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Seven Rules For Spotting Bogus Science 759

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 ralphart ( 70342 ) on Friday March 07, 2003 @09:56AM (#5457965)
    With so many judges being appointed for purely ideological reasons, it may be a bit much to ask that they be expected to be concerned about scientific nonsense. Can you spell Creationism?
    • by Daniel Dvorkin ( 106857 ) on Friday March 07, 2003 @10:10AM (#5458041) Homepage Journal
      Well, yeah, and although he doesn't mention it, "Intelligent Design" fails pretty much every one of his tests. The Biblical-literalist/"Young Earth" creationists at least don't pretend to be scientific -- their beliefs boil down to "God said it, I believe it, that settles it" -- which makes them less dangerous to our educational system. But the ID crowd have done a really good job of getting courts and legislatures to listen to their psuedoscientific babble.
      • Yes, but let us have some sympathy for the strong religious believers. Humans are genetically predisposed to religion, to believing in a supernatual creator who loves us or hates us. As such, it is hard for people to overcome religion even when all evidence is to the contrary. Equally, we are wired to understand basic physics, so we should sypmathize with how difficult it is for us to understand quantum mechanics.

        We have instinctual systems that make it hard to apply these seven rules, and it helps to be aware that people who seem to believe lies are mostly following their gut.

        • by Reziac ( 43301 )
          I'd simplify that somewhat: humans are hardwired to tribalism, and to look to a tribal leader for guidance. It need not be some remote spiritual being -- it can even be a human leader who sets themselves up as the local "god".

        • by shams42 ( 562402 )

          Humans are genetically predisposed to religion...

          Really? Pray, which genes are responsible for this phenomenon?

          Blaming everything on god is one kind of pseudoscience, blaming everything on genes is another.

        • by EatHam ( 597465 )
          As such, it is hard for people to overcome religion even when all evidence is to the contrary

          I would argue that you can neither prove nor disprove the existance of a supernatural creator. Depending on your perspective, there is just as much evidence for one view as the other. Not a troll - just saying that you can't prove the unprovable. Nor can you disprove it.
      • 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.

        • 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 Jerf ( 17166 )
            Close, but not quite.

            All else being equal, science will consider the simpler explanation more likely to be true. Both of the italicized phrases are very importent.

            The simplest possible theory of everything is simply "God wills it thus." You invoke one entity, and don't muck around with gravity, electomagnetism, etc. You even get some predictive power: "God wills that apples fall, so when I drop this apple, it will fall."

            The reason that science discounts this theory is not that it has a simpler one. Quite the contrary; just try to learn quantum mechanics in anything less then five or ten years. What it has is a theory that predicts things much better. "God wills it" doesn't work well as the only theory of the universe, because it's a disguised form of appeal to experience, and there are a lot of edge cases, such as the famous gold foil experiment that gave strong evidence for the existance of atoms, where your experience isn't sufficient.

            First, the point is that given two theories that make the same prediction, science prefers the simpler one. Second, the point is that that means nothing about the truth of such theories; the more complicated one may still be correct.

            Thus, if there is a God who did indeed create the universe, then there is one, regardless of how the additional apparent complication may offend your sensibilities. Thus, Occam's Razor is only a rule of thumb useful for proceeding with scientific discovery; it is not a fundamental truth of the universe and has no power.

            Finally, in this particular case the true paradox is "Something, instead of nothing, exists." "God exists and created a universe" and "A universe exists" are really on the same level of complexity; both simply assert something exists. From our point of view it may seem simpler to simply assume the existance of a universe, but again, that has no power over what is true. A pet bird that never leaves a house may find it easier to simply assume the existance of a house, but that doesn't mean that the house was not created by humans and lots of raw materials that weren't a house to start with, even if it never sees the humans of the house do anything remotely resembling construction.
    • by spakka ( 606417 ) on Friday March 07, 2003 @10:10AM (#5458043)
      'Creation' preceding the word 'science' should have been one of the indicators.
    • 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 [ncseweb.org]. 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 guacamolefoo ( 577448 ) on Friday March 07, 2003 @11:01AM (#5458589) Homepage Journal
      With so many judges being appointed for purely ideological reasons, it may be a bit much to ask that they be expected to be concerned about scientific nonsense. Can you spell Creationism?

