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Bad Science, Phony Science and Pseudoscience

Reality Check

Milton Rothman

Skeptical Briefs Volume 5.3, September 1995

Sometimes the difference between real science and pseudoscience forms such a narrow border that it is hard to tell which side you are looking at. There are times when pseudoscience masquerades as legitimate science, endlessly pursued through poor methods and an overabundance of wishful thinking. How many years of wasted research does it take before the scientific community finally makes up its collective mind that the problem being studied is a non-problem, and that the theorizers in that field are pursuing pseudoscience, pure and simple?

This error occurs frequently in the area of epidemiology, where the researcher uses statistical methods to discover the causes of diseases. (For example, to determine if cancer is caused by certain environmental factors.) The trouble is, there are good epidemiologists and bad epidemiologists. In addition, the methods of epidemiology are frequently used by people without a degree in epidemiology who think that there is not much more to the subject beyond calculating averages and standard deviations.

I feel qualified to speak on this topic because I was once married to an epidemiologist. She was a good one, having co-authored the basic textbook on the subject (Epidemiology, by Mausner & Bahn, Saunders, 1974), and she was perpetually going about the house screaming about the bad epidemiology that was being published in the journals. As a result, I am a skeptic about the use of epidemiology and biostatistics. They are valid sciences when used properly, but they are somewhat soft as sciences and are readily open to abuse. Therefore any results obtained with their aid must be examined critically.

The particular topic that stirs my attention today is an old one: the possibility that low frequency electromagnetic waves act as carcinogens. A large amount of research has been done trying to establish the relationship between magnetic fields from power lines and the incidence of cancer in the neighborhood. Physicists in general have been doubtful about this work, but have been too polite to say much in public.

Finally the American Physical Society, the broadest professional organization of physicists (of which I have been a member since 1948), has issued an official statement saying that it can find no evidence that electromagnetic fields (emf) radiated by electric power lines are a measurable cause of cancer. (New York Times, May 14, 1995.) A study conducted by Dr. David Hafemeister, of California Polytechnic State University, has reviewed all the existing literature on the subject and interviewed specialists in the field. His conclusion is that the statistical evidence for a correlation between electromagnetic fields and cancer is negligible, and is growing smaller as time goes on (a well known effect in parapsychology research).

The most devastating criticism about some of the emf research is that no effort was made to measure the actual em field strength experienced by the at-risk population. One paper I recall found that the cancer rate among electricians was higher than in the general population. But there was no effort made to show that these electricians actually experienced higher magnetic fields in their work. If I was an electrician I would want to shut off the power before going up on a high-voltage line. There are many chemical agents an electrician might encounter which would be much more harmful than possible em fields. (PCBs from transformer oil, for example).

Not only is the statistical data of doubtful value, but the people belaboring the emf-cancer connection have little or no theoretical explanation of how such em fields can actually produce cancer. The absence of a causal explanation greatly increases the skepticism in my mind.

The reason for the American Physical Society’s unprecedented statement is the fact that efforts to reduce the supposed effects of power-line fields on the population are likely to cost the public billions of dollars. This is money spent with no evidence that it does any good.

“No More Mr. Nice Guy,” continued:

Since my last piece on publications touting unusual theories, I have received in the mail a 21-page book written by Fereydoon Salehi, of Tehran, Iran. Not only is this book nicely printed by word-processor, but it comes in a professional hard binding.

The title of this book is Equivalence Principle of Mass-energy Conservation Law by Physical Constant. Its subject appears to be the classification of mass and energy in cosmic structures (planets, stars, galaxies, etc.). There is a large amount of mathematics in this book, and clearly much work has gone into it. I am sympathetic to the author’s seriousness of purpose, and so do not wish to hurt his feelings with a casual dismissal. Yet, am I to spend my few remaining days wading through insufficiently explained mathematics, even as I try to understand the uncertain English? The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. Fortunately, two general principles come to my rescue.

The appropriate laws of physics must be applied to the work at hand. If you are talking about galaxies and the universe as a whole, Newtonian mechanics will not do. General relativity must be used. The book under review starts with Kepler’s third law (regarding motion, which is okay for the solar system, but not okay for larger-scale structures.

In any equation, the quantities on the right side must have the same dimensionality as the quantities on the left. By dimensionality I mean the following: All physical quantities can be broken down into simple fundamental quantities. In mechanics, these fundamental quantities are mass (M), length (L), and time (T). In any equation within mechanics, the combination of M, L, and T on the left must be the same as on the right.

For example, the familiar expression for energy, Mc2, has a dimensionality of ML2/T2 (because c is a velocity, and a velocity is L/T).

On page 6 of the book in question is an equation in which Mc2 is equated to M2G2, where G is the gravitational constant. I do not understand how this equation is derived, but it takes but a few minutes to see that M2G2 has a dimensionality of L6T4, which is not the same as the dimensionality of Mc2. Therefore, I do not have to know how this equation was derived to demonstrate its fallacy. I know from dimensional analysis that this equation cannot be correct — which, of course, makes me dubious about the rest of the book.

The use of such general principles can avoid a lot of fuss and bother. It is an example of another general principle: It is easier to prove that a theory is false than to prove that it is correct.

Milton Rothman

Milton Rothman is a physicist from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.