Editor’s note: This article combines elements of several articles about pseudoscience published in 2012 and 2013. It’s been revised to include some newer information and split into two parts to improve readability. Over time, more topics will be covered.
Let’s start with a quote (edited for clarity and because some points aren’t germane to this article) from the just-retired Jon Stewart, in his final rant ever on the Daily Show:
Pseudoscience and science – the former is an belief based on logical fallacies that is supported by some people who may seem rational; the latter is an actual rational methodology to discover facts about the natural universe. The former is utter bullshit. And the latter is fact. Deal with it.
Pseudoscience is seductive to many people partially because it’s easy to embrace, but also because it crease black and white false dichotomies about the natural universe, mostly about medicine, but also in so many other areas like astrology, creationism, climate change and other areas.
Pseudoscience tries to make an argument with the statement of “it’s been proven to work”, “the link is proven”, or, alternatively, they state some negative about scientifically supported therapies. It really has an appeal to it because it digest complex analysis to a simple “yes, this works.”
Alternative medicine relies on this pseudoscience by creating the illusion that medicine can be really easy if you drink this kale shake, and you will have 100% chance of avoiding all cancer. Real science based medicine provides real clinical information about every cancer, how it can be treated, and what the real prognosis is.
For example, real science has debunked the “there is a proven link between vaccines and autism,” a common and rather dangerous belief. Or that most alternative medicine (CAM) therapies work based on numerous logical fallacies that asks the patient to reject all reasonable scientific studies that say “this won’t work,” and accept the faith and beliefs of the alternative medicine salesperson.
I wanted to update an old article I had written to highlight what separates pseudoscience and science – this will take some time, because the pseudoscience science is quite cunning in pushing their fraud on people.
We will also explore what exactly makes an idea scientific (and spoiler alert, it isn’t magic), and contrary the logic of science, what makes an idea “pseudoscientific.” So sit down, grab your favorite reading beverage, because this isn’t going to be a quick internet meme. I intend to show you the lies of pseudoscience, and how it’s used with creationism, vaccine denialism, alternative medicine, or whatever you want to debunk.
What is science
First, just to clear something up, science rarely uses the term “proven”, because the scientific method is not a system to make a definitive answer on any question–scientists always leave open the possibility of an alternative hypothesis that can be tested. If the alternate hypothesis can be supported through experimentation, then it can replace the original one.
This can be an issue when interpreting medical or scientific studies. Science tends to write in nuanced, carefully supported statements. They often appear to be a bit indecisive, but it’s not. Because the scientific method is not dogmatic (it’s completely open minded), it’s whole basis is to repeat experiments, and looking for evidence that might nullify the hypothesis. Now it doesn’t mean we will never find evidence that a vaccine might cause autism, but after looking really hard for a very long time, the odds that there is a link is vanishingly small.
When an alternative medicine or junk science supporter states “it has been proven,” one must ask, “where is the evidence?” What is more troubling is that someone who believes in these therapies cannot imagine that they don’t work, what is called falsification, which is a hallmark of good science.
Whenever I hear that a scientist say, “we were wrong, it doesn’t work,” my retort is “excellent, good science.” Pseudoscience never admits its wrong, so, by comparison, they can say “science isn’t perfect, so it can’t be trusted.”
The Scientific Method
The scientific method is an unbiased systematic approach to answer questions about the natural world, including medicine. People tend to think “science” is some magical way to explain things run by magicians called “scientists.” But real science is a rational methodology to get at facts.
We didn’t conclude that evolution occurred by natural selection in a couple of hours – it took at least two centuries to get where we are. And now evolution is a simply a fact, no different that light causes heat and gravity pulls the apple down from the tree.
The scientific method has several basic steps:
- Define the question–this could be anything from “does this compound have an effect on this disease?” or “how does this disease progress?”
- Observations–this is the subjective part of science. Do we observe trends or anomalies? Does a physician notice that every patient from a town or neighborhood exhibit the same disease? A lot of science arises from observations of the natural world, and yes, some of those observations can be anecdotes or personal observations. For example, one of the most famous stories in the early history of medicine is when Edward Jenner observed that milkmaids rarely were infected by smallpox because they were exposed to cowpox, a less virulent disease.
- Hypothesis–using the observations, create a hypothesis that can be tested. In Jenner’s case, he hypothesized that exposure to cowpox immunized individuals to small pox.
- Experiment–simply, the scientist then tests the hypothesis with experiments and collects the data. The experiments are not designed to solely validate the hypothesis but may also attempt to refute it. In real science, attempting to nullify one’s own hypothesis is an honorable pursuit.
- Analyze–examining the results carefully, usually using acceptable statistical methods.
