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Robert Todd Carroll

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pseudoscience

A pseudoscience is set of ideas based on theories put forth as scientific when they are not scientific.

Scientific theories are characterized by such things as (a) being based upon empirical observation rather than the authority of some sacred text; (b) explaining a range of empirical phenomena; (c) being empirically tested in some meaningful way, usually involving testing specific predictions deduced from the theory; (d) being confirmed rather than falsified by empirical tests or with the discovery of new facts; (e) being impersonal and therefore testable by anyone regardless of personal religious or metaphysical beliefs; (f) being dynamic and fecund, leading investigators to new knowledge and understanding of the interrelatedness of the natural world rather than being static and stagnant leading to no research or development of a better understanding of anything in the natural world; and (g) being approached with skepticism rather than gullibility, especially regarding paranormal forces or supernatural powers, and being fallible and put forth tentatively rather than being put forth dogmatically as infallible.

Some pseudoscientific theories are based upon an authoritative text rather than observation or empirical investigation. Creationists, for example, make observations only to confirm infallible dogmas, not to discover the truth about the natural world. Such theories are static and lead to no new scientific discoveries or enhancement of our understanding of the natural world.

Some pseudoscientific theories explain what non-believers cannot even observe, e.g. orgone energy.

Some can't be tested because they are consistent with every imaginable state of affairs in the empirical world, e.g., L. Ron Hubbard's engram theory.

Some pseudoscientific theories can't be tested because they are so vague and malleable that anything relevant can be shoehorned to fit the theory, e.g., the enneagram, iridology, the theory of multiple personality disorder, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator®, the theories behind many New Age psychotherapies, and reflexology.

Some theories have been empirically tested and rather than being confirmed they seem either to have been falsified or to require numerous ad hoc hypotheses to sustain them, e.g., astrology, biorhythms, facilitated communication, plant perception, and ESP. Yet, despite seemingly insurmountable evidence contrary to the theories, adherents won't give them up.

Some pseudoscientific theories rely on ancient myths and legends rather than on physical evidence, even when their interpretations of those legends either requires a belief contrary to the known laws of nature or to established facts, e.g., Velikovsky's, von Däniken's, and Sitchen's theories.

Some pseudoscientific theories are supported mainly by selective use of anecdotes, intuition, and examples of confirming instances, e.g., anthropometry, aromatherapy, craniometry, graphology, metoposcopy, personology, and physiognomy.

Some pseudoscientific theories confuse metaphysical claims with empirical claims, e.g., the theories of acupuncture, alchemy, cellular memory, Lysenkoism, naturopathy, reiki, rolfing, therapeutic touch, and Ayurvedic medicine.

Some pseudoscientific theories not only confuse metaphysical claims with empirical claims, but they also maintain views that contradict known scientific laws and use ad hoc hypotheses to explain their belief, e.g., homeopathy.

Pseudoscientists claim to base their theories on empirical evidence, and they may even use some scientific methods, though often their understanding of a controlled experiment is inadequate. Many pseudoscientists relish being able to point out the consistency of their theories with known facts or with predicted consequences, but they do not recognize that such consistency is not proof of anything. It is a necessary condition but not a sufficient condition that a good scientific theory be consistent with the facts. A theory which is contradicted by the facts is obviously not a very good scientific theory, but a theory which is consistent with the facts is not necessarily a good theory. For example, "the truth of the hypothesis that plague is due to evil spirits is not established by the correctness of the deduction that you can avoid the disease by keeping out of the reach of the evil spirits" (Beveridge 1957, 118).

See also ad hoc hypothesis, cold reading, communal reinforcement, confirmation bias, control study, Occam's razor, pathological scienceplacebo effect, post hoc fallacy, pseudohistory, science, selective thinking, self-deception, subjective validation, and testimonials.

further reading

reader comments

Friedlander, Michael W. At the Fringes of Science, (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1995).

Dawes, Robyn M. House of Cards - Psychology and Psychotherapy Built on Myth, (New York: The Free Press, 1994).

Gardner, Martin. Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1957).

Gilovich, Thomas. How We Know What Isn't' So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life (New York: The Free Press, 1993).

Glymour, Clark and Douglas Stalker. "Winning Through Pseudoscience," in Philosophy of Science and the Occult, edited by Patrick Grim. 2nd ed. (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990), pp. 75-86.

Gould, Stephen Jay. Ever Since Darwin, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1979).

Radner and Radner, Daisie and Michael. Science and Unreason (Belmont, California: Wadsworth Publishing Co., 1982).

Sagan, Carl. Broca's Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science (New York: Random House, 1979).

Sagan, Carl. The Demon-Haunted World - Science as a Candle in the Dark (New York: Random House, 1995).

Shermer, Michael. The Borderlands of Science: Where Sense Meets Nonsense (Oxford University Press, 2001).

Shermer, Michael. Why People Believe Weird Things : Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time (W H Freeman & Co.: 1997).

Singer, Margaret Thaler and Janja Lalich. Crazy Therapies (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Inc., 1996).

Spanos, Nicholas P. Multiple Identities and False Memories: A Sociocognitive Perspective (Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, 1996).

©copyright 2005
Robert Todd Carroll

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Last updated 02/13/06

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