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EARMARKS OF PSEUDOSCIENCE

EARMARKS OF PSEUDOSCIENCE

https://webspace.utexas.edu/cokerwr/www/index.html/distinguish.htm

One of the three best skeptic sites

Acknowledgments: This fact sheet was written by Prof. Rory Coker of the Physics Department of the University of Texas

 

PSEUDOSCIENCE indifference to fact. Writers tend simply to make up bogus “facts”— what Norman Mailer calls “factoids”— where needed, instead of going to the trouble of  consulting reliable reference works, much less investigating directly. Yet these fictitious facts are often central to the pseudoscientist’s argument and conclusions! This can also be seen in the fact that pseudoscientists never revise. The first edition of any pseudoscience book is almost always the last, even though the book may go through innumerable new printings, over decades or centuries. Even a book with obvious mistakes, errors, and misprints on every page is just reprinted as it is, over and over. Compare to college science textbooks, which usually see a new edition every few years because of the rapid accumulation of new facts, ideas, discoveries, experiments and insights in science.

 

PSEUDOSCIENCE “research” is almost invariably exegesis. That is, the pseudoscientist clips new or old newspaper reports, collects hearsay and questionable memories, reads other pseudoscience books, or thumbs through ancient religious or mythological works. The pseudoscientist never or rarely ever makes an independent investigation to check his sources. They are taken at face value, or even better interpreted as “symbolic,” so that the pseudoscientist can use them as a kind of Rorshach inkblot— reading into the myths and old texts anything he wants to find in them. Some areas of pseudoscience are generated by very simplistic “literalism”— the use of inherited “sacred texts” as if they were contemporary science textbooks, a practice that leads to the flat earth, the earth at the center of the universe, Creationism, Intelligent Design and a number of other completely foolish but resolutely traditional claims about man and nature.

 

PSEUDOSCIENCE begins with a hypothesis usually one which is appealing emotionally, and spectacularly implausible— and then looks only for items which appear to support it. Conflicting evidence is ignored. Notice how often, when you are asked by a friend about what should be a question of fact if the topic were not pseudoscience, the opening phrase is, “Do you believe in ESP?” (or flying saucers, or prophecy, or Bigfoot)... not, is the evidence good, but rather, do you believe, without raising dull questions of evidence. Generally speaking, the aim of pseudoscience is to rationalize strongly held beliefs, rather than to investigate and find out what’s actually going on, or to test various possibilities. Pseudoscience specializes in jumping to “congenial conclusions,” grinding ideological axes, appealing to pre-conceived ideas and to widespread misunderstandings. Not just Creationists, but 20th Century pseudoscientists of all flavors, from J. B. Rhine and Immanuel Velikovsky to Rupert Sheldrake, have underlying their claims and assertions an anachronistic world-view that essentially rejects all or most of the tested, reliable findings of science.

PSEUDOSCIENCE always achieves a reduction to absurdity if pursued far enough. Maybe dowsers can somehow sense the presence of water or minerals under a field, but almost all claim they can dowse equally well from a map! Maybe Uri Geller is “psychic,” but are his powers really beamed to him on a radio link with a flying saucer from the planet Hoova, as Uri used to claim? Maybe plants are “psychic,” but why does a bowl of (inorganic) mud respond in exactly the same way, in the same bogus “experiment?”  A local psychic says she can commune mentally with your pet— but she also says a photo or fax or computer-printout image of the pet works just as well as the pet itself for her communing!

