Tag Archives: pseudoscience

Lies photo.

Faulty findings, real appeal: the psychology of pseudoscience

Today we take a look at what pseudoscience is and why people turn to it.

Lies photo.

Image credits Ged Carroll / Flickr.

Whether you’re one of our long-time readers or you simply put the effort into Googling your way to this article, chances are that you have an appetite for (if not a background in) science. I find that this academic bend, given time, tends to instill a certain way of thinking. A particular way of reporting one’s self to the world around us, one that stays with us throughout our lives. A certain mental discipline, if you will, based on a few shared principles:

  • We listen to facts over opinion. That doesn’t mean we’re always right, or that we’re free of our own biases. Overall, however, we tend to mold our opinions from facts, rather than the other way around.
  • We maintain a critical mindset. We double-check. We scour libraries or the Internet for data, but we also pay mind to the source of that data.
  • Despite this, we trust in the (provable) competence of others. There’s no fast solution to be had online that substitutes years spend in academic study and research. We do our best to weed out shady sources of information, but we also understand that unrestrained skepticism can be as toxic as no skepticism. After a certain point, you simply have to defer judgment to those whose entire job is to know what they’re talking about.

Now help yourself to some of this tasty text:

Climate change is a Chinese hoax designed to steal jobs. If it were truly happening, how could I hold this ball of snow up in Congress? (a senator actually asked this).

As we all know, vaccines cause autism — because mercuryI only use natural products for my kid, none of those chemicals for him, no sirree.

To round it all up (pun intended), the Earth is flat. There’s simply no other explanation to fit what so many of us have observed. Spherical planets orbiting around the Sun?! Go away with that mumbo-jumbo; that’s what the Government wants you to think, man! We’re living on a flat world and we will get to the bottom of why NASA is hiding it from us!

Inhofe holding snowball.

“Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) has, once and for all, disproven climate change,” the Washington Post sarcastically reported on the event.
Image via Wikimedia.

It kinda gets the hairs to stand up on the back of your neck a bit, doesn’t it? I don’t blame you. These views feel so blissfully unencumbered by basic fact, so fundamentally opposed to how we order our thoughts, that they’re actually scary; almost insulting, too. For you and me.

Yet, to a (sadly) growing number of people out there, these words spell enlightenment and a release from outside manipulations. They’re the battle cry of those who aren’t afraid to question the unquestionable, those who would seek for themselves the truth that others are hiding away. The brave, the bold, the explorers. Something inspiring like that.

Which I find quite puzzling, to say the least.

I’ve spent the last few weeks armed with a sturdy wifi and a sturdier drink in hand delving into the deep, dark, and often confusing corners of the Internet that these conspiracy theorists and pseudoscience aficionados have claimed for themselves. I wanted to understand what makes some people actually believe a theory so bonkers that it causes most others to recoil. I bore the few chuckles and many more groans (the drinks helped) this elicited so that today, we could talk about the flat elephant in the room. Namely:

What is pseudoscience?

Flat Earth map.

This, among others.
Image via Wikimedia.

The line between science and pseudoscience is generally tricky to clearly delineate. ‘Science’ isn’t a sum total of information wholly beyond critique. Researchers have repeatedly disproven theories that seemed undeniable once evidence to the contrary became available. On the other hand, some theories that seemed to be pure fantasy were later proven to be true.

Science is a process — namely, the process via which we obtain that information. It’s a set of methods, of checks and balances, that we apply when verifying theories. Sticking to these rules is the best way that we know of to tease out relevant data from our own biases and preconceptions.

Pseudoscience in all its forms uses ‘facts,’ methods, and bits of data that wear the trappings of science but not the essence. Pseudoscience sounds genuine but doesn’t follow the set of accepted scientific standards, most notably the scientific method, falsifiability of claims, and the Mertonian norms. It’s part of non-science and it’s not the same as bad science — an error made while trying to follow the scientific method, but otherwise in good faith.

In other words, pseudoscience is a body of claims built on shaky reasoning and quite a bit of cherry-picking — but it still wants you to call it ‘science’.

How sure are we?

Completely. We deal with this baloney every day.

Why write this?

Stop me if I’m going too fast here, but we write about science. While it’s undeniably awesome that we can make a living out of it (thanks, guys and gals), we’re not in it for the money.

We do it because the world is an incredibly beautiful place, and science is how we explore it. This passion to know and understand is what drives us forward. We write about science because we truly believe that we were privileged to be born into families and broader societies that could afford to educate us. It shaped us profoundly, molding us into the people we are today.

Everyone, everywhere, has the right (an argument can be made that they have also have the responsibility) to access the sum of human knowledge; to an education, be it formal or informal, in school or university, in libraries or on the Internet. We were fortunate enough to be handed that. We want to honor that debt by helping others educate themselves, in turn.

There’s a reason I started off this discussion with the three principles I think all of us here share. We tend to point the finger at adepts of pseudoscience and criticize them for breaking the first two — we reprimand them for what we perceive as a preference of opinion in face of facts, and we bemoan their lack of critical thinking.

We ridicule them for their buying into these fairy tales. Which isn’t particularly nice of us.

