Anatomy of Pseudoscience

December 2000
by Steven Novella, MD

An American couple present to the media the skull of a child they claim was obtained 60-70 years ago from a cave in Mexico. The cranial cavity of this skull is grotesquely enlarged, and the other features appear human, but in a distorted form. The media dub the skull the “starchild,” and speculate freely about the creature to whom it once belonged. Conservative scientists are convinced that the skull represents a severe congenital abnormality, but require more thorough examination before they can be more specific. Other investigators, however, reject this conclusion, and claim instead that the skull belongs either to an alien or an alien-human hybrid. They then begin an elaborate grass-roots campaign to convince the public of this startling conclusion, with some success.

Skeptics are all too familiar with the above sequence of events. The details, of course, change from episode to episode, but the themes are always the same. At the heart of the conflict is the difference in method between conventional, conservative, mainstream science, and what Carl Sagan dubbed “the cheap imitation,” or what skeptics call “pseudoscience.”

Science vs. Pseudoscience

Telling the difference between science and pseudoscience is not always easy, as good clean science blends imperceptibly into blatantly absurd pseudoscience. The challenge of drawing an objective line between the two is what philosophers of science call “the demarcation problem.” So far, there is no clear and concise solution to the demarcation problem that is generally accepted by philosophers and scientists. There probably never will be, as the quality of science represents a continuous spectrum, not a simple dichotomy with an objective line of separation between two extremes.

Despite the insoluble nature of the demarcation problem, philosophers, scientists, and skeptics can establish a set of characteristics which define good science, and another set of characteristics which define pseudoscience, and then use these characteristics to establish where along the spectrum from science to pseudoscience a particular theory or practice lies. In this way, theories and disciplines can be identified which lie clearly toward the legitimate science end of the spectrum, and others that can be safely relegated to the opposite extreme, while there will remain those theories somewhere in the middle gray-zone.

In practice, although there is a continuous spectrum from science to pseudoscience, there appears to be a bimodal distribution along that spectrum, with a large clump toward the scientific end, another large clump far to the pseudoscientific end, and relatively few theories wallowing in the middle. The reason for this, I believe, is that there are clearly two cultures of people generating and promoting scientific theories.

There is, for example, an identifiable subculture of trained scientists. Professional scientists have almost all undergone a standard formal education, and have studied with other older scientists who have taught them how to think and behave like a scientist. They are educated in the findings of science, at least within their discipline, the methods of science, and how to participate in the scientific community. Most scientists share a common philosophy of how the universe works, and how we can know about it. If a scientist falls short of this culture’s standard of what constitutes good science, they are strongly and directly (and often publicly) criticized. They can either then conform to the standards of good science, or find themselves increasingly on the outside of this culture.

There is also a subculture of what I will refer to as the pseudoscientists. They are a much more diverse group than the scientists, both in background and philosophy, but they do share many features in common that condemn them to the pseudoscientific end of the spectrum. I will spend a large part of this article discussing what these features are, but in short they can be summarized as either rejecting the standards of good science, rejecting the philosophy of science, or simply being ignorant of either or both of these things. It is easy to see that if someone rejects standard scientific practice or philosophy, they will tend to drift to the far pseudoscientific end of the spectrum, and not be stuck somewhere in the middle. This is especially true because there are many fantastic and alluring beliefs at this end, beckoning the unwary or undisciplined like a siren summoning sailors to their doom. Even trained scientists are sometimes lured into a pseudoscientific quagmire, abandoning their mainstream training for more fantastic shores.

Features of Pseudoscience

The fundamental feature that separates the process of science from pseudoscience, in my opinion, is that science is a genuine search for what is true, regardless of what that might be, whereas pseudoscience begins with a desired conclusion and then works backward to verify only that conclusion. The other characteristics I will describe all relate ultimately to this central feature.

Scientists should be dispassionate towards the findings of their investigations, with no vested interest in the outcome one way or another. In practice, we all fall short of this ideal, and we tend to care if our theories are correct, or if a medicine works to cure a bad disease. This is why experiments should be designed to eliminate the effects of experimenter bias. Scientists should also learn to be objective when evaluating the evidence for or against any particular theory. Pseudoscientists, by contrast, are overwhelmed by their bias. The desired belief is the lord of all that they do.

