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Seven Rules For Spotting Bogus Science 759

Posted by michael
from the she-blinded-me-with-science dept.
keynet writes "Robert L. Park is a professor of physics at the University of Maryland at College Park and the director of public information for the American Physical Society, wrote a list of warning signs to help federal judges detect scientific nonsense. (OK, so it hasn't worked and the Patent Office sure hasn't got a copy.) As he says, 'There is no scientific claim so preposterous that a scientist cannot be found to vouch for it'. What he doesn't say is that there are plenty more who will invest in it or base legislation on it."
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Seven Rules For Spotting Bogus Science

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  • by gowen (141411) <> on Friday March 07, 2003 @10:05AM (#5457992) Homepage Journal
    On a similar note, surfers may be interested in this crystal homeopathy site [], and the New Scientist article [] that accompanies it. The top left hand corner of the original site is particularly interesting.
  • Huh Wha? (Score:5, Informative)

    by IWannaBeAnAC (653701) on Friday March 07, 2003 @10:08AM (#5458028)
    Can the submitter not even read English?

    As he says, 'There is no scientific claim so preposterous that a scientist cannot be found to vouch for it'. What he doesn't say is that there are plenty more who will invest in it or base legislation on it."

    From the article, the full paragraph of the quote is:

    There is, alas, no scientific claim so preposterous that a scientist cannot be found to vouch for it. And many such claims end up in a court of law after they have cost some gullible person or corporation a lot of money. How are juries to evaluate them?

    The very next sentence indicates that there are very many people who are willing to invest or base laws on bad science!

  • That reminds me... (Score:5, Informative)

    by pyr0 (120990) on Friday March 07, 2003 @10:23AM (#5458168)
    If anyone is interested, check out NCSE's Project Steve []. NCSE is an organization of proper scientists, and their project Steve is sort of a half-joking, half-serious stab at creation pseudo-scientists.

  • by happyDave (155169) on Friday March 07, 2003 @10:31AM (#5458250) Journal
    Incorrect. John Vane discovered how aspirin works in the 1970's. He was a British pharmacalogist who discovered that aspirin inhibits the body's production of prostaglandins. These substances are what your body uses to promote swelling. Aspirin stops the prostaglandins, which reduces the swelling, which reduces the pain, in some instances. Nice try, though. By the way, I'm sure more people will be able to be more specific about how it works.

    You're right about one thing though: it did take a long time.

  • by Daniel Dvorkin (106857) on Friday March 07, 2003 @10:38AM (#5458322) Homepage Journal
    You're a troll, but your points deserve to be addressed, because they're such common myths.

    The "Darwin == Evolution" meme is so thoroughly imprinted in most people's brains that many creationist types seem to use it as evidence that Darwin produced the idea ex nihilo, and what had been a God-fearing, Creation-believing world suddenly turned atheist, evolutionist, and immoral as a result, leading over the next couple of centuries to world wars, eugenics, the Holocaust, and Bill Clinton. In fact, evolution was a theory that itself evolved, and continues to do so to this day; that's pretty much how scientific theories work. Darwin was an important step -- a major internal node in the phylogenetic tree, one might say -- but he wasn't the be-all and end-all, and has numerous "ancestors" and "descendants" in the history of the theory.

    Darwin proposed his "Theory of evolution" in a book. The equivalent of TV as far as popular media at the time goes. Proponents of this claim that it is always being supressed by religious groups, and local government officials.
    He did publish it in a book -- after several of the leading scientists of the day, with years of urging, persuaded him to do so. He was reluctant to do so both because he didn't want to be accused of stealing other people's ideas (kind of a Newton/Leibniz thing, only without the monstrous egos involved) and because he was well of the theological shitstorm he was going to unleash. In modern terms, his work was thoroughly peer-reviewed before On the Origin of Species came out.

    Science is suppressed by ideological forces, governments and churches not least among them. What marks that crank is when he claims that this suppression is being done in secret. Real suppression -- from the Catholic church and Galileo to fundamentalist Protestantism and Darwin to Stalin and anyone whose science case doubt on Communist ideology -- tends to be very blatant.

