Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Bad Science

This was initially going to be a post where I vent about a minor irritation of mine: the general misuse of scientific terms. I hear many cases, and they especially grate me as I often know what the terms actually mean, and the popular use can be so far off. My favorite example (if you can call it that) is the term 'quantum leap'. This term is often used when someone wants to make something sound like an impressively large change. In physics the term actually refers to the smallest possible change in the amount of energy an atom contains, but when you don't know what the hell it means the term sounds like it must refer to something enormous.

However, that is pretty trivial when compared to other flagrant misuses of science. One of the latest that I just heard about is being called 'dirty electricity'. The theory behind this b.s. is that high frequency alternating electric fields can cause a variety of health problems. The proponents of this voodoo do not understand or care that there have never been any demonstrated (negative or positive) effects of electric fields on people (or any other life forms) - they just know that electricity is powerful, and scary, and mysterious, and it must be bad for you. Others throughout the history of domesticated electricity have assumed that it must have healing powers for much the same reasons.

For some believers this b.s. is just cause for great concern and a reason for misguided activism. Others see this a a chance to exploit the easily-scared public. The news story I heard was about some crackpot who is selling devices made by his company to clean up the dirty electricity in places where people hang out. He has been targeting schools with his scary sales pitch and has sold several schools thousands of dollars worth of gear to correct this 'problem'. The schools obviously don't have money to burn, but it isn't all that hard to get folks riled up about the safety of their kids.

Scientists generally shy away from debunking this sort of crap, since it a waste of their time and believers are not likely to change their beliefs anyway. So we are left with crackpots spouting b.s. on the one hand, and nothing to counter that on the other hand. All we can hope is that folks will rely on their skepticism and refuse to be baffled by bullshit.


wunelle said...

It's like the connundrum of how a new language can spring up in the midst of an existing, language-based culture; how can so many bad ideas grow and propagate when we have information that debunks them readily at hand?

Science, like so many other things, has become so complex that a layperson cannot fit their head around very much of it (at least out where the rubber meets the road), and specialization can have a scientist devoting their whole careers to things so arcane that it takes specialized training to even understand their applicability.

The failure seems to come from our not instilling a stronger sense of the scientific method generally, the skepticism you speak of, into the population at school. I guess mythology and television spectacle and titillation just have a stronger pull.

I'm afraid I see little cause for optimism!

Dzesika said...

Oh sheesh. I hear you. When I worked for the newspaper, I found editorial and content errors in our wire science stories ALL THE TIME, and I think the most advanced science-related course I took was maybe physics for nonmajors. (Okay, calculus-based physics for nonmajors, but that's still rather pathetic.)

So we all know there's no trusting the papers and all of that, but there are times when it really hits home ...