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Junk Science Then and Now

Many years ago, Martin Gardner wrote a book, Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, featuring chapters on flat earth and eccentric astronomy theories, UFO’s, alternative physics, dowsing, creationism, Lysenkoism, pyramid truthers, medical quacks, food faddists, ESP, etc.

The Wikipedia page summarizes Gardner’s book as follows:

Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science starts with a brief survey of the spread of the ideas of “cranks” and “pseudo-scientists”, attacking the credulity of the popular press and the irresponsibility of publishing houses in helping to propagate these ideas. . . .

Gardner says that cranks have two common characteristics. The first “and most important” is that they work in almost total isolation from the scientific community. Gardner defines the community as an efficient network of communication within scientific fields, together with a co-operative process of testing new theories. This process allows for apparently bizarre theories to be published — such as Einstein’s theory of relativity, which initially met with considerable opposition; it was never dismissed as the work of a crackpot, and it soon met with almost universal acceptance. But the crank “stands entirely outside the closely integrated channels through which new ideas are introduced and evaluated. He does not send his findings to the recognized journals or, if he does, they are rejected for reasons which in the vast majority of cases are excellent.” . . .

I’ve been thinking a lot about junk science lately. (Someone once said that I’d talked about “shoddy science,” but I don’t know that I’ve ever used the word “shoddy” in my life; I stand by the term “junk science,” by which I mean work that has some of the forms of scientific research but is missing key elements such as valid and reliable measurements, transparency, and openness to criticism.) And it recently struck me that junk science has changed a lot since Gardner’s time.

I’d like to write something more formal on this topic, in collaboration with some actual historians or sociologists of science, but for now let me just quickly list a few differences that I see, comparing the junk science of 1950 to the junk science of today.

1. From the periphery to the core. As indicated by the quote above, the junk science of the mid-twentieth century came from cranks and outsiders, often self-educated people with no academic positions, and even those who were in academia were peripheral figures, for example, the ESP researcher J. B. Rhine at Duke University, who according to Wikipedia was trained as a botanist and was not a central figure in the psychology profession. Immanuel “Worlds in Collision” Velikovsky had lots of scientist friends, but he was an outsider to the scientific community. And those guys from the 1970s who wrote books about ancient astronauts and the Bermuda triangle, I don’t think they even claimed to have any scientific backing. Yes, there were some missteps within academic science from N-rays to cold fusion, but these were minor storms that blew up and went away.

Nowadays, though, the pseudoscientists are well ensconced in the academy, they play power games in the field of psychology, and they get to publish in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (air rage, himmicanes, ages ending in 9, etc etc) whenever they want. The call is coming from inside the house, as it were. Until recently, they were considered by the news media to be the legitimate representatives of the scientific community. Culture hero Daniel Kahneman wrote a whole book about how we had no choice but to believe that their claims are true (a statement he has since retracted).

In its ensconcement within the scientific establishment, modern pseudoscience has some similarities to Lysenkoism in that it was, until recently, an orthodoxy supported by leading institutions. Not coercive like the Soviet Union—there has always been plenty of room here for dissent, and nobody was talking about sending Paul Meehl off to a labor camp—but I see a link between junk science, scientific power structures, scientific ideology (Communism in Lysenko’s case, just-so evolution stories in the case of modern junk psychology), and research methods that was able to keep the system going for many years in each case. Along with many people who sincerely believed in the orthodoxy. I’m reminded of the dictum that if you want to fool others, you should first fool yourself.

So, again, there’s been a key change. Mid-century junk science in the U.S. was coming from outsiders; modern junk science comes from leading universities and is endorsed by prestige media.

2. From blue collar to white collar. I feel like the above-described shift represents a sort of gentrification of scientific error, mirroring the professionalism that has come into so many other aspects of our intellectual life. There’s just less room in our society for the intellectual contributions of people who are untethered to academia.

But I think that some of the modern spread of junk science in academia is just by chance. Consider an apparatchik such as Robert Sternberg, the psychologist who’s had an impressive array of academic positions, awards, and publications, a man whose CV is the paper equivalent of the array of medals pinned to Leonid Brezhnev’s jacket. It seems to me that 100 years ago, or 50 years ago, Sternberg wouldn’t been happy just being an academic bigshot, receiving and bestowing awards on the academic rubber-chicken circuit. It just happened that academic psychology hit the popular press—I don’t know who we should credit for this: Malcom Gladwell, NPR, the editors of Psychological Science?—and Sternberg and his pals were happy to go along for the ride.

It seems a bit different for the junk scientists of earlier decades. Some of them must have been true believers—they came up with a new theory of relativity! a new way to harness the power of the mind! an engine that runs on water! etc.—and others must have been pure and simple hucksters (the Chariots of the Gods guy, the Jupiter Effect guy, etc.). But, for whatever reason, they were rule-breakers.

In contrast, modern junk scientists in academia seem more like rule-followers. They’re conformists, and it’s just their bad luck that the rules they’re conforming to don’t make much scientific sense in the context of their work. Or maybe their good luck that their lack of scientific scruple—their willingness not to look too carefully at their claims and their research methods—has allowed them to rise to the top of their profession.

