ASTOP: Science vs. Pseudoscience

Pseudoscience Fact Sheets. In the late 1980s scientists associated with the Austin Society to Oppose Pseudoscience (ASTOP) created a collection of fact sheets on various pseudoscience topics. ICSA (then known as American Family Foundation) received permission to distribute these for educational purposes.
The word “pseudo” means fake, and the surest way to spot a fake is to know as much as possible about the real thing, in this case science itself. When we speak of knowing science we do not mean simply knowing scientific facts (e.g., the distance from earth to sun; the age of the earth; the distinction between mammal and reptile, etc.) We mean that one must know about the nature of science itself—the criteria of evidence, the design of meaningful experiments, the weighing of possibilities, the testing of hypotheses, the establishment of theories, the many aspects of the methods of science which make it possible to draw accurate, reliable, meaningful conclusions about the phenomena of the physical universe.

However, the media provide a continuous bombardment of sheer nonsense, misinformation, fantasy and confusion—all proclaimed to be “true facts.” Sifting sense from nonsense is an almost overwhelming job.

It is therefore useful to consider some of the earmarks of pseudoscience. The substitution of fantasy and nonsense for fact leaves behind many different clues that almost anyone can readily detect. Below are listed some of the most common characteristics of pseudoscience. The presence of any one or more of these symptoms in any material in question marks it conclusively as pseudoscience. On the other hand, material displaying none of these flaws might still be pseudoscience—the pseudoscientists are inventing new ways to fool themselves every day. What we have here is a set of sufficient, rather than necessary, conditions for pseudoscience.

PSEUDOSCIENCE displays a remarkable and characteristic indifference to fact. Writers tend simply to make up bogus “facts”—what Norman Mailer calls “factoids”—where needed, instead of going to the trouble of consulting reference works of investigating directly. Yet these fictitious facts are often central to the pseudoscientist’s argument and conclusions! This can also be seen in the fact that pseudoscientists never revise. The first edition of any pseudoscience book is almost always the last, even though the book may remain in print for decades or centuries. Even a book with obvious mistakes, errors, and misprints on every page is just reprinted as it is, over and over. Compare this to science textbooks, which often see a new edition every few years because of the rapid accumulation of new facts, ideas, and insights in science.

PSEUDOSCIENCE “research” is almost invariably exegesis. That is, the pseudoscientist clips newspaper reports, collects hearsay, reads other pseudoscience books, or pours over ancient religious or mythological works. The pseudoscientist never or rarely ever makes an independent investigation to check his sources. They are taken at face value, or else interpreted as “symbolic,” so that the pseudoscientist can use them as a kind of Rorshach inkblot—reading into the myths and old texts anything he wants to find in them.

PSEUDOSCIENCE begins with a hypothesis—usually one which is appealing emotionally, and spectacularly implausible—and then looks only for items which appear to support it. Conflicting evidence is ignored. Generally speaking, the aim of pseudoscience is to rationalize strongly held beliefs, rather than to investigate and find out what’s actually going on, or to test various possibilities. Pseudoscience specializes in jumping to “congenial conclusions,” grinding ideological axes, appealing to pre-conceived ideas and to widespread misunderstandings.

PSEUDOSCIENCE shows a total indifference to criteria of valid evidence. The emphasis is not on meaningful, controlled, repeatable scientific experiments—instead it is on unverifiable eyewitness testimony, stories and tall tales, hearsay, rumor, and dubious anecdotes. Genuine scientific literature is not cited. Generally pseudoscientists never present any valid evidence of any kind whatsoever for their claims.

