“I am the least scientific person you’ll ever know,” said Stan Lee on the 2013 PBS documentary, Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle. Still, “Smilin” Stan introduced us to a host of atomic age wonders though his Marvel Comics creations in the ’60s, from the cosmically-infused Fantastic Four to the Amazing Spider-Man himself.

It was the verbiage of science that attracted Lee.

“I had [Peter Parker] bitten by a radioactive spider. I thought that sounded very logical and believable and scientific,” Lee said. “I had the Hulk inundated with gamma rays … I wouldn’t know a gamma ray if I saw one … but if it sounds good, I’ll use it.”


We can’t see gamma rays because they’re much shorter wavelengths than the visible light our eyes are designed to perceive. The 21st century Spider-Man films sidestep scary-sounding radiation in favor of slightly more plausible genetic engineering. Art by Joe Jusko

“I didn’t have time to do any research, there were too many books that had to be written, and we always had those deadlines to worry about,” Lee concluded. An understandable position. In fiction it’s okay to wave your hands a bit and perform some creative hoodoo to bend reality to your narrative.

But just sounding good, or sounding “sciencey,” as Sharon Hill of the weird current events site Doubtful News is fond of saying, isn’t enough to persuade in our universe. Or at least, is shouldn’t be.

New and Shiny

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke wrote in his essay, “Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination.” I guess the inverse must also be true as, throughout history, some pretty magical ideas have been viewed instead as new and cutting edge technologies.

As Daniel Loxton points out in the most recent issue of Junior Skeptic, some tried to buoy the 19th century spiritualism craze, which claimed regular contact with souls of the deceased, by insisting the ghost of Ben Franklin had devised a “spirit telegraph” that transmitted messages from beyond.

After being discovered by Marie and Pierre Curie in 1898, softly-glowing radium become a fad addition to products such as watch dials and doorbells, but one of its more popular and destructive uses was in a device called a “revigator,” a radium-lined jar that was said to turn ordinary water into patent medicine, but really just filled it with radon.


Revigator from icollector.com

It’s easy to scoff at these whacked-out notions in hindsight, but the power of sciencey-sounding language is still employed by hucksters and folks allergic to research in the modern day. Here are three of the most often abused concepts in science, and how they’re twisted to incredible lengths.

Quantum

One of the new characters in next year’s sure-to-be-monumental blockbuster, Avengers: Age of Ultron, is the Scarlet Witch, a Marvel Comics character who can manipulate probabilities either with “chaos magic” or through quantum mechanics, depending on who you ask.


Avengers vs. X-Men #0

Quantum mechanics is a favorite discipline of woo peddlers for a few reasons. Compared to some more historic sciences, it’s still relatively recent on the scene, at only a century or so old! And let’s face it, the consequences predicted by the mathematics are really, really weird. Electrons literally DON’T EXIST in the “band gaps” when changing orbitals? And their location is probabilistic, depending on their measurement, and one could in fact end up on the other side of the galaxy?


Is that really what electron orbitals look like? From wikibooks.org

Screwy stuff to be sure, hard to understand for organisms like us who have evolved to only see the macroscopic, but that doesn’t mean there are no rules and the subatomic world is actually the wild fucking west, where anything can happen. Quantum mechanics persists DESPITE its inherent physical weirdness because it makes predictions that are phenomenally well-corroborated by experiment.

Contrast that with New Age gurus who try to find wiggle room in the uncertainty to inject anything from free will to full-on, psychic reality manipulation, as in the sci-fi self-help book, The Secret. Some say since an “observer” is needed to collapse a quantum wave function, nothing exists until we test it. This is a misinterpretation of the fact that ANY kind of interaction can act as an “observation,” and also overlooks that these effects vanish for anything much bigger than a nanometer. The neurons in our head are about a thousand times that size, beyond the bounds of quantum special pleading.

Energy

Now there’s a word that gets tossed around a lot, whether it be as “energy blasts,” “energy fields,” “life energy” or whatever else.


You can’t really SEE energy, so Iron Man’s repulsors must be some sort of plasma, which is made up of ionized air molecules. From Iron Man (Vol. 5) #1

Energy is just the ability to do work, a quantity that can measured like anything else, usually in units of joules. It can be transferred according to normal physical laws, such as those of thermodynamics, and can be stored in chemical bonds, the kinetic motion of molecules or other places. That’s about it. Simple, yet powerful.

Maybe too powerful, as the word “energy” gets applied to any kind of mystic substance a person can’t see. This could be “the energy of the universe,” but is more often used to represent something within human beings, whether it’s called chi, reiki or whatever else. Some “alternative health” practitioners claim that disease is due to an imbalance or other malfunction in a person’s “energy,” and that they know a way to restore you, through healing touch, aura therapy, reflexology or acupuncture.


Acupuncture purveyors believe you can cure disease by tapping into the area’s particular chi meridian. Study after study shows, however, that acupuncture is no more effective than placebo, it doesn’t matter where you put the needles, and you really only have to touch them to the skin rather than inserting them.

But what is this energy? Light, heat, radiation? Is it just the chemical energy that’s supplied by the food we eat? If it’s something else, why can’t we measure it? Or even define it? How can a reiki master send it around the world without it dissipating? Does it not follow an inverse-square law like every other form of energy ever identified?

Pseudoscientists often use “energy” interchangeably with “vibrations” or “frequencies.” Why not, right? It’s not like they’re going to tell us what’s vibrating or waving. But they’ll sure as hell try to sell you something to “realign” those “life frequencies.”

Toxins

“Toxin” is a term used to sound not just sciencey, but scary. Who wants toxins in them? Shit, I know I don’t! Avenger-in-training Hazmat is bursting at the seams with them, whether they be of a chemical or radioactive nature, or even anti-matter.


Avengers Academy #34

Some people claim we all are, and that you need to “detoxify” or you’ll (maybe even literally) explode. There are a million different methods proposed to remove your “toxins,” from cleanse solutions to adhesive foot pads to the dangerously misguided chelation therapy.

Which toxins are we talking about? Chelation targets heavy metals and can genuinely be useful when legitimate poisoning occurs, though that’s increasingly rare now that we don’t handle great quantities of lead in our everyday lives. The rest are often left nameless. Why should we assume any one treatment would be effective against a myriad of substances, as is claimed?


This is a real product, meant to pull “toxins” out through your feet. They actually change color due to moisture.

And what makes toxins toxic, anyway? It’s usually not the nature of the stuff itself, but the dose or the amount inside you. It might seem unnerving to think there’s formaldehyde flowing through your veins, given its association with embalming, but it’s also a normal byproduct of metabolism and you certainly don’t need to find ways to suck out the little bit that’s there.

Caveat Emptor

Poorly-conceived science doesn’t have to ruin our enjoyment of comic books. The worst thing that’ll cause is some circular arguments about whether or not the Hulk can lift Thor’s hammer. But when a person tries to sell you on something in the real world by using general scientific terms without explanation, let the buyer beware. They’re probably trying to dazzle you with meaningless vagaries while pretending to be authorities. At least Stan admits he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

  • David Brooke

    Like.

  • FloydGayweather

    Awesome, informative article as always.

  • Assholecritic

    No Stan, the least scientific people around are theoretical physicists. They’re the world’s biggest dummies.