There are certain sayings “out there” that are repeated over and over by those who want to delegitimize science and support pseudoscience and fantastical claims. One saying that you often hear is, “Science can’t prove a negative”. What is meant by this?
A “negative” is a claim expressed in negative form. So “ghosts exist” is the positive form of a claim whereas “ghosts do not exist” is the negative form of the claim. It is argued that the positive claim “ghosts exist” is provable, because all you have to do is demonstrate the existence of at least one ghost for it to be true. However, it is maintained that the claim “ghosts do not exist” is unprovable because no matter how many times you investigate the existence of an alleged ghost and come up empty handed, you will never exclude the possibility that there is a ghost somewhere.
However, science proves negatives all the time. The key to doing this is defining the characteristics of whatever it is we wish to find, and, if applicable, circumscribe its presence in space and time. Defining the characteristics of what we wish to investigate allows us to come up with a method of detection. Stating where and when what we wish to investigate should be, allows us to perform the detection at the right place and time. If we then proceed to perform the detection at the stated place and time and we find nothing, we can conclude that an entity with the specified characteristics that we looked for at the stated place and time doesn’t exist, because if it existed, we would have detected it. A famous example of this is the so called Michelson-Morley experiment.
When it was determined that light had the characteristics of a wave, the question arose as to through which medium light traveled. Sound waves travel through solids, liquids, and gases as compression waves, so light was proposed to travel forming waves in a medium that was called “aether”. Two American scientists, Albert Michelson and Edward Morley, worked out how light would interact with this alleged “aether” and performed several experiments in 1887 to measure this interaction. The overall conclusion of these experiments was that the “aether” did not exist, and similar experiments conducted since then with ever increasing precision have confirmed the results.
The above procedure can also be applied to things like claims for the existence of ghosts. Of course, if the proponents of the existence of ghosts and other paranormal occurrences cannot define the characteristic of the phenomena whose existence they advocate or when and where they occur with any degree of certainty, then there are serious concerns regarding whether these claims have any merits from a scientific point of view. We might as well discuss how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Here we are better served by applying Alder’s Razor (what cannot be settled by experiment or observation is not worth debating).
Another saying related to the one we dealt with above that is often encountered is that “The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”. What is meant by this is that no matter how many times we perform tests or make observations to ascertain the existence of something such as, for example, a medical effect, if we find no evidence of its existence, we cannot conclude that it doesn’t exist. This argument is frequently made by those who advocate products and treatments of dubious value or those who are hell-bent on defending disproven propositions. The idea is that no matter how much evidence to the contrary, there MAY BE an effect that the studies may have missed. The problem with this thinking is that a carefully designed series of robust studies can be carried out to evaluate the existence of an effect of a certain magnitude. The point is not whether there is a very small effect. The point is whether there is an effect of practical importance.
For example, many people were concerned that the vaccine against measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) caused autism. In response to this, scientists carried out several studies evaluating possible risks of autism as a result of vaccines which all in all included hundreds of thousands of children. No significant association between autism and this vaccine was found. Could there nevertheless be a very small effect that was not detected by the studies? Yes, but such an effect would be so small as to be of no practical importance, especially compared to the risks of unvaccinated children contracting measles, mumps, and rubella.
One final saying that pops up among the pseudoscience crowd is that concerning products or therapies that have not yet been investigated. When unresearched products or therapies used by people come under criticism, their proponents argue that, “There is no evidence that they don’t work.” Thus what they are saying is that, because it has not been found to be ineffective, it is OK to keep on using it, even though this argument should cut both ways (if there is no evidence it works you should not use it). This line of reasoning essentially argues that ignorance is a valid reason to justify using a product or therapy. It treats ignorance as evidence!
Even if the effectiveness of a particular product or therapy has not been investigated, there may be grounds for serious skepticism regarding its use based on other considerations. For example, if a new untested homeopathic product is introduced into the market, we would be justified in being skeptical regarding its effectiveness because the principles on which homeopathy is claimed to work violate well-established chemical laws. Additionally, the best designed studies assessing the effectiveness of existing homeopathic products have yielded negative results, so a new product will not fare any better.
So to recap, science CAN prove a negative, absence of evidence CAN be evidence of absence, and ignorance IS NOT evidence.
Photo of the plaque commemorating the Michelson-Morley experiment by Alan Migdall is used here under an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0).
