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Spotting Pseudoscience


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From http://chronicle.com/free/v49/i21/21b02001.htm


Something is probably bull if:


1. The discoverer pitches the claim directly to the media. The integrity of science rests on the willingness of scientists to expose new ideas and findings to the scrutiny of other scientists. Thus, scientists expect their colleagues to reveal new findings to them initially. An attempt to bypass peer review by taking a new result directly to the media, and thence to the public, suggests that the work is unlikely to stand up to close examination by other scientists.


One notorious example is the claim made in 1989 by two chemists from the University of Utah, B. Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann, that they had discovered cold fusion -- a way to produce nuclear fusion without expensive equipment. Scientists did not learn of the claim until they read reports of a news conference. Moreover, the announcement dealt largely with the economic potential of the discovery and was devoid of the sort of details that might have enabled other scientists to judge the strength of the claim or to repeat the experiment. (Ian Wilmut's announcement that he had successfully cloned a sheep was just as public as Pons and Fleischmann's claim, but in the case of cloning, abundant scientific details allowed scientists to judge the work's validity.)


Some scientific claims avoid even the scrutiny of reporters by appearing in paid commercial advertisements. A health-food company marketed a dietary supplement called Vitamin O in full-page newspaper ads. Vitamin O turned out to be ordinary saltwater.


2. The discoverer says that a powerful establishment is trying to suppress his or her work. The idea is that the establishment will presumably stop at nothing to suppress discoveries that might shift the balance of wealth and power in society. Often, the discoverer describes mainstream science as part of a larger conspiracy that includes industry and government. Claims that the oil companies are frustrating the invention of an automobile that runs on water, for instance, are a sure sign that the idea of such a car is baloney. In the case of cold fusion, Pons and Fleischmann blamed their cold reception on physicists who were protecting their own research in hot fusion.


3. The scientific effect involved is always at the very limit of detection. Alas, there is never a clear photograph of a flying saucer, or the Loch Ness monster. All scientific measurements must contend with some level of background noise or statistical fluctuation. But if the signal-to-noise ratio cannot be improved, even in principle, the effect is probably not real and the work is not science.


Thousands of published papers in para-psychology, for example, claim to report verified instances of telepathy, psychokinesis, or precognition. But those effects show up only in tortured analyses of statistics. The researchers can find no way to boost the signal, which suggests that it isn't really there.


4. Evidence for a discovery is anecdotal. If modern science has learned anything in the past century, it is to distrust anecdotal evidence. Because anecdotes have a very strong emotional impact, they serve to keep superstitious beliefs alive in an age of science. The most important discovery of modern medicine is not vaccines or antibiotics, it is the randomized double-blind test, by means of which we know what works and what doesn't. Contrary to the saying, "data" is not the plural of "anecdote."


5. The discoverer says a belief is credible because it has endured for centuries. There is a persistent myth that hundreds or even thousands of years ago, long before anyone knew that blood circulates throughout the body, or that germs cause disease, our ancestors possessed miraculous remedies that modern science cannot understand. Much of what is termed "alternative medicine" is part of that myth.


Ancient folk wisdom, rediscovered or repackaged, is unlikely to match the output of modern scientific laboratories.


6. The discoverer has worked in isolation. The image of a lone genius who struggles in secrecy in an attic laboratory and ends up making a revolutionary breakthrough is a staple of Hollywood's science-fiction films, but it is hard to find examples in real life. Scientific breakthroughs nowadays are almost always syntheses of the work of many scientists.


7. The discoverer must propose new laws of nature to explain an observation. A new law of nature, invoked to explain some extraordinary result, must not conflict with what is already known. If we must change existing laws of nature or propose new laws to account for an observation, it is almost certainly wrong.

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  • 3 weeks later...

I do not agree with the opening post, as every point seems to address the theorist, and not the theory. There is no need to examine the theorist's actions or career to determine if his work is pseudoscience.


We recently had a discussion about pseudoscience at physicsforums, and I would like to share my posts from that thread.


Originally posted by Tom:

Here is what makes a theory "scientific".


1. It must be consistent.

That is, for no statement X should it be possible to deduce both X and NOT X from the axioms of the theory.


2. It must be valid.

That is, its claims must be correctly derived via logic and, if applicable, mathematics.


3a. It must be satisfiable.

That is, it must make claims that are subject to empirical investigation. If a theory is analytically false, then it is known to be trivially false with no need for investigation.


3b. It must be falsifiable.

That is, it must make claims that, if false, will show the theory to be false. If a theory is analytically true, then it is known to be trivially true with no need for investigation.


Points 3a and 3b can be summed up as:


3. It must be contingent.

That is, it must be contingent on the outcome of experimental investigations.


And then I gave an example:


Originally posted by Tom

Let's take a look at the development of a toy pseudoscientific theory.


