Levity on the Web: how the internet facilitates pseudoscience – and skepticism

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Steve Donnelly
Steve Donnelly is a physics professor at the University of Salford

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This article originally appeared in The Skeptic, Volume 20, Issue 3, from 2007

Some recent dialogue with a hard-line fellow sceptical physicist has started me thinking about the pros and cons of the internet for people peddling paranormal and pseudoscientific theories.

Specifically, many years ago I appeared on the BBC TV programme, Pebble Mill at One to counter the claims of one John Searl that he had invented and constructed an anti-gravity, perpetual motion flying machine. If I remember correctly, an unfortunate fire at his premises meant that he could not actually demonstrate a functioning vehicle to the cameras; however, he described how his machine (based on rotating magnets) was self-powering and, in a shower of electrical sparks, had been observed by witnesses to levitate and take off into the distance. He also had photographs of mock-ups of his vehicles.

According to Searl, it would only require a little refinement to the technology to enable us to journey to the moon and beyond in a vehicle that today would have the advantage of contributing nothing to global carbon emissions.

I took a sceptical but fairly soft line with the self-styled Professor Searl and did not cast any aspersions on either his integrity or his sanity. Afterwards, my physicist colleague took me strongly to task for my soft line, reckoning that I had “let him off the hook” by using analogies with children’s toys and a Wimshurst machine in an attempt to explain Searl’s purported observations regarding his ‘flying’machines.

The same colleague has recently been back in touch to tell me that John Searl has gone from strength to strength over the years and now has three websites (searleffect.com, searlsolution.com, swallowcommand.com) dedicated to his electromagnetic Searl Effect Generator (S.E.G.) as well as many clips on the video-hosting website YouTube. To add insult to injury, Searl includes images taken from the Pebble Mill programme — including one or two of me (incorrectly titled “a physicist from Manchester University”) in the “media” section of one of the websites, presumably trying to give the impression that I am one of his supporters.

Having taken a look at Searl’s websites, it is certainly true that his activities, and those of similar ‘inventors’ as well as purveyors of pseudoscientific theories and paranormal belief systems in general, have a global reach via the web that they definitely didn’t have back in the days of self-published pamphlets. But does the tremendous opportunity for self-promotion that the web offers necessarily imply that inventors like Searl will be taken more seriously by the general public?

There are undoubtedly contexts where this is the case. A professionally-produced website can certainly serve to lend credibility to many dubious activities. But, by the same token, the detailed exposure of ‘unconventional’ theories using amateur film footage that allows the inventor to explain in his own words the novelty and originality of his ideas can also serve to diminish the credibility of the invention.

Some of the clips on Searl’s website have him dressed in a doctoral gown over what I am informed is an Air Vice Marshall’s uniform explaining the theory behind his rotating magnets. I am not convinced that exposure to this information will have BAe Systems, NASA, or Electricité de France queuing up to invest in the S.E.G.

In short, by allowing ‘unconventional’ inventors to demonstrate their wares at great length, the internet may well be providing a service to scepticism rather than the opposite.

My colleague strongly exhorts me to threaten the publishers of the website with litigation in order to get them to remove images of me from their site – but for the moment this ‘physicist from Manchester University’ feels he has more useful things to do with his time.

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