How to: Tell the difference between real science and pseudoscience


21 Responses to “How to: Tell the difference between real science and pseudoscience”

  1. jandrese says:

    For anything medical there are several red flag words you can look for to know that something is bullshit right off the bat.  Any talk of nonspecific “toxins”, usually in the context of “flushing them out of your body” is total bullshit.

    Any talk about your body’s “fields” is also an instant bullshit alarm. 

    “Magnetic” is bullshit unless it’s immediately followed by “resonance imaging”. 

    Of course I shouldn’t even have to mention “Homeopathic”.

    As the article mentions, if the cure tells you to ignore the “closed minded naysayers”, then you’re being sold a load of bullshit.  Another way to phrase it would be “please do not pay attention to the mountain of evidence that the product I am trying to sell you does absolutely nothing at all”. 

    • Jardine says:

      Any mention of boosting your immune system is suspicious as well. Or boosting anything really. Actually, be suspicious of any medical item that has to advertise on tv. If you need to find a lawyer, do you get the one who advertises on tv?

    • ldobe says:

      On magnetic fields, there is some interesting research being done with transcranial magnetic stimulation.

      But yes, any remedy being advertised with magnets is most likely a load of horseshit.

      I can’t comprehend how people fall for the pitch that magnetic bracelets could somehow “align the body’s protons”, or believe having magically aligned protons would have any meaningful effect on their health.

      It’s as if nobody took basic science in high school.

      But probably what’s more likely is that they did, but never understood basic atomic structure. Or think of atoms like how they’re drawn with electrons moving arond static circular orbits, instead of being more accurately described like layers of shells (yes I know that’s not exactly true either, but it’s more true than how most people seem to visualize atoms to look like the planet Jupiter and it’s moons)

    • Tell that to Giovanni Magnetic Energizing Shampoo!

    • wreckrob8 says:

      You need to realign your chakras, you’re all unbalanced, mate. Honestly!

  2. Read Carl Sagan’s “The Demon-Haunted World.”

  3. danimagoo says:

    I always cringe anytime I hear anyone who is not a particle physicist use the word ‘quantum’. My experience has been that in 99% of those cases, an impressive load of BS is being spewed.

  4. Monkey Choir says:

    I recommend “Nonsense on Stilts: how to tell science from bunk” as a good primer.

  5. cdh1971 says:

    “…if you can’t explain something simply, you don’t understand it well. ”

    Oh…like what used to happen when a younger guy would ask me to explain women? 

    Now I simply use the line Picard used in reply to Data’s attempted question: 

    “I would be delighted to offer any advice I can on understanding women. When I have some, I’ll let you know.”

  6. Bill Beaty says:

    No 3, put more simply  …do they describe their case in glowing language?  Or describe any counterevidence or critics using derogatory language?

    Both are major symptoms of pseudoscience, not because they’re “emotional,” but because they’re manipulative.  They’re dishonest methods for fooling an audience.  Politics and advertising both employ persuasion rather than evidence; fooling their audience using glowing or derogatory wording.

    The best science is notable because all the manipulative self-promotion is utterly missing.  Whenever we can make a powerful case in a couple of paragraphs (or sometimes a couple of sentences,) we have no need to lower ourselves to emotionally manipulating the reader. And that’s another big hint: if all the usual persuasion ploys are missing, maybe we should take the person seriously.

    Look up “Cargo Cult Science,” speech at Caltech by RP Feynman

    PS  it’s same as when detecting concealed internet trolls: **look for the namecalling.**  But in this case, look also for the glowing language, the persuasive self-promoting “anti-namecalling.”

  7. Am I the only one thinking it’s a little fishy that this article features a bulleted list that starts with three and ends with nine, with nothing in between?

    • Felton / Moderator says:

      Maggie chose to highlight those by including them in her post.  The rest are easily viewable by clicking the link directly below.

  8. Bizzarro Bazar says:

    Turned into a poster, this would make a great supplement for this other one:

  9. Ito Kagehisa says:

    Well, obviously It’s Real Science if it confirms the things you want to be true, yet contradicts what you think is the common belief of those dumb, non-intellectual snuff-pinching regular people.

    Heavier than air flight?  Pseudo-science, obviously, the greatest minds proved it fake mathematically.
    Heliobacter Pylori?  Total pseudo-science.  Ulcers are only caused by stress (or possibly negative Orgones).
    Cold Fusion?  So utterly pseudo-science, it can’t even be reported on!

    Now, if you wanted to buck the tide and do small-s science, you’d have to perform experiments, and base your conclusions on the results, but that’s a whole lot harder than making your mind up based on assigning truthiness scores to press releases.  So most people will choose big-S Science, or as some call it “Scientism”, which eschews the actual scientific method.  It’s a time-saver!

    Seriously, while what Ms. Willingham is saying is obviously not entirely false, it’s severely unscientific to suppose that one can truly judge the quality of a claim or data set by assessing the presentation skills of the claimant or presenter.  One could make entirely valid claims that score a “perfect ten” on her Fake Science questions, so therefore they are a weak indicator at best.  You could easily use the ten questions to help you decide whether to perform an experiment, but economic factors (can I afford to try this?) and risk assessment (can I risk trying this?) are going to be much more meaningful.

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