Pseudoscience consists of statements, beliefs, or practices that are
claimed to be both scientific and factual, but are incompatible with
the scientific method.[Note 1]
Pseudoscience is often characterized
by contradictory, exaggerated or unfalsifiable claims; reliance on
confirmation bias rather than rigorous attempts at refutation; lack of
openness to evaluation by other experts; and absence of systematic
practices when developing theories. The term pseudoscience is
considered pejorative because it suggests something is being
presented as science inaccurately or even deceptively. Those described
as practicing or advocating pseudoscience often dispute the
The demarcation between science and pseudoscience has philosophical
and scientific implications. Differentiating science from
pseudoscience has practical implications in the case of health care,
expert testimony, environmental policies, and science education.
Distinguishing scientific facts and theories from pseudoscientific
beliefs, such as those found in astrology, alchemy, medical quackery,
occult beliefs, and creation science, is part of science education and
2.1 The scientific method
2.3 Mertonian norms
2.4 Refusal to acknowledge problems
2.5 Criticism of the term
2.6 Alternative definition of the term
4.2 Use of vague, exaggerated or untestable claims
4.3 Over-reliance on confirmation rather than refutation
4.4 Lack of openness to testing by other experts
4.5 Absence of progress
4.6 Personalization of issues
4.7 Use of misleading language
5 Prevalence of pseudoscientific beliefs in the United States
7 Boundaries with science
8 Politics, health, and education
8.1 Political implications
8.2 Health and education implications
9 See also
9.1 Related concepts
9.2 Similar terms
12 Further reading
13 External links
The word "pseudoscience" is derived from the Greek root pseudo meaning
false and the English word science, from the Latin word
"scientia", meaning "knowledge". Although the term has been in use
since at least the late 18th century (e.g., in 1796 by James Pettit
Andrews in reference to alchemy) the concept of pseudoscience
as distinct from real or proper science seems to have become more
widespread during the mid-19th century. Among the earliest uses of
"pseudo-science" was in an 1844 article in the Northern Journal of
Medicine, issue 387:
"That opposite kind of innovation which pronounces what has been
recognized as a branch of science, to have been a pseudo-science,
composed merely of so-called facts, connected together by
misapprehensions under the disguise of principles"
An earlier use of the term was in 1843 by the French physiologist
François Magendie. During the 20th century, the word was used
pejoratively to describe explanations of phenomena which were claimed
to be scientific, but which were not in fact supported by reliable
experimental evidence. From time-to-time, though, the usage of the
word occurred in a more formal, technical manner in response to a
perceived threat to individual and institutional security in a social
and cultural setting.
Pseudoscience is differentiated from science by the lack of adherence
to accepted scientific standards, including using the scientific
method, falsifiability of claims, and adherence to Mertonian norms.
The scientific method
The scientific method as a cyclic or iterative process
A typical 19th century phrenology chart: During the 1820s,
phrenologists claimed the mind was located in areas of the brain, and
were attacked for doubting that mind came from the nonmaterial soul.
Their idea of reading "bumps" in the skull to predict personality
traits was later discredited.
Phrenology was first termed a
pseudoscience in 1843 and continues to be considered so.
A number of basic principles are accepted by scientists as standards
for determining whether a body of knowledge, method, or practice is
scientific. Experimental results should be reproducible and verified
by other researchers. These principles are intended to ensure
experiments can be reproduced measurably given the same conditions,
allowing further investigation to determine whether a hypothesis or
theory related to given phenomena is both valid and reliable.
Standards require the scientific method to be applied throughout, and
bias to be controlled for or eliminated through randomization, fair
sampling procedures, blinding of studies, and other methods. All
gathered data, including the experimental or environmental conditions,
are expected to be documented for scrutiny and made available for peer
review, allowing further experiments or studies to be conducted to
confirm or falsify results. Statistical quantification of
significance, confidence, and error are also important tools for
the scientific method.
Main article: Falsifiability
During the mid-20th century,
Karl Popper emphasized the criterion of
falsifiability to distinguish science from nonscience. Statements,
hypotheses, or theories have falsifiability or refutability if there
is the inherent possibility that they can be proven false. That is, if
it is possible to conceive of an observation or an argument which
negates them. Popper used astrology and psychoanalysis as examples of
pseudoscience and Einstein's theory of relativity as an example of
science. He subdivided nonscience into philosophical, mathematical,
mythological, religious and metaphysical formulations on one hand, and
pseudoscientific formulations on the other, though he did not provide
clear criteria for the differences.
Another example which shows the distinct need for a claim to be
falsifiable was stated in Carl Sagan's publication The Demon-Haunted
World when he discusses an invisible dragon that he has in his garage.
The point is made that there is no physical test to refute the claim
of the presence of this dragon. No matter what test you think you can
devise, there is then a reason why this does not apply to the
invisible dragon, so one can never prove that the initial claim is
wrong. Sagan concludes; "Now, what's the difference between an
invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire and no
dragon at all?". He states that "your inability to invalidate my
hypothesis is not at all the same thing as proving it true", once
again explaining that even if such a claim were true, it would be
outside the realm of scientific inquiry.
