The thick line between science and pseudo-science

“Is science bullshit? No, but there is a lot of bullshit currently masquerading as science.” In 21st century, when Science constantly opened doors and became the light bringer, the masters of the dark understood that simply shoving bullshit won’t work on masses anymore. They invented a new tool. The science of bullshit.

First of all let’s be clear on one thing, Science as it stands today is not all-knowing and does not have all the answers. And that right there has the potential to be exploited , and it has been for ever. Scientific claims are falsifiable — that is, they are claims where you could set out what observable outcomes would be impossible if the claim were true — while pseudo-scientific claims fit with any imaginable set of observable outcomes. What this means is that you could do a test that shows a scientific claim to be false, but no conceivable test could show a pseudo-scientific claim to be false. Sciences are testable, pseudo-sciences are not.

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“There are so many studies being thrown around, they can seem to contradict one another. In just the last few months, we’ve seen studies about coffee that claim it may reverse the effects of liver damage, help prevent colon cancer, decrease the risk of endometrial cancer and increase the risk of miscarriage.”

“Coffee today is like God in the Old Testament, It will either save you or kill you depending on how much you believe in its magic powers.” Jon Oliver mentioned in one of his famous critiques.

Scientific press releases dumb-down and misrepresent the studies’ informational content. And by the time broadcast news reports mainline those into popular consciousness, the unconfirmed facts take on a life of their own. Some of this is on us, the viewing audience ,We like fun, poppy science that we can share like gossip. And TV news producers know it.  (Recent Examples)

How to spot Pseudoscience?

1. Does the claim meet the qualifications of a theory?
Very few claims that aren’t true actually qualify as theories. Let’s review the four main requirements that a theory must fulfil. 1) A theory must originate from, and be well supported by, experimental evidence. Anecdotal or unsubstantiated reports don’t qualify. It must be supported by many strands of evidence, and not just a single foundation. You’ll find that most pseudoscience is supported by only a single foundation. 2) A theory must be specific enough to be falsifiable by testing. If it cannot be tested or refuted, it can’t qualify as a theory. And if something is truly testable, others must be able to repeat the tests and get the same results. You’ll find that this feature is truly rare among pseudo sciences; they’ll generally claim some excuse or make up a reason why it can’t be tested or repeated by others. 3) A theory must make specific, testable predictions about things not yet observed. 4) A theory must allow for changes based on the discovery of new evidence. It must be dynamic, tentative, and correctable. You’ll find that most pseudoscience does not allow for changes based on new discoveries.

2. Is the claim said to be based on ancient knowledge?
This is a sure sign that the claim is not based on scientific evidence, and it’s intended to fool you into thinking that because the ancient Chinese believed it, it must have merit. In fact many true theories are not very old at all, because they’ve replaced older theories as knowledge has increased. Generally, the more recent the evidence, the better scientific foundation it has.

3. Was the claim first announced through mass media, or through scientific channels?
Real discoveries go through an unbiased peer review process, which results in publication through scientific journals. When a belief is first announced through the mass media, like Pons and Fleischman’s cold fusion experiments or like the Steorn Orbo perpetual motion machine, there’s generally a reason its proponents chose not to subject it to the scrutiny of peer review.

4. Is the claim based on the existence of an unknown form of “energy” or other paranormal phenomenon?
Loose, meaningless usage of a scientific-sounding word like “energy” is one of the most common red flags you’ll see on popular pseudoscience. Terms like energy fields, negative energy, chi, orgone, aura, psi, and trans-dimensional energy are utterly meaningless in any scientific context. Approach with extreme caution.

5. Do the claimants state that their claim is being suppressed by authorities?
This is usually a really frail excuse for why mainstream scientists don’t take their claim seriously, why the product is not approved by the FDA, or why scientific journals won’t publish their articles. You’ll often hear this in the form of a conspiracy of the medical establishment to suppress a quack cure because it’s in the interest of the medical industry to keep you sick. In fact, any doctor or pharmaceutical company that could develop a new cure would make a huge fortune; they’d never suppress it. The same goes for auto manufacturers worldwide who are said to be “suppressing” new efficient engine technologies.

