The Tactics of Pseudoscientists and Cranks: From Language Misusage to “Just Asking Questions”

Pseudoscientists are a dime-a-dozen, which is ironic because most of them are fixated on trying to take your last dime.

In November of 1908, the scientific journal Nature defined a “crank” as “a man who cannot be turned.” This is fitting as both pseudoscientists and cranks are unwavering in their fringe beliefs even when met with insurmountable evidence that they are wrong.

Reading legitimate articles about science can reveal just how little pseudoscience peddlers, and their audiences, know about actual science and its terminology. Nonetheless, this does not stop them from pontificating on concepts that they have little knowledge of or from misleading anyone who’s gullible enough to mistake them for a competent authority figure.

It’s important to note that there’s a big difference between being an “authority on science” and “speaking authoritatively on science,” the latter of which anyone can do to varying degrees of believability, however, only qualified, educated and experienced experts are capable of being authorities on science. This is the inherent difference between a scientist and a pseudoscientist: one has scientific know-how and the other just knows how to blow hot air.

Pseudoscientists pay close attention to current events and often use new research, that is carried out by qualified professionals, to “confirm” their own “overvalued ideas” and beliefs. This is what’s known as “confirmation bias,” and often involves “cherry picking” certain bits of information that agree with their argument while ignoring every piece of evidence to the contrary.

It doesn’t matter how related or unrelated the actual science is, because a pseudoscientist who suffers from confirmation bias and will try to make anything they view as “evidence” fit into their faulty belief system. The audiences of pseudoscientists are often unaware of the misuse of scientific terminology, and end up parroting this flawed language, logic until they come to their senses.

Hypothesis vs. Theory: What’s the Difference?

First things first: the difference between a hypothesis and a theory. The scientific method relies on disproving a theory, not proving it. Looking for confirmation of a “theory” is something that only pseudoscientists are preoccupied with.

According to the article, “‘Just a Theory’: 7 Misused Science Words,” author Tia Ghose summarizes that a hypothesis is, “a proposed explanation for something that can actually be tested” (Ghose 2013). In this instance, to be “tested” means to be disproved or “falsified.”

Most times when you see a fringe lunatic on the internet talking about a “theory” what they’re really talking about is a “hypothesis,” because:

“the word ‘theory’ means something very different in lay language than it does in science: A scientific theory is an explanation of some aspect of the natural world that has been substantiated through repeated experiments or testing. But to the average Jane or Joe, a theory is just an idea that lives in someone’s head, rather than an explanation rooted in experiment and testing” (Ghose 2013).

So there it is: a scientific theory is something that has been substantiated through reproducible experiments and has been tested/falsified/disproven by qualified professionals, experts in relevant fields of study.

The article, “Scientists Are Wrong All the Time, and That’s Fantastic,” elaborates on just how important falsification is in the scientific community:

“When a researcher gets proved wrong, that means the scientific method is working. Scientists make progress by re-doing each other’s experiments—replicating them to see if they can get the same result. More often than not, they can’t. ‘Failure to reproduce is a good thing, says Ivan Oransky, co-founder of Retraction Watch” (Woo 2015).

One of the most common flaws of pseudoscience is an over-reliance on confirmation instead of falsification. Pseudoscientists scour the news and current events to look for any pieces of actual science that “confirm” their fringe beliefs, or whatever claims that they publicly made at some point in the past. This is especially the case when the pseudoscientist suffers under from an “overvalued idea” that they cannot let go of, which prevents them from thinking critically or rationally.

Psuedoscientists: Denialism and Overvalued Ideas

On the Denialism Blog’s post, “A scientific study of overvalued ideas,” writer Mark Hoofnagle points out that:

“Denialism, in a nutshell, is the rhetorical strategy used to protect an overvalued idea from things like facts and data. The denialist or crank is trying desperately to hold on to a concept that is important to their self-identity or ego, and is in conflict with well-established scientific observations” (Hoofnagle 2007).

