Distinguishing Science and
The word �pseudo�
means fake, and the surest way
to spot a fake is to know as much as possible about the real thing, in
this case science itself. When
we speak of knowing science we do not mean simply knowing scientific
facts (e.g., the distance from earth to sun; the age of the earth; the
distinction between mammal and reptile, etc.) We mean that one must know
about the nature of science itself�the criteria of evidence, the
design of meaningful experiments, the weighing of possibilities, the
testing of hypotheses, the establishment of theories, the many aspects
of the methods of science which make it possible to draw accurate,
reliable, meaningful conclusions about the phenomena of the physical
However, the media
provide a continuous bombardment of sheer nonsense, misinformation,
fantasy and confusion�all proclaimed to be �true facts.�
Sifting sense from nonsense is an almost overwhelming job.
It is therefore
useful to consider some of the earmarks
of pseudoscience. The substitution of fantasy and nonsense for fact
leaves behind many different clues that almost anyone can readily
detect. Below are listed some of the most common characteristics of
pseudoscience. The presence of any one or more of these symptoms in any material in question marks
it conclusively as pseudoscience. On the other hand, material displaying
none of these flaws might still be pseudoscience�the pseudoscientists
are inventing new ways to fool themselves every day. What we have here
is a set of sufficient, rather than necessary, conditions for
a remarkable and characteristic indifference
to fact. Writers tend simply to make up bogus �facts��what
Norman Mailer calls �factoids��where needed, instead of going to
the trouble of consulting reference works of investigating directly. Yet
these fictitious facts are often central to the pseudoscientist�s
argument and conclusions! This can also be seen in the fact that pseudoscientists
never revise. The first edition of any pseudoscience book is almost
always the last, even though the book may remain in print for decades or
centuries. Even a book with obvious mistakes, errors, and misprints on
every page is just reprinted as it is, over and over. Compare this to
science textbooks, which often see a new edition every few years because
of the rapid accumulation of new facts, ideas, and insights in science.
is almost invariably exegesis. That is, the pseudoscientist clips
newspaper reports, collects hearsay, reads other pseudoscience books, or
pours over ancient religious or mythological works. The pseudoscientist
never or rarely ever makes an independent investigation to check his
sources. They are taken at face value, or else interpreted as
�symbolic,� so that the pseudoscientist can use them as a kind of
Rorshach inkblot�reading into the myths and old texts anything he
wants to find in them.
with a hypothesis�usually one which is appealing emotionally, and
then looks only for items which appear to support it. Conflicting
evidence is ignored. Generally speaking, the aim of pseudoscience is to
rationalize strongly held beliefs, rather than to investigate and find
out what�s actually going on, or to test various possibilities.
Pseudoscience specializes in jumping to �congenial conclusions,�
grinding ideological axes, appealing to pre-conceived ideas and to
PSEUDOSCIENCE shows a
total indifference to criteria of
valid evidence. The emphasis is not on meaningful, controlled,
repeatable scientific experiments�instead it is on unverifiable
eyewitness testimony, stories and tall tales, hearsay, rumor, and
dubious anecdotes. Genuine scientific literature is not cited. Generally
pseudoscientists never present any valid evidence of any kind whatsoever
for their claims.
heavily on subjective validation. Joe Blow puts jello on his head
and his headache goes away. To pseudoscience this means jello cures
headaches. To science this means nothing, since no experiment was done.
Many things were going on when Joe Blow�s headache went away�the
moon was full, a bird flew overhead, the window was open, Joe had on his
red shirt, etc.�and his headache would have gone away eventually in
any case, no matter what. A controlled experiment would put a large
number of people suffering from headaches in identical circumstances,
except for the presence or absence of the remedy it is desired to test,
and compare the results � which would then have some chance of being
meaningful. Modine Flark reads her newspaper horoscope and says there
must be something to astrology because the horoscope describes her
perfectly. But when we read it we see it is a perfectly generally true
statement that describes every human who has ever lived, and has nothing
to do with Modine or her birth-stars. These are examples of
one of the main foundations of popular support for pseudoscience.
on arbitrary conventions of human culture, rather than on unchanging
regularities of nature. For instance, the interpretations of astrology
depend on the names of things, which are accidental and vary from
culture to culture. If the ancients had given the name Mars to the
planet we call Jupiter, and vice versa, astronomy could care less �
but astrology would be totally different, because it depends solely on
the name and has nothing to do with the physical properties of the
actual planet itself.
