Skip to content

Banishing boundaries and pushing panaceas – applying models where they don’t belong

September 4, 2012
Is quantum physics the answer to all or problems, or is that a red flag?

How to recognise this tactic

Those who use this tactic take a model that works under certain conditions and try to apply it more widely to circumstances beyond its scope, where it does not work. Look for jargon, sweeping statements and vague, rambling “explanations” that try to sound scientific.


… it’s easy to take a well-established theory and try to slap it on some domain it wasn’t designed for, but that’s not the way to find out the truth.

Richard Lewontin, American evolutionary biologist and geneticist, 2007

Why do people use this tactic?

This tactic is used by people who don’t have a valid, scientifically-tested model to justify their claims. They attempt to kidnap an impressive-sounding scientific theory, with its symbols and jargon, to fool us into thinking there is some basis for their ideas. To aid the deception, they usually choose models from fields that are not well understood by most of us, such as quantum mechanics, thermodynamics, molecular biology, chaos theory etc. Sometimes though, they start with a pseudoscientific model, such as cosmic energy and use it as a universal explanation or panacea.

What’s wrong with this tactic

Every scientific model has boundary conditions, specifying the range of circumstances under which it can be applied. When a model is applied beyond these boundaries, its explanations and predictions are invalid. The danger is that the victims of this tactic believe there is sound scientific evidence for what they are being told, when in fact it is nonsense.

What to do when confronted by this tactic

As always, evidence is the key. Ask for evidence that the model in question can be used in the context being claimed. If you can’t get a clear, simply-worded explanation, the claim is probably worthless.

Variations and related tactics

As you would expect, there is usually lots of technobabble associated with this tactic.

Examples

  • Quantum mechanics is an ideal candidate for boundary infringement because people find its weird concepts difficult to understand. This gives pseudoscience a perfect opportunity. Here’s Deepak Chopra explaining “quantum healing”:

Quantum healing is healing the bodymind from a quantum level. That means from a level which is not manifest at a sensory level. Our bodies ultimately are fields of information, intelligence and energy. Quantum healing involves a shift in the fields of energy information, so as to bring about a correction in an idea that has gone wrong. So quantum healing involves healing one mode of consciousness, mind, to bring about changes in another mode of consciousness, body.

This, of course, is simply nonsense. Quantum mechanics applies only at a sub-microscopic scale and has no relevance to human consciousness, behaviour or health. Talk about the relevance of quantum entanglement or wave-particle duality or the uncertainty principle to everyday events is pseudoscience. There is no evidence that humans can use quantum effects to influence their personal lives.

  • New Age pseudoscience has developed the idea of biorhythms by co-opting the scientific concept of biological rhythms, particularly the daily circadian rhythms. Chronobiology, the branch of science that studies biological rhythms, has identified a number of real biological cycles. Pseudoscience has added others, to do with such things as creativity, strength, mood, intellectual performance etc, which have no supporting evidence.
  • In an attempt to discredit proper science, climate change-deniers sometimes use this tactic in reverse by setting boundary conditions that are too narrow. They argue that the greenhouse effect cannot exist because it would contradict the second law of thermodynamics. In simple terms, this law says that heat can flow spontaneously from a hot object to a cooler object, but not the other way. The deniers point out that the cool atmosphere cannot heat the warmer earth. Their error is that they incorrectly assume this is a two-body problem (earth and atmosphere), whereas the greenhouse effect depends on three bodies (earth, atmosphere and sun). When the system is analysed with the correct boundaries, it is clear that the second law is not violated. The earth is warmed by the sun, not the atmosphere; the atmosphere controls the rate of heat loss.
  • The biological evolution model and its mechanism of natural selection have been widely misapplied. Although the model is designed to explain the changes in characteristics of biological populations over time, it has been misapplied to social and economic systems, giving rise to social Darwinism and eugenics. More recently, it has been applied in the field of evolutionary psychology to explain the origin of complex human behaviour and even social norms. Many scientists consider the field to be a pseudoscience because its models are not falsifiable and are almost impossible to test.
You can add to the list of examples by leaving a comment.

Richard Lewontin’s quote is from Cayley, David (ed)  Ideas on the Nature of Science, Goose Lane Editions, New Brunswick, p277
The Quantum Mechanics cartoon is from XKCD.
Deepak Chopra’s quote is from an interview at healthy.net.

This is one of ScienceOrNot’s Science red flags. See them all here.

Updated: 2013/08/09

6 Comments
  1. Great post! Here’s another example, ironically about boundaries. Permaculturalists talk sense in some ways but utter bollix in other ways and one of those is a belief that Edges are Good no matter what system is being discussed. http://www.permaculture.org.uk/principle/11-use-edges-and-value-marginal

    I’ve seen a permie textbook solemnly explain how to make a planting bed (flowers, veg, other plants) with a very wiggly edge. This is Good because badger setts are found at woodland edges. Yeah right.

    • Thanks, argylesock. Yes, I see what you mean. I suppose it’s a bit like the climate deniers’ argument: “The logic is simple. If the most productive bit of woodland is the edge carbon dioxide is plant food, then design it to have a bigger edge more of it will be good for us.”

  2. Here’s another! The wrong kind of music can lead to evil, it seems. http://wellcometrust.wordpress.com/2012/09/04/piano-plague-in-d-minor/

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. The bad science checklist of GMO opponents
  2. The pseudoscience of boosting the immune system
  3. Science Red Flags – autisticagainstantivaxxers

Be part of ScienceOrNot? Write a comment, make a suggestion or add an example!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: