Archive for the ‘science’ Category
*Some editing and language added by Barbara A. Drescher
Some people promote theories and treatments that they claim to be scientific, but are not. On this website, we often refer to such dubious claims as “woo” or pseudoscience. These often troublesome theories and treatments are widely advertised on the internet, on TV, and in the psychology or self-help sections of commercial book stores. But because some material in these venues is legitimate, it is important to know how to distinguish science from pseudoscience.
Here we provide a useful toolkit which can be used to identify pseudoscience. The following warning signs are just a rough guide and should be used with some care, because the distinction between science and pseudoscience is rarely clear-cut. Nevertheless, the more warning signs, the more suspicious of a claim you should be.
Warning signs that something is not scientific:
- It cannot be tested.
Pseudoscience is often either impossible to test or excuses are made which keep it from being tested.
In some cases, when evidence does not support the claim, instead of abandoning their ideas, pseudoscientists add conditions to their theories or explain away the evidence so that it is impossible to test the claim empirically. For example, a psychic who cannot demonstrate mind reading or other psychic feats under carefully controlled conditions in the laboratory might claim that “the skeptical vibes of experimenters” are blocking his or her psychic powers. Such an excuse makes the claim untestable.
In other cases, pseudoscientific theories cannot be tested right from the start.
- The basic theory does not change in response to evidence.
Genuine science adapts and updates its theories in response to new evidence, especially refuting evidence. In contrast, pseudoscience tends to maintain its initial claims and instead dismisses or ignores counter-evidence.
- The claimants avoid peer review or other outside verification.
Peer review is the checking of scientific-journal articles by other scientists. Although it is by no means perfect, peer review is an effective, if slow, safeguard against human error. Pseudoscientists tend to avoid close scrutiny. In many cases, their descriptions of procedures and mechanisms are vague and the terms they use are undefined (e.g., “energy”). In other cases they may claim that “orthodox science” conspires against them.
- They only look for evidence which confirms their hypothesis.
In science, studies are designed to disprove hypotheses, not to confirm them. This is because confirming evidence cannot tell us if the hypothesis is always true or if we have simply not seen a case in which it is false. For example, we could test the hypothesis that all birds fly by dropping birds from a bridge. We would confirm our hypothesis many times over, but we would not discover that it was wrong unless we happened to drop a chicken, penguin, or ostrich.
Scientists look for evidence that their theories are false. Pseudoscientists, however, often look only for evidence which supports their beliefs.
- The claimant insists that their theory is accurate because it has not been proven wrong.
Pseudoscientists typically say that it up to critics to disprove their claims, and until they do they should hold firmly to their beliefs. However, the burden of proof is on those making the claim.
- The claim defies what established science has told us about the world.
Pseudoscientists often claim to have discovered a completely new way of looking at the world, one which requires existing scientific knowledge to be tossed out. For example, “psychic surgeons” claim to remove tumors from a patient’s abdomen without cutting the skin. This is considered an extraordinary claim as it defies the laws of nature as we know them. Such claims require extraordinary evidence.
- The claimants attempt to persuade using anecdotes.
Pseudoscientists tend to rely on evidence that is testimonial – engaging and vivid personal stories. These stories are often touching and persuasive. Although such testimonies may be useful starting points in the early stages of scientific study, they rarely provide enough evidence to accept a claim. That’s because they are often difficult to verify, unrepresentative of people’s experiences, and open to alternative explanations that pseudoscientists haven’t considered.
- The claimants use confusing and inappropriate scientific-sounding jargon to persuade.
Pseudoscientists sometimes use jargon which hides the lack of substance in their claims. Scientific or highly technical words are used to impress the reader and make it look like science. Technical or scientific terms are often used out of context. For example, the claim that a product regulates the flow of ions in the body is a misuse of the term “ion”, which refers to states of a molecule, not something that flows in the body.
- The claim has no limits.
