Pseudoscience is simply false science. That is, anything that superﬁcially resembles science, yet isn’t science, is pseudoscience. The difference between them is one of degree rather than of kind, with no single clear boundary demarcating the essential difference. Although the boundaries are fuzzy, however, the distinction is a very important one, especially in the ﬁeld of psychology. As a relatively young science, which unlike physics or chemistry has yet to enumerate a set of ﬁxed principles that operate nearly universally, psychology is a discipline in which the distinction between real and false science is often unclear, especially to people outside the ﬁeld.
One major distinction between science and pseudoscience lies in the concept of falsiﬁability. A central feature (possibly the deﬁning characteristic) of science is the susceptibility of our hypotheses to refutation. In other words, for an idea to be considered scientiﬁc, it must be possible to conceive of evidence that could prove it wrong. An idea that cannot possibly be shown to be false is not scientiﬁc. It may be metaphysical, religious, or philosophical, but science is concerned with empirical testing of hypotheses, and testing an idea that cannot possibly be proven false is simply a waste of everyone’s time.
For example, the idea that colds are caused by microscopic organisms is easily falsiﬁable (or has been, at least, since the invention of good reliable microscopes). All that is necessary to prove this is to examine mucus from both sick and healthy individuals. If there is no difference in the number and kind of microorganisms found in the secretions of the two groups, the hypothesis was wrong. This begs several questions. What about the idea that disease is caused by mischievous invisible demons that have no physical substance? What evidence could prove it wrong? Well, scientists could argue that the demons don’t exist, because they don’t see them, but the retort is fairly obvious: “Of course you don’t see them, they’re invisible.” Ultimately, believing in them will come down to faith, not scientiﬁc physical evidence. The demon hypothesis is unfalsiﬁable because there is no way to demonstrate their existence, but also no way to prove their nonexistence, and it is therefore unscientiﬁc. This hypothesis is remarkably similar to the real-life argument made by sellers of subliminal perception self-help tapes. “Of course you can’t hear (or detect, with sensitive laboratory equipment) the hidden messages. They’re too quiet for you to hear.” The obvious question, then, is how can we establish that they are even there? If the answer is, “You can’t,” then we are dealing with pseudoscience rather than science.
Beyond the lack of falsiﬁability, there is a set of characteristics typically found in pseudoscience that may help you to identify it (with a thank you to Bunge, 1984).
- Reversed Burden of Proof—In science, the burden of proof is on the claimant.
If a person proclaims that something is true, then they must produce evidence to support that claim. Without evidence, there is no expectation that anyone will believe the claim. In pseudoscience, this burden is shifted to the critic. Rather than providing compelling evidence that he can actually communicate with the dead (see Cold Reading), a medium may demand proof that he can’t. This puts the scientiﬁc critic in a difﬁcult position, because the scientiﬁc method cannot prove a negative.
This counterintuitive idea is well illustrated by an example that James Randi has frequently used to demonstrate the absurdity of a reversed burden of proof. First, assume that millions of people have come to believe that once a year, in the dead of winter, a large man in a red suit pilots a ﬂying sleigh around the world, pulled by eight caribou or reindeer. The skeptical reader, may say, “But that’s absurd! Reindeer can’t ﬂy!” The response from the true believer? “Prove it!” So, the skeptic sets out to prove that reindeer can’t ﬂy. This will require taking some reindeer into the air, either aboard an aircraft of some sort or to the top of a tall building, maybe Rockefeller Center in New York City. On the roof, the ﬁrst animal is led up to the edge and given a good push. Sadly, it fails to ﬂy. How many more reindeer carcasses would have to pile up on the ice rink below before the point was considered proven? Unfortunately, all that has been demonstrated is that those reindeer couldn’t ﬂy, or chose not to ﬂy for reasons unknown, or were depressed and suicidal and welcomed the chance to end it all. For the Santa-supporters to prove their side of the argument, all they would have to do is produce, for public examination, one actual ﬂying reindeer.
- Overreliance on Testimonials and Anecdotal Evidence—Real science uses controlled experimental designs, with results that are reproducible by other experimenters, not biased reports of individual people’s uncontrolled personal experiences.
Right now, for example, there are clinics in California and Mexico that claim to prevent or cure cancer via the regular administration of coffee enemas. No controlled clinical trials have ever even hinted at the possibility that such a treatment might be effective, nor is there any good reason to believe that it would be, but the clinics are happy to provide evidence when asked. Unfortunately, the evidence consists of personal statements from people who believe the treatment worked for them. Missing is any medical evidence that these people ever had a proper medical diagnosis of cancer or have actually been cured of anything. The use of testimonials in television advertising is often taken to an absurd degree. One memorable ad for headache medicine, for example, featured treatment recommendations from a soap opera actor who presented his credentials thusly: “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV.” To confuse this approach with scientiﬁc evidence is inappropriate.
