How can you tell if a something qualifies as science or if it falls into the realm of pseudoscience?

It’s not always easy.  Clever marketers have found ways to pass off shady work as legitimate, often disguising a bogus product or claim with scientific jargon.

Rodney Schmaltz and Scott O. Lilienfeld, authors of Hauntings, homeopathy, and the Hopkinsville Goblins: using pseudoscience to teach scientific thinking, believe that teaching pseudoscience in school can provide children with the tools needed to think critically and identify pseudoscience when they see it.

From that paper, here are 7 Ways to Identify Pseudoscience:

7 Ways to Identify Pseudoscience
7 Ways to Spot Pseudoscience

Here are a few examples of how these could be applied:

1  The use of psychobabble – words that sound scientific and professional but are used incorrectly, or in a misleading manner.

Self-help books, folk and pop psychology, and motivational seminars often use psychobabble.  An example is “Primal Scream Therapy”, in which people are supposed to link their current unhappiness to the trauma of being born as a way to transform their lives.

2  A substantial reliance on anecdotal evidence.

“Jenny said she had a bad cold and took echinacea and felt better after a few days.”  Well, would Jenny have gotten better on her own without the echinacea?  Did she also get lots of rest and drink plenty of fluids?  Did she take any other medication?  How could she know that it was the echinacea and not something else?  Bottom line, Jenny may have indeed gotten better after taking a supplement, but she could cherry pick the reason why, and her reason might not be representative of a typical case.  Only a carefully constructed study’s results should be used as evidence.

3  Extraordinary claims in the absence of extraordinary evidence.

“Cure for [insert name of disease here] found!”, “I saw bigfoot!”, “She was abducted by aliens!”, “Take this pill and you’ll lose 20 pounds a month!”.  The old phrase is true – extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.  Poorly conducted studies, blurry photos, shaky videos, anecdotes, and clever marketing don’t count.

4  Claims which cannot be proven false.

Sam: “I believe that some people have psychic powers.”
Joe: “What’s your proof?”
Same: “No one has been able to prove that people don’t have psychic powers.”

The burden of proof lies should lie with the claimant.  From a practical standpoint, this makes sense:  To prove that no one has psychic powers, you would literally have to test every single person on the planet.  Shift the burden to the claimant, and now only one case needs to be demonstrated to prove the claim.

5  Claims that counter established scientific fact.

Homeopathy defies the laws of physics, chemistry, biology and more… The “law of infinitesimals” in homeopathy states that dilution increases the curative power of homeopathic medications. This means that a part-per-million solution of a substance is more medicinally powerful than a part-per-thousand solution, which has in turn more curative power than a part-per-hundred solution. In contrast, many of our modern drugs are ineffective in small quantities and the efficacy increases with dosage.  A homeopathic solution is effectively… water.

6  Absence of adequate peer review.

Claims for free energy, cold fusion, or perpetual motion machines make the media rounds every so often.  Unfortunately, these inventions/studies are rarely (if ever) reproduced by other labs and lack adequate peer review. Peer review methods are important because they serve to maintain higher standards of quality and provide credibility to the claim.  One more thing:  even if a claim cites other sources and journals, make sure they are reliable and respected within the scientific community.

7  Claims that are repeated despite being refuted.

The anti-vaccination movement clings  to the claim that “vaccines cause autism”  despite the fact that Andrew Wakefield’s study  has been retracted from the Lancet, and despite the fact that there is never been a study to conclusively link vaccines to autism.  Time and time again, the claim is refuted, but they don’t let go of their claim and should move on and focus their time and money elsewhere (where it could add value to society).


Frontiers in Psychology, Hauntings, homeopathy, and the Hopkinsville Goblins: using pseudoscience to teach scientific thinking by Rodney Schmaltz and Scott O. Lilienfeld