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Posts Tagged ‘ufology’

Follow me on some rambling development of a few unplanned thoughts.

Fans of UFOs – people who believe that assorted reports of strange lights in the sky constitute strong evidence for believing we’ve been visited by alien beings – tend to point to things which they say can’t possibly be anything other than some sort of alien craft.

It’s a tacit admission that what they’re claiming is very unlikely, in a way. They expect you to believe in the aliens only after you’ve ruled out all other possibilities, which you clearly need to do before you conclude it must be aliens. The thing is, they’re fairly easily satisfied that these other options have been ruled out.

Unfortunately, it’s a very unbalanced decision. The believers’ approach makes much greater assumptions about the completeness of our knowledge, and has much less appreciation for the magnitude of what they’re claiming.

I mean, look at what happens if you do completely rule one option out, for any given bizarre sighting in the sky.

Pretend we’ve totally ruled out any natural explanation for this thing we’re seeing, this pattern of lights in the sky or whatever it is. It has to be an alien visitation. Two things are immediately clear:

A) We must have been incredibly thorough in our examination of every possible terrestrial source of this phenomenon, and made a lot of pretty shaky assumptions about things we don’t understand and can’t really know, and

B) HOLY SHIT THERE’S ALIENS THIS IS FUCKING HUGE

Whereas, if the aliens are the option being unilaterally excluded from consideration:

A) We’ve not overstepped the line all that far, given what we know about the laws of physics and the limitations they place on space travel, and

B) There’s something going on in the world which we don’t understand. Neat. Maybe we can learn something.

Neither point in this latter option truly boggles the mind.

It’s not truly scientific to declare it “impossible” that alien technology and the laws of nature have conspired to flummox us, but if we’re going to be shrugging things into negligibility, aliens are easier to push that way than the collective entirety of natural, man-made, and neurological oddities here on Earth that don’t always behave exactly how we predict.

And while bizarre but explainable terrestrial sightings might be fascinating in their own way – whether the true source is a secret military operation or a brain aneurysm-induced hallucination – they’re not as earth-shakingly, paradigm-shatteringly, mind-blowingly revolutionary as actual alien lifeforms dropping by to visit us.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that the alien-hunters are going to have to reach a much higher bar if they really want to be taken seriously.

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You should really be making a point of regularly visiting The Digital Cuttlefish, you know. I think I remember saying that before, but it’s especially true on this, the day of the 133rd Skeptics’ Circle.

Each article featured in this round-up is introduced by one of various forms of delightful poetic verse, which put the lie to the Cuttlefish’s very generous nonsense about being outshone by my own writing. I hope it won’t be minded if I quote in its entirety the piece written about my own entry, Unidentified, which frankly says everything I was trying to say but with much more lyrical elegance:

I gazed up at the nighttime sky, with wonder and with awe
The diamond constellations spread before me
But if I claim that aliens are part of what I saw
You might be better off if you ignore me.
An object, unidentified, was shining in the night—
A spacecraft, and I know that they have seen us!
I’ll sound as if I’m certain, when the truth is I’m not quite,
But it’s so much more romantic than “that’s Venus”.
If something’s unidentified, you don’t know what it is,
And there’s so, so much it possibly could be
The jump to “it’s a spaceship!”, when you could just say “gee whiz!”
Is a little much, I hope you will agree.

You really should check out the others. The dendrochronologist’s limerick is a personal favourite. And the articles linked to are pretty great too.

Another few quick links:

– Using Facebook will not give you syphilis. I’m not even going to track down links to the moronic tabloid stories that have been screeching along these lines this week. Just read about why it’s bullshit from Dr Petra, Tabloid Watch, and Heresy Corner.

A picture of Obama that re-instills the notion there might be something to this “hope” business after all.

– And finally, let’s not forget that the Pope conspired to help child rapists get off scot free. Sorry to bring the mood down a little, but, y’know. Institutional paedophila’ll do that.

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I don’t know the sky that well.

I mean, we’re not completely unfamiliar, the sky and I. We’re on friendly-nod terms, when we see each other. But we’re not what I’d call close. We don’t really hang out together much. I’d definitely miss it if it went anywhere, but I get the feeling it wouldn’t much notice my absence.

