Archive for the 'Pseudoscience' Category

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.

Continue Reading »

No responses yet

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).

Continue Reading »

No responses yet

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.

Continue Reading »

No responses yet

Nov 11 2021

Current Warming Unprecedented

Published by under Pseudoscience

While the world debates how best to reverse the trend of anthropogenic global warming (AGW), scientists continue to refine their data on historical global temperatures. A recent study published in Nature adds to this a high resolution picture of average surface temperatures over the last 24,000 years, since the last glacial maximum. The study reinforces the conclusion that the last century of warming is unprecedented over this time frame, and does not reflect any natural cycle but rather the effects of human forcing.

To construct their map of past temperatures, the researchers combined two methods. They used a dataset of chemical analysis of marine sediments, which are affected by local average temperatures. They combined this with a dataset based on computer-simulated climate models. The idea was to leverage the strengths of each approach to arrive at a map of historical surface temperatures that is more accurate than either method alone.

Of course, no one study is ever the final word, but this reconstruction is in line with other research using independent methods and data. The authors also draw two other main conclusions from their data. There has been a debate about whether or not the last 10,000 years had a small warming trend, and this graph supports that conclusion. Further, the authors conclude that the main driver of the large warming trend starting around 17,000 years ago is the retreat of the glacial ice sheets, but that the main driver of the rapid warming over the last 150 years is increasing green house gases. The rate of this recent warming is also out of proportion to any natural cycle detected in the last 24,000 years.

Continue Reading »

No responses yet

Jun 07 2021

Fauci’s E-mails

A few years ago I was sued for libel, in a case I ultimately won in summary judgement where the other side had to pay for some of my legal costs because the judge deemed it unreasonable. But the case did proceed to discovery, which means each side gets to request information from the other. This included me turning over something like 40,000 e-mails. Search tools allow for sifting through these e-mails to find those that may be relevant. And of course, the other side was able to find e-mails that they could twist to create the impression of something sinister. Fortunately, in a court of law, there are rules of evidence and logic, and there was time to dig down to see if the e-mails in fact were evidence of anything. They weren’t.

In the court of public opinion, however, there are no rules. FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) can serve as a mechanism for discovery, and many academics, scientists, and public servants have been on the receiving end of them. Released e-mails can then be picked over with the zeal of a prosecuting attorney, but without ever facing the burden of legal protocol or a trained judge. In fact the purpose of this exercise is not to dig down to the truth but to cherry pick for anything that can be taken out of context to fuel conspiracy theories or to tarnish the other side. The purpose begins and ends with the twisting to create a sinister impression, and the results of any actual investigation are irrelevant (at least to many).

The first high-profile case of such an “e-mail gate” was with hacked e-mails from the Climate Research Unit.  Investigations ultimately found no evidence of any deception or anything nefarious going on, but the damage was done. The fact is, in any scientific process scientists will discuss many things with each other. A lot of crap will be thrown against the wall, and it’s very easy to take casual conversations out of context. Anti-science activists saw this as a template, and began using FOIA requests to harass scientists and hunt for similar gotchas.

Continue Reading »

No responses yet

Apr 22 2021

EU Scientists – Organic Farming Less Sustainable

Published by under Pseudoscience

European Union (EU) agricultural scientists are in a bit of a pickle. I’m not sure to what extent it is one of their own making or how much it was imposed upon them by politics and public opinion, but they are now confronting a dilemma they at least ignored if not helped to create. The question is – how best to achieve sustainable agriculture in a world with a growing population? This problem is made more difficult by the fact that we already tapped the most efficient arable land, so any extension of agricultural land will necessarily push into less and less efficient land with greater displacements of populations and natural ecosystems.