- Emphasis on Conﬁrmation Rather Than Refutation—Experimental design and statistical analysis in psychology are built around asking the question, “If I am wrong, could I have gotten these data anyway?” If other plausible alternative explanations for our results can be ruled out, only then can a hypothesis be accepted.
The true mark of a pseudoscientist, on the other hand, is the willful ignoring of evidence that fails to support a hypothesis, while clinging to any bit of evidence that seems to support it. Psychic investigators (see Parapsychology) have sometimes ignored famous psychics’ complete failure to produce their claimed effects (blaming the failure on other factors), while emphasizing the testimonials of witnesses to the effects under less controlled conditions.
- Overuse of Ad Hoc Hypotheses to Escape Refutation—An ad hoc hypothesis is simply one that gets invented on the spot, rather than one that was already part of the theory.
Speaking of psychics, the list of excuses provided to explain away their failures (the hypothesis that their powers don’t exist is rarely considered) is nearly endless—here are a few of the more popular ones: “The skeptical people present are sending out negative vibrations that interfere with the powers, gifts, spirits, etc.” For some reason, being watched very closely by people who might spot cheating tends to shut the psychic powers down; “Of course he cheated this time, the powers weren’t working properly, and he didn’t want to disappoint you. But he usually doesn’t cheat, and his powers are real”; “He got more wrong than we would expect by chance, that means negative psi is at work here, which is just as impressive as the positive kind.”
- Absence of Self-Correction—No amount of evidence ever seems to get rid of a theory. True science is self-correcting over time. Theories that turn out not to be true tend to be dropped in favor of theories that are better supported by evidence.
In medicine, for example, the accumulation of evidence on the actions of microorganisms eventually led to the disappearance of the humoral theory of disease (that disease is caused by an excess of blood or bile, for example) in favor of the germ theory of disease. Within psychology, for example, some psychoanalysts have continued to view autism as a response to poor parenting in early childhood, despite the solid evidence that the disorder has physiological underpinnings and a genetic component.
- Use of Obscurantist Language—This simply refers to the pseudoscientist’s tendency to use hazy, scientiﬁc-sounding language, that doesn’t necessarily make any sense, to sound rigorous and complicated.
- Ron Hubbard’s DIANETICS (1950) is ﬁlled with classic examples. Here’s a favorite:
The scientiﬁc fact, observed and tested, is that the organism, in the presence of physical pain, lets the analyzer get knocked out of circuit so that there is a limited quantity or no quantity at all of personal awareness as a unit organism.
One can read and reread the section of the book in which it appears and still have no idea what it means.
- Absence of Connectivity with Other Disciplines—In pseudoscience, it is not unusual for a claim to require that a large area of human knowledge be wrong in order for the claim to be true.
Uri Geller, an Israeli psychic famous in the 1970s, claimed that he could bend metal objects using only the power of his mind. This can only be true if modern physics, chemistry, psychophysiology, and metallurgy are simply ﬂat-out wrong about how the world works, and yet books celebrating his “gifts” remain in print and continue to be written.
As psychologists, we should be very concerned about the inﬂux of pseudoscience into our ﬁeld, especially in the clinical realm. A gulf has developed between psychological scientists and clinicians, with a number of therapies being widely promoted despite a lack of empirical support, and sometimes despite not especially making any sense; Kava; Past-Life Regression (PLR); Primal Therapy; Psychology, Research Methods in; St. John’s Wort; Subliminal Perception; Thought Field Therapy (TFT); and all the entries under Pseudoscience in the Guide to Related Topics).
- Bunge, M. “What Is Pseudoscience?” Skeptical Inquirer, 9 (1984): 36–46;
- Lilienfeld, S. O. “Pseudoscience in Contemporary Clinical Psychology: What It Is and What We Can Do about It.” The Clinical Psychologist, 51(4) (1998): 3–9.
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Differences Between Science and Pseudoscience
A majority of people are very familiar with the word “science”. There is no doubt that science plays a crucial role in our life. However, it seems that not everyone can distinguish science correctly from non-science and pseudoscience. The following essay will present the differences between science, pseudoscience and non-science first, and then discuss three possible responses to the question that what we should do when there is a clash between scientific explanation and non-scientific explanation. The brief discussion related to the correct non-scientific explanation will present finally.
There are some differences between science, pseudoscience and non-science. The goal of science is to discover what there is in the world and explain why it is and how it is (Hammerton, 2010, p.1). Science is helpful to answer some of these questions by presenting what the cause and impacts of different actions (Hammerton, 2010, p. 3). One of the significant characters of science is the construction of theories. Scientists usually want to explain the results of observation and experiment in terms of general theory rather than simply recording the results (Okasha, 2002, p. 2). Physics, biology, geology and psychology are within the domain of science (Hammerton, 2010, p. 1). However, some questions would be better explained by philosophy rather than science, such as evaluative questions, non-empirical questions, normative questions and questions related to personal experiences (Hammerton, 2010, p. 2).
