Pseudoscience: what can’t be called science

(note: this is a translated and updated version of the article originally published at Universo Racionalista)

In today’s world, one of the greatest battles regarding science is a problem of identity. There’s many kinds of knowledge in our world and many ways to make sense to reality, but science may be the only one that needs constantly to fight to explain what it is not. This happens because frequently people made allegations that is said to be “scientific”when it's not.

Think about religion, for example: you may dispute what if certain gathering is a cult, a religion or other, but you don’t have a thing that people say that is Christian but actually is not. You have different interpretations of the Bible, sure, and you have people that take advantage of religion and fool people, but you do know what Christianity means. You won’t be fooled going into an Evangelical Church that pretends to be an office. Religious schools are clear in their intent and do not try to fool anyone in this regard. And, most importantly, no one bother priests for being “wrong” about their own religion (except assholes on the internet). But, with science, there’s always important people (like politicians) believing fully in things that are not science but says it is and the scientists are always being questioned by people who didn’t even liked go to school or interested in science in the first place.

I must emphasize that I’m not putting science in a pedestal here. What I’m saying is there are things that are science and things that aren’t. It may seem – and should be – obvious, but it’s not. That’s why fighting against pseudoscience is extremely important. Science follows certain rules and everything that doesn’t follow these rules cannot be considered science1. Would you called soccer soccer if everyone  is using the soccer ball to play with the rules of volleyball? That’s the main issue in pseudoscience and, in this day and age, with fake news and pandemics, being able to make this distinction is more important than ever.

What the hell is pseudoscience anyway?

As its own name suggests, pseudoscience is not science, but pretends to be. It’s every allegation or group of beliefs that use scientific jargon or take advantage of the credibility that science has to validate beliefs, but don’t play by science’s rules. Pseudoscience is a problem particularly because it’s not honest: it uses the reputation of science to sell something that isn’t. We know science fiction stories are, well, fictional, for example. It did use science to extrapolate and create made up stories, but a filmmaker or a writer is not trying to fool you into thinking what he is doing is real – except for J.J. Benitez, but that’s another story. You buy his/her book or watch his/her film knowing that’s fiction. With pseudoscience, we don’t have this luxury.

Unlike the Philosophic body of knowledge that has it’s own path and follow its own rules, pseudoscience tricks the unsuspecting person into thinking that a pseudoscientific allegation pass through all the criterion and through the rigorous methodology that is key to make science. Pseudoscience can be divided into as much areas of study as science does, like pseudoastronomy, pseudopsicology, pseudohistory, pseudoarcheology, among others. It’s to much to talk about in just one text, but a general idea about it is enough.

But how can I distinguish Science from pseudoscience?

That's a really good question and I wish I could have an definite answer. It’s not always easy to spot a pseudoscience happening – sometimes it’s even difficult to draw a definitive line between the two. Philosophers of Science tried and still try hard to define this kind of thing and there are some aspects that are not exactly a consensus. But the good new is that’s just in the most extreme examples and we can let Philosophers of Science keep struggling with that. Generally, there are aspects to scientific making that helps us make an efficient evaluation of what it'd truly scientific:

Indexed Scientific Publications. Science protects itself through scientific journals that are considered official (“indexed”) and it’s, in journalism terms, the “primary source” of science. Every science education website, every newspaper or news channel can trace any real scientific discovery to its original source, which is always a scientific publication or is related to one. But what makes scientific publications so reliable? Well, indexed scientific journals had very strict rules about what to publish and that’s why a lot of so called “discoveries” are not in this journals, simply because it failed to pass. That said, be careful with publications that are said to be scientific, but are not indexed. And be even more careful with people that said that science doesn’t accept some wacky idea because its “groundbreaking” (science does groundbreaking thinks all the time) or because there’s a conspiracy to hide that (there’s a reason why the scientific community is called a "community" and not an “institution” - it's not a secret society, it's rules are well known and anyone in society, even if it's not a scientist, can see a scientific paper for themselves and judge).

Peer review. You wanna know what makes a scientific publications so reliable? well, peer review is maybe the best example. In science, no discovery is imposed; once a research is presented, it doesn't  matter how great it looks or how reliable and well known the scientist are, it will be reviewed by his peers, independent researchers that may agree or disagree with the results. They also can point flaws in the study, which is key to improve the scientific methods. In the end, there’s a consensus about if the research is valid for publication or not.

