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.

Mit der Dummheit kämpfen Götter selbst vergebens.

( Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain )

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.

Blogger Matterbeam is doing his best to come to your rescue. His blog Tough SF is full of analysis trying to find parameters for your science fiction universe that are both [A] reasonably scientifically accurate and [B] dramatically fun universes to set your stories in. The first few entries are aimed at space combat that is not more boring than watching paint dry.

Finally there is this time honored advice:

“You Must Learn The Rules Before You Break Them”

The Bookman, Volume 60 (1921)

Having said all 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.

You are not interested in creating a scientifically accurate science fictional universe. You just want something vaguely resembling "proof" to be used as ammunition to maintain that your favorite media SF franchise is going to become true in the real world Real Soon Now ("NASA scientist are working on a Warp Drive! Film at 11!"). The fact that your beloved franchise is about as scientifically accurate as Phlogiston theory means this website will hold nothing but tears for you.

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 the torrent of fallacious posts on various online forums written by self-proclaimed experts that you are constantly deluged with. In those innocent days before the internet you would only be plagued by the relatively small number of Dunning-Krugreites who were within hearing distance. Now you can hear all the ones on the entire planet.

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."


Ultracrepidarianism is the habit of giving opinions and advice on matters outside of one's knowledge. The term ultracrepidarian was first publicly recorded in 1819 by the essayist William Hazlitt in an open Letter to William Gifford, the editor of the Quarterly Review: "You have been well called an Ultra-Crepidarian critic." It was used again four years later in 1823, in the satire by Hazlitt's friend Leigh Hunt, Ultra-Crepidarius: a Satire on William Gifford.

The term draws from a famous comment purportedly made by Apelles, a famous Greek artist, to a shoemaker who presumed to criticise his painting. The Latin phrase "Sutor, ne ultra crepidam", as set down by Pliny and later altered by other Latin writers to "Ne ultra crepidam judicaret", can be taken to mean that a shoemaker ought not to judge beyond his own soles. That is to say, critics should only comment on things they know something about The saying remains popular in several languages, as in the English, "A cobbler should stick to his last", the Spanish, "Zapatero a tus zapatos" ("Shoemaker, to your shoes"), the Dutch, "Schoenmaker, blijf bij je leest", the Danish "Skomager, bliv ved din læst", and the German, "Schuster, bleib bei deinen Leisten" (the last three in English, "cobbler, stick to your last").

See also

From the Wikipedia entry for ULTRACREPIDARIANISM

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

A basic 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.

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. However…


A format is a guide for whatever is to come later. It‘s a flight plan for a series. But just like any other kind of flight plan, the slightest error will magnify itself over a period of time if it isn't corrected or compensated for. The errors in a show's original format will repeat themselves until they become so noticeable as to be annoying. Twenty-six repetitions a season make a mistake very hard to live with.

Actually, mistake isn't quite the right word. Let’s say miscalculation instead. That is. something that seems quite workable in the first two or three stories may turn out to be a very rigorous trap by the thirteenth or fourteenth episode.

The transporter room is a good example. It was one of STAR TREK'S best ideas—a teleportation device so that the Captain and crew of the starship could “beam down" to a planet whenever they chose. Thus, the special-effects crew was relieved of the responsibility of having to show either the starship or its shuttlecraft landing on a new planet each week. A golden flicker mixed with a dissolve and an over-dubbed reverberated whine is not only cheaper—it's more versatile and impressive.

Unfortunately the use of the transporter set up conditions of its own that were not foreseen in the initial postulation.

For the transporter to work, the individual had to have a “communicator"—a gold-and-black clamshell device that served as an all-purpose walkie-talkie. The transporter would “lock on” the human being holding the device and “beam” him up.

And that was the miscalculation. If the transporter had been designed for the express purpose (pun intended) of getting our heroes into the story faster, then it also allowed them to get out of it just as quickly.

Any time Captain Kirk got himself into real trouble, all he needed to do was call the Enterprise and holler, “Scotty! Save my ass! and Scotty would beam him up so fast the air would crackle. Knowing that, then there certainly would be no suspense whenever Kirk was captured by the giant Yang-yangs or the Creeping Blorch. Both he and we knew that it wasn't permanent.

Therefore, one of three things had to happen to keep Kirk in a story where he was personally menaced:

He would run into aliens of such superior ability that they could nullify his transporter beam. Thus he got captured.

He would run into aliens of such inferior ability that they would knock him over the head and take his communicator away from him without knowing what it was. Again, he got captured.

Or—contact between the Captain and the Enterprise would be cut off by some arbitrary force created by the writer for this specific purpose, thus trapping Kirk in the story until contact could be restored—usually not until just before the last commercial.

Individually, any one of these alternatives might have been part of a good story—indeed, they all were, as witness “The Squire of Gothos,” “Tomorrow Is Yesterday,” and “Errand of Mercy,” respectively.

However, by the time we get to the fifth or sixth repetition—“The Apple," “Bread and Circuses,” “A Private Little War," “The Gamesters of Triskelion," “A Piece of the Action," “The Omega Glory," “Spectre of the Gun." “The Paradise Syndrome," and “Plato's Stepchildren"—the cumulative effect is the focusing of attention on the mechanism used to prevent Kirk from being rescued. We become aware of the format’s degeneration into formula. We begin to realize that “Plato's Stepchildren" is the same story as “The Gamesters of Triskelion"; the only difference is in the details. We've become too familiar with the device for it to be effective as a dramatic tool any more—now it's a cliché.

The extreme use of any device will wear it out (literary or otherwise). The rapid degeneration of this particular element of the STAR TREK format only points up which writers were (at that point in their scripts) creatively bankrupt. Rather than looking for another way to solve the problem, they fell back on old tricks. Pretty soon, that same old trick got boring.

The real answer, of course, was simply to avoid situations or stories that required Kirk to be overpowered. Gene Roddenberry says about writing in general: “Every story starts with a need. A need for something to happen or something not to happen. That need must be closely and deeply associated with the main character. Perhaps he needs a thousand dollars to pay off a gambling debt to keep the mob from killing him. Or perhaps he needs not to have himself placed in the electric chair tonight at 12:01 A.M. and the switch pulled which will execute him for a murder he never committed. Whatever need you propound for the character in your story, it is absolutely necessary that that need get more and more pressing, also more and more difficult to fulfill, as the story progresses. In a good story, you finally get the reader or viewer clawing at the pages or the screen in his anxiety to get fulfillment since he has become the hero and feels all the jeopardy, frustration, and agony which is building and building toward the story climax. When the need is resolved in the story climax, the reader or viewer feels fulfillment."

Now, returning to the contention that the real answer was not to let Captain Kirk be placed in positions where he would be overpowered. To do so once is a valid story. To do so twice might even be valid. To do it more than that, you begin to undermine the character of Captain Kirk—what kind of a Captain is this anyway? He keeps letting himself get clonked on the head and captured. You'd think he'd learn.

