Science and Pseudoscience
Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University
of Wisconsin - Green Bay
First-time Visitors: Please visit Site Map and Disclaimer.
Use "Back" to return here.
The Heaven and Hell episode of Cosmos contains a digression
that puzzles most viewers about the theories of a psychiatrist named Immanuel
Velikovsky, who in 1950 published a book arguing that there have been close
encounters between the earth and other planets in historic times. The episode on
Mars discusses the imaginary canals on Mars claimed by Percival Lowell and
others. Elsewhere Sagan takes on UFO's and states flatly "evolution is a fact,
it really happened."
Theories that claim to be scientific but fly in the face of scientific
consensus are often called pseudoscience, and the clash between science
and pseudoscience is a recurring theme in Cosmos.
The Intellectual World and the Intellectual Counterculture
Above is an attempt to classify knowledge and represent the major domains of
For every legitimate intellectual activity there is a counterculture
equivalent. It frequently comes as a revelation to people to learn that there
is an intellectual counterculture, that not everything claimed to be
intellectual really is.
||Ideological Abuse of Science
||Use of science to support ideology, or false claim that an ideology
is scientific (extreme Marxism).
||Ancient astronauts, Atlantis, extensive pre-Columbian Old World
contacts with the Americas, Afrocentrism
||The Bell Curve is on the fringe between legitimate sociology
and the counterculture. It argues that interracial differences in IQ as
shown by testing are real and based in genetics. Most of the commentary
on the book comes from people who never read it; its principal flaw is
that group differences in traits have little bearing on how we
should treat individuals.
||Naziism, extreme Marxism, militia groups
||Piss Christ, a photo of a crucifix in a jar of urine. In the
debate over whether such a work should be exhibited or funded, hardly
anybody asked the key question: how did anything so trivial and juvenile
ever come to be taken seriously as art?
||Esalen, EST, recovered memories, Satanic cult hysteria
||Doesn't disagree with scientific findings but rejects the scientific
method or world view. May view rationalism as supporting imperialism,
corporate power, or social inequality on the one hand, or a danger to
traditional values on the other. 1970's writers Jacques Ellul, Theodore
Roszak, Lewis Mumford and Charles Reich were prominent examples.
||Extreme Islamic and Christian fundamentalism (it is possible to
adhere to strict interpretations of the Bible and Koran without being an
||Angle trisectors, amateur solvers of celebrated problems.
||Velikovsky, Creationism, UFO's, Bigfoot, Loch Ness Monster, Psychic
||Pseudoscience used for practical purposes: denying unpleasant
realities or winning a legal contest.
Dangers Of The Intellectual Counterculture
- Some theories are dangerous in themselves
- Political Extremism
- Racism can be used to justify racial and ethnic violence
- Quack medical cults can lead people to avoid conventional medical
- Connections to extremism
- Some counterculture beliefs are used to lend intellectual legitimacy
to extremist movements. There was a sharp rise in crank movements in
Germany paralleling the rise of the Nazi Party, some of which tied their
theories to Nazi ideology.
- On the other hand, counterculture beliefs can serve as a safety valve
for frustration. Someone who blames the world for his misfortunes is
probably better off channeling his anger into getting worked up over
Area 51 than building bombs.
- Symptom Of Societal Irrationality. Just as fever and vomiting are symptoms
of bodily sickness, widespread acceptance of counterculture theories is a
symptom of widespread irrationality.
- The ritual child abuse and Satanic cult hysteria of the 1980's was a
literal witch hunt. Not a single case was ever proven.
- Recovered memories are a more recent and related phenomenon. While
therapy can sometimes reveal repressed memories of trauma, irresponsible
therapists have caused incalculable damage. Families have been split and
people have gone to prison over false memories. The good news is that
some therapists have lost their medical licenses and been hit with
multi-million dollar judgments.
- Confusion Over Methodology
- Acceptance of Faulty Data and Reasoning
- Scientific Illiteracy
- Logical Illiteracy
The purpose of the mind, as of the mouth, is to open it in order to close it on
The Scientific Counterculture And The Nature Of Science
- Reject Findings of Science
- Ideological Abuse Of Science
- Reject Limitations of Science
- "Junk Science"
- Practical pseudoscience used to create doubt about inconvenient
What Is Pseudoscience ?