      1. Elected judges are not much better vis-a-vis science.

      2. An appointed judge may be in a position not to care what people think of his decision and be less likely therefore to be swayed by ideological reasoning.

      3. Most judges I work with on a daily basis want to (1) do the right thing and (2) become less, rather than more, ideological from the first day that they put on the robes.

    • Can you spell Creationism?

      Are you trying to suggest that judicial activism [eagleforum.org] is an exclusive phenomenon of the religious right? I've seen many recent and amazing examples of selective memory with regard to the behavior [williamcooper.com] of past administrations. When we religious folk practice such selective reasoning, the word most often used to describe it is, I believe, hypocrisy.

  • by Registered Coward v2 ( 447531 ) on Friday March 07, 2003 @10:02AM (#5457981)
    will of course point to this list as yet more proof of the gov'ment trying to silence them.
  • Dangit... (Score:4, Funny)

    by TopShelf ( 92521 ) on Friday March 07, 2003 @10:03AM (#5457985) Homepage Journal
    Does this mean all those infomercials for "like-magic" healing bracelets on TV might be bogus to? These rules seem tailor-made for them.

    Owwww, my wrists!!! I think the placebo effect is wearing off... Curse you, /.!

    • Every day I take a big placebo. It works for me!
    • Re:Dangit... (Score:3, Interesting)

      by DrXym ( 126579 )
      I went into Boots the other day (a large chemist chain in the UK and Ireland). On sale (at the pharmacy counter) no less was a gold plated stress relief bracelet for 44. On the front of the plastic packing it said "believed by many to relieve stress".

      In other words it doesn't do a damned thing. I'm sure in some cultures past or present, ludicrous notions such as drinking tea made from horse shit, sleeping on a bed of dead fish or smearing pig fat in your armpits would be "believed by many to relieve stress". It doesn't mean it actually does.

      Shame on Boots the Chemist for selling this junk and various other homeopathic / aromatherapy 'remedies'. Is it any wonder why people believe in this nonsense when a 'reputable' company like Boots peddles such shit from its pharmacy counter? If they sell it, it must work right?

  • by gowen ( 141411 ) <gwowen@gmail.com> on Friday March 07, 2003 @10:05AM (#5457992) Homepage Journal
    On a similar note, surfers may be interested in this crystal homeopathy site [the-crystal-chamber.net], and the New Scientist article [newscientist.com] that accompanies it. The top left hand corner of the original site is particularly interesting.
  • by CFBMoo1 ( 157453 ) on Friday March 07, 2003 @10:05AM (#5457993) Homepage
    8. Logically if it weighs as much as a duck, it must float. Since it floats it's made of wood, and therefore!
    A WITCH!!!!!!!
  • Rule #1 (Score:3, Funny)

    by SpanishInquisition ( 127269 ) on Friday March 07, 2003 @10:05AM (#5458003) Homepage Journal
    If you saw it on slashdot, there's a good chance it's a hoax.
  • Only need one rule (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Bitter Cup O Joe ( 146008 ) on Friday March 07, 2003 @10:05AM (#5458005)
    Is it too good to be true? That is pretty much the only thing you need to check. Simple antigravity? Too good to be true. Car that runs on water? Too good to be true. Honest politician? Too good to be true.

    The big problem is that people are greedy, lazy, and generally lacking in common sense. Another set of rules isn't going to change that.
  • Fantastic guidelines for a part of society that has influence over the direction of law and has no basis for understanding fact from fiction.
  • by GeckoUK ( 58633 ) on Friday March 07, 2003 @10:06AM (#5458017)
    Why did he release these so called new "rules" direct to the media instead of having them peer reviewed first? I smell a rat :)
  • 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!