A lot of books, movies, and even video games employ the motif of the living dead. All of this is, of course, fiction, but have you ever wondered whether there is something to it? In the Haitian Voodoo religion, zombies are believed to be corpses that have been reanimated through witchcraft by a sorcerer called a “Bokor.” These zombies are nothing like the ones shown in movies like “Night of the Living Dead”, but still their existence has always been the mainstay of myth and legend.
In 1982 the peculiar case of Clairvius Narcisse was brought to the attention of Drs. Nathan Kline and Lamarque Douyon. Narcisse had died and been certified as dead by an American doctor working in Haiti. The thing is that 18 years after his death he showed up in his village very much alive. He claimed that he had been paralyzed, declared dead, and buried alive. Then a Bokor disinterred him and made him work on his plantation. Drs. Kline and Douyon studied his case carefully and concluded that the man was indeed who he claimed to be.
At the request of Dr. Kline, Wade Davis, a Harvard graduate student in ethnobotany, travelled to Haiti to try to study what components go into the potions used by Bokors to make zombies. As a result of his studies he claimed that zombies were a reality and even put forward a scientific explanation of their existence! Wade found that one of the common ingredients in the zombie poison is the puffer fish. The internal organs of this fish contain a poison called tetrodotoxin (TTX). Although TTX can kill, in small amounts it can paralyze a person while they remain conscious. In Japan where a similar fish (the fugu) is a gourmet delicacy, there are stories of people that ate the fish prepared improperly, became paralyzed, and were almost buried alive after being declared dead.
So the zombification would work like this. The Bokor rubs his potion on a person’s skin or preferably into a superficial wound. If the right amount of TTX gets into the body, the person is paralyzed, declared dead, and buried. The Bokor must then unbury the person before he/she dies from lack of oxygen. The disinterred person is then beaten and fed mind altering drugs (notably the zombie’s cucumber: Datura) to keep them docile. The whole process is reinforced if the person believes that he/she is actually being turned into a zombie. Davis published his findings and theories in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology in 1983 and in the book “The Serpent and the Rainbow” in 1985.
Unfortunately, scientists analyzing the zombification powders Davis brought back from Haiti did not find any TTX in them and could not elicit any symptoms of poisoning when they rubbed said powders into the skin of rats. This was followed by a series of attacks and claims and counter claims between Davis and his critics that left his particular theory hopelessly mired in disrepute, and no further attempts have been made to readdress it.
But Davis at least raised the possibility that what is called a zombie in these cultures is not, of course, a reanimated corpse, but rather a product of the synergism between mind and chemistry. Other scientists have taken this line of inquiry and studied zombie-like behavior induced by drugs or other agents and documented several cases. This alternative is no doubt less satisfying for all the fans of the nightmarish beings that hunger for the flesh of the living in popular culture. But if you want horror and ghoulish things look no further than the world of nature. What would you think about zombie cockroaches?
The Jewel Wasp hunts cockroaches and makes them docile (zombifies them) by injecting venom into their brains. It then leads the cockroach into a place where it will lay an egg on it. The wasp then seals the cockroach in. After a while a larva hatches from the egg and proceeds to eat the drugged insect alive!
You can watch the wasp’s grisly work in the video below. It is not anything that George Romero has dreamed up (yet), but it’s real!
The photograph of a zombie by Daniel Hollister is used here under an Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license.
In this post we are going to go over the several razors available for us to use. These razors, while commonly used by philosophers and scientists, in fact are often used by regular people, sometimes without even knowing that they are using them! However, these razors have nothing to do with the removal of bodily hair. They are called razors because they allow us to deal with the complexity of the world around us by reducing (cutting) the amount of possible explanations to various phenomena. We use them to simplify our thought processes and focus on meaningful explanations without getting lost in a bog of deceiving alternatives. We will examine several of these razors and see how they can be used to deal with the amount of bilge that is often found among claims of conspiracy theories, the pseudosciences, and the paranormal.
1) Occam’s Razor. This is the most well-known of all razors. It was developed by the English philosopher William of Ockham back in the fourteenth century. This razor posits that when faced with choosing between two competing alternatives that explain a phenomenon, we should choose the simplest one. In other words, we should not make things needlessly complicated. Many conspiracy theories such as those which claim that 9/11 was a US government-supported operation or that the US never landed on the moon run afoul of this razor. The sheer number of moving parts that would have to operate just right under a mantle of secrecy to bring about the events alleged in these conspiracies is just too complicated. The simpler explanation is that there was no conspiracy.
