Essay:Bullshit, My Top 5
The world of psuedoscience and bullshit is absolutely huge. Thousands of bloggers write about conspiracies, billions of dollars are blown on alternative medicines and cults and woo-pushers ruin lives on a daily basis. It's impossible to pick a starting point, so here are my top five pet-peeves of the bullshit industry.
It might seem really strange to kick off a list with a real science, but the real science isn't what I'm interested in; indeed, real nanotechnology doesn't seem to interest anyone. Does anyone care that gold nanoparticles are red because they're coloured only by surface plasmon resonance rather than bulk refraction? Does anyone want to read about specialised drug delivery? Does anyone out there know the first thing about molecular recognition? No, we all want to know about magical nanobots!
The popular perception of nanotechnology, as immortalised in science fiction publications like New Scientist, is that of tiny robots with arms, legs and brains that are only a few atoms in size.These amazing machines can self-replicate, cure cancer, rebuild cells and work miracles all by themselves. Their robotic arms are capable of building any molecule they like by just picking up atoms and dumping them in the right place, the same way a construction contractor would get a large crane to move steel girders around. With the development of these nanobots, anything and everything will be possible. But wait! What if they go out of control, eating everything in sight and self-replicating the world out of existence? Professional stopped clock Prince Charles has repeatedly warned against such "grey goo", so scientists must tread carefully when building such machines.
Why this is bullshit:
In short: it just doesn't work that way. When people talk of molecular assembly they're talking about the world of chemical reactions and atomic bonds. It's certainly possible to "pick and place" atoms, in a way at least. Catalysts have been making use of immobilising molecular structures for decades, and biological enzymes that work this way have been doing so for millions of years. The concept is that by holding a molecule in place, you increase the chances that it will collide with another molecule, making the reaction proceed far more favourably. The downside to this is that, unlike the nanobot dream, you need (with some leeway for very similar molecules) one catalyst for each and every reaction. There are at least 50,000 different enzymes in the human body alone, if not more, and in some animals with less well regulated internal temperatures, it may be much more. This is because the molecular recognition required to perform such acts is highly specific; you need to bond molecules in place very firmly with either hydrogen bonds or very specifically placed Van der Waals forces to overcome their natural vibrations and movement, which is really faster than anyone can easily comprehend. To achieve a wider, alterable and above all controlled recognition technology in a single nanomachine would be impossible. The hypothetical machine would have to move and distort in nearly infinite ways to achieve the dream of custom molecular assembly.
But what about something larger than the scale of enzymes? Biological cells certainly produce a wide range of chemicals by utilising DNA encoding and protein transfer, a sufficiently complex mechanism to produce something. Indeed, these are already used in biological syntheses worldwide, where we exploit bacterial cells to formulate chemical transformations with greater efficiency than conventional chemical means. While this is an interesting area, cells themselves are about 10,000 larger than nano scale; they have to be to fit all this nanoscaled machinery into it. Short of a complete change in the laws of physics, nanobots, as described, will for ever be impossible.
Birther logic is one of the most recent, and certainly one of the most retarded, conspiracy theories to have ever developed. It concerns the legal nationality of Barack Obama; an amusing attempt by the Right-Wing of US politics to gain power, seemingly under the impression (after Bush's two terms) that democracy means deciding your leader through the courts and not through voting. Why single out Obama now? After all, he's quite far down the list of Presidents and candidates that have questionable legal status. Undoubtedly, it's a case of US conservatives throwing the toys out of the pram because they lost an election and, dare I say it openly in an Ali G esque fashion, because he is black?
The following YouTube video quite accurately describes what birthers must believe. I say "must" because while it's rarely ever openly declared, it is the logical conclusion of some of their claims:
In short, for reasons unknown, Barack Obama was not born in Hawaii but in Kenya, and thus is not eligible to run for President of a nation mostly made up of *cough* second and third generation European immigrants. It must be true, after all, he's black, young and came from a relatively poor background compared to previous leaders who were mostly white, old, and came from families so rich and influential that they make David Cameron's Old Etonian roots look positively proletariat by comparison. Also, being black, and with a middle name of Hussein, he must be Muslim too and when he says he's Christian, he's just lying. Despite being part of the most religiously and racially harmonious place on Earth, this is a Big Fucking Deal.