In science, theories are specific and treatments have limits. In contrast, pseudoscientists often claim that their theory or treatment applies to just about everything. For example, sham treatments for ADHD also claim to treat or even cure autism, learning disabilities, and other behavioral disorders even though these disorders are completely different in nature and have different causes.
- The claimant rejects counter-evidence from specific testing because it is not “holistic”.
“Holistic” is often used to mean “treating the whole person.” Buyer-beware if “holistic” is used in such a way as to explain away unfavorable results, or to undermine the value of testing specific parts of the treatment or theory.
Note: These warning signs were adapted from Lilienfeld, Lynn, and Lohr (2003, pp. 5-10).
Lilienfeld, S.O., Lynn, S.J., & Lohr, J.M. (2003). Science and pseudoscience in clinical psychology: Initial thoughts, reflections and considerations In S.O. Lilienfeld, S.J. Lynn, & J.M. Lohr (Eds.), Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology, 1-38
This “skepticism stuff” is largely about teaching people to think critically and intelligently, under the assumption that doing so will improve the length and quality of all of our lives. Skepticism is indeed a process, and why I think it’s great and essential for us to spread it far and wide, maybe we’re aiming too high. Providing competent medical care to children and shaping the mental workings of future generations are all well and good, but you’d really have to be an optimist to think we’re ready to begin at that level.
So let’s start a bit lower. Have you ever read the comments sections provided under news articles posted on websites for news agencies such as CNN and NBC? It’s definitely an experience. They’re often so bad, someone actually wrote a script that transforms particularly bad YouTube comments into Richard Feynmann quotes.
Some of my favorite bizarre things to read are posted by what I can only describe as “fat denialists”. That is, these people are suspicious of science’s “opinion” that being overweight is unhealthy. Realize I’m not saying that everyone has to be skinny to be beautiful, or that to be “hollywood skinny” is even genetically attainable for the hardest of dieters and exercises. I’m talking about people who view scientists professing the unhealthiness of high calorie and sedentary lifestyles as enemies of humanity.
There are two locations I’m drawing the following comments from, the first being an article about caskets made specifically for the overweight, the second being a promotional video for a new ABC Summer program titled “HUGE” (I’m not even making that up).
The mistrust is pretty rampant here:
I would tell people go with the weight that makes you feel good and not let these know-nothing-and-I-have-a-degree-to-prove-it doctors from telling you other wise…
It is SO MUCH MORE IMPORTANT to love yourself for who you are on the INSIDE than who you are on the outside. I plan on being large for the rest of my life just to prove that to people.
There is nothing worng with being HUGE but there is something wrong about not loving yourself enough to take care of yourself
The assumption that average weight individuals must be unhappy, and that being large and “living life to the fullest” are equivalent statements are probably the worst pieces of rhetoric here. I don’t even need to link you to a bunch of journal articles to show you that being overweight is bad for you. In fact, along with smoking it’s the greatest cause of death in the United States. And all the top causes of death in the US share one characteristic: “preventable”.
These fat denialists are a growing community whose continued existence is being actively encouraged. I don’t see how we can promote more advanced forms of personal responsibility in light of the failures of such basic ones.
Everyone has their own beliefs about the world, whether they be about the existence of God, a correct stance on abortion, or what best product to clean a kitchen table. Some of these beliefs are grounded in knowledge and reached through critical thought, while others stem from an extensive list of biases originating from the physical and mental pasts of our brains. As it sometimes happens, beliefs reached via the latter pathway can be untrue, and even have a chance to do damage. One major goal of skeptics, of “Woo Fighters”, is to teach critical thought so much of this needless damage never occurs. But what damage are we causing with our critical thought?
This past Cinco de Mayo I visited Olvera Street, a historical part of Los Angeles. To celebrate this day each year events are held, music is played, food is served, and dozens of temporary shops open in between buildings to take advantage of tourists. If you go into one of these shops, you’re done, because you’ve already seen everything the other shops have to offer. While I was there I took a few pictures of some items I found interesting. The first of note is a book titled 1001 Dreams, which claims that symbols and objects in any person’s dream represent objective meanings. And for the low low price of whatever this book cost, you can use this information to become rich or fall in love or something.
