Pseudoscience for Amateurs
 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

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 [1].

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 [2].  The section on prime numbers alone is absolute 

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 [3].  

10.  Look carefully at the words used by the author.  Certain words,
such as "vibrations", "resonance", "aura", etc., are tip-offs to


There are also several collections of writings about pseudoscience.
Read, for example, [4 5].


[1] Liz Rank Hughes (ed.), _Reviews of Creationist Books_,
National Center for Science Education, Berkeley, CA, 2nd edition,

[2] Arnold Arnold, _The Corrupted Sciences_, Paladin, London, 1992.

[3] Underwood Dudley, _Mathematical Cranks_, Mathematical Association
of America, 1992.

[4] Martin Gardner, _In the Name of Science_, Putnam's, New York, 1952.

[5] Martin Gardner, _Science:  Good, Bad, and Bogus_, Avon Books, 1981.