Pseudoscience refers to a theory that belongs to the domain of science, however, it is not scientifically testable. The philosopher Karl Popper thinks that the main differences between science and pseudoscience are whether the theory is scientifically testable. According to Popper, Marxism and Freudian psychology are in the domain of pseudoscience (Hammerton, 2010, p. 8). Astrology is within the domain of pseudoscience as well.
Referring to non-science, without any doubt that non-science is very different from science. There are a plenty of examples about non-science, such as history, which is within the domain of arts (Okasha, 2002, p. 1). A moral theory, which tells us what is good and what is bad, is not regarded as a scientific theory due to the reason that morality does not belong to the domain of science (Hammerton, 2010, p. 8). Another example of non-science could be the creation-science (Curd and Cover, 1998, p. 38).
As we have seen, science aims to discover what there is in the world and explain why it is and how it is. The scientific explanation sometimes clash with the non-scientific explanation, such as explanation of history or tradition or religion. What should we do when there is a clash between scientific explanation and non-scientific explanation? Which one should we favour? It is not easy to answer these questions and responses would depend on various cases. In general, there might be three possible responses.
First of all, it is obvious that a scientific explanation is preferred than a non-science explanation in some cases. In other words, scientific explanations are more convincing and stronger than explanation of religion, history and tradition sometimes. It could be done by observation directly. The cause of the rain would be a good example. Some people claim that our sacrifices to the Rain God generate the rain. This explanation of cause of the rain is obviously a non-scientific explanation and could be proven as an unconvincing explanation. For instance, we can cease the sacrifices and notice that there is still an existence of rain (Hammerton, 2010, p. 6).
Secondly, in some cases, it is required to consider which explanation fits better with the observed facts because sometimes it is difficult to find a predictive difference between scientific explanation and the non-scientific one. This is usually true when the event to be explained is a one-off historical event. Possible examples might be the creation of species that is described by biologists and the creation of the universe that is described in the Bible. It seems that the former example has scientific explanation and latter one has non-scientific explanation (ibid.).
Moreover, sometimes people may give a response that there is no reason to privilege scientific explanation over non-scientific explanation because they think science and non-science are equivalent in the relevant aspects. For example, some people argued that science is a matter of faith or a religion just like other religion. However, is science really a matter of faith? Is science really a religion?
It is clear that science is not a religion. However, the answer for first question is not that easy to answer. The word“faith”has two meanings. On the one hand, to believe something on the basis of faith that refers to the meaning of to believe something which is out of evidence. In other words, it means that to believe something which lack of evidence to prove its truth. On the other hand, to have faith in something refers to that to rely on or to trust. Some people have both kinds of faith in God. However, some religious people have faith in God only in the second sense. They do not believe in the first explanation of faith which is to believe on the basis of faith. The reason of this is that those people think there has a strong evidence of existence of God provided. In this case, science is not a matter of faith (Hammerton, 2010, p.5). According to science, scientists only believes something which has evidences provided and do not believe something which lack evidence. Therefore, scientists have the second kind of faith in science. In other words, the scientific explanation and non-science explanation (such as the explanation of faith) are equal only in the second sense of faith which is to have faith in something. Scientists present strong evidence that the way the world works has explained by science. For example, scientific theories play a significant role in offering evidence of our increased ability to predict and control things (ibid.). Consequently, it is not correct to claim that science is the same as a matter of faith and there is no reason to privilege scientific explanation over non-science explanation.
Are non-scientific explanations ever correct? In my opinion, the answer would be yes. Explanations of moral theory could be an example. As mentioned before, history and moral theory are a part of non-science. The moral theory is not scientifically generated and not scientifically testable. However, it does not mean that there has something wrong with the theory itself. The moral theory shows us what actions are right or wrong and what things are good or bad (Hammerton, 2010, p. 8). The explanation of moral theory helps us to distinguish right from wrong. Therefore, as far as I concerned, the explanation of moral theory would be correct. In other words, there should be some correct non-scientific explanations and not all non-scientific explanations are wrong.
In conclusion, there are differences between science, non-science and pseudoscience. In general, science is helpful to answer some of these questions by presenting what the cause and impacts of different actions. It is noticeable that main differences between science and pseudoscience are whether the theory can be test scientifically. It is clear that non-science is not within the domain of science. Examples of non-science could be history, moral theory and creation-science. From my point of view, there must be correct non-scientific explanations exist. People might have three main responses if a scientific explanation clashes with a non-scientific explanation. There is no accurate answer to say that we should exactly support scientific explanation or non-scientific explanation due to different cases. It is important that we should support each one of the explanation according to various cases, evaluating the evidence and forming our own belief.
Curd, M. and Cover, J.A. (Ed.) (1998) Philosophy of Science : the Central Issues, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, p. 38.
Hammerton, M. (2010) Lecture 9: Science, Pseudo-Science and Non-Science, the University of Sydney, p.1-8.
Okasha, S. (2002) Philosophy of Science: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, pp. 1-2.