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northernsoul Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Nov-06-07 10:12 AM
Original message
What are the hallmarks of pseudo-science
I find that many stunningly unreasonable propositions claim to have "scientific" support. As someone with pitifully little scientific training, how can I quickly recognize counterfeit "scientific" claims?
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phantom power Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Nov-06-07 10:17 AM
Response to Original message
1. Characterization of Quack Theories
Here's a page that discusses signs of "quack science." Lists of signs like this are around on various skeptic sites.
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Ian David Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Nov-06-07 10:26 AM
Response to Original message
2. See also, Carl Sagan's Baloney Detection Kit. And these books.
Edited on Tue Nov-06-07 10:30 AM by IanDB1

Based on the book The Demon Haunted World by Carl Sagan

The following are suggested as tools for testing arguments and detecting fallacious or fraudulent arguments:


But you should also read the following books, preferably in this order:

How We Know What Isn't So (Children's book)
Thomas Gilovich

Asimov's Guide to science
Isaac Asimov

The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark
Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan

Flim-Flam!: Psychics, ESP, Unicorns, and Other Delusions
James Randi

Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time
Michael Shermer

Borderlands of Science: Where Sense Meets Nonsense
Michael Shermer

Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder
Richard Dawkins

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Ian David Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Nov-06-07 10:30 AM
Response to Original message
3. Science, borderlands science, psuedoscience, and nonsense
Science, borderlands science, psuedoscience, and nonsense

Lefty and Righty excesses of pseudo-science:

According to Michael Shermer there are:
- science
- borderlands science
- psuedoscience, and
- nonsense

Science is a methodology of figuring out, with as great confidence as possible, how the world works. Evolutionary theory is one of the biggest, strongest and best-supported bodies of all of science.

Borderland Science refers to first small steps in acquiring realistic knowledge about a not-well-understood aspect of the world. It aspires to become Science, but is often held back by various factors, e.g., difficulty in studying the phenomenon of interest, biases of the investigators, social biases against investigations of such phenomena, etc.

For instance, very little is known about hypnosis. It is a real phenomenon but very difficult to study. There is not much funding for it as there is a social bias against such research. Thus, it is still doing its first small pioneering steps and has not resulted in data that are good enough to place it in the realm of real Science.

Another example is Evolutionary Psychology - it is done by psychologists (thus real scientists) who understand biology very poorly, yet strive to make their research scientific. Their own biases make them go up wrong alleys and bark up wrong trees (I love adding up mixed matephors, sorry). Yet, they are asking real questions about real phenomena and it is expected that at some point evolutionary psychology (lowercase) will get its methodology straight and make enough advances to become real Science.

Pseudoscience is an attempt to sell out-of-ass beliefs as scientific by using hifallutin' terminology, perform meaningless calculations, draw elaborate charts etc. Examples are many (peruse past editions of the Skeptic's Circle for examples) and include astrology, biorhythms, pyramid force, Feng Shui, crystal balls, alternative medicine, Holocaust denial, Intelligent Design Creationism, and many, many others. The main goal, usually, is making a quick buck, although more sinister motivations are sometimes behind such ideas, i.e., these may serve as methods for making an unrespectable ideology (e.g., Nazism) respectable again, or there is political gain to be had.

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rayofreason Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Nov-06-07 10:40 AM
Response to Original message
4. Here is a good book...
...that lays out the hallmarks of pseudoscience quite well.

The seven warning signs are

1. Discoverers make their claims directly to the popular media, rather than to fellow scientists.
2. Discoverers claim that a conspiracy has tried to suppress the discovery.
3. The claimed effect appears so weak that observers can hardly distinguish it from noise. No amount of further work increases the signal.
4. Anecdotal evidence is used to back up the claim.
5. True believers cite ancient traditions in support of the new claim.
6. The discoverer or discoverers work in isolation from the mainstream scientific community.
7. The discovery, if true, would require a change in the understanding of the fundamental laws of nature.
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lurky Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Nov-06-07 10:51 AM
Response to Original message
5. That article linked by phantom power is really good...
My observation has been that most proponents of pseudoscience have some kind of conspiracy theory to explain why the scientific establishment is trying to "keep them down". This seems to be pretty universal, whether it's from global warming denialists, "miracle cure" peddlers, racial supremacy crackpots, time-machine inventors, etc. I think your alarm bells should go off anytime someone tells you they have some kind of secret that "they" don't want you to know about.
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northernsoul Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Nov-06-07 02:01 PM
Response to Reply #5
9. Noted. However, scientific truths *have* been repressed in the past
I'm thinking Galileo as the first example off the top of my head.
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lurky Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Nov-06-07 03:19 PM
Response to Reply #9
11. True enough, but an important difference:
Galileo's work was suppressed by the church and government, much as "modern" institutions have tried to suppress Darwinism and other unpopular ideas.

On the other hand, pseudo-scientists generally claim that the entire scientific community is conspiring to keep their ideas a secret. For example, "All the doctors in the world are secretly teaming up to keep you from getting my magic cancer/AIDS/baldness cure." Or, "All the legitimate climate scientists are faking their global warming data because they hate America." I think this is especially unlikely with today's system of peer-reviewed publications, standards for reproducible experiments, and general adherence to the scientific method. Besides, if there really was a way to make an anti-gravity machine out of lawnmower parts, don't you think all those evil scientists would want to claim credit for it so they could win the Nobel Prize or make a billion dollars, instead of keeping it a secret just to screw some lone inventor?