What Pseudoscience Is
- Demonstrably faulty observations or theories, or elaborate
speculation without an adequate basis.
- Usually Supported by logical fallacies. The only way it's possible to
accept faulty data is through faulty reasoning.
- In open defiance of scientific consensus
What Pseudoscience Is Not
- Errors Made in Good Faith
- Polywater involved the claim that some chemists in the 1960's had created
a form of water that consisted of long chains of water molecules. It
eventually turned out the observations were due to contamination of
microscopic quantities of water by impurities. The original claimants
eventually admitted their mistake.
- Cold Fusion was the claim in the 1990's that it was possible to create
nuclear fusion in the laboratory under ordinary laboratory conditions. The
original observations were the result of some chemists using unfamiliar
instruments and not having their findings checked properly. It was sloppy,
but not pseudoscience. Some scientists continue to push cold fusion and some
of the advocacy is skating on the borders of pseudoscience, however.
- Informed Speculation. Attempting to estimate the number of habitable
planets and the possibility of life in the universe may or may not bear
fruit, but it's based on real data and is not pseudoscience. Speculating on
the history, culture, and geography of those planets, in the total absence
of data, is pseudoscience.
- Defined by personal disagreement
- Defined by personality or style. Critics and supporters alike agreed
Immanuel Velikovsky was a perfect gentleman. That doesn't make him right.
The Spectrum Of Scientific Probability
The chart below combines a numerical scale proposed by Arthur Strahler and a
zone description by James Trefil. Possible examples are listed in the center
|10,000:1 IN FAVOR
|10:1 IN FAVOR
The Frontier is the most interesting area to scientists. It's hard to
identify topics in the 10- or 100-to-one range for or against because these
areas are under active exploration, and ideas at these levels rapidly move in to
the center or out to the fringe. Ideas don't stay in the Frontier long. Anything more than 100 to one against is
probably too iffy to interest most scientists, but there are always a few high
rollers who consider the gamble worth the potential payoff.
I put extraterrestrial intelligence at even money because, while there's
nothing at all unscientific about the concept, there is absolutely no way of
knowing when we will resolve this issue. I put paleolinguistics, the attempt to
reconstruct the earliest human language, at 10:1 against, because languages pick
up a lot of random changes as they evolve, and this random noise is thought by
many scientists to limit how far back we can trace words. 100:1 against is
probably being generous to Bigfoot and Nessie. There's nothing inherently
unscientific about the existence of unknown animals, it's just extremely hard to
hide large unknown animals in small spaces. I put UFO's and the paranormal at
1000:1 against because, although the evidence put forward to date has been total
rubbish, neither idea is wholly impossible.
Branches of Pseudoscience
Authoritarian: Validate Received Truth
- 666 Theories
- Lysenkoism (Lysenko was a Soviet geneticist who used an obsolete model of
evolution to support Marxism. Since he was a friend of Stalin, he had a lot
of power in Soviet science)
Mystical: Validate Subjective Experience
- New Age
Tabloid: Titillation or Resentment of Authority
- Area 51
- Conspiracy cults
Junk Science: Pragmatic Applications of Pseudoscience
- Dismissal of dangers of smoking by tobacco companies
- Dismissal of dangers of marijuana by legalization advocates
- Denial of energy shortages
- Denial of environmental problems
- Perpetual motion machines. Frankly I am amazed these have not made a
- Diet fads
- Quack medical cures
Science Denied: Simply Ignoring Scientific Results
- Shroud of Turin. There's nothing inherently unscientific about the idea
that there might be a physical relic associated with Christ. But the Shroud
of Turin radiocarbon dated as medieval. End of story. Or is it? Shroud
believers simply ignore the dating results.
- Internet pseudoscience. Tracking pseudoscience in the days of the
Internet is like trying to dry out New Orleans after Katrina with a Q-Tip.
Essentially the Internet has created a host of parallel universes where
believers in odd ideas can get all their evidence and confirmation from each
other and not have to bother with reality at all.
