Imagine the following: Something vaguely scientific blares at you over the internet. You are skeptical, but you don’t know how to assess the truth value. Read on for tips and tricks on science vs. pseudoscience disambiguation.
Tip #1: put on your troll detector.
People, and especially internet people, almost always have an agenda. (You can safely strike the “almost” in the previous sentence. I have it there out of habit: I’m a scientist. In the interests of full disclosure, my agenda is to be sort of semi popular and to help save the world.) When you see a possibly-scientific claim, you should ask, “Who is posting this and what is their agenda?” Here are the most common.
- Money. The most common agenda is that they are selling something. If there is a buy link or a corporate logo, then it’s basically an ad.
- Money. Yes, I know I said “money” already, but it’s so important it needs to be here twice, because there are also scammers. Scammers also want your money, but they don’t really have a product to sell, so they’re tricking you by spamming you with jargon.
- Agenda with a capital A. Some folks, bless ’em, just want to push a point of view. Facts usually get in the way of this. Logical thinking definitely undermines a fanatic.
- Troll. Lurking in some anonymous internet den, the troll seeks to inject havoc. As a society, we are rapidly building an immune-system response to them, but the cowardly craven blighters haven’t given up, yet.
Tip #2: Clues.
- Emotional response. If the “science article” triggered a fear response, it’s likely propaganda, not science. Fear and anger are perhaps the most common, but there is also the elation-reaction from, for example, a promised cure for an ailment, or, for example, a description of a technological breakthrough. Just check your pulse. Did your heart rate rise? If so, be suspicious.
- Spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Are there mistakes? Science articles are written and edited carefully.
- Denigrating language. If somebody or something is being labeled as a badguy, it ain’t science.
Tip #3: Gurus.
Experts have “extrinsic credibility” because they get announced with a title and a summary of their credentials. The pattern is exactly the same, whether the field is astrophysics or alien autopsies. So a list of credentials may be a smokescreen. On the other hand, lack of credentials is often a good clue. A Republican senator whose law training has made them a snappy orator is not necessarily a good judge of climate science even if they didn’t have a political axe to grind.
Assembling a list of gurus is perhaps your most potent tool in discriminating between good science and junk pseudoscience.
- Web services. Suffixes .gov or .edu are still a billion times better than .com, even though I will admit that http://www.epa.gov took a turn for the worse under Pruitt. Wikipedia has been studied as regards errors, and is equivalent to or better than encyclopedias assembled by panels of experts. So I trust Wikipedia within its limits. For current events, snopes.com is a fact-checking site with an energetic staff.
- Newspapers. As regards science, newspapers are often a confusing source of information because the reporters are not often science writers. The New York Times is usually several cuts above average for science news. Science summaries with graphics put out on the AP wire service are usually excellent.
- Magazines. All the science magazines are quite good. Science News, Scientific American, National Geographic.
- Actual gurus. Some folks have skeptically investigated a lot of pseudoscience claims. Phil Plait (the bad astronomer), Neil deGrasse Tyson, … <more suggestions here> … , and the question in question (so to speak) may have been investigated already.
- TV. Give it a miss. Even NOVA irritates me sometimes. Most documentaries have very low content sparsely and confusingly sprinkled among the lavish special effects (which themselves are almost always misleading via unintentional artistic license). And, seriously, WTF happened to the History Channel?
Tip #4. Apply the scientific method.
Specifically, results need to be reproducible.
Scientists are smug about science, but you have to forgive them. The speed of light really is the same when measured in all varieties of places and lab-frame velocities. Gravity works as advertised every single time. Electricity. Magnetism. Chemistry. Nuclear physics. Lots of things that you can count on that work every time. Caveat: the complexity of real-world situations can often make it hard to zero in on models good enough to be predictive.
In contrast, space aliens used to look like physically perfect Swedish people back in 1950, but now they are li’l naked gray androgynous things. Astrologers are split between Vedic or Western or DIY as regards methods, and between whether to account for the last 3000 years of precession or not (all astrologers agree on one point: what’s printed in the newspapers is crap). Fortune-telling, even after all these years of state lotteries, has still not yielded up a single Powerball winner. Right, so none of that is reproducible.
Some things are not easily predictable no matter how scientific you get. Whether the stock market crashes or not, for example. What the weather will be like on this day next year, for example.
Other stuff is borderline. Does echinacea tea have healthful effects? Yes, probably, but exactly what and why are difficult to discover. Medical research involving humans is time consuming and difficult. The time factor is why the lead-in-gasoline and lead-in-paint corporations got away with putting lead everywhere for so long. Ditto with the tobacco industry. (See “Money,” above.)
If the quick-weeding tips #1 and #2 are inconclusive, sorting truth from fiction takes mental work and time. Learning will occur.
*Initially prepared as part of a SpoCon panel on fake science claims.
** This pre-conference version, posted 8/4, will be updated after SpoCon itself, which runs 8/10-8/12.