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A pseudoscience is a set of ideas put forth as scientific when they are not scientific.
Scientific theories are characterized by such things as (a) being based on empirical observation rather than the authority of some sacred text; (b) explaining a range of empirical phenomena; (c) being empirically tested in some meaningful way, usually involving testing specific predictions deduced from the theory; (d) being confirmed rather than falsified by empirical tests or with the discovery of new facts; (e) being impersonal and therefore testable by anyone regardless of personal religious or metaphysical beliefs; (f) being dynamic and fecund, leading investigators to new knowledge and understanding of the interrelatedness of the natural world rather than being static and stagnant leading to no research or development of a better understanding of anything in the natural world; (g) being approached with skepticism rather than gullibility, especially regarding paranormal forces or supernatural powers, and (h) being fallible and put forth tentatively rather than being put forth as infallible or inerrant.
Some pseudoscientific claims are based on an authoritative text rather than observation or empirical investigation. Creation science devotees, for example, make observations only to confirm dogmas, not to discover the truth about the natural world. Such dogmas are static and lead to no new scientific discoveries or enhancement of our understanding of the natural world. The main purpose of creationism and intelligent design is to defend a set of religious beliefs.
A scientific theory like the theory of natural selection is not based on a text. Creationists* distort the truth when they call evolution "Darwinism," as if the science were based on a belief in the infallible words found in Origin of Species or Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. Natural selection is one of several mechanisms put forth by scientists to explain the fact of evolution. The various theories of evolution, i.e., mechanisms that explain how evolution occurs, are defended not by deference to texts but by empirical evidence from several scientific fields: embryology, the fossil record, homology, genetics, biogeography, molecular biology.
Some pseudoscientific claims explain what non-believers cannot even observe, e.g. orgone energy, N-rays, or chi. Or, if the non-believers make any observations regarding the effects of this alleged energy, their comments regard the psychological mechanisms that lead people to believe in such chimeras.
We are not, of course, claiming that science deals only with what can be observed in the present moment. Science often concerns itself with what probably occurred in the past based on inferences from empirical data. Science also often studies causal events that can't be observed such as cigarette smoke causing cancer. Some creationists claim that since nobody has seen a cat evolve into, say, a dog, evolution doesn't happen. That is, they claim that since nobody observes evolution of one species to another in the present, evolution doesn't happen. Anyone who would make such a claim is simply exposing his ignorance of what evolution actually claims. (Another sign of ignorance regarding what evolution actually claims is the assertion that humans evolved from modern apes or monkeys. Evolution claims that humans and modern apes have a common ancestor, not that we evolved from modern apes.)*
Some pseudoscientific claims can't be tested because they are consistent with every imaginable state of affairs in the empirical world, e.g., L. Ron Hubbard's engrams. Scientific theories not only explain empirical phenomena, they also predict empirical phenomena. One way we know a scientific theory is no good is that its predictions keep failing. Predictions can't fail unless a theory is falsifiable. Some pseudoscientific claims can't be falsified because they are consistent with every imaginable empirical state of affairs. Karl Popper noted that psychoanalysis, including Freud's notion of the Oedipus complex, is pseudoscientific because it seems to explain everything and does not leave open the possibility of error. Even contradictory behaviors are appealed to in support the Oedipus complex.
Creationists who claim that evolution can't be disproved are mistaken or lying. All it would take would be to find the presence of mammals in the pre-Cambrian fossil beds or human and dinosaur fossils in the same sedimentary layer. Creationists, on the other hand, are apologists for the faith, not scientists interested in discovering the truth about the world. They already "know" the truth: it's in their sacred text. So, their whole function is to deny and try to find fault with any scientific claim that is inconsistent with their interpretation of the Bible.*
Some pseudoscientific ideas can't be tested because they are so vague and malleable that anything relevant can be shoehorned to fit the claim, e.g., the enneagram, iridology, the notion of multiple personality disorder, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator®, the ideas behind many New Age psychotherapies, and reflexology.
Creationists often mistake the fact that discoveries in various sciences keep confirming evolutionary hypotheses as evidence that evolutionists won't give up their theory no matter what. Nonsense! As noted above, all it would take would be to find some fossils of mammals (a rabbit or sheep would do) in pre-Cambrian layers and evolution will have to be re-examined, revised, or even revoked.
Some ideas have been empirically tested and rather than being confirmed they seem either to have been falsified or to require numerous ad hoc hypotheses to sustain them, e.g., applied kinesiology, astrology, biorhythms, facilitated communication, plant perception, and ESP. Yet, despite seemingly insurmountable evidence contrary to the claims, adherents won't give them up.