- Interpret–sometimes the data leads to a revision of the hypothesis, which means the scientist has to return to steps 3-6. Or it confirms or supports the hypothesis, which means the researcher can move to Step 7.
- Publish–in today’s scientific community, scientific data and analysis is subject to the scrutiny of other scientists before it can be published, a process called “peer-review.” This is a critical step that ensures that the results can stand up to criticism of others.
- Retesting–Many times the research is repeated by others, or the hypothesis may be slightly revised with additional data. Science is not static, it constantly revises theories as more data is gathered. For this reason alone, science is not an absolute, it is constantly seeking new data.
Science is an evidence-based systematic analysis without inherent opinion or emotion. In other words, it is a method to cut through opinions and anecdotal observations, so that one can have some reasonable expectation the proposed scientific principle can work as predicted.
The ability to attempt to nullify a hypothesis (rather than just support it) through experimentation is a hallmark of real science. This is the fundamental scientific principle of falsifiability, that is, if a hypothesis is false, it can be shown in experimentation–this allows scientist to have an open mind about the the natural world.
This is where falsification gets about confusing. You don’t actually have to falsify the hypothesis, you just have to be able to imagine or create an experiment that could. In other words, could we create an experiment that could, if successful, nullify the hypothesis.
Let’s look at a real world example. Imagine that you’re going to create an experiment to support the hypothesis that all swans are white. So, you count one thousand swans over a broad area in Michigan, and you find one thousand white swans. Your conclusion isn’t “all swans are white,” but is, in fact, “in this population all swans are white.”
The falsification is if we find one non-white swan (and it’s actually a rare coloration) and can confirm that it is naturally not white, we can then state that “the majority of swans are white, except for a rare black phenotype.” So, a real scientist would think that swans are all white, but isn’t sure, and would state that the hypothesis can be nullified if we can find one non-white one.
This is why science isn’t absolutist. But it does work on evidence. If we had scoured the earth and could only find white swans, the hypothesis becomes harder and harder to reject. And we still have created the experiment that will nullify it.
Conflating correlation and causation
Two of the most misused and misunderstood terms in evaluating scientific evidence are correlation and causation, two powerful analytical tools that are critical to evidence based medicine. Correlation is the grouping of variables that may occur together.
For example, smoking correlates with lung cancer in that those who smoke tend to develop lung cancer at a statistically significant rate. It’s important to note that correlation does not prove causation. However, once you have numerous well-designed studies that correlate lung cancer to smoking, along with adding in biological and physiological models that support the correlation, then we can arrive at a consensus that not only is smoking correlated with lung cancer, it causes it.
We observe correlations every day. But they are subjective observations for which we cannot state a causal relationship without substantial research. The anti-vaccination movement is rife with these observations which they use to “prove” a cause. An anti-vaccine conspiracy website claims that pregnant women are miscarrying babies after getting the shot. The fact is that there is a statistical chance that women will miscarry during any pregnancy. This is random variability not a cause.
In fact, based on the rate of miscarriage, we could expect that thousands of women would miscarry within 24 hours of getting the H1N1 flu shot. But it’s not correlation, unless significant studies show a causal relationship. For example, I’m also sure that thousands of people broke a bone or had a desire to eat a burger after getting the shot, but that’s because in a large enough population of individuals, you can find literally millions of different actions after getting a shot.
So, the miscarriage rate after receiving the swine flu shot is not correlated. It’s just a random observation. And there is no biological cause that could be described. Nevertheless, the “flu vaccine causes miscarriage” conspiracy has been thoroughly debunked by research, but still the internet meme continues. Pseudoscience sometimes uses the same methodology (or lack of methodology) to make positive assertions. Homeopaths will claim that their dilutions will cure whatever disease, yet they do not have scientific evidence supporting them, but there plenty of evidence that debunks what they practice.
As part of my analysis of medical claims of causation or “cures”, I often use this logic to test the possibility of the usefulness of any alternative medicine–is there any physical, chemical or biological mechanism that will allow the quack procedure to work? If you cannot imagine it without violating some of the basic laws of science, then we should stand by Occam’s razor, which states often times the simplest solution is the best.
So, if there is no evidence of vaccinations being correlated, let alone causal, to autism, then that remains the simplest solution. To explain a possible tie without any evidence would require us to suspend what we know of most biological processes.
Which leads us to…
One of the most important and fundamental tenets of good science (and scientific method) is plausibility. If we create a hypothesis, does it generally fit into the realm of biological, chemical or physical plausibility?
The whole area of correlation and causation is ruled by plausibility. If we observe a correlation, say between cancer and smoking, how do we determine if it is causal?
The very first step is to determine if it is at all plausible that smoking could cause lung cancer. Without writing the history of how medicine came to hate cigarettes, the major effect of cigarette smoking is on the lungs, the lungs are susceptible to environmental hazards, and cancer is often a result of those hazards.
