Saint Petersburg Branch of the Russian Humanist Society
A Brief Guide to Science Charlatanism

Bookshelves, pages of periodicals, TV programs, Internet sites, and forums are full of anti-scientific gobbledygook. Genuinely sympathizing with the victims of pseudoscience and charlatanism we will try to draw up a brief guide to "B.S." similar to the guides to dangerous animals and poisonous mushrooms.

Primary signs

If the publication contains the terms: aura, biofield, chakra, bioenergy, panacea, energy information, wave resonant, psychic energy, thought form, telegony, wave genetics, wave genome, extrasensory, or astral, then you can be sure that you are dealing with the writing of a charlatan.

The list might be continued but there is no special reason to do this. The terminology of the charlatan crowd is constantly expanding and therefore orientation by "signal words" is not always sufficient to correctly evaluate a text.

Secondary signs

This is information about the author's identity. As a rule the main specialty of the authors of pseudoscientific works is far from the field of knowledge to which their opuses are devoted. I intentionally use the word "opus (from the Latin opus, work) in order not to specify whether it is a book, an article, or a TV program.

The scientific regalia of the author are of great interest for an analysis. The more and more thoroughly they are listed the more warily one needs to regard the text. Real scientists dislike vanity.

The modest "Doctor Smith, M. D." evokes greater trust than perhaps a "Doctor of the Problems of the Universe, Academician of the XYZ Academy, an Honorary Member of this and that, Fantasy Nonsensovich Poppycock-Grandioso".

An honorary membership in various academies puts one on his guard by virtue of the significant differences between a member and an honorary member.

Beyond any doubt many truly outstanding scientists have been given a multitude of awards. But, alas, their works are comprehensible only to the same professionals and they almost never indulge in popular publications.

The works of professionals lack not only self-glorification but any mention of the value of the work whatsoever.

Expressions like, "Our research completely changes the idea of such-and-such", "It has special value", "Everything that preceded us has no value", along with promises of radical transformations in science or an immediate enormous effect with minimal expense, and with disparagement of predecessors and rivals, are sure symptoms of charlatanism.

A definition of a work by an author as revolutionary is a quite serious reason to doubt the author's competence as well as the value of his creation.

Tertiary signs

These signs are properly observed in the content of the work. Some aspects which relate to this section were mentioned above. The authors of fantastic and fraudulent works are not at all interested in the rapid identification of their antiscientific nature. Some have achieved remarkable success in mimicry and camouflage the pseudoscientific nature of their creations amidst completely sensible reasoning with surprising deftness. Limiting myself to the framework of medicine and biology, I recall that in biological systems and in living organisms all the known physical laws operate as unfailingly as in non-living ones. Specific biological laws do not have lesser force and are also not violated. Therefore, if an author seriously discusses paranormal abilities - seeing through walls, reading letters in sealed envelopes, levitation, telekinesis, resurrecting the dead, or operations without knives [psychic surgery] (involving the internal organs but without wounds or scars) - you are reading a fairy tale. The use of scientific-sounding terminology is calculated not so much at the reader's awareness as on the hypnotizing effect of obscure words serving to guide the author's ideas to the reader's or listener's brain. The reader simply does not have enough time to understand the stream of words. He only manages to catch the individual snatches written in normal language. Thoughts are included in these snatches which in the author's intent should familiarize the consumer with the product of his reasoning. It would be necessary to read about the idea thoughtfully and slowly…But indeed we are accustomed (and forcibly accustomed) to read rapidly. Here we swallow without chewing. Such a means of absorbing spiritual food is more dangerous for the brain than the hurried absorption of bodily food for the stomach.

Thus, an increased concentration of foreign language terms where one could completely get by with the words of one's native language and the profusion of complex grammatical constructions is a signal to the reader, "Look, don't jump in!". The absence of doubt and impatience with objections are characteristic of the opuses of charlatans. A certain sign of charlatanism is the lack of a direct reaction to criticism and a switch to an attack on the opponent's personality.

Universality and generality are characteristic of pseudoscientific "concoctions". A charlatan does not lower himself to the solution of narrow problems. If he has made a revolution in science then it is global. If he treats a cancer with a stick of aspen (there really is such a patent!), then it is all [cancers] without exception. If he has invented a miracle diet then it suits everyone and improves health completely and without the right to appeal. If he describes a wonder drug it has no contraindications and it can be given to anyone.

When the author does not have enough factual or logical arguments (often both) he resorts to references to authority. When doing so he ascribes statements and views to deceased authorities which were absolutely foreign to them when they were alive. Naturally the dead will not feel shame. In such cases a familiarity with the biography of the great allows one to determine the forgery with sufficient reliability and treat the author's work correspondingly.

If the "revolutionary teaching" offered the consumer has no scientific history this is a very, very reliable sign of B.S. Science develops by degrees, and the old and proven always serve as the basis for new knowledge. If the author has no predecessors and his "science" has jumped out to God's green Earth like the Devil from a snuff-box, the relation to it will be completely natural, like an unclean force. I offer an analogy to such "brainstorms", "inspirations", and other divine gifts. Anything esoteric, hysterical, and mystical unambiguously determines its classification as B.S. by its very presence in a "scientific" opus.

I would call "unshaven by Occam" one more tertiary sign. A principle formulated back in the 14th century by the Franciscan monk William of Occam is called Occam's Razor. It says, "Entia non sunt multiplicanda sine necessitate" - "Entities should not be multiplied without necessity". In other words, a complex explanation should not be thought up where a simple one is sufficient. Einstein changed the formula somewhat, "Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler". This principle is not followed in pseudoscientific opuses. Discussions about the Bermuda Triangle can serve as an example of a violation of Occam's Razor. From time to time ships and aircraft disappear in an area with extraordinarily heavy ship traffic and with very unstable air and sea currents. B.S. explains these catastrophes as the effect of otherworldly forces. Accidents by virtue of natural causes (the loss of communication with an aircraft because of malfunctions in the electrical network; falling into the sea because of navigational error and/or an overconsumption of fuel; the loss of a ship struck by an unusually high wave) are rejected in favor of attractive and completely unfounded concoctions.

I conclude the article with a simple recommendation: use common sense to distinguish science from B.S.

If the lotteries aren't bankrupted, the prophets are worthless. If there are still sick people, all the miracle drugs are rubbish. If someone offers a miracle, he is a charlatan.

Arkady Golod, anesthesiologist

Translsted by Gary Goldberg