  • Hmmm, (Score:5, Insightful)

    by xA40D ( 180522 ) on Friday March 07, 2003 @10:09AM (#5458032) Homepage
    I have identified seven indicators that a scientific claim lies well outside the bounds of rational scientific discourse. Of course, they are only warning signs -- even a claim with several of the signs could be legitimate.

    I just know the above disclaimer will be ignored by most. Which makes the whole thing a bit dangerous. Afterall, according to the rules, Quantum Physics could be considered bogus.
    • Huh? (Score:5, Interesting)

      by jbennetto ( 41159 ) on Friday March 07, 2003 @10:35AM (#5458294)
      Afterall, according to the rules, Quantum Physics could be considered bogus.

      By which of these rules, exactly? Even when it was first proposed, Quantum physics was NOT pitched directly to the media, was NOT claimed to be suppressed by the establishment, was NOT at the edge of detection, was NOT based on anecdotal evidence, was NOT based on centuries-old information, and was NOT developed by one person in isolation. Yes, it was a radically new theory that descriped new laws of nature, but atomic-scale physics was already known to be different, since Rutherford and before.

      Yes, science is often weird and disturbing and hard to understand, but that's not a reason to confuse it with pseudo-science.

      (Anti-disclaimer: IAAP)
  • (from the article)

    There is, alas, no scientific claim so preposterous that a scientist cannot be found to vouch for it.

    Which means that at some point these seven points are going to be debunked by one of these guns for hire scientists :D
  • by phrantic ( 630202 ) on Friday March 07, 2003 @10:14AM (#5458071)
    ....The Patent and Trademark Office recently issued Patent 6,362,718 for a physically impossible motionless electromagnetic generator....

    For sale desgin for Flux capacitor, will pay shipping in US....

  • by llamalicious ( 448215 ) on Friday March 07, 2003 @10:14AM (#5458075) Journal
    1. Scientist making claim lives in isolation in the cellar of a large mansion or castle.
    2. Scientist's hair is pure white, sticks out perpendicular to his/her head at all tangents, and/or carries it's own, large static electric charge
    3. You are not allowed to view the creation because "you could be working for them"
    4. You are told you cannot understand the principles involved with the new creation because your brain is not sufficiently advanced to comprehend it.
    5. The invention/revelation has been "coming real soon now" for so long that no one remembers what the hell they're waiting for.
    6. The scientist has an assistant named Igor, Quasimodo, Hand, Pinky, etc.
    7. The invention/claim is patented at the USPTO.
  • by BenjyD ( 316700 ) on Friday March 07, 2003 @10:14AM (#5458079)
    For judges that don't have time to read the whole article:

    "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." -- Carl Sagan.
  • Peer Review (Score:3, Insightful)

    by pyr0 ( 120990 ) on Friday March 07, 2003 @10:14AM (#5458081)
    I think his whole list can be summed up by this question: has it been reviewed by a panel of the "scientists" peers and subsequently published in a respected journal? If the science is too bogus to pass this, then likely most or all of his points apply.

  • Wiggle room (Score:2, Insightful)

    by The Stranger ( 24022 )
    The points made in the article are apt, but I worry that some of them may sound a bit too much like "common sense." Just as Park points out that modern scientists have learned to distrust isolated anecdotes as evidence, I have found that I am learning to distrust common sense. There are too many instances when the commonly accepted way of thinking about something is wrong.

    I'm not a conspiracy theorist, so I'm not automatically inclined to believe in, for instance, claims that a powerful establishment is suppressing certain scientific work (Park's point 2). However, I think we should be careful about dismissing out of hand the possibility that the establishment might stop at nothing to suppress discoveries that might shift the balance of wealth and power in society. Instead of making this a criterion for junk science, perhaps we should be sensitive to the influence of the establishment. After all, we're willing to question research that is funded by a party that has something to gain by the results. Why not keep an eye out for cases where the opposite might be happening?