After my wayward weeks through their blogs and forums, however, I don’t think that’s the real issue anymore. Sure, there are some really unhinged individuals lurking about these sites — that’s true in every setting. But most members of these communities strike me as quite capable of both critical thinking and of taking in new facts and integrating them into their belief systems.

What then?

All others we monitor.

The motto “In God We Trust; All Others We Monitor” is displayed in the foyer of the Air Force Technical Applications Center’s radiochemistry laboratory at Patrick AFB, Fla. Surprisingly appropriate for the issue at hand, though.
Image credits U.S. Air Force Civil Engineer Center.

The real issue with pseudoscience, I feel, lies in that third item on my list — trust. Members clump around these wild theories because they simply cannot find it in themselves to trust outside competence or outside information.

Karen Douglas, a Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Kent who specializes in social psychology and belief in conspiracy theories, largely agrees with me on this:

“I think you are spot on regarding the lack of trust,” she told me in an email.

Needless to say, I liked her instantly. I was still very much confused about the whole affair, however. The readiness of the people I chatted with to blame conspiracies, cover-ups, and shady groups that pull on society’s strings was simply too poignant to overlook. Do adepts of pseudoscience distrust… everything? Or do they just have a burning white hate for The Gov’ment / Big Pharma / NASA / mercury? I asked Prof. Douglas if what we’re seeing is a focused or more generalized lack of trust — be it against researchers or authority in general.

We were discussing the topic of flat earthism, but this largely applies to all conspiracy theorists and pseudisciences out there:

“Whether this is generalized mistrust or not, however, is an open question,” she told me. “As far as I can see, flat earth believers tend to mistrust scientists/NASA etc. and argue that they are providing false information.”

“It’s not clear whether these people also mistrust other sources such as their friends, neighbours, the police, and other institutions.”

Pseudoscience disseminates this lack of trust. It is, at its nature, so completely opposed to what science is and stands for that it’s corrosive to it. Just like matter and anti-matter, science and non-science seem to cancel each other out with a bang. But the effects of such ‘theories’ are much more widespread and insidious.

This is why we’re writing this. To internalize the more high-profile pseudoscience currents out there is to toss all trust out the window and replace it with single-minded empiricism (e.g. “how can the Earth be round when I don’t see a curvature?”). It is to constantly question the motives of others and to always assume they’re out to get you (e.g. “big pharma hides that vaccines kill”). Pseudoscience requires some impressive leaps of mental dissonance and cherry picking because it requires that you only look at certain bits of data, lest the whole theory falls apart (such as the ‘snowball in Congress‘ move, a classic and one of my personal favorites).

It instills in those exposed to it the mindset that destroys confidence in researchers and, by extension, all other professionals. It breeds skepticism bordering on paranoia and fosters distrust in others while definitely making you right because, hey — everyone who says otherwise is probably part of the conspiracy.

This pattern of discussion is so prevalent among followers of conspiracy theories and pseudoscience that there’s even an essay on Wikipedia to help editors ‘defuse’ it.

Once you believe one thing based only on a feeling or a hunch, and you persist despite overwhelming evidence pointing against it, it’s easy to believe the next one.

It’s a very slippery slope.

“Trust always appears as one of the strongest predictors of conspiracy theories, but conspiracy theories also make people more mistrustful,” Douglas explained. “That is, when people are experimentally exposed to conspiracy theories […] they become more mistrustful of the relevant institutions.”

“Another very strong predictor of conspiracy theories is paranoia.”

“It is also the case that conspiracy believers tend to believe in paranormal phenomena (e.g., life after death, extrasensory perception), and that they tend to be superstitious (e.g., believing in good luck charms). These are correlational relationships, so the higher the conspiracy belief, the higher the paranormal or superstitious belief (i.e., it’s not a one-one relationship and we cannot tell which one causes the other).”

So why do people believe it?

Banana Earth.

via Banana Earth Society / Twitter.

It’s hard to say. Obviously, everybody has their own reasons for doing the things they do. There is also precious little literature looking into the psychological going-ons behind pseudoscience. However, a paper that Prof. Douglass co-published in 2017, “The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories” can help get us a general idea as to why pseudoscience holds such a strong appeal.

“Conspiracy theories appear to provide broad, internally consistent explanations that allow people to preserve beliefs in the face of uncertainty and contradiction,” the paper reads.

“[Conspiracy theories also] have attributes that set them apart from other types of causal explanation. […] They are speculative in that they posit actions that are hidden from public scrutiny, complex in that they postulate the coordination of multiple actors, and resistant to [the scientific process of] falsification in that they postulate that conspirators use stealth and disinformation to cover up their actions — implying that people who try to debunk conspiracy theories may, themselves, be part of the conspiracy.”

“It also appears to be stronger when events are especially large in scale or significant and leave people dissatisfied with mundane, small-scale explanations.”

They’re very appealing because they provide an unassailable barricade from which to defend one’s beliefs. The (false) context that pseudoscience and conspiracy theories provide completely shut down any avenue of debate. And that’s just dandy with us since humans totally Do Not Like having their beliefs questioned or criticized (see here and here).

