Monday, 21 January 2013

Comment #18: -- Our Expectations Of Cranks

Date Started: 4/12/12
Date Completed: 7/12/12
Date First Published: 20/1/13


Cranks are pseudo-scientists who exploit outlandish claims, in the entrepreneurial spirit, in order to ‘make money’ (access other people’s money). (You might use the term differently, but for communication's sake, let's use this one, for now) [1]

I think we don’t demand enough from pseudo-scientists, and we certainly don’t demand enough of the cranks.

Some make claims that are bizarre but not widely employed – and hence don’t do much harm.

But some crank claimants are worse than this – they claim the counter-evidential, with the supposed substantiation of antiquity, and then sell you something on the basis of it – and many people are reeled in – hook, line, sinker, copy of Angling Times, and little fold-up seat.

For example: fad diet salespeople; vitamin pill salespeople; psychics; naturopaths; etc. They frequently claim thousands of years of application behind their products. Acupuncturists claim to have been employing ‘health by a thousand cuts’ for millennia, and it still doesn’t work! [2,1] Homeopathy was invented by Hahnemann 200 years ago, but some homeopaths claim millennial antiquity for that, too. Why? Because they’re pretending it’s not pseudo-science – they’re cloaking the nonsense with “natural”, “proven”, “wisdom”, “spirit”, “inner health”, and “wellbeing”, just like the guff Martha used to make. [2,2]

These people claim efficacy, and yet the tests always say “no”.

And then they gush with excuses – the most absurd-yet-frequent of which being “it didn’t work because sceptics were testing it” / “it doesn’t work under test conditions, but it does work under others” [3]

If you can’t do a test for it, then how can you claim to know that it works, yourself?

If you think you can verify the existence of spirits (or whatever) by doing ‘this’ then you are purporting success under test conditions (even if those conditions look like practice conditions – engineers, for example, can only really test their constructions when they’re actually in use – this doesn’t mean we can’t know how bridges stay up). A test’s a test, even if it’s a really shitty one.
(In Science, the term 'test' is used with an unspoken minimum standard in mind) [4]

The only way anyone can know anything, is by looking for the fact behind the claim i.e. testing the claim.

These people (cranks) want to sell us their metaphorical cake, but without ever opening the metaphorical box to see whether they actually have any.

Skeptical investigators, deploying the scientific method on these people’s claims - most famously the JREF - are incredibly lenient. They give away so many concessions, because they want people to turn up to their $1,000,000 challenge, or equivalent. [5]

But when they test them, they demand only that they get a smidgen over the pass mark. They have to show that they can do it; and that is all. No more. Just a pass. That’s enough.

And yet they still always fail.

That the JREF decides it wants people to enrol, and so sets an easy test, is fine. It is their money, after all! But we, as members of the public, should not be demanding just anything.

Many of these pe
ople behave as if they are plying a skill - providing a service – enacting a known Science (whether they would claim to be, or not).

Many of them have their own businesses, and are raking in profits – some are cottage industries, like reflexology, aromatherapy, psychics/mediums – others, like homeopathy, vitamin pills, chiropractic/osteopathy, or even diet fads, are multi-million-dollar industries.

But big or small, because they are behaving as professionals, this means we should expect professional standards of them. [6]

Let’s compare to some familiarly professional activities:

- Plumbers can still fix pipes with a skeptical housewife staring over their shoulder, pouring ‘negative energy’ into the room.

- Tennis players can still serve 9 out of 10 serves at more than 100 mph, in a howling gale, with people who ‘aren’t that keen’ on Tennis, lining the seats of the stadium.

- Accountants and solicitors can demonstrably verify their ability to do what they do, under exam conditions. Indeed, they have to, in order to become accountants and solicitors.

- Greengrocers have to actually know which vegetables are the peppers, and don’t get 37 chances to get it right

- Fishmongers can gut, weigh, identify and label a fish accurately and reliably... every time.

- Electricians are expected to get their job right, every time. No-one wants to be the customer they do a duff job on. And complaints will follow if they do get it wrong. Few such complaints follow pseudo-scientists around. I’ll let you wonder why... [6.1]

1 in 12 is not good enough. Not for psychics or astrologers or palmists matching identities to descriptions. Not for quacks pulling positive results out of studies. Not even for cold-fusionists cherry-picking the journalists they’ve conned.

We should expect, for the sake of their market (us), for them to be good at what they do – not just-about, barely, by-a-smidgin, stumbling across the dotted line of ability.

In medicine, the Cochrane Collaboration came up with the ‘Cochrane Ladder of Evidence’, with efficacy (being able to do what’s claimed) as the bottom rung; effectiveness (being able to do it well, in real-life circumstances) as the second rung, and cost-effectiveness (being able to do it well, in real-life circumstances, and without excessive expense) as the third rung.

This applies to medicine, but it also applies to other areas where a product or service is proffered.

Q1: Can you actually do plumbing?

Q2: Can you do it well, and in real-life situations?

Q3: Can you do it at a price the customer can afford?

Pseudo-scientists fail to climb even the first rung of the Ladder. And even after thousands of years of people trying, they still aren’t able to do so. [7]

The product doesn’t work, and so can’t work well, making any expense excessive!

This is not Science.

This is not a skill.

This is not a service.

This is cruel exploitation.

People who pretend to be able to do plumbing/electrics/whatever, but can’t, are frequently prosecuted, for extorting money from their customers.

