How to Spot Pseudoscience

Hallmarks of pseudoscience

One of my major pet peeves is pseudoscience, which Google defines as “a collection of beliefs or practices mistakenly regarded as being based on scientific method.” There’s a lot of pseudoscience out there in the world that can spread easily and quickly via the internet, and it often astonishes me what people will believe. There’s also a lot of just plain made-up stuff coming from people who seem unable to evaluate the limitations of their own knowledge.

I’ve realized that I probably spend more time than I think caught up in the curse of knowledge, a type of cognitive bias. It involves assuming that other people have a similar knowledge base to you, even though there’s no reason that they should actually have that knowledge.

I’m pretty science-minded. My first university degree was in pharmacy, which was highly science-based. Obviously, most other people don’t have that kind of science background. Still, I think there are some indicators that can help anyone distinguish science from things that are more likely to be pseudoscience, misinterpreted science, or otherwise just plain made up.

How pseudoscience conclusions are reached

Science aims to understand the world around us through systematic observation and the testing of hypotheses. It involves a healthy dose of skepticism and being prepared to reject hypotheses that are not supported by observations.

According to Wikipedia, “A scientific theory is a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world, based on a body of facts that have been repeatedly confirmed through observation and experiment.” A theory may be later rejected as new information becomes available, but it is formulated based on solid information that’s available at the time.”

Pseudoscience doesn’t work that way. It may involve drawing on one’s own worldview to put forward explanations that are in keeping with how that individual interprets the world around them. Sometimes, conclusions are reached that don’t logically follow from whatever the starting point is.

Regardless, the ideas of pseudoscience aren’t arrived at in the same way as scientific theories.

Is there a proposed mechanism?

Sometimes people will assert that something is true without being able to offer any sort of explanation as to how it might be so, although the arguments might draw on technical jargon that’s only superficially understood. I sometimes see psychiatric medications being described as poison or toxic, but there’s never any explanation of how exactly this might happen in the body.

As a general rule of thumb, if someone is making this kind of statement without being able to explain a) how that substance behaves in the body, and b) what’s involved in the negative thing they’re describing, chances are fairly high that they don’t actually know what they’re talking about.

Using quantum physics as an explanation

Quantum physics is a very difficult field of study. The scale is incredibly small – it looks at what’s happening at an even smaller level than the atom. It’s not something that makes intuitive sense—unless, that is, you happen to be a genius along the lines of Stephen Hawking.

And yet quantum physics is being trotted out by proponents of the law of attraction and probably anyone claiming that thoughts vibrate, we as a whole vibrate, or what have you.

So let me put it simply. If someone who doesn’t have a PhD in physics is trying to justify their beliefs about vibrations based on quantum physics, they’re talking out of their ass.  Simple as that.

Energy fields and other “you can’t disprove it” arguments

Along with quantum physics, energy fields are a common talking point where pseudoscience comes into play.

Is it possible that there are types of energy out there that science hasn’t discovered yet? Sure. Does that mean it’s okay to make them up and justify them by arguing that you can’t prove they don’t exist? That would be a big fat no.

Science: Until you can prove it, it doesn’t exist.

Pseudoscience: Until you can prove it doesn’t exist, it exists because I say so.

“Natural” is used as a magic word

There is nothing inherently special about things that occur in nature. There are all kinds of harmful substances that are naturally occurring. As a broad generalization, “natural” doesn’t really mean a whole heck of a lot. Your immune system recognizes certain things as foreign, but that’s not a perfect differentiator either. Autoimmune diseases result from the immune system recognizing parts of the body as foreign, and allergies result from your autoimmune system mistakenly thinking something benign is dangerous.

When any sort of intervention is being touted as being good because it’s natural, that is an extremely weak argument. Sometimes natural is better, but there’s more to the explanation than just “it’s natural”. If “it’s natural” is all the explanation you’re getting without anything else to support it, then that’s pretty dubious.

Extrapolating bits of truth

Sometimes pseudoscientific reasons will be put forth to explain phenomena that are real. I recently read a book that gave a vibration-based explanation for differences in meat depending on how it’s raised.

Someone reading this may think okay, it makes sense there would be a difference, and as a result, they might accept the arguments supporting the claim as valid. Sure, there are some actual differences depending on what an animal was fed and how it was raised. However, that has diddly squat to do with made-up vibrations (and as we already talked about, this author did not have a Ph.D. in physics, so she is pulling the vibration bit out of her butt).

The Google Scholar test

When I was writing recently about reiki I came across an article that explained long-distance reiki is based on the Hermetic Law of Similarity. That immediately set off my bullshit detector.

One quick way to double-check the bullshit detector is Google Scholar, which searches academic journal articles. “Hermetic Law of Similarity” gives zero hits. If no one has ever published an academic paper on a subject, that’s a strong indicator that it’s a made-up concept.

The explanation is “out there”

Homeopathy may seem appealing because it’s “natural”. Yet when you get into how it’s claimed to work, it’s really quite bizarre. Since the treatment is fundamentally based on this explanation, it’s really not something that can be ignored just because you like part of the idea.

If you buy a homeopathic remedy made from plant X, depending on the dilution “strength”, it’s probably been diluted so much that there isn’t a single molecule of plant X in the bottle you buy. How is that supposed to work?  Well, by shaking it (succussion) with each dilution, the water molecules retain a “memory” of X.

Say you take a homeopathic remedy and you feel better. Perhaps that’s because of the very real and quite powerful placebo effect, or maybe you would have felt better anyway, or maybe some other reason.  Does that mean that water has memory as long as you do enough of a shake-your-tailfeather dance?

