May 18, 2005

Science: Pseudoscience Detection Pt. 3

To misquote someone famous: the words make the man.

It's easy to tell when someone is feeding you a like of crapola sometimes: they mention crystals from Atlantis; or the ghost of Johnny Carson; or supply-side economics. All quite easy to spot, and all heaped over with bull. As entertaining as these folks often are, there are days I just don't have the time and don't want to bother with them.

So, I have a little list...

These are a few red flags that will often crop up in the midst of an otherwise normal-seeming document or conversation that can alert you to what might be otherwise an utter waste of your precious time (after all, Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law is on some channel right now, isn't it?):

1) "Aristotlean", "Newtonian", or "Western Science" (apparently "Baconian" sounds too weird to be used much). These all mean the same thing (but only to the delusional): that there is, somehow, an Eastern and a Western science. Part of this is seated in reverse jingoism (ie. everything here sucks, everything from somewhere else rocks) and part in the usual wish fulfillment that drives the pseudosciences and their believers. The bad news for these folks is that there is only one scientific method, and it's used East and West. Pseudoscience, however, can come in all sorts of lovely shapes and sizes.

2) "Quantum." This is the new "Ether", which used to be the semi-scientific jargon favoured by the flaky set. Whereas everything mystical used to be composed of ether, or influenced by ether, or moving through "the ether", now everything that may be paranormal is because of quantum. Quantum what? Well, quantum anything, really. Most useful predicting the movement of microscopic particles, it's publicly a term for hucksters to use when they hope to delude folks into thinking they are cutting-edge.

3) "Metaphysical." The word was coined by Pierre Duhem to mean any scientific examination of the nature of reality, rather than our reactions to reality and its reactions to us. It allows for the constant revision of theories as new evidence challenges older standards, an essential part of science. It's since been taken hostage and warped to mean anything that may be outside the understanding of physics. True in some cases (mathematics, philosophy) and twaddle in others (ghosts, angels).

4) "Consiousness." More specifically, "mass", "hightened" or "improved" varieties. Often used with liberal sprinklings of "Vibrations" and "Energy", these folks will try to convince you that people make their own reality (and buy stuff in the process). This theory has been around for ages (this lovely example of Applied Solipism, for instance) and is just as successful a method of reasoning as ever.

5) Big, BIG comparisons. Both comparisons to Earth shaking ideas (molecular theory) or discoveries (the wheel) and to scientists (Copernicus is a favorite) or engineers (the Wright Brothers, ditto) that were not accepted at first, but gradually gained favour. Actually, what normally happens is that the proponents of a new theory are fairly young; if the theory is sound it hangs around long enough for the support for the old theory to literally die out. Most battles in science are intergenerational, or at least start that way.

6) "They are trying to shut me down!" Common as dirt. Someones paper didn't get published (for whatever reason), but he declares that since it opposes the accepted ideas of global warming, the journal that rejected him must be part of the conspiracy. Look for Schopenhauer quotes with these guys.

7) "As seen in..." Of course, publishing being what it is, there's nothing to stop nutbags from founding their own journal and pretending the papers submitted there undergo a rigorous peer review process, just like real science journals.

8) "Syncronicity". Another word for coincidence. Every time you flip a coin, it's about a 50% chance of coming down on either side, even if you had just flipped it heads 48 times in a row. This is different than correctly predicting the result of 48 coin flips in a row, which would be impressive. The mind tries making connections between events, and often we remember only what we have already in mind when looking at phenomena. Try this experiment: with a deck of cards (shuffled and face down), say "black" out loud before turning up the top card of the deck. When you feel ahead in the count, stop. The more black cards that came up, the better you will feel, just as if you were causing them to be in the majority. Likewise, if you get through the deck after hitting an early string of red, the worse you'll feel about it, again, as if it were somehow your fault. Psychics and religions rely on that self-provided correspondence from their marks.

Extra Bonus Warning: Anyone who brags about having a US Patent, or uses it as a prominent part of their advertising, is selling weak medicine. Ladies and gentlemen, a perpetual motion machine (patent number 6,362,718).


posted by Thursday at 10:51 pm


Blogger jc said...

Brilliant Post...

I would add only one thing which you, to a degree already cover, people who believe independent events are somehow connected. Thus, in your coin toss example, people who think that 48 tails means there is a greater likliehood that heads will come up next toss.

11:30 pm  
Blogger Thursday said...

Thanks for it.

Point taken, and I could have gone into causality, too, but what I'm limiting the post to is what phrases people will use to convince the masses, rather than errors in logic, with things like "hot streaks" or lucky/unlucky runs.


if you (fairly and accurately) predict 48 coin flips in a row, it's time to call James Randi;

if you notice heads coming up a lot, and decide it's important, that's syncronicity;

and if you tell people that God made the coin come down heads 48 times in a row, you could be well on your way to a long and lucerative career.

It's the third person that deserves their fingers broken, in my humble opinion, and that's who I target most.

12:20 am  
Blogger Noumena said...

I came here via the 9th Skeptic's Circle, and I have one small quibble, with #3. Duhem didn't coin the term 'metaphysics'; it started as a name for the series of books Aristotle wrote after his Physics (which is what 'metaphysics' literally means). These books have to do with the sort of things philosophers call metaphysics today, and the term just carried over. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, science-minded philosophers like Duhem, Carnap, and Quine decided metaphysics meant anything that couldn't be handled with just empiricism and logic. The quacks and idiots seized on this term, not realizing Duhem, etc., meant it as a synonym for 'crap'.

8:55 am  
Anonymous Greg said...

I would note that (along with quantum) "Newtonian" is in wide usage by reputable physicists. Makes an interesting contrast with "Darwinism" perhaps.

1:35 pm  
Anonymous Guy said...

I imagine Quine et al would not be pleased by the current use of metaphisics...

10:02 pm  
Blogger Thursday said...

Sozialismus: Point taken (and a justified one). All these points are massively contracted because no one likes reading twenty pages on one subject when their just cruising the web...

I think Duhem meant more "ambiguity" or "as yet unanswerable by science" rather than "outright crap", though often the two are difficult to tell apart at times.

I got lazy when I said he coined the term. I should have more correctly stated that her repopularised the term into its current scientific meaning.

Greg: Pretty much everything mentioned here has an actual, scientific meaning, which is promptly ignored by the flaky set. Though I will say that Newtons theories have (like Darwins) been refined considerably, so referring to "Newtonian science" and meaning a specific time or understanding of concepts is certainly legitimate. In context.

Guy: A lot of us still alive are pretty pissed off about it, too!

10:27 pm  

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