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Unpersuadable—and unscientific

by Donald Prothero, Jul 02 2014

A review of The Unpersuadables: Adventures with the Enemies of Science, by Will Storr (2014, Overlook Press, New York).

Most of us long-term skeptics have had our share of run-ins with people who cling stubbornly to a particular dogma. We get frustrated that no amount of evidence or strong arguments ever changes their point of view. The pattern is true whether you’re dealing with religious beliefs (from creationism to various Eastern religious ideas), or paranormal beliefs (UFO nuts, psychics, ghosts, cryptozoology) or just plain pseudoscience and bad scholarship (homeopathy, past-life regression, Holocaust deniers, climate-change deniers, and many others). Reporter Will Storr decided to go deep into the heart of these various fringe and non-scientific belief systems, interviewing the major figures, taking part in their rituals, and doing his best to give them a fair shake as he embeds himself into their culture. Continue reading…

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Sham Science

by Donald Prothero, Oct 30 2013

In a previous post, I discussed the saga of the infamous “Bigfoot DNA” study by Melba Ketchum, a Texas veterinarian and staunch believer in Bigfoot. There was lots of gossip about it in the cryptozoology community for several years, then it was officially announced to the press (long before any supporting evidence was published) last fall. When it was finally “published” last spring, it was raised all sorts of red flags with the absurd claims that her Bigfoot samples were uncontaminated (yet all the evidence showed that it was), the lack of evidence that the hairs and tissues truly could be proven to come from Bigfoot, and the claim that Bigfoot was some sort of weird hybrid between modern humans and prehistoric populations. The study was highly suspect, because Ketchum self-published it in an online journal that she secretly owned, and there was no peer review. Her samples were finally analyzed by an independent genetics lab last summer, and the results were clear: her original analysis was completely incompetent, and she made all sorts of fundamental mistakes and false assumptions that no well-trained geneticist would make. After all that fanfare, her specimens  only showed a mix of  modern human hairs and tissues, along with those of other North American mammals, especially opossums.

Sharon Hill has pointed out that lots of pseudoscientists and followers of the paranormal try to act “sciencey”, or practice what she called “sham science”: they mimic the trappings of science (white lab coats, fancy lab equipment and glassware, exotic toys like night-vision goggles and camera traps), yet the fail to follow the basic methods of science. They are akin to the “cargo cults” in Polynesia at the end of World War II, whose islands became military bases and airstrips in service of the war effort. When the war ended and the military left, the islanders built imitation wooden  “airplanes”, “control towers” and even “radio masts”, thinking that if they reproduced the shape of these objects, they would magically bring back the military planes and all their cargo full of goodies. In the case of cryptozoology, there are many instances where these pseudoscientists fail to follow the basic methods of science, but the most obvious is that if an object is not yet explained, it is not necessarily paranormal!  The basic assumption in science is that the unexplained is not unexplainable, just not yet fully explained—but eventually these unexplained phenomena are explained by natural processes. We see this every time another object is claimed to be “Bigfoot hair” (rather than just hair that is not yet identified) or an image is touted as “an unexplained black shape that may be Bigfoot” (rather than “an unexplained black shape whose identity cannot be determined”). They jump to the conclusion and assume what is to be proved, rather than following the scientific method and reserving judgment until something is fully investigated. When they hear a strange sight or sound, they say “It’s Bigfoot!”, when the scientist would say “What is it? Let’s investigate all the possibilities.”

The same is true of creationists, who argue that if science hasn’t explained something yet (at least to their satisfaction), then it can’t be explained, and therefore God did it (the “God of the gaps” argument). They never seem to realize that as science explains more and more, their God becomes less and less useful, and the argument is ultimately a loser–as well as being unscientific. Continue reading…

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Pathological Science

by Brian Dunning, Mar 08 2012

Pathological science is a term that refers to research characterized more by obsession than by results.

It’s something that most of us are probably subject to, to one degree or another. Many researchers, even hobbyists and enthusiasts, want for some one result in particular to be true. They’re always on the lookout for data that support their desired conclusion. This is not, by itself, pathological; but for some who take it to an extreme, it can become that way. Many famous cases of pathological science began as legitimate science, and often the researcher would become distracted by tiny results that suggested an effect when in fact there was none. Belief supplanted objectivity, and the science became pathological science. Continue reading…

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Science TV “network decay”

by Donald Prothero, Jan 25 2012

It happens with disgusting regularity. You will flip through the various basic cable channels which are nominally “science oriented” (often grouped together on the dial if they feature scientific topics) and come up with nothing but junk, pseudoscience, and worse. “Reality shows” about subjects with little or no science content, tons of paranormal and pseudoscientific shows promoting ghosts, UFOs, Bigfoot, and creationism—all fill the airwaves for channels like Discovery, The  Learning Channel, History Channel, and even the Science Channel and National Geographic Channel. We watch a few minutes of these with complaints to anyone within earshot, then (usually) move on—or occasionally we get sucked in to watch the whole thing, like gawkers at a car crash. The cartoon at the top (from the great website PhdComics) says it all: four channels that used to be largely documentaries on science and history are now dominated  by guns, explosions, dangerous occupations and other “reality” TV. Their shows have  buzz words in the titles like “biggest”, “wildest”, “monsters” or “killers”, and plain old junk fill up most of their air time.

