Pseudoscience is a morphing monster of undue credulity; an “unsinkable rubber duck,” as some skeptics have called it. The reality is that we will always be burdened with the irrational and the unscientific. Believing in weird things isn’t unnatural; rather it is an extension of a highly adapted mind. But to move accurately through today’s world, a healthy scientific skepticism is warranted. With New Age beliefs making a resurgence, the anti-vaccination movement gaining strength, creationist bills passing US state legislatures, promises of personal genomics spawning new and dubious treatments, and health gurus sprinkling the word “quantum” on everything like an over-used spice, skepticism should be, now more than ever, a liberally applied tool. For the critical thinker, discovering and understanding our cognitive foundations is tantamount to a new beginning, a fresh way to look at the world. Learning how to think about thinking, learning how to navigate the perils of human cognition, is the way through.
"Crop circle are messages from extraterrestrial beings!"
"No, they’re not. They’re hoaxes, elaborate man-made pranks."
"Absolutely not! Men could never made something so complicated!"
"How can you say that? You’re not being scientific! You’re just close-minded!"
This is a practical guide to spot pseudoscience, or to be close-minded if you prefer*, useful because you don’t always need to debunk all the improbable things gullible people believe, you can save time and say: “that’s bullshit”.
#1 An extraordinary claim is made about the world, that doesn’t fit with all the evidence we have about how the world really is.
”The Universe, the Earth, and all the life forms, were created as they are 10000 years ago.”
#2 An extraordinary claim is made about a phenomenon that is impossible to detect empirically.
“People have auras the characteristics of which are related to their personality.”
#3 An extraordinary claim is made without any evidence to support it, arguing that it’s sufficient that there are no evidence against it.
“The dead can communicate with the living through dreams and other means.”
#4 An extraordinary claim is made that is supported only by anectodical evidence.
“A disease can be cured with prayer and other religious rituals.”
#5 An extraordinary claim is made that the claimant states cannot be acknowledged by science because science is wrong or insufficient in some ways.
“Alternative medicine works but western medicine is too reductionist to admit it.”
“Vaccines are bad, but medicine is owned by the pharmaceutical companies that produce them, so your doctor won’t tell you.”
Other clues that should make your skeptic sense tingle:
- reference to authority rather than to direct observation and empirical tests;
- obscure, vague, or misleading language;
- the extraordinary claim has not been verified by other source except the claimant and the belief circle to which he belongs;
- smell of a political, ideological, or religious agenda.
: Thoughts on extrasensory preception?
Extrasensory perception (or ESP) is (is supposed to be) the reception of information not gained through the physical senses but sensed directly with the mind. So, supporters of ESP conceive the mind (and its faculties) as not only separated, but indipendent from the brain and in general the body. I find this idea absurd per se, but many researchers in the field of parapsychology (a pseudoscience that “studies” paranormal psychic phenomena) have explored ESP.
Notably in 2011, the renowned Journal of Personality and Social Psychology published a study that claimed to have found statistically significant results supporting the existence of procognition and premonition.
Aside from proving once again that editors can be idiots, the fact that a study like this exists and can be published should be a warning sign for researchers in the field of psychology: with proper motivation we can find statistically significant results about anything.
Anyway, to be brief (I should get ready to go to work), I don’t think extrasensory perception exists, and I don’t think it could exist either, because we live in a Universe with some rules, and ESP supporters claim things like: “effects occurring before the causal stimulus” (precognition/premonition). This simply can’t happen.
A common tactic used by those promoting dubious hypotheses is to argue that the claim in question is just another example of something that is already supported by good quality evidence and is accepted by the scientific community. […]
Real scientists often draw analogies between phenomena in different areas. But they recognise that the existence of a superficial similarity between an established and a novel claim is never enough in itself to establish that the novel claim is true. They are careful to consider both the similarities and the differences between the claims. Often this will reveal that the claims differ in crucial ways that undermine the credibility of the new claim.
Although analogies may provide a fruitful means of generating new and interesting hypotheses, the final verdict must always depend upon the results of direct, empirical tests of those hypotheses.
