A Field Guide to Quackery and Pseudoscience – Part Two
Straw Man: - Not a character in “The Wizard of Oz”, but another logical fallacy. A “straw man” argument is one that doesn’t address what the opponent said, but rather a position that is easier to argue against. This is a popular strategy by pseudoscientists and quacks because they have no actual data to argue with. The basic strategy goes something like this:
In my…”discussions” with various supporters of the mercury-causes-autism movement, I have often had people say to me, “Why do you find it acceptable to put poison [i.e. mercury] in children’s vaccines?” when I say that the data does not support the hypothesis that mercury causes autism. This is a classic straw man.
Rather than address my argument that mercury does not cause autism, they have tried to make it seem that I am arguing in favor of putting mercury in vaccines. This would be much easier to argue against, except that I never said it.
Inversion of Proof: - In the real scientific world, the people who propose a new hypothesis are the ones who are responsible for “proving” it. The pseudoscientists and quacks prefer to take an easier route – they ask you to prove them wrong! This is a great time-saving (and money-saving) technique. As an interesting twist, as more people have become aware of who is responsible for providing the data, the pseudoscientists have taken to claiming that saying their pet “theory” is wrong is the assertion that requires proving!
Special Pleading: - When all else fails, quacks and pseudoscientists fall back on their final line of defense: special pleading. They argue that the reason that scientific studies of their claims fail to find any evidence of it is that “regular” science is incapable of detecting the effect they claim. It may be that the energy field they claim cannot be measured by current techniques, or that standard double-blind studies are “incompatible” with their “theory”. Whatever the excuse, it all boils down to claiming that the reason science finds no evidence of their claim is because of a failure of science, not because their claim is wrong.
Now, it is entirely possible that there are forms of energy that we cannot now detect, just as Isaac Newton had no way of detecting radio waves. However, Newton did not make any claims about radio. And for energy forms that we can detect, it is unlikely that amounts below the current level of detection can have any significant effect at the macroscopic level. Likewise, clinical effects that grow smaller and smaller as more patients are studied are likely to be non-existent. It’s not the science that fails – it’s the pseudoscience.
False Dilemma: - A popular trick in pseudoscientific and quackery “debates” is to creat a false dilemma – the claim that there are only two (or possibly three or four) alternatives when, in fact, there are many more. The classic example is the statement, “You’re either with us or against us.” While this may have a certain resonance in political situations, it has no place in science.
A more typical example of the false dilemma in pseudoscience is to state that since one possible explanation of a certain phenomenon is what they claim, that their hypothesis is the only explanation. This, of course, is rarely the way things are. A good example of this is seen in the assertion (by a certain mail-order lab favored by autism “alternative” practitioners) that finding a certain organic acid in the urine is a “marker” for “yeast overgrowth”. They say this because it is not seen in (the small number of) normal subjects (that they tested) and is seen in people with “yeast overgrowth” or “dysbiosis” (how this was determined is not clear).
Even if we grant them the presence of this organic acid in “dysbiosis” or “yeast overgrowth”, there are many more choices than the one we are given: organic acid = yeast overgrowth. Other possibilities that readily come to mind are yeast colonization (without “disease”) and eating yeast-containing foods. They haven’t even shown that the absence of this organic acid indicates that there is no yeast overgrowth. They are stuck on the horns of their own false dilemma.
Types of Pseudoscience and Quackery
Clearly, no mere book or blog could ever hope to give an exhaustive – or even extensive – listing of all the myriad types of pseudoscience and quackery. The best that I can hope to do is provide descriptions of the major groups, the equivalent of Families in organismal systematics. Still, this should suffice to allow identification of these groups in the field. Further refinement of identification can wait until the specimen is back in the laboratory.
Scientific Creationism/Intelligent Design: - This is a pseudoscience that actually precedes the development of what we now call science, so it seems fitting to list it first. Despite the name, it’s not good science – it’s not even bad science – it’s just religion dressed up in a lab coat trying to look like science. Fortunately, recent legal challenges have ended with the judge agreeing on this point. Once you strip away the jargon and double-talk, Scientific Creationism and Intelligent Design (ID) are both reduced to the following:
God did it.
Although this may be a comforting thought to people who like to believe in that sort of thing, it fails utterly as a scientific hypothesis. For one thing, scientific hypotheses need to be falsifiable - this means that there should be a test that can be performed that could potentially show that the hypothesis is wrong. That’s how real science works: you make a hypothesis – a model of how you think the world (or a small part of it) works – and then think up ways to test that model.
If the hypothesis “passes” the test, then you keep testing it in different ways until you have satisfied the doubts of your scientific peers. If the hypothesis “fails” the test, then it has to be either modified or discarded. There is no room for sentimentality.
The problem with a supernatural explanation of natural phenomena – and attributing the diversity of life on Earth to God or a “Designer” is definitely supernatural – is that there is no way to test it. There is no test that could ever show that a supernatural being that cannot be seen, felt, heard, smelled, touched, weighed or measured doesn’t exist. As a result, supernatural explanations are outside of science.
Both types of creationist pseudoscience rely heavily on the False Dilemma fallacy. What they do is emphasize the areas of evolution that are incomplete or controversial and pretend that those “flaws” mean that evolution is not valid. This, of course, ignores the mountains of data that support evolution, but that’s how pseudoscience works.
