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From perpetual motion machines to embodied cognition: The boundaries of pseudoscience are being pushed back into the trivial.

This exchange came from a comment thread last year.

Diana Senechal points to this bizarre thing:

Brian Little says in Me, Myself, and Us (regarding the “lemon introvert test”):

One of the more interesting ways of informally assessing extraversion at the biogenic level is to do the lemon-drop test. [Description of experiment omitted from present quote—DS.] For some people the swab will remain horizontal. For others it will dip on the lemon juice end. Can you guess which? For the extraverts, the swab stays relatively horizontal, but for introverts it dips. . . . I have done this exercise on myself a number of times, and each time my swab dips deeply. I am, at least by this measure, a biogenic introvert.

I mean, really . . .

This claim has (at least) two serious problems: first, the weirdly overconfident button-pushing model of science, which reminds me of phrenological ideas from the schoolyard that how you lift your hands or cross your legs reveals some deep truth about you; and, second, the complete lack of understanding of variation, the idea that this thing would work every time. (Recall this similar attitude of researchers who felt the need for their theory to explain every case.)

Here, though, I want to point out a more positive take on this story. From my response to Senechal on that thread:

Maybe we’re making progress. 50 years ago we’d be hearing rumors of perpetual motion machines, car engines that ran on water, spoon bending, and even bigfoot. Now the purveyors of pseudoscience have moved to embodied cognition, lemon juice extraversion, power pose, and himmicanes. The boundaries of pseudoscience are being pushed back into the trivial. From perpetual motion to the lemon juice test: in the grand scheme of things this is a retreat.

Just to elaborate on this point: Bigfoot of course is trivial, but the point about perpetual motion machines etc. is that, if they were real, they’d imply huge changes in our understanding of physics. Similarly with the old story about the car engine that ran on water that some guy built in his backyard but was then suppressed by the powers-that-be in Detroit: if true, this would have implied huge changes in our understanding of physics and of economics. By comparison, the new cargo cult science of embodied cognition, shark attacks, smiley faces, beauty and sex ratio, etc., is so moderate and trivial: Any of these claims could be true; they’re just not well supported by the evidence, and as a whole they don’t fit together. To put it another way, the himmicanes story is not as obviously silly as, say, those photographs of fairies that fooled Arthur Conan Doyle, or the bending spoons and Noah’s ark stories that fooled people in the 1970s. So I think this is a positive development, that even though pseudoscience still is prominent in NPR, Ted, PPNAS, etc., it’s a fuzzier sort of pseudoscience, not as demonstrably wrong as perpetual motion machines, Nessie, and all that old-school hocus-pocus.


  1. Statsgirl says:

    The old school pseudoscience is alive and well, unfortunately. Google chemtrails and follow that rabbit hole (perpetual motion comes soon in these groups – what did you think the chemtrails are suppressing?) if you don’t believe me.

    Himmicanes and the like are more deserving of the term “pathological science”. ( They’re wrong, but labeling them as “pseudoscience” is just a bit too harsh.

    • a reader says:

      Wow, that’s a good phrase that seems to really capture the issue.

    • Mark W. says:

      Came here to say this. It seems to me to be more of a field difference than a time difference: The social science pseudoscience/pathological science/whatever we want to call it is just more trivial than those of the physical sciences. Maybe I’m being cynical, but magical thinking, conspiracy theories, etc., seem to be rampant in our Trump era. I think of Alex Jones and his “health” products to Fox News and conspiracy theories about Seth Rich. Someone walking into a pizza shop with a gun wondering where the child sex ring is may not have to do with “science” per se, but it taps into the same societal problem of believing something that has no evidential support.

      • Paul Alper says:

        If anything, Mark W. understates the case. I have been following Alex Jones for years and watch in horror as his organization grows both technically and in size; his web site has strengthened markedly in just the past few months. Every second word is “globalist” with the other word being “Soros.” And when he gets around to more words

        “Imagine how bad she smells, man? I’m told her and Obama, just stink, stink, stink, stink. You can’t wash that evil off, man. Told there’s a rotten smell around Hillary. I’m not kidding, people say, they say – folks, I’ve been told this by high up folks. They say listen, Obama and Hillary both smell like sulfur … I’ve talked to people that are in protective details, they’re scared of her. And they say listen, she’s a frickin’ demon and she stinks and so does Obama. I go, like what? Sulfur. They smell like hell.”

        Just when you feel things can’t get any more bizarre, viewers after viewer call in and applauds Jones’ fearless, patriotic endeavors.

      • Steve Sailer says:

        It’s funny what a large percentage of professional journalists completely fell for Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s Rolling Stone article about how a fraternity at the University of Virginia had a ritual of gangraping a coed, which they would go ahead with even on top of broken glass.