Below I will describe specific features which are helpful in identifying pseudoscience:

Hostility towards scientific criticism

Criticism is a necessary and healthy part of the scientific process. Anyone who has ever submitted a paper for publication in a scientific journal has been the target of such criticism. It is the primary mechanism by which standards are maintained within science, and also an important source of the self-corrective nature of science. Scientists, therefore, learn to be thick-skinned. They also learn how to focus their criticism on the logic and evidence of an issue, rather than making personal attacks against those proposing a view different from their own.

Pseudoscientists, by contrast, display clear hostility towards any such criticism. They view such criticism as personal attacks, even when they are not. They tend to characterize criticism from mainstream scientists as supporting the status quo, hostility toward new or innovative ideas, or even a full-fledged conspiracy to suppress their ideas. They will often dismiss the content of criticism by denouncing the philosophical basis of science altogether, or deny the ability of science to pierce their arcane knowledge.
In short, they view the criticism of their ideas as a problem with science and scientists, not with the evidentiary or logical basis of their claims.

Here is an excerpt from a recent letter I received from a person claiming to have discovered the mechanism for precognition (seeing the future). I had responded that I was unaware of any evidence to show that precognition is a real phenomenon, and therefore could she supply a reference to such evidence. The extreme hostility towards this simple request is clearly evident:

“Your arrogance surprises me in the face of your inexperience. My article was probably the most intelligent one you’ve ever hoped you would never see on the subject, yet you managed to stay hidden behind a non-objective scepticism which protects the status quo, but refutes your pretention to objectivity. You suggest that you check out whether I have ‘any true ability’. Perhaps I should check out if you have feet, hands, eyes. How can you claim to be so intelligent, objective, even scientific when you are so arrogant and presumptuous? What on earth makes you think that I, or any authentic medium, needs your okay? And, what makes you think you have the ability to recognize what you can’t bite?”

Make a virtue out of ignorance

Many pseudoscientists lack formal training in science. In centuries past, this was not a serious obstacle to performing cutting-edge science. Many scientists were independently wealthy gentlemen who made major scientific discoveries in their basements or cottages that had been converted into laboratories, or by making basic field observations. Darwin, Galileo and Newton all fit this mold. Today, the gentleman scientist no longer exists, although his image persists in the lay consciousness. Cutting-edge science is too advanced for anyone to have a reasonable chance of making a significant contribution, unless they first have sufficient education in science to get to the cutting edge. Also, the pace of change in any active field of research is so rapid, that a researcher must keep in contact with the community of scientists through journals, meetings, and seminars, just to keep up.
This modern status of the practice of science is a double-edged sword. It is a testimony to the success of institutionalized scientific research, and the progress that has been made so far. However, it also has the tendency to alienate the amateur scientist and the public. The lay, or amateur, scientist must be content to sit on the sidelines and learn about exciting scientific discoveries in those books, journals, and lectures which are designed to distill this information for the public. No matter how great the interest, the private citizen can’t just fire up a particle accelerator in their back yard and make important discoveries in particle physics. Even professional scientists understand that they cannot meaningfully contribute to a field even marginally outside their areas of expertise.

Some amateur scientists, however, are not content to sit on the sidelines. They weave hypotheses and sometimes even do experiments in very highly specialized fields. Often, their conclusions are somewhat naïve and betray their lack of formal training. Perhaps keenly aware of this potential shortcoming, the pseudoscientist is quick to turn their lack of training into a putative virtue by arguing that this is actually an advantage. The argument frequently put forward is that formally trained scientists are in fact “brainwashed” into a narrow view of reality. They are in effect pawns of the status quo, unable to think “outside the box.” The untrained scientist, by contrast, is free to conceive of unique and truly innovative ideas. The truth therefore becomes obvious to them, while trained scientists cannot see the forest for the trees.

The flaw in this argument is that knowledge is not constricting but rather it is liberating. The more one knows, the easier it is to learn more information. Knowledge provides intellectual tools which can be applied to the process of discovery. Also, knowledge of what is already known helps to evaluate the plausibility of new ideas.