Why this is bullshit:
Cheap-shot allegations of sour grapes and hardcore racism aside, the birther conspiracy is retarded because of the quality of evidence they accept for their crackpot belief. Most of it seems to rest on an alleged phone call to Obama's grandmother, who definitely is Kenyan by birth, said that he was born in Kenya. This particular rumour grew and grew until some sources said she had "sworn" that he was Kenyan. Of course, things become clearer when you remember that Obama's full name is Barack Hussein Obama II... i.e., his father is also called Barack Obama. Suddenly, his grandmother saying something along the lines of "Barack was born in Kenya" begins to make a lot of sense. This little fact hasn't stopped the conspiracy rolling ever onwards, doing a "let's twist the evidence to fit our conclusion" trick in a way that would make Ken Ham's Creation Museum proud, twisting definitions and legal terms to breaking point in order to outright prove he can't be a legal President.
The entire conspiracy suffered its greatest embarrassment following the release of a Kenyan birth certificate for Obama. This was trumpeted around the usual birther-friendly media (the WorldNetDaily blog, *ahem* "news site" *ahem* among others) as final proof that their irrational fears of the Nasty Communist Black Man were grounded - despite the obvious flaws in the certificate, such as the certificate being a clear photoshopped Austrialian one. Stil, Orly Taitz, the most prominent birther going, positively creamed herself over the discovery. The evidence mounted that this certificate was a fake (Snopes covers this quite thoroughly: http://www.snopes.com/politics/obama/birthers/kenyacert.asp) and even WorldNetDaily had to backtrack on this position.
RationalWiki lists the majority of the main arguments in support of Obama's non-US origins, as there are far too many to list in a short summary. http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Obama_citizenship_denial
3: Intelligent Design
If I was to merely list these in order of scale, or their order of offense to science and reason, or practically any other metric, Intelligent Design (or ID, conveniently lending itself to the term "IDiot") this would be number one. Indeed, ID is so widespread, its proponents so desperate and its claims so inane that I'd have to say that it is the worst offender in the world of bullshit, making even chemtrail conspiracies look plausible by comparison. But this is a list of my personal favourites, so it's instead going in at Number 3. Calling out ID on its various pieces of utter bullshit is a huge task, so I'll just concentrate on how it masquerades as science.
Life is complex. Too complex to arise by chance. Therefore Goddidit. Except the US constitution - and most laws of the western world - prohibit religious dogma being confused with actual science and being taught as such. So we take old-fashioned creationism (something that hasn't been considered as serious science since the early 19th Century) put it in a cheap suit, call the designer an "intelligent entity" and try to pass it off as science. Museums are built to show the evidence and papers are published in peer review journals to support it. Intelligent Design is far from religion, it's a proper theory and should be treated as such.
Why this is bullshit:
The short length of the above paragraph speaks for itself; in short, intelligent design doesn't actually make any claims, predictions or presents any evidence. Really, it doesn't. When people speak of ID and the evidence for it, what they are really discussing are potential flaws, gaps and inconsistencies in the widely accepted theory of evolution by natural selection (or, "the modern synthesis" or "neo-Darwinian biology"). Even the premier ID journals such as the Answers Research Journal (although I risk unfairly conflating ID with Young Earth Creationism here) contain nothing more than thoughts about what the Bible says and gripes about how real scientists are doing real work. The entire premise of ID pretty much rests entirely on arguments from complete incredulity; i.e.,"I don't believe that, therefore my pet theory is right". It's pretty much the same as trying to disprove Quantum Mechanics by intentionally misunderstanding it and repeatedly saying it can't be true. To say that this is a blatant Burden of Proof Fail is an understatement.
The central thesis to ID, that "life is too complex to have evolved" doesn't in fact prove intelligent design or even provide evidence against naturalist forces driving evolutionary development. This is because it is impossible to say for sure that life is too complex to have evolved; we might just not yet have discovered the evolutionary pathway for it. The classic example in the eye, which in Darwins's time of the 19th Century was a relative mystery (and the subject of the most popular quote mine from Origin of Species, so popular in fact you can see it coming in this vid where Russell Glasser brings up the full thing before the caller even starts speaking: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QfFXH3VqcCM). Now, the evolutionary development of the eye is quite well known and far less mysterious, and the future can only bring more knowledge about it. Science rests on the fact that it doesn't know everything - as Dara O Briain said, "of course science doesn't know everything, otherwise it'd stop!" - while ID completely relies on the fact that our knowledge can never grow and our exploration of the universe must be artificially halted, in case it dares bring evidence against the belief in intelligent design.