The Appeal of Pseudoscience
- Genuine Conviction
- Feelings of Powerlessness
- Desire for Fame
- Practical Benefits
- Denial of Unpleasant Realities
- Medical Quackery
- Perpetual Motion Machines
- Junk Science
- Adventure, Escapism, Fun
- Loch Ness Monster
- Catastrophe Theories
- Conspiracy Theories
- Social Concerns
- Religious and Quasi-religious
- Creationism. Anti-evolutionists attribute all the ills of society
to evolution and its alleged weakening of belief in the Bible.
- Geocentrism. You thought this went out with Copernicus? Guess
again. These people agree that evolution is bad, but they think the
real problem began when the Copernican Revolution defeated
- End-Time cults. You can read Tim LaHaye's apocalyptic Left
Behind saga as a what-if story for the most part, but read the
last volume, Glorious Awakening, to get a full understanding
of LaHaye's venomous, perverted brand of Christianity.
- Islamic: for now, mostly parallels Christian opposition to evolution,
but watch for distinctively Islamic pseudoscience to develop. Some
- Denial of the Apollo moon landings
- Claiming European inventions as Islamic (not claiming things of
undeniable Islamic origin, but things of undeniable European origin)
- Conspiratorial theories of history to account for the decline of
- Revival of "Aryan Physics" - the Nazi attempt to create a physics
without "Jewish" ideas like relativity or quantum mechanics.
- Occult. Basically these offer all the conventional comforts of
religion without all the inconvenience of restraints on conduct.
- UFO Savior Myths
- Psychic Phenomena
- New Age
Logical Structure of Pseudoscience
- "Galileo Fallacy" "They laughed at Galileo, and he was right, so
I could be right too."
- They may have laughed at courageous mavericks. They also laughed at
- For everyone labeled a crackpot who turns out to be a persecuted genius,
there are a thousand who are merely crackpots.
- The Galileo affair is far more complex than the popular stereotype, and
far more interesting. It includes Galileo antagonizing fellow scientists and
a healthy dose of politics, Italian style.
- "Residue Fallacy" After all the bad data is eliminated, there
are still a few observations that are unexplained. The real question is
this: if 90% of the observations are faulty, why shouldn't we assume the
remaining 10% are also faulty?
- Explanation by Default. If science can't explain something, but the
pseudoscientist can, his explanation is probably right.
- Even if something can't be fully explained, it's often possible to show
that a lot of proposed explanations are wrong.
- Often science can explain the alleged anomaly, but the
explanation is concealed or dismissed. We do know how the Pyramids
- Distortion of the Term "Theory"
- A theory is any organized body of ideas used to account for some set of
- Theories can be true (heliocentric astronomy), false (Ptolemy and
epicycles) or debatable.
- Many theories are not in the least doubtful or hypothetical: number
theory in mathematics, stress theory in engineering, music theory in music.
- Some scientists have attempted to defuse this issue by redefining
"theory" and restricting it to mean a body of ideas that has been confirmed.
Apart from being intellectually dishonest, this definition is flatly wrong
and contradicts all historical usages of the word.
- Attacks on Inference and Deduction. If you go home and find your room
trashed and your stuff stolen, will you let the police dismiss it as merely
"inferring" that you were burglarized?
- Exaggeration of Uncertainty
- Extreme Relativism, Solipsism
- Catch-22 Arguments, Buzzwords
- Conspiratorial outlook. The single most reliable indicator of
pseudoscience. Almost every pseudoscientist sooner or later (usually sooner)
claims to be the victim of a conspiracy to suppress his discoveries, or the
theory itself revolves around a conspiracy.
Is It Fair to Reject All Conspiratorial Theories?
- Erroneous Use of Terms. Often the term "conspiracy" is used incorrectly.
Failure to use a simple word accurately doesn't inspire confidence in the person using the word.
- If there's no attempt at secrecy there is no conspiracy. Planned
Parenthood will give you a bushel of literature if you ask. Some people
may oppose them, but they're not a conspiracy.
- Making a common effort or having a common goal is not a conspiracy.
- Criticism is not persecution, and widespread criticism or opposition
does not constitute a conspiracy. It more likely is evidence that the
individual is wrong.
- The existence of a conspiracy is irrelevant to the issues.
