We are about to take up some of the more speculative topics, like space combat and star travel. To make things work, we will have to bend, and perhaps even break some of the theories of physics. But you have to do it responsibly, remaining true to the spirit if not the letter of the laws of science. Otherwise your SF world will degenerate into a self-contradictory mass of putrid fantasy pathetically trying to cover up with scraps of ridiculous technobabble. There is some good reading on this topic at StarDestroyer dot net. In particular beware of pseudoscience.

There are a few areas where the problem crops up again and again. They are all where the theories of science are inconveniently preventing the writer from doing something they want, and the writer is getting petulant about it.

The most common ones are:

While FTL travel is an excusable violation (you want it, the readers want it, all the other authors are doing it), the other two are more questionable.

You Can't Do That

But first let's have a word from Simon Jester. In a recent thread on entitled Why do most wannabe SF writers reject science? he had this to say:

I suspect that most of these wannabe writers are getting their first introduction to 'putting the science in science fiction' in the format "you can't do that."

You can't have a planet-city because of heat pollution, you can't have an FTL communication system because it creates causality loops, and so on.

It's pretty depressing when every cool idea you ever have is getting shot full of holes, especially by someone who talks down to you. At some point, the natural reaction is to say "F--- it, I'm never going to get anything done if I keep listening to this guy drone on about all the things I can't do!"

Science and fiction aren't the only place where this happens. People can only juggle a limited number of important points in their head at a time; if you pile enough rules and confounding variables on them they start rejecting some of them simply as a defense mechanism.

So I think a lot of them are rejecting science because of a marketing failure; science is presented to them as a list of things they can't do. And the list is so long that they can't possibly remember all the rules, which makes it even more off-putting.

Talk to people about what they can do, or suggest what they should do, and they'll be less inclined to rebel against your advice than if you tell them they're wrong and dumb.

Most people prefer to be left with some ideas that are at least as interesting as the ideas that get shot down by the power of SCIENCE!, because otherwise they come away from the exchange of ideas poorer rather than richer.

Simon Jester

Simon makes a very good point, one that I fret about since this entire website appears to be composed of "you can't do that." In my defense, I do have a few places where I suggest what you can do, and I try to explain matters instead of talking down to the reader.

Having said that, you will find me unsympathetic if the reason that you are upset with the science is because it is preventing you from recreating Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, or whatever other unscientific Hollywood media SF that you happen to be fixated on. If that is the case, you'd be better off avoiding this website entirely.

Thus I Refute Thee

Irate SF fans will sometimes attempt to refute scientific theories they find inconvenient. While this is permitted for SF writers (as long as they don't make a habit of it and wash their hands afterwards) it is more worrisome with fans who think they can prove the Starship Enterprise's warp drive is possible in the real world. Their self-confidence is good, but they have about the same chance of success as a child in a soapbox derby car winning the Indy 500. It ain't gonna happen, and for the same reason. A dilettante with home-made gear cannot hope to compete with trained professionals with precision equipment. Such fans would do well to examine the The Alternative-Science Respectability Checklist.

From Stardestroyer.Net by Michael Wong.

Among the ranks of Star Trek fandom, there seem to be a lot of people with little or no technical background, who think that they can take a "shortcut" to advanced scientific knowledge by skipping over the usual years of hard work in university, and simply reading some books on quantum mechanics. I've gotten dozens of E-mail messages such as the following:

"You shouldn't discount the opinions of people just because they have no background. I've done a lot of independent reading, including all of the Stephen Hawking books, the Feynman books, and many other books on advanced particle physics and quantum mechanics. I dare say I probably have better knowledge of these subjects than you do, so you should watch your mouth before you go putting down my knowledge."

This argument has four major weaknesses, as I see them:

1. Strawman attack: It's a strawman attack because I don't automatically ignore everything that comes from untrained people. If a layperson makes an argument which is not scientifically invalid, I'm perfectly willing to listen. But if a layperson makes claims about science which I know to be incorrect, I will tell him.

2. How hard did he really work? What sounds more difficult? Reading some science books in your spare time, or studying science or engineering for 5 days a week, every week, for years? What's more difficult? Reading a handful of books for personal enlightenment, or reading textbooks and papers because you have to take grueling three hour long exams and submit a series of fifty page laboratory reports? What's more difficult? Skipping over the boring parts and jumping right to conclusions or abstracts, or knowing that the boring parts are the parts on which you will be tested? I think it's rather arrogant of these people to believe that their intelligence is so immense that they can skim through a handful of books and instantly gain the equivalent of many years of education.

3. Trying to run before you learn to walk: Comprehension of advanced scientific concepts requires comprehension of the basics. People without a grasp of the basics (and no, high school does not give you a grasp of the basics) tend to misinterpret complex material. The result of this ignorance is that they can read "The Physics of Star Trek" and conclude that Treknology is realistic, or they can read "A Matter of Time" and conclude that conservation of energy has been rendered obsolete.

4. Proof: When someone gets a university degree, there is a public record to prove that he has done the work that he claims to have done. But what about our "independent study" oppponent? How do we know he's telling the truth about all of that hard work he claims to have done? How do we know his idea of "research" isn't just casual web-surfing and bookstore browsing? When someone gets a university degree, there is a public record to prove that not only did he do the work, but he was tested and found competent. But what about our "independent study" opponent? How do we know that he understood any of what he was reading? No one forced him to write reports, submit theses, perform experiments, or take exams, did they?

I'm not trying to claim that everything I say must be correct simply because I have a degree. However, I have studied certain subjects at length, in a university environment where my comprehension of the material was tested. Therefore, if I make a statement about scientific or engineering concepts which were covered in my education, it is made on the basis of the fact that I studied those subjects at length, in much greater detail than one who has merely read a handful of science books (especially when those books are the type that contain no equations).

Michael Wong

The man who goes by the internet name of "Comic" had these words of wisdom:

So you know, university Physics is essentially three years of this discussion among like-minded enthusiasts.

Done with supercomputers, access to the textbook collections of five continents and thirty languages.

On four hours sleep a night.

With no sex.

You're not going to find the loophole these guys missed.


He's right.

Noted SF reviewer James Nicoll had this to say:

The facts are wrong

Gene Ward Smith asks what looks like a reasonable question on rec.arts.sf.written

The mass-luminosity relationship for main-sequence stars was known [during] all of the Golden Age, and hence it was [known] that all of those sfnal Rigellians and Denebians were nonsensical, Was this simply being ignored as so much was ignored, or had the news not reached most sci-fi authors?

The actual answer is probably "a bit of both". Even today it is easy to find an SF author who apparently has no idea about the lifespans of high mass stars - Eric Brown comes to mind - but as someone points out, at least one TV show recommended using named stars in episodes and named stars are almost always high mass/short life stars.

One subthread rapidly turns into "Well, maybe the mass-luminousity relationship is wrong!" argument, which nicely encapsulates something in SF that I will call the SFnal Lysenkoist Tendency: when actual, tested science contradicts some detail in an SF story, attack the science.

James Nicoll

In the past, also, war was one of the main instruments by which human societies were kept in touch with physical reality.

In philosophy, or religion, or ethics, or politics, two and two might make five, but when one was designing a gun or an aeroplane they had to make four.

George Orwell, 1984

Dunning-Kruger effect

According to Wikpedia, the Dunning-Kruger effect is "a cognitive bias in which unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than average. This bias is attributed to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their mistakes.". It goes on to say "Actual competence may weaken self-confidence, as competent individuals may falsely assume that others have an equivalent understanding. David Dunning and Justin Kruger conclude, "the miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others""

Rational Wiki translates this into English: "The Dunning-Kruger effect occurs when incompetent people not only fail to realise their incompetence, but consider themselves much more competent than everyone else. Basically, they're too stupid to know that they're stupid. If you have no doubts whatsoever about your brilliance, you could just be that damn good. On the other hand... The effect can also be summarised by the phrase "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing"."

This explains a lot of posts your are subjected to on various online forums from self-proclaimed experts.

The observation is not particularly new. In the 1930s Bertrand Russell said "The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.". In 1871 Charles Darwin said "ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge".

The Dunning-Kruger effect describes a cognitive bias in which people perform poorly on a task, but lack the meta-cognitive capacity to properly evaluate their performance. As a result, such people remain unaware of their incompetence and accordingly fail to take any self-improvement measures that might rid them of their incompetence.

Dunning and Kruger often refer to a "double curse" when interpreting their findings: People fail to grasp their own incompetence, precisely because they are so incompetent. And since, overcoming their incompetence would first require the ability to distinguish competence from incompetence people get stuck in a vicious cycle.