PSEUDOSCIENCE always achieves
a reduction to absurdity if pursued far enough. Maybe dowsers can
somehow sense the presence of water or minerals under a field, but
almost all claim they can dowse equally well from a map! Maybe Uri
Geller is �psychic,� but are his powers really beamed to him on a
radio link with a flying saucer from the planet Hoova, as Uri claims?
Maybe plants are �psychic,� but why does a bowl of mud respond in exactly
the same way, in the same �experiment?�
PSEUDOSCIENCE always avoids
putting its claims to a meaningful test. Pseudoscientists never
carry out careful, methodical, convincing experiments themselves�and
they also generally ignore results of such experiments that are carried out by
scientists. Pseudoscientists also never
follow up. If one pseudoscientist claims to have done an experiment
(e.g., the �lost biorhythm studies of Hermann Swoboda that are alleged
basis of the modern pseudoscience of bio-rhythms), no
other pseudoscientist ever tries to duplicate it or to check him, even
(and especially) when the original results are lost or questionable!
Further, where a pseudoscientist claims to have done an experiment with
a remarkable result, he himself
never repeats it to check his results and procedures. This is in
extreme contrast with science, where crucial experiments are performed
over and over, by scientists all over the world, with ever-increasing
contradicts itself, even in its own terms. Such logical
contradictions are simply ignored or rationalized away.
creates mystery where none exists, by omitting crucial information
and important details. Anything can be made �mysterious,� if you
omit to tell what is known about it, or present completely imaginary
details. The �Bermuda Triangle� books are classic examples of this
does not progress. There are fads, and a pseudoscientist may switch
from one fad to another (from ghosts to ESP research, from flying
saucers to psychic studies, from ESP research to looking for Bigfoot).
But within a given topic there is no progress made, no new information
uncovered; new theories are not forthcoming; old concepts are never
modified or discarded in light of new discoveries, since there are no
new discoveries for pseudoscience. The older the idea the more respect
is given it. No natural phenomena
or processes previously unknown to science have ever been discovered by
pseudoscientists. Indeed, pseudoscientists almost invariably deal
with phenomena well known to scientists, but little known to the general
public�so that the public will swallow the total misrepresentations of
the phenomena that the pseudoscientist wants to make. Examples:
firewalking, �Kirlian� photography.
wing rhetoric, propaganda, and misrepresentation, rather than
presenting valid evidence (which presumably does not exist.)
Pseudoscience books offer examples of almost every kind of fallacy of
logic and reason known to scholars, and have invented some new ones of
their own. A favorite device is the non
sequitur. Pseudoscientists also love the �Galileo Argument.�
This consists of the pseudoscientist comparing himself to Galileo, and
saying that just as the pseudoscientist is believed to be wrong, so
Galileo was thought wrong by his contemporaries � therefore the
pseudoscientist must be right too, just as Galileo was. Clearly the
conclusion does not follow! What is more, anyone who has ever heard of
Galileo must be aware that Galileo�s ideas were tested, verified, and
accepted promptly by his scientific colleagues. It was the established religion
which rejected Galileo�s findings, preferring instead a familiar pseudoscience which Galileo�s findings contradicted.
from ignorance, an elementary fallacy. That is, pseudoscientists
base their claims on incompleteness of information about nature, rather than on what is
known at present. But no claim can possibly be supported by lack
of information. The fact that Don Bullard saw something in the sky he
didn�t recognize means just that � he didn�t recognize what he
saw. We cannot use this fact as evidence that flying saucers are from
outer space, since we have no evidence he saw a flying saucer�or
anything else! Maybe he saw a ghost! The statement, �Science cannot
explain�� is common in pseudoscience literature. In may cases, the
fact is that science has no interest in the supposed phenomenon because
there is no evidence it exists; in other cases, the scientific
explanation is well known and well established, but the pseudoscientist
is not aware of it or deliberately ignores it to create mystery.
from alleged exceptions, errors, anomalies, strange or paranormal
events, and suspect claims�rather than from well-established
regularities of nature. The experience of scientists over the past 400
years is that claims and reports which describe well-understood objects
behaving in strange and incomprehensible ways tend to reduce upon
investigation to deliberate frauds, honest mistakes, garbled accounts,
misinterpretations, outright fabrications, and stupid blunders. It is
not wise to accept such reports at face value, without checking them.
