Most of the really interesting stuff in this blog happens in the comments section. Not only do I get to read extremely insightful thoughts from people who are wiser than I, but I also get to find out about people’s reactions to what I write, as well as a lot of other completely unrelated stuff.
Something that has come up repeatedly is the question: “I have just seen this guy who claims X. Is this reliable?” That is: how can I tell science from pseudo-science?
This is a short guide to help you determine exactly this. Instead of a long discussion, I’ll try to make this into bullet points, so that it stays entertaining and easy to browse.
- Can they spell? Seriously. When the authors cannot spell their own name, their take on whatever scientific matter they’re tackling is suspect. This also goes for the name of famous scientists: “Feynmann” or “Eintsein” may be real people, but they have nothing to do with physics.
- Where did you read this? I understand it is unrealistic to expect non-scientists to read scientific magazines. But, for example, anything from “The Epoch Times” can almost immediately be dismissed as bogus. Did the New York Times say anything about this too? That’s a good sign. No major newspaper mentioned the news? Well, there’s probably a reason for that.
- Is it referenced? Always look for a link to an article: that usually means something (though it can be faked, as many “scientific” magazines will publish pretty much anything.) Anyway, a reference to a research paper should count as points up.
- How huge is the finding? If it’s huge, you can be 99.9% sure it’s not true. Huge discoveries happen rarely: that’s why they are huge. And, when they do, scientists are usually cautious about it and present it in a way that sounds less than what it is. For example, we now have several indications that we’ve found Dark Matter, but you still haven’t seen “Dark Matter found” anywhere. That’s because we need more data and no serious scientist is going to make a proclamation until the evidence has mounted up.
- Does it talk about “media suppression” or “conspiracies”? Dismiss it immediately. I don’t have to explain why.
- Does it prove some widely-accepted theory to be wrong? Dismiss it immediately. This does not mean widely-accepted theories cannot be wrong. But, if we were to discard relativity, we’d need a huge amount of evidence and doubts would be slowly mounting up. This would never happen in a day.
- Does it claim to have solved the world’s energy problems? Bogus. When this happens, you’ll know. It will be everywhere.
- Does it talk about energy and forces in a vague way? Dismiss. Energy and force are precisely defined scientific concepts that have absolutely nothing to do with, well, other stuff.
- Does it make value judgments? Dismiss. Scientific articles do not judge: they just present data and conclusions in the most neutral way possible. There may be a few exceptions, but better safe than sorry.
- Does it rely on ancient or esoteric knowledge? Remember the bubonic plague? Its treatment was based on ancient knowledge. Knowledge gets replaced as we learn: that is the whole point of the scientific method. Something being ancient does not equate to it being good. This doesn’t mean ancient stuff cannot work, but if it does it’s not because it’s ancient, just because it’s effective. “Ancientness” is not a valid argument. Ancient wisdom also says that the Earth is at the center of the universe and that everything is made of 5 elements.
- Is it “all natural”? Funny how that works. Smoking a joint: natural or artificial? One would say quite a lot of human labor has gone into it. In fact, anything produced by us is by definition artificial. That said, crap is natural and still we don’t eat it. Not everything natural is good; not everything artificial is bad. “Naturalness” should not be equated to health. That said, this doesn’t mean some products currently in the market do not carry a huge amount of substances the benefits of which for your health are anything but clear. But that is another discussion and I’m unfortunately not an expert.
- Are the claimants making any money if people believe them? That, of course, could apply to scientists that makes any discovery (they may get a better position or tenure) but we’re talking about different money scales. If there is a substantial economic interest behind a claim, you should be at least suspicious.
- Wikipedia is your friend. Every time I’m not sure about something, I go to Wikipedia and straight to the “criticisms” section. It is readily apparent whether the criticisms make sense.
- Ask Google. Google “Claim X reliable” and you’ll find thousands of posts in forums and the like. For example, some months ago a read something in the Epoch Times about crystals in the desert that could only be produced by atomic bombs but were thousands of years old (therefore aliens). It took me 20 seconds to find alternative explanations that did not involve little green men. Since then I’ve been paying attention every time a piece of news from that site shows in my Flipboard and I’ve learnt to quarantine anything they say.
And, to end up, a couple of articles that expand on the subject:
http://imgur.com/gallery/EWI1zPT (you may not agree with everything, but it’s still funny)
And here’s a link to a site that allows you to get a doctor’s degree in science in about 20 seconds! http://thunderwoodcollege.com/