Wikipedia defines pseudoscience as consisting of "statements, beliefs, or practices that are claimed to be both scientific and factual, but are incompatible with the scientific method. Pseudoscience is often characterized by contradictory, exaggerated or unfalsifiable claims; reliance on confirmation bias rather than rigorous attempts at refutation; lack of openness to evaluation by other experts; and absence of systematic practices when developing theories."
Pseudoscience ignores the scientific method. It makes conclusions and then looks for facts to support the conclusions. In pseudoscience there is no healthy skepticism about fantastic claims, in fact there is an enthusiasm to accept untested personal testimony as a public truth (as in the stories about UFO’s). It is more about what someone feels than facts. The elevation of individual testimony or sensation over logic and verifiable fact is not only popular; it has always been linked to religion, spirituality, popular psychology, and cults. In fact many New Age cults consider reason the enemy of knowledge and consider emotion as the only authentic source of knowledge.
Is Pseudoscience popular?
A recent Time/Yankelvich poll found that 80% of Americans feel that the government is covering up information about extraterrestrials. In 1990 a Gallup poll found that 50% of Catholics believe in ESP (extra sensory perception) and 53% believe in UFO’s. Pseudoscience is very popular today and certainly more popular than real science in the minds of most citizens. In fact one can say that the less a person knows about real science the more they will be interested in the para-normal, pseudoscience, and the supernatural.
The danger is that new discoveries in science are going to dominate the 21st century and people need to understand science basics to simply keep up and make good decisions. Believing or relying on pseudoscience can cloud people’s understanding of real problems. Wendy Kaminer in her book Sleeping with Extra Terrestrials states “My point is obvious but often overlooked, partly because the celebration of subjective perceptions, feelings, and faith that permeates culture, high and low, has discredited efforts to discern objective realities.” She is saying that the influence of pseudoscience theories and assumptions is much more popular, and often discredits efforts to understand real problems.
There is no harm in pseudoscience as long as it remains in the realm which doesn’t require reason, critical decisions, or affect other people. But when it prevents rational decisions such as the parents who are devoted to New Age healing or the power of magnets to heal their sick kid and avoid going to a real doctor, and then the child dies, they will be in both personal and legal trouble.
Looking up your astrology guide in the daily paper may be a form of entertainment for many people. Or there is probably nothing wrong with believing that magnets can heal various ailments and placing them under your pillow every night (as long as the magnet therapy doesn’t cost very much or is used as a replacement for chemotherapy.) But, pseudoscience can lead to blind antipathy to reason and lead people away from making good decisions or understanding the true nature of the world we live in and the problems we must solve. It makes people gullible to fantastic claims taken at face value without investigation. Claims such as people believing:
Pseudoscience comes in the form of books, products, seminars, newspapers, magazines, TV shows, pop psychology, and religion. Here are some examples:
Back in the 1700’s, Franz Mesmer took advantage of the new science of electromagnetism by theorizing that a universal force or fluid in our bodies got out of balance and caused illness. He devised a solution using magnets that was supposed to bring the body back into balance. Magnets and electromagnetism are still used by New Age philosophers today. Napoleon Hill in his book “Think and Grow Rich” said that the human need to be rich is based on mental vibrations and magnetic force. Trance channelers refer to electromagnetic spectrum's as part of their science.
Books like The Celestine Prophecy written by James Redfield were extremely popular and spent years on the New York Times best seller list. This is a weak adventure story about a man who goes to Peru and finds a lost manuscript that contains nine insights that will save mankind. Like many other New Age authors, Redfield tries to make a case against empiricism and skepticism as being obstacles to the truth. Over and over again these pseudoscience authors preach faith over facts. Redfield says that truth is what you are feeling in your heart, not what is in your head. In the preface readers are warned that, “those who take a strictly intellectual approach to this subject will be the last to get it. To change the world we must break through the habits of skepticism and denial."
This book and many others like it have sold millions of copies because they tell people what they want to hear. It implies that there is no need to worry about the planet’s problems in the new Eden (or heaven, etc.) He says after reading the book the reader will be able to intuit the solutions to complex problems. The book claims that we will evolve into a spiritually enlightened culture of peace and harmony in the next millennium. Author’s note: We are now 18 years into the millennium, and it doesn’t look like very many people have been spiritually enlightened or that we are heading for peace and harmony any time soon. Perhaps we should rush copies of the Celestine Prophecy to members of Congress. They need to be enlightened more than anybody else.