I imagine we all have friends who we’re not as close with as perhaps we’d like. And the sky has a lot going on in its life that I don’t know anything about, often because I never really bothered to ask.

So what does the sky fill all its space with? Well, you’ve got birds up there flapping around a lot. You’ve got buildings and other man-made structures towering up into it. You’ve got human-designed machines, like aeroplanes, helicopters, balloons, and whatnot. You’ve got a lot of weather happening: rain, hail, sleet, snow, thunder, lightning, not to mention clouds of numerous shapes, shades, and consistencies, and the very odd things the Sun sometimes gets up to. You’ve got your Aurora Borealis.

And then you’ve got the rest of the Universe. Well, not all of it, but even just the bit you can see in the sky is pretty extensive. Other stars, other galaxies, distant nebulae, passing comets. Planets like Mars or Venus, a bit closer to home, are often visible from Earth with the naked eye. Orbiting satellites, closer still.

And there’s a lot of stuff I probably haven’t even thought of. All the things I’ve mentioned so far have their own fields of scientific endeavour, with some people spending years studying them to acquire a high level of expertise. I am not an expert in aircraft, or architecture, or astronomy, or aurorae, or aviation, or… a synonym for meteorology that starts with ‘a’. A lot of the time, I really can’t speak with much authority on what I’m seeing when I tilt my head up and open my eyes.

This is my point. I often don’t know what I’m seeing in the sky. And neither do you.

The term ‘UFO’ is widely used to describe alien spacecraft – machines that have been piloted here from another planet by extra-terrestrial intelligences previously unknown to human experience. But a UFO is an Unidentified Flying Object. Once you’ve decided that it’s a spaceship, it’s not unidentified any more.

And if you make that call, that means that you’ve positively identified something you’ve seen in the sky. Something quite possibly far away, small, blurry, moving rapidly, obscured, and otherwise pretty damn hard to see. Positively identifying the exact nature of something like that, without getting any closer or using any more technical equipment to examine it, or in any way verifying your assessment objectively, isn’t easy. Especially if you’re not an expert in aircraft, astronomy, and all the rest – but even if you are an expert, there are limitations on your deductive abilities based on what you might be able to squint at in the far distance. You’d have to have gathered a lot of information, and have some serious expertise in analysing and processing it, before you could really claim such a thing confidently.

Astronomers use carefully calibrated telescopes to observe their chosen celestial objects of interest, and take detailed notes of exactly what they see and exactly where they see it, so that a coherent picture can be carefully pieced together over time by repeated verification of observations. Naturalists use binoculars to track animals such as birds, often going to considerable lengths to avoid disturbing them, and to get close enough to have a good look, so that they can be really sure exactly what they’re seeing. And ufologists… well, they have a tendency to just point at stuff in the sky, and say “Wassat? Must be aliens.”

Okay, that might be a little unfair on some of them. It’s not like there isn’t any room for a proper scientific discipline here. You could examine this stuff critically, and do all sorts of technical sciencey things like checking your facts. But the people who actually do that tend to conclude that there’s probably nothing to any of this. It’s been observed before that amateur astronomers are the perfect people to find some reliable evidence of an alien presence in the sky, given how much time they spend looking up there and how much more they know about what they expect to see, but it doesn’t happen.

The people who witness these extraordinary things in the sky that can’t possible be explained are usually unqualified amateurs with no specialist equipment or knowledge. Of course they can’t explain what that curiously moving point of light is. But for some reason they often decide that their lack of expertise trumps anyone else’s potential insights, and if they can’t think of a mundane explanation, then they decide it must be something completely outside mundane science’s ability to account for.

In short, the people with the expertise are better at identifying what they see, which makes those things no longer UFOs. The people who really stand by their alien stories tend to be the ones who really want to believe they’ve found something, and can’t let it go, needing to sift through to find a particular interpretation of a particular set of evidence which supports their idea, and focus on that to the exclusion of all else.

And the particular self-affirming flaw I’m talking about here is the point of the word “unidentified”. I’m always seeing stuff in the sky that I don’t know what it is, and can’t reliably identify, and the same must be true of alien-hunters. But it should seem odd that alien craft are all they seem to be any good at identifying. How many people who claim to be capable of spotting a flying saucer in the far distance with their own eyes, and reliably telling you how far away, how big, and how fast-moving that blurry smudge is over there, could also tell you anything about the position and luminosity of Venus?