    Fortunately, they have chosen a theory that can't be proved, and only has anecdotal evidence. Animals 1 000 000 years ago were different, so we must have evolution
    Evolutionary biology is an observational science, not (in most cases, microbiology and some botany excepted) an experimental one. Do you consider the existence of other stars besides the Sun to be "anecdotal evidence" because no one can create a star in a lab? And yet we have just as much observational evidence for evolution, and in fact more laboratory evidence.

    The only way this could possibly be true is for Darwin to propose a new law of nature!
    Darwin was not proposing a new law of nature; the idea of evolution had been around for decades. What he did was to take the hypothesizing of others in the field (e.g. Lamarck) and give it rigorous theoretical underpinnings, much as Einstein took the results of Maxwell's equations to their logical conclusion and explained contradictions in Newtonian mechanics that had bothered generations of physicists before him.
  • by dracken (453199) on Friday March 07, 2003 @10:44AM (#5458399) Homepage
    A more humorous aricle, the Carl Sagan's baloney detection kit can be found here []. It basically tells the same stuff, in a lot more humorous way. Also checkout the section where he points out subtle flaws in arguments that everybody uses (and falls for).
  • Rules for judges (Score:5, Informative)

    by guacamolefoo (577448) on Friday March 07, 2003 @10:56AM (#5458520) Homepage Journal
    Judges and attorneys are quite cognizant of "junk science" in the courtroom. Keep in mind that there is (usually) an attorney on each side of a case. There is also a judge that doesn't want to look like a fool. To this end there is what is called the Daubert test for determining whether testimony of an expert witness is admissible in court. This, in a nutshell, looks essentially to whether the proposed expert testimony or opinion is based on good science.

    Five criteria are used:
    1. Is the expert qualified?
    2. Is the expert's opinion supported by scientific reasoning and methodology?
    3. Is the expert's opinion supported by reliable data?
    4. Does the expert's opinion fit the facts of the case (relevance)?
    5. Does the expert opinion qualify under general evidentiary rules of Federal Rule of Evidence 403?

    Criterion 2, above, relies on determinations as to whether a scientific theory can or has been tested; what the error rates are; whether a theory has been subjected to peer review and publication (these are not dispositive, but they are certainly considered by the court and if they are missing, hackles are raised); whether a theory is generally accepted in the scientific community or whether it i ssubject to debate still; and whether the details of the case "fit" the theory.

    A "Daubert" hearing is usually convened if any of the above are in question, and the judge rules on whether expert testimony should be permitted. The experts C.V. and the materials he relies upon in the case, as well as his expert report (prepared prior to trial) are all discoverable, so there are no surprises either at the Daubert hearing or at trial.

    If a case has enough at stake to require an expert to testify, generally there will be a competing expert. This gives you a dueling experts scenario (cue the music from "Deliverance") where bought and paid for experts contradict each other, in whole or in part.

    The primary issue usually then becomes credibility which unfortunately usually is not based on scientific validity, but is instead based on more subjective criteria. Qualifications also come into play -- the guy from Harvard usually beats the guy from Podunk State all else being equal. Fair? Not really, but it is reality.

    The problem with legal disputes and science is that you cannot set up special courts for every case in which science is a key issue. It would fracture jurisdiction even further. Besides, specialization doesn't really help because every case involves different science.

    There is no way a tribunal can be all-knowing. For some limited types of cases that recur frequently, there may be some benefit to setting up specialized courts. Unfortunately, after you get past the trial, at some point it is impossible to set up specialized appellate courts to hear appeals. Laymen will be involved in the process at some point.

  • Reduced to one book (Score:5, Informative)

    by Epeeist (2682) on Friday March 07, 2003 @10:58AM (#5458551) Homepage
    A better set of rules is in Carl Sagan's book "The Demon Haunted World".

    Karl Popper has a hard nosed approach
    1. Is it testable (at least in principle)?
    2. Is it falsifiable?