I admit, it is easy to understand how this view can be interpreted as elitist, and pseudoscientists often take great rhetorical advantage of this fact. Keep in mind, however, that I am not making the argument from authority that scientists who hold advanced degrees are always right simply because of their training. I am not even saying that someone without a degree can’t be correct in a scientific claim – their claims should be judged solely on the basis of their logic and evidence. What I am saying is that ignorance is not an advantage, nor a virtue to be touted, but that many pseudoscientists do tout their lack of formal training and knowledge as an advantage, rather than a hindrance.

Reliance upon testimony or anecdotal evidence rather than research

This is perhaps the single most ubiquitous characteristic of pseudoscience – reliance upon poor quality data. Scientists have evolved protocols over the past few centuries for carrying out high quality reliable experiments, and evaluating the outcome of such experiments. In order to read and appreciate the technical literature, scientists must also know how to evaluate the quality of an experiment, to look for flaws in the design, and determine if the study has the power and sensitivity to detect what the experimenters are trying to detect. Good experiments have built into their design protections against self-deception on the part of the experimenter or the subjects, if there are any. Once published, the scientific community will then pick apart an experiment looking for flaws, and will try to replicate them to see if the results hold up. In this way, science slowly grinds forward.
Pseudoscientists, by contrast, will tend to accept any testimony or anecdote that supports their desired belief. They will present large volumes of such evidence, implying that a large amount of poor quality evidence equates to high quality evidence, but this is not true. Alternative medicine guru, Andrew Weil, for example, supports the use of “uncontrolled clinical observations” in determining whether or not a treatment works. Such observations have a history, however, of being contradicted by later well-controlled and more reliable experiments. This is a lesson that good scientists have learned, and pseudoscientists deride.

Another classic example of this can be seen in the field of UFO research. Believers often tout the great number of UFO sightings as compelling evidence that we are being visited by aliens. Skeptical scientists, however, are more compelled by the fact that there is not one single piece of high-quality evidence to support the alien hypothesis.

Closely related to the use of poor data, is the selective use of data. Scientific experiments are designed to take a complete look at a sequential set of data. Anecdotal evidence is by definition selective, because it is limited to self-reporting, and is not a thorough analysis of all outcomes. Patients who die receiving a specific treatment, for example, are not around to give anecdotes about their experience with that treatment.

Even worse is a more conscious reliance upon only that evidence which supports one’s desired belief, while ignoring or dismissing any disconfirming evidence. This is a powerful human psychological tendency called confirmation bias, and it requires a system, such as science, to safeguard against it.

Fundamental principles are often based upon a single case

This is really just an extension of the over reliance upon testimony and anecdote feature of pseudosciences. Some entire belief systems which pretend to be scientific base their fundamental underlying principles on a single uncontrolled observation. Any good scientist, before launching into a research career investigating some principle, will first make sure that the principle in question is in fact correct, lest he risk wasting an entire career on a false idea. Certainly, before applying a basic principle to the real world, by, for example, using it to treat patients, it should be verified with repeatable experiments.

Some pseudosciences, however, have extrapolated an entire elaborate belief system around a single observation that was never later verified. My favorite two examples are chiropractic and iridology. D. D. Palmer, the originator of chiropractic, reported that he “discovered” the primary underlying principle of chiropractic when he cured a janitor of his deafness by manipulating his neck, thereby relieving (he believed) the pressure on the auditory nerve. Palmer conducted no experiments of any kind to verify his assumptions, but rather extrapolated all of classic chiropractic theory and practice from this single case. D. D. Palmer was apparently unaware of the fact that the auditory nerve, and in fact the entire neurological pathway responsible for hearing, at no point passes through the neck.

Iridology has a similar history and is based upon the observation of a single owl. Apparently, Ignatz von Peczely, a Hungarian physician, noticed that an owl, who had injured its wing, had a particular fleck of color in the iris of its eye. He set the owl’s wing, which later healed well. Dr. Peczely then noticed that the fleck of color in the owl’s iris had disappeared. From this single observation, Dr. Peczely developed a system of diagnosing all human disease by the pattern of colors in the iris. (In truth, the story of the owl may be apocryphal and Dr. Peczely made up iridology out of whole cloth.)