 

PSEUDOSCIENCE shows indifference to criteria of valid evidence. The emphasis is not on meaningful, controlled, repeatable scientific experiments— instead, it is on unverifiable eyewitness testimony, stories, faked footprints, blurry photos, and tall tales, hearsay, rumor, and dubious anecdotes. Genuine modern scientific literature is not cited. Real research is never done.  Generally pseudoscientists never present any valid evidence of any kind whatsoever for their claims. One of the most bizarre recent tactics of pseudoscientists is to publish a novel, a work of fiction in which essentially everything is made up by the author— as usual in works of fiction!— but then to turn directly around and treat the completely made-up material as if it were actual, factual and researched. Recent examples of this tactic are The Celestine Prophecy, by James Redfield (1994), and The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown (2003). This is really having your cake and eating it too, because the authors, when taken to task for gross errors and mis-statements, calmly say, “Can't you read? It's fiction, not non-fiction,” and yet when not taken to task for equally gross errors, sneakily treat them as established facts and build upon them to generate yet more best-selling books.

 

PSEUDOSCIENCE relies heavily on subjective validation. Joe Blow puts jello on his head and his headache goes away. To pseudoscience this means jello cures headaches. To science this means nothing, since no experiment was done. Many things were going on when Joe Blow’s headache went away— the moon was full, a bird flew overhead, the window was open, Joe had on his red shirt, etc.— and his headache would have gone away eventually in any case, no matter what. Modine Flark reads her newspaper horoscope and says there must be something to astrology because the horoscope describes her perfectly. But when we read it we see it is a perfectly generally true statement that describes just about every human who has ever lived, and has nothing to do with Modine or her birth-stars. These are examples of subjective validation, one of the main foundations of popular support for pseudoscience. Essentially all of medical quackery (aka “alternative medicine”) relies on subjective validation entirely for its continued existence. A controlled experiment to study the effectiveness of a headache remedy, for example, would put a large number— thousands or tens of thousands— of people suffering from headaches in identical circumstances, except for the presence or absence of the remedy it is desired to test, and compare the results… which would then have some chance of being meaningful. Subjective validation renders such studies meaningless unless they follow a so-called Double-Blind protocol, which insures that no one involved in the study knows what the results “should be.” That is, no one in the study should know until final results have been tabulated which patients took the remedy to be tested, and which patients took an identical-appearing placebo, known to have no effect on headaches.

 

 

PSEUDOSCIENCE depends on arbitrary conventions of human culture, rather than on unchanging regularities of nature. For instance, the interpretations of astrology depend on the names of things, which are accidental and vary from culture to culture. If the ancients had given the name Mars to the planet we call Jupiter, and vice versa, astronomy could care less… but astrology would be totally different, because it depends solely on the cultural baggage carried by the name and has nothing to do with the physical properties of the actual planet itself.

 

PSEUDOSCIENCE always achieves a reduction to absurdity if pursued far enough. Maybe dowsers can somehow sense the presence of water or minerals under a field, but almost all claim they can dowse equally well from a map! Maybe Uri Geller is “psychic,” but are his powers really beamed to him on a radio link with a flying saucer from the planet Hoova, as Uri used to claim? Maybe plants are “psychic,” but why does a bowl of (inorganic) mud respond in exactly the same way, in the same bogus “experiment?”  A local psychic says she can commune mentally with your pet— but she also says a photo or fax or computer-printout image of the pet works just as well as the pet itself for her communing!

 

PSEUDOSCIENCE always avoids putting its claims to a meaningful test. Pseudoscientists never carry out careful, methodical, convincing experiments themselves— and they also generally ignore results of such experiments that are carried out by scientists. Pseudoscientists also never follow up. If one pseudoscientist claims to have done an experiment (e.g., the “lost" biorhythm studies of Hermann Swoboda that are an alleged basis of the modern pseudoscience of biorhythms), no other pseudoscientist ever tries to duplicate it or to check his supposed results, even (and especially) when the original results are lost or questionable! Further, where a pseudoscientist claims to have done an experiment with a remarkable result, he himself almost never repeats it to check his results and procedures. This is in extreme contrast with science, where crucial experiments are performed over and over, by scientists all over the world, with ever-increasing precision. When pseudoscientists became extremely excited by fuzzy 1980s photos of a “face on Mars,” they somehow never wanted to look at or even hear about 1990s and later photos which show the area with much sharper resolution, and do not show any “face.” Those who believed that the measurements of the Pyramid of Cheops contain secret information encoded by Gods or Space Aliens were somehow never found making any measurements themselves. Nor did it ever occur to practitioners of “theraputic touch,” which involves ritual hand-waving to manipulate and smooth the “human energy field,” to demonstrate experimentally that such a field (completely unknown to science) actually exists. Believers in the supernatural wonders of crop circles never bother to take a clothesline and a broomstick and see how simple it is to make a circle precisely like the ones they find “inexplicable.”  Those who say the UFO photos of George Adamski or Billy Meier or Ed Walters convince them absolutely that UFOs are real never bother to spend the 60 minutes or so it takes to fabricate a very similar UFO and take it out and make a very similar photo.

