Objective rating calculator for pseudoscientific works

I saved this list from something I read a few years ago, when I first became interested in pseudoscience (not from a pure profit standpoint, just to be a cantankerous debater).  It’s quite useful.

How to rate a work of pseudoscience:

A thirty-one-point checklist for rating contributions to the field of archaeology that claim to be revolutionary or to overturn long-accepted ideas. The higher the score, the more ‘controversial’ the book and the more money its author can hope to make from sales, lecture tours, television spin-offs and so on.

  • 5 points starting credit.
  • 1 point for every statement that is in conflict with generally accepted theories.
  • 2 points for every statement that is clearly vacuous.
  • 3 points for each internal inconsistency.
  • 5 points for every supposition that is maintained despite prodigious archaeological evidence to the contrary.
  • 5 points for each instance of spurious data expressed as fact.
  • 5 points for each dark hint that a piece of otherwise widely-accepted evidence is faked.
  • 5 points for each authoritative reference to Richard Hoagland, Edgar Cayce, Immanuel Velikovsky, Erich von Däniken, Jacques Bergier, Thor Heyerdahl, Zecharia Sitchin, Charles Berlitz, Andrew Tomas, John Anthony West, Michael Dames, Graham Hancock or Robert Bauval.
  • 5 points for reference to sites of dubious authority, especially Glozel, the ‘Hall of Records’, the Paluxy River human footprints
  • 7 points for each disparaging reference to Erich von Däniken.
  • 7 points for each authoritative reference to Martin Bernal, Cheikh Anta Diop, David Rohl, Peter James, Barry Fell…
  • 7 points for each reference to an exotic location of dubious relevance, including Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Macchu Picchu, Great Zimbabwe, the ‘Candelabra of the Andes’, Nan Matol, Bimini and Glastonbury.
  • 7 points for each reference to an ‘out of place artefact’, including batteries from Babylon, the Antikythera computer, Ancient Egyptian or South American model aeroplanes, the ‘Coso Artifact’, technical drawings at Dendera, the Ica stones, the Acambaro figurines, the ‘Dropa stones’ and crystal skulls.
  • 10 points for each authoritative reference to R A Schwaller de Lubicz, Michael Cremo, Richard Thompson or T C Lethbridge.
  • 10 points for each baseless claim that widely accepted theories are fundamentally erroneous.
  • 10 points for discovering ‘links’ between languages widely separated in time and space (such as Etruscan and Quechua).
  • 10 points for boasting of academic degrees unrelated to the topic at hand, especially proclaiming a PhD on the cover of a book.
  • 10 points for spelling archaeology as archeology in the mistaken belief that it is the correct American spelling.
  • 15 points for boasting of a lack of academic degrees, insisting that formal education is not only unnecessary but also an impediment to creative thought.
  • 15 points for each photograph of the author standing by a ‘mysterious’ structure (preferably, mostly out of shot) in an exotic location.
  • 20 points for lamentations of being misunderstood.
  • 20 points for not including a bibliography.
  • 20 points for every use of a myth or legend as a record of fact.
  • 20 points for defensive citations of real or imagined ridicule inflicted by the academia.
  • 25 points for each evidential mention of Atlantis, Mu, Lemuria, Cydonia, the ‘Face on Mars’, the continental shelf, the Bermuda Triangle or Antarctica.
  • 30 points for insisting that if critics cannot disprove a theory, then it must necessarily be true.
  • 30 points for claiming to be the victim of a conspiracy by the scientific establishment.
  • 30 points for extensive footnotes or endnotes.
  • 40 points for professing to be privy to information that is secret or to which no one else has access.
  • 40 points for claiming to have deciphered a previously unintelligible script.
  • 50 points for claims of psychic revelation or firsthand past-life experience.

I think I might use this for the next History Channel series on ghosts, Nostradamus, aliens, sasquatch, or whatever else they push these days.  If they don’t score around 400, I’d be shocked.

Update from Missouri | NCSE

Update from Missouri | NCSE.

The chief sponsor of this bill says the “jury is still out on evolution.”  Uh, what jury is that?  The one in Kitzmiller v. Dover, where a Federal Judge ruled that Intelligent Design is not science?  Or the scientific community that say’s evolution is basically a fact?  Or that intelligent design was “designed” to circumvent the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the US Constitution.

In case anyone forgot, that clause states:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.

So, Intelligent Design is a religious doctrine.  The State of Missouri (well, at least some do) want to have that religious doctrine taught in public schools (run and funded by the State of Missouri).  Sounds like they might have a legal challenge ahead.

