Archive for category Pseudoscience

Harvard, Ice Cream, and Quantum Mechanics

Posted by on Saturday, 13 February, 2010



A long, long time ago, Joel, Doug, and MISTER ScienceAintSoBad were in line for an ice cream cone in Harvard Square.

I can’t remember, exactly, why, but Joel said (not for the first time) that “People are morons.”

Mister (not at that time) ScienceAintSoBad sturdily defended you.

“Not all of them.”

“That’s what YOU think. They don’t know crap!”

“You do?”

Three guys in line for ice cream.. You don’t want the whole transcript. However, it led to a “test” (we were young, remember). We decided to ask people in the line about electrons.

We would be easy graders. The interviewee didn’t have to know a lot. The answer could be “part of an atom”, “a tiny something that’s part of stuff”, “a particle”, “some small shmatta from physics” – just some indication that he.she knew what we were talking about.

So we did the survey. We asked ten customers, one by one. And this is what happened.

Nobody knew the answer.

One person – a high school girl, I think – knew it was “something in science” so she got a passing grade.

Everybody else was stumped. Most of them shrugged their shoulders or looked confused or were afraid that they were on Candid Camera.

Why bring this up?

Not because Joel was right about people being stupid. THEY weren’t making idiots out of themselves in an ice cream shop. But if this shop, which was a few hundred yards from Harvard (gasp!) University was even a little representative of the intelligent beings that inhabit our planet, then they (those intelligent beings) certainly didn’t give a lime sherbert’s damn about physics. Or abstract theories. Or natural philosophy. Or what-have-you.

You’re gonna say you have some issues with my methodology. That is wasn’t scientific.

But that’s not the point.

The point is that the “deeper” more abstract things are a hard sell with the average person. It’s just not what people think about.


MISTER ScienceAintSoBad can tell when you’re interested.

You know that little shmagegge on the upper right of the screen? It counts the visitors.

When we do an article about PRACTICAL things like the effects of salt on your health or a new cancer drug or a new breakthrough in hypnotic suggestion that turns teenagers into sweet, docile, uncomplaining saints, that thing GOES! The individual numbers get blurry and it goes whirr, whirr, whirr.

BUT when we do something really INTERESTING, something of PROFOUND SCIENTIFIC IMPORT such as the continuing effort to understand dark matter or dark energy or research into the true nature of the universe (quantum mechanics or string theory, for example), it stutters, hesitates, shivers, and staggers like it’s developed a case of frozen neuron disease.

This tells me that if I want lots of customers (and, by the way, the readership of Science Ain’t So Bad has been growing and thank you) I should stay away from deep science.

Unfortunately, because of a contract I have with myself, that’s not gonna happen so you can either go away with something new or (more likely) just skip the good stuff.

I hope you’ll, at least, give me a chance on the esoterica. It’ll make you a better person.

And, how can you be sure it won’t come up in a job interview?

You’ll be SO happy to learn that I’m adding book reviews to Science Ain’t So Bad and the first review – not finished yet – is going to be Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe.

Which doesn’t have a THING in it that’ll relieve the symptoms of a cold.

Homeopathic Medicine. It Can’t Hurt.

Posted by on Thursday, 17 December, 2009

Watered down to something?

Homeopathic Medicine: Safe As The Water You Drink

Jange Spengstre is a ballet dancer who lives in East Flatbush (N. Y.) She had a question for the homeopathy expert at Science Ain’t So bad.

“My drugstore sells homeopathic medicine right beside the other stuff and I can’t really tell the difference. The labels look official. Should I be leery of the homeopathic drugs? They claim to be very safe.”

According to Wikipedia, Homeopathic medicine is a form of alternative medicine in which the patient is given a drug which is diluted with water over and over again and “Dilution often continues until none of the original substance remains.”

Which is strange.

If nothing’s left but water, is it.. is the medicine WATER? Is that what they’re selling as a cure?

That’s legal?

Well, Dana Ulman, an “expert in homeopathic medicine” says (Huffington Post) that homeopathy’s fine. Don’t pick on it.

Those who say homeopathic cures are just water are “proving their ignorance”. There’s lots of proof, he says, that very small doses of substances can be efficacious. Why not, he says, think of the homeopathic enterprise as “nanopharmacology” to emphasize the small doses used?

Admitting that the scientific basis for “nanopharmacology” is a mystery, he reminds us that nature is full of mysteries.


Practitioners of the art of homeopathy realize that they are diluting the original substance so much that nothing may be left but water. The traditional explanation is that water has a “memory” of the original drug.

Ulman does suggest a couple of novel explanations for how water could have this memory. Could be that “fragments of silica” flake off of the sides of the bottles when they are shaken and those fragments play some role in the mystery. Or maybe it’s the unexpected temperature or pressure effects. You have doubts? What about Brian Josephson, a winner of the coveted Nobel Prize in Physics? He supports Homeopathy. (No offense if you’re a fan of very edgy ideas, but Dr. Wilson’s credibility should be viewed in light of the fact that he also supports ESP.)

You can get a little bit of the other side of this debate from a posting by Paul Wilson.

Not to be a curmudgeon BUT Ulman’s article seems like an effort to confound the facts with a lot of conjecture. And he seems a little confused about the difference between a LITTLE of something and NONE of something. Homeopathy’s fine by me for those who want to believe. But its methodologies aren’t consistent with evidence based science and I, for one, think that there IS something wrong with marketing its products on the same store shelves with drugs whose manufacturers had to spend millions to prove they work.

To Ulman’s fascinating and creative article in the Huffington Post, we give a ScienceAintSoBadRating = 0 . And that’s generous.

PHYSICS: Dark Matter


This is sensational.

