How to: Tell the difference between real science and pseudoscience

Some pseudoscience is pretty obvious. I think most of us are comfortable saying that the world will probably not end this December, in accordance with any ancient prophecy. But distinguishing fact from fiction isn't always simple. In fact, "fact from fiction" might be too simple a way to even frame the question. In reality, we're sometimes tasked with spotting misapplication of real science. Sometimes, we have to tell the difference between a complicated thing that nobody understands yet very well but which is likely to be true and a complicated thing that nobody understands yet very well but which is not likely to be true.

Basically, it's messy.

Emily Willingham at Forbes has some helpful hints for how to make these distinctions. She offers ten questions that can serve as guidelines for approaching new topics you're skeptical of — questions that, taken all together, can help you see the patterns of pseudoscience and make informed decisions for yourself and your family.

3. What kind of language does it use? Does it use emotion words or a lot of exclamation points or language that sounds highly technical (amino acids! enzymes! nucleic acids!) or jargon-y but that is really meaningless in the therapeutic or scientific sense? If you’re not sure, take a term and google it, or ask a scientist if you can find one. Sometimes, an amino acid is just an amino acid. Be on the lookout for sciencey-ness. As Albert Einstein once pointed out, if you can’t explain something simply, you don’t understand it well. If peddlers feel that they have to toss in a bunch of jargony science terms to make you think they’re the real thing, they probably don’t know what they’re talking about, either.

9. Were real scientific processes involved? Evidence-based interventions generally go through many steps of a scientific process before they come into common use. Going through these steps includes performing basic research using tests in cells and in animals, clinical research with patients/volunteers in several heavily regulated phases, peer-review at each step of the way, and a trail of published research papers. Is there evidence that the product or intervention on offer has been tested scientifically, with results published in scientific journals? Or is it just sciencey-ness espoused by people without benefit of expert review of any kind?

Read the rest at Willingham's Forbes blog, The Science Consumer

Image: Day 35 of 365 - A Private Stash, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from jesssseeee's photostream


  1. 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”. 

    1. 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?

      1. Worked out okay for Walt and Jessie.

        Also, Echinacea has some pretty solid studies showing it boosts immune response.  So nya nya nya.

        1. “Echinacea has some pretty solid studies showing it boosts immune response”

          It’s nice when people perpetuate myths without ever researching them to verify the truth behind them. No, there aren’t any solid studies.

    2. 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)

  2. 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.

  3. “…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.”

  4. 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.”

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

  5. 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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