Other pseudosciences do not even boast a single case upon which to base their most fundamental principles. Often they are formulated in the absence of data, and are never experimentally verified. Therapeutic touch, the art of manipulating the alleged “human energy field” by moving one’s hands over the surface of the body, is a good example. The existence of a human energy field, the practitioner’s ability to detect and manipulate this alleged field, and the relationship of this alleged manipulation to health and disease have all never been verified by practitioners of therapeutic touch.

Claims often promise easy and simplistic solutions to complex problems or questions

One of the primary reasons for the psychological appeal of pseudoscience is that they provide a putative easy answer to a complex problem. Classic chiropractic, for example, states that all human disease is caused by spinal subluxations, and therefore spinal manipulation can be used to cure all human disease. Nutrition guru, Gary Null, by contrast, claims that all human disease is caused by nutritional deficiencies, and therefore all disease can be prevented or cured by taking nutritional.

In a broader sense, this feature relates to the psychology of belief. Pseudosciences all tend to have a particular psychological appeal, of which providing easy answers is just one example. Others include putative evidence of a supernatural or spiritual world, confirmation of deeply held religious beliefs, illusion of personal empowerment or control, or simply the appeal of the fantastical or unusual.

Utilize scientific sounding, but ultimately meaningless, language.

All sciences have their technical “jargon.” The purpose of jargon is simply to express complex technical concepts in precise terminology. Often subtle distinctions can be very important, and colloquial languages may not have the precision necessary to unambiguously convey meaning. Also, as new concepts and entities are discovered, new words must be invented to refer to them. There is also a tendency to render the resulting cumbersome terminology into a more convenient shorthand, which can add an additional barrier to understanding for the public. The most challenging aspect of popularizing science is often translating technical jargon into everyday language while minimizing the loss of precision and accuracy.

Pseudosciences often imitate real science by cloaking themselves in pseudojargon. The result, however, is the frequent use of scientific sounding terminology that lacks a precise definition (much like the technobabble in a typical episode of Star Trek). The following example is provided by Michael Shermer: (Shermer, 1997)

“This planet has been slumbering for eons and with the inception of higher energy frequencies is about to awaken in terms of consciousness and spirituality. Masters of limitation and masters of divination use the same creative force to manifest their realities, however, one moves in a downward spiral and the latter moves in an upward spiral, each increasing the resonant vibration inherent in them.”

Use bold or absolute statements.

Successful science must intelligently combine almost giddy speculation with harsh conservatism. Scientists must invent hypotheses which extend the limits of human knowledge, introduce entirely new concepts or invent new aspects of nature. At the same time, they must not accept any conclusion unless it is rigorously supported by solid evidence, and all other reasonable alternatives have been eliminated. In this way science not only attempts to move forward, but to build on a solid foundation.

For this reason, the technical literature tends to utilize very conservative language, and is careful not to endorse or promote any conclusions which cannot be rigorously supported. Those scientists who make premature claims are typically harshly criticized by their colleagues for doing so. The premature announcement to the press of the achievement of cold fusion by physicists Pons and Fleishman, for example, ultimately destroyed their professional reputations.

Pseudoscientists, by contrast, make use of bold claims, superlative descriptions, and unrestrained self-serving accolades. Their discoveries are often touted, for example, as being world-altering in their scope and implications for humanity.

Attempt to shift the burden of proof away from themselves

It is generally accepted within the scientific community that anyone making a claim to any truth bears the burden of proving their claim. The more out-of-sync such a claim is with accepted reality, the greater this burden of proof becomes.

Pseudoscientists, often because they cannot prove their claims, frequently attempt to shift the burden of proof to those who are skeptical of their claims. In essence they maintain that their claim must be accepted as true because it has not been proven false. Sometimes the extraordinary claim in question cannot, even in theory, be proven false. Immunity to falsification is not a case for scientific acceptance, and in fact renders a hypothesis nonscientific.

This shift in the burden of proof often takes the form of a logical fallacy known as the argument from ignorance. This invalid form of reasoning hold that if we do not yet know the cause of a phenomenon, then the cause must be paranormal. In most cases the argument from ignorance is invoked not only to support a paranormal conclusion, but a specific one at that. For example, ghosthunters will often present photographs containing blobs or wisps of light and claim that because these photographic artifacts cannot be precisely explained they must be ghosts.

