Tag Archive | "Pseudoscience"

A Quick Guide to Detecting Quantum Quackery

The world of quantum mechanics is strange, that much is true. Quantum theory paints a world where tiny particles can get entangled over cosmic distances, where teleportation is possible, where uncertainty is not simply a product of experimental imperfections but is fundamental in nature, and where vacuum is a seething broth of virtual particles popping in and out of existence from nothingness. 

Unfortunately, the strangeness of the quantum world has been grossly abused either by those who do not understand quantum mechanics, or those who wish to benefit from this lack of understanding. Merchants who sell crystals claimed to have “healing quantum vibrations”, writers like Deepak Chopra who preach about the mind’s power in influencing events via “quantum consciousness”, and proponents of farming methods based on “quantum agriculture” are just a few examples in the long list of people who peddle quantum quackery. In fact, most of these charlatans altogether forgo trying to understand what quantum theory is about. For them, the word ‘quantum’ is a shroud of mystery, a veil of ignorance behind which lie phenomena forever beyond the reach of scientific scrutiny. These people not only spread bad science, they spread a value that is antithetical to learning. In other words, they promote a mindset that is anti-scientific. This is why we cannot cut these guys any slack.

Deepak Mechanics

How do we distinguish quantum quackery from genuine studies in quantum theory? In an interview with NBC News science editor Alan Boyle, physicist Lawrence Krauss gave a few tips in detecting quantum quackery. What follows are some additional quick guides to quantum baloney detection.


Rule of thumb #1: Quantum quacks rarely, if at all, refer to the basic principles of quantum physics.

Quantum theory involves a lot of laws, equations, and principles, although some of these are so basic and fundamental to the field that they are referred to in almost all discussions. A good example would be the concept of the wave function. The wave function is a mathematical entity that contains everything we know about the particle, like its energy or the probability of finding it somewhere in space. When something uses the word “quantum” but does not depend on the concept of a wave function or a similarly fundamental quantum concept, it probably has nothing to do with quantum theory.



Rule of thumb #2: Quantum quacks misapply the weirdness of quantum phenomena at the wrong scale.

Soccer balls, unlike electrons, don’t diffract if you make them pass through slits. And unlike a small particle, you cannot walk through a solid wall by continuously bumping against it. There is no real-world Platform 9 ¾.

Quantum mechanics, being our best theory of matter and forces to date, governs the behaviors of electrons and soccer balls alike. However, even though the laws of physics don’t change across different scales, their manifestations do. This is true even in classical physics, and is the reason why you can’t have ants as big as elephants, or why the physics of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids is all wrong (because, you know,  square-cube law). The predictions of quantum theory agree with classical mechanics in the scale of the everyday, a scale that includes soccer balls, fruits, and vegetables. You cannot treat a tomato as both particle and wave, and you cannot treat crops as if they are “entangled” with the the stars.

Um, that’s not what quantum entanglement means guys.


Rule of thumb #3: Quantum quacks love making vague statements that, upon close inspection, actually mean nothing.

The Random Deepak Chopra Quote Generator drives this point humorously.

Random Deepak Wisdom

In infinite potentiality Deepak Chopra breeds the light for a new chaotic harmony.

Science, as opposed to pseudoscience, is distinguished by the precision of its language. We want scientific statements to be precise because we want to know how we can prove them wrong. In other words, we want to know if they can be falsified, and how, which brings us to the next rule of thumb.


Rule of thumb #4: Quantum quackery does not make falsifiable claims, which is an indication that it is in fact pseudoscience.

Quantum physics, being a science, makes claims that can be proven wrong by experimentation. That is something you cannot say about “quantum consciousness”. More importantly, the claims of quantum physics can be compared against measurements obtained through experimentation. This brings us to the next red flag of quantum quackery.


Rule of thumb #5:Quantum quacks don’t make quantitative predictions.

