Your BS Detector for Warp Drives, Double Moons, and Other Implausible Claims

By Corey S. Powell | August 27, 2015 4:17 pm
Will Mars appear as large as the full moon? Your innate common sense will tell you this cannot possibly be true. (Credit: Unknown)

Will Mars really appear as large in the sky as the full moon? Your innate common sense is all you need to tell you this cannot possibly be true. (Credit: Unknown)

Today is the day when, according to a widely circulated email/Facebook hoax, Mars will appear as large in the sky as the full moon. In reality, nothing short of the catastrophic disruption of the entire solar system could allow such a thing to happen (and if that were happening, you probably would have heard the news). Still, I have sympathy for those who were taken in by the hoax. We live in an age of amazing space imagery: snapshots of nitrogen glaciers on Pluto, a robot bouncing off a comet, ice moons hovering over the rings of Saturn. If you don’t think too hard about it, one more wild view doesn’t seem so implausible.

The barrage of genuine scientific amazement surely also explains why so many people credulously accept other erroneous or at least misleading stories, such as the ongoing reports that NASA has validated an “impossible space drive”–or, in some variations, that NASA “accidentally created a warp drive.” I’m sympathetic again. After all, NASA really did send an ion-powered spacecraft to the dwarf planet Ceres. That’s pretty wild. Again, if you don’t think too hard about it, why not accept another, even more staggering technological breakthrough?

Some quick online research will usually separate the serious stuff from the hoaxes and the hype, but many people lack the time or even the inclination. What would be truly helpful is a set of basic reality-check tests that anyone can apply: an all-purpose science BS-detector kit that requires little more than getting past that first hurdle of thinking. I’m going to attempt to build one right here. I’d love to hear your ideas as well.

Rule #1: Follow your intuition. I realize that this piece of advice actually, um, goes against intuition. After all, scientific findings often run contrary to our naive everyday ideas about how the world works–especially when you get to findings that take place entirely outside the realm of human experience. Still, people generally have a pretty good instinct for reading other humans, and science is ultimately a human endeavor. Does the claim sound too breathless, too credulous, too hyperbolic? Does it run strongly contrary to things you’ve heard before? If so, that certainly does not mean that it is wrong, but it means that you should activate your skepticism and press on further through the BS triage process before accepting it as right. Intuition is a very useful first filter.

Rule #2: Recast the claim in familiar terms. This is a way to make your intuition work better by negating the power of jargon and by connecting things you know to things you don’t know. “For one day Mars will appear as large as the moon.” You’ve certainly never seen that before, and it’s weird that it would happen for one day only. If someone emailed you a note claiming, “For one day, fireflies will appear as large as eagles in the sky,” I’ll bet you’d simply laugh and delete. “NASA created a space drive that could reach Mars in 10 weeks and uses no fuel.” OK, if someone told you, “General Motors invented a car that goes 1,000 mph and uses no gasoline,” your skepticism would be rightly activated. In each case, the style of the claim is the same.

Yes, some genuine discoveries may fail the smell test here, too, but the point is to keep going through the finer gradations of BS detection. As you go deeper, the legitimate science will separate out.

Rule #3: Look at the source of the story. We’re getting to the more advanced levels of triage. There is an inevitable appeal to authority at these stages. Some publications and some web sites are more trustworthy than others; some links on Facebook have more established trust than others. Does the story track back to a journalistic source? If so, is that source an attention-seeking tabloid or an enthusiast site with a clear interest in hype? Stories with no links or quoted sources are automatically more suspect. That said, some seemingly reputable publications such as WiredUK or the Telegraph have published misleading or outright irresponsible articles about the alleged “NASA space drive.” (See examples here and here.) Which brings us to…

Rule #4: Consider the authority of the claim. Now we’re at the more active-investigation type of BS detection. This requires some active investigation on the part of the reader–but honestly, not that much. Is the person making the claim someone who has plausible credentials? In the case of the Mars stories, you will never see a real astronomer cited in any of the emails–because no astronomer would endorse such nonsense. In the case of the space drive, the claims trace back to independent inventors and one small team of NASA-affiliated researchers. That one is tougher to parse, but when the stories declare that a lone inventor stands against the whole of mainstream science, your BS needle should swing instantly into the red zone.

Just for the record: Galileo was not the only one looking through a telescope in the 17th century. The Wright Brothers were not the only ones attempting heavier than air flight. Einstein was building on existing physics ideas, and he was sharing and publishing his insights openly. Anyone who cites these examples as proof that one person might be right while the whole rest of the world is wrong is being neither honest nor historically accurate.

