Aug 30 2016

In Defense of “Pseudoscience”

PhrenologyDon’t be confused by the headline – my intention is not to defend pseudoscience itself but rather the use of the term “pseudoscience.” In a recent commentary for American Scientist, Katie L. Burke argues that journalists and science communicators should stop using the term, “pseudoscience.” I disagree with her position and I think she is committing a number of logical fallacies, which I will now explore.

She writes:

A guiding tenet has emerged through years of climate change discussions and other polarizing scientific debates: Framing issues as “us versus them”—with a clear ingroup and outgroup—encourages polarization. The term pseudoscience inherently creates this framing, pitting those who believe in “real” science against those who believe in “fake” science. But these discussions really indicate whom we trust. And maybe if people trust alleged pseudoscience over science, we should be discussing why, rather than dismissing their values and beliefs.

Ironically Burke is not considering how she is framing her own discussion of use of the term “pseudoscience.” She is framing the distinction as a value judgment, rather than what it is, a judgment regarding scientific process and evidence.

Making objective statements about facts and logic is not a dismissal of someone’s values and beliefs. If Burke had any familiarity with the skeptical literature (and her essay provides much evidence that she does not) she would know that this is a point of heated discussion. In short, we try very hard to separate personal values and beliefs from science. Science is a process of empirically investigating the universe with valid logic.

What Burke is missing is that science is a system unto itself, and it operates according to its own rules, by definition. Your values and beliefs cannot change those rules, and statements about which conclusions the process of science favors is value neutral.

Burke is essentially taking the post-modernist position that science is a cultural narrative and there is no objective way to favor one narrative over another. This is demonstrable nonsense, however.

Life on earth is the result of organic evolution. This is a scientific fact regardless of your values or beliefs. The various forms of creationism are all pseudoscience – not because they are wrong (it’s OK to be wrong) but because they do not follow a valid process of science, but they pretend to.

The Demarcation Problem

Burke refers to the demarcation problem, the difficulty in distinguishing science from pseudoscience, but derives the wrong lesson from this problem. The demarcation problem is a generic philosophical issue that refers to distinctions that do not have a bright line, but are just different ends of a continuum.

Arguing that the two ends are meaningless because there is no sharp demarcation is a logical fallacy known as the false continuum. Even though there is no clear dividing line between tall and short, Kareem Abdul Jabar is tall, and Herve Villechaize is short.

Rather than discarding a useful idea because of a demarcation problem, we simply treat the spectrum as the continuum that it is. What this means is that we try to understand the elements that push something toward the science or pseudoscience end of the spectrum.

Pseudoscience has a number of features that are very important to recognize and understand. Here is a quick list:

  • Cherry picks favorable evidence, often by preferring low quality or circumstantial evidence over higher quality evidence
  • Starts with a desired conclusion and then works backward to fill in apparent evidence
  • Conclusions go way beyond the supporting evidence
  • Fails to consider plausibility, or lacks a plausible mechanism
  • Dismisses valid criticism as if it were personal or part of a conspiracy. This is part of a bigger problem of not engaging constructively with the relevant scientific community
  • Violates Occam’s Razor by preferring more elaborate explanations or ones that involve major new assumptions over far simpler or more established answers
  • Engages heavily in special pleading
  • Tries to prove rather than falsify their own hypotheses
  • Not self-correcting – does not drop arguments that are demonstrated to be wrong or invalid.

Science vs pseudoscience are about process, not conclusions, and therefore not values and beliefs (except for valuing science itself – and that is the entire point).

They were wrong before

Burke’s next point is essentially that people were wrong before about what was pseudoscience or not:

But because the group of people who tended to make such proclamations has lacked diversity over the past centuries—and still does today—their defamatory rhetorical context has a history of being culturally insensitive and even misinformed.

This is not a valid point, in my opinion. You can find historical examples of people being wrong in the application of any idea, or using it as a rhetorical or political weapon. That does not mean the idea is not valid or useful, only that people will find a way to misuse almost anything.

Burke argues essentially that while the concept of pseudoscience was useful in the past for quality control, now it is just used as an attack by a privileged in-group against a marginalized out-group. Ironically her examples are all about a century or more old.

For every idea that was initially dismissed but later found to be valid, there are many more that were properly dismissed because they were wrong. People cherry pick the same few examples over and over to make the point that scientists were wrong. But they were right about homeopathy, phrenology, the ether, radiation tonics, N-rays, animal magnetism, astrology, the aquatic ape, and countless other pseudosciences you never heard of because they were thrown on the trash heap of scientific history where their memory faded into obscurity.