Quantum mechanics, like most of modern physics, is heavily mathematical. The point of all this math is to be able to make predictions that come in the form of measurable quantities. This is important because a quantitative prediction is the best form of falsifiable claim.

Shit happens. Bullshit, too. Magic doesn’t.


Rule of thumb #6: Like most peddlers of woo-woo, quantum quacks confuse criticism with persecution, and thus hate being criticized.

But science thrives because of skepticism and criticism. Like all scientific paradigms, quantum theory has passed the scrutiny and very high standards of the scientific community (and it has done so with flying colors). Also, like all scientific principles, you can convince yourself that it is true by performing your own experiments and calculations. And you can do this without fooling yourself or others. You cannot say the same about fields like, say, quantum agriculture.


“Plants have feelings too!” Ooookay.

tl;dr: People who use quantum jargon to make their woo-woo sound legitimate fail to understand that the quantum world, though weird by the standards of classical physics, is lawful. Quantum phenomena may be baffling, but they’re not magical. So when anything involves magical thinking, it’s probably pseudoscience.


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Sotto’s Pseudoscientific Source: Who is Natasha Campbell-McBride?

Senator Tito Sotto responded to allegations of plagiarism by denying them on national TV. In case comparing his speech with the blog post isn’t enough, the blogger herself, Sarah Pope, has confirmed that she was indeed plagiarized. And as it turns out, she might not be the only victim of Sotto’s plagiarism: some count at least 3 other plagiarized bloggers.

Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride

Let’s humor Tito Sotto and entertain the possibility that his excuse is valid — that he wasn’t quoting the blogger, he was quoting the blogger’s source: Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride. But was citing Dr. Natasha a good move?

I don’t think so. As far as Sotto’s credibility goes, citing Dr. Natasha was even worse than plagiarizing Pope. Because Dr. Natasha is a quack. She is most known for inventing the idea that autism — and many other symptoms and diseases — is caused by bacteria in our gut, a condition she calls “Gut and Psychology Syndrome” or GAPS — because “gut bacteria” just doesn’t sound as scientific.

The Consequences of Gut Bacteria

And what causes gut bacteria? According to Dr. Natasha, children who aren’t breastfed get gut bacteria. Sure, breastfeeding has benefits, and even real doctors prescribe it. But they don’t scare people with invented consequences, especially not without any real evidence. And by evidence, I mean the results of proper clinical trials. Does Dr. Natasha have such evidence? No. All she has are testimonials.

And when you replace the objectivity of Science with the subjectivity of anecdotal evidence, anything goes. Without the need to adhere to the rigors of Science, Dr. Natasha can confidently claim that like vaccinations, oral contraceptives cause gut bacteria, something Sotto now believes to be the cause of his son’s death.

Dr. Natasha’s disrespect for scientific procedures translates to a distrust of mainstream medicine — a distrust Sotto seems to share, both of them claiming that the pharmaceutical industry only cares about making money. And what alternative does she prescribe? She sells plenty of them in her online store, where anyone can purchase books, DVDs, probiotics, supplements, kitchen equipment, and garden hose filters, all based on the principles of the GAPS diet — an alternative solution that I think Sotto should promote.

Because if he believes Dr. Natasha, he should recommend these products to other alleged victims of vaccination and oral contraception. After all, these are the same products that could’ve saved his son. Unless, of course, he doesn’t buy this bullshit and he’s just trying to grasp at any scientific sounding nonsense to further delay voting on the RH bill.

Image sources: 1, 2

Further reading:

  • http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2011/08/01/gaps-in-a-doctors-reasoning-about-vaccines/
  • http://thesecondsight.blogspot.com/2010/10/self-reinforcing-circle-of-improbably.html

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Alternative (to) Medicine

The Silver Bullet. The Magic Pill. The Cure For What Ails Ya. Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a miracle drug that could instantly cure us of whatever illness we might have? “Colds? Muscle pain? TB? Gonorrhea? Cancer? Pop this pill and call me in the morning.”