Main article: Mertonian norms
Robert K. Merton
Robert K. Merton identified a set of five "norms" which
he characterized as what makes a real science. If any of the norms
were violated, Merton considered the enterprise to be nonscience.
These are not broadly accepted by the scientific community. His norms
Originality: The tests and research done must present something new to
the scientific community.
Detachment: The scientists' reasons for practicing this science must
be simply for the expansion of their knowledge. The scientists should
not have personal reasons to expect certain results.
Universality: No person should be able to more easily obtain the
information of a test than another person. Social class, religion,
ethnicity, or any other personal factors should not be factors in
someone's ability to receive or perform a type of science.
Scientific facts must not be based on faith. One should
always question every case and argument and constantly check for
errors or invalid claims.
Public accessibility: Any scientific knowledge one obtains should be
made available to everyone. The results of any research should be
published and shared with the scientific community.
The astrological signs of the zodiac.
Refusal to acknowledge problems
Paul Thagard proposed that pseudoscience is primarily
distinguishable from science when it is less progressive than
alternative theories over a long period of time, and its proponents
fail to acknowledge or address problems with the theory. During
Mario Bunge has suggested the categories of "belief fields" and
"research fields" to help distinguish between pseudoscience and
science, where the former is primarily personal and subjective and the
latter involves a certain systematic method.
Criticism of the term
Philosophers of science such as
Paul Feyerabend argued that a
distinction between science and nonscience is neither possible nor
desirable.[Note 2] Among the issues which can make the distinction
difficult is variable rates of evolution among the theories and
methods of science in response to new data.[Note 3]
Larry Laudan has suggested pseudoscience has no scientific meaning and
is mostly used to describe our emotions: "If we would stand up and be
counted on the side of reason, we ought to drop terms like
'pseudo-science' and 'unscientific' from our vocabulary; they are just
hollow phrases which do only emotive work for us". Likewise,
Richard McNally states, "The term 'pseudoscience' has become little
more than an inflammatory buzzword for quickly dismissing one's
opponents in media sound-bites" and "When therapeutic entrepreneurs
make claims on behalf of their interventions, we should not waste our
time trying to determine whether their interventions qualify as
pseudoscientific. Rather, we should ask them: How do you know that
your intervention works? What is your evidence?"
Alternative definition of the term
Silvio Funtowicz and
Jerome R. Ravetz
Jerome R. Ravetz "...
pseudo-science may be defined as one where the uncertainty of its
inputs must be suppressed, lest they render its outputs totally
indeterminate". The definition, in the book
Uncertainty and quality in
science for policy (p. 54), alludes to the loss of craft
skills in handling quantitative information, and to the bad practice
of achieving precision in prediction (inference) only at the expenses
of ignoring uncertainty in the input which was used to formulate the
prediction. This use of the term is common among practitioners of
post-normal science. Understood in this way, pseudoscience can be
fought using good practices to assesses uncertainty in quantitative
information, such as
NUSAP and - in the case of mathematical modelling
- sensitivity auditing.
History of pseudoscience
The history of pseudoscience is the study of pseudoscientific theories
over time. A pseudoscience is a set of ideas that presents itself as
science, while it does not meet the criteria to be properly called
Distinguishing between proper science and pseudoscience is sometimes
difficult. One proposal for demarcation between the two is the
falsification criterion, attributed most notably to the philosopher
Karl Popper. In the history of science and "history of pseudoscience"
it can be especially difficult to separate the two, because some
sciences developed from pseudosciences. An example of this is the
science chemistry, which traces its origins to pseudoscientific
The vast diversity in pseudosciences further complicates the history
of science. Some modern pseudosciences, such as astrology and
acupuncture, originated before the scientific era. Others developed as
part of an ideology, such as Lysenkoism, or as a response to perceived
threats to an ideology. Examples are creation science and intelligent
design, which were developed in response to the scientific theory of
Homeopathic preparation Rhus toxicodendron, derived from poison ivy.
A topic, practice, or body of knowledge might reasonably be termed
pseudoscientific when it is presented as consistent with the norms of
scientific research, but it demonstrably fails to meet these norms.
Karl Popper stated it is insufficient to distinguish science from
pseudoscience, or from metaphysics, by the criterion of rigorous
adherence to the empirical method, which is essentially inductive,
based on observation or experimentation. He proposed a method to
distinguish between genuine empirical, nonempirical or even
pseudoempirical methods. The latter case was exemplified by astrology,
which appeals to observation and experimentation. While it had
astonishing empirical evidence based on observation, on horoscopes and
biographies, it crucially failed to use acceptable scientific
standards. Popper proposed falsifiability as an important
criterion in distinguishing science from pseudoscience.
