Archive for the 'Pseudoscience' Category

Nov 14 2013

Is There a Pseudoscience Event Horizon?

Earlier this week Massimo Pigliucci over at Rationally Speaking wrote an intriguing blog post asking whether or not there is a pseudoscience black hole – a point beyond which a pseudoscience gets sucked in and can never escape? Asked from the other direction – are there any historical examples of a pseudoscience that became legitimate, essentially turned out to be true?

I thought this was an interesting enough question to pick up the ball and explore the question further.

First, the question requires a discussion of what is pseudoscience. This is a common topic of discussion among skeptics. Any definition must contend with the demarcation problem – there is no bright line between legitimate science and pseudoscience. Rather, there is a smooth continuum, although I do think the distribution along that continuum is bimodal.

The differences between science and pseudoscience have to do with process, not subject matter. Pseudoscientists display a number of typical behaviors  (I will quickly list some of them here, but I am overdo for an updated post just on this topic):

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Nov 12 2013

Chopra Skepticism Fail Part 2

As promised, Deepak Chopra has written a follow up article about what he calls The Rise and Fall of Militant Skepticism. As we saw in part 1, Chopra remains consistent with his reputation for being intellectually superficial and careless, more interested in propping up his particular brand of mysticism than genuinely engaging with his critics.

In part 2 Chopra also continues his practice of erecting massive strawmen, consistent with the narrative standard in his corner of the wooniverse. He begins by once again conflating atheism with skepticism. Clearly he did not read or comprehend any of the skeptical responses to his first post. Now he trots out the tired claim that skeptics are negative and want to kill curiosity – it’s all just so tedious.

He also uses a strategy that I see increasingly within the subculture of many pseudosciences, specifically trying to adopt the language of skeptics but turning that language back against skeptics, as if they thought of in the first place.

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Nov 11 2013

Reprogramming Your Junk DNA

Published by under Pseudoscience

Every now and then I come across a stunning example of pseudoscience, an exemplar, almost raising pseudoscience to an art form. Some pieces of scientific nonsense read almost like poetry. Such examples make me wonder what is going on in the mind of the pseudoscientist – to me, the most fascinating question.

One example I recently came across is the idea that we can reprogram our DNA through words alone. Just about every red-flag of pseudoscience is flying high with this one. Here is the theory in a nutshell:

Only 10% of our DNA is being used for building proteins. It is this subset of DNA that is of interest to western researchers and is being examined and categorized. The other 90% are considered “junk DNA.” The Russian researchers, however, convinced that nature was not dumb, joined linguists and geneticists in a venture to explore those 90% of “junk DNA.” Their results, findings and conclusions are simply revolutionary! According to them, our DNA is not only responsible for the construction of our body but also serves as data storage and in communication. The Russian linguists found that the genetic code, especially in the apparently useless 90%, follows the same rules as all our human languages. To this end they compared the rules of syntax (the way in which words are put together to form phrases and sentences), semantics (the study of meaning in language forms) and the basic rules of grammar. They found that the alkalines of our DNA follow a regular grammar and do have set rules just like our languages. So human languages did not appear coincidentally but are a reflection of our inherent DNA.

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Oct 22 2013

Free Energy and the Casimir Effect

Free energy is to physics what creationism is to evolutionary biology. Both offer a teaching moment when you try to explain why proponents are so horribly wrong.

Free energy proponents have been abusing the laws of thermodynamics (come to think of it, so have creationists), and more recently quantum effects a la zero-point-energy. Now they are distorting a new principle of physics to justify their claims – the Casimir effect. Apparently this was a hot topic at the Breakthrough Energy Conference earlier this month.

Before I get into the specifics, I do want to address the general conspiratorial tones of the free-energy movement. I wonder if anyone influential in the free-energy subculture realizes that their conspiracy-mongering over free energy is perhaps the greatest barrier to their being taken seriously. There is also the fact that they get the science wrong, but if they think they are doing cutting edge science (rather than crank science), then convince us with science and ditch the conspiracy nonsense.

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Oct 21 2013

Dragon Video

Published by under Pseudoscience

These make for light-hearted posts, but occasionally it’s fun to deconstruct viral videos purporting to show something fantastical on the internet. Most such videos are one of the big three – ghosts, UFOs or Bigfoot (or some other cryptozoological creature).

The current video is in the cryptozoological category - a video purporting to show a dragon flying through the skies of Truro England.

Obviously the prior-probability here is vanishingly small, and so it would take a very compelling video to have any chance of being taken seriously, and this video does not come close. Before I take a close look at the video itself, let’s explore the plausibility of the claim.