        • Mark W. says:

          I appreciate the attempt at a false equivalence, but unfortunately, Alex Jones and the UVA story are not the same. Given what we know about the prevalence of sexual assault against young women in the United States, I think makes sense that people believe a story about sexual assault.

          However, I don’t see the same evidence supporting prior beliefs about the Alex Jones conspiracy theories or his bogus products, like hypermasculine taint wipes. Contrary to what some might think, believing women when they say they have been sexually assaulted is not indicative of magical and conspiratorial thinking.

          • Roger Sweeny says:

            No, it makes no sense to believe a story about gang rape ON BROKEN GLASS. That should have been a giveaway, like sulfurous smell.

            This was no, “I was a little tipsy and went up to his room and he raped me.” This was lots of people in a completely darkened room, a planned ambush. More like the Satanic ritual myths of the 70s.

      • Ryan says:

        The examples you’re giving do not seem trivial at all. If people believe perpetual motion to be possible, they’ll make bad decisions about research funding. If people believe in snake-oil medicine, they’ll make bad decisions about research but also they’ll die. And you yourself are citing a case where conspiracy theories nearly led to bloodshed.

  2. I’m skeptical that “perpetual motion machines, car engines that ran on water, spoon bending, and even bigfoot” were widely believed *by scientists* a few decades ago, while inanities like himmicanes, implicit bias testing, etc., occupy a solid place in (some parts of) academia.

  3. Shecky R says:

    My one discomfort with all this is the degree to which it may sound like there is a sharp binary demarcation between science and pseudoscience. Science is not some monolith but a highly variable range of good to bad science in specific fields. Weak, poor, or bad science can then, with time, cross over into pseudoscience, but there is a blurry region: in some cases science initially seen as just weak, can eventually be shown to be pseudoscience, but even the opposite is true; something assumed to be pseudoscience may eventually have a scientific grounding. Good science and pseudoscience are endpoints on a continuum.

  4. Dalton says:

    Bigfoot might be trivial to you big shot New York statisticians, but here in Skamania County (where there are some unassuming quantitative fisheries folks using Stan) we take Bigfoot very seriously.

  5. Mark Palko says:

    “[T]hey’d imply huge changes in our understanding of physics. ”
    So would biofields and reiki.

  6. joshua warren says:

    I completely disagree. “Alternative” medicine, natural cancer cures, and anti-vaccination are alive, well, and extremely dangerous to society.

    • Anoneuoid says:

      Why do you think they are more dangerous than “mainstream” treatments based on NHST? If anything I would think the alternative stuff is less dangerous just because they are less extreme (no major surgery, active ingredients more diluted, less powerful proponents).

      Then I think about the obesity epidemic and the food pyramid that generation grew up with (eat lots of carbohydrates). It doesn’t get any more mainstream than that, but it turned out the recommendation was based on a fad…

      On top of this you have the hospital industry’s policy of overworking doctors/nurses so they are sure to make more mistakes, people convincing the FDA to look at short term surrogate measures, replacing copper metal surfaces with stainless steel, failure to isolate patients on suppressants, etc.

      I’m not saying that alternative stuff actually works. I just really don’t understand the fear of it. I am very afraid of what is going on in the mainstream though.

      • Martha (Smith) says:

        Good point.

      • Curiousguy says:

        Anti-vax has killed multiple children, so that’s something to be afraid of. Really, fear isn’t the operative emotion. It’s more like disgust with all the quacks profiting from people’s suffering. And you reacklessly equating the best efforts of real doctors will alternative bullshit isn’t helping.

        • Martha (Smith) says:

          First sentence: Good point.

          “And you reacklessly equating the best efforts of real doctors will alternative bullshit isn’t helping.”: You’re going too far here;”the best efforts of real doctors” are, regrettably, often subpar — because the education of most doctors to understand and undertake research is subpar.

        • Anonymous says:

          “Through their analysis of four other studies examining death rate information, the doctors estimate there are at least 251,454 deaths due to medical errors annually in the United States. The authors believe the number is actually much higher, as home and nursing home deaths are not counted in that total.”

          “New research estimates up to 440,000 Americans are dying annually from preventable hospital errors. This puts medical errors as the third leading cause of death in the United States, underscoring the need for patients to protect themselves and their families from harm, and for hospitals to make patient safety a priority.”

        • Anoneuoid says:

          Anti-vax has killed multiple children, so that’s something to be afraid of.

          Killed by what virus? Do you have any data on the efficacy of the vaccine, what percent of children are unvaccinated for this virus, and what percent of those are unvaccinated due to “anti-vax” beliefs of the parents (vs poverty, etc)? For some reason I don’t think the anti-vax reason will be important compared to the other reasons, but I may be wrong.

