Plants & Human Affairs
Cherries.wmf (7140 bytes) Plants & Human Affairs (BIOL106)  -  Stephen G. Saupe, Ph.D.; Biology Department, College of St. Benedict/St. John's University, Collegeville, MN 56321;;

What is Pseudoscience?

I. Definition.
    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 don’t 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
  • astrology
  • psychic hot lines
  • palm readers
  • Shroud of Turin
  • Bigfoot
  • Loch Ness Monster
  • Spontaneous human combustion
  • Dowsing
  • Ghosts
  • Superstitions
  • alien abductions
  • Some people can tell if someone is staring at them
  • Bible Code
  • Handwriting analysis
  • Numerology
  • Psychic surgery
  • ESP
  • UFO's
  • Voodoo
  • Crystal, Pyramid power
  • Reincarnation
  • 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 include:

  • crop circles
  • aromatherapy
  • gardening by the moon
  • bogus medical therapies such as Bach flower therapy and flower essence therapy
  • Sonic bloom
  • homeopathy and naturopathy

IV. How can you recognize pseudoscience?
    So, how can you recognize pseudoscientific garbage?  It’s 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 one way 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 questions:

1. Is the idea compatible with the methods of science?

  • Does the idea explain an observation? Or, is it just an imaginative idea for its own sake?
  • Is it testable?
  • Is it falsifiable (open to the possibility of being proven false)?
  • Are there more conventional explanations/hypotheses? (Occam's razor)
  • 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 media?

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 work?
  • Do you have to have a special connection with your materials to make your experiment work?
  • 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 of knowledge)?
  • 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 it’s 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."

V. Botanical Science/Pseudoscience Survey
    Take the "Survey"?  Can you deduce which statements are clearly pseudoscience?

VI. References

  • 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. What’s 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: 425-429.
  • Pratkanis, A.R. 1995. How to sell a pseudoscience. Skeptical Inquirer. July/August.
  • Raso, J. M. 1995. Mystical medical alternativism. Skeptical Inquirer. September/October. pp 33-37.
  • Thorndike, J. 1985. Gardening by the moon. Country Journal. pp 73 – 80. September.
  • Tompkins, P & C. Bird. 1972. Love among the cabbages. Harper’s 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. Seven Warning Signs of bogus science via QuackWatch homepage.

VII.  Good Web Sites

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Last updated:  10/06/2008 � Copyright  by SG Saupe