Pseudoscientists always take such reports as literally true, without
to false authority, to emotion, to sentiment, or to distrust of
established fact. A high school dropout is accepted as an expert on
archaeology, though he has never made any study of it! A psychoanalyst
is accepted as an expert on all of human history, not to mention
physics, astronomy, and mythology � though his claims are inconsistent
with everything known in all four fields! A show business celebrity
swears it�s true, so it must be. A physicist says psychic Smoori
Mellar couldn�t possibly have fooled him with simple magic tricks,
although the physicist knows nothing about magic and sleight of hand.
Emotional appeals are common: �If it makes you feel good, it must be
true.� �In your heart you know it�s right.� Pseudoscientists are
fond of imaginary conspiracies: �there�s plenty of evidence for
flying saucers but the government keeps it secret.� They almost always
argue from irrelevancies: �Scientists don�t know
everything!��but we weren�t talking about everything, we were
discussing the evidence for the tooth fairy.
extraordinary claims and advances fantastic theories that are in
contradiction to what is known about nature. Not only is no evidence
offered that the claim is true, the problem of how all previous
investigations led to precisely opposite conclusions is ignored totally.
(�Flying saucers have to come from somewhere�so the earth is hollow,
and they come from inside.� �This electric spark I�m making with
this electrical apparatus is actually not a spark at all, but rather a
supernatural manifestation of psycho-spiritual energy.� �Every human
is surrounded by an impalpable aura of electromagnetic energy, the auric
egg of the ancient Hindu seers, which mirrors the human�s every mood
heavy use of an invented vocabulary in which the new terms
introduced do not have precise or unambiguous definitions, and most have
no definitions at all. The listener is forced to interpret the
statements according to his or her own preconceptions. What, for
instance, is �biocosmic energy?� Or a �psychotronic amplification
system?� By spouting gibberish that has a vaguely �technical�
sound, the pseudoscientists believe they imitate the jargon of actual
scientific and technical fields.
to the truth-criteria of scientific methodology, while simultaneously
denying their validity. Thus,
a procedurally invalid experiment which seems to show that astrology
works is advanced by the pseudoscientist as �proof� that astrology
is correct, while he simultaneously ignores thousands of procedurally
sound experiments that show it does not work in any way or sense. The
fact that someone got away with simple magic tricks in one scientific
lab is �proof� that he is a psychic superman, while the fact that he
was caught doing his tricks in several other labs is ignored.
that the phenomena it studies are �jealous.� The phenomena
appear only under certain vaguely specified but vital conditions (i.e.,
when no doubters or skeptics are present; when no experts are present;
when nobody is watching; when the �vibes� are right; only once in
human history.) The attitude of science is that all phenomena must be
capable of being studied by anyone with the proper equipment, and that
all procedurally valid studies must give consistent results. No actual
known natural phenomenon is �jealous� in this way. There is no way
to construct a TV set or a radio that will function only when no
skeptics are present! A man who claims to be concert-class violinist,
but does not appear to have ever owned a violin and who refuses to play
when anyone is around who might hear him, is most likely lying about his
ability to play the violin.
PSEUDOSCIENCE �explanations� tend to be by scenario. That is, we are told a story, but
we are told nothing else; we have no description of any possible
physical process. For instance, pseudoscientist Velikovski claimed that
another planet passing near the earth caused the earth�s spin axis to
flip upside down. This is all he said. He gave no mechanisms. But the
mechanism is all-important, because the laws of physics rule out the
process as impossible. That is, the approach of another planet cannot
cause a planet�s spin axis to flip. If Velikovski had discovered some
way that one planet could flip another�s spin axis, he would
presumably have described the mechanism by which it can happen. The bald
statement itself, without the underlying mechanism, conveys no
information at all. Again, Velikovski says that Venus was once a comet,
and this comet was spewed out of a volcano on Jupiter. Since planets in
no way resemble comets, which are rock/ice snowball-like debris, and
which in turn have no connection whatsoever to volcanoes, and since
Jupiter is not known to have volcanoes anyway (or even a solid
surface!), there is no actual physical process underlying Velikovski�s
assertions. He gives us words, related to one another within a sentence
� but the relations are alien to the universe we actually live in, and
no explanation for how these relations work or can exist is given. We
have stories, not theories.
appeal to the ancient human habit
of magical thinking. Magic, sorcery, witchcraft�these are based on
spurious similarity, false analogy, false cause-and-effect connections,
etc. That is, inexplicable influences and connections between things are
assumed from the beginning�not found by investigation. (If you step on
a crack in the sidewalk without saying a magic word, your mother will
crack a bone in her body; eating heart-shaped leaves is good for heart
ailments; shining red light on the body increases blood production; rams
are aggressive so someone born in the sign of the ram is aggressive;
fish are �brain food� because the meat of the fish resembles brain
heavily on anachronistic thinking. The older the idea, the more
attractive it is to pseudoscience�it�s the wisdom of the ancients!
