Pseudoscience Is Rampant: How Not to Fall for It

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A metaphorical rendering of scientific truth gone awry. (Cover illustration image by Tatiana Cárdenas-Mejía, original image by CDC)

Whom to believe? 

The relentless and often unpredictable coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) has, among its many quirky terrors, dredged up once again the issue that will not die: science versus pseudoscience.

How does one learn to spot the con without getting a Ph.D. and spending years in a laboratory?

The scientists, experts who would be the first to admit they are not infallible, are now in danger of being drowned out by the growing chorus of pseudoscientists, conspiracy theorists, and just plain troublemakers that seem to be as symptomatic of the virus as fever and weakness.

How is the average citizen to filter this cacophony of information and misinformation posing as science alongside real science? While all that noise makes it difficult to separate the real stuff from the fakes, there is at least one positive aspect to it all.

A famous aphorism by one Charles Caleb Colton, a popular 19th-century English cleric and writer, says that “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”

The frauds and the paranoid conspiracy mongers who would perpetrate false science on a susceptible public are at least recognizing the value of science—they imitate it. They imitate the ways in which science works and make claims as if they were scientists, because even they recognize the power of a scientific approach. They are inadvertently showing us how much we value science. Unfortunately they are just shabby counterfeits.

Separating real science from pseudoscience is not a new problem. Philosophers, politicians, scientists, and others have been worrying about this perhaps since science as we know it, a science based entirely on experiment and not opinion, arrived in the 1600s. The original charter of the British Royal Society, the first organized scientific society, stated that at their formal meetings there would be no discussion of politics, religion, or perpetual motion machines.

The first two of those for the obvious purpose of keeping the peace. But the third is interesting because at that time perpetual motion machines were one of the main offerings of the imitators, the bogus scientists who were sure that you could find ways around the universal laws of energy and make a buck on it. The motto adopted by the society was, and remains, Nullius in verba, Latin for “take nobody’s word for it.” Kind of an early version of Missouri’s venerable state motto: “Show me.”

You might think that telling phony science from the real thing wouldn’t be so difficult, but events, historical and current, tell a very different story—often with tragic outcomes. Just one terrible example is the estimated 350,000 additional HIV deaths in South Africa directly caused by the now-infamous conspiracy theories of their own elected President no less (sound familiar?). It’s surprisingly easy to dress up phony science as the real thing by simply adopting, or appearing to adopt, the trappings of science.

Thus, the anti-vaccine movement claims to be based on suspicion of authority, beginning with medical authority in this case, stemming from the fraudulent data published by the now-disgraced Andrew Wakefield, an English gastroenterologist. And it’s true that much of science is based on suspicion of authority. Science got its start when the likes of Galileo and Copernicus claimed that the Church, the State, even Aristotle, could no longer be trusted as authoritative sources of knowledge.

But Galileo and those who followed him produced alternative explanations, and those alternatives were based on data that arose independently from many sources and generated a great deal of debate and, most importantly, could be tested by experiments that could prove them wrong. The anti-vaccine movement imitates science, still citing the discredited Wakefield report, but really offers nothing but suspicion—and that is paranoia, not science.

Similarly, there are those who try to cloak their nefarious motives in the trappings of science by claiming that they are taking the scientific posture of doubt. Science after all depends on doubt—every scientist doubts every finding they make. Every scientist knows that they can’t possibly foresee all possible instances or situations in which they could be proven wrong, no matter how strong their data. Einstein was doubted for two decades, and cosmologists are still searching for experimental proofs of relativity. Science indeed progresses by doubt. In science revision is a victory.

But the imitators merely use doubt to suggest that science is not dependable and should not be used for informing policy or altering our behavior. They claim to be taking the legitimate scientific stance of doubt. Of course, they don’t doubt everything, only what is problematic for their individual enterprises. They don’t doubt the value of blood pressure medicine to control their hypertension. But they should, because every medicine has side effects and we don’t completely understand how blood pressure is regulated and whether there may not be still better ways of controlling it.

But we use the pills we have because the science is sound even when it is not completely settled. Ask a hypertensive oil executive who would like you to believe that climate science should be ignored because there are too many uncertainties in the data, if he is willing to forgo his blood pressure medicine—because it, too, has its share of uncertainties and unwanted side effects.

The apparent success of pseudoscience is not due to gullibility on the part of the public. The problem is that science is recognized as valuable and that the imitators are unfortunately good at what they do. They take a scientific pose to gain your confidence and then distort the facts to their own purposes. How does one learn to spot the con without getting a Ph.D. and spending years in a laboratory?

"If someone claims to have the ultimate answer or that they know something for certain, the only thing for sure is that they are trying to fool you."

What can be done to make the distinction clearer? Several solutions have been tried—and seem to have failed. Radio and television shows about the latest scientific breakthroughs are a noble attempt to give the public a taste of good science, but they do nothing to help you distinguish between them and the pseudoscience being purveyed on the neighboring channel and its “scientific investigations” of haunted houses.

Similarly, attempts to inculcate what are called “scientific habits of mind” are of little practical help. These habits of mind are not so easy to adopt. They invariably require some amount of statistics and probability and much of that is counterintuitive—one of the great values of science is to help us to counter our normal biases and expectations by showing that the actual measurements may not bear them out.

Additionally, there is math—no matter how much you try to hide it, much of the language of science is math (Galileo said that). And half the audience is gone with each equation (Stephen Hawking said that). It’s hard to imagine a successful program of making a non-scientifically trained public interested in adopting the rigors of scientific habits of mind. Indeed, I suspect there are some people, artists for example, who would be rightfully suspicious of changing their thinking to being habitually scientific. Many scientists are frustrated by the public’s inability to think like a scientist, but in fact it is neither easy nor always desirable to do so. And it is certainly not practical.

There is a more intuitive and simpler way to tell the difference between the real thing and the cheap knock-off. In fact, it is not so much intuitive as it is counterintuitive, so it takes a little bit of mental work. But the good thing is it works almost all the time by following a simple, if as I say, counterintuitive, rule.

True science, you see, is mostly concerned with the unknown and the uncertain. If someone claims to have the ultimate answer or that they know something for certain, the only thing for sure is that they are trying to fool you. Mystery and uncertainty may not strike you right off as desirable or strong traits, but that is precisely where one finds the creative solutions that science has historically arrived at. Yes, science accumulates factual knowledge, but it is at its best when it generates new and better questions. Uncertainty is not a place of worry, but of opportunity. Progress lives at the border of the unknown.

How much would it take to alter the public perception of science to appreciate unknowns and uncertainties along with facts and conclusions? Less than you might think. In fact, we make decisions based on uncertainty every day—what to wear in case of 60 percent chance of rain—so it should not be so difficult to extend that to science, in spite of what you were taught in school about all the hard facts in those giant textbooks.

You can believe science that says there is clear evidence that takes us this far… and then we have to speculate a bit and it could go one of two or three ways—or maybe even some way we don’t see yet. But like your blood pressure medicine, the stuff we know is reliable even if incomplete. It will lower your blood pressure, no matter that better treatments with fewer side effects may await us in the future.

Unsettled science is not unsound science. The honesty and humility of someone who is willing to tell you that they don’t have all the answers, but they do have some thoughtful questions to pursue, are easy to distinguish from the charlatans who have ready answers or claim that nothing should be done until we are an impossible 100-percent sure.

Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery.

The problem, as we all know, is that flattery will get you nowhere.

[Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on June 8th, 2020 as part of a standalone magazine called GOOD10: The Pandemic Issue. Produced as a partnership among LeapsMag, The Aspen Institute, and GOOD, the magazine is available for free online.]

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