    I suppose what I'm saying is that we should allow for some wiggle room in our interpretation of Park's criteria. Park seems to think so too- just before he gives his list, he notes that "even a claim with several of the signs could be legitimate."

  • by feed_me_cereal ( 452042 ) on Friday March 07, 2003 @10:16AM (#5458097)
    Why don't they just use the Crackpot Index [ucr.edu] to judge them?
    • What would have really been useful was a version of this test to apply to business plans in the high-tech industry so that VCs didn't go chasing after fool's gold.

      Of course, what happened is that we had the high-tech bubble which then popped. Now the VCs are so suspicious that very few high-tech business plans ever attract funding.

  • From the article: Ancient folk wisdom, rediscovered or repackaged, is unlikely to match the output of modern scientific laboratories.

    Now would be a good time to point out that science still doesn't understand how aspirin (derived from salicylic acid, which was discovered at least 2000 years ago, works.
    • 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 caffeineboy ( 44704 ) <(ude.uso) (ta) (22.eromdiks)> on Friday March 07, 2003 @10:17AM (#5458101)
    This is just a shortened version of The physics Crackpot Index [ucr.edu].

    It's written for physics but seems to apply pretty well to any science...

  • by Raindeer ( 104129 ) on Friday March 07, 2003 @10:18AM (#5458114) Homepage Journal
    At university I was given several courses in Methodology, not all of them fun unfortunately, but all of them relevant. Certainly in my current work as a government employee I continuously see claims being made by government and private sector alike which are shaky at best. I still value what I learned in Methodology to judge those.

    Methodology or anything that teaches kids to discern right from wrong should be taught in schools, so that we can protect ourselves from wrong ideas based in nothing. This could be by just explaining kids how you can know something is true and when something hasn't been proven yet, but might be true and when things are real BS. (BBC's Panorama had an illusionist who debunked the claims of homeopathy. Entertaining and educational)

    I also have one fundamental rule I adher by: Never trust data given by the person that is going to benefit from the decision you make upon it.

  • by Jack William Bell ( 84469 ) on Friday March 07, 2003 @10:19AM (#5458119) Homepage Journal
    "The most important discovery of modern medicine is not vaccines or antibiotics, it is the randomized double-blind test..."
  • by Daniel Dvorkin ( 106857 ) on Friday March 07, 2003 @10:19AM (#5458122) Homepage Journal
    6. The discoverer has worked in isolation. The image of a lone genius who struggles in secrecy in an attic laboratory and ends up making a revolutionary breakthrough is a staple of Hollywood's science-fiction films, but it is hard to find examples in real life. Scientific breakthroughs nowadays are almost always syntheses of the work of many scientists.
    This one is important because "big science" is a favorite villain of both pseudoscientists and cost-cutting lawmakers. What the lawmakers don't get -- and the pseudoscientists, I suspect, know but choose to disregards -- is that big science is the way most science gets done these days because the small science has been done. Alexander Fleming leaving a couple of dishes next to each other and discovering penicillin, or Robert Goddard and a team of dedicated fanatics working day and night to build the foundations of space flight, are powerful images; the "Eureka!" moment is every scientist's dream. But in well-established fields such as microbiology and aerospace, those moments have all pretty much happened; we need the big expensive labs with bunches of people working on expensive equipment, because that's how new discoveries and inventions get made.

    The only real exception to this is in new fields, such as computational biology; sometimes a whole new way of looking at the world comes along, and for a few years -- even decades -- the frontiers are wide open. Quantum physics was an example of this in its early years. At that moment, individuals and small groups and big organizations are roughly on a level playing field. But once the easy discoveries in the field have been made, the balance tilts back toward big science. That's just the way it is.
    • Well said, and you would get an 'Insightful' mod if I had one.

      But you did forget one thing; to this day almost all advances in pure math are made by single people working alone. Often after years of thinking about a single problem to the exclusion of everything else (including food and hygene).
      • 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.