Motive can be attributed to the shadowy and obscure interests of the conspirators (‘actions that are hidden from public scrutiny’); the purpose of any institution can be called into question (‘the coordination of multiple actors’), and its claims — no matter how valid — quickly dismissed (‘stealth and disinformation’).

This mechanism is what gives pseudoscience its staying power — but what exactly draws people to it in the first place? Sure, it helps “provide broad, internally consistent explanations that allow people to preserve beliefs in the face of uncertainty and contradiction,” — but that sounds like sticking your head in the sand, doesn’t it? I don’t think there’s anyone, anywhere, that would genuinely want to knowingly lie to themselves.

There has to be more at play here.

Writing for The ConversationHarry Dyer recounts attending the first Flat Earth Convention in the UK. This three-day-long event paints a very different image of the adepts of pseudoscience than most of us would likely attribute them.

“The weekend in no small part revolved around discussing and debating science, with lots of time spent running, planning, and reporting on the latest set of flat earth experiments and models,” he recounts. “Indeed, as one presenter noted early on, flat earthers try to ‘look for multiple, verifiable evidence’ and advised attendees to ‘always do your own research and accept you might be wrong’.”

“While flat earthers seem to trust and support scientific methods, what they don’t trust is scientists, and the established relationships between ‘power’ and ‘knowledge’.”

“The level of discussion however often did not revolve around the models on offer, but on broader issues of attitudes towards existing structures of knowledge, and the institutions that supported and presented these models.”

Dyer argues — quite compellingly at times, definitely give him a read — that this recoiling from anything perceived as ‘mainstream’ starts from the way freedom of thought is twisted and bent in recent times. It’s laughably easy for anyone, anywhere, to create and share any type of content with virtually no moderation. For the first time in our history, people can pick what narrative they want to believe. People for whom the official explanation will never satisfy simply because it is ‘the official’ one will lap up any alternative, no matter how hollow, because they want to believe.

Liar sign.

This is how some people treat any and all authority.
Image credits Alan Cleaver / Flickr.

We’re also seeing dramatic social polarization around key issues: energy, climate change, politics, fake news. These topics always breed a certain level of animosity and resentment among participants. Such emotions can be spun and manipulated — ironically — by outside interests.

In the end, however, adepts of pseudoscience movements genuinely believe that they ask the questions others want them not to ask; that they are opposing censorship from ‘those in power’.

“At the same time as scientific claims to knowledge and power are being undermined, some power structures are decoupling themselves from scientific knowledge, moving towards a kind of populist politics that are increasingly sceptical of knowledge,” Dyer writes.

“[…] This can also be seen in more subtle and insidious form in the way in which Brexit, for example, was campaigned for in terms of gut feelings and emotions rather than expert statistics and predictions. Science is increasingly facing problems with its ability to communicate ideas publicly, a problem that politicians, and flat earthers, are able to circumvent with moves towards populism.”

Science is awesome, and it works, and it gives you the right answer — but the truth isn’t always comforting. Science gives facts, but sometimes, people just want hope, meaning, or a way to deflect blame; things that fall under the category of ‘feels’. Science doesn’t offer many of these emotional release valves. Pseudoscience offers them a-plenty.

We have an inbuilt need to make sense of the world around us. Pseudoscience offers us a way to make sense of the world “when information is unavailable, reducing uncertainty and bewilderment when available information is conflicting, finding meaning when events seem random, and defending beliefs from disconfirmation,” Prof. Douglas’ team write in their paper. They add that “people are likely to turn to conspiracy theories when they are anxious and feel powerless.”

Conspiracy belief is “strongly related to lack of sociopolitical control or lack of psychological empowerment,” and such belief “is heightened when people feel unable to control outcomes and is reduced when their sense of control is affirmed”, the team explains. Finally, subscribing to a pseudoscientific trend is a way of satisfying our “desire to belong and to maintain a positive image of the self and the in-group,” helping us “valorize the self and the in-group by allowing blame for negative outcomes to be attributed to others.”

Pseudoscience coughs up an explanation where we don’t really know what’s happening and makes you feel part of a group that values you. It gives medicine (that doesn’t work) for diseases we can’t cure.  For the patient that doctors can’t save, pseudoscience offers a way to cope; the fact that it’s false doesn’t matter. It gives hope, or the illusion of hope, where science doesn’t — and hope is a powerful soother.

For many of their adepts, then, pseudoscientific theories offer an escape from a world that’s often cruel, unfair, or just doesn’t make sense. And that’s what makes this whole affair tragic:

“Unfortunately, research conducted thus far does not indicate that conspiracy belief effectively satisfies this motivation,” the paper reads.

“On the contrary, experimental exposure to conspiracy theories appears to immediately suppress people’s sense of autonomy and control.”

The growth of pseudoscience in all its forms, I feel, is one of the most worrying developments of our modern times. Dyer takes it as “a product and sign of our time; a reflection of our increasing distrust in scientific institutions, and the moves by power-holding institutions towards populism and emotions”. In his eyes, such beliefs represent a rebellion of sorts against those ‘in power’ for faults that we may never know.