If that’s not your thing, you can purchase magical candles. The one to our left claims to release “dis-ease” with universal healing energies. It’s also tall and purple, so it’s probably more likely to look ugly than cure cancer. Or maybe you would like a candle in money green, one capable of “the money I need, the universe will send, opening the path to wealth without end.” We could use some money right now, maybe we should get some of those. Or you can simply buy one of the pink candles for love. If you decide to buy one of these products, you’re probably not going to unlock the secrets of the universe, become rich, or fall in love. But you’re probably not going to kill anyone either. You’ll just be out a few dollars, and that’s just a matter of opinion. Maybe that dream book has some really cool pictures inside, you don’t know. But what am I missing out on, what are we missing out on by making fun of what these products promise to offer?
Maybe quite a bit. In a recent paper titled Keep Your Fingers Crossed! How Superstition Improves Performance, researchers found that the “inconsequential creations of irrational minds” were actually quite consequential. I don’t want to bore you with the details, or maybe I want you to read the article, but the gist of their conclusion was that good-luck superstitions people hold have tangible benefits over a lack thereof on the performance of many tasks. So these “useless products” might actually help. This small fact is no reason to abandon the spread of critical thinking through current and future generations, however, it is important to have a strong understanding of why many people do not think critically, and fall into cognitive traps. These strange beliefs subsist because they are not useless to us at all.
But wait, before you go!
For the last half of June, The Woo Fighters are raising money to attend The Amaz!ng Meeting 8 hosted by the James Randi Educational Foundation. Many have already contributed, and any donations towards sending the next generation of skeptics to TAM8 are wildly appreciated. Thanks!
So I came across this video (pretty well produced) on recent “information” on the link between smoking cigarettes and Alzheimer’s disease:
(My apologies on getting the video embedded. For some reason WordPress does not like the HTML the site has given, even though the preview work. Go figure…)
I’m pretty impressed by the investigation. The interview at the end with the representative of an Alzheimer’s organization in Oregon is spot on: Common sense.
However, the real reason I’m reposting this video for more to see is the source/fact checking that went into the production. It is a clear sign that we all must take the time these days to determine where information is coming from and if it can be trusted/believed. Too often we see newspaper/online articles purporting some new study that links things with other things that seem extremely unlikely, and at the same time, there isn’t a link or a citation of the study. We cannot be persuaded just because the article says “researchers” or “scientists”. It’s important for people to be informed, but it should be WELL-informed. Scientists get things wrong too, and of course, there are some who just make stuff up.
Every so often a rumor starts making the rounds through social networking sites that is saturated in woo. My fiance ran across one on Facebook a few weeks ago that fit this description, focusing on the terror-evoking, sky-creeping vapor masses known as earthquake clouds. The post posited that there are certain clouds that appear in the sky that can be used to predict the onset of earthquakes. It referenced this brief article about rainbow-colored clouds over Los Angeles that were similar to those supposedly seen prior to earthquakes in China and Chile, replete with user comments trumpeting doom for the region through various conspiracy theories, destruction that ended up never taking place.
The fact that my fiance and I live about one mile from the San Andreas Fault Line in a mountainous region that regularly has cloud cover fueled my intrigue about this irrational correlation. We have earthquakes every few years of varying magnitudes, most of which occur with some cloud cover present before and/or during the rumbling. I have heard residents of the area claim they could somehow sense earthquakes coming, but never that someone could see indicators – especially in the sky. At the same time, I have never really hypothesized a connection between sky phenomena and plate movement. With my woo senses tingling, I decided to investigate.