When the claim and the evidence are wildly out of balance, set your skepticism to "full." One prominent news story insanely juxtaposed an unproven test model with the imaginary engines of the starship Enterprise. (Credit: Roger Shawyer, Paramount)

When the claim and the evidence are wildly out of balance, set your skepticism to “full.” One prominent news organization juxtaposed an unproven test model of the “space drive” (left) with the famous but entirely imaginary impulse engines of the Starship Enterprise. (Credit: Roger Shawyer, Paramount)

Rule #5: Ask, has it been demonstrated? As astrophysicist Katie Mack noted on Twitter, it’s deceptive to claim that a space drive “works” (as many news stories did) unless it actually works as a space drive–that is, unless it actually propels a payload in the manner claimed. The Wright Brothers didn’t need to put their airplane through peer review because they flew it in front of a live audience. If someone tells you that Mars will look giant today even though that has never happened before, you should immediately ask–why not? And if a writer claims a space drive (or any novel device) has been demonstrated, you should ask–demonstrated how, by whom, and to whom?

Rule #6: Ask, has it been reviewed and published? There is a reason the peer-review system has proven so successful, despite all its flaws. Even well-meaning researchers can easily fool themselves if they get an interesting-looking error–especially if they have an emotional or financial attachment to a specific result. Peer review helps week out both deliberate and inadvertent errors, along with bad methodology and premature claims. People who spend a lifetime studying a topic tend to know more about it than those who do not! You wouldn’t hire a plumber who had no formally acknowledged training at fixing pipes. Likewise, you shouldn’t trust a self-proclaimed authority who has not been able to get his or her work past peer review. Common sense remains valuable even at this stage.

Rule #7: Check out what the skeptics say. Getting to this level requires some research, more than most casual readers will do. But in the Age of Google, a meaningful investigation of this kind need not take more than a few minutes. Just type in the basic claim along with the potent keywords: “hoax,” “skeptics,” “debunked.” These days there are self-styled skeptics ready to rebut just about everything, of course, from climate change to the Apollo program. Still, this is a powerful reality check. If the most intense skeptics are those who have spent the most time and energy studying something (see above), then the claim deserves your highest level of skepticism. This is not to say that experts cannot be wrong, or that new ideas cannot be right. But someone who does not know a field well is more likely to make an error or an unfounded assertion, and someone who does know a field is more likely to catch it.

In the case of Mars, a web search would tell you that the “as large as the moon” story has exactly zero credibility. In the more complicated case of the space drive, you would quickly find that there are fewer than 10 people in the world claiming that the drive works, while the entire rest of the physics community considers the concept dubious until proven otherwise.

That last point is important. In science, many strange-sounding ideas ultimately turn out to be supported by the evidence. General relativity and quantum mechanics come immediately to mind. Ultimately, the BS detector, like science itself, is about demanding credible, repeatable evidence. It is about applying the standard articulated by Pierre-Simon Laplace two centuries ago: “The weight of evidence for an extraordinary claim must be proportioned to its strangeness.” Or as it is often expressed in modern terms: Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

Follow me on Twitter for news from the frontiers of discovery: @coreyspowell

  • mortimer zilch

    and, no doubt, you’d stick the “relaxed Hydrogen atom” in there too…they HYDRINO discovery by Dr. Randell Mills…and you’d be WRONG!

  • mortimer zilch

    QM is not well supported by evidence. By math. Not much evidence.

    • ziff

      I’m not sure what you mean by this. Quantum Mechanics is massively supported by experimental evidence. There have been thousands of experiments over the last hundred years to test its validity, and every one has supported it. From the early days that started the theory (photoelectric effect, compton effect, blackbody radiation), and then to the double slit effect and Lamb shift, and to modern applications like lasers, transistors, mri’s, and tunneling diodes, QM has held up to every test thus far.

      • coreyspowell

        Well said. QM is the perfect example of something that contradicts common sense and triggers reasonable skepticism…but then answers that skepticism with overwhelming, airtight, repeatedly validated evidence.

        • AlainCo

          right, and relativity too is violating commonsense to a highest degree.

          however for someone educated in electromagnetic, relativity is really logical ( not relative).

          this is the same for MiHsC, which propose (need checking I agree) really counter intuitive ideas, but for someone aware of cosmology , information theory, and the history of physics it is more natural than dark matter and dark energy.

          the notion of commonsense is a local theory.
          what is common sens for an semiconductor engineer, is not for a particle physicist, not for a farmer…

        • TLongmire

          “Too often, the news reports don’t honestly report what we know, what we don’t know, and what we need to know in order to evaluate the idea meaningfully. ”
          I’m sure you have a full plate but I would love to read an unbiased article about the em drive that is clear and consise!

