Tuesday, January 31, 2006

A Field Guide to Quackery and Pseudoscience – Part Four


Psychics are an interesting breed, especially since it is clear that they are either consciously deceiving their “clients” or are frankly delusional. Their claims to “see” the future, to “see” into other people’s minds or to “see” hidden objects or events are not simple misinterpretations of the data before them, as is the case with most “well-meaning” pseudoscientists and quacks.

People claiming to be psychics either do or do not “see” what they claim to see. If they do not, then they are simply charlatans making a buck off of a gullible populace, no better or worse than thousands of other frauds. If, on the other hand, they do “see” what they claim, then they need to explain their extremely low accuracy. Given an accuracy of less than one “correct” prediction per thousand “wrong” predictions, a rational person would conclude that they are no better than guesses. A psychic who truly believes that their one “hit” among thousands of “misses” constitutes a unique ability is either incapable or unwilling to face reality.

Psychic “abilities” come in three general types:

[a] The ability to see what is hidden in the future.
[b] The ability to see what is hidden in the present or past.
[c] The ability to cause physical actions by direct action of the mind (i.e. not through the action of muscles).

The last of these – “c” – is the basis of claims like Uri Geller’s – who claims to be able to deform silverware with his mind – as well as those who claim to be able to heal with mind power (e.g. “Therapeutic Touch”, “Thought-field therapy”, etc.). Those who claim to do “psychic healing” - in any of its incarnations – may be simply misinterpreting data before them, as many quacks do (see below). The rest of the psychics are either deluded or lying.

Among the dozens of people claiming to have psychokinetic abilities, few have submitted their claims to rigorous testing. Those that have submitted their “powers” to legitimate testing have all failed, although they usually claim that “skeptical vibrations” (or other similar maladies) have interfered with their powers. The James Randi million dollar prize remains unclaimed – the best proof that psychokinesis is bunk.

But back to the predictive arm of “psychic abilities”. These range from predicting the future to “remote viewing” to finding abducted children and missing objects – all of which are eagerly promoted by a largely uncritical mass media. Witness the burgeoning number of television programs featuring “psychic detectives” – all evidence of our collective fascination with the idea of “mind powers”.

Left out of most of the media frenzy over “mind powers” are those mind powers that we know exist, one of which gives us the ability – if we use it – to see that “psychic abilities” are baloney. I refer, of course, to our rational intellect.

“Predictive” psychics are basically detectives. Using purely normal (i.e. not “paranormal”) powers of observation – powers possessed by most, if not all, humans, they assess their “target” and make some purely normal (vide supra) predictions about them. For the fraudulent variety of psychic, these observations may be “augmented” by more deliberate detective work, even something as simple as having a “chat” with the target prior to the “reading” – just to “put them at ease”, of course. Details uncovered during these investigations will then be put to use “proving” the psychic’s abilities.

It is a bit ironic that psychics universally begin their “routine”, not by revealing what we don’t know, but by “revealing” what we do. By this I mean the sometimes casual “dropping” of personal details that the target thought the psychic did not know. Once they have convinced their target that they truly have “psychic abilities”, they are then free to employ their imagination to tell the target what they want to hear.

The detective game that psychics play is amazing to watch. The best way to see it is to view an uncut videotape of a session – something most psychics absolutely refuse to allow, usually claiming that it “disrupts the ether”, “introduces skeptic energy”, blah, blah, blah. What it really does is provide unimpeachable documentation of their inability to get the right answers from their “psychic abilities”.

If you dispassionately watch a psychic at work, you will see the strategies they use. They usually begin with general statements, which are voiced as questions but phrased as statements, to get “hits” and fool the target into giving them more information. These will be broad, ambiguous characteristics that could apply to a number of people.

For example, if the target is interested in contacting someone who is “no longer with us”, the psychic might start out with, “I get the sense that your loved one died without completing something important.” (who doesn’t?), to which the target is supposed to reply (and usually does), “Oh yes! Fred always wanted to learn to play the piano, but he died before he got the chance.” Believe it or not, this will be counted as a “hit” by the psychic and their supporters.

