Definition of pseudoscience

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Discussion by: ieva

Could somebody suggest a definition of pseudoscience? Because, for example, it should not be difficult to explain why homeopathy is a pseudoscience. Just a few basic facts, but they take time. And this approach is possible only when you know these basic facts. But all pseudosciences must have some things in common ….

31 COMMENTS

  1. I’m not sure how helpful it is redefining pseudoscience, since all you have to do is look in any worthwhile dictionary, but here’s the first sentence of the Wikipedia article, which seems to me to sum it up well:

    Pseudoscience is a claim, belief, or practice which is presented as scientific, but does not adhere to a valid scientific method, lacks supporting evidence or plausibility, cannot be reliably tested, or otherwise lacks scientific status

  2. Pseudo-science is quackery without scientific integrity, which does not use scientific methodology, but postures falsely and dishonestly, presenting itself as science. It frequently cites dishonest and incompetent sources as scientific authorities, with some pseudo-science organisations even creating sources of false (creationist) pseudo-peer-review publications.

  3. Pseudoscience:

    A belief which is presented as scientific, but is not supported by a valid scientific method.

    A belief without supporting evidence or plausibility and which cannot be reliably tested.

    Charteristically (meaning: often, but not always):

    • Vague

    • Contradictory (in particular: contradicts some aspect of science)

    • Exagerated or unprovable claims

    • Supported by confirmation rather than rigorous attempts at refutation

    • Is presented as consistent with real scientific research, but it demonstrably fails to meet those norms.

    Peace.

  4. Pseudoscience is that which poses as science but isn’t, so the real question is how to define science. (A natural question, then, is whether pseudoscience pretends to meet the criteria of science, or lies about what those criteria are. I think they normally do both in practice.) I go with Popper’s falsifiability criterion.

  5. The only way a pseudoscience is in a gray area is when it piggy-backs onto legitimate science or medicine. Many pseudo-medicine or quackery utilizes legitimate blood tests, and other medical testing. Though their solutions are not science based, or are tested by less than legitimate research, they come off as real medicine.

    • In reply to #6 by QuestioningKat:

      The only way a pseudoscience is in a gray area is when it piggy-backs onto legitimate science or medicine.

      I disagree with that. In hind sight its obvious that something is pseudoscience but its not always obvious at the time. For example, many people still think Freudianism is not pseudoscience. I would bet you can still get a PhD in it from many reputable universities. And while I think Freud (unlike homeopathy) had some legitimate insight and is important in the history of psychology I think his techniques for therapy and theories about the mind are definitely pseudoscience.

      Or another example is String Theory. Some respected physicists think that at least some of the claims from String Theory (e.g. the multiverse) are pseudoscience because they are fundamentally untestable others disagree. I lean toward thinking none of it is pseudoscience (there is a crucial difference for me between not testable using current technology and not testable by nature of the theory) but I’m not certain at all and I wouldn’t be shocked if someone came up with a proof that convinced everyone such models should be considered pseudoscience. For me its definitely a “gray area” right now.

      In general its why I don’t like labels such as “pseudoscience” or “conspiracy theory”. (Even though I sometimes use them myself) Its a way for people to be lazy and dismiss ideas without thinking. As much as possible I think its always better to deal with specific arguments not just slap a label on something.

  6. You are asking two different questions: What is pseudoscience and What is a good way to quickly argue against homeopathy? I don’t think the two are the same. Anyone who is familiar with the distinction between science and pseudoscience will almost certainly think homeopathy is a fraud already. But for those that don’t think that way trying to explain the difference between pseudoscience and science and then explaining why homeopathy is pseudoscience doesn’t seem the best approach to me. The people who are on the fence have likely had their head filled by the other side with arguments about Big Pharma and (at least in the US) for profit medicine and why they can’t be trusted. For many of these people dismissing homeopathy as pseudoscience just plays right into their narrative. You will get replies back like “all the established scientists of the time laughed at Einstein too but he turned out to be right”

    I think the best arguments against homeopathy are 1) there is no evidence that it works better than a placebo and 2) the whole idea is absurd once you understand it

    The knock out argument for me is that according to Homeopathic theory tap water (which most people who are prone to believe in this stuff would never drink unfiltered — actually I wouldn’t either) should be the ultimate homeopathic cure. It has impurities of just about everything you could imagine in (hopefully) microscopic amounts. I’ve never heard a defender of homeopathy reply with anything coherent to that argument.

