science v pseudo

The following is unashamedly and with gratitude taken from a presentation by Steven D. Schafersman, President of Texas Citizens for Science.

In that presentation he used rigorous science to dismantle the pseudoscience that claims the Turin Shroud is a genuine relic; but pseudoscience is a widely applicable term and a creeping menace, and even meteorology stumbles across it now and then.

Read on…


Pseudoscientists must believe in a false methodology to obtain knowledge and therefore must actively pervert the integrity and methods of science to promote their beliefs. This effort is harmful to all because it undermines the accepted procedures humans use to discover reliable knowledge.

Pseudoscientists are also credulous and self-deceived, but because good evidence always exists to refute their beliefs, they must actively resist acknowledging the veracity of the evidence, instead engage in distorting and misrepresenting the nature of the conflicting evidence when promoting their own fallacious evidence. This is credulity-mongering and nonsense-peddling – a greater epistemic and ethical lapse than the simple credulous, unskeptical beliefs of paranormalists. Pseudoscientists try to convince others of their claims and publicize them.

Pseudoscience means “False Science,” an activity that doesn’t play by the same rules as legitimate science. It promotes extraordinary claims about nature without possessing the corresponding and necessary extraordinary evidence that supports those claims. Indeed, pseudoscience usually ignores or rejects the reliable and convincing existing evidence that contradicts its claims.


Pseudoscientists exploit the integrity and public trust of scientists by pretending to be scientists, thus undeservedly sharing the legitimacy and prestige real scientists possess. This is especially bad because pseudoscientists thereby confuse the public about the nature of true science.


  • Start with belief in the desired conclusion and create evidence to support it, even when the conclusion requires supernormal or supernatural action.
  • Do not test the conclusion or, if tested, do not test it competently or thoroughly, even when the simplest tests are completely adequate to reveal the truth.
  • Ignore evidence that refutes their conclusions or attempt to explain the evidence away using bizarre and specious arguments.
  • Misrepresent or wilfully misinterpret facts that are not consistent with the desired conclusion, and engage in “over-reaching” and credulity-mongering to promote the conclusion.
  • Disparage those scientists who discover and publish the solid evidence that reveals that their desired pseudoscientific conclusions are false.
  • Publish their “scientific” results and conclusions in unedited or poorly edited journals, usually with no or incompetent peer review. In this fashion, some legitimate popular technology and science journals have published pseudoscientific papers.
  • Present frequent public lectures and symposia, and writing popular books and articles, to try to convince the public directly, rather than building one’s case through proper scientific channels.
  • Fraudulently manufacture evidence to support their beliefs and publish such “evidence” in poorly edited journals, thus making it available for other honest but credulous scientists to use in subsequent studies.



Oftentimes when I find myself browsing in what I shall call a gentleman’s outfitters I will be approached by a fellow shopper asking me where the ties are.

It’s my own fault – I tend to wear a black suit even when shopping, an ensemble which clearly marks me out as a shop assistant or store manager. I suppose if I had no morals and a working knowledge of cash registers I could furtively trouser a reasonable amount of cash.

People are readily led into identifying others as something that they are not. Put on a white coat  and carry a clipboard, and “research scientist” is the conclusion; or match the white coat with a stethoscope while lurking near a hospital and the assumption will naturally be that you are a doctor.

This is of course why department stores use the standard white coat to deck out their beauty product staff. It lends an ersatz scientific gravitas to hawking shampoo and cold cream.

The Milgram experiment took this to an extreme conclusion.

Something similar is happening these days in meteorology.  Anyone possessing the merest scintilla of an inkling of the subject — or even without a clue but touting some eccentric and misguided hypothesis — can present themselves as an expert in the field  through the simple expedient of throwing up a website and picking an exciting sounding name.

Thus armed they fall over each other to produce alarming forecasts at increasingly long range of a record-breakingly cold winter and a white Christmas; and they do it loudly, with a brazen certainty that is unquestioned by the credulous. No amount of incorrect foretelling, moreover, dampens the hubris.

It is unfortunate that sometimes those most unwilling or unable to see through these forecasters in white coats are the members of the press, who surely have a duty to check credentials before splashing a headline.

But in the absence of their bullshit filters we need to arch our own eyebrows and shout that the emperors have no clothes. Or at least no white coats.


It will have escaped the attention of few people that the UK is on the verge of a remarkably cold spell of weather.

Temperatures are going to drop steadily this week by at least one degree per day, until through the weekend and into the start of next week the temperature will be as much as seven degrees below average.

Some places will by then be struggling to rise above freezing while falling 4 to 9 degrees below in some places overnight.

And it is not just the temperature that will make it feel wintry.

There will be showers breaking out, initially over northern Scotland down the eastern side of Britain, and they will turn increasingly to sleet or snow, especially from Thursday onwards. Showers will also develop down the western side of Wales and across southwest England.

