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Your personal pseudoscience detector

Last updated on May 6th, 2015 at 01:18 pm

Pseudoscience is like bubble gum. It tastes pretty good, it’s fun to blow bubbles, and it annoys some people. But eventually, the flavor leaves, and you find that you’re just chewing on some nutritionally dubious substance. Now you have to find a place to spit it out.

Or I guess you can swallow it, and it stays in your intestines for the rest of your life. Oh sorry, that’s more junk science.

If you read something that makes some medical claim, here’s a quick and easy checklist to determine if it’s pseudoscience. Or real science-based medicine. What we all need is an official, Skeptical Raptor endorsed, pseudoscience detector.

Here it is, your own pseudoscience detector, based on a scientific seven-point checklist for fake science.

  1. The discoverer pitches his claim directly to the media. Going to media directly bypasses the all-important peer-review process, where real scientists can evaluate whether the claim is real science. There are some journalists that are thorough scientific skeptics, but it is rare. That’s why press releases rank near the bottom of acceptable scientific evidence.
  2. The discoverer says that a powerful establishment is trying to suppress his/her work. Special pleading for a conspiracy is just a logical fallacy. If someone discovers a cure for all cancers (probably not possible, since there are so many different cancers), the powers that be will be bringing truckloads of dollars to buy it, because they could market it for even more truckloads of money. But if you have no evidence that it cures all cancers, you’re not going  get anything.
  3. The scientific effect is always at the very limit of detection. This is the very definition of “it doesn’t work.” Moreover, if the thing being promoted has a tiny effect, then more of it will have more of an effect, the typical dose-response relationship expected from all compounds.
  4. Evidence for a discovery is anecdotal. Anecdotes are not data. More anecdotes are not data. Anecdotes are not controlled, but they are subject to all sorts of bias. Like confirmation bias, where the observer only picks anecdotes that support their belief. The problem with that is we have no idea if the anecdote is, in fact, accurate; and we ignore all the data that does not support the anecdote. Randomized clinical trials remove bias, remove observer partiality, and blind the patients and the researchers to the experiment itself.
  5. The discoverer says it is credible because it has endured for centuries. This is the logical fallacy of an Appeal to Antiquity. Just because it’s been around for a long time, doesn’t mean it’s credible. Homeopathy has been around since the early 1800’s, and all that means is that people have be deluded by it for over 200 years. Homeopathy doesn’t work. And we have shown it doesn’t work in real science.
  6. Discoverer has worked in isolation. Science is a collaborative effort, because new ideas need to be subjected to the bright lights of criticism and review. If the new discovery is truly groundbreaking, others will need to repeat it and publish about it, so that unbiased observers can add the new information into the wealth of science. But if the discoverer hides from others, then its validity will be questioned.
  7. The discoverer must propose new laws of nature to explain an observation. New laws of nature are developed over time through scientific consensus, not through the proclamation of a single scientist. This is the problem of most pseudoscientific ideas. Homeopathy requires us to dismiss the basic laws of chemistry and physics to imagine that a simple water molecule can have a “memory” of other substances. Vaccine deniers dismiss the basic science of the immune system and reinvent dose-response relationships to try to make people believe how vaccines are dangerous. Psychics need you to believe that future events are somehow transmitted through time, suspending our essential understanding of the universe. All pseudoscience needs to violate the basic principles of real science to “prove” that they work. I have no problem with trying to refute a basic scientific principle–but you have to do it the hard way. You must provide scientific evidence, that’s undergone thorough peer review and critique, that we should dismiss some principle of science. You don’t get to do it the lazy way–by just saying it is so.

So here’s your checklist. Really, you only need to check off one or two on the list to begin thinking that a claim is bogus. The thing I’ve observed is that most pseudoscience doesn’t stop at just one or two–they go for the full list, because that’s the only way to make it seem like real science.

Boiled down to its essence, pseudoscience lacks credible scientific evidence, so the only way to force people to overlook that deficiency is to make use of feints, illusions, and magic.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in December 2013. It has been completely revised and updated to include more comprehensive information, to improve readability and to add current research.

Michael Simpson

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