Pseudoscience

Pseudoscience consists of statements, beliefs, or practices that are claimed to be both scientific and factual, but are incompatible with the scientific method.[1][Note 1] Pseudoscience is often characterized by contradictory, exaggerated or unfalsifiable claims; reliance on confirmation bias rather than rigorous attempts at refutation; lack of openness to evaluation by other experts; and absence of systematic practices when developing theories, and continued adherence long after they have been experimentally discredited. The term pseudoscience is considered pejorative[4] because it suggests something is being presented as science inaccurately or even deceptively. Those described as practicing or advocating pseudoscience often dispute the characterization.[2]

The demarcation between science and pseudoscience has philosophical and scientific implications.[5] Differentiating science from pseudoscience has practical implications in the case of health care, expert testimony, environmental policies, and science education.[6] Distinguishing scientific facts and theories from pseudoscientific beliefs, such as those found in astrology, alchemy, alternative medicine, occult beliefs, religious beliefs, and creation science, is part of science education and scientific literacy.[6][7]

Pseudoscience can cause negative consequences in the real world. Antivaccine activists present pseudoscientific studies that falsely call into question the safety of vaccines. Homeopathic remedies with no active ingredients have been promoted as treatment for deadly diseases.

Etymology

The word pseudoscience is derived from the Greek root pseudo meaning false[8][9] and the English word science, from the Latin word scientia, meaning "knowledge". Although the term has been in use since at least the late 18th century (e.g. in 1796 by James Pettit Andrews in reference to alchemy[10][11]) the concept of pseudoscience as distinct from real or proper science seems to have become more widespread during the mid-19th century. Among the earliest uses of "pseudo-science" was in an 1844 article in the Northern Journal of Medicine, issue 387:

That opposite kind of innovation which pronounces what has been recognized as a branch of science, to have been a pseudo-science, composed merely of so-called facts, connected together by misapprehensions under the disguise of principles.

An earlier use of the term was in 1843 by the French physiologist François Magendie.[12] During the 20th century, the word was used pejoratively to describe explanations of phenomena which were claimed to be scientific, but which were not in fact supported by reliable experimental evidence. From time-to-time, though, the usage of the word occurred in a more formal, technical manner in response to a perceived threat to individual and institutional security in a social and cultural setting.[13]

Classification

Philosophers classify types of knowledge. In English, the word science is used to indicate specifically the natural sciences and related fields, which are called the social sciences.[14]

Different philosophers of science may disagree on the exact limits – for example, is mathematics a formal science that is closer to the empirical ones, or is pure mathematics closer to the philosophical study of logic and therefore not a science?[15] – but all agree that all of the ideas that are not scientific are non-scientific. The large category of non-science includes all matters outside the natural and social sciences, such as the study of history, metaphysics, religion, art, and the humanities.[14]

Dividing the category again, unscientific claims are a subset of the large category of non-scientific claims. This category specifically includes all matters that are directly opposed to good science.[14] Un-science includes both bad science (such as an error made in a good-faith attempt at learning something about the natural world) and pseudoscience.[14] Thus pseudoscience is a subset of un-science, and un-science, in turn, is subset of non-science.

Relationship to science

Pseudoscience is differentiated from science because – although it claims to be science – pseudoscience does not adhere to accepted scientific standards, such as the scientific method, falsifiability of claims, and Mertonian norms.

Scientific method

The Scientific Method (simple)
The scientific method is a continuous cycle of hypothesis, prediction, testing and questioning.
PhrenologyPix
A typical 19th-century phrenology chart: During the 1820s, phrenologists claimed the mind was located in areas of the brain, and were attacked for doubting that mind came from the nonmaterial soul. Their idea of reading "bumps" in the skull to predict personality traits was later discredited.[16] Phrenology was first termed a pseudoscience in 1843 and continues to be considered so.[12]

A number of basic principles are accepted by scientists as standards for determining whether a body of knowledge, method, or practice is scientific. Experimental results should be reproducible and verified by other researchers.[17] These principles are intended to ensure experiments can be reproduced measurably given the same conditions, allowing further investigation to determine whether a hypothesis or theory related to given phenomena is valid and reliable. Standards require the scientific method to be applied throughout, and bias to be controlled for or eliminated through randomization, fair sampling procedures, blinding of studies, and other methods. All gathered data, including the experimental or environmental conditions, are expected to be documented for scrutiny and made available for peer review, allowing further experiments or studies to be conducted to confirm or falsify results. Statistical quantification of significance, confidence, and error[18] are also important tools for the scientific method.

Falsifiability

During the mid-20th century, the philosopher Karl Popper emphasized the criterion of falsifiability to distinguish science from nonscience.[19] Statements, hypotheses, or theories have falsifiability or refutability if there is the inherent possibility that they can be proven false. That is, if it is possible to conceive of an observation or an argument which negates them. Popper used astrology and psychoanalysis as examples of pseudoscience and Einstein's theory of relativity as an example of science. He subdivided nonscience into philosophical, mathematical, mythological, religious and metaphysical formulations on one hand, and pseudoscientific formulations on the other, though he did not provide clear criteria for the differences.[20]

Another example which shows the distinct need for a claim to be falsifiable was stated in Carl Sagan's publication The Demon-Haunted World when he discusses an invisible dragon that he has in his garage. The point is made that there is no physical test to refute the claim of the presence of this dragon. No matter what test you think you can devise, there is then a reason why this does not apply to the invisible dragon, so one can never prove that the initial claim is wrong. Sagan concludes; "Now, what's the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire and no dragon at all?". He states that "your inability to invalidate my hypothesis is not at all the same thing as proving it true",[21] once again explaining that even if such a claim were true, it would be outside the realm of scientific inquiry.

