Pseudoscience

Written: 2000.11.18

Background

According to Paramount's official Star Trek web site, surveys show that the average child learns more science from Star Trek than from any other source. This is a source of considerable pride to Star Trek's fans and creators. However, if it is true, it should be a source of considerable consternation to actual scientists and engineers everywhere, as well as any rational person.

Star Trek doesn't teach science; it teaches pseudoscience. Star Trek doesn't even promote science fiction; it only promotes Star Trek. Hardcore Star Trek fans tend to be distinguished not by a fascination with science fiction in general, but Star Trek alone. They even have the nasty habit of imposing the paradigms of Star Trek upon other sci-fi series (for example, wondering aloud why the Colonial Marines in Aliens use pulse rifles instead of rayguns, because rayguns are more "realistic", or assuming that the starships of all sci-fi series must carry many years' fuel supply because Star Trek ships do), or claiming that Star Trek was a pioneer in its genre (despite the existence of sci-fi serials in the 1930's and the sci-fi classic "Forbidden Planet" from which Gene Roddenberry appropriated most of Star Trek's style and format).

Science should be taught in schools, by real professors using real textbooks and real scientific principles, not by television writers using fictional technologies and pathological regurgitation of trendy scientific catch phrases from news stand magazines like New Scientist.

Most sci-fi plays fast and loose with scientific realism, and Star Trek is no exception. That in itself is no indictment of the franchise, but somewhere between the risk-taking space opera of the original series and the sterile self-importance of its spin-offs, Star Trek adopted the insufferable deceit of pseudoscience. Somewhere between the 1960's and the 1990's, the series went from "the engines canna take the strain, Captain!" to "We will need to modify the alignment parameters of the warp coils in order to extend the forward subspace field lobes so that we can reduce the nominally effective mass of the <blah blah blah>". Rick Berman seems to think that's an improvement. Do you?

Star Trek's high-profile promotion of pseudoscience is not just a matter of bad taste; it's a very disturbing form of conditioning for the youth of the country, who seem to be losing the ability to distinguish between pseudoscience and the real thing.

What is Pseudoscience?

Pseudoscience is use of scientific language to describe blatantly unscientific ideas. The film "Ghostbusters" is an amusing parody of pseudoscience; its characters describe their goofy "ghost science" with all the jargon and clinical detachment of a real science. But while "Ghostbusters" is smart enough to know it's a comedy, other forms of pseudoscience such as Creationism aren't. They take themselves very seriously, and they hope you will too.

The trick is to draw you so deeply into the minutae of their deception that you forget to step back and look at what they're selling. In the case of biblical Creationism, they try to sell the idea that the theory of evolution is somehow less scientific than an ancient tribal mythology about the Earth appearing out of nothing in six days (the numerous impossibilities are dismissed because "God doesn't have to obey the laws of physics"), the universe being only 6000 years old despite observations of galaxies millions of light years away, a pile of dust turning into Adam, a rib turning into Eve, the entire concept of childbirth (and by extension, sexual reproduction) being invented afterwards as punishment for disobedience (what was Eve's womb for before that?), the beautifully intricate, interwoven pattern of species geo-location and homology being a pure coincidence, two of all the Earth's species being crammed into a 1500 foot long wooden boat (even though wooden shipbuilding techniques can't scale that high, and it still wouldn't have enough room) and then migrating to all their specialized local ecosystems around the world without leaving a trace of their travels or being killed by the intervening inhospitable climates, etc. It boggles the mind; I knew it was just an allegorical fable even when I was a child, yet there are adults walking around spouting this stuff!

People buy it not because it makes any sense, but because the snake-oil salesmen are preaching to the choir. The choir accepts it because they fervently want to accept it. Creationists want to believe that science somehow validates their religion, transcendental meditation quacks want to believe that quantum mechanics somehow validates their unsupportable claims of telekinesis, and Star Trek fans want to believe that the nonsensical magic-tech of their favourite sci-fi series is actually feasible.

Pseudoscience Diagnosis: 13 Symptoms

The easiest way to spot pseudoscience is to track the authors' methods to see if they follow the scientific method, because they usually don't. I also have a "lucky 13" list:

  1. Attacks on mainstream science. Look for adjectives such as "dogmatic" or "close minded" being directed toward the scientific community at large. Look for phrases such as "the establishment refuses to even consider this" or "it is curious that no one in the scientific community is willing to examine this possibility", etc. These phrases often preface a theory which is so utterly preposterous, so appallingly devoid of supporting evidence or proper method that it would be laughed out of any scientific journal, so what does the author do? Accuse scientists of being "close minded" for not taking it seriously! It is the ultimate pseudoscience mind game; write a study which is so incompetent that it would receive a failing grade as a school assignment, and when every reputable scientist dismisses it as worthless, quote the uniformity of the rejection as "proof" of the conspiracy of silence! Another common catch phrase is that "mainstream scientists have no explanation for this". When you read that, ask yourself "how do we know that's true?" What if mainstream scientists do have an answer, and this person is just too ignorant to know about it? For example, creationists love to point out that geological strata are sometimes found in a highly perturbed state (eg. inverted, cross-cut, or otherwise disrupted), sneering that "evolutionists have no explanation!" But if you were to ask any geologist, even one who's still an undergrad in university, he would be able to rattle off the explanation without missing a beat (those kinds of phenomena are explained by basic geological processes and can be easily identified as such in situ, thus eliminating the possibility of erroneous dating by a competent geologist).