PSEUDOSCIENCE relies heavily on subjective validation. Joe Blow puts jello on his head and his headache goes away. To pseudoscience this means jello cures headaches. To science this means nothing, since no experiment was done. Many things were going on when Joe Blow’s headache went away—the moon was full, a bird flew overhead, the window was open, Joe had on his red shirt, etc.—and his headache would have gone away eventually in any case, no matter what. A controlled experiment would put a large number of people suffering from headaches in identical circumstances, except for the presence or absence of the remedy it is desired to test, and compare the results … which would then have some chance of being meaningful. Modine Flark reads her newspaper horoscope and says there must be something to astrology because the horoscope describes her perfectly. But when we read it we see it is a perfectly generally true statement that describes every human who has ever lived, and has nothing to do with Modine or her birth-stars. These are examples of subjective validation, one of the main foundations of popular support for pseudoscience.

PSEUDOSCIENCE depends on arbitrary conventions of human culture, rather than on unchanging regularities of nature. For instance, the interpretations of astrology depend on the names of things, which are accidental and vary from culture to culture. If the ancients had given the name Mars to the planet we call Jupiter, and vice versa, astronomy could care less … but astrology would be totally different, because it depends solely on the name and has nothing to do with the physical properties of the actual planet itself.

PSEUDOSCIENCE always achieves a reduction to absurdity if pursued far enough. Maybe dowsers can somehow sense the presence of water or minerals under a field, but almost all claim they can dowse equally well from a map! Maybe Uri Geller is “psychic,” but are his powers really beamed to him on a radio link with a flying saucer from the planet Hoova, as Uri claims? Maybe plants are “psychic,” but why does a bowl of mud respond in exactly the same way, in the same “experiment?”

PSEUDOSCIENCE always avoids putting its claims to a meaningful test. Pseudoscientists never carry out careful, methodical, convincing experiments themselves—and they also generally ignore results of such experiments that are carried out by scientists. Pseudoscientists also never follow up. If one pseudoscientist claims to have done an experiment (e.g., the “lost biorhythm studies of Hermann Swoboda that are alleged basis of the modern pseudoscience of bio-rhythms), no other pseudoscientist ever tries to duplicate it or to check him, even (and especially) when the original results are lost or questionable! Further, where a pseudoscientist claims to have done an experiment with a remarkable result, he himself never repeats it to check his results and procedures. This is in extreme contrast with science, where crucial experiments are performed over and over, by scientists all over the world, with ever-increasing precision.

PSEUDOSCIENCE often contradicts itself, even in its own terms. Such logical contradictions are simply ignored or rationalized away.

PSEUDOSCIENCE deliberately creates mystery where none exists, by omitting crucial information and important details. Anything can be made “mysterious,” if you omit to tell what is known about it, or present completely imaginary details. The “Bermuda Triangle” books are classic examples of this tactic.

PSEUDOSCIENCE does not progress. There are fads, and a pseudoscientist may switch from one fad to another (from ghosts to ESP research, from flying saucers to psychic studies, from ESP research to looking for Bigfoot). But within a given topic there is no progress made, no new information uncovered; new theories are not forthcoming; old concepts are never modified or discarded in light of new discoveries, since there are no new discoveries for pseudoscience. The older the idea the more respect is given it. No natural phenomena or processes previously unknown to science have ever been discovered by pseudoscientists. Indeed, pseudoscientists almost invariably deal with phenomena well known to scientists, but little known to the general public—so that the public will swallow the total misrepresentations of the phenomena that the pseudoscientist wants to make. Examples: firewalking, “Kirlian” photography.

PSEUDOSCIENCE persuades wing rhetoric, propaganda, and misrepresentation, rather than presenting valid evidence (which presumably does not exist.) Pseudoscience books offer examples of almost every kind of fallacy of logic and reason known to scholars, and have invented some new ones of their own. A favorite device is the non sequitur. Pseudoscientists also love the “Galileo Argument.” This consists of the pseudoscientist comparing himself to Galileo, and saying that just as the pseudoscientist is believed to be wrong, so Galileo was thought wrong by his contemporaries … therefore the pseudoscientist must be right too, just as Galileo was. Clearly the conclusion does not follow! What is more, anyone who has ever heard of Galileo must be aware that Galileo’s ideas were tested, verified, and accepted promptly by his scientific colleagues. It was the established religion which rejected Galileo’s findings, preferring instead a familiar pseudoscience which Galileo’s findings contradicted.

