The Language of Pseudoscience


If Google were to characterise me based on my YouTube views, they would probably list me as some major conspiracy theory junkie. I watch a lot of conspiracy theory rubbish on YouTube, but for me it is light entertainment. I find it amusing to see how they try to present a bunch of random nonsense as science. Watch any of this stuff and you will hear the same types of phrases again and again…

  • “Many experts now believe” : Nice work. They are experts and there are many of them, so it must be true right? No qualification of who these experts actually are, what qualifies them as experts and how many of them constitutes “many”.
  • “There is a growing belief” : So yesterday there was one person that believed this and today there are three. That’s a belief that is certainly growing, so this is proof of that theory right?

Along these same lines, there is this idea that popularity is in some way related to truth. According to Wikipedia, the most popular religion in the world in 2012 was Christianity, so by this measure Christianity is scientifically proven to be true right?

There seems to be this strange disconnect these days between actual science and the public perception of what science really is. I get quite frustrated when I watch science shows on TV that have been dumbed down to the point where they sound more like pseudoscience. When real science is presented like pseudoscience, how is the general public meant to differentiate between that and your average Daily Mail story?

The term pseudoscience itself is open for interpretation, but the first paragraph of it’s definition on Wikipedia is quite interesting.

“Pseudoscience is a claim, belief or practice which is presented as scientific, but does not adhere to a valid scientific method, lacks supporting evidence or plausibility, cannot be reliably tested, or otherwise lacks scientific status. Pseudoscience is often characterized by the use of vague, contradictory, exaggerated or unprovable claims, an over-reliance on confirmation rather than rigorous attempts at refutation, a lack of openness to evaluation by other experts, and a general absence of systematic processes to rationally develop theories.”

Real science is not a popularity contest and it’s not about vague statements. All information must be presented in the correct context with the appropriate caveats where necessary. If what you are reading/hearing/watching is not qualified properly at best it is watered down for public consumption. At worst it is total bullshit!

Rant over…



Update: Following on from Noons comment, disproof is the other side of the same coin. Same rules apply!

Author: Tim...

DBA, Developer, Author, Trainer.

14 thoughts on “The Language of Pseudoscience”

  1. By the same token, all refutation must be in context and use the same methodology.
    Often it is just a witch hunt. And one more reason why pseudoscience prospers.

  2. Shouldn’t that read “an over-reliance of confirmation *bias*”?

    Some people even confuse/misrepresent real science in a frustrating (wrong) way, as described here recently

    And my old favourite is the comparison of science reporting with sports reporting – if they did sports the way that did science – every little detail would have to be described. That’s why I read blogs for science news, not corporate media.

  3. @scott,

    I think just “confirmation” is intended – trying to find things that support the hypothesis and deliberately not trying to find anything to contradict. I think “confirmation bias” tends to be used to label unconscious oversight of a different interpretation of some result.

    I agree with your rant – but there are two problems with “popular science”.

    The first is the real difficulty that it’s not really viable to detail complicated proof and explain why it is a valid proof, so the science becomes a declaration of results: so how does anyway tell the difference between a valid declaration and a stupid declaration.

    Secondly, there’s the ridiculous idea of what “balance” means – and the media apply the “balance” rule as if a couple of untested anecdotes balances 100,000 rigorously tested and multiple observed experiments.

  4. Jonathan: I agree on both counts. Still, some people manage to do a good job at presenting science in a clear and simple way, so it is possible to dumb down stuff and retain integrity.



  5. Your comments resonate with me. Just watched “I AM” by Tom Shadyac and it was an awful mish-mash of pseudo-science, awful logic (if you can call it that) and boatloads of wishful thinking. And then I picked up a book called Of Moths and Men, about the peppered moth and whether or not it “proves” evolution and there, too, the author gives WAY too much credence to “intelligent design” proponents. Especially agree with your frustrations about how poorly understand science and the scientific method is. Finally, I am always very amused by those religious fundamentalists who reject evolution, carbon dating, etc., and therefore all the science that LEADS to these things…but still just absolutely love that cell phone, and will get in a car or plane and BELIEVE they will be fine. In fact, if you measure belief by actions and not word and prayers, most religious people believe much more in science than in their own lovely divine stories.

  6. I feel the same way about statistics or analyst quotes (not being technical Pseudoscience is too much for me). I attended an event this week where 90% of slides were statistics and it was almost ‘it’s on the internet therefore it must be true’ – I am not saying it isn’t just there seemed to be far too much

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