February 04, 2005

Science: Psudeoscience Detection Pt. 1

Homo vult decipi; decipiatur
Man wishes to be deceived; deceive him.

One of the biggest problems in having a scientifically uneducated public (hello, Premier Campbell!) is that critical thinking is weaker; vulnerability to swindles, charlatans and pseudoscience increases. This is not a good thing for the health of your population, medically, financially or socially. So what to do?

The best defence, of course, is to arm yourself with knowledge of A) what science is, and B) how to recognise its misuse. I'm only going to go over one of the easier to detect signs of misuse: the moving target.

Let's say biorhythms exist. That's mine for last week and the week to come. Looks pretty straight forward: three aspects of my personality going through highs and lows. Apparently, in three days (at midnight, apparently) I'm going to be tremendously physically gifted AND as emotional as I'll ever be. Also as intellectually feeble as I can get. Hm. Whereas four days ago I was at a physical and emotional low, and intellecually moderate (though dropping fast). Coincidence? Or... something extraordinary!

So what actually happened over the past week? Tragically, my broken wrist was given the thumbs up from my doctor, so I had to continue chopping wood and helping Jenny dig in her garden: I think I performed reasonably well at those tasks, and I did feel good not having to worry about my broken scaphoid. Of course, I couldn't think of an excuse to get out of the work, so maybe the intellectual part of the chart is correct after all. Otherwise it's 0-for-3 for the chart. If it stopped there, it would be quite easy to determine these charts accuracy. But for pseudoscience, obfuscation, vagueness, and very, very wide targets are the key.

And so the excuses can begin.

We have a second chart, right below the first. These are mixes of the original three aspects. Why are they included at all? They didn't exist when George Thommen wrote what is considered the seminal work on biorhythms, Is This Your Day? Of course, the original creators of the biorhythm only had a masculine and feminine line: the intellectual one added later, so why not a few more? The second chart can be used to explain away most aberrations when the reality of life doesn't jibe with the lines on the paper. These lines all influence each other, you see, so perhaps the positive from my intellectual aspect somewhat neutralized the physical part. Power of positive thinking, don't you know.

But the most obvious use of generalization-as-justification is in this single paragraph taken from Thommens book: discussing the ability of biorhythms to predict behaviour, he uses "there is a good chance that", "it sometimes happens", "likely", "not likely", and my favorite, "uncertain interpretation". This is in a single paragraph, mind.

Another of the authors (Bernard Gittelson - Biorhythms - A Personal Science) quotes a fellow by the name of Gunthard, who explains that some people are "non-rhythmists", unaffected by biorhythms! Or possibly that biorhythms affect all of us, but some more than others. There is simply no way that someone who wishes to defend this belief can lose. Apparently, there have been whole new cycles added, too: there is the 38-day intuitional cycle, the 43-day aesthetic cycle, and the 53-day spiritual cycle in addition to the 23-day masculine, 28-day feminine, and 33-day intellectual cycles. This makes a whole new range of ambiguity available to proponents, as the more aspects they can point to as influences, the wider the target becomes, and the greater number of "hits" they can claim.

Biorhythms, horoscopes, and luck all have ont thing in common: they can only be applied in retrospect, after the events have happened. And that's one way to detect pseudoscience.

posted by Thursday at 3:10 pm


Blogger Thursday said...

Just noticed the ads that Google found for me - think they'll get any business from anyone that read this post?

5:39 pm  

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