bickering, bigotry and violence that define terrestrial headlines seem laughably insignificant. Looking at this image induces an all-too-rare sense of calm: a moment of uncorrupted Zen lucidity provided by the cool lens of 21st century technology.

For all of its beauty, the image confronts us with a fierce challenge: Where do we go from here? Do we dare expand our reach into outer (and inner) space? Can we rouse ourselves from solipsism before we no longer have the opportunity to better the human condition?

The sun rises over Mars.

A striking animation recorded by the Pathfinder lander instills similar longings. The shrunken sun seen rising above the harsh Martian horizon is proof that humans can extend their senses to other worlds; it follows that we can follow our robotic emissaries in the flesh. Who could resist watching the sun rise over an alien world, or peer through a telescope to see the Earth itself tumbling through the void?

As argued previously, I don't think human intelligence is capable of enduring the next millennium unless radical proactive measures are taken to ensure our survival. Space colonization is a vital component in any agenda to overcome otherwise inevitable disaster.

The Earth-from-Mars image is a postcard from our increasingly exasperated collective unconscious. We should look long and hard while we still have the chance.


A Curious Cydonia Formation Revisited

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When the Mars Global Surveyor returned its first image of the Face in 1998 (the now-infamous "catbox") it also revealed small-scale anomalies just barely visible in Viking imagery. One of these was a feature dubbed the "Coathanger" by Prof. Stanley V. McDaniel. Others observed that the "Coathanger" was roughly dolphin-shaped, prompting much esoteric theorizing. The Coathanger lies in the immediate vicinity of the Face, justifying a careful examination; are we seeing evidence of engineering or geology?

The most peculiar aspect of the Coathanger is its row of bright "notches," thought to be composed of ice or, if artificial, perhaps a form of glass. The Coathanger is seen in context below. Note nearby bright dome-shaped mounds.

The regularly spaced notches appear quite artificial-looking and remain unexplained. If natural, they would seem to be a more refined version of the various ribbed "tubes" found elsewhere on Mars. (Similar bright markings can be seen on the edge of the mesa just above the Coathanger, although these are scarcely as elaborate or extensive as the so-called "tubes." Similar markings can be found at the base of the City Pyramid.)

Luckily, the Face image released by Malin Space Science Systems on April 4 shows the Coathanger at much better resolution. The anomalous notches are still evident, as are nearby deviations in the landscape. It's interesting that one such deviation, looking something like an shallow, elongated "earthwork," appears in close proximity to the Coathanger. This tends to suggest a common origin for the two features. The Coathanger itself looks little like its namesake. It resembles a dolphin or fish see in profile, the dorsal fin of which is elevated above the rest of the formation. Close inspection suggests that the elevated portion may shelter a porous, highly degraded material unlike that of the surrounding desert, although better images are needed to prove or disprove this. The white notches line the morphology's base like an enormous ruler.

It's conceivable that the Coathanger is a weathered fragment of a once-enclosed structure. The approximate 45 degree angle formed by the aforementioned "earthwork" suggests a triangular enclosure whose roof has long since succumbed to erosion. Richard Hoagland offered this possibility (presented as fact) in a 1998 photo-essay in which he referred to the Coathanger as a "tetrahedral ruin." As the new image makes clear, there is nothing even vaguely "tetrahedral" here -- only a few suggestive remnants. If the Coathanger once had a pyramidal roof, we might expect to find a third, flanking "earthworks"; the presence of a perfect equilateral triangle on Mars might sway even committed skeptics. But the presumed third "wall" is missing.

In conclusion, the Coathanger's reality remains unknown. If the Face is artificial, it makes sense to examine neighboring landforms for evidence of deliberate alteration. The Coathanger may well be an architectural ruin. Unfortunately, while the new image emphasizes the feature's strangeness, it doesn't tell us anything fundamentally new.

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