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A short guide to telling science from myth

By LPP Chief Scientist Eric J. Lerner

 

In our work of developing focus fusion, we have often been asked, especially by people without physics backgrounds: “How can I tell if what you are saying is real? How can I tell the difference between your claims, and the claims of a lot of pseudo scientists who say they have cheap or free energy?” So this raises the broad problem of how to tell real science form pseudo-science, something masquerading as science.

First, let me emphasize that I am here talking purely about distinguishing something scientific from something that is not science at all. Telling good science from bad science—right theories from wrong theories—is a lot more complicated. Second, you will find a lot on the web about telling pseudoscience from real science, but I think most of it is either wrong or confusing. So here are three simple rules that are almost always valid.

1) Real science is open.  Scientific discovery is fundamentally a social enterprise—the only way science is verified and moves forward is by sharing it, in detail, with others. If someone claims to have a huge breakthrough, but refuse to share any details about it (because the technology will be stolen, etc.) it should be treated with extreme caution. Until they reveal, such as in a patent filing or a published paper (even just self-published on the web) what they are doing, the assumption has to be that it is not scientifically valid. Yes, some technological advances—a better widget or even a bigger bomb—can be made in secret at times; but not scientific discoveries about how nature works. And without openness there can be no confirmation of what is done.

2) Real science makes predictions that can, in principle, be contradicted. The whole point of the scientific enterprise is to be able to know in advance that certain actions will bring certain results. That is why science has led to, as well as been enabled by, the development of technology. Aeronautical engineers can predict with precision what size and shape a wing will lift what weight with what power engines. Therefore you can be confident that the airplane you get on will actually fly. If someone makes statements about the world that don’t lead to any sort of predictions, then they are not talking about science. Of course, if you make predictions that something will happened if something else does, then at least in principle these are predictions that can be wrong—refuted. If they can never be refuted, then they are articles of faith, not science.

How can historical sciences, like paleontology, make predictions about events that have already happened?  Easy—they make predictions about what scientists will find in the future. For example, paleontological theories of how animals evolved predict that no future scientists find a dinosaur skeleton in the rock layers laid down 2 million years ago, during the ice age, 60 million years after the dinosaurs became extinct. Instead they predict (very well)  in what rock layers dinosaur bones will be found.

Scientific theories MUST be falsifiable in principle—there must be some set of observations that would lead you to conclude that the theory is wrong in some way. So that rules out a lot of pseudoscience.  But telling when a theory has actually been falsified is not clear-cut, because an apparent contradiction may be due to overlooked changes in experimental conditions, or may just signal the limits of a theory.

3) In the physical sciences, scientific statements must make quantitative predictions about observations—they have to combine mathematics and quantitative observations. You need both elements. If you see something that is pure mathematics and makes no connection to observations, it is not science. (Many scientists would argue that string theory falls into this category even though it is developed by many professors. Since it makes no predictions about nature, it is not science).

You cannot determine scientific truth merely by writing beautiful equation in a computer, without looking out the window to compare your theories with nature. As the founder of modern plasma physics, Noble Laureate Hannes Alfven wrote ,”The difference between myth and science is the difference between divine inspiration of ‘unaided reason’ (as Bertand Russell puts it) on one hand and theories developed in observational contact with real world on the other. To try to write a grand cosmological drama necessarily leads to myth. To try to let knowledge substitute ignorance in increasingly large regions of space and time is science.”

But equally, physics in particular is a quantitative science. If someone has a grand theory, but does not reduce it to mathematical, quantitative predictions, then it is not scientific. Quantities matter a great deal.

For example, if you ignored quantity, someone could argue that, since we know the moon has a great effect  on earth—causing the tides– why should not Jupiter have the effect on earth that

science illustration

astrologers attribute to it? But when you look at this question quantitatively, the answer is clear. The moon influences earth through gravity, whose force is proportional to mass and decreases as the square of distance. Since Jupiter is 26,000 times as massive as the moon and 2,100 times further away, we can calculate that Jupiter’s influence on earth is only 1/170th of the moon’s—a tiny one. So a real scientific theory uses mathematics to make quantitative predictions.

As a corollary to this idea, so-called scientific theories that rely purely on similarities in shape, with no exact mathematical comparisons, are generally worthless. Excluding living things here on earth, there are only a very few shapes common in nature. There are spheres, spirals, helixes (the shape of a spring), hexagons and fractals (branching shapes like a river network or a lightning bolt). Since there are very few such basic shapes, it is easy to say: “this looks like this”. But again, unless one can say—“from the exact mathematically described shape of this, we can predict the exact shape of that” one has not made a scientific statement that leads to any sort of quantitative prediction.

So to sum up—scientific work describes results and theories in open detail, making predictions that can at least in principle be falsified, and, in physics, (and for the most part in chemistry and biology as well) these are quantified predictions about real observations. Anything else is not science.