What Is Pseudoscience?

What is Pseudoscience?

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  1. Learn how science differs from pseudoscience.
  2. Learn how to spot pseudoscience.
  3. Learn how to talk to students, patients, or friends about pseudoscience.

Given the recent rise of astrology, flat earth groups, and dangerous alternative medicine, some teachers, nurses, and other professionals run into questions they aren't prepared to answer about pseudoscience. This lesson will give you the background information you need to talk to students, patients, or anyone else about pseudoscience.

Before we investigate pseudoscience, however, it's important that we define science.

What is science?

Science comes from the Latin word scientia, meaning “knowledge”. Science is all about knowledge, and we humans have sought to know more about the world around us for a very long time.

Though early science is far different from modern science, it was vital for developing our current understanding of the universe. Some of the earliest evidence for humans engaging in science comes from Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt as far back as 3000 BCE. Early scientists developed number systems, geometry, and calendars with the goal of understanding the natural world. At this point in time, science was young and unrefined, but it gave our ancestors new scientia, or new knowledge.

Since then, dozens of civilizations have improved our scientific understanding, from the Greeks during Classical Antiquity to the English during the Age of Enlightenment. Each removed inaccurate ideas and replaced them with more accurate new ones. For example, for thousands of years, it was thought that the sun revolved around the Earth, but mathematics combined with direct observation led Nicolaus Copernicus to conclude that the Earth revolved around the sun, not the other way around. Changes in thinking like this have never been easy to accept, but science has always focused on finding the truth, no matter how challenging. And that is the heart of science: replacing old ideas with new ideas based on evidence.

Pseudoscience Breakdown

ScienceCouncil.org defines science as "the pursuit and application of knowledge and understanding of the natural and social world following a systematic methodology based on evidence."

Science seeks to understand nature as accurately as possible, and someone named Karl Popper devoted much of his life to spreading that message. Watch the video below to learn about Popper's observations and how his conclusions impacted the field of science.

What is pseudoscience?

“Pseudo” comes from the Greek word pseudes, meaning “false” or “lying,” and is often placed in front of other words to change their meaning. Adding “pseudo” before a word signals to the reader that what comes after isn’t authentic. In the case of pseudoscience, it can be read as “false science."

In essence, pseudoscience is a collection of beliefs that claim to be factual without evidence.

Science, on the other hand, is always supported by evidence, and will always change if it is disproved by counterevidence.

Though the term pseudoscience is relatively new, pseudoscientific practices have been around for thousands of years. In many ways, they are exactly why science developed the way it did. By studying what makes pseudoscience false, science has improved how we can reliably judge something to be true.

What makes it fake?

If you've ever gone to a psychic, read your horoscope, or felt better after wearing a particular crystal on your necklace, you probably know how "real" pseudoscience can seem. It's very convincing, so it can be difficult not to believe in it. But no pseudoscience is backed by evidence.

Believers in pseudoscience often claim they have evidence, but if you ask them to explain their evidence, it generally falls into two categories.

1. Anecdotal evidence. Anecdotal evidence comes from personal experience and storytelling. As you'll learn below, we can't always trust our personal experience, and as you already know, we certainly can't always trust stories others tell us. Because of this, scientists don't consider anecdotal evidence real evidence. Though it often leads scientists to look for real evidence, it isn't trustworthy enough to use within the field of science.

2. Incomplete or incorrect evidence. Some pseudoscience groups, like The Flat Earth Society, say they value evidence but only present incomplete or incorrect claims. On their website, theflatearthsociety.org, they list an FAQ page that includes a section about evidence, but every piece of “evidence” they provide is either entirely inaccurate or doesn't give the whole picture.

So why is scientific evidence any better? Well, as you learned above, scientists are very cautious about claiming something. Scientific claims go through a long and rigorous process before the scientific community accepts them as fact. For example, if you were to tell a scientist that a bracelet could improve their balance, they wouldn't be convinced if they simply felt more stable when wearing it. They would design an experiment to measure whether it improved balance, and even if the experiment succeeded and their balance was better after wearing the bracelet, they still wouldn't be convinced. After all, the balance they gained could have come from something else, like a change in mood or an energy drink. So, they would design a larger experiment with dozens of participants. If that experiment showed that the bracelet improved the balance of every participant, then other scientists would review it to make sure there weren't any errors or design problems. If the experiment was accepted and published, other scientists would assess it to see if it had any errors and then create their own experiments in an attempt to copy the effect. Only then would scientists begin to believe the claim.

It seems like a lot of work, but it is valuable and essential work. Through experience, scientists have realized that the only way to know something for sure is to be incredibly careful about what they count as evidence, and the "evidence" that pseudosciences provide isn't good enough. In fact, scientists have tested many pseudosciences, including balance bracelets, and found them to be inaccurate and ineffective.

If it's fake, why do so many people believe it?

There are a lot of interesting and beautiful parts of pseudoscience that are very appealing to much of the population. Most pseudosciences are rooted in cultural traditions or community practices, so they tend to provide people with a sense of belonging, acceptance, and connection. Pseudoscience can also give meaning to people searching for it, especially after a challenging life event.

But the most influential part of pseudoscience may be pattern recognition. We humans love patterns. In a sense, it's written in our DNA. We naturally look for connections between everything around us. So even when we see small connections that don't mean anything, we tend to assume they mean something. For example, a sports fan will wear a "lucky shirt" because the last time they wore it, their team won. In reality, what a sports fan is wearing at home will have no impact on how well their team performs, but for the fan, it feels like it will.

Thinking like this has a name. It is called a cognitive bias. A cognitive bias is a subconscious error in processing information. Human brains are wired a certain way, and sometimes that wiring ends up tricking us into believing things that aren't true. There are dozens of cognitive biases, many of which are used in pseudoscience, but almost all pseudosciences take advantage of confirmation bias or the Barnum effect.

Confirmation bias is our tendency to interpret or remember information that agrees with our beliefs. Take the "lucky shirt" example above. If the sports fan doesn't wear their lucky shirt and their team loses, they will be convinced it was because they had a different shirt on instead of their team's jersey. Every time their team wins when they are wearing their lucky shirt or loses when they are not, they will gain confidence in their belief. The problem is that they won't see the opposite outcomes as having the same importance. So, if their team loses while they are wearing their lucky shirt, they will think that it must be because of something else.

To reinforce the idea, here's another example.

Let's say you were inside reading a book yesterday morning, and your friend walked by you with an open umbrella. (Opening an umbrella inside is said to bring bad luck.) Then, later in the day, a biker ran into you on the sidewalk and broke your arm. You might be tempted to think that the open umbrella caused your broken arm, but in reality, the two events had nothing to do with each other. Your natural bias is to confirm your suspicion that the umbrella played a role.

Now that you know how confirmation bias works, see if you can figure out the answer to Derek Muller's question before some of the volunteers in the video from Veritasium below.

Derek asks some participants to figure out what rule he has created. They can only do this by giving him a list of numbers and asking Derek whether the list matches his rule. Pretend you are one of the participants and begin to watch the video. But don't watch the whole thing! Stop the video at 1:00, and take a minute to think about what Derek's rule could be. If you aren't sure, that's fine. This is challenging! If you think you know the answer, write it here. Then, look under the video for further instruction.
Continue to watch the video until 2:22, then press pause. If you would like to change your answer, write your new response here.

Did you figure out Derek's rule before the participants? If so, great job! You conquered confirmation bias!

If not, don't worry about it. It's remarkably difficult to do.

Even though you just learned about how confirmation bias works, your brain likely fell into the trap of thinking as the participants did. When the participants realized that Derek's rule allowed for the lists of numbers that applied to the rule they were thinking about, they gave him more lists of numbers that confirmed their rule. They couldn't help but want to confirm their own rule, even though Derek already said doubling the number value wasn't correct.

Sometimes, to identify our own biases, we need to zoom out and reconsider a question or claim.

Now that you have a grasp of confirmation bias, let's look at the Barnum effect.

Most don't describe the Barnum effect as a cognitive bias, but it operates in the same way. The effect works because we are all wired to internalize information, apply traits we observe to ourselves, and look for patterns. Watch the video by Neuro Transmissions below to learn all about it.

As you can see, there are many powerful reasons people believe in pseudosciences, so be careful not to judge anyone who falls for pseudoscientific claims. If you are concerned that someone you know is refusing medical treatment in favor of illegitimate treatment or being scammed out of money due to pseudoscience, avoid getting frustrated and insulting their beliefs. Instead, let them know you care about them and calmly explain why pseudoscience is not the best answer. Remember that it can be very emotionally challenging for some people to give up pseudoscientific beliefs.

How can you tell pseudoscience from science?

Always be skeptical of new information, especially if it seems too good to be true. If you come across a claim you aren't sure about, keep your eyes open for some red flags. Watch the video below to learn more.

Keeping an eye open for these red flags can be very helpful, but there is one mistake that many people make when they catch #1 ("The claim comes from an unreliable source"). Far too often, smart people are fooled into thinking that reliable sources are unreliable, and unreliable sources are reliable. Being able to tell the difference takes critical thinking and practice, so stay on your toes. Here are a few helpful rules to keep in mind when doing research:

1.) Never trust a claim from a social media platform.

2.) Research the author and check to see if they are qualified to make the claims they are making.

3.) Only trust sites that are reviewed by professionals. Sites that end in .edu or .gov are generally trustworthy.


Now that you've learned how science differs from pseudoscience, how to spot pseudoscience, and why it's important to be kind and mindful of other people's beliefs, try the texting activity below. Pretend you are talking to a student, patient, or friend, and choose the answers that align with what you have learned.


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