Should scientists respond to pseudo-science?

By John Pickering 11/09/2013

Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you yourself will be just like him.

Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes. (Proverbs 26:4, 5 NIV)

The editors of this particular list of proverbs were not fools – they knew they appeared contradictory.  Their purpose is to get us chewing over how we decide when we should speak up and when we shouldn’t.  When I heard these proverbs on Sunday my mind wandered (sorry Rev) immediately to my fellow science bloggers and the choices we make to respond or not respond to pseudo-science.  When we respond we do so wth hope.  Hope that the second proverb applies and the fool will recognise their own folly rather than keep on believing in their own wisdom.  A question I have for my fellow bloggers, how often does this actually take place?  I suspect, rarely.  At what point are we casting “pearls before swine”?  How do we know?

Perhaps more importantly, other than wasting our own time, could we be doing more harm than good (the first proverb)? By putting our scientific standing behind our reponses could we be enhancing the reputation of the pseudo-scientist in their own eyes or, worse, the eyes of readers? I think scientists are still paying the price for the over-confidence in science as solution to the world’s problems.  This has lead to some skepticism and a willingness to look at solutions that are not “main-stream” (especially if government funded or big-pharma).  By responding to the obvious nonesense, do we merely spread it further?

Some pseudo-science is addressing issues which also have non-scientific ethical issues that need to be respected.  Furthermore, the pseudo-science proponent may hold similar hopes to their scientist critic – eg hope for improved health.  I’m thinking particularly of issues such as vaccination or additives to food or water in which we need to weigh up the rights individuals with our responsibilites to others. Here, a scientist may express their opinion and their methodology of arriving at that opinion, but they need to tread very carefully not to appeal to Science with a capital “S” as if that is the ultimate standard against which all ethical decisions should be measured.

Here endeth the sermon.  Let us chew.

Tagged: proverb, pseudoscience, Science

0 Responses to “Should scientists respond to pseudo-science?”

  • I don’t think science was, is, or can be used as a “solution to the worlds problems”.

    But certainly you are able to use science to _investigate_ solutions to the world problems.

    A subtle but important difference.

    You say: “Furthermore, the pseudo-science proponent may hold similar hopes to their scientist critic – eg hope for improved health”.

    But the scientist will test before spouting. The Alt-Healthy will spout.

    A scientist will not express “an opinion” on fluoridation, but they will express a measure of confidence as to the benefit or otherwise of fluoridation.

    An Alt-Healthy will express an opinion though. An opinion spouted with confidence but little or no evidence.

  • Hi Ross. I agree with the “can be”, but wonder about the “is” in some people’s minds (not necessarily scientists). The “was” again was what some people took to be the promise of science until the terror of two world wars seemed to bring them back to a recognition that mere technological/scientific breakthroughs didn’t stop the carnage.
    Concerning the difference between scientists and those you call “Alt Healthy”, I think this a bit too black and white. I’m sure there are plenty of examples of opinion spouted with little or no evidence. However, scientists are not immune from that. Also, they do (and are free to) offer opinion over issues of fluoridation. The scientist who presents well the evidence for benefit to health/absence of harm who then goes on to say “fluoridation should happen” is at that point expressing an opinion (eg, it may be based on their belief that what should happen is the greatest good for the greatest number irrespective of the wishes of some individuals).

  • I tend to take the approach that if the scientifically illiterate fail to counter pseudoscientific arguments with science, then we only have ourselves to blame when the public can’t tell the difference.

  • Michael,

    I think you mean if the scientifically literate (not illiterate) fail to, etc. !

    Shades of another proverb 😉

    “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

    I’d reply ‘properly’ myself (in fact started to when you first put this up), but the full reply is longish as there’s more than a simple should/shouldn’t to this. It’s an issue that I’ve spend a fair bit of time thinking through – I wrote some parts of my thinking on this several years ago within one of my replies to the IAS (an anti-vaccine group), partly to make clear why I was replying to them. (With length in mind, if I do reply hope you don’t feel offended if I do it via a blog post. But right now I have other writing to tackle…!)