Now, the psychic knows the name of the person the target wants to “contact” and some details about him. The probing will continue in a general fashion for a while; “I sense that Fred was a happy man, who loved children.” – and the target may reply, “Well, he loved to tease children, and he was happy doing that, so I suppose that’s right.” Another “hit”.

This will go on for a period of time, with “hits” being followed up and “misses” being explained away; “When I said that Fred loved the sea, I meant that he loved your Aunt May, who was lost at sea.” Once the psychic gets the sense that the target (and other members of the audience, if there is one) are convinced of their “powers”, then the baloney gets sliced a lot thicker. “Fred says that he’s sorry about teasing all of you as kids and wants you to know that he’s happy where he is.” Of course, it is extremely unlikely that Fred will be contradicting the psychic, unless “where he is” happens to be Pennsylvania.

The key to making it as a psychic is to emphasize the “hits” and explain away (or, better yet, ignore) the “misses”. The big-time psychics are the ones who have mastered this art. Sylvia Brown(e), for instance, was not the slightest bit ruffled when the coal miners she had confidently predicted to be alive (just hours after all major news outlets had announced the same news, by the way) turned out to be dead (she was right about one of the twelve, so that should count as 1/12th of a “hit”). Her other predictions have been no more accurate than that one.

Now, psychics and their defenders will often claim that any “inaccuracies” (like predicting someone will have a long and successful career the week before they die) are due to the inherent difficulties of translating their “visions” into concrete predictions. Or, they might claim that an event was of insufficient gravitas to create a psychic “impression”. All of which fail to explain why no psychic was able to predict the terrorist attacks of 11 September, 2001. Of course, several of them later claimed to have “felt” it coming, but you don’t have to be a psychic to predict the past.

The same process of emphasizing “hits” and minimizing (or ignoring) “misses” is at work when psychics descend on a crime scene or appear during the search for a missing person. No psychic has ever given an unambiguous answer in a crime or missing person case. Their “information” is either dead wrong or so vague as to be useless. It is little help to say that a missing person (or body) is “near a lake” in rural Minnesota (“Land of 10,000 Lakes!”) or “in the desert” in Nevada, but that’s the sort of “clues” psychics will claim as “hits”.

One final note about psychic predictions. Any claim to be able to “see the future” has to address the issues of quantum physics, chaos theory and foreordination. The quantum physics problem is that certain events – such as radioactive decay – are purely random, an idea that even Einstein struggled with. Now, while quantum randomness is usually “smoothed out” at the macroscopic level (where we live), chaos theory tells us that there are certain physical phenomena – the weather, for instance – that are exquisitely sensitive to the starting conditions and may be affected significantly by quantum randomness.This means that psychic “predictions” – if they are real – should get less accurate the further they project into the future, just like weather predictions. In fact, we find that psychic “predictions” are just as inaccurate for tomorrow as they are for a decade from now – which is to say, very inaccurate.

The foreordination question, however, is the thorniest for the psychic “future-tellers”. Simply stated, if psychics were able to predict the future, that would imply that the future is already – to at least some extent – already fixed. To some extent, the future of most matter is foreordained, since it is primarily under the control of gravity. However, in the realm of human events – which is where the psychics concentrate – there is a great deal of randomness and unpredictability introduced by human “free will”. So, if the psychics are right and they can predict the future – however dimly – that would imply that human free will is an illusion and that we are “fated” to do whatever we do.

And if we are unable to alter our actions, if the future has already been set, then what is the purpose of having a psychic “predict” the future? We couldn’t alter it. We couldn’t even prepare ourselves for it because whatever we did – even going to a psychic – was already foreordained. If the future is set, then there is no reason to predict it.