2) Hitchens's Razor. The late author, critic, and journalist Christopher Hitchens promulgated the dictum which states that what can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence. The implication of this razor is that the burden of proof of a claim is with the claimant. You often hear many proponents of the occurrence of paranormal events declare that these phenomena have not been disproven. By this razor’s criteria, this argument is irrelevant. If you want people to accept a claim, YOU have to prove it is true, and you had better do a very damn good job at it to be taken seriously.
3) Sagan’s Standard. The late astronomer Carl Sagan popularized this aphorism which postulates that extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. This standard recognizes that not all claims are created equal. Fantastical claims which run counter to scientific laws or mountains of evidence should only be accepted upon the production of truly remarkable evidence. By the metrics of this razor, claims for psychic phenomena, faith healers, and other such things fall short of the level of proof required to accept them.
4) Alder’s Razor. The Australian mathematician Mike Alder published an essay describing this razor, although at the time he called it “Newton’s Flaming Laser Sword” (which is a cooler name). The brutal postulate of this razor (or sword) states that what cannot be settled by experiment or observation is not worth debating. If you have ever had an exchange with a flat Earth proponent and regretted afterwards having lost one hour of your life, you have experienced in the flesh what Alder was talking about.
5) Popper’s Falsifiability Principle. The great philosopher of science Karl Popper coined this famous principle which states that for something to be considered scientific it must be falsifiable. What this means is that there must be a way of proving that a claim is false if it indeed is false, otherwise said claim is not scientific. And if a claim is not scientific, its truthfulness will never be settled by observation or experiment (see Alder’s Razor above). A classical feature of the thinking of those making fantastical claims is that they always move the goalposts. No possible observation or experimental result can prove them wrong. Therefore they can’t be right. On the other hand, science can be right because it can be wrong.
6) Hanlon’s Razor. This particular razor of uncertain origin deals with the motivations behind those who propose fantastical claims. It states that one should never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity. While it is true that within the ranks of those who believe in and peddle fantastical claims there are many liars and cheats, this razor reminds us that there are also scores of honest individuals who are just guilty of self-delusion or who have been bamboozled into accepting and defending these claims.
In a recent post I reminded my readers about the dangers of keeping one’s mind too open (i.e. it can easily be filled with trash). Well, I guarantee that if you put these razors between you and the vast vortices of irrationality and trickery that swirl about us, your mind will be spared!
The image is by Horst.Burkhardt is used here under an Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
In the popular print and social media I often spot articles about the benefits of keeping an open mind. I also read how it is very important for scientists to keep an open mind. What these articles never discuss is the danger of keeping an open mind. This danger is that you will lose your power to discriminate between sound and fallacious ideas. For example, in 1917 two girls in the village of Cottingley in England took pictures of what appeared to be fairies flying and dancing around them. Among the many people fooled into believing the pictures were real was no other than the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle. More recent examples are the comedian and trickster extraordinaire, Andy Kaufman, who in 1984 visited a psychic surgeon to treat his cancer (he died), or the actor Dan Aykroyd, of Ghostbusters fame, who believes among other things in mediums and psychics and paranormal phenomena.
This is not to say that only non-scientists fall victim to keeping their mind too open. There are many scientists of renown who have ended up accepting ideas or theories that were dubious at best, or patently false at worst.
The co-discoverer (along with Darwin) of the theory of evolution, Alfred Russel Wallace, was a believer in psychic phenomena and spiritualism; and led an anti-vaccination campaign.
Isaac Newton, the genius behind the laws of gravitation, believed the Bible had a code that predicted the future which he tried to decipher for many years.
The Nobel Prize winning physicist William Shockley invented the transistor and revolutionized society, but he also defended theories that proposed the intellectual inferiority of some races.
Linus Pauling, a Nobel Prize winning chemist, advocated the use of vitamin C to cure cancer despite the evidence against it.
Lynn Margulis, winner of the National Medal of Science, revolutionized the theory of evolution with the concept of endosymbiosis which postulates that mitochondria and chloroplasts originated from bacteria. She also championed several fringe theories, and joined the 911 conspiracy movement that claims that it was a false flag operation to justify the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The irony is that Margulis had been married to that great skeptic, the late astronomer Carl Sagan.
Kari Mullis won the Nobel Prize for the polymerase chain reaction (PCR), a technique which ushered a revolution in areas ranging from medicine to forensics. Not only is he an AIDs denialist along with Peter Duesberg (see below), but he denies climate change and accepts astrology.
