August 20, 2003

Seven Warning Signs of Bogus Science

Teresa Nielsen Hayden's Making Light directs us to Robert Park's Seven Warning Signs of Bogus Science:

The Chronicle: 1/31/2003: The Seven Warning Signs of Bogus Science: 1. The discoverer pitches the claim directly to the media. The integrity of science rests on the willingness of scientists to expose new ideas and findings to the scrutiny of other scientists. Thus, scientists expect their colleagues to reveal new findings to them initially. 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.

One notorious example is the claim made in 1989 by two chemists from the University of Utah, B. Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann, that they had discovered cold fusion -- a way to produce nuclear fusion without expensive equipment. Scientists did not learn of the claim until they read reports of a news conference. Moreover, the announcement dealt largely with the economic potential of the discovery and was devoid of the sort of details that might have enabled other scientists to judge the strength of the claim or to repeat the experiment. (Ian Wilmut's announcement that he had successfully cloned a sheep was just as public as Pons and Fleischmann's claim, but in the case of cloning, abundant scientific details allowed scientists to judge the work's validity.)

Some scientific claims avoid even the scrutiny of reporters by appearing in paid commercial advertisements. A health-food company marketed a dietary supplement called Vitamin O in full-page newspaper ads. Vitamin O turned out to be ordinary saltwater.

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.

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. All scientific measurements must contend with some level of background noise or statistical fluctuation. But if the signal-to-noise ratio cannot be improved, even in principle, the effect is probably not real and the work is not science.

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.

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."

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.

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.

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.

Posted by DeLong at August 20, 2003 12:43 PM | TrackBack

Comments

That's really cool but I feel compelled to point out that Einstein bascially blew #7 out of the water.

I therefore propose 7a: In case of conflict with #7 and only #7, please evaluate the level of probablility that the proponent is another Albert Einstein.

I think that tightens it up sufficiently.

Posted by: a different chris on August 20, 2003 01:30 PM

That's really cool but I feel compelled to point out that Einstein bascially blew #7 out of the water.

I therefore propose 7a: In case of conflict with #7 and only #7, please evaluate the level of probablility that the proponent is another Albert Einstein.

I think that tightens it up sufficiently.

Posted by: a different chris on August 20, 2003 01:33 PM

likewise#6, and also at #6 Newton

Posted by: big al on August 20, 2003 02:00 PM

likewise#6, and also at #6 Newton

Posted by: big al on August 20, 2003 02:03 PM

Good guidelines, but good science demands more. There will always be exceptions as the comments above have pointed out. And the danger of these guidelines is that someone exceptional might be dismissed due to laziness of the reviewers.

Good science depends on making testable predictions. Period.

Posted by: George Williams on August 20, 2003 02:27 PM

Good guidelines, but good science demands more. There will always be exceptions as the comments above have pointed out. And the danger of these guidelines is that someone exceptional might be dismissed due to laziness of the reviewers.

Good science depends on making testable predictions. Period.

Posted by: George Williams on August 20, 2003 02:32 PM

When I read this list, two words immediately came to mind: Stephen Wolfram.

Posted by: Slatehack on August 20, 2003 03:07 PM

It's not appropriate to apply these criteria to Newton or Galileo or the like. Galileo had to break with establishment in order to be allowed the freedom to think. Park wrote these as a guide for today, based on the modern scientific community. They are highly useful, and it's exactly the right approach to debunking pseudoscience. We physicists labored under the delusion for awhile (some still do) that simply teaching people more physics was the route to freeing them from pseudo-physics. It isn't, and it's not the method we use ourselves to distinguish pseudo-physics. Park hit the nail on the head.

As for Einstein, indeed he did qualify under some of the rules for pseudoscience. And consequently the scientific community was appropriately skeptical about some of his work (Planck, while recommending Einstein for a position at Berlin, said he was very talented and should be forgiven for the mistake on relativity). It was the rational response. It was also abandoned appropriately once the incredible data existed to support Einstein's incredible ideas.

Park gives you 7 signs, and a lot of pseudoscience hits 5 or more. Einstein, the extreme loner genius hits a couple. Damned good litmus test.

Posted by: Ben Vollmayr-Lee on August 20, 2003 04:24 PM

As for Wolfram, physicists on the whole didn't think a lot of his revolutionary book. He seems to be an exceptionally bright guy who left science and figured out how to make a lot of money shipping out a buggy analog mathematics program and getting his paying customers to beta test it into functionality.

Posted by: Ben Vollmayr-Lee on August 20, 2003 04:32 PM

...buggy "analytic" math program....