The dilemma stems from the EU’s regulatory support for organic farming. The core problem is actually the very concept of organic farming itself, which is rooted historically and ideologically in pseudoscience. Organic farming is philosophy-based rather than science-based farming – it is a manifestation of the appeal to nature fallacy. The result is a set of specific rules in order to qualify as “organic” that mostly represent a rejection of modern agricultural technology. There are some good things in there as well. Sometimes low tech methods are best. But organic farming does not use the best most sustainable methods. It uses the most “natural” methods, by some vague, arbitrary, gut-feeling criteria. So, for example, you can use pesticides, but only if they are derived from natural sources, even if they are less effective and more toxic. You also can’t irradiate food, because irradiation seems scary (even though it safely reduces food spoilage thereby reducing waste and foodborne disease).

And of course the organic farming industry is driving the biggest controversy in agriculture – the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). This is the focus of a new paper by EU agricultural scientists who now have to confront the organic farming hobgoblin which is getting in the way of sustainable farming. Here are the highlights: They open by dispensing with the most common argument used to dismiss the need for GMOs and justify organic farming inefficiency –

Sustainable food systems will require profound changes in people’s consumption patterns and lifestyles, which is true regardless of the farming methods used and does not change the fact that organic farming often requires more land than conventional farming for the same quantity of food output.

Continue Reading »

No responses yet

Apr 01 2021

EM Drive Failure

There are many times as a skeptic that I wish I were wrong. I really want to detect an alien artifact, and would love free energy, cold fusion, and a cure for cancer. I completely understand why these ideas have endless allure and the temptation to engage in a small bit of motivated reasoning to see the science from a particular, if odd, angle. But science does not progress this way. It progresses through the cold and heartless removal of error, by brutally smashing the pillars of our own vanity, fear, and desires, and by controlling for our own biases and shortcomings. I often refer to the peer-review process as a meat-grinder – it chews up and spits out ideas, but there is a product at the end – and that goes right back into the meat-grinder for another round.

One more really tempting idea now bites the dust – the EM Drive. I first wrote about this almost seven years ago. The idea is to create propellantless propulsion. This would revolutionize space travel, and could potentially even create that flying car we always wanted. Now, in the world of physics, in order to accelerate something there needs to be a force acting on it. If you want a rocket to go up, then you need to throw some mass from the rocket down so that the mass and velocities match (equal and opposite). So rockets need propellant, something to throw out their back. Ideally this is something very light that gets accelerated to really high speeds to produce the maximal thrust to the rocket.

While this concept works just fine, it is also extremely limiting, by something known as the rocket equation. The rocket needs to carry enough fuel to accelerate the entire rocket, including all the fuel it is carrying. So it needs fuel to carry the fuel to carry the fuel… This means there is a geometric rather than linear relationship between speed and range and how big a rocket and its fuel has to be. For many chemical rockets the fuel is the propellant; when you ignite it the fuel rapidly heats and expands and gets pushed out the exhaust. Other rocket designs may have a separate energy source and propellant. Ion drives, for example, create energy to power magnets which accelerate charged particles to extreme velocities.

But what if you did not need propellant? What if all you needed was energy, and could somehow use that energy to create thrust without having to throw any matter out the back end? That would drastically alter the rocket equation. This would reduce the cost of space travel and open up the solar system. It might even make it practical to get to nearby stars – in a hundred years we might have a fusion powered ship that can zip around the galaxy at a constant 1G acceleration.

Continue Reading »

No responses yet

Jan 12 2021

SmartDot Scam

Would you be willing to pay $35 for a sticker you put on the back of your phone? What if it had “magical” properties that protect you from something that is not harmful in the first place? That is the idea (it seems to me) behind the SmartDot product, made in the UK. On Amazon they claim: “smartDOT Radiation Protection is a low powered magnet programmed with an intelligent combination of natural harmonizing frequencies which reduces harmful EMF radiation emitted by your wireless devices and alleviate symptoms of electro-stress.”

This is now boilerplate EMF pseudoscience. What are “harmonizing frequencies”? Nothing – this does not even exist as a concept in science. It’s just nice-sounding jargon for the scientifically illiterate. Also, EMF from smartphones are not dangerous and do not cause any known health issues. Further still there is no such thing as “electro-stress”.

One thing I wanted to point out is what happened when the BBC investigated these stickers. They report:

“But University of Surrey tests for BBC News found no evidence of any effect.”