All of these books and New Age philosophies tend to rely on some mysterious force that is not measurable. The Celestine Prophecy describes a non-material world (or dimension) that relies on interpersonal energy or vibrations as the mysterious force. Redfield says, “as we evolve to higher vibrating levels, we become invisible to the less evolved amongst us. As distilled spiritual energy, I think we achieve immortality.” If this quote doesn’t register on your bologna meter, then probably nothing in pseudoscience will.
To get their message across these authors argue against reason, fact, reality and science, which motivated me to write this essay. However many of the newer books and theories are now trying to get more credibility by actually using scientific theories and concepts to explain their pseudoscience. I have always thought that the pseudoscience people would find out enough about Quantum Theory to use it as a platform to launch their own theories. Quantum Theory is an explanation of what goes on at the sub-atomic level of nature. One of the difficulties understanding Quantum Mechanics is that as you get down to the particle levels where everything becomes uncertain. You cannot measure the position of an electron; you can only say what the probability is of the particle being in a certain position. When you get down to even smaller particles which are called strings and are a trillion times smaller then an electron, science at this level is explained by complex mathematical equations and so there is much speculation.
The author Deepak Chopra has seized on to the Quantum Theory in physics and applies it to everyday (macroscopic) living. He says man is not composed of matter, only energy and information “which are outcroppings of infinite fields of energy and information spanning the universe.” In his book Ageless Beauty, Timeless Mind, Chopra uses Quantum Physics to explain quantum healing and the prevention of aging. He says “with the right attitude and awareness you can program your body to enjoy good health and astonishingly long life." He goes on to say, “Study your hand, as if you were examining it through a microscope. Soon you will have arrived at the boundary between matter and energy….Here your hand exists before the Big Bang and after the universe’s end in the heat death of absolute zero. You have arrived at the womb of the universe, the pre quantum region that has no dimensions or ALL DIMENSIONS.”
This is mostly a bunch of double talk couched in pseudo-physics to make it sound like science or some undiscovered truth. But in reality Chopra’s theories are simply another variation of the positive thinking movement which says if you change your attitude and experience it will change your body and the world
Another popular book that is a great example of how pseudoscience can capture the imagination of the general public is Erik von Daniken's CHARIOT OF THE GODS. His hypothesis is that the existence of structures and artifacts around the world represent higher technological knowledge than is presumed to have existed at the times they were manufactured. Däniken maintains that these artifacts were produced either by extraterrestrial visitors or by humans who learned the necessary knowledge from them. Such artifacts include the Egyptian pyramids, Stonehenge, and the Moai of Easter Island. Further examples include a medieval map known as the Piri Reis Map, allegedly showing the Earth as it is seen from space, and the Nazca lines in Peru, which he explains as landing strips for an airfield. Instead of using science to explain them von Daniken came up with a story that captured the public’s interest in both UFO’s and aliens. Amongst other things he theorized that some of the long, straight lines could be airports where ancient aliens landed their vehicles. He did not waste time supporting this hypothesis with testable facts or a peer review, but he did sell a lot of books.
The new-agers also compete with Christianity by offering their own mysterious forces to create enlightenment, a life of bliss and even the keys to heaven. In other words: a happy destiny where a person cannot not be saved. They say there is no death – just a form of energy transformation to a new dimension. This is pretty appealing stuff. Who wouldn’t want a world without evil, fear, loneliness, pain and a guaranteed immortality? And you don’t even have to commit to Jesus; you just need to buy their books.
Scientology is a belief system or religion that teaches that people are immortal beings who have forgotten the true story of nature, based on a story of Xenu. Its focus is spiritual rehabilitation by doing counseling sessions called “audits.” In Scientology a person who is trying to achieve spiritual awareness must successfully achieve different levels known as Pre-clear, Clear, Operating, and Thetan levels.
Scientologists have a long record of breaking the law by stealing, forging, break-ins, and harassment of people they consider their enemies They have also gotten into trouble with their claim that mental illness is a spiritual problem. They have attacked anti-depressants like Prozac, and have advised mentally ill people to undergo their counseling sessions rather then go to a psychiatrist. They claim to have an “e-meter” that can measure stress in a body. Scientology has been sued many times in many different countries but in the U.S. it has a tax exempt status just like other mainstream religions.
Another New Age phenomenon is the fascination with angels. There are many angel books and even TV shows and the gist of most stories is that angels watch over each and everyone of us. In fact, some books say that each of us has a personal angel watching over us 24 hours a day and they give us unconditional and unsolicited love. The author of Ask Your Angel describes angels as the “social workers of the universe” most of this is fairly harmless unless the person begins waiting for signs from his angel every time he or she has to make a decision.