3. From anti-establishment to cargo cult. As Gardner discusses in his classic book, the purveyors of junk science in the mid-twentieth century were not just social and academic outsiders; they also mostly rejected the process of science. (I guess J. B. Rhine was an exception here.) They had theories and intuitions and they were angry about the conspiracies that the establishment used to suppress their theories.

In contrast, modern junk science follows the process and terminology of science very carefully. That’s why I follow Feynman and call it cargo cult science. It may not be serious scientific research, but it looks like science. An extreme example would be those studies of intercessory prayer (see discussion here and here) or those gaydar papers where a sort of scientism leads to a measurement protocol that removes much that is interesting in the phenomenon under study.

4. Crowding out. This is related to point 2 above. I expect that there are thousands of Velikovsky-like outsiders right now developing new theories of this and that, demonstrating ESP and perpetual motion machines, curing cancer with crystals, unearthing fragments of Noah’s ark and the true cross, etc.—but we don’t hear so much about them, because in the news media they’ve been crowded out by the credentialed researchers in our Ivy League psychology departments and business schools. The 1950s was a simpler time, when academic researchers were more restrained, giving some space for outsiders to get attention for their goofy theories.

Nowadays, even Dr. Oz has an academic affiliation. Junk science and an Ivy League post and a TV contract. How do you compete with that?

The only place in junk science where non-academics currently seem to have much purchase is in those few areas that have essentially zero academic support. It’s not so easy to fight the scientific consensus on WW2 atrocities, climate change, evolution, the risks and effectiveness of vaccines, or the power of nonstandard diets to change your life. For these sorts of things, the closest you’ll get to an insider will be various political figures, eccentric scientists and subfields, and celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow and Tom Brady.

5. Publishers and the news media. Back in the 1950s, Gardner was annoyed that mainstream publishers promoted junk science. This continued at least through the 1970s, when those Chariots of the Gods and Bermuda Triangle books sold a few zillion copies. Nowadays, yes, junk science gets promoted in books, but I feel like I hear more about audiovisual media such as Ted talks and NPR, along with newspapers such as the New York Times which can both spread and validate iffy claims. I guess my point is that, back in the day, Gardner had to get mad at the publishers: he couldn’t really work up much anger at the actual people who were writing the junk science, as they were some mixture of true believers and con artists. Nowadays, though, the there’s this media-academic-industrial complex. It’s a different setup.

What to say?

I don’t know exactly what to make of all this. I recognize that my above ramblings have some internal contradictions, and of course I could be wrong in some of the science. Maybe cold fusion works, maybe Cornell students really do have ESP, etc.

I do think there’s some interesting sociological point here that’s worth pursuing further. In many areas of public life there’s been a “death of expertise” (in the words of Tom Nichols), a decline in trust in many institutions. How does this line up with what one might call the professionalization of junk science? I’m not sure.

P.S. I was thinking some more, and I realized there is one area of junk science that exists in academic research, which has been well ensconced in the academy for hundreds of years, and that’s scientific racism. Gardner did include scientific racism in his survey of pseudoscience, and it’s different from the other items on his list in that it had, and continues to have, strong institutional support.


  1. Dale Lehman says:

    A related possibility is that this is an adverse selection (i.e., lemons) problem. Consumers of science can’t easily tell the lemons from the genuine article. Provided that the lemons are not too common, the equilibrium just reduces the value of the genuine articles, as consumers must account for the uncertainty about whether or not an article is genuine. However, when the lemons become prevalent enough, the market can be destroyed, so that all that remains are lemons – the genuine articles are pushed out of the market.

    If this is happening with scientific research, it is a depressing story. I do think the earlier steps are apparent – the relative value of scientific publications has been declining (that is, the average publication is less valuable). Whether the market will collapse is more uncertain.

  2. Matt Skaggs says:

    Coming into this thread with low expectations.

    After all, this is the crowd that would rather listen to Oprah Winfrey speak than Martin Gardner! ;)

      • zbicyclist says:

        For the record, I supported Gardner over Oprah. (I checked)

        Martin Gardner himself was an “outsider”, so perhaps he was more attuned to outsiders who made positive contributions (as he himself did) versus negative ones.

        From his biography on Wikipedia:

        “He attended the University of Chicago, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in philosophy in 1936. Early jobs included reporter on the Tulsa Tribune, writer at the University of Chicago Office of Press Relations, and case worker in Chicago’s Black Belt for the city’s Relief Administration. During World War II, he served for four years in the U.S. Navy as a yeoman on board the destroyer escort USS Pope in the Atlantic…

        After the war, Gardner returned to the University of Chicago. He attended graduate school for a year there, but he did not earn an advanced degree.

        In 1950 he wrote an article in the Antioch Review entitled “The Hermit Scientist”. It was one of Gardner’s earliest articles about junk science, and in 1952 a much-expanded version became his first published book: In the Name of Science: An Entertaining Survey of the High Priests and Cultists of Science, Past and Present.

        In the late 1940s, Gardner moved to New York City and became a writer and editor at Humpty Dumpty magazine where for eight years he wrote features and stories for it and several other children’s magazines. His paper-folding puzzles at that magazine led to his first work at Scientific American.”

        • JH says:

          He was a fascinating and complex person. One of my idols.

