A Bogus walk in the Park

By Phil Plait | January 27, 2009 10:15 am

Bob Park is a professor of physics at the University of Maryland, and a well-known skeptic. He writes the What’s New online column (sort of like a blog) where he discusses the latest science and skeptical news, usually with a pretty snarky and funny tone. While he and I disagree on some topics, he is a fierce intellect and has a pretty good grip on what it takes to be a skeptic.

That’s why his article, The Seven Warning Signs of Bogus Science, is a must-read for anyone who has dealt with a crackpot, might eventually deal with a crackpot, or is a crackpot.

Apropos to the last few posts I’ve written about homeopathy and vaccines, he makes a big point that the plural of anecdote is not data — in other words, because you’ve heard some people say that distilled water cured their hemorrhoids, that doesn’t mean you can take them seriously. Claims, especially medical ones, need to be analyzed thoroughly and scientifically — using a double blind test if possible. Only then can you make sure that the phalanx of fallacies our brains hold so dear can be circumvented.

There are many stories to be told about science, but not every story is scientific. Read Bob’s article and you’ll be better armed to know which is which.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Antiscience, Debunking, Skepticism

Comments (37)

  1. IVAN3MAN

    Dr. Phil Plait:

    That’s why his article, The Seven Warning Signs of Bogus Science, is a must-read for anyone who has dealt with a crackpot, might eventually deal with a crackpot, or is a crackpot.

    I don’t know if you have noticed, Phil, but I and fellow B.A.Blogees have been dealing with some crackpot called “Anaconda” on the two Black Hole threads. That advice will come in handy.

  2. Erin

    So reading that article made me curious. In that article, Mr. Park talked about long stading belief is not credible science, as in alternative medicine, which I tend to agree with. But it made me think of acupuncture, which is technically alternative medicine. I’m curious to know people’s opinions on this, as it seems to be a more mystical form of medicine, yet there is some (not a lot) scientific proof that it does have a positive effect.

    Thoughts?

  3. Charles Boyer

    Crackpots are everywhere and their numbers seem to be growing.

    The commentariat that descends upon this site whenever Dr. Plait posts anything about vaccines and autism is amazing. Those folks seem to violate each of Dr. Park’s seven principles without compunction and then they expect to be taken seriously. Of course, their type is everywhere and they are actually affecting public policy, which is frightening to say the least.

    Here’s an experiment of the mind for you: apply Dr. Park’s principles to religion, and you can have some real fun.

  4. Todd W.

    @Erin

    Regarding acupuncture, the affects appear to “work” only for subjective symptoms, like pain, indicating that they work largely by placebo. Further, there was at least one study (can’t recall the title) in which the researcher showed that the placement of the needles made no difference. In other words, there did not appear to be any “meridians” or pathways along which “chi” flowed.

  5. Charles, I was thinking the exact same thing. ;)

    And it just so happens that last night the Australia Network we get here at Al Udeid aired the “Enemies of Reason” episode where homeopathy is taken on. I suppose that if water has some sort of molecular memory, I will be soon suffering from whatever ailments Oliver Cromwell suffered from.

    I’m sure this is over at the JREF forum already? If not, why?

  6. Becca Stareyes

    @Erin

    You might try heading over to Respectful Insolence (http://www.scienceblogs.com/insolence). Orac, the blogger there and a doctor/medical researcher by trade, makes a habit of looking for acupuncture studies and has observed that the better the placebo, the better able to replicate results from acupuncture, to the point where double-blinded studies using ‘sham’ needles — needles that feel like acupuncture needles to both practitioner and patient, but sink into their base when pressure is applied, rather than penetrating the skin — duplicate the same results using real needles.

  7. Chief Angry Cloud

    Bob Park is one of my heroes. I have been reading What’s New every week for as long as I can remember. Voodoo Science was a great book (I haven’t had a chance to read his new one, though).

    There is one question that I’ve always wanted to ask him: if a tree falls on a physicist in a forest, does he make a sound?

  8. Assuming we’re all on board with Bob Park’s rule #2, you’ll agree that had acupuncture worked properly (i.e., not merey as a placebo), it would be part of modern medicine by now. The same is true for all the old alternative medicine.