Quacks come in a dizzying variety, almost too many to count. And they are certainly propagating too quickly to count. So, rather than give an exhaustive (and exhausting) list of the types and varieties of quack, I will try to acquaint you with the Family of Quack.

The major division in the Quack Family is between deliberate and inattentive quacks. Deliberate quacks are aware that they are peddling nonsense and don’t care – inattentive quacks think that their remedies actually work and don’t care to find out the truth. As a result, this division is largely a cosmetic one, since the effects and actions of the two groups are largely the same. It can therefor be nearly impossible to differentiate between the two groups in the field, since the distinguishing characteristic is intent, rather than action.

Curiously, both groups react similarly when presented with incontrovertible evidence that their remedies are useless. Both respond with vigorous denial and claims of bias, corruption and incompetence against those who would attempt to introduce facts into their fantasy-based world.

This brings us to one of the key features of the Quack Family – fantasy. Real medicine, like real science, aspires to base its practices on data and rational analysis. And like real science, real medicine often falls short of perfection in this goal. However, quackery never truly aspires to be reality-based, since its founding principles are purely fantasy-oriented:

[1] It is possible to know the “truth” without testing the hypotheses.
[2] All evidence contrary to the “truth” is the result of lies or incompetence.
[3] The Quack practitioner is the recipient of “special” knowledge, powers or intellectual abilities.
[4] All “cures” are solely due to the skill of the Quack practitioner.
[5] All failures are solely the fault of the Patient.

You will notice that [1] and [2] form a logical tautology of sorts: the “truth” is knowable without data and any data contradicting the “truth” is – by definition – false. This logical loop forms the core of most large-scale quackeries, one of the latest being the “mercury-causes-autism” tautology. This fantasy loop was launched by the assertion that children with autism are the result of mercury poisoning from vaccines. Since about 95 – 99% of children in the US prior to 2000 had received at least one mercury-containing vaccine, it was predictable that almost all autistic children would have, as well.

Continuing the loop, data showing that some of the features of mercury poisoning are described using the same words as some of the features of autism was taken as further “proof” – data that the major features of mercury poisoning and autism were completely different was ignored. Highly inaccurate “epidemiological” data from education and social service departments was used to show autism prevalence rising, while the fact that the amount of mercury-containing vaccinations had been steady for years (decades, in the UK and Denmark) during that rise was ignored or denounced as heretical (“biased”, “corrupted”, “flawed”).

Similar scenarios have played out in other quackeries – only the names change.

Continuing in the fantasy-based mode, many sub-types of the Quack Family have taken to accusing their detractors – who are often practitioners of real medicine – of having base, commercial motives. In short, they claim that real medicine is only interested in keeping people sick, in giving them expensive medicines, etc. etc… and that quackeries are an economic threat to real medicine.

On a purely commercial basis, quackeries are a boon to real medicine. People who take their imaginary ailments to quack practitioners are doing doctors a favor – all the real medicine practitioners I have spoken to have no interest in trying to cure the “worried well”, as they call these people. And people who take real ailments to practitioners of imaginary medicine will either get better on their own or will eventually show up to be treated by practitioners of real medicine – in the office, the emergency room or the morgue. With real, non-self-limited ailments, you can either see the doctor now or you can see them later. Either way, you end up getting real medicine eventually. If you are lucky, it won’t be too late.

So why do so many doctors (MD/DO) practice quackery, encourage it or condone it? The reasons are varied and complex. Those who practice quackery have often found that it is less stressful than real medicine. Quackery isn’t covered by insurance plans (or most government health programs), so the paperwork and reimbursement hassles associated with insurance disappear. And quackery is generally a more restful, non-confrontational practice than real medicine. People who visit the quack are generally more motivated to try what the doctor recommends – no matter how silly it may seem. Finally, quackery is a way for an otherwise undistinguished doctor – perhaps one who just isn’t that good at diagnosis and treatment – to find a niche where they can make a name for themselves and not have to bother with the tedium of actually finding out what is wrong with their patients.