          ” An extreme example would be those studies of intercessory prayer…”

          For the record, though I’m sure he would be highly skeptical of studies supporting it, I recall (need to check) that in his autobiography “Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener” he said he personally believed in intercessory prayer. He was a fideist philosophical theist. This greatly informed his skepticism.

  3. Roy says:

    Smaldino and McElreath – “The Natural Selection of Bad Science”.

  4. Jonathan (another one) says:

    Institutions (the press, academic publishing, political parties) used to serve as gatekeepers. That’s what kept Breitbart and Velikovsky and Trump out. The collapse of authority in those institutions allows the poseurs and fakers inside enough to speak with the trappings of the former institutions without the scrutiny (and, to be fair, occasional corruption) the old gatekeepers instantiated. And the rump authorities remaining still haven’t gotten the message and think that they are still defending something other than their own power.

  5. Hmm. Many of your examples come from psychology, which is my main field, and one that first aroused my interest around 1957, so I lived through a lot of this. It is hard to draw the line between junk psychology and stuff that, perhaps only in hindsight, turned out to be wrong, or, much more often, overstated and misleading. Clinical psychology in particular has been through various fads since the early 1900s. (My own view is that the reaction AGAINST Freudian approaches was worse than the disease it was meant to cure. But certainly the embrace of Freud was “overstated”.) Even within cognitive psychology there were fads that became accepted, such as “subliminal perception” and its use in advertising, and the idea of “thinking outside the box” (broad search) as essential for creative thought, still a part of our culture despite being successfully challenged several times.

    In sum, I’m not sure that your distinction between insiders and outsiders will hold up that well.

    However, I agree that there has been a change, both in the news media and in those with power, such as granting agencies and journal publishers. There is now a premium on what is surprising (hence more likely at the outset to be wrong) and “transformative”, as if all the standard approaches have had their chance and are now boring and dispensable. Thus, psychology is being replace at surprising speed by neuroscience, and, as you point out, just-so stories and claims about subtle priming effects fill the journals and the news.

  6. paul alper says:

    Something is wrong with this paragraph of Andrew’s:

    “The only place in junk science were non-academics currently seem to have much purchase is in those few areas that have essentially zero academic support. It’s not so easy to fight the scientific consensus on WW2 atrocities, climate change, evolution, the risks and effectiveness of vaccines, or the power of nonstandard diets to change your life. For these sorts of things, the closest you’ll get to an insider will be various political figures, eccentric scientists and subfields, and celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow and Tom Brady.”

    I believe the first “were” should be a “where.” The second sentence also does not seem right because fighting the facts of

    “WW2 atrocities, climate change, evolution, the risks and effectiveness of vaccines”

    is being done constantly, including within academic settings.

    • Andrew says:


      I fixed the typo; thanks. Regarding your other point: Yeah, sure, I guess there are some academics who are Holocaust deniers, vaccine cranks, climate change deniers, promoters of dubious nutritional supplements, etc., but these are fringe figures. I’m conjecturing that one reason that non-academics are so prominent in these particular areas of junk science is that mainstream academia has abandoned these areas.

      In contrast, if you’re a non-academic who wants to do junk science on sleep, or on evolutionary psychology, it’s a lot tougher because you’re up against competition from credentialed academics who publish in these areas, do Ted talks, write bestselling novels nonfiction on these topics, etc.

      P.S. Yes, Dr. Oz works at a university (my university!) but I wouldn’t quite call him an academic. Or, to put it another way, he’s well ensconced in the media establishment, but from an academic point of view he’s a fringe figure.

  7. Bob76 says:

    I think it we look back to the mid-twentieth century, we can find a lot of junk science that was mainline. Here are a few candidates: Freudian theory,lobotomy,the wild application of Shannon’s information theory to everything (see, Elias’s editorial at, dietary recommendations such as substituting margarine for butter, the “refrigerator mother” theory, Cyril Burt’s probable fabrication of data, and probably everything Margaret Mead wrote. We also have the N-rays of the early twentieth century.

    One big change between the 1950s and today is funding and the payoff to faked studies. According to Wikipedia the NIH budget in 1945 was $2.8 million (about $30 million today); today the NIH budget is about $40 billion. In NSF’s first full year (1951) its budget was $3.5 million. It’s about $8 billion today. The potential payoff from crooked research is a lot bigger today than it was back then. Incentives matter.


    • Andrew says:


      Fair enough. Some of this is selection bias. Still, it’s notable that almost all of Gardner’s examples came from outsiders on the carnie circuit, not Harvard professors. I do think the field of junk science has gentrified since 1950.

      P.S. I’m not an expert on Margaret Mead, but from what I’ve read there’s some controversy about the purported debunking of her work. So maybe it’s not as junky as you might think.

      P.P.S. Regarding incentives: Yeah, I believe it. The entire academic sector is much bigger than it used to be. Meanwhile, book publishing is smaller. Back in the 1970s you could get rich selling a few million copies of Chariots of the Gods or whatever. Nowadays books don’t sell so well, but you can make a fine living as a professor at a university with possibility of lots more money from paid speaking engagements.

      • Bob76 says:

        Andrew wrote:
        P.S. I’m not an expert on Margaret Mead, but from what I’ve read there’s some controversy about the purported debunking of her work. So maybe it’s not as junky as you might think.

