MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd.

What is pseudoscience and how can it be differentiated from science? This ‘demarcation problem’ has occupied many of our best minds and which nevertheless is largely unresolved. Two brave academics have recently published a paper aimed at providing organisations within the justice system with an overview of:

a) what science is and is not;

b) what constitutes an empirically driven, theoretically founded, peer-reviewed approach;

c) how to distinguish science from pseudoscience.

In it, they demonstrate that not all information which is presented as comprehensively evaluated is methodologically reliable for use in the justice system. Even though it does not really solve the old demarcation problem, I found their article important and informative and therefore take the liberty of quoting a brief excerpt here:

Organisations within the justice system do use empirically and theoretically supported approaches. However, some implemented approaches lack empirical evidence. In more perturbing cases, police officers, lawyers and judges may resort to pseudoscience – that is, bodies of information that may appear to be scientific but, in reality, lack the characteristics of scientific knowledge. … if members of the justice community are not advised about the publishing process then pseudoscientists can be fairly proficient at providing counterarguments. In addition, pseudoscientists can use several other fallacious arguments to achieve maximum support for their approaches.

For example, pseudoscientists might argue that their approaches are supported by a select number of articles, theses or books, and that they are reliable due to their acceptance by important organisations. However, if upon reading such literature it becomes apparent that there is no empirical or theoretical support, or that the steps leading to the conclusions are not thoroughly justified (be this methodologically or through evaluation), the implementation of their approaches remains merely destitute of vision. In addition, such reference to important organisations – often known as ‘name-dropping’–is detrimental by nature; doing so lends support to the notion that one might be unable to distinguish pseudoscience from science and may not understand the role that science plays in developing better professional practice.

Fallacious arguments from pseudoscientists can also address negative comments in a way that attempts to discourage further criticism from members of the scientific community. They can engage in legal threats and ad hominem attacks – that is, opposition to an argument ‘by questioning the personal circumstances or personal trustworthiness of the arguer who advanced it’. For example, if academics raise concerns regarding a particular pseudoscience without having attended its associated seminars, pseudoscientists might assert that the academics do not have the required understanding and that, as such, their criticism is of no value. If the academics had indeed attended the seminars, the pseudoscientists might instead suggest that their concerns are raised out of obscure or malicious reasons. Pseudoscientists might even state that they are criticised due to their revolutionary approach and refer to a quote dubiously attributed to the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer: ‘All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as self-evident’. However, as Sagan rightly points out,

the fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.

11 Responses to Science or Pseudoscience?

  • This looks like an interesting and important paper. I shall have to drag myself down to the university and grab a copy.

    not all information which is presented as comprehensively evaluated is methodologically reliable for use in the justice system.

    This seems to rather understate the case. “Forensic sciences’ seems to be an oxymoron. A couple of references on the polygraph alone point out some of the problems.

    The British Psychological Society. (2004). A review of the current scientific status and fields of application of Polygraphic Deception Detection. The British Psychological Society. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/cb0a/e565616336820142d36da8bb9da1cf70ca4a.pdf

    National Research Council (2003). The polygraph and lie detection.Committee to Review the Scientific Evidence on the Polygraph. Washington, DC: The National Academic Press

    For a more general discussion of issues in the morass
    National Research Council (U.S.), National Research Council (U.S.), & National Research Council (U.S.) (Eds.). (2009). Strengthening forensic science in the United States: a path forward. National Academies Press.

    Then there are other brands of snake oil being pushed much like some of the stranger SCAM cures. This one seems particularly egregious. Why Are Cops Around the World Using This Outlandish Mind-Reading Tool?

    I have been doing some casual reading in these areas for years but not maintaining an organised bibliography but another interesting area is that of false memory. See
    Shaw, J., & Porter, S. (2015). Constructing Rich False Memories of Committing Crime. Psychological Science, 26(3), 291–301.

