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Creating Your Own Pseudoscience

part one

4 June 2010. One of the exercises in my critical thinking book asks students to create their own pseudoscience.

Invent a pseudoscientific theory regarding (a) the healing power of color; (b) math anxiety; (c) romantic love; (d) sexism; (e) I. Q. enhancement through power breathing; or (f) some phenomenon of your own choosing.

The purpose of the exercise is to get students to approach pseudoscience from the inside out, rather than just lecturing them on the various weird ideas people have come up with and defended in bizarre and Byzantine ways. Of course, the exercise is impossible if the students don't have some guidance as to what kinds of things define pseudoscience.

Daisie and Michael Radner provide a short list of common characteristics of pseudoscience in Science and Unreason:

1. The tendency to propose theories as scientific, but which cannot be empirically tested in any meaningful way;

2. The dogmatic refusal to give up an idea in the face of overwhelming evidence that the idea is false and the use of ad hoc hypotheses to try to save the theory;

3. Selective use of data: the tendency to count only confirming evidence and to ignore disconfirming evidence;

4. The use of personal anecdotes as evidence;

5. The use of myths or ancient mysteries to support theories, which are then used to explain the myths or mysteries; and

6. Gullibility, especially about paranormal, supernatural, or extraterrestrial claims.

Other characteristics of pseudoscience could be listed, such as:

1. The promise of understanding everything about you without knowing anything about you;

2. The claim that a single cause and cure has been found for all diseases;

3. The claim that some sort of gizmo can align, balance, strengthen, harmonize, or otherwise positively affect your "energy field";

4. The lack of scientific studies to support claims made in testimonials or referring to those testimonials when the claims fail scientific tests;

5. The claim that mysterious energies, not yet detectable by scientific instruments, explain how your pseudoscience works;

6. The tendency to be extremely complex, making it very difficult to determine exactly what the pseudoscience can predict and therefore very difficult to test;

7. The tendency to be ignorant of or to ignore alternative explanations for observations, e.g., ignorance of physics or psychology leading to claims about ghosts; ignorance of placebo and non-specific effects leading to claims that a bogus therapy "works";

8. The tendency of the purveyor of a product to put all his money into marketing and production, and none into research and testing (look especially for those products promoted by celebrities or athletes that either contradict the experts in the medical sciences or claim to be able to magically enhance your intelligence, strength, reproductive power, etc.);

9. The assertion of completely absurd and stupid statements such as "That's why we don't use double-blind controlled experiments: they don't work!" (Asserted after a pseudoscience fails a scientific test.)

In my critical thinking text, I provide two models of pseudoscience: dianetics and parapsychology. (The Skeptic's Dictionary provides examples of dozens more.) Another technique is to provide models of pseudo-pseudosciences: pseudosciences that others have invented for fun and illustration. Douglas Stalker and Clark Glymour created three such animals in "Winning Through Pseudoscience," published in Patrick Grim's Philosophy of Science and the Occult: Fascinating Rhythm (Mambo, Samba, and Rhumba cycles explained as the key to happiness), Alphabetology, and Peruvian Pick-Up Sticks.

No matter how hard we try, however, even those of us who have examined dozens of pseudosciences, will have a hard time coming up with ideas like rumpology. I take my hat off, however, to the folks at Weekly World News who came up with the idea of facetrology, the science based on the notion that we all have "skin signs" recognizable by the pattern of pimples, moles, warts, and freckles on one's face. This descendent of astrology was allegedly discovered by Doris Shillobar, who reveals all in her (mythical) book Skin Signs: the Amazing Science of Facetrology. This science works especially well with teenagers, where seven distinct signs have been identified. Teens with zits in a cross shape are loners and make good research scientists or car mechanics.


Another exercise aimed at getting students to understand pseudoscience is to have them write an essay on why they think pseudoscience is so popular. As a stimulus and to see how the students will respond, I provide some comments made by the likes of Martin Gardner on the subject.

Why is pseudoscience so popular? Two factors have been repeatedly cited: the irresponsible portrayal of science and scientific matters in the mass media and the poor quality of science education. Read the following comments and offer your own explanation for the popularity of pseudoscience.

According to Martin Gardner, there are some obvious reasons for the rise in pseudoscience: “the decline of traditional religious beliefs among the better educated, the resurgence of Protestant fundamentalism, the disenchantment with science for creating a technology that is damaging the environment and building horrendous war weapons, and the increasingly poor quality of science instruction on all levels of schooling....” An overlooked factor, according to Gardner, is “the role of the media as feedback,” especially movies and television. He writes, “just as mild porn stimulates a demand for pornier porn, and mild violence a demand for more violent violence, so does crazy science create a demand for crazier science.” Television and movies “rapidly accelerate any trend.” In Gardner’s view, the mass media has a moral obligation not to contribute to “the growing inability of citizens to tell good science from bad” by programs such as "Exploring the Unknown," which presents numerous ‘paranormal’ events claimed to be on the new frontiers of modern science, when in fact everything shown is “considered rubbish by the entire science community.”

In an article in The Sacramento Bee entitled “Superman flunks physics,” Debra Blum cites several scientists who get irritated at the way science fiction movies are not only bad fiction but bad science as well. For example, Superman is supposed to scoop up Lois Lane as she falls from the roof of a skyscraper. “She falls at least ten floors before he vaults up and catches her,” notes South Dakota physics professor Jack Weyland. “She’s falling very fast, and he doesn’t slow her down at all. She’d hit him as hard as she would the sidewalk. Terrible way to go.” Except that in the Superman movie, our hero has very soft hands and Lois emerges without a bruise.