  2. One-dimensional analysis. Look for a narrow focus upon very specific subsets of evidence, or one mechanism to the exclusion of all others. Pseudoscientists love to take a particular piece of information and "analyze" it with no regard whatsoever for whether their conclusions fit the rest of our vast body of scientific observations. They also love to discuss a mechanism which has been described in the real scientific literature and act as if it is the only mechanism which is active. For example, a creationist named Barry Setterfield once tried to explain away the vast size of the universe (most of which should be invisible if the universe is young, because its light wouldn't have reached us yet) by arguing that the speed of light was infinitely fast in the first few moments after Creation, and it's been slowing down ever since. He even claims that measurements of c support his theory (they don't). But even if it were true, then how would he explain the Doppler shift observed in the light from distant stars, since increases in c would have reduced or eliminated frequency shift unless the stars' velocity increased just as much as c did? How would he explain the lack of variation in physical constants over the past six thousand years, as evidenced by the fact that human-built structures such as the pyramids have stood throughout much of that time? How would he explain the presence of nearby galaxies or the coalescence of stellar matter if the universe were expanding at such near-infinite speeds at its birth? His theory suffers from tunnel-vision; it's locked upon a particular piece of misrepresented evidence and ignores everything else.

  3. Distortions of mainstream theories. Look for claims that one mainstream theory violates another one. The most famous example of this trick is the recurring and fantastically nonsensical creationist claim that the second law of thermodynamics prohibits evolution. Can anyone with a brain seriously believe that the entire scientific community somehow failed to notice that one mainstream theory completely violated another one? If someone claims that a theory somehow gained widespread acceptance in the scientific community despite violating fundamental physical laws, it's a sure bet that he's grossly misrepresenting that theory and that he's a practicing pseudoscientist.

  4. Refusal to examine contradictory evidence. Look for a pattern of either ignoring or dismissing potentially damaging evidence. In the John Travolta/Robert Duvall legal drama "A Civil Action", the Duvall character advises his law students on how to react to the appearance of new evidence. He explains that before they even know what it is, they should instinctively leap to their feet shouting "objection!". So it is with pseudoscientists, because their relationship with mainstream science is not co-operative; it's adversarial, like a legal trial. They're more interested in attacking science than understanding it, so they learn only enough to spout realistic-sounding but ultimately nonsensical jargon. Creationists even renamed their opponents from "biologists" and "paleontologists" and "geologists" and "astrophysicists" to the ridiculous name "evolutionists" in an effort to reinforce this adversarial paradigm. The typical creationist carefully pores through reams of creationist literature but has never even looked at the scientific community's rebuttals, because he's already dismissed them all out of hand as the product of a giant conspiracy. It's inadmissible evidence brought forth by his opponent, and he absent-mindedly grunts "objection!" without even bothering to glance at it.

  5. Exaggerated complexity. Look for very complicated explanations of what should be very simple concepts. Some like to call this the "smokescreen of superfluous detail", and it's an old trick. Pseudoscientists like to generate fake credibility by quoting a lot of miscellaneous bits of information that aren't really necessary. The idea is to give you the impression that they know a lot more than you do, and in so doing, to make you assume that their theory must therefore be correct. However, even renowned theoretical physicists like Richard Feynman and Stephen Hawking could distill their theories into plain English, so when someone claims his ideas defy intelligible explanation, you should beware. It's more likely he's trying to make his theory so indigestible that you simply shake your head and conclude "this guy sounds like he knows what he's talking about, so I'll just skip to his conclusions". Creationists, transcendental meditation quacks, and hardcore Star Trek fans all tend to do this in varying degrees. There are lots of ways to exaggerate the complexity of any given concept; believe it or not, I've actually seen excerpts of a sci-fi newsgroup troll using quantum physics terminology in order to disprove the accepted definition of an alloy! This is like using Einstein's theory of relativity to explain how a toilet works.