 

PSEUDOSCIENCE often contradicts itself, even in its own terms. Such logical contradictions are simply ignored or rationalized away. In a meaningful description of the physical world we live in, mathematical or factual or logical contradictions simply could not exist. In pseudoscience, they are par for the course! We should not be surprised when a book on dowsing for water, in Chapter 1, assures us that dowsers prefer newly-cut twigs, because only “still living” wood can channel and focus the “earth radiation” used in dowsing, while Chapter 5 states that nearly all dowsers use metal or plastic rods!

 

PSEUDOSCIENCE deliberately creates mystery where none exists, by omitting crucial information, background, and important details. Anything can be made “mysterious,” if you omit to tell what is known about it, or present completely imaginary details. The “Bermuda Triangle” and “Sea Mystery” books are classic examples of this tactic, as are most books on haunted houses.

 

PSEUDOSCIENCE does not progress. There are fads, and a pseudoscientist may switch from one fad to another (from ghosts to ESP research, from flying saucers to psychic studies, from ESP research to looking for Bigfoot). But within a given topic there is no progress made, no new information uncovered; new theories are not forthcoming; old concepts are never modified or discarded in light of new discoveries, since there are no new discoveries for pseudoscience. The older the idea, the more respect is given it. ESP experiments started at about the same time as research into the nature of electromagnetic radiation. They're still guessing cards in the ESP labs and yet applications of electromagnetism have completely revolutionized the world, time and time again, since the 1880s. No natural phenomena or processes previously unknown to science have ever been discovered by pseudoscientists. Indeed, pseudoscientists almost invariably deal with phenomena well known to scientists, but little known to the general public— so that the public will swallow the total misrepresentations of the phenomena that the pseudoscientist wants to make. Classic examples: firewalking, Kirlian and orb photography, “psychic motors.”

 

PSEUDOSCIENCE persuades using misinformation, appeals to widespread belief, rhetoric, propaganda, and misrepresentation, rather than presenting valid evidence (which presumably does not exist). Pseudoscience books offer examples of almost every kind of fallacy of logic and reason known to scholars, and have invented some new ones of their own. A favorite device is the non sequitur. Pseudoscientists also love the “Galileo Argument.” This consists of the pseudoscientist comparing himself to Galileo, and saying that just as the pseudoscientist is believed to be wrong, so Galileo was thought wrong by his contemporaries … therefore the pseudoscientist must be right too, just as Galileo was. Clearly the conclusion does not follow! What is more, anyone who has ever heard of Galileo must be aware that Galileo’s ideas were tested, verified, and accepted promptly by his scientific colleagues. It was the established religion which rejected Galileo’s findings, preferring instead a familiar pseudoscience which Galileo’s findings contradicted. Pseudoscientists are fond of the term “proof,” as in, “I'll pay anyone $10,000 if they can prove Bigfoot does not exist!” Or, “ ...if you can prove the earth revolves around the sun,” or “ ...if you can prove that at least some UFOs are not spacecraft from other worlds.” The money is safe, because the concept of a “proof” comes from mathematics and formal logic, and has no counterpart in any description of things, phenomena and processes in our real world. A late-20th-Century magician and mentalist offered $10,000 to anyone who can prove that hypnosis exists. He's in no danger of having to pay up, but his money would be just as secure if he offered $10,000 to anyone who can prove that hypnosis does not exist!