Science March in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Sign from the 2017 Science March in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Image credits Mark Dixon / Wikimedia.

For Prof. Douglas it’s a refuge; the safe place in our minds where we retreat to feel right, to hold our beliefs inviolate, to feel justified, to make our hardships mean something without facing our own faults.

For me, it’s a sign that something, somewhere, isn’t working right. By chance or design, not-insignificant groups of people choose to take refuge in ‘their own’ truth. Be it a refuge from segregation, abuse of power, a safe harbor in which to anchor their beliefs from the winds of fact — it does not matter. When people weave stories to insulate them from society, that society has failed them.

And perhaps it is time to take a good hard look at ourselves and how we helped push them into ‘alternative’ facts.

We’re facing real, significant climate change. We’re seeing the reemergence of diseases that our vaccines had almost wiped out. We’re trying to go to Mars while some people still insist the Earth is flat. We can’t afford to waste time and energy being divided on topics that are clear-cut. We can’t afford to doubt the experts and put those that make us feel good in power. We can launch world-ending nukes with a button — we can’t risk having people not listen to basic scientific fact, or judging life through a twisted lens.

Pseudoscience doesn’t work: real life has a way of knocking on your door no matter how far away you try to move. It does, however, make the things that do work, work a little bit less. It is, at its core, based on false information. It is a lie.

I, for one, think each and every one of us should work to weed out lies wherever possible — both our own and those of others.

In Romania, distrust of vaccines claims children’s lives

Pseudoscience had an unfortunate victory in an important battle in the European country of Romania, where 39 children lost their lives following a measles outbreak. Their parents refused to vaccinate them, misled by scare stories against vaccination.

“People are mistrustful because they read all sorts of things on the internet,” said Dr. Silvana Dan from the southern regional Prahova Public Health Authority, citing long-refuted but still prevalent rumors that vaccination causes autism.

Measles, once again killing people in the 21st century

It’s a story you don’t expect to hear, and in all truth, it’s one that we shouldn’t be telling in the 21st century. If we have a functional vaccine and the resources to carry out vaccination, having a lethal measles epidemic is simply unacceptable.

Romania is an outlier in Europe. Since late 2016, there have been just over 20,000 cases in Europe, and out of them, 12,000 have been in Romania. Germany had only 919 cases, France had 77, and the UK had 62.  Out of the 49 fatalities reported in Europe, 46 have been in Romania, and 39 of them were children.

The same story is heard over and over again: parents are misled by aggressive media campaigns against vaccination and they simply refuse to vaccinate their children. An 11-month-old died in March after her parents refused to vaccinate her. In the village of Valea Seaca, another baby girl just 10 months old died of measles in February.

“Her parents refused, in writing, to have their children vaccinated after seeing reports on television that vaccines kill,” local mayor Ioan Pravat told AFP.

The problem is further exacerbated in the disadvantaged Roma communities, who rarely ask their family doctor for information.

But there is also room for progress. Health workers have tried a new approach, literally going door to door and talking to the people in the communities — and there are signs it’s working.

“I don’t want to lie to you. At the beginning I, too, was afraid because I had heard that there could be problems, like causing paralysis,” said Anisoara Iorga. “But then I did get my children vaccinated and they had no problems at all.”

The governing party, PSD (Social-Democrat Party) has also pledged to improve vaccination rates by making 10 child vaccines compulsory. However, debates have progressed slowly, and several amendments by anti-vaccine groups have managed to sneak in. Surprisingly, the anti-vaccination movement is supported by a small minority in the medical community, though most doctors in Romania are, understandably, outraged.

“We have to defend the scientific work (underlying vaccines) while information which has no such basis is taken as the truth,” said Dr. Alexandru Rafila, head of Romania’s microbiology society.

Critics have also accused the governing party of not doing enough to ensure that vulnerable communities have access to proper doses. To make matters even worse, the anti-vaccine narrative is also being pushed by a few local celebrities, spearheaded by former TV presenter Olivia Steer, who admitted that she has vaccinated her own children. Steer is widely known for propagating conspiracy theories and disproven, pseudoscientific claims, but she is still followed by many. Just yesterday (April 18) she received an award for promoting women’s health — although the prize was withdrawn the very next day following public and sponsor outrage.

A bigger lesson

Ultimately, Romania is a cautionary tale for the entire world. Vaccines have largely been a victim of their own success — measles cases plunged from 550,100 in 2000, to just under 90,000 in 2016. Many people see the decline of such cases as a natural cause, disregarding the fact that this very drop was only possible due to vaccines. It also shows just how much damage a single, fraudulent, and long disproven study can do.

In 1998, Andrew Wakefield authored a widely read research paper claiming that there was a link between the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine and the emergence of autism and bowel disease. Researchers from all around the world were unable to reproduce his results, and a 2004 investigation identified undisclosed financial conflicts of interest on Wakefield’s part. Most of his co-authors withdrew support from the paper after realizing what had happened. Then, the British General Medical council conducted an inquiry and found not only that Wakefield’s results were dishonest and baseless but that he had also subjected children to cruel, unnecessary medical procedures. The study was retracted, and the editor of the Lancet (where the study had been published) wrote that the paper was “utterly false” and that the journal had been “deceived”. Wakefield was subsequently removed from the UK medical register and was banned from practicing medicine due to the intentional falsification of scientific studies.