Pseudoscientists, cranks have no interest in actual debate. Instead, they prefer to shovel their shitty pet theories down your throat while pretending to address real criticism:

“Common overvalued ideas that are a source of crankery range from bigotry…egotism (as it relates to the complete unwillingness to ever be proven wrong) or an indiscriminant obsession with possessing ‘controversial’ or iconoclastic ideas. Some people just love believing in things that no one in their right mind does, out of some obscure idea that it makes them seem smart or different” (Hoofnagle 2007).

This often why pseudoscientists avoid peer review and instead try to foist their bogus claims off on the general public: they’re always hoping that there’s someone more clueless than they are who will support them. These “communities” of cranks revel in the negative attention they receive and often organize to troll, harass legitimate organizations by either sending verbose (word salad) emails or through unhinged accusations over the phone.

Pseudoscientists make a lot of claims that cannot be tested and love shifting the “burden of proof” to the general public, or actual professionals, by saying something like, “Can you explain this/how,” or by making a vague claim and positing, “comments?” This is what’s known as “just asking questions” or “JAQing off.” According to RationalWiki:

Just asking questions (JAQ-ing off) is a way of attempting to make wild accusations acceptable (and hopefully not legally actionable) by framing them as questions rather than statements. It shifts the burden of proof to one’s opponent…one can pull out one single odd piece of evidence and force the opponent to explain why the evidence is wrong” (RationalWiki 2017).

Screen Shot 2017-06-16 at 14.13.31.pngPseudoscientists and cranks who “just ask questions” or “JAQ off” over the internet should be ignored as they only have their own confusion to offer. These people favor sensational clickbait over content with substance any day of the week and are incapable of holding a rational conversation with someone who disagrees with them.

When a pseudoscientist, crank has “evidence” for a hypothesis that can be falsified, then it is not up to another person, or scientist, to “explain why the evidence is wrong;” what constitutes evidence is a topic for another blog. It is up to the person making the claim to show that they first tried (as hard as they could) to disprove their own hypothesis, because as Richard Feynman once said, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.”

Pseudoscientists and cranks are people who are stuck in a perpetual cycle of fooling themselves, and their gullible audiences, because they are only interested in being vindicated. Cranks want their “overvalued” ideas and delusions to be “proven right” as they have a deep-seated psychological fear of being wrong.

The fact that so many pseudoscientists are desperate and preoccupied with taking money from the the more gullible members of the general public (typically the young, uneducated and elderly) makes this a problem that needs to be regulated by law, but more on that later.

In the meantime, here’s a YouTube video by Maddox that uses ridicule to explain the scientific method, “How to tell if you believe in bullshit“:


Sources:

Bloom, Paul et al. “Childhood Origins of Adult Resistance to Science.” Science AAAS: May 18, 2007. Website: http://science.sciencemag.org/content/316/5827/996

Count Z. “JAQing off.” Urban Dictionary: May 03, 2010. Website: http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=JAQing%20off

Ghose, Tia. “‘Just a Theory’: 7 Misused Science Words.” Scientific American: April 2, 2013. Website: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/just-a-theory-7-misused-science-words/

Hoofnagle, Mark. “Unified theory of the crank.” DenialismBlog: April 30, 2007. Website: http://scienceblogs.com/denialism/2007/04/30/unified-theory-of-the-crank/

Maddox. “How to tell if you believe in bullshit.” YouTube: February 12, 2016. Website: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oVnuFY20st0

The RationalMedia Foundation, Inc. “Burden of proof.” RationalWiki: April 21, 2017. Website: http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Burden_of_proof

The RationalMedia Foundation, Inc. “Cherry Picking.” RationalWiki: April 12, 2017. Website: http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Cherry_picking

The RationalMedia Foundation, Inc. “Confirmation Bias.” RationalWiki: April 12, 2017. Website: http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Confirmation_bias

The RationalMedia Foundation, Inc. “Just asking questions.” RationalWiki: May 30, 2017. Website: http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Just_asking_questions

Woo, Marcus. “Scientists Are Wrong All the Time, and That’s Fantastic.” Wired: February 27, 2015. Website: https://www.wired.com/2015/02/scientists-wrong-time-thats-fantastic/

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Author: Reality Challenged

I have created this blog to record, analyze, investigate and report on the ideas, events, and people that would otherwise mislead you and waste your time.

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