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Pseudoscience

Intro

Pseudoscience is fake science.

Spotting pseudoscience

The surest way to spot a fake is to know as much as possible about the real thing. Knowing science does not mean simply knowing scientific facts, it means understanding how science works: the criteria of evidence, the design of meaningful experiments, the weighing of possibilities, the testing of hypotheses, the establishment of theories, and the many aspects of scientific methods that make it possible to draw reliable conclusions about the physical universe.

Many pseudo-masters use pseudoscience to convince students that their style of martial arts is valid. Pseudoscience often strikes educated, rational people as too nonsensical and preposterous to be dangerous; they consider it a source of amusement rather than fearing it. Unfortunately, this is not a wise attitude. Pseudoscience can be extremely dangerous, especially to the under-educated.

Every martial art student or potential student should learn about things that indicate the presence of pseudoscience. The presence of even one indicator should arouse suspicion, but pseudo-masters who exhibit none of the indicators might still be using pseudoscience.

 Indicators of pseudoscience

  • Indifference to facts. In the 1960s television show Dragnet, Jack Webb's "Sergeant Joe Friday" LAPD detective character used to say, "All we want are the facts, ma'am" when questioning a female witness. Over the years since the show went off the air, the quotation has been misquoted to say, "Just the facts. ma'am." When dealing with pseudo-masters, the quote should be "Adjust the facts, ma'am."
  • Instead of consulting reference works, pseudo-masters simply spout bogus "facts" where needed. These fictitious facts are often central to their argument. Moreover, pseudo-masters rarely revise their ideas. The first edition of a martial art book based on pseudoscience is almost always the last one, even though the book remains in print for centuries. For liars, the technique is to stand by your original lie, no matter what. Even books with obvious mistakes, errors, and misprints on every page may be reprinted over and over.
  • Research is invariably sloppy. Pseudo-masters clip newspaper reports, collect hearsay, cite other pseudoscience books, and pour over ancient religious or mythological works to prove their theories. They rarely, if ever, make an independent investigation to check their sources.
  • Research is done to try to find support for their theories, not to find the truth. Pseudo-masters tend to perform streetlight research, only researching where it is easiest. This is illustrated by the following parable: A policeman saw a drunk crawling around on the sidewalk under a streetlight and asked him, “Are you having a problem?” The drunk answered, “I lost my wallet.” The policeman asked, “Did you lose it here?” The drunk answered, “No, I lost it on the other side of the street.” “Then why are looking for it here?” asked the policeman. The drunk replied, “Because the light is better over here.” 
  • Begins with a false hypothesis. The hypothesis pseudo-masters start with is usually one that is appealing emotionally, and spectacularly implausible. Then pseudo-masters look only for items that appear to support their hypothesis; conflicting evidence is ignored. The aim of pseudo-masters is usually to rationalize their strongly held beliefs, rather than to investigate or to test alternative possibilities. Pseudo-masters specialize in jumping to conclusions, grinding ideological axes, appealing to preconceived ideas, and to spreading misunderstandings.
  • Indifference to criteria of valid evidence. The emphasis of pseudo-master research is not on meaningful, controlled, repeatable scientific style experiments. Instead, it is on unverifiable eyewitness testimony, stories and tall tales, hearsay, rumor, and dubious anecdotes. The genuine scientific literature on the subject is either ignored or misinterpreted.
  • Relies heavily on subjective validation. The pseudo-master said he would touch the student's head and she would fall backward; he touched the student's head and she fell backward. To pseudoscience, this means the pseudo-master has a death touch that will topple any person. To science. this means nothing since no experiment was done. A controlled experiment would use many non-students and compare the results. Many people believe in astrology since a newspaper horoscope describes them perfectly. However, the description is general enough to cover virtually everyone. This phenomenon, called subjective validation, is one of the foundations of popular support for pseudoscience.
  • Avoids putting claims to a meaningful test. Pseudo-masters never carry out careful, methodical experiments themselves, and they also generally ignore results of those carried out by others. They never follow up. If one pseudo-master claims to have done an experiment, no other pseudo-master ever tries to duplicate it or to investigate the pseudo- master's claims, even when the original results are missing or questionable. Further, when a pseudo-master claims to have done an experiment with a remarkable result, he or she never repeats it to check the results and procedures. This is in contrast with science, where crucial experiments are repeated by scientists all over the world with ever-increasing precision.
  • Often contradict themselves, even in their own terms. When such logical contradictions of pseudoscience are pointed out, they are simply ignored or rationalized away.
  • Deliberately creates mystery where none exists, by omitting crucial information and important details. Anything may be made "mysterious" by omitting what is known about it or by presenting completely imaginary details.
  • Does not progress. There are fads, and pseudo-masters may switch from one fad to another; but within a given topic, no progress is made. Little or no new information is uncovered. New theories are seldom proposed. Old concepts are rarely modified or discarded because new discoveries since pseudo-masters rarely make new discoveries. The older the idea, the more respect it receives. No natural phenomena or processes previously unknown to science have ever been discovered by pseudo-masters. Indeed, pseudo-masters almost invariably deal with phenomena well known to scientists, but little known to the general public, so that the public will swallow whatever the pseudo-master wants to claim, such as fire walking or dipping fingers into molten mercury.