Wakefield was planning to launch a venture profiting from his fraudulent studies, and still travels the world giving anti-vaccine speeches. In Romania, as well as several other countries (albeit to a lesser extent), children are dying because parents won’t vaccinate their kids.

The World Health Organization recommends a vaccination rate of 95 percent for effective disease control. This also helps with ensuring the so-called herd immunity for the population. In a population where a large number of individuals are immune, the chain of infection is likely to be disrupted, which essentially ensures that no major epidemic sets in. This is particularly important for children one-year-old or younger who haven’t had the chance to be vaccinated yet. However, vaccination rates in Romania are at 87 percent for the first inoculation and only 75 percent for the second, according to the latest official figures from 2016 (measles vaccination requires two doses for optimum protection).  This compromises herd immunity and facilitated the onset of the epidemic.

UK prospecting companies admit to using the medieval technique of dowsing

Ten out of the twelve water companies in the UK have admitted to using dowsing, a type of divination popular in the Middle Ages.

An image from a set of 8 extra-illustrated volumes of A tour in Wales by Thomas Pennant (1726-1798). Dowsing emerged sometime in the 15th century.

In an age when we can use magnets to detect underground ore, electrical current to detect aquifers, and ground penetrating radar for archaeological remains, walking around with a stick in your hand to find water sounds downright silly — yet that’s exactly what some prospectors in the UK are doing. Dowsing — or water witchery — involves using a Y-shaped or two L-shaped rods to locate groundwater. Needless to say, it’s a pseudoscience and it doesn’t work. Dowsers stand by their practice, but study after study has shown the technique to be nothing more than chance or explained by observations from ground surface clues. Simply put, it’s ancient witchcraft. Yet some companies still employ it.

The discovery that firms were still using water diviners was made by the science blogger Sally Le Page, who observed it firsthand. She wrote:

“My parents were trying to install a new water pipe from the mains, which required knowing where the existing mains water pipes were underground. After calling out a technician from Severn Trent, the water company that services the whole of the Midlands, my parents couldn’t believe their eyes when they saw the man from Severn Trent slowly walking around holding two “bent tent pegs” to locate the pipe.”

Surprisingly, instead of denying or apologizing, the company stood by its technique, saying that it found it to be “just as effective as the new ones.”

Shocked by this, LePage contacted the other 11 companies to ask them if they use dowsing. Just one, Wessex Water, said it did not use divining rods. Another, Northern Ireland Water had yet to reply. The other nine confirmed that they still use the divination in some areas. Simply stated, this isn’t acceptable. Christopher Hassall, a specialist in water management at the Leeds University School of Biology, told The Guardian:

“This isn’t a technique, it’s witchcraft. We work with water companies to enhance the sustainability of drinking water supplies and it is frustrating that there are still some very peculiar practices that are going on in these companies.”

He called for an eradication of the practice. Drinking water is a fundamental human right and we just can’t afford to leave that in the hand of dowsers.

“The statutory bodies need to be stepping in. It is analogous to using homeopathy and reiki on the NHS. These are unproven practices that waste time and money. Drinking water is a fundamental human necessity and something that the water companies should be managing as effectively and efficiently as possible without using these medieval witchcraft practices.”

Yet companies still say incredible things like this:

Both sides? I think we’ve heard that one before, haven’t we?

It’s time for another Fake Apocalypse — the Nibiru version

Conspiracy theories strike again: media is abuzz with an impending doom set to take place on November 19th due to Nibiru (or Planet X). Needless to say, these reports are simply fairy tales.

Instead of an image of Nibiru, here’s an image of Earth. Because you know, Earth is real.

Conspiracy theories involving Nibiru just won’t go away. The hypothetical planet has been at the center of baseless speculation and doomsday talk for years. Every few months, people predict a catastrophic planetary event involving Nibiru; every time nothing happens, and the cycle just senselessly repeats. The reason for that is simple: Nibiru doesn’t exist.

Nibiru (sometimes called Planet X) is allegedly a large planetary object at the edge of our solar system. Astronomers have looked, nothing was ever found. It’s textbook pseudoscience. Even the way the idea of Nibiru emerged is laughable.

The idea was first put forward in 1995 by Nancy Lieder. Lieder describes herself as a contactee with the ability to receive messages from extra-terrestrials from the Zeta Reticuli star system through an implant in her brain. She states that she was chosen to warn mankind that the object would sweep through the inner Solar System in May 2003 causing Earth to undergo a physical pole shift that would destroy most of humanity. By, now you probably start to see a few issues with this. For starters, 2003 was a long time ago, and here we are. Doomsday conspiracists have postponed the “date” more and more but — not surprisingly — nothing ever happened. In fact, the only thing that is surprising is that people still fall for such ideas.

Now, the idea is that Nibiru will get close enough to our planet to influence tectonic activity and generate dramatic earthquakes around the world. This just doesn’t make any sense, for several reasons. Let’s play along a bit and pretend Nibiru exists. The idea is that its gravitational field would distort our planet, it would attract tectonic plates, and that would generate the earthquakes.