        Well, to be fair, I did qualify my observation on her work with “probably.” And of course, “everything she wrote” is clearly overbroad.

    • shhh says:

      Not to mention endowments.

      When I did the rounds for a PhD program, I noticed one very large dept I went to visit had received only a single recent NSF grant in my area, and that the recipient had been denied tenure!

      Turns out almost everything in that dept was funded by endowments (including several faculty chairs and research facilities). The department had produced many dozens of very very wealthy people, who expressed their gratitude to the dept with massive gifts.

      Generating endowment dollars is a key responsibility of university press offices and in turn a key selling point for prolific faculty, who in turn become prolific by publishing “important” papers.

  8. zbicyclist says:

    Is it possible that there are just too many “scientists” and too much academia and too much PR?

    College enrollment (US) was roughly 6 million in 1965; it’s roughly 20 million in 2018 ( That’s a lot more faculty.

    And a lot more faculty competition. More PhDs, with more student debt, and a smaller percentage of tenured positions (and with less mandatory retirement). Where the stakes are higher, there’s more incentive to cheat (wasn’t that called the Lance Armstrong principle on this blog?) Cheating or research sloppiness then becomes a habit.

    And I can’t find statistics on this, but my impression is that publicity offices for colleges and universities are much more active than a couple of generations ago. Their incentives are to get the university’s name in the news in a positive way, not to advance science.

    (As I post this, Bob76 has posted a nice set of numbers that support my argument that maybe there’s just too much “science” and too many “scientists”, to go along with a change in incentives toward the perverse.)

    • Dan Wright says:

      I had the same thought as zbicyclist reading this (very interesting post, already link sent to my students) post, what is the responsibility of the reverse Sagan Effect for this.

  9. Academics, naturally, have wanted to maintain their gatekeeper role. I think Deborah Rhode has done a very good job of chronicling the state of academia in her book, In Pursuit of Knowledge: Scholars, Status, and Academic Culture. Ego and jealousies are also implicated in the pursuit of knowledge. I agree with her on this score.

    In listening to several scientists at a conference in Boston, I gather that they think there has been an unprecedented level of uncritical thinking. I venture, as has Deborah Rhode, that quality of teaching itself has been undermined Derek Bok, former President of Harvard, has made a similar argument.

    I think also that a minority of individuals have more fluid and crystallized intelligence, regardless of its training/education. You can label people as constituting of ‘insiders’ or ‘outsiders’. I am not sure how well that distinction holds. Context is important.

  10. Kaiser says:

    This post is prompting an explosion in my head.

    First, the media-academic-industrial complex. Maybe it’s just the greed complex. Industry wants to sell stuff, stuff backed by “science” sell, surprisingly stuff that are anti-science also sell to a different customer segment, industry uses the media to sell stuff, it’s a virtuous cycle, both cash in, the media use academics to pitch stuff, academics gain recognition and funding, everyone thinks no harm done, they’ve just wasted money. Consumers either can’t tell (sugar pills), or make believe (placebo), or are taught to blame themselves. The smart ones demand the money back, the industrialists realize it’s better to comply and contain, because enough others will not return the stuff.

    I’m coming at this from the industry angle – especially the science/tech industries, which today includes data science. Theranos is the shining example of junk science, the most egregious, and only prosecuted because in this case, people could be harmed. There are endless examples of tech products propped up by weak science. Just yesterday, a bank lobbed a bunch of ridiculous security questions at me, and then suggested that I set up a “voiceprint” to escape the annoyance next time. I asked them for data – any data – that showed this voiceprint is 100% secure as they loudly claimed, and they couldn’t point to anything.

    Turning out junk science is also being praised as virtuous. They say: don’t kill the “fake it and make it” culture, loved by Silicon Valley. Junk science is the byproduct of innovation. This is the same argument in academia that it’s okay to publish bad science because not all published science can be groundbreaking. I’m not sure how we counter this argument.

    Two other trends are really killing science. One is social media, which has distangled all checks and balances; and the reaction by traditional media to self-destruct. The other is big data: anyone can say anything about anything.

  11. I think the two things you’re writing about are unrelated, and the first is debatable.
    (1) Pseudoscience of the dowsing, ESP, etc. variety having declined. I think there’s a lot out there, not in books, but on websites / YoutTube videos. Anti-vaxxers are the most well known, but there are plenty of nutty theories out there. Because mass-market media is far less important than it was decades ago, the “general public” doesn’t run into the nuttiness as much — we don’t see “Chariots of the Gods” on bookshelves.

    (2) The rise of pseudoscience in academia. This is definitely true, but is, I think, unrelated to #1, and is driven more by the importance of hype/fame, the over-population of scientists (about which I keep thinking I need to write a blog post), poor training especially in the quantitative aspects of traditionally non-quantitative fields, etc.

    In other words, even if all the crackpots of the 1970s were suddenly abducted by UFOs, it wouldn’t have stopped the rise of bad science in academia.

  12. Alex C. says:

    This post reminds me of why I miss the late Seth Roberts so much. He

    • Alex C. says:

      [Sorry, I accidentally clicked on the “Submit” button before I finished writing the comment.]