And if it’s not very much, then how do they know that Venus can’t look exactly like what they think an alien spaceship looks like?

If something is truly an Unidentified Flying Object, then by definition you don’t know what it is. But the assertions made by enthusiasts so often amount to nothing more than an argument from ignorance: “What we’re seeing here has no explanation, therefore you must accept my explanation“. But it doesn’t work like that.

There’s a lot of things going on in the sky that neither you nor I could spot and describe precisely from a single distance glance. “Something unknown to me” is a simpler, and therefore preferable, explanation than “something unknown to me and from another planet“.

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You keep saying that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
– Inigo Montoya

This is a staple of pseudoscience. Not quoting The Princess Bride – everyone does that too much, regardless of their scientific credibility. I mean anomaly hunting. But the anomalies that woo-mongers think they’re looking for often aren’t anomalous in any useful, scientific sense of the word.

A scientific anomaly is a fact that is strange or unusual, in that it doesn’t fit into the model suggested by a particular theory. It’s some piece of data which genuinely oughtn’t to be there, if our present understanding is completely correct.

A scientific anomaly is emphatically not any event or occurrence that makes you go, “Oooh, that’s spooky“.

For instance. If biologists ever observed a modern chimpanzee giving birth to human offspring, that would be an anomaly totally irreconcilable with the current theory of evolution. This is true despite the persistently ignorant insistence of some creationists, who think that this is exactly what would be needed to finally prove Darwin right. Similarly, a verifiable discovery of those famous rabbits in the Precambrian would be entirely anomalous, and could not be accounted for within evolution.

If psychics exist, they would presumably be able to demonstrate their powers under controlled experimental conditions. If their rate of success at telling me what number I’m thinking of was sufficiently above what you’d expect from chance guesswork, then this would be an anomalous result, incompatible with the current scientific worldview which does not admit psychic powers. So, we would need to update our picture of the universe to accommodate this. This kind of anomaly can’t simply be left hanging.

One real anomaly, which intruded into astronomy in the mid-19th century, concerned the orbit of the planet Uranus. We had a wonderful theory of how everything in the solar system moved, and could predict where all the known planets would be at future times with fantastic accuracy, using Newton’s law of gravitation. But Uranus wasn’t quite behaving. People had checked and double-checked the numbers, but the seventh planet was definitely wandering very slightly off course, if the information they were plugging into the calculations was right.

So, this anomaly prompted people to start wondering what was going on that we weren’t seeing. For the most part, we had a pretty good theory going, and it turned out that it could be saved if we supposed that there was another planet further out, tugging on Uranus’ orbit a little with its gravitational pull. Then the numbers would all work beautifully again.

Crucially, though, they weren’t just assuming that some other massive body must exist out there, because the theory just had to be true. They were refining the theory, adding new elements to it, and in so doing they made a new prediction, by which they could test whether the new version of the theory was any good. Theories do that. If it can’t predict specific future observations, it ain’t a theory. And in this case, the Newtonian model of the solar system predicted a new planet of a specific mass, in a specific place, with a specific orbit.

They worked out where it should be, aimed their telescopes thataway, and, lo and behold: Neptune.

So, looking for anomalies and ways to account for them can be productive. But if you go chasing after things that aren’t truly anomalies in this sense, you’re not going to be doing anything as awesome as finding new planets. It just becomes pseudoscience.

The kinds of anomalies that some people go hunting for don’t hint at improvements to good scientific theories, but consist simply of any result which stands out in some way. Anything that looks a bit weird can be seen as an “anomaly” – even though weirdness is often a fundamental and entirely expected feature of the universe. Not every theory should be expected to immediately explain every observation. To suggest that a theory needs to be entirely thrown out, and replaced with some entirely new paradigm, is a common overreaction to one small “anomaly” being found.

So, when anomaly hunters approach an idea that’s actually pretty solid and widely accepted – say, that 9/11 was perpetrated by a band of Islamic extremists, or that ghosts don’t exist – they might pick up on some small factors that seem at first glance not to fit perfectly with the established explanation – say, that “fire can’t melt steel”, or that there’s something strange in your neighbourhood – and use these to call the established explanation into question. The very fact that anomalies exist – in this sense of strange-seeming things that can’t be immediately explained – is held up as evidence of the weakness of the prevailing theory.