Posted by: Ben Vollmayr-Lee on August 20, 2003 04:36 PM

Science requires examing the science, not the hype. Hype does not mean the underlying science is invalid, nor does it mean the underlying science is valid. As with other prejudices, one should put aside their preconceptions and examine the evidence and keep an open mind.

1. The discoverer pitches the claim directly to the media.
- This has no direct bearing on the value of the underlying science.

2. The discoverer says that a powerful establishment is trying to suppress his or her work.
- This has no direct bearing on the value of the underlying science.

3. The scientific effect involved is always at the very limit of detection.
- Ah, now this one raises even my suspicion.

4. Evidence for a discovery is anecdotal.
- 'Anecdotal' meaning a lack of evidence.

5. The discoverer says a belief is credible because it has endured for centuries.
- A belief that has endured for centuries is, by definition, credible (to some). But, of course, that is not evidence that it is correct. Making such a claim neither reduces or increases the significance of what evidence there is.

6. The discoverer has worked in isolation.
- No problem. Can others reproduce the results?

7. The discoverer must propose new laws of nature to explain an observation.
- The discover is clearly a quack. Or a genius.

Posted by: dunno on August 20, 2003 05:00 PM

"Ancient folk wisdom, rediscovered or repackaged, is unlikely to match the output of modern scientific laboratories."

I believe traditional medicinal herbs (still) have a lot of unexploited potential (just as pharmaceutical companies do AAMOF). Why? Not because our ancestors knew some kind of knowledge that we later forgot.

One reason I think is: through good old darwinian evolution, some plants natural specialize into natural remedies. Medicinal plants simply latch on our medical needs, and we help them spread either voluntarily (by cultivating them) or, back in those times, by using the side of the path as restroom.

And very often it is these natural remedies that pharmacists then try to isolate, concentrate, package, patent and marketise... It's modern science at work but without "ancient wisdom" it would progress much more slowly.

Posted by: Jean-Philippe Stijns on August 20, 2003 06:12 PM

"As for Einstein, indeed he did qualify under some of the rules for pseudoscience."

Err, he was working as a patent clerk at the time, but he did have a PhD in theoretical physics, and had published several papers. He did have a relationship with the scientists in his field.

Posted by: Tom on August 20, 2003 06:21 PM

Einstein really didn't violate #7...instead of overturning known laws, he really nudged them only at the limits...found a more general framework within which Newtonian physics continued to work as advertised under normal earthlike conditions (when nobody is racing around near the speed of light).

Posted by: jens on August 20, 2003 09:12 PM

Everybody should be reading Bob Park's weekly column from the American Physics Society. It's great:
http://www.aps.org/WN/

Posted by: Stoffel on August 20, 2003 10:06 PM

#7 seems to be somewhat devoid of meaning, inconsistent, and badly written:

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.

The first sentence: "must propose new laws of nature" - is what he says indicates quackery. But then in the second sentences he accepts the need for "a new law of nature invoked to explain some extraordinary result". Then in the third sentence, he once again says that to "propose new laws to account for an observation, it is almost certainly wrong". He incoherently flip flops between sentences.

Posted by: ETC on August 20, 2003 10:20 PM

I don't think the reasoning in #7 is as confused as ETC finds it. There's an implicit distinction between "new laws" on the one hand and "laws which conflict with known facts" on the other. For example, if there were a law behind "cold fusion" which said "fusion will be produced when the temperature is precisely 37.2940154 C and the hydrogen/oxygen ratio is precisely 9.047914 to 1" it would be a "new law" but it wouldn't necessarily be in conflict with known facts. If, however, cold fusion turned out to be in violation of the principle of the conservation of energy, it would also be in conflict with known facts. So Parks is saying:

1. New laws (of the ad hoc, "37.294054" kind), in and of themselves, are a strong indicator of quackery;
2. New laws which ALSO conflict with known facts make it certain that we are dealing with quackery; and
3. The presence of either new laws OR conflict with known facts is a strong indicator of quackery.

(Number 3 is somewhat repetitive.)

Posted by: Jeffrey Kramer on August 21, 2003 06:45 AM

Planck was skeptical about Einstein's theory of light quanta, not relativity.

Posted by: Phil P on August 21, 2003 06:55 AM

I find the discussion of scientific "laws" on this thread to be incredibly ironic. IMHO George summed it up perfectly:

"Good guidelines, but good science demands more. There will always be exceptions as the comments above have pointed out. And the danger of these guidelines is that someone exceptional might be dismissed due to laziness of the reviewers.