Total lack of surprise there. The stickers were just stickers, with no energy, no field, and no apparent effect that could be detected. The company responded in a typical way – to make their claims essentially unfalsifiable, or at least as difficult as possible to falsify.

“The Devon-based company told BBC News the stickers were programmed with “scalar energy”, which the scientists’ equipment would be unable to detect.”

Continue Reading »

No responses yet

Dec 07 2020

No – Chi Does Not Exist

Published by under Pseudoscience

Recently someone on Quora asked the question – does Chi exist? The answers were mostly positive, which is not surprising given the likely selective nature of who decided to answer. There is, however, a clear answer to this question – no. At least, that is the scientific answer, as much as science can determine a negative. We can be as confident in this answer as saying that Unicorns and Leprehauns don’t exist.

Some of the Quora answers included, “There’s a word for it so it must exist otherwise it would have no word/s about it. Every culture-language-dialect has a word for chi and lots of words to describe the various aspects of chi.”

Of course this is not true. We have words for many concepts that simply don’t exist. See, for example, all of mythology. This may seem like an obvious point to make, and it is, but I think it is common to assume that “where there is smoke there is fire.” If a belief is common enough, it must be at least based on something real. There is also a romanticism about the notion that our treasured mythologies might be based upon some historical reality (even if the details have been altered). We want to believe that there was a real Robin Hood roaming around Sherwood forest, and that Sherlock Holmes was solving cases from 221B Baker Street.

Why would so many cultures believe in a life force like Chi if there was nothing to it? There are many reason. The first is cultural contamination – people moved around the world and their ideas moved with them, even in ancient times. Also, some ideas are obvious or represent something fundamental. It is clear that living things are different from non-living things, but pre-scientific cultures did not have the foundation of knowledge to understand this difference. So they simply attached a word to it – whatever that thing is that make life alive is the “life force” – chi (or qi) in Eastern cultures. The details, however, will vary from culture to culture. Chi was believed to be in the blood, while the Greek’s “pneuma” was in the breath, and the more modern “innate” of chiropractors flows through nerves.

Continue Reading »

No responses yet

Dec 04 2020

A Faraday Cage For Your WiFi

It can be amusing when there are multiple layers of fraud in a single scam, but it’s still a scam. With the holiday shopping season upon us, there are lots of products out there exploiting fear, pseudoscience, and scientific ignorance. The “Large WiFi Router Guard” now available from Amazon is a great example. Let’s unpack how silly this product is.

The seller claims that the router guard, “Blocks about 90% of the EMF large WiFi routers emit including the new 5G.” I’ll get to why some people think they should do this below, but first – let’s consider how nonsensical this very idea is. The entire point of a WiFi router is to take your internet signal and then broadcast it using electromagnetic frequencies in a radius that covers your home or office, typically 50-100 feet. If you need to cover a larger area you can use a repeater, which will pick up the signal and then boost it to extend the range. You can also use a mesh WiFi system which uses multiple devices to give larger and more consistent coverage.

The obvious problem with a WiFi router blocker is that you are blocking the essential function of the router – it can’t work if you are blocking the very signal it is designed to release. The product listing says that it can do this, “without affecting router network speed and performance,” which is impossible. I guess technically you can say that the router is still working, and you have not affected it directly, but you have effectively blocked its speed and performance outside the cage. If you are blocking 90% of the signal, you are blocking 90% of the performance.

As an aside, this product is essentially a small Faraday cage. In that respect, it does actual work in that it will block EMF. A Faraday cage is essentially an enclosure of continuous conducting material. Electrical fields will essentially distribute themselves around this outside conducting material, and those fields will tend to cancel out within cage. So if you are inside a perfect Faraday cage, you are protected from even intense electrical activity happening outside the cage. You can even touch the inside of the cage safely.

This is why, by the way, if you are in your car during a bad electrical storm, or when there is a downed power line nearby – stay in your car. It will act to some degree like a Faraday cage an can protect you.

Continue Reading »

No responses yet

Next »