It is important to understand that the dangers of keeping an open mind have consequences that go beyond mere public ridicule. When people in positions of eminence are swayed by erroneous ideas, this can have a negative effect on society. Consider the brilliant scientist Peter Duesberg. He performed pioneering work in how viruses can cause cancer, but he was convinced that the HIV virus did not cause AIDS. His advocacy for this idea influenced the South African president Thabo Mbeki who delayed the introduction of anti-AIDS drugs into South Africa leading to hundreds of thousands of preventable deaths.
In scientific research keeping an open mind is a quandary that involves navigating between making two types of errors. The first is that a mind that is too closed will reject things as false when they are really true. The second is that a mind that is too open will accept things as true when they are really false. The intuitive way to deal with this quandary is to try to strike a balance between the extremes. However, this is not how most scientists approach the issue. Science tends to be conservative in that it gives more importance to what has already been proven. Scientists view with skepticism those trying to subvert established science. The bar is set very high for the acceptance of new ideas. Most scientists view rejecting something as false when it’s really true as a lesser evil compared to accepting something as true when it’s really false. In the end, however, it will be the evidence and its reproducibility which will make the difference.
On the other hand, in the pseudosciences and the paranormal, the advice of keeping an open mind is often dispensed by those advocating for the existence of psychic phenomena, extrasensory perception, demonic possession, ghosts, telepathy, alien abductions, clairvoyance, mediums, astrology, witches, reincarnation, telekinesis, telepathy, faith healing, and many other fantastical claims. I want to suggest that, as a first step, the safest frame of mind when considering these claims is to vanish the open mind, and assume that the persons making the extraordinary claims are at best deluding themselves, and at worst liars and cheats.
This suggestion may scandalize many people, and may come across as an incredibly narrow-minded and unfair approach to investigating anything. How can you find if something is true if you are prejudiced against the possibility that it’s true? The answer is that in this fringe you are dealing with events that, in principle, run counter to well-established scientific laws, or against mountains of evidence. In other words, you are dealing with the impossible. By definition the impossible is not possible and should be treated as such. When considering these claims, if you keep an open mind, you have often lost the battle. This painful lesson has been learned by many scientists that investigated fantastical claims with an open mind just to be fooled by tricks so basic that they would make seasoned magicians roll their eyes (incidentally, this is also why it is always advisable to have a magician as a consultant when investigating these claims).
Scientists are the worst possible individuals to rely upon when attempting the investigation of fantastical claims. Scientists are trained to deal with nature, and nature operates based on a fixed set of rules. Natural phenomena don’t change to prevent you from studying them. Nature doesn’t cheat, lie, or delude itself. An open mind is justified only when studying natural phenomena. An open mind in any other setting is a liability. Once you have ruled out trickery and self-delusion and stablished that what you are studying is indeed a natural phenomenon, then you can consider opening your mind to the possibility that it is true.
Individuals ranging from common folk to Nobel Prize winners should always remember that if you keep your mind too open, people will dump a lot of trash in it.
The image is a scan of the original Cottingley Fairy pictures and is in the public domain in the United States. The open mind image by ElisaRiva is used here under a CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0) license.
In this post I present a step by step procedure that can be used nowadays to sell snake oil (i.e. a bogus product).
Step 1: First and foremost you need a product. This can be something tangible like a chemical substance, a procedure, or a therapy of dubious value, or even an unqualified candidate for public office. However it can also be something intangible like a fringe belief or ideology, or a questionable social engineering initiative.
Step 2: Regardless of whether you know for sure your product is a fraud, try to transcend this knowledge and convince yourself of the opposite. The human mind has a near bottomless capacity to fool itself: make use of that! Create excuses for the shortcomings of your product, rationalize failures, move the goalposts, concentrate on any real or perceived positives and blow them out of proportion. Force yourself to believe in your product. When people look into your eyes they need to see honesty, certainty, passion, and trustworthiness. Those who master this step can actually become convinced that they are not selling snake oil at all!
Step 3: In the old days once you had a product you would proceed to identify the target audience. Although this is still a valid step, a more effective approach is to first identify those entities that have the power to expose your product to be a sham and even prohibit you from implementing or selling it. Examples of some such entities can be the scientific establishment, regulatory government entities like the FDA, the news media, fact checkers, consumer watchdog groups, etc.
Step 4: Proceed to identify your target audience. This step has often been difficult, but having performed step 3 first, this is now more straightforward. All you have to do is find the people that view with suspicion or contempt those entities that can be a danger to your product. The process of finding these individuals is made easier nowadays by the internet. You can gain access to webpages and blogs from many groups and individuals who are engaged in attacking their favorite boogeyman. Among these groups and individuals identify those that would be the most likely users of your product. Most snake oil salespersons find their target audiences in the social extremes such as the uneducated, or those with an education who think they know more than the experts. Befriend key segments of your target audience. Join their groups, go to their events, attend their churches, take up their causes, create goodwill, and while doing this never forget that tried and true ageless trick: tell them what they want to hear.
