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Pseudoscience is easy to identify if you examine their claims


The purpose of this blog has always been to identify and criticize pseudoscience. Sometimes, I don’t mention the word, but when I provide solid evidence for some claims like vaccines are safe and effective, I know a large mountain of evidence supports it.

I’ve noticed that pseudoscience-pushers, such as Steve Kirsch and Robert F Kennedy Jr, pretend to use science and love to employ the essential “pseudoscience method” to support their claims. They deny scientific evidence and the scientific method for their biased and unsupported claims.

Pseudoscience is easy to identify, and I will show you how to do it because it is important to point out the pseudoscience-pushing charlatans and quacks in the world.

person doing card trick identify pseudoscience
Photo by Nikolay Ivanov on Pexels.com

How to identify pseudoscience

You can easily identify pseudoscience because it tries to appear scientific. However, its claims lack evidence-based science’s repeatability, reliability, and credibility. Pseudoscience relies on claims based on anecdotes, not evidence. And it tends to exaggerate using a tiny nugget of actual science wildly.

What do I mean by repeatability, reliability, and credibility? These are the essential premises of science. And they are the opposite of pseudoscience.

Repeatability — the ability to show results from similar measurements across experiments. A group of scientists experimenting in Australia should find the same results as those doing the same experiment in Canada under the same measurement conditions.

Reliability — scientific reliability refers to the consistency of a measurement. It indicates how trustworthy the results are and whether they can be replicated using different methods and sample groups. Statistical analysis is one of the best methods to establish the reliability of data.

Credibility — the results of these measurements are then published in respected, peer-reviewed scientific and biomedical journals. Although the system of peer review is not perfect, it is one of the best methods to separate unreliable and unrepeatable data from those that aren’t.

Real science is not afraid of these three premises. Pseudoscience, on the other hand, shies away from it or even tries to employ sleight-of-hand to either complain that they can’t do this or pretend to do it.

identify pseudoscience
The pseudoscience vs science chart. Anti-vaccine pseudoscience checks off most of this list.

How to identify pseudoscience, the complex edition

In addition to what I wrote above, there are even more precise ways to identify pseudoscience. I call this the “pseudoscientific method” of supporting claims that they make.

  1. Use of vague, exaggerated, or untestable claims.  Pseudoscience tends to present claims that are imprecise and unsupported by complex scrutiny, including statistical analyses. If we look at the anti-vaccine claims, this is precisely what they do – they rarely present unbiased data, preferring anecdotes and unsubstantiated information that is, of course, much easier to digest than science.
  2. Extreme reliance on confirmation rather than refutation. Pseudoscience looks for evidence that supports its pre-ordained conclusions. Real science looks at all the evidence, including evidence that might refute the hypothesis. That’s why falsifiability is the cornerstone of good science.
  3. 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 use special pleading to claim that their results cannot arrive from the scientific method. And if they do publish their “data,” it’s almost always in low-quality, predatory journals. Or their research is retracted!
  4. Absence of progress. Pseudoscience usually fails to progress toward providing or even searching for additional evidence for its claims. We have been discussing autism and vaccines for nearly 30 years – science has produced over 160 epidemiological and clinical studies that have conclusively established that there is no link. On the other hand, pseudoscience has never produced a single peer-reviewed article that supports these beliefs. Sure, there are opinion pieces in poorly ranked journals that lack any research that meets the standards of high-quality science, but that’s not evidence supporting their claims.
  5. Personalization of issues. Pseudoscience is often composed of closely tied social groups and usually includes an authoritarian personality, suppression of dissent, and groupthink. In an attempt to confirm their beliefs, the group tends to identify their critics as enemies (see everything that Del Bigtree and Robert F Kennedy Jr say).
  6. Conspiracies. Anti-vaccine pseudoscience also makes false assertions or claims of a conspiracy on the part of the scientific community to suppress results that support the pseudoscience. And any time anyone supports vaccines, they’re accused of being a Big Pharma Shill.
  7. Use of misleading language. Pseudoscience tries to create scientific-sounding terms to add weight to claims and persuade non-experts to believe statements that may be false or meaningless. They often use established technical terms in idiosyncratic ways, thereby demonstrating unfamiliarity with mainstream work in the discipline.

Pseudoscience vs science – falsifiability

The most important difference between pseudoscience and science is the concept of falsifiability. 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 — if a hypothesis is false, it can be conceivably shown by observation or experimentation. This principle allows scientists to have an open mind about the science of the natural world.

This is where falsification can be confusing. You don’t 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? If you can, then it is science. 

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 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 dogmatic or absolutist. Instead, it does rely on evidence. If we had scoured the earth and could only find white swans, the hypothesis becomes harder and harder to reject. In other words, science is always provisional — as more data is collected, the conclusion can be modified. However, as more and more data supports the original hypothesis, the more difficult it is to modify the conclusion.

But, and this is critical, we still can establish an experiment that will falsify our conclusion. Maybe we need to repeat the experiment over generations of swans to find the rare black swan. Maybe we are missing swans in a remote area of Canada, and we need to repeat the experiment there. The point is that we can imagine a method to falsify the hypothesis.

Keep this in mind with pseudoscience. Because it is resistant to falsifiability.

Summary

When you hear claims from Steve Kirsch, Robert F Kennedy Jr, or others, you need to look at their claims. Are they repeatable? Are they reliable? Are they credible? Over 99% of the time, they don’t meet any of those standards.

Kirsch loves to pull data out of thin air, but his data is never repeatable (he only looks at data that supports his beliefs), is never reliable (there is never any substantial statistical analysis), and is never credible (it never undergoes an unbiased peer review).

I know that pseudoscientists will not read this article, because they don’t want their house of cards to be upset by the logical flaws of their claims.

This article is just a way for you to back up your claims that something is pseudoscience. Oh yeah, I’ve seen pseudoscientists try the tactic that what we provide is “pseudoscience.” Of course, there is a tiny little problem for them — our science is reliable, is repeatable, and is credible.

Michael Simpson

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