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Technobabble and tenuous terminology: the use of pseudo scientific language

May 25, 2012
If someone argues using lots of scientific terms, would it convince you, or is that a red flag?

How to recognise this tactic

In this tactic, people use invented terms that sound “sciencey” or co-opt real science terms and apply them incorrectly.


James Clerk Maxwell

Such indeed is the respect paid to science, that the most absurd opinions may become current, provided they are expressed in language, the sound of which recalls some well-known scientific phrase.

James Clerk Maxwell, British physicist, 1871


Why do people use this tactic?

People use pseudoscientific language to try to fool their audience into believing their ideas have scientific status. There would be no need to resort to bogus terminology if their ideas were supported by evidence from real-world testing.

What’s wrong with this tactic

The perpetrators of this tactic throw up invented or misused terms, but rarely define them precisely. They leave their audience to assign meanings according to individual preconceptions. On the rare occasion that a definition is given, it, in turn, refers to further meaningless or undefined terms. The result is that their argument has no foundation, since the concepts used to justify it are meaningless.

What to do when confronted by this tactic

Don’t be intimidated by a barrage of sciencey-sounding words. Ask for an explanation in plain English. Anyone who has a bona fide argument should be able to explain it without resort to jargon. If you can’t communicate with the person making the claim, try to put it into plain English yourself.  If it turns out looking like gobbledygook, it probably is.

Variations and related tactics

Pseudoscientific language is one indicator of what Stephen Law, in his book Believing Bullshit, calls pseudoprofundity:

Pseudoprofundity is the art of sounding profound while talking nonsense.

Examples

  • Here are some claims about “Orion Theta Healing” from the Quantum Healing website:

 Orion Theta Healing technique is a way of connecting with the greater power of the universe at the theta state

The Theta state has a brain wave cycle of 4 to 7 per second. … It is a realm that is beyond time and space constraints. It has been validated by an electroencephalogram in the USA, that a practitioner in the theta state automatically brings the client to the same theta state.

This technique is at the cutting edge of healing modalities supporting and keeping pace with our current rapid modern day existence. It utilizes the fluid energy of the universe to create the life we want to live…

In our modern society the body is overloaded and affected by chemical toxins – and accumulated toxic emotions like guilt, anger, hatred, envy, jealousy and resentment. In theta we can remove them from the cellular memory bank

  Orion Theta Healing is said to have these attributes:

Activate the youth and vitality chromosomes to regain their ability to rejuvenate and maintain a youthful body
Activate the 10 silent strands of DNA to raise cellular awareness to higher frequency energies

  Needless to say, the sciencey-sounding terms in red are either nonsense or legitimate scientific terms being used incorrectly. There are patterns called theta rhythms, with a frequency of 4 -7 Hz, observed in human EEG recordings, but their significance is not known. Notice that the website gives no information on how this “technique” is applied, how it ‘connects with the greater power of the universe’, how it “activates” DNA, nor how this is related to removal of “toxic emotions” from the “cellular memory bank.” The agglomeration of terms from disparate fields of science (brain waves, fluid energy, chemical toxins, cellular memory, DNA) is a pretty good indicator of pseudoscience.

So, to test the prevailing intellectual standards, I decided to try a modest (though admittedly uncontrolled) experiment: Would a leading North American journal of cultural studies … publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions?

The answer, unfortunately, is yes.

In sum, I intentionally wrote the article so that any competent physicist or mathematician (or undergraduate physics or math major) would realize that it is a spoof. Evidently the editors of Social Text felt comfortable publishing an article on quantum physics without bothering to consult anyone knowledgeable in the subject.

  • A prolific source of pseudoscientific nonsense is the “earthing” movement which claims that health can be improved by a mysterious energy that can flow into us from the earth. Here’s a website that makes all sorts of unfounded assertions and, as would be expected, has lots of ‘products’ that facilitate the process. Needless to say, there is no scientific basis for any of these claims – they are demonstrably nonsense. 
  • Here’s some real nonsense from a tourist resort in Bali:

    Spring Water straight from the spring is magnetised, energised, mineralised, even the molecules are smaller and are assimilated more rapidly by our bodies.

    The water would certainly be mineralised, but the claims that it’s energised and magnetised are nonsense. And if the molecules were really smaller than other water molecules, the entire scientific community would be flocking to the resort to obtain samples.

  • P Z Myers at Pharyngula comments on the breathtaking nonsense babbled by “Food Babe”.
  • This video from the Con Academy looks at the use of pseudoscientific language by new-age gurus.

Further reading

How neuroscience is being used to spread quackery in business and education by Matt Wall at The Conversation.

Link found between low intelligence and falling for pseudo-profound statements by Fiona Macdonald at Sciencealert

Add to the list of examples by leaving a comment.

James Clerk Maxwell’s quote is from ‘Introductory Lecture on Experimental Physics’ (1871). In W. D. Niven (ed.), The Scientific Papers of James Clerk Maxwell (1890), Vol. 2, p242
The Doctor Who Technobabble image is from Cheezburger.

This is one of ScienceOrNot’s Science red flags. See them all here.
10 Comments
  1. Martin Lack permalink

    Nice one, Graham. Christopher Monckton is full of it (technobabble that is); as I could well demonstrate by forwarding you the emails he sent me this week. However, he has asked me not to publish them, so I have published my responses to them instead (and left readers to work out what he said)…
    http://lackofenvironment.wordpress.com/2012/05/25/on-the-trail-of-christopher-monckton/

  2. Great article Graham, I find that the “agglomeration of terms from disparate fields of science” measurement is really effective.

    I actually had someone ask me to design their website recently, sending me script that seemed copied out of Sokal’s article. Needless to say they did not become a client!

  3. valueaddedwater permalink

    This also has the corollary (An associated part that adds to the overall point of the piece) in that anyone who claims to be an expert, most probably isn’t

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