From Abracadabra to Zombies
Creating Your Own Pseudoscience
5 June 2010. In part one, I described an exercise from my critical thinking text in which I ask the student to create his or her own pseudoscience. Part one describes some of the commonly found characteristics of a pseudoscience, and provides some examples of real and invented pseudosciences. The purpose of the exercise is to get students to approach pseudoscience from the inside out, rather than just lecturing them on the various weird ideas people have come up with and defended in bizarre and Byzantine ways. Here I wish to provide some guidelines for creating your own pseudoscience.
1. Appeal to something that most people fear or desire, things like suffering and death, or sex and longevity.
2. Make big promises about having scientific proof that you can relieve any physical illness or emotional pain, or that you can deliver "fantastic" sex or "help" people live for hundreds of years.
3. Use a lot of jargon and weasel words. Throw in words like "quantum" and "energy field" frequently. Make your product sound enormously complex, but couch all your promises with vague expressions like "may help."
4. To ward off critics who might actually know something about science, lace your promotions with references to government and business conspiracies that are keeping the truth from the general public. Make sure you remind everybody that "science doesn't know everything" and "science has been wrong before."
5. Don't be afraid to make stuff up and lie like a government leader. Even if you are prosecuted for fraud, you'll just get a lot of valuable publicity for free. The odds of you being made to suffer by a big fine or jail term are near zero. If you do have to pay a fine, change the name of your product and start over again with a few tweaks here and there in your language. You can keep doing this forever, given the kinds of things our law enforcement agencies focus on. And don't worry about the media investigating you and exposing you for a fraud. They won't bother you until you've been arrested. Even then, they'll just report that you've been charged with an "alleged" crime, which you will deny and turn in your favor by playing the persecution card.
6. Don't be cheap. Charge an exorbitant amount of money for your product. The more you charge, the more likely people, especially government procurement officers, are going to think that your product is genuine.
7. The ideal pseudoscientific product should be a hand-held device that promises eternal life, perfect health (it should detect and cure all diseases), astounding sex (by enhancing your immune system and your personal energy flow), and can also detect bombs or golf balls with the flip of a switch.
8. Make sure you claim that you have discovered a "secret" that every other scientist in the history of the world has missed. If you're feeling especially daring, claim to have discovered a new law of nature that has scared the scientific community into trying to silence you.
9. Lace your commercials with testimonials from athletes, washed-up celebrities, and psychics. If you can get Sylvia Browne on board, do so. She has written over twenty books that have made it to The New York Times bestseller list. She'll be expensive, though, so if you can find someone who looks and sounds like her and will work for scale, do it.
10. Never forget that most people trust celebrities more than they trust scientists, physicians, or government agencies. Use this knowledge to your advantage.
11. Claim that the reason your work has not been published in peer-reviewed journals is because of a conspiracy to keep you silent or that the development of your product has taken all your time and money, so you haven't had the time or been able to get the funding (because of the conspiracy) to do the studies.
12. Don't worry about contradicting yourself. Few potential customers will notice and those who do won't care. When scientists refute you, make up ad hoc hypotheses to explain away their concerns. Don't be shy about special pleading for your product since, after all, you are a great benefactor of mankind offering them a truly unique gift. One really great device is to claim that randomized double-blind control studies don't work for your special field; that's why you don't use them.
13. Claim that some ancient civilization that can't be traced by real historians developed the technology that you re-discovered. Or claim that there are pockets of people living in hidden villages in India or China that still use this technology and that they live for hundreds of years without the need for scientific medicine. You might even throw in the claim that skilled users of your product will be able to do some magical things like fly or at least levitate.
14. Don't be afraid to use magic tricks to deceive people, but these are rarely necessary since most people like to be deceived and won't know that you are playing on their ignorance of the placebo effect or the ideomotor effect, or how to do a properly controlled test of causality.
15. Don't worry about the lack of scientific evidence for your product. People are more interested in and persuaded by testimonials than they are by scientific studies. One good story on Oprah trumps a thousand exquisitely designed scientific studies. You might be able to get on Oprah by connecting your product to "spirituality." You don't have to worry about defining the term, since people will make it mean whatever they want it to mean. Remember: most people love and trust stories more than they do scientific evidence. You might even enhance your own story by claiming that other scientists don't have the ability to see what you see, that the data is obscure and requires special training (that only you have) to detect what you claim to detect.
15. Most people are self-absorbed, so claim the product will reveal everything important about who they are and what's likely to happen to them in the future. Lace your testimonials with Barnum statements and claims that most people would want to be true for them.
16. Align yourself with the great scientists of the past who were persecuted. Galileo is a favorite here. On the other hand, you might try to distinguish yourself by taking a different route. Forget the great scientist and try to find another equally irrelevant reference, say to Andrew Wakefield, Kevin Trudeau, or Deepak Chopra.
17. If you're too lazy to create your pseudoscience from scratch, find a model to copy. For example, nobody ever went broke selling vitamin and mineral supplements. Of course you'll claim that your brand prevents cancer by stimulating the immune system and increases IQ by increasing blood flow to the brain. But don't forget to mention that your product is organic and natural, safe for children (even if it isn't), and has been shown to improve scholastic performance by up to 80%. You might even claim that your product helps balance chi and uncoil the kundalini.
If you're really lazy, but have "charisma," you might try faith healing. You don't have to build an audience. The hopeful are waiting for you to arrive. All you have to do is show up, talk with confidence about your powers, and do a few stunts, like Anatoly Kashpirovsky or Peter Popoff.
18. It's best to make claims that can't be disproved, but if you do make claims that can be falsified, be sure to follow the advice in point no.12. People have many needs, but for most people the need for truth isn't one of them. Give them something to believe in. Promise them things like salvation or equally swell-sounding but empty prizes.
19. Most people are impressed by titles and uniforms, so buy a doctoral degree from a diploma mill and a lab coat. There are hundreds of diploma mills and some of them offer impressive sounding letters to place after your name for a reasonable price. You can steal a lab coat from your local hospital.
20. When proven wrong in a public demonstration of your claims, never admit defeat. Claim the study was biased, done by biased people with an agenda, or that there was one minor problem that you are going to fix as soon as more investors pour money into your pocket.
When you make your millions and become famous, don't forget those who helped you achieve your true potential and maximize your hidden talents. If we're not rewarded for our efforts, we may have to put a horrible curse on you: eternal life in heaven with people like yourself.
If you are serious about creating your own pseudoscience, you must read How to be a Charlatan and Make Millions: A ten step programme to change your life by Dr. Jim Williams. Here you will learn why no proposition is too stupid and that no one is immune to a good con. You'll also learn how to make your potential customers love you.
In the February 2010 issue of Skeptic magazine (volume 15 number 3) an article by Ryan A. Shaffer reviews several books by self-described psychics in which they reveal how they use cold reading to dupe clients. If some sort of psychic pseudoscience is your shtick, then you might find one of these useful: How to Get rich in Your Own Psychic Business by Herb Dewey and Mark Sky; Red Hot Cold Readings: The Professional Pseudo-Psychic by Herb Dewey; King of the Cold Readers by Herb Dewey and Thomas K. Seville; and Mind-Blowing Psychic Readings: Complete Scripts for Specific and Generic edited by Dewey and Sky.
The Seven Warning Signs of Bogus Science by Robert L. Park
Tooth Fairy science (& Fairy Tale science) by Robert T. Carroll
Douglas Stalker and Clark Glymour's "Winning Through Pseudoscience," published in Patrick Grim's Philosophy of Science and the Occult.
Click here to read Creating Your Own Pseudoscience in Chinese
* AmeriCares *