The final question, and one that the quacks often use in their own defense, is “Why do people keep going to quacks if the treatments don’t work?” This is really quite simple. People go to quacks because they have “lost faith” in real medicine. It may be that real medicine doesn’t have a good treatment for their ailment – which is especially true if that ailment isn’t real. Or it may be that the available treatments are unpleasant, uncomfortable, or frightening. Or they may be one of the “worried well” who are convinced that the aches and pains of mortal life are signs of some dread ailment. And, in many cases, the quackeries appear to “work” for the following reasons:

[1] The natural course of the disease: Fully 95% of the ailments for which people seek medical attention are self-limited – meaning that they will get better without treatment. The classic example is the “common cold”, for which there have been quack remedies since the dawn of human history. Left untreated, the average “cold” will resolve in about seven days. Vigorously treated by either quack remedies or real medicine (antibiotics, steroids, etc.), the average “cold” will resolve in about a week.

Also, some disorders are more severe at the outset than they are later - a good example being stroke. Quack practitioners have been making a living for years by treating recent stroke victims with vitamins, herbs, hyperbaric oxygen and the like and then taking credit for their improvement. Of course, even if you don't do anything, most stroke victims are much better a month or two after their stroke than they are the day it happens. The same is true of certain childhood developmental disorders, where quacks eagerly take credit for the natural progression of the disorder as the child gets older.

It's a wonder that someone hasn't promoted giving typical kids mega-vitamins, minerals or chelation in order to improve their verbal skills, coordination and social interaction. After all, if you give high-dose vitamin B6 to one year-olds, they'll have better language, social and physical skills when they're five. Of course, so will the kids that don't get the treatment. It's the natural progression of childhood - even in developmentally delayed children. Developmental delay does not mean developmental stasis.

[2] Regression to the mean: Most chronic or long-term ailments have a cyclic or fluctuating course – getting worse and then getting better and then repeating the cycle. Generally, people will seek medical attention for these ailments when they are at or near their worst. As a result, any treatment given – even an ineffective one – will usually be followed by improvement as the natural course of the disease takes it toward milder symptoms, potentially fooling the patient into believing that the remedy “worked”.

[3] Self-fulfilling Prophesy: Often called the “placebo effect”, which is a gross misnomer. The placebo is not having an effect – it is, in fact, completely inert. What is happening is that the patient, having been examined, given a diagnosis and prescribed a treatment, is expecting to get better. This expectation will cause them to unconsciously emphasize any feeling that their symptoms are improving and ignore or minimize any feeling that the symptoms are staying the same or worsening. In fact, since worry and feeling helpless have repeatedly been shown to increase pain, it is not surprising that a sense of hope – even false hope – will improve bothersome symptoms.

[4] Sense of Empowerment: The one thing that quackeries do that real medicine would do well to emulate is the way they involve the patient in the treatment. Modern medicine has largely tried to cut the patient “out of the loop” as much as possible – with implanted devices, long-acting medications, transdermal patches, etc. – because patient compliance is a huge variable in any treatment regimen. By eliminating this variable as much as possible, real medicine manages to attain more predictable and uniform results. This is all well and good, but it has the undesired effect of making the patient feel like a passive recipient of treatment, rather than an active participant. By giving the patient complex, arcane rituals to perform, the quack gives their patient a sense of control over this aspect of their life.

Well, that’s all for now. Next time: Quantum Noise


Sunday, January 22, 2006

A Field Guide to Quackery and Pseudoscience – Part Three

Life Extension:

One of the constants of life, so we are told, is death. While there are people (and possibly other animals) who long for death, the studious avoidance of death is also fairly universal among living organisms. Enter the quacks and pseudoscientists.