    I also think that you can make a nice living by selling wonder pills under the name “Placebo“. After all, everybody knows that the placebo effect is real, so you get lots of free publicity!

    BTW, if you like Park’s list, go and have a look at John Baez’ crackpot index. Click on my name to visit the site.

  9. Chris

    Erin wrote “But it made me think of acupuncture, which is technically alternative medicine. ”

    Read the book “Snake Oil Science: The Truth About Complementary and Alternative Medicine.” by R. Barker Bausell .

    It goes into the studies about acupuncture (and Dr. Bausell has an interesting sense of humor). See the review here:
    http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/?p=4


  10. 6. The discoverer has worked in isolation. The image of a lone genius who struggles in secrecy in an attic laboratory and ends up making a revolutionary breakthrough is a staple of Hollywood’s science-fiction films,

    But in the ones *I* watch, they wind up creating giant bugs! NOT a good sign.

    J/P=?

  11. If science were a religion (AND ITS NOT!) then truly the double blind test would be its most sacred sacrament.

  12. I’m with him on 1 through 5, but the last two points are bunk.

  13. Turing Eret

    Good article, but there was thing that really bugged the crap out of me. He said that “data” is not the plural of “anecdote”. Er, actually it is. An anecdote is a singular piece of datum. When you collect several of those together, you get the plural of datum: data!

    Now, the point he is trying to get across is that an anecdote is not valid by itself, which is true, but that just doesn’t sound as catch as “data is not the plural of anecdote.” Unfortunately, that’s just plain wrong.

  14. SLC

    But we all know that, on the subject of manned space flight, Prof. Park doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

  15. ND

    Peter Kok,

    “Assuming we’re all on board with Bob Park’s rule #2, you’ll agree that had acupuncture worked properly (i.e., not merey as a placebo), it would be part of modern medicine by now. The same is true for all the old alternative medicine.”

    I’ve always been a little uneasy about this type of statement, regardless of who makes it. It may generally be true but it’s still an assumption. There is still the reality of wether it has been studied and if so in what depth.

    It was recently shown that honey does have a positive affect on coughs even though it’s been touted as such as a home remedy before:

    http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/honey/AN01799
    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=17618590
    http://www.webmd.com/cold-and-flu/9-tips-to-treat-colds-and-flu-the-natural-way

    Note: don’t give honey to kids younger than 2 years old because of the risk of botulism.

    Granted something like acupuncture is a different beast than a single remedy like honey.

  16. ND

    Note: I’m not making any statements for or against acupuncture with my last post, just that when the phrase “it would be part of modern medicine by now” is used on any sort of folk or alt medicine is actually an assumption.

  17. SLC – The Economist just did a nice editorial titled “Why NASA should give up its ambitions to send men into space”. My name has the link.

    I think I agree with about 99.9% of what Bob Park writes about. Smart fella.

  18. RickK

    TuringEret,

    A structured study provides data suitable for decision making. A collection of stories (anecdotes) does not. All a collection of anecdotes provides is a possible area of investigation, NOT evidence of efficacy.

  19. OldGreyOne

    Dr. Park is only partially correct about manned space flight. Get the government out of it. Let the people that want to do it assume the cost and risk. If there is a cost benefit to do it, manned space flight will happen.

    Let NASA do the robotic stuff (and keep Dr. Park happy).

  20. Charles Boyer

    If there is a cost benefit to do it, manned space flight will happen.

    Types the man on a computer whose provenance goes through the Apollo program.

  21. Darth Robo

    Pieter Kok Says:

    “BTW, if you like Park’s list, go and have a look at John Baez’ crackpot index. Click on my name to visit the site.”

    I woz just about to link to that!

  22. Cairnos

    Park is clearly part of the conspiracy of multi-national companies and bribed so-call ‘expert’ scientists led by the shadowy villain known only as ‘The Man’, who are suppressing any really groundbreaking research these days.

    On a related note my zero point energy generator is almost ready to be revealed to a (soon to be) grateful world. I just need a small amount of funding to finish some last tests…….;-)

    @Peiter: Theonion did a great article once announcing that the FDA had finally approved ‘Placebo’ for use in medicines. Seriously funny.