- The objectives may be morally acceptable. The D-Day invasion and the
Manhattan Project were clothed in deep secrecy and engaged in deception.
By any reasonable definition, they were conspiracies.
- Sometimes secrecy is necessary. The Constitutional Convention of 1787
decided at its very first meeting not to take minutes because they
wanted delegates to feel free to change their minds without being
accused of caving in or selling out.
- Immoral conspiracies are immoral because of their goals and methods, not
their secrecy. The problem with Al-Qaeda isn't its secrecy, it's that it
flies airplanes into buildings.
- Conspiracy arguments are intellectually dishonest
- They are impossible to disprove so they can't be tested.
- Conspiracy believers can rationalize away any anomaly. The less
evidence there is, the more powerful and far reaching the conspiracy is
because it is so good at concealing itself. Conspiracies for which there
is no evidence at all must be incredibly powerful.
- Conspiracy arguments are an appeal to emotions instead of facts. The
conspiracy argument is designed to arouse anger and create sympathy for
the purported victim of the conspiracy.
- Conspiracy arguments poison the climate of debate. If you doubt the
existence of a conspiracy, you must be either a supporter or a dupe. Who
can have a meaningful debate in such a climate?
It's not proper to dismiss an idea solely because it postulates a conspiracy.
It is proper to insist on debating solely on the merits of the argument.
For most conspiracy believers, that takes all the fun out of it. You'd think
people would be relieved to find out the world is not filled with
powerful, malevolent conspiracies, but people fight tooth and nail to hang on to
A Nation of Jailhouse Lawyers
Freedom of Speech
Pseudoscientists often appeal to their right to free speech. Unless
opposition becomes intense enough to constitute harassment (and merely being
thin-skinned won't do it), opposition in itself
is not a violation of free speech. Nowhere does the Constitution promise
immunity to criticism. Nor does the Constitution promise any results for free
speech; it doesn't guarantee acceptance of a paper, finding a publisher, or
acceptance of ideas.
In criminal cases, a suspect is innocent until proven guilty, and some have
argued that the same principle applies to ideas. UFO sightings are valid until
proven wrong, and so on. Criminal suspects are innocent until proven guilty (and
we all know the system fails) but ideas are wrong until proven
In criminal law, the standard is proof "beyond a reasonable doubt." As the O.
J. Simpson case showed, there is such a thing as unreasonable doubt, and the
whole strategy of pseudoscientists is to create unreasonable doubt.
But there's another kind of law that's a much better analogy to science than
criminal law: civil law. In civil law there are two particularly relevant
- Preponderance of the Evidence. In criminal law, where the State is
pitted against an individual, the odds are so one-sided that we try to stack
them in favor of the defendant. That cannot be done in civil law; the
plaintiff has been hurt, the defendant will be hurt if he
loses. There are two more or less equal parties and one or both of them will
come out of it unhappy. Biasing the proceedings either way will give one
side an unfair advantage. So the standard is not proof "beyond reasonable
doubt," as in criminal cases, but "preponderance of the evidence." Ideas in
science do not have to be proven to the satisfaction of every doubter, nor
do minor anomalies serve to undermine a theory if the evidence in favor of
it is strong.
- Control of the Facts. If you are hiring job applicants, the person in
the best position to document whether or not discrimination is taking place
is you. Therefore, you have to keep records. You can't appeal to
absence of evidence if the only person who could have collected evidence is
you. In science, the person in the best position to document that a theory
is wrong is the doubter, therefore, the burden of proof in science is on
the challenger. Another way to say it is that science is innocent
until proven guilty.
The Data Base of Pseudoscience
- Random Events Collected Into Spurious Patterns
- Parapsychology is probably the best example of this phenomenon, where
occasional coincidences or runs of correct guesses are interpreted as a
real effect. People who look for patterns in lottery numbers are doing
the same thing.
- Real Phenomena Misinterpreted As Anomaly
- Venus As UFO. Many UFO sightings have turned out to be the planet
Venus, especially if it's seen in an unfamiliar setting or time of
night. Lots of these sightings come complete with accounts of windows,
exhaust flames, and so on.