To demonstrate this point, Popper gave two cases of human behavior
and typical explanations from
Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler's
theories: "that of a man who pushes a child into the water with the
intention of drowning it; and that of a man who sacrifices his life in
an attempt to save the child." From Freud's perspective, the first
man would have suffered from psychological repression, probably
originating from an Oedipus complex, whereas the second had attained
sublimation. From Adler's perspective, the first and second man
suffered from feelings of inferiority and had to prove himself which
drove him to commit the crime or, in the second case, rescue the
child. Popper was not able to find any counterexamples of human
behavior in which the behavior could not be explained in the terms of
Adler's or Freud's theory. Popper argued it was that the
observation always fitted or confirmed the theory which, rather than
being its strength, was actually its weakness.
In contrast, Popper gave the example of Einstein's gravitational
theory, which predicted "light must be attracted by heavy bodies (such
as the Sun), precisely as material bodies were attracted."
Following from this, stars closer to the Sun would appear to have
moved a small distance away from the Sun, and away from each other.
This prediction was particularly striking to Popper because it
involved considerable risk. The brightness of the Sun prevented this
effect from being observed under normal circumstances, so photographs
had to be taken during an eclipse and compared to photographs taken at
night. Popper states, "If observation shows that the predicted effect
is definitely absent, then the theory is simply refuted." Popper
summed up his criterion for the scientific status of a theory as
depending on its falsifiability, refutability, or testability.
Paul R. Thagard used astrology as a case study to distinguish science
from pseudoscience and proposed principles and criteria to delineate
them. First, astrology has not progressed in that it has not been
updated nor added any explanatory power since Ptolemy. Second, it has
ignored outstanding problems such as the precession of equinoxes in
astronomy. Third, alternative theories of personality and behavior
have grown progressively to encompass explanations of phenomena which
astrology statically attributes to heavenly forces. Fourth,
astrologers have remained uninterested in furthering the theory to
deal with outstanding problems or in critically evaluating the theory
in relation to other theories. Thagard intended this criterion to be
extended to areas other than astrology. He believed it would delineate
as pseudoscientific such practices as witchcraft and pyramidology,
while leaving physics, chemistry and biology in the realm of science.
Biorhythms, which like astrology relied uncritically on birth dates,
did not meet the criterion of pseudoscience at the time because there
were no alternative explanations for the same observations. The use of
this criterion has the consequence that a theory can be scientific at
one time and pseudoscientific at a later time.
Science is also distinguishable from revelation, theology, or
spirituality in that it offers insight into the physical world
obtained by empirical research and testing. The most notable
disputes concern the evolution of living organisms, the idea of common
descent, the geologic history of the Earth, the formation of the solar
system, and the origin of the universe. Systems of belief that
derive from divine or inspired knowledge are not considered
pseudoscience if they do not claim either to be scientific or to
overturn well-established science. Moreover, some specific religious
claims, such as the power of intercessory prayer to heal the sick,
although they may be based on untestable beliefs, can be tested by the
Some statements and common beliefs of popular science may not meet the
criteria of science. "Pop" science may blur the divide between science
and pseudoscience among the general public, and may also involve
science fiction. Indeed, pop science is disseminated to, and can
also easily emanate from, persons not accountable to scientific
methodology and expert peer review.
If the claims of a given field can be tested experimentally and
standards are upheld, it is not "pseudoscience", however odd,
astonishing, or counterintuitive. If claims made are inconsistent with
existing experimental results or established theory, but the method is
sound, caution should be used; science consists of testing hypotheses
which may turn out to be false. In such a case, the work may be better
described as ideas that are "not yet generally accepted". Protoscience
is a term sometimes used to describe a hypothesis that has not yet
been tested adequately by the scientific method, but which is
otherwise consistent with existing science or which, where
inconsistent, offers reasonable account of the inconsistency. It may
also describe the transition from a body of practical knowledge into a
See also: List of topics characterized as pseudoscience
Examples of pseudoscientific concepts include:
engram theory proposed by
Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard
extrasensory perception (ESP)
Myers–Briggs Type Indicator
neuro-linguistic programming (NLP)
paranormal plant perception
rebirthing therapy and other
New Age psychotherapies
revised history of the solar system proposed by Immanuel Velikovsky.
During 2006, the U.S. National
Science Foundation (NSF) issued an
executive summary of a paper on science and engineering which briefly
discussed the prevalence of pseudoscience in modern times. It said,
"belief in pseudoscience is widespread" and, referencing a Gallup
Poll, stated that belief in the 10 commonly believed examples of
paranormal phenomena listed in the poll were "pseudoscientific
beliefs".  The items were "extrasensory perception (ESP), that
houses can be haunted, ghosts, telepathy, clairvoyance, astrology,
that people can communicate mentally with someone who has died,
witches, reincarnation, and channelling". Such beliefs in
pseudoscience represent a lack of knowledge of how science works. The
scientific community may attempt to communicate information about
science out of concern for the public's susceptibility to unproven
This section contains embedded lists that may be poorly defined,
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Wikipedia's quality standards. Where appropriate, incorporate items
into the main body of the article. (December 2016)
The following are some suggested indicators of the possible presence
Use of vague, exaggerated or untestable claims
Assertion of scientific claims that are vague rather than precise, and
that lack specific measurements
Assertion of a claim with little or no explanatory power.
