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 Рa 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 Рawaiting 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.

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