While a single institution, such as the Bush administration, or a Kansas school board, or the 17th century Catholic Church, may try to suppress an idea or persecute its proponents, the idea that all the thousands of independent researchers and graduate students in all the nations of the world are engaged in some vast conspiracy hide some secret knowledge is pretty outlandish. If somebody is trying to tell you otherwise, you're probably dealing with a crackpot or a con-artist.
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Xipe Totec Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Nov-06-07 11:41 AM
Response to Original message
6. This one qualifies as an example:
Scientist's ideas on sex re-examined

By JERRY HARKAVY, Associated Press Writer
Tue Nov 6, 7:36 AM ET

RANGELEY, Maine - Physician-scientist Wilhelm Reich, best known for his claims of a cosmic life force associated with sexual orgasm, died in federal prison, and the government burned tons of his books and other publications and destroyed his equipment.

But half a century later, a small number of scientists and other believers are working to advance the European-born psychiatrist's work on what he called "orgone energy" a theory largely forgotten in the scientific mainstream.

"Personally, I think it's going to be a long time before all of his work is understood and recognized," said Reich's granddaughter, Renata Reich Moise, a nurse-midwife and artist in the coastal town of Hancock.

His more controversial work came after he veered away from psychotherapy into laboratory experiments in Norway that led to the discovery of what he called "bions" basic life forms that gave off orgone energy.

After moving to the U.S. just before the start of World War II, he focused on isolating and collecting that energy and went on to test its effect on cancer.

His orgone accumulators eventually caught the attention of the FDA.

After an investigation, the agency branded the devices consisting of alternating metallic and nonmetallic materials a fraud. In 1954 it sought an injunction in U.S. District Court in Portland. Reich refused to appear in court, triggering a default judgment and order that his books and accumulators be destroyed.

He was sentenced to two years in prison for contempt of court. He served only eight months before he died of a heart attack.

The FDA's injunction, supporters say, had a chilling effect on his work that persists even today. Moise said she believes there's merit in the orgone accumulator blanket, which her mother used in her medical practice.

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phantom power Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Nov-06-07 11:51 AM
Response to Reply #6
7. Here's another textbook example:
ENGLAND -- In the 1960's Professor John Searl was building free-energy electricity generators that doubled as flying saucers, but was thrown in jail on the charge that he was stealing electricity from the grid. He was running his home on his energy generator, not from the grid.

Along with being arrested, his plans and devices were all rounded up and sequestered. They still have not surfaced these many years later -- unless some of the UFO and other odd sightings incorporate the government-stolen technology.

The device is a magnet motor of sorts, except that the product of the rotation is not torque but electricity that is liberated as the rollers make their rotation. It is essentially a magnet motor and alternator in one. Furthermore, if current is drawn off the device above a certain level, the device takes on on superconductor attributes which distort the gravitational fields, causing the device to levitate.

Emerging from jail penniless, John has had a difficult time rallying the necessary funds and talent to reproduce what he had developed in the '60s. Back then, he was employed with a British utility board and had access to a laboratory with all the equipment and tools necessary. Sourcing the materials and tools without that resource has been very difficult. He has come close several times, but all previous attempts have ended in frustration. /

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HiFructosePronSyrup Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Nov-06-07 01:44 PM
Response to Original message
8. My hallmarks...
1. Extraordinary claims without extraordinary evidence.

2. Conspiracy theories. The reason nobody's ever heard of their claims before is because the scientific Man is keepin' them down. Anybody who asks them difficult questions must be an employee for the industry.

3. Head in the clouds. Their work is as important as Einstein's. Or Tesla's. Usually the only two scientists they can name off the top of their heads.

4. Meta-analyses. They don't do any actual research themselves, just reinterpret other people's work. Meta-analyses can be a useful tool, or potential for abuse, especially in conjunction with hallmark #1.

5. Lack of basic science education. "Genetic engineering is bad because there's no way in nature genes can transfer from one organism to a different species."

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FiveGoodMen Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Nov-06-07 02:29 PM
Response to Reply #8
10. Regarding point 5...

Which (I think) is what you were getting at.
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TZ Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Nov-06-07 06:38 PM
Response to Original message
12. Study sources :are they peer reviewed journals?
Edited on Tue Nov-06-07 06:44 PM by turtlensue
You will find a lot of pseudoscientific believes will give you study references to "scientific studies". Well certain journals aren't known to be particularly rigorous in what types of research they accept. An ESP study from a parapsychology journal isn't going to be credible considering that journal has a stake in making ESP and other paranormal things seem legitimate. Peer reviewed journals are more credible although you will hear the complaints that scientific journals only publish certain people..which is a weak excuse for saying that credible journals only publish credible studies.
FYI- with another hallmark of something not credible...any claim that sounds too good to be true, is most likely so. Anyone who says Herb A can cure cancer, help arthritis and even prevent the common cold is selling snake oil

On edit: there is a Science, Skepticism and Psuedoscience group here on DU, both science folk and non-science skeptics..You might enjoy reading/posting there, especially if you have a specific question on something...
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