    Also, the point about clinical trials can be used against the Big Pharma Big Medicine replies. Because for the few “alternative” therapies that actually work such as meditation I’m pretty sure there is evidence from clinical trials that they work better than placebos. The point being that no matter how “alternative” something is it should still show results

  7. A good question, as said by others poses questions as to what science is and how legitimate challenges to it can be distinguished.

    Regarding pseudoscience, I think there may be an overlap between poorly conducted studies, or poorly written works, within the generally accepted paradigm and those which relate to different but p,poorly evidenced systems. Claims of paradigm shifts might be made, but astral planes are hardly the same evidentially as observations of the speed of light (whose constancy for all observers led to the principle and then theory of relativity).

    There is another aspect, of honesty, ie I guess quite a few followers of woo-woo ideas are sincerely confused, but I do wonder if the peddlers ie the money makers in astrology, healing stones, etc etc know they are onto a good thing. Of course they wouldn’t be open on that account, so gauging how much pseudoscience is genuinely wrong and how much cynical snake oil selling is very difficult.

    • In reply to #9 by steve_hopker:

      A good question, as said by others poses questions as to what science is and how legitimate challenges to it can be distinguished.

      Regarding pseudoscience, I think there may be an overlap between poorly conducted studies, or poorly written works, within the generally accepted paradigm and those wh…

      The placebo effect in action, psychology from scented oils or candles, crystals and all the rest of it actually works, as we all know depression is shown on many levels, be it intense suicidal feelings that need medical treatment, to very mild symptoms that may need nothing but relaxation. But the people who use it wont see themselves as depressed. Depression can effect a person physically in many ways and not just mentally, it can cause and be the start of many serious physical problems.

      Hunting for ghosts with wire detectors or water pipe detectors, EM field detectors and the like, is by far rather out there with unicorn hunters and psychics, telling people whats going on on the other side. Claiming something can cure you without any scientific trial isn’t really pseudoscience but fraud and deception, committed against simple, vulnerable people who will try anything as a cure or last resort, based on their own psychological state at that time. Its similar to the God or religion pushers, who use fear dressed as love to have victims blindly believe in something they cannot prove exists, contradicting scientific fact or theory.

      So is life.

  8. I think we have to be very careful when categorizing what is pseudoscience and what isn’t, more so when many avenues of observation even though not scientific in nature, are used in every day life with very good results. Many military groups and specialists dont use scientific equipment or methods one would use in a lab, because it isn’t practical or possible to do so. Conclusions formed on data from unscientific means or sources to prompt a reactive response, can work very well. Ignorance towards a claim based on its lack of factual or scientific evidence, can and has resulted in many catastrophic disasters over the past and will continue to do so.

    If an Alien space ship a mile in diameter sat over a major city like London for 2 weeks, one couldn’t say it doesn’t exist and couldn’t be possible, simply because we are unaware of the physics needed to allow it to get here and sit in the sky without any visible forms of propulsion on display. The space craft would be observed with ground and air radar, human observation from the ground and air, physical interaction or samples would not be possible and should not remove the fact that it was a genuine alien space craft. If there was denial of something as fantastic as this, it would be as ridiculous as the 6,000yr old Earth theory.

    • In reply to #10 by No Gravitons:

      I think we have to be very careful when categorizing what is pseudoscience and what isn’t, more so when many avenues of observation even though not scientific in nature, are used in every day life with very good results. Many military groups and specialists dont use scientific equipment or methods one would use in a lab

      If you mean science (in the sense of the scientific method, things that aren’t pseudoscience) doesn’t apply to just the physical sciences I completely agree. When I say science in these discussions I mean it very broadly. I agree with Nietzsche that the scientific method can and should be applied in just about any domain that we consider knowledge including the soft sciences and even the study of history. You don’t have to do experiments in a lab to be scientific.