  6. Use of scientific terms as meaningless "key words". Look for jargon terms whose relevance is not established. Pseudoscientists love to sprinkle scientific terms throughout their discussions without explaining how they prove their point. I've actually talked to Trekkies who used "phase coherence" as proof of firepower, and religious zealots who used "superstring theory" as proof of creationism! In both cases, the keywords are very real, but it's a fallacious leap in logic to go from keyword to conclusion without explaining the connection. Instead of showing that the connection exists, they expect you to prove that it doesn't, as if there's nothing wrong with constructing arguments out of unexplained catch phrases.

  7. Unverifiable sources. Look for statements like "I heard somewhere", "I read in a book once", "there was an incident a few years ago", or "everyone knows". They either can't remember the source of their evidence or they won't allow you to subject it to examination. One generally doesn't bother citing sources when describing mainstream points of view (eg. "the speed of light is 3E8 m/s") because the information is so pervasive and the scientific community is in such great consensus that it's ridiculously easy to check it and no specific source need be named. But when bringing up obscure and contentious events (eg. "some guy carbon-tested a living person to be a thousand years old") there is no excuse not to list the source, because it's difficult or impossible to look it up without a reference. Other examples of unverifiable sources are the spoon benders and mind readers who use unverified experiments as their evidence. They conduct "demonstrations" on their own terms and they refuse to subject themselves to controlled testing, calling upon a variety of excuses which all amount to the same thing: they don't want to be exposed as charlatans. They're just magicians who crossed the line between entertainment and fraud. The great Johnny Carson used his knowledge of magic tricks to debunk or embarrass a few of these fakers on his show, but a lot of people still believe in this nonsense anyway. Another example is the Catholic Church, which verifies "miracles" all the time without letting real scientists or their strict methods into this verification process.

  8. Ignorance of energy requirements. Look at the inputs and outputs of a theory to see if they make sense, regardless of its inner workings. Thermodynamic mass/energy balances are a commonly used "sanity check" in science and engineering; for example, if you've calculated that a machine should produce 10 kW of work and 2 kW of waste heat but the meter tells you that it's drawing 20 kW of electrical power, then something must be wrong. Of course, pseudoscientists don't perform these checks. For example, look at "young Earth" creationism. Conservation of mass/energy dictates that if the Earth's mass coalesced into a 12,750km wide sphere 6000 years ago, then roughly 2.4E32 joules of gravitational potential energy was converted into heat. This is a lot of energy, ladies and gentlemen; in fact, it's enough to vapourize the entire planet! Without tens or hundreds of millions of years to coalesce and radiate heat into space, where did all of it go? How did the Earth cool and become inhabitable so quickly? Let's say it took six days to dump this heat; its surface luminosity would have been more than 900 GW/m². To put that in perspective, that's 15,000 times as bright as the Sun! And yet Genesis almost comically says that the Earth was covered in water the moment it was created. So what if we back off and dump that heat over an entire millenium instead of just six days? Its surface luminosity would have been nearly 15 MW/m², which is still nearly a quarter of the luminosity of the Sun. Its surface temperature? More than 4000 K. Adam and Eve? Toast. Did all of the energy simply disappear? Are we going to resort to saying that God doesn't have to obey the laws of physics, which nullifies the entire concept of creationism as a science? The same criticisms apply to Velikovsky's "Worlds in Collision" theory; he completely ignores the question of where the necessary energy will come from, or where it went. The idea of a mass/energy balance is to conceptualize a process as a black box; what goes in must either come out or manifest itself in the energy state of the box. It doesn't really matter what's going on inside; the left side of the equation must equal the right side. If it doesn't, then you're dealing with pseudoscience.

  9. Appeals to authority. This one's easy to spot. The most annoying attack of the pseudoscientist is to simply refer to important-sounding literature written by people sympathetic to their cause, and then insist that you should read it because they can't or won't explain it to you. If they can't explain it, then what business do they have even mentioning it in an argument? It is a logical fallacy to claim that you're right because somebody else says so, and this applies equally to vague references and the blizzard of out-of-context quotes that creationists are fond of using. If they truly understand their sources, they should be able to explain their reasoning rather than making vague reference to them and then demanding that you do the leg work. I've lost count of the Trekkies who have E-mailed me insisting that I should read "The Physics of Star Trek" because it proves that warp drive and transporters are real. Well, I actually have read that book (since it's written by a real scientist, it actually debunks Treknology at almost every turn), but even if I hadn't, they would still have a logically invalid argument because they don't explain how the book proves their point. It isn't enough to mention the name of a source and use it as a magical incantation to smite your enemies; you must also understand it and be ready to explain and defend its arguments.