There could be several centimetres of snow accumulating over high ground in north and east Scotland from Thursday onwards, perhaps 15 cm or more in the Cairngorms, and showers will start to fall as snow even at low levels in the south of the country towards the weekend. More regions may become susceptible as showers threaten to become widespread but it is impossible to pinpoint precise locations until nearer the time.

While this depth of cold is highly unusual for November it is not without precedent.

In 1919 the cold began even earlier, with significant snowfalls on 19-20th September, especially over Dartmoor in Devon where 5cm accumulated. Even low ground in the north had snow, and this came after a hot first half of the month: on 11th September the temperature rose over 32 degrees Celsius in Northamptonshire.

When November came around the temperature plummeted again as north-easterly winds set in. The severe cold set in around 11th November 1919, and snow soon followed. At Braemar, Aberdeenshire, snow lay to a depth of 42cm, and over 30cm accumulated on Dartmoor.

Most extraordinary, though, was the frigid temperature recorded at Braemar on 14th November, when the mercury plunged to -23.3 degrees Celsius in the early morning as lying snow chilled the air. The maximum temperature that day was 10 degrees below freezing. This would be extraordinary even in the depths of winter.

The bus from Ballater to Braemar

The Ballater-Braemar bus, not needing any grit evidently.

Snow remained on the ground at Braemar and Balmoral until the end of the month, when it became much less cold, and the rest of the winter was unremarkable, with frequent milder south and south-westerly winds.

This serves to illustrate that a cold blow at the beginning of winter does not necessarily serve as a reliable indicator for the rest of the season. One swallow does not make a summer, nor one snowman a winter.

“It is difficult to make predictions, particularly about the future”.

Much as that might sound like one of Yogi Berra‘s aphorisms, it actually tripped, tongue in cheek, from the lips of the Danish physicist Neils Bohr.

“The future ain’t what it used to be” — now that was Yogi Berra.

Both the physicist and the baseball star were right — sort of — when it comes to weather prediction.

For some of the most unforgiving demands for pinpoint prognostications are made on the much-derided weather forecaster; which is puzzling, given the well-documented difficulty in forecasting our atmosphere’s chaos and volatility, small initial errors rapidly becoming amplified as time progresses. Still, meteorology makes a rod for its own back: the more accurate it becomes then the greater becomes the demand for even more predictive finesse.

Forecasts to about three days ahead can be pretty near the mark, in fact, or in more general terms up to a week or even ten days. But this depends on the relative stability and predictability of the conditions at the time. Experienced meteorologists might have a stab, in very broad terms, at the coming month, and there are specialist seasonal forecasting companies that spend a lot of effort toiling at a three-month forecast that can only indicate wetter/drier/colder/hotter than average. This is the best that can be expected given the huge number of global atmospheric, oceanic and even solar variables that they attempt to reconcile but they can make a profitable business in dealing in such seemingly vague terms.

So why, I wonder, are there individuals — with no apparent credentials — who claim to be able to predict astonishingly nuanced forecasts six months or even more in advance on the flimsiest of evidence?

Ice creams

During spring and early summer the public was bombarded by volleys of churnalism, based on self-aggrandizing press releases, that guaranteed an “ICE-CREAM SUMMER”. The hyperbole promised a hotter and longer summer than 1976, and indeed one of the top three hottest summers (if not the hottest summer) on record, with temperatures steadily rising to a stifling climax in the first two weeks of August when the mercury would soar above 38 Celsius and the national maximum temperature record would fall.

Ridiculous. Ridiculous at the time and astoundingly nonsensical now, here in mid-August, when we are reaching for our umbrellas and sweaters.

The calumny was cemented by subsequent alarming and alarmist forecasts of the worst drought for the UK since 1902, and by confirmation even in late July of record-breaking temperatures around the corner. Note that these forecasts did not originate from any of the more reputed independent weather forecasting companies or from the unfairly maligned UK Met Office (notwithstanding their PR department’s inappropriate and gauche “Barbecue Summer” spin last year, which must have had their meteorologists banging their heads against the wall).

No, these “forecasts” came from a vocal one-man-and-his-dog operation that has gained a reputation simply through the regurgitation in various media of the exaggerated claims expressed in its own press releases. This is no basis for a credible and professional forecasting company. The occasional prediction might come to fruition: but even a blind squirrel sometimes finds a nut. If there is no methodology to this madness then the guesswork is worthless.

More than that, forecasts of extreme heat and drought (indeed the most extreme heat and drought in history) are highly irresponsible and selfish, given the decisions made in many spheres  on the back of such advice — which included admonitions to (now presumably disgruntled) holidaymakers to “staycation” in the UK and forego foreign shores.