In 1989 two scientists, Martin Fleischman and Stanley Pons, announced they had discovered a way to create cold nuclear fusion. In our Sun when hydrogen combines with other hydrogen atoms to form helium at very high temperatures, tremendous amounts of energy are given off. These scientists were trying to emulate the fusion process in a tabletop experiment (e.g. at room temperature) involving electrolysis of heavy water on a palladium (Pd) electrode. Martin Fleischmann, then one of the world's leading electro-chemists, and Stanley Pons reported anomalous heat production ("excess heat") of a magnitude they asserted would defy explanation except in terms of nuclear processes. NBC picked up the story and without any corroboration they announced the successful experiment over national news. Cold fusion, if it could be accomplished, would produce cheap and infinite energy. As it turned out they did not evaluate their data very well and did not wait for other scientists to duplicate the experiment. Achieving cold fusion at room temperatures is still just a dream.
Another popular pseudoscience concept is dowsing or water witching which has been around since the 15th century. A L or Y shaped branch or rod is held in ones hands and is supposed to point to water or metals. The dowsing rod dips or twitches when a discovery is made. Dowsing is supposedly based on human sensitiveness to small magnetic force field changes (yep it is another mysterious force.) Several empirical tests of water witching have been done in Munich and Kassel Germany. The results showed that the water dowser’s ability to find water were no better then chance. In an empirical test nobody has proved that dowsing works or that the magnetic field theory behind the concept is valid.
Before explaining the pseudoscience in religions I want to say that I am a supporter of freedom of religion and citizens worshiping anything they want. I understand that organized religions offer people psychic comfort and community, and that faith in God can be benevolent and nurture courage, compassion, and the capacity to endure.
But I have trouble with religion’s continuous assault on secular government and on public education. I am particularly non-supportive of creation science and the intelligent design movement. The people involved in this religious movement are not satisfied with just promoting their religion and theories – they are trying to prove science wrong to make their religious stories more believable. They have changed the names of their religion to creation science and intelligent design to give them more credibility and to make their pseudoscientific claims look more like science. The real problem is not that they want to spread their ideas and build up their memberships; they also want to put their own version of a high school biology book into the public schools. Their book is pseudoscience and if adopted would lower the science literacy of our citizens.
Pseudoscience can also be found in products being promoted for sale. Some of these are very humorous. But the problem with many of these products is that they are often promoted by scammers trying to make a buck out of the non-scientific public. Good examples are:
My last example is perhaps the most popular of all of the pseudosciences – the belief that UFO’s (unidentified flying objects) are alien spacecraft. The study and belief in UFO’s has been going on since 1947 when Kenneth Arnold saw a formation of flying discs near Mt. Rainier while flying a private plane to Yakima Washington. UFO’s are so popular with society and the media that it has been given a scientific sounding name UFOLOGY and the serious researchers call themselves UFOLOGISTS.
The name UNIDENTIFIED FLYING OBJECT explains the phenomena very well and is the truth of the subject. There are sightings all over the world and they are unidentified flying objects. But where the UFO enthusiasts go off the tracks is claiming that they are interstellar spacecraft, piloted by aliens, and from alien worlds. Unidentified flying objects includes meteors, satellites, birds, aircraft, lights, planets, and weather phenomena. Yes, there are unidentified flying objects but none of these UFO’s for the last 63 years has been positively identified as an alien spacecraft or a craft from outside the earth’s atmosphere.
From a scientific point of view sightings and individual testimony is not acceptable evidence to scientifically confirm that there has been a flyby or landing of a UFO. To be accepted by the scientific community as something more then an unidentifiable object requires physical evidence and a testable or reoccurring identical UFO experience. UFOLOGISTS and their supporters make several errors in logic when arguing for the alien craft theory. First they claim that a skeptic cannot prove that the sighting of an alien craft is not true. In logic, a claim does not become true if a contrary claim cannot be proved to be true. A second problem is that UFOLOGISTS say that absence of evidence proves the possibility of an alien craft. But in terms of science, the only reason we cannot explain UFO’s by conventional means is because we do not have enough evidence.
UFOLOGISTS also say that pilots and scientists say that they cannot think of any logical explanation for a UFO sighting, therefore it must be real. But, again, not being able to think of a logical explanation is not proof that the object is an alien spacecraft. Perhaps the best explanation was by Edward Condon a scientist who was contracted to study the UFO phenomenon in the late 1980’s. He said “nothing has come from the study of UFO’s in the past 21 years that has added to scientific knowledge….further study of UFO’s probably cannot be justified in the expectation that science will be advanced thereby.”