For decades, geologists have looked for a connection between the Moon’s gravitational attractions and earthquakes — they haven’t found any. It is possible that such a connection exists, but it’s unlikely, and even if it does exist, it’s pretty thin. This would imply that we’d have a planetary object zooming much closer than the Moon, and if that happens, earthquakes would be the last of our problems. Even if it does happen, it’s not clear that massive earthquakes would be generated. Most of the big earthquakes on Earth are generated by tectonic plates sliding next to each other, not going up or down.

So even if we play along and ignore everything that science and common sense tell us, the idea still doesn’t make any sense. It’s painful that we need to write this, just like it’s painful that NASA had to address the topic. Please, stop believing crackpot conspiracy theories.

power lines prove curvature of earth

Power lines over Lake Pontchartrain elegantly demonstrate the curvature of Earth

power lines prove curvature of earth

Credit: Soundly, Meta Bunk.

It’s mind-boggling that some people are still debating whether the Earth is flat or not. Ideally, such pseudo-science nonsense shouldn’t even be discussed — we’re just dignifying an absurd idea, giving the impression that there’s maybe a glimmer of truth to this Middle Age thinking. However, one video blogger made such an elegant demonstration of the curvature of Earth that it merits showcasing here just for the sake of science itself.

Soundly was driving on the Interstate 10 when he passed by the Lake Pontchartrain transmission lines in Southeast Louisiana and decided to make a live stream with the lovely sight. Using a telephoto lens, Soundly showed how the causeway and transmission lines go over the horizon just like ships.

This is actually one of the rare places around the world that the Earth’s curvature is perceptible with good optics, although you can plainly notice it with the naked eye as well.

Mick West explained over at Metabunk what’s going on with the curvature effect of the Pontchartrain transmission lines.

“A classic experiment to demonstrate the curvature of a body of water is to place markers (like flags) a fixed distance above the water in a straight line, and then view them along that line in a telescope. If the water surface is flat then the markers will appear also in a straight line. If the surface of the water is curved (as it is here on Earth) then the markers in the middle will appear higher than the markers at the ends.”

The line of power lines is straight, and they are all the same size and the same height above the water. They are also very tall and form a straight line nearly 16 miles long. Far better than any experiment one could set up on a canal or a lake. You just need to get into a position where you can see along the line of towers, and then use a powerful zoom lense to look along the line to make any curve apparent.”

transmission line lake curvature

Credit: Soundly.

Soundly was careful to record pictures and videos from multiple perspectives, and they all show the same thing: the transmission lines are curving. Just as anyone with sensible knowledge of nature and science already expects.

Of course, not everyone was convinced as hilarity ensued in the comment section of Soundly’s videos, who by the way has dozens of videos debunking flat-earth nonsense.

Flat Earth comentflat earth commentFlat Earth Comment 3These are only a few couple of the astonishing comments I’ve read and, believe it or not, the same sentiment is abundant across all social media channels. In a sense, these are textbook examples of entrenched dogmatic thinking: stubborn in the face of any facts or evidence you present. Their opinion is not based on science but some elaborate fantasy that borderlines madness. Nothing can sway them over. And while flat-earthers are, in a sense, harmless, the same can’t be said about another very similar sort of denialist — the climate change denier or the ideologically-brainwashed goof who constructs his life values and goal based on what a party says ought to be ‘true’.

The story about the “breatharian” couple not eating any food, living from the “universe energy” is bogus — and people bought it

In recent days, a story about a couple not eating any sort of food for nine years has gone pretty viral. For some reason, people bought it, and now we have to explain why it’s absolutely absurd and “breatharianism” is utter garbage. Let’s take it from the top.

I don’t need food bro, the universe feeds me


Seriously, that’s the core idea of a new-age belief (which in this case, as in most others, translates into dangerous pseudoscience) called breatharianism. Breatharians believe that food, and in some cases water, are not necessary for survival and that humans can be sustained solely by prana, the vital life force in Hinduism. The sun is the main source of prana, so basically — you just live off of solar energy.

However, since last time I checked humans are not plants and they don’t do photosynthesis, that just doesn’t make any sense. Evey single animal needs to eat food and drink water. Sure, some eat more and some eat less, but sooner or later, everyone needs to eat. That’s just a hard reality and has nothing to do with spirituality.

Take the case of a famous breatharian, Israeli Ray Maor. He was challenged to live in a small villa without any food and under constant surveillance. After eight days, he was still in good spirits (which I’ll grant, is impressive), but he lost 17 lbs (7.7 kg) of weight! That makes a lot of sense since it’s generally believed that the longest people can go without food is three weeks, but your body will be extremely taxed.

Another notable example is that of Australia’s Jasmuheen (born Ellen Greve), who claims to live only on a cup of tea and a biscuit every few days. She took a supervised test in 1999, and after four days without any food or water, she was extremely dehydrated and required medical intervention. She claimed this happened because she was near a road and had to “breathe bad air.” She used the same excuse when the experiment was carried out in the middle of nowhere. That also makes sense, since the most you can live without water is around one week.