        • I agree with you about the rarity of "lone rangers" in pure math... Even though Andrew Wiles [counton.org] 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...
    • 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.

  • by Badgerman ( 19207 ) on Friday March 07, 2003 @10:20AM (#5458143)
    I'm all for spotting bogus science. The problem with some of these rules is assuming:
    A) That there's always a friendly attitude towards actual innovation in science.
    B) That there's no corruption in "accepted" scientific communities.

    The "respected" scientists of various fields can be manipulated and manipulating, have their own vested interests, and have their reasons to be questioned as well.

    That being said, I think a lot of these are spot-on, and that people do need the knowledge to ask good questions and spot frauds.

  • by HedRat ( 613308 ) on Friday March 07, 2003 @10:23AM (#5458165)
    ...should be: if it has a missing step before Profit!, it's probably bogus.
  • by Simon Hibbs ( 74836 ) on Friday March 07, 2003 @10:31AM (#5458247)

    Warning sign number 2 :

    >2. The discoverer says that a powerful establishment is trying to suppress
    >his or her work.

    Well, a member of the secret scientific establishment brotherhood would say that, wouldn't he?

    I'd like to add another tell-tale sign :

    8. The scientific study was funded or conducted under the auspices of a media company.

    Recently in the UK we've had a number of TV documentaries about controversial theories. One was an investigation into homeopathic medicine. The other was into the idea that otherwise very mild diseases might lead to obesity. In both cases the TV company funded a small scale test.

    The problem was that the tests involved only about 100 subjects, far too small to have any statistical validity whatsoever. They said so in the show, but is that enough? Several people I've talked to afterwards recieved the impression that the tests in the show proved something.

    Far from promoting an understanding of science, the shows succeeded in missleading the public not only as to the validity of the theories under examination, but also as to the value of such small scale tests.

    I've never come across this kind of thing in the UK before, is this happening on TV in other countries too?

    Simon Hibbs
  • by eurostar ( 608330 ) on Friday March 07, 2003 @10:38AM (#5458317)
    Ho ! these laws can also be used to detect religeous bunk...
  • by pyrrhos ( 227998 ) on Friday March 07, 2003 @10:53AM (#5458480)
    I personally agree with is list since this is aproximately how I also evaluate any new idea.

    However, more generally, making rules for evaluating innovation is a dangerous thing. Like art, there are no rules of what is art and what is not and creating rules for that can only be tyrannic. Who's to decide? There are plenty of scientists working alone in their backyard, UFO's might exist, and extrasensory comunication is not much more freaky than the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen distant-action paradox.

    By the way, this list rules out the validity of religion as well on all seven points :-)

  • 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.

  • by The Famous Brett Wat ( 12688 ) on Friday March 07, 2003 @10:59AM (#5458564) Homepage Journal
    It's true that most bad science is accompanied by some or all of the listed conditions, but I note that none of the conditions really say anything about "the scientific method", for any reasonable definition of that phrase. Consider.
    1. Whilst it's true that a charlatan will probably prefer to take his chances with the gullible masses directly, pitching a theory to the media does not, in itself, impact the validity of the claim.
    2. Claims that the work is being suppressed by a powerful establishment are a convenient excuse for the charlatan with nothing real to demonstrate, but there is a certain credibility to the idea that, say, the oil industry might engage in dirty tricks against someone who threatened their position. And again, claims of interference do not directly impact the validity of the theory itself.
    3. Plenty of real scientific research happens at the limits of detection. As I recall, Einstein's relativity was an example of this at the time he proposed it. Quantum physics and the outer limits of astronomy are further examples.
    4. Anecdotal evidence is dodgy, I agree, but no less dodgy than grand claims about evolutionary ancestry that are made on the basis of a single incomplete fossil find from time to time. A theory like the Big Bang Theory gets treated with respect in scientific circles, despite the fact that all the evidence is circumstantial, and the historical aspects of paleontology and geology are taken seriously despite the fact that the concept of a "randomized double-blind test" isn't even applicable to most of the work in those areas.
    5. Antiquity does not essentialy validate or invalidate any claim; nor does novelty. Even so, ideas that endure for a long time may do so because they are at least partly true. It would be arrogant to suppose that science can't get a few good leads from folklore now and then.
    6. The isolation of the discoverer does not directly impact the validity of the claim. Sometimes a radical new idea requires an outside thinker. Examples may be few, but they do happen. Einstein and relativity might be a fitting example, again.
    7. Proposing new laws is a serious problem when said laws flatly contradict other well established laws. Energy-yielding perpetual motion systems would contradict what we know about conservation of energy, for example, which is a very well demonstrated principle. But sometimes new observations do happen which require us to amend or replace existing theories. A certain degree of tenacity is appropriate, but too much becomes "dogmatism".

