How Crazy Can It Get?

Archive for January, 2009

How can you recognize pseudoscience?

Recently, there has been a lot of “Lively” discussion regarding the validity of certain theories within my network. I thought it might be helpful to first think about the classification of the theories. Why does one side discount the other? What is the true nature of the claims of both sides? What are the underlying objectives and motivations?  How rigid or flexible is a theory?

So, as a starting point, I found this nifty table on a web page that has a lot of useful information.  I find the table useful, but then it tends to support the concepts I already have. If it doesn’t support your concepts don’t despair. This is just a guide. Some might say it is a guide from the dark side. 


What is pseudoscience?
There is no single test that unambiguously distinguishes between science and pseudoscience, but as the two diverge more and more from one another, certain differences become apparent, and these tend to be remarkably consistent across all fields of interest. In examining the following table, it might be helpful to consider examples of astronomy vs. astrology, or of chemistry vs. alchemy, which at one time were single fields that gradually diverged into sciences and pseudosciences.




The primary goal of science is to achieve a more complete and more unified understanding of the physical world. Pseudosciences are more likely to be driven by ideological, cultural, or commercial goals. Some examples: astrology (from ancient Babylonian culture,) UFO-ology (popular culture and mistrust of government), Creation Science (attempt to justify a literal interpretation of the Bible), "structure-altered" waters (commercial quackery.)
Most scientific fields are the subjects of intense research which result in the continual expansion of knowledge in the discipline. The field has evolved very little since it was first established. The small amount of research and experimentation that is carried out is generally done more to justify the belief than to extend it. The search for new knowledge is the driving force behind the evolution of any scientific field. Nearly every new finding raises new questions that beg exploration. There is little evidence of this in the pseudosciences.
Workers in the field commonly seek out counterexamples or findings that appear to be inconsistent with accepted theories. In the pseudosciences, a challenge to accepted dogma is often considered a hostile act if not heresy, and leads to bitter disputes or even schisms. Sciences advance by accommodating themselves to change as new information is obtained.

In science, the person who shows that a generally accepted belief is wrong or incomplete is more likely to be considered a hero than a heretic.

Observations or data that are not consistent with current scientific understanding, once shown to be credible, generate intense interest among scientists and stimulate additional studies. Observations or data that are not consistent with established beliefs tend to be ignored or actively suppressed. Have you noticed how self-styled psychics always seem eager to announce their predictions for the new year, but never like to talk about how many of last years’ predictions were correct?
Science is a process in which each principle must be tested in the crucible of experience and remains subject to being questioned or rejected at any time. The major tenets and principles of the field are often not falsifiable, and are unlikely ever to be altered or shown to be wrong. Enthusiasts incorrectly take the logical impossibility of disproving a pseudoscientific priniciple as evidence of its validity.
Scientific ideas and concepts must stand or fall on their own merits, based on existing knowledge and on evidence. Pseudoscientific concepts tend to be shaped by individual egos and personalities, almost always by individuals who are not in contact with mainstream science. They often invoke authority (a famous name, for example) for support. Have you ever noticed how proponents of pseudoscientific ideas are more likely to list all of the degrees they have?
Scientific explanations must be stated in clear, unambigous terms. Pseudoscientific explanations tend to be vague and ambiguous, often invoking scientific terms in dubious contexts. Phrases such as "energy vibrations" or "subtle energy fields" may sound impressive, but they are essentially meaningless.


In my defense, and to give proper credit where due, I did not invent this. The link to the original is under the “Quote” and the concepts discussed are, to the best of my understanding, a property of the scientific paradigm. This is not meant to define the scientific method, but to separate the wheat from the chaff in that which is science and that which is not.

The following cartoons are not to be taken personally by any person, living or dead, or any deity or deities, but for all to be enlightened by humor.

The Scientific Method 

This is a famous cartoon illustrating the absence of falsifiability.

 And then a Miracle Occurs

Some readers might read this and get the wrong idea. I am not maligning your beliefs. I hope that you can take your theories and use the table above to examine them. If they pass muster then I am very happy for you. I am not against you or your beliefs. I am not against the “what.” I am interested in the “how” and the “why.” The table can be very helpful in this pursuit.

In closing, those that are up to the challenge can visit the web page that this post is based on. There it discusses other issues and interesting topics about science as well as has links to specific examples like “bad science.” 

It can be found here What is pseudoscience?