The seven signs of pseudo-science

There’s a superb piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education, where Robert L Park offers the “Seven Warning Signs of Bogus Science”. He goes into detail on each one, but here’s a summary of the list:

1. The discoverer pitches the claim directly to the media.
2. The discoverer says that a powerful establishment is trying to suppress his or her work.
3. The scientific effect involved is always at the very limit of detection.
4. Evidence for a discovery is anecdotal
5. The discoverer says a belief is credible because it has endured for centuries.
6. The discoverer has worked in isolation.
7. The discoverer must propose new laws of nature to explain an observation.

[Via Digg]

8 thoughts on “The seven signs of pseudo-science

  1. Stephen says:

    I always turn the page when I read words to the effect that as a result of the discovery, we have to take immediate and drastic action to save humanity/the planet.

  2. Gary says:

    > Does he say how many conditions need to be met for the science to be bogus?

    Don’t think so. Just that the seven are the things that should make you switch on your bullshit detector.

    My favourite one – in print journalism and print ads – is “studies have shown…” BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP!

    > we have to take immediate and drastic action to save humanity/the planet.

    When the story’s written on the basis of pseudo-scientific press releases, then I agree entirely.

    Something I’m becoming increasingly fascinated with is the way things move from such one-off studies to the status of absolute fact, whether it’s the effects of passive smoking, the need for men to avoid tight underwear when trying for a baby, or the assertion that you must drink eight glasses of water a day. Or any of the other claims that get regurgitated again and again. Fascinating, to me at least :)

  3. Stephen says:

    I’d also say that any claim that invokes “scientific consensus” should be treated with great caution. Michael Crichton:

    “Historically, the claim of consensus has been the first refuge of scoundrels; it is a way to avoid debate by claiming that the matter is already settled. Whenever you hear the consensus of scientists agrees on something or other, reach for your wallet, because you’re being had.”

  4. Gary says:

    > I’d also say that any claim that invokes “scientific consensus” should be treated with great caution.

    True, but the reverse applies too: all too often, when you see someone talk about great scientific disagreements they mean three mad boffins have demented ideas, and have been laughed out of town by every other scientist :)

  5. Squander Two says:

    > the reverse applies too … three mad boffins have demented ideas, and have been laughed out of town by every other scientist

    That’s not the reverse; it’s exactly the same thing. Crichton’s point is that, when you’re wrong, you’re wrong because of facts, not because other scientists disagree. Many of the demented ideas that have been laughed out of town have turned out to be correct.

    > Something I’m becoming increasingly fascinated with is the way things move from such one-off studies to the status of absolute fact

    Right-brain versus left-brain thinking is the classic. One scientist proposes one theory about how the brains of a small group of psychiatric patients with a specific disorder may be working, and the entire world latches on to it. The scientist abandons his own theory within weeks, because he realises it’s not true. Twenty years later, half the world is still convinced that all human brains work with two separate, largely independent hemispheres, and that the left side of the brain is rational and scientific while the left side is intuitive and artistic.

  6. Gary says:

    > That’s not the reverse; it’s exactly the same thing.

    I don’t think it is, unless maybe I’m wording it wrong. I mean when it’s claimed that there’s no consensus among scientists – so for example, creationists claiming that evolution isn’t accepted by the majority of scientists. If that makes sense.

    > Right-brain versus left-brain thinking is the classic.

    I didn’t realise that was a crock. Which proves the point :)

    I’ll blog about this properly when I have time, but it’s something I find hugely frustrating: trying to make sense of competing claims. For example, there’s a debate raging (among scientists) in the Grauniad’s letters page about pesticides. Are low levels of pesticides in the food chain safe? There’s no scientific evidence to say otherwise, apparently. But! That’s because the scientific evidence doesn’t use the best method, says another boffin. Poppycock! says the next boffin. Low level exposure is meaningless. And so on, and so on.

    Meanwhile I’m in Tesco going “WTF?”

  7. tm says:

    >mean three mad boffins have demented ideas,

    Of course the sad thing is that often this works becasue there or so many occasions when, in fact, two or three scientists have come up with an idea and been laughed at only for it later to have been discovered they were right all along.

    Classic example: Two Aussies (ok so they weren’t starting from the scientific moral high ground I accept) come up with the idea that many, if not all, stomach ulcers are actually caused by a subtle kind of infection and that all the old ideas (notabaly stress) are simply contributory factors and not the main ones at all. Cue howls of derision from the rest of the ‘scientific community’*. Only years later after on of these brave men had in fact *infected himself and developed an ulcer – then treated it and the ulcer went away* in order to prove his point did people actually come around to the idea that they may well be on to something. Go to the doctors with symptoms of an ulcer nowadays and what do you think you get? Thats right treatment for the infection.

    I have first had experience of this with a family member – had an ulcer years ago. Got medicine tried to avoid stress etc – did very little good enventually calmed down. Ulcer came back years later – after the doctrine had changed – back to the doctor and got a few pills. After a couple months right as rain.

    * – And here is the crux, this – like so many of these stories is medicine related. Part of ther problem surely is that medicine is not and has not been a true scientific doctrine for so long. It was only in the later part of the first half of the 20th century that it began to be properly put on the sort of basis that the other sciences (notably chemistry and phyisics) had essentially come into being under. Ideas like control group testing and proper research organisation have actually only be running for about 80 even years now. Fleming gets the credit for anti-biotics – but he noticed it *then left it on a shelf for a decade* instead of properly researching it. In the 30s doctors in the USput people on *high salt* diets for high blood pressure – there wasn’t any organised research so if someone said it worked then…

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