PSEUDOSCIENCE argues from ignorance, an elementary fallacy. That is, pseudoscientists base their claims on incompleteness of information about nature, rather than on what is known at present. But no claim can possibly be supported by lack of information. The fact that Don Bullard saw something in the sky he didn’t recognize means just that … he didn’t recognize what he saw. We cannot use this fact as evidence that flying saucers are from outer space, since we have no evidence he saw a flying saucer—or anything else! Maybe he saw a ghost! The statement, “Science cannot explain…” is common in pseudoscience literature. In may cases, the fact is that science has no interest in the supposed phenomenon because there is no evidence it exists; in other cases, the scientific explanation is well known and well established, but the pseudoscientist is not aware of it or deliberately ignores it to create mystery.

PSEUDOSCIENCE argues from alleged exceptions, errors, anomalies, strange or paranormal events, and suspect claims—rather than from well-established regularities of nature. The experience of scientists over the past 400 years is that claims and reports which describe well-understood objects behaving in strange and incomprehensible ways tend to reduce upon investigation to deliberate frauds, honest mistakes, garbled accounts, misinterpretations, outright fabrications, and stupid blunders. It is not wise to accept such reports at face value, without checking them. Pseudoscientists always take such reports as literally true, without independent verification.

PSEUDOSCIENCE appeals to false authority, to emotion, to sentiment, or to distrust of established fact. A high school dropout is accepted as an expert on archaeology, though he has never made any study of it! A psychoanalyst is accepted as an expert on all of human history, not to mention physics, astronomy, and mythology … though his claims are inconsistent with everything known in all four fields! A show business celebrity swears it’s true, so it must be. A physicist says psychic Smoori Mellar couldn’t possibly have fooled him with simple magic tricks, although the physicist knows nothing about magic and sleight of hand. Emotional appeals are common: “If it makes you feel good, it must be true.” “In your heart you know it’s right.” Pseudoscientists are fond of imaginary conspiracies: “there’s plenty of evidence for flying saucers but the government keeps it secret.” They almost always argue from irrelevancies: “Scientists don’t know everything!”—but we weren't talking about everything, we were discussing the evidence for the tooth fairy.

PSEUDOSCIENCE makes extraordinary claims and advances fantastic theories that are in contradiction to what is known about nature. Not only is no evidence offered that the claim is true, the problem of how all previous investigations led to precisely opposite conclusions is ignored totally. (“Flying saucers have to come from somewhere—so the earth is hollow, and they come from inside.” “This electric spark I’m making with this electrical apparatus is actually not a spark at all, but rather a supernatural manifestation of psycho-spiritual energy.” “Every human is surrounded by an impalpable aura of electromagnetic energy, the auric egg of the ancient Hindu seers, which mirrors the human’s every mood and condition.”)

PSEUDOSCIENCE makes heavy use of an invented vocabulary in which the new terms introduced do not have precise or unambiguous definitions, and most have no definitions at all. The listener is forced to interpret the statements according to his or her own preconceptions. What, for instance, is “biocosmic energy?” Or a “psychotronic amplification system?” By spouting gibberish that has a vaguely “technical” sound, the pseudoscientists believe they imitate the jargon of actual scientific and technical fields.

PSEUDOSCIENCE appeals to the truth-criteria of scientific methodology, while simultaneously denying their validity. Thus, a procedurally invalid experiment which seems to show that astrology works is advanced by the pseudoscientist as “proof” that astrology is correct, while he simultaneously ignores thousands of procedurally sound experiments that show it does not work in any way or sense. The fact that someone got away with simple magic tricks in one scientific lab is “proof” that he is a psychic superman, while the fact that he was caught doing his tricks in several other labs is ignored.