But it may well easily be shown, with a little more work, that the prevailing theory is entirely consistent with everything we’ve seen – say, by slowly explaining how chemistry works, or by just growing up. These aren’t genuine anomalies, in that they don’t really need any new phenomena to be invoked to explain them. They fit just fine into a description of the world that we already have.

The kinds of anomalies that people latch onto might be things that we really don’t know the answer to, and can’t explain with certainty to everyone’s absolute satisfaction. But y’know, those are actually okay too. The unknown is pretty consistent with a lot of good ideas. Failing to absolutely nail every single detail of everything that’s going on is not scientifically anomalous at all. There’s no problem if it’s just an uncertainty; it’s only when something is truly inexplicable that your theory needs to be re-worked.

Every so often, a person might see some strange-looking lights in the sky which they can’t accurately identify. These reports are exactly the types of anomalies that UFO-enthusiasts go hunting for, but they’re not comparable to the problem with the orbit of Uranus. There’s nothing about a world free from alien visitors which implies that everyone will know exactly what they’re looking at every single time they spot a thing in the air. People occasionally squinting up at the sky and going “Wassat? I dunno… some geese maybe? Helicopter?” doesn’t undermine the skeptical position, because that could easily happen if there weren’t any aliens around. It would take much more than that – a genuine scientific anomaly, entirely lacking in plausible naturalistic explanations – before their case is supported.

This actually relates to Ockham’s razor, which I’ve apparently neglected to provide its own entry yet. These supposed “anomalies” are often held up as being evidence of some new and strange phenomenon, but if that phenomenon is something completely unproven, then a more mundane explanation might be far more reasonable to assume, even if we can’t be sure of all the details. There was no plausible mundane explanation – one that didn’t introduce some new assumption – as to why Uranus’ orbit shouldn’t fit the calculations; but people thinking they see stuff in the sky can easily be explained without bringing aliens into the equation. The Moon confuses some people. We know that boring stuff is often what causes these things. Saying that it might do so again, even without absolute proof, isn’t much of a stretch.

To see someone getting this particular point really wrong, check out Steve Novella‘s blog on this topic, in the section where he mentions Richard Hoagland. The “anomalies” that guy finds have only the flimsiest connection to his pet crazy ideas, and have very easy explanations already that don’t require massive leaps of logic to some totally new concept. When you have to invent vast alien civilisations and sinister, all-encompassing government cover-ups to account for the fact that there’s no other evidence for what you’re saying… at what point do you decide that maybe some mountains just happened to make a kinda interesting shape that one time? It’s a quirk, but not an anomaly.

Exploring the limits of a prevailing scientific theory’s power to explain the available evidence is one thing. But anomaly hunting, tracking down any slightly funny-looking result or interesting quirk of data, and using it to bolster the standing of your alternative hypothesis, however tenuous the connection might be, regardless of whether it matches with any of your own predictions, and without exhaustively checking whether it can be reconciled with the original theory, is not good science. It’s a wander into crazyville.

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So, I guess I should’ve done this one sooner. Pseudoscience is pretty much the pinnacle of anathema to everything I’m struggling for on this blog (hey, writing dozens of words about stuff as often as five or six times a month is a real struggle sometimes). I’m all about science, and a worldview based on empirical data and testable theories. I’m an atheist, but the interesting fight isn’t just against religion, it’s against the irrationality and flawed thinking that underlies all kinds of non-reality-based beliefs and ideas, religion included.

Pseudoscience is what you get when a hopeful but misleading patina of science is used to try and smarten up some ideas which, however nice they might be, have no connection to the real world. It’s some phenomenon or notion whose fans will stand by it unwaveringly, regardless of whether it’s actually supported by any evidence. Astrology, for instance, is widely regarded as a pseudoscience. Its claims can be shown to be empty and meaningless once you bring a few actual scientific investigative techniques into it, and its adherents have to sacrifice intellectual honesty to scrape together a flimsy charade of supporting evidence.