Good science depends on making testable predictions. Period."

Posted by George Williams at August 20, 2003 02:27 PM

Posted by: Stan on August 21, 2003 08:56 AM

I find the discussion of scientific "laws" on this thread to be incredibly ironic. IMHO George summed it up guidelines perfectly:

"Good guidelines, but good science demands more. There will always be exceptions as the comments above have pointed out. And the danger of these guidelines is that someone exceptional might be dismissed due to laziness of the reviewers.

Good science depends on making testable predictions. Period."

Posted by George Williams at August 20, 2003 02:27 PM

Posted by: Stan on August 21, 2003 08:56 AM

I find the discussion of scientific "laws" on this thread to be incredibly ironic. IMHO George summed up guidelines perfectly:

"Good guidelines, but good science demands more. There will always be exceptions as the comments above have pointed out. And the danger of these guidelines is that someone exceptional might be dismissed due to laziness of the reviewers.

Good science depends on making testable predictions. Period."

Posted by George Williams at August 20, 2003 02:27 PM

Posted by: Stan on August 21, 2003 08:56 AM

Phil P, you may be right about the light quanta being the source of Planck's criticism (I'm away from my books at the moment so I can't double check). At any rate, the same story played out: Einstein proposed the incredible, Millikan set out to prove him wrong, and instead produced incredible evidence to support Einstein's claim.

As for George and Stan, your staunch defense of the value of empiricism is admirable, but it's not exactly the point. Essentially everyone is already agreed that nature is the final judge. The question is what methods do we use to probe nature. An approach where any idea generated by anyone is given equal resources of time and money to be tested is not productive.

Within the scientific community, allocation of resources happens fairly efficiently, and crackpots get flushed out of the system. But in the mainstream media, crackpots can flourish. So how should members of the scientific community approach the public relations battle with crackpots, to convince reasonable people not to waste resources on ideas that are extremely unlikely to be valid. Park's warning signs are a very useful guide to a lay-person.

Posted by: Ben Vollmayr-Lee on August 21, 2003 10:24 AM

Ben, major paradigm shifts are rare. Scientists are paid to be sceptical. We therefore have a history of fringe views not receiving enough resources.

IMHO, lay-people should be sceptical, use this guide with care, and remember that "good science depends on making testable predictions. Period."

Posted by: Stan on August 21, 2003 02:21 PM

"...lay-people should be sceptical..."

OK, so in response to the article "Bacterial Sex" in the 8 August 03 Science, I should email the authors urging them to "just say no" or invent angstrom scale condoms?

As Homer Simpson memorably said, "In this house, we obey the laws of thermodynamics."

Posted by: consigliere on August 21, 2003 06:31 PM

consigliere, ever given any thought to whether there are more than one type of dark matter? Was there really nothing before the Big Bang? Is the speed of light the physical barrier we believe it is? You seem to think you know quite a bit. How do we test for these things? We see dirt walk everyday. Surely you can point to a series of experiments that'll produce DNA from their base molecules, right?

Since my comment wasn't clear enough for at least one challenged individual: Lay people should be sceptical of claims of major scientific advances by those on the fringe, claims of scientific conspiracy, and what appears to be a serious problem claims that we know more than we do.

Posted by: Stan on August 22, 2003 07:09 AM

"You seem to think you know quite a bit."

You concluded that based on the Homer Simpson quote, right? Actually, I'd have to answer "no" to all your rhetorical questions, even though I do read the Scientific American articles on those topics when I'm not engrossed in Cycle World.

If there was a point in my "counterpoint quarrelsome," it was that most lay people probably can have no well-founded position on current scientific discovery, whether mainstream, paradigm shifting, or crank. Science is simply too deep, specialized and context bound for people like me to have an informed position, and justified scepticism is doubt with a theoretic base, isn't it? (Though, the Bacterial Sex article in Science is actually pretty interesting, in my challenged opinion.) The guy who runs the grain elevator in Aflatoxin, Iowa probably has even less time for Scientific American than I do.

If I have seen far, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of science reporters. Sorry to have touched a nerve.

Posted by: consigliere on August 22, 2003 07:57 AM

consigliere, I apologize. I apparently took your "just say no" line wrong. Even then, my reply reads much harsher than it should. I wish it was the first time :/. At least I know I have a friend in Beavis.

I really meant for people just to be sceptical of everything they read. We are all challenged. It is why people specialize in knowing more and more about less and less. Questioning is the basis of science and it is the only real defense against quacks of all stripes.

Posted by: Stan on August 22, 2003 08:38 AM
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