Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Order Now! Pseudoscientists Are Standing By!

Yesterday, I saw a rather interesting claim in a mattress commercial.  We've all seen the ads for things like memory foam pads and how it "relieves" pressure points that inner spring mattresses cause.  This one had a far more interesting claim.  This one happened to be some mattress that apparently had a gel top-layer, apparently to act a little bit like a waterbed without having to be as expensive or heavy.  So, like every exotic mattress material, though, you'd expect the advertisers claim that it adjusts to your body...  Not this one!  No.  It automatically bio-adjusts to your body!

It...  bio-adjusts?  Bio?  The mattress is alive?  Will it become self-aware?  And here I thought bedbugs might have been an issue, but the beds themselves could be coming to get us.

Oh, but that's just the least of it.  There was another ad I saw on the sidebar of another blog about a waterbed.  And that one distinguishes itself from normal beds by pointing out the value of waterbed mattresses.  The distinction?  "Nothing is more natural than water!"  Wait...  what?  What does that even mean?  We had varying degrees of "natural-ness"?  I guess that means that there's a lot of stuff out there we can't consider quite so natural like trees and air.  Maybe we should also consider things that aren't really substances.  Radiation, for instance...  how much more or less artificial is it than say, electricity?

Maybe instead of a waterbed, we should have a bed filled with all-natural homeopathic medicine...  Oh, wait...

I find it hard to control my laughter when I see the way people talk about products.  All of them seem to play on ignorances of the populace.  Recently, I saw a group of people trying to sell what they called an "all-natural sunscreen."  Their main way of selling it?  Basically, they played on their target audience's atavistic fear of anything artificial.  So what's the slogan?  Claiming that their sunscreen is "completely chemical-free."  Wow...  It's "chemical-free"?  So...  the bottle is actually a vacuum?  What exactly do they think a chemical is?  Is there a formal definition of "chemical" that includes something about evil corporate overlords and their schemes to make the whole planet sick and sell drugs to people

What's sad is that people swallow this like it was some sort of statement of fact.

Had I been less dogmatic in my adherence to fact, I probably would have made mint on pseudo-scientific fraud products like ionic bracelets that will neutralize the free radicals in your body.  That, and maybe something about energized states of structured water with hyper-proton frequencies.  Then I'll top it all off with scalar wave cleansing to remove all the hidden toxins in your body.  You will feel more vitalized than ever!

People are just depressingly gullible for things like this.

Take, for instance, those rubber bracelets with hologram stickers on them that claim to emit frequencies in line with those your body creates.  To anyone who knows anything about pretty much any science, this is pure and utter bullshit.  People don't generate any "frequencies" -- frequency refers to a rate of a cyclical behavior...  what the hell is oscillating and how are we "creating" frequencies?  Frequency is just a measurement of some other behavior...  you can't generate that.  Furthermore, holograms don't emit anything of any kind, let alone "[emitting] frequencies".  And even if they did, there's no mechanism by which two consonant frequencies can possibly make you healthy.  Oh, they love to talk about "balancing your overall health."  What does that even mean?  Balancing against what?  But of course, the populace isn't all that scientifically literate.  And hence, all this stuff sounds like real science to them.

Of course, people aren't all that receptive to science, either, when they don't understand it.  Look at how many people reject evolution in this country.  The thing that is different about something like evolution as compared to claims that a magnet will make your wine taste better because it will "align the tannin molecules" (as if tannins are magnetic, and even if they were, that aligning them will somehow make things better) is that nobody has a competing position on such matters.  With evolution, there is already a competing position that is creationism.  With the anti-vaccine crowd, they have the competing stance that vaccines cause autism.  Nobody really has a competing stance about what magnets do to red wine...  well, that is, except for people who know a thing or two about magnets, and sure enough, they reject such garbage claims.

The other factor is that the ads make claims that don't have much in the way of negative interpretations.  The idea that evolution is true bothers creationists who would much rather believe that a magical being considers us human beings to be special and unique and above all other life in some sense.  Ads selling you bullcrap claims that megadose calcium can cure cancer are at least putting a positive message out there.  People who know a thing or two about biochemistry and/or oncology, on the other hand, tend to be pretty aware of the sad truth that not only is there no cure for cancer, but there likely never will be.  Cancer is an inevitable side effect of the very existence of life.  Life itself is the result of "greedy" self-replicants, and cancer is simply that greed gone out of control.  Medical science may potentially advance to the point where cancer is effectively relegated to a minor inconvenience if caught early enough, but that's not really a cure.

