Copyright © 2007-2017 Russ Dewey
When people falsely claim they have evidence for a dramatic new scientific theory, this is called pseudoscience or quack science. Fortunately, quack science is easily recognized. The distinctive features might be called the Quack Science Syndrome.
One red flag or warning sign which points to quack science is a simply a claim that sounds too good to be true. In judging extravagant scientific claims, one must adopt the same attitude one might adopt when receiving an email announcing you have won a million dollars.
What is a red flag that indicates quack science?
In general, as many parents have told their children, if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Examples of claims that sound too good to be true include the following:
–unlimited cheap power (perpetual motion machines, special gas formulations that make cars go 200 miles per gallon, cold fusion)
–dramatic medical cures discovered by isolated doctors or obscure medical clinics (cures for cancer, obesity, arthritis)
–life extension (live 100 years without looking like it)
Extravagant claims in the realm of psychology include the following:
–therapies which are cheap, quick, and superior to every other therapy (for almost every problem and almost every person)
–claims about psychic powers (plants that respond to thoughts and emotions, thoughts transferred from one person to another, communication with spirits)
–techniques for boosting your IQ, giving you unlimited memory, educating your subconscious mind, or super-learning (speedreading courses, subliminal learning tapes)
What did Sagan offer as a rule of thumb, regarding extraordinary claims?
A good rule of thumb attributed to Carl Sagan is that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. A person who claims to communicate with plants through psychic energy is making a very extraordinary claim.
Such a person should have powerful evidence for the phenomenon if they expect to be taken seriously. Most quack science claims are backed by very weak evidence or none at all.
Part of the Quack Science Syndrome is a reluctance to submit claims to a normal scientific journal. Instead, a quack scientist will seek publicity in a newspaper, magazine, or an internet site.
An article that makes extravagant claims without supporting evidence will not be published in a scientific journal. Most journals receive many more articles than they can publish. They have a screening system called peer review.
Peer review involves sending articles out anonymously for review by experts on the subject. They are peers of the scientists who submit the article, people in the same field with similar expertise.
What is peer review?
To be published in a top-quality journal using peer review, an article must make a notable contribution to the field. It must follow the usual rules of science: procedures must be spelled out in detail, and appropriate statistical techniques must be used to analyze results.
If an article looks promising but has a few problems, it might be sent back to the author(s) one or more times for revision. If it has severe flaws, or does not make a contribution to the field, it is rejected and not published.
Sometimes an article is almost, but not quite, suitable for a high-level journal. In that case, a researcher is advised to submit it to another, less competitive or less prestigious journal.
Some journals do not use the peer review system at all. The screening process may be the opinion of the editor or an editorial board. Usually these journals are not as prestigious as refereed journals.
If they are legitimate (not simply a front for profit-making publication) non-refereed journals still have standards that prevent publication of quack science articles. A scan of tables of contents for several issues will show that.
Far worse than legitimate but unrefereed journals are predatory journals. They exist only to make money by charging young researchers publication fees.
A dishonest person will create a scientific-looking journal with an impressive title, then offer to publish articles for a fee. Often the articles are not screened at all.
Jeffrey Beall, a librarian at the University of Colorado in Denver, noticed this trend and compiled a list of scam journals publishing often-worthless articles for money. Between 2011 to 2016, the numbers rose from 18 (in 2011) to 923 (in 2016), according to Beall's List of Predatory Publishers.
About 40% of the fake journals originated in India. Beall reported that the fake journals charged authors an average of $178 in fees to publish an article.
What are predatory journals?
Fake journals are sometime exposed when somebody sends in an article consisting of gibberish, to expose the journal as fraudulent. In 2013, a journalist composed a deliberately absurd and fraudulent paper and submitted it to 250 suspect journals (Knox, 2013).
The journalist received 157 acceptance letters and 98 rejections. This was despite numerous misspellings and nonsensical sentences (he translated the article from English to French using Google Translate, then back again, to insure the English was bad). Quotations from Aristotle were inserted randomly, but altered to make them inaccurate.
The article, which purported to discover an extract from lichen that killed cancer (even though the data showed no such effect) listed "nonexistent researchers with African-sounding names based at the fictitious Wassee Institute of Medicine in Asmara." One fake journal offered to publish it for $1000.
There are easy ways to spot a predatory journal. For example, "Google Maps searches for the address of journal shows its headquarters is in a suburban bungalow" (one of "The Top Eleven Ways to Tell that a Journal is Fake") from Eve Carlson, PhD.
The peer review process itself can be subverted. In 2012 a South Korean researcher submitted email addresses for suggested referees, when he sent an article to a legitimate journal. He set up multiple email accounts and wrote "peer reviews" of his own article, using made-up names.
The reviews were realistic: mildly critical, some suggesting changes, but largely positive. After this was publicized, the fraud was found to be widespread. More than 250 articles were retracted because of fake reviews (Haug, 2015).
How was a peer review fraud conducted?
Most of the articles with fraudulent peer review are about highly technical topics. The purpose of the fraud is to create a publication record to enhance the reputation of a young scholar.
This is not a well thought-out strategy. Published journal articles are not hidden from view. They become part of a permanent record. Fraud may be discovered years later, then the researcher's career is ruined.
Press conferences announcing dramatic new breakthroughs in science should be taken with a dose of skepticism. No reputable scientist goes to the media first without publishing important research in a reputable journal. To do so is the mark of a quack scientist.
What was a "red flag" in the cold fusion case?
Claims of cold fusion originated with a press conference. It was a red flag to many real scientists, and sure enough, the effect could not be replicated.
An inventor or quack scientist turned down for publication in conventional journals may feel scorned and unjustly ignored by the scientific community. Such a scientist is likely to interpret criticisms as hostile attacks and evidence of conspiracy against innovation.
