How to name a planet

The seven warning signs of bogus science

Peel open the latest copy of the Economist and you’ll find an ad placed by a company that claims to have discovered the secret to free energy. I’m not joking: The company, Steorn, claims that it has “developed a technology that produces free, clean and constant energy”, and that their technology “has been independently validated by engineers and scientists — always behind closed doors, always off the record, always proven to work.” As they note on their web site, this “appears to violate the ‘Principle of the Conservation of Energy’, considered by many to be the most fundamental principle in our current understanding of the universe” — i.e. the concept that energy can neither be created nor destroyed.

Whatever. This is clearly junk science, of course. But as Kieran Healy at Crooked Timber notes, Steorn hews perfectly to the “seven warning signs of bogus science” laid out in the Chronicle of Higher Education a few years ago. To wit:

1. The discoverer pitches the claim directly to the media.

2. The discoverer says that a powerful establishment is trying to suppress his or her work.

3. The scientific effect involved is always at the very limit of detection.

4. Evidence for a discovery is anecdotal.

5. The discoverer says a belief is credible because it has endured for centuries.

6. The discoverer has worked in isolation.

7. The discoverer must propose new laws of nature to explain an observation.

Sounds about right — and come to think of it, intelligent design fits all seven criteria perfectly, too.

(Thanks to Morgan for this one!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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