What is Pseudoscience?
Pseudo = false. Therefore, pseudoscience is literally translated as
"false science." In other words, pseudoscience refers to ideas that proponents
claim to be scientific but lack empirical evidence, and that have been arrived at by
faulty logic, poor experiments and/or faith. Pseudoscientific studies dont adhere to
the philosophy and methods of science. Proponents of pseudoscientific ideas frequently use
scientific icons (i.e., terms, images, titles) to help convey authority in their message.
II. Some Non-botanical Examples.
Supermarket tabloids are outstanding sources of pseudoscientific
hogwash. For example, one issue I read not too long ago had articles about aliens killing whales and how
tongue twisters cause brain damage. One of my personal favorite claims is that the Shroud of Turin, a cloth with an apparent
image of Jesus, is the actual burial shroud. The table below lists a
variety of common pseudoscientific
ideas - and this doesn't even include many bogus medical ideas!
|Some Pseudoscientific Beliefs
- psychic hot lines
- palm readers
- Shroud of Turin
- Loch Ness Monster
- Spontaneous human combustion
- alien abductions
- Some people can tell if someone is
staring at them
- Bible Code
- Handwriting analysis
- Psychic surgery
- Crystal, Pyramid power
- Chain letters bring good luck
- Broken mirrors bring bad luck
- telepathy is real
- Aliens are in Area 51
I have included dowsing (or witching) for water
in the table above since most conventional scientists disavow this idea.
However, some recent studies suggest that there may a little validity to it.
III. Botanical science and pseudoscience
Sadly, botany has more than its fair share of "mavericks."
Perhaps chief among them is Cleve Backster, Mr. Lie Detector. He, and others, have claimed
that their "experiments" demonstrate that plants (a) have emotions, (b) can
communicate with you telepathically, (c) respond to your affections, (d) worry and respond
to threats to their well being, (e) can read your mind even over long distances, (f) emit
death spasms, (g) like good music, and (h) like to listen to sex talk.
There are many other related botanical ideas that fall into the
realm of pseudoscience, or at least, are largely suspect at this point in time. These
- crop circles
- gardening by the moon
- bogus medical therapies such as
Bach flower therapy
and flower essence therapy
- homeopathy and naturopathy
IV. How can you recognize pseudoscience?
So, how can you recognize pseudoscientific
garbage? Its not always easy, especially because as we learn more about
plants (and other organisms), we uncover things that are absolutely incredible. For
example, who would have guessed that plants being attacked by herbivores actually send out
a signal (a volatile chemical) to neighboring plants to warn them of an impending attack? The media has called
this "tree talk," which although technically not correct, is certainly
that plants communicate with one another.
Perhaps the simplest way to recognize pseudoscience
is to simply have a good healthy dose of skepticism.
If it seems unlikely, it probably is. Be skeptical! To help recognize pseudoscience, ask the following
1. Is the idea compatible with the methods of
- Does the idea explain an observation? Or, is it just an imaginative idea for its own
- Is it testable?
- Is it falsifiable (open to the possibility of being proven false)?
- Are there more conventional explanations/hypotheses?
- Is the sample size used in the study adequate?
- Can the study be replicated or is it based on one-time, unrepeatable observations?
- Are the experiments properly controlled?
- Is the idea supported by measurable or subjective criteria?
- Is the study based on misinformation, or untruth or inadequate samples?
- Do the proponents misquote or misinterpret the studies of "real" scientists?
- Are the references cited from obscure, ancient or otherwise unattainable sources?
2. Do the proponents make appropriate
conclusions from the evidence?
- Is supportive evidence available?
- Is the evidence is based on reproducible
experiments or simply anecdotal?
- Do the proponents claim the effect is at the
limits of our abilities to detect it?
- Is the effect due to a non-causal correlation?
- Do discoverers propose that new laws are required
to explain an observation?
- Do the proponents argue that the belief is
credible because it has endured for centuries?
- Do the proponents ignore recent scientific work that contradicts their own;
- Are the conclusions based on experimental evidence and
observations or personal testimonies or anecdotes?
- Have the results been statistically analyzed to
support the claims?
- Do the proponents casually explain away or ignore
contradictory or otherwise un-supportive observations of their own?
3. Is supportive evidence available?
- Is this evidence available to anyone?
- Is the work published in a referred journal?
- Do the proponents pitch their claim directly to
4. Do you have to be special for the
idea/effect to be demonstrated?
- Does the discoverer claim to have worked in
isolation enabling him/her to be more creative or untainted by previous
- Do you have to have a special connection with your materials to make your experiment
- Does the supporter vilify science/scientists?
- Is the proposal partisan? (made to support a preconceived idea)
- Do the discoverers claim that they are being
blocked by a powerful establishment?
- Do the individuals claim special privilege from being challenged?
5. How weird does the idea sound?
- Check your "weird-o-meter " - the
weirder the idea, the more support the idea will require.
- Are you being sufficiently skeptical?
- Does the idea relate to other scientific observations? (i.e., does it fit into our body
- Does it sound too good to be true?
6. Are the proponents trying to sell their
idea? First and foremost, is the proponent likely to earn money from the study
or by sharing evidence? Do the proponents....
- associate their ideas with famous scientists?
- cite in their work the names of presumably "famous" scientists, or create
some type of authority figure, leader, guru?
- use the language of scientists?
- vilify scientists/science?
- skeptical about their own claims?
- play upon the notion that their work is simply too new to be understood?
- try to establish a "granfallon" a proud and meaningless association
with people (i.e., if you believe in this idea you are special)? This can be done
in a variety of ways including with rituals and symbols, using jargon, having shared goals
and feelings, possessing specialized information, and sharing enemies.
- use self-generated persuasion by essentially having the targets persuade themselves by
turning the customers in to the salesperson? For example, nutrition retailers may use
customers to recruit still more customers.
- construct a vivid appeal - a good story that will be memorable
- use a smoke screen? In other words, define the issue in a way to suit your needs. For
example if alternative medicine is questionable and FDA wants to ban it and reduce our
"freedom", then use the freedom issue since no one wants to loose freedom
- use commonplace or widely acknowledged beliefs as the basis for acceptance (i.e., if
its scarce it must be bad, natural is good and synthetic is bad)?
- argue that you should join the bandwagon? If everyone else agrees, it must be good!
- attack their opponents? Vince Lombardi, the late Green Bay Packer football coach,
said that "the best defense is a good offense."
Take the "Survey"?
Can you deduce which
statements are clearly pseudoscience?
- Hoerfnagels, MH & SA Rippel. 2003. Using
superstitions & Sayings to teach experimental design in beginning adn
advanced biology classes. American Biology Teacher 65: 263 - 268.
- Galston, A. 1974. The Unscientific Method. Natural History. March. pp 142-144.
- Johnson, M & M Pigliucci. 2004. Is knowledge
of science associated with higher skepticism of pseudoscientific claims?
American Biology Teacher 66: 536 - 548.
- Malcolm, B. & P. Garnock-Jones. 1992. Cold fusion chicken. Skeptical Inquirer.
Winter. pp 122- 123.
- McCutcheon, L. 1995. Bach flower remedies: Time to stop smelling the flowers? Skeptical
Inquirer. July/August 1995. p33.
- McCutcheon, L. 1996. Whats that I smell? The claims of aromatherapy. Skeptical
Inquirer. May/June, pp 35-37.
- Nickell, J. 1994. Pollens on the "shroud": A study in deception. Skeptical
Inquirer. Summer, pp 379-385.
- Nickell, J. 1995. Crop circle mania wanes. An investigative update. Skeptical Inquirer.
May/June 1995. pp 41-43.
- Plotkin, M. 2003. Giving up the ghost: An
allegory for teaching scientific method. American Biology Teacher 65:
- Pratkanis, A.R. 1995. How to sell a pseudoscience. Skeptical Inquirer. July/August.
- Raso, J. M. 1995. Mystical medical alternativism. Skeptical Inquirer. September/October.
- Thorndike, J. 1985. Gardening by the moon. Country Journal. pp 73 80. September.
- Tompkins, P & C. Bird. 1972. Love among the cabbages. Harpers Magazine.
November, p 136-141.
- Tompkins, P & C. Bird. 1973. The Secret Life of Plants. Harper & Row, NY.
- Watson, Lyall. 1987. Dreams of Dragons. William Morrow & Co., Inc., NY.
- Park, RL.
Warning Signs of bogus science via QuackWatch homepage.
VII. Good Web Sites
10/06/2008 � Copyright by SG