"The skills needed to produce logically sound arguments, for instance, are the same skills that are necessary to recognize when a logically sound argument has been made. Thus, if people lack the skills to produce correct answers, they are also cursed with an inability to know when their answers, or anyone else's, are right or wrong. They cannot recognize their responses as mistaken, or other people's responses as superior to their own."

Limiting The Damage

In some cases you have no choice but to violate a theory of physics. For instance, if you are going to have FTL travel, you are going to have to violate either relativity or causality; one of them has got to go.

Mark Temple said:

The important point is to keep the fracture under control. Hack writers will assume that "if we have to break a few theories of physics for FTL, why not just throw all the theories out the window?"

Don't give in. Omitting physics will degrade your setting to a pathetic lack of believability worse than an average Space Ghost cartoon.

Ultimately, the goal in writing good fiction isn't "accuracy", it's believability. The goal is to take the more fantastical elements and give them a sense of verisimilitude. For science fiction, scientific accuracy in anything not hand waved for the good of the story is a good start. If you want to preserve the sense of being real, you have to diverge as little as possible in your hand waving.

For the other, while (this) website is mainly a resource for novelists, I know many people online who employ it as a useful guide for roleplaying games, board games, and just plain intellectual debate.

Throwing out the laws of physics is going to screw up the setting the story occurs in, whether novel, fanfic, game, or thought experiment. and the setting being screwed up is going to be the thing that drags the story down into a farce.

Mark Temple

And try just to break one theory, not two or three.

Breaking the theory in question might make things a little too unlimited. It is often wise to create your own fake "theories" to rein things in. For instance, violating relativity in order to allow FTL travel can result in FTL travel with an infinite velocity. No transit time, click and you are instantly at Altair 6. How boring.

It would be better if you create a fake theory that restricts FTL speeds to some convenient multiple of the speed of light.

Finally, be aware that the more fundamental the theory is that you just broke, the more serious and the more numerous will be the unintended consequences.

Unintended Consequences

Things have implications. This means every time one adds a new scientific law or gizmo to their SF universe, you have to examine it to ensure that it does not introduce unintended consequences. In the real world we have such examples as stiffer penalties for drunk driving leading to an explosion of hit-and-run accidents (as fear of the stiffer penalties cause drunk drivers to flee the accident), and how the introduction of the internet has lead to virtual extinction of magazines, newspapers, telephone books, and encyclopedias.

As a rule of thumb, the more fundamental the theory is that you just broke, the more serious and the more numerous will be the unintended consequences.

The classic science fiction example is the "Transporter" from Star Trek. When Gene Roddenberry was producing the original Star Trek, he did not have the special effects budget to land the Starship Enterprise on the planet du jour every episode. So he added the Transporter: a teleportation device that can send a landing party to or from a planet's surface in the twinkling of an eye. All the producers need is a cheap optical effect, and the actors are on the planet ready to get the episode rolling.

But the implication is that while on the planet, the instant a hideous creature/Klingon raiding party/other threatening event pops up, that same Transporter can whisk the landing party out of danger. There goes the dramatic tension right out the window. The only band-aid the producer could put on this gaping wound was to have some sort of malfunction put the Transporter out of action every single episode. This got to be pretty hard to swallow after it had happened five episodes in a row.

Another example of unintended consequences is Jon's Law for SF authors. If you the author make your standard spacecraft propulsion system powerful enough to reduce interplanetary travel times to a few weeks, you suddenly have to deal with the fact that any old tramp freighter spaceship can vaporize Texas.

There was what could have been an "unintended" consequence (but was actually intended) in Frank Herbert's "Committee of the Whole" (1965). A nasty Congressional committee orders an uppity ranch owner to testify. He does so, and on national TV describes how to easily construct in your home workshop a laser sidearm powerful enough to slice and dice an army tank using only materials commonly found in one's garage. The "unintended" consequence is that such a weapon would allow libertarian minded people to hold off entire army battalions, and there are quite a few garage workshops in the US. As it turns out, this was precisely the reason that the ranch owner testified on national TV, since he was libertarian enough to want to render the US government impotent. He made sure by mailing a few hundred copies of the blueprints to various places.

If you broke the Second Law of Thermodynamics in order to obtain stealth in space, a major unintended consequence is that you simultaneously have allowed perpetual motion machines of the first kind, infinite free energy from nowhere, and all the secondary unintended ripple effects. (Actually, as Andreas Marx points out, as long as you don't break the first law of thermodynamics, you only have a perpetual motion machine of the second kind. Not quite as bad, but still more than bad enough.)

In his essay Thought experiment SF author Charles Stross talks about the pitfalls of unintended consequences. He coined the term "Second Artist Effect": The first artist sees a landscape and paints what they see; the second artist sees the first artist’s work and paints that, instead of a real landscape. For example, the first novels in the new genre called "Steampunk" had backgrounds that were groundbreaking and innovative, but subsequent novels sort of copied the backgrounds of the first novels. SF authors who wanted to be innovative had to explore new backgrounds, which often meant adding new scientific laws or gizmos to their SF universe, which regretably lead them to falling headfirst into the pit of unintended consequences.

Mr. Stross gives an example of the sudden discovery of a method to communicate faster than light, in fact, instantaneously. What are the not so obvious consequences? Well, for starters, the probability of a manned landing on Mars just became far more remote. Teleoperative space probes like the Mars Spirit rover are a good argument for manned missions: operating with a half-hour time lag almost makes it not worth the effort. But an instantaneous communicator has no time-lag, so suddenly there is no need to go to the incredible expense of sending real live men.

Meanwhile, there will be a global stock market crash, since high-frequency trading strategies depend upon speed-of-light delays.

And then all forms of encryption will suddenly be broken. All encryption methods rely upon algorithms that are NP-hard to crack with a computer. But since instantaneous communication violates causality, this opens up interesting strategies that will allow cracking problems that are NP-hard. In one fell swoop, all the bank account data, secret government information, and military information will be readable.

In other words, this simple instant communicator destroyed the business cases for manned space fight while simultaneously causing bubbles and wars and depressions.

Misapplied Phlebotinum

The case of a writer not quite getting their own head around his invention. An invention which is capable of great and astounding things (and often, of literally anything) is used exclusively for much lesser tasks. If you find that after a trip to the fridge you see that the Phlebotinum in question could be used to obsolete entire industries if not render the entire plot trivial then you're dealing with this trope.

Common victims of Misapplication include:
  • Faster-Than-Light Travel:
    • It's actually harder to conceive an FTL system that can't also double as a Weapon of Mass Destruction than it is to conceive one that can. And that's not even getting into the fact that, because of the way relativity works, FTL travel is logically equivalent to Time Travel...
  • Teleporters and Transporters:
    • The technology that allows your crew to travel from the Cool Starship to the planet and back without using a shuttle is the same technology that can park a live warhead in the enemy captain's lap without using a missile. It also makes a nifty Disintegrator Ray if you skip the "rematerialization" end of the process or, if it doesn't work by dematerializing, send the receiving end into the sun. Or only teleporting part of the target. And unless it's ludicrously expensive/has major side-effects, it can be used to greatly reduce shipping costs and delays, and could remove the need for any other planet-based vehicle (if it's cheap and practical enough, you wouldn't even need to walk). This could also be used to dispose of hazardous waste, removing the need for massive landfills or toxic waste dumps. If it converts matter into energy, and you have a way of storing that energy, you could use it as an alternative source of power: converting otherwise useless garbage into a viable power source for other things. This would change the face of society.
    • If the technology works by destroying and reconstructing, there are a number of possible uses that are rarely used, like bodily restoration after injury or death, copying/mass-production of reconstructible objects, copying/mass-production of people, etc.
  • Artificial Gravity:
    • If your Cool Starship has a device that can generate and manipulate Gravity irrespective of Mass then mounting Tractor Beams, Deflector Shields, Inertial Dampeners and even Engines may be redundant.
    • Note that it takes a really strong and accurately-placed gravity field to significantly change the trajectory of a laser beam or anything else moving at relativistic speeds - a field which, apart from theoretically consuming an extremely large amount of energy to maintain (depending on your flavour of Phlebotinum), might have unintended consequences.
    • However, manipulation of a gravity field probably won't get you to trans-light, unless you're in a "gravity is warp" model like GRT and use it to form an Alcubierre Drive.
  • Nanomachines: While they may have more limits in real life, it'd be easier to list the things you couldn't do with nanomachines capable of the kinds of tasks they do in fiction than the things you can, yet they're frequently introduced as a plot-device for one specific thing and never used for anything else.