The writers that let Captain Kirk continue to be trapped this way were creating an artificial need. Remember the artificial excitement of having the actors fall out of their chairs while the camera was shaken?—this is the same kind of thing, but a little more sophisticated. Oh, it's adventure all right, but it isn't real drama.

Gene said that the need must be “closely and deeply associated with the main character." Trapping a character into a situation and asking him to solve it does not fulfill this requirement—being in a situation does not mean that the character will automatically care about it “closely and deeply.” In such a situation, the hero's primary need is to escape. not to solve the problems of anyone else. But a hasty writer will “solve” this problem by arbitrarily constructing a white rat's puzzle box test: Captain Kirk must solve the problem posed in order to win his reward, i.e., escape.

These white-rat puzzle-box stories are the illegitimate offspring of the forced marriage of two extremely different forms: the hero- in-danger story and the “Mary Worth" story.

You see, as it's set up, the Enterprise IS a cosmic “Mary Worth," meddling her way across the galaxy, solving problems as she goes. But drama—real drama—requires that the hero be forced to make a decision, an important decision. Unfortunately, to many writers that means that the hero must be placed in danger. Period. Thus, in the typical story, the hero is trapped into somebody else's problem (on STAR TREK, a cultural one) and must solve it to escape.

The result is a series of puzzle-box episodes. Unfortunately, these kind of stories are generally unimportant ones. We don't really care about them. We know the hero will escape—that's why he's the hero. Thus our only reason for watching the show is to see how he does it. Ho-hum. Unless the situation is particularly good, or the escape is particularly imaginative (a la “Mission: Impossible") it's just so much chocolate pudding for the mind. Instead of “The End," the film might just as well say, “So what?"

From THE WORLD OF STAR TREK by by David Gerrold (1973)

Sometimes authors will create on purpose something with an unexpected consequence. Unexpected, that is, to the characters in the story, the author is using this to teach a moral lesson. TV Tropes calls this Aesoptinum, Aesoptinium, or Aesoptonium.

An example can be found 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.

Authors who fail to consider unintended consequences will quickly find the consequences are plural. There will be a cascading series of ripple effects. 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. But I digress.)

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 human beings.

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.

They do manage to make a substance that is unreplicatable, by virtue of being unscannable by the replicator. Actually the substance can be scanned, its just that if you hit it with the scanning beam the blasted stuff explodes.

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, value-less 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, you will need the services of a dentist or surgeon. 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.

The other problem with breaking laws of physics is there is nothing to prevent you from breaking all of them. Our starship is propelled by the Magic Happy Unicorn Drive fueled by rainbow unicorn poop, which moves our ship at the speed of the plot, except on Thursdays.


Two more rules of the internet:

     #946 Start a discussion about movie space-opera spaceships & someone will derail it by invoking hard physics

     #947 Start a discussion about hard-physics spaceships & someone will derail it by invoking movie space-opera physics


'You don't think it'll take wing, do you?'

'I think the wizards would have said so if it was going to do something like that, sir. But it's funny you should mention it, because there's seven broomsticks nailed underneath each coach.'

'What? Why don't they just float out of the yard?'

'Magic, sir. I think they just compensate for the weight:

'Good grief, yes. Why didn't I think of that?' said Vimes sourly. 'And that's why I don't like magic, captain. 'Cos it's magic. You can't ask questions, it's magic. It doesn't explain anything, it's magic. You don't know where it comes from, it's magic! That's what I don't like about magic, it does everything by magic!'

From THUD! by Terry Pratchett (2005)

"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.

(ed note: Scientists discover the giant rogue planet Bronson Alpha entering the solar system, where it will presently splatter Terra like a bug on an automobile windshield. Dr. Col Hendron discovers that the politicians and other leaders do not believe him because they do not understand science. And because they are arrogant self-important know-nothings.)

     "Today they took it, didn't they? They took it and closed the Exchange, I hear; and half the businesses in town had a holiday. For they've known for quite some time that something has been hanging over them, hanging over the market. This morning we half told them what it is; and they thought they believed it. Just now I told six men the other half — or most of it — and — and you heard them, Tony; didn't you?"
     "Yes; I heard them."
     "They won't have it. The world won't come to an end; it can't possibly collide with another world, because — well, for one thing, it never has done such a thing before, and for another, they won't have it. Not when you dwell upon the details. They won't have it. Tomorrow there'll be a great swing-back in feeling, Tony. The Exchange will open again; business is going on. That's a good thing; I'm glad of it. But there are certain drawbacks.
     "The trouble is, men aren't really educated up to the telescope yet, as they are to the microscope. Every one of those men who were just here would believe what the microscope tells them, whether or not they could see it or understand it for themselves. I mean, if a doctor took a bit of cell-tissue from any one of them, and put it under the microscope, and said, 'Sorry, but that means you will die,' there isn't a man of them who wouldn't promptly put his affairs in shape.
     "None of them would ask to look through the microscope himself; he'd know it would mean nothing to him.
     "But they asked for Bronson's plates. I showed them; here they are, Tony. Look here. See this field of stars. All those fixed points, those round specks, every single one of them are stars. But see here; there is a slight — a very slight — streak, but still a streak. There, right beside it, is another one. Something has moved, Tony! Two points of light have moved in a star-field where nothing ought to move! A mistake, perhaps? A flaw in the coating of the plate? Bronson considered this, and other possibilities. He photographed the star-field again and again, night after night; and each time, you see, Tony, the same two points of light make a bit of streak. No chance of mistake; down there, where nothing ought to be moving, two objects have moved. But all we have to show for it are two tiny streaks on a photographic plate.
     "What do they mean? 'Gentlemen, the time has come to put your affairs in order!' The affairs of all the world, the affairs of every one living in the world— Naturally, they can't really believe it.
     "Bronson himself, though he watched those planets himself night after night for months, couldn't really believe it; nor could the other men who watched, in other observatories south of the equator.
     "But they searched back over old plates of the same patch of sky; and they found, in that same star-field, what they had missed before—those same two specks always making tiny streaks. Two objects that weren't stars where only stars ought to be; two strange objects that always were moving, where nothing 'ought' to move.
     "We need only three good observations of an object to plot the course of a moving body; and already Bronson succeeded in obtaining a score of observations of these. He worked out the result, and it was so sensational, that from the very first, he swore to secrecy every one who worked with him and with whom he corresponded. They obtained, altogether, hundreds of observations; and the result always worked out the same. They all checked. . . .
     "Eve says she has told you what that result is to be."
     "Yes," said Tony, "she told me."
     "And I told these men who demanded—ordered me—to explain to them everything we had. I told them that those specks were moving so that they would enter our solar system, and one of them would then come into collision with our world. They said, all right.
     "You see, it really meant nothing to them originally; it stirred only a sort of excitement to close the Exchange and give everybody a hilarious holiday.
     "Then I told them that, before the encounter, both of these moving bodies—Bronson Alpha and Bronson Beta—would first pass us close by and cause tides that would rise six hundred feet over us, from New York to San Francisco—and, of course, London and Paris and all sea-coasts everywhere.
     "They began to oppose that, because they could understand it. I told them that the passing of the Bronson bodies would cause earthquakes on a scale unimaginable; half the inland cities would be shaken down, and the effect below the crust would set volcanoes into activity everywhere, and as never since the world began. I said, perhaps a fifth of the people would survive the first passing of the Bronson bodies. I tried to point out some of the areas on the surface of the earth which would be completely safe.
     "I could not designate New York or Philadelphia or Boston. . . . They told me that tomorrow I must make a more reassuring statement."