          As an aside, the most threatening idea about vaccines I have seen floating around is “newborns are in danger because it is not safe to vaccinate them”. Actually, the reason newborns cannot be vaccinated yet is they still have maternal antibodies. This means the vaccine will be neutralized (and hence not work). This also means the newborns are already immune and not endangered by exposure.

          However, maternal antibodies wear off faster if the mother was vaccinated rather than had the full blown infection. Therefore the age of vaccination needs to be moved up. This is politically impossible because “pro-vaxers” keep spreading the myth that it is dangerous to vaccinate newborns… to support their argument that “anti-vaxers” are dangerous.

          I would bet that whatever children you are referring to were newborns, left unvaccinated due to outdated policies. Policies that cannot be updated due to the incorrect beliefs of “pro-vaxers”. There is plenty of ignorance to go around here.

          It’s more like disgust with all the quacks profiting from people’s suffering.

          Sure. If you rely on NHST you are unavoidably a quack though. It doesn’t matter if your intentions are honorable. NHST is a pillar of current mainstream medicine… the quacks have taken over long ago.

          And you reacklessly equating the best efforts of real doctors will alternative bullshit isn’t helping.

          I am not being reckless at all. You are the one recklessly giving “real doctors” a free pass. And many times now “real doctors” are not even making treatment decisions, it is the insurance companies who decide… This is all 100% mainstream.

  7. Mark Palko says:

    Also see the excellent “How Essential Oils Became the Cure for Our Age of Anxiety” by Rachel Monroe

  8. Alex Gamma says:

    And then there’s the pseudoscience of explaining “pseudoscience” like parapsychology and conspiracy theories as “irrational belief”. See the latest gem here:

    The introduction states that “many conspiracy theories that citizens believe are unlikely in light of logic or scientific evidence, including theories that 9–11 was an inside job, that the pharmaceutical industry deliberately spreads diseases, or that climate change is a lie fabricated by scientists. Supernatural beliefs are defined as beliefs that violate scientifically founded principles of nature, including superstition, belief in the paranormal, horoscopes, and telepathy (Lindeman & Aarnio, 2007).”

    Well, if you want to study “irrational beliefs”, you better make damn sure that those beliefs are known falsehoods beyond reasonable doubt. Claiming this status for the proposition that 9/11 was an inside job or that supernatural beliefs violate scientifically founded principles in nature is pretty absurd.

    Who counts as irrational in my book is anyone who knows the basic facts about 9/11 but doesn’t think that there’s something very wrong or incomplete with the official story.

    Also, *defining* supernatural beliefs as beliefs in things that violate scientific principles is non-sensical: the question of the reality of what is referred to as “supernatural phenomena” cannot answered by defining them out of existence, and the corresponding beliefs cannot be ruled as irrational by fiat.

  9. Steve Sailer says:

    “the bending spoons and Noah’s ark stories that fooled people in the 1970s.”

    I read an article on this fad from a publishing industry point of view. It said that pseudo-science book titles exploded into popularity in either 1968 or 1969 and then collapsed in 1982. That fits my recollections pretty well. As a small child in the 1960s, the atmosphere seemed pretty Apollonian (e.g., the Apollo program).

    My teen years, on the other hand, were plagued by all sorts of fads for stuff I found dubious, like astrology. For example, at the 1970 Grammy Awards ceremony, the Album of the Year was won by “The Age of Aquarius” by the Fifth Dimension. Astrology was fashionable again, and it drove me crazy.

    Kubrick’s movie “2001” in 1968 would seem like on the border: it starts out super-Apollonian and later freaks out.

    And then, at some point in the Reagan Era, most of this stuff vanished.

  10. Steve Sailer says:

    One interesting aspect is that SoCal’s aerospace workers tended to be into bending spoons. Michael Crichton wrote about attending spoon bending parties with aerospace families in Burbank.

    And in May 1980, L.A. was the site of a remarkable Pyramid Power scam that caused traffic jams on the Ventura Freeway as huge numbers of people in the San Fernando Valley flocked to put cash under literal pyramids.

    And then within a couple of years, much of this was forgotten.

  11. Ryan says:

    The EmDrive deserves credit for being as stupid as any perpetual motion machine ever was. Momentum conservation is just as fundamental as energy conservation, even if we don’t talk about it as often!

  12. Here’s a possible definition of pseudoscience (not definitive, just something that came to mind today): a scientific investigation that has been overtaken by an external aim or combination of aims (e.g., money, fame, entertainment, publication, life solutions, emotional satisfaction, confirmation of personal beliefs) to the detriment of the science itself.

    If this works, it can help distinguish pseudoscience from bad science. Bad science has bad methodology, weak data, or faulty conclusions; pseudoscience, in addition to having these flaws, subordinates the science to a nonscientific end.

    You can have a legitimate, robust scientific investigation that also serves an external end. But you have to be careful not to let the external end take over.

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