"Here Be Dragons" and the red flags of pseudoscience

9 Dec 2008

Via the Richard Dawkins website:

Brian Dunning, creator of the Skeptoid podcast and author of the companion books Skeptoid: Critical Analysis of Pop Phenomena and Skeptoid 2: More Critical Analysis of Pop Phenomena, takes his debunking skills to the video arena with a freely-distributable 40-minute work, Here Be Dragons: An Introduction to Critical Thinking. Get the DVD or watch it on YouTube:

Brian's goal is to present a basic primer for skeptical thinking, and I think he does a great job of it. Listen yourself, for a look at why people believe silly stuff, and what we can do to battle nonsense.

Most interesting to me was a clear, 10-point list of "red flags" that warn of approaching pseudoscience nonsense. I'll list them here as a handy guide; watch the video for more detail and great examples of each.

Red flags warning of pseudoscience

1. Appeal to Authority

Celebrity endorsements, lab coats, fancy degrees or certifications... all distractions that point to the impressiveness of the claimant, not the truth of the claim.

2. Ancient Wisdom

Commonly seen attached to "alternative" medical therapies, and a pet peeve of mine – lots of "ancient wisdom" will get you killed! As Brian points out: all that matters is not the age of the "wisdom", but simply this: Does it work?

3. Confirmation Bias

The tendency to remember events that coincide with beliefs, and ignore or forget those that don't. Confirmation bias is one of the worst sloppy-thinking offenders, in my opinion - and one of the hardest for us to overcome.

4. Confusion of Correlation with Causation

Another common sticking point for many people. Brian's example: You'll find correlation between rice consumption and black hair, but not causation.

5. Red Herrings

Irrelevant information that distracts without addressing facts.

6. Proof by Verbosity

Information overload to create the appearance of comprehensiveness and thorough research. It's quantity over quality. 

7. Mystical Energy

"Chi", "negative energy", "positive energy"... Brian suggests that you replace any mention of "energy" with the word's actual meaning - "measurable work capability" - and ask whether the claim still makes sense. 

8. Suppressed by Authorities

Conspiracy! Beware! Yet... Why would pharmaceutical giants suppress miracle cures... or automakers squelch super-efficient engines... instead of embracing and profiting wildly from those discoveries? 

9. All Natural

Yes, a pseudoscience health supplement may be "all natural"... but so are poison oak, scorpion venom, lead, mercury, bubonic plague, black holes... Natural doesn't mean safe!

10. Ideological Support

Causes that use courts, marches, campaigns, and so on to push a belief may be fueled more by indeology than by science.

Make pseudoscience detectors part of your toolkit

The above is hardly a complete list, as Brian takes pain to point out. But I'm going to memorize the list and, as he suggests, watch how often they turn up in daily life. Sounds like a great toolkit for tackling nonsense head-on!

Incidentally, I highly recommend the Skeptoid podcast. Each episode plays like a mystery story, with a detective digging up the facts to lay some case of the unexplained to rest. Give it a listen!

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