- Loch Ness Monster and Bigfoot sightings. Apart from the hoaxes, people
who expect something big and unknown to be out there may interpret a
fleeting glimpse of a real but familiar animal as something exotic. And
let's face it, after going to all the expense of traveling to Scotland,
you really want to see the Loch Ness Monster.
- Revisionist Interpretations of Well-understood Phenomena
- Erich Von Daniken's books of the 1970's took numerous well-understood
ancient monuments and reinterpreted them as the work of ancient
- Scientific Creationism telescopes the geologic time scale into the
- Psychological Phenomena. When I first became interested in pseudoscience,
one question I asked was "how often do perfectly healthy and mentally stable
people hallucinate?" The answer is "surprisingly often."
- Biased Observations. We have a strong bias for seeing patterns. As
someone once put it, "it's better to run from an occasional nonexistent
tiger than to fail to spot a real one." But people will often interpret
weak evidence in support of a belief as confirmation but will dismiss
contrary evidence. Fleeting glimpses of something ordinary may be
interpreted as something fantastic.
- Hypnogogic and hypnopompic dreams. Hypnogogic dreams are those that
happen while going to sleep, hypnopompic dreams happen while waking up.
Both mix dreams with waking stimuli and are obvious sources of strange
observations, for example, waking up and seeing a spirit in the room or
a spacecraft in the back yard.
- Confabulation is a tendency to fantasize so intensely that the subject
actually experiences some of the sensations associated with the fantasy.
People prone to it are often relieved to know it is a recognized
phenomenon and they are not mentally ill; often they have worked out their own
methods for testing whether a sensory stimulus is real or not. But
people unaware of the phenomenon may well imagine things that are not
there. If I had any idea how to induce this state deliberately I could
be fabulously wealthy (think of going on Spring Break just by imagining
it), but I don't.
- Second-hand Data (Urban Legends) Urban legends are a well studied
phenomenon (see below) but there are innumerable similar ideas around that
contribute to misconceptions and reinforce stereotypes.
- Deliberate Fraud
- Parapsychology is rife with cases of fraud, usually by researchers who
sincerely believe in the phenomena but want to strengthen the evidence.
The observational evidence is so compromised by now the only course of
action possible is to junk it all and start from zero.
- Erich Von Daniken wrote his books about ancient astronauts while
serving time in prison for fraud.
- Genuine New Discoveries
- Semmelweiss and antisepsis. Ignatz Semmelweiss is an icon to crank
scientists because he was expelled from his post for insisting that
doctors use disinfectants, and he was, of course, right. But Semmelweiss
was a bit of a crank himself and hypothesized that disease was actually
carried by the "aura of death" clinging to the doctors. Even Joseph
Lister, who won general acceptance for antisepsis, believed incorrectly
at first that germs were in the air. As a result, doctors worked in an
irritating cloud of antiseptic spray. Lister himself later confessed
embarrassment for his misconception.
- Robert Gentry is a physicist and believer in scientific creationism.
He has published research, in regular scientific periodicals, on haloes
created in minerals by the decay of radioactive elements. Some of the
haloes are produced by short-lived elements, and Gentry interprets this
as evidence the rocks containing the haloes must have formed almost
instantaneously. Although the evidence against that conclusion is
overwhelming, Gentry's observations themselves were carefully done and
documented, and the explanation of his mystery haloes is unknown.
Two Common Types of Bad Data
- "Gee Whiz" Facts
- Anecdotal Evidence
"Gee Whiz" Facts "
- A Million Children Are Reported Missing Every Year"
- Right. And 99% are found within 24 hours. About a quarter of the U.S. population is
under 18 - over 70 million people. At face value this statistic means about
a quarter of all children would disappear before adulthood. I think we'd
notice that. True abductions are almost always spouse or partner abductions.
The abductions that terrify parents most, predator abductions, are a tiny
part of the total.
- "Suicide Is the ---th Leading Cause of Death Among Teen-agers"
- Without in any way trivializing this issue, teenagers are past the age of
vulnerability to childhood diseases and not yet subject to diseases of aging.
Organic diseases do not kill many teenagers. That leaves accident, suicide, and
- Suicide will always be a principal cause of death among teenagers,
simply because there are so few other causes.