(ed note: The rest of the novel documents the scientist's Herculean efforts to build a space ark to carry a precious few people to the planet Bronson Beta. To nobody's particular regret, not one of the politicians or leaders in denial survived the catastrophe they said didn't exist.)

From WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer (1932)

      "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..."


Like every other fact that underpins our relationship with the technology structuring our lives, we trust it. We are trained to accept the facts of science and technology no matter how frequently the same science and technology renders them obsolete. Yet the concept of the generally accepted ‘fact’ is a relatively new one. It came into existence only five hundred years ago as a result of an event that radically altered Western life because it made possible the standardisation of opinion.

In the world that existed before this occurrence, contemporary references reveal the people of the time to have been excitable, easily led to tears or rage, volatile in mood. Their games and pastimes were simple and repetitive, like nursery rhymes. They were attracted to garish colours. Their gestures were exaggerated. In all but the most personal of relationships they were arbitrarily cruel. They enjoyed watching animals fight and draw blood.

Much of their life was led in a kind of perpetual present: their knowledge of the past was limited to memories of personal experience, and they had little interest in the future. Time as we know it had no meaning. They ate and slept when they felt like it and spent long hours on simple, mindless tasks without appearing to suffer boredom.

The medieval adult was in no way less intelligent than his modern counterpart, however. He merely lived in a different world, which made different demands on him. His was a world without facts. Indeed, the modern concept of a fact would have been an incomprehensible one. Medieval people relied for day to day information solely on what they themselves, or someone they knew, had observed or experienced in the world immediately around them. Their lives were regular, repetitive and unchanging.

There was almost no part of this life—without-fact that could be other than local. Virtually no information reached the vast majority of people from the world outside the villages in which they lived. When all information was passed by word of mouth, rumour ruled. Everything other than personal experience was the subject of hearsay, a word which carried little of the pejorative sense it does today. Reputation was jealously guarded because it was easily ruined by loose talk. Denial of a rumour was difficult, if not impossible, and credulity was the stock in trade of the illiterate.

What medieval man called ‘fact’ we would call opinion, and there were few people who travelled enough to know the difference. The average daily journey was seven miles, which was the distance most riders could cover and be sure of return before dark.

There was much intermarriage in these isolated communities, and each had its share of idiots. In an age when experience was what counted most, power was in the hands of the elders. They approved local customs and practice, and in matters of legal dispute they were the judges. They resisted change: things were done because the elders confirmed that they had always been done so.

The dialect spoken in one community was all but incomprehensible fifty miles away. As Chaucer relates, a group of fourteenth—century London merchants shipwrecked on the north coast of England were jailed as foreign spies. Without frequent social or economic exchange between communities, the language remained fragmented in local forms.

For the illiterate dialect-speaking villager, the church was the main source of information. The scriptures illustrated holy themes, recalled the work of the seasons and pointed morals. Biblical tales glowed from the stained-glass windows. Gothic cathedrals have been called ‘encyclopedias in stone and glass’. The news of the world, both ecclesiastical and civil, came from the pulpit.

In communities that had for centuries been isolated and self-sufficient, the social structure was feudal. There were three classes: noble, priest and peasant. The noble fought for all. The peasant worked for all. The priest prayed for all.

On the very rare occasions when news arrived from outside, it was shouted through the community by a crier. For this reason few villages were bigger than the range of the human voice, and towns were administratively subdivided on the same scale. Village laws and customs were passed on by word of mouth. Living memory was the ultimate judge. It was a legal commonplace, even in town courts, that a live witness deserved more credence than words on parchment.

Manuscripts were rare. They were, after all, little more than marks of doubtful significance on dead animal skins. To the illiterate, documents were worthless as proof because they were easy to forge. A living witness told the truth because he wanted to go on living. Legal proceedings were conducted orally, a practice that continues to this day. Parties were summoned by word of mouth, sometimes with the aid of a bell. Charges were read aloud to the defendant. In the late Middle Ages the litigant was obliged to speak for himself, so there was little justice for the deaf and dumb. The court ‘heard’ the evidence. Guilt or innocence was a matter for debate.

(ed note: And then Gutenberg invented the printing press, which kicked the snot out of the rule of ignorance and elevated "fact" to its modern meaning. The process continued with the invention of the telegraph, television, TV satellite intercontinental relays, and the internet)


      It's hard to quarrel with that ancient justification of the free press: “America’s right to know." It seems almost cruel to ask, ingennously, “America's right to know what, please? Science? Mathematics? Economics? Foreign languages?”

     None of those things, of course. In fact, one might well suppose that the popular feeling is that Americans are a lot better off without any of that tripe.

     There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that "my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge."

     Politicians have routinely striven to speak the language of Shakespeare and Milton as ungrammatically as possible in order to avoid offending their audiences by appearing to have gone to school. Thus, Adlai Stevenson, who incautiously allowed intelligence and learning and wit to peep out of his speeches, found the American people flocking to a Presidential candidate who invented a version of the English language that was all his own and that has been the despair of satirists ever since.

     BUZZWORDS: Now we have a new slogan on the part of the obscurantists: "Don't trust the experts!" Ten years ago, it was "Don't trust anyone over 30.” But the shouters of that slogan found that the inevitable alchemy of the calendar converted them to the untrustworthiness of the over-30, and, apparently, they determined never to make that mistake again. “Don‘t trust the experts!" is absolutely safe. Nothing, neither the passing of time nor exposure to information. will convert these shouters to experts in any subject that might conceivably be useful.

     We have a new buzzword. too, for anyone who admires competence, knowledge, learning and skill, and who wishes to spread it around. People like that are called “elitists.“ That‘s the funniest buzzword ever invented because people who are not members of the intellectual elite don't know what an “elitist” is, or how to pronounce the word. As soon as someone shouts “elitist" it becomes clear that he or she is a closet elitist who is feeling guilty about having gone to school.