Science is messy, and scientists are people who make mistakes and are affected by their own biases. Of course there are plenty of examples of scientists getting it wrong before they got it right (which is how we now know they were wrong). Again – the distinction is not about conclusions, it is about process. That process is messy but self-correcting.

What Is Pseudoscience

Burke’s description of pseudoscience betrays her lack of understanding of what it actually is. She breaks it down into two basic categories:

First, pseudoscience is used to describe claims that lack scientific evidence. That lack of evidence may be due to a dearth of experimental studies, a failure to explain a mechanism behind the purported effects, experimental limitations—for example, an inability to conduct double-blind experiments or an inconsistency in methods attempting to do so—or some combination of all three. Based on current evidence, Michael Phelps’s cupping falls into this nebulous category.

This is flat out wrong. Being experimental or lacking current evidence does not make a claim pseudoscience. It makes it experimental or unproven. It may be pseudoscientific to use bad arguments to argue that something which is unproven must be true, but again that gets to process.

Cupping is not just unproven. It is pseudoscience because its claims are based on magical thinking that utterly lack plausibility. It is superstition pretending to be science – sometimes. Some proponents don’t try to cloak their claims in the trappings of science, and simply say it is magic, in which case their claims are not pseudoscientific, just superstitious and nonscientific.

There are actual clinical studies of cupping, which show that it does not work. Using a treatment that lacks plausibility, despite a lack of evidence and evidence for lack of efficacy, is medical pseudoscience. If you strip away any pretense of science, then it is just faith healing.

She then writes:

The second way the term pseudoscience is used refers to claims that are scientifically known to be misleading but their proponents nevertheless allege to have the support of science.

This one is better – that is one type of pseudoscience. But still, Burke misses the essence of pseudoscience, which is failing to follow the proper processes of good science but pretending to do so. There are also many other types of pseudoscience than Burke’s two examples (one of which is wrong).

There is denialism, which is the use of invalid logic, criteria, and scientific arguments to systematically deny the conclusion of a legitimate science. Denialism is a thing, with features that distinguish it, although of course with its own demarcation problem.

There are cranks who get lost in their own minutia, and fail to engage with other scientists so that their ideas slowly go off the rails.

There is straight-up fraud.

There is ideologically, politically, or culturally-driven pseudoscience that desperately tries to seem like legitimate science but just does it wrong, over and over again. Creationism is the poster child for this type of pseudoscience.

There are those who try to change the rules of science so as to allow for their preferred belief system, like saying it’s OK to admit magic into science. This violates the need for methodological naturalism.


No such discussion can be complete without an appeal to scientism, which is real. Scientism is the belief that science has all the answers and the only answers. This is not a valid position because science has limits – it can only answer questions that are within its purview and that are amenable to its methods. This is uncontroversial, and there are no serious science communicators who fall for scientism. Raising this issue is always a straw man, in my experience.

To make her point that science doesn’t know everything, Burke cites:

Philosopher and historian of science Ehud Lamm goes so far as to suggest that calling out pseudoscience in medicine can be unethical.

Doing a detailed take down of Lamm would require another blog post, so let me just quickly summarize. Lamm assumes that the placebo effect is helpful, when the evidence suggests that it isn’t. He also ignores all the potential harms of relying on a treatment, and a system of treatment, with no physiological benefits.

Failing to call out pseudoscience in medicine is unethical. Lamm has it backwards because he is simply confused and unfamiliar with pseudoscience in medicine and the nature of placebo effects.


Burke concludes that, rather than labeling something pseudoscience, we should describe exactly what it is and how it fails. This is a false choice, however. We can do both.

I completely agree that we should not substitute a label for an actual description or analysis of something. This is good advice in any intellectual arena. This is just not what good skeptics and science communicators do.

We do give a detailed analysis of exactly why a claim is wrong, and exactly what brand of pseudoscience it is. Suggesting we don’t betrays an unfamiliarity with the vast majority of popular writing about pseudoscience.

But it is also helpful to understand phenomena as a whole. Pseudoscience is a thing, denialism is a thing, conspiracy thinking is a thing, cults are a thing. These all have demarcation problems in their definitions, but they are useful concepts that describe something real in the world.

All of the concepts that Burke uses to make her point: racism, polarization, fraud, divisiveness, etc., also have demarcation problems and fuzzy definitions. Welcome to the real world.

In the end this is not about us vs them (again, this has been exhaustively discussed already in the skeptical literature). It is about understanding the process of science and all the ways in which that process can go wrong or be deliberately perverted.

That is pseudoscience. It is worth understanding and it is helpful to label it honestly.

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