The “field” of life extension has been around so long that its origins are lost in the mists of pre-history. For most of human history, life extension “techniques” were magical – as are most of those today. Then, starting in the late Seventeenth Century, science began to show us real ways to extend human lifespan. First with sanitation (e.g. clean drinking water) and then with a progressively more accurate understanding of how diseases occurred, we began to see a real improvement in human life expectancy. The average lifespan, which started at 30 years in the early 17th Century (primarily due to high infant mortality), is now up to the mid- to late 70’s in the Western world, with some countries pushing on into the early 80’s.

The problem with success is that once you achieve the impossible, it becomes part of your job description.

Not realizing the fundamental biological limitations of the human body, many people see the remarkable progress in longevity and expect that people will continue to live longer and longer lives as the technology improves. In truth, some people will live longer, but most won’t.

If you look at a survivorship curve of modern humans (see below), you will see a number of interesting points. One is that there are stages of life when mortality is relatively high. Early infancy is still a period of (relatively) high mortality, due (in the West) primarily to congenital disorders, although the growing reluctance to vaccinate children may change that. The next period of high mortality – especially for males – comes in the late teens and early twenties. Anyone who has lived through that period of life should understand why this is so.

After passing through the twenties, the mortality rates remain relatively stable (deaths due to trauma decrease, deaths due to disease increase) until (in 2002) about age 45, when the mortality rate begins to accelerate. In the 2002 figures, this curve continues to grow steeper until about age 100, when it flattens out. However, at this point, the percent surviving is about zero. About, but not quite.

It is these few, these happy (we hope) few, that capture the attention of those who are interested in living longer. In its November 2005 edition, National Geographic interviewed a number of healthy elderly people in a vain attempt to find out their “secret” for a long, healthy life. I call this a vain attempt because, like so many people before them, the editors of National Geographic are looking at the wrong people. Instead of looking at the people who are living longer, we should be looking at those who aren’t.

From the 10 November 2004 issue of the National Vital Statistics Reports:

“Life expectancy was 74.5 years for males [in 2002], increasing by 0.1 year from 74.4 years in 2001. Life expectancy for females in 2002 was 79.9 years, increasing by 0.1 year from 79.8 years in 2001. The increase in life expectancy between 2001 and 2002 for females was primarily the result of decreases in mortality from heart disease, cancer, homicide, cerebrovascular disease, and chronic lower respiratory disease. The increase in life expectancy could have been greater if not for the offsetting effect of increases in mortality from accidents, Alzheimer’s disease, pneumonia, perinatal conditions and septicemia. For males, life expectancy increased primarily because of decreases in mortality from heart disease, homicide, cancer, cerebrovascular disease, and HIV disease. The increase in life expectancy for males could have been greater were it not for the offsetting increases in mortality from accidents, diabetes, septicemia, perinatal conditions and Alzheimer’s disease.” [italics mine]

So, despite the doom and gloom from various “alternative” medicine promoters, life expectancy in the United States, at least, continues to increase despite our lack of attention to them. Interestingly, despite much ballyhooing of increasing cancer deaths, cancer doesn’t seem to have had an impact on longevity. In fact, the report specifically mentions that cancer mortality is decreasing.

And what were the factors holding back even greater increases in longevity for both men and women?

[1] Accidents
[2] Perinatal conditions (a vague term encompassing deaths in early infancy)
[3] Alzheimer’s disease
[4] Septicemia

None of the currently popular nostrums or programs for life extension address either accidents or perinatal conditions (since most, if not all, are aimed at aging Baby Boomers who have – by definition – successfully avoided “perinatal conditions”). Septicemia is addressed, at best tangentially, by those remedies that promise to “enhance the immune system”, although that may also have the effect of increasing mortality from autoimmune disorders.

Alzheimer’s disease, the new horror of the Baby Boomers, is prominently mentioned in several life extension programmes, but no real data is offered to support their claims. Considering that it may take decades for Alzheimer’s disease to fully manifest, it is a safe promise to make. Besides, how many people (or their families) would bother to ask for their money back if they did develop Alzheimer’s disease?