 

PSEUDOSCIENCE argues from ignorance, an elementary fallacy. That is, pseudoscientists base their claims on incompleteness of information about nature, rather than on what is known at present. But no claim can possibly be supported by lack of information. The fact that Don Dullard saw something in the sky he didn’t recognize means just that… he didn’t recognize what he saw. We cannot use this fact as evidence that flying saucers are from outer space, since we have no evidence he saw a flying saucer— or anything else! Maybe he saw a ghost! Advocates of “Intelligent Design” claim, without evidence, that science will “never” be able to understand certain features of biological systems. Really? “Never” is a long time. The phrase “Science cannot explain…” is extremely common in pseudoscience literature. In many cases, the fact is that science has no interest in the supposed phenomenon because there is no evidence it exists; in other cases, the scientific explanation is well known and well established, but the pseudoscientist is not aware of it or deliberately ignores it to create mystery. Many pseudoscientific labels— ghosts, UFOs, ESP— are just names for a state of complete ignorance of what, if anything, is being labelled. Could the woods be full of unknown monsters, the rivers full of unknown monsters? Zoologists don't think so; they've been there repeatedly to look, and it's their profession to find and study new animals. To the pseudoscientist, the absence of evidence for some monster is itself a kind of “proof” the monster exists!

 

PSEUDOSCIENCE argues from alleged exceptions, errors, anomalies, strange or paranormal events, and suspect claims rather than from well-established regularities of nature. The experience of scientists over the past 400 years is that claims and reports which describe well-understood objects behaving in strange and incomprehensible ways tend to reduce upon investigation to deliberate frauds, honest mistakes, garbled accounts, misinterpretations, outright fabrications, and stupid blunders. It is not wise to accept such reports at face value, without checking them. Pseudoscientists always take such reports as literally true, without independent verification.

 

 

PSEUDOSCIENCE appeals to false authority, to emotion, to sentiment, or to distrust of established fact. A high school dropout is accepted as an expert on archaeology, though he has never made any study of it! A psychoanalyst is accepted as an expert on all of human history, not to mention physics, astronomy, and mythology— though his claims are inconsistent with everything known in all four fields! A show business celebrity swears it’s true, so it must be. A physicist says psychic Smoori Mellar couldn’t possibly have fooled him with simple magic tricks, although the physicist knows nothing about magic and sleight of hand. Emotional appeals are common: “If it makes you feel good, it must be true.” “In your heart, you know it’s right.” “Follow your bliss!” “Use your intuition!” Pseudoscientists are fond of imaginary conspiracies: “There’s plenty of evidence for flying saucers but the government keeps it secret.” They almost always argue from irrelevancies: “Scientists don’t know everything!”— but perhaps we weren’t talking about everything, maybe we were discussing the evidence for the tooth fairy and Santa Claus!

 

PSEUDOSCIENCE often pretends to be one side of a legitimate scientifc controversy. That is, pseudoscientists like to pretend that “the jury is still out,” and that “further research” is needed to clarify the validity of their beliefs. This is essentially never the case. There is no controversy among astronomers concerning astrology— they unanimously agree it is nonsense. There is no controversy among physicists concerning Velikovsky's ideas— they are unanimously condemned as simply wrong. There is no controversy among biologists regarding “Intelligent Design”— it is dismissed as a set of religion-based beliefs empty of scientific content. There is no case known to me in which a pseudoscientist's claims have taken advantage of any genuine scientific controversy. Instead, pseudoscientists operate entirely outside science, and their claims and beliefs are not relevant to any known scientific puzzle or uncertainty.