Sadly, no such thing exists (yet). The human body is an extremely complicated piece of machinery (Needlessly complicated in fact, that’s why it’s improbable that we’re intelligently designed, ok creationists?), and drugs that have a beneficial effect on one part of your body will likely have a detrimental effect on another part of your body. No single drug will have a beneficial effect on your ENTIRE body, unless you consider death to be beneficial.

However, there are many people who swear by such miracle cures. Pretty much all of them fall into the category known as “Alternative Medicine”.

Alternative medicine has always existed, in one form or another, throughout human history. The principles have roughly stayed the same: “All maladies are caused by some sort of imbalance in our *insert magical, unmeasureable, undetectable energy/life force here*, and the cure is *insert modality here*.”

The thing is, they only became “alternative” after the dawn of science-based medicine. Our ancestors used all sorts of “treatments” and “remedies” for every ailment, from the mundane (leaves, flowers, ground up animal parts, etc) to the outright bizarre (spells, incantations, faith healing, etc).

But we can’t really blame our ancestors because back then, our knowledge base was pretty limited. In fact, as recently as the 1860’s, bloodletting was a pretty common treatment for a lot of ailments. Even something as simple as handwashing was seen as “ungentlemanly” by doctors and surgeons, no less.

But in this day and age of advanced scientific knowledge, near instant communications, fast transport and travel,  fantastic technologies, and the incredible exchange of ideas afforded to us by the internet, there really isn’t much of an excuse to believe in Supplements, Complementary and Alternative Medicine (or SCAM, for short)…

…or is there?

Let’s try to analyze this question:

“If SCAM is bunk, then why is it so popular?”

I think it boils down to a few factors:

1. Confirmation bias:

Most people who use SCAM fall under one of two categories:

a. Those who already believe in them;

b. and those who are willing to try them either because of lack of finances, or because conventional medicine didn’t work for them.

Both these types almost always fall victim to confirmation bias. So what is confirmation bias?

Confirmation bias (also called confirmatory bias or myside bias) is a tendency for people to favor information that confirms their preconceptions or hypotheses regardless of whether the information is true. As a result, people gather evidence and recall information from memory selectively, and interpret it in a biased way.

The first type already expects the SCAM modality to work, so they feel better after using it. The second type is desperate for something to work, and is therefore primed to believe that it is actually working.

2. The body heals itself (most of the time):

If you’re like the vast majority of people in the civilized world, you won’t go see your doctor until your fever/cold/cough/ache is at it’s worst. Also, a significant portion of that population goes to a SCAM practitioner, instead of a real doctor.

The thing is, if we are reasonably healthy, our bodies are quite capable of fighting off most illnesses. And since we go see these SCAM practitioners at the peak of our illness, any treatment they perform (or don’t perform) is almost guaranteed to “cure” you. Thus, giving the illusion that the homeopath, naturopath, reiki master, acupuncturist, chiropractor, touch therapist, etc. is the real deal.

Now I’m sure some SCAM proponent is saying ” AHA! So you’re admitting that those who go to real doctors also have this phenomenon going for them!”

Well yes, to a certain degree. You see, the placebo effect applies even to real medicine. So you get an actual benefit, PLUS the placebo effect. This is also the reason why in science, we have this thing called the “randomized, double blinded, controlled clinical trials” to separate the placebo effect from true efficacy, something no SCAM practitioner does.

3. Personal anecdotes trump impersonal data every single time:

We love hearing stories, especially stories delivered with conviction by a satisfied SCAM victim customer. Let’s face it: Hearing a feelgood story about how some miracle product cured a person of his/her cancer is far more compelling than some boring study written on a piece of paper by anonymous scientists from thousand of miles away. This is one of the big reasons why practically every form of SCAM relies on testimonials from satisfied victims customers.

