Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Seven Warning Signs of Bogus Science

I came across this article recently that helps us all pick out when someone is trying to sell us bogus science.

On a side note, first thing i generally do when reading an article i like or dislike, is to learn who the authors are. A simple google(Robert L. Park) helped that immensely. (See, those search engines are useful for finding out lotsa things)...

I figured, OK, i liked the points he raised. These are definitely valid arguments.
Lets see if i can find any local examples i have experienced myself.
I am not going to use his definitions here, just his 7 points which i will elaborate on.

For his full article, please go to : http://chronicle.com/free/v49/i21/21b02001.htm

1) The discoverer pitches the claim directly to the media
What this means is, taking a shortcut to publicity.

No need the reviews by fellow scientists, just pushing your products to folks that have no idea how it works.

I've seen this with recent Enzyme practitioners in Penang. Enzyme is a product being promoted to clean everything from the kitchen, your gut, and the environment.(I will have a write up specifically on Enzyme soon, as it deserves a post of its own)

Bottom line: it was being promoted by the Penang state government under Lim Guan Eng, by releasing lots of it into our rivers as an "environmental" act. I have written to them on this, but seen no reply yet.

How much me and my buddies flinched when we saw the people we voted into office come out and support something they do not even understand. Heck, from my emails with the practitioners of Enzyme, even they do not understand it themselves, yet they promote it fervently.

I even had to put a stop to them running a workshop in the company i work in. Its an MNC by the way, and the only justification the folks(practitioners) in my company were using to back up their workshop was that it "was practiced even by the state government"... see what can happen when you put support to a product outside of your field of expertise?

When we do not understand something, yet promote it sometimes to the extent of getting organizations involved, we end up giving the illusion that the organizations are then in support of those products.

2)The discoverer says that a powerful establishment is trying to suppress his or her work
Fuel Savers! Ever hear of those? Remember our last round of petrol price hikes? all the way up to RM2.70?

Like mushrooms did the fuel savers pop up. Ever ask a salesman "why aren't these available on standard cars?"...heh :)

You will now learn of a conspiracy between all car manufacturers and the government to cause us all to use more fuel... and the only solution is the magnetic fuel savers or the tank tablets that miraculously make your car run better.

People forget however, that regardless whether the conspiracy exists or not, it does not change the fact that the product is a scam and has no science or even proof to back it up.
None that will stand up to real tests anyways.

Eventually even folks like me will be labeled by somebody as having monetary interests in defaming other people's competing products... What most fail to understand is that skeptics like myself are only in it because we want to reduce the number of idiots around. We gain by having a cleaner gene pool.

3)The scientific effect involved is always at the very limit of detection
There is never any surefire proof. Always some imperfection to the tests that need to be explained.

Results always "seem" possible, but play just out of reach. Maybe claiming to having done lab tests, but the lab tests are in some obscure location. Or maybe they are waiting for a visit from their foreign enzymeologist(who apparently does not have a name) to visits Singapore to better explain their product. Information always just out of reach. This example again taken from Enzyme.

The intention, to me it seems, is that by the time you would normally be pushing for more information, you would already be sold on the product or already too deep in to back out.

4)Evidence for a discovery is anecdotal
This was covered in my previous post.

In fact, when talking to a Homeopathy Doctor from Tg Bungah who happens to be the main person behind the Enzyme drive in Penang. (By main person, i mean most people point her way when i ask questions)

The first and foremost thing offered to me was "plenty of testimonial data" of how great the product was.

As a note to point 2 & 3 against testimonial data in the previous post, let me just say that there have always been people with doubts to the product.
When i asked them why none had voiced their concerns,  their reply was simple. "let them be", "i dont want to look negative", "their choice lah", "cant be bothered".
Many just choose to walk away quietly than bust someone elses groove.

What happens is that woo practitioners ignore these people and their thoughts, but latch on to every positive result thrown their way. Its called Cherry-Picking in data diving terms.

No credibility. This is why testimonials are always a bad idea.

5) The discoverer says a belief is credible because it has endured for centuries
This one is a no-brainer.
There are FEWER reasons than this to re-evaluate a practice.
Things revered following age should be kept to the elder folks, wine, cheese and the odd trinket.

There usually is some mention of it or its origins being many years in its coming.  Quantum Pendants claim scalar energy popping up about a hundred years or so back. Homeopathy is in the few hundreds... in my opinion, if an idea has been about for even half a decade and remain unchallenged, it needs a good proper revisit.

The beauty about using science is that it is always open to review. Practices that begun years ago may always be re-evaluated with new methods, and amendments can be done to our knowledge of the subject. We learn.

6) The discoverer has worked in isolation
Well, i haven't personally encountered this one. Most of the time, the woo figures i get instead are the "Enzymeologist from Russia", "Specialist from Germany" or some other foreign dude that has been so busy pushing the envelope of science to its brink by themselves in some foreign land.