    I guess I was hoping for something a little more along the lines of a philosophy of science. Although I agree that bad science is usually accompanied by one or more (usually more) of these conditions, the conditions could just as readily be applied to certain particularly brilliant scientific breakthroughs. The conditions need fine-tuning to eliminate the false positives if we want to be sure to encourage the next Einstein, rather than mistakenly brand him a charlatan and run him out of town.

  • Galileo (Score:5, Informative)

    by Johnny Mnemonic ( 176043 ) <`moc.liamg' `ta' `eromsnidm'> 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 mwillems ( 266506 ) on Friday March 07, 2003 @11:08AM (#5458666) Homepage
    Sadly, we need this common sense. A lot of people are living in what Carl Sagan called a "demon haunted world".

    Just last week I was with some people, otherwise intelligent people in a book club, who turn out to believe in predestination and ghosts - one lady says she hears voices of dead friends and they tell her they are OK and they give her comfort.

    What is scary is not so much that (we all need comfort when friends die, and whatever we choose to believe is at least understandable), but the fact that the entire group of people misunderstood science. "There must be types of radiation that are not yet known causing this", was the consensus. Everyone just took this lady at her word!

    Last week on a radio show here in Canada a "shaman", Doctor Somethingorother, took questions. One went like this:

    "Doctor: Fred here from Winnipeg. My question: When you are about to get in touch with your spirit self, do your electrons speed up their frequency? And does this mean I have a talent for communicating with the spirits? Because this happens to me weekly: first I suddenly feel like my inner electrons are speeding up their frequency and then I am unable to talk for what seems like a while, I am like a Zombie for a few minutes, and meanwhile I feel like I am in the spirit world and communicate with their mystery, and then I come back again". Doctor: "Yes! Exactly! And Yes! And Yes! You are talented in spirit communication, and indeed the frequency response of the electrons increases as we get near the spirit communication level, as the energy increase is a presurcor to this communication..." bla bla bla.

    Now this poor caller was presumably an epileptic or narcoleptic. He should have been told to get (science-based) medical treatment. But no-one found it necessary to point this out: just because someone starts talking in an authoritative voice, he is believed.

    Just now as I typed this message received a junk fax for "Marina, a Leading Psychic". Many people will pay for this stuff, in 2003. Not 1403! Weird.

    This suspension of disbelief is dangerous. I think we need to be forceful in debunking myth. It seems to me that in the early 21st century we are a bit too apologetic.. "emotional correctness": it is seen as necessary to respect all beliefs. I think we do ourselves a discredit by that.

  • by pretoris ( 442079 ) on Friday March 07, 2003 @11:32AM (#5458898)
    ... It crashed at 7 times as fast so I had to slow it down to 6 times as fast.
  • Rule #1 (Score:3, Funny)

    by essdodson ( 466448 ) on Friday March 07, 2003 @11:54AM (#5459088) Homepage
    If you find it on Slashdot, it's bogus.
  • Science != Truth (Score:3, Interesting)

    by nyssa ( 250538 ) <greg@gr a h amtx.net> on Friday March 07, 2003 @12:04PM (#5459159) Homepage
    I agree that these seven rules are useful for judging bogus science, but I reject the implication that if it's not scientific, it is not true. Just because someone cannot point to a scientific reason, doesn't mean that various herbal or eastern medicines don't work. There is much about the workings of the human body that scientists cannot explain, so I'm not surprised that there are centuries-old non-scientific medical practices that cure millions of people every year.

