Ghost Hunting – Sham Inquiry

Thousands of eyewitnesses report ghostly encounters from ancient history to modern times. Contact with the dead is very much part of our modern culture. With the expansion of television content and the internet, stories about hauntings have surged in popularity.

Ghost hunting is a popular hobby for thrill seekers. It’s fun to be scared. The official community of ghost hunters, including those of popular reality TV programs, are non-scientists. However, they invariably tout the scientific nature of their activities. Continue reading

Cryptozoology – Sham Inquiry

Cryptozoology is “the study of hidden animals” (called ‘cryptids’). More precisely, it is the pursuit of animals that science does not recognize as existing and, in some situations, be considered ‘monster hunting’ in comparison to the ghost hunters in a forthcoming discussion.

Like the closely related field of UFOlogy, cryptozoology can accurately be described as “a simulacrum of systematic rationality…quite impressive to many…nonbelievers.” Continue reading

Pretend science

Playing Pretend Science

In order to be technical, like science, pseudoscientists engage in a method of data gathering that is not haphazard or lazy. Intricate collection and analysis is often a part of pseudoscientific activity. They may produce enormous bodies of work. Commitment to a cause can prompt “energetic intellectual effort” [1]. The motives and ‘sciencey’ feel of the whole endeavor wins over those nonscientists who can’t recognize that it simply fails to meet scientific standards. Yet, for all the diligent work, the accumulated evidence can still amount to nothing of substance.
The public is happy to admire science as long as they don’t have to understand it deeply. Sham inquiry plays to the admiration of science by the public. A lack of familiarity with how science is supposed to work is a major reason why the public has trouble recognizing counterfeit science. Add an ‘-ology’ to the end of whatever you study and it acts like a toupe of credibility – to hide the lack of substance. The public is vulnerable to pseudoscience that resembles real inquiry and genuine knowledge.
The following are three examples of current pseudosciences. They all don the accoutrements of science without delivering the substance [2]. The field of cryptozoology is the likeliest of the three to hold the interest of real scientists these days because it is associated with the genuine fields of zoology, anthropology and wildlife biology and chock-full of amateur scientists. Ghost hunting is predominantly nonscientists who enjoy using technology and the new view that it gives them on the world. Creationism is a entirely different beast grown completely from religious ideology and dressed in a cheap and transparent scientific costume. This sham does not even fool courts of law but it continues to exert tremendous ideological force on the public.

Ghost hunting
[1] Haack, S. (1995). “Concern for Truth and Why it Matters”. The Flight from Science and Reason (1996). P. R. Gross, N. Levitt, M.W. Lewis, New York Academy of Sciences, p. 58.
[2] Bunge, M. (1995).“In Praise of Tolerance To Charlatanism in Academia”. The Flight from Science and Reason (1996). P. R. Gross, N. Levitt, M.W. Lewis, New York Academy of Sciences, p. 104.

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Weak evidence

Quality of evidence

A frequent complaint from the fringe is that the scientific community is dismissive of the actual evidence for their extraordinary claim. Proponents of psi or UFOs will cite reams of evidence. The scientific community’s standard response is “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. That is, the evidence must be high quality, obtained through rigorous testing, with all other explanations accounted for. Overly precautionary experiments are required to support theories that seek to overturn established knowledge. Rampant fraud and gullibility exposed in some fields, especially psi research, require that extra safeguards be used in this research. This is not a double standard because, as Gardner notes for conventional studies, “gerbils don’t cheat” [1]. But humans do, sometimes inadvertently.

Many poorly tested pseudosciences have a characteristic over-reliance on anecdotal evidence. Similar to anecdotes, myths and legends will be used to support a claim. This type of evidence can not be confirmed and is subject to mistakes and misinterpretation. Science considers anecdotal evidence very weak because of the degree of subjectiveness.

In the public view, anecdotal evidence is very persuasive. It is a primary means by which we communicate ideas to each other. To deny an eyewitness account suggests that the researcher considers the eyewitness a lier, under the influence of some altering substance or mentally unstable.

Collected modern and historical anecdotes, bits of circumstantial and questionable evidence, and non-replicated results form an impressive body of evidence to the nonscientist. Even the scientist may feel that there “must be something to it”. The important attention to quality is lost. Lots of weak evidence does not collectively make strong evidence. In an analogy, skeptical investigator Ben Radford equates this to trying to make a cup of strong coffee out of a lot of weak brew [2]. The scientific community is unimpressed and, quite justifiably, turns away.

[1] Gardner, M. (1981). Science Good Bad & Bogus, Prometheus Books.
[2] Radford, B. (2009). Personal communication, April 27, 2009.