Dark matter has been identified finally. Or so it seems. We are waiting for confirmation.

ScienceAintSoBadRating = 10

Was TOO Locked-In Syndrome!

Posted by on Thursday, 26 November, 2009

Looks Like A Finger. Could Be A Neuron.

Looks Like A Finger. Could Be A Neuron.

Neurology: A Case Of Facilitated Communication

Rom Houben was nearly killed in an accident 23 years ago.


Couldn’t move, couldn’t speak, couldn’t wiggle a finger.

They figured he was in a type of coma, a persistent vegetative state. But he wasn’t.

He could think. And he could hear. And he could listen to visitors as they walked around his bedside, discussing the fact that his brain was ruined.

Drove him nuts.

Until a miracle came along.

New technology was applied to his case and it was discovered that he had a mental life. And more new technology gave him a way to communicate.

And communicate, he did, going on to explain, with unexpected eloquence, the frustration and angst of being locked inside a body that had no means to tell the world “I am HERE!”. An inspiring and wonderful story.

Except some people don’t believe it.

Steven Novella’s a neurologist. And he’s also an excellent blogger. Don’t worry, nobody’s as good as MISTER ScienceAintSoBad. But Dr. Novella’s pretty darn good AND he’s a Doc.

Here’s his reaction.

On the other hand Steven laureys, Mr. Houben’s neurologist, is aware of the skepticism and he says he did some tests to show that the communications are not fraudulent.

Certainly, everyone has an agenda. As Dr. House likes to say, “Everyone lies.”

MISTER ScienceAintSoBad doesn’t think this is a case of pseudoscience. Everyone seems well intentioned and sincere. And Science Ain’t So Bad wishes Rom Houben a complete recovery, no matter what the odds, and congratulates him on having such a devoted family.

I will give Dr. Novella a ScienceAintSoBadRating = 8 for asking the right questions and trying so hard to be fair. But the controversy isn’t over.

Unconservation of UnEnergy

Posted by on Monday, 9 November, 2009



Lying Sack Of Pseudoscience

Isaac Newton’s law of conservation of energy was lovable.

So simple.

So perfect.

Energy can neither be created or destroyed.

Till Einstein muddied it up some.  “It’s not ENERGY, you doofus! It’s mass-energy. ”

Ok, ok.

But, for those of us who aren’t traveling at light speed,  Newton’s idea worked pretty good for over 400 years.

Till Magniworks .

Its zero point magnetic power generator creates LOTS more energy than it consumes and the World Wide Web is BOILING with testimonials to its effectiveness.

Feel free to Google it. You’ll see what I mean.

The company hasn’t had time to complete and publish its peer reviewed studies in the traditional scientific journals but I can wait.

In advance, ScienceAintSoBadRating = 0 (sorry Magniworks. No offense.  But poop on you for trying to deceive the gullible amongst us.)

And, thanks Danny, for mentioning it.



Because I have received several comments/emails suggesting that I need to be stronger and clearer to counteract the very powerful impression made by Magniworks, allow me to be VERY precise here.


There’s no evidence at all that the product can do what it claims and the many “testimonials” sound – shall we say? – suspicious.  You can’t violate the fundamental laws of physics.

Even if you’re Australian.

Oh BOY! Nontraditional Therapy Really Works! And Scientists? Just Stuffed Shirts!!

Posted by on Tuesday, 24 February, 2009

photo © lei for CC:Attribution-ShareAlike
EVERYBODY’S a scientist.

In Science News, there’s a description of work from the University of Missouri which says that 30 years ago the United States began embracing ancient medical practices and that now a study with over 90 patients has demonstrated the efficacy of NCTT ( “non contact therapeutic touch”). Click the title just above the photo for details.

The lead researcher, Guy McCormack (Occupational Therapy and Occupational Science, MU) qualifies his work this way: “There seems to be some subliminal aspects that we are not aware of that may have to do with the connectivity between people. People don’t question how you can text someone, transmit messages through computers, or visual images through television; thus the belief system is very powerful. If people believe that NCTT is going to be beneficial and are knowledgeable of it, it will be beneficial.” Thank YOU, Guy McCormack. You’re serious, right?

Now I get to talk about science which is the point of this blog. Science is us humans doing our best thing: critical thinking. Recognizing that it’s easy to fool ourselves (or have others fool us) techniques have evolved to allow us to work together as a community to improve our ability to separate the crap from the non-crap. We do this to protect ourselves from charlatans who want to intentionally mislead us as well as from misguided true believers who don’t or can’t submit their ideas for proper evaluation. We also do this because we really, really don’t want the wings to fall off of the airplanes or our computers to burst into flames. At least not too often.

Naturally, life being what it is, the purveyors of crap, have learned. Although it is often maligned, science really is gaining ground. Now, if you want to be believed, it helps to have studies. They may not be very good studies and, maybe, not subject to the usual constraints such as quality peer reviewed journals, replicated by others, etc. But studies. So everybody’s got a study now. And you gotta watch it.

I don’t want to bang up Guy McCormack’s work since that would be irresponsible (and unscientific and closed minded) of me. Like reviewing a book I haven’t read. Believe it or not, I have a responsibility to remain open to the idea that this dubious sounding approach of his is sound. Quantum mechanics isn’t exactly intuitive.

But a single study with “over 90” participants where the phenomenon under study, pain, is classically subject to placebo-like effects, is, at best, an ELEMENT of a scientific process. And his comments which suggest you gotta believe to really get the benefit should worry you a little. Oh and comparing radio communications and computer technology whose physical principles have been well studied and profoundly and objectively validated with “non touch therapy”? If that doesn’t worry you, you’re one of those lucky people who is going to go through life with few doubts about anything.