    In the same way, science is unable to deal with any reality that is not observable or verifiable. Theology and metaphysics are by definition unscientific, but that doesn't mean that they don't deal with truth; it just shows the limitations of science.

    I'm not knocking science; I'm just saying that it's not ultimate truth.
    • Re:Science != Truth (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Reziac ( 43301 )
      But do these 'millions of people' get well because of, or *in spite of* said ancient folk remedies?

      And if ancient folk remedies were really all that great, why is the average human lifespan so much shorter where that's the only medicine available? (Even when other living conditions are good.)

  • Goodbye to My Karma (Score:4, Interesting)

    by masq ( 316580 ) on Friday March 07, 2003 @12:26PM (#5459397) Homepage Journal
    1. The discoverer pitches the claim directly to the media... An attempt to bypass peer review by taking a new result directly to the media, and thence to the public, suggests that the work is unlikely to stand up to close examination by other scientists.

    The world of science is being affected by the media far more than the media is affected by science. If somebody comes up with an anti-gravity machine, for example, it is QUITE possible that they will try to secure their place in history by announcing it directly to the media, to prevent the news from leaking prematurely or other scientists from stealing the idea, or, heaven forbid, patenting it before the originator can claim "prior art". The other scientists can examine it to their hearts content, ONCE the originator has had his day in the sun. Look at Apple's secrecy with their products. News leaks KILL these people. The same psychological principles hold true for a scientist who comes up with something completely new. Look at the greatest invention of the 20th Century, the Segway [snicker].

    2. The discoverer says that a powerful establishment is trying to suppress his or her work.

    Yes, conspiracy theorists often seem like quackpots. But to discount the POSSIBILITY of establishment interference is to deny basic economic theories of self-preservation. Don't you think it's possible that oil companies would fight to stop alternative fuels from coming forth, or would they welcome their own doom joyously? Would Microsoft welcome a perfect disassembler that would reveal all their source code, or would they see this as a threat? Does Microsoft support Java for its cross-platform functionality? How about a pill that took the place of food, would MacDonalds say, "Sounds good, who cares about the bottom line and the millions of jobs we're going to lose?" If the establishment didn't want to preserve the status quo at all costs, FUD wouldn't exist. But it DOES exist, and I see it being used daily to kill small innovators (BeOS, anyone?). NOBODY welcomes a better product or idea if it's coming from a competitor.

    3. The scientific effect involved is always at the very limit of detection. Alas, there is never a clear photograph of a flying saucer, or the Loch Ness monster. Thousands of published papers in para-psychology, for example, claim to report verified instances of telepathy, psychokinesis, or precognition. But those effects show up only in tortured analyses of statistics. The researchers can find no way to boost the signal, which suggests that it isn't really there.

    Nice science - If we can't prove something exists, it doesn't. This ignores the reality that our scientific methods are still in their infancy. *Of course* we can't prove aliens exist in the billions of galaxies out there, we can't even make our own space shuttles work without exploding. And just because I've never been to China doesn't mean that it doesn't exist. There are enough people who claim to have been there, and many even have photographs of it, but I've never been there, so I wisely discount these "tourists" as quacks. Same goes for religious experiences, aliens, telepathy, precognition, etc. 100 years ago, Nuclear Power would have seemed insane, but not because it is "crazy", but because our own limitations prevented it from becoming reality for us. Everything is "at the very limit of detection" at one time or another.