Step 5: Having identified the entities that will seek to reveal the truth about your product, and having identified and infiltrated the community of individuals who loathe them, you now have to create a nefarious intent or conspiracy theory. This is important because your product will be attacked with evidence and facts. You need to be able to disavow these attacks by claiming that the entities attacking your product have some ulterior motive divorced from the truth. These conspiracy theories normally include a version of the “powers-that-be-screwing-the-little-guy” approach. For example, scientists aligned with pharmaceutical companies to discredit cheaper alternative therapies, the liberal or conservative media in conspiracy with political elites to spread fake news and maintain the status quo, right-wing groups affiliated with corporate interests to oppress working class people, left-wing groups affiliated with environmental extremist to limit people’s rights, etc.
Step 6: Begin promoting your product to your target audience. Hire a lawyer to make sure you are following the laws, but identify and exploit the grey areas and loopholes in the regulations. Be vague! Try to avoid specific statements that can be used to pin you down, but when possible present opinions as facts, misinform, exaggerate, use innuendo, half-truths, out of context citations, and pick and choose studies or testimonials that support your product. Ask people to keep an "open mind". Talk the talk and create a believable impression that your are also walking the walk. Use social media and conventional methods to promote your product. However, don’t overdo it! Don’t say or write something that will make you toxic to wider audiences. When in doubt bite your tongue. Learn the ways of the weasel.
Step 7: When the attacks against your product begin, unleash the conspiracy theory within your target audience along with a barrage of attacks against your critics labelling them dishonest, corrupt, enemies of the people, and other useful epithets. Claim that you are being unfairly targeted and persecuted, and seek the help of your target audience. Invoke the right of the people to make up their minds unhindered by interference from government and other entities. Invoke community standards. Invoke states’ rights. Invoke in general any principle valued by your target audience that will give you an edge in the struggle. Link the viability of your product in some way, no matter how convoluted, to the survival of the way of life, values, and families of your target audience. Exploit the slippery slope principle (i.e. if your product goes, they are next). Appeal to their most alarmist basic instincts. Manipulate their emotions, stoke their fears, stir their passions, and whip them up into frenzy.
The key thing to understand is that what you are trying to achieve is to create a sense of identity of your target audience with your product. The beauty of this approach is that, if you achieve this, truth and facts will become irrelevant! Any attack on your product will be seen by your target audience as a personal attack on themselves. If you make your product part of their identity, asking them to accept the possibility that your product is bogus is akin to asking them to commit suicide. They won’t even consider it. The best location to place the chains to bind people are not the wrists but the mind.
Step 8: Widen your reach. Ask celebrities admired by your target audience to endorse your product. If applicable, contract an “independent organization” (nudge-nudge, wink-wink) to test your product and then broadcast the undoubtedly positive results. Team up with other like-minded snake oil salespersons to support each other. Hobnob and network with the power brokers supported by your target audience. Unless you are already selling a political candidate, it is very useful to link your product to politics. Remember that politics often is about winning, not about the truth. If elected representatives perceive that they will get more votes if they support your struggle, then you may have allies. Ask your target audience to write to their congressmen and to go to town hall meetings to bring up the issue of the attacks against your product. Donate to political campaigns. Even more effective than politics is to associate your product with religion. This may be more or less difficult to do depending on the nature of your product, but if you can accomplish it, it’s a Godsend!
Step 9: Along the way don’t forget to save for a rainy day, preferably in bank accounts or assets that cannot be seized by the government. Avoid a lifestyle of excess luxury (there will be time for that later), and cultivate an image of modesty and genuine interest in the “good” of the people. Ride your product through all of its business cycle and either go on to sell other products, or cash in and reap your rewards.
Step 0: This is the most difficult, but also the most important and vital step of the whole sequence, and one which should be carried out before you perform any of the above steps. This step involves asking yourself if you really want to manipulate people and smear the truth. Selling snake oil is not a victimless activity. In one way or another you will be damaging the lives of countless individuals and communities. Do you really want to exploit people and trample common decency and basic human values for a chance to gain riches, prestige, and power?
If the answer is yes, proceed to step 1.
The figures are in the public domain. National Library of Medicine, Varieties of Medical Ephemera, Medical Show.