     All right, then, forget my ingenuous question. America’s right to know does not include knowledge of elitist subjects. America’s right to know involves something we might express vaguely as “what’s going on." America has the right to know “what's going on” in the courts, in Congress, in the White House, in industrial councils, in the regulatory agencies, in labor unions—in the seats of the mighty, generally.

     Very good, I'm for that, too. But how are you going to let people know all that?

     Grant us a free press, and a corps of independent and fearless investigative reporters, comes the cry, and we can be sure that the people will know.

     Yes, provided they can read!

     As it happens, reading is one of those elitist subjects I have been talking about, and the American public, by and large, in their distrust of experts and in their contempt for pointy-headed professors, can't read and don't read.

     To be sure, the average American can sign his name more or less legibly, and can make out the sports headlines—but how many nonelitist Americans can, without undue ditficulty, read as many as a thousand consecutive words of small print, some of which may be trisyllabic?

     Moreover, the situation is growing worse. Reading scores in the schools decline steadily. The highway signs, which used to represent elementary misreading lessons (“Go Slo." "Xroad") are steadily being replaced by little pictures to make them internationally legible and incidentally to help those who know how to drive a car but, not being pointy-headed professors, can’t read.

     Again, in television commercials, there are frequent printed messages. Well, keep your eyes on them and you’ll find out that no advertiser ever believes that anyone but an occasional elitist can read that print. To ensure that more than this mandarin minority gets the message, every word of it is spoken out loud by the announcer.

     HONEST EFFORT: If that is so, then how have Americans got the right to know? Grant that there are certain publications that make an honest effort to tell the public what they should know, but ask yourselves how many actually read them.

     There are 200 million Americans who have inhabited schoolrooms at some time in their lives and who will admit that they know how to read (provided you promise not to use their names and shame them before their neighbors), but most decent periodicals believe they are doing amazingly well if they have circulations of half a million. It may be that only l per cent—or less—of Americans make a stab at exercising their right to know. And if they try to do anything on that basis they are quite likely to be accused of being elitists.

     I contend that the slogan “America’s right to know" is a meaningless one when we have an ignorant population, and that the function of a free press is virtually zero when hardly anyone can read.

     What shall we do about it?

     We might begin by asking ourselves whether ignorance is so wonderful after all, and whether it makes sense to denounce “elitism.”

     I believe that every human being with a physically normal brain can learn a great deal and can be surprisingly intellectual. I believe that what we badly need is social approval of learning and social rewards for learning.

     We can all be members of the intellectual elite and then, and only then, will a phrase like “America‘s right to know“ and, indeed, any true concept of democracy. have any meaning.

From A CULT OF IGNORANCE by Isaac Asimov. Newsweek January 21, 1980

"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:


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."

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" 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.


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."


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

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)

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.

The Power of the Scientific Method

Science and technology advanced since primitive hominids invented fire, but at a slow, plodding pace. However with the widespread adoption of the scientific method in 1543, things kicked into high gear with the advent of the Scientific Revolution.

This is because It Works.

It is a powerful tool for scientific and technological advancement, plus it includes checks and balances to prevent people from making up false science to suit their hidden agenda or to attack an inconvenient truth.

From a science fictional standpoint, the method could be applied to other areas. Aleister Crowley attempted to apply the scientific method to magick, mostly by recording all the details and external factors of every spell being cast in their book of shadows (in other words: writing it down). A science fiction writer could logically have their protagonists use the scientific method if they were investigating psionics.


The scientific method is an empirical method of knowledge acquisition which has characterized the development of natural science since at least the 17th century. It involves careful observation, which includes rigorous skepticism about what is observed, given that cognitive assumptions about how the world works influence how one interprets a percept. It involves formulating hypotheses, via induction, based on such observations; experimental and measurement-based testing of deductions drawn from the hypotheses; and refinement (or elimination) of the hypotheses based on the experimental findings. These are principles of the scientific method, as opposed to a definitive series of steps applicable to all scientific enterprises.

Though there are diverse models for the scientific method available, in general there is a continuous process that includes observations about the natural world. People are naturally inquisitive, so they often come up with questions about things they see or hear, and they often develop ideas or hypotheses about why things are the way they are. The best hypotheses lead to predictions that can be tested in various ways. The most conclusive testing of hypotheses comes from reasoning based on carefully controlled experimental data. Depending on how well additional tests match the predictions, the original hypothesis may require refinement, alteration, expansion or even rejection. If a particular hypothesis becomes very well supported, a general theory may be developed.

Although procedures vary from one field of inquiry to another, they are frequently the same from one to another. The process of the scientific method involves making conjectures (hypotheses), deriving predictions from them as logical consequences, and then carrying out experiments or empirical observations based on those predictions. A hypothesis is a conjecture, based on knowledge obtained while seeking answers to the question. The hypothesis might be very specific, or it might be broad. Scientists then test hypotheses by conducting experiments or studies. A scientific hypothesis must be falsifiable, implying that it is possible to identify a possible outcome of an experiment or observation that conflicts with predictions deduced from the hypothesis; otherwise, the hypothesis cannot be meaningfully tested.

The purpose of an experiment is to determine whether observations agree with or conflict with the predictions derived from a hypothesis. Experiments can take place anywhere from a garage to CERN's Large Hadron Collider. There are difficulties in a formulaic statement of method, however. Though the scientific method is often presented as a fixed sequence of steps, it represents rather a set of general principles. Not all steps take place in every scientific inquiry (nor to the same degree), and they are not always in the same order.


The scientific method is the process by which science is carried out. As in other areas of inquiry, science (through the scientific method) can build on previous knowledge and develop a more sophisticated understanding of its topics of study over time. This model can be seen to underlay the scientific revolution.

The ubiquitous element in the model of the scientific method is empiricism, or more precisely, epistemologic sensualism. This is in opposition to stringent forms of rationalism: the scientific method embodies that reason alone cannot solve a particular scientific problem. A strong formulation of the scientific method is not always aligned with a form of empiricism in which the empirical data is put forward in the form of experience or other abstracted forms of knowledge; in current scientific practice, however, the use of scientific modelling and reliance on abstract typologies and theories is normally accepted. The scientific method is of necessity also an expression of an opposition to claims that e.g. revelation, political or religious dogma, appeals to tradition, commonly held beliefs, common sense, or, importantly, currently held theories, are the only possible means of demonstrating truth.

Different early expressions of empiricism and the scientific method can be found throughout history, for instance with the ancient Stoics, Epicurus, Alhazen, Roger Bacon, and William of Ockham. From the 16th century onwards, experiments were advocated by Francis Bacon, and performed by Giambattista della Porta, Johannes Kepler, and Galileo Galilei. There was particular development aided by theoretical works by Francisco Sanches, John Locke, George Berkeley, and David Hume.

