What is Pseudoscience?

Pseudoscience as it pertains to medical issues is the first broad category of quackery that we will explore. 

We spent a good deal of time exploring the concept of science and the philosophy behind it. Science has worked its way into our culture as a reliable source of knowledge. However, many do not really understand science.  Most of us recognize scientific sounding words such as "quantum", "energy", and "vibration", or health-related terms such as "immune system" and "toxins". It is very difficult for the average person to know if these terms are being used properly or if particular claims are scientific.

Proponents of unscientific ideas frequently appeal to the public's limited understanding of science to gain support and followers. It would seem that the public generally values science, even if understanding in it is lacking. Proponents of unscientific ideas often appeal to the public's value of science by dressing their ideas up in scientific sounding words and by proclaiming scientific support for their ideas. We call such ideas and practices "pseudoscience".  

Let's look at a few published definitions: 

"Pseudoscientific - pretending to be scientific, falsely represented as being scientific", from the Oxford American Dictionary, published by the Oxford English Dictionary

Michael Shermer defined pseudoscience as "claims presented so that they appear [to be] scientific even though they lack supporting evidence and plausibility".

Identifying pseudoscience can be difficult. We must have a grasp on what demarcates science from non-science. Then we can develop tools for recognizing pseudoscience.

Science and Non-science

Karl Popper is famous for introducing the idea of falsifiability, as discussed in What is Science?. To Popper, scientific ideas are potentially falsifiable. In other words, scientific claims are testable and, potentially, can be disproven if they happen to be false. This is reasonable, if not definitive.

**Non-scientific claims, then, are not falsifiable. Such claims may be philosophic, such as in ethics, aesthetics. They may be religious. Branches of philosophy do not attempt to make scientific claims. They may use argumentation and logic based on values. Science has nothing to say about them, but may inform them with usable facts, laws and theories.

Some ideas are completely compatible with science in that they are inferred using currently accepted scientific knowledge, but they cannot be falsified. They lead to no testable hypotheses. We classify these ideas as 'protoscience'. As they are currently unverifiable and have no predictive power, protosciences may be labelled as 'non-science'. This label does not imply that a protoscience will never be a science. As we discussed previously, some of our foundational sciences today started out as protosciences in that they were once ideas that we had no means of testing. Scientists had no way of confirming General Relativity and Germ Theory until a clearer understanding emerged. Today, many would classify String Theory as a protoscience.

Some ideas sound scientific, but in the end are not useful. An example of this is Freud's psychoanalysis.  As Popper pointed out, one can use its implications to fit with almost anyone's situation. Since it seems to explain all psychological problems in the same way, it makes no predictions that are unique to an individual patient. Psychoanalysis is therefore unfalsifiable, and hence, non-scientific.

Science and Pseudoscience

However, proponents of pseudosciences do make claims that are potentially falsifiable. These claims therefore demand a proper use of the scientific method before one can accept them. Typically, such a claim has a low prior probability and therefore requires strong, unambiguous evidence (recall Bayesian Probability in the 'What is Science?' section).  It should be pointed out that a claim should not be considered pseudoscience unless its proponents fail to acknowledge the rigorous process of the scientific method, results of the method, or scrutiny of results by qualified experts. 

In many cases, a claim is properly falsified, yet proponents still adhere to it (often with renewed dedication). They rationalize and defend their idea against scrutiny by using fallacies, claims of  injustice, claims of conspiracy, or by adjusting their idea to render it immune to testing. We will discuss examples of such fields in the Pseudoscience in Healthcare section. (Also, see "Moving the Goalpost" and "Special Pleading" in the Logical Fallacies section.) 

Sometimes, pseudoscience takes the form of embracing an established scientific notion, and extrapolating its implications far beyond what is warranted. This is often the case for vitamin supplements. Vitamin C is needed for protein building. Deficiency of vitamin C leads to the deadly condition of Scurvy. Getting enough vitamin C for proper protein building is important. However, many claim that taking vitamin C in high doses can make one healthier than healthy, can "boost the immune system" and prevent all kinds of diseases. The fact that many of these claims have been properly tested and falsified does not silence the claims.    