Failure to make use of operational definitions (i.e. publicly
accessible definitions of the variables, terms, or objects of interest
so that persons other than the definer can measure or test them
independently)[Note 4] (See also: Reproducibility).
Failure to make reasonable use of the principle of parsimony, i.e.
failing to seek an explanation that requires the fewest possible
additional assumptions when multiple viable explanations are possible
(see: Occam's razor).
Use of obscurantist language, and use of apparently technical jargon
in an effort to give claims the superficial trappings of science.
Lack of boundary conditions: Most well-supported scientific theories
possess well-articulated limitations under which the predicted
phenomena do and do not apply.
Lack of effective controls, such as placebo and double-blind, in
Lack of understanding of basic and established principles of physics
Over-reliance on confirmation rather than refutation
Assertions that do not allow the logical possibility that they can be
shown to be false by observation or physical experiment (see also:
Assertion of claims that a theory predicts something that it has not
been shown to predict.
Scientific claims that do not confer any
predictive power are considered at best "conjectures", or at worst
"pseudoscience" (e.g. Ignoratio elenchi)
Assertion that claims which have not been proven false must therefore
be true, and vice versa (see: Argument from ignorance).
Over-reliance on testimonial, anecdotal evidence, or personal
experience: This evidence may be useful for the context of discovery
(i.e. hypothesis generation), but should not be used in the context of
justification (e.g. Statistical hypothesis testing).
Presentation of data that seems to support claims while suppressing or
refusing to consider data that conflict with those claims. This is
an example of selection bias, a distortion of evidence or data that
arises from the way that the data are collected. It is sometimes
referred to as the selection effect.
Promulgating to the status of facts excessive or untested claims that
have been previously published elsewhere; an accumulation of such
uncritical secondary reports, which do not otherwise contribute their
own empirical investigation, is called the Woozle effect.
Reversed burden of proof: science places the burden of proof on those
making a claim, not on the critic. "Pseudoscientific" arguments may
neglect this principle and demand that skeptics demonstrate beyond a
reasonable doubt that a claim (e.g. an assertion regarding the
efficacy of a novel therapeutic technique) is false. It is essentially
impossible to prove a universal negative, so this tactic incorrectly
places the burden of proof on the skeptic rather than on the
Appeals to holism as opposed to reductionism: proponents of
pseudoscientific claims, especially in organic medicine, alternative
medicine, naturopathy and mental health, often resort to the "mantra
of holism" to dismiss negative findings.
Lack of openness to testing by other experts
Evasion of peer review before publicizing results (termed "science by
press conference"):[Note 5] Some proponents of ideas that
contradict accepted scientific theories avoid subjecting their ideas
to peer review, sometimes on the grounds that peer review is biased
towards established paradigms, and sometimes on the grounds that
assertions cannot be evaluated adequately using standard scientific
methods. By remaining insulated from the peer review process, these
proponents forgo the opportunity of corrective feedback from informed
Some agencies, institutions, and publications that fund scientific
research require authors to share data so others can evaluate a paper
independently. Failure to provide adequate information for other
researchers to reproduce the claims contributes to a lack of
Appealing to the need for secrecy or proprietary knowledge when an
independent review of data or methodology is requested
Substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all
viewpoints is not encouraged.
Absence of progress
Failure to progress towards additional evidence of its
Terence Hines has identified astrology as a
subject that has changed very little in the past two
millennia. (see also:
Lack of self-correction: scientific research programmes make mistakes,
but they tend to reduce these errors over time. By contrast, ideas
may be regarded as pseudoscientific because they have remained
unaltered despite contradictory evidence. The work Scientists Confront
Velikovsky (1976) Cornell University, also delves into these features
in some detail, as does the work of Thomas Kuhn, e.g. The Structure of
Scientific Revolutions (1962) which also discusses some of the items
on the list of characteristics of pseudoscience.
Statistical significance of supporting experimental results does not
improve over time and are usually close to the cutoff for statistical
significance. Normally, experimental techniques improve or the
experiments are repeated, and this gives ever stronger evidence. If
statistical significance does not improve, this typically shows the
experiments have just been repeated until a success occurs due to
Personalization of issues
Tight social groups and authoritarian personality, suppression of
dissent and groupthink can enhance the adoption of beliefs that have
no rational basis. In attempting to confirm their beliefs, the group
tends to identify their critics as enemies.