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Using Subterfuge

Using subterfuge to build a case

Pseudoscience proponents may resort to desperate measures to support and preserve a beloved theory – another sure sign that the theory does not qualify on the same level as a scientific one. The public generally falls for various forms of slippery techniques and logical fallacies that are used to promote pseudoscientific claims, such as:

  • Falsifying scientific citations or quotes; using well-known scientist’s words out of context, changing them or entirely fabricating a reference;
  • Deliberately misleading to a conclusion;
  • Laying claim to authority based on special knowledge from inside sources (like the military, religious authorities or the dead themselves);
  • Making decisive statements that are unconfirmed, previously discredited, or even outright lies;
  • Speculation unsupported by evidence; outright leaps of faith and jumping to conclusions;
  • Claims that other knowledge systems are as valued as science.

In the eyes of the public who will trust a knowledgeable-sounding and sincere source, crafty methods can convey the feeling that a reasonable case is being built. The public is not expected to look deep enough to see that hard facts are actually assumptions, rendering the whole field a hollow show [1]. It takes a lot of work, previous knowledge and some special access to discern the truth from falsity and determine which conclusions are valid. It is not reasonable to have to verify everything one hears all day.
[1] Levitt, N. (1999). Prometheus Bedeviled, Rutgers Univ Press. p. 92

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Science doesn’t work by beginning with the premise and searching for evidence to support it or, holding onto the premise no matter what evidence contradicts it. This is true close-mindedness.

A theory can be worded in such a way that it can never be shown to be false. This is made very easy by incorporating the supernatural. For example, “God did it”. How might one prove otherwise when the God or creator can suspend natural law indiscriminately?

Sham inquiry researchers will play down the importance of certain evidence and explain it away and ignore or rationalize failure. They will refuse to critically examine their logic. Instead, they resort frequently to special pleading. The fallacy of special pleading is when someone argues that a case is an exception to a rule based upon some characteristic that does not really warrant that an exception be made [1]. It’s an excuse. Using ad hoc explanations to explain away disconfirming evidence is a means to ensure that no conceivable piece of evidence produced will effect the outcome. The theory is nonfalsifiable.

Another fail-safe option to protect your theory against refutation is to place the burden of proof on the skeptic, which does not make logical sense. When this tool is used in an argument, one can conclude that rules of logic and fair play have been thrown out.

When a proponent asserts absolute certainty in their interpretation, and will not provide a reasonable answer to “What evidence would make your theory false?” (or worse, requires the scientist to “Prove me wrong”) it is a clear signal of pseudoscience. Intellectual honesty would require one to admit that any theory may eventually someday be proven false but can never be proven absolutely true.

[1] Carey, S. S. (2004). A Beginner’s Guide to Scientific Method, Wadsworth. p. 19

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Fancy jargon

Fancy jargon and complexity

Science is loaded with jargon which serves as an efficient way to get a complex idea across in a neat package. Scientists name everything and give precise definitions. Thus, jargon is a hallmark of science.

Whereas the jargon of science is meant to be precise and useful, the jargon of pseudoscience is additionally used to convey an impression of technicality, and may deliberately be used to obfuscate the outsider. Inventive jargon and elaborate detail can hide the lack of real discussion about evidence and logical argument. [1]

Pseudoscientific gurus frequently misapply genuine scientific words. New scientific-sounding terms are created because they also sound right to an untrained ear. The most egregious offense may be the misuse of scientific concepts that are typically peppered throughout their literature and commentary. “Energy” and “quantum” are perhaps the most commonly incorrectly applied and highly overused terms.

While it sounds impressive, fancy-sounding language does not make a concept scientific. Elaborate systems of painstaking analysis and exacting interpretation doesn’t make what comes out at the other end any more true. It’s just a sham.

When a proponent asserts absolute certainty in their interpretation, and will not provide a reasonable answer to “What evidence would make your theory false?” (or worse, requires the scientist to “Prove me wrong”) it is a clear signal of pseudoscience. Intellectual honesty would require one to admit that any theory may eventually someday be proven false but can never be proven absolutely true.

[1] Levitt, N. (1999). Prometheus Bedeviled, Rutgers Univ Press. p. 90

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Immutable and Closed to Criticism

A half-century makes a huge difference in science these days. Consider physics, astronomy and medicine from just 50 years ago.

Today’s great pseudosciences are ancient arts – astrology, traditional medicines, dowsing, divination. Apart from incorporating some new technology into their practice, like computers and electronic gadgets, the explanatory basis for these is the same as it was centuries ago – mystical, not scientific. Pseudosciences appeal to their long, unchanging history as evidence of their correctness. The general public is unaware that these science pretenders are missing the testing, modifying and revising of ideas that spurs progress and creates new knowledge. [1] “Ancient” and “traditional” does not equate to “correct”.

Theories given the boot from modern scientific circles can last forever in the same old format because they are not part of a self-correcting process. When no criticism is allowed, the theory does not improve. Several pseudoscience communities will overlook, ignore or demonize rival explanation and exclude discussions of such from their forums. They will make a specific effort to exclude outsiders from their primary means of communication – specialized journals, email discussion lists and internet blogs and message boards.

To observe this closed-circuitry, try politely questioning or posting a skeptical comment on a Bigfoot or psychic-friendly internet message board or blog. Dissenting views are unwelcome. It’s likely that you will be called a “troll” and silenced.