It is, of course, possible to create Obvious Rule Patches and Required Secondary Powers for all these Phlebotina that prevent the above forms of misuse (and the really good writers even keep it from looking like a form of Fake Difficulty), but many writers merely take them as-is without thinking about the potential consequences.

(ed note: see TV Trope page for list of examples)


In the sphere of economics, there is the havoc created by the unintended consequences of the Star Trek Replicator.

The producers saw one problem right off the bat, and quickly handwaved a reason which prevented using a replicator to make multiple clones of a person. But they passed over the small matter of replicator technology irrevocably causing the collapse of the global economy. You would have spotted that right away, if you had read Ralph Williams's "Business as Usual, During Alterations" Murray Leinster's The Duplicators, or George O. Smith's "Pandora's Millions".

In "Pandora's Millions", the ivory tower engineers of Venus Equilateral invent a matter transmitter, and quickly figure out that the signal can be recorded. This makes it into a replicator. A businessman friend of theirs screams at them that they've just destroyed the economy of three worlds in one fell swoop.

The businessman says it is too late to suppress the invention, but if the engineers want to prevent it from being a complete and utter disaster, they had better go and invent some substance that cannot be replicated ASAP. Lacking that, there is no way to prevent either currency or cheques from being counterfeited. Counterfeits so good they cannot be distinguished from genuine money.

With a replicator, everybody can pave their driveway with gold bricks, eat caviar and filet mignon every day, and wallpaper every room in the house with Mona Lisas. Which basically means all these formerly expensive items are now worthless, that is, valueless in the sense of being free.

Of course, if your monetary units are based on gold or something physical, they are now valueless as well. As are any investments, savings, or retirement nest eggs made with such money.

Things will go downhill quite quickly, since a replicator can also produce more replicators.

Factories will close sending millions out of work. Who needs the goods manufactured by the factory when all you need is a replicator and a recording of the desired item? The stocks and bonds of the companies who own the factories will plummet in value.

About the only thing that will still have value will be services. A replicator will not help you if you need a cavity filled or an appendix removed. Some kind of barter system will replace a monetary economy. (Actually, the replicators still need electricity. In the story, to make the point, this is handwaved away by allowing the replicators to violate the law of conservation of energy and duplicate charged batteries.)

In Star Trek, I suppose the role of an un-replicatable material is filled by "gold-pressed Latinum". Left unexplained is what value was backing the poker chips used in all those poker games. I suppose they are for services. That appeared in the Firefly episode "Shindig", where the chips represented on-ship chores: garbage detail, washing dishes, septic vat, etc.

And don't forget the sociological effects.

The Reverend Thomas Doylen speared Keg Johnson with a fishy glance and thundered: "A plague on both your houses!"

Johnson grinned unmercifully. "You didn't get that one out of the Bible," he said.

"But it is none the less true," came the booming reply.

"So what? Mind telling me what I'm doomed to eternal damnation for?"

"Sacrilege and blasphemy," exploded Doylen. "I came to plead with you. I wanted to bring you into the fold -- to show you the error of your sinful way. And what do I find? I find, guarding the city, a massive facade of mother-of-pearl and platinum. Solid gold bars on gates which swing wide at the approach. A bearded man in a white cloak recording those who enter. Once inside--"

"You find a broad street paved with gold. Diamonds in profusion stud the street for traction, since gold is somewhat slippery as a pavement. The sidewalks are pure silver and the street-stop lights are composed of green emeralds, red rubies, and amber amethysts. They got sort of practical at that point, Reverend. Oh, I also see that you have taken your sample."

Doylen looked down at the brick. It was the size of a housebrick -- but of pure gold. Stamped in the top surface were the words: "99.99% pure gold. A souvenir of Fabriville."

"What means all this?" stormed the Reverend, waving the brick.

"My very good friend, it is intended to prove only one thing. Nothing -- absolutely nothing -- is worth anything. The psychological impact of the pearly gate and the street of gold tends to strike home the fact that here in Fabriville nothing of material substance is of value. Service, which cannot be duplicated, is the medium of exchange in Fabriville -- have you anything to offer, Reverend?"

"The Lord saith: 'Six days shalt thou labor--' You have destroyed that law, Johnson."

"That"s no law. That"s an admonition not to overdo your labor. He didn't want us laboring seven days per. If He were running things under the present set-up, He"d be tickled pink to see people taking it easy five days per week, believe me."


"Is it? Am I being sacrilegious to believe that He has a sense of humor and a load more common sense than you and I?"

"To speak familiarly--"

"If I"ve offended Him, let Him strike me where I stand," smiled Keg.

"He is far too busy to hear the voice of an agnostic."

"Then He is far too busy to have heard that I mentioned Him in familiar terms. What is your point, Reverend? What do you want?"

"A return to religion."

"Good. Start it."

"People will not come to church. They are too busy satiating themselves with the worldly goods and luxuries."

"Your particular private sect, like a lot of others," said Keg Johnson harshly, "has been catering to the wishful-thinking of the have-nots. That used to be all right, I suppose. You gave them hope that in the next life they could live in peace, quiet, and also in luxury, believe it or not. You call down the troubles of hell upon the shoulders of the ambitious, and squall that it is impossible for a rich man to get ahead in Heaven. Nuts, Reverend. You've been getting your flock from people who have no chance to have the pleasure of fine homes and good friends. You've been promising them streets of gold, pearly gates, and the sound of angelic music. Fine. Now we have a condition where people can have those worldly goods luxuries right here on earth and without waiting for death to take them there. If you want to start a return to church movement, Reverend, you might start it by making your particular outfit one of the first to eschew all this palaver about streets of gold. Start being a spiritual organization, try to uplift the poor in spirit instead of telling them that they will be blessed because of it. Don't ever hope to keep your position by telling people that material made with a duplicator is a product of Hell, Devil & Co., because they won't believe it in the first place and there won't be anything manufactured by any other means in the second place."

"And yet you have all of Mars under your thumb," scolded the Reverend Thomas Doylen. "Of what value is it to gain the whole world and lose your soul?"

"My soul isn't in bad shape," responded Keg cheerfully. "I think I may have done as much toward lifting civilization out of the mire as you have."


"Careful, Reverend. It is you that I am criticizing now, not God. Just remember this, people are not going to fall for a bit of salving talk when they want nothing. You promise them anything you like in the way of fancy embroidery, but they'll have it at home now instead of getting it in Heaven. Give 'em something to hope for in the way of greater intelligence, or finer personality, or better friends, and they"ll eat it up.

"As far as having all of Mars under my thumb, someone had to straighten out this mess. I gave them the only thing I had worth giving. I gave them the product of my ability to organize; to operate under any conditions; and to serve them as I can. I'm no better off than I would have been to sit at home and watch the rest run wild. They"d have done it, too, if there hadn't been a strong hand on their shoulder. Where were you when the bottom fell out? Were you trying to help them or were you telling them that this was the result of their sinful way of life?"

The reverend flushed. "They wouldn't listen to my pleas that they forsake this devil's invention."

"Naturally not. Work with this thing and you'll come out all right. But you've got to revise your thinking as well as the rest of the world has had to revise theirs, or you'll fall by the wayside. Now good day, Reverend, and I wish you luck."

From "Pandora's Millions" by George O. Smith (1945).

Torch Missiles

Writers who want to make their interplanetary novels have reasonable science will equip their spacecraft with reasonable propulsion systems. Which unfortunately are very weak and undramatic. If the writer wants to push the envelope, they can equip their spacecraft with unreasonably strong propulsion systems. The jargon is "torchship".

And if an author wants far too much of a good thing, they can look at the missile weapons the warships are carrying, and replace the missile's reasonable propulsion systems with an unreasonably powerful one and have a "torch missile". This is the sort of missile you can fire at your opponent, and have the missile chase your opponent all over the entire solar system for the next year or so. Of course this means you are mounting on a little missile a multi-hundred-megawatt fusion reactor intended for an entire spacecraft, but that isn't against the law.

But as Ken Burnside points out, once again the law of unintended consequences rears its ugly head.

Ken Burnside: I personally wonder what the ability to throw away multi-hundred-megawatt fusion reactors as missile drives does for your economics. We have, however, danced that one around a few times as well. :)

Rick Robinson: And the band strikes up again! The short answer is that war is wasteful. The slightly longer answer is that if the missile kills an even more expensive enemy ship, it has paid for itself.

