Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Signs That the New "Breakthrough" You Read About Might Be Pseudoscience

My last post got me thinking that it might be useful to come up with a list of signs that the new invention/breakthrough/idea you heard about might be pseudoscience. As I said in the last post, in many instances pseudoscience is coming to take the place of spirituality or mysticism as the leading purveyor of crap. This is not to say that spirituality and mysticism aren't still crap (they most definitely are), just that there's a new kid on the scam artist block, and he's wearing a lab coat that looks suspiciously big on him.

Suppose you turn on the morning news, and see that the world is all atwitter because someone has apparently invented....let's say a cloaking device. Like any normal human being, you're excited about the prospect of invisibility. Before you start planning your grand bank heist, though, you might want to stop and ask yourself if this is for real. There are a few warning signs that you should look for that might point to the conclusion that said cloaking device is (unfortunately) bogus. Here they are:

1. The inventor announced his discovery in the press (or advertisements) before the journals.

This is a good early warning sign, as real scientists will virtually always present a legitimate discovery to the peer-reviewed community before touting that discovery in the public sphere (or trying to sell it). There's good reason for this: if the inventor made a mistake in his measurements, forgot to carry the one in his calculations, or has simply created something that is not reproducible, the peer-review process will catch the mistake before everyone gets all excited about something like free energy. That's one of the reasons the scientific process works so well--new discoveries get scrutinized from every angle before they go into production. Scammers know this--and also know that they've got nothing legitimate to offer--so they will announce their "amazing new product" to the much more credulous mainstream media first.

2. You've never heard of the guy pitching it (and neither has anyone else)

Is the inventor the night janitor at McDonald's? Be skeptical. Of course, there really are unrecognized prodigies out there, and it is within the realm of possibility that some undiscovered genius tinkering in his garage might give the world the flying car, but it is highly unlikely. Perhaps unfortunately, the fact of the matter is that someone without a scientific background is most likely not knowledgeable enough in physics, electrical engineering, chemistry, and other disciplines that would integral in the creation of our cloaking device. Most big discoveries come from people who have dedicated their lives to their discipline, and who have access to the resources (e.g. grad students) necessary to develop groundbreaking new technology.

3. It seems like too big a leap

Would it surprise you to learn that the very first computer had 2 gigs of RAM and a 3.0 GHz CPU? It should, because it's false. The first computer (depending on how you define the term) was either the abacus (~2500 BCE) or Babbage's Analytical Engine (1837) which, though never constructed, paved the way for modern computing in terms of design. The important point is that the modern computer was not invented from scratch overnight, but rather evolved slowly as small improvements on previous designs accrued. Issac Newton famously said of his advancements (e.g. the invention of calculus and the revolution of physics) "If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants." Newton recognized that his own work built upon centuries of work by others, and most other legitimate inventors recognize the same; be skeptical if someone claims to have invented a cloaking device if you've not seen any prototypes/earlier work he might have built on. Giant steps don't just happen over night.

4. The Inventor won't explain how it work, and won't demonstrate it in public

When asked to explain how his cloaking device works, does Mr. Inventor demur, dodge the question, or simply refuse to explain? That should be another warning sign. Someone with an actual amazing invention to share is going to want to tell everyone about it, describe how it works in detail, and give as many transparent demonstrations as possible--the more people who know about it, the better! If Mr. Inventor really has created a cloaking device, he should be shouting it from the rooftops and showing it off everywhere (the better to win a Nobel Prize). Be wary too of scheduled demonstrations that are called off at the last second because of "technical difficulties," or if Mr. Inventor claims that how his device works is "a secret."

5. The Inventor is willing to explain how it works, but the explanation is full of buzzwords and empty of substance.

This one's a little trickier, and really only applies to those with at least a modicum of scientific understanding (which likely means you, if you're reading this blog). Watch out for inventions whose inner workings are explained with hand-wavy appeals to "quantum mechanics," "electromagnetism" and the like. Just as with Number 1, this has to do with the fact that the average person doesn't know much about science (and knows it), and thus is easily wowed by lots of buzz words. If you're a computer person, you already know this is true: next time someone asks you to fix his computer, try explaining the problem in totally nonsensical (but impressive sounding) terms (e.g. "Well, it looks like your fiber optics are overclocked, which is causing problems in your heat sink. I'll have to defragment your RAM and remagnetize your transistors. This might take a while"). He'll accept it, in just the same way that many people will accept an explanation of a cloaking device along the lines of "It creates quantum electromagnetic inference, which blocks light in the visible spectrum." It does what? That doesn't really make any sense, but if you didn't know that, you might accept it as an explanation. Do a little research, and see if the buzzword heavy statement you saw in TV goes any deeper--if it doesn't, you've probably got a fraud on your hands.

It is worth mentioning that though these signs should make you skeptical, the presence of one (or even more) doesn't necessarily indicate a scam, and a clever scammer might find a way to hawk his product without triggering these warning signs. Be critical, be skeptical, and make up your own mind.

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