1. Kovac, J. J. Chem. Educ. 1996, 73, 926.
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  15. Goldfein, S. Energy Development from Elemental Transmutations in Biological Systems, Report 2247, U.S. Army Mobility Equipment Research and Development Command, Ft. Belvoir, VA, 1978.
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  28. Epstein, M. S.; Using Pseudoscience to Teach Chemistry, 23rd Meeting of the Federation of Analytical Chemistry and Spectroscopy Societies, Kansas City, MO, Paper 366, Oct. 2 1996.
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General Papers (or software) relating to the use of pseudoscience and pathological science in chemical education (1,2,3,42) All
Polywater The claim that water, when condensed in narrow quartz capillaries, takes on polymeric properties (4). The effect was shown to be a result of contamination and is an outstanding example of Occam's Razor (7), that the simplest explanation is often the correct one. Of further interest is the dispute in the literature between critics of polywater regarding to the form of contamination (5,6).

Experimental design


Liquid properties

Intermolecular bonding

Colligative properties such as boiling point elevation and freezing point depression.

Cold Fusion The alleged detection of anomalous heat, tritium, neutrons, gamma rays, or He3 from electrochemical experiments involving the electrolysis of heavy water using a palladium cathode (8,9). In addition to the topics of experimental design and scientific fraud, the implications of Pascal's Wager as applied to scientific research can be discussed (8). Cold Fusion is still discussed in at least one popular general chemistry textbook (11) as an unresolved controversy.



Experimental design

Atomic structure

Nuclear fusion

Radiation detectors


Scientific fraud

Forensic analysis (GC-MS) (10)

Homeopathy The claim that water retains the memory of dissolved substances diluted far beyond the point at which even one molecule of the solute remains, and this memory results in beneficial health effects (12). Homeopathic medicines that can be used as classroom props can be found in almost any drugstore.


Experimental design

The analytical blank and contamination

Concentration units

The Avogadro number

Biotransmutation The claim that biological systems can perform elemental transmutations by simple addition or subtraction of elements, such as iron minus hydrogen equals manganese (13,14). The history of this claim can be traced back almost 200 years, including a 1978 U.S. Army study (15) on possible energy development from elemental transmutations in biological systems. Claims are based on differences in the elemental composition of seeds and young plants without the use of proper blanks, standards, calibration and contamination control, and a total ignorance of methodological systematic errors (16,17).


Experimental design

Experimental error

The analytical blank

Nuclear reactions

N-rays The 1903 claim of renowned French physicist René Blondlot to have discovered a new, invisible radiation called N-rays that were focused by aluminum optics and detected using fluorescence. His work was investigated by American physicist Robert Wood, who proved conclusively that N-rays did not exist (18-20).



Wavelength-dispersive instrumentation


Pyramid Power The claim that dramatic changes in elemental composition of water can be obtained by exposure to pyramid energy, with examples from chemical analysis (21).


The analytical blank

Experimental error

Conservation of Mass in Chemical Reactions Claims of deviations from the principle of the conservation of mass in chemical reactions, established by Landolt (22) have appeared sporadically in the literature . These claims are based on differences in mass between vessels containing reacting chemicals and empty control vessels and explanations have ranged from buoyancy effects from increased internal vessel pressure (23) to the presence of dark matter (24).

Chemical reactions

Analytical balance

Buoyancy effects in weighing

Alchemy Transmutation experiments were carried out at a major university (25) in an attempt to produce anomalous concentrations of gold as well as radioactive species (26). This became a landmark case in the issue of academic freedom, when departmental colleagues of the researcher demanded his demotion and resignation.


The analytical blank

Reference Material Effect Described as the Standard Reference Materials (SRM) Syndrome (27), this refers to the bias in analytical measurement that seems to occur when the analyst knows what he "should" be getting for a result. Statistical analysis of literature values for SRMs with incorrect certified values for one or more elements has verified this effect (28). Similar effects are reported for replicate samples, where sample weights are identical (27).

Experimental design

General analytical procedures

Quality control

Search for the Soul A number of experiments performed in the early part of the 20th century involved a search for physical evidence for the human soul. Among these studies was an attempt to determine the mass of a soul by constructing a large analytical balance and monitoring the weight of dying patients (29).

Analytical balance

Weighing errors

Allison Magneto-Optic Method of Chemical Analysis Using a method based on the Faraday Effect in liquids, Allison (30) proceeded from conventional investigation to extraordinary claims of incredible method sensitivity and selectivity, allowing him to claim the discovery of several new elements. Subsequent research (19,31) showed the results of Allison's method to have "no objective reality."