2: Moon Landing Hoax
The conspiracy that the moon landing was faked is pretty much the 800 Kg gorilla of the conspiracy world, bigger than the JFK assassination, more sinister than the Illuminati and as crackpot as the idea that Princess Diana was murdered by florists who wanted to boost sales.
We never went to the moon. Neil Armstrong never said his immortalised words from the surface of Earth's major (there are actually several) natural satellite but from a TV studio on terra firma. Isn't it obvious? The astronauts aren't seen holding cameras! The images look faked! The white bleeds over the crosshairs indicating tampering! You can see a prop piece! The flag is waving! The men should have died en route! It was all bragging to the Soviets! Armstrong reported sighting aliens so they had to reshoot it! The list of pieces of evidence is a mile long.
Why this is bullshit:
The list of evidences against a real moon landing may be a mile long, but even combined their less compelling than a case-study paper written by Andrew Wakefield. To tear apart each claim individually is a time consuming task - the term "Gish Gallop" is given to any act of quick firing small pieces of evidence in order to waste a skeptic's time and distract from the fact there isn't a compelling reason for the bullshit anywhere. However, there is one simple reason the moon landing cannot be a hoax but it first requires three words; What. The. Fuck?!
Think about it for a moment or two. It shouldn't take long for anyone with more than two functioning brain cells to rub together to realise that a successful conspiracy needs one thing; secrecy. Conspiracies amongst sports teams trying to fix matches barely work and they only ever involve half a dozen people at most! Illegal cartels and price fixing scams last all of ten seconds because all it takes is a single person to blow the whistle, act selfishly or slip up and its gone. Real conspiracies just don't last. Now apply this to the Apollo program. At its peak, it employed 400,000 people, requiring the support of 20,000 firms and university research groups. Even giving the concept the benefit of the doubt and assuming only a small fraction of those needed to be involved in the conspiracy (in reality it would probably have to be a substantial fraction) that's a huge number of people. This would, even with the smallest possible group of those involved would be the largest conspiracy cartel ever devised - and we know that even small ones have trouble keeping a lid on themselves. All it would take is one disgruntled engineer, one deathbed confession by an executive with nothing to lose, one revelation by a former Soviet spy (who would have everything to gain by revealing the conspiracy) to bust it wide open. So far, this sort of evidence is conspicuous by its absence.
For all the time, effort, money, threats and bribes required to keep a moon landing hoax covered up for 40 years, wouldn't it have been easier to just go to the moon?
I end this mish-mash of bullshit with my personal favourite, homeopathy. It has everything; making horseshit claims, denial of evidence, ignoring science, being outright dangerous and, at its heart, one of the most hilarious concepts known to the alternative medicine world.
In the late 18th Century, a German physician named Sammuel Hahnemann decided ("decided" is truly the right word, he certainly didn't do much research or testing of it) that if something gave you similar symptoms to a known disease, then if you diluted it greatly in water it would cure you of that disease. Not only that but with some magical taps and repeated dilutions you could make this "medicine" stronger. Hahnemann decided that as you diluted the substance down, it was "potentised". As a result of this, homeopathic remedies are capable of curing everything from mild depression to malaria, and are even assumed to be able to replace vaccines!
Why this is bullshit:
There was just one problem with Hanhemann's original theory, as work pioneered by Amedeo Avagadro (Avagadro was a proper scientist, and chemists name a very important constant after him) some years later discovered. You can't just dilute a product down infinitely, as knowledge in Hahnemann's time suggested, at some point, you will lose it because atoms and molecules are individual entities with actual size. Just as if you take a scoop of blue balls and dump them in a ball pit of red balls and repeat; you will lose all your original blues and with homeopathy you'll eventually lose all of your original active ingredient. This is quite fortunate, as many homeopathic remedies are made of potent toxins - although there are some really odd ones (Unusual_homeopathic_remedies). Modern homeopaths, unlike many pesudoscientific practitioners, didn't immediately jump on the denial bandwagon, but actively embraced this fact! They then proposed "water memory", which meant that Hahnemann's succussion process (the method of step-wise dilution and shaking) actually imparted an imprint, a memory, of the active ingredient onto the water.