Ken Burnside: No, Rick — you miss the point.

If 200 megawatt fusion torches (your last figure of merit that I recall) can be considered expendable munitions, on ships that do cruises of several months (implying they have around 40 or more of them), that means that they're mildly mass produced. If these are ever sent on marginal intercepts, that implies you have more of them, and they're cheaper as well.

Which says things about the power usage of your economies that may do ugly things to trade.

For example, if they can make these things in job lots and throw them away...what ELSE do they make 200 MW (or 0.2 MW) disposable fusion power sources for? What does that do to your society?

From thread in sfconsim-l forum (5/15/2006)

"So What If I Broke Twelve Laws Of Physics? It's Only Science FICTION"

This silly opinion implies that the word "fiction" nullifies the word "science." Since it is "fiction", and fiction is by definition "not true", then we can make "not true" any and all science that gets in the way, right?

Hogwash. By the same logic, the term "detective fiction" gives the author license to totally ignore standard procedures and techniques used by detectives, the term "military fiction" allows the author to totally ignore military tactics and strategy, and the term "historical fiction" allows the author to totally ignore the relevant history.

Imagine a historical fiction novel where Napoleon at Waterloo defeated the knights of the Round Table by using the Enola Gay to drop an atom bomb. It's OK because it is "fiction", right?

This non-argument is the favorite of science fiction fans who like all the zipping spaceships and ray guns but who actually know practically nothing about real science. And who cannot be bothered to go learn.

In the presence of people who are indeed scientifically literate, such fans tend to get very defensive about their lack of knowledge. The non-argument is a feeble attempt at compensating for their shortcomings by attempting to forbid the others from using their knowledge.

Slightly more difficult to deal with, but still operating under a flawed concept are those fans with little or no technical background, who think that they can take a "shortcut" to advanced scientific knowledge by skipping over the usual years of hard work in university, and simply reading some books on quantum mechanics. It doesn't work that way.

"It's Just A Theory"

This generally takes the form of "Well, Einstein's relativity is just a theory, not a fact/scientific law." However, such a statement only demonstrates that the speaker is either severely scientifically illiterate or an evil demagogue trying to pull a fast one.

The colloquial meaning of the term "theory" is the opposite of "fact", it is a guess, or hunch (what a scientist would call a "hypothesis"). But in Science, the meaning of the term "theory" is totally different. Theory and fact can be the same.

So if Einstein's relativity theory is "just a theory" in the same way that atomic theory is "just a theory", then you shouldn't mind sitting on top of this thermonuclear warhead while I sit in a bunker a few kilometers away pushing the detonator button, hmmmmmmm?

A theory does not change into a scientific law with the accumulation of new or better evidence. A theory will always be a theory, a law will always be a law. A theory will never become a law, and a law never was a theory.

A scientific law is a description of an observed phenomenon. Kepler's Laws of Planetary Motion are a good example. Those laws describe the motions of planets. But they do not explain why they are that way. If all scientists ever did was to formulate scientific laws, then the universe would be very well- described, but still unexplained and very mysterious.

A theory is a scientific explanation of an observed phenomenon. Unlike laws, theories actually explain why things are the way they are. Theories are what science is for. If, then, a theory is a scientific explanation of a natural phenomena, ask yourself this: "What part of that definition excludes a theory from being a fact?" The answer is nothing! There is no reason a theory cannot be an actual fact as well.

The common misconception is that if a budding young scientific theory gets quote "proven" unquote, it graduates and becomes a scientific law. As you see above, theories and laws are two different things. Even worse, it is impossible to prove a scientific theory.

T-Shirt designs from Teach The Controversy.

"Doctor," said Sacha, "Can you give me your assurance that this injection won't harm my children?"

"Well, there's always some risk, Ms Melham. I do have a leaflet that explains everything..."

Sacha placed a finger on the table.

"I don't need a leaflet, Doctor. I simply want your assurance that this injection will cause Willow and Gregory no harm..."

Doctor James Ferriday gazed at the finger.

"As I said, there is always a small risk, but if you look, you will see that this is less than the probability of..."

Sacha held up her hand.

"Please, Doctor. Don't try and confuse the issue."

"I'm not trying to confuse the issue, I'm simply presenting you with the facts..."

Sacha rose to her feet.

"Well, I think I've heard enough. Willow, Gregory, put your coats back on. Thank you, Doctor, we'll be... what's that?"

James's screen flashed red and green.

"Oh dear," he said, reading the yellow writing scrolling across the monitor. "I think you should take a seat."

Sacha did so. Her son slipped his hand into hers.

"What's the matter, mummy?"

"Nothing, dear. Is everything OK, Doctor?"

"I'm sorry, Ms Melham..." he began, and then more kindly. "I'm sorry, Sacha, but you've crossed the threshold. I'm afraid to say, you're not allowed science any more."

"I'm what?"

"You're not allowed science any more," repeated James.

Sacha's lips moved as she tried to process what he had said.

"You're saying that you're refusing my children treatment?"

"No," said James. "Quite the opposite. You and your children will always be entitled to the best medical care. It's just that you, Sacha, no longer have a say in it. I shall administer the vaccination immediately."

"What?" Sacha sat up, eyes burning with indignation. "How dare you? I, and my husband, are the only ones who say how my family is run."

"Well, yes," said James. "But you no longer have a say in things where science is involved. You're not allowed science any more."

"I never heard anything so ridiculous! Who decided that?"

"The Universe."

"The Universe? Why should the Universe say I'm not allowed science any more?"

"Because you haven't paid science enough attention. You've had the opportunity to read the facts and the education to be able to analyse them, yet you have consistently chosen not to."

"The education?" exclaimed Sacha. "Hah! My science education was terrible. None of my teachers could explain anything properly."

"Really?" said James. "That would certainly be grounds for appeal..."

He pressed a couple of buttons. Tables of figures appeared on the screen.

"No," he said, shaking his head. "I'm sorry... it turns out that your teachers were all really rather excellent. You went to a very good public school, after all. If you look at your teachers' results you will see they added significant value to their pupils' attainment."

Sacha pouted.

"Well, they didn't like me."


He pressed a couple more buttons.

"What?" said Sacha, hearing his sharp intake of breath.

"Look at this," said James, scrolling down a long table. "Times and dates of occasions when you've proudly admitted to not being good at maths."

"What's the matter with that? I'm not."

"It's not the lack of ability, Sacha, it's the fact that you're proud of it. You'd never be proud of being illiterate. Why do you think your innumeracy is a cause for celebration?"

"Because... Well..."

"That's why you're not allowed science any more."

"This is outrageous!" snarled Sacha. "How can this happen?"

"Oh, that's easy," said James. "Magic."

"Magic?" said Sacha, her eyes suddenly shining. "You mean there's really such a thing?"

"Of course not. But I can't explain to you how it's really done because you're not allowed science any more."

Sacha fumbled for her handbag.

"I'm calling the BBC," she said. "I'm a producer there, you know. I'll report you."

"Report me to who you like," said James. "The story will never get out. All your cameras and microphones and things work on science."

Sacha gazed at him.

"Who gave you the right to control my life?"

"You've got it the wrong way round. You gave the right to control your life away. You're the one who chose to ignore the way the world works."

"Hah!" said Sacha. "The way the world works! Bloody scientists. You think the world is all numbers and machines and levers. You don't understand anything about the soul or spirit."

"Of course I do," said James. "I've been happily married for 20 years. I have two children that I love. I play the piano, I enjoy reading. It's just that I have additional ways of looking at things."

Sacha stood up.

"Willow, Gregory. We're going home," she glared at James. "That is if I'm still allowed to drive? You don't have something against women drivers as well do you, Doctor?"

"This is nothing to do with you being female, Ms Melham," said James, calmly. "This is purely about your attitude to science. Now, before you go, I'll administer the injection to the three of you."

"You will not! I will not allow it."

"I told you, you have no choice."

"Why? Because I disagree with you?"

For this first time, James's anger showed itself.

"No!" he snapped. "You don't get it! You're allowed to disagree with me, I want you to disagree with me! I'd love to engage in reasoned debate with you. But until you take the trouble to understand what you're talking about, you're not allowed science any more. Now, roll up your sleeve."

Sacha muttered something under her breath.

"What's in the injection?" said James. "You know, you start asking questions like that, you might get science back..."

"Maybe A Future Scientific Breakthrough Will Let Me Have My Way"

This argument usually takes the form of "Well, they said that man would never break the sound barrier either, but they were wrong!".