To begin, I wanted to figure out what earthquake clouds are supposed to look like and this resulted in the first of many problems: no one appears to know. A Google Image search of “earthquake clouds” presents a muddling concoction of photos that hardly represent one another: some are sparse and jagged, others are large and smooth, some are in clear bands, and others are jumbled together. Descriptions are equally varied, with definitions of “upward tornado type [clouds] and a horizontal striped bright cloud” (Ondoh, 2009, p. 217), “linear clouds at [sic] the clear sky background” (Pulinets & Ouzounov, 2010, p. 5) , “a cloud with the colors of the rainbow splashed across it”, ancient mystical accounts of “threads of a black cloud spanning the sky like a long snake ” and contemporary mystical descriptions of “a special configuration like a snake, a wave, a feather, or a lantern”. With so many potential physical appearances and little consensus on what should be observed, any potential scientific evidence would appear quite difficult to gather.
Those who support the earthquake cloud theory also differ in their explanations of how the clouds form. Explanations include terrestrial gas emanations from active faults (Ondoh, 2009), temperature fluctuations, humidity drops, and radon emissions from faults (Pulinets & Ouzounov, 2010), and “scalar energy” (Park, 2003), among others. Some theorists claim the clouds form in seconds, while others posit the clouds form over a number of hours. While this is not an area that I have knowledge or experience in, it appears that the underlying processes are largely unknown and what little research that has been done is mostly speculative.
Of greatest detriment to the earthquake cloud theory is the vast differentiation in the time these clouds are theorized to predict quakes. Some supporters claim quakes occur as soon as 30 minutes after cloud formation, many citing this video supposedly filmed in China before the 2008 Sichuan earthquake (there is no way to validate the time or place of this footage). Others feel that the clouds-in-question present themselves much earlier, anywhere from 25 to 50 days or more before the shaking begins. This sizable time period and further lack of consensus makes it evermore difficult to categorize the theory as scientific.
Furthermore, there is much room for logical fallacy and magical thinking to run rampant in the attribution of quakes to clouds. It is quite possible that many observers of so-called earthquake clouds close to a seismic event execute post hoc ergo propter hoc or “after this therefore because of this” reasoning fallacies, recalling a cloud (real or imagined) after a quake and assigning a correlation between the two. Those who believe in earthquake clouds forming weeks or months before quakes could similarly be connecting two independent instances through magical thinking, anticipating seismic activity at some point after observation of a suspected earthquake cloud. The later an earthquake takes place after observation of a believed earthquake cloud, the less likely the two are correlated, but firm believers in earthquake cloud theory will still support a connection despite this fact.
Without a scientifically-grounded base consisting of distinct observable characteristics, mechanisms of formation, and accurate understanding of the precursory nature of earthquake clouds (if there is any of value), the belief in these perceived ominous vapor formations can only be categorized as pseudoscience.
Ondoh, T. (2009). Investigation of precursory phenomena in the ionosphere, atmosphere and groundwater before large earthquakes of M6.5 Advances in Space Research, 43 (2), 214-223 DOI: 10.1016/j.asr.2008.04.003
Pulinets, S. & Ouzounov, D. (2010). Lithosphere-Atmosphere-Ionosphere Coupling (LAIC) model – An unified concept for earthquake precursors validation. Journal of Asian Earth Sciences.
A couple of days ago I read something that I found very disturbing and I was reminded of it today. It illustrates the challenge we have in educating the public about science and, perhaps, why it is so challenging. There must be an idiom which fits. Perhaps you have some suggestions.
So, first I will tell you what I read, then I will tell you why it was more disturbing than what I commonly encounter. If you want to skim, I cannot stop you, but please scroll down to the bottom for the shocker.
The offending paragraph was found in a review of Daniel Loxton’s wonderful children’s book, Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came to Be which appeared in CM Magazine, a publication of the Manitoba Library Association.
Although the text is very good in describing the theory of Evolution, there are points in the book where the author makes comments that could imply that Evolution is more than a theory. For example, “…Charles Darwin revealed the solution to the mystery of evolution” (p. 7). He also makes the comment that Evolution is the most important idea in all of biology (p. 7). Such phrases may lead the reader into thinking that scientists completely understand the theory of Evolution which would be incorrect, else Evolution would be a principle or a law and not a theory. As well, it is a bit bold to claim that evolution is the most important idea in all of biology – biology is a huge field of study with other key discoveries.