Catlin and Taylor-Ford were interested in finding:
whether provision of Reiki therapy during outpatient chemotherapy is associated with increased comfort and well-being.
They designed a randomized control trial, the patients were randomly placed in three groups: Reiki therapy, sham Reiki placebo therapy, standard care.
The (unsurprisely) found that:
Although Reiki therapy was statistically significant in raising the comfort and well-being of patients post-therapy, the sham Reiki placebo also was statistically significant. Patients in the standard care group did not experience changes in comfort and well-being during their infusion session.
They conclude that is one-on-one support that was influential in raising comfort and well-being levels, so:
An attempt by clinic nurses to provide more designated one-to-one presence and support for patients while receiving their chemotherapy infusions could increase patient comfort and well-being.
Not surprising at all.
I do not want to talk about how this experiment showed (once again) that Reiki practitioner’s statements that they heal through some sort of energy are bullshit.
What I’m interested in pointing out is that the enthusiasts of alternative medicine often claim that we should provide Reiki (is just an example) to patients, because it somehow improves their well-being. These claims appear to be concerned for patients well-being, while scientists stances against it, inherently cruel.
This impression is wrong. By insisting that patients must not be treated with placebos like reiki, scientists also advocate that they receive treatments that demonstrably work better that placebo. For instance, massage has been shown to improve the wellbeing of cancer patients beyond a placebo effect. If a patient receives a massage with empathy, sympathy, time, understanding and dedication, she would benefit from the placebo effect – just like the reiki patient – but, in addition, she would also benefit from the specific effect of the treatment that massage does and Reiki does not offer.
Simply administering a placebo like reiki would deprive patients of the specific treatment effect. The allegedly caring approach of some enthusiasts of alternative medicine would therefore rob patients of benefits that they need and deserve. In other words, behind the smokescreen of alternative medicine – or integrated healthcare, to use the currently fashionable term – patients would not profit more, but less.
(via ‘Giving placebos such as reiki to cancer patients does more harm than good’)
[…] the fact that a given region activates when people are in a particular psychological state (e.g., love) doesn’t give you license to conclude that that state is present just because you see activity in the region in question. If language, working memory, physical pain, anger, visual perception, motor sequencing, and memory retrieval all activate the insula, then knowing that the insula is active is of very little diagnostic value.
Some of the results of
A survey of the science knowledge and attitudes toward science of nearly 10000 undergraduates at a large public university over a 20-year period included several questions addressing student beliefs in astrology and other forms of pseudoscience.
There’s something terribly wrong. (via Rangle:’Non è vero ma ci credo’)
I do not mean capitulating to misconceptions but rather finding a seductive way to demonstrate to people that these are indeed misconceptions. Let me give you one example. I have, on occasion, debated both creationists and alien abduction zealots. Both groups have similar misconceptions about the nature of explanation: they feel that unless you understand everything, you understand nothing. In debates, they pick some obscure claim, say, that in 1962 some set of people in Outer Mongolia all saw a flying saucer hovering above a church. Then they ask if I am familiar with this particular episode, and if I say no, they invariably say, “If you have not studied every such episode, then you cannot argue that alien abduction is unlikely to be happening.”
I have found that I can get each group to think about what they are saying by using the other group as a foil. Namely, of the creationists I ask, “Do you believe in flying saucers?” They inevitably say “no.” Then I ask, “Why? Have you studied all of the claims?” Similarly, to the alien abduction people I ask, “Do you be- lieve in Young Earth Creationism?” and they say “no,” wanting to appear scientific. Then I ask, “Why? Have you studied every single counterclaim?” The point I try to make for each group is that it is quite sensible to base theoretical expectations on a huge quantity of existing evidence, without having studied absolutely every single obscure counterclaim. This “teaching” technique has worked in most cases, except those rare times when it has turned out that I was debating an alien abduction believer who was also a creationist!
↳ Lawrence M. Krauss in ‘Should science speack to faith?’ by Lawrence M. Krauss & Richard Dawkins.