Assertion of claims of a conspiracy on the part of the scientific
community to suppress the results[Note 7]
Attacking the motives or character of anyone who questions the claims
Ad hominem fallacy)[Note 8]
Use of misleading language
Creating scientific-sounding terms to persuade nonexperts to believe
statements that may be false or meaningless: For example, a
long-standing hoax refers to water by the rarely used formal name
"dihydrogen monoxide" and describes it as the main constituent in most
poisonous solutions to show how easily the general public can be
Using established terms in idiosyncratic ways, thereby demonstrating
unfamiliarity with mainstream work in the discipline
Prevalence of pseudoscientific beliefs in the United States
In his book
The Demon-Haunted World
The Demon-Haunted World
Carl Sagan discusses the
government of China and the Chinese Communist Party's concern about
Western pseudoscience developments and certain ancient Chinese
practices in China. He sees pseudoscience occurring in the United
States as part of a worldwide trend and suggests its causes, dangers,
diagnosis and treatment may be universal.
Science Foundation stated that pseudoscientific beliefs
in the U.S. became more widespread during the 1990s, peaked about
2001, and then decreased slightly since with pseudoscientific beliefs
remaining common. According to the NSF report, there is a lack of
knowledge of pseudoscientific issues in society and pseudoscientific
practices are commonly followed. Surveys indicate about a third of
all adult Americans consider astrology to be scientific.
A large percentage of the
United States population lacks scientific
literacy, not adequately understanding scientific principles and
method.[Note 9][Note 10][Note 11] In the Journal of College
Science Teaching, Art Hobson writes, "Pseudoscientific beliefs are
surprisingly widespread in our culture even among public school
science teachers and newspaper editors, and are closely related to
scientific illiteracy." However, a 10,000-student study in the
same journal concluded there was no strong correlation between science
knowledge and belief in pseudoscience.
In a report Singer and Benassi (1981) wrote that pseudoscientific
beliefs have their origin from at least four sources.
Common cognitive errors from personal experience.
Erroneous sensationalistic mass media coverage.
Poor or erroneous science education.
Another American study (Eve and Dunn, 1990) supported the findings of
Singer and Benassi and found pseudoscientific belief being promoted by
high school life science and biology teachers.
The psychology of pseudoscience attempts to explore and analyze
pseudoscientific thinking by means of thorough clarification on making
the distinction of what is considered scientific vs. pseudoscientific.
The human proclivity for seeking confirmation rather than refutation
(confirmation bias), the tendency to hold comforting beliefs, and
the tendency to overgeneralize have been proposed as reasons for
pseudoscientific thinking. According to Beyerstein (1991), humans are
prone to associations based on resemblances only, and often prone to
misattribution in cause-effect thinking.
Michael Shermer's theory of belief-dependent realism is driven by the
belief that the brain is essentially a "belief engine," which scans
data perceived by the senses and looks for patterns and meaning. There
is also the tendency for the brain to create cognitive biases, as a
result of inferences and assumptions made without logic and based on
instinct — usually resulting in patterns in cognition. These
tendencies of patternicity and agenticity are also driven "by a
meta-bias called the bias blind spot, or the tendency to recognize the
power of cognitive biases in other people but to be blind to their
influence on our own beliefs." Lindeman states that social motives
(i.e., "to comprehend self and the world, to have a sense of control
over outcomes, to belong, to find the world benevolent and to maintain
one's self-esteem") are often "more easily" fulfilled by pseudoscience
than by scientific information. Furthermore, pseudoscientific
explanations are generally not analyzed rationally, but instead
experientially. Operating within a different set of rules compared to
rational thinking, experiential thinking regards an explanation as
valid if the explanation is "personally functional, satisfying and
sufficient", offering a description of the world that may be more
personal than can be provided by science and reducing the amount of
potential work involved in understanding complex events and
There is a trend to believe in pseudoscience more than scientific
evidence. Some people believe the prevalence of pseudoscientific
beliefs is due to widespread "scientific illiteracy". Individuals
lacking scientific literacy are more susceptible to wishful thinking,
since they are likely to turn to immediate gratification powered by
System 1, our default operating system which requires little to no
effort. This system encourages one to accept the conclusions they
believe, and reject the ones they do not. Further analysis of complex
pseudoscientific phenomena require System 2, which follows rules,
compares objects along multiple dimensions and weighs options. These
two systems have several other differences which are further discussed
in the dual-process theory. The scientific and
secular systems of morality and meaning are generally unsatisfying to
most people. Humans are, by nature, a forward-minded species pursuing
greater avenues of happiness and satisfaction, but we are all too
frequently willing to grasp at unrealistic promises of a better
Psychology has much to discuss about pseudoscience thinking, as it is
the illusory perceptions of causality and effectiveness of numerous
individuals that needs to be illuminated. Research suggests that
illusionary thinking happens in most people when exposed to certain
circumstances such as reading a book, an advertisement or the
testimony of others are the basis of pseudoscience beliefs. It is
assumed that illusions are not unusual, and given the right
conditions, illusions are able to occur systematically even in normal
emotional situations. One of the things pseudoscience believers
quibble most about is that academic science usually treats them as
fools. Minimizing these illusions in the real world is not simple.
To this aim, designing evidence-based educational programs can be
effective to help people identify and reduce their own illusions.
Boundaries with science
Main article: Demarcation problem
In the philosophy and history of science,
Imre Lakatos stresses the
social and political importance of the demarcation problem, the
normative methodological problem of distinguishing between science and
pseudoscience. His distinctive historical analysis of scientific
methodology based on research programmes suggests: "scientists regard
the successful theoretical prediction of stunning novel facts –
such as the return of Halley's comet or the gravitational bending of
light rays – as what demarcates good scientific theories from
pseudo-scientific and degenerate theories, and in spite of all
scientific theories being forever confronted by 'an ocean of
counterexamples'". Lakatos offers a "novel fallibilist analysis of
the development of Newton's celestial dynamics, [his] favourite
historical example of his methodology" and argues in light of this
historical turn, that his account answers for certain inadequacies in
Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn. "Nonetheless, Lakatos did
recognize the force of Kuhn's historical criticism of Popper –
all important theories have been surrounded by an 'ocean of
anomalies', which on a falsificationist view would require the
rejection of the theory outright... Lakatos sought to reconcile the
rationalism of Popperian falsificationism with what seemed to be its
own refutation by history".
Many philosophers have tried to solve the problem of demarcation in
the following terms: a statement constitutes knowledge if sufficiently
many people believe it sufficiently strongly. But the history of
thought shows us that many people were totally committed to absurd
beliefs. If the strengths of beliefs were a hallmark of knowledge, we
should have to rank some tales about demons, angels, devils, and of
heaven and hell as knowledge. Scientists, on the other hand, are very
sceptical even of their best theories. Newton's is the most powerful
theory science has yet produced, but Newton himself never believed
that bodies attract each other at a distance. So no degree of
commitment to beliefs makes them knowledge. Indeed, the hallmark of
scientific behaviour is a certain scepticism even towards one's most
cherished theories. Blind commitment to a theory is not an
intellectual virtue: it is an intellectual crime.
Thus a statement may be pseudoscientific even if it is eminently
'plausible' and everybody believes in it, and it may be scientifically
valuable even if it is unbelievable and nobody believes in it. A
theory may even be of supreme scientific value even if no one
understands it, let alone believes in it.
— Imre Lakatos,
Science and Pseudoscience
The boundary between science and pseudoscience is disputed and
difficult to determine analytically, even after more than a century of
study by philosophers of science and scientists, and despite some
basic agreements on the fundamentals of the scientific
method. The concept of pseudoscience rests on an
understanding that the scientific method has been misrepresented or
misapplied with respect to a given theory, but many philosophers of
science maintain that different kinds of methods are held as
appropriate across different fields and different eras of human
history. According to Lakatos, the typical descriptive unit of great
scientific achievements is not an isolated hypothesis but "a powerful
problem-solving machinery, which, with the help of sophisticated
mathematical techniques, digests anomalies and even turns them into
To Popper, pseudoscience uses induction to generate theories, and only
performs experiments to seek to verify them. To Popper, falsifiability
is what determines the scientific status of a theory. Taking a
historical approach, Kuhn observed that scientists did not follow
Popper's rule, and might ignore falsifying data, unless overwhelming.
To Kuhn, puzzle-solving within a paradigm is science. Lakatos
attempted to resolve this debate, by suggesting history shows that
science occurs in research programmes, competing according to how
progressive they are. The leading idea of a programme could evolve,
driven by its heuristic to make predictions that can be supported by
evidence. Feyerabend claimed that Lakatos was selective in his
examples, and the whole history of science shows there is no universal
rule of scientific method, and imposing one on the scientific
community impedes progress.
— David Newbold and Julia Roberts, "An analysis of the demarcation
problem in science and its application to therapeutic touch theory" in
International Journal of
Nursing Practice, Vol. 13
Laudan maintained that the demarcation between science and non-science
was a pseudo-problem, preferring to focus on the more general
distinction between reliable and unreliable knowledge.
[Feyerabend] regards Lakatos's view as being closet anarchism
disguised as methodological rationalism. It should be noted that
Feyerabend's claim was not that standard methodological rules should
never be obeyed, but rather that sometimes progress is made by
abandoning them. In the absence of a generally accepted rule, there is
a need for alternative methods of persuasion. According to Feyerabend,
Galileo employed stylistic and rhetorical techniques to convince his
reader, while he also wrote in Italian rather than Latin and directed
his arguments to those already temperamentally inclined to accept
— Alexander Bird, "The Historical Turn in the
Science" in Routledge Companion to the
Philosophy of Science
Politics, health, and education
The demarcation problem between science and pseudoscience brings up
debate in the realms of science, philosophy and politics. Imre
Lakatos, for instance, points out that the Communist Party of the
Soviet Union at one point declared that
Mendelian genetics was
pseudoscientific and had its advocates, including well-established
scientists such as Nikolai Vavilov, sent to a
Gulag and that the
"liberal Establishment of the West" denies freedom of speech to topics
it regards as pseudoscience, particularly where they run up against
It becomes pseudoscientific when science cannot be separated from
ideology, scientists misrepresent scientific findings to promote or
draw attention for publicity, when politicians, journalists and a
nation's intellectual elite distort the facts of science for
short-term political gain, or when powerful individuals of the public
conflate causation and cofactors by clever wordplay. These ideas
reduce the authority, value, integrity and independence of science in
Health and education implications
Distinguishing science from pseudoscience has practical implications
in the case of health care, expert testimony, environmental policies,
and science education. Treatments with a patina of scientific
authority which have not actually been subjected to actual scientific
testing may be ineffective, expensive and dangerous to patients and
confuse health providers, insurers, government decision makers and the
public as to what treatments are appropriate. Claims advanced by
pseudoscience may result in government officials and educators making
bad decisions in selecting curricula.[Note 12]
The extent to which students acquire a range of social and cognitive
thinking skills related to the proper usage of science and technology
determines whether they are scientifically literate. Education in the
sciences encounters new dimensions with the changing landscape of
science and technology, a fast-changing culture and a knowledge-driven
era. A reinvention of the school science curriculum is one that shapes
students to contend with its changing influence on human welfare.
