Pseudoscience

The term pseudoscience derives from Greek and it is usually understood to mean "false science." According to the Oxford English Dictionary, pseudoscience is "a pretended or spurious science; a collection of related beliefs about the world mistakenly regarded as being based on scientific method or as having the status that scientific truths now have." Another possible definition of pseudoscience is "a set of ideas based on theories put forth as scientific when they are not scientific."

Generally, pseudoscience is referred to as a claim or belief presented as scientific, which cannot be proved by any valid scientific method or supported by scientific evidence. Sometimes pseudoscience is also dubbed as fringe or alternative science.

Science is systematized knowledge based on observation, study and experimentation. It only examines phenomena that can be empirically tested. Scientists make their observations under controlled conditions in order to avoid subjective or environmental influences, and which can be repeated or replicated by peer review. Science requires critical thinking and public accessibility to methods and discoveries. A single test cannot lead to the establishment of a scientific fact. Conducting various observations, scientists aim to formulate general laws and postulates. Pseudoscience, meanwhile, can be ideologically or culturally-driven. Pseudoscience tries to attribute legitimacy and authority to certain statements that cannot be empirically tested or explained. Pseudoscience often ignores or contradicts scientific facts.

In the mid-20th century the philosopher Karl Popper proposed falsifiability as a demarcation line between scientific statements and all other, including pseudoscientific statements. According to Popper, "statements or systems of statements, in order to be ranked as scientific, must be capable of conflicting with possible, or conceivable observations." Critics have argued that such a criterion can both exclude legitimate science and give scientific status to pseudoscientific claims. American philosopher Tomas Kuhn was among the critics of Popper's ideas on falsifiability. According to Kuhn, a whole science cannot be characterized by a single revolutionary approach or concept, as such a criterion puts whole theories at risk. Kuhn proposed his own criterion to distinguish science from pseudoscience — it is the capability of puzzle-solving, which Kuhn considered a core process in "normal," science.

Kuhn has demonstrated how a demarcation line between science and pseudoscience is drawn in his comparison between astronomy and astrology. According to Kuhn, astronomy is a real science, as it has been a puzzle-solving activity ever since antiquity. Astrology has no puzzles to solve, as failures in this discipline do not bring about questions to be researched in order to "make a constructive attempt to revise the astrological tradition."

History has presented examples of pseudoscience in various fields. "Lysenkoism," and "Creationism," are examples of pseudoscientific theories in biology, developed in the 20th century. Trofim Lysenko's ideas about genetics became very popular in the Soviet Union. Lysenko was a close friend of Stalin, and his theory fitted Marxist ideology. According to Lysenko's theory, acquired characteristics could be inherited. Such pseudoscience crippled the advance of the real science in the U.S.S.R. for decades, taking its toll on the development of various fields such as agriculture.

The "Scientific Creationists," tried to impose a theory on creation based on the book of Genesis in The Bible as an alternative to the theory of natural selection and evolution. Supporters even insisted that as a legitimate science, Creationism should be taught in schools. Lysenkoism and Creationism have demonstrated how established scientific facts and theories can be distorted or ignored in service of certain political or religious goals.

The famous "polywater," case from the 1960s is another example of pseudoscience. Russian scientists Fedyakin and Deryagin announced they had discovered a fourth state of water. The story started as a case of "bad science," simply an erroneous conclusion as the result of a mistake in experiments. However, during the consequent debates, the scientists would not accept that they had been mistaken and stuck to their theory.

Disciplines to be considered pseudoscience include:

"Paraphysics," including theories on scientifically unexplained phenomena such as the Bermuda Triangle.

Mysticism, such as the New Age Movement.

"Cereology," the study of crop circles

The "Cold Fusion," story. In the late 1980s, scientists announced they had achieved nuclear fusion with inexpensive equipment in regular lab conditions.

Astrology.

Graphology.

Parapsychology.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

What Science Is and How It Works
Gregory N. Derry.
Princeton University Press, 1999
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 12 "Questions of Authenticity: Science, Pseudoscience, and How to Tell the Difference"
At the Fringes of Science
Michael W. Friedlander.
Westview Press, 1995
Paranormal Borderlands of Science
Kendrick Frazier.
Prometheus Books, 1981
Librarian’s tip: "Is Parapsychology a Science?" begins on p. 5
Leninism: Political Economy as Pseudoscience
Folke Dovring.
Praeger Publishers, 1996
The Mythmaker's Magic: Behind the Illusion of Creation Science
Delos B. McKown.
Prometheus Books, 1993
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 1 "Science, Pseudoscience, and Soteriology"
The IQ Mythology: Class, Race, Gender, and Inequality
Harry Mensh; Elaine Mensh.
Southern Illinois University Press, 1991
Librarian’s tip: Discussion of pseudoscience begins on p. 6
The Borderlands of Science: Where Sense Meets Nonsense
Michael Shermer.
Oxford University Press, 2002
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 8 "A Scientist Among the Spiritualists: Crossing the Boundary from Science to Pseudoscience"
Why Intelligent Design Fails: A Scientific Critique of the New Creationism
Matt Young; Taner Edis.
Rutgers University Press, 2004
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 13 "Is Intelligent Design Science?"
Science Confronts the Paranormal
Kendrick Frazier.
Prometheus Books, 1986
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 34 "Creationist Pseudoscience"
In Defense of Secular Humanism
Paul Kurtz.
Prometheus Books, 1983
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 26 "The Scientific Attitude versus Antiscience and Pseudoscience"
The Lure of the Edge: Scientific Passions, Religious Beliefs, and the Pursuit of UFOs
Brenda Denzler.
University of California Press, 2001
Librarian’s tip: "Ufology As Pseudoscience" begins on p. 91
A Skeptic's Handbook of Parapsychology
Paul Kurtz.
Prometheus Books, 1985
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 22 "Parapsychology: Science or Pseudoscience?"
Scientific Thinking in Speech and Language Therapy
Carmel Lum.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2002
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 2 "Science and Pseudoscience"
Skeptics and True Believers: The Exhilarating Connection between Science and Religion
Chet Raymo.
Walker Publishing, 1998
Librarian’s tip: "Science and Pseudoscience" begins on p. 80
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