However none of these studies have dissuaded UFOLOGISTS to back away from their claims. In fact, they have fostered the belief that the government has been lying and covering up alien landings, etc. There is no evidence that any government agency has lied, distorted the truth, or has covered up the facts, unless the investigation focuses on a top secret project such as spy satellites or advanced aircraft. Conspiracy theorists tend to capitalize on the public’s general distrust of government, particularly if they are selling a book or continuing their research. Conspiracy theories give these people more breathing room to work their pseudoscience, and an acceptable alternative when they cannot find any evidence. Whether it is flying saucers, Big Foot, the Aurora advanced aircraft project, alien abductions, the assassination of John Kennedy, or the 4 foot tall Roswell bodies, conspiracies by the government to hide the truth seem to be a convenient explanation that is always acceptable to the public when there is absence of real evidence. In fact, conspiracy theories seem to naturally evolve from these kinds of problems.
I have often wondered why conspiracies are so popular with the public. I found a good answer in a Scientific American article written by Thomas Gruter. He says: “One basic answer is that theories promote a simple message. Whatever has happened, there is a single force - usually an evil one – behind it. Humans tend to drastically simplify complicated issues, reducing them to a lone cause whenever possible. This exercise brings order out of chaos; it makes the complex world intelligible and once a person believes he understands how something works, he holds fast the belief. Trust in a secret master plan created by a powerful organization offers simple cause and effect relationships that build along linear chain of events. Chance and ambiguity have no role, which is comforting even in the face of sinister forces. Conspiracies are especially likely to become popular when they feed existing prejudices and superstitions. Belief in the conspiracy reinforces these positions. In this vicious cycle any connection to reality is lost.” (Secret Powers EVERYWHERE, Scientific American, Thomas Gruter, page 68, 2004.)
All of these examples make it very clear that pseudoscience is a lot more popular with the public then real science, which I believe is a real danger for the future of the country. But before any attempt at making a case for science literacy, it is important to understand why people like pseudoscience.
First of all I think people like comforting beliefs. If someone comes up with a science or a philosophy that suggests it is possible to go through life without pain or loneliness, and there is a way to attain immortality by simply believing in mysterious vibrations or forces – why not believe if it makes you feel better?
Some scientists argue that some of the social motives come from the need to comprehend ourselves and the world. Other motives include people’s needs to have a sense of control over outcomes, to belong, to find the world benevolent and to maintain ones self-esteem. These needs are complex and are often fulfilled by pseudo science better then scientific information.
Pseudoscience is also very appealing to people who like black and white or fundamentalist thinking such as creationists and New Agers. People attracted to fundamentalist solutions are also attracted to reductionist approaches which offer simple solutions to very complex problems. Believing in a literal interpretation of Genesis or that the world was created less then 10,000 years ago just as it is today, is much easier to comprehend then to study geology, paleontology, biology and all of the sciences that explain the evolution of the Earth and life. And some people are simply too lazy to learn scientific realities. For many people there is an indifference to the criteria of valid evidence and meaningful, controlled scientific experiments.
Inventors of cults and pseudoscience theories always criticize rational analysis, fact, and reason. They always seem to ask their followers to suspend belief in reasoning and open themselves up to their feelings. They know that many people are troubled in their lives and can be influenced by their emotions. Instead of reason they promote their ideas as experiential or from the heart not the head. The experiential explanations are more personal and offer views of the world that are simpler and do not require a lot of intellectual work to understand.
Why is pseudoscience bad?
As many of these examples show, people without some basic understanding of science can get hurt in the pocket book by quacks, gurus, and scammers. In some cases belief in pseudoscience over health science can endanger a patient or cause serious damage. If it doesn’t bankrupt you or cause serious problems, and if it makes you feel better about life, it might be “harmless entertainment.”
However, the big problem is substituting pseudoscience beliefs for real science facts. We are in a century where there will be many changes to the planet and environment. In our new century, science will permeate all industries and most of our major problems. With so few citizens really understanding science there will be big problems. Carl Sagan summed up this problem in his book the Demon Haunted World: “We’ve arranged a global civilization in which most crucial elements profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our face.”
People need to understand that the goal of cult leaders and authors of spiritual guides is to only look for facts that support their prophecies, and to sell their books. These people view science and facts, or anything else that would disprove their theories, as the enemy. They want to appeal to your heart instead of your head and are looking for suckers, not critical thinkers.