  • Attempts to persuade with rhetoric, propaganda, and misrepresentation rather than valid evidence (which presumably does not exist). Books written by pseudo-masters offer examples of almost every kind of fallacy of logic and reason known to scholars, and they have invented some new ones of their own. A favorite device is what pseudo-masters call the "Galileo Argument." This consists of a pseudo-master comparing him or herself to Galileo, and saying that just as the pseudo-master is believed to be wrong, so Galileo belief that the earth was round was thought wrong by his contemporaries. Therefore, the pseudo-master must also be right, just as Galileo was. The conclusion is invalid. Moreover, Galileo's ideas were tested, verified, and accepted promptly by his scientific colleagues. The rejection came from established religions that favored the pseudoscience that Galileo's findings contradicted.
  • Argues from ignorance. Many pseudo-masters base their claims on the incompleteness of information about nature, rather than on what is known at present. However, no claim can possibly be supported by a lack of information. The fact that people do not recognize what they see in the sky means only that they do not recognize what they saw. This fact is not evidence that what they saw was a flying saucer from outer space. 
  • The statement "Science cannot explain" is commonly used by pseudo-masters. In many cases, science has no interest in the supposed phenomena because there is no evidence it exists; in other cases, the scientific explanation is well known and well established, but the pseudo-master does not know this or deliberately ignores it to create mystery.
  • Argues from alleged exceptions, errors, anomalies, strange events, and suspect claims, rather than from well-established regularities of nature. Reports that describe well-understood objects behaving in strange and incomprehensible ways tend, upon investigation, to be deliberate frauds, honest mistakes, garbled accounts, misinterpretations, outright fabrications, and stupid blunders. Pseudo-masters always take such reports as literally true, without independent verification.
  • Depends on arbitrary conventions of human culture, rather than on unchanging regularities of nature. For instance, the interpretations of astrology depend on the names of things, which are accidental and vary from culture to culture. If the ancients had given the name Mars to the planet we call Jupiter, and vice versa, astronomy could care less but astrology would be totally different because it depends solely on the name and has nothing to do with the physical properties of the planet itself.
  • Appeals to false authority, to emotion, sentiment, or distrust of established fact. A high-school dropout is accepted as an expert on the martial arts, though he may never have studied it. A movie star swears a pseudo-master is real, so he must be. A physicist says a pseudo-master could not possibly have fooled him with simple tricks, although the physicist knows nothing about magic and sleight of hand.
  • Emotional appeals are common, such as "If it makes you feel good, it must be true" or "In your heart you know it's right." Pseudo-masters are fond of imaginary conspiracies, such as "There's plenty of evidence for the death touch, but the martial arts establishment keeps it secret." And they argue from irrelevancies. When confronted by inconvenient facts, they simply reply, "Scientists don't know everything" or “The government is hiding the truth.”
  • Makes extraordinary claims and advances fantastic theories that contradict what is known about nature. Pseudo-masters make false claims such as "Every human is surrounded by an impalpable aura of electromagnetic energy, the auric egg of the ancient Hindu seers, which mirrors the human's every mood and condition." Then they not only provide no evidence that their claims are true, they also ignore all findings that contradict their conclusions.
  • Pseudo-masters invent their own vocabulary in which many terms lack precise or unambiguous definitions, and some have no definition at all. Listeners are often forced to interpret the statements according to their own preconceptions. For example, what is "biocosmic energy" or a "psychotronic amplification system?" Pseudo-masters often attempt to imitate the jargon of scientific and technical fields by spouting gibberish that sounds scientific and technical. Pseudo-masters would be lost without the term "energy," but their use of the term has nothing whatsoever to do with the concept of energy as used by physicists.
  • Appeals to the truth-criteria of scientific methodology while simultaneously denying their validity. When a procedurally invalid experiment that seems to show that astrology works is advanced as "proof" that astrology is correct, while thousands of procedurally sound experiments that show it does not work are ignored. The fact that someone got away with simple magic tricks in one scientific lab is "proof" that he is a psychic superman while the fact that he was caught cheating in several other labs is ignored.
  • Claims that the art is unstable. The pseudo-masters can only perform under certain vaguely specified but vital conditions, such as when no doubters or skeptics are present, when no experts are present, or when no one is watching. Science holds that genuine phenomena must be capable of study by anyone. A pseudo-master who claims to be impervious to pain, but does not permit himself to be kicked by a taekwondo master is probably lying.
  • Explanations tend to be by scenario. The pseudo-master tells a story, but nothing else; there is no description of any possible physical process. For instance, a pseudo-master claims that ninjas were able to leap straight up onto the roof of a hut, and despite the laws of physics ruling the feat impossible, the pseudo-master gives no reason how this was done. Pseudo-masters provide stories, not genuine theories.
  • Appeal to the ancient human habit of magical thinking. Magic, sorcery, and witchcraft. These are based on spurious similarity, false analogy, false cause-and-effect connections, etc. That is, inexplicable influences and connections between things are assumed from the beginning, not found by investigation. For example, a pseudo-master says that if you fight the way a tiger fights, you will be a great fighter.
  • Relies on ancient thinking. The older the idea, the more attractive it is to pseudo-masters. An idea that is transparently wrong and has long been discarded by science seems to appeal to pseudo-masters.
SOURCES
  • Quackwatch. [Online]. Available: http://quackwatch.org

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