First, I'd like to express my surprise and thanks at my last diary's apparent popularity. yes, it was a riff off of another diary which most old-timers will fondly remember, titled "INAPPROPRIATE CAPS" , which remains one of the best metadiaries ever written here.
Enough of that, however. I didn't come here to write a meta thank-you note to the community. I came here to write about pseudoscience.
It's no secret where I stand on the subject. Pseudoscience is crap. I'm actually doing the word science a disfavor by putting the prefix "pseudo" in front of it, but it's the best word for what I'm describing. Anyway, Pseudoscience is described as:
Pseudoscience is often characterized by the use of vague, exaggerated or unprovable claims, an over-reliance on confirmation rather than rigorous attempts at refutation, a lack of openness to evaluation by other experts, and a general absence of systematic processes to rationally develop theories.A significant portion of pseudoscience is in fact relatively harmless. Lots of people believe lots of very stupid things, and that's okay. It's perfectly okay to believe those ridiculous crystals they sell on Lifetime infomercials actually work.They do work, for the people who make them as they make a great deal of money off of pseudoscientific gullibility. And astrology? Sure. I have no real problem with the fact that millions of people actually believe the orbital motions of the planets around our local star actually controls the personalities of everyone on one of those planets although I certainly don't stop myself from saying "that's totally ridiculous, bro."
It's when one wants ones pseudoscientific belief to be treated as actual fact, and then taught everywhere as fact, and especially when it has measurable effects when promugated that it becomes harmful. Or, when it becomes harmful to oneself.
Example: The autism/vaccine "debate."
Andrew Wakefield's research into the hypothesis (now completely debunked) that vaccines cause autism was not and can not be reliably tested, which is necessary in any scientific endeavour.
His hypothesis and research were picked up in several mass-media outlets and blogs. As my last diary noted, much of the coverage used the format I used. Conspiritorial headlines. Hyperbolic extrapolation. Blockquotes to press releases. No actual link to the actual study.
Enter Jenny McCarthy. Once she got ahold of it (while trying to figure out what was "wrong" with her son), it was all over from there. Now, we have outbreaks of childhood diseases that were more or less effectively eradicated in the United States, Canada, and the UK, because people 1. fear autism and 2. still associate the vaccines with causing the condition despite long-running campaigns and a significant amount of research stating otherwise. It's worth noting that polio, which still is eradicated from the US, is just a 22-hour Mumbai-Los Angeles flight away.
And now Jenny McCarthy has her own death-toll website.
“I do believe sadly it's going to take some diseases coming back to realize that we need to change and develop vaccines that are safe. If the vaccine companies are not listening to us, it's their f__ing fault that the diseases are coming back. They're making a product that's s__. If you give us a safe vaccine, we'll use it. It shouldn't be polio versus autism.”Pseudoscience can kill.
Jenny McCarthy in Time Magazine, April 2009
Example: 188-Day Periodicity
At present, humanity is undergoing a boom. It’s the Last and Final Population Doubling and it’s accompanied with a concurrent building boom, the likes of which has never been seen and never will be seen again, largely because population will decline slowly or crash completely back to levels seen around 1850 sometime late this century (I make no predictions but the former is based on UN Projections which are offered in a range, and the latter is long-running internet speculation; I’ve yet to see any actual science on it although I’m sure it exists. Somewhere.)
Many of these people live in hazard prone areas, be it from floods, volcanoes, earthquakes, cyclones both tropical and extratropical, and the like. Earth was already fairly hostile to human life to begin with, but coupled with our population growth and reliance on fossil fuels, climate has begun to shift to make it even more hostile, not just to human life but to many more species.
There’s a belt that girds the Earth from Gibraltar to China that is exceptionally earthquake prone. It’s also home to the majority of the people on Earth. Since history has been recorded (in geological terms, a blink of an eye) this belt has moved time and time again and killed millions, from poorly engineered structures falling down. This isn’t the only locale on Earth that’s densely populated and vulnerable to earthquakes. We tragically saw the results of poor preparedness and dense populations in January of 2010 in Haiti. Even prepared locations such as Japan and New Zealand can get surprised—witness Kobe in 1995 and northeast Japan just last March, and the ongoing sequence in and around Christchurch, NZ.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could predict earthquakes? Give people warning that within a certain time frame they were absolutely going to get hit? Wouldn’t this save scarce mitigation funds? Building earthquake resistant structures costs a substantial amount of money and rehabilitating existing structures to survive a large quake costs even more. Many nations (Japan currently leads this effort) have spent funds and research on earthquake prediction and have largely concluded that while you can forecast within a certain time frame that a large and damaging quake will occur, you cannot predict with any accuracy that within a certain time frame, for example, an M7 earthquake will strike such-and-such fault. We likely won’t ever see the USGS/Weather Service issue an “Earthquake Warning for the Palmdale segment of the San Andreas Fault for May 22-24th”, although the USGS already does issue probability forecasts after moderate quakes occur.