Nonetheless, if any of this stuff was actually true, why wouldn't someone want to take something that supposedly cures cancer?  Why wouldn't you want something that redistributes your vital energies?  Why wouldn't you want to relieve back pain?  Why wouldn't you want to enlarge your penis?  These are all claims that play to common desires that almost everybody experiences.  And that's the important thing.  Everybody wants to feel better.  Everybody wants to avoid this pain or that pain.  Everybody wants to sleep more restfully at night.  Everybody wants to look younger.  To sell a pseudoscience product, you need only claim you can do that, and then pretend to tell people how.  As long as you use some scientific terminology, someone who has no clue what you're talking about will get the impression that you're saying something seriously and well-thought out.  Since no one is likely to have opposing viewpoints unless they know better (and relatively few people do), projecting an air of authority is all it takes to sell crap.

Note also, that it doesn't just have to be outlandish claims that fall under pseudoscience.  We also have to remember that there are things which are pseudoscience, but can still be technically scientific.  Not that long ago, courts in India put forth a decision that astrology is a science.  While astrology in reality can never be science, it is technically scientific.  Astrology makes predictions which can be tested and checked against reality, and in that sense it is scientific.  What it does not have is any real model or mechanism, but merely a system of calculations.  Had there been a model, then the tests could go even further and be that much more specific.  In the end, though, there is no model by which the line-of-sight from the Earth to glowing orbs of swirling superheated plasma undergoing nuclear fusion thousands of light years away at the time and place of your birth somehow has an effect on your future.  Of course, even without that, astrologers have the capacity to make testable predictions and astrology always fails any tests it is put up against.  Any and all tests of astrology with sufficiently large sample sizes falls within the expected results of random chance alone.  The real rub is that it isn't enough to merely be scientific.  You need to hold up to scrutiny and testing.

Furthermore, some manner of fraudulent pseudoscience could fail such scrutiny, but said scrutiny falls outside of the expertise of some individual.  Look at something like echinacea or gingko biloba extract.  Both of these actually make claims which are generally scientific.  Gingko, for instance, is purported to improve memory by way of somehow making more oxygen available to the brain.  This is a vaguely plausible mechanism for at least giving the perceived effect of improved memory, though it would be greatly influenced by other factors such as physical fatigue and stress hormones.  In actual testing, though, gingko consistently fails to demonstrate this capacity in any way.  I don't have to tell you the same is true of echinacea.  They're all fraudulent, and they've been verified as such.  If you're into dark urine, though, they're excellent for that.  However, these types of "natural" remedies deal in such specific concerns that it can fool someone who doesn't specifically fall in that area of expertise.  There are probably medical doctors out there who believe that echinacea works, but it would be because it makes a plausible claim that is refuted in research that falls outside those doctors' areas of expertise.  On the other hand, you wouldn't likely find a doctor who specializes in virology, immunology, or epidemiology who would believe it.  Likewise you would never find a neurologist who buys into the claims about gingko.  The research that proves it false falls within their purview.

So the real trick here to dealing with cutting through the treacle seems to rely partly on being literate in the fields in question yourself.  This, when spread across the populace is really a nearly impossible task, though, because few cultures exist on this Earth that actually value the acquisition of general knowledge.  That said, if you're scientifically literate in general, you do view everything that you don't understand in a very different light.  The Bill O'Reilly approach is to say that anything you never mastered is unexplainable by science.  By that logic, the existence of Eric Clapton is actually proof of god.  People who actually understand what reality is, and actually passed 2nd grade science would actually be able to seek knowledge for questions rather than make one up.  This alone isn't enough, though, because no one person could possibly be an expert in everything.  As such, what you really need is to have a better sense for asking the right questions to the right people.  There is a large degree to which gaining knowledge and understanding isn't just about reading stuff, but asking intelligent questions.  Sensible people will ask a material scientist or a mechanical engineer about what viscoelasticity is and how it applies to foam mattresses.  Idiots who swallow all kinds of bullshit, on the other hand...  well, they often end up in a corner because the kinds of questioning they do is no more sensibly than asking a musician how to compute the square root of a puppy.

Get a brain and use that neocortex.  Now.  And the world will be a better place.