  • Ross: A scientist will not express “an opinion” on fluoridation, but they will express a measure of confidence as to the benefit or otherwise of fluoridation.
    An Alt-Healthy will express an opinion though. An opinion spouted with confidence but little or no evidence.

    We’re certainly seeing this in the run-up to Hamilton local body elections. (Those of us asking for scientific evidence are accused of not caring for innocent babies & children. And worse.)

    Michael, I’m with you. I doubt one can ever change the minds of the truly committed, but I write for/speak to the ‘undecideds’.

  • @Alison… you’re final comment made me think. What do we know about our readership? Can we get a handle on how many are “undecideds” on certain issues? For me this may help me judge the value of putting time into responding to certain issues.

  • Just a correction to my comment above. My final paragraph was meant for John, not Michael.

    John –

    I believe the point of the juxtaposition of the two proverbs is that there is no one ‘set’ answer to this. (This is also why I offered a third aphorism.)

    I believe there is no ‘one-size-fit-all’ rubric for this because the contextual stuff varies from case to case. You end up having to call it by the case in front of you.

    For what it’s worth, to me this also illustrates the ‘dangers’ of aphorisms/proverbs – being generalisations that lack context.

    Also for what it’s worth, I disagree with this:

    “I think scientists are still paying the price for the over-confidence in science as solution to the world’s problems. This has lead to some skepticism and a willingness to look at solutions that are not “main-stream” (especially if government funded or big-pharma).”

    This sets up others’ intentions, one thing you can’t really do in most arguments (it has you reading their minds) and is often a starting point for a straw-man argument. You’re welcome to evidence this with an appropriate survey, etc. 😉

    More seriously, my own impression of why people look to ‘alternative’ solutions vary but for many/most people for the humdrum (i.e. not life-threatening illnesses, wildly over-the-top conspiracy calls, etc.) it’s not a skepticism about science, but simply that natural remedy peddlers, etc., are good at marketing and aren’t limited to evidence/standards/etc when pitching their wares. Leaving aside the regulatory aspects, this, in turn and in part, comes down to a mix of peoples’ gullibility (however well-intended) and a basic lack of understanding of science.

    I’d say much more, but I have to get back to work stuff.

    (but! – re: knowing your readership, to be a bit cynical I don’t think there really is a way of doing it completely. ‘Common sense’ [heh] suggests the silo effect will mean fence-sitters will be a minority of your regular readers, but thats no reason to not write about things that concern you. Your blog should be for your interests after all and at least it’ll be out there for others to find via google and whatever effort you put into giving people outside your regular readership a heads-up to those posts.)

  • Not sure that we can. But I do remember reading on the US Sciblogs site – a few years back – that for every commenter there’s probably 90-odd who read but say nothing ( At least some of those ‘lurkers’ will be fence-sitters, but I don’t know how one could get more detail there.

  • My 2c on the readership issue, I would guess that site regulars are probably decided in our favour. But I get plenty of comments on my other blog along the lines of “I didn’t know what to think on this issue but I found your site on google and what you say makes a lot of sense”

    So I’d say it’s the casual readers that are the undecided lot and you never know when they will find your stuff.

  • When pseudo-science is used as a catch phrase to denounce views that oppose mainstream science, and when those views have some real science behind them. It reminds me of the witch hunters of yesteryear.
    I know when it comes to the energy sector this label is thrown around to the detriment of real phenomenon observed. For example the mess physics is in and the old guard and their denial of natural phenomenom. Anyone with any sense of economic and political history in the past 150 will realize how much sway the industrial complex has in the education sector and research science facilities.
    It is unfortunate that with things like Low Energy Nuclear Reactions (aka CF) this has been labeled pseudo-science.
    This I believe to be a direct suppresion of the truth and totally unscientific. The fact that this phenomenom has been scientifically proven to be a reality is outstanding. Yet it seems this truth in science has been denounced as not being real (yes the industrial complex is to blame, just as it was in Nicola Teslas day, when he announced wireless transmission of electricity after already giving the industrial complex AC .).
    The inability of people to see through the greed and lies is astounding and shocking especially when the real science is easy enough to find. In short it is nothing but total corruption. This is unacceptable and people are begining to see the industrial complex for what it is.
    Thank goodness for the internet and breaking the chains of this suppression, now people can do the research and find this for themselves rather having to rely on a corrupt authority.

