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critical thinking study topics - pseudoscience fact sheets

Distinguishing Science and Pseudoscience


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 universe.

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 pseudoscience.

  • PSEUDOSCIENCE displays 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.
  • PSEUDOSCIENCE "research" 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.
  • PSEUDOSCIENCE begins with a hypothesis—usually one which is appealing emotionally, and spectacularly implausible—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 widespread misunderstandings.
  • 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.

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