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Ten Characteristics of Pseudoscience and an Invitation to Set a Spell

August 20, 2010

I tell you, it’s fairly sweet to be able to get lectures prepped and blog posts written all on the same material.


Carl Sagan, bless him, had a great deal of faith in humanity. He must have or he’d have never written this: 

“If science were explained to the average person in a way that is accessible and exciting, there would be no room for pseudoscience.” 

If that isn’t optimism about the ability of man to think rationally, I don’t know what it is. I also wonder whether that’s realistic. I think science is fascinating and the endless questions, the fact that we’ll never know it all, never get it all figured out is sheer bliss. But that is a hard road to walk, with no certainty except that all is uncertainty, all is subject to correction, and if you do it right, an ability to admit error. In other words, the chance to eat humble pie each and every day if you get too cocky, and a commitment to do that, because a commitment to scientific principles and discoveries trumps ego.


Of course, Carl Sagan may have realized that this quote was unlikely to truly reflect human nature. Sagan wrote in The Demon-Haunted World that people choose pseudoscience “in exact proportion as real science is misunderstood.” He concluded that “the world would be a more interesting place if there were UFOs lurking in the deep waters off Bermuda and eating ships and planes” so he must at this point have realized making science accessible wasn’t going to get rid of people’s need for the fantastic and escapist.


Sagan explained the predilection for pseudoscience in this way: 

“Naturally people try various belief systems on for size, to see if they help. And if we’re desperate enough, we become all too willing to abandon what may be perceived as the heavy burden of skepticism. Pseudoscience speaks to powerful emotional needs that science often leaves unfulfilled. It caters to fantasies about personal powers we lack and long for (like those attributed to comic book superheroes today, and earlier, to the gods). In some of its manifestations, it offers satisfaction of spiritual  hungers, cures for disease, promises that death is not the end. It reassures us of our cosmic centrality and imortance.”

Pseudoscience, to put it another way, is like Chinese food, filling in the short term, but you’re hungry an hour later.


John Ruscio defines critical thinking as “striving for a proper blend of open-mindedness and skepticism: All claims are given a fair hearing, but only those that meet high evidential standards are retained.” 


Too many people have no evidential standards at all, and they end up with closets full of infomercial junk and drawers filled with pills and supplements promising thinner bellies, bigger ahems, and longer, well, you get the point.


Ruscio points out that the “reasoning of those who promote pseudoscience is often flawed.” We need to understand how we reason, how that reasoning can be short circuited by our minds, like visual illusions often do to us or how anchoring alters our estimates. It is so easy to be fooled by the workings of our own minds. No wonder it is even easier to be fooled by others who are aware of those blindspots we have.


Ruscio lays out ten characteristics of pseudoscience. According to Ruscio, “the line between science and pseudoscience is not always crystal clear.” The nice thing is that the more tools you have in your tool box, the better at it you will be. These ten contrasts between science and pseudoscience should help you do the trick:

  • “Pseudoscientists may use language that sounds scientific, but they cannot back up this language with substance Scientists’ technical jargon is actually a concise language that facilitates communication among experts.” Pseudoscience example: Lanza writes: “Choices you haven’t made yet might determine which of your childhood friends are still alive, or whether your dog got hit by a car yesterday. In fact, you might even collapse realities that determine whether Noah’s Ark sank.”
  • “Both sciences and pseudosciences confer degrees, hold conferences, and publish journals. In all these activities, scientists exercise a degree of skepticism that often surprises nonscientists…By contrast, although there are journals, conferences, and degrees in pseudoscience, often there is only token or nonexistent skepticism.” Pseudoscience example: Autism One kicked Ken Reibel out one year and a California state employee last year.
  • “Science is based on systematic empiricism…in the absence of such empirical evidence, scientists regard a hypothesis only as speculation, never as fact. Pseudoscientists, in contrast, sometimes fail to follow even the most  basic principles of research design, can be unconcerned about rival explanations for the claims they make, and are not always willing to invest the necessary time and energy to perform valid experiments.”  Pseudoscience example: Wakefield’s monkey studies and Haley’s OSR#1.
  • “A good scientific experiment is set up in such a way that it is extremely unlikely to yield positive results unless the hypothesis is indeed true…When a pseudoscientist does present evidence, it is often of little value because it is based on a very weak test.” Pseudoscience example: Haley’s OSR#1, the Geier’s Lupron.
  • “Science is a method for uncovering principles of the natural world…In contrast, many pseudosciences resort to supernatural explanations when their claims are shown to be false.” Pseudoscience example: Facilitated communication fails verification and is asserted to be ESP (thanks Jim Todd).
  • “A major task of science involves making increasingly specific distinctions among events to generate increasingly useful theories…Pseudoscience, on the other hand, often rebels against such distinctions in the name of holism.” Pseudoscience example: Dana Ullman, pretty much anything Dana Ullman writes.
  • “Scientists subscribe to a handful of principles of formal logic, chief among them the notion that contradictory statements cannot both be true. Pseudoscientists are noteworthy for their tolerance of logical contradictions within and across disciplines.” Pseudoscience example: the contradictory notions that both the measles virus and thimerosal could cause the same symptoms.
  • “Science is based on empirical data…Pseudoscience, however, has little data to offer. In its place, practitioners urge others to believe in their practices based on their say-so.” Pseudoscience example: naturopathists who hook you to a banned machine to tell you all that’s ever been wrong with you and how you can fix it all for 600 bucks or so in ten sessions.
  • “Science involves respect for the limitations of present knowledge and current technological capabilities. By contrast, pseudoscience is unbounded by reality and often profits by making grandiose promises that it cannot fulfill.” Pseudoscience example: UFOs.
  • In science, there is a “rapid rate of change,” “demonstrable progress in accumulating knowledge.” In pseudoscience, not so much. It’s the wisdom of the ancients. Pseudoscience example: homeopathy, 10% brain myth, astrology.

Like a horse and the proverbial water, though, no one can make you pick these tools up and use them. And I guarantee you the more woo clinging to you, the harder it will be to use those tools to chip it away. That’s your choice. If your woo ain’t eating no hay, so to speak, wear it with grace. As Thelma would say, it’s no skin off her nose, nor fat off her ass, if ya are armored in some harmless woo. We all gotta believe in somethin, that’s for damn true, and not everyone’s gotta fine friend like Louise, a strong-armed mamma like Mamma H, nor a goodly supply of cheap Kentucky whiskey to pass the time with. In other words, I’m not raring to go on over to your blogs and pee in your cheerios, nor rile you up none. I can live and let live on a fair amount of stuff  if you aren’t trying to take advantage of folks in need of a friendly shoulder and some hope. Selling people a bill of good and delivering nothing is wrong.


It sucks a fair amount that science doesn’t have all the answers. Yes, it does. But, and this is a big but, I share Carl Sagan’s ridiculous optimism that most of the folks out there are perfectly capable of pulling on their big girl panties and big boy underroos and shouldering the heavy load the real world can be. After all, with Kathleen and me, Thelma and Louise, Mamma H and her raisin, and the raccoon thrown in for good measure, you got plenty of folks willing to walk with you shoulder to shoulder and spearhead some of that heavy load. Why not think on it some? We don’t have all the answers, but we’ve got some wicked good tools in the box, and Kathleen and I’ve got cake and chocolate to share, while the ladies and the raisin of Stink Creek have ample booze and ample bellies for those belly laughs they love to share with the world. Come and set a spell, and see if leaving go the woo can’t be full of excitement.

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