Controversial Science: Inventors & Charlatans
The Seven Warning Signs of Bogus Science
Robert L. Park
The National Aeronautics and Space
Administration is investing close to a million dollars in an obscure
Russian scientist's antigravity machine, although it has failed
every test and would violate the most fundamental laws of nature.
The Patent and Trademark Office recently issued Patent 6,362,718 for
a physically impossible motionless electromagnetic generator, which
is supposed to snatch free energy from a vacuum. And major power
companies have sunk tens of millions of dollars into a scheme to
produce energy by putting hydrogen atoms into a state below their
ground state, a feat equivalent to mounting an expedition to explore
the region south of the South Pole.
There is, alas, no scientific claim so preposterous that a scientist
cannot be found to vouch for it. And many such claims end up in a
court of law after they have cost some gullible person or
corporation a lot of money. How are juries to evaluate them?
Before 1993, court cases that hinged on the validity of scientific
claims were usually decided simply by which expert witness the jury
found more credible. Expert testimony often consisted of tortured
theoretical speculation with little or no supporting evidence.
Jurors were bamboozled by technical gibberish they could not hope to
follow, delivered by experts whose credentials they could not
In 1993, however, with the Supreme Court's landmark decision in
Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc. the situation began
to change. The case involved Bendectin, the only morning-sickness
medication ever approved by the Food and Drug Administration. It had
been used by millions of women, and more than 30 published studies
had found no evidence that it caused birth defects. Yet eight
so-called experts were willing to testify, in exchange for a fee
from the Daubert family, that Bendectin might indeed cause birth
In ruling that such testimony was not credible because of lack of
supporting evidence, the court instructed federal judges to serve as
"gatekeepers," screening juries from testimony based on scientific
nonsense. Recognizing that judges are not scientists, the court
invited judges to experiment with ways to fulfill their gatekeeper
Justice Stephen G. Breyer encouraged trial judges to appoint
independent experts to help them. He noted that courts can turn to
scientific organizations, like the National Academy of Sciences and
the American Association for the Advancement of Science, to identify
neutral experts who could preview questionable scientific testimony
and advise a judge on whether a jury should be exposed to it. Judges
are still concerned about meeting their responsibilities under the
Daubert decision, and a group of them asked me how to
recognize questionable scientific claims. What are the warning
I have identified seven indicators that a scientific claim lies well
outside the bounds of rational scientific discourse. Of course, they
are only warning signs -- even a claim with several of the signs
could be legitimate.
1. The discoverer pitches the claim directly to the media.
The integrity of science rests on the willingness of scientists to
expose new ideas and findings to the scrutiny of other scientists.
Thus, scientists expect their colleagues to reveal new findings to
them initially. An attempt to bypass peer review by taking a new
result directly to the media, and thence to the public, suggests
that the work is unlikely to stand up to close examination by other
One notorious example is the claim made in 1989 by two chemists from
the University of Utah, B. Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann, that
they had discovered cold fusion -- a way to produce nuclear fusion
without expensive equipment. Scientists did not learn of the claim
until they read reports of a news conference. Moreover, the
announcement dealt largely with the economic potential of the
discovery and was devoid of the sort of details that might have
enabled other scientists to judge the strength of the claim or to
repeat the experiment. (Ian Wilmut's announcement that he had
successfully cloned a sheep was just as public as Pons and
Fleischmann's claim, but in the case of cloning, abundant scientific
details allowed scientists to judge the work's validity.)
Some scientific claims avoid even the scrutiny of reporters by
appearing in paid commercial advertisements. A health-food company
marketed a dietary supplement called Vitamin O in full-page
newspaper ads. Vitamin O turned out to be ordinary saltwater.
2. The discoverer says that a powerful establishment is trying to
suppress his or her work. The idea is that the establishment
will presumably stop at nothing to suppress discoveries that might
shift the balance of wealth and power in society. Often, the
discoverer describes mainstream science as part of a larger
conspiracy that includes industry and government. Claims that the
oil companies are frustrating the invention of an automobile that
runs on water, for instance, are a sure sign that the idea of such a
car is baloney. In the case of cold fusion, Pons and Fleischmann
blamed their cold reception on physicists who were protecting their
own research in hot fusion.
3. The scientific effect involved is always at the very limit of
detection. Alas, there is never a clear photograph of a flying
saucer, or the Loch Ness monster. All scientific measurements must
contend with some level of background noise or statistical
fluctuation. But if the signal-to-noise ratio cannot be improved,
even in principle, the effect is probably not real and the work is
Thousands of published papers in para-psychology, for example, claim
to report verified instances of telepathy, psychokinesis, or
precognition. But those effects show up only in tortured analyses of
statistics. The researchers can find no way to boost the signal,
which suggests that it isn't really there.
4. Evidence for a discovery is anecdotal. If modern science
has learned anything in the past century, it is to distrust
anecdotal evidence. Because anecdotes have a very strong emotional
impact, they serve to keep superstitious beliefs alive in an age of
science. The most important discovery of modern medicine is not
vaccines or antibiotics, it is the randomized double-blind test, by
means of which we know what works and what doesn't. Contrary to the
saying, "data" is not the plural of "anecdote."
5. The discoverer says a belief is credible because it has
endured for centuries. There is a persistent myth that hundreds
or even thousands of years ago, long before anyone knew that blood
circulates throughout the body, or that germs cause disease, our
ancestors possessed miraculous remedies that modern science cannot
understand. Much of what is termed "alternative medicine" is part of
Ancient folk wisdom, rediscovered or repackaged, is unlikely to
match the output of modern scientific laboratories.
6. The discoverer has worked in isolation. The image of a
lone genius who struggles in secrecy in an attic laboratory and ends
up making a revolutionary breakthrough is a staple of Hollywood's
science-fiction films, but it is hard to find examples in real life.
Scientific breakthroughs nowadays are almost always syntheses of the
work of many scientists.
7. The discoverer must propose new laws of nature to explain an
observation. A new law of nature, invoked to explain some
extraordinary result, must not conflict with what is already known.
If we must change existing laws of nature or propose new laws to
account for an observation, it is almost certainly wrong.
I began this list of warning signs to help federal judges detect
scientific nonsense. But as I finished the list, I realized that in
our increasingly technological society, spotting voodoo science is a
skill that every citizen should develop.
Robert L. Park is a professor of physics at the University of
Maryland at College Park and the director of public information for
the American Physical Society. He is the author of
Science: The Road From Foolishness to Fraud
This article was originally published in
The Chronicle of Higher Education,
Jan 31, 2003.http://chronicle.com
Section: The Chronicle Review
Volume 49, Issue 21, Page B20