Obviously nobody ever thinks that what they’re doing is pseudoscience. People don’t believe that they’re deliberately ignoring contradictory evidence and sticking to unsupported claims long after they’ve been shown conclusively to be untenable. They’re much more likely to think that they’re steadfastly fighting an uphill battle for a truth that the rest of the world is too blind to accept. As a result, it’s sometimes hard to untangle good, healthy debate and disagreement on the one hand, from actual pseudoscientific nonsense on the other. When people have conflicting ideas, how can you tell if there’s a reasonable, scientific difference in opposing parties’ interpretations of the data, or if one side’s just full of shit?

Well, despite what contradictory views different people might have on Ufology, or Bigfootonomy, or the current deadness-to-aliveness quotient of Elvis Presley, there are some definite protocols and standards which you have to adhere to if you want to legitimately call what you’re doing science.

When addressing pseudoscience, it’s not really constructive or desirable to simply declare “This entire field of study is bunk”, regardless of how tempting it might often be. There’s always the possibility that someone may come along and provide a robust scientific theory about something we might have written off as complete crap – and if there’s ever any evidence that this is what’s happened, we need to be open to it. But a lot of stuff is bullshit, has no supportive evidence, and isn’t likely to anytime soon.

So, rather than simply listing a number of disciplines which are stamped irreparably with the label “Pseudoscience” and may never be taken seriously by anyone who values their scientific credibility, more common is to provide a list of “red flags” – things which generally indicate poor methodology, irrational and ideology-driven research, and that you would do well to be more than usually doubtful about.

What follows is a list of these things to look out for, which should warn you that proper science might not be at the top of the agenda. I’m taking a lot of cues from similar lists at Skeptoid, and these three wikis, but with my own suggestions for how best to calibrate your bullshit detector.

Decrying the scientific method as inappropriate or inadequate to apply to this particular claim

Look, science is just awesome. As the internets are so often keen to point out (and score geek cred for referencing xkcd), it works, bitches. If you’re doing science, you really ought to have a pretty good understanding of how it works (which isn’t hard to grasp), and why it’s important to apply these principles to any new hypothesis before we credit it with being probably true.

This means that, if you’re going to claim that your new idea will revolutionise our understanding of the universe, you can’t get all touchy and offended when people start asking for proof, trying to knock it down, poking holes in it, and bringing up whatever pesky facts might cast doubt upon it. They just want to know you’re not as full of shit as all those loons with their own Grand Unifying Theories, who share your passion but whose ideas don’t make a lick of sense.

If you want people to take you seriously, and believe that you’re any different from the loons, you should be doing everything in your power to help them with their knocking and poking. Because however much this hypothesis is your beautiful darling baby, and you know it will change the world and make you a hero and persuade everyone to shove that haggard old Liberty bint out of the way to make room for a statue of you, you must never forget the crucial and constant scientific principle that it might all be total bollocks.

If you’re wrong, you should really be keen to find that out. If you’re right, you’ll have a theory that’s all the stronger and more convincing for having withstood everything that humanity’s current scientific understanding could hurl against it. This has been the path of every established theory in the whole of science. You are not above this process.

This includes medical practitioners who claim that they don’t have time to waste performing rigorous scientific tests on the alternative treatments they’re dishing out, because they’re “too busy curing people” to bother with any of that. As if all those researchers painstakingly performing controlled studies to determine the actual effects of their treatments are just trying to find ways to pass the time.

One person’s subjective interpretation of one small set of data points – say, how an individual doctor remembers the general feedback he’s got from a handful of patients about a particular pill he’s been giving them – is a far less effective way of finding out the real effects of a treatment than a proper, blinded, scientific study, which can include information from thousands of people and rule out countless potential sources of bias. These studies are why you’re not likely to get a prescription of leeches or thalidomide from your GP anytime soon. They’re the best way we have of finding out what reality is like. (Read Ben Goldacre‘s book for a more thorough discussion of things like the placebo effect, observer bias, and the numerous other phenomena which can make our personal judgments totally unreliable when it comes to the efficacy of medical treatments.)

Being batshit crazy

Now, granted, some batshit crazy stuff does in fact turn out to be real, like quantum mechanics or Mr. T, but these examples are relatively few. You can label yourself a mould-breaking freethinker unfettered by the constrictions of current paradigms, but that won’t stop people calling you an ignorant jackass. Yes, Galileo was right, even though he was viewed as heretical by an oppressive establishment dogmatically set in its ways. But just the second thing on its own isn’t enough.