  • Claire –

    You get assigned a monster if you don’t set up an avatar. (If you set up an avatar you can have anything you like – I once used a cute baby pygmy marmoset…)

  • now people can do the research and find this for themselves rather having to rely on a corrupt authority.
    Yes, the University of Google has a lot to answer for. If it wasn’t there it would be ever so much harder for people to find out all sorts of stuff.
    Derek, have you ever stopped to consider the implications of the conspiracy theory you’re espousing? That for it to be true there would have to be literally tens of thousands of people (at the very least) being paid not to reveal The Truth? That none of those people would have an actual conscience? Frankly, there are so many conspiracy theories out there that I’m surprised there’s enough money in the world to pay everyone off.

  • @Derek – why would all this top secret stuff just be on the internet there for the googling anyway?

  • Conspiracy theory yeah right
    Nicola Tesla has been suppressed why do you think more people know about Edison and his light bulb invention, than the man who lit the world with his transmission of alternating currents. Why is it people think Marconi invented the radio ? Despite the supreme court ruling in 1943 declaring Tesla to be the inventor after all it was his magnifying transmitter Marconi used.
    Why is it the magnifying transmitter which impacts us on all levels (radio, Tv, Cell phones) is not talked of much at all ?
    Who invented robotics ? You guessed it but again are not told about it through the eduction system.
    You would think a man of this genius would be talked of more or at least given a nobel peace prize for his contribution. Why did he not Allison when people like Barrack Obama have received one for what ?
    His work with wireless is legendary and his experiments with high frequency and high potential currents unleashing phenomenon which still to this day physics seems to ignore.
    Instead billions are spent on huge particle accelerators to try to find a god particle so a theory can be proved . When real stuff like LENR is ignored ?
    Tesla lived for his work and the betterment of humanity, he sacrificed his life for science and to try and determine what electricity is. He disagreed with many theories through experimental verification of his work. For example we are all led to believe electronic circuits need to be closed loop. He had one wire circuits (which are very real). This is all the truth yet we are not told of this why Alison ?
    I am afraid to think that people are so gullible (sheepish) to believe the world is a fair and true place.
    I am afraid to think people having faith in the industrial complex to be truthfull when all that money is a stake is really bizarre.
    A good book that explains Teslas life and how he was written out of the textbooks is “Wizard: The Life and Times of Nikola Tesla : Biography of a Genius ” written by Marc Seifer .
    Another good book explaining his transmission of wireless and his one wire circuits as well as methods for recieving radiant energy is “Nikola Tesla: Colorado Springs Notes, 1899-1900”
    Anyway I have to go but if you want a discussion on this feel free but don’t ignore my evidence.

  • 1 – because he wasn’t as commercially successful. There are plenty of researchers in groundbreaking and worldchanging roles who no-one knows of. That’s not conspiracy – that’s reality.

    2 – Who invented robotics? Well, it wasn’t Tesla. You have to go back to the industrial revolution to see the rise of the mechanical replacement for human labour.

    3 – Telsa did some interesting stuff. He also did stuff that was complete lunacy. He ALSO claimed to have done stuff that has since never been repeated. This indicates either fraud or confusion on his part. You seem unable to differentiate the valid stuff from the invalid. I put this down to your incredibly poor grasp on the basic science (got that energy equation figured out yet?).

    4 – Your ongoing lamentations about his status and unquestioning acceptance of the “truth” of both his unfairly unrecognised brilliance and his poor treatment at the hands of a conspiratorial cabal of 100s of thousands put you in the same classification as outlined in the first two sentences of 3. Without the interesting bit.