  23. OldGreyOne

    “Types the man on a computer whose provenance goes through the Apollo program.”

    Rehashing the glory years (and they were glorious) only serves to give us all warm fuzzies. We are stuck in low orbit due to political incompetence and influence and abject fear of taking reasonable risk. Space flight will always be dangerous and the American public is unable to come to terms with astronauts connected to a national space program possibly dying. Maybe the public can take or even ignore a few catastrophes in space if they are part of some corporation or other non-government organization.

    I do not deny NASA’s place in history. I watched every televised manned space launch from John Glenn on (the Mercury days). I admire the men and women that put Humanity on the moon. I remember being devastated when Nixon gutted NASA, canceling Apollo. For that, I consider him to be the epitome of evil and worthy of hatred for eternity.

    Having manned spaceflight controlled by a government organization is the surest way of killing it off.

  24. Charles Boyer

    Rehashing the glory years (and they were glorious) only serves to give us all warm fuzzies.

    The best guide to what will happen in the future is what has happened in the past.

    Government-funded space exploration provided us with a great deal of scientific knowledge, and a lot more than the samples and experiments conducted in outer space. In fact, those results are only a part of the story. Getting there and returning safely was more than half of the battle and where more than half of the results were obtained. All of the technologies developed were made available to the public to utilize, as they would be and currently are in our current efforts.

    Privatizing space would benefit only the companies that chose to go there. They would certainly not share what they learned, nor would they freely publish the methods and materials used to accomplish whatever it is that they did. Further, they would have a strong legal case for ownership of the Moon, or Mars, or any asteroid, etc. See the Dutch and British trading cartels from the 18th and 19th century for more information.

    You benefit daily from the by-products of Space Race 1.0 and casually disregard them as “warm and fuzzies.” If having a great deal of credit in enabling a technological revolution that resulted in American dominance of the last forty years of the 20th century is so trivial to you, then so be it, but I kindly suggest to you that view is somewhat pedantic.

  25. Charles, I can see where OldGreyOne is coming from though. NASA has been reaping from the same field for the past 40 years, but haven’t managed to plant any new seeds. They need a swift kick in the backside, and maybe private industry can provide that kick?

  26. Charles Boyer

    NASA has been reaping from the same field for the past 40 years, but haven’t managed to plant any new seeds.

    I see his point as well as yours, but the reason that NASA has done so little (aside from putting over 400 humans in orbit, setting flight endurance records, etc.) is because they have been funding and mission starved since Apollo 17 splashed down.

    Giving NASA a real mission and giving it the resources to do the job will almost certainly provide the same benefits.

  27. Jeff Satterley

    Bob Park’s new book, Superstition, was an excellent source of information about bogus scientific studies, and how some people can make things like acupuncture and intercessory prayer look like it produces measurable results, when in fact, they are cherry-picking and using statistics to their advantage.

    Other than the slow going at the beginning of the book (i.e., stop telling me what you’re going to talk about and just TALK ABOUT IT ALREADY!), an interesting read. I recommend it, especially if you want to know about the “positive” results for things like acupuncture.

  28. Nigel Depledge

    TuringEret said:

    Good article, but there was thing that really bugged the crap out of me. He said that “data” is not the plural of “anecdote”. Er, actually it is. An anecdote is a singular piece of datum. When you collect several of those together, you get the plural of datum: data!

    Now, the point he is trying to get across is that an anecdote is not valid by itself, which is true, but that just doesn’t sound as catch as “data is not the plural of anecdote.” Unfortunately, that’s just plain wrong.

    Er, no. You are just plain wrong, here.

    Anecdotal evidence is never controlled, never blinded and therefore never reliable to inform scientific progress. Therefore, it matters not how many anecdotes you care to collect, you will never have what a scientist would consider to be data.

  29. Daniel J. Andrews

    You beat me to it, Nigel.

    Back to the bogus science list, I ran across this article http://news.therecord.com/Business/article/476404 on Richard Willis who has invented what appears to be a version of a perpetual motion machine. His unit will, he says, produce more power than it takes in. On a quick reading it seems Park’s Warning Signs 1, 2, 4, 6 and 7 apply.