: hi! nice job on the 'Alien' bacteria! ;D
haha I found another one and thought you might like it, it's a little bit a fright though >:(
The SuperMoon due to appear on March 19
Oh, the famous Supermoon, let me quote someone who have a degree in physics and astronomy:
There seems to be a growing excitement about the “Supermoon” that is due to occur on 19 March 2011, when the Moon will be at its closest to Earth in this orbit, and closer than it has been at any time since 1992.
The Moon orbits the Earth in an elliptical orbit, i.e. it is not perfectly circular, and so in each orbit there is a closest approach, called “perigee” and a furthest approach, called “apogee”.
At this month’s perigee the Moon will be 356,577km away from Earth, and will indeed be at its closest in almost 20 years. But how close is it compared with other perigees?
Let’s start by comparing it to the Moon’s average distance from the Earth, which is ~385,000km. This perigee will be ~8% closer to the Earth than average. OK, that’s a bit closer, but not significantly so.
What about comparing it to the Moon’s average perigee distance, which is ~364,000km. So this “Supermoon” will be ~2% closer to the Earth than it is most months at perigee. Wow!
So what will this mean to you? Nothing at all. The Moon will be a few percent bigger in the sky, but your eye won’t really be able to tell the difference. It will also be a few percent brighter, but your eye will compensate for this too, so altogether this “Supermoon” will look exactly the same as it always does when it’s full.
As to all of those soothsayers claiming that there will be earthquakes and tidal waves. There very well might be, but they’ll be nothing at all to do with the Moon. (via Supermoon nonsense)
And also this:
Past supermoons have coincided with natural disasters—the Indonesian earthquake in 2005, Australian flooding in 1954—but scientists note that those are unrelated, more likely than not. Says John Bellini, a geophysicist at the U.S. Geological Survey: “A lot of studies have been done on this kind of thing by USGS scientists and others. They haven’t found anything significant at all.” The tides will pull a bit higher, but earthquakes are almost completely unaffected and volcanoes are not likely to show unusual behavior. John Vidale, a seismologist at the University of Washington in Seattle, said “Practically speaking, you’ll never see any effect of lunar perigee. It’s somewhere between ‘It has no effect’ and ‘It’s so small you don’t see any effect.’”
Besides, it’s still 2011. Everyone knows there won’t be any world-ending catastrophes until next year, right? (via Biggest full Moon in 19 years almost certanly won’t cause a huge natural disaster)
Dr. James Garvin, chief scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, answering questions about the ‘supermoon’ phenomenon, said:
The effects on Earth from a supermoon are minor, and according to the most detailed studies by terrestrial seismologists and volcanologists, the combination of the moon being at its closest to Earth in its orbit, and being in its ‘full moon’ configuration (relative to the Earth and sun), should not affect the internal energy balance of the Earth since there are lunar tides every day. The Earth has stored a tremendous amount of internal energy within its thin outer shell or crust, and the small differences in the tidal forces exerted by the moon (and sun) are not enough to fundamentally overcome the much larger forces within the planet due to convection (and other aspects of the internal energy balance that drives plate tectonics). Nonetheless, these supermoon times remind us of the effect of our ‘Africa-sized’ nearest neighbor on our lives, affecting ocean tides and contributing to many cultural aspects of our lives (as a visible aspect of how our planet is part of the solar system and space).
As we all have seen today, natural disaster, sadly, occurs even without the Super Moon…
Sixth Sense for earthquake prediction? Give Me A Break!
[…] While pet-owners swear their little preciouses get antsy before earthquakes, studies to date see absolutely no evidence of this. Animals get antsy at various times for various reasons, and next day get as surprised as we are when the “Big One” hits. When a strong earthquake hit California in the 1980s, a chronobiology laboratory looked back at the records of their mice and hamsters. Those were wheel-running activity records, continuously recorded by computers over many weeks, including the moment of the earthquake. No changes in the normal patterns of activity were detected. I believe that this was never published, but just relayed from advisor to student, generation after generation, and mentioned in courses as an anecdote. […]