How do such clearly faulty forecasts and forecasters gain credence and thrive? Firstly, there is in this country a desire to root for the underdog, for the small player against the corporation or the government department. This is fair enough to a degree but in the latter instance there seems currently to be a depth of opprobrium for and mistrust of the Met Office (and by extension professional meteorologists and meteorological science in general) that has left a perceived credibility void which a far less credible entity has sought to fill.

Secondly, there is an unquenchable human need to foresee the future. There always has been: hence chicken entrails, tea-leaves and crystals balls. Charlatans of every kind will always be ready to satiate such irrational demand.  The blame, therefore, can be partly apportioned to the consumer; but the supplier, when taking unscrupulous advantage of this demand,  must shoulder the lion’s share of the burden.

They are not ice cream vendors; they are selling snake-oil. I am not buying it and neither should you.


Ice cream van in the rain

Today, Monday 16 March, was the UK’s warmest day of the year so far — as long as you count observations made at the London Weather Centre, where the temperature reached 17.2 Celsius today. If you are one of those who doubt the integrity of the exposure of this site, then the warmest is still the 16.9 C recorded in Canterbury on February 27.

One might call this warm-ish and sunny weather ‘spring-like’ but as it is already spring, meteorologically, then so it should be. It is one thing to talk about ‘spring-like’ when it is still winter but another, almost tautological, matter to do so when spring has sprung. Unless one holds on to the notion that spring begins around March 21.

Semantics aside, though, we have high pressure near or over the UK to thank for what meteorologists are pleased to call this ‘settled’ spell. The centre of this anticyclone looks like shifting northeastwards into Scandinavia towards the weekend; its influence should ensure a continuation of the dry weather in many areas but it will encourage winds from a colder northeast or easterly direction.

High pressure then, if the models are correct, regresses into the Atlantic by the start of next week, Monday 23 March. This will give us a north to north-westerly flow that will be neither warm nor particularly cold. It will keep many parts of the country dry, though, and it seems likely that some areas will enter an ‘absolute drought’, the definition of which is a period of 15 days or more when no measurable rainfall is recorded (less than 0.2 mm per 24 hour period).

droughtIt’s a slightly archaic expression, adopted by G J Symons in 1887 in his work British Rainfall. It dropped out of official favour around 1960 as more sophisticated hydrological and statistical measures were introduced. A ‘dry spell’, added to weather glossaries in 1919, is a period of 15 consecutive days when no more than 1.0 mm of rain falls in a single day.

Confusingly, perhaps, there is – or was – also a ‘partial drought’: a period of at least 29 consecutive days, whose mean daily precipitation does not exceed 0.2 mm.

Are these definitions useful? Possibly not; but perhaps they should be borne in mind when casual bandying phrases such as ‘dry spell’, lest these be confused — unlikely though that may be — with these withered turns of phrase.

These devices are marvellous, aren’t they? Their usefulness to forecasters as an observational aid is rivalled only by the opportunities they present for sheer escapism.

They are a particular aid to now-casting for winter road clients. Is it snowing at that site yet? We can wait to see how the road surface temperature sensor reacts but let’s take a look at the camera first.


Nope. Beautiful view, though. Which brings me to the second point: with a bit of a time to spare, why not travel the world in webcams? I miss San Francisco, which is probably why my favourite is at the Lawrence Hall of Science in the Berkeley Hills, overlooking  San Francisco Bay.

There’s a timelapse of the previous day, too; but most worth looking at are the few held in the archive.


And now, back in Cumbria, it has snowed; and been ploughed already:




It should have been especially cold yesterday, if mediæval folklore is to be trusted; which clearly it is not.

Yesterday, January 13, was St. Hilary’s Day, which legend insists is the coldest day of the year. Weather prediction would be so simple, would it not, if that were the case? Or at least it would be on just one day of the year. “Fetch my pipe and slippers, for I am not forecasting the weather today; it forecasts itself”.

Although mid-January is of course one of the coldest times of the year, and although some old weather saws and adages do have a germ of truth, there is nothing to support the notion of particular frigidity on the Feast of St. Hilary. The rumour seems to have sprung from a severe and lengthy episode of frostiness in 1205 that lasted more than two months.

Stowe’s Chronicle notes that on this day “began a frost which continued till the two and twentieth day of March, so that the ground could not be tilled; whereof it came to pass that, in summer following a quarter of wheat was sold for a mark of silver in many places of England, which for the more part in the days of King Henry the Second was sold for twelve pence …

Straitened times, then, and no wonder the day that started it gained such a reputation.

‘Hilary of Poitiers’ was born at the end of the 3rd century into a pagan, Neo-Platonic family but fetched up, via study of Greek and then the Old and New Testaments, as a very un-pagan-like Bishop of Poitiers.

Here he is at his ordination with what appears, appropriately, to be a light, if regimented, flurry of snow in the background. And jolly pleased he looks with proceedings, too; as well he might, given that his name is properly St. Hilarius.

hilary of poitiers 1