What is Pseudoscience?

I’d be happy with that, Argon, if there weren’t an equally nebulous concept of “pseudoscience” that’s nevertheless rigorous enough to get people blacklisted in professional settings.

I can call myself (and what I do) anything I like, because I’m not seeking grants, employment, publication in specialist journals or a PhD. If I were, those interacting with me would have opinions on the boundaries.


Pseudoscience isn’t necessarily hard to determine (Personally, I prefer the term ‘bad science’, though ‘bad science’ is a broader term). Homeopathy, astrology and Peter Duesberg’s notion that drug use causes AIDS are all readily assessed as pseudoscience. Ditto for the vociferous anti-vaccination groups that claimed mercury in vaccines produced autism.

Let’s take the ‘mercury in vaccines accounts for the significant rise in autistic children’ idea. Initially, it might have been a decent initial hypothesis to investigate. But as the data came in showing no significant correlation with vaccinations it became clear that the hypothesis didn’t hold up. Today, there’s still the mercury and ‘toxins’ in vaccines angle being worked by proponents but it’s clear they’re operating solidly in the pseudoscience domain now.

And working with pseudoscience isn’t necessary a jobs killer. There’s a division of the NIH set up for Complementary, Alternative, and Integrative Health. That includes a lot of woo that passes for medical treatment. One can skirt the edges pretty easily and get away with it. Even homeopathy continues to hold a strong foothold as a treatment modality in Europe.

Overall, for people familiar with a particular research area in question, it’s often not hard to distinguish ‘sound science’ from something that merely 'sounds scientific".

I can call myself (and what I do) anything I like, because I’m not seeking grants, employment, publication in specialist journals or a PhD. If I were, those interacting with me would have opinions on the boundaries.

I think one can readily develop opinions on the boundaries you hold while in professional retirement. That’s because you don’t stint in expression. :grinning:

I dunno, Argon - I was going to say that the boundaries around “real” medicine have got fuzzier since I ceased to be hedged around with “the Profession.” But when I think about it, I was fairly skeptical about them even when I was writing for World Medicine back in the early eighties. Didn’t stop me doing exposées on quack diagnostic clinics, however.

This recent book is very helpful. @jongarvey, I’d love to hear your take.

This review has some great insight.

This paragraph alone is worth its weight (0g?) in gold:

In the first chapter, David Hecht argues that understanding pseudoscience is as important as debunking it. Science and pseudoscience are opposite ends of one spectrum; we can easily identify the extremes, but there is no clear line separating them. Pseudoscientific beliefs are not as random or indefensible as they seem, and science is not as objective and detached as we would like to think. Science is powerful but imperfect; and until we understand its limitations, we shouldn’t condemn those who choose not to trust it. We must avoid dogmatism and remember that scientific knowledge is always provisional.

The key lessons offered in the forward:

In a foreword, Scott Lilienfeld summarizes the valuable lessons in this book:

  1. We are all subject to cognitive biases.
  2. We are largely unaware of our biases.
  3. Science is a systematic set of safeguards against biases.
  4. Scientific thinking doesn’t come naturally to humans.
  5. Scientific thinking is exasperatingly domain-specific. Even Nobel Prize winners can fall prey to pseudoscience in fields outside their area of expertise.
  6. Pseudoscience and science lie on a spectrum.
  7. Pseudoscience is characterized by a set of fallible, but useful, warning signs such as an absence of self-correction, overuse of ad hoc maneuvers to immunize claims from refutation, use of scientific-sounding but vacuous language, extraordinary claims in the absence of compelling evidence, over-reliance on anecdotal and testimonial assertions, avoidance of peer review, etc.
  8. Scientific claims can be wrong. Pseudoscientific claims differ from erroneous claims in that they are deceptive: they appear to be scientific, but they are not.
  9. Scientific and pseudoscientific thinking are cut from the same basic psychological cloth. Heuristics (mental shortcuts or rules of thumb) are invaluable in everyday life, but when misapplied they can lead to mistaken conclusions.
  10. Skepticism differs from cynicism. Skeptics must guard against dismissing implausible claims out of disconfirmation bias.

I want to point out that I did a Veritas Forum a couple months ago with Scott Lilienfield at Emory: What it Means to Be Human? I’ll post the video when it goes live. Great guy he is; I was impressed.

@Patrick, I’m curious your thoughts on #10.

I’d also point out my strong endorsement of #4. That means intuitive understanding (contra Axe) is often unscientific.

1 Like

3 posts were split to a new topic: The Creator-Creation Distinction


Clicked return on my last post just as your latest appeared - it seems to echo what I wrote there (or intended to write, anyway). The bottom line seems to be that judgements of “true” and “false” tend to be made, in the end, on the same human basis that they always were, but with a different dataset. Looks a good read, but a high price!

The only omission I noticed from his list, perhaps legitimately as it is a slightly different phenomenon, is the tendency for “specific domains” in science, or in any other academic pursuit, to develop their own internal culture which becomes blind to alternatives - and sometimes over-critical of them.

To take a science-neutral example, the methodologies of nineteenth century biblical studies were developed for over a century, and their conclusions assumed in further research even when younger scholars questioned the validity of the methods. They seemed (and in some cases still seem) impervious to other disciplines like history or archaeology, whose practitioners were regarded with some suspicion by those within the discipline.

Astrology is another case in point: in that case it was a science that remained mainstream from Babylon in 2500 BC right through to Galileo himself, and beyond, in astronomy. Exactly when the shift came to regarding it as a pseudoscience I’m not sure, but the reason for it seems to be the philosophy of materialism that began to influence the “guild” of astronomers in a new direction. By Newton’s time, action at a distance was considered “woo.” And then he proposed gravity!

Research to debunk astrology followed in the wake of that change, rather than bringing it about. And it certainly wasn’t carried out by astronomers, who knew already that it was “out” - or at least, of no interest to them now they had telecopes.

I am in complete agreement with 1 through 10. It takes hard work to remove bias from my own critical thinking. As one lives and ages, the biases get larger not smaller.

I absolutely agree. It is very easy to be skeptical. What takes hard work is to push the biases aside and look more deeply at the claims. My critical thinking process goes like this:

  1. I am skeptical of any claims because I feel that I have a fairly good grasp on with is true and what is not.

  2. I listen to the claims but automatically label them “unconfirmed”. This usually is expressed as cynicism.
    It would be cynicism if I stop there but I rarely stop there. I usually go to step #3.

  3. I look for the reasons why claims is being made. This is not in anyway evaluating the claim but instead trying to understand why the person is making these claims. Is it their job? It is their religion? Is it their ideology? Is it their background? Is there some other reasons for the claims that are just a diversion for wanting something else - bait and switch.

  4. Usually step 3 reveals a lot. I then make my decisions based on #3 without even evaluating the validity of the claims myself later.

1 Like

So, when you came here to Peaceful Science, you were convinced I was proffering pseudoscience regarding universal genealogical ancestry. You changed your mind. As an atheist, you see high rigor in what I am putting forward now. Perhaps you have points you want to press on here or there, and I am not asking you fro a 100% endorsement. However, you did overcome your disconfirmation bias.

In this specific case, can you step us through that process? What was done well by us (or me) to make that possible for you?

I am convinced that a looking at UGA because you are a Christian Scientist. If you were a non-Christian Scientist you might still be looking at UGA to see if it fits your primary area of research. I have no doubt that your ultimate aim is to help all people. But perhaps your faith may cloud your reasoning and lower you objectivity and methodical naturalism in your scientific work. It isn’t important to me how your faith holds you back or inspires you, I look at intent and results, both of which are exemplary.