Mertonian norms

During 1942, Robert K. Merton identified a set of five "norms" which he characterized as what makes a real science. If any of the norms were violated, Merton considered the enterprise to be nonscience. These are not broadly accepted by the scientific community. His norms were:

  • Originality: The tests and research done must present something new to the scientific community.
  • Detachment: The scientists' reasons for practicing this science must be simply for the expansion of their knowledge. The scientists should not have personal reasons to expect certain results.
  • Universality: No person should be able to more easily obtain the information of a test than another person. Social class, religion, ethnicity, or any other personal factors should not be factors in someone's ability to receive or perform a type of science.
  • Skepticism: Scientific facts must not be based on faith. One should always question every case and argument and constantly check for errors or invalid claims.
  • Public accessibility: Any scientific knowledge one obtains should be made available to everyone. The results of any research should be published and shared with the scientific community.[22]

Refusal to acknowledge problems

During 1978, Paul Thagard proposed that pseudoscience is primarily distinguishable from science when it is less progressive than alternative theories over a long period of time, and its proponents fail to acknowledge or address problems with the theory.[23] During 1983, Mario Bunge has suggested the categories of "belief fields" and "research fields" to help distinguish between pseudoscience and science, where the former is primarily personal and subjective and the latter involves a certain systematic method.[24] The 2018 book The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe lists hostility to criticism as one of the major features of pseudoscience.[25]

Criticism of the term

Philosophers of science such as Paul Feyerabend argued that a distinction between science and nonscience is neither possible nor desirable.[26][Note 2] Among the issues which can make the distinction difficult is variable rates of evolution among the theories and methods of science in response to new data.[Note 3]

Larry Laudan has suggested pseudoscience has no scientific meaning and is mostly used to describe our emotions: "If we would stand up and be counted on the side of reason, we ought to drop terms like 'pseudo-science' and 'unscientific' from our vocabulary; they are just hollow phrases which do only emotive work for us".[29] Likewise, Richard McNally states, "The term 'pseudoscience' has become little more than an inflammatory buzzword for quickly dismissing one's opponents in media sound-bites" and "When therapeutic entrepreneurs make claims on behalf of their interventions, we should not waste our time trying to determine whether their interventions qualify as pseudoscientific. Rather, we should ask them: How do you know that your intervention works? What is your evidence?"[30]

Alternative definition

For philosophers Silvio Funtowicz and Jerome R. Ravetz "pseudo-science may be defined as one where the uncertainty of its inputs must be suppressed, lest they render its outputs totally indeterminate". The definition, in the book Uncertainty and quality in science for policy (p. 54),[31] alludes to the loss of craft skills in handling quantitative information, and to the bad practice of achieving precision in prediction (inference) only at the expenses of ignoring uncertainty in the input which was used to formulate the prediction. This use of the term is common among practitioners of post-normal science. Understood in this way, pseudoscience can be fought using good practices to assesses uncertainty in quantitative information, such as NUSAP and – in the case of mathematical modelling – sensitivity auditing.

Venice ast sm
The astrological signs of the zodiac

History

The history of pseudoscience is the study of pseudoscientific theories over time. A pseudoscience is a set of ideas that presents itself as science, while it does not meet the criteria to be properly called such.[32][33]

Distinguishing between proper science and pseudoscience is sometimes difficult. One proposal for demarcation between the two is the falsification criterion, attributed most notably to the philosopher Karl Popper. In the history of science and the history of pseudoscience it can be especially difficult to separate the two, because some sciences developed from pseudosciences. An example of this transformation is the science chemistry, which traces its origins to pseudoscientific or pre-scientific study of alchemy.

The vast diversity in pseudosciences further complicates the history of science. Some modern pseudosciences, such as astrology and acupuncture, originated before the scientific era. Others developed as part of an ideology, such as Lysenkoism, or as a response to perceived threats to an ideology. Examples of this ideological process are creation science and intelligent design, which were developed in response to the scientific theory of evolution.[34]

Identifying

Rhustox
Homeopathic preparation Rhus toxicodendron, derived from poison ivy.

A topic, practice, or body of knowledge might reasonably be termed pseudoscientific when it is presented as consistent with the norms of scientific research, but it demonstrably fails to meet these norms.[1]

Karl Popper stated it is insufficient to distinguish science from pseudoscience, or from metaphysics (such as the philosophical question of what existence means), by the criterion of rigorous adherence to the empirical method, which is essentially inductive, based on observation or experimentation.[35] He proposed a method to distinguish between genuine empirical, nonempirical or even pseudoempirical methods. The latter case was exemplified by astrology, which appeals to observation and experimentation. While it had astonishing empirical evidence based on observation, on horoscopes and biographies, it crucially failed to use acceptable scientific standards.[35] Popper proposed falsifiability as an important criterion in distinguishing science from pseudoscience.

To demonstrate this point, Popper[35] gave two cases of human behavior and typical explanations from Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler's theories: "that of a man who pushes a child into the water with the intention of drowning it; and that of a man who sacrifices his life in an attempt to save the child."[35] From Freud's perspective, the first man would have suffered from psychological repression, probably originating from an Oedipus complex, whereas the second man had attained sublimation. From Adler's perspective, the first and second man suffered from feelings of inferiority and had to prove himself, which drove him to commit the crime or, in the second case, drove him to rescue the child. Popper was not able to find any counterexamples of human behavior in which the behavior could not be explained in the terms of Adler's or Freud's theory. Popper argued[35] it was that the observation always fitted or confirmed the theory which, rather than being its strength, was actually its weakness.

In contrast, Popper[35] gave the example of Einstein's gravitational theory, which predicted "light must be attracted by heavy bodies (such as the Sun), precisely as material bodies were attracted."[35] Following from this, stars closer to the Sun would appear to have moved a small distance away from the Sun, and away from each other. This prediction was particularly striking to Popper because it involved considerable risk. The brightness of the Sun prevented this effect from being observed under normal circumstances, so photographs had to be taken during an eclipse and compared to photographs taken at night. Popper states, "If observation shows that the predicted effect is definitely absent, then the theory is simply refuted."[35] Popper summed up his criterion for the scientific status of a theory as depending on its falsifiability, refutability, or testability.

Paul R. Thagard used astrology as a case study to distinguish science from pseudoscience and proposed principles and criteria to delineate them.[36] First, astrology has not progressed in that it has not been updated nor added any explanatory power since Ptolemy. Second, it has ignored outstanding problems such as the precession of equinoxes in astronomy. Third, alternative theories of personality and behavior have grown progressively to encompass explanations of phenomena which astrology statically attributes to heavenly forces. Fourth, astrologers have remained uninterested in furthering the theory to deal with outstanding problems or in critically evaluating the theory in relation to other theories. Thagard intended this criterion to be extended to areas other than astrology. He believed it would delineate as pseudoscientific such practices as witchcraft and pyramidology, while leaving physics, chemistry and biology in the realm of science. Biorhythms, which like astrology relied uncritically on birth dates, did not meet the criterion of pseudoscience at the time because there were no alternative explanations for the same observations. The use of this criterion has the consequence that a theory can be scientific at one time and pseudoscientific at a later time.[36]

Science is also distinguishable from revelation, theology, or spirituality in that it offers insight into the physical world obtained by empirical research and testing.[37][38] The most notable disputes concern the evolution of living organisms, the idea of common descent, the geologic history of the Earth, the formation of the solar system, and the origin of the universe.[39] Systems of belief that derive from divine or inspired knowledge are not considered pseudoscience if they do not claim either to be scientific or to overturn well-established science. Moreover, some specific religious claims, such as the power of intercessory prayer to heal the sick, although they may be based on untestable beliefs, can be tested by the scientific method.

Some statements and common beliefs of popular science may not meet the criteria of science. "Pop" science may blur the divide between science and pseudoscience among the general public, and may also involve science fiction.[40] Indeed, pop science is disseminated to, and can also easily emanate from, persons not accountable to scientific methodology and expert peer review.

If the claims of a given field can be tested experimentally and standards are upheld, it is not pseudoscience, however odd, astonishing, or counterintuitive the claims are. If claims made are inconsistent with existing experimental results or established theory, but the method is sound, caution should be used, since science consists of testing hypotheses which may turn out to be false. In such a case, the work may be better described as ideas that are "not yet generally accepted". Protoscience is a term sometimes used to describe a hypothesis that has not yet been tested adequately by the scientific method, but which is otherwise consistent with existing science or which, where inconsistent, offers reasonable account of the inconsistency. It may also describe the transition from a body of practical knowledge into a scientific field.[19]

Indicators of the possible presence of pseudoscience

Use of vague, exaggerated or untestable claims

  • Assertion of scientific claims that are vague rather than precise, and that lack specific measurements.[41]
  • Assertion of a claim with little or no explanatory power.[35]
  • Failure to make use of operational definitions (i.e., publicly accessible definitions of the variables, terms, or objects of interest so that persons other than the definer can measure or test them independently)[Note 4] (See also: Reproducibility).
  • Failure to make reasonable use of the principle of parsimony, i.e., failing to seek an explanation that requires the fewest possible additional assumptions when multiple viable explanations are possible (see: Occam's razor).[43]
  • Use of obscurantist language, and use of apparently technical jargon in an effort to give claims the superficial trappings of science.
  • Lack of boundary conditions: Most well-supported scientific theories possess well-articulated limitations under which the predicted phenomena do and do not apply.[44]
  • Lack of effective controls, such as placebo and double-blind, in experimental design.
  • Lack of understanding of basic and established principles of physics and engineering.[45]

Over-reliance on confirmation rather than refutation

  • Assertions that do not allow the logical possibility that they can be shown to be false by observation or physical experiment (see also: Falsifiability).[19][46]
  • Assertion of claims that a theory predicts something that it has not been shown to predict.[47] Scientific claims that do not confer any predictive power are considered at best "conjectures", or at worst "pseudoscience" (e.g., ignoratio elenchi).[48]
  • Assertion that claims which have not been proven false must therefore be true, and vice versa (see: Argument from ignorance).[49]
  • Over-reliance on testimonial, anecdotal evidence, or personal experience: This evidence may be useful for the context of discovery (i.e., hypothesis generation), but should not be used in the context of justification (e.g., statistical hypothesis testing).[50]
  • Presentation of data that seems to support claims while suppressing or refusing to consider data that conflict with those claims.[28] This is an example of selection bias, a distortion of evidence or data that arises from the way that the data are collected. It is sometimes referred to as the selection effect.
  • Promulgating to the status of facts excessive or untested claims that have been previously published elsewhere; an accumulation of such uncritical secondary reports, which do not otherwise contribute their own empirical investigation, is called the Woozle effect.[51]
  • Reversed burden of proof: science places the burden of proof on those making a claim, not on the critic. "Pseudoscientific" arguments may neglect this principle and demand that skeptics demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt that a claim (e.g., an assertion regarding the efficacy of a novel therapeutic technique) is false. It is essentially impossible to prove a universal negative, so this tactic incorrectly places the burden of proof on the skeptic rather than on the claimant.[52]
  • Appeals to holism as opposed to reductionism: proponents of pseudoscientific claims, especially in organic medicine, alternative medicine, naturopathy and mental health, often resort to the "mantra of holism" to dismiss negative findings.[53]

Lack of openness to testing by other experts

  • Evasion of peer review before publicizing results (termed "science by press conference"):[52][54][Note 5] Some proponents of ideas that contradict accepted scientific theories avoid subjecting their ideas to peer review, sometimes on the grounds that peer review is biased towards established paradigms, and sometimes on the grounds that assertions cannot be evaluated adequately using standard scientific methods. By remaining insulated from the peer review process, these proponents forgo the opportunity of corrective feedback from informed colleagues.[53]
  • Some agencies, institutions, and publications that fund scientific research require authors to share data so others can evaluate a paper independently. Failure to provide adequate information for other researchers to reproduce the claims contributes to a lack of openness.[55]
  • Appealing to the need for secrecy or proprietary knowledge when an independent review of data or methodology is requested.[55]
  • Substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all viewpoints is not encouraged.[56]

Absence of progress

  • Failure to progress towards additional evidence of its claims.[46][Note 3] Terence Hines has identified astrology as a subject that has changed very little in the past two millennia.[44][57] (see also: Scientific progress)
  • Lack of self-correction: scientific research programmes make mistakes, but they tend to reduce these errors over time.[58] By contrast, ideas may be regarded as pseudoscientific because they have remained unaltered despite contradictory evidence. The work Scientists Confront Velikovsky (1976) Cornell University, also delves into these features in some detail, as does the work of Thomas Kuhn, e.g., The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) which also discusses some of the items on the list of characteristics of pseudoscience.
  • Statistical significance of supporting experimental results does not improve over time and are usually close to the cutoff for statistical significance. Normally, experimental techniques improve or the experiments are repeated, and this gives ever stronger evidence. If statistical significance does not improve, this typically shows the experiments have just been repeated until a success occurs due to chance variations.

Personalization of issues

Use of misleading language

  • Creating scientific-sounding terms to persuade nonexperts to believe statements that may be false or meaningless: For example, a long-standing hoax refers to water by the rarely used formal name "dihydrogen monoxide" and describes it as the main constituent in most poisonous solutions to show how easily the general public can be misled.
  • Using established terms in idiosyncratic ways, thereby demonstrating unfamiliarity with mainstream work in the discipline.

Prevalence of pseudoscientific beliefs in the United States

A large percentage of the United States population lacks scientific literacy, not adequately understanding scientific principles and method.[Note 8][Note 9][62][Note 10] In the Journal of College Science Teaching, Art Hobson writes, "Pseudoscientific beliefs are surprisingly widespread in our culture even among public school science teachers and newspaper editors, and are closely related to scientific illiteracy."[64] However, a 10,000-student study in the same journal concluded there was no strong correlation between science knowledge and belief in pseudoscience.[65]

In his book The Demon-Haunted World Carl Sagan discusses the government of China and the Chinese Communist Party's concern about Western pseudoscience developments and certain ancient Chinese practices in China. He sees pseudoscience occurring in the United States as part of a worldwide trend and suggests its causes, dangers, diagnosis and treatment may be universal.[66]

During 2006, the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) issued an executive summary of a paper on science and engineering which briefly discussed the prevalence of pseudoscience in modern times. It said, "belief in pseudoscience is widespread" and, referencing a Gallup Poll,[67] stated that belief in the 10 commonly believed examples of paranormal phenomena listed in the poll were "pseudoscientific beliefs".[68]

The items were "extrasensory perception (ESP), that houses can be haunted, ghosts, telepathy, clairvoyance, astrology, that people can communicate mentally with someone who has died, witches, reincarnation, and channelling".[68] Such beliefs in pseudoscience represent a lack of knowledge of how science works. The scientific community may attempt to communicate information about science out of concern for the public's susceptibility to unproven claims.[68]

The National Science Foundation stated that pseudoscientific beliefs in the U.S. became more widespread during the 1990s, peaked about 2001, and then decreased slightly since with pseudoscientific beliefs remaining common. According to the NSF report, there is a lack of knowledge of pseudoscientific issues in society and pseudoscientific practices are commonly followed.[69] Surveys indicate about a third of all adult Americans consider astrology to be scientific.[70][71][72]

Explanations

In a report Singer and Benassi (1981) wrote that pseudoscientific beliefs have their origin from at least four sources.[73]

  • Common cognitive errors from personal experience.
  • Erroneous sensationalistic mass media coverage.
  • Sociocultural factors.
  • Poor or erroneous science education.

Another American study (Eve and Dunn, 1990) supported the findings of Singer and Benassi and found pseudoscientific belief being promoted by high school life science and biology teachers.[74]

Psychology

The psychology of pseudoscience attempts to explore and analyze pseudoscientific thinking by means of thorough clarification on making the distinction of what is considered scientific vs. pseudoscientific. The human proclivity for seeking confirmation rather than refutation (confirmation bias),[75] the tendency to hold comforting beliefs, and the tendency to overgeneralize have been proposed as reasons for pseudoscientific thinking. According to Beyerstein (1991), humans are prone to associations based on resemblances only, and often prone to misattribution in cause-effect thinking.[76]

Michael Shermer's theory of belief-dependent realism is driven by the belief that the brain is essentially a "belief engine," which scans data perceived by the senses and looks for patterns and meaning. There is also the tendency for the brain to create cognitive biases, as a result of inferences and assumptions made without logic and based on instinct — usually resulting in patterns in cognition. These tendencies of patternicity and agenticity are also driven "by a meta-bias called the bias blind spot, or the tendency to recognize the power of cognitive biases in other people but to be blind to their influence on our own beliefs."[77] Lindeman states that social motives (i.e., "to comprehend self and the world, to have a sense of control over outcomes, to belong, to find the world benevolent and to maintain one's self-esteem") are often "more easily" fulfilled by pseudoscience than by scientific information. Furthermore, pseudoscientific explanations are generally not analyzed rationally, but instead experientially. Operating within a different set of rules compared to rational thinking, experiential thinking regards an explanation as valid if the explanation is "personally functional, satisfying and sufficient", offering a description of the world that may be more personal than can be provided by science and reducing the amount of potential work involved in understanding complex events and outcomes.[78]

There is a trend to believe in pseudoscience more than scientific evidence.[79] Some people believe the prevalence of pseudoscientific beliefs is due to widespread "scientific illiteracy".[80] Individuals lacking scientific literacy are more susceptible to wishful thinking, since they are likely to turn to immediate gratification powered by System 1, our default operating system which requires little to no effort. This system encourages one to accept the conclusions they believe, and reject the ones they do not. Further analysis of complex pseudoscientific phenomena require System 2, which follows rules, compares objects along multiple dimensions and weighs options. These two systems have several other differences which are further discussed in the dual-process theory. The scientific and secular systems of morality and meaning are generally unsatisfying to most people. Humans are, by nature, a forward-minded species pursuing greater avenues of happiness and satisfaction, but we are all too frequently willing to grasp at unrealistic promises of a better life.[81]

Psychology has much to discuss about pseudoscience thinking, as it is the illusory perceptions of causality and effectiveness of numerous individuals that needs to be illuminated. Research suggests that illusionary thinking happens in most people when exposed to certain circumstances such as reading a book, an advertisement or the testimony of others are the basis of pseudoscience beliefs. It is assumed that illusions are not unusual, and given the right conditions, illusions are able to occur systematically even in normal emotional situations. One of the things pseudoscience believers quibble most about is that academic science usually treats them as fools. Minimizing these illusions in the real world is not simple.[82] To this aim, designing evidence-based educational programs can be effective to help people identify and reduce their own illusions.[82]

Boundaries with science

In the philosophy and history of science, Imre Lakatos stresses the social and political importance of the demarcation problem, the normative methodological problem of distinguishing between science and pseudoscience. His distinctive historical analysis of scientific methodology based on research programmes suggests: "scientists regard the successful theoretical prediction of stunning novel facts – such as the return of Halley's comet or the gravitational bending of light rays – as what demarcates good scientific theories from pseudo-scientific and degenerate theories, and in spite of all scientific theories being forever confronted by 'an ocean of counterexamples'".[5] Lakatos offers a "novel fallibilist analysis of the development of Newton's celestial dynamics, [his] favourite historical example of his methodology" and argues in light of this historical turn, that his account answers for certain inadequacies in those of Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn.[5] "Nonetheless, Lakatos did recognize the force of Kuhn's historical criticism of Popper – all important theories have been surrounded by an 'ocean of anomalies', which on a falsificationist view would require the rejection of the theory outright... Lakatos sought to reconcile the rationalism of Popperian falsificationism with what seemed to be its own refutation by history".[83]

Many philosophers have tried to solve the problem of demarcation in the following terms: a statement constitutes knowledge if sufficiently many people believe it sufficiently strongly. But the history of thought shows us that many people were totally committed to absurd beliefs. If the strengths of beliefs were a hallmark of knowledge, we should have to rank some tales about demons, angels, devils, and of heaven and hell as knowledge. Scientists, on the other hand, are very sceptical even of their best theories. Newton's is the most powerful theory science has yet produced, but Newton himself never believed that bodies attract each other at a distance. So no degree of commitment to beliefs makes them knowledge. Indeed, the hallmark of scientific behaviour is a certain scepticism even towards one's most cherished theories. Blind commitment to a theory is not an intellectual virtue: it is an intellectual crime.

Thus a statement may be pseudoscientific even if it is eminently 'plausible' and everybody believes in it, and it may be scientifically valuable even if it is unbelievable and nobody believes in it. A theory may even be of supreme scientific value even if no one understands it, let alone believes in it.[5]

— Imre Lakatos, Science and Pseudoscience

The boundary between science and pseudoscience is disputed and difficult to determine analytically, even after more than a century of study by philosophers of science and scientists, and despite some basic agreements on the fundamentals of the scientific method.[1][84][85] The concept of pseudoscience rests on an understanding that the scientific method has been misrepresented or misapplied with respect to a given theory, but many philosophers of science maintain that different kinds of methods are held as appropriate across different fields and different eras of human history. According to Lakatos, the typical descriptive unit of great scientific achievements is not an isolated hypothesis but "a powerful problem-solving machinery, which, with the help of sophisticated mathematical techniques, digests anomalies and even turns them into positive evidence."[5]

To Popper, pseudoscience uses induction to generate theories, and only performs experiments to seek to verify them. To Popper, falsifiability is what determines the scientific status of a theory. Taking a historical approach, Kuhn observed that scientists did not follow Popper's rule, and might ignore falsifying data, unless overwhelming. To Kuhn, puzzle-solving within a paradigm is science. Lakatos attempted to resolve this debate, by suggesting history shows that science occurs in research programmes, competing according to how progressive they are. The leading idea of a programme could evolve, driven by its heuristic to make predictions that can be supported by evidence. Feyerabend claimed that Lakatos was selective in his examples, and the whole history of science shows there is no universal rule of scientific method, and imposing one on the scientific community impedes progress.[86]

— David Newbold and Julia Roberts, "An analysis of the demarcation problem in science and its application to therapeutic touch theory" in International Journal of Nursing Practice, Vol. 13

Laudan maintained that the demarcation between science and non-science was a pseudo-problem, preferring to focus on the more general distinction between reliable and unreliable knowledge.[87]

[Feyerabend] regards Lakatos's view as being closet anarchism disguised as methodological rationalism. It should be noted that Feyerabend's claim was not that standard methodological rules should never be obeyed, but rather that sometimes progress is made by abandoning them. In the absence of a generally accepted rule, there is a need for alternative methods of persuasion. According to Feyerabend, Galileo employed stylistic and rhetorical techniques to convince his reader, while he also wrote in Italian rather than Latin and directed his arguments to those already temperamentally inclined to accept them.[83]

— Alexander Bird, "The Historical Turn in the Philosophy of Science" in Routledge Companion to the Philosophy of Science

Politics, health, and education

Political implications

The demarcation problem between science and pseudoscience brings up debate in the realms of science, philosophy and politics. Imre Lakatos, for instance, points out that the Communist Party of the Soviet Union at one point declared that Mendelian genetics was pseudoscientific and had its advocates, including well-established scientists such as Nikolai Vavilov, sent to a Gulag and that the "liberal Establishment of the West" denies freedom of speech to topics it regards as pseudoscience, particularly where they run up against social mores.[5]

It becomes pseudoscientific when science cannot be separated from ideology, scientists misrepresent scientific findings to promote or draw attention for publicity, when politicians, journalists and a nation's intellectual elite distort the facts of science for short-term political gain, or when powerful individuals of the public conflate causation and cofactors by clever wordplay. These ideas reduce the authority, value, integrity and independence of science in society.[88]

Health and education implications

Distinguishing science from pseudoscience has practical implications in the case of health care, expert testimony, environmental policies, and science education. Treatments with a patina of scientific authority which have not actually been subjected to actual scientific testing may be ineffective, expensive and dangerous to patients and confuse health providers, insurers, government decision makers and the public as to what treatments are appropriate. Claims advanced by pseudoscience may result in government officials and educators making bad decisions in selecting curricula.[Note 11]

The extent to which students acquire a range of social and cognitive thinking skills related to the proper usage of science and technology determines whether they are scientifically literate. Education in the sciences encounters new dimensions with the changing landscape of science and technology, a fast-changing culture and a knowledge-driven era. A reinvention of the school science curriculum is one that shapes students to contend with its changing influence on human welfare. Scientific literacy, which allows a person to distinguish science from pseudosciences such as astrology, is among the attributes that enable students to adapt to the changing world. Its characteristics are embedded in a curriculum where students are engaged in resolving problems, conducting investigations, or developing projects.[7]

Friedman mentions why most scientists avoid educating about pseudoscience, including that paying undue attention to pseudoscience could dignify it.[89] On the other hand, Park emphasizes how pseudoscience can be a threat to society and considers that scientists have a responsibility to teach how to distinguish science from pseudoscience.[90]

Pseudosciences such as homeopathy, even if generally benign, are used by charlatans. This poses a serious issue because it enables incompetent practitioners to administer health care. True-believing zealots may pose a more serious threat than typical con men because of their affection to homeopathy's ideology. Irrational health care is not harmless and it is careless to create patient confidence in pseudomedicine.[91]

On December 8, 2016, Michael V. LeVine, writing in Business Insider, pointed out the dangers posed by the Natural News website: "Snake-oil salesmen have pushed false cures since the dawn of medicine, and now websites like Natural News flood social media with dangerous anti-pharmaceutical, anti-vaccination and anti-GMO pseudoscience that puts millions at risk of contracting preventable illnesses."[92]

The anti-vaccine movement has persuaded large number of parents not to vaccinate their children, citing pseudoscientific research that links childhood vaccines with the onset of autism.[93] These include the study by Andrew Wakefield, which claimed that a combination of gastrointestinal disease and developmental regression, which are often seen in children with ASD, occurred within two weeks of receiving vaccines.[94][95] The study was eventually retracted by its publisher while Wakefield was stripped of his license to practice medicine.[93]

See also

Related concepts

Similar terms

Notes

  1. ^ Definition:
    • "A pretended or spurious science; a collection of related beliefs about the world mistakenly regarded as being based on scientific method or as having the status that scientific truths now have," Oxford English Dictionary, second edition 1989.
    • "Many writers on pseudoscience have emphasized that pseudoscience is non-science posing as science. The foremost modern classic on the subject (Gardner 1957) bears the title Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science. According to Brian Baigrie (1988, 438), '[w]hat is objectionable about these beliefs is that they masquerade as genuinely scientific ones.' These and many other authors assume that to be pseudoscientific, an activity or a teaching has to satisfy the following two criteria (Hansson 1996): (1) it is not scientific, and (2) its major proponents try to create the impression that it is scientific."[2]
    • '"claims presented so that they appear [to be] scientific even though they lack supporting evidence and plausibility"(p. 33). In contrast, science is "a set of methods designed to describe and interpret observed and inferred phenomena, past or present, and aimed at building a testable body of knowledge open to rejection or confirmation"(p. 17)'[3] (this was the definition adopted by the National Science Foundation)
  2. ^ 'A particularly radical reinterpretation of science comes from Paul Feyerabend, "the worst enemy of science"... Like Lakatos, Feyerabend was also a student under Popper. In an interview with Feyerabend in Science, [he says] "Equal weight... should be given to competing avenues of knowledge such as astrology, acupuncture, and witchcraft..."'[27]
  3. ^ a b "We can now propose the following principle of demarcation: A theory or discipline which purports to be scientific is pseudoscientific if and only if: it has been less progressive than alternative theories over a long period of time, and faces many unsolved problems; but the community of practitioners makes little attempt to develop the theory towards solutions of the problems, shows no concern for attempts to evaluate the theory in relation to others, and is selective in considering confirmations and non confirmations."[28]
  4. ^ 'Most terms in theoretical physics, for example, do not enjoy at least some distinct connections with observables, but not of the simple sort that would permit operational definitions in terms of these observables. [..] If a restriction in favor of operational definitions were to be followed, therefore, most of theoretical physics would have to be dismissed as meaningless pseudoscience!'[42]
  5. ^ For an opposing perspective, e.g. Chapter 5 of Suppression Stories by Brian Martin (Wollongong: Fund for Intellectual Dissent, 1997), pp. 69–83.
  6. ^ e.g. archivefreedom.org, which claims that "The list of suppressed scientists even includes Nobel Laureates!"
  7. ^ e.g. Philosophy 103: Introduction to Logic Argumentum Ad Hominem.
  8. ^ "Surveys conducted in the United States and Europe reveal that many citizens do not have a firm grasp of basic scientific facts and concepts, nor do they have an understanding of the scientific process. In addition, belief in pseudoscience (an indicator of scientific illiteracy) seems to be widespread among Americans and Europeans."[60]
  9. ^ "A new national survey commissioned by the California Academy of Sciences and conducted by Harris Interactive® reveals that the U.S. public is unable to pass even a basic scientific literacy test."[61]
  10. ^ "In a survey released earlier this year, Miller and colleagues found that about 28 percent of American adults qualified as scientifically literate, which is an increase of about 10 percent from the late 1980s and early 1990s."[63]
  11. ^ "From a practical point of view, the distinction is important for decision guidance in both private and public life. Since science is our most reliable source of knowledge in a wide variety of areas, we need to distinguish scientific knowledge from its look-alikes. Due to the high status of science in present-day society, attempts to exaggerate the scientific status of various claims, teachings, and products are common enough to make the demarcation issue serious. For example, creation science may replace evolution in studies of biology."[6]

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Bibliography

Further reading

External links

Astral projection

Astral projection (or astral travel) is a term used in esotericism to describe a willful out-of-body experience (OBE) that assumes the existence of a soul or consciousness called an "astral body" that is separate from the physical body and capable of travelling outside it throughout the universe.The idea of astral travel is ancient and occurs in multiple cultures. The modern terminology of 'astral projection' was coined and promoted by 19th century Theosophists. It is sometimes reported in association with dreams, and forms of meditation. Some individuals have reported perceptions similar to descriptions of astral projection that were induced through various hallucinogenic and hypnotic means (including self-hypnosis). There is no scientific evidence that there is a consciousness or soul which is separate from normal neural activity or that one can consciously leave the body and make observations, and astral projection has been characterized as a pseudoscience.

Astrology

Astrology is a pseudoscience that claims to divine information about human affairs and terrestrial events by studying the movements and relative positions of celestial objects. Astrology has been dated to at least the 2nd millennium BCE, and has its roots in calendrical systems used to predict seasonal shifts and to interpret celestial cycles as signs of divine communications. Many cultures have attached importance to astronomical events, and some—such as the Hindus, Chinese, and the Maya—developed elaborate systems for predicting terrestrial events from celestial observations. Western astrology, one of the oldest astrological systems still in use, can trace its roots to 19th–17th century BCE Mesopotamia, from which it spread to Ancient Greece, Rome, the Arab world and eventually Central and Western Europe. Contemporary Western astrology is often associated with systems of horoscopes that purport to explain aspects of a person's personality and predict significant events in their lives based on the positions of celestial objects; the majority of professional astrologers rely on such systems.Throughout most of its history, astrology was considered a scholarly tradition and was common in academic circles, often in close relation with astronomy, alchemy, meteorology, and medicine. It was present in political circles and is mentioned in various works of literature, from Dante Alighieri and Geoffrey Chaucer to William Shakespeare, Lope de Vega, and Calderón de la Barca.

Following the end of the 19th century and the wide-scale adoption of the scientific method, astrology has been challenged successfully on both theoretical and experimental grounds, and has been shown to have no scientific validity or explanatory power. Astrology thus lost its academic and theoretical standing, and common belief in it has largely declined. While polls have demonstrated that approximately one quarter of American, British, and Canadian people say they continue to believe that star and planet positions affect their lives, astrology is now recognized as a pseudoscience—a belief that is incorrectly presented as scientific.

Charlatan

A charlatan (also called a swindler or mountebank) is a person practicing quackery or some similar confidence trick or deception in order to obtain money, fame or other advantages via some form of pretense or deception. Synonyms for "charlatan" include "shyster", "quack", or "faker". "Mountebank" comes from the Italian montambanco or montimbanco based on the phrase monta in banco - literally referring to the action of a seller of dubious medicines getting up on a bench to address his audience of potential customers. "Quack" is a reference to "quackery" or the practice of dubious medicine or a person who does not have actual medical training who purports to provide medical services.

Clairvoyance

Clairvoyance (; from French clair meaning "clear" and voyance meaning "vision") is the alleged ability to gain information about an object, person, location, or physical event through extrasensory perception. Any person who is claimed to have such ability is said accordingly to be a clairvoyant () ("one who sees clearly").

Claims for the existence of paranormal and psychic abilities such as clairvoyance have not been supported by scientific evidence published in high impact factor peer reviewed journals. Parapsychology explores this possibility, but the existence of the paranormal is not accepted by the scientific community. Parapsychology, including the study of clairvoyance, is an example of pseudoscience.

Cryptozoology

Cryptozoology is a pseudoscience and subculture that aims to prove the existence of entities from the folklore record, such as Bigfoot, the chupacabra, or Mokele-mbembe. Cryptozoologists refer to these entities as cryptids, a term coined by the subculture. Because it does not follow the scientific method, cryptozoology is considered a pseudoscience by the academic world: it is neither a branch of zoology nor folkloristics. It was originally founded in the 1950s by zoologists Bernard Heuvelmans and Ivan T. Sanderson.

Scholars have noted that the pseudoscience rejected mainstream approaches from an early date, and that adherents often express hostility to mainstream science. Scholars have studied cryptozoologists and their influence (including the pseudoscience's association with Young Earth creationism), and have noted parallels in cryptozoology and other pseudosciences such as ghost hunting and ufology.

Crystal healing

Crystal healing is a pseudoscientific alternative medicine technique that uses semiprecious stones and crystals such as quartz, amethyst or opals. Adherents of the technique claim that these have healing powers, although there is no scientific basis for this claim.In one method, the practitioner places crystals on different parts of the body, often corresponding to chakras; or else the practitioner places crystals around the body in an attempt to construct an energy grid, which is purported to surround the client with healing energy. Despite this, scientific investigations have not validated claims that chakras or energy grids actually exist, nor is there any evidence that crystal healing has any greater effect upon the body than any other placebo; for these reasons it is considered a pseudoscience.

Encyclopedia of Pseudoscience

The Encyclopedia of Pseudoscience: From Alien Abductions to Zone Therapy (2000), edited by William F. Williams, "identifies, defines and explains terms and concepts related to the world of "almost science". It includes over 2000 entries, covering phenomena, people, events, topics, places and associations.

Extrasensory perception

Extrasensory perception or ESP, also called sixth sense, includes claimed reception of information not gained through the recognized physical senses, but sensed with the mind. The term was adopted by Duke University psychologist J. B. Rhine to denote psychic abilities such as intuition, telepathy, psychometry, clairvoyance, and their trans-temporal operation as precognition or retrocognition.Second sight is a form of extrasensory perception, the supposed power to perceive things that are not present to the senses, whereby a person perceives information, in the form of a vision, about future events before they happen (precognition), or about things or events at remote locations (remote viewing). There is no scientific evidence that second sight exists. Reports of second sight are known only from anecdotal evidence given after the fact.

Himalayan salt

Himalayan salt is rock salt (halite) from the Punjab, Pakistan. The salt often has a pinkish tint due to mineral impurities. It is primarily used as a food additive as table salt, but is also used as a material for cooking and food presentation, decorative lamps, and spa treatments. The salt has been claimed to provide numerous health benefits, but no scientific support exists for such claims.

Juice fasting

Juice fasting, also known as juice cleansing, is a fad diet in which a person consumes only fruit and vegetable juices while abstaining from solid food consumption. It is used for detoxification, an alternative medicine treatment, and is often part of detox diets. The diet can typically last for two to seven days and involve a number of fruits and vegetables and even spices that are not among the juices typically sold or consumed in the average Western diet.

This diet is sometimes promoted with implausible and unsubstantiated claims about its health benefits.

List of topics characterized as pseudoscience

This is a list of topics that have, at one point or another in their history, been characterized as pseudoscience by academics or researchers. Discussion about these topics is done on their main pages. These characterizations were made in the context of educating the public about questionable or potentially fraudulent or dangerous claims and practices—efforts to define the nature of science, or humorous parodies of poor scientific reasoning.

Criticism of pseudoscience, generally by the scientific community or skeptical organizations, involves critiques of the logical, methodological, or rhetorical bases of the topic in question. Though some of the listed topics continue to be investigated scientifically, others were only subject to scientific research in the past, and today are considered refuted but resurrected in a pseudoscientific fashion. Other ideas presented here are entirely non-scientific, but have in one way or another impinged on scientific domains or practices.

Many adherents or practitioners of the topics listed here dispute their characterization as pseudoscience. Each section here summarizes the alleged pseudoscientific aspects of that topic.

Modern flat Earth societies

Modern flat Earth societies are organizations that promote the misconception that the Earth is flat rather than a globe. Such groups date from the middle of the 20th century; some adherents are serious and some are not. Those who are serious are often motivated by pseudoscience or Biblical literalism.

Through the use of social media, flat Earth theories have been increasingly espoused by individuals unaffiliated with larger groups, many of which have members from several countries.

Paranormal

Paranormal events are purported phenomena described in popular culture, folk, and other non-scientific bodies of knowledge, whose existence within these contexts is described as beyond normal experience or scientific explanation.Proposals regarding the paranormal are different from scientific hypotheses or speculations extrapolated from scientific evidence because scientific ideas are grounded in empirical observations and experimental data gained through the scientific method. In contrast, those who argue for the existence of the paranormal explicitly do not base their arguments on empirical evidence but rather on anecdote, testimony, and suspicion. Notable paranormal beliefs include those that pertain to telepathy, extrasensory perception, spiritualism and the pseudosciences of ghost hunting, cryptozoology, and ufology.

Phrenology

Phrenology (from Ancient Greek φρήν (phrēn), meaning 'mind', and λόγος (logos), meaning 'knowledge') is a pseudoscience which involves the measurement of bumps on the skull to predict mental traits. It is based on the concept that the brain is the organ of the mind, and that certain brain areas have localized, specific functions or modules. Although both of those ideas have a basis in reality, phrenology extrapolated beyond empirical knowledge in a way that departed from science. The central phrenological notion that measuring the contour of the skull can predict personality traits is discredited by empirical research. Developed by German physician Franz Joseph Gall in 1796, the discipline was influential in the 19th century, especially from about 1810 until 1840. The principal British centre for phrenology was Edinburgh, where the Edinburgh Phrenological Society was established in 1820.

Phrenology is today recognized as pseudoscience. The methodological rigor of phrenology was doubftul even for the standards of its time, since many authors already regarded phrenology as pseudoscience in the 19th century. Phrenological thinking was influential in the psychiatry and psychology of the 19th century. Gall's assumption that character, thoughts, and emotions are located in specific parts of the brain is considered an important historical advance toward neuropsychology.

Precognition

Precognition (from the Latin prae-, "before" and cognitio, "acquiring knowledge"), also called prescience, future vision, future sight is a claimed psychic ability to see events in the future.

As with other forms of extrasensory perception, there is no accepted scientific evidence that precognition is a real phenomenon and it is widely considered to be pseudoscience. Precognition also appears to violate the principle of causality, that an effect cannot occur before its cause.

Precognition has been widely believed in throughout history. Despite the lack of scientific evidence, many people still believe it to be real; it is still widely reported and remains a topic of research and discussion within the parapsychology community.

Psionics

Psionics is the study of paranormal phenomena in relation to the application of electronics. The term comes from psi (“psyche”) and the -onics from electronics (machine). It is closely related to the field of radionics. There is no scientific evidence that psionic abilities exist.

Psychic

A psychic is a person who claims to use extrasensory perception (ESP) to identify information hidden from the normal senses, particularly involving telepathy or clairvoyance, or who performs acts that are apparently inexplicable by natural laws. Although many people believe in psychic abilities, the scientific consensus is that there is no proof of the existence of such powers, and describe the practice as pseudoscience. The word "psychic" is also used as an adjective to describe such abilities. In this meaning, this word has two synonyms, which are parapsychic and metapsychic.

Psychics encompass people in a variety of roles. Some are theatrical performers, such as stage magicians, who use various techniques, e.g., prestidigitation, cold reading, and hot reading, to produce the appearance of such abilities for entertainment purposes. A large industry and network exists whereby people advertised as psychics provide advice and counsel to clients. Some famous psychics include Edgar Cayce, Ingo Swann, Peter Hurkos, Janet Lee, Jose Ortiz El Samaritano, Miss Cleo, John Edward, Sylvia Browne, and Tyler Henry. Psychic powers are asserted by psychic detectives and in practices such as psychic archaeology and even psychic surgery.Critics attribute psychic powers to intentional trickery or to self-delusion. In 1988 the U.S. National Academy of Sciences gave a report on the subject and concluded there is "no scientific justification from research conducted over a period of 130 years for the existence of parapsychological phenomena". A study attempted to repeat recently reported parapsychological experiments that appeared to support the existence of precognition. Attempts to repeat the results, which involved performance on a memory test to ascertain if post-test information would affect it, "failed to produce significant effects", and thus "do not support the existence of psychic ability", and is thus categorized as a pseudoscience.

Psychics are frequently featured in science fiction. The Star Wars franchise, for example, features "Force-sensitive" beings that can see into the future and move objects telepathically. People with psychic powers also appear regularly in fantasy fiction, such as in some of the works of Stephen King or Dungeons & Dragons, amongst many others.

Quantum mysticism

Quantum mysticism is a set of metaphysical beliefs and associated practices that seek to relate consciousness, intelligence, spirituality, or mystical worldviews to the ideas of quantum mechanics and its interpretations. Quantum mysticism is considered by most scientists and philosophers to be pseudoscience or quackery.

Reiki

Reiki (霊気, ) is a form of alternative medicine called energy healing. Reiki practitioners use a technique called palm healing or hands-on healing through which a "universal energy" is said to be transferred through the palms of the practitioner to the patient in order to encourage emotional or physical healing.

Reiki is a pseudoscience, and is used as an illustrative example of pseudoscience in scholarly texts and academic journal articles. It is based on qi ("chi"), which practitioners say is a universal life force, although there is no empirical evidence that such a life force exists. Clinical research has not shown reiki to be effective as a treatment for any medical condition. There has been no proof of the effectiveness of reiki therapy compared to placebo. An overview of reiki investigations found that studies reporting positive effects had methodological flaws. The American Cancer Society stated that reiki should not replace conventional cancer treatment, a sentiment echoed by Cancer Research UK and the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.Developed in Japan in 1922 by Mikao Usui, it has been adapted into varying cultural traditions across the world.

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