Archive for the 'Pseudoscience' Category

Dec 08 2023

A Bit of Energy Pseudoscience

Remember the 1980 film, The Formula? Probably not, because it was a mediocre film that did not age well. The basic plot is that Nazi chemists during WWII developed a formula for synthetic gasoline. A detective investigating a murder gets embroiled in a conspiracy to cover up the existence of this formula, and he struggles to expose it to the world, but is ultimately foiled by the many layers of this conspiracy. At the heart of the conspiracy is the fossil fuel industry, who wants to protect their golden goose. I remember thinking at the time that this was dumb, and now I appreciate how dumb it is on a much deeper level.

There is a scientific and critical thinking layer to the superficial thoughtlessness of this plot. From a critical thinking perspective, a conspiracy to suppress such a formula makes no sense. Such a formula (if we buy the premise of such a thing, which I don’t, as you will see) would be incredibly valuable to anyone who controls it. An oil company could (again, given the film’s premise) in a single stroke dominate the world’s energy production and crush the competition. But perhaps more critically, it makes no sense that such a formula would have been discovered almost 40 years prior to the timeframe of the film and yet was never reproduced. Have you every noticed that for any significant invention there are often a host of people claiming they really invented it. That’s because they likely did, or at least contributed to the invention. When our science and technology are at a point where a breakthrough is possible, it is likely that many people/labs/companies/nations will converge on the discovery at roughly the same time.

However, popular culture is stuck in the “lone genius” narrative, thinking of scientific breakthroughs as the unique product of a singular genius. This is just not how science typically works. Increasingly, it is a tangled web of collaboration with many players each contributing incrementally to an overall progress. Major inventions are “ripe”, and they have a paper trail. The notion that Nazi chemists were decades ahead of the rest of the world in such an immense technology is not plausible.

But even more fatal to the plot of this film is the premise of the title – that the limiting factor in the ability to fuel the world with synthetic gasoline is knowing the proper formula. Having a chemical formula for synthesizing hydrocarbons is not the tricky part. Whenever dealing with any energy technology, I find it extremely useful to ask the basic question – where is the energy coming from? If you don’t have a very thorough answer to this question, be skeptical.

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Oct 23 2023

Panspermia Again

Published by under Pseudoscience

Recently I was asked what I thought about this video, which suggests it is possible that life formed in the early universe, shortly after the Big Bang. Although no mentioned specifically in the video, the ideas presents are essentially panspermia – the idea that life formed in the early universe and then spread as “seeds” throughout the universe, taking root in suitable environments like the early Earth. While the narrator admits these ideas are “speculative”, he presents what I feel is an extremely biased favorable take on the ideas being presented.

The video starts by arguing that life on Earth arose very quickly, perhaps implausibly quickly. The Earth is 4.5 billion years old, and it likely cooled sufficiently to be compatible with life around 4.3 billion years ago. The oldest fossils are 3.7 billion years old, which leaves a 600 million year window in which life could have developed from prebiotic molecules. When during that time did these complex molecules cross the line to be considered life is unknown, but it seems like there was probably 1-2 hundred million years for this to happen. The video argues that this was simply not enough time – so perhaps life already existed and seeded the Earth. But this argument is not valid. We do not have any information that would indicate something on the order of 100 million years was not enough time for the simplest type of life to form. So they set up a fake problem in order to introduce their unnecessary “solution”.

But the argument gets worse from there. Most of the video is spent speculating about the fact that between 10 million and 17 million years ago the temperature of the universe would have been between 100 C and 0 C, the temperature range of liquid water. During this time, life could have formed everywhere in the universe. But there is a glaring problem with this argument, that the video hand-waves away with a giant “may”.

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May 01 2023

Problems with the Institute Of Noetic Sciences

I was interviewed recently for a Daily Beast article on recent research involving the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS). Overall the article is very good, and author Maddie Bender was fair and reasonable in how I was quoted. I can’t always take that as a given. No matter how careful you are, a lot can be done with the edit and perfectly reasonable statements can be framed in a positive or negative light. It all depends on what story the author is writing.

In this case the story was about how fringe science and even pseudoscience can infiltrate mainstream academic institutions. There is a lot of nuance to this topic, because as with many such things there is a demarcation problem. As I have discussed many times before, for example, there is a demarcation problem between science and pseudoscience. There is no sharp line between the two, but a smooth transition. Much mainstream science can fall short in terms of rigorous methodology, and not all pseudoscience gets everything wrong. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t pseudoscience (that would be the false continuum logical fallacy) – get far enough to one end of the spectrum and you are in the realm of pseudoscience.

