How to Spot Pseudoscience

Fine tuning your BS detector

Image by Harish Sharma from Pixabay

How 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.

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 true. 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.

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 — that is, unless you happen to be a genius along the lines of Stephen Hawking.

If someone is trying to justify their ideas about things vibrating based on quantum physics, and they don’t have a Ph.D. in 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.

“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, as 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.

Extrapolating bits of truth

Sometimes pseudoscientific reasons will be put forth to explain phenomena that are real. I recently reviewed a book called Find Your Glow, Feed Your Soul. It gave a vibration-based explanation for differences in meat depending on how it’s raised.

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.

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.

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 make 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. 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.

Mental health blogger | Former MH nurse | Living with depression | Author of 3 books, latest is Managing the Depression Puzzle |