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Some pseudoscience is pretty obvious. I think most of us are comfortable saying that the world will probably not end this December, in accordance with any ancient prophecy. But distinguishing fact from fiction isn't always simple. In fact, "fact from fiction" might be too simple a way to even frame the question. In reality, we're sometimes tasked with spotting misapplication of real science. Sometimes, we have to tell the difference between a complicated thing that nobody understands yet very well but which is likely to be true and a complicated thing that nobody understands yet very well but which is not likely to be true.
Basically, it's messy.
Emily Willingham at Forbes has some helpful hints for how to make these distinctions. She offers ten questions that can serve as guidelines for approaching new topics you're skeptical of — questions that, taken all together, can help you see the patterns of pseudoscience and make informed decisions for yourself and your family.
3. What kind of language does it use? Does it use emotion words or a lot of exclamation points or language that sounds highly technical (amino acids! enzymes! nucleic acids!) or jargon-y but that is really meaningless in the therapeutic or scientific sense? If you’re not sure, take a term and google it, or ask a scientist if you can find one. Sometimes, an amino acid is just an amino acid. Be on the lookout for sciencey-ness. As Albert Einstein once pointed out, if you can’t explain something simply, you don’t understand it well. If peddlers feel that they have to toss in a bunch of jargony science terms to make you think they’re the real thing, they probably don’t know what they’re talking about, either.
9. Were real scientific processes involved? Evidence-based interventions generally go through many steps of a scientific process before they come into common use. Going through these steps includes performing basic research using tests in cells and in animals, clinical research with patients/volunteers in several heavily regulated phases, peer-review at each step of the way, and a trail of published research papers. Is there evidence that the product or intervention on offer has been tested scientifically, with results published in scientific journals? Or is it just sciencey-ness espoused by people without benefit of expert review of any kind?
Read the rest at Willingham's Forbes blog, The Science Consumer
Alexis Madrigal on the weird tape that Olympic athletes are sticking on themselves:
It's called kinesio (or just 'k') tape. Athletes use the tape as a kind of elastic brace that they say helps relieve pain. The tape and technique were developed by Kenso Kase thirty years ago in Japan. Since then, many companies have developed similar adhesive tapes and they are in something of a marketing war. Unfortunately, the evidence that k tape does much of anything is scant.
Huh, I never would have thought that athletes, trained to succeed at all costs and given a perfunctory education, would be so easily sold on quackery and the promise of biological shortcuts.
Over at Download the Universe, Ars Technica science editor John Timmer reviews a science ebook whose science leaves something to be desired. Written by J. Marvin Herndon, a physicist, Indivisible Earth presents an alternate theory that ostensibly competes with plate tectonics. Instead of Earth having a molten core and a moveable crust, Herndon proposes that this planet began its existence as the core of a gas giant, like Jupiter or Saturn. Somehow, Earth lost its thick layer of gas and the small, dense core expanded, cracking as it grew into the continents we know today. What most people think are continental plate boundaries are, to Herndon, simply seams where bits of planet ripped apart from one another.
The problem is that Herndon doesn't offer a lot of evidence to support this idea.
Once the Earth was at the center of a gas giant, Herndon thinks the intense pressure of the massive atmosphere compressed the gas giant's rocky core so that it shrunk to the point where its surface was completely covered by what we now call continental plates. In other words, the entire surface of our present planet was once much smaller, and all land mass.
I did a back-of-the-envelope calculation of this, figuring out the radius of a sphere that would have the same surface area as our current land mass. It was only half the planet's present size. Using that radius to calculate the sphere's volume, it's possible to figure out the density (assuming a roughly current mass). That produced a figure six times higher than the Earth's current density — and about three times that of pure lead. I realize that a lot of the material in the Earth can be compressed under pressure, but I'm pretty skeptical that it can compress that much. And, more importantly, if Herndon wants to convince anyone that it did, this density difference is probably the sort of thing he should be addressing. He's not bothered; the idea that the continents once covered the surface of the Earth was put forward in 1933, and that's good enough for him.
Read the rest