How to Spot Pseudoscience

Fine tuning your BS detector

Image by Harish Sharma from Pixabay

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 am probably spending a lot more time than I might think caught up in the cognitive bias known as the curse of knowledge. 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 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 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 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.

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 — that is, unless 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 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.

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, 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.

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 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.

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 journals. “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 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.

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

Originally published at https://mentalhealthathome.org on November 25, 2019.

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

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