A second antievolution bill in Missouri | NCSE

A second antievolution bill in Missouri | NCSE.

Right after I pushed the “publish” button, I saw a second news article about Missouri.  Apparently, there’s nothing really important going on in Missouri, so they decided to write two bills to add religious teaching in schools of Missouri.

This is sad, because Missouri is one of the top states in the USA for science education.

“Intelligent design” bill in Missouri | NCSE

“Intelligent design” bill in Missouri | NCSE.

Not that anyone needs reminding, but just in case, Intelligent design is not scientific, it is not a scientific theory, and it is religion.  In Kitzmiller v Dover Area School District, the US District Court held that:

Teaching intelligent design in public school biology classes violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States (and Article I, Section 3 of the Pennsylvania State Constitution) because intelligent design is not science and “cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents.

It cost the Dover Area School District over $1 million to defend this lawsuit, money that probably could have been spent on textbooks, teachers, and new computers.  I believe in the aftermath, all school board members who supported the teaching of Intelligent design were ousted by voters.  That’s how democracy I suppose.

The bill states:

If scientific theory concerning biological origin is taught in a course of study, biological evolution and biological intelligent design shall be taught. Other scientific theory or theories of origin may be taught.

Just a tiny point, and I can’t expect much out of Missouri’s legislators, but the theory of evolution does not discuss the origin of life.  The theory of abiogenesis does, and that’s more chemistry and physics than biologists.  Biological evolution, or modern evolutionary synthesis, is based on a mountain of evidence.  The theory isn’t used in the sense of a random guess, but a scientific one with a foundation in scientific method and piles of evidence.  It is falsifiable (but has not been falsified) and has itself evolved into a power predictor of how populations of organisms change over time.

Intelligent design is not falsifiable (in that it requires an all powerful creator) and is not scientific.  It is based on no evidence, just ideology and rhetoric.  It fails as science once the bright light of criticism is shone on it.

Well, I don’t know how Missouri’s legislature is organized, but I hope they’re intelligent enough not to do this.  But if they do, expect several lawsuits.  And they’ll lose them all.

Polling pastors on evolution | NCSE

Polling pastors on evolution–National Center for Science Education

There are a few interesting points regarding this poll:

  • The poll was commissioned by LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention, a rather conservative Christian denomination.  I’m concerned about the inherent bias.
  • Protestants in various parts of the country have different beliefs about science and evolution.  This poll may be biased towards Southern US churches, where more literal beliefs in biblical myth is more prevalent.
  • Of course, this polling does not include anyone outside of the US.
  • The first question was “I believe god used evolution created people”.   About 24% agreed with that, over 72% disagreed.  Of course, that’s a loaded question, because a pastor might accept evolution and not think a god was involved, but it’s hard to tell without the real data.
  • Interestingly, only 46% thought the earth was 6000 years old, whereas 43% disagreed (although, not sure if they thought it was 4.5 billion or something else).
  • One minor, but very annoying point.  One does not believe in evolution, since belief implies acceptance with or in spite of evidence.  Evolution is a theory (and in science, a theory is essentially a fact) based on mountains of evidence.  It does not require evidence, it requires acceptance of the evidence, or rejection of the evidence based on denialism, ignorance, or belief in an alternative explanation–or all three.

There are churches that accept evolution as is.  Jews, Catholics, and most mainstream Protestants (such as Anglicans) were, of course, excluded from this poll, and would have skewed it toward “pastors” supporting evolution.  Of course, anti-evolution (or evolution denialism) is so prevalent these days, we probably shouldn’t be surprised by this poll.

By the way, if you aren’t, follow the National Center for Science Education.  They keep everyone updated on important issues in science education in the USA.

How pseudoscience makes its case. Part 3.

This is part of my ongoing discussion on how quacks use pseudoscience to push their myths and potions on the world.  Part 1 discussed the scientific method, which allows us to objectively analyze the natural world.  Part 2 discussed the best way for us to examine the difference between science and pseudoscience.

I just read an outstanding analysis, by Steven Novella, MD, a clinical neurologist at Yale University, of how pseudoscience (those who pretend to praise the scientific method, yet do it in a way that is not actually science) and anti-science (those who repudiate science outright, or even undermine science, with subjective analysis and untestable spirituality) to reject evidence-based medicine.

Dr. Novella clearly states how science in medicine works:

This leads us to the final continuum – the consensus of expert opinion based upon systematic reviews can either result in a solid and confident unanimous opinion, a reliable opinion with serious minority objections, a genuine controversy with no objective resolution, or simply the conclusion that we currently lack sufficient evidence and do not know the answer. It can also lead, of course, to a solid consensus of expert opinion combined with a fake controversy manufactured by a group driven by ideology or greed and not science. The tobacco industry’s campaign of doubt against the conclusion that smoking is a risk factor for lung cancer is one example. The anti-vaccine movement’s fear-mongering about vaccines and autism is another.