    If either of these don't apply then it isn't science.
  • Religion != Science (Score:5, Informative)

    by prof_bart (637876) on Friday March 07, 2003 @10:59AM (#5458561)
    Young earthism and Intelligent Design need to be differentiated.

    Young Earthism attempts to make scientific statements, and fails the tests of observation. (ie, attempts to describe the history of the Universe, and is quite falsifiable). So Young Earthism is bad science, **not religion**.

    Intelligent Design says that a Designer is behind the behavior of the universe, but makes no scientific statements, and can not be falsified observationally, so it is not science: it is Religion, **not science**. For the beliver in Intelligent Design, scientific observations about the behavior and history of the Universe tell about God's nature (since, by presumption, God exists). For the non-beliver, they do not (since, by presumption, there is no God). But science can make no (firm) statement about which is true.

    Religious descisions (for both the believer and the non-believer) are descisions of faith and experience. No amount of science will (or can) ever change this.

  • Galileo (Score:5, Informative)

    by Johnny Mnemonic (176043) <[mdinsmore] [at] []> on Friday March 07, 2003 @11:03AM (#5458609) Homepage Journal

    I'm not a scientfic historian, but couldn't points "2. The discoverer says that a powerful establishment is trying to suppress his or her work." and "7. The discoverer must propose new laws of nature to explain an observation" be used to discredit a scientist on the order of Galileo? Or, for that matter, couldn't 7 and "6. The discoverer has worked in isolation" be used against Einstein? I am sure to be corrected if wrong, but I always kinda thought Einstein worked pretty much in isolation.

    So these aren't a litmus test--just a leaning.
  • by David Jao (2759) <> on Friday March 07, 2003 @11:07AM (#5458654) Homepage
    to this day almost all advances in pure math are made by single people working alone.

    No way. Do you have a research degree in mathematics (e.g. Ph.D.)? If not, then you're not in a position to know how research mathematics is done.

    I would certainly agree that pure math is more amenable to solo progress than any other science, but to say "almost all advances" are done solo is going way too far.

    These days, even if you work alone, you are still utterly dependent on conferences, seminars, and publications by others in the community. No mathematician can get far today without other people helping. If nothing else, you need to know what others are doing so that you do not duplicate their work.

  • by edremy (36408) on Friday March 07, 2003 @11:12AM (#5458702) Journal

    the small science has been done.

    Not really. A lot of small science has been done, but there's lots left. (Note: I'm defining small as "Can be done with a single investigator, a few grad students and a modest NSF grant" as opposed to projects in high-energy physics where the author list is longer than the paper.)

    Want an instant Nobel prize? Come up with an equivalent to BCS theory for high-TC superconductivity. My bet is that this is going to come out of a group of no more than 5.

    Amateurs can still make significant discoveries in astronomy, paleotology or geology with equipment you can buy in Wal-Mart. Shoemaker-Levy-9 was an amateur find. A friend of mine in college stumbled across a fossil while looking at sediments in a local stream: the fossil was of a walrus that wasn't thought to exist anywhere in North America or anywhere near the time is was dated to: various scientists had to recheck their assumptions of what the climate was like at that time and place when he published.

    As you point out, there is a *lot* of science in computational biology out there still: cheap Linux clusters bring the price of this kind of work way down. I could afford to do it at home if I had the time. Saying this is a new field is somewhat disengenuous: virtually all non-trivial new discoveries come in "new" fields. Major discoveries create those new fields in the first place.

  • Re: Oh puhleaase. (Score:3, Informative)

    by Black Parrot (19622) on Friday March 07, 2003 @11:33AM (#5458913)

    > Evolution, for example, would not be easy to falsify

    Actually, evolution runs a risk of falsification every time someone sequences some DNA or digs a fossil out of the ground.

    It simply has a stunning track record on the falsifiability issue.

    Notice, for instance, that when Darwin published it he was predicting that there exists some mechanism for generating variation and passing it on to offspring. Then notice that he published before Mendel did.

