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Science Fraud
October 11, 2004 2:23 PM   Subscribe

The Seven Warning Signs of Bogus Science. Scientific fraud is everywhere. It is in the government, the courts, the corporations, the universities and other schools, and in public forums, and is often widely publicized as fact. Often, the public embraces it as "better" than the truth, believing what they want to believe rather than what can be proven. So here are seven warning signs that what is advanced as scientific fact may instead be bogus. But can you apply them to the huge number of "facts" you're bombarded with each day?
posted by kablam (23 comments total)

 
In capsule form:
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.
posted by kablam at 2:26 PM on October 11, 2004


"well, of _course_ the establishment would like you to believe that only they can produce great discoveries.."

heh.
posted by Space Coyote at 2:44 PM on October 11, 2004


I don't know about you, but I must propose new laws of nature to explain where my individual socks disappear. But you don't see me parading my laundry in front of the media.
posted by Krrrlson at 3:07 PM on October 11, 2004


You all think stupid
posted by solistrato at 3:22 PM on October 11, 2004


Dammit, Krrrlson! Inquiring minds want to see your laundry.

Well, it's unlikely the damn liberal media would give your laundry the coverage it deserves.

Wait a minute, I mean it's unlikely that the damn conservative media would give your laundry the coverage it deserves.

Hey, did you know that the Israeli army killed a terrorist and it wasn't on the front page of the newspaper? Once again the seekrit konspiracy keeps the TRUTH from the world!
posted by Sidhedevil at 3:24 PM on October 11, 2004


Hmm, would inquiring minds also want to *do* my laundry? Because if so, I won't rest until all you see on the news will be my socks.

Oh, and Sidhedevil - that is an OUTRAGE! What we ought to do is post this to every blog in the world until our clicking fingers are chafed and sore.
posted by Krrrlson at 3:35 PM on October 11, 2004


The Patent and Trademark Office recently issued Patent 6,362,718 for a physically impossible motionless electromagnetic generator, which is supposed to snatch free energy from a vacuum.

I'd like to write "The One Warning Sign of Not Understanding the Purpose of the Patent Office."

It is not the role of the patent office to judge whether an invention works as claimed, or even whether it can work at all based on the laws of physics as currently understood. Only whether the invention is new and non-obvious. Admittedly, they do a bad enough job at that, but the fact that they granted a patent to a device that violates the known laws of physics is not an indictment of the patent office.

Late-night infomercials sometimes prey on this misconception when they trumpet their product as "patented." So what?
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 3:35 PM on October 11, 2004


Wellstated warning signs, and I say this as one who, as a mushy-minded poetic mystic type, often say "Hmmm..." to purported "discoveries." So you are not just preaching to the converted by posting this.

That said, the Time Cube theory is pretty much full of intcontroverticleness, don't you think? Wht did he say, 10 gazillion Google sites agree? Can't argue with that.
posted by kozad at 3:42 PM on October 11, 2004


It is not the role of the patent office to judge whether an invention works as claimed, or even whether it can work at all based on the laws of physics as currently understood.

While this is generally true, the patent office does make some limited scientific judgements. For instance, you can't patent a perpetual motion machine in the US (at least not without a working model).
posted by mr_roboto at 3:59 PM on October 11, 2004


follow-up: The Crackpot Index.

http://math.ucr.edu/home/baez/crackpot.html
posted by kablam at 4:15 PM on October 11, 2004


8. The findings come from a think tank with the word "family" in its name.
posted by Ignatius J. Reilly at 4:37 PM on October 11, 2004


I like my rules concise: all real science is falsifiable. Of course, there are pathological instances when a wobbly theory mutates endlessly thanks to a desire of its adherents to avoid loss of ego. In these cases, it seems no amount of novel, re-contextualised or contradictory data can remove the non-doubts of its adherents, so you just have to wait for them to die off. Of course, you may get a few entertaining scraps and revelations along the way.
posted by meehawl at 5:59 PM on October 11, 2004


nice link
posted by troutfishing at 7:11 PM on October 11, 2004


nice link, but I seem to be mutating endlessly today.
posted by troutfishing at 7:13 PM on October 11, 2004


8. The findings come from a think tank with the word "family" in its name.
posted by Ignatius J. Reilly at 6:37 PM CST on October 11


Teh winnar.
posted by Ynoxas at 7:49 PM on October 11, 2004


Counter-examples:
1. talks directly to media - Rachel Carson wrote "Silent Spring" mainly for the public, not scientists...

2. establishment pushback - she was threatened with lawsuits and ridiculed by DDT companies and their scientists.

3. limits of detection - aren't most scientific discoveries first seen at the limit of detection? (eg. cosmic microwave background, most DNA tests before PCR amplification was available)

4. anecdotal - Ball Lightning was dismissed for years because it is a fleeting phenomenon, but now we accept it.