Basically, science evolves over time.  A conclusion that lacks sufficient evidence may eventually be supported by better analysis or groundbreaking research.  You’ll notice that anti-science and pseudoscience pushers do not allow themselves to participate in the this continuum of research–they state emphatically that they are right.

Science, by its very nature, must be falsifiable, meaning that any hypothesis or theory has the logical possibility that it can be contradicted by an observation or the outcome of a physical experiment. Just because a hypothesis or theory is “falsifiable,” we do not conclude that it is false.   To the contrary, we understand that if it is false, then some observation or experiment will provide a reproducible result that is in conflict with it.  Simply put, science assumes that it has it all wrong, and attempts to determine why a particular theory or hypothesis is wrong.  Of course, in these attempts, usually more evidence is found to support the original theory.  Just because science requires falsifiability, that does not mean that it will ever be falsified, but science is open to the possibility.  In other words, science evolves.

Pseudoscience, by its very nature, is not falsifiable.  It is mostly based on assertion rather than scientific observation, so it cannot be tested by experiment or observation.  Creationism is a perfect example.  It is based on a human text (the bible), so there is no experiment that could be designed to test the text, since it non-responsive in a natural sense.  It would be like trying to scientifically show that the muppets existed.

Two of the most misused and misunderstood terms in evaluating scientific evidence are correlation and causation, two powerful analytical tools that are critical to evidence based medicine.  Correlation is the grouping of variables that may occur together.  For example, smoking correlates with lung cancer in that those who smoke tend to develop lung cancer at a statistically significant rate.  It’s important to note that correlation does not prove causation.  However, once you have numerous well-designed studies that correlate lung cancer to smoking, along with adding in biological and physiological models that support the correlation, then we can arrive at a consensus that not only is smoking correlated with lung cancer, it causes it.

We observe correlations every day.  But they are subjective observations for which we cannot state a causal relationship without substantial research.  The anti-vaccination movement is rife with these observations which they use to “prove” a cause.  An anti-vaccine conspiracy website claims that pregnant women are miscarrying babies after getting the shot.  The fact is that there is a statistical chance that women will miscarry during any pregnancy.  This is random variability not a cause.  In fact, based on the rate of miscarriage, we could expect that thousands of women would miscarry within 24 hours of getting the H1N1 flu shot.  But it’s not correlation, unless significant studies show a causal relationship.  For example, I’m also sure that thousands of people broke a bone or had a desire to eat a burger after getting the shot, but that’s because in a large enough population of individuals, you can find literally millions of different actions after getting a shot.

So, the miscarriage rate after receiving the swine flu shot is not correlated.  It’s just a random observation.  And there is no biological cause that could be described.  Nevertheless, the “flu vaccine causes miscarriage” conspiracy has been thoroughly debunked by research, but still the internet meme continues.  Pseudoscience sometimes uses the same methodology (or lack of methodology) to make positive assertions.  Homeopaths will claim that their dilutions will cure whatever disease, yet they do not have scientific evidence supporting them, but there plenty of evidence that debunks what they practice.

As part of my analysis of medical claims of causation or “cures”, I often use this logic to test the possibility of the usefulness of any alternative medicine–is there any physical, chemical or biological mechanism that will allow the quack procedure to work?  If you cannot imagine it without violating some of the basic laws of science, then we should stand by Occam’s razor, which states often times the simplest solution is the best.  So, if there is no evidence of vaccinations being correlated, let alone causal, to autism, then that remains the simplest solution.  To explain a possible tie without any evidence would require us to suspend what we know of most biological processes.

As I’ve said in other posts, the internet gives us so much information, we tend to value it equally, as if every website provides accurate and logical data points.  Maybe you have a friend who had a miscarriage 24 hours after receiving the swine flu vaccine.  Maybe you’ve heard that many people have.  But that’s not science, that’s just a subjective observation.  Or even confirmation bias.

Once again, Dr. Novella says it perfectly:

In conclusion, correlation is an extremely valuable type of scientific evidence in medicine. But first correlations must be confirmed as real, and then every possible causational relationship must be systematically explored. In the end correlation can be used as powerful evidence for a cause and effect relationship between a treatment and benefit, or a risk factor and a disease. But it is also one of the most abused types of evidence, because it is easy and even tempting to come to premature conclusions based upon the preliminary appearance of a correlation.