The term pseudo-science gets kicked around a lot when discussing whether an idea, report, or even a whole field is really scientifically valid or viable.

It is most often hurled as a derogatory term in the heat of debate. It is also, but less often, used as a useful disctinction.

There is one thing I see a lot of people forgetting, though:

The distinction between pseudo-science and science is one of approach and method, NOT of subject matter.

It is possible to study (or at least attempt to study) anything scientifically, as long as you use a scientific approach. As well, it is possible to approach anything pseudo-scientifically, as long as you use pseudo-scientific approaches.


Many areas of parapsychology are treated as inherently pseudo-scientific. This is as nonsensical as saying that Boston is fast, simply because I drove quickly to get there. I could just as easily drive more slowly. Take ESP for instance. It is possible to use unscientific or pseudo scientific methods to "prove" the existence of ESP. It is also possible to investigate it scientifically. This has been done, with very interesting results. (see ESP for more information).

Conversely, many areas of subject matter that are considered "scientific" are often investigated pseudo-scientifically. Take medicine. Companies with special interests in public opionion have commissioned the most absurd pseudo-scientific reports, and used data pseudo-scientifically. Cigarettes are a good example -- many pseudo-scientific studies and reports were generated to show that cigarettes were "safe".

The term "pseudoscience", as used here, defines an area of study that resembles science and uses scientific jargon (e.g. wave, energy, focus, alignment) but does not utilize the scientific method. Often, the area of study has underlying unprovable or provably fallacious foundations, which would proclude serious scientific study (i.e. bad science). This doesn't stop the credulous, of course.

Here are some examples of nodes that cause the pseudoscience meter to beep.:

Some famous pseudoscientists include Examining pseudoscience is often considered "beneath" attention by busy scientists who are in a rush to publish. This attitude lets pseudoscience practitioners go unchallenged. This is wrong. As Bruce Cockburn would say, "You gotta kick at the darkness until it bleeds daylight." Some famous skeptics who took the time to debunk pseudoscience:
n. From Latin and Middle English ~ "false science"

A system of theories or assumptions that are erroneously regarded as scientific.

Pseudosciences share the following attributes:

Associates With True Science
Pseudoscience attempts to associate itself with true science, often by founding itself in true science, or confusing its concepts with genuine science. For example Phrenology is based in the concept of the localization of brain functions, which is a real phenomenon, however there is no evidence this carries over to skull morphology.
Relies on Anecdotal Evidence
The reliance on the uncritical acceptance of anecdotal evidence is another key feature of pseudoscience. While there is nothing wrong with accumulating anecdotal evidence to support a theory, a problem develops when one relies exclusively on anecdotes. This is because anecdotes are selective; examples that don't fit are ignored. For example when Arnold Palmer won the British Open in 1962 all three of his biorhythmic cycles were high. Taken alone this supports biorhythm theory, however if you looked at Palmer's entire career it would become evident that there is no correlation between biorhythms and golfing success. In fact biorhythms have been found incapable of predicting accident rates, baseball batting averages, mood swings, performance on tests, and a host of other behaviours (Hines 1979).
Sidesteps Disproof
One of the hallmarks of a good scientific theory is that it can predict specific outcomes and if those outcomes do not occur the theory can be disproved. For example Einstein postulated that time will appear to move slower the closer one gets to the speed of light relative to someone moving at a slower speed. This was supported when an atomic clock was flown aboard an airplane then returned to the ground and checked against another reference atomic clock to find that time dilation had indeed occurred. Had the opposite occurred and the two clocks showed exactly the same time, this would be strong evidence to disprove Einstein's theory. Pseudosciences however avoid disproof by rearranging or adding new bits to their theory. For example if a known pacifist has a large area for destructiveness on his skull, a phrenologist might counter that this is counterbalanced by an even larger area of benevolence, or that he simply represses his destructive tendencies. Thus for pseudoscience any possible outcome can be explained. Yet a theory that explains all possible outcomes fails as a theory because it can never make any specific predictions. Another way disproof is sidestepped is that research reports in pseudoscience are notoriously vague. Real science will be presented with enough precision that replication is possible.
Reduces Complexity to Simplicity
Finally pseudosciences reduce complex phenomena with equally complex causal factors to very simple phenomena with simple causal factors. Your chances of gaining employment at an organisation are based on a complex amalgam of factors. Your perceived skill level, physical attractiveness, temperament, educational background as well as the interviewer's subconscious biases, and the internal politics and corporate environment at the hiring organisation could all come into play. Conversely an astrologer might claim that your chances of being hired are simply a function of the fact that Jupiter is in the third house of Aquarius.

On Hyphenation: Both Webster's International Dictionary and The American Heritage Dictionary agree that "pseudoscience" should not be hyphenated e.g. "pseudo-science". The OED claims that either version is acceptable. Because the OED tries to catalogue all usage, and while hyphenation has been used in the past, I find Webster's and American Heritage more useful in this instance as a guide to modern usage.

Works Cited

Goodwin, James C. Research in Psychology: Methods and Design NY: JW&S, 1999
Hines, T. M. 1979 Biorhythm theory: A critical review. The Skeptical Inquirer, 3, 26-36
"Pseudoscience." Vol XII of The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989.
"Pseudoscience." American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. 4th ed. 2000.
"Pseudoscience." Webster's Third New International Dictionary of the English Language Unabridged. 1993.

Although there is no excuse for promoting pseudo-scientific ideas today, I find it difficult to condemn ancient and medieval practitioners of pseudosciences such as

Although astrologers, alchemists, and numerologists were on an a priori search for magical properties of the stars, planets, numbers, or what have you, many proceeded with meticulous care, a foreshadowing of the scientific method. Although the theoretical basis to arrive at correct answers did not yet exist, these people made many collateral discoveries which helped start the scientific revolution.

Nicolaus Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, and Johannes Kepler earned their respective livings mostly from casting horoscopes for the nobility of Europe. Although Kepler's construct of nested polyhedra and spheres determining the orbits of the planets as well as the music of the spheres would be considered silly today, it was a valid (heliocentric!) cosmological model that fit with the observations of the day.

The seminal book on mining techniques and metallurgy, De re metallica, was written by Saxon alchemist Georgius Agricola. And the first1 chemical element not known to the ancients, phosphorus, was discovered by another German alchemist, Hennig Brandt, around 1669.

Numerologists such as Pythagoras and Leonardo of Pisa, aka Fibonacci, assigned mystical properties to numbers and mathematical objects. This did not prevent them from making valid mathematical discoveries that we use to this day.

As I said at the beginning, promoting pseudoscience is inexcusable today, but we must be careful what we label "pseudoscience". Some of the techniques of chiropractic and acupuncture2 appear to work, even though they have no sound medical basis. These latter areas are more ad hoc and results-based, and do not deserve condemnation unless their proponents label them as "science".
1This may not be entirely accurate. De re metallica mentions bismuth, although Agricola did not recognize it as an element.
2I will leave it to better-qualified people to explain any true scientific results from the study of chi.

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