How to: Tell the difference between real science and pseudoscience

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.

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Fraud, failure, and FUBAR in science

Here's an issue we don't talk about enough. Every year, peer-reviewed research journals publish hundreds of thousands of scientific papers. But every year, several hundred of those are retracted — essentially, unpublished. There's a number of reasons retraction happens. Sometimes, the researchers (or another group of scientists) will notice honest mistakes. Sometimes, other people will prove that the paper's results were totally wrong. And sometimes, scientists misbehave, plagiarizing their own work, plagiarizing others, or engaging in outright fraud. Officially, fraud only accounts for a small proportion of all retractions. But the number of annual retractions is growing, fast. And there's good reason to think that fraud plays a bigger role in science then we like to think. In fact, a study published a couple of weeks ago found that there was misconduct happening in 3/4ths of all retracted papers. Meanwhile, previous research has shown that, while only about .02% of all papers are retracted, 1-2% of scientists admit to having invented, fudged, or manipulated data at least once in their careers.

The trouble is that dealing with this isn't as simple as uncovering a shadowy conspiracy or two. That's not really the kind of misconduct we're talking about here. Read the rest

Fear and Trembling: Prion diseases on Twitter

Even if you don't immediately recognize the words "prion" or "Kuru", the history of these pathologies has seeped into popular culture like a horrifying fairy tale. But it's true: a tribe in New Guinea ate the dead, not as Hollywood-style savages but to respect the dead. Upon death, you took a part of them into yourself. And that included the brain.

On Meta

Ben Zimmer on the word "meta": "Michael Grunwald, writing for The Boston Globe in 1993, [saw a] trend toward meta-entertainment. ... Of course, it wasn’t as meta as a Globe column about meta citing a Globe column about meta." [Boston Globe via Maria Popova] Read the rest

How to: Read science news

How you read matters as much as what you read. That's because nothing is written in a vacuum. Every news story or blog post has a perspective behind it, a perspective that shapes what you are told and how that information is conveyed. This is not, necessarily, a bad thing. Having a perspective doesn't mean being sensationalistic, or deceitful, or spreading propaganda. It can mean those things, but it doesn't have to. In fact, I'm fairly certain that it's impossible to tell any story without some kind of perspective. When you relate facts, even in your personal life, you make choices about what details you will emphasize, what emotions you'll convey, who you will speak to—and all of those decisions are based on your personal perspective. How we tell a story depends on what we think is important.

Unfortunately, sometimes, perspective can be misleading. That's why it's important to be aware that perspective exists. If you look at what you're reading, you can see the decisions the author made, you can get an idea of what perspective they were trying to convey, and you will know whether that perspective is likely to distort the facts.

Emily Willingham is a scientist who blogs about science for the general public. Over at Double X Science, she's come up with a handy, six-step guide for reading science news stories. These rules are a great tool for peeking behind the curtain, and learning to think about the perspective behind what you read. In the post, she explains why each of these rules is important, and then applies them to a recent news story about chemical exposure and autism. Read the rest

Huffington Post adds science section

I don't know much about the editor they've hired, former health editor David Freeman, but color me cautiously optimistic. Will this move clean up the HuffPo's notoriously woo-filled science coverage? Cross fingers. Read the rest

Boing Boing featured in anthology of best science writing on the Web

I am very pleased to announce that two BoingBoing posts made it into The Open Laboratory 2012, an anthology of the best science writing on the Internet.

The first was written by Lee Billings, an excellent guest blogger we hosted back in February. Lee wrote a lot of great posts about Kepler and the hunt for exoplanets and deserves huge kudos. Incredible Journey: Can We Reach the Stars Without Breaking the Bank? is the one that will be in the anthology.

Today, the fastest humans on Earth and in history are three elderly Americans, all of whom Usain Bolt could demolish in a footrace. They're the astronauts of Apollo 10, who in 1969 re-entered the Earth's atmosphere at a velocity of 39,897 kph upon their return from the Moon. At that speed you could get from New York to Los Angeles in less than six minutes. Seven years after Apollo 10, we hurled a probe called Helios II into an orbit that sends it swinging blisteringly deep into the Sun's gravity well. At its point of closest approach, the probe travels at almost 253,000 kph—the fastest speed yet attained by a manmade object. The fastest outgoing object, Voyager I, launched the year after Helios II. It's now almost 17 billion kilometers away, and travels another 17 kilometers further away each and every second. If it were headed toward Alpha Centauri (it's not), it wouldn't arrive for more than 70,000 years. Even then, it wouldn't be able to slow down. Of the nearest 500 stars scattered like sand around our own, most would require hundreds of thousands of years (or more) to reach with current technology.

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The fine art of the scathing insult

One of the things I enjoy about writing for BoingBoing is the opportunity it's giving me to learn how to write reviews of books. That's not something I'd ever done before I started writing here. And I'm only now getting around to experimenting with not only describing books I like, but figuring out how to talk about books I find to be flawed. Fair criticism is a difficult skill to learn.

That's why I'm sort of simultaneously terrified and in awe of this 1991 book review, published in the International Journal of Primatology. In it, anthropologist Matt Cartmill expresses his opinions about sociologist Donna Haraway's book Primate Visions. I don't know enough about either scholar, or the book, to have an opinion about whether Cartmill is right or wrong. But, wowow, is that a blistering review.

This is a book that contradicts itself a hundred times; but that is not a criticism of it, because its author thinks contradictions are a sign of intellectual ferment and vitality. This is a book that systematically distorts and selects historical evidence; but that is not a criticism, because its author thinks that all interpretations are biased, and she regards it as her duty to pick and choose her facts to favor her own brand of politics. This is a book full of vaporous, French-intellectual prose that makes Teilhard de Chardin sound like Ernest Hemingway by comparison; but that is not a criticism, because the author likes that sort of prose and has taken lessons in how to write it, and she thinks that plain, homely speech is part of a conspiracy to oppress the poor.

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