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A Skeptical Engineer

The 7 Warning Signs of B(ogus) S(cience)

For the past 17 years, Dr. Robert Parks has been the leading force behind Quackwatch, a popular website that explores medical myths ranging from acupuncture to weight control gimmicks. He is also a professor of physics at the University of Maryland and director of public information for the American Physical Society. He developed a list of seven warning signs that indicate a claim is outside the bounds of scientific discourse and a good candidate for being a scam. Parks admits that even scientific claims bearing several of these signs could still be legitimate. But it’s not likely

1. The discoverer pitches the claim directly to the media. The integrity of science rests on the willingness of scientists to expose new ideas and findings to the scrutiny of other scientists. Scientists expect colleagues to uncover new findings or disprove the main one. Trying to bypass peer review by taking a discovery right to the media, and then to the public, suggests the work would not likely withstand close examination by other scientists.

In 1989, for example, Pons and Fleischmann, two chemists at the University of Utah, let the world know about their discovery - cold fusion -- by holding a press conference rather than publishing their findings in a peer-reviewed journal. Plus, the details they released dealt mainly about the changing economics cold fusion would bring about. They did not release information that would let other scientists evaluate their claims or replicate their experiments,

2. The discoverer says a powerful establishment is suppressing his work. Why the suppression? Because the establishment will stop at nothing to suppress discoveries that might shift the balance of wealth and power in society. In the case of Pons and Fleischmann and their cold fusion, for example, they insisted that physicists were ignoring the breakthrough to protect their funding and grants for developing hot fusion.

3. The scientific effect involved is always at the very limit of detection.  There is rarely a clear photograph of a flying saucer, the Loch Ness Monster, or ghost, even though almost everyone carries a phone that will take pictures. If the signal-to-noise ratio can’t be improved, even in principle, the effect is probably not real and the work is not science.

4. Evidence for the discovery is anecdotal. Contrary to the saying, “data” is not the plural of “anecdote.” In fact, the most important discovery of modern medicine is not vaccines or antibiotics; it is the randomized double-blind test. It lets us know what works and what doesn’t.

5. The discoverer says his idea is credible because it has endured for centuries. There is a persistent myth that hundreds or even thousands of years ago, long before anyone knew blood circulates through the body, or that germs cause disease, our ancestors possessed miraculous remedies that modern science do not understand. Ancient folk wisdom, rediscovered or repackaged, always resold, is unlikely to match the output of a modern scientific laboratory.

6. The discoverer works alone. The idea of a lone genius secretly struggling to make a revolutionary breakthrough is a staple of sci-fi books and films. But it’s hard to find examples in real life. These days, scientific breakthroughs are almost always the work of a team of scientists.

7. The discoverer must propose new laws of nature to explain an observation. New laws of nature invoked to explain extraordinary results must not conflict with what is already known. If we have to change the laws of nature or write new laws to account for an observation, it is almost certainly bogus. Don’t send money!


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