The Seven Warning Signs of Bogus Science

July 25, 2012

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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

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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

Source: http://blake.montclair.edu/~kowalskil/cf/46charlatans.html

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  • 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?

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Richard Schiller August 8, 2012 at 2:44 pm

I have yet to see any truth in this Philadelhia experiment.

Reply

Richard Schiller August 8, 2012 at 2:42 pm

Well I am a lone inventor, or lone scientist. I do not contradict the known laws ans yet i do see school textbooks that do contradict them. One example is language of positive versus negative. Positive math means increase of; such as 4 + 6 +2 will increase, not take away. So an increase of electrons with negative polarity wil create a greater positive number of negative charge. Because electricity and magnets and atomic strcuture were NOT the same gorups of collaborated workers or scientists, they came forth with opposite words. The positive hot wire is an “excess” (increasing positive number) of electrons which are negative. Yet textbooks are full of crap saying that some look at current flowing from negative to positive like holes moving backwards. A hole being the empty space where the electron left to move forward. This trash is mythical and dangerous for our school college books to have. It endangers which end of the wire is safe. And there is no hole. If the moon leaves orbit does that mean it has a specific hole for the next rock to fit into? So dont knock Einstein who was out of the box, or me stuck all alone like him. Yes i agree, Thomas Edison stole from Tesla, and the real inventor is God who spilt Alexander Bell’s acid when it was bumped.

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ANDREW HOPKINSON July 28, 2012 at 7:14 am

THERE IS A GREAT SCI.FI. STORY WHERE THE GOVERNMENT GETS TOGETHER ALL THE TOP SCIENTISTS TO EXPLAIN HOW A ROGUE SCIENTIST MANAGED TO ACHIEVE ANTI GRAVITY. THE ONLY CLUE HE LEFT WAS A VIDEO SHOWING THE MACHINE ACHIEVING ANTI GRAVITY.
THE ASSEMBLED SCIENTISTS TEASE THE PROBLEM AND COME UP WITH A MACHINE THAT WORKS. THE GOVERNMENT THEN SAYS GREAT BACAUSE THE VIDEO WAS A FAKE!
ALL THE MIND NEEDS IS FOR SOMEONE TO STATE A POSSIBILITY AND SOMEONE WILL FIND THE ANSWER.

Reply

William Williams July 26, 2012 at 7:40 pm

I invite your attention to the Electric Universe.

Reply

Jorge July 26, 2012 at 11:12 am

It is strange to find Nikolas Tesla to be considered as a fraud. Thomas Edison worked with him when light was discovered using an enclosed glass with wired filament called a lightbulb. From him came this invention which Edison also took the credit but it was “Tesla’s mind in the creation” with the economical help of bankers.
There were other unusual inventions which Tesla experimented on. One concerned the results of the Philadelphia Experiment, where scientists using Eisntsein’s theories and Tesla’s dynamics electronic theories, proved that it is posible to “time travel or transport matter elsewhere”. Even though the Philadelphia experiment was discontinued because it was impossible to control it since what ever disappeared it was impossible to bring it back, that is, there was a way in but not a way out, very simple. It seems in order to time travel there has to be something equal that completes the equation to be in balance.

Reply

ghassan al kadri July 26, 2012 at 9:59 am

dear sirs:
i m not jocking but i have intuition that in a very close days we will reach to find out the enigma of the perpetium mobil not by the usual ideas (MECHNICAL)
but the the theoretical facts
i see it too close really too close,just to change the vision

Reply

Jorge July 26, 2012 at 12:38 pm

Your thoughts about a perpetual mobile are far very optimistic. Although if we browse around the physical qualities of matter, energy and principles of thermodynamics, I am afraid if it will ever become reality. Have you ever encountered a human being that lives forever, does not need food or air to “live” or does not need life around to maintain his/her environment? We are machines that work in balance and are perfectly designed to live with the help of our own environment and we function independetly of our environment.
Even if a “perpetual mobile” is ever designed (still mechanically workable), its motion and principles of function will rely on the basis of environmental aspects to be fully functionable. I do not disregard your optimism, but I think you are missing a basic principle of life, we need environment to live. If our environment would disappear we will certainly leave existance until that new environment will create a species capabilities to withstand and attain that “new environment”, then a new species will develop. This is very clearly seen around the world. Machines like man need to be fed by something (solar, lubrication, fuel type) to function regardless of their design.

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Ted Read July 26, 2012 at 5:11 am

This is just another nonsense attack on the emerging LENR community. One only needs to google lenr to discouver how much is happening on this front then look at mainstream news outlets which contain no mention. I really am surprised that this web site which let me in on this science with the articles about Tesla, would publish such nonsense

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keldoone July 25, 2012 at 2:29 pm

According to Mr Park all of the present “scientically tested” drugs put out by such people as glaxo smith kline, merk and others are real and have no side effects other than those they have provided in their presentation… and certainly are always prescribed for the correct malady…. And no one has ever died from them… because science is always correct, science never makes mistakes….. the people who made the scientifically tested thalidomide… were obvious charlatans. And that is to say nothing about the scientific reviews of agent orange, or the now selling of roundup by monsanto…. obviously the advertisement people are brighter than the scientists… People are stupid enough to buy the product…. or the farmer who once he has purchased GMO seeds must pay monsanto a percentage of his crop from then on for ever? Regardless of whether he is planting monsanto seeds or not?
This is not science, this is highway robbery… from pharmaceuticals to herbicides, to GMO seeds…. and lets not forget the millions spent on our behalf on the mating songs of artic mosquitos, or the millions spent on senseless other projects that have nothing to do with reality.
I ask you who are the charlatans… Oh and a biggy… lets not forget about “cowboys for cancer research”… research into cancer cures will never find a cure, Why? because too much money is being made by walking around in little scientific circles… Its called fraud.

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Herman King July 25, 2012 at 10:24 am

Tesla was no fraud.

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