- For every group, there will always be a leading cause of death.
- Anything other than accident, suicide, or homicide, in that order, indicates
a serious problem
- If AIDS, measles, tuberculosis, cancer, or any other disease were on the
list it would point to a massive breakdown of public health.
- If homicide were to be the leading cause, as it is in some inner cities, it
would point to gross social disorder.
To Be Valid, Anecdotal Evidence
- Must Be True
- Must Be Representative
Example: the Millionaire Who Pays No Income Tax. The actual data are below:
|Income (Source, 1987 IRS Data)
|| % of Income
|Over $1,000,000 (Average $2,422,000)
|Income (Source, 1999 Statistical Abstract of the United States)
|| % of Income
|Over $1,000,000 (Average $2,800,000)
|Income (Source, 2000 IRS data; 2003 Statistical Abstract of US Table 491)
|Over $1,000,000 (Average 3.4 $M)
The income is adjusted gross income, not gross income. It would be
interesting to see a tabulation for gross income to assess the impact of various
exemptions. On the other hand several patterns do emerge:
- The proportion of income paid by different groups does not change
appreciably with time, regardless of which party is in power and despite
repeated accusations of changes in favor of the wealthy.
- Millionaires get about 100 times as much income as the lower middle
class ($20,000 or so) but pay over 300 times as much tax (500 times in
The anecdote may be true; there are millionaires who can offset their
income against losses and end up paying no tax, but it is not representative.
The scholar who all but single-handedly brought this phenomenon into general
awareness was Jan Harold Brunvand of the University of Utah. He noted that urban
societies are rife with undocumented stories that are very similar to legends in
ancient and medieval times and in non-technological societies.
If you have friends who love to circulate Internet stories, bet that a lot
of them are urban legends.
- Moral retribution for violating standards. Sexual themes abound. A very
common theme is a spouse getting delicious revenge on a cheating spouse, or
lovers meeting some horrible fate for engaging in illicit sex. The Internet
legend of a man who arranges a sexual rendezvous on line and ends up meeting
his daughter is a perfect example.
- Horror or Taboo. Typical themes include
- Cannibalism. The baby-sitter who microwaves the baby.
- Disgusting things. A 1960's version, when bouffant hairdos were in
vogue, claimed that a girl with such a hairdo (which couldn't easily be
washed) found a family of spiders or some other creatures in her hair.
Stories of vile things in food, although sometimes true, are often urban
legends. Another story claims that a kind-hearted woman adopted what she
thought was a sick puppy, only to have the vet tell her it was a mangy
- Inexorable malevolent forces (the modern equivalent of witches). One
story claimed that a gang initiation involved driving around with lights
off at night, then, after a motorist flashed the car, following the
motorist home and killing him. Another story tells of someone who has a
love affair on vacation, then later received a package from the lover. Inside
was one nested box after another, and the final box contains a note
saying "Welcome to the world of AIDS."
- Internet virus stories are electronic versions of the above.
Typically it's a new virus undetectable by any protection software, and
can only be deleted by going into your system directory and deleting a
certain file. Usually the deleted file turns out to be some critical
system file. These hoaxes can do as much damage as real viruses. They're
a bit more cleverly worded than "smash your computer with a hammer" but
otherwise on the same level. Real malicious software masks its identity
and is never so easy to delete.
The best internet virus story is the Amish Virus. It says "we
don't have a computer, so when you get this, please erase all the files
from your hard disk, then mail this to all your friends."
- Urban legends are always plausible, which is why they circulate. Within
certain cultures and subcultures, stories can be considered credible and
circulate that would never gain credence elsewhere. The idea that a common
corporate logo is a Satanic symbol is merely silly to most people but it
circulated for a long time in religious circles, and the claim that the FCC
is planning to ban religious broadcasting, though legally (and politically)
absurd, keeps surfacing.
- Urban legends can almost never be traced to the original source, and
they turn up in slightly different versions in each locality, always with
details modified for the area.
Return to Exploration of the Universe Index
Return to Professor Dutch's Home Page
Created 02 March, 2006, Last Update
02 June, 2010
Not an official UW Green Bay site