  • Sir Karl Popper has very comprehensively dealt with this matter in ‘Conjectures and Refutations’ and ‘The Logic of Scientific Discovery.’ My attempt at a summary of his position is this:

    1. Scientific knowledge comprises theories which, as long as they are not falsified, forever remain theories.
    2. The value, or information content, of a theory is described by the range of possibilities it excludes.
    Pseudoscientific theories tend to do the reverse – they can be very broad and claim to explain a wide range of phenomena but fail to state the conditions under which they would be proved to be wrong. They are in reality belief systems and their associated narratives.

  • In the legal arena some techniques have been accepted essentially ‘ex cathedra’ as with hair analysis conducted by the FBI. See https://www.fbi.gov/news/pressrel/press-releases/fbi-testimony-on-microscopic-hair-analysis-contained-errors-in-at-least-90-percent-of-cases-in-ongoing-review or (shorter) https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22630193-100-i-asked-fbi-to-validate-forensic-hair-analysis-they-couldnt/

    In the field of healthcare teamwork appears essential. I could spend weeks reviewing spurious ‘papers’ claiming Reiki is effective but don’t want to. I save time trusting Edzard and other science-oriented thinkers like Ben Goldacre to have grounds for the analysis they publish. Like anybody they can be wrong.

  • The term pseudoscience covers a wide spectrum of topics and of folk.

    As a teenager in the 1960s I bought a book called “Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science”. Its author, Martin Gardner, was a name I knew as the contributor of a monthly column, “Mathematical Games” in Scientific American. I strongly recommend “Fads and Fallacies” as a great read for anyone fascinated by pseudoscience and what makes its exponents tick. The second edition of the book (1957) is still in print (check out Amazon). It is widely considered to have launched the modern skeptical movement.

    “Fads and Fallacies” is concerned with all aspects and forms of pseudoscience. Only two chapters are specifically devoted to pseudomedicine, but the book is still of interest and significance to those who regularly read Edzard Ernst’s blog. Gardner’s writing is always first-class, and this book is a fine example of his style. His characterizations of the stars in the pseudoscience firmament ­ people such as Immanuel Velikovsky, Charles Fort, L. Ron Hubbard and Andrew Taylor Still (founder of osteopathy) ­ are hilariously forthright. Publishers nowadays might insist on having them toned down for fear of legal repercussions.

    Gardner’s concise demolition of the so-called evidence that UFOs must be piloted by visitors from elsewhere in the universe; that “psychically gifted” individuals are capable of knowledge most of us lack; and that people armed with a dowsing rod can reliably discover water, oil and precious metals underground radically altered my own youthful belief in such things. “Fads and Fallacies” is a demonstration of how often and how seriously we are all capable of deluding ourselves if we abandon critical thought and blindly accept as reality things for which the “evidence” is about as robust as a wet tissue. I gratefully acknowledge Gardner’s contributions to the development of my own career as a professional biomedical scientist. Read “Fads and Fallacies” and I hope you’ll understand why.

  • Indeed an important article.
    But we still missing a more direct approach to the causes and motives for pseudoscience.
    There at least three. One of those, greed, is easy to talk about.
    But the other two demands a daring level of political incorrectness to be assessed: ideological and neo paganist infiltrations on academy.

    • That is an interesting link and well worth reading.

      I don’t know about analgesic trials, but it is widely believed that patients in cancer trials tend to do better than those not in trials. I don’t know if this is true, but it is certainly plausible. This may be because people with other medical problems suchs as poor liver or kidney function tend to be excluded, and those with particularly aggressive cancer may not last through the pre-trial screening and washout period (washout refers to leaving a gap from their previous treatment to avoid contaminating the results). On the other hand, people in trials tend to be examined more frequently, record every symptom that they have (even things like tripping over the dog and bruising themselves) and have many more CT scans and other investigations, so problems that occur during the trial are picked up promptly and treated. I don’t think it is the placebo effect, however.

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