What are Some Warning Signs of Bogus Science?

Michael Anissimov

Bogus science can be found in large quantities wherever one cares to look. For example, homeopathic medicine is extremely popular in many parts of the world, but it consists of nothing but water. In 1989, Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons, electrochemists at the University of Utah, created a worldwide stir by announcing they had developed cold fusion - the fusion of atomic nuclei at room temperature using a low energy input process. However, subsequent attempts at replication showed this to be false. New bogus science claims are made every day, and it takes a careful skeptic to cut through the hype to the hogwash.

The most well-respected medical journals feature peer-reviewed research, which has been read and approved by other doctors.
The most well-respected medical journals feature peer-reviewed research, which has been read and approved by other doctors.

The first and most prominent sign of bogus science is when a scientific claim is pitched directly to the media, rather than reported in peer-reviewed journals. The Irish free-energy company Steorn, which took out a full-page advertisement in the Economist magazine, is a recent example of this. Another sign is claims of suppression.

Claims of suppression among the purveyors of bogus science are so common that such claims are practically an immediate indicator that the claim is faulty. Although anyone may have trouble getting their experimental results published in the most mainstream scientific journals, if the effect they are claiming is substantial and real, then it is inevitable they will soon get the fame they deserve. If they don't, it's usually because their methods are sloppy or they are making the data up.

Bogus science claims often involve measurements at the very edge of detection. This includes the "energy fields" touted by many New Age mystics, or the e-meter of Ron Hubbard's Scientology. The measurements are very noisy and barely correlated with anything in the real world, and this condition remains even through improvements in instrumentation. This strongly suggests the presence of confirmation bias - no improvements in instrumentation will ever reveal the effect more plainly, because the effect is only in the mind of the researchers, and they expect to keep seeing it, so they do.

Oftentimes, bogus science claims rely on anecdotal evidence, presented as if an infomercial rather than a serious scientific investigation. Anecdotes carry an emotional valence that experimental results lack to some, bringing "personality" to the story, but also introducing a tremendous loophole for error and social delusion. Many anti-aging therapies fall into this category, with numerous anecdotes suggesting they work. Careful monitoring of those consuming these "medicines," however, shows they age at the same rate as anyone else.

One sure sign of bogus science is when the claimants say their theory or its effects have endured for centuries. If there's anything science has shown us, it's that folk theories about how the world works are almost always wrong or incomplete, which is why thorough experimentation and careful theorizing is necessary to build a better model of the world. In the same vein are claims that the discoverer has worked in isolation, or that new physical laws are required to explain the effect. These are all attempts to avoid the scrutinizing eyes of serious scientists and skeptics.

We probably will never be able to stop the worldwide propagation of bogus science, but we can stop it when it comes knocking on our doorstep. True scientists love science because it works, whereas bogus science derived from wishful thinking fails to work except as a sad placebo.

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anon23492: Ask her what the commission she received from the sale.


I was at a friend's and she had an "bio-electrical charge machine." You put your feet in a pan of water, adding sea salt from Israel to it and it is suppose to detoxify you. Does this really do any good? The machine cost about $1100. I had a large bump the size of a quarter under my arm and it went down after 3 or 4, 30 min. sessions. The water changed color and had some foam in it which the booklet said was lymph foam and they had a chart for the water colors and what part of the body was detoxifying.

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