Academic institutions have another demarcation problem to deal with – academic freedom. This one is perhaps even trickier, because it is critically important that academics have the intellectual freedom to explore new and unpopular ideas, even ones that may be considered “dangerous”. As I have also written before, I have no problem with researchers exploring new ideas, fringe ideas, even weird ideas, as long as they are being true to scientific philosophy and methodology, and not making claims that go beyond the evidence. Further, this means that pseudoscience is not an area of study, but a set of behaviors. You can be doing pseudoscience when studying mainstream claims, or rigorous science when studying the paranormal. It’s the method and logic that matter. For example, Richard Wiseman has done rigorous investigations of the paranormal. I would never call him a pseudoscientist.

One of the core features of doing pseudoscience is assuming that your claim (paranormal or otherwise) is true and then working backwards from that assumption. This leads to performing research to show that the phenomenon is true, or perhaps how it works, but not doing research capable of determine if it is true. This brings us back to IONS and the Daily Beast article. The article focuses on neuroscientist Spiro Pantazatos and his collaboration with IONS, looking for brain regions that might correlate with specific paranormal phenomena. My problem with this research is that is assumes various paranormal phenomena are real, when that has not been scientifically established. In fact, as I point out in the article, we have over a century of research which has failed to demonstrate psi phenomena (ESP, clairvoyance, telekenesis, etc.) to point to. This is not some new idea that has never been explored.

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Jan 27 2023

Electricity from Rocks?

There are several viral videos spreading claiming to demonstrate a large electric charge stored in certain kinds of rocks in Africa. The most popular is this one which alleges to show electrically charged rocks from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). When touched together the rocks give off large sparks which leave burn marks on the stones. The comments are mostly amusing and sad, reflecting the cultural turmoil of the region. A few figured out what is happening here.

We can start by evaluating the plausibility of the claim. The sparking is not a single event, as if there were static electricity in the rocks that discharged. They continue to discharge without diminishing. It is implausible that a natural ore (i.e. not a battery) would contain so much electricity. Also, where would the electricity come from? Some commenters through out the piezoelectric effect, the transformation of mechanical stress to current, but this only produces a tiny amount of electricity. Even if there were some small amount of static electricity in the material, this would not be a source of power, as some seem to believe.

What about the video itself? There are countless deceptive and fake videos on social media, so it’s good to have some basic idea how to recognize deception. I recommend Captain Disillusion’s Youtube channel – he is a digital effects expert who examines dubious videos and reveals their deception. On this video there are some immediately suspicious features. First, the video is very close-up. We are seeing just the rocks with little space around them. Close-cropping like this is a standard technique for hiding things out of view of the lens. An honest video documenting a phenomenon would show the environment and the setup, and show multiple angles and perspectives. It may zoom in at some point, but if all you see if a super close-up, be suspicious.

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Nov 08 2022

Atlantis is a Myth

Published by under Pseudoscience

The allure of the myth of Atlantis is understandable, and it has been promulgated in popular culture for over a century. As evidence of the draw of this topic is the comments thread to my discussion of the Richat Structure and why it is not Atlantis. People clearly want to talk about it.

The status of Atlantis as a real archeological location can be quickly summarized – there is absolutely no evidence. There are no artifacts, there is no cultural history, there are no ruins, there is simply nothing. This is not surprising, since there was never any reason to expect that Atlantis was real in the first place. The notion of Atlantis as an ancient civilization was clearly an invented mythology of Plato. This was largely understood by scholars throughout history. It wasn’t until the 19th century that the notion Atlantis might be a real place became popular. Enthusiasts at the time expected that within 50 years or so we would have museums full of Atlantean artifacts. That never came to be – and here we are well over a century later and we don’t have a single shard of pottery.

I’ll come back to the lack of evidence in a bit, but first let’s review why Atlantis is clearly an invented mythology. The first historical mention of Atlantis as a place comes from Plato’s two works, Critias and Timaeus. There is a prior mention of the name Atlantis but not as a reference to a place. All other references come after Plato and trace back to Plato (who lived between 428 and 348 BCE). Plato used the idea of Atlantis as an evil empire that was at war with the virtuous Athens. This was a device to discuss the nature of the perfect virtuous city (Athens). Atlantis, in Plato’s telling, may have began as a virtuous city, because its citizens were partly descended from Poseidon, but as their part god blood was diluted over time their more aggressive and base human nature took over and they became corrupt.

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Oct 18 2022

AI Snake oil

Humanity has an uncanny ability to turn any new potential boon into con. The promise of stem cell technology quickly spawned fraudulent stem-cell clinics to exploit the desperate. There is snake oil based on lasers, holograms, and radio waves. Any new tech or scientific discovery becomes a marketing scam, going back to electromagnetism and continuing today with “nanotechnology”. There is some indication that artificial intelligence (AI) will be no exception.