 

PSEUDOSCIENCE makes extraordinary claims and advances fantastic theories that are in contradiction to what is known about nature. Not only is no evidence offered that the claim is true, the problem of how all previous investigations led to precisely opposite conclusions is ignored totally. (“Flying saucers have to come from somewhere—so the earth is hollow, and they come from inside.” “This electric spark I’m making with this electrical apparatus is actually not a spark at all, but rather a supernatural manifestation of psycho-spiritual energy.” “Every human is surrounded by an impalpable aura of electromagnetic energy, the auric egg of the ancient Hindu seers, which mirrors the human’s every mood and condition.” “Dowsing is possible because of the mysterious ‘Earth Radiation,’ which can only be detected by dowsers!” “This dog knows when its owner leaves her business miles away and always goes to the window right then to wait for her, because it senses the metahuman supermorphogenic force field!" Gosh, what if it just goes to the window every few minutes all day long?) The very word theory is one of the most often misused by pseudoscience. In science, a theory is a detailed, quantitative description of an observed physical process of nature. For example, in physics, a theory of gravity would be a mathematically-expressed law that allowed the calculation of the gravitational force in any specific, given circumstance. In zoology, a theory of evolution would offer a description of a detailed, testable set of processes that result in the frequently observed origin of new species of animal. You can't describe a process that is not there to be described, so there is hardly any concept more alien to pseudoscience than a scientific theory! Pseudoscientists never offer theories... they usually offer retreaded mythology.

 

PSEUDOSCIENCE makes heavy use of an invented vocabulary in which the new terms introduced do not have precise or unambiguous definitions, and most have no definitions at all. The listener is forced to interpret the statements according to his or her own preconceptions. What, for instance, is “biocosmic radiation energy?” Or a “psychotronic amplification system?” Or the “Intelligent Design Hypothesis?" Or the “Zero Point Vacuum Free Cosmic Energy Motor?" Or “craniosacral theraputic osteopathy”? By spouting gibberish that has a vaguely “technical” sound, the pseudoscientists and crackpots believe they imitate the jargon of actual scientific and technical fields. Pseudoscientists also like to take terms from actual science, such as “energy,” and drain them totally of meaning, then use them as senseless, referentless buzzwords. Quack “healers” babble a lot about energy, but nothing they say has anything whatsoever to do with physics or biology or with any aspect of reality.

 

PSEUDOSCIENCE appeals to the truth-criteria of scientific methodology, while simultaneously denying their validity. Thus, a procedurally invalid experiment which seems to show that astrology works is advanced by the pseudoscientist as “proof” that astrology is correct, while he simultaneously completely ignores any number of procedurally sound experiments that show it does not work in any way or sense. The fact that someone got away with simple magic tricks in one scientific lab is “proof” that he is a psychic superman, while the fact that he was caught doing his tricks in several other labs is ignored. One ESP experiment where the researchers can be shown conclusively to have simply fabricated all their positive results is invariably referenced as valid and convincing, whilst the many dozens of other ESP studies that gave chance results are left unmentioned.

 

PSEUDOSCIENCE claims that the phenomena it studies are “jealous.” The phenomena appear only under certain vaguely specified but vital conditions (i.e., when no doubters or skeptics are present; when no experts are present; when nobody is watching; when the “vibes” are right; only once in human history.) The attitude of science is that all phenomena must be capable of being studied by anyone with the proper equipment, and that all procedurally valid studies must give consistent results. No actual known natural phenomenon is “jealous” in this way. There is no way to construct a TV set or a radio or a DVD player  or a computer that will function only when no skeptics are present! A man who claims to be a concert-class violinist, but does not appear to have ever owned a violin and who refuses to play when anyone is around who might hear him, is most likely lying about his ability to play the violin.