That formation of the argument is doubly suspect, since if you do the research there does not appear to be any scientist on the record who actually stated that breaking the sound barrier was impossible. For one thing, bullets were breaking the sound barrier almost since the invention of gunpowder. Heck, whips have been doing it since the invention of whips. The "crack" of a whip is actually a the tip of the whip creating a tiny sonic boom.

By the late 1940s, no competent engineer or test pilot thought that there was anything mysterious (beyond the mysteries of complex aeronautical design itself) about the sound barrier.

M.S. Cramer (

But the core of the argument is that maybe some future scientific breakthrough will remove all those pesky scientific theories that are keeping the author from doing what they want.

First off, from the standpoint of probability, there is at least a 50% chance that any new scientific breakthrough will actually make it harder to do what you want. There was an amusing SF story by George R. R. Martin called "FTA" where scientists discovered how to enter hyperspace. They were initially jubilant, with visions of FTL starships and Nobel prizes dancing in their heads. Their hopes were quickly dashed when they found out that the speed of light in hyperspace was slower than in our universe.

But actually it is probably a better than 50% chance that a breakthrough will make matters worse. And this will still be a problem if you try to declare by authorial fiat that the breakthrough is indeed in your favor. Let me explain.

Correspondence Principle

The general rule is what physicists call the correspondence principle or the Classical limit. This states that any new theory must give the same answers as the old theory where the old theory has been confirmed by experiment. Newton's laws and Einstein's Relativity give the same answers in ordinary conditions, they only give different answers in extreme conditions such as near the speed of light, refining the accuracy of the GPS system, or calculating the orbit of Mercury (none of which Newton could confirm by experiment).

Which means if you just state that in the year 2525 Professor XYZ came up with the "Take THAT, Einstein!" theory of FTL travel, you still have a problem. You have to explain how the TTE theory allows FTL flight while still giving the same answers that relativity theory did for all those experiments it confirmed. Experiments that were accurate to quite a few decimal points.

And since your desired breakthrough is functionally equivalent to breaking a theory of physics, you also have the problem of unintended consequences.

Regardless of the fact that some of it is dogma, we do possess an exceptionally accurate and rational explanation of electromagnetic phenomena today that meets the criterion stated by Lancelot Hogben, "A scientific explanation is one that is vindicated by practice." Radio transmitters transmit, and radio receivers receive. Lasers lase. Nuclear reactors react. Semi-conductors occasionally conduct. Tunnel diodes, LED's, SQUIDS, and other electromagnetic devices based on quantum mechanics do their thing repeatedly and reliably. So we're obviously doing something right! And we don't dare throw away the theoretical base on which these gadgets do indeed work. We can and should modify the theoretical base as necessary, but we can't throw it away. Any new theories of the universe must be compatible with the old ones or at least permit logical and rational modifications in order to shoe-horn the old theories into the new ones.

From "Faster Than Light" by G. Harry Stine (1980).

Ken Burnside had this to say. The topic was postulating some scientific breakthrough rendering null and void the Second Law of Thermodynamics and thus allowing stealth spacecraft in a proposed spacecraft combat game.

What science does is take a heretofore unexplained phenomenon and tries to make it fit into the established knowledge base. There is no unexplained phenomenon that might result in violating thermodynamics - and if there WERE something that violated thermo, it would radically change the universe as we know it - for instance, stellar processes require thermodynamics, the entire model of cosmology is based off of known properties for thermodynamics. Your car runs on thermodynamic processes. And all of these things work out the same way, and derive from the same knowledge base.

If there IS a way to cheat thermodynamics, you're going to have ripple effects. The most obvious one is going to be perpetual motion machines. (Seriously - there's an entire industry of people trying to patent perpetual motion machines...)

If you have a perpetual motion machine, you've just utterly changed everything in a society, in a way more fundamental than electricity. In its most mundane form, cars never need more gas. The entire energy segment of the economy gets transformed into something that's weirder than we can possibly imagine. A lot of projects that don't get done now due to energy expenditures get done because energy is now too cheap to meter.

This is why I wince at the "Thermo will get engineered away!" claims - if you've engineered thermo away, you've likely engineered most of the reasons for armed conflict at all.

Likewise, as much as we want to have it proven otherwise, there's nothing out there yet that's even implied that Einstein's general relativity has a gap in the model that can be reasonably exploited. And most of the ways you can work the equations for relativity that theoretically allow FTL also allow things like time travel, and reversing causality, and things even weirder to contemplate.

However, to make an analogy... How would you react to a game that purported to be about, say, Marines and their tactics and utilizations that insisted that the best formation for them to attack in was walking on their hands, with their rifles clenched between their knees, shoulder to shoulder, in tight formations, through beaten zones for artillery strikes and into machine gun kill zones?

Would you accept it if I told you that this was the result of a heretofore unknown doctrinal innovation made at some point 600 years in the future?

Or, would you demand to know WHAT doctrinal innovation made this the best way to conduct an assault with Marines on the ground?

Brock Greman agrees with the main thrust of Mr. Burnside's argument, but point out that one or two of the fine details are slightly off. Keep in mind that Mr. Greman does agree with the argument's conclusions. The details in question are bolded above.

I've bolded the particular remarks I feel contentious about. You'd just mentioned the correspondence principle, stating that any new theory would have to agree with the current theory in the classical limit. Mr. Burnside then presents his argument as if the things we take for granted would not work if a "new" thermodynamics was discovered.

I understand the argument he's trying to make, and it's entirely valid, but I believe the way its presented implies that these things happen "because thermodynamics is true", rather than the true situation, which is that these things do happen, so any valid theory of thermodynamics had better predict or allow that they do.

The first statement in particular seems a bit "off", because science does not try to fit the observations to the theory. It creates the theory to explain the observations.

As a burgeoning scientist myself, with four years of undergraduate study and three years of research work, as well as a deep interest in the history and practice of science, I guess I just had to be nitpicky about what seemed to me, at least, to be a slight confusion of expression here. I'm certainly not arguing against the overall message Mr. Burnside is trying to convey though.

Brock Greman

Gullibility and Fast Talk

There are a lot of con-artists out there, trying to sell you on their dubious scientific theories. It is a mistake to let down your defenses just because said con-artist is promising you a warp-drive for your Starship Enterprise.

In his article about the infamous "EmDrive", Corey Powell wrote about consulting with Caltech physicist Sean Carroll about some questionable terminology contained in the EmDrive paper. Dr. Carroll agreed that there is no such thing as a "quantum vacuum virtual plasma", which should have been a tip-off right there. Powell goes on to say:

In a Word, No.

That’s part of why this space-drive story bothers me so much. Abandoning known science when it feels good to do so is a dangerous proposition. As Carroll later tweeted, “The eagerness with which folks embrace sketchy claims about impossible space drives would make astrology fans blush.”

I am personally a huge space enthusiast; I would love to see a new type of propulsion that would make it easier to explore the universe. But having your heart in the right place is no excuse to walk away from normal critical thinking. It is not materially different than the approach of people who reject science when they don’t like what it says about climate change, vaccines, or genetically modified organisms.

Bob Parks is a physicist at the American Physical Society and he’s written a lot of stuff about how to be skeptical about such claims. He’s got a book called Voodoo Science. I was lucky enough to interview him when I was at NPR, and he said something I never forgot.

He was telling the story of when the controversial experiments on cold fusion came out and there was a lot of excitement in the public about it even though the scientists were quite certain it couldn’t have happened. When people want something to be true, he said, it’s very compelling for them to believe it.

When he said that the cold fusion experiment didn’t jibe with the physical principles, a woman asked him, “But it would be so very important for the world. Couldn’t you try just a little bit harder?”

Of course, the cold fusion scenario was very different from the type of crackpot science we’re talking about here, but that woman’s reaction does go a long way to explaining why it’s hard for many of us to let go of ideas that we should be more skeptical about.

From Crackpot science by Stephanie Chasteen (2008)

For an in-depth analysis of the crackpot phenomenon; run, do not walk, and read this article by Dr. Rhys Taylor. He goes on to say "I stand by my idea of a "Wegener's Law", whereby anyone comparing their idea to Wegener's would instantly lose the argument. Just because that one mad idea did turn out to be correct, doesn't mean yours is too. Yes, science got that one wrong for a while, but uncounted other mad ideas were proven to be exactly that."

