real science not this

Sciencey: People get it

In the course of writing, there are times when you have to either create a new word because there isn’t just the right one coined yet or you adopt a word, use it three times, and make it your own.

My research and writing for the public has often been about how activities, advertisements, and ideas might sound a lot like science, using science-sounding terms, but are not in the mode of science at all. They are false science, dressed up as science, pretending to be or imitating science. I call it “sciencey” stuff because it appears to pertain to science. This word existed but I made it my own, applying it to this construction.

You can read articles on this theme from my column for Center of Inquiry online called “Sounds Sciencey” for many and various examples.


Just because you are “sciencey” does not mean you are “scientific”. I use the word “scientifical” to describe the activities of those who deliberately pretend to act like scientists. This does a fine job of fooling the public from product advertisements to non-traditional cures and treatments and even on television where people hunt for ghosts, Bigfoot and UFOs. Keep using that word, I would love to see that get into the mainstream as well.

I hold that the reason the public is so easy to fool with sciencey and scientifical ploys is that, at least the American public, is not well-versed in what science is and how it works. We don’t have good science education in school and science as a career or even an interest is not encouraged. So, we will end up with what Carl Sagan said:

We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.
~Carl Sagan

That’s a very bad thing not just because we can’t fix our own gadgets these days, but because we risk being snookered by a sciencey put-on without scientific merit.

I contributed a small part to the marvelous book Abominable Science by Loxton and Prothero. Daniel Loxton was thoughtful to send along a copy of a recent review of the book done by Robert Bishop for Christianity Today magazine’s Books & Culture site. The review was titled “Scientific or Sciencey? Yeti, Nessie, et al.”  Apparently, the “sciencey” aspect of cryptozoology is resonating. He writes:

One possibility for why belief in cryptids is so high in America is that few Americans—even the highly educated—actually understand much about the processes and principles of scientific inquiry. Cryptozoology superficially appears to be scientific, and a number of people mistake it for scientific activity. It sounds and looks “sciencey,” to use Sharon Hill’s lovely term, but that’s it. Cryptozoologists typically don’t begin with a theory to generate a viable hypothesis, deduce consequences from that hypothesis (predictions), test those consequences, analyze the data, check for errors, critically sift assumptions, and so forth. Rather, they begin with a bias (belief in the existence of a mystery creature such as Bigfoot) and then hunt for evidence to substantiate their belief. This leads cryptozoologists to force what they find to fit into their pre-established expectations. Moreover, they accept any evidence that remotely supports their belief no matter how weak or questionable, and discount any contrary evidence no matter how strong.

YES! He gets it.

It’s my hope that what I share publicly (outside my everyday job) makes some sort of impact. That’s a goal, but a difficult one to measure. It feels so good to have those few moments where you see something you do gets understood, appreciated and passed along to other audiences. A Christian magazine? Who would have thought? But it’s great. There have been other occasions, too, where people are clearly “getting it” – a topic is not science but sciencey. It really is important to distinguish between the two.

are you scienceyLater this month I’ll be giving a talk at the Albatwitch festival to a crowd that, probably even more so than the general public, is inclined to believe in the paranormal. My goal for this is to not be the grumpy debunker but to explain how science has previously looked at the paranormal and why it was rejected. Then, I intend to show how these lessons can be useful for today’s paranormal investigator. In other words, don’t pretend to be a scientist, don’t be sciencey or act scientifical. Do solid work instead.

If they get it, like Bishop got it in his review, that’s a huge win for me.

I’ll let you know how it goes.



Hill, 2010. “Being Scientifical: Popularity, Purpose and Promotion of Amateur Research and Investigation Groups in the U.S.”

Hill, 2012. “Amateur Paranormal Research and Investigation Groups Doing ‘Sciencey’ Things”, Skeptical Inquirer 36:2 March/April 2012.

“Scientific or Sciencey? Yeti, Nessie, et al.” sciencey.html [Full text here, please do not distribute.]