6. Does the claim sound far fetched, or too good to be true?
When something sounds too good to be true, it usually is. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Does the claim truly fit in with what we know of the way the world works? How often do claims that turn the world upside down really turn out to be true? Approach such claims with extreme skepticism, and demand evidence that’s as extraordinary as the claim.

7. Is the claim supported by hokey marketing?
Be wary of marketing gimmicks, and keep in mind that marketing gimmicks are, by themselves, completely worthless. Examples of hokey marketing that should always raise a red flag are pictures of people wearing white lab coats, celebrity endorsements, anecdotes and testimonials from any source, and mentions of certifications, colleges, academies, and institutes.

8. Does the claim pass the Occam’s Razor test?
Is there a simpler, natural explanation for the claim that does not require any supernatural component? Are results consistent with the placebo effect or the body’s natural healing capacity? Can a stage magician duplicate the psychic’s feats? The Law of Large Numbers states that a one-in-a-million event usually happens to everyone about once a month, and since Occam’s Razor says that the simpler of two possible explanations is usually the right one, don’t leap for a supernatural explanation just because you happened to dream about your grandmother on the night she died.

9. Does the claim come from a source dedicated to supporting it?
Science works by starting with a null hypothesis and searching for evidence. Pseudoscience starts with a positive hypothesis and supports it with questionable research and anecdotal reasoning. It’s unlikely that an institution dedicated to the promotion of any given claim will present any type of evidence other than that which supports their claim, and its bias should be given serious consideration.

10. Are the claimants up front about their testing?
Any good research will outline the testing that was done, and will present all evidence that did not support the conclusion. Be skeptical of any claims that do not detail testing methodology that was thorough and responsible, including external verification and duplication, or that do not provide evidence unsupportive of the conclusion.

11. How good is the quality of data supporting the claim?
Watch out when testing data might be susceptible to observational selection, which is the counting of hits and not the misses, like we see with television psychics. Watch out when sample sizes are too small to have statistical significance, as with most clinical trials of homeopathy. And especially watch out for hastily drawn causal relationships: the assumption that because the relief occurred after the remedy, the remedy must have caused the relief.

12. Do the claimants have legitimate credentials?
Be aware that there is a huge number of unaccredited institutions (which are often just bedroom offices) giving out degrees in just about anything. Be aware that some institutions claiming to be accredited received their accreditation from unrecognized accreditation bodies. Finally, be aware that genuine accredited universities often have programs in unscientific fields such as chiropractic, naturopathy, and acupuncture. You must be vigilant. To see just how vigilant, go to ThunderwoodCollege.com and get your own Ph.D. in the field of your choice in seconds, for free.

13. Do the claimants state that there’s something wrong with the norm?
When real research is presented, it consists of the evidence that was discovered and the conclusion. It does not go off on alarmist rants about how the food we eat is dangerous, how we’re destroying the planet, how the government covers up its evils, or how you’re going to hell if you accept evolution. When a claim is presented as an alternative to the wrongs of the status quo, it’s a sign that the claim is probably based on ideology or philosophy rather than science.

14. Is the claim said to be “all natural”?
As we’ve see time and time again, by no definition can “all natural” mean that a product is safe or healthy. Consider the examples of hemlock, mercury, lead, toadstools, box jellyfish neurotoxin, asbestos — not to mention a nearly infinite number of toxic bacteria and viruses (E. coli, salmonella, bubonic plague, smallpox). In many cases, synthetic versions of natural compounds have been engineered to make them safer, more effective, and able to be produced in large quantities.

