Let’s talk pseudoscience. Why? Because it’s so available and is often seen as a replacement for conventional medicine. And to be honest, it also scares the crap out of me. We see it on the news, advertisements, and on social media. It can be good to learn how to recognize pseudoscience.
Some pharmacies even have shelves dedicated to homeopathy, and anti-vaccine supporters stubbornly claim that vaccines cause autism, and they get attention. There seems to be an epidemic of these practices in today’s self-help era, and it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish between trustworthy science and BS science.
The scientific method increases trustworthiness
Scientists usually use a framework for learning more about something. It’s a set of steps that a researcher follows to make conclusions. A so-called scientific method. Although it can vary somewhat between studies, it generally includes the following steps:
Step 1: You have a question or observation that you want to test.
Why do I have navel lint?
Step 2: From that, you formulate a hypothesis based on your knowledge about the question or observation.
The presence of belly hair causes navel lint.
Step 3: Now it’s time to test this hypothesis by doing experiments or gathering data.
You could gather a bunch of friends with and without belly hair (the more friends, the better) and calculate the presence of navel lint collected by your friends after a week in relation to the presence of belly hair.
Important: Confounding factors are external factors that can influence your results, e.g. different clothing. To avoid these, you need proper controls. The controls will confirm that the results are causal.
Controls can be: making all your friends in the experiment wear the same type of shirt during the week, doing the same type of activities (like running for an hour every two days), and not allowing them to take showers.
Step 4: You’ll end up with results.
If the result is non-significant, i.e., a random phenomenon, then you go back to step 2 and formulate a new hypothesis.
If the result is significant, i.e. belly hair = navel lint, and it’s reproducible, then you can continue to step 5.
Step 5: A conclusion or scientific theory is made. These are based on the significant results from step 4. We’ve learned something new.
Navel lint derives from the presence of belly hair.
That’s it. You’ve just performed a study using the scientific method. It’s performed this way to ensure objectivity and the absence of biases. It doesn’t guarantee objectivity or lack of bias, but it minimizes the risks of subjectivity.
In the case of pseudoscience, one or several of the steps above are neglected. Especially steps 3 and 4 are ignored, making them susceptible to biases. Hence pseudoscience (not genuine science).
Pseudoscience includes practices, products, or statements that claim to be scientific without appropriate studies or evidence. There is a wide range of these, and they can look very different from each other:
Homeopathy, aromatherapy, IgG-testing, naturopathy, reiki, astrology, various supplements, and many, many more. As you can see, there are a lot of pseudosciences to choose from. And this is where it becomes worrisome. Combined, these practices claim to cover many of your illnesses or everyday problems. No topic is untouched, just like in the porn industry.
So how do you distinguish between good and bad science? Some traits are common for many pseudosciences, and it’s good to get an eye for these. Follow me on this trip down pseudoscience lane, and maybe you’ll discover new traits to add to your repertoire.
Trait 1: Claims are embedded with real but unrelated evidence
It’s like a huge lunch buffet with crappy and unhealthy food. You’ve been there. You’ll look doubtful at it, but what the heck, you need food. You’ll find a nice strawberry or a tasty bread with garlic butter here and there. Sometimes they’re there by chance, but sometimes they are buried inside terrible food.
Enough with the food talk! The buffet represents pseudoscience, and the crap food is what it has to offer. The tasty and healthy bites represent evidence-based claims they might add from time to time.
Be aware, though. The evidence-based parts many times do not support their claims at all. They’re just there to make the pseudoscientific claims more trustworthy.
Let’s have some fun and develop a similar strategy to make a point. Let’s say we want to promote our product. This is what it could look like if we would use this type of pseudoscientific strategy:
Our Holistic Substance Scat2000 is derived from leaves harvested in the ancient forests of Białowieża, Poland. It improves your immune system by stimulating the epigenome in a positive way. Don’t trust us? Check out these findings:
⊕ The immune system can be regulated by epigenetic changes (yes, evidence)
⊕ Rub Scat2000 Holistic Substance clockwise on your belly. Put a drop or two into your belly button. This will trigger good epigenetic changes that, in turn, improve your immune system (no evidence).
⊕ Epigenetics has gained much popularity in research in the last few decades (yes, evidence). It controls gene expression without changing the genetic code (yes, evidence)
Do you see how confusing this is? Most of the claims above are backed up by evidence. The Holistic Substance Scat2000 must be bulletproof. Except it’s not. None of the (properly) referred claims above support the second claim at any point! In this case. The second statement could still be made up. It’s just decorated with true but unrelated facts. They buried licorice candy in the bowl of fresh strawberries. Yes, that’s right, I don’t like licorice.
Adding unrelated facts to claims doesn’t confirm anything. It’s just misleading, and part of the tactics used to trick you into thinking that the product is reliable.
Trait 2: Proper references are not used
References are important in scientific writing because it adds support to your claims. You didn’t come up with the statement, but it’s been studied and reviewed. Some references are stronger than others. For example, references that have been peer-reviewed by other scientists are considered more reliable than referring to, for example, the Cosmopolitan magazine.
Pseudoscientific articles often choose not to add references to their claims. Why should they? Most of the time it would probably just backfire on them.
Take this claim, for example:
“The existence of ‘life force energy’ and the necessity for it to flow freely in and around one’s body to maintain health has been studied and acknowledged by health care practitioners and scientists.”
This is a real example from the International Center for Reiki Training. It must be true, right? It has been “studied and acknowledged by health care practitioners as well as scientists”. Right? No, not right! These are just claims. It would be like me saying that the Ivory Embassy is loved and praised by tens of thousands of people around the globe. If I can support it with references, then kudos to the Embassy. Let’s pop some bottles. If not, well, then it remains something that I just wrote. A claim.