Some pseudosciences make negative claims against established science. Their proponents deny the validity of proper scientific ideas in order to boost their competing, non-scientific or pseudo-scientific ideas. We call this 'Denialism'. They may exploit insignificant anomalies in the data to find a problem in one line of evidence for an established theory, and thereby claim to have falsified the entire theory.  They may dismiss scientific support for a theory altogether with accusations of conspiracy by the theory's supporters. They may exploit the public's fundamental misunderstanding of scientific concepts to "prove" that the so-called experts are wrong. All of these processes can be seen in the modern "anti-vaccine" movement and in the "9/11 Truther" movement.

Many practitioners of medicine can get trapped by their own psychological biases. To the casual observer, they may seem to be practicing scientific medicine with the bells and whistles of science, such as laboratory testing the use of scientific terms. At its core, science-based medicine should be a continuous, self-correcting process that gets things wrong but then admits failures, learns from mistakes and progressively makes progress. Pseudoscience doesn't do this. Pseudoscience does not self-correct, it self-confirms.

**You Can't Have it Both Ways

"Many pseudo- and fringe-scientists often react to the failure of science to confirm their prized beliefs, not by gracefully accepting the possibility that they were wrong, but by arguing that science is defective."
 Ray Hyman, Ph.D.

We learned in the Philosophy and Science section that we cannot use science to justify the use of science. This 'begs the question'. We use science to gain knowledge over other 'ways of knowing' because we value consistency and progress. We value a system that is not arbitrary. 

**If one chooses to defend a favored idea under the banner of science, then one cannot reject science when it does not support the idea. It is completely contradictory to pay lip-service to non-arbitrary science, and then arbitrarily minimize science in favor of 'other ways of knowing'. 

Hallmarks of Pseudoscience

By definition, practitioners of pseudoscience may not adhere to scientific methodology. They often do not use proper controls or blinding in experiments. Unless the skeptic has direct access to the pseudoscientist's work, such errors may not be obvious. They can be cleverly hidden in the text of a paper.  

We need a list of traits that would raise one's suspicion of pseudoscience. Various sources have compiled compelling lists of red flag criteria to help identify pseudoscience. Below is a synthesis of these lists. Upon reviewing the list, one can see the appeal of some pseudoscientific fields, especially in that they appeal to positive emotions, offer certainty, and do not require continuous modification. These qualities may be nice, but the exploration of the actual state of nature must be progressive and open to the unknown.

Lists such as these are not comprehensive or definitive. The identified 'red flags'  are meant to raise the ire of skepticism.
Note: PS = Pseudoscience, S = Science

I. General Qualities

A. Stagnation

Core concepts tend to remain the same as described by the PS founders/ originators.

           Lack of Progress             -  S fields make progress, PS fields generally do not.
           Lack of self-correction     - PS continues making same claims despite contradictory evidence..
           Appeals to Antiquity         - PS adheres to the explanations of its founders without modification in light of newer knowledge.
           Appeals to Tradition        - PS values adherence to tradition over modification.
           Texts are decades old    - (or older) PS Texts are not updated in light of newer knowledge

B. Appeal to Uplifting Beliefs 

PS claims tend to be personally empowering; are emotionally comforting. 

           Appeal to Holism             - PS tends to view nature as more than the sum of its parts; often implies greater meaning to existence.
                                                      - (In Medicine) PS pays lip service to considering the 'whole' patient (mind, body and spirit).
                                                      - (In Medicine) PS often asserts that science-based doctors only care about symptoms.
           Naturalistic Fallacy          - That which is natural is also good in a moral sense and in utility.


C. Incoherence

PS claims often conflict with well-established, scientific knowledge.