-- especially if the idea is transparently wrong and has long been
discarded by science.
We have so far been discussing pseudoscience without making any
direct comparison with science itself. However, it is informative to
make a direct comparison, feature by feature. For instance (see the
The literature is written for scientists. There is peer
review, and there are rigorous standards for honesty and accuracy.
The literature is aimed at the general public. There is no
review, no standards, no pre-publication verification, no demand for
accuracy and precision.
Reproducible results are demanded; experiments must be
precisely described so that they can be duplicated exactly or improved
Results cannot be reproduced or verified. Studies, if any,
are always so vaguely described that one can't figure out what was done
or how it was done.
Failures are searched for and studied closely, since
incorrect theories can often make correct predictions by accident but no
correct theory will make incorrect predictions.
Failures are ignored, excused, hidden, lied about,
discounted, explained away, rationalized, forgotten, avoided at all
As time goes on, more and more is learned about the physical
processes under study.
No physical phenomena or processes are ever found, noticed or
studied. No progress is made; nothing concrete is learned.
Individual defects, idiosyncrasies and blunders of
investigators average out -- do not affect "signal" under
Individual defects, idiosyncrasies and blunders of
investigators provide the only "signals" ever seen -- the
average is zero.
Convinces by appeal to the evidence, by arguments based upon
logical and/or mathematical reasoning, by making the best case the data
permit. When new evidence contradicts old ideas, they are abandoned.
Convinces by appeal to faith and belief. Pseudoscience has a
strong quasi-religious element: it tries to convert, not to convince.
You are to believe in spite of the facts, not because of them. The
original idea is never abandoned, whatever the evidence.
No conflicts of interest; scientist has no personal financial
stake in any outcome of his studies.
Extreme conflicts of interest. The pseudo-scientist generally
earns some or all of his living by selling pseudoscientific
"services," e.g., horoscopes, predictions.
particular, seem completely unable to comprehend this last point. A
typical reporter asked to write an article on astrology thinks he has
done a throough job if he interviews six astrologers and one astronomer.
The astronomer says it's all bunk; the six astrologers say it's great
stuff and really works and for $50 they'll be glad to cast anyone's
horoscope. (No doubt!) To the reporter, and apparently to the editor and
readers, this confirms astrology six to one! Yet if the reporter had had
the small degree of sense required to realize he should have interviewed
sever astronomers (all of whom are presumably knowledgeable about the
planets and their interactions, but all of whom are also disinterested
in astrology, and therefore able to be both knowledgeable and objective)
he would have gotten the correct result: seven informed judgments that
astrology is nonsense.
Comparison lists of
the kind we have shown here can be continued almost indefinitely,
because there is no overlap between science and pseudoscience at any
point. They are precisely opposed ways of viewing nature. Science relies
on, and insists on, difficult, narrow, strict procedures of
self-questioning, testing and analytical thinking that make it hard to
fool yourself or to avoid facing facts. Pseudoscience, on the other
hand, preserves the ancient, natural, irrational, unobjective modes of
thought that are hundreds of thousands of years older than science ...
the modes of thought which have given rise to most superstition and to
most of the fanciful and mistaken ideas about man and nature ... from
voodoo to racism; from the flat earth to the house-shaped universe with
God in the attic, Satan in the cellar and man on the ground floor; from
doing rain dances to torturing and brutalizing the mentally ill to drive
out the demons that possess them. Pseudoscience encourages you to
believe anything you want, and supplied many examples of specious
"arguments" by which you can fool yourself into thinking your
belief has some validity, despite all the facts being to the contrary.
Science begins by saying, let's forget about what we believe to be so,
and try by investigation to find out what actually is so. These roads
don't cross; they lead in completely opposite directions.
Some confusion on
this point is caused by what we might call "crossover."
"Science" is not an honorary badge you wear, it's an
activity you do. Whenever you cease that activity, you cease being a
scientist. A distressing amount of pseudoscience is generated by actual
or self-proclaimed scientists, in several ways we need to discuss. A
scientist almost invariably winds up doing pseudoscience when he moves
out of a field in which he is knowledgeable and competent, and plunges
into another field of which he is quite ignorant. A physicist who claims
to have found a new principle of biology -- or a biologist who claims to
have found a new principle of physics -- is almost invariably doing
pseudoscience. A scientist becomes a pseudoscientist when he defends an
idea when all evidence and experiment is against it, because he is
emotionally or ideologically committed to it.
