How to Quack-Proof Yourself Against Pseudoscience

How to Quack-Proof Yourself Against Pseudoscience December 10, 2018

Editor’s Note:  With all the focus these days on “fake news”it’s helpful to be reminded that it’s not all political.  Fake news is probably as old as “real news” or any human interaction. Being deceptive seems to come naturally to us humans, and as we know, sometimes it can be extremely dangerous. Below are some tips on how to protect ourselves from fake scientific news.   It is repostedwith permission from Skepticmeditations.com, a blog written by a member of The Clergy Project.  In turn, it’s inspired by a blog poston medical fake news. I bet there’s a genre of fake news for just about any field of knowledge.  /Linda LaScola, Editor

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By “Scott”

We think of ourselves as savvy, informed individuals who approach the world with discerning eyes. But the truth is that we’re often remarkably gullible when it comes to pseudoscience and quackery. That’s the bad news. The good news is that it is surprisingly easy to tell quackery apart from real science.

This post was adapted from an article originally appearing on The Skeptical OB.

Pseudoscience and quack claims are typically decorated with red flags, if you know what to look for. What follows is a list of six red flags—watch out for these types of claims, and you’ll be better suited to spot pseudoscience quackery from a mile away. In this post, we’re going to illustrate six red flags using some pseudoscience claims of yoga meditation, religion, and New Age movements.

Six Red Flags Of Pseudoscience Claims

  1. Claims of Secret Knowledge– The so-called esoteric “sciences” like yoga, pranayama, or energy healing are almost always claims of secret knowledge available to the specially initiated. Typically, this secret knowledge is given to you through spiritual rites, mystical experience, or religious indoctrination. Real science is not secret.
  2. “It’s All A Big Conspiracy”– The claim is that the scientific community, Big Pharma, Big Government, Big Corporations, and Big Religions are hiding the real truth from us. Vast conspiracies, encompassing doctors, scientists, and public health officials exist only in the minds of quacks. The people who make these conspiracy claims apparently have access to some “secret knowledge” kept from the rest of us.
  3. False Flattery– Being “special”, chosen, or initiated into secret knowledge makes us feel, well…special, chosen, and “above” anyone else who is not. The exclusivity of many religious beliefs, gurus, and spiritual teachings apparently give us access to esoteric knowledge. To the initiated, to the graduates of esoterica, it’s flattering to think you may know more than others or are specially chosen.
  4. Toxins Are The New Evil– Juice cleanses, detox diets, and colonics are purges. The pseudoscientific belief is we are surrounded by poisons that get into our systems. Trouble is toxins are invisible and all around us, like demons. Nevertheless, pseudoscience claims that toxins are released into our environment and our body by “evil” corporations, drug companies, or inorganic foods. But the real science says the chemicals responsible for most diseases are nicotine, alcohol, and opiates.
  5. “Brilliant Heretic” as the Source of Information– Believers argue that science is transformed by brilliant heretics whose fabulous theories are initially rejected, but ultimately accepted as the new orthodoxy. Mystical revelations or pseudoscientific ideas dreamt up by mavericks are not “science” nor are they reliable sources of information. Revolutionary scientific ideas are not dreamed up; they are the inevitable result of massive, collaborative data collection, that gets tested over and over in labs to be either proven false and then discarded, or to be replicated and found true as a practical theory.
  6. Using Esoteric Scientific Theories –Quacks love to dazzle followers with sciency language. They invoke esoteric scientific theories, like Quantum mechanics or atomic particles, for example. But these are incredibly difficult scientific disciplines, heavy on advanced math. If you don’t have a degree in either one, you aren’t qualified to pontificate on them.

When we don’t know to look for these six flags we easily fall prey to pseudoscience and sciency-sounding esoteric products or claims. Quack claims come at us daily, from many people and from many sources. For example, there’s 8,000+ Religion & Spirituality books on Amazon using “science” in the title.

There is a saying in science that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Quack claims are typically extraordinary, but quacks don’t offer evidence; they raise some or all of the six red flags, often in an attempt to trick you into buying what they are selling. When you see one of these red flags, you can be virtually certain that you are in the presence of bad science.” – Amy Tuteur, MD (From her article Six red flags you need to recognize to quack-proof yourself)

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Bio: “Scott”was a monk at the Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF) ashram for 14 years before leaving to complete his education and enter the business world.  Raised Roman Catholic, he got into eastern religious practices and was influenced in his 20’s by reading The Autobiography of a Yogiby SRF founder Paramahansa Yogananda. He is now a member of The Clergy Project and a successful business consultant.  He discusses the hidden, and sometimes dangerous side of meditation practices, systems and groups at SkepticMeditations.com.