Vague reference to data

Because science is a cumulative endeavor, new claims often build upon older claims. Scientists, therefore, must often refer to earlier research, and when they do it is customary to provide a reference to published information. In this way, anyone reading scientists’ claims can check their references and assess for themselves if they are reliable and do indeed support their claims.

Pseudoscientists, by contrast, will often make vague references to allegedly supporting data with such phrases as “experts say,” “scientists have discovered,” or “studies show.” Such claims, without a specific supporting reference, should be considered unreliable.

Failure to consider all hypotheses

One critical step in the process of scientific discovery is to consider all possible explanations for any observation or phenomenon. Often, a scientific hypothesis is considered to be probably true because it is the best and simplest current fit to all available data. If all reasonable alternatives have not been considered, however, this conclusion is likely premature.

Pseudoscientists, because they are invested in a desired conclusion, will only give perfunctory consideration to competing hypotheses. Often one or two token alternatives will be put forward and summarily shot down, leaving the desired belief as the only putative possibility. UFOlogists are most notorious for this behavior. The classic “unidentified light in the sky” cannot be a plane or a star, therefore it must be an alien spacecraft.

The corrollary to this shortcoming is the failure to reject a disproved but desired hypothesis. This is often the ultimate test of a scientist’s objectivity—can they discard a cherished hypothesis when it is confronted with incontrovertible disconfirming evidence. For the pseudoscientist, no amount of disconfirming evidence will result in such rejection. When “Face on Mars” proponent, Richard Hoagland, was confronted with new NASA photos of the alleged face, showing in higher resolution, and beyond any reasonable doubt or interpretation, that it was no more than an ordinary mountain, Hoagland dismissed the new evidence as an artifact of computer enhancement. He was not bothered, however, by the fact that the original lower resolution photographs were also the product of computer enhancement.

Therefore, genuine science must treat all viable hypotheses fairly, giving preference only to those that logic dictates are more straightforward and more plausible. Pseudoscientists, rather, display clear bias against undesired hypotheses, and unending loyalty to desired hypotheses.

By keeping in mind the characteristics outlined above, one can make a reasonable judgment about a claim or theory and determine where along the spectrum it lies from solid science to absurd pseudoscience.

The Starchild Project

About 60 or 70 years ago, an American girl living in Mexico allegedly discovered the skeletal remains of an adult and an apparently malformed child in a cave near her village. The girl collected both skulls and kept them for her entire life, until her recent death. Just prior to her death she passed the skulls to an unnamed American man, who kept them for five years. The skulls were then passed to an American couple, who possess them to this day.

This is at least the story as it has come to be told about the so-called starchild. The skulls and the story they tell is certainly an interesting one. It is interesting to speculate about why the adult and child died in that cave. What was the cause of the child’s malformations? Were they congenital, acquired, or something else? Were they the cause of the child’s death? Did the parent die of grief from their lost child, or were they both outcasts from their village? Certainly, a compelling human interest story must lie behind the remains of an adult and malformed child found lying side by side in a cave in Mexico.

There is a tendency, however, to fill such speculation with the mythology of the local culture. Today, one of the prevailing mythologies of our time concerns the visitation of our planet by small gray aliens who are conducting a mysterious campaign of human abduction, perhaps involving a project of interbreeding. It is no surprise, therefore, that those who believe in and popularize this mythology have seized upon the story of these two skulls and interpreted the details in line with their beliefs.

Two such believers, Lloyd Pye and Mark Bean, have put together what they call the Starchild Project, and have an extensive website dedicated to their investigation of these skulls (Pye and Bean, 1999). I have chosen their investigation as an example of a typical pseudoscience, and will examine their analysis with specific reference to the characteristics I outlined above.

Here is an excerpt from their introduction:

“As reported by its discoverer, the Starchild skull is ‘malformed’ in many key ways. In fact, little about it compares to a normal human. It does possess the same number and kind of cranial bones…However, none are shaped or positioned as in humans. There are also other similarities, including certain bone extrusions and contours, muscle attachments, and openings for veins and arteries that correspond to humans. Despite those and other recognizable conformities, an overwhelming majority of comparisons show deviations from the human norm.
“Sometimes those deviations are slight, but most times they are extensive, to a degree that should have produced a fetal ‘monster’ incompatible with life as we know it. Instead, they seamlessly combined to form a cranial outline hauntingly similar to the ‘gray’ alien type exemplified on the cover of Whitley Streiber’s book ‘Communion.’…
“Because the Starchild skull shows so much deviation from the human norm, we can confidently expect DNA testing to prove it is one of three things: (1) a pure alien Gray type; (2) a Gray-human hybrid; or (3) the most bizarre human deformity since The Elephant Man.”