      Seth Roberts understood the dangers of relying on the academic-industrial complex for medical/scientific issues that affect one’s personal life. That’s why Seth advocated taking matters into your own hands and doing N=1 experiments on yourself. Sure, he got carried away sometimes, but his general approach remains very inspirational to me. I wish he were still around.

    • Zad says:

      Alex, I just checked out your website on Seth, am really grateful for it

  13. D Kane says:

    > It’s not so easy to fight the scientific consensus on WW2 atrocities, climate change, evolution

    This is an interesting triple. You really think that people like, say, Steve McIntyre are the equivalent of creationists? And, if not, just who do you think is fighting the “scientific consensus” on climate change?

    • John Williams says:

      Whether it is the equivalent of creationism or not, the link you posted leads to junk. I used to know something about the effect of climate on crops, and looking at gross aggregates such as global mean temperature is not the way to do it.

      • Andrew says:

        D, John:

        My colleague Wolfram Schlenker has done some work in this area; see here.

        • D Kane says:

          Your colleague does do work in this area! But that does not answer my question. Again: Who are the people, the specific people, who you think ” fight the scientific consensus” on “climate change?” If you have no one specific in mind, than that is OK. But I would then suggest that you not use that as an example since you have no knowledge of the topic.

          But I think that you mean people like McIntyre. If you do, then we can have a productive discussion. If you don’t, we can avoid confusion.

  14. D Kane says:

    Gardner did include scientific racism in his survey of pseudoscience, and it’s different from the other items on his list in that it had, and continues to have, strong institutional support.

    Huh? What sort of “strong institutional support” does scientific racism receive, and from whom? Consider three major institutions in New York City: Columbia University, Bank of America and the NYC police department. What support do they provide to scientific racism? I can’t think of any! And, if they don’t support it, then just what institutions are you talking about?

  15. jonathan says:

    I’m wary of comparing eras, but I think a lot of what you describe is increasing specificity. That is, the same bad ideas now have to take a more specifically academic form. The hope would be that sieving for form also sieves for quality of thought (and process). It doesn’t do that very well.

    But back in the early 60’s, my dad as a Radiologist got all the journals. Physically got them. I’d read through some, particularly the New England Journal and The Lancet. But the point was you could fairly easily read through the articles produced for the entire profession in English, which then meant pretty much all the meaningful articles produced outside the USSR.

    I am amazed at the journals that exist today and how they specifically generate content which fits the niche the journal itself creates by its existence. You can build up quite a resumé now if you tailor your material to fit the niches. I’m not saying that didn’t happen but then the expectation was that, whatever the subject, it had to reach a more generalized level of ‘acceptability’.

    I’ve noted the ‘technicalization’ of communication generally. You can see it in legal opinions: read any opinion from the 19thC and you read ideas, while any opinion from the late 20thC to now is about the technical details of the matter. You never saw 128 page listings of facts before the 1980’s. Legal thinking has become technocratic as economic thinking has become ‘technocratic’ in its reliance on regression and econometric modeling. It’s often impossible to discern the idea in modern economic papers; they tend to blizzards of equations that purport to meanings which may or may not be in the equations, whether as written or as should be better written (or whether they even actually fit outside the contextual results).

    One can argue this both ways. You can take the Alexander Pope perspective and decry the opening of the printing press to hacks. Or you can take the approach that you let the shit pile up and eventually flowers grow. An absolute classic example of that is Vulcan: the idea that there had to be another planet in between Mercury and the Sun. If people hadn’t induced the wrong answer from past experience, Einstein wouldn’t have realized: oh, there’s the example I need!

    I tend to the belief that every single thing other than the math itself is wrong at some level. That’s like saying the threads always halt outside the disappearing ideal where they don’t. In many ways, I think you’re noting the expression of apparent limits: we think we know a lot because we can express so much in equation form. When I was a kid, that was not true. As in, one of the great papers is bootstrapping and it was typed on a typewriter.

    Here’s an example: McCoy Tyner died today. Huge influence on me because he expressed himself using tonal changes – like he’d play a lot of notes together, would alter one or a few each time to shift the music expressively – and he could also play the parts cut out, like he could play the integral and the derivative. In his work with Coltrane, he pinned John down because, in large part, the piano part communicates the key potential as that shifts over the song. You can’t go back in time and do that all over again. This was the era when jazz had commercial viability and yet the economics had shifted from the dance band to personal expression. Can’t remake that. You can imitate it. You can’t be there again.

    Now, we havie the API’s for multi-variate regression, for playing piano this way or that, built into expectations. This is one reason why jazz careers stall: they rely on sounding unfamiliar to sound new and then those who know realize that it’s not new. Other music forms rely on comfort. Like country invokes a chord palate ang melodic format that resonates even though this or that song is pretty much the same as that or this song. A listener to one downgrades the new while the other maybe upgrades it. (Hard to tell because it’s clear acts are afraid of sounding too different, so different but not is the rule.)

    Same people, different API’s available to address the world.

    • Thanks Jonathan, for the shout out to McCoy. A great man, a great pianist. Saw him twice at Yoshi’s in Oakland in the late 90’s early 2000s, he would play weekend matinees so young kids could come, and they did, a few. He was a great man, a great musician, one of my absolute favorites. I’m sad today about the world’s loss.