The current method is based on a hypothetico-deductive model formulated in the 20th century, although it has undergone significant revision since first proposed (for a more formal discussion, see below).


The overall process involves making conjectures (hypotheses), deriving predictions from them as logical consequences, and then carrying out experiments based on those predictions to determine whether the original conjecture was correct. There are difficulties in a formulaic statement of method, however. Though the scientific method is often presented as a fixed sequence of steps, these actions are better considered as general principles. Not all steps take place in every scientific inquiry (nor to the same degree), and they are not always done in the same order. As noted by scientist and philosopher William Whewell (1794–1866), "invention, sagacity, [and] genius" are required at every step.

Formulation of a question

The question can refer to the explanation of a specific observation, as in "Why is the sky blue?" but can also be open-ended, as in "How can I design a drug to cure this particular disease?" This stage frequently involves finding and evaluating evidence from previous experiments, personal scientific observations or assertions, as well as the work of other scientists. If the answer is already known, a different question that builds on the evidence can be posed. When applying the scientific method to research, determining a good question can be very difficult and it will affect the outcome of the investigation.


A hypothesis is a conjecture, based on knowledge obtained while formulating the question, that may explain any given behavior. The hypothesis might be very specific; for example, Einstein's equivalence principle or Francis Crick's "DNA makes RNA makes protein", or it might be broad; for example, unknown species of life dwell in the unexplored depths of the oceans. A statistical hypothesis is a conjecture about a given statistical population. For example, the population might be people with a particular disease. The conjecture might be that a new drug will cure the disease in some of those people. Terms commonly associated with statistical hypotheses are null hypothesis and alternative hypothesis. A null hypothesis is the conjecture that the statistical hypothesis is false; for example, that the new drug does nothing and that any cure is caused by chance. Researchers normally want to show that the null hypothesis is false. The alternative hypothesis is the desired outcome, that the drug does better than chance. A final point: a scientific hypothesis must be falsifiable, meaning that one can identify a possible outcome of an experiment that conflicts with predictions deduced from the hypothesis; otherwise, it cannot be meaningfully tested.


This step involves determining the logical consequences of the hypothesis. One or more predictions are then selected for further testing. The more unlikely that a prediction would be correct simply by coincidence, then the more convincing it would be if the prediction were fulfilled; evidence is also stronger if the answer to the prediction is not already known, due to the effects of hindsight bias (see also postdiction). Ideally, the prediction must also distinguish the hypothesis from likely alternatives; if two hypotheses make the same prediction, observing the prediction to be correct is not evidence for either one over the other. (These statements about the relative strength of evidence can be mathematically derived using Bayes' Theorem).


This is an investigation of whether the real world behaves as predicted by the hypothesis. Scientists (and other people) test hypotheses by conducting experiments. The purpose of an experiment is to determine whether observations of the real world agree with or conflict with the predictions derived from a hypothesis. If they agree, confidence in the hypothesis increases; otherwise, it decreases. Agreement does not assure that the hypothesis is true; future experiments may reveal problems. Karl Popper advised scientists to try to falsify hypotheses, i.e., to search for and test those experiments that seem most doubtful. Large numbers of successful confirmations are not convincing if they arise from experiments that avoid risk.[8] Experiments should be designed to minimize possible errors, especially through the use of appropriate scientific controls. For example, tests of medical treatments are commonly run as double-blind tests. Test personnel, who might unwittingly reveal to test subjects which samples are the desired test drugs and which are placebos, are kept ignorant of which are which. Such hints can bias the responses of the test subjects. Furthermore, failure of an experiment does not necessarily mean the hypothesis is false. Experiments always depend on several hypotheses, e.g., that the test equipment is working properly, and a failure may be a failure of one of the auxiliary hypotheses. (See the Duhem–Quine thesis.) Experiments can be conducted in a college lab, on a kitchen table, at CERN's Large Hadron Collider, at the bottom of an ocean, on Mars (using one of the working rovers), and so on. Astronomers do experiments, searching for planets around distant stars. Finally, most individual experiments address highly specific topics for reasons of practicality. As a result, evidence about broader topics is usually accumulated gradually.


This involves determining what the results of the experiment show and deciding on the next actions to take. The predictions of the hypothesis are compared to those of the null hypothesis, to determine which is better able to explain the data. In cases where an experiment is repeated many times, a statistical analysis such as a chi-squared test may be required. If the evidence has falsified the hypothesis, a new hypothesis is required; if the experiment supports the hypothesis but the evidence is not strong enough for high confidence, other predictions from the hypothesis must be tested. Once a hypothesis is strongly supported by evidence, a new question can be asked to provide further insight on the same topic. Evidence from other scientists and experience are frequently incorporated at any stage in the process. Depending on the complexity of the experiment, many iterations may be required to gather sufficient evidence to answer a question with confidence, or to build up many answers to highly specific questions in order to answer a single broader question.

DNA example

The basic elements of the scientific method are illustrated by the following example from the discovery of the structure of DNA:

  • Question: Previous investigation of DNA had determined its chemical composition (the four nucleotides), the structure of each individual nucleotide, and other properties. It had been identified as the carrier of genetic information by the Avery–MacLeod–McCarty experiment in 1944, but the mechanism of how genetic information was stored in DNA was unclear.
  • Hypothesis: Linus Pauling, Francis Crick and James D. Watson hypothesized that DNA had a helical structure.
  • Prediction: If DNA had a helical structure, its X-ray diffraction pattern would be X-shaped. This prediction was determined using the mathematics of the helix transform, which had been derived by Cochran, Crick and Vand (and independently by Stokes). This prediction was a mathematical construct, completely independent from the biological problem at hand.
  • Experiment: Rosalind Franklin crystallized pure DNA and performed X-ray diffraction to produce photo 51. The results showed an X-shape.
  • Analysis: When Watson saw the detailed diffraction pattern, he immediately recognized it as a helix. He and Crick then produced their model, using this information along with the previously known information about DNA's composition and about molecular interactions such as hydrogen bonds.

The discovery became the starting point for many further studies involving the genetic material, such as the field of molecular genetics, and it was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1962. Each step of the example is examined in more detail later in the article.

Other components

The scientific method also includes other components required even when all the iterations of the steps above have been completed:


If an experiment cannot be repeated to produce the same results, this implies that the original results might have been in error. As a result, it is common for a single experiment to be performed multiple times, especially when there are uncontrolled variables or other indications of experimental error. For significant or surprising results, other scientists may also attempt to replicate the results for themselves, especially if those results would be important to their own work.

External review

The process of peer review involves evaluation of the experiment by experts, who typically give their opinions anonymously. Some journals request that the experimenter provide lists of possible peer reviewers, especially if the field is highly specialized. Peer review does not certify correctness of the results, only that, in the opinion of the reviewer, the experiments themselves were sound (based on the description supplied by the experimenter). If the work passes peer review, which occasionally may require new experiments requested by the reviewers, it will be published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. The specific journal that publishes the results indicates the perceived quality of the work.