Plausibility Index
A proposed


being a wholly untrustworthy guide to


and abject


Level 0 : Mathematical proofs. Ideas which don't even require any measurements. 2 + 2 = 4.
Level 1 : Measured certainties. Things we have measured unambiguously. The size and shape of the Earth (and the lack of supporting turtles), the existence of bacteria.
Level 2 : Beautiful theories. Models which have been subject to a wide variety of independent rigorous testing and not found wanting so far. Continued study largely a matter of dotting the i's and crossing the t's. Examples include evolution, the expansion of the Universe, the speed of light as an upper limit, the existence of gravitational waves.
It's just possible they may be one day slain by an ugly fact, but the chance is remote. More likely their beauty will merely fade, but they will never fall below the next level :
Level 3 : Quite attractive models. Well-tested models that generally do an excellent job, but have difficulties in certain circumstances. Useful as simplified approximations of reality or as a stepping stone to more sophisticated approaches, but fundamentally flawed. Newtonian gravity is an excellent example.
Level 4 : Contemporary mainstream paradigms. The coalface of research. A more-or-less self-consistent set of ideas that generally, but by no means always, do a good job of describing reality. Things most people think we've got a basic handle on, like dark matter, star formation, inflation.
Subject to high levels of incompleteness and outright controversy.
Level 5 : Fringe. Ideas which are not generally accepted, so not subject to the same level of rigour as level 4, but which are consistent with levels 0-2 and tested in a basically scientific way. MOND, voids as alternative to dark energy, panspermia, string theory.
Level 6 : Sketchy. At odds with level 3 and 4. UFOs, Bigfoot, lake monsters, sheepsquatch (you read that right), that sort of thing. Research often claimed as lacking in rigour or even fraudulent.
Level 7 : Weird. Things that are probably impossible according to level 2 and generally make no sense. Homoeopathy, astrology, dowsing. Perhaps not impossible in the strictest sense, just in complete defiance of our entire scientific world view.
Level 8 : Inherently unprovable. Ideas which admit level 0-2 facts and models but invoke other, supernatural causes to circumvent them (e.g. miracles), as well as notions that do not relate to science at all. Essentially opinion more than fact. Certain forms of evangelical atheism and even agnosticism could also fit here (as in, "I have mistaken my opinion for a level 1 fact and therefore the whole world must agree with me").
Level 9 : Delusional. Ideas which defy levels 0-2 and require that they are somehow mistaken. Flat earth, Hollow Earth, young Earth, lunar cheese, space mirrors.

The list gets less and less rational the further down you go, but only at level 9 does it reach actual madness. Questioning level 3-7 is generally sensible, though questioning levels 0 and 1 is insane (we'll return to level 2 later). The point is, although some things are certain, and some things certainly impossible, all we can do for the rest is make a judgement call as to how likely they are.

As for level 8, unprovable, irrational beliefs are obviously not inherently bad or immoral. Indeed, life without ANY irrational beliefs would probably be unbearable. At this point I'll hand over to a seven-foot skeleton with a scythe, who explains level 8 far more eloquently than I ever could.


To summarise :
  • Science hasn't explained everything, and scientists are aware of this. It is not a dogmatic or arrogant process, it's investigative.
  • You cannot say, "this idea is arrogant because I don't believe it".
  • Unlikely ideas can occasionally become proven facts, but usually they're just wrong. Most ideas are not mainstream because the evidence is against them, not because of scientific arrogance.
  • Be cautious of any new results, including those that support mainstream ideas. Skepticism is not the same as denial.
  • Take all press releases with a healthy pinch of salt. Evidence is not the same as proof.
  • Actually, it is only a theory, but don't say this unless you know what you're getting yourself in to. I completely reject the notion that theory and fact can be one and the same, this is daft.
  • Buzz Aldrin needs to get his punching fist ready.
From Quack, Quack by Rhys Taylor (2014)
Pathological Science

"Pathological science" is a term coined by Nobel-laureate in chemistry Irving Langmuir in a presentation he made at General Electric's Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory a few years before his death in 1957. Langmuir described typical cases as involving such things as barely detectable causal agents observed near the threshold of sensation which are nevertheless asserted to have been detected with great accuracy. The supporters offer fantastic theories that are contrary to experience and meet criticisms with ad hoc excuses. And, most telling, only supporters can reproduce the results. Critics can't duplicate the experiments.

He gave several examples, including ESP experiments and Blondlot's N-rays.

Ad Hoc Hypothesis

An ad hoc hypothesis is one created to explain away facts that seem to refute one’s belief or theory. Ad hoc hypotheses are common in paranormal research and in the work of pseudoscientists. For example, ESP researchers have been known to blame the hostile thoughts of onlookers for unconsciously influencing pointer readings on sensitive instruments. The hostile vibes, they say, made it impossible for them to duplicate a positive ESP experiment. Being able to duplicate an experiment is essential to confirming its validity. Of course, if this objection is taken seriously, then no experiment on ESP can ever fail. Whatever the results, one can always say they were caused by paranormal psychic forces, either the ones being tested or others not being tested.

Using ad hoc hypotheses is not limited to pseudoscientists. Another type of ad hoc hypothesis occurs in science when a new scientific theory is proposed which conflicts with an established theory and which lacks an essential explanatory mechanism. An ad hoc hypothesis is proposed to explain what the new theory cannot explain. For example, when Wegener proposed his theory of continental drift he could not explain how continents move. It was suggested that gravity was the force behind the movement of continents, though there was no scientific evidence for this notion. In fact, scientists could and did show that gravity was too weak a force to account for the movement of continents. Alexis du Toit, a defender of Wegener's theory, argued for radioactive melting of the ocean floor at continental borders as the mechanism by which continents might move. Stephen Jay Gould noted that "this ad hoc hypothesis added no increment of plausibility to Wegener's speculation."

Voodoo Science

Physicist Robert Park lists seven warning signs of voodoo science:

  1. A discovery is pitched directly to the media, bypassing peer review, e.g., Pons & Fleischmann's claims about cold fusion and Dennis Lee's claims about free energy.

  2. A powerful "establishment" is said to be suppressing the discovery.

  3. An effect is always at the very limit of detection.

  4. Evidence for a discovery is anecdotal.

  5. A belief is said to be credible because it has endured for centuries, i.e., commits the fallacy of appeal to tradition. E.g., acupuncture and Ayurvedic medicine.

  6. An important discovery is made in isolation (the "lone genius").

  7. New laws of nature are proposed to explain an incredible observation. A common lament of parapsychologists.

The Crackpot Index

The Crackpot Index

John Baez

A simple method for rating potentially revolutionary contributions to physics:

  1. A -5 point starting credit.

  2. 1 point for every statement that is widely agreed on to be false.

  3. 2 points for every statement that is clearly vacuous.

  4. 3 points for every statement that is logically inconsistent.

  5. 5 points for each such statement that is adhered to despite careful correction.

  6. 5 points for using a thought experiment that contradicts the results of a widely accepted real experiment.

  7. 5 points for each word in all capital letters (except for those with defective keyboards).

  8. 5 points for each mention of "Einstien", "Hawkins" or "Feynmann".

  9. 10 points for each claim that quantum mechanics is fundamentally misguided (without good evidence).

  10. 10 points for pointing out that you have gone to school, as if this were evidence of sanity.

  11. 10 points for beginning the description of your theory by saying how long you have been working on it. (10 more for emphasizing that you worked on your own.)

  12. 10 points for mailing your theory to someone you don't know personally and asking them not to tell anyone else about it, for fear that your ideas will be stolen.

  13. 10 points for offering prize money to anyone who proves and/or finds any flaws in your theory.

  14. 10 points for each new term you invent and use without properly defining it.

  15. 10 points for each statement along the lines of "I'm not good at math, but my theory is conceptually right, so all I need is for someone to express it in terms of equations".

  16. 10 points for arguing that a current well-established theory is "only a theory", as if this were somehow a point against it.

  17. 10 points for arguing that while a current well-established theory predicts phenomena correctly, it doesn't explain "why" they occur, or fails to provide a "mechanism".

  18. 10 points for each favorable comparison of yourself to Einstein, or claim that special or general relativity are fundamentally misguided (without good evidence).

  19. 10 points for claiming that your work is on the cutting edge of a "paradigm shift".

  20. 20 points for emailing me and complaining about the crackpot index. (E.g., saying that it "suppresses original thinkers" or saying that I misspelled "Einstein" in item 8.)

  21. 20 points for suggesting that you deserve a Nobel prize.

  22. 20 points for each favorable comparison of yourself to Newton or claim that classical mechanics is fundamentally misguided (without good evidence).