 

PSEUDOSCIENCE “explanations” tend to be by scenario. That is, we are told a story, but we are told nothing else; we have no description of any possible physical process. For instance, pseudoscientist Velikovsky claimed that another planet passing near the earth caused the earth’s spin axis to flip upside down. This is all he said. He gave no mechanisms. But the mechanism is all-important, because the laws of physics rule out the process as impossible. That is, the approach of another planet cannot cause a planet’s spin axis to flip 180 degrees. If Velikovsky had discovered some way that one planet could flip another’s spin axis, he would presumably have described the mechanism by which it can happen. The bald statement itself, without the underlying mechanism, conveys no information at all. Again, Velikovsky says that Venus was once a comet, and this comet was spewed out of a volcano on Jupiter. Since planets in no way resemble comets, which have been known since 1950 to consist of rock/ice snowball-like debris, and which in turn have no connection whatsoever to volcanoes, and since Jupiter is not known to have volcanoes anyway (or even a solid surface!), there is no actual physical process underlying Velikovsky’s assertions. He just gives us words, related to one another within a sentence… but the relations are alien to the universe we actually live in, and no explanation for how these relations work or can exist is given. We have stories, but never theories.

 

PSEUDOSCIENTISTS often appeal to the ancient human habit of magical thinking. Magic, sorcery, witchcraft— these are based on spurious similarity, false analogy, false cause-and-effect connections, etc. That is, inexplicable influences and connections between things are assumed from the beginning— not found by investigation. (If you step on a crack in the sidewalk without saying a magic word, your mother will crack a bone in her body; eating heart-shaped leaves is good for heart ailments; shining red light on the body increases blood production; rams are aggressive so someone born in the Sign of the Ram is aggressive; fish are “brain food” because the meat of the fish resembles brain tissue, etc.)  So-called herbal remedies and supplements sold over-the-counter for a variety of ailments in almost every grocery store and drug store are not supported in any case by any scientific research whatsoever, but rather entirely by folklore, tradition and magical thinking. Yet such supplements often do contain active ingredients that have strong physiological effects, almost all dangerous, almost none desirable, and never mentioned on the product label! The result: a genuine public health crisis, that makes no headlines at all unless a celebrity or athlete happens to die of poisoning.

 

PSEUDOSCIENCE relies heavily on anachronistic thinking. The older the idea, the more attractive it is to pseudoscience— it’s the wisdom of the ancients!— very especially if the idea is transparently wrong and has  been discarded by science for centuries. Bogus wisdom of the ancients, as in Theosophy, whose supposedly ancient sacred texts were actually inventions of Madame Helena P. Blavatsky in the late 19th Century, is just as effective as authentic holy ravings from 2000 or 3000 years ago. The claim of being ancient is all that is important.  When Dolores Krieger invented the pseudoscience of Theraputic Touch, she initially used the vocabulary of Theosophy to describe the imaginary mechanism that was the basis of the quack therapy, but a few years later she swapped traditions by switching completely to the vocabulary of traditional Chinese healing magic.  One tradition is as good as any other, but there has to be a tradition

 

PSEUDOSCIENCE is parochial.  What is accepted within a group is dependent on both geography and time.  The belief in sea monsters has greatly diminished in the last 2 centuries.  Similarly the belief in spirits in the woods vanishes as education and civilization encroaches upon the primitive mind.   Even within a culture pseudoscience is parochial, for believers form groups, and many as with the Hidatsa Jews, the beliefs are passed to their progeny.   Truths are science are enduring and universal.--jk 

 

PESUDOSCIENCE appeals to faith.  It resembles a religion in trying to convert, to convince, and to ignore reasonable conclusions.--jk

 

 

Love your site.  I have pirated one of your articles, on what pseudoscience is, and plan to load it shortly.  Thank god that they let you teach that course. 

 

I have a website similar to yours in parts, though much broader in its skepticism--for it also questions issues of psychology, psychiatry, politics & economics, quackery & medical business, religion, and I added a section on utilitarianism.  http://skeptically.org averages over 1,500 pages down loaded per day.  With more links, you could greatly increase your effectiveness.  I found you at http://www.sdari.org/skeptic-sites.html, their latest addition. 

 

Keep up the good work.  I presume it is permissible to borrow & plug your site.

 

Jerry Kahn

 

 

 

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