Welcome to The Pulse’s new science column. Watch out, Neil deGrasse Tyson!
If there’s one thing I love, it’s being lied to. There’s nothing like the warm embrace of a good lie to make me feel warm and fuzzy inside. And, if the lie was told specifically to control my behavior or to take my money, that’s even better!
Wait. Scratch that...I hate being lied to, and there’s one type of lie that I hate more than any other, and that’s the lie of “pseudoscience.”
“Pseudoscience” is anything that, at first glance, looks like science, but is in fact based on one or more incorrect assumptions. For example, astrology. Sounds scientific, right? Heck, it even sounds like (and has many of the same letters as) “astronomy.”
Now, astronomy is the real science of repeatedly looking at things in the sky using various types of telescopes. But astrology? Pure nonsense based on the seemingly reasonable assumption that the stars and the planets have some influence on your life. (OK. OK. I’m kidding, astrology fans. It’s actually not a reasonable assumption. It’s completely koo-koo.)
Another “favorite” pseudoscience of mine is homeopathy. That’s where you create a “medicine” by taking some ingredient that, in normal doses, would cause the problem you want to treat and then you dilute that ingredient to the point where it’s vanishingly small (possibly nonexistent) in the final preparation.
So, if it’s liquid-based, you end up taking water, and if it’s pill-based, you end up taking a sugar pill. The best part? Homeopathic “medicines” are super expensive and don’t work! It’s a real win-win for the people that sell them: Low cost of materials (water or sugar) with a very high price charged to the consumer.
These are just two examples of what I refer to as “Baloney Sandwiches.” (For brevity’s sake, I’ll refer to these as “BS” from here out.) If you live here on Earth, you can probably think of at least a dozen more.
How can you protect yourself against all the pseudoscientific BS that life puts on your plate? Well, I’m glad you asked, because, there is a fairly simple set of questions you can ask yourself whenever you are confronted with something that smells just a bit like BS.
Your BS Detection Kit
Astronomer, author, TV presenter and now full-time ex-person Carl Sagan once wrote a book called “The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.” One of the chapters in that book was called, “The Fine Art of Baloney Detection,” and in that chapter, he presented nine rules that you can use to sniff out the baloney in your own life. Loosely paraphrased, they are:
• Is there independent confirmation of the “facts” of the claim?
• Has there been substantial debate on the claim by proponents of all sides? (For example, there aren’t a lot of homeopathic experts willing to debate actual doctor persons or chemists.)
• If the only argument for the claim is the “argument from authority,” i.e. “mommy said so,” then that should get your baloney senses tingling.
• Can you come up with any other explanations? If so, can you think of ways to disprove those explanations? The explanation that survives is the one that’s most likely to be worth pursuing.
• Don’t get attached to an idea just because it’s yours. Ask yourself why you like the idea and ruthlessly compare it to others.
• Can you measure it? Things that can be measured are, in general, easier to explain. Even if the measure is just, “How many studies have been done about this?” that’s a valuable bit of information right there. If a proponent of something can’t point to a study showing its effectiveness, that’s a red flag all on its own.
• If the argument is based on a series of arguments, then every argument in the chain must be valid.
• Does the claim pass the test of Occam’s Razor? Occam’s Razor is a simple principle that says, “If there are multiple explanations, the simplest is the most likely to be true.” Of course, this isn’t always the case: Quantum mechanics are anything but simple, but Occam’s Razor is a good starting point for working out the truth.
• Does it make predictions? Can you test it? Real science is built on predicting things and then testing those predictions. If something can’t be tested, it’s not a part of science. (And before you even start that email: Yes, evolution does make predictions and they can and have been tested…again and again and again.)
So there you go.
Nine simple questions you can use to save yourself time, money and heartache simply by sniffing out the BS in your life.