How to recognize pseudoscience: 5 common traits
Let’s talk pseudoscience. Why? Because it’s so available and many times 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 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 at times be difficult to distinguish between trustworthy science and BS science.
The scientific method increases trustworthyness
Scientist usually use a framework for learning more about something. It’s a set of steps that a researcher follows to be able to make final conclusions. A so-called scientific method. Although it can vary somewhat between studies, it generally includes the following steps:
Step1: 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 the knowledge that you have 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 gather data.
You could gather a bunch of friends with and without belly hair (the more friends the better) and calculate 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, make them all do 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 a result:
If the result is non-significant, i.e. it’s 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 absence of biases. It doesn’t guarantee objectivity or lack of bias, but it minimises 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 it susceptible to biases. Hence pseudoscience (not genuine science).
Pseudoscience includes practices, products or statements that claim to be scientific, but without appropriate studies or evidence to support them. There is a wide range of these and 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? There are traits that 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. Here and there you’ll even find a nice strawberry or a tasty bread with garlic butter. Sometimes they’re there by chance, but sometimes they are buried inside a terrible food.
Enough with 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 that they might add from time to time.
Be aware though. The evidence-based parts are many times not supporting their claims at all. They’re just there to make the pseudoscientific claims more trustworthy.
Let’s have some fun and come up with a similar type of strategy, to make a point. Let’s say we want to promote our own 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:
⊕ 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 bellybutton. This will trigger good epigenetic changes that in turn improves your immune system (no evidence).
⊕ Epigenetics has gained much popularity in research the last few decades (yes evidence). It controls gene expression without changing the genetic code (yes evidence)
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 basically buried liquorish candy in the bowl of fresh strawberries. Yes, that’s right, I don’t like liquorish.
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 other. 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 many times choose not to add references to their claims at all. Why should they? Most of the times 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 as well as scientists.”
This is a real example from the International Center for Reiki Training. It must be true, right? It has after all 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, with no need to support it.
Trait 3: References are cherry-picked. Like going à la carte on a restaurant
This trait is related to the point above. The only difference is that in this case they actually provide references for their claims. But notice how they never provide you with equally strong or stronger evidence pointing against their beliefs. Sure, this is a hard task for anyone. Reading through all the literature and filter 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 on 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 that it’s 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 on the restaurant is a cool thing, no doubt. Impress your significant other by pointing at the menu. Going á la carte and only picking evidence that supports your beliefs however 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. A private and profit-chasing healthcare is by no means optimal for the average person (we’ll be covering this topic in more in 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 that 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 and know that it’s full of possibilities. Books, magazines, powders, pills, “doctor” appointments, oils, subscriptions, membership, workshops, clothing, gadgets, jewelries, supplements etc, etc. The list goes on and on, and all leads 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 that these pseudoscientists accuse pharmaceutical companies for, 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 enema 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.
Again, Meja was right: it’s all ’bout the money. It’s all ’bout the dun-dun do-do-do-dumb. She knew what she was saying. There’s a reason why quacks offer snake oil and the reason is more often than not cash.
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 the CRISPR technology for example. No space for shortcuts. In other cases, practices are eventually abandoned if they don’t work. You’ve probably noticed that we don’t treat hypertension with bloodletting for example, though I’d prefer it over the coffee enema.
When teaching systems fail to deliver good results by students, the teacher community make sure to highlight these problems. Curriculums change and overall optimisations are performed to improve teaching.
When the pseudoscientific community finds that one of their claims or products don’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, for years, decades, centuries and even millennia, their approaches remain unchanged?
If you think about it, it’s pretty improbable. We all make mistakes. We recognize them as such, we learn from them and we improve, and then continue making mistakes. It’s like the circle of life. If this is true in real life, then it should be true for all types of practices. And if it’s not… well then, my friend, this looks more like a dogma or sect to me.
Be aware if the practice is never criticised within its own community. If the product cannot be criticised and if it’s immune to all types of scrutiny, then it’s probably fake. We all have problems to fix.
You now 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 loud and they bark a lot. This gives the impression that they are many and therefore 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 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 sceptics in the world. Trust me, you’re not alone. So, my idea is to never 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, go ahead, ask them what the mechanism of action is. Not to troll, but to understand and to put the claims to 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 own ideas. And ours… I guess…