So then why are people believing that this couple made it without any food for nine years?

The story

It all started with a British tabloid called The Sun, which in typical tabloid fashion — high on capitalization and low on fact checking — published the story about two people: Akahi Ricardo and Camila Castello, husband and wife, who just don’t eat. Here’s an excerpt from that piece of journalistic gem.

A “BREATHARIAN” mum-and-dad of two have barely eaten for nine years as they live off “the universe’s energy”.

Husband and wife Akahi Ricardo and Camila Castello believe food and water is not necessary and that humans can be sustained solely by the energy of the universe.

Camila and Akahi — who have a five-year-old son and two-year-old daughter together — have survived on little else besides a piece of fruit or vegetable broth just 3 times per week since 2008.

And Camila even practised a Breatharian PREGNANCY — not eating anything during the entire nine months that she carried her first child.

Now, if I was being kind, I’d say that the Sun is not the most respectable publication. If I was being nasty, I’d say they’re a bunch of manky nut muppets who don’t have the slightest respect for facts and for their audience. You can draw your line wherever you want, but this is not just The Sun doing their usual pseudojournalism thing — the story was soon picked up by an impressive number of outlets, including Yahoo, The Sun, The New York Post, The Independent, The Daily Mail, and Metro. This is the real story — that so many outlets covered this story, and so many people actually believed it. The Independent’s story was shared approximately 37,000 times. The Daily Mail’s was shared about 24,000 times.

As it turns out, the couple made up the story themselves and sold it to a content creation company called News Dog Media, who after “two long Skype interviews,” purchased their story and re-sold it to outlets such as The Sun or Daily Mail. But why would the couple do it?

Image via Wikipedia.

Well, it’s win-win for them. Not only do they sell their story for a lot of money, but they also get to promote their business.

“In their eight-day programs and four-week online video courses, which cost from around $200 for a video course to more than $1,700 for an eight-day session in San Francisco, the couple claims they teach people to “increment the energy” they receive through conscious breathing techniques and other exercises,” the NY post reads. That’s quite a lot of money for literally nothing.

A post-truth world

Image credits: planeta / Flickr.

This is another example of the so-called post-truth world. Truth doesn’t matter. Facts don’t matter. Nothing really matters, as long as it’s framed in a story that people can believe. The couple later clarified their situation, saying that they do eat, just “not with the same frequency or intensity as the average person,” and mostly fruits and vegetable broth. But the ship had long sailed, and the story, in its various forms, was already shared and read by hundreds of thousands, if not millions.

In the real world, breatharianism is nothing but dangerous quackery, which can lead to or exacerbate eating disorders. You need appropriate food for your body to function properly, and if you’re looking for some form of spiritual enlightenment, this is definitely not the way. This is why this story is not only absurd and insulting, but it’s also dangerous.

“You need protein to build muscle and you need fat to support your nervous system and for heart health, and you need carbohydrates to keep your energy up and to feed your brain,” said Liz Sanders, a registered dietician nutritionist and the director of research and partnerships at the nonprofit International Food Information Council. The occasional apple or veggie broth just won’t cut it, she says.

Completely useless: Homeopathy no better than placebo, study confirms

While there is a full scientific consensus that homeopathy is a pseudoscience many people still believe in it. As a result, many researchers are still trying to disprove homeopathy and yet another study did just that: it showed that homeopathy is no better than a placebo for 68 different illnesses.

Professor Paul Glasziou, a leading academic in evidence based medicine at Bond University set out to verify 176 trials of homeopathy dealing with 68 different illnesses to see if it actually works or not. The review found “no discernible convincing effects beyond placebo” and concluded “there was no reliable evidence from research in humans that homeopathy was effective for treating the range of health conditions considered”. The results were so convincing that he gave up after 57 systematic reviews: there simply was no evidence of a single case where homeopathy worked.

“As chair of the working party which produced the report I was simply relieved that the arduous journey of sifting and synthesising the evidence was at an end. I had begun the journey with an ‘I don’t know attitude’, curious about whether this unlikely treatment could ever work… but I lost interest after looking at the 57 systematic reviews which contained 176 individual studies and finding no discernible convincing effects beyond placebo.”

Old homeopathic remedy, Hepar sulphide. Photo by Wikidudeman.

Homeopathy is a system to treat people developed in 1796 by Samuel Hahnemann based on his doctrine of like cures likeThis is the claim that a substance that causes the symptoms of a disease in healthy people would cure similar symptoms in sick people. Homeopathy is often times wrongly presented as science despite heavy evidence that it doesn’t actually do anything. Any positive feelings that follow treatment are simply the placebo effect and normal recovery from illness. Hahnemann believed the underlying causes of disease were phenomena that he termed miasms. Yes, homeopathy is a method developed in the late 18th century that believes diseases are caused by something called miasms – and yet millions of people still believe in its capacity.

Glasziou continues:

“I can well understand why Samuel Hahnemann- the founder of homeopathy- was dissatisfied with the state of 18th century medicine’s practices, such as blood-letting and purging and tried to find a better alternative. But I would guess he would be disappointed by the collective failure of homeopathy to carry on his innovative investigations, but instead continue to pursue a therapeutic dead-end.”

