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    Is it a simple matter to distinguish a scientific argument from a pseudo-scientific argument?

    Science, which can be defined for example as the systematic study of nature and of individual and social human behaviour has a characteristic of reasoning about what it observes1. This definition holds partially true also for pseudosciences like anthroposophy or parapsychology, and the practices of pseudosciences, such as water divining or aura photography. What are then the differences between scientific and pseudo-scientific arguments, how can they be separated from each other and ultimately, what difficulties may a person trying to separate the two face?

    The scientific method is often said to have five archetypal characteristics2, and it can be said that these characteristics hold true for scientific arguments or theories and untrue for pseudoscientific arguments and theories. The first characteristic is using proper, accepted methods for collecting data which is interpreted later. The second is publicity: the scientific methods and results etc. are open for the inspection of everybody. The third is criticism and the admittance of errors, and the fourth renewance: scientific theories or even laws of nature can change within time if, for example, proper observations against them are made. The fifth characteristic is repeatability: provided with the correct apparatus and method, a scientist anywhere should be able to carry out the experiments and obtain the same results.

    It can be clearly seen how pseudosciences fail to fill these criteria. For example, pseudosciences are often not public, but often just vice versa - many pseudoscientific methods can only be researched after ie. joining a cult. And old example of this is the brotherhood of Pythagoras3: even though Pythagoras was a distinguished mathematician, he and his brotherhood for example gave specific, secret meanings to different numbers and shapes that were available only to the members of the brotherhood. Pseudosciences can and do also admit some errors or change, but lean often oddly on the statement “knowledge is true and accurate if it has been unchanged for a x period of time”, like in the case of zone therapy.4

    What are some easily recognizable characteristics of a pseudoscientific argument, then? First it should be checked if the author of the argument can link his reasoning with any known and generally accepted theories, facts or references. If not, it is a good starting point to checking whether she or he has formed his or her theories out of thin air. Secondly it should be verified if the author of the theory or argument has used any concepts that are defined for example in physics, chemistry or psychology, and if the concepts have been used in a correct way and in the right connections. Thirdly, it should be checked whether the author has made any harsh, hasty generalizations.

    Fourthly, if the author of the theory or argument has used data to back up his or her claims, it should be checked if he or she has used public, generally accepted methods to acquire data and if he or she has taken the error marginals into account when interpreting his data. Pseudoscientific theories and arguments can also be seen boasting on “100-percent accurate” results, which is an unattainable percent of accuracy in the field of proper sciences. It should also be checked if the author’s claims can be falsified by experiment that gives opposite results.

    In the separation of scientific arguments from the pseudoscientific ones a clear separation should be made on what you want to be true and what is true.5 Pseudo-scientific arguments and theories often take advantage of peoples’ craving for some kind of a romanticism. Of course it would be nice if you could cure a sore back and a poor heart by a vanilla-tasting extract containing evening primrose6, a very pretty flower, but does it really work? This side of pseudosciences is also associated with the placebo effect. Unfortunately, in pseudoscientific experiments, it is usually never taken into account. In the field of “correct” medicine the placebo effect can be (and very often is) taken into account for example by performing blind- or double blind experiments. They help to differentiate between the placebo response and the physiological results produced by the drug itself.

    The preachings of my taiji (an old chinese sport which combines excercise, meditation and martial arts) instructor are a good example on three of these points. He claims that when you hold your hands in front of you for a while and your fingertips start tingling it is because of the mysterious “energy” in your body has started to flow more freely. This argument features two of the characteristics of a pseudoscientific argument: a) the concepts that belong to physics are used in the wrong way (“force is running through your veins when you concentrate”), b) this and other wisdoms of taiji rely on the fact that they have been an accepted truth for the chinese for centuries and therefore must be correct and c) since the so-called “energy” is invisible and inmeasurable its existence can never be proven nor falsified by experiment, and therefore it’s “true”.