Data recording and sharing

Scientists typically are careful in recording their data, a requirement promoted by Ludwik Fleck (1896–1961) and others. Though not typically required, they might be requested to supply this data to other scientists who wish to replicate their original results (or parts of their original results), extending to the sharing of any experimental samples that may be difficult to obtain.

From the Wikipedia entry for SCIENTIFIC METHOD

Because it comes up a lot, here's the story behind the "Remember kids, the only difference between screwing around and science is writing it down" expression.

It came while we were filming an episode about bullets skipping off the pavement and into cars. We had a devil of a time doing such a thing safely, but with the help of our frequent contributor, ballistics expert Alex Jason, we succeeded.

The shoot was a tough one, but once we had all of our data, the result was clear. Alex turned to me and said the quote in question. The SECOND he said it, I told him that I was going to say it on camera, and that it would be a big hit of a phrase. He said that was fine with him. He thinks it's hilarious that it's gone so viral. I'm pleased to give him credit.

by Adam Savage (2016)

(ed note: the Kirkasant are descendants of refugees fleeing far from the collapsing Terran Empire. Probably Admiral McCormac's fleet, as recounted in the novel The Rebel Worlds.)

In a dim way, he could reconstruct the story. There had been a fight. The reasons—personal, familial, national, ideological, economic, whatever they were—had dropped into the bottom of the millennia between then and now. (A commentary on the importance of any such reasons.) But someone had so badly wanted the destruction of someone else that one ship, or one fleet, hounded another almost a quarter way around the galaxy.

Or maybe not, in a literal sense. It would have been hard to do. Crude as they were, those early vessels could have made the trip, if frequent stops were allowed for repair and resupply and refilling of the nuclear converters. But to this day, a craft under hyperdrive could only be detected within approximately a light-year’s radius by the instantaneous “wake” of space-pulses. If she lay doggo for a while, she was usually unfindable in the sheer stupendousness of any somewhat larger volume. That the hunter should never, in the course of many months, either have overhauled his quarry or lost the scent altogether, seemed conceivable but implausible.

Maybe pursuit had not been for the whole distance. Maybe the refugees had indeed escaped after a while, but—in blind panic, or rage against the foe, or desire to practice undisturbed a brand of utopianism, or whatever the motive was—they had continued as far as they possibly could, and hidden themselves as thoroughly as nature allowed.

In any case, they had ended in a strange part of creation: (the Cloud Universe) so strange that numerous men on Serieve did not admit it existed. By then, their ship must have been badly in need of a complete overhaul, amounting virtually to a rebuilding. They settled down to construct the necessary industrial base. (Think, for example, how much plant you must have before you make your first transistor.) They did not have the accumulated experience of later generations to prove how impossible this was.

Of course they failed. A few score—a few hundred at absolute maximum, if the ship had been rigged with suspended-animation lockers—could not preserve a full-fledged civilization while coping with a planet for which man was never meant. And they had to content themselves with that planet. Once into the Cloud Universe, even if their vessel could still wheeze along for a while, they were no longer able to move freely about, picking and choosing.

Kirkasant was probably the best of a bad lot. And Laure thought it was rather a miracle that man had survived there. So small a genetic pool, so hostile an environment…but the latter might well have saved him from the effects of the former. Natural selection must have been harsh. And, seemingly, the radiation background was high, which led to a corresponding mutation rate. Women bore from puberty to menopause, and buried most of their babies. Men struggled to keep them alive.

Often death harvested adults, too, entire families. But those who were fit tended to survive. And the planet did have an unfilled ecological niche: the one reserved for intelligence. Evolution galloped. Population exploded. In one or two millennia, man was at home on Kirkasant. In five, he crowded it and went looking for new planets.

Because culture had never totally died. The first generation might be unable to build machine tools, but could mine and forge metals. The next generation might be too busy to keep public schools, but had enough hard practical respect for learning that it supported a literate class. Succeeding generations, wandering into new lands, founding new nations and societies, might war with each other, but all drew from a common tradition and looked to one goal: reunion with the stars.

Once the scientific method had been created afresh, Laure thought, progress must have been more rapid than on Earth. For the natural philosophers knew certain things were possible, even if they didn’t know how, and this was half the battle. They must have got some hints, however oracular from the remnants of ancient texts. They actually had the corroded hulk of the ancestral ship for their studying. Given this much, it was not too surprising that they leaped in a single lifetime from the first moon rockets to the first hyperdrive craft—and did so on a basis of wildly distorted physical theory, and embarked with such naïveté that they couldn’t find their way home again!

All very logical. Unheard of, outrageously improbable, but in this big a galaxy the strangest things are bound to happen now and again. The Kirkasanters could be absolutely honest in their story.

From STARFOG by Poul Anderson (1967)

(ed note: In the fantasy game Dungeons & Dragons, there is a branch of the Elf species who live underground in caves. They are called Drow, and worship the goddess Lloth, the Demon Queen of Spiders. She told her worshippers that if you want to learn how to live in caves and survive, you better use science.)

     Little grows in the pitch darkness.
     Not wheat, nor fruit trees, nor rice, nor soybeans. No one tends row after row of rippling, wind-blown heads of cabbage. No one ties up the tomato vines threatening to overgrow the fields.
     Once they efficiently produced a thin, runny water, gruel and magic bread combination, they promptly ran low on mushrooms. The Elves ate them faster than they grew.
     This was a problem.

     The team Clerics prayed to their Goddess. She counseled sharing their findings, leading different camps to different steam vents, and building complex information networks on Sending and Message (two magic spells that can be used to send short messages for long distances, sort of like sorcery's Twitter). Hold the community together, but spread them out so they could eat. Elvish survival depended on free and open information, she said.
     This became a new holy edict. The Clerics later carved it into the glowing crystals.

     The hunter gather teams brought meat back to their huddled people. They supplemented the mushrooms and magic food with the least toxic of the Underdark. They built catalogs of monsters: what was edible, what provided useful tools in skin and bone, what was useful as pack and labor monsters. And what to avoid. The Underdark was full of murder.

     Elvish survival depended on free and open information, the Goddess said. Tell everyone what you learned, write it down, and share, so we survive.
     And they did.

     And finally, an important lesson from their Goddess: science was more important than magic, since anyone could perform science, but science combined with magic and technology was the best Elvish recipe for survival. And science needed information.

     The Elves weren’t starting from scratch. They weren’t condemned to a hunter-gatherer existence of scratching a bare survival from the stone walls. They still had their collective knowledge, and Wizards, from the Fall.

