Science Fiction
Published October 3, 2005

There have been hucksters and frauds since—and this is just my personal guess—the invention of money. As soon as there was a buck (or heavy stone wheel, depending on your variety of local currency) to be made, these people were out there trying to sell hope, relief, or whatever people wanted. And people bought, because they wanted to believe that they could be cured, that their lives could get better. Sometimes things did improve, and those times were evidence of the success of the product or service being sold. Sometimes things stayed the same, or got worse, and that was explained as misuse, or some other mistake on the part of the buyer.

Modern science has changed our lives in many ways, and the hucksters and frauds have changed too. Science, with its rigorous investigative practices should have been a bane to fraud, but instead it has been appropriated as a tool of the hucksters. People, for the most part, are still credulous, willing to believe things they hope are true. Now, the hucksters can use “research” and spout fake “science” to support their claims. After all, if the men and women in the white lab coats say its good for us, then it has to be true, right?

Wrong, of course. There are so many hoaxes and lies out there, it’s hard to know where to begin. Certainly, I don’t have room in this column to refute them all. If you want an amusing investigation into all sorts of paranormal and pseudoscientific topics, I suggest reading The Skeptic’s Dictionary by Robert Todd Carroll. His website, skepdic.com, has much the same information, and was a valuable resource for this column.

Dr. Carroll—who holds a doctorate from UCSD and is a Philosophy professor at Sacramento City College—devotes a large part of his website to the many ways humans can delude themselves. Psychologists and other scientists have reams of research (again, I refer you to the website) detailing the many ways we all deceive ourselves. We grab on to positive evidence and ignore and downplay negative results; we read significance into coincidence that isn’t there; we conflate events that happen in sequence, thinking that they show causality; we tend to ascribe mystical antecedents to phenomena we do not understand; we put value in anecdotal evidence where there is none.

Last month, the Tribune ran a column by local Gay Hilton on “Dr.” Masaru Emoto’s book “The Hidden Messages in Water.” I put Mr. Emoto’s title in quotes because he is not a medical doctor; his degree is from the Open International University of Alternative Medicine, not an accredited medical school. Even less impressive is Emoto’s work on water crystals. He claims that thoughts, words, music, and ideas can affect the crystallization of water, changing the shape of the crystals in meaningful ways.

Emoto has never followed established scientific guidelines for his experiments (he admited as much himself, in an interview with the Maui News); instead, it seems he allows his photographers to pick single crystals that seem to support his conclusions, ignoring those that might not. The James Randi Educational Foundation has offered Emoto a million dollar prize if he can demonstrate his “water messages” using double-blind testing techniques (wherein the photographer looking at the crystals doesn’t know how they’ve been “treated” beforehand). Emoto has so far refused.

Nor has Mr. Emoto ever published a peer-reviewed article in a reputable scientific journal. The closest he ever got was a photo essay in an issue of the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, which made no attempt to scientifically prove any of his claims. This is because his claims are patently absurd; Emoto would rather sell books on water, jewelry inspired by his “research,” and stickers, of all things (refer to Emoto’s website for these great deals).

Mr. Emoto is a great example of pseudoscience. He sounds like he is doing research, when, in fact, he is not. His techniques are designed so as to easily fall victim to the various means of self-delusion that Carroll details in his book. The crystal photographers, Emoto admits in the Maui News interview, are often aware of just what sort of crystal they’d like to see; they likely conveniently ignore crystals that don’t fall into their preconceived categories.

Emoto’s supporters take these “results” on faith and tout them as amazing evidence of the power of thought, when they are, in fact, completely meaningless photographs. Hilton reads into Emoto’s claims her own ideas on quantum mechanics, ideas that, to the best of my own knowledge (and a quick poll of some real scientists at Allegheny College), are based on nothing more than flights of fancy. If Hilton has any published evidence to back her pseudoscience, I’d certainly be fascinated to hear it.

Emoto’s quackery is not particularly dangerous, except perhaps to your pocketbook. But there are many more like him around the world, and they are spreading false hope to people who are often in great pain, or suffering from terrible diseases. Hilton offers up the idea that many diseases—including cancer—are caused by mysterious parasites; implicit in her claims is the tantalizing hope of a cure. Why those who spend years researching real treatments for cancer haven’t stumbled across the “truth” is no mystery; this is more than just harmless entertainment. It is ruthless exploitation, of people who are often willing to be exploited for only the hope that something new might relieve their suffering.

Mr. Emoto and his ilk do not deserve our respect; they deserve to be dismissed, to have their lies and untruths laid bare. Science and medicine may not have all the answers, and they can’t cure all our ills, at least not yet. But they are the best chance we have. Let’s not waste time on quacks and make-believe.