In pilot training, a phrase stuck with me from a ground school briefing: “Pilot’s must exercise extreme skepticism at all times.” Why? Because instruments can fail, controllers can make mistakes, pilots can miss steps on checklists. In short, because we can all make mistakes or fall victim to our own biases.
Scientific skepticism is applying a critical eye to popular culture and with evidence-based inquiry of supernatural and pseudoscientific claims.
One goal is to inform people about the many hoaxes, frauds, and swindlers out there and how to spot them. It is important to emphasize that skepticism is simply a way of thinking that follows evidence, and not memorizing a list of true or false. Critical thinking is a skill that must be practiced, and any ‘expert’ is equally susceptible to being deceived by simple gimmicks. People love their placebos; it doesn’t matter who you are, you love one too. Be it for lack of knowledge or a lack of time, we have all been fooled, it’s a part of human nature.
Show me the evidence, until then I don’t buy it.
An excellent in-depth MEDIA GUIDE TO SKEPTICISM by Doubtful News.
A comprehensive list of Skeptics Conventions on Lanyrd.com.
Magicians have long exploited specific shortcomings in human perception to fool audiences for entertainment. Psychics have also long exploited these same shortcomings under false pretenses to divorce desperate seekers from their money. It can be argued that the skeptic movement owes its origins to a few magicians such as The Great Harry Houdini, The Amazing Randi, and Penn & Teller, who took offense at simple stage tricks being used to “talk to the dead” and grieving families. Despite work of these individuals and organizations such as the James Randi Educational Foundation, the Center For Inquiry, and others, these kinds of con-artists are doing better than ever.
There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been.
The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”
Isaac Asimov, column in Newsweek (21 January 1980)
Red Flags of Pseudoscience
Beware these buzzwords and arguments. If you see a few, best think about the claim more critically. This list will continue to grow as we address new topics in pseudoscience through comics, articles, Skeptics In The Pub events, and podcast episodes.
- Airborne – Sorry, it’s made by a teacher and also a scam.
- Acupuncture – A scientifically debunked notion that placing needles in ‘meridian lines’ can heal a patient. It is demonstrably a placebo effect, and works the same regardless of where the needles are places, or if they’re even placed at all.
- Ancient – As in “Ancient Wisdom”. This is a logical fallacy argument known as the Argument From Antiquity. Just because it’s old, doesn’t mean it works.
- Ayervedic – An Indian term for bullshit.
- Balance Bracelets – Magnetic, holograms, doesn’t matter: they are a scam. Addressed by this comic.
- Chemicals – An implication that all chemicals are harmful. Chemicals, the stuff that makes up all matter, cannot be classified as harmful by default.
- Chem-Trails – Some people think that airline contrails are a government conspiracy to modify the weather, or something sinister like that. It’s not, they’re just clouds. You can trust me, I’m a pilot.
- Cleansing & Detox – See Also: Toxins. If they existed, magic lights and crystals would not remove them. These are nonsense notions that play off other nonsense principles.
- Complementary and Alternative Medicine – CAM is the most common term for alternative medicine, now marketing itself as complementary because it does not have any measurable effects on its own. In this way they can get some credit for the result, very much the same way that sugar cereals are part of a balanced breakfast. Remove the cereal, and you still have a balanced breakfast.
- Ear Candles – Your family may have used these and narrowly avoided scalding hot wax to the eardrum for nothing.
- Healing – A red flag word used by alternative medicine practitioners, not used by real doctors.
- Holistic – A false notion of “treating the whole person” which more accurately reads “selling them lots of placebos”. Many false medical practices make use of this nonmedical term.
- Homeopathic – The Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938 (sponsored by Royal Copeland, a United States Senator from New York and homeopathic physician) recognized homeopathic remedies as drugs. They are sugar pills marketed as medicine. Anything with homeopathic on the label is a dubious and fraudulent product. Comic in this article.
- Immune Boosting – There is no proof that your immune system can be ‘boosted’ by anything.
- Light – While you do need some sunlight for Vitamin D, scam products with LED lights certainly cannot ‘cure’ arthritis. Nor can you ‘live on light’ as your only source of nourishment. People need food, it’s simple.
- Magnets – Permanent magnets have not been shown to have any effect on the body. Your blood is not magnetic.
- Natural – Is a meaningless term.
- Naturopathic Medicine – Is a particularly insidious branch of CAM that has created false journals, universities, and branches of legitimate medical schools to push misleading claims. Also known as: Integrative Health.
- Osteopathy – A medical practices built on the idea that the body has ‘tides’ which cause disease that a practitioner can detect and manipulate – by squeezing your skull.
- Toxins – What exactly is a toxin anyway? They don’t have an answer for that, but they’re sure their product removes them.
- Whole Foods – Every placebo has it’s own aisle. This place is a minefield of pseudoscience and woo.