Let's stop for a moment and visit Carl Sagan's famous line "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence". Homeopathy is indeed a very extraordinary claim. The entire principle violates all established knowledge and laws of chemistry and physics. That diluting something to make it stronger is the exact opposite of established chemistry and medicine. The idea that water can retain a "memory" of a substance is akin to placing a pea on a sofa, removing the pea, jumping up and down on the sofa several times, and declaring that the sofa remembers the shape of the pea. That there has been no evidence that water actually has a memory (beyond highly transient and fluxional clusters) and that such a memory can be targeted to just the intended product rather than any impurities is a claim on par with Moses parting the Red Sea. Simple burden of proof rules demand that homeopaths provide their extraordinary evidence to support it.
Unfortunately, such evidence is unforthcoming. Despite being a multi-million dollar industry, alternative medicine practitioners rarely ever have the guts to perform the clinical trials required to demonstrate that their wears work. When they do, the trials are highly lacking; they lack the size and scale required, they lack proper statistical analysis, they lack adequate controls and they lack the blinding required for controls to work. Alternative medicine advocates absolutely hate these fiddly details of proper medical research - but they are there for very good reasons. Clinical research is fraught with biases, false positives and the all-pervasive placebo effect. Modern clinical research is all about finding ways of eliminating or at least minimising these biases so that when a doctor declares that a treatment works, they can say for certain that it really does, as isn't just a false positive caused by one of a dozen potential biases. When these controls are enforced, homeopathy fails, miserably. Well, not totally miserably. Many trials and important meta-studies tend to conclude that the evidence is "inconclusive" because so many trials are underpowered and badly controlled that it's difficult to say. But this doesn't mean that there's a really a possibility that homeopathy works - indeed, the huge swing towards false positives in clinical research means its very difficult to conclude zero effect for medicines - but it's far from the extraordinary evidence required for homeopathy's extraordinary claims.
It's difficult to narrow the list down to just five, so below are a few honourable mentions that still get my goat, but didn't quite make it into my favourite five.
Out of all the most dangerous quack medical beliefs, this is the big one and is already causing death and destruction in its path. For the record, vaccines do not cause autism and importantly, there never has been evidence that they have. Pretty much the entire thing comes from highly paranoid morons who are scared of needles.
This zany belief says that airplanes are sowing mind altering chemicals into the atmosphere. The most hilarious aspect being their supposed evidence for it; mostly pictures of planes undergoing routine engine testing, making it look like their engines are spraying out more gunk than they usually do.
Young Earth Creationism:
This narrowly missed the list. It's certainly sillier than ID on its own, and its proponents are just as desperate, but with only a few notable exceptions it doesn't have the same level of pretence to being science - therefore it's easy to dismiss quite happily as a crackpot fringe thing. The problems rising from assuming the Earth was created only 6000 years ago are hilarious, but not as hilarious as some of the escape hatches and workarounds used by creationists. For this, I highly recommend Why Do People Laugh At Creationists? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BS5vid4GkEY
It might be hard to believe but, with the exception of some metal recycling (such as aluminium), recycling is actually a completely piss-poor method of material reuse and conservation. It comes far further down the Waste Management Hierarchy than people realise, and even in most cases it is only downcycling that is happening - where materials are reformed into a less usable substitute. Novelty items made of "recycled" materials usually end up consuming more energy and resources than just making them from scratch!
Climate change denial:
One of the biggest challenges facing the human race is the fact that the climate is changing. These are the FACTS: temperatures are rising, CO2 causes the greenhouse effect, the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere has nearly doubled since the industrial revolution. It doesn't take an outright genius to see where that is going. But that is a highly simplified view. Climate is an intensely complicated subject and so-called "skeptics" on climate change barely know a fraction of a percent of the information they need to know in order to assess the evidence properly.
Above are some of the top pieces of absolute bullshit currently threatening the world. Some people view them as harmless but they sow the seeds of mistrust of authority, experts and science and technology. Someone being conned into taking a homeopathic medicine for anxiety may well come back and try it for cancer. Someone pushing intelligent design in the classroom is just offering a gateway to misunderstanding science and opening them to outright religious indoctrination. Reality is hard to interpret. It takes years to learn enough to even scratch the surface of subjects like climatology, evolutionary biology, clinical practice and so on. This leads to people feeling massively insecure and distrustful of people studying reality, with their esoteric terms and often unsettling conclusions. How inviting it must be when someone comes along with a simple and comforting solution to it all, something that makes you feel better regardless of whether it is true or real - as being stuck in the real world can be a cold and lonely place.