  • I don’t know where you studied physics @Derek, but Tesla was certainly given more than adequate discussion and recognition when I was a student.

  • from RationalWiki:

    “Another general trope is the notion that Tesla has never received the credit due to him, with his name somehow being suppressed by ‘the scientific establishment’. While it’s true that Edison was a bit of a douchebag toward him, and even the patent office now admits that it was Tesla, and not Marconi, who invented the radio, the conspiracy claims go far beyond this. Quite how this tallies with mention of him in every physics textbook is not clear, never mind SI unit of magnetism being named the ‘tesla’ in his honour, as well as a car company also being named after him.”

  • Quite a few of the more creative scientists have completely wrong ideas. Linus Pauling is another example, and not just for his vitamin C work: he also proposed a wrong-headed model for the structure of DNA. There are plenty of other examples. I’d elaborate on this, but suffice to say that proposed ideas want to recognised as ideas and formally tested before anyone treats them as more than ideas. (This is not to say that ideas are not useful.) It’s generally a bad idea to think that because someone has done some excellent work, that all of what they say will also be excellent: each claim ought to be taken separately on it’s own merits.

  • Careful Grant. Remember the shoulders of giants quip of Newton. Pauling was no mug. W&C gazumped him….possible only just!

    “Chargaff’s realization that A = T and C = G, combined with some crucially important X-ray crystallography work by English researchers Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins, contributed to Watson and Crick’s derivation of the three-dimensional, double-helical model for the structure of DNA. Watson and Crick’s discovery was also made possible by recent advances in model building, or the assembly of possible three-dimensional structures based upon known molecular distances and bond angles, a technique advanced by American biochemist Linus Pauling. In fact, Watson and Crick were worried that they would be “scooped” by Pauling, who proposed a different model for the three-dimensional structure of DNA just months before they did. In the end, however, Pauling’s prediction was incorrect.”

  • Ross,

    You’re misreading me.

    I didn’t say Pauling was a mug as you’re making out.

    Pauling’s model was recognised as wrong on chemical grounds before the W+C(+others) model came out. (I suspect partly as W+C had traveled on similar lines of thinking earlier; W+C explored triple stranded models, too.)

    A key point is that the Pauling triple-stranded model placed the phosphates on the inside and proposed that the phosphate groups were neutral, inconsistent with it being an acid at physiological pH. (The ‘A’ in DNA is for acid.)

    In Pauling’s case he’d bonded hydrogens to the phosphates. Those hydrogens were also involved in holding the three strands together – under physiological conditions it ought fall apart. Another approach, one I believe W+C looked at for their triple-stranded models, is to leave the phosphates charged, but try have the charge (and hence electrostatic repulsion) neutralised through judicially placed ions.

    For what it’s worth, some suggest Pauling was hoping to garner credit by hurrying out with something he thought might be ‘roughly right’; some suggest that same hurry is why it’s a poor effort from a generally excellent scientist.

    Pauling’s work on the alpha-helix, the beta-sheet, the coiled-coil, etc., is more interesting.

    But all of this is a distraction from my key point, which stands: “It’s generally a bad idea to think that because someone has done some excellent work, that all of what they say will also be excellent: each claim ought to be taken separately on it’s own merits.”.

