Pseudoscientists and snake oil salesmen in modern forensic science

Snake oil salesmen

The term originally came from the 19th century where unethical and unscrupulous vendors hyped up elixirs and potions that were touted and sold as magic cure-alls.  The claims of magic-like restorative properties were hyped up to a frenzied crowd, which bought the elixirs and potions en masse only to later find the claims to be unfounded or experienced the power of the placebo effect.  Some of the vendors even claimed to be doctors with very dubious credentials.  To maximize sales, oftentimes the vendor not merely satisfied with posing as a doctor would employ a shill to join the crowd and offer attestation to the propriety of the cure.

A snake oil salesman touting his magic cure-all
A snake oil salesman touting his magic cure-all


This terms was popularized by Martin Gardner who in 1950 published an article in the Antioch Review entitled “The Hermit Scientist,” and again in 1952 in a book called “In the Name of Science:  An entertaining survey of the high priests and cultists of science, past and present.”  In its later reprints it was titled “Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science.”

Originally the book had a wide-variety of topics including studies of folks who were believers in a flat Earth, a hollow Earth, Atlantis and Lemuria, Lawsonomy, Lysenkoism, palmistry and other ideas. This book that was published nearly 60 years ago still has parts that apply today including UFO’s, dowsing rods and doodlebugs, supposed auto-generation of living forms, the power of crystals, the various medical cults, the Great Pyramid theory, food-based healing, orgonomy, extra-sensory perception, white noise theory.

Gardner writes:

  • Cranks typically do not understand how the scientific process operates, but continue to maintain that they are true reasoned scientists.
  • They need to try out their ideas on colleagues.  They even attend conferences.
  • They publish their hypotheses in peer-reviewed journals sometimes without data to support the oftentimes overgeneralized conclusions they contend.
  • They refuse to provide you with the underlying data that they contend will support their claims.  Of course, they justify this lack of openness and transparency by claiming that their ideas are too radical for the conservative scientific establishment to accept.
  • A second characteristic of the pseudo-scientist, Gardner writes, is a tendency toward paranoia.
  1. He considers himself a genius.
  2. He regards his colleagues, without exception, as ignorant blockheads or out to get him/her.
  3. He believes himself unjustly persecuted and discriminated against by a particular group of folks.
  4. The recognized societies refuse to let him lecture.
  5. The journals reject his papers and either ignore his books or assign them to “enemies” for review. It is all part of a dastardly plot. It never occurs to the crank that this opposition may be due to error in his work.  Alternatively, the person only publishes in one journal that consists of friends.
  6. He has strong compulsions to focus his attacks on the greatest scientists and the best-established theories.
  7. He often has a tendency to write in a complex jargon, in many cases making use of terms and phrases he himself has coined.
Pseudoscientists exist in forensic science
Pseudoscientists exist in forensic science

Boy, does this sound like some uncredentialed forensic scientists that you may know???

I have blogged before on the large scale lack of credentialed scientists in forensic science today.

Gardner warns:

If the present trend continues, we can expect a wide variety of these men, with theories yet unimaginable, to put in their appearance in the years immediately ahead. They will write impressive books, give inspiring lectures, organize exciting cults. They may achieve a following of one—or one million. In any case, it will be well for ourselves and for society if we are on our guard against them.

This is why it is right to be a modern day skeptic.  Why it is right to be a modern day skeptic: The need to continue to challenge sacred cows: Paradigm Shift

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *