A fair portion of my posts contain the word pseudoscience. As such, I owe my ones of readers a description of what it is and how to spot it.
Pseudoscience is a nefarious form of nonsense that dresses itself in scientific clothing while failing to use the field’s methods and standards. The main motivators are ego, money, and trying to prove Genesis.
First, let’s get an understanding of how science is done so we can identify its impostor. The Scientific Method consists of the following:
1. Defining the question
2. Developing a hypothesis
3. Making a prediction
4. Testing that prediction
5. Analyzing the results using proper statistics
7. Peer review
8. Data sharing
Science is testable, falsifiable, and properly done using double blind studies. It is clear what the scientists are trying to discern, how they will test it, and how they will interpret the results. Pseudoscientific claims are grandiose, vague, and use ambiguous language. An advertisement may read, “This will increase alertness, strengthen immune systems, and block the flow of negative energy.” Nowhere are the processes explained, nor is the reader given any idea how to tell if these benefits have occurred.
A certain giveaway is a lack of peer review. Pseudoscience practitioners prefer their work be lapped up by credulous masses rather than perused by Ph.D.s in the field. Closely related to no peer review is being disinterested in replication or outside verification. Science is a work in progress, while pseudoscience is presented as a done deal. There’s no need to go further since the panacea has been discovered or the secret formula unearthed.
Stagnation is another sign. An acupuncture patient today receives the same treatment that Confucius got. Compare that to advances in electronics over the last 75 years. Science continually adapts, evolves, and improves. At the other end of the spectrum from stagnation, pseudoscience might drastically overhaul its methods while keeping the same results. The theoretical ideas of Transhumanism have little resemblance to those of 50 years ago, but its proponents are still assuring us that immortal supermen are on the way.
Scientists are forever publishing in journals, holding forums, appearing on podcasts, and exchanging ideas. By contrast, a pseudoscientist works alone or with select cronies and lashes out at questions that request too much detail. Before reverting to their Frankenstein laboratory, they may unleash an ad hominem about critics being resistant to change or being Big Pharma shills. Science also explains its methods. Conversely, in almost 700 pages, L. Ron Hubbard never reveals how he reached his conclusions.
In science, the gold standard is a controlled, double blind study which involves a substantial amount of data. The use of statistics and an emphasis on statistical significance is also seen. In pseudoscience, the focus is on anecdotes and testimonials. If pseudoscientists are pressed on the lack of Scientific Method usage or the dearth of double blind studies, ad hoc reasoning abounds. Homeopath proponents and aromatherapists, for instance, have claimed such testing is impossible because each person responds differently to treatment. Crystal healers may claim they are using a holistic approach that includes working the mind, an area that can’t be measured. Creationist Jason Lisle asserts he has deduced how starlight from two galaxies away arrived here in 5,000 years. But he refuses to publish his work in peer-reviewed astronomy journals because astrophysicists don’t submit their work to creationist publications.
Also, beware the appeal to irrelevant authority, such as a doctor of economics weighing in on a weight loss miracle. Similarly, Intelligent Design proponents gleefully pass around a list of about 100 Ph.D.s who support creation. But this list includes persons with doctorates in history and English. Skeptics have countered with a List of Steves, a collection of Ph.D.s who reject creation. This list is 13 times longer and consists solely of men named Steve or women named Stephanie. Other examples of appeals to irrelevant authority are claims that a long-lost Mayan cure has been found or that an energy-boosting method is similar to what ancient Egyptians used. Another squirrelly technique is relying on an unrelated field. Cryonics advocates insist raising the dead will commence once nanotechnology does its part.
Also, beware the misuse of scientific terms. Alternative medicine gurus will mention energy, particles, and waves, but use the terms improperly. For years, cold fusion and perpetual motion were misused buzzwords in the pseudo-physics arena. They’ve been largely replaced with quantum. There’s almost no limit to what a pseudoscientist will claim when they toss that word into the sentence.
One of the hardest pseudoscience techniques to detect is quote mining. The most frequent violation is probably the creationist ploy of quoting this from On the Origin of Species: “To suppose that the eye, with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest possible degree.” They stop there, since the next sentence reads: “Yet reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a perfect and complex eye to one very imperfect and simple, each grade being useful to its possessor, can be shown to exist…,” and goes on to explain the process. This is an extreme case, but any cherrypicking of data and reports is a hallmark of pseudoscience.
Another obvious sign is reaching one’s conclusion first. A person or group using this method is, by definition, failing to do science. The Institute for Creation Research’s mission is to find evidence that meshes Genesis with the Cosmos. Nessie hunters presume his existence, then seek evidence that supports it.
Pseudoscientists will also stealthily put the burden on the other side. They will make a claim, and if it can’t be disproven, will present this inability as proof their claim is true. For instance, creationists will say that evolution cannot account for morality so it had to come from God. Yet evolution is merely the change in inherited characteristics in biological populations over time. It has nothing to do with morality or anything besides animals adapting to their environment. And anyway, the insinuation that evolution fails to account for morality proves that it comes from God relies on the appeal to ignorance. Just because we can’t prove it doesn’t come from God doesn’t meant that it does. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. The burden of proof always on the one making the claim. This can be closely tied to not be falsifiable. A magic jewelry hawker may boast, “This will balance your harmony,” a conclusion that could never be tested or falsified.
Then we have Moving the Goalposts, where an answered challenge is met with consternation, excuses, and a different challenge. When the Theory of Relativity was validated, Newtonian proponents embraced it. By contrast, Intelligent Design advocates for years claimed there were no fossils showing a sea creature evolving into a land dweller. Then Tiktaalik came along, so they switched their focus to there being no fossil showing an invertebrate developing a spine. And, of course, they’re again relying on the appeal to ignorance by claiming this lack of a particular fossil proves that the Abrahamic god created everything.
Finally, a pseudoscience red flag should is raised when ideology is involved. Lysenkoism taught that acquired characteristics, rather than genetic ones, were passed onto offspring. For example, if you cut the tail off of a mouse, the next generation would also have that feature. This had zero validity, but Soviets revered Lysenkoism because the Communist Party endorsed it as part of its ideology. Science promoters in the United States today face no threat of extermination from Joseph Stalin for pushing back against charlatans and hucksters, so pseudoscience should always be exposed.