(There have been “successes”, famously in China in 1975, but subsequent research suggests that there was a great deal of psychology involved. Earthquake prediction was globally a huge research deal in the 1970s. At about the same time, a previously aseismic region in northeast China “woke up.” There were many precursors—and this does happen in some cases---but it just so happened that a very large population was attuned to listen. See “Predicting the 1975 Haicheng Earthquake”. (PDF). This same region, sadly did not get any warning the following July when Tangshan was leveled and nearly one million people perished.)
There’s been a great deal of pseudoscience over the centuries about earthquake prediction (some of it that may have merit). The one that appears most popular at this moment on the internet is the 188 day periodicity.
Basically someone (a religious loon as best I can tell, who feels the earth is about to hit a large gravitational object, coincidentally on December 21, 2012 ) went through the global earthquake catalogue. This is where I’m forced to note that said catalogue is only about a century old, for data that’s not worth crap. It’s actually only really good from the mid 1970s and onward as seismograph networks expanded. Beyond that, you’re stuck with historical accounts which can be inaccurate and take considerable work to figure out exactly what happened (Lisbon 1755 is a good example) or just plain wrong (a 1737 earthquake near Calcutta that killed 300,000 actually never happened but still appears in earthquake catalogues.)
This person found a “pattern.” Basically, if you use a certain earthquake as your pivot point (the quake in question being the M8.8 2010 Chile quake) all the others show a periodicity of 188 days—that is, every 188 days (plus or minus 15), there’s a big-ass earthquake. They couple this with the “fact” that there are lots more earthquakes now than ever before ever and they’re increasing. They allege the USGS censors its data (it doesn’t). It gets even worse when people who believe the Bible (and only their sect’s particular hacked-and-chopped-up version of the Bible) is literally true get in on this. Youtube and internet fora such as “Above Top Secret” and “Democratic Underground” are full of this dreck and if you need to give yourself brain-damage, go right ahead and look for the videos and websites about this. There’s ever so much wrong with this.
There’s a bit of psychology going on here. There are more of us (7 billion and counting). There are more seismographs. There’s an omnipresent media culture that has, since 2004, splashed lurid images of leveled towns and cities from Indonesia, Thailand, India, Italy, Haiti, New Zealand, Chile, and Japan across our screens. And lastly, there’s our (sometimes, ok, often) unfortunate ability for pattern recognition. We find patterns in everything, even when they often don’t exist. This is called Apophenia. This is why we see faces on Mars, animals in clouds, and Middle-Eastern (yet oddly Northern European in appearance) monotheist deities-that-are-also-trinities-but-not in toast, oil stains, and mold growths on walls. Your brain entirely makes all of it up and this happens to just about everyone, even skeptics. Apophenia is defined as:
Apophenia is the experience of seeing meaningful patterns or connections in random or meaningless data.We can thank evolution for this phenomenon.
The term was coined in 1958 by Klaus Conrad, who defined it as the "unmotivated seeing of connections" accompanied by a "specific experience of an abnormal meaningfulness", but it has come to represent the human tendency to seek patterns in random nature in general, as with gambling, paranormal phenomena and religion.
There’s also a poor knowledge of geology, plate tectonics, and earthquakes in general. Earth is always moving. Always. If you have a smartphone with a data plan, download one of the many earthquake apps. Set that app to Global and M3 and set the app to buzz when an earthquake is detected and confirmed. Your phone will buzz all day and it will eventually get on your nerves. Despite media speculation (including a rather unfortunate article written by Simon Winchester last March), the number of earthquakes (even the large ones above M8) Earth is experiencing is entirely normal. It’s worth noting that a number of the very large quakes experienced since 2004 were aftershocks of the December 26, 2004 Indian Ocean quake.
It's also worth noting that there is a great deal of publically available research on the possibility of looking for signals that will tell us whether or not a major earthquake is about to occur within a very precise timeframe. Despite the fact that most have concluded that we'll never get there, I do think this is an area that warrants continued research. In the meantime, we really owe it do ourselves and the future to construct buildings that can resist seismic activity, especially critical structures such as power plants, transportation infrastructure, water and sewage, schools, hospitals, and resource distribution networks. Mitigation, in my view, is much more important. That's not to say we can't do both (and we can), it's just that one should take priority over the other, as this can measurably save lives.
An excellent book is Predicting the Unpredictable by Dr. Susan Hough, if you want to learn more. I've recommended this book before.
These are just a couple examples of pseudoscience. I could write an entire diary series on this, and I just may from time to time.
Critical thinking is important, now more than ever, and we owe it to ourselves to make sure we're doing it. Schools don't teach it, people prefer to avoid it, and a major American politcal party seems to want to ban it explictly from their party platform.
I'll also try not to be an ass in those diaries where pseudoscience comes up. I know I have been in the past. There are better ways to tell people that they are wrong.
That's all I have.