  16. Renzo Alves says:

    Martin Gardner’s Science: Good, Bad and Bogus is also entertaining and informative.
    I’ve been on both side, academic and general interest. I noticed the same thing, albeit in different guises: People like cool stories. and prefer to be told what they want to hear. Pop/general market writers want readers, sales, likes, podcast invitations, TED Talks, hugs; Academics want the academic equivalents. Almost everyone figures out what they need to do to get what they want, and some people are willing to do it.
    I grew up on Bertrand Russell and Martin Garder hence I basically expected (and still do) most implausible or unsubstantiated claims to turn out to be BS, but even Bertrand Russell believed some nutty things for a while (the Ontological Argument to name one, Freudianism, to name two, and that he wouldn’t react “irrationally” if his wife got knocked up by another man, to name three). As the COVID-19 panic seems to indicate, many people’s default response to the mere remote possibility of harm is to run in circles. Mine is to assume everything is BS, media hype, or a Nigerian scamuntil shown otherwise. (I’m not paranoid, I just trust data more than emotions, most of the time.)

    Unrelatedly,I saw McCoy in Berkeley in 1983. Unfortunately, his mind seemed to be on other things that night. On the other hand, not being a jazz pianist at that time, maybe I missed what he was putting down. That is very possible. My own jazz teacher (a tenor saxophone player although I didn’t play saxophone) was a colleague of McCoy, and he didn’t impress me either, although I recognized that my ignorance of the idiom may have been the issue. People in the know seemed to think he was quite competent, so I basically suspended judgement and trusted the experts.

  17. Mike Steinberg says:

    In relation to Saini and research on the causes of group differences people seem unaware that environmental explanations have also fallen short. Hence, when surveyed, far more researchers tend to believe that both genetic and environmental variation plays a part. The likes of MIT’s Robert Weinberg and Harvard geneticist David Reich have also pointed out that traits influenced by genetics may well differ on average across groups as allele frequencies differ across groups. At this point it can’t be said with high confidence that genes do or do not play a role, but the blank slate position is apparently the only acceptable position.

    • Steve Sailer says:

      Angela Saini’s book “Superior: The Return of Race Science” (which is referenced in the last paragraph, self-destructs hilariously when she goes to interview Harvard star geneticist David Reich and he methodically demolishes the scientific pretensions underlying her fashionable but poorly informed ideology.

  18. Thanatos Savehn says:

    So I forced myself this past week to read every abstract pushed to me by the “quality” journals to which I sorta subscribe; Cell among them. I came to the conclusion that if I could find a mark to “fund” me I could spend the rest of my days studying the fire ants in my yard, publishing dozens if not hundred of papers along the way. I might conclude that fire ants prefer building their mounds against SE-facing azaleas rather than others (p less than whatever). I could collect a few, cut them up, send their guts off to a lab for some shotgun sequencing and report that the fire ants that live with the horses have different bugs in their guts than the ones that live in the front yard. I could go on and on but the point is that I could generate endless hypotheses about these ******* fire ants and endless results after endless interventions and yet all I would have accomplished is to make the wholly unremarkable observation that the fire ants in Thanatos’ yard are acclimated to his unique yard – which would be of interest to precisely nobody including myself.

    Yet that sort of thing is what made up most of what I read. The honest ones noted that this or that actionable molecule might not work in humans because they aren’t kept in cages and fed rat chow and might not even work in the same strain of rat if fed a different brand of rat chow. The rest kept the limitations of their studies to possible failure to replicate. Nevertheless they all gamely claimed that further attention to whichever molecule was at issue is undoubtedly warranted.

    Now I’m not against research on fire ants or knock-out rats or whatever but it would be nice if instead of publishing the minutiae these people would instead aim at publishing one really good paper about some startling insight they’d gleaned from all that work. Some organizing principle of fire ant mounds or the evolution of cancer in rats or whatever. Instead, most of what I saw was an effort to turn mediocre ideas into a bunch of trivial ones. The exercise was discouraging.

    • Dan C says:

      Indeed. Reading a lot of journal articles recently, to me, has felt as bad as reading the news. The entire framing is usually predictable in advance, you know not everything is being disclosed, the writing usually isn’t great, and you leave feeling even more confused/dissatisfied than when you started.

  19. I think you’re on to something here, Andrew. Ten years ago I noticed the similarities (and some differences) between Malcolm Gladwell and Daniel Pinchbeck. The former needs no introduction here, the latter was promoting 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl at the time. What was interesting to me then, and resonates with your post here, was how Gladwell presented his favored “science” as established and beyond reasonable critique (cf. Kahneman), while Pinchbeck made quite clear that he was drawing on fringe views, marginalized from the mainstream of science. I share your sense that (since ca. 2012?) the Pinchbecks of the world have been crowded out of the public sphere.

