A co-worker told me last year, with a straight face, that she was a distance healer. Distance healing has to do with energy transference, establishing a state of bodily equilibrium, and charging $40 per session on eBay. During one of those sessions, in exchange for your money, a distance healer will think about you very hard for 1 hour. It is, in other words, a bunch of bull crap.
My co-worker described her experience repairing her cat’s broken leg by -- and you’ll think I’m kidding, but I’m not -- massaging a similar-looking stuffed animal in a different time zone. My skepticism must have shown when I said, “That’s a bunch of bull crap.”
I have scientist friends -- non-distance healers, it’s safe to say -- who can’t find jobs right now. They search, but job postings are filled with self-contradictory or overly exclusive descriptions. (“Must be familiar with both endocrinology and game theory; must be a recent Ph.D. candidate with >15 years experience.”) Or else they find themselves mired in post-doctoral programs “until something comes up,” which typically means “until their children have children and those children have rocket packs.”
Forget the interminable job hunt. Can’t find a career in science? Try pseudoscience!
Pseudoscience comprises many fields, everything from metoposcopy (predicting someone’s destiny based on forehead wrinkles) to craniometry (inferring criminality based on head size) to iridology (mapping the pretty threads in one’s iris and pretending that they correspond to systemic health). Imagine all the glorious possibilities as you float down the canals of Mars!
Let’s learn about some of the great pseudoscientific fields in which a career awaits you:
My high school girlfriend -- like most high school girlfriends, from what I hear -- was totally into astrology. She’d cite evidence such as, “Sometimes you’re emotional, and sometimes you’re not” -- a perfect description of my astrological sign, as others born between the 21st of May and the 20th of June are sometimes emotional and sometimes not. This is also true of those born between the 21st of May and the 20th of May the following year. I think Astrology exists to make us all feel even better about ending certain relationships.
What happened to the glory days of selling any old crap in a bottle and claiming it cured nine or 10 afflictions? Just once, in my neighborhood Rite Aid, next to the acetaminophen and loratadine, I’d like to see a brown glass bottle of Grandpa Schmendrick’s Safe Cure-All Salvo-Elixir Colloidal Tonic Powder for Malaria, Gout, Dropsy, Biliousness, Dyspepsia, Dragging-Down Sensations, Water Pains, Jack Britches, Hob-Nooblins, Ague, Vague Plague, Horse Sickness, and, Why the Hell Not, Catarrh.
So there’s this guy called Trofim Lysenko, which is a great name for a scientist -- the guy who taught your upper-level differential equations class probably had a similar name -- and indeed, that’s half the reason people believed what he said. His big innovation was to realize that the field of genetics was not only wrong but bourgeois. (This can be seen easily in today’s society; attend any A-list Hollywood party and you'll find it’s packed with geneticists and developmental biologists.) Stalin and friends touted Lysenko’s wonderful agricultural techniques, which were based on flawed principles and nonexistent results. Big surprise, they didn’t work. And when something doesn’t work, what do you do? You call it the “new biology” and teach it in schools.
If I could convert lead into gold, I’d still be poor, because I don’t have any lead. All of my pencils use graphite, and the lead-based paint has been stripped from my condo. Maybe an alchemist can first turn plastic into lead then turn the lead into gold. I have lots of plastic.
Imagine the career that awaits you in the burgeoning field of plant perception, which is based on the self-evident and not-at-all-stupid contention that plants possess not only sentience but also telepathy. I think I actually believed in plant perception when I was 6 years old, but then I also believed my teddy bears had the same abilities.
Some may say the science has been settled -- that Earth has long been proven not to be the center of the universe -- but that’s closed-mindedness. Also, Earth rides on the back of a great tortoise. Earthquakes are tortoise farts. Makes sense.
Somehow, during history, the following occurred:
So there’s this
Ah, Dianetics! The cultish scientological (scient-illogical!) practice advocated by L. Ron Hubbard (no relation to Elrond Hubbard, the love child of Old Mother Hubbard and an elf from
You know what’s false? The germ theory of disease, apparently. No, diseases can be cured by rubbing your hands and feet in exactly the right places. See that little fleshy patch under your thumb? That’s where the influenza lives, and if there’s anything influenza hates, it’s a pleasant massage.
Just seeing if you’re paying attention.
Why use an MRI to scan someone’s brain when you can garner all the information you need from the bumps on his or her head? That’s the reasoning behind this classic pseudoscience, a field that maps to specific cranial locations crucial qualities such as approbativeness, alimentiveness, amativeness, and philoprogenitiveness. (Phrenologists were paid based on the number of long English words to which they could awkwardly append the suffix “-ness.”) Applying the tenets of phrenology, I can confidently say that the most intelligent person I ever met was a cauliflower.
String theory posits that the universe is made of tiny, vibrating strings. Applying the principle of, “If I don’t understand it in 5 seconds, it can’t be real,” string theory can’t be real. The only thing it correctly explains is the composition of my pants, which are indeed made from tiny strings. The strings are vibrating because I’m happy to see you.
It’s a valid field, as fields go. I just don’t like them using the word “science.” It makes undergraduate political science majors feel smarter than they are.
1. Call it something that combines half of a real science term with an inappropriate suffix. Something such as “mathology” or “paleontognomy.”
2. Entertain all theories, no matter how moronically impossible. Remember, when you see hoof prints, don’t think “zebras.” Think “magical winged thestrals from
3. Conduct uncontrolled, nonrandomized trials that only you get to witness. Or don’t and say you did. Announce them in the popular media, claiming that scientific journals won’t publish them because they fear the truth.
4. If anyone offers to independently verify your results, call that person a poopie-head.
5. Invent some kind of life force or energy that controls the universe. Give it an Asian-sounding name, like
6. Claim that scientific criticism of your field is a form of elitism. Claim that mainstream criticism of your field is a form of elitism.
7. Some scientific organizations will offer prize money if you’ll only perform your experiments in a controlled setting. Don’t do it! It’s a trap! And you may have to wear lab goggles, which leave marks on your forehead!
* * *
The first thing you learn about pseudoscience, as soon as you mention the word, is that you have to be really, really careful how you use it. Even the bacteria Pseudomonas aren’t thrilled with their name. (“We’re real monas!” they insist. Whatever. Grow a flagellum, and then we’ll talk.)
The second thing you learn, from the true believers, is that today’s pseudoscience is tomorrow’s science. Many truths we currently treat as scientific gospel were once laughed at by scientists and other educated people. It follows logically that anything scientists laugh at will eventually become scientific gospel. Like this column, hopefully.
So, if you can’t find a job in science, relax. Manipulate the bump on your head responsible for approbativeness. Put down your pipette and pick up a divining rod. And trust no one.
Adam Ruben, Ph.D., is a practicing scientist and the author of Surviving Your Stupid, Stupid Decision to Go to Grad School .