100 Things Popular Science Thinks Science Got Wrong, but Didn’t Quite

I was in the grocery checkout line a few weeks ago. I sometimes scan the magazine rack impulse grabs but never buy them. This week, the crop circle cover photo of a special edition of Popular Science caught my attention: Mistakes and Hoaxes – 100 Things Science Got Wrong


What did science get wrong about crop circles? “Science” (be wary of the tone of generality used in the title) never assumed there was anything worthwhile about crop circles. They were a man-made (and quite nifty) phenomenon. Thumbing through the issue, I saw pages about phrenology, cigarettes are good for you, bloodletting, humans evolved from apes, and so on – topics that may appear to have once had scientific backing. But several other standard hoaxes were cited in the list – spirit photography, alien autopsy, Loch Ness Monster, King Tut’s curse…

So, it was a mishmash of rejected thinking, errors, and hoaxes but not everything had to do with science. Lots of these “myths” were popular in the public or the media but gained zero traction as legitimate science. I bought it to see how these popular myths (if not popular “science”) were treated. It was a mixed bag.

The issue, considered a Time Inc. Book, priced at $13.99 is a snazzy coffee table edition. Each “myth” takes up one page or less. It’s well illustrated and a casual read for those who are not specialists in science. I would recommend it to those who find science stuff interesting but don’t have a formal background in it. As with typical “popular science”, specialists will find plenty of nits to pick in the text. But overall, it’s not flawed except in the egregiously wrong title. There was no introduction or editor’s note, the content started immediately with Myth #1: Neutrinos Are Faster Than Light – a legitimate story that described how an experiment went awry. Read More »

You say closed, I say open with reason

I get emails. People tell me I should be more “open-minded”.

There is that clichéd saying regarding open-mindedness: “Keep an open mind — but not so open that your brain falls out”. This piece of advice is most often said to come from physicist Richard Feynman (1918-1988), but also a slew of other more or less famous people, most of them from the field of science: Richard Dawkins, Carl Sagan, James Oberg, Bertrand Russell, J. Robert Oppenheimer. It’s plausible that they all certainly said it at one time or another because it applies every time one is presented with a fringe or alternative explanation for something. It’s a fine saying.

I’m reminded about my narrow lack of vision (as they see it) when I report about recently deceased mystery mongerers or self-proclaimed miracle workers. Their followers chastise me not only for speaking ill of the dead (I’m sure they were all nice people, but that does not excuse their bad ideas), but that I did not experience their miracles or I fail to understand their work because I’m not thinking “out of the box”.

Here’s one example. Lloyd Pye was committed to the idea that a curiously-shaped skull he had is that of an alien-human hybrid. Called the “star child” skull, Pye promoted the story that this is proof that humans descended from extraterrestrial beings. You can read my post about his death. There is nothing offensive about it. Yet, I got a SLEW of messages telling me how horribly misguided I was. I disagreed with his crackpot ideas. I’m allowed to. The plausibility of it is practically nil. There is no decent evidence in support of it except a nifty sci-fi story. To accept it, we’d have to throw out all of what we know about human history, evolution, and a good bit of well-established physics. Just because of one odd-looking skull? No, thank you. That would be completely irrational.

Read More »


Did you know Richard Wiseman doesn’t do parapsychology anymore?

That makes me sad. But it’s true. I didn’t realize this until I watched this recorded panel from earlier this year. You can hear him admit it around 24:00.

He explains that his reasoning is laid out in the piece “Heads I win, Tales you Lose” published in Skeptical Inquirer in 2010.

‘Heads I Win, Tails You Lose’: How Parapsychologists Nullify Null Results – CSI.

After more than sixty years of experimentation, researchers have failed to reach a consensus about the existence of psi (psychic ability). Some argue that there exists overwhelming evidence either for or against the psi hypothesis, while others believe that it simply isn’t possible to answer the question one way or the other. One of the main obstacles to closure on the psi question involves the way in which null results are viewed (Alcock 2003). Many parapsychologists have adopted a “heads I win, tails you lose” approach to their work, viewing positive results as supportive of the psi hypothesis while ensuring that null results do not count as evidence against it.

While I haven’t worked directly in the field and published many papers like he has, I can certainly see his point. I’ve not been impressed by the methods of psi researchers and said so.

In this talk, he talks about the field of parapsychology and its future — that it’s a complete waste of time, a true pseudoscience. If after 70 years, there is nothing to go on, it’s time to move on. (Note how this can be applied to UFOs, Bigfoot, ghostly encounters, as well.) So, you can’t very well blame him for no longer pursuing a lost cause. (I often feel this way myself about the skeptical community.)

Professor Richard Wiseman: “Heads I win, tails you lose”: How parapsychologists nullify null results from APRU on Vimeo.

I find myself often referencing Wiseman’s works because they cover exactly what I need to be addressed and they are readable. He’s been a great teacher for me. He’s now moved totally into the realm of self help ideas and the concept of luck. Also good but not the anomalistic psychology I am fascinated by. Oh well, we all move on.