This text could be read by a young reader for ‘fun.’…
First, let me address this criticism because it is a common one made by evolution deniers and because it preys on a misunderstanding of science that many laypeople have.
As with most words in the English language, the word “theory” has multiple meanings. In general use among non-scientists, it is often used to express “conjecture”, “speculation”, or some other unproven or untested guess.
None of those definitions are what a scientist means when they use the term “theory”.
Neither a “principle” nor a “law” is a theory which is “completely understood”, either. Laws are simple statements which describe, not explain.
The descriptions given by Dr. Genie Scott, Executive Director of the National Center for Science Education, of the definitions of fact, law, hypothesis, and theory. It occurs about 3:50 into the video.
Theories vary in strength from very weak to very strong. The theory of evolution through natural selection has withstood 150 years of rigorous testing. It is one of the strongest theories in science.
And, yes, it is, by far, the most important idea in biology. It is probably the most important in all of the life sciences including behavioral sciences like psychology. Of course, this is a statement of opinion and I am not a biologist. However, I cannot imagine a biologist of any quality who does hold this opinion. I offer as evidence the words of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, whom Theodosius Dobzhansky quoted in his 1973 essay in American Biology Teacher titled “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in Light of Evolution“:
(Evolution) is a general postulate to which all theories, all hypotheses, all systems must henceforward bow and which they must satisfy in order to be thinkable and true. Evolution is a light which illuminates all facts, a trajectory which all lines of thought must follow — this is what evolution is.
So, to summarize so far, a theory is an explanation – it is a set of testable and tested statements about relationships among variables which explains a given phenomenon. Ideas are not called “theories” because we do not know if they hold true. The strength of a theory depends on the quantity of observable facts explained, the quality of the explanation, the amount of testing it has withstood, and many other factors.
Evolution is an amazingly strong theory.
The author of the review does not understand the term “theory” as it is used in science, nor does she understand “law” and “principle”. Although these are often misunderstood by laypersons, they are fundamental to science. They are the language of science.
What is so shocking?
The review was written by an Assistant Professor of Science Education.
Katarin MacLeod is an Assistant Professor in Science Education at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, NS. Her areas of interest include physics educational research (PER), and the incorporation of science, technology, society and environment (STSE) outcomes into science courses at all levels to help students understand the relevancy of science, increase scientific literacy, and to promote citizenship.
That, my friends, is disgraceful.
What does science mean to skepticism? A large portion of the individuals involved in spreading information and awareness about skepticism come from academia and possess advanced degrees. Even our organization, The Woo Fighters, defines its members as “defenders of science”. The terms “scientist” and “skeptic” can be used almost interchangeably, with scientists seeking to make conclusions based on evidence as freely as possible from human biases, and skeptics seeking to emulate that same thought process.
The advent of the popularity of online blogging has given skeptic organizations a large amount of flexibility when it comes to teaching the fundamentals of skepticism. From these articles, some individuals from the growing audience of readers are recruited to the scientific school of thought. But what are they really being recruited to, what do they believe they’re a part of, and how does this affect the public’s overall perception of skepticism?
As affirmed by several reputable sources, skepticism is a methodology for gaining knowledge through critical thinking and evidence-based reasoning. And that’s it. The definition of this word can never go beyond that point, and if you try to add any qualifiers you’ve already gone against what you hold most dear. Even if languages are living, breathing things, the process of skepticism is in the method, not the word. If this is supposed to be what skepticism means, what are new skeptics being exposed to?
One important thing to note is that online skeptic communities draw a younger crowd than they did before the popularity of the internet. The Woo Fighters are currently a group of twenty-something students, and I wasn’t even alive before the fall of the Berlin Wall. We’re talking young, young people who may not even be aware of Carl Sagan’s first use of the term “scientific skepticism”, or early groups such as the James Randi Educational Foundation. What we start with is what we believe science to be, and what we learn about skepticism is what we find available on the internet.
