Distinguishing Science from Pseudoscience

The word “pseudo” means fake, and the surest way to spot a fake is to know as much as possible about the real thing, in this case science itself. When we speak of knowing science we do not mean simply knowing scientific facts (e.g., the distance from earth to sun; the age of the earth; the distinction between mammal and reptile, etc.) We mean that one must clearly understand the nature of science itself— the criteria of valid evidence, the design of meaningful experiments, the weighing of possibilities, the testing of hypotheses, the establishment of useful theories, the many aspects of the methods of science which make it possible to draw accurate, reliable, meaningful conclusions about the phenomena of the physical universe.

However, the media provide a continuous bombardment of sheer nonsense, misinformation, fantasy and confusion—all proclaimed to be “true facts.” Sifting sense from nonsense is an almost overwhelming job.

It is therefore useful to consider some of the earmarks of pseudoscience. The substitution of fantasy and nonsense for fact leaves behind many different clues and signs that almost anyone can readily detect. Below are listed some of the most common characteristics of pseudoscience. The presence of any one or more of these symptoms in any material in question marks it conclusively as pseudoscience. On the other hand, material displaying none of these flaws might still be pseudoscience— the pseudoscientists are inventing new ways to fool themselves nearly every day. What we have here is a set of sufficient, rather than necessary, conditions for pseudoscience.

Journalists, in particular, seem completely unable to comprehend this last point. A typical reporter asked to write an article on astrology thinks he has done a throough job if he interviews six astrologers and one astronomer. The astronomer says it's all total bunk; the six astrologers say it's great stuff and really works and for $50 they'll be glad to cast anyone's horoscope. (No doubt!) To the reporter, and apparently to the editor and readers, this confirms astrology six to one! Yet if the reporter had had the very small degree of sense and intelligence required to realize he should have interviewed seven astronomers (all of whom are presumably knowledgeable about the planets and their interactions, but all of whom are also disinterested in astrology, and therefore able to be both knowledgeable and objective) he would have gotten the correct result: seven informed judgments that astrology is nonsense. Everything in pseudoscience seems to generate something for sale; look for courses in how to remember past lives, how to do remote viewing, how to improve your ESP ability, how to hunt for ghosts, how to become a prophet, how to heal yourself of any disease mentally, how to get the angels on your side, how to... you name it, you got it... but pay up first.

Comparison lists of the kind we have shown here can be continued almost indefinitely, because there is no overlap between science and pseudoscience at any point. They are precisely opposed ways of viewing nature. Science relies on, and insists on, difficult, narrow, strict procedures of self-questioning, testing and analytical thinking that make it hard to fool yourself or to avoid facing facts. Pseudoscience, on the other hand, preserves the ancient, natural, irrational, unobjective modes of thought that are tens of thousands of years older than science... the modes of thought which have given rise to most superstition and to most of the fanciful and mistaken ideas about man and nature... from voodoo to racism; from the flat earth to the house-shaped universe with God in the attic, Satan in the cellar and man on the ground floor; from doing rain dances to torturing and brutalizing the mentally ill to drive out the demons that possess them. Pseudoscience encourages you to believe anything you want, and supplies many examples of specious "arguments" by which you can fool yourself into thinking your belief has some validity, despite all the facts being to the contrary. Science begins by saying, let's forget about what we believe to be so, and try by investigation to find out what actually is so. These roads don't cross; they lead in completely opposite directions.

Some confusion on this point is caused by what we might call “crossovers.” “Science” is not an honorary badge you wear, it's an activity you do. Whenever you cease that activity, you cease being a scientist. A distressing amount of pseudoscience is generated by actual or self-proclaimed scientists, in several ways we need to discuss. A scientist almost invariably winds up doing pseudoscience when he moves out of a field in which he is knowledgeable and competent, and plunges into another field of which he is quite ignorant. A physicist who claims to have found a new principle of biology— or a biologist who claims to have found a new principle of physics— is almost invariably doing pseudoscience. A scientist becomes a pseudoscientist when he defends an idea when all evidence and experiment is against it, because he is emotionally or ideologically committed to it. A scientist who forges data, or suppresses data which do not agree with his preconceptions, or refuses to let others see his data for independent evaluation, has become a pseudoscientist. Science is a high peak of intellectual integrity, fairness, and rationality. To carry the analogy further, the peak is slippery and smooth. It requires a tremendous effort to remain near it. But any slacking of effort carries one away, and into pseudoscience.

A fair fraction of all pseudoscience is generated by individuals who have received a small amount of very narrow and specialized scientific or technical training, but who are not professional scientists and do not comprehend the nature of the scientific enterprise— yet think of themselves as “scientists.” Particularly notorious in this respect are medical doctors and engineers, as well as psychoanalysts and technicians of one kind or another, as well as, more recently, “computer scientists.”