  • by Jon Abbott (723) on Friday March 07, 2003 @12:08PM (#5459200) Homepage
    I agree with you about the rarity of "lone rangers" in pure math... Even though Andrew Wiles [] constructed a proof to Fermat's Last Theorem in isolation, he still relied on the previous works of Gerhard Frey, Barry Mazur, Kenneth Ribet, Karl Rubin, Jean-Pierre Serre (this is from the article linked above). Standing on the shoulders of giants, indeed...
  • by jakedata (585566) on Friday March 07, 2003 @12:24PM (#5459377)

    They were supposed to protect us from crap science. Then they were disbanded.

    I guess REAL science is just too hard to deal with. It rudely remains the same no matter how much wishful thinking or political pressure is brought to bear.

    Mumbo jumbo pseudo-science is much easier to deal with. It is whatever you want it to be. It changes whenever the political expedient demands.
  • Re:Typical Slashdot (Score:5, Informative)

    by abigor (540274) on Friday March 07, 2003 @12:36PM (#5459493)
    OK, you seem to be a little confused. What gets dated are the layers of deposition ON TOP of your cat, not the dirt under it. Geological deposition happens in layers of strata; go to the seaside and look at an eroded-out bank. You can see layers of clay, ash, sand, perhaps midden from some ancient group, and so forth.

    Agreed, dating by strata is a bit uncertain at times - in the absence of any other evidence, all you can really say is "this is older than that, because this is underneath that." But the presence of dateable bits in the strata itself, or of well-known events (a layer of ash may correspond to some well-known volcanic eruption, for example) allows scientists to more accurately assign an absolute date range to the item at hand (your cat).

    Read a first-year archeology textbook for more information, and then come to your own conclusion.
  • Scientific Scrutiny (Score:5, Informative)

    by Angram (517383) on Friday March 07, 2003 @12:41PM (#5459556)
    But science can make no (firm) statement about which is true.

    Not quite. One of the most important parts of any theory is parsimony. Creationism violates this, and therefore science can discount it.

    It boils down to a simple hypothetical conversation.

    Creationist: Where did the universe come from?
    Scientist: I can't say for certain.
    Creationist: God created the universe.
    Scientist: Where did God come from?
    Creationist: I can't say for certain.

    Basically, you add to the equation, but don't get any answers. The question of 'Where did X come from?' is posed, and saying 'X=Y' is unneccessary and unparsimonious. You can't bring 'Y' into the equation unless it will bring you closer to an answer. Creationists do so, with the claim that science cannot discount it, but science can, and does, say it is incorrect. True, science can't change your 'beliefs', but you can believe 2+2=5, but there's no reason for that to be taken seriously.

    Creationism isn't outside the realm of science, but claiming it is is the only way to keep it around.
  • by robbo (4388) <slashdot@simra.PASCALnet minus language> on Friday March 07, 2003 @12:49PM (#5459651)
    One the whole, I think this article is solid, but one thing that troubles me is the urging to not listen to someone who cites an establishment that is opposed to their evidence. There are plenty of examples where scientific evidence was supressed in order to achieve a particular agenda (think tobacco and lung cancer, vehicle safety in the 70s, and drug safety to name only the biggest). The author should at least acknowledge this issue and suggest as a rule to be highly skeptical of evidence presented by someone who has billions of dollars in profit at stake.
  • by gorilla (36491) on Friday March 07, 2003 @01:03PM (#5459819)
    The scientific name for the origin of life is Abiogenesis, and you're quite right that it's a seperate and disjoint theory from the origin of the species (evolution).
  • by kris_lang (466170) on Friday March 07, 2003 @01:13PM (#5459947)
    Exactly. ID proponents, a Mr. Johnson (a lawyer), and Michael Behe (a biochemist, author of Darwin's Black Box) try to use scientific precepts to bolster creationist ideas and to denigrate Darwin's theory of evolution.

