Quacks Like a Duck

In Pseudoscience by Brian Koberlein4 Comments

The image above features a neuron on the left, and a simulation of large scale galaxy clusters on the right. They look somewhat similar in structure, and if the internet is to be believed, this means something. And it does. Not that the universe is alive, or the cosmos is like a giant brain, but simply that sometimes two radically different things can have similarities in structure.

I’ve been getting a lot of comments and emails lately from fans of alternative science models such as the electric universe. They typically link to a video asking for my thoughts, or simply stating that it proves “us scientists” are clearly wrong. I’ve been watching a few of them, since it’s a good way to avoid grading final exams, and I’ve noticed a common trend. I’ll call it the “if it looks like a duck” argument.

A Tesla ball and the Sun have some similarities. Credit: Paul E. Anderson, et al.

For example, there’s a recent experiment by electric universe supporters known as the SAFIRE project. The basic setup is a plasma globe (or Tesla ball) where things like voltage, current, and gas pressure can be varied. What the project shows is that there are some broad similarities between a plasma ball and the Sun. There are current hot spots, an overall surface glow, and the surrounding plasma gets hotter than the surface of the ball. The similarities are kind of interesting to see, but from them many EU supporters claim that this demonstrates the Sun is actually electrically charged. That is, the similarities show that the underlying physics must be the same.

Water waves are similar to light waves.

Water waves are similar to light waves.

This is a common misconception, particularly within “alternative” science. It is why you often hear arguments that one doesn’t need to get bogged down in the details (or mathematics) because the solution is so obviously clear. But physics is filled with things that are structurally similar but caused by very different underlying processes. A popular example in introductory physics is the use of water waves to demonstrate the interference of light. Water can be used to help explain the double slit experiment for light, because both water and light exhibit wave behavior. However it is completely unfounded to conclude from this that light is literally made of water.

The power of such physical analogies is that they make complex phenomena seem simple and obvious. It is why most of alternative science folks focus on videos and visual slides rather than actual research papers, and why so many people send me links to these videos as “proof” that my years of training and experience are obviously wrong.

But just as light is not made of water and galactic superclusters are not neurons, the Sun is not electric. Physical similarities are useful to explore, and they are sometimes right, but they are often wrong.



  1. Very interesting read. We do tend to compartmentalize things down into easily digestible thoughts. Some times a cigar is just a cigar and sometimes two snowflakes DO look alike.

  2. How to address this pattern has been bouncing around in my head for a while now. I think you nailed it, though I am interested to learn more about how and why people do this. I knew people ascribed meaning to the visual similarities, but I thought that meaning was vaguely mystical in nature. I didn’t know people took it to the point where they said that the two things were actually the same. Anyways, thanks for the article.

    1. Re water & light: the patterns are caused by matter caught in a wave, so even though water is not light, the manifestation of energy as interference patterns *are* identical. To dismiss this is to say that apples and pears fall for different reasons because they are made from different chemical elements. Gravity is energy expressed in a specific manner, the nature of the matter it acts upon is irrelevant, the same applies to ‘waves’.

      Re neuron and galaxy cluster: the same thing, actually. Both are electrically active systems interconnected by mediums (of different type). The plasma channels conduct electricity just like neurons. What we see is a base-pattern for ‘evolved electrical systems’ which differ from ‘constructed electrical systems’. Again the focus is on ‘the stuff that makes the pattern’ (organic life vs burning balls of gas) instead of the nature of energy being expressed (electrical). I do agree that that possibility of being _enthralled_ by the visual similarity is significant, but I also know that recent observations have verified the electrical and magnetic nature of the ‘plasma channels spanning between galaxies’. (plasma/magnetism/electricity -> plasma+(either) = the other must be there)

      When patterns correspond it does not mean the ‘matter’ is the same, it (strongly) implies that the mechanical properties of energy in expression are consistent. Probably we have proportions of effect (light needs less energy to produce the patterns while water requires more because photons are lighter (pun!) than water molecules).

      I like to consider energy as important in both examples given in this text. The ‘cigar is a cigar’ does not consider energy and only matter (stuff that does not move).

      1. If you wish to argue over the nuances, then what about the fact that light waves are self-propagating through vacuum, while water waves are conducted via a matter medium? Sure, both are expressions of energy (“broad similarities”), but are in fact different expressions of energy (“the details matter”).

Leave a Reply