Despite what your personal beliefs and convictions may be, the reality of it is that homeopathy doesn’t work. Hopefully, we can turn this page once and for all and start focusing on treatments that actually have a chance to work.

Rising Japanese scientist faked heralded stem cell research, lab says

Her short career was absolutely remarkable – before she was 20, Haruko Obokata was accepted into the science department at Tokyo’s Waseda University, but that was only the beginning. Then she studied at Harvard University in what was supposed to be a half-year program, but advisers were so impressed with her research, they asked her stay longer. It was there that her career would be defined – for better and for worse.

The research was called STAP — “stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency” — which unveiled a new way to grow tissue. Needless to say, professors were impressed, and the scientific community was already treating her with respect – it was already shaping up to be a golden career.

“I think about my research all day long, including when I am taking a bath and when I am on a date with my boyfriend,” Obokata told the Asahi Shimbun.

After she got her PhD though, she published what appeared to be her groundbreaking research in the scientific journal Nature. Her paper focused around a new way to grow tissue and treat complicated diseases such as Parkinson’s – many people called it one of the most remarkable discoveries in stem cell research.

“There were many days when I wanted to give up on my research and cried all night long,” she said at news conference. “But I encouraged myself to hold on just for one more day.”

But as it turned out, her research was just castles of sand – fake castles of sand for that matter. Obokata’s research institute, Riken, announced that the 30-year-old had purposely fabricated the data to produce the findings. The Institute’s director Ryoji Noyori said he’ll “rigorously punish relevant people after procedures in a disciplinary committee,” making it very clear that Obokata will be the first to take a fall. ”The manipulation was used to improve the appearance of the results.”, he added.

Obokata, for her part, denied the month-long investigation’s allegations.

“I will file a complaint against Riken as it’s absolutely impossible for me to accept this,” AFP reports her saying in a statement.

But the evidence started piling up. Despite various efforts, no one was able to replicate the results she obtained, which is always a huge question mark – repeatability is at the very core of scientific research.

In early March one of the paper’s co-authors, Teruhiko Wakayama, jumped ship, calling for a retraction of the findings. He believes that the results were intentionally altered by Obokata.

“It’s unlikely that it was a careless mistake,” he wrote the Wall Street Journal in an e-mail. “There is no more credibility when there are such crucial mistakes,” he added.

The investigators say that the problem is with the images used in the study – DNA fragments submitted into Obokata’s work were modified, or entirely fabricated. So what will happen now ? The odds are, her doctorate will be stripped, as well as any other degree she worked so hard to obtain. She will most likely never be able to work in the scientific industry ever again. Everything that she worked so hard for, this brilliant mind, will be gone – and nothing will be left but a big, black stain – and the time and money wasted trying to recreate her fake results. I hope that investigators are wrong, and this will all turn out to be a big misunderstanding – but that’s unlikely to happen. It’s such a shame! I hope that in some way, she can still use her brilliant mind to contribute to science, and, should this be the case, make up for her mistakes.


Nonsense paper that cites Michael Jackson and Ron Jeremy gets published in Romanian magazine

Dragan Djuric and Boris Delibasic, two professors of FON (Faculty of Organizational Sciences), along with advisor Stevica Radisic deliberately published a nonsensical, fictional article in the Romanian magazine “Metalurgia International” in order to draw attention on the massive production of quasi-scientific works by Serbian professors which are published in dubious magazines.

The work


Their “scientific” work was titled “Evaluation of transformative hermeneutic heuristics for processing of random data”, and even though it looks like a badly written fairy tale, it was published without correction in the magazine, which is otherwise full of Serbian papers. Here’s a small fragment of the paper’s extraordinary text:

Our work has been inspired and directly founded on various astonishing research by intellectual giants in various interesting fields of social science and practically conducted and supported by the advances in multiple technical disciplines, thus giving this work a veritable multidisciplinary aura.

To add a little more humour, they also attached pictures, which feature an obviously fake moustache and even a wig.

The quotations

But the quotations – ah the quotations! This bold scientific journal accepted references from 2012 from the long-gone Bernoulli and Laplace who haven’t published a paper in hundreds of years, as well as Michael Jackson and porn actor Ron Jeremy, who has been moonlighting as an author in the journal Transactions of the Chinese Mathematical Society, (a journal that, according to a simple Google search, doesn’t exist) . But that’s not the half of it! The paper also quotes B. Sagdiyev (otherwise known as Borat), results published by Disney character Goofy in the scientific magazine “Mikijev Zabavnik” (comic for children), and noted researcher A.S. Hole.

Needless to say, the move was hailed by the scientific community, who is still struggling to fight the faux scientific mumbo jumbo which doesn’t really say anything, as well as pseudoscience.

“Phenomenal move! We do not want to put up anymore with false scientific works of quasi-scientists being published in suspicious magazines while their colleagues in times as hard as these manage to do great researches and publish them in prestigious world magazines,” said professor dr. Pero Sipka, director of the EB of Centre for Evaluation in Education.

Read the full “Paper” here.