I am a big fan of AI technology, and clearly it has reached a turning point where the potential applications are exploding. The basic algorithms haven’t changed, but with faster computers, an internet full of training data, and AI scientists finding more ways to cleverly leverage the technology, we are seeing more and more amazing applications, from self-driving cars to AI art programs. AI is likely to be increasingly embedded in everything we do.

But with great potential comes great hype. Also, for many people, AI is a black box of science and technology they don’t understand. It may as well be magic. And that is a recipe for exploitation. A recent BBC article, for example, highlights to risks of relying on AI in evaluating job applicants. It’s a great example of what is likely to become a far larger problem.

I think the core issue is that for many people, those for whom AI is mostly a black box, there is the risk of attributing false authority to AI and treating it like a magic wand. Companies can therefore offer AI services that are essentially pure pseudoscience, but since it involves AI, people will buy it. In the case of hiring practices, AI is being applied to inherently bogus analysis, which doesn’t change the nature of the analysis, it just gives it a patina of impeachable technology, which makes it more dangerous.

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Oct 17 2022

Electric Universe Is Crank Pseudoscience

Science is fun, interesting, and empowering, but it is also hard, especially at advanced levels. Even at a basic level, science forces you to think clearly, precisely, logically, and objectively. It therefore challenges our preconceptions, our biases, our hopes and desires and replaces these things with indifferent reality. Science becomes progressively tricky the more advanced it becomes, requiring an increasing fund of knowledge and mastery over subtle concepts and technical skills in order to be able to take the next step. At the cutting edge of science, nothing short of years of dedicated study is necessary to engage meaningfully with the enterprise of advancing human scientific knowledge. You also have to be able to engage productively with a community of scientists, all picking apart each other’s work.

It’s for these reasons that there is a lot of bad science out there. There are also those who prioritize things other than the pursuit of scientific knowledge, such as money, fame, or advancing an ideology. Many people mean well, but simply get the science wrong. Even successful scientists can make egregious errors, stubbornly stick to false ideas, or let their own ideology get in the way. So what is the average science enthusiast to do? Unless you have a fairly high level of scientific expertise in general and also in a specific field, you cannot hope to engage with the cutting edge of that field. To some extent, you have to trust the experts, but what if the experts disagree, or some of them are just wrong?

There is no easy answer to this, but there are skills and methods other than actual expertise in a specific field that can help a layperson have a pretty good idea which experts to listen to. This requires some scientific literacy, especially about how proper science operates. It also requires a certain amount of critical thinking skills – knowing something about logic, self-deception, and the nature of evidence. Further, we can learn to recognize the different types of pseudoscience and pseudoscientific behaviors, which can act as reliable red-flags to help spot fake science. Recently promoters of the Electric Universe have appeared in the comments to this blog, and this is a good opportunity to review these red flags.

The idea of the electric universe (EU) is that electromagnetism actually does most of the large-scale heavy lifting when it comes to the structure of the cosmos, displacing gravity as the main long-distance force. There are different flavors of EU, with some doing away with gravity completely, and others allowing for some gravity (to help explain phenomena EU can’t) but still relegate it to a minor role. One major example is that EU proponents believe stars are fueled by electromagnetism, and not by gravity-induced fusion. Here are two great videos that give a concise summary of the history of EU belief and why it is complete and utter nonsense. But I will review the major problems with EU and use them as examples of crank pseudoscience.

Crank pseudoscience is a flavor of pseudoscience that operates at a technically sophisticated level, but is missing some of the key elements of actual science that doom proponents to absurdity. But it also contains many of the generic features of pseudoscience. Let’s review, starting with features more typical of crank pseudoscience.

Does not engage meaningfully with the scientific community.

Science is a collaborative effort, especially at the advanced cutting edge level. This is because it is so difficult at this level, you need the self-corrective process of peer-review, rejection of error, criticism of wrong ideas, challenges for evidence and by alternative theories, etc. Without this self-corrective process, fringe groups or individuals tend to drift off from reality into a fantasy land of their own creation, although gilded with the superficial trappings of science. EU proponent Montgomery Childs exemplifies this in an interview (in the second video above) when he tries lamely to justify not bothering to publish any of his findings in scientific journals. Actual experts in plasma physics and cosmology therefore just ignore his fringe work – unless they have data to look at, they don’t have much of a choice. This is a core feature of crank pseudoscience – cranks tend to toil alone or in small fringe echochambers and not engage with proper experts.