Scientific literacy, which allows a person to distinguish science from
pseudosciences such as astrology, is among the attributes that enable
students to adapt to the changing world. Its characteristics are
embedded in a curriculum where students are engaged in resolving
problems, conducting investigations, or developing projects.
Friedman mentions why most scientists avoid educating about
pseudoscience, including that paying undue attention to pseudoscience
could dignify it. On the other hand, Park emphasizes how
pseudoscience can be a threat to society and considers that scientists
have a responsibility to teach how to distinguish science from
Pseudosciences such as homeopathy, even if generally benign, are used
by charlatans. This poses a serious issue because it enables
incompetent practitioners to administer health care. True-believing
zealots may pose a more serious threat than typical con men because of
their affection to homeopathy's ideology. Irrational health care is
not harmless and it is careless to create patient confidence in
On December 8, 2016, Michael V. LeVine, writing in Business Insider,
pointed out the dangers posed by the
Natural News website: "Snake-oil
salesmen have pushed false cures since the dawn of medicine, and now
Natural News flood social media with dangerous
anti-pharmaceutical, anti-vaccination and anti-GMO pseudoscience that
puts millions at risk of contracting preventable illnesses."
Climate change denial
List of topics characterized as pseudoscience
Not even wrong
"A pretended or spurious science; a collection of related beliefs
about the world mistakenly regarded as being based on scientific
method or as having the status that scientific truths now have,"
Oxford English Dictionary, second edition 1989.
"Many writers on pseudoscience have emphasized that pseudoscience is
non-science posing as science. The foremost modern classic on the
subject (Gardner 1957) bears the title Fads and Fallacies in the Name
of Science. According to Brian Baigrie (1988, 438), '[w]hat is
objectionable about these beliefs is that they masquerade as genuinely
scientific ones.' These and many other authors assume that to be
pseudoscientific, an activity or a teaching has to satisfy the
following two criteria (Hansson 1996): (1) it is not scientific, and
(2) its major proponents try to create the impression that it is
'"claims presented so that they appear [to be] scientific even though
they lack supporting evidence and plausibility"(p. 33). In contrast,
science is "a set of methods designed to describe and interpret
observed and inferred phenomena, past or present, and aimed at
building a testable body of knowledge open to rejection or
confirmation"(p. 17)' (this was the definition adopted by the
^ 'A particularly radical reinterpretation of science comes from Paul
Feyerabend, "the worst enemy of science"... Like Lakatos, Feyerabend
was also a student under Popper. In an interview with Feyerabend in
Science, [he says] "Equal weight... should be given to competing
avenues of knowledge such as astrology, acupunture, and
^ "We can now propose the following principle of demarcation: A theory
or discipline which purports to be scientific is pseudoscientific if
and only if: it has been less progressive than alternative theories
over a long period of time, and faces many unsolved problems; but the
community of practitioners makes little attempt to develop the theory
towards solutions of the problems, shows no concern for attempts to
evaluate the theory in relation to others, and is selective in
considering confirmations and non confirmations."
^ 'Most terms in theoretical physics, for example, do not enjoy at
least some distinct connections with observables, but not of the
simple sort that would permit operational definitions in terms of
these observables. [..] If a restriction in favor of operational
definitions were to be followed, therefore, most of theoretical
physics would have to be dismissed as meaningless pseudoscience!'
^ For an opposing perspective, e.g. Chapter 5 of Suppression Stories
by Brian Martin (Wollongong: Fund for Intellectual Dissent, 1997), pp.
^ Thagard (1978) writes: "We can now propose the following principle
of demarcation: A theory or discipline which purports to be scientific
is pseudoscientific if and only if: it has been less progressive than
alternative theories over a long period of time, and faces many
unsolved problems; but the community of practitioners makes little
attempt to develop the theory towards solutions of the problems, shows
no concern for attempts to evaluate the theory in relation to others,
and is selective in considering confirmations and disconfirmations."