Of all of the interesting and fascinating subjects in science today, the scientific method of analysis is probably the most important lesson that can be learned. It is simply a way of looking at the world as it is, rather then how we would wish it to be. The scientific method is a disciplined way of digging out facts and using a healthy skepticism in the analysis. In the scientific approach to analysis, people create a hypothesis, describe the facts that support the hypothesis, and then publish their findings as conclusions. Science has a built in system of checking for errors, by letting any one on the planet try to find errors in the facts or conclusions. Your conclusions will not be accepted until a majority of the critics accept your conclusions.
In comparison the pseudoscience approach begins with conclusions and then an effort to find the facts and examples that will support the conclusions. The process ends at this point and testing, peer reviews, and negative criticisms are largely ignored. In fact many of the pseudoscience gurus have declared reason and the scientific method as the enemy of the truth.
Despite the rigors of proving a hypothesis, science is really open to new ideas. There are really no questions that can’t be asked, no sacred truths, and no subjects too sensitive to discuss or debate. But once you develop a hypothesis you must prove it in the face of expert criticism.
People must also know that it is OK to question fantastic claims and ask for more evidence, and it is OK to not accept a claim that doesn’t make sense – that is how science works. You don’t just prove something by one or two experiments. It requires ongoing testing by your peers until the concept is accepted by the majority of the scientific community.
In our new century with all of the problems and the inevitable natural disasters it will be very tempting for people to be attracted to superstition, cult theories, and pseudoscience for answers. To even have a chance to understand these problems or perhaps how to react, people are going to have to learn more about basic science and the scientific method of proving a hypothesis. Unless we can make a lot more headway in the understanding of basic science we will continue to move towards a society where irrationalism will prevail. I fear that the popularity of pseudoscience could lead to a new Dark Age for America where irrationalism reigns supreme.
The Roman’s built an empire that had a growing economy, a good education system, and their engineering built an infrastructure that gave people drinking water, bath houses, sewage systems, and a network of modern roads. After the fall of the empire in the 6th century AD the economy collapsed, the infrastructure collapsed, education deteriorated and there were plagues, religious persecution, and the rise of local lords and fiefdoms. But the worst part of the dark ages was that within 100 years of the collapse most people resorted to supernaturalism, spirits, demons, and irrationalism as the everyday belief system and basis for behavior. Society sank below a critical mass of understanding the reality of everyday life and European society would not emerge from this dark period for more than 1000 years, because society no longer had the facility for critical thinking.
Today in America our education system is not working, and our infrastructure is crumbling. We are now faced with big problems such as climate change, the loss of manufacturing and innovation, declining living standards of the middle class, potential plagues, and slow decline of our economy. We are also faced with a growing popularity of pseudoscience explanations and a host of people who want to make money from ignorance. Abandoning science as an explanation will simply fuel popularity of irrationalism and insure that the charlatans will always have a big audience and market for their goods and messages. Not being able to face the realities of our 21st century problems is a road back to poverty and economic decline. The only real path through the problems is to pursue truth, face reality, and look for the facts. If we fail to meet the challenges of the 21st century and face the reality of our problems, we too may fall into our own dark ages.
Pseudoscience is leading our citizens away from critical thinking and away from any chance of understanding the natural world and all of the problems that are coming at us in the future. We must find a way to increase science literacy. Citizens need to learn to be more skeptical and how to question every fantastic claim they hear about. They need to understand that fantastic claims require fantastic evidence. Rather then accept a claim that appeals to them emotionally, people need to learn enough about science’s empirical method of explaining problems based on experimentation, observation and testing. I have a belief that has worked pretty well over the years in understanding or examining fantastic claims. It goes like this: There is no such thing as certainty. There are only varying degrees of uncertainty. And, we must continuously search for the highest probability of truth.
There is no question that a lot of science is hard to understand and many academicians don’t seem to know how to make it interesting. Academic explanations tend to be written in academic language as if one professor is debating another. This can make a fairly interesting subject incredibly boring.
I have written the Thinking Man’s Guide to Science as an effort to interest people in simply “taking a look” at science concepts. I have tried to make the essays interesting. I have also tried to emphasize some of the facts that I found fantastic after my formal education. Some of the stories behind the facts really hooked me and I hope they hook the reader. I have also tried to speculate on how science might be able to solve problems in the future that at this time appear unsolvable. My goal is to help find ways to get the average person to examine science, the scientific method, and critical thinking so they can apply it to the complex problems of the twenty first century.
Member of REASON (Rabble-rousing Earthlings Association of Scientists Or Naturalist) in the Columbia Gorge