Magician and self-proclaimed "in-vestigator of unusual claims" James Randi kicked off a Wednesday afternoon session at the March Meeting that took a pseudo-serious look at so-called "alternative science", which Randi defines as "currently fashionable delusions enthusiastically embraced by the public, as well as some scientists." Joined by Hal Lewis, author of Technological Risk, and Robert Park, who pens the weekly electronic newsletter "What's New", the trio skewered several of their favorite targets: psychic spoon-benders, "free energy" machines, and the ongoing debates surrounding extreme low-frequency electromagnetic fields and cold fusion.
What exactly is pseudo-science? Randi is careful to distinguish between pseudo-science and crackpot science. "They're both equally wrong, but they have different hallmarks," he said. Whereas crackpot science has no scientific pretensions, pseudo-science is careful to present its claims draped in all the trappings: lab coats, test tubes, instruments, etc. In fact, says Randi, "It looks very much like real science." Nevertheless there is one sure way of telling the difference: "If you ask a pseudo-scientist a direct question requiring a simple yes or no, the answer takes 20 minutes and requires footnotes and viewgraphs--very much like a scientific paper."
Another sure sign of pseudo-science-- or even crackpot science--is the curious linkage that invariably occurs between widely diverse fringe theories. Most pseudo-scientists readily accept the ideas of others, whether it be Jean Dixon's prophecies, earthquakes and Nostradamus, ESP, Uri Geller's psychic spoon-bending, or homeopathic cures. "There must be a secret handshake or something," said Park.
But the most disturbing aspect of the phenomenon is that pseudo-science is on the rise, both in perception and reality. "We are facing a real crisis. In the past decade, we've seen an alarming escalation in the number of paranormal claims, medical 'options', and New Age notions paraded into view, often accompanied by validation from prominent academics," said Randi. "The tendency to accept the opinions and judgments of peers often leads scientists to decisions and statements that are erroneous, and no amount of later retraction will encourage believers in the occult, the supernatural, or the paranormal to ignore the original, readily published evaluations."
Lewis attributes a large part of the rapid spread of pseudo-science to mass communication. "If you have bad information circulating at the same time as good information, the bad usually gives you more of a bang, and therefore has a better chance of winning out over the good information," he said. As an example, he told of participating in a panel discussion in which one panelist stated that it was well-known fact that a single electron, properly placed, could kill a person. "I laughed, the moderator didn't. And the audience didn't laugh," he said. "The audience believed her."
According to Lewis, this kind of widespread disregard for scientific expertise derives in part from the sorry state of science education in the U.S. public schools. All three speakers see a disturbing trend developing in schools, in which students are assured that they are entitled to hold an opinion on any subject, regardless of how much they know about it, and that their opinion is just as valid as anybody else's.
In fact, such ignorance is one reason Lewis believes that many crackpots or pseudo-scientists are sincere, citing Irving Langmuir's famous 1953 colloquium, in which he concluded that these people weren't deliberately being fraudulent; they were simply motivated by an inner desire to be great and make important discoveries.
A prime example is Joe Newman, a mechanic from Mississippi with a grade-school education who invented a machine that purportedly produced more energy than it consumed. While taking an extension course in electricity, he was struck by the fact that putting twice as many windings in a coil produced double the magnetic field without changing the current, and concluded that if he simply put enough windings in, he could produce "free energy."
While conceding that misdirected sincerity might be the case in some instances, Park believes many pseudo-scientists start out sincere and find themselves trapped in a position from which they don't know how to retreat. "I certainly think that was the case in the cold fusion episode," he said. "There is a very thin line between foolishness and fraud. The curious thing is that, even after the instigator has gotten cold feet, his followers are still trudging right along behind." As for Joe Newman, success may have gone to his head. "When I first saw him he was a backwoods mechanic with grease under his fingernails," said Park. "A few years later, after CBS had publicized him, he was wearing $600 suits, with his hands neatly manicured."
Both Park and Randi have come under fire for their frequently flippant, caustic, or downright dismissive attitudes towards such claims, but Park finds the humor to be inherent in the material. "It isn't necessarily that I try to be funny; it's just that when you describe this stuff, it sounds funny," he said. However, one very serious aspect to the problem, in his view, is that pseudo-science is beginning to show up more frequently in papers published in prestigious scientific journals--even the Physical Review--with no challenge from the scientific community.
Should more scientists join the crusade to combat the onslaught of screwy scientific claims? Lewis feels it would be futile to investigate every one of them. Also, it isn't always easy for even a Ph.D. scientist to locate, for instance, the hidden source of energy in a perpetual motion device, although he maintains that if a device violates the second law of thermal dynamics, finding the hidden source is largely moot. Ultimately, however, it is a losing battle. "There are just too many nutty claims out there," Lewis sighed. "I guess the only alternative is to die gracefully of old age and let somebody else worry about it."
©1995 - 2017, AMERICAN PHYSICAL SOCIETY
APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.