     Lloth is obsessive about sharing knowledge and scientific data among her followers and any who use her systems. As more races board on to Lloth’s Underdark Wide Web, the stronger she grows. Sometimes the data is good. Sometimes the data is bad. But data is all that matters.

     Knowledge is power. With Knowledge comes information sharing. Information sharing leads to trade (I have mushrooms, you have umber hulk teeth, can we trade) and science. Trade leads to healthy, open markets and science leads to technology. Markets leads to… all kinds of interesting things. There’s that day the one cheeky Deep Elf decides he wants to bet on a trade of this month’s hook horror skins supply to corner the market and things get crazy.


"You see" he said, "the advantage of intuition. Polson had nothing whatever to go on, but he instinctively distrusted Irving; when he begins to suspect foul play, he proceeds to countercheck his intuitions by observation, which is a peculiarly effective method of work, for you will see how the use of the intuition is able to point out a profitable line of observation and, by means of the subtlest and most elusive of subjective clues, lead us to what promises to be solid ground. We must see what evidence the poppy heads yield, however, before we begin to theorize. There is nothing so misleading as a preconceived opinion; one is very apt to twist the facts to fit it."

From THE SCENTED POPPIES by Dion Fortune (1920)

      A voice behind Bigman said, "May I join you, folks?"
     Bigman turned in his seat, force knife palmed and ready for a quick, upward thrust. But the man looked anything but sinister. He was fat, but his clothes fit well. His face was round and his graying hair was carefully combed over the top of his head, though his baldness showed anyway. His eyes were little, blue, and full of what seemed like friendliness. Of course, he had a large, grizzled mustache of the true Venusian fashion.
     Lucky said calmly, "Sit down, by all means." His attention seemed entirely centered on the cup of hot coffee that he held cradled in his right hand.
     The fat man sat down. His hands rested upon the table. One wrist was exposed, slightly shaded by the palm of the other. For an instant, an oval spot on it darkened and turned black. Within it little yellow grains of light danced and flickered in the familiar patterns of the Big Dipper and of Orion. Then it disappeared, and there was only an innocent plump wrist and the smiling, round face of the fat man above it.
     That identifying mark of the Council of Science could be neither forged nor imitated. The method of its controlled appearance by the exertion of will was just about the most closely guarded secret of the Council.

     Bigman, meanwhile, had opened one of the film holders, unreeled a bit of the film, and held it to the light. He shuddered and replaced it. He said belligerently to Morriss, "You sure don't look like a scientist."
     "I imagine not," said Morriss, unoffended. "That helps, you know."

     Lucky knew what he meant. In these days, when science really permeated all human society and culture, scientists could no longer restrict themselves to their laboratories. It was for that reason that the Council of Science had been born. Originally it was intended only as an advisory body to help the government on matters of galactic importance, where only trained scientists could have sufficient information to make intelligent decisions. More and more it had become a crime-fighting agency, a counterespionage system. Into its own hands it was drawing more and more of the threads of government. Through its activities there might grow, someday, a great Empire of the Milky Way in which all men might live in peace and harmony.
     So it came about that, as members of the Council had to fulfill many duties far removed from pure science, it was better for their success if they didn't look particularly like scientists—as long, that is, as they had the brains of scientists.

From LUCKY STARR AND THE OCEANS OF VENUS by Paul French (Isaac Asimov)(1954)

Knowledge Is Wealth

Knowlege is power, and also wealth. Though of course the value goes up with the fewer who have it.

In the Space Ghost cartoons things were kept secret. Space Ghost has stealth technology which makes him and his spaceship transparent. But the proper phrasing is "Ah, Space Ghost. I too possess the Secret of Invisibility! Muah-Ha-Ha!"

The creation of wealth is certainly not to be despised, but in the long run the only human activities really worthwhile are the search for knowledge, and the creation of beauty. This is beyond argument, the only point of debate is which comes first.

From PROFILES OF THE FUTURE by Arthur C. Clarke (1962)

A hundred million miles beyond Mars, in the cold loneliness where no man had yet traveled, Deep Space Monitor 79 drifted slowly among the tangled orbits of the asteroids. For three years it had fulfilled its mission flawlessly — a tribute to the American scientists who had designed it, the British engineers who had built it, the Russian technicians who had launched it. A delicate spider’s-web of antennas sampled the passing waves of radio noise — the ceaseless crackle and hiss of what Pascal, in a far simpler age, had naively called the “silence of infinite space.” Radiation detectors noted and analyzed incoming cosmic rays from the galaxy and points beyond; neutron and X-ray telescopes kept watch on strange stars that no human eye would ever see; magnetometers observed the gusts and hurricanes of the solar winds, as the Sun breathed million-mile-an-hour blasts of tenuous plasma into the faces of its circling children. All these things, and many others, were patiently noted by Deep Space Monitor 79, and recorded in its crystalline memory.

One of its antennas, by now unconsidered miracles of electronics, was always aimed at a point never far from the Sun. Every few months its distant target could have been seen, had there been any eye here to watch, as a bright star with a close, fainter companion; but most of the time it was lost in the solar glaze.

To that far-off planet Earth, every twenty-four hours, the monitor would send the information it had patiently garnered, packed neatly into one five-minute pulse. About a quarter of an hour later, traveling at the speed of light, that pulse would reach its destination. The machines whose duty it was would be waiting for it; they would amplify and record the signal, and add it to the thousands of miles of magnetic tape now stored in the vaults of the World Space Centers at Washington, Moscow, and Canberra.

Since the first satellites had orbited, almost fifty years earlier, trillions and quadrillions of pulses of information had been pouring down from space, to be stored against the day when they might contribute to the advance of knowledge. Only a minute fraction of all this raw material would ever be processed; but there was no way of telling what observation some scientist might wish to consult, ten, or fifty, or a hundred years from now. So everything had to be kept on file, stacked in endless air-conditioned galleries, triplicated at the three centers against the possibility of accidental loss. It was part of the real treasure of mankind, more valuable than all the gold locked uselessly away in bank vaults.

From 2001 A SPACE ODYSSEY by Arthur C. Clarke (1969)

Knowledge is Power.

Power Corrupts.

Study Hard.

Be Evil.

From MANKIND'S DILEMMA by Nathan Bridges (2001)

(ed note: "X-Arth" means ancient artifacts found on extrasolar planets which originated on Earth)

Thorn shook his head. “That camp my brother found remains of was laid out first by men of this world—the others were visitors. Also, it was set up several seasons ago and, therefore, whoever dealt with the Jacks knew well enough what lay here. Only that they themselves could not yet make use of it.”

“If they knew, say, Lord Arfellen …” Simsa began once more to fit piece to piece in her mind. “Then why did they let your brother come here? He was off-world, he would know at once that this wreck of a ship was a bad thing. They could have easily killed him before he reached the Hills at all—”

“Unless they dared not report a death near their own territory—even by accident—of an off-worlder. My brother was no common man and the League and the Patrol keep their watch on all of us, especially when we come to hunt out Forerunner remains—or things X-Arth. Can you understand, Simsa? It is not the actual worth of bits of broken stone, or this,” he tapped the cuff he still wore, “which matter. We seek out all we can learn because we must!

