Science and Non-science on the Internet

Michael Purcell

Did you know that quasars are objects within our galaxy? Did you know that the B-2 bomber is propelled partially by anti-gravity devices? Did you know that perpetual motion has been achieved? Did you know that the principle behind the Star Trek "impulse" power has been demonstrated? No? Neither did I. But the Internet (World Wide Web) has sites saying it's all true. Which brings me to the topic at hand: How is an amateur scientist or interested reader to distinguish (A) mainstream science from (B) speculative but legitimate science from (C) the totally wacko (quackery)?

The question is actually a difficult one, and is increasingly important as access to the Internet by the general public continues to grow. The Internet is intentionally an unfiltered medium; a place where anyone can publish anything (within the law). This is a tremendous asset to society and yet is a trap for those who would approach it with the same uncritical acceptance that has become the norm for what passes as journalism today (e.g., the "Alien Autopsy" nonsense).

Fortunately, the Internet already contains sites that address this specific problem. I highly recommend that you visit them. After all, how many times have we been asked the question "Well, what is the difference between astronomy and astrology?" Below are some of the better resources I have found. The more general discussions are listed first, with specific topics of interest last.

This is an excellent discussion on how to recognize quack science:

General questions (and answers) in physics:

Questions and answers in space science and astronomy:

Skeptical inquiry:

Many more sources of skeptical information:

Science and Creationism (by the National Academy of Sciences):

Mathematicians' Statement on the Bible Codes:

More analysis of the Bible Codes:

Objections to astrology by 186 leading scientists:

How to fake an alien autopsy:

An Astronomer's Personal Statement on UFOs:

Oh, yes. What about the examples in my first paragraph?

  • "Local quasars" is type B. It comes from a published paper by a tenured physicist. To say that he is not in the mainstream of physics is certainly an understatement.

  • "Impulse engine" is also type B! This is from a paper at a NASA conference on breakthrough propulsion systems. It is based on known particle behavior. A device that demonstrates the effect has been patented (not that this proves anything).

  • "Antigravity" is type C. It is also referred to as "electrogravitics".

  • "Perpetual motion" is forever and always type C...

Some final thoughts to keep in mind when you run across any site that makes scientific claims :

  • Is this site associated with a legitimate scientific organization?

  • Just because the document has borrowed the structure and style of a scientific paper does not mean that it is valid.

  • The use of a real research paper as a basis is interesting, but not compelling. Remember that in the long run more than 50% of published theoretical physics papers turn out to be wrong.

  • The more grandiose the claim, the more likely that the author is a charlatan. Real scientists tend to use understatement.

I am tempted to publish a list of my favorite "bad science" sites. On the other hand, I don't have time for flame wars or lawyers...

Happy Surfing!

I have a page just for these kinds of links. Over time this page will contain links not included in the original article.

Published in the September 1998 issue of the NightTimes...links updated April, 2010