    • Andrew says:


      I followed the link. The Gladwell quotes are interesting. I can’t tell how much Gladwell really believes what he’s saying and how much he’s consciously hyping, in the way that we are supposed to hype when writing a research grant proposal. As for Pinchbeck . . . I agree with your commenter that he’s just talking about something different. From your description, his book seems more comparable to an inspirational religious book than to a science book. You note that Pinchbeck is pushing ESP; I’ve seen religious books do similar things of pushing pseudoscience about Noah’s ark or the power of intercessory prayer. Yes, they try to drag science into their argument, but it seems more peripheral. Maybe we need to think harder about the differences between secular and religious uses of junk science.

      • As I said to Jonathan, I’m not sure Pinchbeck’s claims about (Radin’s studies of) ESP are all that different from Gladwell’s claims about (Gottman’s work on) predicting divorce. Do you think there’s a qualitative difference here?

        You might be able to persuade me that there is one, but I’ve never quite seen it. Or not clearly. It’s a bit like my puzzlement over how many of the same people who dismiss “intelligent design” as obvious pseudoscience will earnestly defend the search for “extraterrestrial intelligence” as obviously scientific. My (emerging) view is that popular science is often ersatz religion, so the difference between secular and religious junk science makes little difference in this context. Once you’ve got a cargo cult up and running, your choice of god is secondary.

        • Andrew says:


          To me, ESP and creationism do seem different from divorce prediction and power pose. In all these cases, I’m skeptical, and in all these cases, I’m open to real evidence, even if I haven’t seen it yet.

          Of all these examples, I guess I’m most positively inclined toward divorce prediction. I would not at all be surprised if a 15-minute interview with a couple would be enough to predict future divorce at a high rate of success, even if not 90%. Indeed, I’d suspect that you could get some success in a 15-second interview from the response to a single question: “How likely is it that you might divorce some day?” I might be completely wrong on this, it’s just my guess. The point is, divorce prediction already exists. It’s a lot easier to accept improvements in an idea than to accept an idea that might never have worked.

          • My problem with ESP is that I can’t imagine how the information gets to the receiver without use of the senses. I have exactly the same problem with Gottman’s divorce predictions. Given all the things that happen in a marriage before two people get divorced (and after the 15-minute interview), not to mention the influence of religious conviction and family influences, I can’t imagine that the “predictive” information is available in the interview. I see a feather in the pouch of a kangaroo jumping on a scale, etc.

            • Andrew says:


              Maybe 90% accuracy is implausible. But 80%, maybe. It all depends on how it’s measured.

              For example, a quick google tells me that “20 percent of marriages end within the first five years, and that this number increased by 12 percent within 10 years. But between 10 years and 15 years, the rate only increases about 8 percent.” Taking these numbers as correct, this implies that in any year, the probability is 2-4% in any given year. So if I’m interviewing randomly sampled couple and I simply predict each time that they won’t get divorced, I can expect my predictions to be 96-98% accurate after one year, and 80-90% accurate after 5 years. Pretty good, huh?

              Gottman’s task was more challenging, I assume, because he was working with couples in marriage counseling for which the average risk of divorce in the next year was much higher than 4%. Still, I imagine that there’s a lot of directly accessible information to distinguish those who are close to divorce from those who aren’t. Maybe if you do the work honestly, you get a success rate of 75% or 80% rather than 90%, who knows? Also, just to be clear, we have no reason whatsoever to think that Gottman is better at predicting divorce than anyone else.

              OK, back to pseudoscience.

              I agree that Gottman’s mathematics-of-divorce thing, like the critical-positivity-ratio stuff in psychology and various junk political science done by physicists who purport to deduce an optimal committee size . . . that’s completely off the reservation. These are the social science equivalents of ESP and creationism and alchemy and homeopathy and other theories that would either require a complete overhaul of the laws of physics or would imply that we’ve all been missing something huge.

              But the general idea that you could predict divorces with very high accuracy (not using hyped up “math” but just basic statistical prediction), or the idea that a well-trained person could tell lies by reading people’s facial expressions, or that “a person can, by assuming two simple 1-minute poses, embody power and instantly become more powerful” . . . these seem different to me. Given what I’ve read, I haven’t seen any good evidence for those claims, but they seem theoretically possible, not requiring any major revisions in our understanding of science.

              • OK. I get it. The fact that they’re human beings in whatever situation they’re in when interviewed allows us to “predict” lots of stuff. But consider this claim:

                “If he analyzes an hour of a husband and wife talking, he can predict with 95 percent accuracy whether that couple will still be married fifteen years later. If he watches a couple for fifteen minutes, his success rate is around 90 percent.” (Gladwell, Blink)

                Do you honestly believe there is information in those fifteen minutes that could possibly improve your accuracy in this way?

                PS. It’s been a while, but I don’t think Gladwell tells us that Gottman’s abilities are limited to couples in therapy. I got the impression we’re supposed to believe he could do this with random couples. As I recall, the story is they’re sitting in a restaurant and he’s making predictions about the people around them.

              • Andrew says:


                I think the fancy science part of Gottman’s work—the idea that he can use advanced math to understand relationship—is junk science of the perpetual-motion-machine or ESP variety.

                I think the predictive statistical part of Gottman’s work—the claim that he’s particularly good at assessing relationships and predicting divorces—is junk science of the himmicanes or air rage variety: there’s no theoretical reason it can’t be true, but no good evidence has been offered. I agree that 90% accuracy seems implausible, but not impossible. Again, it depends a lot on who the couples are.

