Rational Skepticism Without Condescension

On one of the discussion lists I subscribe to, there are frequent questions about "fringe science" — particularly involving energy, since the topic of discussion is "alternative energy". I have yet to receive a message that contained something both revolutionary in scale and backed by science (and likewise, seldom is a topic banal and poorly explained). An example is "eloptic energy" which describes some kind of field around all objects that can theoretically be tapped.

I have trouble describing it in any serious way. Its science begins by neglecting well-explored and well-understood properties of fields — basically that to get energy using a field, you have to put energy in. It's the way generators work (it's the combination of a magnet and a wire moving past one another). Another example might be to use the force of a river to do work by presenting resistance (like in the case of a water wheel). I guess the buzz around eloptic energy is that you don't need to add energy to get the energy out — analogous to working a water wheel while moving with the current of the river … a boat-mounted water wheel, if you will.

But even there, I take a condescending attitude that I can't seem to avoid. I shake my head and roll my eyes, frustrated that I must defend myself against lunacy with rational argument. This feeling of aggravation seems to come from two factors.

First is the misunderstanding or misapplication of science. The basics of the scientific method are to conceive a theory, develop an experiment with measurable, repeatable results, and ascertain whether the experiment supports the theory; then repeat ad infinitum. Everything we claim to know in science is based on a chain of everything we figured out before. It seems that people who entertain pseudo-science theories believe that science is a bureaucratic ivory tower of knowledge sanctioned by self-proclaimed experts. Sometimes bureaucratic, ivory-tower, self-proclaimed experts try to sanction knowledge, but that is not science.

The other is the appropriation of words that have an established meaning to give the illusion of credibility. Words like "energy" have a specific, well-defined meaning, so to use them in relation to something else is nothing less than lying. One example was during a discussion of essential oils (not on the discussion list) where they used "megahertz" as a unit to quantify the relative power of the oils. It was frustrating that nobody else in the room wanted to ask what part of the oil was vibrating (as "megahertz" exclusively means "millions of times per second"), and if it was in the radio-frequency range like the speaker implied, could we tune in a radio to hear it?

Of course, as I wrote before, there is no way to discern an expert from a non-expert in a field that you are not familiar with. In the end, it comes down to whether you believe one person or another. And when it comes to belief, well, there's really no point in arguing.

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A lecture on the dangers of pseudoarchaeology at the MAG

Ali and I headed to The Memorial Art Gallery (500 University Ave., near Goodman St.) to see the archaeology lecture. Dr. Garrett Fagan was there to talk about The Dangers of Pseudoarchaeology.

To start with, archaeology is the analysis of physical remains, paying special attention to the context of those remains — their geographic location, location relative to other items and within the strata of the region, any documented historical context, and so on. Further, he stated that there is an assumption among archaeologists that other archaeologists are interested in the best explanation for things.

Pseudoarchaeology — "armchair archaeology" if you will — is performed by people who are not interested in the best explanation at all. Rather, the goal is to attain sensational results — and as such, truth that inconveniently gets in the way of that goal is ignored, denied, or derided as being part of a conspiratorial establishment. It abuses select methods of archaeology for the purpose of lending credence to itself. So, for instance, it may take a small piece of data and fabricate a vast conclusion from it. Or it may rely on outdated models — cherry-picking debunked theories to support a hypothesis.

The thought then is, "so what?: legitimate archaeology will debunk their findings". Well it's not so hard when some guy shows up on TV with a wrench and claims it's the bone of a metal dinosaur. But when it's someone who's published a dozen books under the "archaeology" category, it's quite another.

And therein lies the cornerstone for the "dangers" that Dr. Fagan outlined. The pseudoarchaeologist makes their conclusions first then finds data to fit that — specifically, they skip the peer-review process that is designed to strengthen legitimate theories and diminish illegitimate ones. Relatedly, they will deride critics and celebrate supporters; whereas a true archaeologist will celebrate the respectability of criticism or support and deride inferiority. Frequently the pseudoarchaeologist will leverage nationalism and other unrelated reasons affect objective investigation.

But worst of all is that these pseudoarchaeologists don't do any real archaeology but they are supported under false pretenses to establish dig-sites which are no more respectable than (and just as destructive as) looters.

The key — in my mind — is that the average person is not an expert in archaeology (and in point of fact, is seldom an expert in any more than one field). As such, they rely on indicators of expertise to make a decision: advanced degrees, validation from others, longevity of their claimed expertise, etc. Unfortunately, all of these can be forged and the non-expert is left wondering what to do.

I guess for most, it's to remain vigilant. Look for telltale signs — sweeping conclusions, derision of all critics and celebration of all supporters, and a strong influence of motivations external to the work-at-hand.

I also left the lecture with a sense of familiarity for the kind of person that makes a pseudoarchaeologist. It's the same traits that make up the pseudoscientist and the fraudulent leader. In all these cases, the perpetrator of fraud creates an environment of power and prestige by convincing people that established knowledge is simply a conspiracy against wonders-untold that is otherwise claimed untrue.

For the pseudoarchaeologist, it may be that ancient civilizations were far more advanced than we are — despite established knowledge that they used tools and techniques that we have built upon to become more advanced than they. For the pseudoscientist, it is almost exclusively an attack on good old Thermodynamics Law #2: that you can't get more energy out of something than you put in — perpetual motion machines, and miraculous energy machines constitute the bulk of their exploration. And for the fraudulent leader, it is a claim that vast improvements can come from their method of leadership which history has consistently shown to be a path to a civilization's destruction.

And I agree with Dr. Fagan's comment that these people are not evil, just misguided. They are often deluded by the same thing that tricks others: the fundamental belief that great rewards exist to be claimed; and the refusal to accept that sometimes the greatness of a reward is distorted to be larger than it actually is when observed from afar.

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