Science is an amazing thing. It lets us better understand the world around us, and without it we wouldn’t have many of the medicines and technological advances that we have today. But what exactly is science? Well science is a process, and it goes something like this:
1: Observe something (e.g. plants grow)
2: Gather details relevant to the observation (e.g. weather, temperature, time of day, etc.)
3: Form a hypothesis (e.g. the sun helps plants to grow)
4: Test the hypothesis (e.g. take plant out of sunlight)
5: Accept or reject the hypothesis (e.g. The results of the test support the hypothesis that the sun helps plants to grow)
Pretty much all real science follows this basic format. It’s not only time-tested, but has survived the scrutiny of the scientific community. But what were to happen if something claimed to be scientific in nature but didn’t follow the process? What if they didn’t gather all the details and evidence (conflicting evidence in particular)? What if they started with the conclusion instead of an observation, and tried to find evidence to support that conclusion? Is that still science?
No, that would be called “pseudoscience.”
What exactly is pseudoscience? Wikipedia has a good explanation for you, ”Pseudoscience is a claim, belief or practice which is presented as science, but does not adhere to a valid scientific method, lacks supporting evidence or plausibility, cannot be reliably tested, or otherwise lacks scientific status.”
Basically, pseudoscience skips parts of the scientific process and/or rearranges it to better fit in with its claims. This gives it the illusion of scientific validity, increasing its credibility in the eyes of those unfamiliar. This illusion has pulled in lots of people unaware of its unscientific background, and in some instances can lead to big audiences.
But not every pseudoscience is damaging or out to swindle you. Let’s take a look at some of these pseudosciences, and hopefully you’ll learn the signs of when something isn’t as credible as it might claim it is.
Astrology is a popular type of pseudoscience that claims to use the alignment of the stars and planets to make predictions. It claims to not only predict a person’s personality type, but how their day will turn out as well.
Unfortunately, no study has been able to show any strong connection between planet/star alignment and personality/day outcome.
That isn’t to say that horoscopes can’t affect a persons day. A horoscope can turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy, causing you to act out the prediction (possibly unaware that you’re even doing it). You may start looking for opportunities to confirm the horoscope as well, simply because it’s on your mind. This could lead to confirmation bias, which means you’ll search for supporting evidence to confirm a horoscope.
So though astrology may have no scientific credibility, our basic psychology can cause us to believe in it – even if we have no reason to.
Faith healing is the idea that, through sheer force of faith and prayer, we can heal ourselves of any illness.
This might sound odd to you, but many religious people truly believe that their faith and prayers can perform miracles. They may even think that faith can save them from cancer or other terminal diseases.
The “British Medical Journal” investigated the effects of faith healing and prayers on those it purported to help. The results? No measurable effects recorded. In fact, some in the scientific community don’t even think it’s worth further research.
Does this mean that faith and prayer are worthless to those who suffer? No, it doesn’t. Prayer can be comforting to those who are suffering – just don’t expect any amount of prayer to save you from cancer or lost limbs.
A person with psychic abilities is said to be able to perceive information not possible with our basic senses. It’s called esp (extrasensory perception), and it allows people to speak with ghosts, read minds, and perform other supernatural feats as well.
Psychic abilities appear regularly in movies and books, so most people are familiar with the idea of it. But the real question is this – is it legitimate?
Like with most pseudoscience, studies on psychic abilities have produced inconsistent results. In other words, “psychics” are unable to prove that they’re indeed psychic.
Many people have pretended to be psychic, but were using deceptive techniques called hot/cold reading. Basically they ask questions that apply to a variety of people, but do so in a way that makes it seem like they have psychic knowledge of a specific person. It can be very convincing if you don’t have knowledge of these techniques beforehand, and has certainly deceived many people just to make an easy buck.
Creationism is the idea that everything was created by divine intervention. As such, it applies to the majority of religions around the world.
In fundamentalist Christianity, it’s believed that the earth is only 6,000 years old. This conflicts with the mountain of scientific evidence suggesting the world is over 4.5 billion years old. Despite this, there’s actually a creation “science” field that attempts to scientifically validate the biblical account of earths creation. Unfortunately, it is in no way scientific, as it still uses scientifically untestable supernatural explanations.
Alternative medicine is any medicine that claims to have healing properties, but isn’t actually based on scientific evidence.
Usually anecdotal evidence is presented as proof, but no research has presented causal evidence which could demonstrate that alternative medicines work.
And any anecdotal evidence can likely be attributed to placebo effect or the body simply healing itself naturally over time. We have no reason to believe in the effectiveness of alternative medicine otherwise.
For instance, let’s take homeopathy. Homeopathy works by taking normally harmful ingredients (e.g. arsenic) and diluting them to nearly undetectable levels. The idea is that you can be healed with items that cause like symptoms (e.g. if you can’t sleep, medicate with a substance known to cause insomnia), so long as you dilute the substance to near zero of its original state.
If the logic sounds off to you, it’s because it is. Homeopathy has no effect due to the diluting process, but even if it did work you wouldn’t want it to, since it uses harmful ingredients.
So if you find yourself curious about using alternative medicine, just be weary of any grandiose claims and remember this quote from Tim Minchin, “You know what they call alternative medicine that’s been proved to work? – Medicine.”
Maybe you’ve seen this on television. Dowsing usually plays out as somebody looking for water, so that person picks up a stick (usually y-shaped) and uses it to track and locate sources of water. Sometimes people use other items for dowsing as well, such as metal rods or pendulum devices which supposedly swing towards the sources of water.
There have been some studies on dowsing, with most results concluding that dousing does nothing to increase the chances of locating water.
Some people believe that we experience accumulations of food that rots in the intestines, which may be toxic to our bodies. Their solution? A good old colon cleansing.
How does it work? Basically water is injected into the colon to loosen up all the “gunk” inside and remove it. Sometimes herbs are mixed with the water, and sometimes liquids other than water are used. Laxatives are another method of emptying the colon out as well.
As it stands, no research supports the idea that our colons need to be cleaned out. There are already bacteria in the colon that detoxify our waste, and our colon has a lining of mucus membranes preventing harmful by-products from re-entering the body.
The verdict? Avoid colon cleanings at all costs.
Polygraphs (Lie Detectors)
You’re probably more familiar with the name “lie detector.” Most likely you’ve seen these on television, where the police strap the potential criminal to the device and ask them questions, using the device to detect “lies.”
It works by establishing a baseline of your physical state, which are based on parameters such as heart rate and blood pressure. If you stray from your baseline during questioning, then there’s “a chance” that you’re lying about your answer. On paper it makes sense. Unfortunately, research shows it to be ineffective for its designated purposes.
For one, if you can simply maintain the same state of mind throughout the questioning, then you’ve beaten it. In addition, you can purposely induce different physiological reactions if you want. For example, you can raise your heart rate by thinking of something that makes you angry or scared, gaming the system.
And the final problem is this – just because a person strays from their baseline doesn’t mean they’re lying. They could have some kind of emotional parallel to a question, such as the question reminding them of their deceased mother. Because of all these factors, polygraphs aren’t as reliable as television makes them out to be.