Pseudoscience for Amateurs or Ten Ways to Tell the Real Scientists from the Fake Ones Jeffrey Shallit Department of Computer Science University of Waterloo Anyone who tries to educate their child about science can be flustered by the large number of new books that come out every year, some of which contradict others. Many books *look* as though they are authoritative, but in reality are not. But how can the interested amateur scientist tell the real from the fake? While it is impossible to offer a comprehensive set of rules that will always allow the amateur to distinguish real science from pseudoscience, here are some general principles to keep in mind. They do not work in all cases, but they are useful nonetheless. ----------------------------------------------------------------- 1. Look for books written by scientists who actually work in the field they write about. If possible, try to get books by the best scientists in their fields, scientists who have gained national prominence by their work. Books by Nobel or Macarthur prize winners *about their own fields of study*, are almost always trustworthy. Avoid books written by people who do not work in the fields they write about. For example, Berkeley lawyer Phillip Johnson has written a book about evolution entitled _Darwin on Trial_, but the book is filled with misunderstandings about the theory and science in general. See, for example, the reviews of the Johnson's book in . How can you know who are the best scientists in their fields? One way is to call up your local university or college, and ask to speak to a professor in the field that interests you. Scientists are generally very happy to suggest reading in their area. Another way is to follow science news in, for example the weekly publication _Science News_, or the Tuesday copy of the New York Times. 2. Look for books published by mainstream, reputable science publishers. Books published by university presses, for example, such as MIT Press, or Stanford University Press, are nearly always trustworthy. These presses have a reputation to maintain, and books published by them go through a peer review process that usually weeds out the bad ones. Avoid books published by small presses that may have an agenda in mind, such as the Institute for Creation Research (ICR). The ICR graduate school forces its faculty and students to subscribe to a "loyalty oath" which specifically rules out the consideration of evolution by its members. Such an institute cannot be depended on for reliable information. 3. Read reviews of the books you purchase. Your local library may subscribe to Book Review Index, which contains reviews of science books (in addition to others). Also, magazines such as _Nature_, _Science_, and _Scientific American_ frequently review science books. If possible, look for reviews written by prominent scientists in their fields. 4. Look at the credentials of the author. Does he/she have a Ph.D. in the field he/she is writing about? Does the author teach the subject at a major university or college, or work at a major national laboratory? Has the author published his/her results in peer-reviewed (refereed) journals? While not foolproof, credentials are one way (in the absence of other information) to weed out the good from the bad. Warning: some pseudoscientists have phony credentials, having obtained their Ph.D. from a "diploma mill". Check the credentials of the school where they got their degree, too, by looking it up in a guide such as Barron's or Lovejoy's guides to North American schools. 5. Does the book have citations to the literature? Citations are a hallmark of scholarly literature, because they allow the interested reader to check the conclusions for him/herself. Unfortunately, some pseudoscientists have discovered this, so the presence of citations alone is generally not enough to ensure quality. One must also check that the citations are to mainstream, peer-reviewed journals. This is sometimes hard for the amateur to verify; again, you may have to check with your local university or college library catalogue. Most university libraries subscribe to the major journals in scientific fields. If the book refers primarily to journals which are not listed in your university library catalogue, you should be on your guard. Also, how recent are those citations? In many fields (such as paleontology, genetics, etc.), if the book refers only to work done before, let's say, 20 years ago, then it is almost certainly out of date. Science changes; in some areas, the change is very rapid. Try to find a more recent book. Finally (and this is more time-consuming), check the citations to make sure the author is really quoting the material correctly. Pseudoscientists are very fond of quoting material out of context. 6. Does the author make extravagant claims for his/her theory? Does he/she claim it will "revolutionize science as we know it"? Does he/she make claims that his/her theory will have a broad impact in more than one field? If so, be on your guard. (A good example of these kinds of claims is the worthless book . The section on prime numbers alone is absolute gibberish.) 7. Does the author claim that other writers in the area are all wrong, and only he/she is right? Does he/she use ad hominem (personal) attacks, calling those who disagree "fools", "idiots", etc.? Does Professor A state Professor B's theory incorrectly before attacking it? If so, beware. Perhaps you should read books by Professor B before making any conclusions. 8. Is the book filled with irrelevant speculation on social or religious issues unrelated to the science in the book? If so, perhaps the author has an axe to grind. Beware. 9. If you are interested in a controversial area in science, try to read more than one book on the subject. But be sure, before you start, that there is really controversy to begin with. Some authors claim controversy where none exists, where the issue has been decided for many years. One way to tell is to count the number of books for and against the position at a major mainstream bookstore, such as Border's or Barnes and Noble. If there are thirty books for, and only one or two against, that should tell you what the current scientific consensus is. For example, it has been known for more than a hundred years that it is impossible to square the circle, but books claiming a solution still appear from time to time. See . 10. Look carefully at the words used by the author. Certain words, such as "vibrations", "resonance", "aura", etc., are tip-offs to pseudoscience. -------------------------------------------------------------------- There are also several collections of writings about pseudoscience. Read, for example, [4 5]. References  Liz Rank Hughes (ed.), _Reviews of Creationist Books_, National Center for Science Education, Berkeley, CA, 2nd edition, 1992.  Arnold Arnold, _The Corrupted Sciences_, Paladin, London, 1992.  Underwood Dudley, _Mathematical Cranks_, Mathematical Association of America, 1992.  Martin Gardner, _In the Name of Science_, Putnam's, New York, 1952.  Martin Gardner, _Science: Good, Bad, and Bogus_, Avon Books, 1981.