The 7 Warning Signs of B(ogus) S(cience)

For the past 17 years, Dr. Robert Parks has been the leading force behind Quackwatch, a popular website that explores medical myths ranging from acupuncture to weight control gimmicks. He is also a professor of physics at the University of Maryland and director of public information for the American Physical Society. He developed a list of seven warning signs that indicate a claim is outside the bounds of scientific discourse and a good candidate for being a scam. Parks admits that even scientific claims bearing several of these signs could still be legitimate. But it’s not likely

1. The discoverer pitches the claim directly to the media. The integrity of science rests on the willingness of scientists to expose new ideas and findings to the scrutiny of other scientists. Scientists expect colleagues to uncover new findings or disprove the main one. Trying to bypass peer review by taking a discovery right to the media, and then to the public, suggests the work would not likely withstand close examination by other scientists.

In 1989, for example, Pons and Fleischmann, two chemists at the University of Utah, let the world know about their discovery - cold fusion -- by holding a press conference rather than publishing their findings in a peer-reviewed journal. Plus, the details they released dealt mainly about the changing economics cold fusion would bring about. They did not release information that would let other scientists evaluate their claims or replicate their experiments,

2. The discoverer says a powerful establishment is suppressing his work. Why the suppression? Because the establishment will stop at nothing to suppress discoveries that might shift the balance of wealth and power in society. In the case of Pons and Fleischmann and their cold fusion, for example, they insisted that physicists were ignoring the breakthrough to protect their funding and grants for developing hot fusion.

3. The scientific effect involved is always at the very limit of detection.  There is rarely a clear photograph of a flying saucer, the Loch Ness Monster, or ghost, even though almost everyone carries a phone that will take pictures. If the signal-to-noise ratio can’t be improved, even in principle, the effect is probably not real and the work is not science.

4. Evidence for the discovery is anecdotal. Contrary to the saying, “data” is not the plural of “anecdote.” In fact, the most important discovery of modern medicine is not vaccines or antibiotics; it is the randomized double-blind test. It lets us know what works and what doesn’t.

5. The discoverer says his idea is credible because it has endured for centuries. There is a persistent myth that hundreds or even thousands of years ago, long before anyone knew blood circulates through the body, or that germs cause disease, our ancestors possessed miraculous remedies that modern science do not understand. Ancient folk wisdom, rediscovered or repackaged, always resold, is unlikely to match the output of a modern scientific laboratory.

6. The discoverer works alone. The idea of a lone genius secretly struggling to make a revolutionary breakthrough is a staple of sci-fi books and films. But it’s hard to find examples in real life. These days, scientific breakthroughs are almost always the work of a team of scientists.

7. The discoverer must propose new laws of nature to explain an observation. New laws of nature invoked to explain extraordinary results must not conflict with what is already known. If we have to change the laws of nature or write new laws to account for an observation, it is almost certainly bogus. Don’t send money!


Discuss this Blog Entry 4

on Jan 2, 2015

It is strange to find Nikolas Tesla to be considered as a fraud. Thomas Edison worked with him when light was discovered using an enclosed glass with wired filament called a lightbulb. From him came this invention which Edison also took the credit but it was “Tesla’s mind in the creation” with the economical help of bankers.
There were other unusual inventions which Tesla experimented on. One concerned the results of the Philadelphia Experiment, where scientists using Eisntsein’s theories and Tesla’s dynamics electronic theories, proved that it is posible to “time travel or transport matter elsewhere”. Even though the Philadelphia experiment was discontinued because it was impossible to control it since what ever disappeared it was impossible to bring it back, that is, there was a way in but not a way out, very simple. It seems in order to time travel there has to be something equal that completes the equation to be in balance.

on Jan 3, 2015

This Signs very important for each other.

on Nov 4, 2015

Consider also the "suppression of information" angle. While it can certainly be useful to have a method to determine suspicion, there's always the question whether the product at the end of this tunnel works in fact or not.

Further, something may work that does not in fact have value, such as cold fusion. The public should be informed. Not all public reachout amounts to a vie to gain billions of dollars by the end of the current quarter.

You can see an example of cold fusion by chilling a well-mixed solution of H2O & sodium acetate in a quantity of water and then tapping the liquid to produce an exothermic reaction, though refer to YouTube for that. It's neat, but it's not megabucks wizard science.

on Sep 24, 2016

So I suppose the hydrogen car is not a suppressed idea created by a mad man, god forbid someone should invent a 3 bladed propeller - the British Navy would never here of paddle steamers being replaced. Both inventions were suppressed and the inventors pooh poohed and treated like mad men. The mad inventor working in his garden shed is where most of the best original ideas come from. You don't have to look far for an american idea either, the humble kitchen toaster. For some reason companies who spend a lot of money on employing the best graduates and possesses all the core people they need to create the technology of the future have a major ingredient missing - Skills. Crazy people in sheds are still inventing technology unfortunately the so called professionals and graduates think that they know it all and have all the answers. Apparently there is a major skills shortage, perhaps these organisations need rocket scientists to work out that a degree does not necessarily provide skills. Skills are taught by working class craftsmen not universities.
There are now systems of teaching creative thinking and problem solving such as TRIZ, its quite funny but the Russians thought that he was a madman and now large international companies are using his work to teach creative thinking to non technical people.

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A questioning, sometimes humorous look at technologies, engineering, and the world.


Stephen Mraz

Steve serves as Senior Editor of Machine Design.  He has 23 years of service and has a B.S. Biomedical Engineering from CWRU. Steve was a E-2C Hawkeye Naval Flight Officer in the U.S. Navy. He...
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