      But I suspect that isn’t what you mean. If you mean that “many military groups and specialists” use psychics or Freudians or remote viewing — well sometimes they do, they can be conned just like anyone else (actually sometimes they can be conned a lot read The Men Who Stare at Goats a hilarious and scary overview of the money the US Army invested in woo) but when they do use them it doesn’t work and if you are claiming they do I challenge you to provide an example that proves otherwise.

      • In reply to #12 by Red Dog:

        In reply to #10 by No Gravitons:

        I think we have to be very careful when categorizing what is pseudoscience and what isn’t, more so when many avenues of observation even though not scientific in nature, are used in every day life with very good results. Many military groups and specialists dont use…

        Nothing to do with Woo or remote viewing or any of that twaddle, the US military are worse than Hitlers mad scientists when it comes to things like that.

  9. That’s too easy.
    Pseudoscience: irrevocably WRONG. End of debate.
    Science. (Medical Science in this instance) is CORRECT. Trust medical science only.

    What’s so difficult about that?

  10. if it starts with a conclusion then uses science or the language of science to back it up, it’s psuedo-science. if science is used to reach a conclusion, it’s science.

    homeopathy is a great example as it’s based on an idea that predates modern medicine and has assumptions about biology that have long since been debunked. when the application of science is imposed on it (e.g. pointing out the amount of dilution makes it unlikely for a single molecule to be present), it responds with and entrenched position (e.g. yes but water has “memory”…). the more you use science the more ludicrous the notion becomes.

    another reason to cite homeopathy is because of the response of “science doesn’t understand how it works”. the assertion is science doesnt understand while the assumption is it works.

    • In reply to #15 by SaganTheCat:

      homeopathy is a great example as it’s based on an idea that predates modern medicine and has assumptions about biology that have lo…

      Without much knowledge of its history, homeopathy might be an example of old science going wrong, then ending up as pseudoscience – that there can be overlap periods and that this can add to the seductiveness of pseudoscience.

      I think homeopathy started with herbal medicine based on treatments resembling the disease. I may be wrong in this case, but I think foxgloves was used in heart problems because the leaf was heart shaped? – or, maybe people knew foxglove extract helped (it contain digitalis which can be therapeutic) and worked a backwards argument from the leaf shape. Clearly the latter ‘logic’ is wrong but there are still treatments used on the basis that they are seen to work, without knowing exactly how.

      Maybe one could argue that the pragmatic use of the undoubted effects of many natural substances was taken to extremes into the wholly irrational plane of homeopathic dilutions, where few or no supposedly therapeutic molecules would be in a dose. As others say, woo-woo medicine is usually resorted to in desperation, eg intractable pain, disability or terminal illness, when people will be vulnerable to unreason – especially when rational medicine has failed.

      • In reply to #19 by steve_hopker:

        In reply to #15 by SaganTheCat:
        Without much knowledge of its history, homeopathy might be an example of old science going wrong, then ending up as pseudoscience -…

        you could be right here. in many ways this is where the battle lies. in modern science, rigorous testing of assumptions is the norm but in its early days I can imagine it must have been hard to even identify what were considered facts, were just asumptions, much like Newton making the assumption that cosmic events followed scientific laws, invented by god. his science was good but many conclusions are only obviously unscientific with hindsight

        before the days of modern medicine i can imagine scientists of the day being curious as to how certain remedies worked but probably less sceptical about if they worked in the first place.

        Homeopathy is now one big lucrative house of cards, most likely built on assumptions that had never been tested. the fact these assumptions have now been tested and found wanting does somewhat play into the hands of those who assume old wisdom trumps recent discovery

      • In reply to #19 by steve_hopker:
        A correction to my post (thanks to wikipedia).

