Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Guest post: Science versus Pseudoscience.

Pseudoscience is so flawed that it cannot be considered legitimate science. Of course it is common to claim that one’s beliefs are scientific, but mostly they are not.

Pseudoscience lacks the true method of science and goes way beyond just a few errors, the methods themselves are so flawed that makes the theory suspicious.

Between the two extremes of science and pseudoscience there is a gray zone, but legitimate science and pseudosciences can still be identified. The denial of this two extremes in the continuum, is a false continuum logical fallacy, or philosophically called the demarcation problem.


Features of Pseudoscience


1. Motivated reasoning


The most prominent feature of this pathological science is working backward from desired results, or motivated reasoning. The result is that they make evidence fit into preconceived notions. They use biased logic and cherry-picked evidence in order to defend a desired conclusion. There’s no concern and effort to prove their own theories wrong.

This relates to the congruence bias, testing one’s own theory by looking for positive evidence and cherry-picked evidence.


2. Burden of proof and confirmation bias


They will only look for confirming evidence, avoid dis-confirming evidence, and may engage in special pleading and shifting the burden of proof.

In confirmation bias, they look for supportive evidence for their own desired conclusions, choosing only the evidence that supports their own theory, irrespective of quality, negative evidence.


3. Anecdotal evidence


Anecdotes are uncontrolled, or ad-hoc observations, and they are not systematic. They rely on confirmation bias and recall bias.

Low-grade evidence is often favored no matter how implausible it may be.

Emotional appeal is another typical tactic among pseudoscientists who try to defend their statements, claiming what people say is more important than actual numbers on paper.

Pseudoscientific belief may even be based upon a single case or observation, preliminary evidence, or even a single anecdote. This is the hasty generalization logical fallacy.

Pseudoscientific principles may also be based upon a philosophical idea, not been empirically tested or developed as a scientific theory.


4. Grandiose claims (Galileo syndrome)


This involves grandiose claims based upon preliminary evidence. Far-reaching claims overturn entire portions of well-established science, using very little research or tiny bits of evidence.


5. Alternative science


In extreme cases, pseudoscience leads to alternative science, all of science is replaced with an alternative version.


6. Absolute claims


Pseudoscientists make bold claims that are often absolute and go way beyond the evidence. Pseudoscientists offer simple answers to complex questions, a theory of everything where one tiny casual source is used to explain the entire universe, if it comes to that.


7. Hostility


Pseudoscientists generally cannot accept criticism and avoid the scientific community. They claim being victim of a conspiracy and stay away from mainstream science and community.


8. Vagueness


Pseudoscientists use vague terms and words to obfuscate, so they can shift the definition around, use it in different ways at different times when it suits them, to confuse others and avoid explaining their point. Vague terms such as “information” or “energy” are often used with no specificity as in a scientific discussion.


9. Stagnation


Pseudosciences fail to progress, and tend to be stagnant. They are ad nauseam trying to establish their theory rather than build a body of evidence for it.


10. Anomaly hunting


Anomaly hunting is yet another common feature in which they search for anomalies trying to establish a conclusion, which does not seek to refute or explore other alternatives.



Nickerson, Raymond. “Confirmation Bias: A Ubiquitous Phenomenon in Many Guises.” Review of General Psychology 2, no. 2 (1998): 175–220.

Novella, Steven. “Anomaly Hunting.” NeuroLogica Blog. http://theness.com/neurologicablog/index.php/anomaly-hunting

Pigliucci, Massimo. Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010

Shermer, Michael, The Borderlands of Science: Where Sense Meets Nonsense. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Gardner, Martin. Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science. Mineola: Dover Publications, 1957
Shermer, Michael. Why People Believe Weird Things. New York: Henry Holt/Times Books, 1997.


For more information on Sérgio Fontinhas, see Big Fitness Project

See also Guest post: Denialism as Pseudoscientific Thinking.

1 comment:

George said...

Very interesting. To reverse some of these arguments, the need for common definitions, terminology, measurement systems is basic to science but a hindrance to pseudoscience. All science has some ignorance and "argument of ignorance" can be useful as a placeholder, e.g. TCM herbalism and ayurveda are systems able to support modern research and incorporate its findings, but then those were always observation-based systems shared widely and allowed to be adapted, not private belief systems.
I find vitalism a useful perspective from which to think about living systems, that is, looking for mechanisms through which what seems like intentionality is manifested is more a more productive placeholder for my purposes than insisting that life can have no say in itself.