We should do the same with all the charlatans/quacks/mounterbankers – they are fraudsters too. [8]

It’s essentially the same situation – they’re writing metaphorical cheques that just won’t cash.

And in return, we, as gullible customers, are writing literal cheques that do.

That’s not fair.

The only way we can prevent ourselves from being ripped off by these people, is to value our critical thinking skills, and to employ them at every opportunity.

I don't like to find i've been shafted; and i doubt you will, either. There's only one way we can prevent it from happening...

Be skeptical, everyone. Be skeptical.


[1] Pseudo-sciences are areas of inquiry that purport/present as a genuine science (meaning they are based in evidence) but are not. A pseudo-scientist, therefore, is someone who pursues pseudo-science as an avenue of inquiry. I distinguish cranks from other pseudo-scientists, by their tendency to take subjects that aren’t even scientifically contentious, and then pursue them.

For many centuries, ideas such as phlogiston, the ether, homunculi in reproduction, and alchemy, were taken seriously. Eventually, evidence made it clear that these were outlandish nonsense. Phlogiston gave way to notions of thermal energy; ether gave way to electro-magnetics and optics; homunculi gave way to gametes and genomics; alchemy gave way to nuclear physics and chemistry.

Back then, the ‘natural philosophers’ were pursuing pseudo-science (though they did not know it, because contemporary notions of the scientific method were not as advanced as they are now); today, only cranks pursue these ideas. This is my distinction between pseudo-scientists and crank pseudo-scientists – cranks pursue pseudo-sciences that are clearly ‘pseudo-’.

[2,1] On checking this mini-essay over for content, i discovered that acupuncture is, in fact, not millennia old, requiring a slight re-write (hence my mentioning two things that aren’t old). The thin needles for acupuncture would have been incredibly difficult to make, thousands of years ago, using only the forges that were available to them.

A reference for homeopathy:

[2,2] To an experienced rationalist skeptic, all of these terms are ‘red flags’ for woo. See Skeptoid’s ‘How To Spot Pseudo-science’

[3] This gushy excuse-making is known as ‘rationalisation’ which seems to have a rather derogatory etymology, to me. It isn’t rational to attempt to wedge the square peg of nonsense into the round hole of reality! If you spot yourself attempting to excuse failure, then you should think a little more about what you accept as a success. When psychics fail in tests, their expectations of themselves suddenly drop to their ankles – how convenient! “Well, i didn’t expect to do very well”. Then why do you take people’s money, for it? How can you know you’re actually succeeding, in that situation? Pseudo-scientists often unintentionally argue themselves into a corner, while attempting to excuse their failures. Not that i’d expect them to notice. The scientific method controls for this – decide what your test will involve, beforehand; write everything down; be brutally honest with yourself; get your figures checked by someone else; await someone else’s replication of your results, by doing exactly what you did, etc.

[4] I feel obliged, now, to say that a shitty test really isn’t what a good scientist would be aiming for. The kind of conditions that cranks use to ‘identify’ their ‘abilities’ might, technically, be test conditions, but they are really poor test conditions. What i’m getting at, is that cranks pretend they can know without tests – which is never the case. If they demonstrate their ‘abilities’ to anyone, then they will be doing something that can be counted as a test, no matter how poor. As mentioned in [3], the scientific method has been developed over centuries, to eradicate sources of bias, in order to distinguish positive results from negative ones, and to maximise the chance that any positive result is a real one. Pseudo-scientists can’t escape this, as much as they wriggle.

[5] The JREF still has $1,000,000 sitting on a cheque, waiting to be paid to anyone who can successfully demonstrate paranormal, supernormal, or occult abilities to an independent team of assessors. So far, no-one has won it. This comes as no surprise to me, of course – but people do still try.

[6] My default position is not to regard pseudo-scientists as explorative researchers – and it is not to regard them as well-meaning do-gooders, either – these people are taking money for what they do. They are businesspeople. This is how i think of them. Geologists do not have sections on their web-sites where you buy ‘100% natural, quantum earthquake cream’. Cranks, quacks, whatever you call them – they are the ones that do this. Why? Because they are, at least principally, businesspeople. They want our money, and they will make any claim, it seems, to get at it.

[6.1] Oh alright, i’ll tell you. It’s partly because they have bugger-all idea whether it worked - they’re ‘taking it on Faith’, too, remember - just like the perpetrator. But it’s also that they’ve built a rapport with that perpetrator – they’ve been taken in, and screwed around with – they feel violated, and live in a culture where it’s not seen as ‘done’ to shame a crank. Bloody ‘rape culture’... can you wonder why i get furious? Also exhibiting this effect, are the communities exploited by loan sharks – they tend to exploit whole communities, at once, and so it becomes quite dangerous for anyone to ‘grass’ on an entire street’s source of funding.

[7] The general drift of Science is to hone well-known disciplines down – to make them better, and quicker, and easier, and cheaper. Is this what’s happened with pseudo-science? No – it’s the same old stuff, which works just as fictionally (it doesn’t work) as it always did. Science builds on its achievements, and explores into further worlds (sometimes literally, in the case of Space Science) revealing more and more detailed understandings of how the world works. And the Eastern non-Medicinists still can’t give an adequate explanation of what a ‘chi’ is, or how exactly a ‘chakra’ can be wonky.

[8] fraud / frôd / Noun

1) Wrongful or criminal deception intended to result in financial or personal gain.

2) A person or thing intended to deceive others, typically by unjustifiably claiming or being credited with accomplishments or qualities.

Synonyms: cheat – deceit – deception – swindle – humbug – fake

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