Sep 23 2014

Flavors of Nonsense

I, like most people, like to categorize things. It helps me keep my mental space organized and tidy. A good system of categorization is also like a framework on which I can hang specific facts and details. Categories are most useful when they reflect underlying reality, rather than superficial or arbitrary features. Categories are therefore often at the nexus of facts and theory in science – they can organize the facts in a way that reflects the underlying theory. 

You have to be cautious, however. Reality often does not cleave in clean straight lines. There are likely to be exceptions to any rules one devises for defining specific categories. Groups tend to be fuzzy around the edges. While categories can be a useful tool for organizing ideas, they can also become a mental prison or straightjacket.

Is Pluto a planet? It depends on how you define planet, and why you would define planet in any particular way. Is there a difference between planets, dwarf planets, and planetoids? Or do these objects exist along a spectrum and scientists are simply drawing arbitrary lines for convenience? Is schizophrenia one disease or a group of diseases, how do we categorize the subtypes, and do they reflect real underlying differences in cause? Are such labels helping or hindering research?

I spend a lot of my time thinking about pseudoscience and nonsense, so it should come as no surprise that I think about how to describe the many topics I deal with as types or categories. It’s tricky, because it seems to me we are dealing with many overlapping and fuzzy areas. There are no clean categories. I do think, however, that certain cognitive patterns tend to cluster. So here are a few categories of nonsense and what I think are their dominant cognitive patterns.

Religious / Paranormal Beliefs

Religious and paranormal beliefs often revolve around the notion that there is a spiritual or mysterious dimension to reality and often involve the notion of transcendence. This is an assumed worldview – philosophical supernaturalism, if you will. From this perspective the dividing lines between mainstream religions, New Age spiritualism, Eastern mysticism, cults, and pop supernaturalism are superficial. These subtypes are largely culturally and historically determined. Intellectually, however, the cognitive processes are the same.

The supernatural world view advocates the use of intuition, revelation, and “other ways of knowing” over science and reason. This often takes the form of a centuries-old turf war between science and religion, although sometimes there is an effort to accommodate the two. Individually people simply compartmentalize their beliefs, and culturally may keep them in separate “magisteria.”

Paranormal beliefs are generally supported and reinforced by basic cognitive biases, such as confirmation bias, flaws in perception and memory, and pattern-seeking behavior. Often the surrender of will to a charismatic guru or religious leader is involved.


Pseudoscience is not anti-science, and does not require a rejection of naturalism, but rather it uses the tools and language of science but in a fatally-flawed manner. Pseudoscience often begins with a desired conclusion, and then tries to justify that conclusion with scientific evidence. The major flaw here is in process.

The pseudoscientist tends to use vague or shifting definitions, and jargon is designed to obfuscate rather than illuminate. Evidence is used in a highly selective manner, in what is called “cherry-picking.” Often weak forms of evidence, such as anecdotes, are used to trump much more rigorous forms of evidence, such as controlled experiments. Pseudoscience often occurs at the fringe, by lone or small groups of advocates, who fail to meaningfully engage with the scientific community at large.

I discuss the demarcation between science and pseudoscience at greater length here.

Conspiracy Theories

Conspiracy theories and theorists definitely warrant a category of their own. When skeptics talk of conspiracy theories, we are referring to the grand conspiracies, those that would by necessity involve many individuals across institutions, nations, and sometimes generations. Grand conspiracies often follow the format of dividing the world into three groups:

The conspirators are an evil and powerful group with the darkest of intentions – to enslave the world, for example. They have tremendous power and resources, but also reveal themselves in idiotic ways. The conspiracy theorists are part of an army of light, fighting to expose the conspirators. Everyone else are the dupes, or sheeple. 

Conspiracy theorists like to think that they have special insight, giving them privileged knowledge that everyone else is simply too dumb or naive to see. The powerful cognitive trap of the conspiracy theory is that it is a self-contained belief immune to refutation. Any evidence against the conspiracy was planted by the conspirators. The reason there is no evidence to support the conspiracy is because it is being suppressed by the conspirators.


The denial of established scientific conclusions is the flip side of pseudoscience – rather than establishing a dubious belief, it seeks to knock down a legitimate theory. The basic strategy is often referred to as FUD – fear, uncertainty, doubt. Another common term is manufactroversy, a fake or manufactured popular controversy where there is no real scientific controversy.

Denialism of often politically or otherwise ideologically motivated.  The primary cognitive process involved seems to be motivated reasoning. The specific tactics include magnifying any doubt or uncertainty about the relevant facts and science. Part of this is to deny that there is a consensus of scientific opinion, or even that a consensus can exist in science (or is relevant). Disputes among scientists about details are used to argue that more fundamental conclusions are in doubt.

Common topics in this category include the antivaccine movement, opposition to GMO, excessive doubt regarding global warming, and evolution denial (creationism). There are countless less-widespread examples, however, including HIV denial, holocaust denial, germ theory denial, and many others.

This category can alternately be described as ideology trumping science through motivated reasoning. This does not necessarily have to involve denying clearly established science, but can be broadened to include any situation in which a scientific position is taken for ideological reasons. There are many scientific questions that have strong political implications. For example, is sexual orientation more biological or personal choice, is recycling effective, is circumcision a beneficial medical procedure, are gun laws effective in reducing violent crime, and does abortion cause harm to the pregnant woman. These are all questions that can at least be addressed scientifically, and yet people tend to form opinions on the facts that are in line with their political views.


As I warned at the beginning of this article, these categories all hugely overlap. Conspiracy theories are used to justify pseudoscience which in turn is used to justify the denial of science that conflicts with a religious view. Still, I maintain that the categories above are distinct intellectual phenomena, just ones that interact with each other and can coexist within the same belief, playing off of each other.

As people become familiar with critical thinking and skeptical philosophy, I think they begin to recognize these various forms of nonsense and the main cognitive flaws on which they are based. It is also typical to recognize them first in the beliefs of others. It generally takes much more time and intellectual effort to apply the lessons learned to one’s own beliefs.

That is why I think it is important to really learn and understand the nature of the logical flaws that lead to these patterns of beliefs, so that they can be recognized no matter what specific topic they are hiding in. It’s also necessary to have a strong commitment to the processes of critical thinking, scientific empiricism, and philosophical validity. This commitment has to trump whatever emotional needs and cognitive biases are driving your current beliefs.

It’s not easy. It’s an endless journey without a destination. But the alternative is to remain stagnant in a set of beliefs that fate has handed you.

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