  30. Bob Park’s in London at the moment. I went to his talk at the Royal Institute last night – very entertaining but not exactly challenging to those of us on the same side, as most of the audience were. And the contingent of religionists there only managed to get one question in: “So what do you think is the purpose of life?” (Yawn).

    Acupuncture is a crock. Ernst & Singh’s ‘Trick or Treatment: Alternative Medicine on Trial’ does a good demolition job.

  31. Cheyenne

    “Giving NASA a real mission and giving it the resources to do the job will almost certainly provide the same benefits.”

    I totally agree- let’s give them the mission to go out and discover the toughest questions about the universe. Let’s task them with getting sample return missions out to Mars, Jupiter’s moons, Saturn’s moons, and anything else interesting. Fleets and fleets of probes, satellites, and obvservatories working together. They get some science done and I’ll be the first yammering to anybody that will listen that we should triple their funding and then triple it again. And then quadruple it after that for effect.

    But if they keep sending people up to that retarded space station though with nothing to do, and sacrificing science because of it, and I’ll also be the guy yammering for them to cut that garbage out and argue they shouldn’t be given another dollar.

    Apollo was epic. Nobody is saying the glory days weren’t extraordinary. But manned flight is over. Done. It’s stupid. It’s a waste of money and time and a drain on everything else. Supporting it is like the sketch in Little Britain of the Astronaut that just can’t let go. We need to move on. There is so much NASA could be doing right now and it’s not.

    Who knows the name of any astronaut that has been up to the ISS lately? I don’t know a single one, and I read this blog and others like it every day. Who in the public knows about The Hubble and the incredible Mars rovers? Loads do.

  32. Erin

    Lots of good information, folks, I really appreciate it. I’ve got some good reading to do now.

    Though I just thought of another question: If a placebo effect works, is it bad? If pain is relieved, though no drugs/effective treatment has been administered, couldn’t that be a good thing?

    It’s just an interesting thought. I mean, ideally, you’d want to cure the problem, but if there is no cure, and a placebo treatment has a positive effect, with no ill effects, doesn’t this become one of the few times where the phrase “ignorance is bliss” is true?

    I’m not saying we should encourage this, and various forms of alt medicine are really trash, but still, it’s something to think about. You guys get my brain fired up. :)

  33. Chris

    Erin said “If a placebo effect works, is it bad? If pain is relieved, though no drugs/effective treatment has been administered, couldn’t that be a good thing?”

    Perhaps, it used to be done a while ago. But there have been questions of ethics on the practice. I know I’ve seen this discussed on some medical blogs a few months ago. I do not want to post URLs, but check out the ScienceBasedMedicine blog for an article by Peter Lipson titled “Do Physicians Really Believe in Placebos”. It has a link to lots of other blogs discussing a BMJ study on placebos.

  34. Great article.

    Chris, thanks for the Peter Lipson article, “Do Physicians Really Believe in Placebos”. While I agree there are ethical issues that need to be considered, I’m not sure I would go as far to say that alternative treatments that make sole use of placebo are out and out unethical. I do agree that many practitioners of alternative medicine overstate the benefits of their particular practice, but many alternative treatments do have some value.

    As an outsider to the medical profession, I am confounded why doctors seem to dismiss the power of the patient’s belief as a statistical curiosity — simply something to be controlled for in any study. It would seem to me that the patient’s belief they CAN get better would be the primary concern, indeed at least as important than any medical procedure.

    Eric

  35. nomuse

    I have a much shorter list. I’m not trying to identify all bad theories; I’m just trying to label the two I encounter most often.

    First is the Theory of The Other Theory is Wrong. Creationism being the perfect example. But I see the same thing on forums all over the internet; someone who claims to have a new theory of physics, but when pressed for details spends most of his time going on about how Einstein was wrong.

    The second is what I call two-for-one theories. There’s the theory on how you can get free energy, or how the universe is only 2 billion years old, or whatever. And then there’s the necessary supporting theory; that all of modern physics, or cosmology, or whatever, is wrong — which usually requires a massive conspiracy dedicated to the continuing falsification of data that would otherwise allow the new theory to triumph.

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