  10. False, fraudulent, or inapplicable credentials. Creationism is by far the worst offender in this regard. The validity of an argument is not determined solely by the credentials of its author, but creationists know that a lot of lay people believe just that, and they're perfectly willing to invent credentials in order to satisfy this belief. They've organized their deception to such a high level that they've actually formed numerous creationist "diploma mills", which exist for the sole purpose of issuing impressive sounding scientific credentials to completely unqualified religious zealots. There are universities out there which grant science degrees after as little as six weeks, which are unaccredited, and which often don't even have a science department. Some of them are accredited by theological institutions and offer correspondence courses for as little as $15, and at least one (the university of physical sciences in Phoenix, Arizona) has no campus or professors whatsoever. Creationist abuse of credentials can also take other forms, most commonly in the case of physicists or mathematicians who act as though their background makes them biology experts. I've personally spoken to an assistant professor of observational cosmology at the University of Toronto who's a perfect example of this phenomenon; he discounts biological evolution but he knows far too much about astrophysics to accept young Earth creationism, so he selectively believes in the parts of creationism for which he hasn't performed enough research to have a qualified opinion. He bristles at other creationists who mistrust astrophysicists but he has no problem dismissing the entire field of biology as a fraud. Naturally, his church proudly cites him as proof that creationism is gaining acceptance in the scientific community (groan).

  11. Outright fraud. Look for "facts" which seem to shake the foundation of science to its core, thus making you wonder how the scientific community could have possibly missed or ignored them, because chances are they aren't real. One cannot dismiss creationist observations out of hand because that's fallacious, but when a creationist makes reference to stunning "facts" which have supposedly gone unnoticed by the scientific community, the hair should stand up on the back of your neck and you should look into it. Creationists have no problem whatsoever claiming that the ratio of Carbon-14 and Carbon-12 in the atmosphere is totally random over time (it isn't), or that year by year measurements of the speed of light show a decrease (they don't), that constant radioactive decay rates are an "unjustified assumption" (they aren't), that millions of tons of meteorite material fall on the Earth every year (they don't), that evolution theory is "in crisis" (it isn't), that scientists selectively publish data which fits their theories (even though the creationists get all of their supposedly damning figures from the scientific literature which is supposedly censoring information), that the Sun is rapidly shrinking (it isn't), that geologic and radiometric dating techniques have been invalidated (they haven't), that the consensus of multiple dating techniques is a form of circular logic (it isn't), or any of a large variety of other lies.

  12. Leap of faith One of the oldest tricks is to state a real fact and then say that it "suggests" or "leads to" a pet theory without explaining why. They quietly expect you to make a leap of faith from point A to point B with them, and if they're lucky, you won't notice. Young-earth creationists are particularly fond of this tactic. The purity of limestone deposits "suggests rapid precipitation", and they don't bother explaining why. Mountains and valleys and all other geological structures "are consistent with a global flood" but they don't bother to explain how.

  13. Hothouse publication. Look for articles published outside of the world of scientific journals, but which nevertheless are written with the style and bearing of a genuine scientific research paper. Creationists are by far the worst offenders in this regard; they have an entire industry of their own "creation science" journals, symposiums, conferences, etc. If a research paper had any validity, why wouldn't they publish it in a real journal where it would lead to much greater prestige in the scientific community? Why wouldn't they publish it in a real journal where the scientific community (the people they're supposedly trying to reach) would actually read it? Why do they always insist on publishing their articles in journals whose readers don't have the background to properly critique the work? Could it be that they know a real geologist, astrophysicist or biologist would effortlessly destroy their arguments, so they must pitch them at people who don't know any better? Could it be that they want to publish their articles in a journal which won't publish rebuttals? Take a wild guess.

Recurring pseudoscientist claims about mainstream science "cover-ups" bear further examination. Picture this: you're digging and you find what appears to be a fragment of an australopithicene skeleton. After more detailed investigation, you discover that you were mistaken. As an honest scientist, you naturally make the facts public, shrug your shoulders and think "oh well, better luck next time". Months later, you see a creationist website on the internet which has twisted those facts into the following: "a researcher dug up bones which he claimed to belong to the missing link, but it was exposed as a hoax. Even the original researcher was eventually forced to admit that it was a fraud!"

What happened here? Pseudoscience spin-doctoring, of course. They're hoping that the reader will interpret any perceived weakness in mainstream science as conclusive proof of their alternative explanation. This is a false dilemma fallacy, in which the pseudoscientist assumes that you will then have no choice but to leap all the way to their preposterous alternative theory (it's a bit like saying you have doubts about the accuracy of a thermometer that reads 25°C, so the temperature must be -80°C). Since scientists always conscientiously document their own mistakes, they provide plenty of material for pseudoscientists who aren't nearly so ethical, and who are trying to prove, ironically enough, that these very same scientists are engaged in a cover-up!

You've probably noticed that I've reserved most of my ire for creationists. That's not an accident; creationists are by far the most prolific abusers of pseudoscience in the world. Click here to see more examples of Creationist pseudoscience.



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