Nutritional “supplements”, crystals, meditation, “antioxidants”, hyperbaric oxygen, the list goes on. The details of the “treatment” are myriad, as are the ways in which these “secrets” of life extension were discovered. Two features are consistent, however:

[1] The purveyors of these “treatments” continue to age at a normal rate.
[2] None of these “treatments” have been shown to work.

Since it would take decades to show if the “treatments” worked, the purveyors will have a long time to spend their proceeds before a customer (or their surviving relatives) comes to collect a refund.

A closer look at the survivorship curve (see below) shows the fundamental problem. Comparing curves from 1900 to 2002, you can see that improvements in medicine and sanitation have significantly reduced mortality in early and middle life. However, in the 1900 curve, the proportion of people living to 100 years was only slightly less than there are today. The difference is in the number of people living to 80, 90 and even 95 years, which is significantly different between 1900 and 2002.

This would suggest that there is a longevity “wall” somewhere around 100 years. Biology tells us that there may be many reasons for this – telomere shortening being one of them. Certain tissues have a “pre-programmed” limit on the number of cell divisions they can undergo, after which they die from loss of genetic material. These tissues do not normally divide rapidly, so this may function as a “fail-safe”, preventing uncontrolled cell division – or cancer.

So, are any of the longevity “secrets” likely to work? No. People have been trying to find the “secret” to longer life for all of recorded history, and none have found it yet. Even careful examination of people who have lived over 100 years fails to reveal any consistent “secret” except one:

Have long-lived parents.

I can’t see how anyone can change that.


Coming up: Psychics

Friday, January 20, 2006

27th Skeptic's Circle Coming Up!

It is a rare honor, indeed, but this humble blog has been selected to host the 27th Skeptic's Circle (2 February 2006). All wishing to submit material for consideration please send it to:


Thank you,


Sunday, January 15, 2006

A Field Guide to Quackery and Pseudoscience – Part Two

Thanks to some helpful readers for pointing out that I missed a few "Generally Shared Characteristics" of pseudoscience and quackery. Here they are, along with some others I found:

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”.

‘Til then.


Friday, January 06, 2006

A Field Guide to Quackery and Pseudoscience – Part One


Quackery and pseudoscience are not, strictly speaking, biological organisms, but they show many of the traits of organisms. Like some viruses, they rapidly mutate and evolve to resist host defenses and ecological change. Like many bacteria, they are found worldwide and often pick up or exchange new characteristics (genes?) in a fashion eerily reminiscent of horizontal gene transfer. And like any number of invasive species worldwide, they threaten to overgrow their adopted habitat and successfully resist all efforts to limit or exterminate them.

Since quackery and pseudoscience do not fit into stable “species”, the usual field manual format of giving the defining characteristics and range will not fit too well. Some have been around long enough to have developed a stable set of characteristics (although, as with many biological organisms, a certain amount of variability is noted) and others are so new (or so mutable) that they practically defy description.

The approach this manual will take is to follow the format of the great descriptive texts of the late 18th century, where some organisms are described in detail and others – those less well characterized – are given short descriptions or fragmentary reports. In addition, a short section of the generally shared characteristics of quackery and pseudosciences will begin the manual.

Note: quackery and pseudoscience are not mutually exclusive – quackery can be considered a subset of pseudoscience dealing with medical treatments. However, some quackeries are so far from even the appearance of science that it seems proper to list it as a separate category.

General Shared Characteristics:

A priori - (knowable independent of experience) – One of the hallmarks of quackery and pseudoscience is that their proponents operate from the assumption that their “hypothesis” is correct and look for “data” to support it – to the extent that they look for any data at all! For reference, the corresponding scientific method is to design tests (or look for data) that would prove the hypothesis false. In short, the scientific process is to challenge a hypothesis until it breaks, and then build a better one!

