The Skeptic’s Guide to Quack-Speak

Although there is no perfect way to distinguish science from pseudoscience, there are some warning signs that make it much more probable that what you are dealing with is pseudoscience: ideas that cannot be tested, no way to handle confirmation bias, refusal to engage in peer-review publishing, a too strong focus on anecdotes, being contradicted by solid science, appeals to tradition and lack of self-correction. Another such term is the misuse and abuse of scientific terminology. This typically comes in two different forms: either cranks use real scientific terminology and apply it to something that is completely nonsense in order to borrow from the authority of science, or invent their own hypertechnical language that is largely vacuous.

Why is it vital to shed light on this pseudoscientific abuse of scientific terms? It is important to expose those charlatans that try to manipulate people into buying their products. This is an excellent way to support vulnerable people who might otherwise be victims of dangerous people. Another reason is that it obfuscates and pollutes scientific knowledge with quackery and clarity is very important in science, both for the progress of science but also the larger context of the role of science in society. Let us look at some of the ways that proponents of pseudoscience abuse scientific terminology. It occurs in many different scientific fields, but it has recently been most common in physics and biology or medicine.

Natural

Natural is one of those warm and fuzzy words that are used to make people view a product as pure and untainted and give them a feeling of a lush rainforest or a beautiful garden at dawn. The general idea is that when you associated a product with something people like, they are more inclined to view that product favorable, and perhaps buy it.

In reality, “natural” just means that it is something that can be found in nature. But this does not mean that it is safe or effective. There are natural products that can cause strongly harmful effects or death in even minute amounts. “Natural” is often contrasted to “artificial”, which typically denotes something made by humans. But humans are part of nature, so this distinction is in some sense arbitrary.

Organic

Just like “natural”, “organic” is a feelgood term designed to make people think that your product is grown by a local farmer using plenty of love and happy farm animals without the use of any industrial fertilizers or pesticides. In reality, organic just means that something contains carbon (and is not part of a small set of exceptions, such as hydrogen cyanide). Just like inorganic substances can be harmful, so too can organic substances and there is nothing intrinsically safe just because something contains carbon.

Also, contrary to popular opinion, organic farming is also an industry and it does use pesticides, but just the kinds of pesticides that are not inorganic. Both organic and inorganic pesticides can be dangerous in very large quantities, but they are regulated by the same safety laws.

Chemical

Cranks typically use “chemical” in the exact opposite to “natural”, meaning that a chemical is seen as something dangerous, foul-smelling and artificial. In reality, a chemical is just some kind of chemical element or compound and does not distinguish between something that is found in nature or made by scientists, or whether it is dangerous or not. Essential amino acids or vitamins are also chemicals. Ironically, many cranks sell the same substances that they fearmonger about.

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Energy

In science, energy is the ability to perform work. It is a constant in the universe and is never created or destroyed by processes. If let go of a pebble from a cliff, the potential energy is converted to kinetic energy and heat, but the sun is always constant. Energy also shows up in nuclear physics, whereby a small amount of mass can be converted to a large amount of energy in accordance with the famous equation E = mc2.

Pseudoscientific cranks and quacks, on the other hand, abuse the energy concept as if it was some universal spirit that pervades all of existence. Typically polluted by new age mumbo jumbo, it has very little resemblance to how the concept is used in physics. They also make use of “positive” and “negative” energy to denote good energy and bad energy, but in physics, positive and negative are arbitrary designations of the change in energy. For instance, if you heat a cup of chocolate, its energy content increases. The change is thereby positive.

Quantum

Like energy, quantum is a term that is constantly abused by new age quacks. While energy is misconstrued as some kind of universal life force, quantum is misused as a prefix for all sorts of weird and nonsensical products and systems, from quantum healing and quantum theology to quantum consciousness and quantum astrology. In fact, this is so common that it has been labelled quantum woo or quantum quackery. In physics, quantum refers to either the smallest amount of some substance, such as a quantum of light or more generally to quantification of some physical property, meaning that it can only take discrete values.

Dis-ease

A disease is a condition that causes some kind of functional impairment. Although difficult to pin down exactly, we know that infections that have a negative impact on a person is a disease and heart problems can also be reasonable be called a disease. Proponents of pseudoscience, on the other hand, thinks that diseases are either not real or just attracted by negative thoughts or eating too much acidic food. Some of them have put a hyphen inside the word, transforming it into dis-ease, thereby arrogantly asserting that a disease is just a lack of ease, but this is obviously wrong since many diseases have objective signs and reliable symptoms.