The early researchers into cigarette smoking could show a plausible mechanistic link between an inhaled carcinogen and malignant change in the lung’s cells. This is an important facet of determining causality in biological systems.
When one argues that GMO foods may cause cancer, how plausible is that? Is there some plausible mechanism between the GMO food and one of 250 different cancers? To be factual, there are precious few environmental factors that cause cancers, and those that are known are not implausible.
When someone says that vaccines cause autism, is it even plausible? Is there some mechanism between stimulating the immune system through immunization and causing autism? Plausibility doesn’t mean we take the easy way and just say, “well, just because we don’t know of a mechanism doesn’t mean there isn’t one.” That’s a misuse of the precautionary principle.
We know a lot about human physiology. It’s not a giant mystery wrapped around an enigma. Human physiology is complex and detailed, so we can envision what is plausible or what isn’t. And what isn’t is a plausible mechanism between vaccination and autism.
If one has to create a vast and complex system, with numerous assumptions, to justify some weak form of plausibility, then we need to employ Occam’s Razor – the hypothesis with the fewest assumptions should be selected. Always.
The “pseudoscientific method”
To identify pseudoscience, there are six reliable clues that shout out “pseudoscience.” Almost always, you can find all six in any pseudoscientific claim.
- Use of vague, exaggerated or untestable claims. Essentially, pseudoscience makes “scientific claims” that are vague and variable, rather than the precise scientific claims made with statistical analysis, usually a hallmark of the specificity associated with scientific research. Moreover, pseudoscience uses complex, implausible assumptions with their claims.
- Extreme reliance on confirmation rather than refutation. Pseudoscience relies upon assertions that do not allow the logical possibility that they can be shown to be false by observation or physical experiment–falsifiability. Pseudoscience also asserts claims of predictability when it has not been shown to be predictive; “scientific” claims that do not confer any predictive power are considered at best “conjectures”, or at worst “pseudoscience”.
- Lack of openness to testing by other experts. Pseudoscience researchers evade peer review before publicizing results, occasionally using press conferences to share their ideas. These pseudoscientists will claim that their ideas contradict the scientific consensus, so they must avoid the peer review process because that process is biased towards the established paradigms and consensus. They will also claim that their results cannot arrive from the scientific method. Thus, they get to avoid the feedback of informed colleagues.They will also appeal to the need for secrecy or proprietary knowledge when an independent review of data or methodology is requested. Of course, many agencies and institutions that fund real science research require authors to share data so it may be evaluated independently.
- Absence of progress. Pseudoscience usually fails to progress towards providing or even searching for additional evidence of its claims. Astrology is an example of a pseudoscientific concept that has not changed in 2000 years. Real science is constantly adding data through scientific progress.
- Personalization of issues. Pseudoscience is often composed of closely tied social groups, and usually includes an authoritarian personality, suppression of dissent, and groupthink. This social construct can enhance the adoption of beliefs that have no rational basis. In an attempt to confirm their beliefs, the group tends to identify their critics as enemies.Pseudoscience also make false assertions or claims of a conspiracy on the part of the scientific community to suppress results that support the pseudoscience. Finally, they attack the motives or character of anyone who questions the claims, the argumentum ad hominem.As an example, the anti-vaccine crowd has invented numerous claims about Dr. Paul Offit, one of the great researchers in vaccines, just to attack him personally. They’ve done the same with Bill Gates.
- Use of misleading language. They try to create scientific-sounding terms to add weight to claims and persuade non-experts to believe statements that may be false or meaningless; for example, a long-standing hoax refers to water by the rarely used formal name “dihydrogen monoxide” and describes it as the main constituent in most poisonous solutions to show how easily the general public can be misled. More often, pseudoscientists use established technical terms in idiosyncratic ways, thereby demonstrating unfamiliarity with mainstream work in the discipline.
This is how real science works–it gathers evidence over and over, until the possibility that the original hypothesis is wrong becomes vanishingly small. The evidence is always gathered in an unbiased manner, if one takes the average of all the studies. Yes, some scientists try to support their own pre-ordained beliefs. But that’s why real science requires lots of evidence from lots of different researchers repeating itself over and over.
Pseudoscience doesn’t care. It only uses biased evidence, or one-off cherry picking of one study that happens to somewhat support their beliefs.
All I can say is this – pseudoscience is bullshit.
The next part of this article will be published soon. And we’re going to look at how the bullshit of pseudoscience ends up being the core belief of things like alternative medicine. And other junk science.
See the next part of this series, Pseudoscience and science – more bullshit vs rationality, which should go live in a couple of days and will be linked here then.