It might not sit well with the part of us that wants to cheer on the underdog, and see some high-and-mighty ivory-tower types collapse under their own hubris, but most claims which totally contradict established science are going to turn out to be completely wrong. In most cases, such science is established for good reason, and has a lot of data backing it up. If all of this is going to be overturned, it probably won’t be because of a single set of results from one new experiment – particularly given how easy it is for the ignorant, scientifically illiterate, and borderline mentally unstable to make scientific claims.

Obviously this new claim may end up being borne out over time, and the old ideas will then need to be abandoned – but for every Galileo, there’s a thousand whining ideologues, raving lunatics, or honestly mistaken researchers who thought they might’ve discovered something they could publish a career-making paper on but are finding it too painful to admit to themselves that they’ve been barking up the wrong tree.

Science by press conference

Good news, everyone! I’ve invented a new type of fish which completely vanishes when left unattended, leaving no decaying and unhygenic remains behind at all! It totally worked this one time, when Reid and Hofstadter from the physics lab challenged me to an office-chair race, and I left it completely unattended. Except for my cat, who’d been asleep by the test tube rack, but he definitely wasn’t involved. He’s not a scientist. He hasn’t even got a PhD. The point is, I’m a groundbreaking genius, and now I need substantial funding for further research. Yes, mine is the only lab to have produced any such results so far. Yes, it’s just the one result. But we’re all very excited by the empty, slightly greasy plate which constitutes our lone data point, and we look forward to developing this technology into something accessible to everyone. Did you hear what I said about funding?”

There’s a reason very little actual science tends to turn up this way, in sudden monumental bursts, where whole long-standing paradigms are suddenly overturned in one brief newscast. If someone gathers together a horde of journalists, camera crews, and other sundry spectators, to make some grand announcement about a world-shattering scientific accomplishment never before mentioned in the public sphere, then there’s a good chance that they may have taken one or two short-cuts in the actual science.

Science depends on peer review and replication of results – if you give the details of your experiments to other, independent researchers, they should be able to do the same stuff as you did, if they recreate the same conditions. You have to give other scientists a chance to try it for themselves, and maybe tighten up the protocols (like not letting the cat inside the lab) to see if there might be an explanation for your results which doesn’t imply that everything you know is wrong. A good scientist doing credible work will understand and appreciate the need for this kind of scientific rigour, and welcome the opportunity either to further bolster their claims with independent evidence, or to falsify their own findings before they do something silly like call a press conference over something that will turn out to be easily disproven by the emergence of a well fed cat.

Heads I’m right, tails you’re wrong

My first point was that the best way to prove the scientific merit of your idea is to go through all the usual rigmarole of the scientific method. One specific example of this is that you need to make sure that your idea is potentially falsifiable.

There should be a constant attitude in science – especially with regard to new and unproven ideas – which goes along the lines of, “Take THAT, supposed laws of nature!” You should be trying to bitchslap every contending theory down with the most awkward facts you can muster, and be prepared to chuck it out, if it can’t take the heat and collapses into either inconsistency or tears.

You need to be doing the kinds of experiments where you can say in advance, “We’re going to do this, this, and this, and we predict that will happen. If that does indeed happen, then great, we might be onto something – but if the other turns out to happen instead, then we’re going to have to rethink this theory.” You need to be able to point out, ahead of time, what observations could be made, which would blow your theory out of the water if they were ever reliably demonstrated. You try your damnedest to disprove it, and let everyone else have a go, and if they can’t, then you’ve got yourself a respectable theory.

All good science has something which could totally screw it up like this. Evolution? Precambrian rabbit. The Standard Model of particle physics? If the Higgs boson doesn’t turn up where it should be in the LHC. Science.

But how do you prove homeopathy doesn’t work? Well, you might have thought that repeated analysis of experimental data showing it to have no significant clinical effect beyond that of a placebo would count as disconfirming evidence, but its proponents don’t seem willing to take this as a sign that they need to seriously rethink their ideas. In actual medicine, new treatments are constantly being tested against those already in use, and if they don’t show a significant effect, nobody keeps pushing for them to be widely adopted. They scrap it, or make some significant changes before testing it again, and don’t keep prescribing it to people in the meantime as if it worked. Homeopaths don’t seem to work like this. If someone isn’t willing to suggest what results would falsify their hypothesis if observed, and genuinely rethink their ideas if what they predicted would happen didn’t happen, this should cast doubt on how scientific they’re being.