           Ignores Occam's Razor  - PS claims often require more unestablished assumptions than competing claims.
           Extraordinary Claims      - Extraordinary claims are made without extraordinary, unambiguous, reproducible evidence.

D. Vague Language

PS uses language that is open for interpretation/ nonspecific. S claims should be specific. 
          Weasel Words                 - Such statements seem specific, but are vague or meaningless (eg. "Supports the immune system").
          Technobabble                  - PS uses scientific-sounding words in an incomprehensible yet impressive sounding way.
                                                    - Often appeals to the current fringes of legitimate science (eg. "quantum", "nano", "harmonic", etc.) 

E. Appeal to Simplicity and Certainty

PS presents ideas that are very easy to understand, no matter how implausible. PS ideas are usually presented with great certainty. Thus, the average lay person may find it appealing over the complicated and uncertain nature of real science.

In medical pseudoscience, diseases have simple causes and therefore simple cures. Many medical pseudosciences claim knowledge of the single cause of all disease. The single cause of disease has a single cure of all disease

Of course, numerous medical pseudosciences make contradictory claims about the single cause and cure of all disease. They cannot all be correct. Most likely, none of them are.           

II. Methodology

A. Avoids Falsification

PS claims are altered to avoid being proven wrong.

         Moving the Goalpost                - Predefined endpoints of research are changed when the evidence is not favorable. 
         Special Pleading                      - Excuses arise to explain negative findings (e.g. "Experiments do not work around skeptics.") 
         Arbitrary Ways of Knowing      - When not supported by S, PS claims support from popularity, authority, intuition, revelation, etc.
         Appeal to Mystery                    - PS claims that science is not equipped to understand the belief.            

B. Over-reliance on Confirmation

Only interested in finding and showing confirmatory evidence.

        Correlation                                      - PS assumes correlation means causation.
        Selection Bias                                 - PS selects to study only subjects that are likely to agree with or confirm the idea.
        Ignores disconfirming evidence   
        Anecdotes/ Personal Testimony     - PS highlights emotionally moving 'success' stories, often in front of a supportive audience.

C. Avoids scrutiny

        Not transparent                           - PS does not make clear its experimental methods, selection criteria, etc.
        Secrecy                                       - PS research is done in private, avoids interaction with skeptics.
        Reports directly to media            - PS avoids peer review and replication by announcing findings directly to the public eye.

III. Defense

A. Reverses burden of proof

- PS argues that if you cannot prove it wrong, then you have no grounds for questioning it.

B. Argument from Ignorance

- PS argues that there are gaps in S's knowledge, and PS can fill in those gaps.

C. Persecuted by hostile establishment

- PS argues that S has biased those in power against it. PS must fight to be heard.

D. Suppressed by establishment

- The virtues of PS would be available to all, if not for being suppressed by those in power.

E. Conspiracy

- PS claims vast conspiracies; it knows the things that "they don't want you to know about".

IV. Characteristics of Pseudoscientists

A. Impervious to Evidence

- Does not listen to disconfirming evidence. Often responds to criticism with hostility.

B. Demonize enemies

- When confronted with contradictory evidence, PS characterizes the skeptic as evil.

C. Magical thinking

- PS proponents may appeal to supernatural, unseen forces.

D. Irrelevant credentials

- The PS proponent's credentials are often in a field other than one relevant to the claim.

E. Work in isolation

- PS 'research" is done away from academia, sometimes in the proponent's own home.

F. Ulterior Motives

- The proponent often sells products directly to the public (books, gadgets, remedies).

Example of Pseudoscience Techno-babble

John Byrne,  M.D.

References and Links

"Characteristics of Pseudoscience." 2007. 

"Questions to help distinguish a pseudoscience from a - Physics." 2002. 

"Science and Pseudo-Science (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)." 

Beyerstein, Barry L. "Distinguishing science from pseudoscience." Victoria, BC: The Center for Curriculum and Professional Development (1995).

"Pseudoscience - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia." 2003.