    What difficulties can there be when separating a pseudo-scientific argument from a scientific one while so many clear characteristics can be assigned to both? Many. First, let’s consider the areas where science and pseudo-science somehow overlap.

    A common argument against pseudo-scientific arguments is the lack of critical, experimental evidence. However, a new scientific theory - such as Louis de Broglie’s theory of the wave-particle duality7 - may always not have experimental evidence to lean on in the first place, but are proven to be true by evidence only later on. The second way in which science and pseudoscience may overlap is the fact that science may not be always right nor pseudoscience always wrong. Acupuncture is an example of a case where a branch of medicine that has labeled ‘pseudoscience’ is now an accepted form of treatment for example headache. However, acupuncture isn’t effective because it “helps the mystical life energy Qi of the body flow free”8 but supposedly because it relieves both physical and psychological tension by making the body produce endorphins.9

    Then, let’s consider the cases where the difficulty in separating valid and non-valid arguments lies more in the fact that all observers may not have proper footing on which to judge the arguments. The more obvious case of this is the terminology used in both scientific and pseudoscientific connections.

    Pseudosciences often take concepts from natural sciences in a very carefree manner - for example, concepts belonging to physics like “energy” and “force” are very often misused in pseudoscientific texts. Sometimes these uses may be separated somewhat easily, like when the argument features concepts like “good energy” and “bad energy”10, but in a general case a person with no training in physics whatsoever is not able to distinguish which of the following statements is correct, “there are energy channels running throughout your body” or “when talking about mechanics, energy is the ability to do work”. Also the vocabulary from social sciences may be used in the wrong way. Sometimes the misuse of vocabulary may even concern such things as the terms belonging to statistics, such as the words “average” and “mode”.

    The general language used in pseudoscientific texts may also otherwise resemble a proper scientific text very much, making it hard for even a critical reader to distinguish whether it is valid or not. In addition to the difficult, technical language both pseudosciences and sciences may both create awe in the reader by leaning on authorities - “even Mr/Mrs X, PhD says this is true”. This is the case with for example the natural medicines of Mr. Tolonen, PhD11, which are advertised in almost all of the womens’ magazines in Finland.

    Separating a pseudoscientific argument from a scientific one may also be a psychological thing. Some pseudosciences are often more easily approached than sciences, which are considered to be distant and cold by many. An example of this is herbal medication, as mentioned before: a person suffering from cancer may find the thought of eating “all-natural” medicine made of a shark’s cartilage12 and sitting at home comfortably a more appealing option than going through the treatment ordered by the doctor. In cases like this the psychological factors may overlap critical thinking.

    Also the application of “naivistic” thinking that is useful in real life may not be wise when dealing with this kind of matters: things like the laws of cause and effect and statistical data can be easily misinterpreted using the everyday inductive method.

    To illustrate a few of the points I made before, I’ll tackle another example from my life. My grandmother was suffering from severe back pains due to a serious illness. She had met a so-called “doctor” (a spokesperson for natural medicines) who advised her to take some ginger root for her pain and cut off the other drugs. She stopped taking her prescribed drugs and started to eat loads of ginger. This, of course, didn’t help very much, but still she felt as if her pain had been eased a bit - I suppose that was the work of the placebo effect. However, fortunately my father convinced her quite soon to return to her original medication. This incident is an example of how a large portion of people is not provided with the correct means of distinguishing these sort of things - even when in some cases the pseudoscientific alternative can be harmful to the health.

    Distinguishing a scientific argument from a pseudo-scientific one is not necessarily an easy task. However, things like critical thinking, general education and above all, the much-praised common sense help in making the difference between the two.

    Word count: 1599


    1: The New Webster’s International Encyclopedia, p. 971, Trident Press International, 1999
    5: Lec5SCI2010.ppt
    7: Giancoli, Doublas C.: Physics fifth edition, p. 836, Prentice Hall, 1998

    © Minna Pöntinen 2009 / minagi (at)