The red herring

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Conclusion to “Sham Inquiry
The coelacanth is a red herring

Mainstream science, which is respected and functions very well with its current methodology, excludes those fields who don’t pass muster. For a theory to be considered as an explanation for observations of the natural world, even the public realizes it ought to be scientific. Using supernatural qualities as necessary components in your theory will get you excluded from consideration outright by the scientific community. The public, on the other hand, finds the paranormal quite fascinating and is willing to give consideration to those that put on a good show. Continue reading

Elbowing in

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Continuing with “Sham Inquiry

Elbowing in on good science

The Journal of Scientific Exploration is the published by the Society for Scientific Exploration which describes itself as “a professional organization of scientists and other scholars committed to studying phenomena that cross or are outside of the traditional boundaries of science and…are ignored or studied inadequately…” Many of the members’ topics of research and methods are considered pseudoscience by conventional scientists. The journal is closed to outside contributors and criticism. Continue reading

Ghost Hunting – Sham Inquiry

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Thousands of eyewitnesses report ghostly encounters from ancient history to modern times. Contact with the dead is very much part of our modern culture. With the expansion of television content and the internet, stories about hauntings have surged in popularity.

Ghost hunting is a popular hobby for thrill seekers. It’s fun to be scared. The official community of ghost hunters, including those of popular reality TV programs, are non-scientists. However, they invariably tout the scientific nature of their activities. Continue reading

Cryptozoology – Sham Inquiry

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Cryptozoology is “the study of hidden animals” (called ‘cryptids’). More precisely, it is the pursuit of animals that science does not recognize as existing and, in some situations, be considered ‘monster hunting’ in comparison to the ghost hunters in a forthcoming discussion.

Like the closely related field of UFOlogy, cryptozoology can accurately be described as “a simulacrum of systematic rationality…quite impressive to many…nonbelievers.” Continue reading

Pretend science

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Playing Pretend Science

In order to be technical, like science, pseudoscientists engage in a method of data gathering that is not haphazard or lazy. Intricate collection and analysis is often a part of pseudoscientific activity. They may produce enormous bodies of work. Commitment to a cause can prompt “energetic intellectual effort” [1]. The motives and ‘sciencey’ feel of the whole endeavor wins over those nonscientists who can’t recognize that it simply fails to meet scientific standards. Yet, for all the diligent work, the accumulated evidence can still amount to nothing of substance.
The public is happy to admire science as long as they don’t have to understand it deeply. Sham inquiry plays to the admiration of science by the public. A lack of familiarity with how science is supposed to work is a major reason why the public has trouble recognizing counterfeit science. Add an ‘-ology’ to the end of whatever you study and it acts like a toupe of credibility – to hide the lack of substance. The public is vulnerable to pseudoscience that resembles real inquiry and genuine knowledge.
The following are three examples of current pseudosciences. They all don the accoutrements of science without delivering the substance [2]. The field of cryptozoology is the likeliest of the three to hold the interest of real scientists these days because it is associated with the genuine fields of zoology, anthropology and wildlife biology and chock-full of amateur scientists. Ghost hunting is predominantly nonscientists who enjoy using technology and the new view that it gives them on the world. Creationism is a entirely different beast grown completely from religious ideology and dressed in a cheap and transparent scientific costume. This sham does not even fool courts of law but it continues to exert tremendous ideological force on the public.

Cryptozoology
Ghost hunting
Creationism
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[1] Haack, S. (1995). “Concern for Truth and Why it Matters”. The Flight from Science and Reason (1996). P. R. Gross, N. Levitt, M.W. Lewis, New York Academy of Sciences, p. 58.
[2] Bunge, M. (1995).“In Praise of Tolerance To Charlatanism in Academia”. The Flight from Science and Reason (1996). P. R. Gross, N. Levitt, M.W. Lewis, New York Academy of Sciences, p. 104.

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So much information

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WordPress has a new feature that allows me to blog from email. Very cool. Why did it take so long?

The reason why this is Awesome is that I frequently get ideas or come across links at work. I can’t post to the blog at work because WordPress is blocked (along with thousands of other useful sites). When I get home, there are 101 things to do before I can access the computer, stop my thoughts zipping madly around my brain for a moment, focus, and remember what it was I wanted to say.

I admit that I have to hurry through lots of reading these days. There is so much of interest out there. But, blogs and links to online news and commentary are my main way of getting information about the world. I no longer watch TV. It takes too long. So, I RSS my news feeds and subscribe to blogs. And, by the end of the day, my brain is overloaded and I am frazzled. Important point: I do not have personal email in a reliable portable device. Therefore, I do not Twitter. I think my head would explode.