By only looking for data supporting their hypothesis, the proponents of quackery and pseudoscience can ignore the masses of data that show their hypothesis to be false and can concentrate only on the data (often of poor quality or only tangentially relevant) that seems to support it. This is a sure-fire method to keep oneself in everlasting ignorance, as proven by the many promoters of pseudoscience and quackery.

Conspiracy – Promoters of quackery and pseudoscience often claim to be the victims of conspiracies to suppress the “truth” of their claims. Even those that do not make an explicit claim of conspiracy will usually claim that their hypothesis is not given the "proper attention" by other scientists/doctors.

The details of these conspiracies may be vague (“They don’t want you to know about this…”) or specific (“The oil companies bought the patent on a car that will run on water and locked it up.”). In any case, these conspiracies inevitably entail involvement of such a large number of people that credulity is strained (at least).

Claims of conspiracy simply serve as a “smokescreen” to keep their intended audience (victims?) from asking why their “hypothesis” isn’t more widely accepted.

Jargon - Now, to be fair, every branch of science has its own jargon. The difference between true scientific jargon and pseudoscientific jargon (or quackery jargon) is that scientific jargon has a specific definition.

Let me illustrate: when I go to a meeting and someone says that they did a Northern blot and probed with P32-labeled p53 cDNA, I know precisely what they did (see below).

“Northern blot” – more properly called “Northern hybridization”; performed a gel electrophoresis of RNA and then transferred that RNA to a nylon or nitrocellulose membrane.

“probed” – incubated a solution of labeled DNA or RNA that is complementary to one or more of the RNA molecules that have been transferred to the membrane by Northern blotting.

“P32-labeled p53 cDNA” – DNA labeled with radioactive phosphorus (P32) made by performing reverse transcription of the p53 RNA and then amplifying the resulting complementary DNA (cDNA) with the polymerase chain reaction using nucleotides that incorporate radioative phosphorus.
The purpose of scientific jargon (and almost all “real” technical jargon) is to allow people familiar with the field to communicate ideas in an efficient manner. The purpose of pseudoscientific (or quackery) jargon is to obscure meaning and cover a lack of definition.

To illustrate – what, precisely, is meant by the quack term “detoxification”? What is being detoxified, from where and how? The same applies to various “field” and "energy" references in pseudoscience. What are they, how are they generated and how can they be measured?

Pseudoscience (and quackery) jargon serves to allow the promoter to sound scientific without actually having to define their terms or be scientific. They use scientific-sounding words to confuse and distract their audience , whereas the “real” scientific and technical jargon serves to inform and improve communication efficiency. By using terms that are unclear or foreign to their audience, the pseudoscientist or quack is sending the message, “This is too technical for you to understand, but it’s real science – trust me!”

Most of the jargon used in quackery and pseudoscience has roots in real science, so the audience – which is usually no more scientifically literate than the general population (which is to say, not very) - will understand only that they are technical terms. It is unlikely that many members of the audience will understand what the terms actually mean and even less likely that someone will realize that they are being used in a nonsensical fashion.

Deepak Chopra is the master of obfuscation with scientific jargon, as he repeatedly uses terms from quantum physics in ways that show (to anyone who understands quantum physics – an admittedly small cohort) that he has little or no grasp of the subject. But his audience eats it up because the jargon keeps them from seeing that the Emperor has no clothes! They don’t realize that his “insights” make as much sense as saying that the square root of orange is purple or that the differential of watermelon is apple.

Ad hominem - "Attacking the messenger” is a time-honored tactic in pseudoscience and quackery. This is not the same as calling names, although it is often described as such. Ad hominem is a logical fallacy only if the personal attack is the major (or only) support of your argument. For example, when pseudoscientists or quacks defend their claims by asserting that those who disagree with them are “baised” or “incompetent”, they are engaged in a logical fallacy, since there is no support for their argument in the failings (real or imagined) of others.