Spark radiation sources

Faraday Effect


UFOs and cattle mutilations A white material found near a mutilated cow was claimed by local authorities to possess very unusual chemical and physical properties (32). Subsequent and more competent investigation found the material to be paper filler from a nearby paper plate manufacturer, and not the residue from an bovine encounter with a UFO (33).

Scanning Electron Microscopy

Forensic investigation





Psychokinesis In an video segment produced for his NOVA program, Secrets of the Psychics, but not used in the final production, James Randi (34) examines a Rasputin-lookalike who claims the ability to produce chemical change by mind power or psychokinesis. The psychic accompanied by a Russian Ph.D. chemist, causes an apparent change in the properties of a solution sitting on a magnetic stirrer. The psychic concentrates intensely on the beaker, and after several minutes of focusing on the solution, and with an occasional grunt, the solution turns from blue to green and finally to yellow. The psychic then sits back with a satisfied look on his face. After showing the video, the instructor puts on his psychic outfit (with safety glasses, of course) and performs the same miracle for the class! Of course, the instructor also has a pH meter handy to demonstrate to the class (but not before amazing them) that the psychic is exhaling into the beaker, causing the pH to drop due to CO2 reaction with water, and the bromthymol blue indicator, which was originally blue due to base added to the solution, turns green and then yellow. (see Figure 1)

Experimental design (test the psychic by covering the beaker)

Calculating the pH of weak acid solutions

Acid-base indicators

Aqueous equilibrium

Miracle Blood of St. Januarius In the early 1990s, a number of publications (35,36) reported on the work of 3 Italian scientists, Luigi Garlaschelli, Franco Ramaccini and Sergio Della Sala, who simulated the miracle blood of Saint Januarius using a thixotropic colloidal suspension of iron oxide. The miracle blood, kept in a reliquary in the cathedral of Naples, Italy, undergoes a transformation from a solid, coagulated mass to flowing liquid when displayed by the Bishop on the saint's feast days. The experiment is easily replicated as a laboratory demonstration by reacting ferric chloride with calcium carbonate, and performing a dialysis using a semi-permeable membrane on the resulting reaction product (37). A short video can be used to introduce the topic and demonstration (38).

Osmotic pressure



Shroud of Turin

The investigations surrounding the Shroud of Turin provide a plethora of opportunity for inclusion in classroom discussion (39,40). There is probably no better example of the application of Pascal's Wager to scientific thought than the analytical chemistry associated with the investigation of the Shroud An excellent introduction to the topic is a video excerpt from Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious Universe (38). An interesting subtopic related to the Shroud investigation is the spectroscopy done to prove that a pattern in the eyes of the Shroud image matched a lepton coin from the time of Pontius Pilate (41). Using a technique called Polarized Image Overlay, researchers projected oppositely polarized images of a lepton coin and the image of the Shroud eye onto a screen, and viewed the resulting overlapped images with a third polarizer that allowed switching back and forth between images and noting congruencies. The experiment is easily replicated as a classroom demonstration, and is particularly useful in demonstrating the need for blind (and even double-blind) experimentation. Equipment required is two overhead projectors, two large and a number of small polarizers, a lenticular screen (to reflect polarized light), transparencies of different coin images and an image of the Shroud eye.


Radiometric dating (Carbon-14)

Chemical kinetics

Rate laws

Radioactive half-life calculations

Experimental design

Polarization and reflection of radiation


Finally, want the BEST place to start looking for skeptical information on the Internet about pseudoscientific claims. Try Jim Lippard's Sources of Skeptical Information on the Internet. Another excellent source of information is Brian Tissue's page on scientific ethics.

  More claims that can be related to chemical topics, discovered since this page was first written:

Brown's Gas, a stoichiometric mixture of hydrogen and oxygen gases that (according to supporters): (a) upon ignition, implodes to form a nearly perfect vacuum; (b) burns much hotter than conventional flames (up to 6000 to 8000 degrees C); (c) is stable and non-explosive; and (d) is "another state of water besides ice, water and steam".

Red Mercury, said to be a compound of pure mercury and mercury antimony oxide, is claimed to: (a) be used to make bombs and other nuclear weapons; (b) was secretly manufactured in South Africa and the former Soviet Union; and (c) has such explosive power that a hand grenade sized bomb could blow a ship out of the water. Several articles describing this incredible substance are Fortean Times, Volume 69, June/July 1993, p. 44, and The American Legion Magazine, "Today's New Nuclear Monster" by Peter Schweizer, Vol. 135/2 (Aug 93), p. 30. Caveat emptor.

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Page prepared by: Mike Epstein
Last Modified: 15 Aug 99