You rarely see citations backing up the most impressive claims in pseudoscientific texts. They get away with stating the most remarkable things without needing support.
Trait 3: References are cherry-picked. Like going à la carte at a restaurant
This trait is related to the point above. The only difference is that, in this case, they provide references for their claims. But notice how they never provide you with equally strong or stronger evidence against their beliefs. Sure, this is a hard task for anyone. Reading through all the literature and filtering out the most reliable evidence isn’t an easy task. It takes time. But you know, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
It’s not enough to throw out a publication from an unknown journal. Shouldn’t respected journals be interested in your product if it truly lives up to the expectations? But let’s not get too caught up on the choice of journal.
Usually, pseudoscientists and supporters refer to preliminary findings. We find claims based on cell culture experiments, case studies, animal experiments, experiments containing small sample sizes, etc. They can be interesting, sure. Go ahead and use this type of information if it’s interesting. But for the love of science and empiricism, be clear about its preliminary findings and be honest about its applicability in humans, especially if there is stronger evidence that goes against your claims.
Going á la carte at the restaurant is a cool thing. Impress your significant other by pointing at the menu. However, going á la carte and only picking evidence that supports your beliefs is biased and dishonest.
Trait 4: Money’s involved
This is a big one. They often point at Big Pharma with disgusted faces. Pointing out that it’s a billion-dollar industry and that they’re hiding the true information.
I hear you. Private and profit-chasing healthcare is not optimal for the average person (we’ll be covering this topic in more detail later on). But check the agenda behind the accusations before jumping into the anti-big-pharma-wagon.
If the purpose behind the accusations is to convince me lemons can cure cancer (yes, another real thing, unfortunately), then you don’t have my attention. Get these healing stones off my face and show me the way out, please.
“But, Mr Embassy, there’s no money in fruit and clean eating!”. Oh, but I beg the difference. Apart from the fact that you probably pay for your fruits and non-GMO foods (right?), these pseudoscientists have the market all figured out. They know it inside out by now, full of possibilities. Books, magazines, powders, pills, “doctor” appointments, oils, subscriptions, membership, workshops, clothing, gadgets, jewelry, supplements, etc. The list goes on and on, leading to the one main goal: Money.
Blaming pharma is often a strategy to reach that end goal. Keeping you doubting conventional medicine is a great tactic. It confuses, scares, and increases consumption. The profit-driven agenda of which these pseudoscientists accuse pharmaceutical companies can easily be applied to themselves.
Still don’t believe me? Have a look at Goop. A pseudoscientific “lifestyle brand” founded by Gwyneth Paltrow. Among other things, they recommend coffee enemas to supercharge and detox your body. Yes, it’s that bad. With estimated revenues of around $45 million in 2017, still growing and with no debts, it’s safe to say that pseudoscience can bring in the big bucks.
Trait 5: The products are too perfect
When medical treatments or technologies are developed, they’re under constant scrutiny. If something’s wrong, we’ll hear it from every part of the research community. Look at CRISPR technology, for example. No space for shortcuts. In other cases, practices are eventually abandoned if they don’t work. For example, you’ve probably noticed that we don’t treat hypertension with bloodletting, though I’d prefer it over the coffee enema.
When teaching systems fail to deliver good student results, the teacher community highlights these problems. Curriculums change and overall optimizations are performed to improve teaching.
When the pseudoscientific community finds that one of their claims or products doesn’t hold up in real life, then… well, that’s the thing… it doesn’t seem to happen very often. There seems to be nothing wrong with these products. Ever! At least if you ask the pseudoscientific community. How is this possible? How could they’ve gotten it so right that their approaches remain unchanged for years, decades, centuries, and even millennia?
If you think about it, it’s pretty improbable. We all make mistakes. We recognize them as such, we learn from them, we improve, and then we continue making mistakes. It’s like the circle of life. If this is true in real life, all practices should be true. And if it’s not… well then, my friend, this looks more like a dogma or sect.
Be aware that the practice is never criticized within its community. If the product cannot be criticized and is immune to scrutiny, it’s probably fake. We all have problems to fix.
You know how to recognize pseudoscience now. The field is yours, Grasshopper
By now, you’ve hopefully acquired a bit more knowledge about how to spot pseudoscience. But before you go out on the fields to hunt quacks (figuratively speaking, of course), I’ll provide you with some final words of awareness.
Remember that pseudoscientists and their supporters bark loudly, and they bark a lot. This gives the impression that they are many and probably right. To make it worse, they often use strong rhetoric to increase the impact of their claims. Like comparing vaccination of children with being raped, or with headlines reading “The 12 worst cancer-causing products in your home”. They’ll play on your feelings.
Once you’ve decided to confront pseudoscience, you’ll need to be prepared for index fingers pointing in your direction. Do you want kids to be hurt? Do you support Monsanto? This may, from time to time, make you question yourself. Are you the actual idiot for not believing in ghosts? I’ve been there myself. However, don’t forget that you’re battling dogmas. They’re among the hardest ideas to break so insecurities will be projected on you.
I’ll leave you on a positive note: There’s a big community of skeptics worldwide. Trust me; you’re not alone. So, my idea is never to stop questioning. Because although pseudoscientific belief systems can seem harmless, they diverge the focus from real science. You know, the science that uses proper controls and is reproducible. What’s worse is that pseudoscience can give patients false hopes. Why chemotherapy when lemons cure?
You now know how to spot them. Next time you see extraordinary claims, ask them what the mechanism of action is. Not to troll, but to understand and put the claims to the test. If the explanations remain confusing, it’s not necessarily because you’re slow. It’s most probably because you’ve just been served BS.
Just keep questioning. Even your ideas. And ours… I guess…