Archive for the 'Pseudoscience' Category

Mar 22 2016

Fake Psychics Scam Billions

The Anything Can Happen Recurrence

I know, it’s redundant. All psychics are fake and a scam, but some are worse than others.

When most people think of psychics they conjure an image (see what I did there) of someone dressed in robes in a mystically decorated parlor who reads your palm or the tarot cards for $40. They are making a meager living giving people a bit of harmless entertainment. Some may actually think they have powers, some may know it’s all an act, but what’s the harm?

In truth, however, many psychics are predators who scam people out of hundreds, thousands, even tens of thousands of dollars. They prey on the vulnerable and the desperate and can ruin lives. This is not a benign industry.

A recent report from Toronto is just one of many – a steady stream with no expectation of ending. They report stories of people who have been victimized by psychics promising to turn around their fortunes, while parasitically bleeding them of as much money as possible.  Continue Reading »

69 responses so far

Dec 21 2015

A Muddled Defense of Astrology

Published by under Pseudoscience

astrologyYeah, I know. Astrology. That is seriously old school. What is amazing is that there are still people who vehemently defend this ancient superstition. It is a window into the flaws and biases of the human brain.

In a way the exact topic of this discussion does not matter. By studying any scientific discipline in detail one can learn many generalizable lessons about science itself, and even knowledge itself. Similarly, by studying any one pseudoscience one can learn many generic lessons about the nature of pseudoscience – although, it is easier to see these lessons when one studies at least several pseudosciences and sees the commonality among them.

Having written hundreds of articles about different pseudosciences, I often feel I could just click in specific names to general arguments. The details, however, do matter as they provide specific examples that aid in understanding the underlying principles and how to apply them. We tend to compartmentalize knowledge, and so seeing many different examples really does drive the concept home and help apply it broadly – especially to our own thinking.  Continue Reading »

22 responses so far

Oct 29 2015

Superbrain Yoga is BS

Here is the latest fad to make you smarter with one easy trick – Superbrain Yoga. The technique is simple (and worthless, but we’ll get to that).

All you have to do is touch your left hand to your right earlobe, your right hand to your left earlobe, take a deep breath, and do a squat. Who knew it could be so easy to improve your brain function. There are a few more details, helpfully shared by Parenting Special Needs magazine:

– Connect your tongue to your palate.
– Face East
– The left arm must be inside and the right arm must be outside (over the left arm).
– Inhale while squatting down and exhale while standing up.
– You thumbs should be touching the front part of your earlobes, index fingers behind the earlobes.
– Perform the exercise 14-21 times, once or twice a day.

Facing East is very important, because magic.

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6 responses so far

Oct 26 2015

Marketing Natural

Published by under Pseudoscience

For as long as there has been anything synthetic, apparently, people have been enamored of the idea of “natural.” “Natural” has what is called a health halo, or a sense of wholesomeness, while anything artificial or chemical is presented as automatically harmful.

When you scratch even a little below the surface, this idea makes no scientific sense. Nature is full of horrible toxins, many of which evolved specifically to be toxic. Nature does not seem to care particularly about one rather egocentric species on Earth, and there is no reason to think that it should. The degree to which something is natural vs synthetic says absolutely nothing about its health effects, but being natural is meant to feel good.

With the advent of social media is has become easier than ever for self-styled gurus and “experts” to market themselves, and many have hit upon the marketing allure of “natural” as a hook. The Food Babe and Natural News immediately come to mind. They have taken rank pseudoscience and wrapped it in a thin veneer of “natural” marketing hype.

As is often the case, however, the famous examples of any phenomenon are usually just the tip of a large pyramid, with many more individuals struggling in relative anonymity. Further, I have often thought that if you want to, for example, figure out how a standard magic trick is performed, don’t watch the famous experts. They are too good. Watch the hacks. They are much more likely to give the trick away.

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34 responses so far

Oct 01 2015

Yogic Farming in India

If I had to choose the one thing that has most transformed human civilization it is science. Prior to this remarkable invention history was characterized by conflicting ideologies, philosophies, superstitions, and religions.

Some practical knowledge managed to move forward, including various technologies and even enlightenment philosophy, but our attempts to understand and manipulate the world were burdened with magical thinking. Science set us on a new track, and in the last few centuries we have systematically replaced our old traditional thinking about the world with scientific thinking.

A thousand years ago European physicians attempted to understand and treat illness by manipulating the four humors while their eastern counterparts were faring no better with an astrology-based system of blood letting. If we wanted to anticipate future events, an astrologer would consult fanciful charts that have no actual influence on reality.  If we wanted to make our lives better, ensure a good harvest, or survive a plague we would pray to imaginary powerful beings.

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74 responses so far

Mar 13 2015

Yes, Dr. Lanka, Measles is Real

Published by under Pseudoscience

This is something I thought would probably never happen – a science denier, in this case German virologist Stefan Lanka, was ordered by a court to pay 100,000 Euros to German doctor David Barden for meeting his challenge to prove that the measles virus exists.