Dragons are gigantic flying predators, at least in their current Western cultural image. Such creatures if they existed would be voracious. Flying is a high-energy activity and animals pay for the benefits of flight by needing to eat incredible amounts of calories. Bald eagles, for example, eat about 10% of their body weight per day. If we extrapolate that to a dragon, even if light for its size so it can fly, would require hundreds of pounds of food per day.

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Sep 19 2013

Holding the Line Against Pseudoscience

Published by under Pseudoscience

What is the responsibility of a venue, an event organizer, a social media outlet, or any institution or publication for filtering out fraud and pseudoscience? This question keeps coming up in multiple contexts.

About a decade ago free-energy scammer Dennis Lee was making the rounds, selling the opportunity to invest in his “inventions.” His MO was to make a several-hour presentation of dozens of bogus devices. By the end of the evening those that remained in the audience were ripe for the picking. Often they felt that if any one of the devices they had just witnessed were legitimate, they would strike gold.

Dennis Lee has been convicted of felony fraud, passing bad checks, has been banned from doing business in multiple states, and has been characterized as a “menace to the investing public.”  We discovered that he was booked at a local hotel in CT to give one of his predatory presentations. We contacted the hotel, notifying them that their venue was being used to commit fraud, and gave them all the necessary information. Their response was that this was not their responsibility, they do not control how their patrons use their conference rooms, and in fact we could not come on their premises to protest the event.

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Sep 16 2013

Science Proves I’m Right

Published by under Pseudoscience

From the 18th to the early 20th century there were scientists who studied the various human “races.” They had various theories about the meaning an origin of “race” which all concluded that their own race was superior.  Christoph Meiners had a particularly bigoted theory in which he concluded that the dark races were “ugly” due to their moral degeneration.

Along the way science was frequently used to justify what we can now easily recognize as blatant prejudice. Anatomical studies comparing facial features and cranial capacity demonstrated European superiority, while anthropological studies supported the conclusion of “primitiveness” in native peoples.

These now stand as classic examples of exploiting science to bolster a narrow cultural view – to give it the imprimatur of scientific legitimacy. Who, after all, can argue with science? To do so makes you vulnerable to accusations of being unscientific and irrational.

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Sep 10 2013

Arctic Ice Increasing

Published by under Pseudoscience

The worst lies are those that contain a kernel of truth. This might include all instances of lying with statistics, because they may contain true numbers, simply distorted to tell a deceptive story.

Such lying with numbers is rampant within the global warming debate, mostly on the side of the deniers. Their basic strategy is to cherry pick the duration of time over which they choose to view the data – they are mining large data sets to cherry pick streaks that tell the story they want. This can involve looking at trends over one to a few years, instead of decades, or looking at thousands of years to obscure what is happening over decades.

The hypothesis that man-made activity is warming the globe over the last century, however, occurs over decades. Too long or too short a focus misses or obscures the proper time-frame for this trend.

The latest example of this is the claim, virally spreading around the intertubes, that arctic sea ice has increased by 60% in the last year.  This fact this then used to argue that the Earth is not warming, and in fact we may be entering a cooling phase.

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Sep 09 2013

Another Sighting

Published by under Pseudoscience

You are driving down a dark road at 5:30 AM. Chances are, you’re a bit sleepy. Something suddenly runs across the road in front of your car. Your headlights catch it briefly as it dashes into the woods on the other side of the road. What was it?

That, apparently, was the question faced by a 15 year old Nebraska boy – why a 15 year old was driving was not addressed by the article. It seems his early morning brain processed the unexpected sensory input into – Bigfoot.

There is no credible evidence, after decades of search, that anything like Bigfoot exists anywhere, least of all Nebraska. The flat state does not contain the vast forests that would be necessary to conceal a breeding population of large primates. Despite that, there have been 14 reported sightings in Nebraska since 1957.

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Aug 15 2013

Spontaneous Baby Combustion

Published by under Pseudoscience

News reports are coming out of India of a “rare medical case” involving a newborn infant who apparently spontaneously bursts into flames. This has occurred four times so far. The baby is now in the hospital being treated for these burns.

The International Business Times, with a headline declaring a “mystery baby,” reports:

Rahul, a native of Tindivanam, Tamil Nadu was admitted to Kilpauk Medical College and Hospital on Thursday for burns reportedly caused by a rare medical phenomenon known as Spontaneous Human Combustion (SHC) wherein a person catches fire due to emission of inflammable substances through the body.

They do contain some token skepticism, but then go on to discuss the “controversy” over SHC and the various theories about how it might occur.  The earliest reports of this case did not even contain the token skepticism, which seems to have crept into the later reports.

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