The emotionally and cognitively satisfying anecdote

I used to have a cat. That cat was pretty mean. He hated other people and animals. He messed up my house. I’ll never have another cat because they don’t make good house pets.

The little story above is an anecdote. It has characters, reflects a real-life experience in a narrative form and is intended to provide you with “facts”, an opinion and my reasoning for the conclusion I’ve made there at the end.

Did it convince you? Perhaps – if you are open to the idea that cats are bad pets. Is it generalizable to the entire population of people considering pets? No. It’s simply one person’s experience with a cat.Read More »

Sounds like quackery

In my series Sham Inquiry, I spotlighted three examples of fields that sound a lot like science but have critical failures. Attempts to don the trappings of science are most irritating when they fool people into thinking it is real, cutting-edge science. I found more examples from the recent Newsweek article on Oprah’s promotion of quackery. Dr. David Cooper, a professor of endocrinology at Johns Hopkins medical school, a specialist in thyroid disease, sounded a bit perturbed at the antics of the Oprah-favorite Dr. Northrup:

“The problem is that this all has the aura of being scientific when a lot of it is wrong, or not proven
or just utter hogwash,” Cooper says. “No wonder it sounds very credible to the patients, and in my
opinion, that’s even worse. If it was all complete rubbish, people would be more likely to see it for
what it really is.”

Also mentioned is hormone therapy that confounds the term “natural” and the Law of Attraction utter bullshit labeled “very, very scientific” by those that hawk The Secret. If you have to point that out, it’s probably not.

Mix real scientific terms with utter gobbledygook and people eat it up. They can’t tell the difference. Much of this sounds very hokey to skeptics who are sensitized to pseudoscience red flags but not to the millions of sheeple who follow Oprah faithfully, without question. I suspect some of this lack of critical thinking can be reduced through the education process, however, people like to have charismatic leaders to follow and to think for them.

I applaud Newsweek for standing up to Oprah. It’s the number 1 emailed article in their “Life” section today. I encourage everyone whose Mom watches Oprah to send her this article.

Ghost Hunting – Sham Inquiry

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. Read More »

Pretend science

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.

Ghost hunting
[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.

Back to Sham Inquiry contents page.

So much information

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.

Sour Grapes

“If you aren’t trying to get to the truth, you aren’t really inquiring”
-S. Haack [1]

A case of sour grapes

We live in a world of science. Because of its high regard as a source of truth about the world, the concept of ‘science’ is often abused by scoundrels [2] and its appearance is hijacked.  Presenting an alternate viewpoint  as a scientific theory is commonly used in order to elevate some unorthodox idea to a level to compete with real scientific ideas [3].  If your idea at least sounds scientific, you’ve got it made.  At least, in the public eye.

To make a case for a truth about the world without regards to evidence, logic or argument is called pseudoinquiry or sham reasoning/inquiry [4].  Sham inquiry gives the impression of scientific inquiry but lacks  substance and rigor. It’s hard to distinguish genuine science from false science (pseudoscience). Pseudoscientific ideas are elaborate, encompass lots of details, and use technical terminology.  A layman would be hard pressed to understand it, just like real science. (Pick up Nature and try to read one of the research reports.)

Many nonscientists want desperately to make a breakthrough, be endowed as an expert and be associated with the elite community of respected scientists. The scientific community does not usually respond warmly to a fringe theory. When scorned by the elite community, the theorist may come down with a bad case of “sour grapes” and seek other outlets to distribute their work because they are convinced of its great importance.

They believe they are advancing knowledge by the act of challenging orthodoxy.  One can evade the  demands and harsh critiques that authentic scientists have to face by appealing to a small circle of supporters .  Instead of true scientific accolades, the “maverick” can gain rewards thorough media attention and respect from a small group of ardent admirers.

Many characteristics consistently appear in false science and can be used as a general guide for spotting sham inquiry:

I’ll examine what it means to play pretend science. And, show you three examples of how they do it: Cryptozoology, Ghost Hunting, Creationism

I found unorthodox professionals elbowing in on good science.

And, I found the maverick scientist’s iconic example of how science is wrong.


[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] Levitt, N. (1999). Prometheus Bedeviled, Rutgers Univ Press. p. 1

[3] Toumey, C. (1996). Conjuring Science, Rutgers Univ Press. p. 93

[4] Haack, p. 58.