PSEUDOSCIENCE claims that the phenomena it studies are “jealous.” The phenomena appear only under certain vaguely specified but vital conditions (i.e., when no doubters or skeptics are present; when no experts are present; when nobody is watching; when the “vibes” are right; only once in human history.) The attitude of science is that all phenomena must be capable of being studied by anyone with the proper equipment, and that all procedurally valid studies must give consistent results. No actual known natural phenomenon is “jealous” in this way. There is no way to construct a TV set or a radio that will function only when no skeptics are present! A man who claims to be concert-class violinist, but does not appear to have ever owned a violin and who refuses to play when anyone is around who might hear him, is most likely lying about his ability to play the violin.

PSEUDOSCIENCE “explanations” tend to be by scenario. That is, we are told a story, but we are told nothing else; we have no description of any possible physical process. For instance, pseudoscientist Velikovski claimed that another planet passing near the earth caused the earth’s spin axis to flip upside down. This is all he said. He gave no mechanisms. But the mechanism is all-important, because the laws of physics rule out the process as impossible. That is, the approach of another planet cannot cause a planet’s spin axis to flip. If Velikovski had discovered some way that one planet could flip another’s spin axis, he would presumably have described the mechanism by which it can happen. The bald statement itself, without the underlying mechanism, conveys no information at all. Again, Velikovski says that Venus was once a comet, and this comet was spewed out of a volcano on Jupiter. Since planets in no way resemble comets, which are rock/ice snowball-like debris, and which in turn have no connection whatsoever to volcanoes, and since Jupiter is not known to have volcanoes anyway (or even a solid surface!), there is no actual physical process underlying Velikovski’s assertions. He gives us words, related to one another within a sentence … but the relations are alien to the universe we actually live in, and no explanation for how these relations work or can exist is given. We have stories, not theories.

PSEUDOSCIENTISTS often appeal to the ancient human habit of magical thinking. Magic, sorcery, witchcraft—these are based on spurious similarity, false analogy, false cause-and-effect connections, etc. That is, inexplicable influences and connections between things are assumed from the beginning—not found by investigation. (If you step on a crack in the sidewalk without saying a magic word, your mother will crack a bone in her body; eating heart-shaped leaves is good for heart ailments; shining red light on the body increases blood production; rams are aggressive so someone born in the sign of the ram is aggressive; fish are “brain food” because the meat of the fish resembles brain tissue, etc.)

PSEUDOSCIENCE relies heavily on anachronistic thinking. The older the idea, the more attractive it is to pseudoscience—it’s the wisdom of the ancients! -- especially if the idea is transparently wrong and has long been discarded by science.

We have so far been discussing pseudoscience without making any direct comparison with science itself. However, it is informative to make a direct comparison, feature by feature. For instance (see the below, Science—Pseudoscience):

SCIENCE: The literature is written for scientists. There is peer review, and there are rigorous standards for honesty and accuracy.

PSEUDOSCIENCE: The literature is aimed at the general public. There is no review, no standards, no pre-publication verification, no demand for accuracy and precision.

SCIENCE: Reproducible results are demanded; experiments must be precisely described so that they can be duplicated exactly or improved upon.

PSEUDOSCIENCE: Results cannot be reproduced or verified. Studies, if any, are always so vaguely described that one can't figure out what was done or how it was done.

SCIENCE: Failures are searched for and studied closely, since incorrect theories can often make correct predictions by accident but no correct theory will make incorrect predictions.

PSEUDOSCIENCE: Failures are ignored, excused, hidden, lied about, discounted, explained away, rationalized, forgotten, avoided at all costs.

SCIENCE: As time goes on, more and more is learned about the physical processes under study.

PSEUDOSCIENCE: No physical phenomena or processes are ever found, noticed or studied. No progress is made; nothing concrete is learned.

SCIENCE: Individual defects, idiosyncrasies and blunders of investigators average out -- do not affect "signal" under study.

