Recently, we discussed how science works. It’s not a belief. It’s not a random set of rules. It is a rational and logical process to determine cause and effect in the natural world. Pseudoscience, by its very nature, ignores the scientific process; instead, it claims to come to conclusions through science, usually by using scientific sounding words, but actually avoids the scientific process. They tend to use logical fallacies to make their case. Just to be clear, logical fallacy is essentially an error of reasoning. When a pseudoscientist makes a claim, or attempts to persuade the public of this claim, and it is based on a bad piece of reasoning, they commit a fallacy.
There are several types of logical fallacies that they employ. My favorites are Appeals to Antiquity, or old ideas are somehow better than new ideas; Appeals to Authority, or someone who should know better supports the claim even if everyone else does not; Appeals to Popularity (also called the Bandwagon Fallacy), or everyone does it, so it must be useful; and the Genetic Fallacy, where the source is more matter than the merits of the evidence. Logical fallacies are so prevalent in skeptical community, there are websites devoted to describing them.
The typical pseudoscientist will use logical fallacies to state very definitively that “it’s proven.” It’s the same whether it’s creationism (the belief that some magical being created the world some small number of years ago), alternative medicine (homeopathy, which is nothing but water, has magical properties to cure everything from cancer to male pattern baldness), or vaccine denialists (I’ve discussed this topic before, no need to belabor). The worst problem is that in the world of the internet, if you google these beliefs, the number of websites and hits that seem to state that they are THE TRUTH overwhelm those that are more skeptical or critical.
So how can you tell the difference between science and pseudoscience in medicine? In medicine, we gather and analyze evidence in one of two ways.
Almost any medical product, device, drug or procedure must, by law, must studied in a Randomized Controlled Trial, which is sometimes called a clinical trial. Essentially, it is a scientific experiment, designed to test the hypothesis of whether the safety and efficacy of a particular medical product is better than a placebo. That is, does the medical product produce results better than doing nothing at all. This is the “gold standard” of investigation, and if the study does confirm the hypothesis, you can be assured it has a benefit to your life (although the degree may be subject to argument). Alternative medicine just doesn’t do this (most of their reasoning is that their beliefs just doesn’t fit into the clinical trial model), so their is no proof that their products work. A clinical trial usually has thousands of participants, and is done in a manner that the patient and the physician do not know who is and who is not receiving the treatment. The results are analyzed statistically and published in peer-reviewed journals. Furthermore, the results are reviewed and investigated by the FDA (and legal bodies in other countries), before a drug or device can be used by a physician. This is an expensive and time-consuming process, in which alternative medicine hardly ever participates.
Now it’s not ethical to test every medical hypothesis with a clinical trial. For example, we know that smoking is bad for your health. Yet, tobacco manufacturers love to insist that there has never been a clinical trial that makes this conclusion. The reason that is true is that it would be unethical to give one group of adults cigarettes for 20 years and another group nothing to see if one would die at a higher rate. So we use epidemiological studies to determine if we can see in a population whether a cause has an effect. We can review records of thousands of smokers to see what the effect will be. Once again, pushers of alternative medicine therapies have not published a study of all the patients who might have used their therapy and see the result. Epidemiology is a scientific process that is critical to preventative medicine–without it, we cannot know if some behavior or public health issue has a causal effect on health.
Remember, anecdotes (“my mother’s friend’s cousin’s daughter was cured by eating this leaf”) are not reasons to accept alternative medicine. Even anecdotes that try to sound like science (“90 out of 100 people think this leaf does work”) aren’t a reason to “believe” in a pseudoscience.
You might have heard that taking lots of Vitamin C helps prevent colds. It doesn’t. And that conclusions is supported by large clinical trials, so unless you are afflicted by scurvy, there’s no reason to take large doses of the vitamin. And that’s the difference between real science and pseudoscience.