Of course not. But it’s easy to make the mistake of thinking that an endpoint turned out to be good, and therefore the explanation offered for how you got there is valid. If homeopathy or reiki or whatever else makes you feel better, that’s great, but that doesn’t make the water memory or the life energy manipulation valid. And to accept an intervention as valid without evaluating the reasonableness of the proffered explanation is problematic.

Knowledge is a good thing

There’s nothing wrong with trying things to see if they might help, and if something helps you, that’s great. However, it’s always good to be educated and think critically. If you choose to try a particular intervention even though it appears to be based on pseudoscience, there’s nothing wrong with that, but generally, it’s good practice to be informed and to be skeptical of explanations that just don’t pass the BS test.

And if you ever want a BS assessment, I’m always available. 😉

The science corner: pseudoscience, public health, and media literacy

More on Science & Pseudoscience on MH@H

Debunking pseudoscience and public health misinformation makes my mind do a happy dance, and I like to write about it! I also recommend the sites Quackwatch and the Office for Science and Society at McGill University (their tagline is “separating sense from nonsense”). I’ve reviewed the book Quack Quack: The Threat of Pseudoscience by Dr. Joe Schwarcz, the head of the Office for Science and Society, and it’s absolutely hilarious.

Debunking Pseudoscience

I took a lot of science courses in university, and when I hear people claiming their nonsense is based in science, it’s like a loud alarm to my corner of the geekoverse.

The law of attraction is an extremely popular pseudoscience phenomenon. There’s something to be said for the idea that wanting something will make the universe send it your way. Except the law of attraction says don’t act, just vibrate out to the universe. The idea that thoughts vibrate is pseudoscientific nonsense, though, and unless you can manifest a purple people eater, manifestation is nonsense, too.

Misinformation and Disinformation

Science and Critical Thinking

diagram of the scientific method as an ongoing process

27 thoughts on “How to Spot Pseudoscience”

  1. I absolutely love when you debunk this stuff, though I’m sure some of your readers don’t. I think they probably defend it with what I’ve always heard — “I don’t know, but it works for me!” I think the essential oil smell just went to their heads. As an experiment, I once spent a week eating nothing but Reese’s Peanut Butter cups. Pretty sure I lost a few pounds, but it’s not a scientifically sound diet. Keep spreading the truth. I don’t know if you’ve written about it yet, but have you done anything on EMDR yet? I don’t know enough about it, but have heard various takes on why and if it really works.

    1. Mmm, peanut butter cup diet…

      EMDR has decent evidence to show it works, but it works with or without the bilateral stimulation, so it seems to be the overall process that’s beneficial rather than the bilateral stimulation itself.

  2. Everything is natural that is the problem with the explentation. I don’t get that, that people can’t grasp that idea. Medication we take is based, derived, stems from nature. Our brain is nature. You need to understand nature and you’ll understand that plants can be poison.
    The placebo-effect is strong but it will not cure a disease in my experience. Not everything needs to be 100% proven by science but we need to use our natural brain to look at the ‘evidence’ and ‘possibility’.
    Of course, I do blog with my tinfoil hat on, so I’m safe anyhow!

  3. I like how you talk about natural remedies for illness. I have an interest in natural remedies and have looked at ones to try. On everything I found, there hasn’t been no real scientific study proving the facts those sites used. There were no evidence either of people it has helped

  4. Re: Hermetic Law of Similarity – something that has “Hermetic” in the name is pretty much certain to be based on alchemy or something derived from it rather than science (after Hermes Trismegistus).

    I have a friend who takes homeopathic remedies. I was somewhat surprised by this, as she has a degree in Physiology and Psychology from Oxford University and isn’t the type of person to be into mystical stuff. She said she doesn’t believe in homeopathy, but it seems to make her feel better via the placebo effect, so she’s sticking with it.

      1. Where do you stand on SAD lamps? I’ve been sceptical, but the last few years have felt so bad in the winter that I’m tempted to try one. I’ve seen it suggested that they may not be so pseudosciencey as they’re hard to test scientifically because the control subjects are getting some natural sunlight (I saw it compared to a drug test where someone was putting prozac in the control group’s water supply!).

        1. From what I’ve read the evidence for SAD lamps is okay but not great. Well-designed studies with proper randomization should be enough to account for that, since with random assignment to control vs. treatment groups there shouldn’t ber significant differences in the amount of natural sunlight they’re exposed to, so the study should be able to just test the difference between the two groups because of the light therapy intervention.

  5. Working in the medical field, I bet you’ve heard it all hahaha. It is amazing how many “studies” are out there proving things, but when you dive deeper into the study you find that it’s not very scientific at all!

  6. I really enjoyed this article, I go back and forth between different beliefs and ideas but it’s so important to really have a bullshit detector, there is a lot of BS out there for sure!

  7. I highly recommend Carl Sagan’s book “The demon haunted world: science as a candle in the dark” as it teaches critical reasoning skills.

    For the homeopathy thing, wouldn’t tap water recycled from sewage (like it’s done in my country) then have “memories” of faeces? 😂😂😂

  8. What a fabulous breakdown!

    Pseudoscience is particularly disturbing to me, and it seems to be growing in acceptance and adoption. I never thought I would have to contemplate an uprise in the number of people that . .

    1. sincerely believe that the earth is flat;
    2. believe vaccines are dangerous and should be an option in child-rearing
    3. and think that he scientific community would be politicized instead of serving as an unbias source of factual information. (as in climate change deniers)

    But, here we are . . . looking to crystalized rocks for answers to all life’s questions.

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