Work outside their actual area of expertise (if they have one).

Often we see scientists or engineering getting into crank science when they venture beyond their specific area of expertise. Sometimes this is just hubris – in fact we joke about the Nobel Prize effect, where some Nobel Prize winners go on to support pseudoscience later in their career. There is also an aging-scientist effect where researchers toward the end of their career start looking at their legacy, or lack of one, and want to make a big splash somewhere. Some choose a small fringe pond where their credentials make them a big fish, and start promoting nonsense. The problem, of course, if that being an expert in one area does not equip you to contradict actual experts in a separate field. Electrical engineers are not cosmologists or physicists. It is therefore helpful to see what the most appropriate experts say about a theory, not just anyone with letters after their name. Actual experts reject the EU as completely nonsense (with good reason), and its proponents are all in unrelated fields.


Make grandiose claims while minimizing actual scientific knowledge.

The EU claims to overhaul much of science, which is itself a red flag. It is hard to prove that established science is all wrong, and it’s getting harder as science advances and the foundational concepts of science are increasingly supported by evidence and derivative theories. What cranks often do is grossly exaggerate what is currently unknown in a scientific field, or the meaning of anomalies, and they downplay what is known with confidence. This often become simply lying, making boldly false claims about the state of the science. EU proponents, for example, ignore or deny the evidence for the Big Bang, black holes, stellar fusion, and gravity. The claim that they have overturned pretty much all of astrophysics, stellar astronomy, General Relativity, and more – all on the flimsiest of pretexts. In other words, they reject theories supported by a mountain of evidence, and replace them with theories that have (at best) an ant hill.


They don’t actually explain 0r predict anything.

Another core feature of science is that it makes testable predictions. What this means is that there has to be some way to determine if one theory is more correct than another, because they make different predictions about what we will observe in the universe or the result of experiments. Scientific theories also should have explanatory power (it can explain what we see) – but this is actually necessary but insufficient feature of science. Astrology has explanatory power – if you are willing to just make up BS explanations for stuff. It’s easy, and pattern-seeking humans are good at, finding explanations of stuff. The problem with EU is that it really does neither – predict or explain. In fact, shifting from current cosmological theories to EU would be a massive step backwards. EU cannot explain a ton of established phenomena that are well explained by current theories, such as the evidence for black holes or dark matter, the lifecycle of stars, the existence of neutrinos from stellar fusion, and many more. There are also fundamental problems with EU, such as the known behavior of electromagnetism and charged particles. What EU proponents do, rather, is simply hunt for patterns, and then make very superficial connections between some aspect of EU theory and some astronomical phenomenon.

This is what triggered some of the comments – the regular rings of dust found around WR140, caused by the periodicity of the wind-binary star system. EU proponents said – look, concentric rings. We see those in the plasma dohickey thing. They then count that as a “prediction” when it was actually just retrofitting, and not very well. They falsely call the rings “perfect” when it is the very imperfections in the rings that can be accounted for by the astronomical explanation.


Portray the scientific community as a conspiracy of the small-minded.

If you have a nonsensical fringe theory and don’t publish your findings (except in fringe journals created for that purpose), it’s likely that the broader scientific community with ignore or reject your claims. They should – you have not earned their assent by demonstrating your claims with objective and publicly available evidence. When that happens, cranks universally claim they are the victim of a conspiracy. They don’t self-correct, address legitimate criticisms, recognize the shortcomings of their theories, do better experiments or, in short, engage in legitimate science. They cry foul. They say something to the effect that “mainstream” science is all a conspiracy, and scientist are simply too dumb or too scared to recognize their towering genius. This is the point that self-comparisons to Galileo or Einstein are typically brought out.

EU proponents do this in spades. There is a large, vibrant, world-wide community of astrophysicists, all at different parts of their career, in different countries and institutions, just trying to figure out how the universe works and hopefully make a name for themselves doing so. Yet a few fringe scientists, without the proper expertise, allege they have proven all of them hopelessly wrong, because they are all biased or don’t know what they are doing. And they are stubbornly not convinced by silly superficial evidence its proponents won’t bother to publish. Imagine!

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Jun 07 2022

The Morality of Skepticism

A recent editorial by Tauriq Moosa, a South African writer focusing on ethics, makes a cogent argument that skeptical activism is a moral necessity. I don’t know Tauriq and his connection to skepticism, if any, but he writes as if from a perspective outside the skeptical movement. Rarely do I encounter outside commentary on skepticism that isn’t cringeworthy in its cluelessness. Tauriq does a good job, although his commentary could be taken further (which, of course, I will do).

