By Celine Teh
Before talking about science, let’s talk about pseudoscience. Pseudosciences are false theories, statements, or practices that claim to be factual and scientific, and therefore are dangerous. For instance, anti vaccine activists who believe in pseudoscience refuse to be vaccinated for contagious diseases, resulting in putting themselves and other people at risk. In this chaotic digital world, we netizens should know how to identify pseudosciences- so here are some tips that will help you to recognize them.
1. Lookout for technobabble.
“I just went for an electrochemical plasmid treatment and neuroplastic medication, and I feel so energetic right now!”
Hold on, electrochemical plasmid? Neuroplastic? These are examples of technobabble, which are bombastic buzzwords that sound scientific but are used incorrectly or misleadingly. They are very likely to be used in marketing and advertising to evoke a false sense of reliability, and in turn provoking consumers to purchase the product. There was an increasing number of pseudosciences that includes terms like “bio”, “quantum”, “neuro”, “ions” to blend themselves into the sea of sciences.
One of the most far-fetched alternative medicine sites is QuantumMAN. Run by the Zurich Alpine Group (ZAG), its product was “The World’s First Downloadable Medicine”. It claims that if a user uses a Portal Access Key via his or her electronic device to open a quantum portal developed by ZAG, then the biodata, or the “medicine”, is transferred directly to the user’s brain by the means of quantum teleportation, causing physiological changes to the body and curing or preventing any disease. Apparently, you can get yourself vaccinated, lose weight, undergo quantum hormone replacement therapy, etc.
So, watch out for those hypes and overselling.
2. Seek strong evidence and related scientific research.
Sometimes pseudoscientific claims could be quite extraordinary but poorly supported by scientific literature. Phrenology is an example of psychological pseudoscience that believes by studying the bumps on the skull, you can get to know a person’s mental traits. It was popularized in the 18th century and was one of the ancestors of psychology, but faded away as experimental psychology emerged.
CAPTION: According to German doctor Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828) , the location of the bumps on your head indicates your personality. (britannia.com)
Another example is homeopathy, in which practitioners state that water has memory, and the more diluted the solution, the stronger the homeopathic effect. In other words, pure water has the strongest healing effect.
Other examples include the Flat Earth Theory, the Hollow Earth Theory (believing the Earth is hollow), conversion therapy (attempts to change somebody’s sexuality), the lunar effect (full moon influences human behavior), and many more conspiracy theories.
3. Beware if it relies substantially on testimonial evidence.
Between the late 1990s and the early 2000s, ionized jewelry was the craze for its ability to cure-all and energize the wearer. For example, LIFE Designs claims that your body resonates with the earth’s frequency, which is 7.83Hz, and wipes out EMR (electro-magnetic field) pollution when you wear their jewelry; Rico’s Bio Energy wristbands are meant to release negative ions into your body to separate red blood cells, therefore increasing your blood circulation and reducinginflammation; Q-Ray bracelets purports that they work like “acupuncture without needles” (quote from qray.ca) and optimizeyour positive energy by coming in contact with your acupuncture points.
CAPTION: Q-Ray bracelets claim to have Q-Ray effect on the body. The site explains that Q-Ray bracelets balance the Ying and Yang in the wearer’s body, thus achieving an optimal state of Qi, or a balanced state of wellness. (qray.com)
Interested in them? Not so fast.
In spite of impressive-sounding descriptions, those claims depend heavily on anecdotal evidence. Here is a quote from Life Designs about their jewelry: “...we have heard countless testimonials of how people’s pain had gone away...they feel more energized, and are sleeping better. Some people have felt stronger and more balanced.” (lifedesigns783.com).
Or a quote from Rico’s Bio Energy: “One of our clients has a child with cerebral palsy who wears our wristband every day and swears it has changed her life. Your customers with fibromyalgia, neuropathy, rheumatoid arthritis, chronic back pain, and migraines have noticed a significant difference in their pain levels after wearing out wristbands'' (ricosbioenergy.com).
And instead of scientific backups, Q-Ray has an entire page for customer reviews. On the other hand, their bracelets were tested by a team at the Mayo Clinic in 2002 against a placebo bracelet and, unsurprisingly, proved that they were just normal metallic bracelets.
CAPTION: A screenshot from qray.com. The customer reviews were updated regularly but no scientific evidence or research is uploaded on the site.
From a psychological point of view, the positive effects on customers were due to the placebo effect, meaning that an expectation or belief will trigger physiological changes in the body. Hence, whenever you spot an awesome claim but backed only by testimonies, it is likely to be a pseudoscience.
4. Ask yourself: Is the claim unfalsifiable?
An unfalsifiable claim cannot be tested and cannot be proven false, therefore lacking self-correction. For instance, “Q”i in Traditional Chinese Medicine is a vital energy in the body that regulates balance and well-being; however, it cannot be measured nor refuted, thus it is difficult to prove that Qi does not exist.
Karl Popper, one of the greatest philosophers of science in the 20th century, proposed that scientific claims are falsifiable, meaning that scientists should make bold hypotheses, carry out experiments, and use those outcomes to build on or correct the previous theories. Pseudoscience, on the other hand, seeks confirmation, in which their evidence is cherry-picked to suit their confirmation bias and lack openness towards criticism.
Let’s take the claim, “Vaccines cause autism” for example. It originated with a 1997 literature published in The Lancet by a British surgeon, Andrew Wakefield, and propagated fear among parents and caregivers. Multiple scientists replicated the experiment and found out the result was false, thus the study was retracted and Wakefield lost his medical license. However, its effect was irreversible. Up to this day, there are still skeptics who believe in this statement, even though “vaccines cause autism” is old news and many scientific studies refute it.
We are living in a world of 24/7 information, misinformation, and disinformation, so it is crucial for us to address the possibilities of pseudoscience and promote scientific skepticism. We should not just learn it in classrooms, but also apply them to daily life.
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Gorski, D. (2013, March 13). Closing out 2012 with a bit of fun: Do you want some quantum with that pseudoscience? Science. https://sciencebasedmedicine.org/do-you-want-some-quantum-with-that-pseudoscience/
Schmaltz, R., & Lilienfeld, S. O. (2014, March 31). Hauntings, homeopathy, and the Hopkinsville Goblins: using pseudoscience to teach scientific thinking. Frontiers. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00336/full.
Stemwedel, J. D. (2011, October 4). Drawing the line between science and pseudo-science. Scientific American Blog Network. https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/doing-good-science/drawing-the-line-between-science-and-pseudo-science/.
Vance 12.01.2016, E., Cosier 04.23.2021, S., & Schwartz 08.14.2020, J. (2019, September 30). Q-Ray Bracelets, the 17th Dimension, and the Placebo Effect. Undark Magazine. https://undark.org/2016/12/01/the-ancient-magic-power-of-alien-creatures-from-the-17th-dimension/.