The pseudoscience, it ain’t a-changin’

It’s never a good sign when your supposedly scientific field goes for a long time without making any significant developments, or adapting to new information and more recent research. Any useful scientific theory makes predictions about future observations, and will generally gather supporting evidence over time as these predictions are vindicated – or, it will change and refine its ideas when new data contradicts the predictions it made.

Astrology is an excellent example in this case. There’s been almost no noticeable change to it in centuries, despite repeated disconfirming evidence, and the fact that the traditional astrological arrangement of zodiac signs simply doesn’t apply any more. I remember one day at school over a decade ago, we were discussing in class a newspaper article about the actual positions in the sky of the constellations of Leo, Aquarius, and so forth, in the modern world, compared with when the standard arrangement of western astrology was first put together. Technically, based on where the constellations actually are in the sky, it was said that my birthday should fall somewhere in Sagittarius, rather than Capricorn. But there’s been no actual progress in the study of astrology resulting from this or any other development in our understanding. It’s completely static, and oblivious to new data. This does not bode well for scientific integrity.

“Energy”

Whenever some new supposedly scientific practice or product throws the word “energy” around, take a shot. Wait, I mean, be skeptical. In science, “energy” is a term referring to a well defined concept, describing how much work (itself a well defined thermodynamical concept) can be performed by a force. In pseudoscience, it’s usually just some vague, wishy-washy notion of “life force“, which some subset of animate objects is assumed to possess, but which can apparently never be quantified, directly measured, or observed in any other way that might actually be useful. It can supposedly be “felt”, by those attuned to it, but this kind of claim doesn’t stand up even to a nine-year-old’s investigations.

If a new claim is based on harnessing “energy”, but never really explains what that means or how it’s consistent with our understanding of the physical laws of the universe, that’s a big red flag. It should never be enough that you’re expected to “feel” something working, because there are many, many ways that your “feelings” can be misleading.

“Natural”

Another magic word which, when it comes to a large number of alternative medical products, health supplements and the like, shouldn’t be nearly as persuasive as it often is. “From the ecosystem that brought you such previous best-sellers as arsenic, smallpox, cocaine, and HIV, comes our new all-natural sensation…”

Obviously that last one’s not such a great example, since we all know the AIDS virus is actually a divine punishment for gayness and/or was created by the government as a means of population control. But the point still stands that Nature’s a bitch, and you should not expect her to be on your side. Chemicals designed specifically to be as beneficial to humans as possible, on the other hand, might be a better option.

Don’t go too far the other way and assume that natural = bad, or your diet will take a serious downturn – but if the “natural” quality of some remedy is being touted as a plus, there’s a good chance it’s meant to be emotionally persuasive, because there’s really nothing rational or logical to be persuaded by.

It cures cancer, makes the bed, and house-trains your unicorn

If something’s too good to be true, then it’s tautologically bullshit. And if a new scientific development comes overflowing with promises of the many wonderful ways it will change your life for the better, the problems it will solve, and the quick fixes it will fix quickly, then that should be a hint that the people making these claims might be more interested in parting some fools from their money than genuinely breaking new scientific ground. (This is especially true if the grandiose promises are being made in a high-profile public announcement, and the practical results are all still yet to materialise.)

Does it work? TRY BUY IT AND SEE FOR YOURSELF

If the people doing the research are also the people taking your money for the product whose efficacy they’ve been researching, that’s not a great sign. What should be even more suspicious is when they can’t provide any actual data to suggest that the product works, and their best suggestion is that you spend your own money (or even just your own time and effort) on performing a non-blinded and unreliable study by yourself, with a sample size of one. (That one being you. And nobody is a statistically significant sample size all on their own.)

If they’re promoting or selling it, and making claims for its effectiveness, there should really be data by now supporting the idea that it actually does something. “Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it” might be a fine way to approach, say, oysters, or bungee jumping, or homosexuality, but it’s not a sound principle on which to base scientific research.