I’ve seen it from both sides. I’ve appeared in prehistoric animal documentaries that have aired on all four channels (and keep re-appearing years after I made them, so I feel like Dorian Gray, with my younger self perpetually preserved in documentary limbo). Almost all these documentaries are made by small independent film outfits that are searching for any sexy topic that they can sell to the major cable networks, so they are under great pressure to come up with something flashy, noisy, scary, and/or mysterious. If I  have any chance to review the script, I try my best to tone down the excessive hyperbole, but they usually ignore me. As I film segments with them, I try to be as dynamic and entertaining as a “talking head” can be, but they are always pushing me to oversimplify and exaggerate to make the spiel more colorful (but less scientifically accurate). And then when I see the final product, most of what I did ends up on the cutting room floor, with only a few seconds left of many hours of filming. Even worse, I’ve put in many  hours on projects that never got picked up at all. Documentary filmmaking is a high-risk, low-reward proposition—you have better odds of making big money in Vegas.

Continue reading…

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Sneaking Pseudoscience into Legitimate Science Meetings

by Donald Prothero, Nov 09 2011

In my October 26 post, I discussed the efforts of creationists to run “stealth” field trips at the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America in Denver in 2010. There were no such attempts at the Minneapolis meeting on Oct. 9-12 that I attended last month, but instead they did something  they often do at professional meetings like GSA: stealth abstracts. I saw a bunch of posters from people at Cedarville University, a fundamentalist Baptist institution in Ohio. These posters pretended to be legitimate research about the deposition of the Permian dune sand unit, the Coconino Sandstone. This famous unit in the upper part of the Grand Canyon is clearly formed in wind-blown dunes and not a deposit of  Noah’s flood (or of any kind of fluid other than wind). Since their dogma insists that the entire sequence in the Grand Canyon is laid down by Noah’s flood, the Coconino is a particular problem for them, and they focus their attention on it. (See the evidence and discussion in Chapter 3 in my book Evolution).

The posters were stuck in a session with a bunch of other posters presenting more conventional research into sandstones, and they looked professional enough that no one would notice. Other than their Cedarville affiliation, there was no clue about their creationist agenda, and there was no mention at the end of the abstract, or the conclusions section of the poster, that they were shilling for anti-scientific creationist views. I repeatedly walked past both posters during the day they were up, but never once found the authors defending it, even during the time that the GSA demands that “Authors will be present”.

Continue reading…

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Flip-flopping creationists

by Donald Prothero, Oct 12 2011

I’ve posted frequently (see my July 24 post) on the religious kooks who insist that Galileo and Copernicus and all later astronomers were wrong  and that the earth, not the sun, is the center of the solar system. They base this weird notion on their own version of biblical literalism, since there are many passages in the Bible (e.g., Isaiah 11: 12, 40:22, 44:24; Joshua 10:12-14) which clearly present a geocentric world viewpoint (as was widely held in almost all ancient cultures and not overturned until the 1500s). Many are actually renegade Catholics who not only insist that Galileo was wrong and that the Church was right, but what the Inquisition did to Galileo was justified. Naturally, the Catholic Church is not too happy about these revisionists, since it has long come to terms with Galileo and scientific reality, and even apologized for its treatment of him. They don’t spend a lot of unnecessary time trying to repudiate or excommunicate these renegades who want to drag us back to the 14th century. I guess the Church is busy with other problems….

Recently, the Los Angeles Times ran an article on the latest version of the Catholic geocentrist movement. The article says:

“I have no idea who these people are,” said Brother Guy Consolmagno, curator of meteorites and spokesman for the Vatican Observatory. “Are they sincere, or is this a clever bit of theater?”

Those promoting geocentrism argue that heliocentrism, or the centuries-old consensus among scientists that Earth revolves around the sun, is a conspiracy to squelch the church’s influence.

“Heliocentrism becomes dangerous if it is being propped up as the true system when, in fact, it is a false system,” said Robert Sungenis, leader of a budding movement to get scientists to reconsider. “False information leads to false ideas, and false ideas lead to illicit and immoral actions — thus the state of the world today.… Prior to Galileo, the church was in full command of the world, and governments and academia were subservient to her.”

