It seems nowadays that we are getting swamped with science. But not the science of the valid kind. Science where people follow the scientific method and are based on sound reasoning, good experimental evidence and makes check-able predictions.
No, sadly, most of the so-called science are pseudoscience, evil heinous impostors that exploit the public’s curiosity and love of the extraordinary, often for self-profit. It is impossible to safely search the web nowadays before coming across these things. Example such as “the star-gate conspiracy”, “life forever”, “alien abduction conspiracies”, “Elvis is alive”, “Atlantis”, “creationism” etc etc, all masquerading as good science. We even see adverts for educational toys with the slogan “when science works like MAGIC”. (Implying falsely that science doesn’t usually work, while science does.)
So how can you tell the good from the bad?
The lies from the genuine attempts at truth? This article hopes to be a guide. Only a rough guide. As you may have gathered, I am intensely skeptical of the things mention above. If you wish to disagree, fine. Maybe I am just a pessimist or a spoilsport. But I fear that once you blur the line between truth and lies, the power of science will be undermined. That would be a new dark age.
Without much further ado, we shall begin…. Be warned, this short guide is by no means complete. Every theory must be seen in context.
The fundamental rules of all science is that
- A theory/claim is wrong until show beyond reasonable doubt to be otherwise.
- A theory that goes against current thinking much be accompanied by proportional evidence.
Think about it. These rules are similar to the innocent until proven guilty rule in law. If these were not in place, then everything would be automatically true. Santa Claus, Elvis, you name it, it would exist. Clearly this is an untenable situation.
1. Personal Attacks: eg. Claims of Einstein was a plagiarist.
In a scientific argument, you should never argue against the person making the theory, but the theory itself. It doesn’t matter if Einstein or someone else thought of it – every theory must be judged equally. At most, an article can attack an opponent’s objectivity when assessing data. To say, for example, that since X was a good or bad man, so he must be right or wrong is sheer madness.
2. The Invincible Theory: eg. Perpetual motion is possible.
You just need to be infinitely far from all sources of gravity. Or aliens are here on earth. Anyone who offers evidence otherwise is one of them.
To be valid, a theory must make predictions and draw on evidence that can be shown to be right or wrong. A theory that renders itself unable to be disproved is not a valid theory, merely a conjecture. It may not be possible to completely prove a theory, but it must show relevance to the real world and be capable of being tested. People who make such invincible theories ignore the one prime rule – the onus of proof is on them. No theory can prove itself, or be proved by a similarly suspect theory.
3. Quotes as Evidence: eg. Many NASA scientist believe Martians exist, so Martians must exist.
This is similar to rule 1. In fact, there are no such things as authorities in science. The person who says something is generally irrelevant, and no amount of opinion makes fact. No matter how many children believe in Santa Claus, he simply does not exist. The world just does not work that way. At best, we have experts, but even then we must see the logic they use, not accept them at face value.
4. Railing Against Authority: eg. I sent this theory off to a physics site, and they dismissed it, because they felt threatened by it’s brilliance.
It is a commonly held myth that a “scientific establishment” exists to crush all new theories etc etc. Not only is this completely false, since science generally encourages innovation and free thought, but it confounds all logic. Why would the oil company resist a monopoly on an energy source that would allow them to wipe out all competitors? Why would a leading physicist resist the offer of his dreams and a certain Nobel Prize in a new theory of unification? This argument rapidly ends up in a bath of egoism and paranoia. Even if the prejudice was real, it does not matter. The assessment of theories must be carried out as objectively as possible. It should be seen that closed mindedness can be on the side of the believer too.
5. Appeals to Irrationality: eg. New wonder treatment only works if you throw away all doubts and have faith.
The fact is, the world is not based on irrationality. At its root, everything can and will be explained by modern science. There is no indication anywhere, and no need to shoehorn spiritualism into the equation. The moment a theory tries to throw away rationality, it puts itself out of the practical real world into the mad house. Believing doesn’t make things come true.
6. Abuse of Science: eg. Relativity logically proves god.
A great many pseudo-scientists use all the vocabulary of science and understand none of its meaning. Many also take other physical laws out of context and apply them where they are not appropriate. This is immediately apparent should you ever discuss with them. If you see a scientific idea, look it up on the internet. Check the author’s interpretation. Never take them at their word.
7. Lack of Evidence or Lack of Theoretical Consistency
To be proper science, and scientifically valid, any theory must fulfill two criteria: (a) It must be supported by valid evidence and (b) It must be logically correct.
If a theory fails one of these, it is not valid. It can only be shelved until these are fulfilled. Simple as that. Evidence must always be objectively analysed. It cannot be allowed to make a hypothesis and twist the facts, or twist the hypothesis for no theoretical reason to match the facts. A good theory must marriage but theory and practice cohesively. Any theory must also be independently verified by an unbiased party. Opinions can not be presented as facts.
8. Appeal to Intuition eg. It is obvious animals can’t just be product of random chance.
The fact is, human instincts and intuition was evolved to aid survival in an environment long gone. They were not mean for today’s world, and today’s science. Basing a theory on a sense of intuition can never be sufficient, because the world does not follow our common sense. Quantum Physics shows that quite well. Nothing can be blatantly obvious, and thus not need proving. No assumptions can be made about how things should be. Similarly, simple is definitely not always best.
To be blunt, intuitive is not a necessary criteria on scientific theories. It can be a nice side effect of time and acceptance, but no theory can try to base itself on amorphous concepts like this.
9. “Open minded”
There is a difference between being open minded and downright gullible. Being open minded means assessing each new piece of evidence objectively, and trying to see the wider picture. This mean accepting possibility, but evaluating probability. It does not mean believe everything. This is a mistake many make. But the proposer and the skeptic can be closed minded.
John Baez Crackpot Index
This article was authored by several Physics Forums members with PhDs in physics or mathematics.