Some of the features of pseudoscience are recognizable in the above excerpt. The authors clearly show their bias in several ways: the use of scare quotes around the word “malformed,” the naming of the skull in question the “Starchild,” and the clear preference for an alien interpretation. The authors use strong language in emphasizing the skull’s deviations, while downplaying the similarities to human anatomy. They then go on to state that the skull’s deviations fit “seamlessly” with the image of a typical gray alien. (See the alleged “forensic reconstruction” of the skull. One wonders how it was known to color the eyes all black.)

Finally the authors “confidently” predict that the Starchild is either a gray alien, an alien-human hybrid, or “the most bizarre human deformity since The Elephant Man.” Here they are prematurely limiting the number of potential hypotheses to two desired hypotheses and one straw man. They are attempting to establish through use of strong language that if the child is the result of a malformation, it is a uniquely extreme and bizarre one. This is a clear attempt to make this unwanted hypothesis seem less likely.

Now that they have defined the question in a limited fashion which suits their needs, they then proceeded to dismiss the unwanted token alternative hypothesis. They discuss the causes of deformity, separating them into two categories, inflicted and natural. They then argue, correctly, that the nature of the deformities do not correspond to any known practice of inflicted deformity, such as head wrapping. Where they go wrong is in their dismissal of possible natural deformity.

They argue that the child cannot have a genetic (inherited) malformation because of the symmetry of the skull and the lack of premature fusion of the cranial sutures. However, they dismiss all genetic disorders on this basis, whereas for some disorders there is neither asymmetry nor premature closing of the sutures. They then argue that the child cannot have suffered from a congenital (present at birth, but not necessarily inherited) malformation because it is too deformed to have survived. They argue that congenital malformations in three major skull areas usually produces a non-viable fetus, while the Starchild exhibits malformations in eight skull regions and survived for at least a few years (aging methods estimate the child was about five at death). However, they ignore the possibility that the child suffered from one disorder that is capable of producing widespread deformity throughout the skull, without causing immediate death.

The authors claim that they have consulted with 50 experts (whom they will not disclose) yet not one of the experts was able to adequately explain the Starchild’s appearance on the basis of a natural deformity. They state “In the hands of scientists dedicated to pounding square pegs into the round hole of conventional thinking, pathology can be made to cover virtually any deviation.” Given their clear and pervasive bias, however, it is not surprising that they have come to this conclusion. They also demonstrate the pseudoscientific feature of dismissing science as protecting the status quo. What the authors do not provide is a detailed analysis of any one particular deformity offered by their experts and why the proposed deformity would or would not fit the Starchild skull. Further, even if we take the inability to explain the deformity at face value, this amounts to little more than the argument from ignorance discussed above.

But I do not take their “unexplainable” claim at face value. The authors never directly consider congenital hydrocephalus as a possible explanation, although they dismiss it along with a longer list of natural deformities. Hydrocephalus literally means “water on the brain,” and results from a blockage in the normal flow of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) from where it is made inside the brain to the space surrounding the brain and spinal cord where it is reabsorbed. As a result of the blockage, CSF builds up inside the brain, pushing outward on the brain and skull. Because in young children the bones of the skull have not yet fused together, the skull is free to enlarge to accommodate this buildup of fluid.

If a child suffered from untreated hydrocephalus until age four or five, their skull would display distortions in almost every feature. All of the proper bones, prominences, holes, and sutures would be present, as they are in the Starchild skull, but they would be deformed and displaced. This is exactly what we find in the Starchild skull. Hydrocephalus builds up over time, so a child with this disorder could survive several years, and if untreated (today hydrocephalus is treatable with surgery to drain the fluid) would probably die at several years of age. The resulting large bulbous head would be vaguely reminiscent of the typical image of a gray alien.

The authors virtually ignore this mundane explanation, and dismiss it on unsound grounds. They also go to great lengths to interpret the skull in line with their clearly preferred hypothesis. They therefore demonstrate the central feature of pseudoscience.