Hypothesis 1a: I have a rock that keeps tigers away from my home.


(Yes, that comes straight from The Simpsons. Is there anything that show isn't good for? [:D] )


This theory is both consistent and valid, but only trivially so because it has only one prediction!


This theory is also both satisfiable and falsifiable:


*Satisfiable because the theory is satisfied when no tigers are around.


*Falsifiable because the theory is shown to be bunk if a tiger is around.


This theory is thus scientific.


So, how do I investigate it? Well, I could observe the area around my home, and if no tigers show up then I take that as strong inductive evidence that the theory is good.


But is that enough? I could also deliberatly bring a tiger around and see if something (presumably attributable to the rock) doesn't keep the tiger from coming around. If that works, then I try to develop other explanations (besides the rock) that caused it. If it does work, then I know the theory is no good, and it is thus said to have been falsified.


Now, let's say I really like my theory, so I weaken its claim so that I can hang onto it.


Hypothesis 1b:

I have a rock that keeps tigers away from my home, except when there is a tiger around.


What happens when there is no tiger? The theory is satisfied.

What happens when there is a tiger? The theory is satisfied.


Those are the only options! Since it is impossible for the theory not to be satisfied, it is unfalsifiable and therefore pseudoscience.


Hope that helps,




PS: Metaphysics is not pseudoscience, but a legitimate branch of philosophy. I am not sure of why it is included in the forum title. Also, I think you meant to name the Physics/Astrological Sciences department Physics/Astronomical Sciences.


Astrology really is pseudoscience.


My $0.02.

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  • 2 months later...
  • 2 months later...

If you do a search for 'quackery' on the net then you'll come up with tons debunked crud. The most important ones are stepping on the lame claims that vaccines cause practically every disease known to man. Yes, they cause cancer, and AIDS, Autism, and SIDS doncha know.


Trace each claim back to the original source and you find a load of kukka. Wakefield-Autism. Scheibner-SIDS. Cancer-that's just ridiculous. AIDS-Lanctot. All of these people are crack pots.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Hay, I'm new to SF (as of about 10 minutes ago). And, it just so happens that I've got to write a page on a specific pseudoscience for homework. Kind of funny the way that works. I actually find pseudosciences extremely amusing, especially when people actually believe them (the ridiculus ones, like ufo's, some alternate cancer treatments, etc.). Personally, I'm all up for cingularities... And this is probably the only place (this site) that I can actually say 'cingularities' and have people understand what I'm saying. Usually I have to say 'Black Holes, Worm Holes, etc.' So, anyway... I think I'll just waddle on over to the physics area...

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  • 4 months later...
  • 3 weeks later...
danmoore80 said in post # :

Evolution is NOT observable, testable, or repeatable. Evolution is NOT science!

Evolution is a faith, a belief, a RELIGION; the religion of atheism and humanism!


Evolution has been observed, both inside the lab and outside it.


Your point is?

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  • 3 months later...
  • 3 months later...
  • 4 months later...

..Evolution is a faith, a belief, a RELIGION; the religion of atheism and humanism!..


Do you know who Kent Hovind is? I'm sure you do. I'm not even going to touch this. This claim is so laughable that to me its more of a joke. A bad, stupid joke.


What is the harm in atheism or humanism? Is my lack of a preposterous god-belief offending you all the way down there in Texas? TS bud.

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  • 1 month later...

you forgot exessively long words. i know genuine scientificul articles can be full of long words, but 1/ we usualy only use long words where they are genuinely useful, and 2/they are usualy used correctly.


scientists call a spade a shovel; pseudo-scientists usualy call a spade a manualy-powered turf-displacement utility, with a hyperbolic soil-penetration component diametrically opposite a quasi-ergonomical manual-interface phlange which is, itself, adjacent to the axial support structure -- the three components synergistically affording significantly enhanced botanical inhumation powers.


they think the long words impress people and make the statement sound scientifical

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  • 2 weeks later...

Unfortunately, if one does wish to see evolution for what it is, nothing will be successful in convincing him/her. Articles such as what you present is just something for us to enjoy and for them to ignore.


But if evolution WAS a religion, then would Darwin be our prophet, our messiah?

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Unfortunately' date=' if one does wish to see evolution for what it is, nothing will be successful in convincing him/her. Articles such as what you present is just something for us to enjoy and for them to ignore.


But if evolution WAS a religion, then would Darwin be our prophet, our messiah?[/quote']


umm, i think both,


Messiah--->christ--->christos---->king(not god)

darwin is the one who derived evolution, so he's our prophet, and since we seem to serve him like a king(even though he's long since dead)


You know what, ive never read the origions of species before, hmm...


and what do you mean seeing evolution for what it is? religion or science?

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