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Warning Signs That Something is Not Scientific

*Some editing and language added by Barbara A. Drescher

Some people promote theories and treatments that they claim to be scientific, but are not. ResearchBlogging.orgOn 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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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

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Look! Up in the Sky! It’s an Earthquake!

ResearchBlogging.org

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.

Torpedo-Shaped Clouds

Charming aerial formations, or omens predicting destruction?

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.

Rainbow Clouds

A still from footage of supposed earthquake clouds prior to a 2008 quake in Sichuan, China. Pretty or frightening?

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.

Rippled Clouds

Bringers of rain, or rumblings?

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.

References

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 seen prior to earthquakes in China and Chile, replete with user comments trumpeting doom for the region through various conspiracy theories.

Taking into account that my fiance and I live about one mile from the San Andreas Fault Line in a mountainous region that regularly has cloud cover, I was intrigued by 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, scientific evidence is 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 earthquake cloud 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 real or imagined cloud after a quake and believing in 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 firm, scientifically-grounded base consisting of distinct observable characteristics, mechanisms of formation, and accurate understanding of the precursory nature of earthquake clouds (if any), 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.

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