Lanka is clearly, in my opinion, a crank, which is a specific flavor of pseudoscientist who makes sophisticated arguments to support a hilariously wrong conclusion. There is some major malfunction in their scientific reasoning. Typically, in my experience, they have an oversized ego and think they know better than the rest of the scientific community. For some reason an extreme narrative gets stuck in their brain, and they spend their career marshaling evidence and arguments to support a nonsensical idea. I find cranks endlessly fascinating because I think they are extreme cases that reveal major weaknesses in the operation of the human brain.

One favorite tactic of cranks and deniers is to issue an open challenge to prove what they deny exists. I think this strategy is inspired by the Randi Million Dollar Challenge, which is a legitimate challenge for anyone to prove a paranormal phenomenon. Randi has a specific process spelled out, with concrete criteria for success.

Hoax challenges are pure publicity stunts – they sound grandiose but typically are framed in such a way that the one issuing the challenge can wiggle out of ever having to pay. They are rigged from the beginning, mainly by not spelling out what kind of evidence would meet the challenge.

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17 responses so far

Jan 06 2015

Ancient Indian Airplanes

Published by under Pseudoscience

Being an activist skeptic means being reminded, almost on a daily basis, that there is no idea so absurd that there will not be those who fervently believe it.

At the most recent meeting of the Indian Science Congress Association, Captain Anand J Bodas, apparently under the aegis of Mumbai University, gave a lecture in which he claimed that airplanes existed in India 7,000 years ago, that they were able to fly to different continents, and even to different planets.

These claims are obvious nonsense (although I will link to resources which painstakingly demonstrate this). What is more interesting is that such a talk was able to infiltrate what is apparently a science conference. This is a disturbing phenomenon, all too common, in which rank pseudoscience is able to work its way into the domain of respected science.

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26 responses so far

Oct 27 2014

7 Propaganda Talking Points Against GMOs

Published by under Pseudoscience

After reading about genetically modified organisms for years, it seem pretty clear to me that the anti-GMO activist position is not an objective science-based position. Rather it has all the features of a political/marketing campaign. The campaign has talking points that are all spin and propaganda. Like a slick car commercial, it is selling a vibe, a worldview and a certain self-image.

Also like many political and commercial campaigns it is based on fear. Fear is a great motivator and politicians know the value of making the voters afraid of what will happen if their opponent is elected. Advertising agencies understand that you can sell a product by making it a solution to an imaginary fear. “Better safe than sorry” sells a lot of widgets.

The anti-GMO community seems closely tied to the organic food industry, which essentially sells the naturalistic fallacy on the back of irrational fears about everything artificial, whether or not there is any science behind those fears. Both, in turn, are tied to the alternative medicine community, which overlaps considerably in its fetish with all things natural, its demonizing of anything technological, and its apparent disdain for science (see Whole Foods as a good example of this overlap).

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68 responses so far

Sep 12 2014

Features of Denialism

Published by under Pseudoscience

Denialism is a thing. What I mean is that denialism is a definable intellectual strategy, with consistent features that tend to cluster together. I first wrote about denialism 12 years ago, before global warming denial made the term more widespread. I pointed out that certain beliefs tend to follow the same fallacious arguments – HIV denial, creationism (evolution denial), holocaust denial, and mental illness denial. I would add now global warming denial and germ theory/vaccine science denial.

I characterized denialism as a subset of pseudoscience, one that tries to cloak itself in the language of skepticism while eschewing the actual process of scientific skepticism. But further, denialism exists on a spectrum with skepticism, without a clear demarcation in between (similar to science and pseudoscience). People also tend to use themselves for calibration – anyone more skeptical than you is a denier, and anyone less skeptical than you is a true believer.

Geneticist Sean B. Carroll (not to be confused with the physicist Sean M. Carroll) in his 2007 book, The Making of the Fittest: DNA and the Ultimate Forensic Record of Evolution, lists what he identified as the six core features of denialism. I think they make an excellent list, and would like to expand on them:

1) Cast doubt on the science.
2) Question the scientists’ motives and integrity.
3) Magnify any disagreements among the scientists; cite gadflies as authorities.
4) Exaggerate the potential for harm from the science.
5) Appeal to the importance of personal freedom.
6) Object that acceptance of the science would repudiate some key philosophy.

As you will see, all of these strategies are insidious because they are extreme versions of reasonable positions. Their underlying principles are sound, it is their specific application that is the problem.

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41 responses so far

Apr 08 2014

Geocentrism – Seriously?

Published by under Pseudoscience

I just saw the trailer of a new movie, The Principle. The movie is produced by Robert Sungenis, who writes the blog Galileo Was Wrong. Sungenis is what we technically call a kook. He believes the earth is at the center of the universe and that there was no Jewish holocaust, but rather the Jews were conspiring with Satan to take over the world.

Sungenis, however, is apparently a kook with money, so he is making a documentary film preaching his bizarre notions to the world. This much is nothing new. There are plenty of such films out there, like What the Bleep Do We Know and Expelled. They superficially follow the science documentary format, but they have an ideological agenda.

This film, unfortunately, will be narrated by Kate Mulgrew, who played Captain Janeway on Star Trek: Voyager. Old Star Trek stars lending their fame to pseudoscience is also, sadly, nothing new.

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30 responses so far

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