His core argument is that when it comes to skepticism of fraud and fakery, silence is not a (morally defensible) option. He makes an analogy to Semmelweis, who first discovered that if doctors would simply wash their hands before treating patients many lives could be saved. Knowing this, he had a moral imperative to try to convince the world of this fact. Likewise if a skeptic has good reason to believe that a treatment or practice is actively harmful, they have a moral imperative to try to convince others of this fact. Homeopathy, for example, is worthless. If you rely upon it to treat a non-self-limiting disease you are likely to suffer harm. He writes:

If you don’t think the skeptic movement is about saving lives and providing ammunition to protect yourself against charlatans, then you simply don’t know the numbers of preventable deaths – ‘preventable’ if the information had been accepted by the adults concerned.

He then goes on to confront a common response to this type of skeptical activism – rational adults can make their own decisions, so let them be. Tauriq addresses this by focusing on the notion of “rational”. He correctly points out that rational decision-making requires accurate information, and so providing that information is a service. He also points out that when children are involved adults have a responsibility for scientific due diligence when making decisions on their behalf.

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Apr 25 2022

Scalar Energy Scam

Published by under Pseudoscience

Because I host a popular podcast, I often get solicitations to offer people to be interviewed on the show. They are mostly scientists and science-communicators with a new book to promote. This is actually a helpful resource, although I end up booking very few. One of the reasons for the low hit rate is that the promoters are surprisingly undiscriminating, sometimes laughably so. Recently I received an e-mail regarding “scientist” Tom Paladino:

He’d appreciate the opportunity to come on your show, The Skeptics Guide to the Universe, to explain what Scalar Light is and how it can be used to help heal the human body naturally.”

After taking a look at his website I questioned whether Paladino knows what scalar light is, although it may be different than Scalar Light. Apparently scalar light was something researched by Nikola Tesla – in my opinion invoking his name is an extremely reliable marker for pseudoscience and chicanery, up there with Galileo.

Let’s start with the actual science – what is “scalar light” or more generally, a scalar energy field? In physics the word “scalar” just means a physical property that has a specific magnitude value at each point in space, and that value is independent of perspective or frame of reference.  Temperature is scalar because you can give a magnitude value at every point, but direction is irrelevant.  Scalar properties are distinguished from vector properties, which have both magnitude and direction. Earth’s gravitational field is a vector energy field, because each point in space has a specific magnitude and direction.

Is light a scalar or vector phenomenon? Well, the speed of light (c) is always the same regardless of the observer, so it is a scalar phenomenon (the speed of light only refers to its magnitude). The velocity of light refers to its magnitude and direction, so it is a vector quality. From the perspective of physics, then, “scalar light” refers to the speed of light. Or it’s redundant – it’s just light, which has a scalar property (speed).

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Mar 31 2022

Dowsing for Bodies

Published by under Pseudoscience

Dowsing is one of those pseudosciences that proves James Randi’s aphorism that such cons are often like “unsinkable rubber ducks” – no matter how often you push them down, they keep coming back. Here is yet another story of a scientist falling for dowsing and spreading this nonsense to students, law enforcement, and even in the courtroom. Arpad Voss is a forensic scientist with a PhD in anthropology. He is now the latest cautionary tale demonstrating that being a legitimate scientist is not in itself protection from also falling for pseudoscience.

He follows a long pedigree of such cautionary tales – two-time Nobel Laureate Linus Pauling, who was a brilliant chemist but not a doctor, convinced himself that high doses of Vitamin C was a powerful cure. Luc Montagnier, also a Nobel Laureate for his work on discovering HIV, fell for one of the rankest of medical pseudosciences, homeopathy. Psychologists Targ and Puthoff famously fell for an ESP scam, unable to leverage their scientific chops to detect the deception. Neuroscience researcher Steven Laureys fell for facilitated communication, because he was simply unfamiliar with the phenomenon.

It happens over and over again – scientists assume that being an accomplished scientist shields them from self-deception and pseudoscience. It doesn’t, for at least two very good reasons. First, the practice of science involves at least two general types of knowledge. There is technical/factual knowledge, the ability to carry out an experiment, to perform statistical analysis, operate technical machinery, and specific topic expertise. But there is also philosophical/critical thinking knowledge, understanding the underlying philosophy of science, mechanisms of deception, and how science can be perverted and slide into pseudoscience. The world is full of people who have the former skill sets but lack the latter. This is why, for example, creationist Duane Gish was able to go around the country debating evolutionary scientists and get the rhetorical better of them. The scientists naively thought they only needed to understand the science of evolution, but really they also needed to understand the pseudoscience of creationism.

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