4. It feels good and is easy to understand:

Every successful SCAM modality is also very simple to understand. No technical knowledge is required. There’s no scary sounding drugs or hyper-complicated machinery to intimidate you. From vague and simple explanations of adjusting/restoring the balance of chi in your body to replenishing vibrational energy/bioenergy/life energy, just about anyone can understand it. Many SCAM modalities also incorporate soothing music, comfortable couches or beds, massages, and dim lighting to help a victim customer relax. As you might guess, a relaxed victim customer is more likely to report positive results.

And because of all of the above, many of us are quite eager to accept that these SCAM modalities work, despite the low quality of evidence that supports them. As I have mentioned before, most SCAM practitioners rely on testimonials and anecdotal evidence. They also love to cite poorly made studies, many of which are performed by themselves, and published in “pee-reviewed” (that’s not a typo) medical journals, which were made just to promote SCAMs.

5. Conspiracy theorists vs “Big Pharma”:

There is a general notion among the public that “Big Pharma” is out to get them and that Big Pharma is in bed with Big Bad Government to keep us sick in order to keep selling drugs. Many SCAM practitioners love to incite this particular fear and paranoia into potential victims customers. It’s easy to target “Big Pharma” as evil, because it’s seen as one single entity. Few people realize that in order for this “Big Pharma Conspiracy” to exist, everyone from the pharmaceutical companies’ top management to government officials, to doctors, to nurses, med techs, researchers, down to the clerks and support staff HAVE to be involved in the conspiracy. Few people stop to think that these people are human too, with their own friends and loved ones that they would like to keep free from illness.

Now, do I think pharmaceutical companies are benevolent and have only our wellbeing and best interests at heart? Of course not. As with any other business, the three main objectives of pharmaceutical companies are 1.) profit, 2.) Profit, and 3.) PROFIT. Given the choice of cutting costs and saving money vs spending a fortune on efficacy and safety trials, I’m pretty sure which path the pharmaceutical executives would rather take.

But this is why the pharmaceutical industry is one of the most heavily regulated industries in the world. The FDA keeps a close eye on them. These companies spend billions upon billions of dollars on R&D, efficacy trials, and safety trials. They have to, otherwise they won’t have a product to sell. This is also why most real medicine costs a lot.  In fact, the rules and regulations are so stringent that roughly 85% to 90% of the drugs being tested never get past the first and second phase of clinical trials. It is also interesting to note that Big Pharma actually PREFERS these super stringent rules and regulations that cost a lot of money, because it discourages startup competition, leaving only the big boys with fat wallets.

And no, the FDA is not perfect. Many defective products have still passed through it’s screening process. Some would say that this is unacceptable and the FDA sucks, but that would be like saying that Kobe Bryant is bad at free throw shooting because he only makes 84% of them. Also, once a defect is discovered (even relatively minor ones), it is immediately pulled out.

Compare and contrast with SCAM, which few people realize is ALSO a multi-billion dollar industry. The SCAM industry has a ridiculous reputation for being “all natural” (as if that means anything) and somehow “more caring and more personal”. We need to realize that these people also have profit as their primary motive. Otherwise, they wouldn’t charge for their treatments. The worst part is, this industry is NOT regulated at all. For an industry that frequently promises to “wash away the toxins”, many of their products have been found to contain hazardous materials.

We, as consumers, need to be more skeptical of fantastic claims. This is the only way we can weed out bad products from the good ones. As with almost every thing we encounter in life, it’s useful to always remember this adage:

“If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”

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Is Faith Compatible With Science?

Whenever faced with the challenge that science is incompatible with faith, theists often point to their faith’s own cadre of accomplished scientists to refute this frequent atheistic claim. And they would not want of examples. Just grabbing from the Roman Catholic Church’s litany of scientists will give you many luminaries of the sciences, many with the honor of being called “father of” such and such science or their name being used as units of measurement.

