Common Elements of Pseudoscience

Dr. Douglas Duncan
University of Colorado

Not all characteristics are always present, but many often are. If you see them, watch out! Without proper scientific skepticism you may well get fooled, sometimes jeopardizing you money or your health. Remember, “Science is a Way of Trying not to Fool Yourself!” – Nobel Prize winner and wonderful character Richard Feynman.

How to tell if something is Pseudoscience. Beware if it:

  • Is based on Post-diction, not Pre-diction (story is made up after the fact)
  • Explains things people care about that may not have other explanations (avoids the scientific response, “We don’t know,” which people often find unsatisfactory)
  • Uses scientific-sounding language and jargon (often incorrectly; e.g. “energy flows”)
  • Does NOT use the scientific method of clearly stating the hypothesis and then making a test
  • Usually has an explanation even when the idea fails (e.g. “astrology is only a tendency,” “the faith-healing treatment must have been started too late,” etc.)
  • If it contradicts known scientific principles or is not generally accepted, the originator of the theory claims to be “persecuted by the scientific (or other) establishment,” is not recognized because “the jealous establishment,” etc.

Scientific papers and books often end with a chapter or explanation of what we don’t know. I rarely if ever have seen a pseudoscientific work that discusses what the author doesn’t know.

I hope after taking this class you realize how much isn’t known in science, and that rather than a deficiency, this is a normal part of scientific investigation of our universe. In fact, the unknown is one of the coolest parts of science. Good scientists always admit what is unknown as well as what is known. The idea of scientist as “know-it-all” is false.

PS – A scientific attitude can protect you from being fooled in other parts of your life besides just science and medicine. Requiring data and being open-minded, rather than always being sure of yourself, is a scientific attitude. You don’t see scientific papers that scream “The best….,” “We have the answer…” or something like that. You see that from people trying to sell you things. I don’t think its a coincidence that in more than 30 TV interviews the only time my words were deliberately distorted was on a network that screams out “Fair and Unbiased.” My advice is to watch out for people who are 100% sure of themselves!