It’s a conspiracy!

The usual reason for ideas not being accepted by the scientific community is that they’re bad science. People who claim that their amazing findings are being suppressed by a conspiracy are much more likely to fall into the “batshit crazy” category mentioned above, than to have actually achieved anything that anyone could possibly have reason to suppress. It’s much more likely that they just don’t have the data to suggest that their hypotheses are anything other than wishful thinking, and so the scientific community is justifiably uninterested.

It profoundly misunderstands the nature of science and the motives of scientists to suggest that there exists any kind of grand conspiracy which is innately hostile to new ideas, and strives to preserve the status quo. Science is all about discovery, and improving our understanding, and scientists love discovering new stuff they can’t explain, and for which they’ll have to come up with a new theory. If you’re even dimly aware of something called “the past”, and have an idea of what things were like there, and how different were the levels of technology and our understanding of the world, then it should be clear that science is anything but stagnant and unchanging.

Sometimes, an individual scientist will be too attached to their preferred, established theory to accept new data which should prompt them to update their ideas. But the process as a whole is geared entirely around going where the evidence points, and people complaining about their ideas not being accepted probably just don’t have any such data.

foorp fo nedruB

That’s a reversed burden of proof, for those of you busy trying to translate it from Klingon or something. If someone comes along with a new product or scientific claim, you’re under no obligation to take them seriously until they’ve demonstrated that it works. You’re not obliged to prove that it’s completely impossible before making any kind of judgment, or give them the benefit of the doubt until then.

Homeopathy and astrology, for instance, are both claimed to work by mechanisms that seem entirely implausible, based on our current understanding of multiple areas of science. This doesn’t prove with absolute certainty that nothing will ever come of them, but nobody’s interested in doing that. You can’t absolutely prove that my pet unicorn Hildegaard isn’t spying on you right now and telepathically reporting your every move back to me, but that doesn’t mean you need to treat it like a credible theory. These ideas all fail a number of basic tests for scientific plausibility, so until someone actually produces some convincing, repeatable, rigorously scientific results, you can ignore the crackpots continuing to promote them. If you’re not being presented with any data, but still being told to “trust” this idea, or told that your skepticism isn’t appropriate or justified, then you might just be looking at a big ol’ steaming pile of pseudoscience.

Impedimentarily obfuscatory collocution

As is so often the case, things go much more smoothly and productively in science if people know what the hell you’re talking about.

Science has jargon in almost every field, and this is fine and necessary. Physicists, for instance, often talk about neutrinos, and quarks, and bosons, and fermions, and many other terms not in common usage. But this doesn’t make them needlessly technical and opaque; they’re just labels for things which don’t often come up in discussion outside of particular scientific circles. Someone not familiar with the sport of badminton might not know the word “shuttlecock”, but they could probably get to grips with it and use it appropriately after being shown what one is. They wouldn’t insist on everyone avoiding the technical talk and referring constantly to “the ball thingy with the feathers on”.

Expecting physicists to go without these terms would be like abandoning the words “man” and “woman”, and attempting to describe people’s gender in terms of factors like their shape, or anatomy, or whether they smell nice. It doesn’t add anything to transparency, or simplify the discussion at all (in fact, quite the opposite).

Corporate jargon is an endlessly fun object of mockery, even though a lot of the phrases involved seem to be perfectly acceptable idioms communicating useful concepts that our language doesn’t otherwise account for. People usually start taking objection when it’s not really being used to communicate anything – when pointlessly verbose and grandiloquent language is used as if to deliberately obscure the meaning. (“Synergy” can actually mean something, but it can just be something to say if you want to sound business-savvy.)

A common sign of pseudoscience is to see lots of technical language being thrown around which looks plausibly scientific, but can’t be consistently reconciled with any other scientific field, or which doesn’t explain its jargon expressions in more mundane terms. SkepticWiki has some good examples, including “quantum biofeedback”, “Counter Clockwise Molecular Spin of Water Molecules”, and “total consciousness of the universe”. There’s also a lot of technical-sounding variants on the ill defined concept of “energy”, as mentioned above. This sort of thing should raise your skeptical hackles still further.

I’ll add more in future, but this seems like an adequate start.

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