  • Gregor Mendel, the father of genetics, was an Augustinian friar.
  • Antoine Lavoisier, the father of modern chemistry, named oxygen and hydrogen.
  • Alessandro Volta was a physicist who invented the battery and is the namesake of the measurement for electric potential.
  • Louis Pasteur was a chemist and microbiologist who is often regarded as one of the fathers of the germ theory of disease.
  • André-Marie Ampère was a physicist and mathematician who helped discover the link between electricity and magnetism and is the namesake of the measurement for current.
  • William of Ockham, the namesake of Occam’s razor, was a Franciscan Friar.
  • René Descartes, most famous for cogito ergo sum, was a mathematician as well as a philosopher.
  • Blaise Pascal, the originator of the Pascal’s Wager, was a mathematician and physicist, who is the namesake of the measurement of pressure, stress, and tensile strength.
  • Georges Lemaître was the first person to propose that the universe was expanding, but he is more famous for proposing what we call the “Big Bang” theory of the origin of the universe.

This is but a smattering of all the Catholic scientists who have contributed greatly to the progress of science. Some of them had overtly pious intentions for their work—in order to more perfectly understand their Creator’s work. In fact, the Roman Catholic Church has been one of the biggest patrons of the sciences dating back to the Middle Ages with precisely this purpose of appreciating the design of the Intelligent Designer. With such intellectual giants who profess faith in Catholic dogma and such explicitly religious motives, how then can the atheist even suggest that faith is in conflict with science?


Is pseudoscience compatible with science?

The existence of religious scientists only proves, as Sam Harris observes, that good ideas can live with bad ideas in the same head. The proponents of the compatibility of faith-based religion with science seem to miss the fact that the acceptance of scientific discoveries of religious scientists is because these findings have survived the rigorous testing of the scientific method. Lemaître’s Big Bang theory is accepted by scientists not due to any purported theological consistency but because it is the best explanation for our observations. That he was religious was purely incidental to the value of his scientific insight.

It is also important to point out that many scientists are religious simply because most people are religious. Centuries ago, only those with the power and wealth of their Churches behind them had the luxury of spending their time reading and experimenting. Not to mention, atheists (often lumped by those in power with worshippers of foreign gods) have been persecuted since the name was coined.

When the German chemist Friedrich August Kekulé said that the cyclic structure of benzene came to him in a dream involving a snake biting its own tail, his idea wasn’t accepted for its esoteric merits, it was accepted on the strength of the scientific evidence he presented after this strange epiphany.

One of humanity’s greatest minds, Isaac Newton, was quite the dedicated alchemist. He wrote over a million words on the topic. His work on alchemy was even integral to his work on optics. But, none of this suggests that the pseudoscience of alchemy has no conflict with science.

We find that to the extent that religious scientists are not dogmatic and employ reason and evidence, they are good scientists. That is, we expect religious scientists to cut away all semblance of religiosity from their output before we deem them credible. This does not speak well for the argument that science and faith are compatible.


A brief digression on Galileo


No essay on the conflict between science and faith would be complete without a mention of Galileo Galilei. Apologists dismiss the Galileo affair as a trial of his arrogance rather than of his ideas, which they found erroneous not just based on scripture, but also based on empirical facts.

Galileo published the first scientific work based on observations through a telescope. He saw that, contrary to the Aristotelian idea that all celestial bodies are perfectly smooth spheres, the moon had mountains. He was also able to discover four moons orbiting around Jupiter. From these, he contested the prevailing Aristotelian and Ptolemaic dogma that all celestial bodies revolved around the Earth. He further proposed, though none of his observations directly suggested it, that Copernicus was right that the planets, including Earth, orbited around the Sun.

Even scientists such as Tycho Brahe found Galileo’s endorsement of the Copernican heliocentric model to be misplaced, saying that it was not supported by the evidence. And, truly, there was a problem with Galileo’s science. Using circular orbits, Copernicus’ solar system relied even more on ad hoc mathematical corrections called “epicycles” to match observations, suggesting that planets would revolve around separate axes all the while traveling in a larger orbit around the sun. It was even more complex and unintuitive than Ptolemy’s geocentric model.

