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 here on The Science Corner, I invite you along for the ride! I also like to tackle misinformation around public health issues.
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Hallmarks of Pseudoscience
How to Spot Pseudoscience talks more about how to fine-tune your BS radar. The main idea, though, is to use critical thinking. Don’t accept things simply because they’re put in front of you.
- 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” across the board
- 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”
I have nothing against alternative health practices per se. The problem is when people start claiming that an alternative method works in a certain way, or produces certain results, when there’s no evidence that it does any such thing. If a concept is spiritual or helpful in some unexplained way, great, but try to drag science into that, and it just becomes nonsense.
- Adrenal Fatigue: adrenal deficiency is a real condition, but there’s no evidence that your adrenal glands get worn out
- 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.
- Chiropractic: lying beneath the better-known aspects of management of back pain are some perhaps surprisingly quacky origins
- Colon Cleanses: should you consider shooting coffee up your butt?
- Crystals: Crystals are beautiful, and can potentially be great focal points fr mindfulness. But science doesn’t support the healing properties that are claimed.
- Detoxes/Cleanses: do you actually need them, or can the body do the job just fine on its own?
- 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
- 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
- Psychic surgery: a sort of magic trick version of surgery
- Reiki: are there actually literal energy fields that can be manipulated with the hands?
- Vitamins to treat mental illness?: some people claim vitamins and minerals can cure serious mental illness, but is there anything to it?
- Law of attraction: There’s something to be said for the idea that believing something positive will help you to act in ways that increase the chances that something positive will end up coming 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.
There are a lot of people spouting off online about public health matters they have no actual understanding of. Having superficial knowledge from the new or Dr. Google does not make someone an expert. There are people who spend years studying this stuff, and that knowledge counts for something.
Make sure you’re getting you’re coronavirus info from authoritative sources, or media/commentators that are referencing authoriative soruces.
These posts related to COVID-19 have appeared on MH@H, but haven’t been updated with recent information.
- Spanish Influenza: The Last Big Pandemic: before COVID-19, there was the Spanish Influenza outbreak in 1918
- What’s This Curve We’re Flattening?: Everyone’s talking about flattening the curve with the COVID-19 pandemic, but what does that actually mean?
Vaccines and immunity
- How Vaccines Work (and What That Means for COVID-19): This may be a novel coronavirus, but developing a vaccine doesn’t mean reinventing the wheel
- Some people choose not to get vaccinated because they think the vaccine will give them the flu. There are two posts that address this, Can the flu vaccine give you the flu? and Will the influenza vaccine make you sick?
- 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.
- Why You Should Get the Flu Vaccine in 2020: Yes, we’re in the middle of COVID-19, but that makes getting the influenza vaccines more important, not less.
There are good sources of information out there, and there is crap. Media and research literacy and critical thinking come into play in distinguishing the good from the crap, and The Science Corner wants to help with that.
Keep in mind that everything comes to you through some sort of filter, and one thing that influences that is that the things we think are free never actually are. Also, each of us is only aware of a sliver of the existing knowledge in the world, and it’s easy to get tripped up by what we don’t know we don’t know.
Conspiracy theories and deniers
- The Holocaust and the Failure of the US Education System
- What Is… The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories
The Conspiracy Theory Handbook, written by two university professors, explains how to recognize conspiracy theories and why they’re so popular.
- How Do You Search for Information?: tips on using Google and Wikipedia
- How to be a discerning Wikipedia user: Wikipedia contains a lot of good information as well as some crap; here are some clues to help you spot the difference
- Separating Reality from Fake Health News: There’s a lot of wrong information floating around about the COVID-19 pandemic, so how can you spot it?
Science and research literacy
- The Use and Misuse of Jargon: being familiar with jargon from science or other fields on a surface level doesn’t necessarily convey any actual expertise, even though it might sound good
- Understanding the implications of research design: there are many different types of research studies, and they don’t all produce the same kinds of results
- Why research literacy matters in mental health: a basic understanding of research makes it easier to separate the science from the BS
- Can you believe statistics?: We’re presented with statistics all the time, but often more information is needed to actually evaluate what they mean
- What Political Polls Mean – And What They Don’t
These are some of the great resources I’ve come across that promote critical thinking when evaluating claims.
- CRAAP test: how to evaluate information relevance based on currency, relevance, authority, accuracy, and purpose
- MediaSmarts: Canada’s Centre for Digital and Media Literacy
- Medical Library Association: has tips on how to find good health information
- NAMLE: National Association for Media Literacy Education
- Office for Science and Society: the aim of this group at McGill University is “separating sense from nonsense”
- Pew Research Fact Tank: nonpartisan public opinion research and analysis
- 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