^ e.g. archivefreedom.org, which claims that "The list of suppressed
scientists even includes Nobel Laureates!"
Philosophy 103: Introduction to
Logic Argumentum Ad Hominem.
^ "Surveys conducted in the
United States and Europe reveal that many
citizens do not have a firm grasp of basic scientific facts and
concepts, nor do they have an understanding of the scientific process.
In addition, belief in pseudoscience (an indicator of scientific
illiteracy) seems to be widespread among Americans and Europeans."
^ "A new national survey commissioned by the California Academy of
Sciences and conducted by Harris Interactive® reveals that the U.S.
public is unable to pass even a basic scientific literacy test."
^ "In a survey released earlier this year, Miller and colleagues found
that about 28 percent of American adults qualified as scientifically
literate, which is an increase of about 10 percent from the late 1980s
and early 1990s."
^ "From a practical point of view, the distinction is important for
decision guidance in both private and public life. Since science is
our most reliable source of knowledge in a wide variety of areas, we
need to distinguish scientific knowledge from its look-alikes. Due to
the high status of science in present-day society, attempts to
exaggerate the scientific status of various claims, teachings, and
products are common enough to make the demarcation issue serious. For
example, creation science may replace evolution in studies of
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Philosophy of Science: The
Central Issues, pp. 1–82
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Science and Pseudoscience", Stanford
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^ Shermer (1997)
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Look up pseudoscience in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
Library resources about
Resources in your library
Skeptic Dictionary: Pseudoscience – Robert Todd Carroll, PhD
Science from Pseudoscience – Rory Coker, PhD
Pseudoscience. What is it? How can I recognize it? – Stephen
Science and Pseudoscience – transcript and broadcast of talk by
Science, Pseudoscience, and Irrationalism – Steven Dutch
Skeptic Dictionary: Pseudoscientific topics and discussion –
Robert Todd Carroll
Pseudoscience Dangerous? – Edward Kruglyakov
"Why garbage science gets published". Adam Marcas, Ivan Oransky.
Baloney Detection Kit on
YouTube (10 questions we should ask when
encountering a pseudoscience claim)
Cargo cult science
Superseded scientific theories
Aquatic ape hypothesis
9/11 conspiracy theories
Chemtrail conspiracy theory
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Doktor Koster's Antigaspills
Electronic Voice Phenomenon
Flat Earth Theory
Germ theory denialism
Hollow Earth theory
Voice stress analysis
Suppressed research in the Soviet Union
Committee for Skeptical Inquiry
Cults of Unreason
Encyclopedia of Pseudoscience
Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science
Psychology of the Occult
The Ragged Edge of Science
Skeptic Encyclopedia of Pseudoscience
The Skeptic's Dictionary
List of topics characterized as pseudoscience
Philosophy of science
A priori and a posteriori
Ignoramus et ignorabimus
Problem of induction
Unity of science
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Received view / Semantic view of theories
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Space and time
Criticism of science
Faith and rationality
History and philosophy of science
History of science
History of evolutionary thought
Relationship between religion and science
Rhetoric of science
Sociology of scientific knowledge
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Philosophers of science by era
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Carl Gustav Hempel
W. V. O. Quine
Bas van Fraassen
Logical positivism / analytic philosophy
Machian positivism (empiriocriticism)
Rankean historical positivism
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Critique of metaphysics
Unity of science
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Related paradigm shifts
in the history of science
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Heisenberg uncertainty principle (1927)
Criticism of science
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Naturalism in literature
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Social science (Philosophy)
1980s Fourth Great Debate in international relations
1830 The Course in Positive Philosophy
1848 A General View of Positivism
History of Philosophy
1879 Idealism and Positivism
1886 The Analysis of Sensations
Logic of Modern Physics
1936 Language, Truth, and Logic
1959 The Two Cultures
2001 The Universe in a Nutshell
A. J. Ayer
1909 Materialism and Empirio-criticism
History and Class Consciousness
1936 The Poverty of Historicism
1942 World Hypotheses
1951 Two Dogmas of Empiricism
Truth and Method
1962 The Structure of
1963 Conjectures and Refutations
1964 One-Dimensional Man
Knowledge and Human Interests
1978 The Poverty of Theory
1986 The Rhetoric of Economics
Theodor W. Adorno
Willard Van Orman Quine
Concepts in contention
Science and technology studies
Economics of science
Economics of scientific knowledge
History and philosophy of science
History of science
History of technology
Philosophy of science
Philosophy of social science
Philosophy of technology
construction of technology
shaping of technology
Sociology of knowledge
Sociology of scientific ignorance
Sociology of the history of science
Unity of science
Women in science
Normalization process theory
Women in engineering
Politicization of science
Regulation of science
History of science
List of cryptids
Ivan T. Sanderson
Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World
Fact or Faked:
In Search of...
Is It Real?
Monsters and Mysteries in America
On the Track of Unknown Animals
Sasquatch: Legend Meets Science
The X Creatures
The Secret Saturdays