One might wonder if there are not examples of “crossovers” in the other direction; that is people who have been thought by scientists to be doing pseudoscience, who eventually were accepted as doing valid science, and whose ideas were ultimately accepted by scientists. From what we have just outlined, one would expect this to happen extremely rarely, if ever. In fact, neither I, nor any informed colleague I have ever asked about this, knows of any single case in which this has happened during the hundreds of years the full scientific method has been known to and used by scientists. There are a large number of cases in which a scientist has been thought to be wrong by his colleagues, but whose ideas were later shown to be correct. A scientist may get a “hunch” that some possibility is the case, without having enough evidence to convince his associates that he is correct. Such a person has not become a pseudoscientist, unless he continues to maintain that his ideas are correct as the evidence does come in and shows conclusively that he is incorrect. Being wrong or mistaken is unavoidable; we are all human, and we all commit errors and blunders. A scientist, however, is alert to the possibility that he might blunder, and is quick to correct mistakes, since these mistakes are completely fatal to future studies which he might undertake if they are not found and rooted out. A scientist, in short, when shown that he is mistaken by his associates, will abandon his mistaken ideas. A pseudoscientist will not. In fact, a short definition of pseudoscience is that it is a method for protecting and rationalizing obviously incorrect and mistaken concepts about man and nature— for excusing, defending and preserving errors.

Generally speaking, the average citizen knows as little about the history of science as he does about science itself, so it is not unusual to hear someone claim that astronomy evolved from astrology, or chemistry evolved from alchemy. Neither claim is true! In fact, calendar astronomy existed long before astrology, and no alchemist (not even Isaac Newton!) ever made any contributions to chemistry.

In one of the best review articles ever written about pseudoscience, “Investigating the Paranormal,” by David F. Marks (Nature, 13 March 1986), Marks summarizes psychological studies of believers in pseudoscientific concepts and concludes, “Belief in the paranormal is metaphysical and therefore not subject to the constraints of empirically based science.... [Pseudoscience] is a... system of untestable beliefs steeped in illusion, error and fraud. ...Pseudosciences are remarkably stable...; their presence on the edges of science can be expected indefinitely.” The popularity of pseudoscience is assured, because it invariably tells us things that are reassuring far past the point of being too good to be true. You are grieving over your beloved lost pet dog? Well, this psychic lady can tell you precisely where to find it, all she has to do is touch its photo! You are 75 years old and in poor health, but this hippy-looking professor says he's right on the verge of discovering how people can live for 5,000 years, even you! Wow, where do we send our money?!? You're 100 pounds overweight and have never been able to slim down? Well, here's a new miracle diet: eat as much as you want of anything you want and still lose weight, by taking this mystical special wonder herb! Only $100 for a 2-week supply!

One of the features of pseudoscience that is often extremely puzzling to those who encounter it for the first time is that any particular pseudoscience somehow involves almost all the others. Thus, someone who believes that flying saucers exist and are piloted by space aliens might also claim to communicate with the aliens via a Ouija board; someone searching for Bigfoot or the Loch Ness monster might use a dowsing rod; a dowser, instead of dowsing for water, might "locate" an advanced underground civilization within the hollow earth; a spirit medium who is supposedly communicating with spirits of the dead might also claim to be a "psychic" who can read living minds and foretell the future; an "inventor" obsessed with the "free energy" variant of perpetual motion might also claim to have prophetic dreams, or practice crystal healing in his spare time, or brew homeopathic "medicines." The explanation for this continuum is that pseudoscience is a manifestation of an entire anachronistic world view, evidence of an individual's powerful belief in an animistic universe that is essentially magical and fundamentally "nonmaterial." No amount of evidence, investigation or fact-finding has ever shaken a pseudoscientist's faith in his delusions.

It is, unfortunately, vital for each citizen to learn to distinguish carefully between science and pseudoscience. In a democracy, every voter must be capable of seeking and recognizing authentic sources of information. Pseudoscience often strikes educated, rational people as too nonsensical and preposterous to be dangerous, a source of amusement rather than fear. Unfortunately, this is not a wise attitude. Pseudoscience can be extremely dangerous. Penetrating political systems, it has justified atrocities in the name of racial or religious purity, purging of university faculty in math and science, and interference with and discouragement of basic scientific research; penetrating the educational system, it drives out science and sensibility; penetrating the health professions it dooms thousands to unnecessary death or suffering; penetrating religion, it generates fanaticism, intolerance, and holy war; penetrating the communications media, it makes it nearly impossible for voters to obtain factual information on public issues of extreme importance— a situation which at present has reached crisis proportions in the U. S.