So what is the information we start with? Pop science! 3-2-1 Contact was a bit before my time, but Bill Nye the Science Guy was just perfect. It even has “science” in its title, so you know it must be legit. Stephen Hawking and his Brief History of Time is practically the face of what it means to be a brilliant thinker in the eyes of the public (although there are of course others who are idolized in rather amazing ways). As I alluded to before, promoters of skeptic thought tend to be people who highly value the pursuit of knowledge. And this is where we’re coming from as children. A new, younger generation, who may or may not try to define skepticism in the image of what they believe it to be.
And what are we finding? If you type “Science Blogs” into Google, your first hit is going to be P.Z. Myers’ Pharyngula, and while it’s only a personal blog, it’s still one of most admired and linked to blogs by many skeptics. If you search for “Skeptic Blogs”, you’ll find yourself at Skepticblog, a collaboration of many different authors such as Brian Dunning, Phil Plait, Daniel Loxton, and countless others. There are even skeptical blogs written almost entirely by women, such as SheThought and Skepchick. These blogs are all directly related to one another in the material and events they choose to cover. There are of course hundreds of more blogs relating to skepticism not mentioned here. I need only to focus on a small number involved in skeptical “current events” to illustrate my point:
The definition of skepticism is elegantly simple, yet there are so many organizations in conflict. Why are some skeptics angry about P.Z. Myers’ recent leaps of logic? Why does the previous blog even exist? Why did the Skepchick community recently fragment, aren’t they all fighting to promote the same skepticism? Not all, but many skeptic organizations have become exclusive communities, all fighting for their very own version of critical thought, their own version of the singular definition of skepticism.
The young, burgeoning skeptic grew up with an idea of what it meant to be a scientist, learns what it means to be a skeptic, and finds that something isn’t quite right. The skeptic community is in conflict with itself, completely obscuring even the most basic idea of why many came together in the first place. Separate skeptic organizations exist not as mutually beneficial groups (as they should), but as factions. And this is what we see, and this is what we’re taught skepticism to be, and this is what we become. Everyone can’t be right, so who is?
There appears to be a lingering confusion between philosophical skepticism and scientific skepticism. Here, an attempt will be made to elucidate this issue further and draw a clear distinction between the two.
In general, philosophical skepticism holds that no definitive knowledge can ever be obtained through the senses, mainly due to the senses being flawed and thereby unreliable; the same arguments can be applied to logic and reasoning. Scientific skepticism, on the other hand, posits that though the senses and logic may in fact have their limitations and as such, never truly allow us to hold any definitive knowledge, the senses and logic are the best tools we have for any hopes of obtaining knowledge. Thus, it is apparent that each form of skepticism is distinct and operates under a different set of underlying assumptions.
Certainly, philosophical skepticism supplies adequate reason to question that which we believe to know and can logically justify. One need only turn to findings on the belief bias or narrative fallacy to find evidence for the short comings of human reasoning. However, the arguments of philosophical skepticism only put forth reason to doubt and remain skeptical of the tools (the senses and logic) which we have to make sense of reality. They fail to provide sufficient reason to not make use of these tools. Indeed, scientific skepticism acknowledges that they can often lead us astray, hence the precept behind a core scientific principle of skepticism: open-mindedness. Consequently, scientific skepticism assumes that there exists an approximate one-to-one correspondence between the senses and reality, such that the senses can give us some degree of reliably accurate knowledge about the universe. Philosophical skepticism refuses to make such an assumption and we are left with no trustable conclusions. For this reason, there is a need to recognize the distinction between the two.
Philosophical skepticism provides an invaluable principle to science: that we always have reason to continue to doubt. Because of this principle, science can never prove or disprove any phenomena, but rather provide inductive evidence for or against a given hypotheses along with a measure of certainty. From this we infer knowledge. Scientific skepticism takes a more pragmatic approach than philosophical skepticism by not allowing the perfect to become the enemy of the good and making use of the best tools we have (our senses) in this search.