    The basic concept behind irreducible complexity is an attack on Richard Dawkins' ideas in The Blind Watchmaker. Dawkins compares evolution to a blind watchmaker who puts together or creates a watch from a jumble of parts without knowing what they are. Behe presents certain systems (the visual system and the hemocoagulation cascade) and shows how there are interlocking and interdependent components within them. The eye needs both the lens and cornea and the retina. A retina without a lens and cornea does not get a focused image. A lens and cornea without a retina will focus an image, but there will be nothing there to receive it. Behe thus postulates that this is a chicken and egg problem: neither could have come first and neither has any reason to evolve without the simultaneous co-evolution of the other, thus he states that the only possible solution is that there must be a designer, an intelligent designer who created this interlocking system. Behe also presents the interlocking biochemical cascade of clotting factors in a similar argument. He is wrong.

    The examination of multiple species shows multiple conserved elements of the visual system: certain cratures have different types of lenses, others have no lenses at all and only have eyecups with physical depressions that concentrate reflected light. Starfish and molluscs have different types of photoreceptors, and plants and single celled organisms have simple photoreceptors that are very similar to the G-protein opsins that we humans have and which serve a similar function: to transduce light into a biochemical signal.

    Behe's arguments are testable and are becoming less relevent as more people become aware of them and of the arguments against them.

  • by rdmiller3 (29465) on Friday March 07, 2003 @01:26PM (#5460094) Journal
    I highly recommend Carl Sagan's "Baloney Detection Kit" as described in his book, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark []. Instead of just "warning signs" of bogus science, he gives some objective tests which can be applied to nearly any scientific claim.

    If it matches any of the baloney detection tests it's not just a wishy-washy might-be "warning sign", it's proof that some part of the claim is bogus.

    And for the curious, please...

    It's the rudest thing I've ever seen in my life, and does a horrible discredit to the memory of the man.


  • Re:Typical Slashdot (Score:5, Informative)

    by abigor (540274) on Friday March 07, 2003 @01:35PM (#5460204)
    No, you're still not getting it - the layers on top of your cat are known to be younger than the cat. Now, if the layer was formed by some known event - say, ash from Krakatoa - then we know the cat is older than that, but younger than the previous event. If there is biological material embedded in the sediment, then that is dateable. And so forth. PLEASE read an introductory text on sediment dating; very interesting stuff. And, to counter your arguements about what "evolutionists" (scientists) ignore, keep in mind that dating is a scientific process that uses techniques drawn from physics, biology and chemistry - "evolutionists", then, are scientists trained in these disciplines.

    Finally, we have excellent ideas about sediment deposition - there is an entire science dedicated to dirt and its formation. Just because you don't understand it, or it doesn't make sense to you/your church/your belief system, doesn't mean it's not a well-understood process. Please do some reading.
  • Bogus Science (Score:3, Informative)

    by kshaw (657394) on Friday March 07, 2003 @02:27PM (#5460764)
    Here are some other good sources: Carl Sagan's Baloney Detection Kit htm Baloney Detection How to draw boundaries between science and pseudoscience, Part I By Michael Shermer 00D743A-CC5C-1C6E-84A9809EC588EF21 and 00ADC77-B274-1C6E-84A9809EC588EF21
  • by Animats (122034) on Friday March 07, 2003 @02:58PM (#5461136) Homepage
    #3 is the most important one. Effects that stay near the noise threshold, even after much work, probably are noise. Parapsychology has been there for a century.

    This happens in Big Science, too. Neutrino detection experiments detect very few neutrinos. Most attempts to experimentally verify general relativity also have problems. (The precession of the orbit of Mercury [] is tiny, and mostly accounted for by effects from other planets.) But that work has been repeated multiple times using different techniques by different people, which yields some confidence. Still, there's no single killer result in either area.

    As for suppressed inventions, those are rare, but they do exist. A major attempt was made by MagneTek (later Universal Manufacturing), which made old-style inductive fluorescent lamp ballasts, to suppress the electronic fluorescent lamp ballast. Litigation [] resulted. The lone inventor won. The verdict was for about $96 million. This created the compact fluorescent lamp industry.

