The Seven Warning Signs of Bogus Science
By Robert L. Park
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is investing close to a million dollars in an obscure Russian scientist’s antigravity machine, although it has failed every test and would violate the most fundamental laws of nature.
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.
And major power companies have sunk tens of millions of dollars into a scheme to produce energy by putting hydrogen atoms into a state below their ground state, a feat equivalent to mounting an expedition to explore the region south of the South Pole.
There is, alas, no scientific claim so preposterous that a scientist cannot be found to vouch for it. And many such claims end up in a court of law after they have cost some gullible person or corporation a lot of money. How are juries to evaluate them?
I have identified seven indicators that a scientific claim lies well outside the bounds of rational scientific discourse. Of course, they are only warning signs — even a claim with several of the signs could be legitimate.
1. The discoverer pitches the claim directly to the media. The integrity of science rests on the willingness of scientists to expose new ideas and findings to the scrutiny of other scientists. Thus, scientists expect their colleagues to reveal new findings to them initially. An attempt to bypass peer review by taking a new result directly to the media, and thence to the public, suggests that the work is unlikely to stand up to close examination by other scientists.
One notorious example is the claim made in 1989 by two chemists from the University of Utah, B. Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann, that they had discovered cold fusion — a way to produce nuclear fusion without expensive equipment. Scientists did not learn of the claim until they read reports of a news conference. Moreover, the announcement dealt largely with the economic potential of the discovery and was devoid of the sort of details that might have enabled other scientists to judge the strength of the claim or to repeat the experiment. (Ian Wilmut’s announcement that he had successfully cloned a sheep was just as public as Pons and Fleischmann’s claim, but in the case of cloning, abundant scientific details allowed scientists to judge the work’s validity.)
Some scientific claims avoid even the scrutiny of reporters by appearing in paid commercial advertisements. A health-food company marketed a dietary supplement called Vitamin O in full-page newspaper ads. Vitamin O turned out to be ordinary saltwater.
2. The discoverer says that a powerful establishment is trying to suppress his or her work. The idea is that the establishment will presumably stop at nothing to suppress discoveries that might shift the balance of wealth and power in society. Often, the discoverer describes mainstream science as part of a larger conspiracy that includes industry and government. Claims that the oil companies are frustrating the invention of an automobile that runs on water, for instance, are a sure sign that the idea of such a car is baloney. In the case of cold fusion, Pons and Fleischmann blamed their cold reception on physicists who were protecting their own research in hot fusion.
3. The scientific effect involved is always at the very limit of detection. Alas, there is never a clear photograph of a flying saucer, or the Loch Ness monster. All scientific measurements must contend with some level of background noise or statistical fluctuation. But if the signal-to-noise ratio cannot be improved, even in principle, the effect is probably not real and the work is not science.
Thousands of published papers in para-psychology, for example, claim to report verified instances of telepathy, psychokinesis, or precognition. But those effects show up only in tortured analyses of statistics. The researchers can find no way to boost the signal, which suggests that it isn’t really there.
4. Evidence for a discovery is anecdotal. If modern science has learned anything in the past century, it is to distrust anecdotal evidence. Because anecdotes have a very strong emotional impact, they serve to keep superstitious beliefs alive in an age of science. The most important discovery of modern medicine is not vaccines or antibiotics, it is the randomized double-blind test, by means of which we know what works and what doesn’t. Contrary to the saying, “data” is not the plural of “anecdote.”
5. The discoverer says a belief is credible because it has endured for centuries. There is a persistent myth that hundreds or even thousands of years ago, long before anyone knew that blood circulates throughout the body, or that germs cause disease, our ancestors possessed miraculous remedies that modern science cannot understand. Much of what is termed “alternative medicine” is part of that myth.
Ancient folk wisdom, rediscovered or repackaged, is unlikely to match the output of modern scientific laboratories.
6. The discoverer has worked in isolation. The image of a lone genius who struggles in secrecy in an attic laboratory and ends up making a revolutionary breakthrough is a staple of Hollywood’s science-fiction films, but it is hard to find examples in real life. Scientific breakthroughs nowadays are almost always syntheses of the work of many scientists.
7. The discoverer must propose new laws of nature to explain an observation. A new law of nature, invoked to explain some extraordinary result, must not conflict with what is already known. If we must change existing laws of nature or propose new laws to account for an observation, it is almost certainly wrong.
I began this list of warning signs to help federal judges detect scientific nonsense. But as I finished the list, I realized that in our increasingly technological society, spotting voodoo science is a skill that every citizen should develop.
Robert L. Park is a professor of physics at the University of Maryland at College Park and the director of public information for the American Physical Society. He is the author of Voodoo Science: The Road From Foolishness to Fraud (Oxford University Press, 2002).