>>>>Photo credits:  “Red Flag” from wikimedia commons ; By Walter Heubach (German, 1865–1923) – Upload: User:Jarlhelm, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2688934

 

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  • mason lane

    Good advice. The major problem as I see it is that the US so infested with scientific illiteracy and creationism, there’s always abundant fertile soil available for the myth and fake news hucksters to plow, plant, and harvest. It’s an American tragedy.
    Good news? Scientific literacy has increased from 10% in 1988 to 28% as of 2007, 216 million Americans still scientifically illiterate per this report https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/eb9482c92b600c5e2f2c8b8966cf1dc0fb9c3aca5fc8337552c29f9d79277267.jpg . https://www.technologyreview.com/s/407346/216-million-americans-are-scientifically-illiterate-part-i/

    • Scott Stahlecker

      28% is still pathetically low isn’t it? Not to be mean spirited, but I would say that a creationist is not scientifically literate. Wonder what the percentage of Americans that might be?

      • Jim Jones

        Literacy levels among the educated must not continue recent decline

        A report, originally published on the Modbee.com

        After years of hand-wringing about literacy in the United States, Congress passed the National Literacy Act of 1991. The aim was to make improved literacy a priority.

        The federal government did a base-line assessment of national literacy in 1992. Now, the government has released the first follow-up. The results are a big disappointment.

        Overall, literacy has remained flat. In 1992, 83 percent of the population 16 and older were at basic literacy or above. That remained virtually the same in 2003 (84 percent).

        The bigger disappointment is that literacy is slipping at every level of education. Educated Americans remain literate, but their capability in processing complex information is declining.

        That presents a quandary. Should we put our efforts into bringing the 17 percent of illiterate or barely literate adults up to basic literacy? Or should we focus on improving the literacy of those who will graduate from high school, college or postgraduate institutions? In an ideal world, we would do both. But the more alarming dip is in the educated population. We can more easily reach those individuals.

        Part of the problem is that our culture is more oral and visual. With television, cell phones, video games, etc., people increasingly deal with flashes of information. Educational institutions must swim upstream to get students to interpret and analyze lengthy, difficult passages of words.

        To see the problem in stark form, look at what’s happened to college graduates in the past decade.

        They remain literate: 98 percent are at basic literacy or above (it was 99 percent in 1992). That looks like there’s no problem. “Basic” means a person can perform simple tasks such as interpreting instructions from an appliance warranty or writing a letter explaining an error made on a credit card bill.

        But then look at intermediate literacy or above: 84 percent are at that level, compared with 89 percent in 1992. That’s a five-point slip in skills such as explaining the difference between two types of employee benefits, using a bus schedule to determine an appropriate route or using a pamphlet to calculate the yearly amount a couple would receive for basic Supplemental Security Income.

        But the biggest slip is at the proficient level: Only 31 percent are at this highest level, compared with 40 percent in 1992. That’s a nine-point slip in mastery of complex activities such as critically evaluating information in legal documents, comparing viewpoints in two editorials or interpreting a table about blood pressure and physical activity.

        We cannot afford to have our most educated population drop in complex literacy levels. The task falls mostly to our schools, but they cannot do it alone. Others, from parents to libraries, must limit the video games and make reading fun again.

        http://www.modbee.com/opinion/story/11668996p-12397206c.html

        • Scott Stahlecker

          The tragic detail you offer here is that only 31 percent of people are capable of “comparing viewpoints in two editorials.” Literacy and reasoning skills seem to have a lot in common.

          • Jim Jones

            > only 31 percent of people are capable of “comparing viewpoints” …

            If only. It’s 31 percent of college graduates!

          • I’m for reading books, paper. But I’m not sure that’s the total answer or solution to literacy. Our American “values” don’t seem to include intellectual development so much. Unless, it’s for getting the degree, which will bring you the job, which will help you buy things, including a house so you can live the American Dream (which is the myth and consumerist vision of success). On the flip side are hermits, who “go sell all and give to the poor”. Perhaps they are intellectually “more honest” but impoverished materially. Maybe not. We as a community, society in the US are woefully divided as to the what the “good life” is or what shared community looks like outside of consumerism and our narrow political/ideological divides.

          • Jim Jones

            The use of fake diplomas from fake schools seems a little more common in the US than in other countries, although that’s just an impression. I’ve seen no research.