        Homeopathy is so named for the use of substances that (at much higher doses) simulates some disease symptoms – hence homeo-pathy (‘like the disease’). Seemingly it’s from an idea of Hippocrates that a small dose of what makes you ill can cure you. This was elaborated into the ridiculous idea that the weaker the dose, the greater the effect.

        As others say, the money made by homeopaths off the sick and vulnerable is disgraceful, as is the raising of false hopes and the damage done if real treatment is not also given.

        • In reply to #22 by steve_hopker:

          In reply to #19 by steve_hopker:
          A correction to my post (thanks to wikipedia).

          Homeopathy is so named for the use of substances that (at much higher doses) simulates some disease symptoms – hence homeo-pathy (‘like the disease’). Seemingly it’s from an idea of Hippocrates that a small dose of of what makes you ill can cure you.

          It just occurred to me how ironic it is that many of the people who embrace homeopathy also reject vaccines.

  11. In reply to #6 by QuestioningKat:

    The only way a pseudoscience is in a gray area is when it piggy-backs onto legitimate science or medicine.
    

    I disagree with that. In hind sight its obvious that something is pseudoscience but its not always obvious at the time. For example, many people still think Freudianism is not pseudoscience. I would bet you can still get a PhD in it from many reputable universities. And while I think Freud (unlike homeopathy) had some legitimate insight and is important in the history of psychology I think his techniques for therapy and theories about the mind are definitely pseudoscience.

    Yes, I agree with this. I once went to a doctor and in hindsight it was pseudoscience. I had suspicions during my visits, but it took my leaving to figure out she was a quack. She was convinced of the legitimacy (and some aspects were legitimate, but in totality it was not.) I think this is an issue of awareness and intention that distinguishes the difference.

    • In reply to #16 by QuestioningKat:

      In reply to #6 by QuestioningKat:

      this is an issue of awareness and intention that distinguishes the difference.

      I agree. That is my point, its easy to find examples where any rational person now can tell you its pseudoscience but its not always obvious at the time (e.g. Freud) and there are examples where you can make a case that its a gray area right now whether its science or pseudoscience (e.g. String Theory).

      I am going to still quibble that its about intentions. I agree you can find an aspect of fraud in a lot of pseudoscience but I think its important to remember the human capability for self deception (e.g. Robert Trivers book). People have a strong tendency to believe what its in their interest to believe. Its been demonstrated in the lab. So in my experience (and I actually worked for a psych quack once — until I realized he was a quack) most of the pseudoscience people really do believe what they are doing is real. Its not the intentions we should focus on its the… science!

      It really should come down to the basics: is it repeatable, is it more than anecdotal, is it testable, do they use appeals to authority, etc. If they are hippies who don’t trust Big Pharma or corporate stooges shouldn’t matter.

  12. If you can’t imagine an experiment which could demonstrate a claim to be false, then the claim is not scientific. This means it is either just a mundane claim, or, if the person making it is trying to make it sound scientific, then it’s nothing but pseudoscience.

    Also, anything that comes out of Deepak Chopra’s mouth.

    • In reply to #21 by hellosnackbar:

      Pseudoscience is fraud based on prevaricative poppycock!
      And then sold to the general public by shameless shysters!

      I see you have an alliteration addiction.

      I offer my concerned condolences for your condition. :)

  13. Just look at the definition of ‘pseudo’
    [Google]http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/pseudo

    pseu·do [soo-doh] Show IPA
    adjective
    1.
    not actually but having the appearance of; pretended; false or spurious; sham.
    2.
    almost, approaching, or trying to be.
    Origin:
    1940–45; independent use of pseudo-

    Related Words for : pseudo
    fake, faker, fraud, imposter, impostor
    View more related words »

    Dictionary.com Unabridged
    pseudo-
    a combining form meaning “false,” “pretended,” “unreal,” used in the formation of compound words ( pseudoclassic; pseudointellectual ): in scientific use, denoting close or deceptive resemblance to the following element ( pseudobulb; pseudocarp ), and used sometimes in chemical names of isomers ( pseudoephedrine ).
    Also, especially before a vowel, pseud-.