Having – in their own minds – demolished evolution as a theory (or as “only a theory”), the creationists then assert that the only other option is Creationism – or Intelligent Design, as it now calls itself. This is the false dilemma – the claim that there are only two choices: evolution or creationism. Leaving aside for a moment the claim that they have “refuted evolution” by finding “flaws” in it, the idea that creationism would be the only remaining choice is ludicrous. This makes as much sense as saying that, having proven that I don’t drive a Chevrolet, that my car must be a Toyota.
Another part of their faulty reasoning is the idea (usually unstated, but implied) that because evolution can’t explain everything, it can’t explain anything. A variation on this sorry theme, often stated by its chief pseudoscientists, is that since they can’t understand how evolution could explain the complexity of life on this planet, that it can’t. This last one is less a failure of evolution as a theory than it is a failure of their imagination or understanding.
Demonstrating that they don’t understand physics any better than biology, many supporters of ID have argued that evolution is a violation of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. For those whose recollection of the Law may be a bit fuzzy, the Second Law states that the entropy (degree of disorder) of an isolated system can only increase. This is a law proven every day by my desk and lab bench. But, more to the point, ID supporters have argued that life couldn’t have evolved from “simpler” forms, since that would have resulted in less disorder.
True enough, a cat has more “order” than a bacteria, due to its greater complexity (primarily in the form of tissues, organs, organ systems). The reason that this does not violate the Second Law is that a cat (or a bacterium) is not an isolated system. Biological organisms reduce entropy within their bodies by taking in less complex food and converting it into more complex tissues. However, the overall entropy of the system (in this case, the solar system) increases. We biological organisms create a local decrease in entropy by greatly increasing the overall entropy of the larger system – primarily by degrading high energy foods into lower energy waste products.
Finally, in their most recent court struggles, the creationists (now known as Supporters of Intelligent Design) have resorted to a unique form of special pleading. Rather than just say that science can’t be used to understand “Intelligent Design” – which would have seriously undermined their effort to get ID taught in science classes – they tried to get the “official” (i.e. legal) definition of science broadened to include ID.
Of course, by the time they got the door open wide enough to squeeze ID into science, it would have been wide enough to fit just about anything (including religion, of course) into the “broadened” definition of science. It didn’t work as a legal ploy, but it certainly made for good theater as a pseudoscientists with legitimate scientific credentials said – with a straight face – that astrology should be considered science.
Something for Nothing – Free Energy and Perpetual Motion Machines: - One of the great truths of life is “There’s no such thing as a free lunch”, often abbreviated as TANSTAAFL. This is especially true in physics, where this truth has been codified as the Second Law of Thermodynamics (already briefly discussed above). However, one of the invariable truths of human nature is that wherever there is a law, someone will try to break it.
You’ll note that I said try to break it – physical laws are not only self-enforcing, they are, in fact, unbreakable. Try violating the Law of Gravity – step out of a second-story window and see how long you can break it. The ground will act as the law enforcement agency for that particular law. Still, human nature being what it is, there are people who are convinced that they can “beat” the Second Law – and they’re usually looking for investors to help them do it. A group of people investing in a scheme to break a human law would be committing “racketeering” – a group investing in a scheme to break physical laws are “losing their money”.
The number and variety of schemes to get “free” energy is amazing – the US Patent Office probably has wastebaskets full of them (see: USPTO Models, Exhibits and Specimens). Although the details vary, the fundamental facts remain disappointingly similar – these “machines” are supposed to generate more energy than is put into them. This goes by a variety of names – “over unity” (efficiency great than 1.0 or 100%), “perpetual motion”, “free energy”, etc. Not one has ever been successfully tested, but millions have been sold.
But you don’t have to wait for the test results to come in to know that these “free energy” machines won’t work. They can’t. You just can’t get more energy out of a system than it contains. That’s the common-sense explanation.
A slick variant of the “free energy” pseudoscience are those devices that claim to “help your car burn gasoline more efficiently” or, even better, “run your car on water”. Current internal combustion engines are pretty close to their best efficiency the design is capable of, so even a major redesign of your engine will not appreciable improve its efficiency. Certainly, “lining up the molecules” of the gasoline in the fuel line will not measurably improve efficiency, even if the hardware store magnets used in the device could actually do that. The same goes for devices on the carburetor or special air or fuel filters. The best way to improve your car’s fuel efficiency (apart from buying a more fuel-efficient car) is to keep it in good repair.
As for running your car on water, that isn’t going to happen. Internal combustion engines work by changing higher energy chemical bonds into lower energy bonds. They take carbon-hydrogen bonds and carbon-carbon bonds and turn them into the lower energy carbon-oxygen and hydrogen-oxygen bonds. The excess energy is released as heat – and heat is what runs the engine. Water has hydrogen-oxygen bonds, which are lower-energy and thus stable. Mixing water with air – which is what your car’s engine does with its fuel – does not give any options for forming lower energy bonds. Air is made up of nitrogen, oxygen, a little carbon dioxide and argon. No opportunities for lower energy bonds with that lot.
So, if someone offers you the “investment deal of a lifetime” involving “free energy” (or one of its variants), just remember this: you would have a better chance of making money playing the lottery.
That’s all for now. In the next installment I’ll cover “life extension” and “psychics”.