5. enduring belief - this is just being conservative: eg. if we've been successfully breast-feeding babies for eons, maybe bottlefeeding isn't better.

6. works in isolation - The Wright Brothers: their flight was in 1903, but this SciAm article from 1905 doubts their flight actually happened

7. new laws of nature needed - uh ... quantum mechanics, black holes, lasers? The need for a new law doesn't seem like a good red flag for bogusness.

If a scientific finding has all seven signs, I'll be suspicious, but real breakthroughs probably have a majority of them (2,3,4,6 and 7)
posted by mediaddict at 3:53 PM on October 12, 2004


mediaddict, I've got one more word for you, prions. Everybody in the community knows that germs and only germs can cause disease.
posted by Octaviuz at 5:14 PM on October 12, 2004


meaddict: They're just suggesting that announcements that meet this criteria should be subjected to extra scrutiny -- not that they're automatically false. The fact that some breakthroughts accepted as truthful today meet some of these criteria isn't necessarily relevant.

I'm not sure some of your examples actually meet the criteria, either. Silver Spring is a well-researched work based on published material, written by a respected career zoologist... not an empty press release to be digested by the media.
Further, Carson did not make empty claims that the Establishment was trying to suppress her work; they actually were, which is an entirely different kettle o' fish.
I'm also fairly confident that no new laws of nature were introduced to deal with lasers. Quantum mechanics is a theory that correctly explained observations, not a discovery per se, so these rules don't really apply here, either.
posted by mote at 5:30 PM on October 12, 2004


(That should read "made correct predictions where the standard model failed" instead of "correctly explained observations".)
posted by mote at 5:32 PM on October 12, 2004


aren't most scientific discoveries first seen at the limit of detection?

I'm also fairly confident that no new laws of nature were introduced to deal with lasers.

Well I think my favourite from a couple of centuries ago is the photoelectric effect and the blackbody catastrophe.

Both these effects were blatently obvious and openly published for a couple of generations during closing era of the 19th centuries. Taken together they clearly indicated that something was very wrong with the classic Maxwell-derived views of light as a continuous wave.

Yet nobody really did much about them for the longest time until Plank came out with E=hf, the essence of energy quantisation, that led Einstein to his explanation of the photoelectric effect. And the foundation for the laser a couple of generations later.

The irony is that people saw the resolution much earlier yet ignored it because it didn't fit into their weltanschauung. The Irish mathematician Hamilton, for example, derived field equations that included a quantisation factor for energy propagation, and a wave-particle duality. It's possible the quantum era could have begun almost a century earlier than it did.

However, the experimental evidence was not there and unwilling to buck the standard view of continuous energy propagation, he declined to publish his equations, settling for the fudge factor of setting his quantisation factor equal to unity and eliminating it.

For today's physics there is glaring evidence of some fundamental incompleteness. The observation of the effects of dark matter and dark energy without any good theory to explain their nature is quite quite a popular canard. We are lacking a good description for how the vast majority of the universe behaves or how it came to be this way. Who knows if someone has "solved" this already in a paper they are too timid to publish, or that is lying unread digitally mouldering away on Arxiv.
posted by meehawl at 6:00 PM on October 12, 2004


limits of detection - aren't most scientific discoveries first seen at the limit of detection?

They don't stay there. The first extrasolar planet took a lot of work, now they're being found every month.

If it stays at or beyond the limits of detection, like flying saucers or Nessie, it's time to be skeptical.

works in isolation - The Wright Brothers: their flight was in 1903, but this SciAm article from 1905 doubts their flight actually happened

It says no such thing. It makes no reference whatsoever to the flights of December 1903.

It says "They're claiming thus-and-such flight times at thus-and-such speeds, but without any evidence or eyewitnesses other than themselves, which isn't enough."

new laws of nature needed - uh ... quantum mechanics, black holes, lasers? The need for a new law doesn't seem like a good red flag for bogusness

Sure it does. It means, minimally, that the author of the piece in question isn't claiming to have made some normal-scale discovery the likes of which might be made by a reasonably smart, trained person. They're claiming to overthrow lots of what we already know, and are claiming to be a soooo-per genius on the scale of Einstein and Newton.

Since, to be blunt, there are many more crazy people claiming to be the new Einstein than there are new Einsteins, claims on this scale are a good hint to update your belief that you're dealing with a kook.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:08 PM on October 12, 2004


there are many more crazy people claiming to be the new Einstein than there are new Einsteins

Cue ob Carl Sagan quote:
They laughed at Einstein.
They laughed at the Wright Brothers.
But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.
posted by meehawl at 7:02 PM on October 12, 2004


claims on this scale are a good hint to update your belief that you're dealing with a kook

And I'm amazed nobody's mentioned Wolfram yet.
posted by meehawl at 7:04 PM on October 12, 2004


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