    Origin:
    < Greek, combining form of pseudḗs false, pseûdos falsehood

    Can be confused: pseudo-, quasi-.
    Dictionary.com Unabridged
    Based on the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2013.
    Cite This Source | Link To pseudo
    Relevant Questions

    Pseudo is always a great word to know.
    So is interrobang. Does it mean:
    a printed punctuation mark (‽), available only in some typefaces, designed to combine the question mark (?) and the exclamation point (!), indicating a mixture of query and interjection, as after a rhetorical question.
    a calculus or concretion found in the stomach or intestines of certain animals, esp. ruminants, formerly reputed to be an effective remedy for poison.

    Collins
    World English Dictionary
    pseudo (ˈsjuːdəʊ)

    — adj
    informal not genuine; pretended

    pseudo- or ( sometimes before a vowel ) pseud-

    — combining form
    1. false, pretending, or unauthentic: pseudo-intellectual
    2. having a close resemblance to: pseudopodium

    [from Greek pseudēs false, from pseudein to lie]

    pseud- or ( sometimes before a vowel ) pseud-

    — combining form

    [from Greek pseudēs false, from pseudein to lie]

    Collins English Dictionary – Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition
    2009 © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins
    Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009
    Cite This Source
    Etymonline
    Word Origin & History

    pseudo-
    comb. form meaning “false, feigned, erroneous,” from Gk. pseudo-, comb. form of pseudes “false,” or pseudos “falsehood,” both from pseudein “to deceive.”

  14. I think what tends to set pseudo-science apart from real science is that in pseudo-science it is the Conclusion that leads to the evidence, whereas in real science the Evidence leads to the conclusions.

    • In reply to #26 by degeus:

      I think what tends to set pseudo-science apart from real science is that in pseudo-science it is the Conclusion that leads to the evidence, whereas in real science the Evidence leads to the conclusions.

      ..and pseudo-science frequently leads along the pathways of cognitive bias, paradoxes, and the collection of fallacies incorporated in “pseudo-reasoning“!

    • In reply to #26 by degeus:

      I think what tends to set pseudo-science apart from real science is that in pseudo-science it is the Conclusion that leads to the evidence, whereas in real science the Evidence leads to the conclusions.

      So when the CERN scientists found the Higgs boson, they did not know what they were searching for until they found it?

      • In reply to #28 by greenwich:

        degeus:- I think what tends to set pseudo-science apart from real science is that in pseudo-science it is the Conclusion that leads to the evidence, whereas in real science the Evidence leads to the conclusions.

        So when the CERN scientists found the Higgs boson, they did not know what they were searching for until they found it?

        They knew from measurements that there was mass in some part of atoms, so set up experiments to identify which part. They spent years rejecting failed experiments, – so no! they did not manufacture a plausible story to support a preconceived idea regardless of any counter evidence! They worked on the tests until the evidence led them to the answer.
        If it had not done so, they would have rejected the theory.

  15. PSEUDOSCIENCE:
    ‘ temperatures below absolute zero simple have no meaning.’
    #
    ‘ It is true . . . there is such a thing as absolute zero; we cannot
    reach temperatures below absolute zero not because we are not
    sufficiently clever but because temperatures below absolute zero
    simple have no meaning.’
    / Book : ‘Dreams of a final theory’ . Page 138.
    by Steven Weinberg. The Nobel Prize in Physics 1979 /
    ====…

  16. PSEUDOSCIENCE:
    ‘ temperatures below absolute zero simple have no meaning.’
    #
    ‘ It is true . . . there is such a thing as absolute zero; we cannot
    reach temperatures below absolute zero not because we are not
    sufficiently clever but because temperatures below absolute zero
    simple have no meaning.’
    / Book : ‘Dreams of a final theory’ . Page 138.
    by Steven Weinberg. The Nobel Prize in Physics 1979 /
    ====…

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