This article was originally published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Jan 31, 2003.http://chronicle.com Section: The Chronicle Review Volume 49, Issue 21, Page B20
PS Charlatans versus scientists
By Ludwik Kowalski
An interesting paperback book was published in 2003 by Keith Tutt in England. The title is “The Scientist, the Madman, the Thief and the Lightbulb.” The book begins with the biography of Nikola Tesla, goes over the alleged discovery of Henry Morey from Salt Lake City (1930’s) and then focuses on recent episodes, including that of cold fusion. In chapter 11, entitled “Of Charlatans, Conspiracies and Skeptics” the author gives a description of schemes by which con artists take advantage of naive expectations of many investors and convince them to finance unreasonable, often non-existing projects. One recent episode of that kind involved an Australian manipulator, Brian Collins.
He was claiming to invent a miraculous energy-making machine “measuring just 12 inches by 3 inches and weighing only 10 pounds. During the tests the machine was said to produce enough electrical energy to completely power an average size home. . . . With the availability of unlimited amounts of affordable electric energy, individuals can at last pursue their creative aspirations in a new age of society. In a longer description of the device, published at the same time, the claims are even more generous: “The prototype . . . produced electrical energy in excess of 1000 kW, enough power to satisfy the energy needs of 100 domestic dwellings at average load demand.”
Exploiting naive desire to get rich from free energy Collins wrote: “The special few who sent funds . . . for every dollar that they sent, they’ll see more money than they ever believed possible, . . . [I]n the next few weeks there could be some amazing things happening that could see many, many times the funds returned to everybody.” But several months later, when money was collected, he apologized that he had been misled by his scientists about the status of the generator. The only persons who benefited from the fraud were Collins and his associates.
In reading numerous books critical of cold fusion I never encountered an accusation of fraud directed to Fleischmann and Ponds or to those who carried out additional investigations in thirteen years after the initial announcement. I saw accusations of misinterpretation, lack of expertise, self-delusion and inappropriate methodology but no accusations of deliberate deception or fraud. The only exceptions were words attributed to an MIT professor Ronald Parker. According to a journalist, Nick Tate (Boston Globe, May 1, 1989), cold fusion was denounced by Parker as “scientific schlock.” But in a news conference next day the professor denied using these words.
On the other hand, I encountered one accusation of fraudulent manipulation of data on the part of critics of Fleischmann and Pons. According to E. Mallove, the chief science writer in the MIT’s press office (who had access to nearly all the information that was put out by the Plasma Fusion Center) there was a deliberate campaign to discredit cold fusion. Those who orchestrated the campaign (Parker among them) were motivated by the desire to protect their own projects supported by the government ($ 200,000,000 per year). Mallove wrote that “MIT as a whole did, indeed, acquire the deserved reputation as a ‘bastion of skepticism’ on cold fusion. . . . They suspected that .. . . if the public were to have a too open-minded attitude toward . . . the cold fusion, funding for their [hot fusion] program would be endangered. Assuming this to be true one is tempted to criticize the motivation based on financial self-interest. Scientists are expected to be objective in the analysis of experimental facts and theories. But how can one be impartial when asked to evaluate a competitor?
On page 139 Tuff shows two sets of plots summarizing a calorimeter experiment conducted at MIT. The draft plot, dated July 10, 1989, shows evidence of excess heat, as reported by Fleischmann and Pons. That evidence, however, was removed from the final plot, dated July 13, 1989. l (who discovered the contradiction) asked for the original data but his request was ignored. Mallove believes that this was a conspiracy designed to influence the US Department of Energy.
By the way, a colleague sent me a copy of an interesting article of R. Park. It was published in The Chronicle of Higher Education (vol. 49, issue 21, page b20, 2003). The title is “The Seven Warning Signals of Bogus Science.”
Ludwik Kowalski (March 7, 2003)
Department of Mathematical Sciences
Montclair State University, Upper Montclair, NJ, 07043
- THE SCIENTIST, THE MADMAN, THE THIEF AND THEIR LIGHTBULB reveals the revolutionary work of inventors and scientists who have struggled to develop clean and ‘fuelless’ new ways to produce the electricity we need for the 21st century and beyond. If the technologies could be developed commercially, they would offer almost costless energy, which would mean the end of the oil economy and freely available electricity throughout the developed and underdeveloped world. THE SCIENTIST, THE MADMAN, THE THIEF AND THEIR LIGHTBULB contains the elements of a dramatic conspiracy thriller in which greed, mendacity, murder, suicide, suppression, betrayal, jealousy, madness and misunderstood genius all play their full parts. It also investigates the complex psychology of invention and reserves a chapter for those inventors who are either self-deluded mavericks or charlatans who aim to trick gullible investors out of their savings. Most importantly, there are technologies here that offer to solve the planet’s most serious problem: global warming and climate change caused by fossil fuel power plants and car emissions. Is the technological solution to global warming contained within these pages?