Sep 19 2013

Holding the Line Against 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.

I understand that this one is in the gray zone – I bet they would not let someone rent a conference room in order to operate an illegal prostitution ring. I also understand that a hotel is a neutral venue and it’s not their job to vet every customer. Still, I had hoped they would draw the line at demonstrable fraud. I guess not.

Other than allowing fraud to occur on your premises, the other question is – does use of a venue imply endorsement? This question came up in 2005 when the Smithsonian Museum was going to host a screening of an anti-evolution propaganda movie by the Discovery Institute. Universities, museums, and similar institutions often have large venues that they rent out to the public to help bring in some financial support. These are private events simply using their facility. However, such institutions are not hotels – they are not neutral.

The Smithsonian Museum is dedicated to promoting the public understanding of science, and allowing their premises to be used for the viewing of rank anti-science can be exploited as an implied endorsement. Eventually the Smithsonian (under public pressure) canceled the event.

An even stronger case can be made for events or outlets for which there is implicit or explicit peer-review and quality control. In such cases, allowing in a speaker is a direct endorsement of at least the quality and legitimacy of their claims (if not necessarily absolute agreement).

TED and the related TEDx conference have recently been the focus of such conflict. TED is a big-think conference with carefully vetted speakers. They lend their brand to a host of regional TEDx conferences, but as these conference spawned the TED brand began to lose control of the quality control. Cranks and charlatans starting appearing on TEDx stages, like Deepak Chopra, free energy gurus, and mystics.

This led to an open letter from the TEDx director to conference organizers, outlining the definition of pseudoscience, stating clearly that it is the organizer’s responsibility (not their audience’s) to weed out pseudoscience, and a warning that allowing pseudoscience on the TEDX stage is grounds for removing their license.

This has not stopped the troubles for TEDx – a skeptic tells his tale of being kicked out of TEDx Maksimir for pointing out that one of their speakers is a free-energy and orgone scam artist. (I sent an e-mail about this to TED – awaiting a reply.)

Pseudoscientists are anxious to surround themselves with the trappings of legitimacy. They seek to speak at prestigious institutions, get published in respected journals, and lecture at universities. Any time such an event can be exploited to use the reputation of an academic institution to promote pseudoscience, the institution has the right and the responsibility to prevent such use. A direct endorsement is not necessary and should not be the threshold.

Recently an Indiegogo campaign for a free energy device completed a successful campaign. I e-mailed the staff at Indiegogo, which is a crowd-funding website similar to Kickstarter, and so far have only received a generic “we got your e-mail” response. Their own rules say they employ a team of experts to weed out fraud and protect their users from exploitation. Either they are not sincere in this goal, or they simply failed spectacularly in this one instance.

Opponents of this position are likely to shout, “censorship” and “free speech,” but that misses the point. It is not a censorship issue when an article is rejected from a peer-reviewed journal. Any outlet with standards needs to protect those standards and their reputation – standards mean rejecting speakers or publications that do not meet the criteria for quality control. It is not protectionism to protect the public from fraud, and scam artists do not have the right to use any venue they wish to commit their fraud.

Increasingly the world is awash in information free from filters. In many ways this is a good thing, but it also has a dark side – the free flow of misinformation, deception, and scams. Brands that promise some level of quality control on this information have a responsibility to understand the nature of pseudoscience so that they can put effective filters in place. In this regard the skeptical community, who are experts in pseudoscience, can be an invaluable resource.

8 responses so far

8 Responses to “Holding the Line Against Pseudoscience”

  1. davewon 19 Sep 2013 at 11:27 am

    There is something weird about that Indegogo campaign. I have contributed to several of these before and you can usually add up the contributions at the various “perk” levels and come up with a rough idea of the total raised. In this case, however, these added up to only $5,700 of the $18,064 raised. I noticed there were a few “undisclosed” amounts donated so maybe they made up the difference.

    I also found it odd that none of the contribution levels either got you a free or discounted free-energy device. This is unusual too. Usually when you Kickstart a thing the number one perk is a copy of that thing. I guess you just have to be happy with your $1000 sweatshirt.

    The part that made me howl was the “free energy” demonstration that was just an old magnetic induction experiment with a neodymium magnet inside a copper tube. I’ve made free energy inside my own house and never knew it.

  2. halfastroon 19 Sep 2013 at 12:46 pm

    The Tucson Festival of Books has become quite a large event the last few years. One of the big section is called Science City where they group lots of different organizations together. Many of them are astronomy or optics related (this being Tucson) and the many U of Arizona science departments have exhibits and hands-on activities as well.