  • Uncle Al

    “Three household tricks for creating a warp drive with your microwave oven” The First Law of Thermodynamics (conservation of mass-energy) is enforced by the universal homogeneity of time (spectroscopy) plus Noether’s theorems. However, Earth is at the bottom of a gravitational well and time is very obviously (GPS, Harvard Tower experiment)) not homogeneous with altitude. Oopsie.

    The Second Law of Thermodynamics (all engines are dissipative) is statistical. Too easy. A hermetically isolated hard vacuum envelope contains two closely spaced but not touching, in-register and parallel, electrically conductive plates having micro-spiked inner surfaces. They are connected with a wire, optionally containing an in-series dissipative load (small motor). One plate has a large vacuum work function material inner surface (e.g., osmium at 5.93 eV). The other plate has a small vacuum work function material inner surface (e.g., n-doped diamond “carbon nitride” at 0.1 eV). Above 0 kelvin, spontaneous cold cathode emission runs the closed isolated system. Emitted electrons continuously fall down the 5.8 volt potential gradient. Electron evaporation from carbon nitride cools that plate. Accelerated collision onto osmium warms that plate. Round and round. The plates never come into thermal equilibrium when electrically shorted. The motor runs forever within the closed system.

    The Third Law of Thermodynamics (it never gets that cold): Lasers and masers run at negative degrees kelvin, as do NMRs, MRIs, EPRs, induced transparency, and adiabatic demagnetization of paramagnetic salts refrigeration.

    Was that so hard? Find the three false assumptions.

  • AlainCo

    I don’t see why you seems to claim EmDrive is wrong.

    it is published in peer reviewed journal.
    it was replicated by 2 independent inventors and 6 independent teamps in dozen of different setups

    The notion of common sens and intuition you defend is really dependent on your knowledge, experience, midset and profession.

    for example most physicist have a vision that their current theory is perfect and that experimental results are unreliable.
    as an engineer I observed since decades how theory evolve, and I know that good experimental setup, especially of there ias varied setups with converging results, are much more reliable than interpretation of theory at a given date.
    I know that history is rewritten ex-post to hide the fact that theory was pathetically defend for decades while experimentally proven wrong.
    what EmDrive shows is just banal for me.

    note also that about theory if you see at MiHsC theory, it seems to solve huge epistemological problems, like the epicycle of dark matter and Dark Energy, galactic rotation anomalies, and the many parameters of Mond.

    the way MiHsC integrate standrad relativity, mach principle, information theory, is really in line with current evolution of scientific theories…

    using commonsense when you are either too incompetent or too specialized is really a bad idea.

    the results of EmDrive are really coherent, even if not perfect (this rule out fraud), and if there is an artifact, it is really something strange, linked to microwave resonance, and not the imagined artifacts.

    note that the enthusiams, often irrational, on claims is not a reason to dismiss the whole experimental result.
    it is just to ignore.

    see how the crazy claims of ITER and fusion, the failure to deliver, could be ridiculed if looked with your google .

    • ziff
    • Victor_Gallagher

      The problem with the EmDrive is that every time the experiment is reproduced with more sensitive instruments the thrust decreases.

      • AlainCo

        you should compate the thrust per watt, not simply thrust

        to increase precision often best is to reduce power.

        anyway I agree it is something to check and experiment more, not a sure fact.

        I just state that the claim of “it is sure bunk” is pure pseudo-science.

    • coreyspowell

      “Most physicists have a vision that their current theory is perfect and that experimental results are unreliable.”

      That is a sad, pessimistic view of how science operates. It also bears no resemblance to what I’ve seen in 25 years as an editor, reporter, and researcher in the physical sciences. I’ve been thinking back and I honestly cannot recall even a single person who fits your description.

      Overwhelmingly, I’ve met people who operate along the lines I’ve described here. They are curious, exploratory, excited, but also tough (and yes, skeptical) in evaluating tentative new observations or speculative new theories. To me, that is a great way to approach the world: eyes wide with wonder, eyes open to evidence.

      • AlainCo

        maybe I am too general.
        I talk of the few outspoken physicist that capture the media, the acadmic societies, the state agencies.
        those people often fall in love with their theory.

        they pretend to be open to new idea, but the new ideas that match their vision of what is progress.

        as I said elsewhere the reason some ideas are ejected is most of the time not mostly about change, but about a sort of morality.
        if an idea violate the rule of morality, if the biggest budget does not give the biggest results, if the most competent don’t discover the most productive, if the most recognised society does not hols the best truth, then the establishment reject the new observations.

        moreover maybe it is the most important and match your vision, the real problem is not that physicist reject new theories… they love it often.
        it is that they reject observation when there is no theory. this is a pattern that thomas kuhn explain well.
        During a paradigm change,the observation are first rationalized (artifact, epicycle, “dark” corrections), and if it is impossible denied (cold fusion, quasicristal, HTSC, wegener, semmelweiss).
        It is only when there is a fully functional new theory, covering all the previous scope of the previous paradigm, that if it allow practical advantage to supporters, the new theory is accepted by newcomers in the domain.
        in some case, the practical industrial advantage may push people to exploit interesting phenomenon, that are well proven since long, getting around the theory question.