Further Reading

Paranormality: Why We See What Isn't There, by Richard Wiseman, MacMillan, London, 2011. [Highly recommended!]

Pseudoscience and Extraordinary Claims of the Paranormal– A Critical Thinker's Toolkit, by Jonathan C. Smith, Wiley-Blackwell, MA, 2010.

The Skeptic's Dictionary, Robert Tood Caroll, John Wiley, NY, 2003.

The Encyclopedia of the Paranormal, ed. by Gordon Stein, Prometheus, NY, 1996.

Science, Nonscience and Nonsense, by Michael Zimmerman, Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, MD, 1995.

Exploring the Unknown, Charles J. Cazeau, Stuart D. Scott, Jr., Plenum, NY, 1979.

Nonsense on Stilts, by Massimo Pigliucci, University of Chicago Press, IL, 2010.

Invented Kmowledge, by Ronald H. Fritze, Reaktion Books, London, 2009.

Fact, Fraud and Fantasy, Morris Goran, A. S. Barnes, NJ, 1979.

Flim-Flam! By James Randi, Prometheus, NY, 1982.

Paranormal Borderlands of Science, Ed. by Kendrick Frazier, Prometheus, NY, 1981.

Science Confronts the Paranormal, Ed. by Kendrick Frazier, Prometheus, NY, 1985.

Science, Good, Bad and Bogus, Martin Gardner, Prometheus, NY, 1981; Avon, NY, 1982.

Science and the Paranormal, Ed. by George O. Abell and Barry Singer, Scribners, NY, 1981.

Extrasensory Deception, Henry Gordon, Prometheus, NY, 1987.

Pseudoscience and the Paranormal, Terence Hines, Prometheus, NY, 1988, 2003.

A Beginner's Guide to Scientific Method, Stephen S. Cary, Wadsworth, NY 1998 (2nd Ed.)

“State of Denial,” various authors, The New Scientist, 15 May 2010, pp. 35-45.

Internet resources for identifying and evaluating pseudoscience claims can be found here. Other good, short summaries of symptoms and signs of pseudoscience and quackery are to be found here, here, and here. A discussion of the relation between science literacy and pseudoscience is here. Why science illiteracy rapidly increased between 2000 and 2010! Is religion the greatest enemy of science literacy? Are college science courses the only hope for science literacy improvements in the US?

Acknowledgments: This fact sheet was written by Prof. Rory Coker of the Physics Department of the University of Texas.

Avoiding Facing Death!
Bermuda Triangle!
Blavatsky, Queen of Pseudoscience!
Cities on the Moon?
A Contactee Album!
Creationism and “Intelligent Design”
Crop Circles!
Crystal Myths and Powers!
ESP Experiments
Flying Saucers (1947–1985)
Fortean Phenomena
Gods from Outer Space!
Higher Dimensions!
Hollow Earth!
Interstellar Travellers!
Kirlian Photos and the Aura!
The Moon Woman!
Martian Canals!
Monsters! and Ape Suits!
Medical Quackery!
Mystery Spots?
Mystical and Bogus Physics!
The New Age!
Perpetual Motion, Part 1 and Part 2
Postmodernism versus Science!
Psychic Detectives!
Pyramid and Crystal Powers and Pseudoscience!
Science Fiction and Pseudoscience!
1 and 2, “Spontaneous” Human Combustion.
Our Space Brothers!
UFOs 1985-2005
Velikovsky's Colliding Planets!
Weeping Statues!

The partitions between pseudoscience and religion are tissue-thin, and it is not unusual for a pseudoscience to evolve into a religion, or a religion to evolve into a pseudoscience. Science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard in the late 1940s had a pseudoscientific parody of psychoanalysis, called Dianetics— graduates of the interminable Dianetics courses would become “clear,” and potentially superhuman. But in the early 1950s Hubbard reconfigured and expanded the pseudoscience as a science-fictional religion, Scientology. Graduates of the interminable Scientology courses would become Operating Thetans, with various godlike powers, and the ability to remember past lives going back 60 trillion years. A retrograde path was taken by the Spiritual Regeneration Movement, a traditional Vedic cult that evolved into Transcendental Meditation, which explicitly denies it is a religion, and offers interminable courses that promise you will someday be able to levitate and fly, walk through solid walls, become invisible, and develop pretty much all the same godlike powers promised by Scientology. Somehow nobody ever “graduates”— they just keep taking more courses, and the cash keeps flowing into the coffers of these two large and greedy groups.

I don't know who to credit for this compact, effective table.