15. Does the claim have support that is political, ideological, or cultural?
Some claimants suggest that it’s moral, ethical, or politically correct to accept their claims, to redirect your attention from the fact that they may not be scientifically sound. In some cases, such as Young Earth Creationism, proponents use the court system to force schools to teach their claims as fact. Generally, when a theory is scientifically sound, even if it’s brand new it will eventually find its way into the educational curriculum. Good science is done in the lab — not in the courts, not in protest marches, not in blogs, and not in church. A political or cultural campaign to legalize or promote some product or claim is a major indicator that it’s bogus.

Lets take astrology and Homeopathy for example.

Perhaps the best known field of astronomical pseudo-science is the ancient idea that the position of the Sun, Moon, and planets at the moment we are born somehow affects our subsequent personality, career, or love-life. Astrology got a big media boost in 1988 when it was revealed that for a large part of his term, President’s Reagan’s schedule had been controlled by the predictions of a San Francisco astrologer (who had been on Nancy Reagan’s payroll.) However, astrology is also the field in which the largest number of scientific tests have been performed and the evidence clearly demonstrates that astrological connections are no more than wishful thinking.Paul R. Thagard used astrology as a case study to distinguish science from pseudoscience and proposed principles and criteria to delineate them. 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. The Babylonians lived over 3,000 years ago. They divided the zodiac into 12 equal parts–like cutting a pizza into 12 equal slices. They picked 12 constellations in the zodiac, one for each of the 12 “slices.” So, as Earth orbits the Sun, the Sun would appear to pass through each of the 12 parts of the zodiac. Since the Babylonians already had a 12-month calendar (based on the phases of the Moon), each month got a slice of the zodiac all to itself.

OphiuchusBut even according to the Babylonians’ own ancient stories, there were 13 constellations in the zodiac. (Other cultures and traditions have recognized as many as 24 constellations in the zodiac.) So the Babylonians picked one, Ophiuchus, to leave out. Even then, some of the chosen 12 didn’t fit neatly into their assigned slice of the pie and slopped over into the next one.

Earth, Sun, and constellation Leo in alignment.

When the Babylonians first invented the 12 signs of zodiac, a birthday between about July 23 and August 22 meant being born under the constellation Leo. Now, 3,000 years later, the sky has shifted because Earth’s axis (North Pole) doesn’t point in quite the same direction. If not me let NASA convince you, the people with real degrees and the most advanced people on earth, here.

Homeopathy is a system of alternative medicine created in 1796 by Samuel Hahnemann, based on his doctrine of like cures like (similia similibus curentur), a claim that a substance that causes the symptoms of a disease in healthy people would cure similar symptoms in sick people. Homeopathy is a pseudoscience – a belief that is incorrectly presented as scientific. Homeopathic preparations are not effective for treating any condition; large-scale studies have found homeopathy to be no more effective than a placebo, indicating that any positive effects that follow treatment are only due to the placebo effect, normal recovery from illness, or regression toward the mean. The best defence homeopaths will (or any pseudo science practitioner will tell you is ) Homeopathy is a different approach from the “modern”system of medicine and science doesn’t answer all of our questions yet and there is still a lot to discover. 

There is simply two reasons why it still is around.

1: Because the placebo effect actually works in enough cases to ensure there is a group of ‘users’ who claim to have benefited.

2: Because there are organisations / individuals who make good money from it, and therefore are incentivized to keep it going. And this is the main one. They will attack you from everywhere if you try to refute them.

 

Why is pseudoscience so popular?

Because narrative is powerful. In a sense, it drives the world. We seem to have evolved to latch onto narratives wherever we find them, and we’re more attracted to good stories than truths. In fact, our brains seem rigged to think good-story=true, and we have to strain to stay sceptical in the face of that instinct.

Stories drive most religions. I doubt faith could survive without them. Narrative drives political discourse; it drives social discourse; it drives how we understand History; it drives our sex lives; it drives our understanding of the Natural World.

And we have a sort of built-in Occam’s Razor for stories: the simpler they are, the more attracted we are to them. And we’re also more attracted to instantly-accessible stories than to obscure ones, which is why more people read Stephen King than Shakespeare.