  23. 20 points for every use of science fiction works or myths as if they were fact.

  24. 20 points for defending yourself by bringing up (real or imagined) ridicule accorded to your past theories.

  25. 20 points for naming something after yourself. (E.g., talking about the "The Evans Field Equation" when your name happens to be Evans.)

  26. 20 points for talking about how great your theory is, but never actually explaining it.

  27. 20 points for each use of the phrase "hidebound reactionary".

  28. 20 points for each use of the phrase "self-appointed defender of the orthodoxy".

  29. 30 points for suggesting that a famous figure secretly disbelieved in a theory which he or she publicly supported. (E.g., that Feynman was a closet opponent of special relativity, as deduced by reading between the lines in his freshman physics textbooks.)

  30. 30 points for suggesting that Einstein, in his later years, was groping his way towards the ideas you now advocate.

  31. 30 points for claiming that your theories were developed by an extraterrestrial civilization (without good evidence).

  32. 30 points for allusions to a delay in your work while you spent time in an asylum, or references to the psychiatrist who tried to talk you out of your theory.

  33. 40 points for comparing those who argue against your ideas to Nazis, stormtroopers, or brownshirts.

  34. 40 points for claiming that the "scientific establishment" is engaged in a "conspiracy" to prevent your work from gaining its well-deserved fame, or suchlike.

  35. 40 points for comparing yourself to Galileo, suggesting that a modern-day Inquisition is hard at work on your case, and so on.

  36. 40 points for claiming that when your theory is finally appreciated, present-day science will be seen for the sham it truly is. (30 more points for fantasizing about show trials in which scientists who mocked your theories will be forced to recant.)

  37. 50 points for claiming you have a revolutionary theory but giving no concrete testable predictions.

From The Crackpot Index by John Baez (1998)
Characterization of Quack Theories

Russell Turpin's "Characterization of Quack Theories"

From: (Russell Turpin)
Subject: Characterization of quack theories
Date: 7 Jan 1993 12:51:05 -0600

Listening to the frequent discussions over controversial empirical claims, an unsophisticated reader could easily walk away with the view that only tradition and prejudice separate the sparring factions. Such a reader might think that most scientists cast a skeptical eye on paranormal phenomena, the claims for homeopathic dilution, the idea that the earth is relatively young, etc., merely because these scientists were taught opposing claims. As one poster's signature would have it, such critics merely engage in "school of thought bashing."

I think this view is wrong. I think it stems, in part, from an inadequate understanding of how to evaluate evidence. The evidential claims for many of these controversial notions exhibit common flaws. They are the kinds of flaws that scientists recognize from many, many past failures. It is this history of dead ends which seduced previous researchers with flawed evidence that informs the way scientists evaluate the evidential claims accompanying these controversial notions.

In this article, I will first list some of these evidential flaws and then discuss errors in relating evidence to theory. Of necessity, this is a short list that omits most such problems. It is largely biased by what I have seen in newsgroup discussions. (A true survey would require a book, of the order that David Fischer wrote for historians.) Finally, I will discuss when mere mistakes (which plague every research direction) turn into quackery.


Evidential Flaws

In the foreground of such controversies are the various studies and experiments published in journals or elsewhere. Various professional posters in the science newsgroups often complain about readers who read all such studies and experiments as if they were the same. The problems listed below are a small sampling of the kinds of issues that the critical eye brings to the reading of these studies and experiments. (I purposely omit particular issues of experimental design and statistical analysis.)

SUBJECTIVE MEASUREMENT. There are unfortunately times when a study or experiment must rely on the measurement of very subjective experience: whether a patient feels better or worse, whether two drawings are similar, etc. This element of subjectivity is notorious for introducing unintended and subtle errors into the result. Studies that eliminate this element as much as possible put the result on firmer ground. Thus, it is better to measure the effect of a medicine through chemical or physical analysis or other objectively measured symptom than through patient report, it is better to compare discrete matches rather than drawings, and it is better to count light flashes with a photodetector than with one's eyes.

SMALL DIFFERENCES. Studies and experiments that show a small difference between the test and the control when the test result falls within what well-established theory would predict are somewhat suspicious. This kind of result begs for different experimental design, tighter controls, or investigation of other possible causes.

TIGHTER CONTROLS TURN POSITIVE RESULTS NEGATIVE. If tightening the controls in an experiment turns a positive result into a negative one, this is virtually the death knell for the alleged phenomenon. Almost always, this shows that the positive results stemmed from a phenomenon other than the one the experiment is designed to detect. Future positive results are viewed suspiciously unless a good explanation for this history is forthcoming.

CONTINUING NEGATIVE RESULTS. Negative results count more against a claim than positive results count for it. This is especially true if negative results continue over time as the alleged phenomenon is studied, even if they are few in number compared to the positive results. The reason is simple. If the phenomenon is real, those studying it should eventually reach the point where they can reliably demonstrate it and where they can teach others how to reliably demonstrate it.

It often takes a knowledge of the field of concern to evaluate these issues. The history of forward steps, set-backs, or stagnation set a context that underlies how a new study is received. This context usually is not explicit in the article or report on the study.


Theoretical Flaws

The flaws above concern a particular phenomenon that is alleged to occur and the experiments to evince it. The step from evinced phenomena to theory is also plagued by potential error.

NO DIRECT EVIDENCE. Perhaps the most severe flaw of an empirical theory is that all evidence for it is very indirect. Sometimes this cannot be helped. For example, all historical theories suffer this flaw, since the past can only be observed through its effects on the present. (This makes the study of history particularly challenging.) But theories of current phenomena should admit fairly direct testing. For example, if the flow of qi energy through the body and the existence of molecular patterns from homeopathic dilution are true theories, those who study these things should be able to find experiments that fairly directly measure qi and these molecular patterns.

NO DEEPENING EVIDENCE. Similarly, theoretical knowledge should grow and become more detailed as experience increases. In the 1960s, molecular biologists could only mouth vague claims about DNA guiding the development of organisms. Now they can tell how this happens in more detail, and back this discussion by (tens of?) thousands of experiments that evince these details. Two centuries ago, Lavoisier described how oxygen combines with other elements to release energy. Our knowledge of chemical reaction has increased tremendously since then. But what has happened to the theoretical underpinnings of homeopathic dilution in two centuries? Why does it remain vague mouthings about "molecular patterns"?

PREDICTED PHENOMENA REMAINS SLIPPERY. As experimental and theoretical work progresses, more evidence and more sound evidence for the related phenomena should appear. If the phenomena predicted by a theory remain plagued by evidential flaws as research progresses, then the theory itself becomes very suspect.

POOR INVESTIGATION OF ALTERNATIVE EXPLANATIONS. Often the results claimed for a novel theory are potentially explained by well-founded theories. These alternative explanations need to be investigated, and such paths barred by better controls in future experiments.

REVOLUTION WITHOUT SUPPORT. A theory becomes especially suspicious when, in addition to suffering the above flaws, it directly conflicts with a theory that measures well by the same criteria. Using again the homeopathic theory of dilution as an example, if it is true, it will cause a revolution in chemistry and biology that makes cold fusion look like small potatoes. But its evidence remains far too indirect, too shallow, and too slippery to succeed at such a revolution, despite two centuries of research in it.


Where the Ducks Are

All the problems above occur within conventional theoretical and experimental investigation. Whether and how they are resolved help determine which theories are accepted and which are rejected. Scientists live on the tension between two poles. Driving them to the exotic is their eagerness to discover new and revolutionary facts. Warning them away from quackery is a skeptical eye informed by knowledge of the myriad errors that have misled others in the past. Scientists looked at N-rays, slippery water, and cold fusion because of the exciting potential to discover something new. They turned away from these things because the evidence did not pan out. John A. Wheeler invited parapsychologists into the AAAS because he thought there was beginning to be some real science in what they did. Ten years later, he knew this had been a mistake.

The attraction of the new and exotic is very strong, and its lure is so bright that it sometimes causes people to lose their critical sense. And some people, unfortunately, never develop a critical sense. Those who have lost or never developed a critical sense create and join "schools" where quackery is born from weak theories and mistaken notions becoming instutionalized. These "schools" are full of the kinds of rationalizations that people use to justify their views when nothing else is available. There are far too many of these to list, but some of the more colorful signposts are listed below.