However, simply pointing to someone’s moral, intellectual or other failings (again, real or imagined) is not an ad hominem fallacy if it is not used as a major (or sole) support for an argument. For example, if I state that a certain pseudoscientist’s arguments are false because of this data and that study and these flaws in his arguments AND I claim that he never bathes below the collar line, that would not be an ad hominem fallacy because the assertion of personal flaws (i.e. his poor personal hygiene) is not a major support of the argument. It might be unkind, impolite or even untrue, but it’s not an ad hominem fallacy.

Like jargon, the ad hominem attack (or fallacy) is a smokescreen. It is used to distract attention from the real issue – whether what the person has said is true or not – and redirects it to a spurious claim that may or may not have any bearing on the issue. Whether or not I bathe regularly or work for a pharmaceutical company or vote Republican has no bearing on the validity of my arguments. The facts (should) speak for themselves.

False Analogy - Pardon me if this section is beginning to look like the syllabus for Logic 101, but the claims and counterclaims of the pseudoscientists and quacks routinely use logical fallacies. Logical fallacies are ways of confusing people and hiding a weak argument. Since pseudoscience and quackery are made up entirely of weak arguments, logical fallacies are the only way to keep them from being exposed.

The classic form of the pseudoscience and quackery false analogy is as follows:

“Since X does Y to A, then X should do Y to [fill in the blank – you , your water pipes, etc.].”

One that I recently came across was the claim that since a certain fungus caused flower bulbs to become dormant (and thereby live longer in marginal environments), applying that fungus to your skin would make it age slower. Clearly, this is a false analogy on several levels. One, your skin is not a flower bulb – you are an animal, not a plant. Secondly, making skin cells dormant would not necessarily be a good thing, since skin cells turn over at a very rapid rate.

You’ll note that the heart of the false analogy is that there is no data presented that the process happens in the way suggested (i.e. no data that the fungus either makes skin cells dormant or slows skin “aging”). This makes as much sense as asserting that, since fertilizer makes flowers grow bigger and faster, it will make your child grow bigger and faster.

False analogies are often more subtle – and thereby more insidious. The question to ask when confronted with one is, “Have they shown the effect they propose, or is it just by analogy?”

Post hoc, ergo propter hoc - “After this, therefore because of this” - This fallacy, extensively used in quackery, is to assign causation when none is actually demonstrated. The classic example is to claim that beneficial effects seen after giving a particular nostrum were caused by said nostrum. This fallacy may be used in pseudoscience, as well, but it is the principle tool of the quacks.

Since many biological and physical phenomena have random or cyclic fluctuations, it is a simple matter to apply a putative “treatment” and then wait for the desired effect to occur naturally. Whether it is zinc lozenges to speed recovery from a cold (14 days with the lozenges, two weeks without) or “ion injection” to cause rain, the “practitioner” need only wait for the inevitable and then take credit for it.

With quackery, this is even more pronounced because of the effect of expectation. People who expect to get relief of their symptoms will often feel better after “treatment” simply because they believe they are. This often goes by the erroneous name of “the placebo effect”. A more accurate term would be “the wishful thinking effect”, since the placebo (or useless nostrum) had no role except to trigger the wishful thinking.

Appeal to Authority - Because of their lack of data (pseudoscience and quackery would be real science and real medicine if they had data to support their claims), all pseudoscience and quackery eventually distills down to an appeal to an authority. “I told you so, that’s why!” is an argument that should fail to satisfy people much past their 13th birthday, but it works all too well in some situations.

The variants of Appeal to Authority most often seen in pseudoscience and quackery are usually from the “In my experience” group, although the occasional “…used in traditional Chinese/Native American/etc. medicine for thousands of years…” specimen is seen in quackery. It is rare to see an appeal to a living outside authority in pseudoscience or quackery, although Linus Pauling (and other Nobel Prize laureates suffering from "Post-Nobel encephalopathy") has gotten extensive use. Dead authorities (especially long dead, anonymous “traditional” authorities) cannot contradict claims.

Well, that’s all for now. Stay tuned for further episodes!