SME Light Winter 2000

Pseudoscience Project

One goal of SME is to make you into savvy consumers of popular scientific literature. Unfortunately, however, the "scientific literature" is increasingly permeated with pseudoscience. Pseudoscience is loosely defined as a publication making false claims to scientific accuracy and verifiability or one that twists scientific facts so that they appear to imply something they don't. What would you say to someone who came to your home and asked you to sign a petition to ban di-hydrogen monoxide on the basis that it is a major component of acid rain, contributes to the greenhouse effect, may cause severe burns, contributes to erosion, accelerates corrosion and rusting, may cause electrical failures and decreased effectiveness of automobile brakes, has been found in excised tumors of terminal cancer patients, etc. etc.?

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If you think for a few minutes about what di-hydrogen mon-oxide really is, the pseudo-science in the petition would be clear. But other forms of pseudoscience can be more subtle, close enough to true science that they have an awfully convincing appearance of validity. Take alternative medicine, for example. