Recognizing pseudoscience

One would think that recognizing pseudoscience is an easy thing, almost intuitive – and, to be honest, it is, provided the right measuring stick is used. But there’s simple, and then there’s simple, you know?

First off, we can get some other bits out of the way first. There’s no reason to get all pedantic over a firm definition of pseudoscience, but can we count such things as false advertising claims? Evidence consisting of folklore and anecdotes? The ‘sole positive’ effect (“I’ve had experience with that once before”)? Sure, if you want, but these seem more to fall under the big umbrella of critical thinking than really anything to do with science – you can apply these to buying a car or choosing a restaurant.

The simplest way is with knowing (as too few people do) that science strives to rule out the false positive, to determine that some effect is not caused by something else entirely. Much more than the positive results, the elimination of alternatives is what gives science its strength – think of it as an Olympics of knowledge, with no Silver or Bronze. Though the new discovery gets the attention, it isn’t even considered a new discovery until it has surmounted the competition and the alternatives – something that popular media perpetually, and inexcusably, misunderstands. In fact, this produces a handy little guideline on its own: whenever any researcher holds a press conference rather than having their paper published in peer-review journals, it’s safe to completely ignore their announcements. Dodging the review process is only useful for those who know their ideas won’t survive it.

There’s another guide as well. Science operates within the tent of established knowledge – physical laws, known properties, demonstrable reactions. This isn’t to say in the least that new properties cannot be discovered, but if they are claimed to contradict something that researchers the world over have been using successfully for decades, it’s fairly obvious that the evidence for such a new property has to be documented and overwhelming – and explain why we have the decades of results that we do. Pseudoscience, on the other hand, often relies on circumventing known properties, proposing new theories with astounding ramifications, while demonstrating no real support for such conclusions – usually, this remains to be found, once everyone can “get past the dogma of accepted science.” Aside from the obvious logic failure with proposing whole new physics sans evidence, this treats science as if it’s a rulebook rather than a process, a mistake made repeatedly – it’s easy to find those who somehow think physical laws and properties are like social laws, based on the pronouncements of authority figures, rather than physical traits that exist in the universe. There is no penalty for breaking the law of gravity, since no one will ever do it.

[Yes, I feel completely confident in making that statement; no one will stop gravity from working, and it’s not going anywhere. The best we might accomplish is to counteract its effect in limited ways, but as a property that holds galaxies together and bends light, we’re not going to find a little switch for it someplace.]

That phrase above about the “dogma” of science (which is able to be found far too often) is evidence of another, more subtle indication of pseudoscience: the emotional appeal. Any time that you hear attempts to manipulate emotions, to disparage accepted knowledge, to defend personal experience, or to compare past mistakes, feel free to save your time and move onward. But if you’re really into being objective, challenge the emotional appeals for what they are and redirect the attention back to solid evidence. Have there been mistakes within science before? Yes, of course – discovered by science itself, as I’m fond of pointing out, and not by psychics or garage inventors or shamans. There have been mistakes in the world of pseudoscience, too, but never self-corrected, imagine that (and I’ll leave calculating the percentages of each as a comparative exercise.) Does someone swear by their experience? Bully for them – humans are fallible, which is blindingly obvious while simultaneously forgotten constantly, and are also stubborn, fatuous, biased, and emotional. Heard a stupid political argument lately? Good – it’s the exact same people assuring you that copper bracelets cure arthritis. Our scientific method exists, in part, because of exactly these traits.

Selectivity is another clue. If you’ve found someone who uses quantum mechanics to explain their pet theory while claiming that science refuses to recognize this effect, you’ve got a winner (or loser, to be more accurate.) When you’re listening to someone warning of the harmful effects of gluten or high-fructose corn syrup, challenge them to tell you how they obtained these indisputable results that nevertheless are being suppressed. Pseudoscience has its poster children, and they are the lone heroes crusading from grass-roots organizations that, somehow, never have any research labs at their disposal. The very same scientists that supposedly provided their rock-solid evidence are the same ones under gag orders from big corporations, or dancing to the tune of the totalitarian government. Have fun with such people, and inform them that if conditions truly were as they say, they would never know what was actually harmful to them. Meanwhile, hidden within all of that is a peculiar concept, of people who place value on science and want to use its dependability and reputation, while ignoring its findings to create their own favorite conclusions. This is a favorite tactic of creationists, who pick and choose the bits they like and openly dismiss the rest, as if results are subject to personal vote.

But even all of this is needless fooling around, because there’s one simple facet that science utilizes constantly, and pseudoscience perpetually avoids. When any potential effect is suggested – for instance, vaccines causing autism – science collects data first to produce a starting point, something dependable, and necessary for any research. Pseudoscience never confirms its data, instead relying on anecdote and suppositions about how prevalent such a thing might be, and even why the real data cannot be produced. Pseudoscience adores excuses, from aliens having stealth technology (explaining why the visual sighting provoked no radar evidence) to negative energy counteracting the telekinetic powers (which makes skepticism far stronger than any psychic – bow before me, you little shits.) Pseudoscience will never, ever deal with the obvious consequences of its theories, like autism rates that should be lower in countries without vaccination programs, or cancer rates that should have surged commensurate with cell phone usage. And contra-evidence is always dismissed, often in the most convoluted ways.

If you’re seeing a pattern of confirmation bias from all this, you’re right – pseudoscience is emotionally based, providing something that the proponent wants to believe, and requires very subjective rules to maintain. Thus, the issue isn’t with knowing how to spot pseudoscience as such, it’s with wanting to spot pseudoscience (or the desperate attempts not to.) While many people feel that operating on the best information and making well-informed decisions is a pretty useful approach (you will excuse the wry understatement,) there are too many others who place personal affirmation and indulgence well above objectivity, finding elaborate ways to rationalize their choices in the face of weak evidence and flawed theories. It’s almost astounding when one thinks about it, because there’s little if any benefit from following pseudoscience, save for petty emotional supplication (that often has to be maintained against any and all critical examination, much less denigration from others,) while the hazards of following pseudoscience extend from loss of significant amounts of money to extensive health issues affecting entire populations. Despite the protests invariably heard whenever pseudoscience is challenged, it is not a “personal choice” in any way – not if you’ve just heard about it. Whole industries devoted to reiki and aromatherapy do not exist to provide a choice, but to influence as many people as will blindingly accept it, using bastardized “research” and misleading or outright false claims to promote some appearance of legitimacy – we can thank exactly such efforts for the rallying cry of “science doesn’t know everything,” (which, by some gross misunderstanding of how logic works, is supposed to provide support for whatever claim someone happens to like in its place.)

It might be easier to ignore such things, thinking that people are going to believe whatever they like and there’s not much we can do to prevent it. But does this make us any different, or are we also rationalizing our choices to avoid confrontation? While it may seem that addressing pseudoscience is just a clash of personalities unless we pursue a greater audience, the effect of such beliefs is pernicious and far-reaching – does it sound better to weather a bit of confrontation to save even one child from dying of a treatable medical condition because their parents bought the bullshit? Worrying about our own convenience and comfort seems petty then, and it is – we tend to think in immediate terms and not the long run. But just sowing a seed of doubt is a start, and even one voice in opposition is far better than the implied consent of silence.