Recognizing Pseudoscience

I maintain there is much more wonder in science than in pseudoscience. And in addition, to whatever measure this term has any meaning, science has the additional virtue, and it is not an inconsiderable one, of being true.

Carl Sagan

Four and a half centuries ago, a boy was born in Pisa, Italy. He soon became a prominent inventor, professor, merchant, philosopher, and (in the modern usage of the term) the very first scientist on Earth. Almost having become a priest, this man instead laid the groundwork for an objective study of the universe. His name was Galileo Galilei.

Using the telescopes he constructed for himself, Galileo The Galilean Moonsdiscovered Jupiter’s four largest moons, Saturn’s rings, and topological variance on the Moon’s surface. But more importantly for science as a whole, he used the observational evidence he gathered to champion the theory of heliocentrism, that the Earth and other celestial bodies revolved around the Sun, to a point where the reactionary Catholic Church could no longer ignore it.

Heliocentrism contradicts Scripture, the church authorities maintained, so Galileo was denounced, vilified, insulted, and eventually put under indefinite house arrest for his heresy. But ideas are not so easy to imprison. Eventually, of course, his ideas withstood objective tests and were accepted by the scientific and religious alike.

However, Galileo’s work is not yet over. For as long as pseudoscience crouches in the shadows of society’s discourse, it can do harm to actual science as well as the practical realms of technology and medicine.

So how can we recognize pseudoscience in the wild?

There are several useful approaches of deciding whether a theory, hypothesis, or medical treatment is pseudoscientific. (Note: some items may appear in more than one category.)

  • Lack of definitive evidence. Examples of this category are regarded as truth by some without any rigorous experimental evidence, so they should be disregarded by a scientific mind.
    • The paranormal, defined by some as lying “beyond the range of normal experience or scientific explanation.” Ghosts and psychic powers fall into this category.
    • Beliefs in an afterlife or reincarnation. Any scientific proof of either of these would grab world headlines.
    • Alternative medicine, such as acupuncture, homeopathy, unproven herbal remedies, and faith healing. “Do you know what they call alternative medicine that’s been proved to work? Medicine.” – Tim Minchin
    • Modern mysticism. Astrology, feng shui, tarot, numerology, and general superstition make definite predictions that have never seen success in the laboratory.
  • Conflicting evidence. Items here predict outcomes specifically at odds with reality.
  • Unfalsifiability. When there is literally no evidence that can even hypothetically shed doubt on a claim, it is unfalsifiable and thus its veracity cannot be determined from evidence alone. Like the claim that the world is filled with invisible and inaudible ghosts that cannot be detected by anything whatsoever, the following are unscientific and meaningless in a rational world.
    • Religion. Almost all hypotheses and tenets of major religions, such as the existence of an omnipotent being, an afterlife or reincarnation, creationism, and a “soul” or dual component of the human body, proudly depend on faith rather than reason, and so cannot be proven or disproven.
    • Conspiracy theories. There is no fact or evidence that could make proponents of the “moon landing hoax” hypothesis or the New World Order stop doubting the Establishment.
  • The anthropocentric fallacy.This is the conviction that in some manner, the laws of the universe treat humans differently than anything else. Somewhat of a litmus test for pseudoscience, the presence of this fallacy has never been found empirically in the real world. From the Catholic Church in Galileo’s time to the telepaths and zealots of today, some have never been able to accept that fact.
    • The paranormal. If humans had souls or could read minds, that would necessitate new laws of the universe dealing with just people, for which evidence has never been found.
    • Religion. Always the domain solely of humans, or humans and the animals on the same planet as humans, all major religions postulate specific beliefs pertaining to humans alone, the most characteristic and hubristic of which is “Man was made in God’s image.”
    • Mysticism. The best example of the anthropocentric fallacy is astrology, which posits that the stars, in all their universal glory, are mere vessels for predicting human events.

While unscientific claims may be topical in churches or at parties, they have no place in our schools, laboratories, and hospitals. #



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s