In “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” Indiana Jones tries to remove a golden idol from a tomb. Any change in the idol’s weight on its platform will set off hidden attack devices. Jones slings a bag of sand in the idol’s place as he grabs it. However, gold is much denser than sand and Jones would have had to have used a wheelbarrow full of sand to match the idol’s weight.

In the “Star Wars” movies there are magnificent air battles with enormous sound effects. However, in deep space, there is no atmosphere and so there would be no sound. Also, the flashing laser sword battles of the movie would be largely invisible in the real world because laser beams are not visible from the side, unless their light is scattered by dust.

Ice floats and yet movies depict huge icebergs descending on submarines. Then there is the unanswered question: if Superman is beaming X-rays out of his eyes, how do the results get back to his brain?

. . .

Wishful thinking and human gullibility should not be discounted as essential explanatory factors in understanding why pseudoscience continues to have widespread appeal even in an Age of Science. Human beings do seem to be very uncomfortable in the face of what seems inexplicable. We seem to have a need to make sense out of everything, to prefer supranormal explanations to mundane ones and bad theories to none at all. In any case, there is evidence that even when properly informed and educated, a significant number of people choose to believe in the incredible and the supranormal rather than in the reasonable but ordinary. Several studies demonstrate this point.

One of the studies was done by psychologists Barry Singer and Victor Benassi at California State University at Long Beach. They brought in magician Craig Reynolds to do some tricks for four introductory psychology classes.  Two of the classes were not told that he was a magician about to perform some amateur magic tricks. They were told that he was a graduate student who claimed to have psychic powers. In those classes, the psychology instructor explicitly stated that he didn’t believe that the graduate student or anyone else has psychic abilities. In the other two classes the students were told that the magician was a magician. Singer and Benassi reported that about two-thirds of the students in both groups believed Craig was psychic. The researchers were surprised to find no significant difference between the “magic” and “psychic” classes.

They then made the same presentation to two more classes who were explicitly told that Craig had no psychic abilities and that he was going to do some tricks for them whereby he pretends to read minds and demonstrate psychic powers. Nevertheless, more than half the students believed Craig was psychic after seeing his act.

Singer and Benassi then asked the students whether they thought magicians could do exactly what Craig did. Most of the students agreed that magicians could. Then they asked the students if they would like to change their estimate of Craig’s psychic abilities in light of the negative data they themselves had provided.  A few did, reducing the percentage of students believing in Craig’s psychic powers to 55 percent. Then the students were asked to estimate how many so-called psychics were really fakes using magician’s tricks. The consensus was that most “psychics” are frauds. The students were again asked if they wished to change their estimate of Craig’s psychic powers. Again, a few did, but the percentage believing in Craig’s psychic powers was still a hefty 52 percent.

. . .

It should be a matter of national embarrassment that it is not uncommon to see stories in The New York Times with headlines that read “Biology teaching flunks panel’s test.” The story tells us that biology, the first science presented to most high school students, is taught so poorly that the experience seems designed to snuff out interest in all science education at an early age. The panel included biologists and educators convened by the National Research Council. It was not hopeful for the future, said Dr. Timothy Goldsmith of Yale, chairman of the committee that did the three-year study. Most proposals for overhauling the education system, he said, focused on managerial or administrative solutions, such as lengthening the school day or requiring more standardized tests, rather than looking at the learning process in the classroom. Bill Aldridge, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association claims that the state of science education in this country is disastrous.

F. James Rutherford, director of  Project 2061, a science curriculum reform project of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, laments that “much of what’s done in schools focuses on facts and information, on separate disciplines and subject matter that is often unconnected.” The AAAS report states that “Today’s overstuffed curriculum places too much emphasis on memorizing countless formulas and generalizations, which severely hinders students’ abilities to learn and understand materials....students should spend more time learning how science touches their lives and less time memorizing facts.” More and more studies are calling for hands-on methods of science instruction, which include interdisciplinary approaches to current issues such as global warming, famines, earthquakes, volcanoes, etc.

Rutherford gives an example of good and bad science education in teaching about cells. High school texts list 120 technical words about the cell, and students are often required to memorize the words. “We found that 11 of the words were sufficient,” he said. “If you concentrate on what goes on in the cell, how it relates to the system, you come out with a deeper understanding.” The committee doesn’t want to eliminate learning facts, just reduce the workload so time can be spent on understanding what the terms are about. It seems, then, that unless we change the way science is taught to our young people, it is unlikely that many of them will come away with an understanding of the nature of science, much less with a desire to scientifically understand the world they live in.

[end of exercise]

I learned about Stalker's method of teaching pseudoscience by inventing his own in a column in Scientific American by Douglas Hofstadter: “World Views in Collision: The Skeptical Inquirer versus the National Inquirer.” The article, with additional comments on the fight against nonsense, is reprinted in Metamagical Themas: Questing for the Essence of Mind and Pattern. Every skeptic and teacher of critical thinking should keep it at the ready for inspiration and revitalization.

Stalker has reminded me (personal correspondence) that not everyone has had the benefit of an education in logic and philosophy of science to go with a life of educational leisure that allows us to study ideas carefully and critically. Most people have to pick up their theories on the fly and in the streets. They have to use whatever skills they happen to have. So, we might remind our students not to be too harsh with those who are devotees of nonsense. Try to understand where the true believers are coming from and not be too smug about trying to set them straight.

We teachers and critics of pseudoscience might remind ourselves of these things, as well.

We have to keep reminding ourselves that critical thinking is an unnatural act. Most of us who have the leisure to study the sciences and develop our critical thinking skills aren't inclined to do so. Nobody, however, enjoys getting scammed or harmed. Trying to get people to understand and reject pseudosciences may seem fruitless at times, but getting people to see the types of marketing tricks used by the purveyors of snake oil and the callous sellers of useless devices like dowsing rods for detecting bombs, may have a higher payoff.

>>part two

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