        Thomas kuhn did not write a book from fairy tales, unlike wikipedia, but from deeply explored history.

  • HammerOfTruth

    Belay that pessimism, ensign. Set course for optimism, open-mindedness, imagination, and discovery. Engage!

    “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” – Albert Einstein

    • coreyspowell

      Are you really suggesting that Einstein would be on the side of the Mars hoax, and opposed to actual knowledge of how the solar system works? I assure you, that is not what he meant in that quote!

      • OWilson

        Einstein was referring to knowledge for knowledge’s sake.

        Some folks see a boulder, They can tell you its chemical composition and when, where, and how it was formed.

        Michelangelo saw a perfect statue of David hidden inside.

        That’s imagination!

      • TLongmire

        Einstein would have spent countless hours pondering the “impossible warp drive” results and never have discounted it as outright fantasy period. His mind was too great.

        • coreyspowell

          It’s impossible to know what Einstein would or would not have done. But keep in mind that at various points he rejected black holes, gravitational waves, the expanding universe, and quantum entanglement because he found these concepts theoretically dubious and/or experimentally unsupported.

  • coreyspowell

    A lot of the comments here seem predicated on the idea that if you don’t believe everything, you believe nothing–or the inverse, that in order to believe something you must believe everything. The marvelous thing about the scientific process is that it does not buy into this false equation.

    It is possible to be excited about the possibility that the EmDrive is real, and yet remain unconvinced by the very limited evidence presented so far. In fact, both reactions are essential to scientific progress: being open to new ideas, but setting high standards for supporting evidence. What I find frustrating about much of the coverage of the EmDrive (and many other speculative ideas and claims) is the lack of critical context. Too often, the news reports don’t honestly report what we know, what we don’t know, and what we need to know in order to evaluate the idea meaningfully.

    Carl Sagan expressed this point far more eloquently than I can, so I’ll quote him here: “At the heart of science is an essential balance between two seemingly contradictory attitudes—an openness to new ideas, no matter how bizarre or counterintuitive they may be, and the most ruthless skeptical scrutiny of all ideas, old and new. This is how deep truths are winnowed from deep nonsense.”

    • AlainCo


      globally the problem I see on both side, is the inability to accept supperposition of states.

      the skeptic are 100% sure it is bunk… most popular reaction.
      the believers are 100% sure it is real and buy a tcicket… NB: this is less common.

      there is open pessimistic people, like Tajmar who say that it is not proven yet he have nth evidence…

      you have optimistci people who interoreta data as showing good chance to be confirmed…

      those 2 later position both allows the coexitence of two possibilities, this is good…

      finally as an engineer I would simply judge the various positions from usefulness…
      skeptics says : it is bunk, don’t test it… bad science!
      believers say it is real, buy the ticket : risky decision

      pessimistic say, let us find the artifacts, or why not confirm it works : very good
      optimistic says, let us confirm it works by eliminating artifacts, or find the artifacts else… very good.

      to be since I mostly see skeptics and optimistics.
      there is a reassuring lack of believers, but also a problematic lack of pessimistic

  • Mike Richardson

    As a lifelong science fiction fan, I’d love to see a breakthrough discovery that would allow an FTL warp drive or wormholes. However, even though they remain theoretically possible, they require either a literally astronomical amount of energy (warp drive), or an exotic “negative matter” with anti-gravity properties (wormholes). Such a discovery may happen in my lifetime, or never, but if it does, it will be put through rigorous testing for verification. It won’t show up without warning on the front page of a tabloid or on a blog posting. Meanwhile, we deal with the world with the rules of physics as we know them until the next Einstein comes along.

  • Cparker321

    Meh, if you just question everything you’ll be fine.

    • coreyspowell

      OR WILL YOU? (just kidding)

  • Cole Miller

    They spelled weed as week. I hope this wasn’t peer reviewed. Haha, that was mean I’m sorry.


Out There

Notes from the far edge of space, astronomy, and physics.

About Corey S. Powell

Corey S. Powell is DISCOVER's Editor at Large and former Editor in Chief. Previously he has sat on the board of editors of Scientific American, taught science journalism at NYU, and been fired from NASA. Corey is the author of "20 Ways the World Could End," one of the first doomsday manuals, and "God in the Equation," an examination of the spiritual impulse in modern cosmology. He lives in Brooklyn, under nearly starless skies.


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