    But of course one of these things is not like the other: the creationists had a booth there as well. Full on 6,000 year old Earth was being promoted in Science City. I instantly tweet-shamed them and got no response and wrote them a longer letter when I got home and again, got no response. There is a section at the Festival of Books that is dedicated to religious and spiritual organizations. My suggestion was not that they be banned from the festival, but that perhaps there is a more appropriate area for this organization and that it makes them look bad when groups such as this are in Science City.

    I will be looking for them again this year and will again let them know what I think if this repeats.

  3. cjwinsteadon 19 Sep 2013 at 4:35 pm

    I’ve wondered about TEDx quality ever since I found out that Thad Roberts (the moon rock thief) delivered a TEDx talk a couple of years ago. I can’t say whether his presentation involved pseudoscience (I haven’t actually seen his talk), but I think there’s a major trust issue involved, and a respectable venue would probably want to avoid associating itself with a convicted felon.

  4. locutusbrgon 19 Sep 2013 at 8:13 pm

    I see your point and we all know what is going to happen at that hotel. That said, I am not going to deny a private venues right to dismiss your concerns. You can make a case that he has a long track record of fraud and that is definitely the purpose of this conference room use. Here is my point.
    There is a subtext that I think you are missing.

    To use your example. Kicking out a active prostitution ring is different than allowing a person with a history of a prostitution ring organizing, onto your property.

    There may be no chance that this person will ever reform or “go straight” but is it a private entities job to police this possibility?

    If a person, that is not a police officer, provides evidence of past wrong doing is that enough to cancel that event?
    I am just as disturbed by continual fleecing, but if the police and SEC cannot keep the public safe, can Motel 6?

    Your argument holds up much better in a public venue like a library, but public venues blur free speech issues. I would not like it if the the discovery institute could stop NECSS because of a religiously sympathetic owner. I understand that in that example you have committed no crime. But what if they used Brian Dunning’s guilty plea as a basis for refusing him use of a venue?
    Either way the venue loses.
    Just saying.

  5. Steven Novellaon 19 Sep 2013 at 10:29 pm

    Would they let someone convicted multiple times of running a prostitution rings, with outstanding warrants in other states, host a “dating service” at their hotel? What if they were tipped off that his dating service was really a prostitution ring?

    Anyway – I said this was in the gray zone, etc. I don’t disagree with you.

  6. Kawarthajonon 20 Sep 2013 at 9:32 am

    There is probably no criminal court means of addressing the use of these venues. Civil court, however, could be very effective in limiting the use of these venues. If one of Dennis Lee’s scam victims sued the hotel for their role in getting people ripped off, then it would be terrible publicity for the hotel and they would probably think twice about hosting scams in their rooms, although this would also eliminate some of their business. Taking a business approach, you have to make the hosting of these events more expensive (in terms of bad publicity) more expensive than the income that they generate from them. I don’t think that it would stop Dennis Lee from trying to scam people, but at least it would throw some additional barriers.

    Alternatively, a letter to the local newspapers outlining Dennis Lee’s history of criminal convictions and his outstanding warrants would likely serve to put some pressure on the hotel not to host the event as well, especially if the hotel is named in the letter.

  7. SimonWon 20 Sep 2013 at 8:56 pm

    I think you should also inform the local legal authorities (police?) for such an event.

    The organisers likely won’t like law enforcement turning up to listen in, and learn to take your advice.

    I’m curious at what point folks turn into an accessory to the crime.

    I know when we have numerous public clients in a previous employment we took informal criminal allegations against our clients very seriously, although that may be in part because the legal position itself was unclear on liability. It was more awkward with things that fall under “legal” cons; homeopaths, chiropractors etc, and strangely we never got any allegations against people who used our services to promote such weird esoterica. Indeed most criminal allegations were attempts to silence critics, in one case by a convicted criminal and fraudster. The main reliable criminal allegations came from government authorities, the police, and well organized vigilante groups.

  8. Davdoodleson 23 Sep 2013 at 12:29 am

    “I know when we have numerous public clients in a previous employment we took informal criminal allegations against our clients very seriously, although that may be in part because the legal position itself was unclear on liability.”

    Indeed, potential liability is the crucial issue here. While the hotel might have publically (ie to Dr Novella) said that Lee’s history of carpetbaggery in conference-venues-just-like-theirs was none of their concern, I’d be very surprised if they didn’t in fact take the issue quite seriously. Ignorance may be bliss, but advance notice of possible fraud raises the real spectre of liability for the hotel.

    If/when the police come asking questions, or a disgruntled investor in Lee’s flim-flam sues the hotel, the hotel needs to be in a position to say what they did in response to allegations that they might be hosting a fraud. If the answer is “Dr Novella warned us, but we turned a blind eye to it”, at best, they could be in a very expensive legal gray area.

    My guess is they’ll quietly raise it with the cops…

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