Social media contributors in the realm of health and science are battling it out, and the scientific of the lot are calling the other side out: pseudoscience. The term has gained popularity recently across the internet. To know how to spot pseudoscience, we must first know what science is.
If I had to define science, I would answer: Science is the systematic investigation of phenomena using observation, intervention and evaluation; it attempts to observe the truth without bias and apply new knowledge to our understanding of the world. Dictionary.com defines science as:
- a branch of knowledge or study dealing with a body of facts or truths systematically arranged and showing the operation of general laws: the mathematical sciences.
- systematic knowledge of the physical or material world gained through observation and experimentation.
- any of the branches of natural or physical science.
- systematized knowledge in general.
- knowledge, as of facts or principles; knowledge gained by systematic study.
- a particular branch of knowledge.
- skill, especially reflecting a precise application of facts or principles; proficiency.
What about pseudoscience? The reason I started with the definition of science is because the term is getting thrown around a lot these days. Like the arguments for the existence and knowing of God, we know what pseudoscience is by what it is not. What would my definition of pseudoscience look like?
Pseudoscience is the ad-hoc investigation of phenomena using anecdotal evidence, non-placebo controlled intervention and/or illogical evaluation; it attempts to explain phenomena through concepts and statements that cannot be proven untrue.
Why does some pseudoscience sound so good?
Pseudoscience sounds so good because it explains the unknown and can give us a feeling of comfort and control in a chaotic world. I am a curious person and I must admit that some of the pseudoscience sparks my curiosity from time to time. However, I am also interested in science and research, so picking up on fallacies soon follows. I was recently reading an article about homeopathy and the arguments for water memory. The author hits the nail on the head:
“…tactics used by many practitioners of pseudoscience: make a large number of vaguely scientific arguments in the hope of making the desired conclusion seem inevitable”
How do we know how to spot the difference between real science and pseudoscience- and when to use the terms appropriately. Sometimes it can be difficult, particularly when authors are persuasive and have carefully cherry-picked statistics to make their arguments seem plausible. The best way to spot the difference is by sticking to these rules when looking at articles, websites and videos:
- What are their sources? Read the sources for yourself (or at least the abstract) if you can.
- Is there a lot of anecdotal evidence included?
- Who funded the article or the research? Does it promote a particular product or service?
- Does this fit with what you already know and read before? Sometimes there is new evidence that challenges the current evidence. If it is sound it is backed up with reliable data.
- Do you have to pay to money to find out about a ‘health secret’? This is likely to be a scam.
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