Pseudoscience is almost always more accessible than real Science. Science tends towards obscurism , because if something is obvious, we don’t need Science to explain it. Science mostly explains non-obvious things and there are barriers to entry. You have to do a ton of work to have any grasp of Quantum Mechanics or Chemistry. Whereas it’s easy to understand “This crystal is loaded with positive energy.”

Science also moves at a snail’s pace. To the extent that it tells a story, it does so in fits and starts, and its tale is full of gaps—and it’s a story that’s constantly being revised. That’s simply not as satisfying as a “I was abducted by a UFO, they probed me, and now I’m pregnant with a human-alien hybrid.” Keeping up with Science is like reading endless rough drafts. Pseudoscience tells finished, polished, well-produced stories.

Scientists often talk of the beauty and wonder of Science, and it absolutely exists. But one can’t have regular access to it without rigorous study. We can glimpse it via a Public Television documentary—helped along by a sonorous narrator and woo-woo music—but we can’t get a daily dose of wonder from Science without mastering difficult fields. Most people don’t have the time or impetus to do that, and so they settle for pseudoscience’s quick fix. Problem lies in scientific community too, because there is a rush in marketplace that finds scientists under constant pressure to publish research papers in order to land funding and academic tenure. In academia, as in Hollywood, sexy sells. “Scientists know nobody is publishing a study called “Nothing is Up with Acai Berries,”

In closing, I’ll add that Science “tells it like it is,” which means that it dishes out plenty of bad news. Sorry, but you probably are going to die of cancer. The aging process is real; Our planet is in trouble… Pseudoscience mostly tells feel-good stories.

 

 

Sources:

Culver, Roger & Ianna, Philip Astrology: True or False. 1988, Prometheus Books. The best skeptical book about astrology, full of useful information.

Fraknoi, A. “Your Astrology Defense Kit” in Sky & Telescope, Aug. 1989, p. 146. An introductory article with some basic skeptical questions about astrology. (Available on the web at:
http://www.astrosociety.org/education/astro/act3/
astrology3.html#defense
)

Astrology and Science Web Site: Ivan Kelly and others keep some of the best articles and research studies on this crowded site.
http://www.astrology-and-science.com

The Astrotest: Dutch skeptic Rob Nanninga describes an experimental test of astrology done with the help of astrologers.
http://www.skepsis.nl/astrot.html

The Real Romance in the Stars: Biologist Richard Dawkins wrote an angry column to a British newspaper flirting with astrology and you can see it here with a few later notes.
http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/the-real-romance-in-the-stars-1527970.html

Carlson, S. “Astrology” in Experientia, vol. 44, p. 290 (1988). A clear review.

Carlson, S. “A Double Blind Test of Astrology” in Nature, vol. 318, p. 419 (5 Dec. 1985). A technical paper describing a good experiment examining whether astrology works.

Dean, G. “Does Astrology Need to be True?” in Skeptical Inquirer, Winter 86-87, p. 116; Spring 1987, p. 257. An important examination of tests about astrology.

Dean, G. & Kelly, I. “Does Astrology Work: Astrology and Skepticism 1975-2000” in Kurtz, Paul, ed. Skeptical Odysseys. 2001, Prometheus Books.

Kelly, I. “Modern Astrology: A Critique” in Psychological Reports, vol. 81, p. 1035 (1997). An excellent review. (An expanded version can be found on the first web site recommended below.)

Kelly, I.” Why Astrology Doesn’t Work” in Psychological Reports, vol. 82, p. 527 (1998).

Kurtz, P. & Fraknoi, A. “Scientific Tests of Astrology Do Not Support Its Claims” in Skeptical Inquirer, Spring 1985, p. 210.

Kurtz, P., et al. “Astrology and the Presidency” in Skeptical Inquirer, Fall 1988, p. 3. A good summary of the controversy concerning astrology in the Reagan White House.

Lovi, G. “Zodiacal Signs Versus Constellations” in Sky & Telescope, Nov. 1987, p.507.

 

And many more……

 

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