Vibration

In physics, a vibration is merely the moving back-and-forth of something, such as a spring or sound waves. This vibration can have many properties, such as wavelength, frequency and so on. In new age circles, vibration is a state of a person or the planet that needs to be kept as high as possible and is tied into the bullshit idea that bad things happens to people who have negative thoughts.

Frequency

The frequency of a wave is the number of oscillations per second. If it has many oscillations per second, the frequency is high. It is the inverse of wavelength, which is the distance between two peaks or two valleys of a wave. This means that the higher the frequency, the smaller the wavelength and vice versa. In new age woo, frequency is used in a similar fashion as vibration.

Resonance

The best way to explain resonance is with a few examples. When you push someone on a swing, there are times in its motion when it is easy to push the swing back to increase the amplitude and some times when it is harder. The point at which it is the easiest is the resonance frequency of the swing. New age believers consider resonance to be the determining factor of what you will attract based on the “energy frequency” you chose.

Toxic

A toxin is a substance produced by living organisms that causes harm for some organism. Many things can be toxic, both natural and artificial products. What determines the toxic effect of a given substance is what it interacts with in the body and what dosage it is absorbed in. The dose makes the poison and some things that are vital for life in small to moderate dosages, such as water, can be lethal in very high concentrations. An excessive intake of water can lead to electrolyte imbalances in the central nervous system and there have been documented fatalities due to water poisoning in e. g. marathons. Cranks use “toxin” as a label for just about everything they do not like or cannot pronounce.

Subluxation

Many of the above terms have a valid scientific usage, but subluxation is a term invented by chiropractic quacks to designate supposed misalignment of vertebrates that allegedly cause all diseases. In reality, these are arbitrary inventions to sell fake and potentially harmful treatments as subluxations cannot be seen as on an x-ray. Chiropractors attempt to several ad hoc maneuvers, such as claiming that they only meant a functional impairment, thus making their claim untestable and contradicting how the term has been used historically by chiropractors.

Potentiation

Similar to the fact that the dose make the poison, the concentration influences the effect of a substance. This is why concentrated juice tastes very strong, but very diluted juice tastes very weak. Proponents of homeopathy believe, contrary to all of science, that the more you dilute something, the more powerful it becomes even though the dilution is so strong that the mixture likely contain no molecules of the active ingredient at all. The process of dilution is called “potentiation”, but is really just massive dilution.

Inflammation

Inflammation is an immunological response to pathogen invasion or physical damage. Blood vessels swell, heat develops and there is pain associated with touch or movement. Cells from the innate immune system are recruited to the area that is infected and chemical messengers trigger fever. This is called acute inflammation and is generally something good for the body, since it helps to fight infection. Inflammation can be bad if it is chronic, whereby the inflammatory response is recurring or constant. This happens in e. g. asthma and celiac disease. Quacks abuse inflammation and claim it is all bad and that a low-grade inflammation exclusively cause almost all diseases, from rashes to mental illness.

Epigenetics

Epigenetics is a form of inheritance not identified with the primary DNA sequence that comes in two basic flavors. The first is the maintenance of cellular specialization. Cells are specialized by suppressing some genes and expressing others. This is done by e. g. DNA methylation and histone modifications that are passed from mother cell to daughter cells. This phenomena of cellular specialization has been known for many decades and was often just referred to as development. The second flavor is called transgenerational epigenetic inheritance, whereby changes due to environment in one individual can affect the offspring several generations later. However, this is most likely rare and only persists for a few generations. It is therefore unlikely to be relevant for evolution. Epigenetics is, however, relevant for some human diseases, such as some cancers and fragile X syndrome.

New age cranks, on the other hand, abuse epigenetics by claiming that your mental state of mind have profound effects of DNA methylation that can be inherited to your grandchildren. This is, of course, complete nonsense and there has never been any evidence that epigenetics is primarily altered by your state of mind.

Microbiome

The microbiome of your body is the sum of all genetic material of microbes. In particular, the genetic composition of your gut bacteria. Just like epigenetic was very popular during the past decade, microbiome research has now become a new exciting area. It is likely that the gut microbiota is relevant for some human diseases, like chronic inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract and possible others. However, cranks again abuse this kind of research by falsely claiming that it alone cause almost all diseases, from cancer to depression.

Conclusion

Proponents of pseudoscience misuse and abuse a wide range of scientific terms and concepts and fighting pseudoscience also means providing much needed clarity to the public about these concepts.

What other scientific terminology have you seen been abused by cranks and quacks?

Emil Karlsson

Debunker of pseudoscience.

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