Continue reading…

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Not for skeptics, indeed! The MUFON meeting

by Donald Prothero, Aug 03 2011

Last week I commented on conventions of pseudoscientists, from the creationists to Flat Earthers and neo-geocentrists, and, most recently, the contemporary “natural philosophers” who deny most of modern physics, from Einsteinian relativity to quantum mechanics to the rejection of ether. As that post was running, just an hour drive from my home there was a meeting of the “Mutual UFO Network” (MUFON), which held their annual convention at a the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Irvine, California. The theme of the meeting was “ET Contact: Implications for Science and Society”, and the program featured a keynote address by astronaut Story Musgrave. Ironically, Musgrave believes in intelligent aliens, but he is convinced that they have never visited the earth—a big disappointment for most of the crowd. There was a full Saturday program that included talks like, “Will ET Contact Put an End to our World’s Religions?” “Secrets of Antigravity Propulsion” and “Time Travel is a Fact”, along with the expected presentations on government cover-ups of UFO evidence, and how these people expect contact with aliens will change science and society. One or two presenters had Ph.D. or M.A. degrees (which they flaunted conspicuously, even though there is no information as to whether their Ph.D. has any relevance to the field), but the rest are pure amateurs. There was even a talk on “Mars, the Living Planet”, apparently ignoring all the recent evidence that Mars is now completely frozen, and that if it has (or had) life, it was only tiny microbes.

Continue reading…

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Shindigs of Pseudoscience

by Donald Prothero, Jul 27 2011

Whenever I read about the conventions held by creationists, it is always staggering to see so much ignorance of science and scholarship on display. If you read through one of their programs or peruse the abstracts, your mind is boggled at the bizarre thinking and intellectual contortions these people must attempt, from weird ideas of how to fit all living thing into Noah’s ark to odd explanations of where the flood waters came from and where they went, to even weirder ideas of why the universe appears to be 13.7 billion years old (but is only really 6000 years old), or why radiometric dating doesn’t work or how to explain the complex geologic history of the earth with Bronze Age myths of superstitious shepherds. One paper after another is replete with special pleading, ad hoc and supernatural “explanations”, none of which would pass muster in even an introductory physics or geology class. As I discussed in my book Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters, these people are profoundly ignorant of real science and proud of it, because their faith comes first. Sadly, they have about 40% or so of the American public believing their anti-scientific view of the world.

No matter how weird their ideas seem to the outsider, we can at least understand their motivation. To the fundamentalist creationist, a literal interpretation of their version of the Bible is a life-or-death, salvation-or-damnation matter, which is why they invest so much energy confusing people with their distorted ideas about sciences like evolution, geology, anthropology, and astronomy.  If one truly believes that Darwinism will lead you to hell’s door, we can see what makes them think this way, no matter how wrong it seems to us. But, as we smugly assert, they are just fringe religious fanatics, and they are only fighting the most recent scientific battle over evolution (that still rages 152 years later). Surely, the great victories of science, such as the Copernican system of astronomy and the Einsteinian revolution in physics, are no longer disputed and even religious fanatics accept them. Right?

Continue reading…

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200 Skeptoids

by Brian Dunning, Apr 08 2010

This week marked the 200th episode of my podcast Skeptoid: Critical Analysis of Pop Phenomena.

Skeptoid has a long-standing tradition of making every 50th episode a lavish musical production. This tradition began last year at episode 150, which established the lavish musical employing a host of talented professionals; and crumbled all to hell this week at episode 200, when I applied my own unassisted imbecility toward the construction of a musical piece. The result is a parody of marketing efforts from purveyors of pseudoscience in the form of a song entitled Buy It!

–>> Click here to listen now (3 minutes) <<–

Being an experienced non-musician, and quite impressively talented on no musical instruments, I elected to make this piece an a cappella. This allowed me to leverage my deep gifts for not singing. Critics have already praised the performance as one of the great voices made for blogging. Continue reading…

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Pentagon Gunman a Conspiracy Theorist & 9/11 Truther

by Michael Shermer, Mar 10 2010

What’s the harm in believing nonsense? I get asked this all the time: “Oh come on Shermer, let people have their delusions, what’s the harm?”

I have a laundry list of retorts to this challenge, from the value of living in a rational world that is based in reality to tales of people who have died from discredited medical practices, such as “Attachment Therapy” — in April, 2000, 10-year old Candace Newmaker was smothered to death in blankets by therapists who were helping “rebirth” her so that she could properly attach to her adopted parents. Death by theory. (I wrote about this in Scientific American.)

What’s the harm? Ask the victims of the anti-Government nutter Joseph Stack, who flew his plane into the IRS building in Austin, Texas. It is one thing to be skeptical of excessive government intervention into private lives and businesses, it is quite another to take matters into your own hands, especially if those hands hold a gun. Continue reading…

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