Reproducibility. One of the great things about scientific research is that scientists don’t just take the scientist's world for it; they need that he can explain in detail how he/she did the research so it can be done again by any researcher anytime using the same methods, many times as necessary. This characteristic is important because, in science, a lot of things happen once and never again. It’s anomalies in research that can be caused by any number of factors – from errors in the design of the research to stupid things like a way a scientist shakes a liquid – that doesn’t represent any useful data. To make sure that we don’t believe in some anomaly that will never occur again, research had to be reproducible, so we can be confident that the results are solid.

Prediction. No, we are not talking about Nostradamus-type prophecies here. But science does indeed make predictions, based on the data available. That’s how we can be sure that a theory is solid. For example, when the Big Bang theory (not the TV show) was created, it was predicted that, if it were true, there should be some kind or residual radiation of the original “bang” that spreaded throughout the universe and is uniformly distributed, so much so that anywhere we point our equipment, it will be there. We actually did find it and now we call it “Cosmic Microwave Background” radiation. But it’s important to realize that these predictions are not made out of thin air; they are based on the data that is collected, the equations and/or the laws that are part of the framework of the system/hypothesis in question. It’s thanks to the science’s prediction abilities that we have the modern equipment we have to day. We know enough about the consistence of things in the universe that we can create computers, cellphones and cars. Imagine if we couldn’t tell what happens if you run too fast with your car against a wall? Science can make that prediction based on what we know about speed, mass and time or; you can discover for yourself. What do you think is the safest route?

Flexibility. The scientific method is strict but not rigid; science is always changing and all the scientific knowledge can be seen as transitory. And this is not a bad thing. If we still tought that the Earth is flat, we couldn’t have think about GPS system, which is an essential part of our daily life in current times. All scientific knowledge is made within the mindset of its time and our limitation in knowledge. While it’s useful to us, we can count on it; but once new information is discovered that is more efficient in explain something or in help us make some new equipment, well, then it’s time to move on. So, if a system exists for centuries with not many changes or refutations, that’s everything but science2.

Humbleness. This idea is linked to the other ones, but it’s important: no system/theory or scientist is an absolute authority. An idea is always discarded if the evidences didn’t corroborate it or tell us that it’s wrong. Any idea that resists even when evidence doesn’t supported it or that is "critic proof" can’t be scientific.

Of course these – and other – criteria, when evaluated by itself can have exceptions. It’s exactly the ensemble of all these criteria that grants us with the lowest possible error margin when we are talking about separating science from pseudoscience. And this leds to an extremely important thing: saying something is pseudoscience is not the same as to disagree with a scientific allegation. Scientists disagree all the time, it’s how science progresses. Pseudoscience is not a bad word, it’s a classification; if something say it’s scientific but doesn't follow its rules, then it’s pseudoscience.

The real problem with pseudoscience is that it wants the reputation that science has and especially its credibility, but doesn’t want the weight of following the rules – and accepted when the rules reject your ideas. The obvious result of this is that pseudoscience scams a lot of people that can lose their money, their health and even their life for believing in something that’s nthey thought had a solid scientific basis. It’s not the same as believing in a religion; religion is not trying to sell you something it’s not (well, some preachers and some cults may do, but you know what I’m talking about). Pseudoscience is bad because it uses outdated, manipulated or wrong information frequently for personal gain – at other’s expense. And that’s why is so dangerous and we must fight it atll all cost, especially in times like these. 

Rafael Algures is a Bachelor of Philosophy specialized in Neurosciences of Language. He is also a copywriter, content and science writer, and a comic book creator. His latest work, “Gutter of Horror: Transition”, a short horror comic about Philosophy and Artificial Intelligence are available at Amazon – digital and print.


1. Note that I’m not saying that what is not scientific knowledge isn’t valid in some way; what matters here is some things are science, some things are not. And this is true regardless of what you think about science. There are things that are rock and things that aren’t, regardless of what you think about rocks.

2. You may think that this is the case with some systems like Evolution, but the difference is that this kind of theories are tested by science every time and it keeps winning. Of course, many of these theories are not the same as they were when it was created. With every new information, we reinforce aspects of the theory and refine it – or discarded it.