The Science Corner: Debunking Pseudoscience

The Science Corner: Debunking Pseudoscience - Mental Health @ Home

With bachelor’s degrees in pharmacy and nursing, as well as a master’s in psychiatric nursing, I have a strong science background and I know how to read and understand a research paper. I also have a finely tuned bullshit-detector.  Debunking pseudoscience makes my mind do a happy dance, and I invite you along for the ride!  I also like to tackle misinformation around public health issues.


Hallmarks of Pseudoscience

Hallmarks of pseudoscience
  • Starting with a belief, and then working back from there
  • Broad statements about what something does, but no scientifically sound mechanism is described
  • Explanations based on quantum physics coming from people with no physics background
  • “Natural” is used as synonymous with “good”
  • Energies and energy flows are described without any actual evidence of their existence
  • While science takes an “until you prove it, it doesn’t exist” approach, pseudoscience takes the approach that “it exists until you can prove it doesn’t”

How to Spot Pseudoscience talks more about how to fine-tune your BS radar.


Debunking Pseudoscience

  • Astrology: Does the positioning of constellations that exist only from the earth’s frame of reference have any bearing on our lives? From a scientific perspective, astrology doesn’t make any sense.
  • Chakras: Chakras were described long ago in a spiritual sense in Hindu and Buddhist texts. However, the New Age movement has gotten a lot more literal with chakras, in ways that aren’t consistent with science.
  • Crystals: Crystals are beautiful, and can potentially be great focal points fr mindfulness. But science doesn’t support the healing properties that are claimed.
  • Dopamine Fasting: This is trendy and sounds good, but there’s actually no such thing as literally fasting from dopamine. Your brain requires dopamine, and it makes it on its own without any interference from you.
  • Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT): Tapping may be useful for things like grounding or focus, but EFT includes some strange concepts like energy field polarity reversals and a rather odd way of looking at proof.
  • Essential oils
    • Placebo or something more: yes, they’re lovely, but the medicinal properties claimed aren’t backed up by science
    • Vibrations: the founder of Young Living essential oils makes some claims about essential oils vibrating that are more nonsense than science
Do thoughts vibrate?  What the law of attraction says, and what science says
  • Law of attraction: There’s something to be said for the idea that believing something positive will help you act in was that increase that chances that something positive will come your way. Except the law of attraction says don’t act, just vibrate out to the universe.
  • Speaking of which, do thoughts vibrate? The law of attraction relies on pseudoscience to yes, but actual science says nope, not a chance.


Health conditions & practices

  • Adrenal Fatigue: adrenal deficiency is a real condition, but there’s no evidence that your adrenal glands get worn out
  • Chiropractic: lying beneath the better-known aspects of management of back pain are some perhaps surprisingly quacky origins
  • Detoxes/Cleanses: do you actually need them, or can the body do the job just finw on its own?
Is natural always better? Stylized image of bodies and plant stalk
  • Homeopathy: why is the Canadian government funding an international aid group using homeopathy, when the principles of homeopathy go against science?
  • “Natural” health products: you hear it all the time, natural, natural, natural… but does it actually mean anything, and is it automatically good for you?
  • Placebo: when used in research trials with conformed consent, placebos can actually lead to positive effects – but only for symptoms that are quite subjective
  • Reiki: are there actually literal energy fields that can be manipulated with the hands?

Public Health

COVID-19

Coronavirus COVID-19

Vaccines and immunity

  • Anti-vaxxers aren’t just harming their own kids; they’re also putting some of the most vulnerable people at risk by depriving them of the Herd immunity they rely on.
  • Vaccines and autism: The link that doesn’t exist talks about how, despite the discrediting of the doctor who first proposed this link and abundant research to the contrary, anti-vaxxers and vaccine-hesitant parents alike persist in the belief that vaccines cause autism.

Evaluating Information

There are good sources of information out there, and there is crap.  Literacy comes into play in distinguishing the good from the crap.

Conspiracy theories and deniers

The Conspiracy Theory Handbook, written by two university professors, explains how to recognize conspiracy theories and why they’re so popular.

Tips on how to spot fake news

Media literacy

Science and research literacy

  • Can you believe statistics?: We’re presented with statistics all the time, but often more information is needed to actually evaluate what they mean

Other resources

  • CRAAP test: how to evaluate information relevance based on currency, relevance, authority, accuracy, and purpose
  • MediaSmarts: Canada’s Centre for Digital and Media Literacy
  • NAMLE: National Association for Media Literacy Education
  • Quackwatch.org: maintained by Stephen Barrett MD, with an extensive range of articles on quacky practices
  • Verification Handbook: this free book designed for journalists is a guide to detecting inauthentic and manipulated content online
diagram of the scientific method as an ongoing process
Whatiguana, Wikimedia Commons