If you go to his website now, you’ll notice that parapsychology themes are second to more conventional (but still SKEPTICAL) topics like sleep and dreams, luck, and perception (mainly the quirkiness of our perception and how we can be fooled). That should not stop you from picking up this excellent book: Paranormality: Why we see what isn’t there by Richard Wiseman

I know, not just believe, this book is nonsense: Book Review

IMG_5484Sometimes publishers and authors send me stuff. I’m not sure why they think I’ll suddenly be open to unscientific, fringe ideas about how the world works and overthrow what we know via just one book. Yes, that’s right, KNOW. This book, Paradigm Busters, from the Atlantis Rising magazine library, starts off by confusing conditional scientific knowledge with belief. “We don’t KNOW, we BELIEVE”. Maybe YOU do, but that’s not how I roll. Science is the most reliable way of gaining knowledge, in short because it removes as much error as humanly possible and is open to many people’s scrutiny and new evidence as it comes along. Some knowledge is certainly tentative but your kooky theory about pyramids is not going to overturn the entire field of archaeology and Egyptian history.

“Know” is interchangeable as “believe” in this book, that’s clear: “We already know… [that ancient spiritual places concentrate electromagnetic fields]” Oh? Where are the scientific references? There are none. This book is a collection of terribly researched, mystery mongering speculation and hopeful belief in something beyond reality.

We go way off on the wrong path right from the beginning as one writer suggests that magicians and entertainers may indeed have paranormal powers; that is, David Copperfield is NOT doing an illusion, he’s really supernatural! This book also suggests that people really are magnetic (nope), chi (which you can’t measure) could be the primal source of all matter and energy, animals can do complex math equations (in English), there are healing properties of coral slabs, energy beams are focused by the Georgia Guidestones, Mary Magdalene founded the Royal Dutch House of Orange, spirits can invade humans, ETs have visited us in the past, and that ideas about quantum physics were known in ancient Egypt. All baseless.

The contributors disregard normal explanations and sneer at anything related to orthodox “science”. Appealing to neuroscience and psychology, they still use sciencey language in that typical “I hate you but want you to accept me” relationship. Science is wrong, they conclude, let us upturn it for you.

Old and investigated tales are taken at face value with the non-supernormal explanation rejected out of hand (or not even mentioned). Therefore, there is more to fire walking than simple physics of insulation and heat exchange, the DaVinci code is real and reveals ancient secrets, and the Montauk Monster was a mutant from Plum Island research facility, not a long-drowned raccoon. It’s pretty much ridiculous stuff like this cover to cover.

I don’t have anything positive to say about a conspiratorial, anti-science book written by non-specialists who seem to have never studied the foundational literature of these fields. Oh, I didn’t find any typos and the grammar was acceptable. There.

The 1988 US Army commissioned report on Enhancing Human Performance

It was news to me that back in 1985, the US Army commissioned an analysis of certain techniques that were proposed to enhance human performance. The Army Research Institute asked the National Academies to form a committee to examine these questionable strategies. The report is available here where you can read it for free.

Enhancing Human Performance Issues, Theories, and Techniques (1988)
Daniel Druckman and John A. Swets, Editors; Committee on Techniques for the Enhancement of Human Performance, National Research Council

The following is my takeaway from this curious report.

The committee’s task was to “evaluate the existing scientific evidence for a wide range of techniques that have been proposed to enhance human performance” and to “develop general guidelines for evaluating newly proposed techniques and their potential application”. (p 15)

The committee looked at the relevant scientific literature and unpublished documents; each sub committee reported on their findings. Personal experiences and testimonials were not regarded as an acceptable alternative to scientific evidence, even though, as they note, people may hold them with a high level of conviction.

The study was prompted by military people who may have been well respected and felt these phenomena had military potential, as learning and communication tools, or as threats or aids to defense. For example, random number generators (RNGs) were used to test for the ability of micro PK (psychokinesis). Those with this ability were said to be able to mentally bias the machine to produce non-random numbers. Ideally such power could be used to affect enemy equipment.

Some types of enhancements examined are not that well-known to me or in my realm of interest: learning during sleep (concluded no evidence but a second look is warranted), accelerated learning (found little scientific evidence, but more investigation is needed), guided imagery, biofeedback, split brain effects, stress management, cohesion, influence, and parapsychology. (“The committee finds no scientific justification from research conducted over a period of 130 for the existence of parapsychological phenomena.” Therefore, the Army should drop it.) It was this last section, a subcommittee chaired by Ray Hyman, that was my focus.

