The art of scaring you over nothing: aquifers cause cancer

There are some ideas that are so silly that one REALLY wishes they didn’t have to be addressed at all.

An article appearing here was my introduction to a new, very confused and counterintutive concept: aquifers cause cancer and health problems for humans. Mr. David Reecher, who runs the website Aquifers and Health Institute, has undertaken a public campaign to warn of the hazards of aquifers. When I read the news article, I laughed, thinking it was from The Onion. The statements displayed such ignorant of how nature works that it HAD to be satire. I underestimated human imagination; it was real. I was compelled to investigate this one further.

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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

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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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.