                Also, to return to Gladwell: I think if we are going to take Gottman seriously, we should put it in the category of “statistical prediction,” in which case those numbers are all pretty much meaningless because the prediction is evaluated using the data the model were fit to. It would be kinda like reporting on someone’s claim to have built a car that gets 200 miles to the gallon, and then you find out that they never actually did an independent test of the gas mileage. If the whole claim relies on one key piece of evidence, then you want to evaluate the evidence.

              • Andrew says:

                Also perhaps relevant is my discussion of Newcomb’s paradox, which I also approach as a prediction problem.

              • I’ll have to have a look at this again, Andrew. I don’t think there’s a meaningful difference between Gottman’s “fancy math” and his “predictive statistics”. And that’s why I think Gladwell on divorce = Pinchbeck on ESP.

            • John Mashey says:

              I Was a longtime fan of Gardner’s, who of course was a Fellow of Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (aka CSICOP in old days).

              On ESP, etc, try this recent article from Skeptical Inquirer:
              Why Parapsychological Claims Cannot Be True
              Arthur S. Reber, James E. Alcock
              Causality. Time’s arrow. Thermodynamics. Inverse square law.
              Physics is mean.

              On the other hand, one might peruse the Journal of Scientific Exploration, which contains numerous articles by academics (and others.)
              It includes frequent articles from the Princeton PEAR folks.
              It has:
              Can Population Growth Rule Out Reincarnation? A Model of Circular Migration
              by David Bishai, still at Johns Hopkins

              But my favorite is the statistical analysis in
              An Empirical Study of Some Astrological Factors in Relation to Dog Behaviour Differences by Statistical Analysis and Compared with Human Characteristics
              “Abstract-A survey of 500 pedigree dogs was carried out in the Paris region.
              For each dog, six behavioural traits were determined and ten of their astrological traits were retained. A statistical interpretation of the possible relationships between the two sets of traits was performed based on permutation tests.
              Two strong associations were detected between the angular positions of Jupiter
              and the Sun, and the extraversion dominant trait. There were indications of
              other associations. These associations have a remarkable resemblance to the
              standard associations usually proposed in “human” astrology. “

              Of course, there is a well-organized industry denying the scientific consensus on climate, but that’s different from junk science like dog astrology.

              Here’s a list of Individuals and Groups, with profiles:

  20. John Mashey says:

    You may also want to look at this retraction of yet another paper that tried to find a spuirious correlation.

    “But, there has been a long history of people assuming that they *know* that solar cycles have an effect and then just looking every more deeply for the mechanism. Indeed, solar-climate links might be the ur-topic of the current p-hacking scandal that is troubling a lot of science these days. …
    Slightly more recently, a classic of the genre was published in Science (Friis-Christensen and Lassen, 1991) which not only misrepresented the analysis they did to “prove” a link between climate and “solar-cycle length”, but in correcting it made even more arithmetic errors (Laut, 2003). That this massively cited paper (> 1300 cites) is still unretracted is continuing mystery.

    Needless to say, very few (if any) of these solar-climate links are predictive. That is, once new data comes in, the purported correlations evaporate as fast as the credibility of the authors. And yet, the next paper that ‘fixes’ the correlation still gets published.”

  21. BoseQC35 says:

    I hold modest hopes for Data Science (DS). If DS can remain un-tethered to academia (unlike statistics and epidemiology) and a strong culture develops of publishing code and data (a repo for every analysis), open science, and using open source tools then the Establishment (universities, professional colleges & societies, scientific journals, etc) can be left behind in the slow/junk lane.
    I hope DS finds its home on Stack, github, meetups, etc and keeps the Establishment at arm’s length…

  22. NickMatzke says:

    Surely the parapsychology stuff goes back a long ways in Official Academia, ie it was carried out by legit professors, published in legit journals, and is entirely an artifact of statistical wishful thinking, ie a formal p-value analysis but failure to think about forking paths, p-hacking, etc. Perhaps that’s a thread from the olden days to the pseudoscience of today?

    • Andrew says:


      But parapsychology is fringe. Even when Bem was getting published in JPSP, that work was still considered fringe. In contrast, lots of junk science of the irrelevant-inputs-cause-large-and-consistent-changes-in-important-beliefs-and-behavior variety are performed and conducted by powerful people within the center of academic psychology, with influence in major media, the National Academy of Sciences, etc. Brian Wansink was given a government post, and he’s just one example. Even in the glory days of the 1940s or the 1970s, parapsychology was never so mainstream.

  23. Zhou Fang says:

    Is there actually any way to quantify these impressions? I mean, a contrary argument might be that Junk Science hasn’t changed at all, but the media landscape has, which gives these ideas more exposure.

    One thing that always struck me about Bem’s infamous ESP paper was one particular argument he makes – he claims that surveys show many people already believed in ESP. Therefore, he says, this means that for most people, priors beliefs on ESP already put substantial weight on it being the case, and hence the evidence he presents for ESP is sufficient and should not be ruled out.

  24. Alex Gamma says:

    “Scientific racism” strikes me us a dumb word, for the same reason that “scientific anti-racism” is a dumb word. Racism in science, maybe, or racist scientists, but not *scientific* racism.

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