For some reason, they seldom have support or even notice from other scientists...
Must be bad BO or something.

7)The discoverer must propose new laws of nature to explain an observation
This one is classic.

I once attended a QiGong class. A demonstration used to show the power of QiGong was for 4 people to lift a relatively large person with their finger and fist. Similar to this one, if you aren't sure what I'm talking about.

Then i saw it again, but this time at a Quantum pendant demo. Then again from a crystal bauble street demo... every time they used this trick to make the audience go "ooooo"... but each time i hear some new story about how it works. They keep plucking new theories out of their arses.

Here's another one... same concept ...find a trick that amazes people, then milk it for what its worth by saying its some new power or product and then sell it.

If you ever get the chance, just ask promoters if they dare perform these tests blindfolded, just tell them that you will be the one placing the pendant/crystal/whatever onto the test subject every time, but you will swap between a fake and a real one to see if they can repeat the tests without knowing if the real or fake item is there... Then take the time to enjoy the different excuses they use to back off from your challenge.

Oh, another thing. That first example's YouTube video also does not allow unmediated comments... another surefire sign of bogus science.

Aside from all those mentioned above, there are of course other hints as well.
Experience to see thru these will come as long as you keep asking the right questions.

Here is to the tiny hope that my messy thoughts and typing eventually get to help someone out there.


Tuesday, February 17, 2009


If you google that, there is literally dozens of sites out there that can better clarify what pseudoscience is.

In a nutshell, it is the practice of making a subject seem scientific, but skipping or masking important stuff by using common scientific terms, and also perhaps coming out with some theories and diagrams which are pushed straight to the general consumer without any review by other scientists to see how valid the work done really was.

For example, one common form of this misdirection is the use of testimonial data as proof of the usefulness of a product.

Why isn't testimonial data good data?

1) People do not understand what the placebo effect is. Our own bias in assessing or hoping for an outcome will affect our judgement of that outcome. If its a subjective outcome like "do you feel better?", all the worse.

2) How do you stop someone from picking just the good results and not showing you the bad(cherry picking)? 

3) Then there is the human ego. Many folks tend to put away that 200 dollar bio-energy pendant and consider it $$ lost to bad investment, rather than come out and explain they were foolish in falling for the scheme in the first place.

Things like that make testimonials a little shaky to rely on, but they are most used by snake-oil merchants... No proper testing documentation on what it does, just fear mongering and the like.

Sometimes the best tool we have is good old common sense to look around these things.
Other times, the net helps too ;)

I found a neat article online which i would like to try to apply to local context next.

All things "Woo"

So just how is it possible that we have company directors and consultants, alongside the common folks, falling for such things? Shouldn't it be these folks at the front line stopping such utter nonsense from reaching the rest of us?

Well, if we think that, then we have seriously overestimated people in general.

We must remember that we are flawed in our perceptions. Biases can only be addressed if they are acknowledged.

To many of these folks, where science or medicine is nowhere near their expertise, "placebo" would merely be a the name of a band.

I'm going to go with the term "Woo" coined at the blogs from badscienceblogs as my reference to all these unproven practices to simplify stuff.

As a reference, woo for me generally covers thing like : energy pendants and trinkets, magnetic fuel savers, unproven health drinks, detoxification(nutritional), homeopathy, acupuncture, electronic car rust protection etc etc etc.

So you can see, woo is a very wide ranging issue. It does not necessarily touch on any field like health and nutrition in particular.

Woo generally tends to have an impact using outlandish claims, and once they have your attention, begin discrediting the other party in order to gain themselves points, or backing their claims with testimonial data. They do this by sounding scientific but not really using proper scientific methods... a "convenient science" if you will.

It is this method which is utilised that we need to understand. The common ground of all things woo: Pseudoscience.

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Curious Layman's view

In Malaysia, it seems, the ability of people to fall for simple tricks just make it a ripe market for the plucking by snake-oil merchants. Everything from energy water, to quantum pendants and even magic crystals.

Sure sure, you may say that this happens everywhere, but I'm going to be focusing on my experiences here. Of course I will also share what i find on related matters abroad... 

Basically, it is my intention to help people nip this habit of relying on ignorance as their excuse to latch on to a product because it "may" work. Not because it works, just that it "may".

Not being critical of something will guarantee that you inadvertently fund the snake-oil industry in one way or another.

The worst part is not just falling for these scams, but allowing that non-critical mentality into your friends, kids and others.

Our biggest sin here would not be our indulgence in ignorance and the bliss it provides, but our inability to protect the next generation from being able to defend themselves against this simple non-critical mindset and its flaws.

The world is changing. The information is literally at our fingertips.

Bliss be damned.