  • Ashton he wasn’t commercially successful, well he was not a business man he was a scientist. Those that sponsored him made fortunes. All the money he made was put back into research. He did not pursue worldly aspirations like marriage and accumulation of wealth. He lived to explore electricity.
    After his time in colorado springs and his experiments with the wireless transmission of energy, by high frequency and high potential currents and disruptive discharges, he then approached JP Morgan and set about to build an even bigger transmitter to broadcast wireless electricity as well as communications to the world. That ended badly when Morgan realized he was going to transmit electricity without wires and Morgan said “If I can’t put a meter on it”, funding withdrawn and this is when he was marginalized.
    He talked of being able to send communication and pictures around the world before this was even thought of by anyone else (people thought this was crazy), he talked of weather modification and the ideas for HAARP came from this. For those of you who don’t know HAARP is, it is an Ionspheric heater the American military is playing with that has the potential to have grave consequences for humanity.
    He was the god father of robotics with his first remote control boat was unleashed in the Columbian world fair in 1893.
    He talked about the world being in a sea of energy, just like Paul Duirac and Henry Moray.
    Electricity has to be the most amazing thing in nature it is everywhere in abundance, he learnt through experimental verification about electrostatic tension and radiant energy, which is pretty much sidelined. He generated currents of millions of volts at millions of cycles per second. He did not like the effect of the industrialization and use of fossil fuels, which he believed to be detrimental to our lives. He sort to free us from these chains. This was not popular view to have at the time. The American corporations were involved in a gold rush for control and power over resources and people.
    Which leads me to LENR, this ground braking science which is again being ignored mainstream as it involves energy (electricity once again) and the denial of this by the department of energy in America. Well not a complete denial they admit something is happening but apparently it isn’t repeatable despite many labs being able to repeat it consistently. Also could someone please tell me there is no conspiracy here when a potential energy source is ignored and denounced by the department of energy and having no funding available, when they admit something is happening but don’t want to investigate. Our nation (of sheep and people) and it seems our scientists here in New Zealand don’t want to know about it, trying to say its not real, despite the volumes of research that has the double blind verification. That anyone worth their salt can find it. Once again no funding or interest.
    One word (well 2 actually) BIG OIL.

  • Yous guys are way off topic… but thank you for participating in a little experiment. I suggest you now reflect on which of the two proverbs best applies in this case…

  • “I suggest you now reflect on which of the two proverbs best applies in this case…”

    Which case? (Just not sure what you’re referring to and asking as others might be confused too; not actually interested myself! Ha.)

    One additional thought you don’t have to reply to all of what’s said: you can address one or two aspects and leave the rest. (It’s not just if you reply or not, but how, etc., too.)

  • Hi all, not being a scientist myself, but always having had a strong interest in various sciences, and following science reporting and new findings, also having stumbled across this blog, I would invite some comments from medical, mental health and social science practitioners and experts on the following analysis. It raises questions about the so-called “bio psycho-social model”, which appears to have been “perverted” by certain “experts”, to suit and serve the needs of certain “stakeholders”, be this governments, insurance companies and the likes, all having a vested interested in having some “handy” science available, to simply justify policies focused on cost cutting:

    There was also an interesting report brought out by the Scientific Advisor to the Prime Minister, Professor Peter Gluckman not long ago, which raised concerns about how government, its ministries and departments do fail to give proper consideration to, and to make use of true scientific evidence. See links below for details:

    Science tends to be complex and not always clear cut, and when we have self declared “experts” and government officials starting to use “compelling evidence” and slogans like “work is beneficial for health”, that to be applied to sick and disabled generally, are we not treading on thin ice and entering dangerous territory here?

    Certainly there may be some truth in it, but I fear this is an area where science is being seriously abused and selectively applied.

  • ASHTON where do you get off by saying “You seem unable to differentiate the valid stuff from the invalid. I put this down to your incredibly poor grasp on the basic science (got that energy equation figured out yet?).” How insulting.
    I fail to see how you came to this conclusion are you denying his wireless electricity ?
    Were you talking about the laws of thermodynamics ?(thats the one most sheeple quote)
    I do believe the thermodynamics laws apply to closed systems and not open systems (which Tesla was using).
    Maybe Ashton you have no idea of what Tesla was talking about.
    Wireless electricity has not been achieved in the way Tesla did since he did his Colorado springs experiments.
    No thats right it is all dark energy that we have no clue about
    Definately not the ether (well this is thanks to the Michelson–Morley experiment in 1887) but dark energy is acceptable. Yeah right.
    Tesla is not for sheeple ..

  • I see what you mean Grant.

    Derek – I have said that because you lack a fundamental understanding of science facts and scientific method. Your continuing outpourings really just provide more evidence to back this position.

    As per thermodynamics – yes a bunch of Nobel prize-winning physicists and other scientists are mere sheep following a flawed law that confusingly enough describes the operation of all newtonian interactions despite 100 years of attempts to undermine it.