PSEUDOSCIENCE: Individual defects, idiosyncrasies and blunders of investigators provide the only "signals" ever seen -- the average is zero.

SCIENCE: Convinces by appeal to the evidence, by arguments based upon logical and/or mathematical reasoning, by making the best case the data permit. When new evidence contradicts old ideas, they are abandoned.

PSEUDOSCIENCE: Convinces by appeal to faith and belief. Pseudoscience has a strong quasi-religious element: it tries to convert, not to convince. You are to believe in spite of the facts, not because of them. The original idea is never abandoned, whatever the evidence.

SCIENCE: No conflicts of interest; scientist has no personal financial stake in any outcome of his studies.

PSEUDOSCIENCE: Extreme conflicts of interest. The pseudo-scientist generally earns some or all of his living by selling pseudoscientific "services," e.g., horoscopes, predictions.

Journalists, in particular, seem completely unable to comprehend this last point. A typical reporter asked to write an article on astrology thinks he has done a throough job if he interviews six astrologers and one astronomer. The astronomer says it's all bunk; the six astrologers say it's great stuff and really works and for $50 they'll be glad to cast anyone's horoscope. (No doubt!) To the reporter, and apparently to the editor and readers, this confirms astrology six to one! Yet if the reporter had had the small degree of sense required to realize he should have interviewed sever astronomers (all of whom are presumably knowledgeable about the planets and their interactions, but all of whom are also disinterested in astrology, and therefore able to be both knowledgeable and objective) he would have gotten the correct result: seven informed judgments that astrology is nonsense.

Comparison lists of the kind we have shown here can be continued almost indefinitely, because there is no overlap between science and pseudoscience at any point. They are precisely opposed ways of viewing nature. Science relies on, and insists on, difficult, narrow, strict procedures of self-questioning, testing and analytical thinking that make it hard to fool yourself or to avoid facing facts. Pseudoscience, on the other hand, preserves the ancient, natural, irrational, unobjective modes of thought that are hundreds of thousands of years older than science ... the modes of thought which have given rise to most superstition and to most of the fanciful and mistaken ideas about man and nature ... from voodoo to racism; from the flat earth to the house-shaped universe with God in the attic, Satan in the cellar and man on the ground floor; from doing rain dances to torturing and brutalizing the mentally ill to drive out the demons that possess them. Pseudoscience encourages you to believe anything you want, and supplied many examples of specious "arguments" by which you can fool yourself into thinking your belief has some validity, despite all the facts being to the contrary. Science begins by saying, let's forget about what we believe to be so, and try by investigation to find out what actually is so. These roads don't cross; they lead in completely opposite directions.

Some confusion on this point is caused by what we might call "crossover." "Science" is not an honorary badge you wear, it's an activity you do. Whenever you cease that activity, you cease being a scientist. A distressing amount of pseudoscience is generated by actual or self-proclaimed scientists, in several ways we need to discuss. A scientist almost invariably winds up doing pseudoscience when he moves out of a field in which he is knowledgeable and competent, and plunges into another field of which he is quite ignorant. A physicist who claims to have found a new principle of biology -- or a biologist who claims to have found a new principle of physics -- is almost invariably doing pseudoscience. A scientist becomes a pseudoscientist when he defends an idea when all evidence and experiment is against it, because he is emotionally or ideologically committed to it.

A scientist who forges data, or suppresses data which do not agree with his preconceptions, or refused to let others see his data for independent evaluation, has become a pseudoscientist. Science is a high peak of intellectual integrity, fairness, and rationality. To carry the analogy further, the peak is slippery and smooth. It requires a tremendous effort to remain near it. But any slacking of effort carries one away, and into pseudoscience.

A fair fraction of all pseudoscience is generated by individuals who have received a small amount of very narrow and specialized scientific or technical training, but who are not professional scientists and do not comprehend the nature of the scientific enterprise -- yet think of themselves as "scientists." Particularly notorious in this respect are medical doctors and engineers, as well as psychoanalysts and technicians of one kind or another, as well as, more recently, "computer scientists."