  • by young-earth (560521) <{slash-young-earth} {at} {}> on Friday March 07, 2003 @03:05PM (#5461206)
    If you read his rule 2:
    2. The discoverer says that a powerful establishment is trying to suppress his or her work. The idea is that the establishment will presumably stop at nothing to suppress discoveries that might shift the balance of wealth and power in society. Often, the discoverer describes mainstream science as part of a larger conspiracy that includes industry and government. Claims that the oil companies are frustrating the invention of an automobile that runs on water, for instance, are a sure sign that the idea of such a car is baloney. In the case of cold fusion, Pons and Fleischmann blamed their cold reception on physicists who were protecting their own research in hot fusion.
    His examples are quite accurate. But there are counter-examples; most radical ideas are attacked by the establishment early on. Galileo is the obvious one (he was actually attacked more by the scientific establishment than the Pope, though certainly the Catholic Church was part of the attempt to suppress). When de Broglie came up with the wavicle concept (1927??) his professors were about to toss him out when they mentioned his idea as a joke to Einstein. Einstein thought it was a brilliant insight, and so he got his PhD and was published. Were it not for that one event, de Broglie's theorem might have taken a lot longer time to gain acceptance.

    Timex appealed to the government to block digital watch imports. When they lost, they decided to compete instead of complain, and have done very well since. But most times the entrenched old guard is displaced, which is why they fight so hard to keep the riffraff out.

    The point here is simple: there is a tyranny of the status quo. Look at Microsoft - they are not trivial to displace from a monopolistic position; neither are corporations and universities that have a vested interest in gradual instead of rapid, massive change.

    Gradualism is always more accepted by the powers that be than revolution. Remember the old adage: evolution not revolution. That's what the powers in place want to see, they do not want to see something that will displace them. And when they hold the power, they will act in their own interest the vast majority of the time. If a Star-Trek transporter were invented, imagine how the airlines and automobile manufacturers would fight it and would fund studies showing how dangerous or energy inefficient it was. Their survival would be at stake, and they'd fight to stay around. Yet their vigor in fighting would not be indicative of whether transporters were useful.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday March 07, 2003 @03:32PM (#5461446)
    "Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science", by Martin Gardner (former "Mathematical Recreations" columnist for Scientific American). Though this book is decades old now, many of the same old hoaxes are still going strong. Some guy named Hubbard is featured prominently (didn't he start some religion?). Look in used book stores or at the library; I think it's out of print. Sorry, I'm not selling my copy on eBay.
  • Re:Huh? (Score:3, Informative)

    by edremy (36408) on Friday March 07, 2003 @05:50PM (#5462858) Journal
    Many metals (and a few non-metals like polyacetylene) superconduct (lose all electrical resistance) when cooled to a few degrees above absolute zero. The temperature where superconductivity starts is known as the critical temperature TC

    Bardeen, Cooper and Schrieffer figured out how this works back in the 50s: see a quick intro here []. They won the Nobel for BCS theory in 1971.

    However, the highest temperature found (and predicted possible) for a conventional BCS superconductor was about 30K. In the mid-80s a group found ceramics that superconducted at 35K, there are now ones known that superconduct at 77K at room pressure. (Important since you can use cheap, easy to store liquid nitrogen to cool rather than very expensive liquid helium.) These materials became known as high-TC superconductors.

    Nobody knows how these work, although there are a lot of people trying to find out. A workable theory that explained how this happens while ruling out the other competing theories would get you a Nobel in short order. Manage to come up with one that can predict the composition of a room temperature variety and you'll be rich beyond the dreams of avarice.

  • by junkgrep (266550) on Friday March 07, 2003 @05:51PM (#5462874)
    Yep. People get this wrong all the time, but Occam's Razor is NOT "the simplest explanation is always the best! LOL!" It's an explanatory principle: when you use it, you're not simply speculating about what might or might not exist, you are trying to explain various phenomena by way of other phenomena. The Razor basically asks us not to invent a completely new extraneous entity when we can explain something without doing so: using simply the raw material what we already know.

Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration. -- Thomas Alva Edison