However, Galileo was censured by the Inquisition not because of his bad science but mainly because he contradicted the geocentrism of the Bible and the documents of his trial attest to this. Apologists tend to parade around his errors and “arrogance” in promoting the Copernican system as the central reasons behind his eventual condemnation and house arrest, but this is clearly not the truth.

The Inquisition in 1616 saw heliocentrism as “foolish and absurd in philosophy, and formally heretical since it explicitly contradicts many places the sense of Holy Scripture, according to the literal meaning of the words and according to the common interpretation and understanding of the Holy Fathers and the doctors of theology.”

Galileo went on to write Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems in 1632, which lampooned geocentrism by writing about an ignorant proponent, named Simplicio, debating with an intelligent heliocentrist, named Sagredo.

His persecutors themselves were clear that Galileo’s crimes were not of arrogance or for faulty science, but of heresy. Upon sentencing in 1633, Galileo was condemned for heresy “of having held and believed a doctrine which is false and contrary to the divine and Holy Scripture.” He would be able to avoid penalty provided that he “abjure, curse, and detest the above-mentioned errors and heresies, and every other error and heresy contrary to the Catholic and Apostolic Church, in the manner and form we will prescribe to you.” He eventually did so. Dialogue was banned by the Roman Catholic Church. Galileo spent the last years of his life in house arrest.


The real conflict between science and faith

At the heart of the conflict between faith and science are their contradictory value systems. Science requires evidence for any and all claims looking to be accepted. Faith holds unquestionable belief even when evidence is nonexistent.

Science relies on self-correction. Scientists must admit to their errors and argue only with evidence. This is why science is the best method of knowing the human race has ever produced. No religion has ever come close; no religious explanation has ever replaced a scientific explanation.

Faith is most visibly at odds with science when religions make baseless scientific claims such as those concerning the efficacy of prayer, the origin of man, or the nature of the mind. If science finds that prayer is ineffective, that there never was a “first” man or woman, or that free will is an illusion, someone with an honest scientific mindset can only reject their preconceived notions in favor of a better understanding of the universe. The improvement of knowledge is the hallmark of science—a feature religious faith can never share.

Faith is incompatible with science because science requires freedom of thought. In principle, science has no heresies, blasphemies, or sacred cows; the only limit is reason. Science can only thrive when scientists are not intimidated or forced to shy away from difficult answers that may contradict long-held beliefs.

The example of Galileo is often shrugged off by apologists as anti-Catholic spin or, at best, that it is not representative of the Church’s relationship with science. And, to be fair, it is true that this event is atypical. The Roman Catholic Church is not antagonistic to all science, just the parts problematic to their ideology. In order to soothe the congitive dissonance caused by their enjoyment of the fruits of science, apologists must conveniently gloss over the real conflict between science and faith. Science will always be hostile to the restraints of the religious mindset. In order for faith and science to coexist, science must be neutered, declawed, and defanged.

It is only fortunate for us who live in this day that faith has fallen so far now that it has been forced to ingratiate itself with modern secular society. It no longer holds the power to execute heretics or punish those who dare to think for themselves. We must never forget how the Churches acted when their power was more than just ceremonial.

Galileo may have been wrong (or not completely correct), but so have thousands of other scientists who have never faced the wrath of the Inquisition, whose books have never been denied to the public. It was only because Galileo had the gall to challenge scripture that he faced the consequences. Faith is only chummy with science insofar as it does not challenge core beliefs. In this way, religions are not patrons of science, but of science products. They are open to enjoying the spoils of the critical nature of science without appreciating exactly what makes science worth a damn—its complete lack of dogmatism. It is the very character of the scientific attitude that makes the clash between science and faith only inevitable.

Image credit: Ies Dionisio Aguado

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