I experience anxiety because I want to keep up with all the interesting breaking news, science, controversies and new woo-ness that is released every day. It can’t be done. There are too many great skeptical blogs, science news sites and witty commentators. So, here I am adding to the feeds. Or, I’m just talking to myself… something we all have to stop and do some times.

Weak evidence

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Quality of evidence

A frequent complaint from the fringe is that the scientific community is dismissive of the actual evidence for their extraordinary claim. Proponents of psi or UFOs will cite reams of evidence. The scientific community’s standard response is “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. That is, the evidence must be high quality, obtained through rigorous testing, with all other explanations accounted for. Overly precautionary experiments are required to support theories that seek to overturn established knowledge. Rampant fraud and gullibility exposed in some fields, especially psi research, require that extra safeguards be used in this research. This is not a double standard because, as Gardner notes for conventional studies, “gerbils don’t cheat” [1]. But humans do, sometimes inadvertently.

Many poorly tested pseudosciences have a characteristic over-reliance on anecdotal evidence. Similar to anecdotes, myths and legends will be used to support a claim. This type of evidence can not be confirmed and is subject to mistakes and misinterpretation. Science considers anecdotal evidence very weak because of the degree of subjectiveness.

In the public view, anecdotal evidence is very persuasive. It is a primary means by which we communicate ideas to each other. To deny an eyewitness account suggests that the researcher considers the eyewitness a lier, under the influence of some altering substance or mentally unstable.

Collected modern and historical anecdotes, bits of circumstantial and questionable evidence, and non-replicated results form an impressive body of evidence to the nonscientist. Even the scientist may feel that there “must be something to it”. The important attention to quality is lost. Lots of weak evidence does not collectively make strong evidence. In an analogy, skeptical investigator Ben Radford equates this to trying to make a cup of strong coffee out of a lot of weak brew [2]. The scientific community is unimpressed and, quite justifiably, turns away.

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[1] Gardner, M. (1981). Science Good Bad & Bogus, Prometheus Books.
[2] Radford, B. (2009). Personal communication, April 27, 2009.

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Using Subterfuge

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Using subterfuge to build a case

Pseudoscience proponents may resort to desperate measures to support and preserve a beloved theory – another sure sign that the theory does not qualify on the same level as a scientific one. The public generally falls for various forms of slippery techniques and logical fallacies that are used to promote pseudoscientific claims, such as:

  • Falsifying scientific citations or quotes; using well-known scientist’s words out of context, changing them or entirely fabricating a reference;
  • Deliberately misleading to a conclusion;
  • Laying claim to authority based on special knowledge from inside sources (like the military, religious authorities or the dead themselves);
  • Making decisive statements that are unconfirmed, previously discredited, or even outright lies;
  • Speculation unsupported by evidence; outright leaps of faith and jumping to conclusions;
  • Claims that other knowledge systems are as valued as science.

In the eyes of the public who will trust a knowledgeable-sounding and sincere source, crafty methods can convey the feeling that a reasonable case is being built. The public is not expected to look deep enough to see that hard facts are actually assumptions, rendering the whole field a hollow show [1]. It takes a lot of work, previous knowledge and some special access to discern the truth from falsity and determine which conclusions are valid. It is not reasonable to have to verify everything one hears all day.
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[1] Levitt, N. (1999). Prometheus Bedeviled, Rutgers Univ Press. p. 92

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Irrefutable

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Science doesn’t work by beginning with the premise and searching for evidence to support it or, holding onto the premise no matter what evidence contradicts it. This is true close-mindedness.

A theory can be worded in such a way that it can never be shown to be false. This is made very easy by incorporating the supernatural. For example, “God did it”. How might one prove otherwise when the God or creator can suspend natural law indiscriminately?

Sham inquiry researchers will play down the importance of certain evidence and explain it away and ignore or rationalize failure. They will refuse to critically examine their logic. Instead, they resort frequently to special pleading. The fallacy of special pleading is when someone argues that a case is an exception to a rule based upon some characteristic that does not really warrant that an exception be made [1]. It’s an excuse. Using ad hoc explanations to explain away disconfirming evidence is a means to ensure that no conceivable piece of evidence produced will effect the outcome. The theory is nonfalsifiable.

Another fail-safe option to protect your theory against refutation is to place the burden of proof on the skeptic, which does not make logical sense. When this tool is used in an argument, one can conclude that rules of logic and fair play have been thrown out.

When a proponent asserts absolute certainty in their interpretation, and will not provide a reasonable answer to “What evidence would make your theory false?” (or worse, requires the scientist to “Prove me wrong”) it is a clear signal of pseudoscience. Intellectual honesty would require one to admit that any theory may eventually someday be proven false but can never be proven absolutely true.

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[1] Carey, S. S. (2004). A Beginner’s Guide to Scientific Method, Wadsworth. p. 19

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