What about their confident prediction that DNA testing will prove the child was alien? Well, a DNA sample was taken from the skull, and was subjected to DNA probes designed to detect sequences of DNA that are unique to humans (performed by Dr. David Sweet, Director of the Bureau of Legal Dentistry at the University of British Columbia)5. The Starchild skull DNA was found to contain both an X and a Y chromosome. This is conclusive evidence that the child was not only human (and male), but both of his parents must have been human as well, for each must have contributed one of the human sex chromosomes.

In view of such evidence, Pye and Bean can reasonably be expected to abandon their alien hypothesis, if they were genuine scientists. However, their website continues to support an alien interpretation of the Starchild, and this is what they have to say about the DNA evidence:

“Another ‘far out’ concept that must be considered is the reasonable assumption that an alien-human hybrid could have both human DNA and alien ‘genetic’ instructions melded in its/his/her makeup, with both sets of instructions being active and complimentary and cooperative. In addition, both might be constructed in entirely different ways, with DNA being the basis of human genetic structure and ??? (silicone base, nanotechnology, etc.) being the basis of alien structure. Taking that a step further, both DNA and ??? could be present as full sets–the entirety of human DNA and the entirety of the alien ‘genetic’ code, whatever it would be- to have both sets available for reference and/or repair.”

Pye and Bean have performed the classic pseudoscientific maneuver of retreating in the face of disconfirming evidence to a more bizarre and untestable version of their desired hypothesis. If a full compliment of human DNA is present, then all tests for humanity will be positive. The unknown alien component may likewise never be detectable. Pye and Bean have now insulated themselves from ever having to abandon their desired hypothesis.

Regarding analysis of the mitochondrial DNA from mother and child Pye and Bean have his to offer:

“When the bone was treated like stone rather than bone, it was analyzed and its mitochondrial DNA was recovered. This is the DNA that resides outside the nucleus and passes down from females exclusively. The Starchild’s mtDNA was that of a typical Amerindian female, which fits well with our theory that the Starchild was one of the legendary “Starchildren” created by impregnating native women with the seed of Star Beings, however that improbable seeding might have been arranged (naturally or by external, in vitro means) (Pye 2003).”

There are gaping logical problems with their hypothesis. First, Amerindian female mtDNA might be “compatible” with an alien-human hybrid, but it is also compatible with every normal Amerindian human in existence. Further, if the Starchild’s mother was an Amerindian female, as the mtDNA shows (and therefore possessed two X chromosomes), and the father of an alleged hybrid would therefore have to be alien, then were did the human Y (male) chromosome come from? Also, as Carl Sagan once pointed out, alien genetic instructions – the product of a completely different evolutionary past, would be incompatible with human DNA. We would have more luck breeding a human with a petunia than an alien.

Given the tendency for pseudoscientists to fully embrace the culture of the weird, and reject scientific standards, I was not surprised to discover that both Pye and Bean have advocated other pseudoscientific ideas. Pye, for example, has published a book titled Everything You Know is Wrong, Part I: Human Origins, in which he claims to explain why we only use 10% of our brain, why Darwinian evolution is wrong, why there are no fossil human ancestors, proof of Bigfoot and the Yeti, and how the ancient Sumerians came to learn all you ever wanted to know about human origins from space aliens. (Pye, 1999) Pye promises “hard, fact-based evidence” to support his claims.

We will likely never know the whole story of the Starchild, but what is clear is that aliens need not be invoked. The child very likely suffered from untreated hydrocephalus, a mundane and simple explanation for the anomalies seen in the skull. DNA testing confirms, unsurprisingly, the child’s human ancestry. Still, the true-believers are likely to cling tenaciously to their preferred hypotheses, and will continue to spin tales of an alien-human breeding program. Science progresses forward, while pseudoscience remains fixed in predetermined desired beliefs.

1) Shermer, M. Why People Believe Weird Things, W.H. Freeman and Company, New York, 1997
2) Lloyd Pye and Mark Bean, The Starchild Project date site,
3) Lloyd Pye website:
4) Forbes CD, Jackson WF. A Colour Atlas and Text of Clinical Medicine. Wolfe Publishing, 1993.