“My people spread out from Arth itself so many seasons ago that you would have difficulty in counting time. We found worlds with others living there—some were strange of body, stranger yet of mind. Some were enough like ourselves that we could interbreed. Other worlds were empty of life, yet held broken cities, strange machines, mysteries left by intelligent beings.

All we can learn we must, for there were many, many powers which rose among the stars—and then fell. Some fell by war—we have discovered worlds which have been burnt black, holding only ashes—the result of the use of such weapons as we have come to fear and have outlawed. But also there were other worlds where all that remained appeared as if those who dwelt there had simply walked away and left great wonders to be toppled by the fingers of time.

“Why did they rise to power and fall? If we can learn only a little of their past, then we can foresee the way of our own future, at least in part. Perhaps some of the acts which brought them down we can then avoid.

“There is one world in our League where all such finds are gathered to be studied. The race who live there—who are so long-lived a species that to them our oldest known are but infants—study these finds, try to learn. Sometimes they themselves are the searchers, more often it is we of other species and races who collect the knowledge for them. Such a searcher was my brother—and he had much experience in these matters. When the first starships landing here brought back fragments of a much older time, and our traders brought ever more, he was chosen to come and see—to make records—report whether the remains here were such as would warrant sending in a whole ship of trained people to deal with them.”

From FORERUNNER by Andre Norton (1980)

(ed note: In the story, 350 years ago, there was a notorious space pirate named Hellion Murdoch. In his spare time he did hideous neurological surgical experiments on hapless people he captured. According to legend he had cached his treasure somewhere in the solar system in "Murdoch's Hoard". Treasure hunters have been searching for it ever since. By accident the protagonist Cal Blair is given the Key to Murdoch's Hoard: a tiny cavity resonator and antenna system which would lead the user to the cache.)

     Now that he had it, what could he use it for?
     Treasure? Of what use could treasure be in this day and age? With the Channing-Franks matter reproducer, gold or any rare element could be synthesized by merely introducing the proper heterodyning signal. Money was not metal anymore. Gold was in extensive use in electrical works and platinum came in standard bars at a Solarian credit each. Stable elements up to atomic weights of six or seven hundred had been made and investigated. A treasure trove was ridiculous. Of absolutely no value.
     The day of the Channing-Franks development was after the demise of Hellion Murdoch. And it was after the Period of Duplication that identium was synthesized and became the medium of exchange. Since identium came after Murdoch's demise, obviously Murdoch's Hoard could only be a matter of worthless coin, worthless jewels, or equally worthless securities…
     …So Cal Blair felt a letdown. With his problem solved, there was no more to it, and that was that. He smiled. He'd send the Key to Murdoch's Hoard to the museum.
     And furthermore, let mem seek Murdoch's Hoard, if they wanted to. Doubtless they would find some "uniques" there. A pile of ancient coins would be uniques, all right. But the ancient papers and coins and jewels would not be detectable from any of the duplicates of other jewels and coins of mat period that glutted the almost-abandoned museum.

(ed note: Cal is kidnapped by his brother the pirate Benj, who naturally wants the secret of the key)

     "Now," said Benj. "Make with the talk."
     "O.K.," said Cal. "This is a cavity resonator—"
     "This is too easy," Wally objected. "Something's fishy."
     Cal looked at the speaker with scorn. "You imbecile. You've been reading about Murdoch's Hoard. Vast treasure. Money, jewels, and securities. Valuable as hell three hundred and fifty years ago, but not worth a mouthful of ashes today. Why shouldn't I tell you about it?"

(ed note: Cal escapes. He later talks to a friend Dr. Lange)

     "The Key to Murdoch's Hoard?" asked Lange, opening his eyes.
     "What are you going to do with it?"
     "Send it back to the museum. They're the ones that own it."
     "You'll give them Murdoch's Hoard, if you do."
     "Granting for the moment that the Hoard is valuable," laughed Cal, "it is still the property of the museum."
     "Wrong. The law is a thousand years old and still working. Buried treasure is his who finds it. The hoard is yours, Cal."
     "Wonderful. About as valuable as a gallon of lake water in Chicago. And about as plentiful."
     "May I have the Key?" asked Lange eagerly.
     Cal stopped. This was getting him down. First, that pair of ignorant crooks. Then his brother, trying to steal from him something that both knew was worthless—just for the plain fun of stealing, he believed. But now this man. Dr. Lange was advanced in years, a brilliant and stable surgeon.
     Was he wrong? Did the Key really represent something worthwhile? If so, what on earth could it be? A hoard of treasure in a worthless medium of exchange and with duplicates all over the System? What could Murdoch's Hoard be that it made men fight for it even in this day?

(ed note: Cal manages to defeat the villains. But his aircraft crashes near the location of Murdoch's Horde. His lady love Tink suffers a crushed spinal cord.)

     "Cal. . .where's Murdoch's Hoard?"
     "Nearby, but you're more important than anything that might be in Murdoch's Hoard."
     "No, Cal. No."
     "Look, Tink, you mean more to me than—"
     "I know that, Cal. But don't you see?"
     "See what?"
     "What could possibly be of value?"
     "No. Nothing that I have any knowledge of."
     "That's it! Knowledge! All of the advanced work in neurosurgery is there. All in colored, detailed three-dimensional pictures with a running comment by Murdoch himself. Things that we cannot do today. Get it, Cal. It'll tell you how to fix this crushed spinal cord."
     Cal knew she was right. Murdoch, in his illegal surgery, had advanced a thousand years beyond his fellow surgeons, who could legally work on nothing but cadavers or live primates while Murdoch had worked on the delicate nervous system of mankind itself. Murdoch's Hoard was a hoard of information—invaluable to the finder and completely unique and non-duplicative. At least until it was found.

From IDENTITY by George O. Smith (1945)

Davies had ceased believing in buried treasure at a very early age and his skepticism had included such related items as Ancient and Forgotten Documents and the Secret and Perilous Voyages in search of it. The realization that he was now. at the end of just such a treasure hunt came as a shock to his rather staid personality, but he could not dispute the evidence of his own eyes. There, half a mile away across the “snow” of Titan lay the cluster of pressure domes which the Document had said would be here. There also lay the Treasure—not gold, of course, but something which was incalculably more valuable in this day and age: knowledge.

It was the abandoned base of the aliens which they had come so far and searched so long to find, and above it and around it—like a fabulous setting surrounding a jewel that is dull and cheap—there was the most beautiful sight that Davies had ever seen

From FALSE ALARM by James White (1957)

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