We frequently use the term “pseudoscience” to describe the ideology of certain groups: anti-vaccinationists, evolution deniers (creationists), global warming deniers, and almost anything in the areas of parapsychology, alternative medicine, and sasquatch. The science denialists (broadly defined as any group who rejects the scientific consensus on any subject without valid scientific support) always seem to be insulted by the word “pseudoscience” as if it’s a pejorative without foundation.
In fact, there are several hallmarks that indicate to most educated individuals as to what is or is not pseudoscience. Real science is a systematic and rational method to organize and analyze “knowledge” into testable explanations and predictions. Sometimes, it appears that the anti-science crowd believes that science is just a word, not a philosophy which is organized as the scientific method. For example, in the 150 years since Charles Darwin published his “Origin of Species” that proposed the theory we now call evolution, thousands, if not millions, of experiments, observations and publications have supported and, frankly, improved upon the original.
The problem with pseudoscience is that it attempts to masquerade itself as real science, thereby confusing the reader. Creationism has started to use “creation science” to establish itself as a “science” with scientific theories. But just by claiming it’s a science without actually employing the logic of science means it’s probably pseudoscience.
Denying the science of evolution and attempting to force the pseudoscience of creationism is annoying and damaging to biological research, but it does not immediately harm anyone. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about the anti-vaccinationists, who employ pseudoscience to try to tell us that vaccines are unsafe or even not useful. The problem there is that it does cause immediate harm, by keeping young children from getting proper vaccinations.
Using the anti-vaccine lunacy as our example, let’s review how it fits into the checklist of pseudoscience:
- Use of vague, exaggerated or untestable claims. They make vague scientific claims; fail to make use of parsimony (see Occam’s razor), that is to find the explanation for autism that requires the fewest assumptions; lack boundary definitions, meaning the areas where vaccines might not have an effect on autism; and, finally, lack effective controls, such as placebo and double-blind, in experimental design. Making a claim that somehow all of the communicable diseases are a result of industrial pollution is almost impossible to prove, completely lacks any evidence in support, and denies the fact that actual viruses and bacteria have been identified that are responsible for the pathophysiology of the disease.
- Over-reliance on confirmation rather than refutation. In other words, the anti-vaccine lunacy fail to accept the possibility that experiments or observations may show their theory to be false. Most scientists make no such absolutist claims. In fact, many researchers will state, that there might be a possibility that vaccinations cause autism, but they cannot find a mechanism for it to happen and they haven’t seen any results that support such a theory. Scientists are completely open minded to any result, whereas the anti-vaccine league of undistinguished playboy playmates are completely closeminded to logic. Moreover, many of the vaccines cause XYZ (put anything in here) is over-reliant on confirmation bias, that is, seeking the results that confirm the hypothesis (and ignoring the results that don’t), rather than using results from a statistically valid population to establish a hypothesis. To take that logic to an extreme, because the vast majority of individuals who receive vaccines have no ill-effects, it must be that terrible parents who cause the so called side-effects, not the vaccines.
- Over-reliance on testimonial, anecdotal evidence or personal experience. This is the opposite of science, which publishes articles in peer-reviewed journals that are open to the bright, blinding light of criticism. Whenever someone states that they heard that some vaccine caused problems with someone’s kids, then you have to ask, really? Prove it. Can I see the medical files? What was the diagnosis? Who performed the diagnosis? Were there other pre-existing conditions? Have we seen this elsewhere? Again, real science uses statistical analysis over a large population
- Lack of openness to testing by other experts. Evasion of peer reviewed publications and use of popular press is precisely the lack of openness that prevents discussion. Jenny McCarthy and company complain that science is hiding the truth. Nothing could be further from the truth. Scientists, despite the lack of a scientific foundation in the vaccine causes autism hypothesis, spent years trying to confirm Andrew Wakefield’s fraudulent findings (and how much of that could have been spent actually uncovering the causes of autism). They found nothing that supports the link. And Wakefield has been accused of fraud and had his medical license revoked.
- Absence of progress. Basically science evolves. As new results appear, science develops new theories that may modify or even replace the old one. As mentioned above, even the theory of evolution has evolved (pun intended). When I was working on my graduate degree in Biochemistry, we did not know what caused AIDS. Every biochemistry lab in the world was trying to figure it out. There were a whole slew of theories on what caused it (some of them were laughable), but now we know that HIV infection causes AIDS. That’s how science works. It’s been over a decade since the debunked “vaccines cause autism” started, yet not one single bit of evidence has been provided to support anything about vaccines causing autism or any other neurological issue. Progress in the anti-vaccination lunacy is essentially trying to find a theory that sticks. Mercury. Aluminum. Too many injections. Destroying the immune system. Chemicals. What next, the glass vial in which the vaccines are stored?
- Personalization of issues. Those vaccine denialists resort to name calling (we are all bought out by Big Pharma), appeal to authority or whatever other appeal that’s handy, and, of course, conspiracies. This article in the Age of Autism (should be named the Age of Anti-vaccination). It’s one giant article that personalizes the issue, and is filled with strawman arguments (and probably hits the logical fallacy bingo). I debunked most of the points. Orac does a better job of it in Yes, Virginia, there is an antivaccine movement (efforts to deny it notwithstanding).
- Use of misleading language. Denialists of all sorts use scientific jargon to make superficial claims that the theory is scientifically sound. Like a couple of denialist comments here, there is a constant use of fancy terminology that makes no sense when read. The Age of Autism article mentioned in #6 is a perfect example of it. Even claiming that it’s not “anti-vaccine” but are “people raising this important question would be consumer safety advocates, seeking informed consent, more research, product liability, and policy reform.” Sounds nice, except for the fact that they’re risking lives of kids for unsupported claims.
I can do the same thing for such failed therapies as orthomolecular medicine, homeopathy, and radionics. It’s not that science has the answer to every question. It obviously does not. But when a questioned is asked of science, it either agrees, disagrees, or says that more information is needed. It does not place a value on any particular answer, just that evidence supports it.
The problem is that pseudoscience pushing individuals are loud, so an unbiased public gives equal weight to the comments of pseudoscience and real science. The public needs to reduce the weight given to medical woo, until they bring forward evidence with scientific strength.
Taking the longer-term point of view, as science education becomes worse in the United States