One might wonder if there are not examples of "crossovers" in the other direction; that is people who have been thought by scientists to be doing pseudoscience, who eventually were accepted as doing valid science, and whose ideas were ultimately accepted by scientists. From what we have just outlined, one would expect this to happen extremely rarely, if ever. In fact, neither I nor any informed colleague I have ever asked about this, knows of any single case in which this has happened during the hundreds of years the full scientific method has been known to and used by scientists. There are a large number of cases in which a scientist has been thought to be wrong by his colleagues, but whose ideas were later shown to be correct. A scientist may get a "hunch" that some possibility is the case, without having enough evidence to convince his associates that he is correct. Such a person has not become a pseudoscientist, unless he continues to maintain that his ideas are correct as the evidence does come in and shows conclusively that he is incorrect. Being wrong or mistaken is unavoidable; we are all human, and we all commit errors and blunders. A scientist, however, is alert to the possibility that he might blunder, and is quick to correct mistakes, since these mistakes are fatal to future studies which he might undertake if they are not found and rooted out. A scientist, in short, when shown that he is mistaken by his associates, will abandon his mistaken ideas. A pseudoscientist will not. In fact, a short definition of pseudoscience is that it is a method for protecting and rationalizing obviously incorrect and mistaken concepts about man and nature -- for excusing, defending and preserving errors.

It is, unfortunately, vital for each citizen to learn to distinguish carefully between science and pseudoscience. In a democracy, every voter must be capable of seeking and recognizing vital sources of information. Pseudoscience often strikes educated, rational people as too nonsensical and preposterous to be dangerous, a source of amusement rather than fear. Unfortunately, this is not a wise attitude. Pseudoscience can be extremely dangerous. Penetrating political systems, it justifies attrocities in the name of racial purity; penetrating the educational system, it drives out science and sensibility; penetrating the health professions it dooms thousands to unnecessary death or suffering; penetrating religion, it generates fanaticism, intolerance, and holy war; penetrating the communications media, it makes it nearly impossible for voters to obtain factual information on public issues of extreme importance -- a situation which at present has reached crisis proportions in the U. S.

Further Reading

Science and Unreason, D. & M. Radner, Wadsworth, California, 1982.

Exploring the Unknown, Charles J. Cazeau & Stuart D. Scott, Jr., Plenum, New York, 1979.

Fact, Fraud and Fantasy, Morris Goran, A. S. Barnes, New Jersey, 1979.

Flim-Flam! By James Randi, Prometheus, New York, 1982.

Paranormal Borderlands of Science, Ed. by Kendrick Frazier, Prometheus, New York, 1981.

Science Confronts the Paranormal, Ed. by Kendrick Frazier, Prometheus, New York, 1985.

Science, Good, Bad and Bogus, Martin Gardner, Prometheus, New York, 1981; Avon, New York, 1982.

Science and the Paranormal, Ed. by George O. Abell and Barry Singer, Scribners, New York, 1981.

Extrasensory Deception, Henry Gordon, Prometheus, New York, 1987.

Pseudoscience and the Paranormal, Terence Hines, Prometheus, New York, 1988

Acknowledgments

ASTOP -- The Austin Society to Oppose Pseudoscience -- has prepared fact sheets on various topics for the benefit of teachers and others interested in promoting critical thinking. Dr. Rory Coker, Professor of Physics at the University of Texas at Austin, is the author of this fact sheet. The International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA), a professional research and educational organization concerned about the harmful effects of cult involvement, prints and helps distribute these fact sheets. Because ASTOP fact sheets seek to stimulate critical thinking, rather than advance a particular point of view, opinions expressed are those of the authors. A list of available fact sheets can be obtained by contacting ICSA (mail@icsamail.com).