Creationists often point to errors made in science, real or imagined, to defend their notion that evolution is not a science because it will defend things that are not true rather than give up its central tenets. Nonsense! There is nothing in the history of pseudoscience that compares with the convoluted kinds of reasoning creationists have used to argue that all scientific methods of dating are wrong, that Noah's ark landed in Turkey, that the Grand Canyon was formed in a short time by the great flood that sent Noah's ark to Turkey, etc. Creationists often point to Haeckel's embryos as proof that evolution is a pseudoscience. What rubbish! (Click here for more embryo comparisons.)
Some pseudoscientific ideas rely on ancient myths and legends rather than on physical evidence, even when the interpretations of those legends either requires a belief contrary to the known laws of nature or to established facts, e.g., Velikovsky's, von Däniken's, and Sitchen's ideas.
This is the central feature of so-called Young Earth Creationism (YEC), the notion that the Bible reveals that a god created the universe about 6,000 years ago. Scientists date the birth of our solar system to about 4.5 billion years ago and the universe to about 13.7 billion years ago. These scientific notions about the origin of the universe and our solar system are based on a variety of dating techniques, none of which appeal to ancient myths or legends.* The YECs use this belief about a recent creation as the main motivating force to find fault with anything science claims that conflicts with their faith. Scientists, on the other hand, have found trees that are older than what the YECs think the earth is. Of course, the YECs say the scientists are wrong.
Some pseudoscientific ideas are supported mainly by selective use of anecdotes, intuition, and examples of confirming instances, e.g., anthropometry, aromatherapy, craniometry, graphology, metoposcopy, personology, and physiognomy.
Nobody, I would hope, would accuse either creationism or evolution of basing their notions on anecdotes or intuition. The one is based on the Bible and the other on the empirical evidence gathered from a variety of sciences.
Some pseudoscientific ideas confuse metaphysical claims with empirical claims, e.g., acupuncture, alchemy, cellular memory, Lysenkoism, naturopathy, reiki, Rolfing, therapeutic touch, and Ayurvedic medicine.
Creationism is, in essence, a metaphysical noton about the origins of the universe and of life because it asserts the cause is supernatural. By definition the supernatural is non-empirical. Science maintains that all hypotheses about the causes it studies refer to natural causes that have empirical manifestations and may be supported or refuted by empirical facts. Creationism asserts that no empirical fact could ever refute it because it is known a priori to be absolutely true.
Some pseudoscientific ideas not only confuse metaphysical claims with empirical claims, but they also maintain views that contradict known scientific laws and use ad hoc hypotheses to explain their belief, e.g., homeopathy.
Creationists have tried to maintain that evolution violates the second law of thermodynamics but this idea has been thoroughly discredited by those who understand physics.
Pseudoscientists claim to base their ideas on empirical evidence, and they may even use some scientific methods, though often their understanding of a controlled experiment is inadequate. Many pseudoscientists relish being able to point out the consistency of their ideas with known facts or with predicted consequences, but they do not recognize that such consistency is not proof of anything. It is a necessary condition but not a sufficient condition that a good scientific theory be consistent with the facts. A theory which is contradicted by the facts is obviously not a very good scientific theory, but a theory or hypthesis that is consistent with the facts is not necessarily a good theory. For example, "the truth of the hypothesis that plague is due to evil spirits is not established by the correctness of the deduction that you can avoid the disease by keeping out of the reach of the evil spirits" (Beveridge 1957: p. 118).
* I'm using 'creationist' in the narrow sense of those who claim some sacred text informs them how the universe and everything in it was created and that the sacred text trumps anything science discovers. A good example of creationists in the sense I am using the term would be the World Association of Christian Fundamentalists.
See also cold reading, communal reinforcement, control study, Occam's razor, pathological science, placebo effect, post hoc fallacy, pseudohistory, science, selective thinking, self-deception, and subjective validation.
Listen to the Unnatural Virtue podcast on pseudoscience.
books and articles
Glymour, Clark and Douglas Stalker. "Winning Through Pseudoscience," in Philosophy of Science and the Occult, edited by Patrick Grim. 2nd ed. (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990), pp. 75-86.
new On the Margins of Science book review of Margaret Wertheim’s Physics on the Fringe: Smoke Rings, Circlons, and Alternative Theories of Everything by Michael Shermer Perhaps we'll have to rethink the whole idea of the demarcation between science and pseudoscience. On the other hand, see S. Novella's take on Wertheim. [/new]