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!



Blogger Michael said...


This should be required reading in high schools science.

Michael Tam
vitualis' Medical Rants

06 January, 2006 23:44  
Blogger Orac said...


You realize, of course, however, that few people do Northern blots anymore, unless they really need to know the size of an RNA transcript. Everyone does quantitative real time PCR now...;-)

07 January, 2006 07:09  
Blogger Prometheus said...


Occasionally, people still do Northern blots if they don't have access to quantitative real-time PCR. Or, in my case, if they are trying to show that my findings on QPCR show things that previous investigators (using Northern blot) missed. It's nice to show a side-by-side comparison with the Northern blot not showing the transcript and my QPCR showing the transcript present in low quantity.


07 January, 2006 08:35  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

One of the favorite fallacies of the AltMind is the strawman. One poster in uses it to conjure up negativity about anyone who challenges him with facts. Sometimes, he is subtle, other times he is overt. However, at all times he is fallacious.

07 January, 2006 09:24  
Blogger Abel Pharmboy said...

I was pointed to you by Orac and am deeply appreciative of your ability to get to the heart of these matters without the verbosity that plagues my writing.

I, too, have asked CAM practitioners what they mean by "detoxification." Of what? Chemically-reactive phase I hepatic metabolites? Let's then focus on known inducers of phase II drug-conjugating enzymes. Oh no, you mean some other 'toxin'??? Metals? Oh, okay, let's take zinc supplements to induce our metallothionein.

No? Well what the hell do you actually mean???

Let's name compounds (yes, IUPAC names), find out if any of these things cause disease at the levels normally seen in a so-called toxic individual, and then employ the treatment (usually sold by the CAM practitioner) to see if levels of that 'toxin' decrease.

Oh, I see, that would reveal the truth.

I love your rational approach to these issues and look forward to reading more.

08 January, 2006 16:17  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Abel Pharmboy asks a good question. What are these toxins? I have asked, and have yet to get an answer.

However, from what I can see, it appears that they are usually found in the impacted feces that your colon collects and cannot dispose of properly.

Of course, this is non-anatomical, but, at least we know what the alt argument is full of.

08 January, 2006 16:58  
Blogger Bartholomew Cubbins said...

Cheers for returning with a vengence from relaxation with the waves. Great post.

For some horrid photoshops that really can't outshine the ducky reality of alt med check out

/shameless plug warning light extinguished

08 January, 2006 21:55  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is this Field Guide available in a weather resistant pocket edition? It would be a handy reference to help identify the indigenous species of pseudoscientists in my neck of the woods. Some are quite fearless and are known to eat right out your hand if you let them. It's always a good idea to count your fingers following this sort of interaction. Unfortunately the hunting ban and loss of natural habitat has lead to a population explosion, increased contact with humans.

10 January, 2006 10:12  
Blogger Prometheus said...

If the initial paperback printing does well, we plan to issue it in a "field-ready" version - pocket-sized with slime-proof cover and pages.

Along with the ban on hunting, they seem to have no natural predators left since the passage of the DHSEA. This has led, as you noted, to a population explosion, increased contact with humans and the consequent public health problems.

I have suggested that humane traps, baited with money, could be a solution. We could trap them, spay or neuter them, and then release them into the wild far from human habitations.


10 January, 2006 14:51  
Blogger Bartholomew Cubbins said...

Prometheus - just saw your dealings with "anonymous" in the previous thread. Wow. He's not just paranoid, he's like stubbornly paranoid. I was waiting for him to pull out his ace by asking you why you hate america and why you hate baby jesus. I really want to laugh, but it's kind of sad how deep some of these guys get. I'll just settle for reminding myself that these guys are the tiniest fraction of a small fraction of extremists.

14 January, 2006 08:22  
Blogger JoshSN said...

I think you should say "to be fair" with the Conspiracy bit, too.

The Church really did suppress a lot of science and scientists (mostly in centuries long past).

A conservative MP (and (last I checked) Shadow Finance Minister) John Redwood wrote a boring book which had lots of great quotes from primary sources on the topic. "Reason, Ridicule and Religion: The Age of Enlightenment in England, 1660-1750"

16 January, 2006 18:58  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Quackery is defined as putting neurotoxins into infants. Pseudoscience is defined as claiming the neurotoxins don't cause problems.

26 January, 2006 11:32  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear anonymous...

Does your definition of quackery also include pumping EDTA into healthy but autistic children?

Pseudoscience is the one that ignores that it is the dose that makes the poison.

28 January, 2006 17:00  
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