Ironically, pseudoscience views science as narrow-minded, yet they commit the behavior they say they detest in others. To be fair, there is value and enjoyment in conversing with other like-minded folks. However, when one is defending an idea purported to be science, you can not actively exclude your critics and remain credible.

Genuine science is self-correcting, requiring new input, peer review and open criticism as part of the necessary process. Science requires skepticism and considers this quality necessary for science to progress in a positive direction. If any theory, revolutionary or conventional, has sufficient evidence, it will be considered. If it is show to be valid, it will eventually be accepted as knowledge. If the scientific methodology is not followed, or just selectively followed, it can’t be called science.

A field can’t be “progressive” yet remain unchanged. Because it is not open to inquiry, criticism and revision, pseudoscience is not progressive and does not enrich knowledge.


[1] Carey, S. S. (2004). A Beginner’s Guide to Scientific Method, Wadsworth. p. 123

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Unorthodox and proud of it

The category of unconventional theories is labeled “maverick”, “fringe”, “frontier” and “exploration” in front of the word “science” to describe the work. (This community is featured on The Anomalist website – The conclusions they reach are at variance with what is taught as conventional science. Because these ideas are outside of the mainstream consensus and so obviously at odds with some aspect of current understanding, this foremost characteristic should send up a red flag and prompt questioning [1].

Unorthodox does not automatically equate to “wrong”. The more controversial the theory, however, the more airtight the evidence must be to convince. In pseudoscience, one will find the evidence elusive, with a selective use of facts focusing on anomalies, not the main body of observations. (See here.) Capitalizing on the image of science as progressive and offering new insights, pseudoscientists will often mix in just enough real science to fool naive readers. It sounds exactly like science should sound.


[1] Carey, S. S. (2004). A Beginner’s Guide to Scientific Method, Wadsworth. p. 17 ; Bunge, M. (1995). “In Praise of Tolerance To Charlatanism in Academia”. The Flight from Science and Reason (1996). P. R. Gross, N. Levitt, M.W. Lewis, New York Academy of Sciences. p. 101.

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Sour Grapes

“If you aren’t trying to get to the truth, you aren’t really inquiring”
-S. Haack [1]

A case of sour grapes

We live in a world of science. Because of its high regard as a source of truth about the world, the concept of ‘science’ is often abused by scoundrels [2] and its appearance is hijacked.  Presenting an alternate viewpoint  as a scientific theory is commonly used in order to elevate some unorthodox idea to a level to compete with real scientific ideas [3].  If your idea at least sounds scientific, you’ve got it made.  At least, in the public eye.

To make a case for a truth about the world without regards to evidence, logic or argument is called pseudoinquiry or sham reasoning/inquiry [4].  Sham inquiry gives the impression of scientific inquiry but lacks  substance and rigor. It’s hard to distinguish genuine science from false science (pseudoscience). Pseudoscientific ideas are elaborate, encompass lots of details, and use technical terminology.  A layman would be hard pressed to understand it, just like real science. (Pick up Nature and try to read one of the research reports.)

Many nonscientists want desperately to make a breakthrough, be endowed as an expert and be associated with the elite community of respected scientists. The scientific community does not usually respond warmly to a fringe theory. When scorned by the elite community, the theorist may come down with a bad case of “sour grapes” and seek other outlets to distribute their work because they are convinced of its great importance.

They believe they are advancing knowledge by the act of challenging orthodoxy.  One can evade the  demands and harsh critiques that authentic scientists have to face by appealing to a small circle of supporters .  Instead of true scientific accolades, the “maverick” can gain rewards thorough media attention and respect from a small group of ardent admirers.

Many characteristics consistently appear in false science and can be used as a general guide for spotting sham inquiry:

I’ll examine what it means to play pretend science. And, show you three examples of how they do it: Cryptozoology, Ghost Hunting, Creationism

I found unorthodox professionals elbowing in on good science.

And, I found the maverick scientist’s iconic example of how science is wrong.


[1] Haack, S. (1995). “Concern for Truth and Why it Matters”. The Flight from Science and Reason (1996). P. R. Gross, N. Levitt, M.W. Lewis, New York Academy of Sciences. p. 58.

[2] Levitt, N. (1999). Prometheus Bedeviled, Rutgers Univ Press. p. 1

[3] Toumey, C. (1996). Conjuring Science, Rutgers Univ Press. p. 93

[4] Haack, p. 58.


Sham Inquiry

As part of a research project, I looked at the phenomenon of sham inquiry. It’s when pseudoscience or a marketing scheme dresses up to look like science in order to add credibility. The public can be easily fooled – they think if you look like this:


…you must be a scientist.

Well, that’s obviously not true. No one I know looks like that. In public.

In this paper, I looked at three examples of my favorite (to poke) pseudosciences and I was astonished to find one example they ALL used to show how science doesn’t work. (They failed to show this, actually. It’s a bogus argument.)

I hope you enjoy this series beginning with “Sour Grapes”. I’d like to have your feedback.