    Thanks for confirming that Tesla’s “experiments” have not been validated. Kinda makes my point.

  • Some “pseudo science” – or at least controversial science – has been done with financial sponsoring of the US corporate insurance company UNUM at a “disability research institute” at Cardiff University in Wales over the past years, under the leadership of Professor Mansel Aylward. Their “science” is now heavily relied on for justifying controversial welfare reforms affecting sick and disabled. It has also “sneaked” into the medical profession, as probably too hurriedly accepted “evidence”. This all involves medical and social sciences.

    There are some links to critical analysis on some websites that shine light on this, like for instance this one:

    Here is some counter-weight evidence that does at least partly disprove what Mansel Aylward, Gordon Waddell and some selected colleagues claim, which though is what the present government now has relied on for justifying changes to work capability assessments:

    Source: ‘THINK PROGRESS’

    “Poverty Has Same Effect On The Brain As Constantly Pulling All Nighters”
    (By Bryce Covert on August 30, 2013 at 8:54 am)

    and –

    “Kids Who Overcome Poverty Are Still In For A Lifetime Of Medical Problems”
    (By Sy Mukherjee on May 31, 2013 at 2:25 pm)

    This seems to prove that it is rather POVERTY than simply “worklessness” that contributes to worse health amongst poor and benefit dependent people.

    There is certainly concern, that insufficiently proved “science” appears to be relied on in government policy, to justify measures that may be more harmful than beneficial.

    Via this website this was published: Link to ‘Sciblogs’ website and article:

    Link to downloadable PDF document on this:

    “The role of evidence in policy formation and implementation” –
    a report from the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor.

    So are MSD and WINZ relying on some pseudo science or sufficiently valid scientific findings, one must ask? My impression is much more research is justified, and what is proposed for sick and disabled – with incapacity to work – seems to be a risky “experiment”, especially for mental health sufferers.

  • “Derek – I have said that because you lack a fundamental understanding of science facts and scientific method. Your continuing outpourings really just provide more evidence to back this position.”
    Ashton your a real smart ass who likes to insult rather than look at what people are trying to say, if you were saying this to my face I would probably give you a bunch of fives.
    Your criticism and your lack of ability to actually look at what I am saying says to me that your arrogant and ignorant and think your mentally superior.
    I do have a good understanding of fundamental physics. I have been educated to 7th form physics which I passed.
    Are you rubbishing LENR ?
    Did I try to undermine thermodynamics ? No I was merely stating that these laws apply to closed systems and in electronics this is represented with closed loop. I am talking about open systems which allow energy to flow, in a basic example since this seems to apply to you is solar panels.
    LENR is cutting edge science unfortunately in this country it is classed as pseudo-science.
    This is a basic undermining of scientific experimentation which validates a known phenomenon.
    I ask you to research this next time before you insult me, because I know where you live.

  • gosh – I feel like a Hamilton District Health Board employee!

    No I’m not rubbishing LENR. Plenty of others better equipped than me have done that. By the same token, nothing seems to have come of it despite its obvious advantages and commercial applications. Why is that? Outside of conspiracy theories? While you consider that, why has no-one been able to replicate Tesla’s purported outcomes? Again, there would be huge commercial benefit in doing so, so sans conspiracy, why no advance?

    Solar energy is not open system in the big scheme of things. Sure, in the immediate it seems like it is open system (this happens a lot…) but the reality is that the energy from the sun is being transferred to earth where (global warming notwithstanding) it will change format a few times and then return out into the solar system. If it doesn’t go back out, that would imply a rapidly warming planet (or a huge planetary mass increase as another option)… Once its gone out again, it joins the rest of the energy and mass out there busily aiming at doing the next amazing but matter/energy constrained thing the universe is known for.

    Closed system in other words.

  • OK people, times up. I see at least one “personal attack” which I do not accept on my blog. Also the discussion has gone way off topic. Thank you for your contributions. I’ve now closed all comments.