"PARADIGM" TALK. "Paradigm" is perhaps the most abused word in these discussions. Whenever a proponent of a controversial empirical claim counters criticisms of the evidence by reference to a "paradigm shift," it is time to put on one's hip-waders. To the extent that "paradigm" just means a new theoretical view, it prevails because of -- not in spite of -- sound evidence. The rise of quantum mechanics is frequently referenced as the paradigmatic example of paradigm shift. But the discovers of quantum mechanics did not have to philosophically argue their opponents into making a paradigm shift before quantum phenomena were accepted. The proponents merely presented ever increasing amounts of solid evidence.

To the extent that "paradigm shift" is used to describe something about the social and historical process of how research is done, it has little legitimate role in discussions of evidential quality. Most other uses are so vague that no significant meaning can be attached.

THE WORD "SCIENCE" USED NARROWLY. A quack will often reply that his ideas have evidence, just not the kind accepted by "science." The problem with this is that science is no more and no less than sum total of what we have learned about evaluating general empirical claims and their evidence. (Its application to modern research and the need for a new word such as "science" is merely because so much progress in this area has been made in the last three centuries.) With regard to general empirical claims, asserting that there is no scientific evidence is the same as asserting that there is no good evidence. Quacks want to find some room in between, but they cannot explain why we should accept the kind of evidence in their case that has proven so bad in other cases. In essence, they engage in a kind of special pleading that hangs on attaching some odd meaning to the word "science".

"SCIENTIFIC PARADIGM." This phrase has almost no useful meaning. (Peter Kaminski take note!) If it is used by someone defending a controversial empirical claim, it is virtually guaranteed that the argument is bullsh*t.

MISCHARACTERIZATION OF THE STATE OF THE ART. Quack theorists often distort the rest of science in order to make their favored notions seem more equal in comparison. Thus, "conventional" physics is sometimes accused of ignoring the observer. (Hah!) "Allopathic" medicine is sometimes described as based on non-holistic principles, as practicing the notion of "one symptom, one diagnosis, one cure," etc. ad nauseum. This is all bullsh*t.

"QUANTUM." Unless the writer is referring to physics or chemistry, the use of phrases such as quantum, the uncertainty principle, entropy, etc., are warning signs. If they are combined with other words in novel ways -- e.g.: "quantum psychology," "democratic entropy," etc. -- it is an almost sure sign of bullsh*t. (For Jeremy Rifkin, the rule is reversed. His writings about entropy are bullsh*t especially when he discusses physics and chemistry.)

CARTS BEFORE HORSES. Proponents of quack theories are full of excuses for why they have such meagre evidence of their beliefs. These range from "no one funds us" to "the conspiratorial and established institutions ignore us for political reasons." These excuses would not be needed if there were good evidence for the notions in question. The fact that these excuses are offered is almost an admission that the proponent believes despite a lack of good evidence. It it were otherwise, the proponent would focus on the evidence and argue for funding or institutional change because the evidence is so good, rather than excusing the lack of evidence because of these other factors.

"MILLIONS OF CHINESE CANNOT BE WRONG." This excuse usually comes in the defense of notions resurrected from older traditions, e.g., traditional Chinese medicine. In some sense, it falls under the "big lie" tradition. In a few minutes, someone with a modicum of historical knowledge should be able to think of several cases where millions of Chinese (or Amerindians or ancient Hellenes or ...) and millenia of experience were wrong. The fact is that we have learned a lot about how to perform and evaluate empirical research in the last three centuries and that this gives us a significant advantage over previous traditions. (One of the curious things about the resurrection of older traditions is that foreign traditions are more interesting that native ones. Thus, one hears arguments for qi and traditional Chinese remedies, but almost never for the four humour theory of disease and the frequent bloodletting and purges it prescribes.)

Once a "school" has developed around poor theories, it essentially halts all useful progress by its practitioners until the "school" is reintegrated with the larger scientific community. The institutionalization of theories in an uncritical atmosphere and away from the larger scientific community almost guarantees that there will be a continuing sequence of "positive" results, sometimes for centuries, even though the phenomena remain slippery, understanding remains vague, and discovery of new knowledge is left to the rest of science. In short, a duck is born. Quack, quack.


From: (Eric Pepke)
Subject: Re: Characterization of quack theories
Date: Thu, 7 Jan 93 22:30:06 GMT

That's an excellent summary! Here are a few thoughts I had while reading it. Some of them overlap with things you have said, especially the first one, which overlaps several of your categories, and the second, which overlaps REVOLUTION WITHOUT SUPPORT.

MARGINAL RESULTS. When faced with marginal results, scientists will attempt to refine or replicate the experiments until stronger and more consistent results are found. When a researcher spends an inordinately large amount of time interpreting and reinterpreting old data, or new data from the same experimental setup, and relatively little time attempting to get better data, the results are suspect.

MISESTIMATION OF EFFECTS. Quack researchers frequently misestimate the effects their discoveries will have. While they may speak about grandiose social effects, they frequently underestimate the scientific effects. One example is homeopathy, which would cause a revolution in chemistry if true. Yet the supporters seldom grapple with the idea of these effects. Another example is the frequent claims for a carburetor or other gizmo which will make an automobile get an incredible number of miles per gallon. Simple calculations reveal that the engine needs to operate at higher than Carnot efficiency. Personally, if I knew a way to run a heat engine at higher than Carnot efficiency and thus ignore the 2nd law of thermodynamics, I would have better things to do than waste my time building a carburetor factory.

SCIENCE AS INSTITUTION. Philosophers, psychologists, and anthropologists, when they deal with science, currently view it as "that which scientists do." Although this definition is possibly useful for what they are trying to study, when it is used as the meaning of "scientific" in "scientific evidence," trouble starts. The conflation of meanings leads to the notion that all those things which any scientist does are valid science. This results into a combination of appeals to authority and ad hominem attacks which are wrongly presented as scientific inquiry.

ANALOGOUS THEORIES. Many scientific theories begin as analogies to existing well established theories or as attempts to apply the results of a field of study laterally to something new. Although this sometimes produces theories which hold up well on their own, it frequently gives undeserved credence to the new theories. Well established theories generally apply to a specific well-defined set of phenomena, and the support for the theory exists within that context. The analogy or lateral application discards the context entirely. The result is a sort of informal belief that the new theory is well supported, when there may be no reason to believe that the two situations have anything to do with each other. An example of this is Social Darwinism, whereby evolution by natural selection of organisms is assumed to work as well to social institutions.

DEFENSIVENESS. It is a common human tendency to take criticism of one's work personally and respond defensively. Scientists must constantly be aware of this tendency and suppress it, because unchecked defensiveness is the death of scientific inquiry. When a researcher consistently interprets criticism of his or her theories, hypotheses, or data as personal insults, they become suspect. The researcher falls into the trap of considering it a personal conflict and naturally resists the kind of criticism that is absolutely necessary to test hypotheses. The first strong indication that I had of the problems with cold fusion, back when it still seemed plausible and exciting and everyone was trading speculations about mechanisms, was a letter by one of F&P [Fleischmann and Pons -- whj] accusing all of their critics as attacking them personally.


From:  (Ken Arromdee)
Subject: Re: Characterization of quack theories
Date: Tue, 12 Jan 1993 21:19:29 GMT

I'd like to add something else, mostly because I ran across it yet again. Comments?

"IT WAS ONLY TO GET YOU TO THINK" One common tactic of crackpots is to dismiss disproofs of their claims with the excuse that the claim was not intended seriously, but was meant only to get their opponents to think, to argue properly, or some similar meta-reason. Until the crackpot gives this excuse, it is not possible to distinguish between his serious claims and his non-serious ones. Furthermore, the crackpot's claim may contain factual errors, or sufficiently elementary logical errors, which are too simple to be useful for encouraging thought,

Several possiblities suggest themselves, none of which indicates worthiness of the crackpot's ideas.

One possibility is that the crackpot is working backwards from his conclusion. If he does not work far enough backwards, he will come up with problematic "support" for his claim; since he does not really believe the result because of the support, but rather believes the support because of the result, he uses this excuse to dismiss the problems. In his own mind, the support is not evidence, but only a means to convince others of what he already knows, so he doesn't consider this unfair.

Another possibility is that the crackpot's true claim is somewhat broader than apparent at first glance. Talk of paradigms, comparisons to Galileo, etc. may suggest a general dislike of the scientific method and of what the crackpot considers the scientific establishment. When the crackpot disputes some well-known scientific result, he mainly desires not just to disprove that result, but to take scientists in general down a peg. He argues many nonscientific positions not because he strongly believes particular ones, but rather because he holds an anti-science meta-position; to him, his argument is about scientists' ability to determine truth, not about specific truths.

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