I found the entire report to be readable and rather interesting and wondered why I hadn’t come across it before. If anything, the appendix of key terms at the end is extraordinarily useful.

The parapsychology section included examination of extraordinary mental abilities – remote viewing, micro PK, and the Ganzfeld technique for enhancing telepathy. I was familiar with the claims for remote viewing and Hyman’s critique of the Ganzfeld. I was interested in the state of parapsychology, having examined it through the Hyman/Honorton exchanges, therefore, this report added to my knowledge. I also knew of the academically-framed lab work of Jahn. Here in one place is a science-based committee fairly assessing ALL the evidence of these alleged paranormal powers. They concluded that none of it had merit and the military gave up on efforts to incorporate these techniques.

The committee concluded that after 15 years of research, the case for remote viewing was very weak, virtually nonexistent. There were certainly claims by some researcher of a clear effect but these claims were exaggerated. Two research programs – Helmut Schmidt and Robert Jahn (PEAR) made up 60% of the experiments that had been conducted. Their results revealed a small departure from chance. A tiny effect is enhanced by the volume of studies that were incorporated. The report notes Jahn did 78 million trials! The more studies that show a tiny effect end up looking statistically significant when grouped together. But regardless, the effects were extremely weak. The parapsychology committee argues that most influential positive effect in Jahn’s massive database is the result of testing one person. This is not a robust set of data.


In science, anomalies have a definition – they are a precise and specifiable departure from a well-defined expectation. In parapsychology, however, anomalies mean everything. They are vague and undefined – anything that looks odd is considered. With this wiggly definition, any one anomaly can have an infinite variety of possible causes, not all the same. That’s not particularly useful.

Because parapsychologists do not have a theory to explain the anomalies, there is no way to show that the anomaly of one experiment is the same as the anomaly in another. Without a theory to hang the data on, we do not have a coherent class of phenomena. Arguments are made that “There’s something there.” Perhaps there is. Odds are, it’s not something paranormal, it’s an artifact of the testing.

Then there is Cleve Backster who experimented on plants, testing them with a polygraph. His astonishing work on plant responses was popular in the press and appeared to be influential. People believed his study was scientifically solid. But it wasn’t. It was not repeatable with controls.  The questionableness of his work never got out to the wider audiences. The idea of “bioenergetic fields” as discovered by Backster, was put forth as part of the explanation for dowsing, energy healing and remote viewing. The idea of plant telepathy and special perception is still supported by New Age purveyors. The Backster idea was something certain people WANTED to believe in.

It’s a rare case, as noted in the report, that a person can make a distinction between his subjectively compelling personal belief and that which is scientifically justifiable. I’d previously researched this with regards to the interaction between Charles Honorton and Ray Hyman. Hyman’s 3 types of criticisms show up in this report:

  1. Smoking gun – cause is due to factor X
  2. Plausible alternative – cause could be due to factor X
  3. Dirty test tube – cause is from some artifact resulting from unacceptable standards

The dirty test tube critique was used by Hyman to criticize the Ganzfeld results. (And also the basis of Jim Alcock’s critique regarding remote viewing).

Honorton eventually agreed with Hyman that the Ganzfeld experiments were not of optimal design, but insisted that didn’t affect results. If the scientific methods are not appropriate, error creeps in, the results are unreliable. In the conclusions of the parapsychology section, the committee determined that what they found, the research methods and results, were too weak to establish the existence of paranormal phenomena. Thus, it was recommended that such techniques were not worthy of investment.

Yet, you will regularly encounter those who INSIST remote viewing works and has been successfully used. And there are those who insist parapsychology is/was successfully used by the military, and will eventually breakthrough and show all of us naysayers. I doubt it. It’s been a very long time, there’s been plenty of opportunity, but they’ve produced nothing convincing. If the military discarded the idea that the mind can be used as any sort of extrasensory tool or weapon, that clearly signals it’s not worth academic efforts to pursue either.

Two new videos

Recently posted are two videos from The Amazing Meeting 2013 (yes, 2013 but better late then never).

The first is me talking about the Doubtful News website and what it means to be an “honest broker”, a concept we can all utilize to present information.

The second is a presentation by Don Prothero then a panel discussion with Don, me, Daniel Loxton and Blake Smith. It’s about cryptozoology and their typical “abominable” standards for science and scholarship.