Telltale Signs of Pseudoscience

As promised, here is the first tidbit out of Massimo Pigliucci’s Nonsense on Stilts that I want to share. (Technically, it’s not Dr. Pigliucci’s tidbit since he is summarizing part of another book, John Casti’s Paradigms Lost. But Piglucci’s book is where I found it.) These red flags make a nice addition to the various signs of medical nonsense I’ve discussed before (1, 2, 3). Since I have not read the original source for these qualities of pseudoscience, and they were listed but not discussed in detail by Dr. Pigliucci, I may not be interpreting them in precisely the same way as Dr. Casti intended, but they do resonate with my own experiences dealing with proponents of pseudoscience.

1. Anachronistic Thinking: I take this to mean both an inappropriate reverence for the supposed historical longevity of an idea as well as ways of looking at health and disease that come from historical eras before a scientific understanding was possible and that are essentially mythological. Claiming that Traditional Chinese Medicine or acupuncture or some other therapy are thousands of years old (which often isn’t true anyway), and implying that this says something positive about the effectiveness of the approach is an example of anachronistic thinking. So is employing mystical, pre-scientific models of health and disease, such as referring to unmeasurable “energies” as the source of health or illness and the like.

2. Glorification of Mysteries: A mystical perspective often requires that the core truth about something be ultimately unknowable. While science accepts that there is much we do not know, and that there may be things we cannot know, it is fundamentally based on the premise that we can and should try to understand the natural world. If someone tells you health and disease are dependent on mysterious spiritual essences that can never be rationally understood or empirically examined, then you are dealing with pseudoscience.

3. Appeal to Myths: Myths are central to the justification of many pseudoscientific ideas. Fables and other narratives that are unproven or manifestly untrue lie behind non-medical pseudoscience, such as the study of UFOs and cryptozoology, as well as many pseudoscientific theories in medicine. The stories told about toxins in our environment, the mythology about how the natural history of dogs and cats requires them to eat raw diets, the stories about how vaccines and conventional medicines damage the immune system or otherwise do more harm than good, are all examples of myths that are used to justify pseudoscientific approaches to medicine.

4. A Cavalier Approach to Evidence: It is becoming more popular for advocates of pseudoscientific theories, such as homeopathy and homotoxicology for example, to pretend that they are approaching their ideas in an evidence-based manner. However, a closer inspection of their arguments finds an excessive and inappropriate reliance on testimonials, traditions, and other low-quality narrative forms of evidence along with a disdain for clinical trials and pre-clinical evidence. This is not surprising since testimonial narratives are far more likely to appear to validate such approaches than are higher quality forms of evidence.

This goes along with two other characteristics cited by Dr. Pigliucci which seem closely related, “explanation by scenario” and “‘literary’ rather than empirically based interpretations of facts. Pseudoscience is very much an enterprise which tells compelling stories and dresses them up to look like science but which fails to adhere to the methodological core of science, which is objective and systematic collection and analysis of empirical data intended to validate or invalidate the specific predictions of coherent theories about the natural world.

5. Extreme Resistance to Revising One’s Position: Cognitive dissonance is a powerful force in all of us. But pseudoscience as a collaborative social activity is often deliberately focused on maintaining and buttressing beliefs, whereas science is specifically intended to continuously updated and, when necessary, replace its own theories. Science may often be wrong, but as Pigliucci points out, it is always scientists who discover and reveal the errors of other scientists, not those who criticize the scientific enterprise from outside. This emphasis on disproving gives science, unfortunately, an aura of negativity which hampers its public relations. But this is to some extent a function of the very nature of the activity, which is to disprove rather than validate ideas. Negative results are more reliable because our cognitive biases are designed to support and maintain our beliefs. So if a particular medical approach is designed to be self-sustaining and criticism of it is viewed with great hostility (which can so easily and often be seen in the comments posted on this blog), then that approach is likely to be pseudoscience.

6. A Tendency to Shift the Burden of Proof: It is axiomatic in scientific discourse that those who make extraordinary claims bear the burden of providing evidence for these claims. Since pseudoscientific approaches to medicine often lack the support of compelling empirical evidence, advocates for them frequently attempt to shift this burden to critics. It makes no sense, however, to demand that critics prove an implausible idea untrue. If I claim to be the President of the United States, should that claim be automatically accepted unless a skeptic collects sufficient evidence to disprove it, or should I be expected to be the one to prove such an unlikely assertion before it is accepted?

7. Sympathy for a Theory Just Because It’s New or Daring: Pseudoscience is often centered on supposedly new ideas (though these often turn out to be recycled) which lone geniuses claim to have discovered and which mainstream science has somehow overlooked. Often these ideas are dramatic departures from conventional understanding which, if true, would replace the dominant paradigm. It is natural to see such unexpected and dramatic claims as appealing. In America in particular, I think, we have a sympathy for the rebel and the outsider. However, the less exciting reality is that most new ideas, conventional or unconventional, turn out to be wrong. And dramatic revolutions in scientific thinking are uncommon. We simply forget all the new and daring ideas that turned out to be wrong, and remember those few that were eventually validated. This gives us an inaccurate sense of how likely such paradigm shifts are. A hallmark of pseudoscience, then, is what I have elsewhere called the Galileo Complex, in which ideas are viewed positively because they seem new and dramatic.

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