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Wednesday, 26 September 2007

Pseudoscience explained and demonstrated

An alert reader will notice that among the Labels for the posts on this blog is Pseudoscience. This may not be a familiar term to many, so I will try to explain what it means and why I use it.

Wikipedia defines it as:
Any body of knowledge, methodology, belief, or practice that claims to be scientific or is made to appear scientific, but does not adhere to the basic requirements of the scientific method.

The term pseudoscience is based on the Greek root pseudo- (false or pretending) and science (derived from Latin scientia, meaning knowledge). The first recorded use was in 1843 by French physiologist Fran├žois Magendie.

Although pseudoscientific assertions are rampant in today's generation of educated fools, it takes so many forms that the word itself may not call to mind any specific example. I therefore offer one such example as a service to the reader, which I have seen printed off and left on the break-room table as important information for widest possible dissemination:
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A shrimp's heart is in its head.

The "sixth sick sheik's sixth sheep's sick" is said to be the toughest tongue twister in the English language.

Rats multiply so quickly that in 18 months, two rats could have over a million descendants.

Wearing headphones for just an hour will increase the bacteria in your ear by 700 times.

If the government has no knowledge of aliens, then why does Title 14, Section 1211 of the Code of Federal Regulations, implemented on July 16 1969, make it illegal for U.S. citizens to have any contact with extraterrestrials or their

In every episode of Seinfeld there is a Superman somewhere.

A duck's quack doesn't echo, and no one knows why.

23% of all photocopier faults world-wide are caused by people sitting on them and photocopying their butts.

Most lipstick contains fish scales.

Like fingerprints, everyone's tongue print is different.

If you sneeze too hard, you can fracture a rib. If you try to suppress a sneeze, you can rupture a blood vessel in your head or neck and die.

If you keep your eyes open by force, they can pop out.

In a study of 200,000 ostriches over a period of 80 years, no one reported a single case where an ostrich buried its head in the sand.

It is physically impossible for pigs to look up into the sky.

A pregnant goldfish is called a twit.

More than 50% of the people in the world have never made or received a telephone call.

Horses can't vomit.

Butterflies taste with their feet.

In 10 minutes, a hurricane releases more energy than all of the world's nuclear weapons combined.

On average, 100 people choke to death on ballpoint pens every year.

On average people fear spiders more than they do death.

Ninety percent of New York City cabbies are recently arrived immigrants.

Thirty-five percent of the people who use personal ads for dating are already married.

Elephants are the only animals that can't jump.

Only one person in two billion will live to be 116 or older.

It's possible to lead a cow upstairs...but not downstairs.

Women blink nearly twice as much as men.

It's physically impossible for you to lick your elbow.

The Main Library at Indiana University sinks over an inch every year because when it was built, engineers failed to o take into account the weight of all the books that would occupy the building.

A snail can sleep for three years.

No word in the English language rhymes with "MONTH."

Our eyes are always the same size from birth, but our nose and ears never stop growing.

The electric chair was invented by a dentist.

All polar bears are left handed.

In ancient Egypt, priests plucked EVERY hair from their bodies, including their eyebrows and eyelashes.

An ostrich's eye is bigger than its brain.

TYPEWRITER is the longest word that can be made using the letters only on one row of the keyboard.

"Go!" is the shortest complete sentence in the English language.

If Barbie were life-size, her measurements would be 39-23-33. She would stand seven feet, two inches tall.

A crocodile cannot stick its tongue out.

The cigarette lighter was invented before the match.

Americans on average eat 18 acres of pizza every day.

Almost everyone who reads this email will try to lick their elbow.

* * *

Now, some of this information is verifiably factual: the vomitless horse and the tasty butterfly feet, for example. Other of it is statistically based, and thus only as good as the data that went into it.

But some of these assertions simply beggar belief. Upon further investigation, however, they all seem to have some basis in fact, most likely dredged up from the Internet.

The duck's quack not echoing, for instance. I at once saw through this as physically impossible, but looked it up anyway at at Scopes (click on the link for their report). It turns out that ducks' quacks do rarely cause an audible echo, but not due to any characteristics particular to the genus. So perhaps there is some basis to this claim.

Another example is the cigarette lighter claim. The cigarette itself wasn't invented before the match was, so how could the cigarette ligher have been? Well, it turns out that this website makes the following claim:

The cigarette lighter was invented before the match. In 1816, a German chemist named J.W. Dobereiner devised a way of automatically igniting a jet of hydrogen. Unfortunately, it required powdered platinum to act as a catalyst.

But unfortunately for the pursuit of pseudoscience, the modern match had already been invented, at least as early as 1805. It was the matchbook that wasn't invented until the 1890's.

I could go on down through every one of these specious claims and try to track down where they originated, and how they have since been twisted almost beyond recognition, but I simply can't be bothered. Suffice it to say that the Internet in general, and mass forwarded emails in particular, are throroughly infested with pseudoscientific ideas masquerading as facts. Beware!

By the way, I didn't try to lick my elbow. Did you?

1 comment:

  1. Yes, I seriously tried to lick my elbow. You should see the kids try. It is pretty hysterical.


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