Why Pseudoscience Gives Me Nightmares
Whilst pseudoscience is nothing new, it seems a lot more prevalent these days. So what can the scientific community, and the public in general, do about it? (Image Credit: Becker 1999, CC BY 2.0)
Fake science – or pseudoscience – has been around forever and somehow like that really annoying guy at the party just won’t go away. How is it in an age ruled by smart phones and CRISPR sci-fi level biotech are people still buying crystals and talking about super foods (don’t get me started on Goop). While I try to adopt a Californian “you do you” attitude to almost everything, people purporting even the most innocuous pseudoscience need to be stopped by both you and me.
The Origin Story of Pseudoscience
Fake science is nothing new. Chemistry is the child of alchemy, eg. the search for eternal life. What I mean by “science” is a process by which people try to discover “the truth.” What’s tricky about this is that “the truth” can be a lot harder to define than people would like. In science, we need confidence intervals, we need probability distributions, and assumptions. The answer is rarely “yes!” or “no!” but rather “sometimes this happens when you are in this environment.” And just because an argument is false, doesn’t automatically mean the counter-argument is true. We get at the truth through experimentation and observations, but the world is a messy place. Sometimes scientists discover something by accident or the scientific process does not yield “the truth.” We find correlations that are not causations, we find results that are not repeatable, we make human errors and voila – penicillin or vaccines (fun fact: vaccines were discovered when Louis Pasteur got lazy after going on vacation).
Pseudoscience takes advantage of the fundamental difficulties that are inherent in science and distorts results from the scientific process. Many trends that are rooted in pseudoscience begin with a seed of scientific truth then bloom into false promises (for example, that paleo diet you are religiously following. True: eating less processed food is good. False: only eating steak will make you super healthy). Many pieces of pseudoscience prey on people’s lack of trust in authorities or experts feeding into society’s declining faith in science (just look at polls from both the USA and Norway on trust in science).
Now, I think this is pretty obviously problematic. Even more disturbingly, the lack of conviction in science is coming from the people with money and education (anti-vaccine folks and raw water drinkers, I am looking at you). These aren’t Bible-beaters who don’t believe in evolution: these are liberal coastal elites and celebrities with large followings. Did you know your favorite capitalist – Steve Jobs – was one of these people (he chose to treat his cancer with alternative medicine rather than traditional Western medicine)? Oh and there are also all those people that do not believe in evolution and think the Earth is flat. It sounds fringe, and twenty years ago could be dismissed as such, but in that period we’ve seen the internet roll across the planet, and the fringe has a place to come together and be loud.
How Are Scientists Responsible?
Science and scientists are partially guilty when it comes to these public health scares and all those climate change deniers. Since Karl Popper’s work on falsifiability, we all only speak about lack of proof not disproving something (if that confused you, you certainly are not alone). Worse still, the pressure to publish has led to studies with criminally small sample sizes being picked up by the hungry media machine that present the results sans context, often as a result of insufficient communication with the responsible scientists. Then, when a contradictory study is published people see this as a failure of science when a) the original study could have had a low sample size or b) science is working as a process. In science, when new evidence is presented, scientist update theories or hypotheses. When a theory is updated, science isn’t flip flopping, it’s course correcting and working to advance its understanding of a concept.
So what do we do? There is bad science out there done by real scientists hoping to publish and get tenure, there is phony science done by non-scientists trying to make money off of people who do not believe in science, and there is the fact that many well-meaning scientists will not give you an answer to a question without some confidence intervals and caveats as well as a pinch of begging for funding for future research.
What we can do is to always be critical. This means working with popular media as well as publishing work in peer reviewed journals. Before you buy into something, read beyond the blogs (including this one) and if it looks like propaganda, it probably is. In our age of overabundant information and fake news, it is getting harder to tell truth from fiction. Many scientific papers are hidden behind paywalls, but if you send a request to a lead author, they’ll often email you the paper for free. So, that means we all have to be a bit more scientific in the way we approach everything from what food we buy to who we believe-look for good data, reproducibility (not just anecdotes), and read the methods. Finally, if someone recommends a coffee enema, run in the opposite direction.
Suggested reading: Bad Science by Ben Goldacre