          • @scottstahlecker:disqus
            @Jim Jones
            Thanks for replying to my comment. Maybe I took us off on a tangent with my comment trying to address the “literacy” comment which I thought may be related to my article “How to Quack Proof Yourself Against Pseudoscience”. Illiteracy may be an underlying cause of falling for quackery. But I was trying to dig underneath the causes of illiteracy or maybe even anti-intellectualism in US. I’ll leave it to brighter minds like you two and others to carry on this discussion as I’m not qualified and prefer to respond to comments directly related to my article. Thanks again for your interest and energy in the comment threads.

          • Scott Stahlecker

            I’ve had the pleasure of living and working in two foreign countries, Germany and S. Korea, and traveled through many others. I discovered the cultural attitudes in Asia are quite different … a bit less capitalistic. But overall, the American Dream has become a global dream. Statistics indicate that people are the most happiest when they have enough money to comfortably meet their needs. If they have a bit more than their average neighbor, I suspect they might be even slightly happier. My take is that very few people who are fully invested in the “rat race” actually walk around in a calm sense of equanimity throughout their day.

  • ThaneOfDrones

    Toxins: I have a degree in biochemistry. It’s funny how all those New Age pseudo-medicines which invoke “toxins” never specify which toxins, their concentrations, how they were identified and measured, nor the mechanism by which the “cleansing” method removes the toxins. For any legitimate toxin, these things are easy to identify.

    • “Toxins” is signal for bad. I saw a billboard the other day advertising cosmetics that said “no toxins”. What does “toxins” even mean but to gullible consumers code for “evil”? Whereas “natural” or “organic” often is interpreted as signal for “good”.

    • viaten

      I’ve heard of some people experiencing pain after some quack treatment and being told, “That’s the toxins leaving your body”, as if that’s proof the “toxins” are real. A convenient excuse if the existing condition is once again producing a recurring pain, or if the treatment somehow caused temporary pain, or the treatment exacerbated the condition.

  • Jim Baerg

    I think I would add ‘making a fuss about how ‘natural’ the product is’ as a red flag that it is probably a scam.

  • Scott Stahlecker

    Hi Scott. I linked over to your skeptic meditation page and have to say it’s the first of this kind of page I’ve seen. There are escape religion sites, escape cult sites, but this was new to me, and relevant. I’ll take a stab in the dark and say that escaping a cultic form of meditation would rank in my view as a very difficult thing to do. I will have to explore your spin on mindfulness when I have more time. On a personal note, I was introduced to meditation through Sam Harris’ book Waking Up 6 years ago. There are some stunningly effective qualities to meditation, which I assume you are well acquainted with. Then there’s the darker pseudo-science stuff like reincarnation, karma, and claims of supernatural powers. All B.S. Another big red flag with meditation is it’s claims that practitioners can reach enlightenment. I find the allure of enlightenment similar to the manner in which Bible believers are attracted to salvation and reaping heavenly rewards; both are very self-centered, ego driven pursuits. Such “personal” goals are counterproductive to engaging with humanity and building a better world. So I have no interest in enlightenment. But meditation works–far more than prayer ever could. Although I’m no expert at it, I written a number of articles on the subject I call Meditation for Freethinkers. The purpose is to help freethinkers take advantage of meditation but circumnavigate around the erroneous Buddhist philosophical elements. Thanks for the read.

    • @scottstahlecker:disqus : Thanks, Scott, for your words about your own journey and about my project, Skeptic Meditations. While I see some value in meditation practices I also see as much value in sleep, relaxation, and exercise. What stands out to me about meditation practices/techniques is that there’s some conscious will applied to navel gazing in a constructive way. That is learning to project ones awareness on one’s awareness, which might sound circular. My own opinion, after decades of meditation practice, is that meditation is overrated. That some persons get intrigued with the “mysteries behind the darkness of closed eyes” as a famous yogi put it. It’s a fascinating exploration, our human beingness, but “meditation”–as conceived of in the Western mind as a thing to practice or attain–can be seductive psychological trap for many of us who seek truth, meaning, or answers “within” or “behind the darkness of closed eyes”.

      • Scott Stahlecker

        Agreed. The human mind is a wonderland and it can be quite entertaining. Of late, I use meditation primarily to gain more insight into my own thoughts, ideas, and emotions. But also as a form of gaining insight into understanding human nature and how life works.

        • @scottstahlecker:disqus : Sounds like we are aligned with the benefits and limitations of meditation techniques and worldviews. Thanks for responding to my post.

          • Scott Stahlecker

            I enjoyed it.