Category: Pseudoscience

Um Starbucks, could you not?

The Starbucks I go to is now selling magic beans. Well, matcha tea lattes actually, which are like magic beans in the sense that they possess special powers:

Detox the body

High in antioxidants

Helps the immune system

Burns calories

I was particularly intrigued at the last claim. This latte actually “burns calories”.

Which is strange, because a venti serving of said magic tea latte — sorry, matcha tea latte — contains 316 calories all on its own, making it the most calorie-laden tea drink on the menu:

This is pretty much a similar number of calories as in one of those super-sized chocolate chip cookies they sell.

Hmm. Do the chocolate cookies also “burn” calories?

Obviously this is all ridiculous. When you drink a venti matcha tea latte, you consume calories, you don’t burn them. You consume as many calories as you would if you ate a chocolate biscuit.

Physical activity burns calories. Some other things (like stress) can also burn calories, but not always in a good way.

You can’t burn calories by consuming them.

But I guess anything that claims to perform “detox” is bound to be bunkum.

Stephen Hawking RIP

Stephen Hawking is dead. Far be it from the likes of me to write him an obituary. You can see several of these elsewhere, many of them heartfelt and insightful.

Two thoughts come to mind at this time. Firstly, Hawking is to be greatly admired for being both a highly regarded theorist and researcher, and a genuine celebrity scientist. In this he joins very few who have managed to achieve fame in their own lifetimes by changing the way we understand the fundamentals of our universe.

These days, it often seems that celebrity scientists are not really leaders in their fields, and that leaders in their fields seldom become real celebrities.

Secondly, Hawking — at least to me — exemplified someone who practiced the role of scientist in its totality. He not only talked scientific talk, he walked a scientific walk.

By this I mean Stephen Hawking can be thanked not just for his theoretical and empirical contributions to physics, but also for the way he promoted scientific skepticism and critical acuity among the general public. Many scientists purport to do this by role-modelling rigour in their work. Hawking went further. He frequently set aside time to actively promote the cause of scientific thinking in the general population, and to advocate against bunkum and pseudoscience in the public square.

Most of us will permanently struggle to appreciate the true impact of Stephen Hawking’s work on cosmology and theoretical physics. However, we can all applaud his advocacy in the promotion of reason, balance, rigour, empiricism, logic, and evidence.

Hawking railed against the dangers of ‘fake news’ decades before the term ever became fashionable.

As such, it is somewhat ironic that this quote is so often attributed to him:


The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.

The statement teaches us something important about science and pseudoscience — namely, that the bravado of assumption is more treacherous than the caution of self-aware naivete. It is consistent with Hawking’s many messages about the importance of scientific rigour. The phrase ‘illusion of knowledge‘ encapsulates the warning in an eloquent and powerful way.

The problem — wonderfully — is that, while Hawking conveyed this view many times, the quote in question was never actually his own.


Nobody has identified any record of Hawking ever making the statement as phrased above. The exact source of the quotation is unclear, but it has been doing the rounds in one form or another for a very long time:

  • 1861: ‘the great enemy of knowledge is not error, but inertness‘ — Henry Thomas Buckle, historian

It was used several times by author, educator, and librarian Daniel J. Boorstin.

All we can say is that the claim Stephen Hawking authored this quote is itself an illusion of knowledge.

Stephen Hawking did more than most scientists to warn humanity against the perils of seduction by charismatic ignorance. It is because of people like him that more of us are willing to question the flim-flam, propaganda, and pseudo-knowledge that threatens to overwhelm public and civic debate.

He will be fondly remembered as a true cultural icon of our times.

Rest in peace, Professor Hawking.


“Are psychics the new psychologists?”

The Sunday Independent ran a short piece on psychics the other week, in which I was quoted as referring to “unreliable forces” when I had actually said “unreliable sources.” My bad, I’m sure.

The writer had interviewed me for this piece many months ago. I guess the obvious joke here would somehow refer to the fact that I had no idea when it was going to be published. But I try not to make obvious jokes.

Here’s a taster:

With modern life comes instant gratification; people want immediate resolutions to their problems, but does the power of a psychic rest with personality type? Are you more likely to believe because you want to? Brian Hughes, Professor of Psychology at NUI Galway, doesn’t think so. “Human beings thrive on certainty and we are all prone to being convinced to some degree by authority figures; most of the information we get is from someone else. It’s not an individual character flaw that leads someone to trust unreliable forces.”

i.e., sources.

See what you make of the entire article by clicking here.




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