The quack scientist may conclude that the scientific establishment is trying to suppress a new idea. Often such a scientist has an advanced degree, but no scholarly track record, and often such a person receives approving comments in public forums (from non-experts).
When asked why they have not published their results, quack scientists usually claim their ideas are so earth-shaking and revolutionary that the establishment is suppressing them.
For example, they might claim to have invented a perpetual motion machine (which physics says is impossible). If so, they will also claim that energy companies are conspiring against them for endangering billions of dollars in profits.
Often the quack scientists spends most of his time (always it is a "he" rather than a "she") discussing conspiracy theories against him, rather than providing evidence for the revolutionary new discovery. Conspicuously absent, in every case, is the extraordinary evidence Carl Sagan said was necessary when making extraordinary claims.
What is wrong with the "my ideas threaten the establishment" argument?
The argument that revolutionary new ideas are suppressed by the scientific establishment betrays a misunderstanding of science as an institution. Scientists put a premium on new ideas that shake the establishment. But they require evidence, and that is the hang-up for quack scientists.
It is definitely true that individual scientists may resist challenges to their pet theories. People can be stubborn, and nobody can legislate open-mindedness. However, science as an institution welcomes innovation and challenges to existing ideas, providing the challenges have something substantive to back them up.
Consider Einstein's Theory of Relativity, one of the great discoveries of the 20th Century. It has been proven (tested) by numerous critical experiments.
Yet astronomers like Bradley Shaefer of Yale University continue to look for exotic phenomena (such as millionth of a second differences in the speed of gamma rays arriving from the edges of the universe) that might contradict Einstein. Why bother torture-testing a theory when almost no serious scientist doubts it is true?
Why was an astronomer testing a well-accepted theory?
Schaefer describes the relativity tests as anomaly searches. "We push as hard as we can, hoping that something breaks," he says. "Who knows what kind of subtle discrepancies we may find? That would be big news and would lead to a new important step." (Schilling, 2000)
Those are not words of somebody trying to defend the status quo. In fact, there are few incentives for a scientist to defend existing theories.
There are payoffs for coming up with something unexpected and different, especially if it contradicts accepted wisdom. But there must be evidence to back it up.
If you want a great example of quack science (in my humble opinion) disguised to look like a legitimate challenge to mainstream science, search for "plasma universe" or "plasma cosmology." It is an attack on Einstein's theory as well as the entire body of scientific work in modern cosmology.
The whole syndrome is there: endorsements from non-experts, citations of experts who do not endorse the idea (making it sound like they do), deceptive web sites (including one that claims to be a "wikipedia-like" introduction, since the real wikipedia notes "the vast majority of researchers openly reject plasma cosmology"), and more.
What you will not find is any extraordinary evidence for the theory. Nor do the proponents of the theory have any record of publications in respected physics journals.
Dig into search engine results and there are some well-written, devastating rebuttals of the whole theory by credible physics researchers. Otherwise, professionals in the field mostly ignore it, leading to charges of conspiracy by the proponents of plasma cosmology.
What constitutes "good evidence" for a challenging new theory? A capsule summary was suggested on the page about critical thinking. A key element is using a model to generate risky predictions.
To test a theory, one uses it to generate predictions that are unusually precise or surprising. That makes the predictions non-trivial or risky, meaning that most scientists would be surprised if the predictions came true.
If a model makes such predictions, and they come true, scientists will take the idea seriously. Then the model will be tested again, and again...
Proving a claim, in the sense of testing non-trivial predictions, is not a quick or easy process. A scientist might need to invest considerable time and energy rallying several different forms of evidence for a controversial idea.
Even coming up with a single good, testable, risky prediction can be difficult. Then a scientist needs some gumption or backbone to expose new ideas to criticism in an appropriate forum such as a scientific meeting or journal.
Knowledgeable criticis might pick the idea apart. They might see something wrong that never even occurred to the person advancing the idea.
That is always a possibility when sharing bright new ideas with intelligent critics. Innovators in science are willing to endure the possibility of public correction, if they believe a new model is worth pursuing.
Quack scientists sometimes decline to produce any replicable research at all. If they do offer a controversial finding, they may reject any attempt at replication of it.
They may decline to spell out the details of their research, claiming they intend to file a patent and must keep it secret. They may say they cannot give out details because the work is not yet finished (even though the results are in!).
If there is a failure to replicate a controversial finding, a quack scientist may accuse the researchers of bias or conspiracy. They may assert that replications are meaningless anyway, because in nature there is never an exact repetition of events. (This ignores the replicability of other scientific claims, and it misrepresents the idea of replication, which requires only the repeatability of practical results.)
How do quack scientists react to failures of replication?
In general, quack science is not open to correction. If the theory meets serious objections, the original theory continues to be offered unchanged, as if any criticisms were ignored.
If the quack science theory is discredited and ignored by most scientists, a band of True Believers may hold on. In some cases they form their own associations or institutes, insulated against correction by non-believers.
For more information about Quack Science, visit quackwatch.com. It started as the personal project of Stephen Barrett, M.D., who was concerned about false health cures. It has now grown into an international network reporting on all sorts of quackery.
Haug, C. J. (2015, December 23) Peer-review fraud: Hacking the scientific publication process. The New England Journal of Medicine Perspective [blog] Retrieved from: http://www.nejm.org/
Knox, R. (2013, October 3) Some online journals will publish fake science, for a fee. Shots: Health News from NPR [blog] Retrieved from: http://www.npr.org/
Schilling, C. (2000). No wavering in the speed of light. Retrieved from: http://www.sciencemag.org/
Write to Dr. Dewey at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © 2007-2017 Russ Dewey