A scientist who
forges data, or suppresses data which do not agree with his
preconceptions, or refused to let others see his data for independent
evaluation, has become a pseudoscientist. Science is a high peak of
intellectual integrity, fairness, and rationality. To carry the analogy
further, the peak is slippery and smooth. It requires a tremendous
effort to remain near it. But any slacking of effort carries one away,
and into pseudoscience.
A fair fraction of
all pseudoscience is generated by individuals who have received a small
amount of very narrow and specialized scientific or technical training,
but who are not professional scientists and do not comprehend the nature
of the scientific enterprise -- yet think of themselves as
"scientists." Particularly notorious in this respect are
medical doctors and engineers, as well as psychoanalysts and technicians
of one kind or another, as well as, more recently, "computer
One might wonder if
there are not examples of "crossovers" in the other direction;
that is people who have been thought by scientists to be doing
pseudoscience, who eventually were accepted as doing valid science, and
whose ideas were ultimately accepted by scientists. From what we have
just outlined, one would expect this to happen extremely rarely, if
ever. In fact, neither I nor any informed colleague I have ever asked
about this, knows of any single case in which this has happened during
the hundreds of years the full scientific method has been known to and used by scientists. There are a large
number of cases in which a scientist has been thought to be wrong by his
colleagues, but whose ideas were later shown to be correct. A scientist
may get a "hunch" that some possibility is the case, without
having enough evidence to convince his associates that he is correct.
Such a person has not become a pseudoscientist, unless
he continues to maintain that his ideas are correct as the evidence does
come in and shows conclusively that he is incorrect. Being wrong or
mistaken is unavoidable; we are all human, and we all commit errors and
blunders. A scientist, however, is alert to the possibility that he
might blunder, and is quick to correct mistakes, since these mistakes
are fatal to future studies which he might undertake if they are not
found and rooted out. A scientist, in short, when shown that he is
mistaken by his associates, will abandon his mistaken ideas. A pseudoscientist
will not. In fact, a
short definition of pseudoscience is that it is a method for protecting
and rationalizing obviously incorrect and mistaken concepts about man
and nature -- for excusing, defending and preserving errors.
It is, unfortunately,
vital for each citizen to learn to distinguish carefully between science
and pseudoscience. In a democracy, every voter must be capable of
seeking and recognizing vital sources of information. Pseudoscience
often strikes educated, rational people as too nonsensical and
preposterous to be dangerous, a source of amusement rather than fear.
Unfortunately, this is not a wise attitude. Pseudoscience can be
extremely dangerous. Penetrating political systems, it justifies
attrocities in the name of racial purity; penetrating the educational
system, it drives out science and sensibility; penetrating the health
professions it dooms thousands to unnecessary death or suffering;
penetrating religion, it generates fanaticism, intolerance, and holy
war; penetrating the communications media, it makes it nearly impossible
for voters to obtain factual information on public issues of extreme
importance -- a situation which at present has reached crisis
proportions in the U. S.
and Unreason, D. & M. Radner, Wadsworth, California, 1982.
the Unknown, Charles J. Cazeau & Stuart D. Scott, Jr., Plenum,
New York, 1979.
Fraud and Fantasy, Morris Goran, A. S. Barnes, New Jersey, 1979.
By James Randi, Prometheus, New York, 1982.
Borderlands of Science, Ed. by Kendrick Frazier, Prometheus, New
Confronts the Paranormal, Ed. by Kendrick Frazier, Prometheus, New
Good, Bad and Bogus, Martin Gardner, Prometheus, New York, 1981;
Avon, New York, 1982.
and the Paranormal, Ed. by George O. Abell and Barry Singer,
Scribners, New York, 1981.
Deception, Henry Gordon, Prometheus, New York, 1987.
and the Paranormal, Terence Hines, Prometheus, New York, 1988
ASTOP -- The Austin Society to Oppose Pseudoscience
-- has prepared fact sheets on various topics for the benefit of
teachers and others interested in promoting critical thinking. Dr. Rory
Coker, Professor of Physics at the University of Texas at Austin, is the
author of this fact sheet. The International Cultic Studies Association
(formerly American Family Foundation), a professional research and
educational organization concerned about the harmful effects of cultic and
involvements, prints and helps distribute these
fact sheets. Because ASTOP fact sheets seek to stimulate critical
thinking, rather than advance a particular point of view, opinions
expressed are those of the authors.
These fact sheets may be copied for educational purposes, but
they may not be reproduced for resale.