    4. Evidence for a discovery is anecdotal. If modern science has learned anything in the past century, it is to distrust anecdotal evidence. Because anecdotes have a very strong emotional impact, they serve to keep superstitious beliefs alive in an age of science. The most important discovery of modern medicine is not vaccines or antibiotics, it is the randomized double-blind test, by means of which we know what works and what doesn't. Contrary to the saying, "data" is not the plural of "anecdote."

    See my last answer. Anecdotal evidence is not hard science, but it points toward science. The millions of people who speak in tongues should direct scientists toward examining the possibility and searching to explain and understand the phenomena. Scientists must keep their minds open, not closed.

    5. The discoverer says a belief is credible because it has endured for centuries. There is a persistent myth that hundreds or even thousands of years ago, long before anyone knew that blood circulates throughout the body, or that germs cause disease, our ancestors possessed miraculous remedies that modern science cannot understand. Much of what is termed "alternative medicine" is part of that myth. Ancient folk wisdom, rediscovered or repackaged, is unlikely to match the output of modern scientific laboratories.

    Acupuncture. Works.

    And a lot of "old wives tales" have a logical scientific basis that was undiscovered until much later. But people recognized that certain things worked for them, for whatever reasons (like bread poultices, washing regularly to prevent illness, etc.) And I still think the Pyramids, the ancient batteries, and Captain Kidd's Island security system are pretty cool. Oh yeah, crop circles, Bermuda Triangle, blah blah blah. We don't understand everything, but we also shouldn't discount everything we don't understand, either. I personally don't understand wrestling, so it must be a hoax, too... No, wait, bad example...

    6. The discoverer has worked in isolation.

    Didn't ALL the great scientists work in isolation? It's hard to say "Nobody understands me" when everybody you know works at your lab 8 hours a day and is in total agreement with your seemingly insane ideas. Same with persecution. Persecution never happened, since everybody was on the same page. "You're right, dude, the world ISN'T flat!" "The world revolves around the WHAT?? Oh, yeah, right. Okay, cool. I'll change the history books." "God isn't smiting the sinners with the Black Plague, it's just a disease? Damn, shoulda known. Thanks for the update."

    7. The discoverer must propose new laws of nature to explain an observation. A new law of nature, invoked to explain some extraordinary result, must not conflict with what is already known. If we must change existing laws of nature or propose new laws to account for an observation, it is almost certainly wrong.

    That Einstein guy was a quack. Same with Newton. Same with Copernicus. Our knowledge of the world is full and complete and needs no revision. Thank you.

    • These are WARNING SIGNS. Not litmus tests.

      If you saw a person waving a few of the aforementioned red flags, it would warrant closer investigation of the claims then might normally be required, not dismissal.

      Dogmatism is bad no matter how you slice it; the author of the 7 rules was aware of this.
  • by robbo ( 4388 ) <slashdot@@@simra...net> 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.
  • Pathological Science (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday March 07, 2003 @12:55PM (#5459726)
    "On December 18, 1953, Dr. Irving Langmuir gave a colloquium at the Research Laboratory that will long be remembered by those in his audience. The talk was concerned with what Langmuir called "the science of things that aren't so," and in it he gave a colorful account of several examples of a particular kind of pitfall into which scientists may sometimes stumble."

    One of the best papers ever on this sort of thing is now, finally, on line here [princeton.edu] - N-Rays, Mitogenic Rays, Allison Effect and much more.
  • 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 [barnesandnoble.com]. 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.


  • 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 http://www.uiowa.edu/~anthro/webcourse/lost/sagan. htm Baloney Detection How to draw boundaries between science and pseudoscience, Part I By Michael Shermer http://www.sciam.com/print_version.cfm?articleID=0 00D743A-CC5C-1C6E-84A9809EC588EF21 and http://www.sciam.com/print_version.cfm?articleID=0 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 [ucr.edu] 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 [townsend.com] 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-earthNO@SPAMbjmoose.com> 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.

"I have not the slightest confidence in 'spiritual manifestations.'" -- Robert G. Ingersoll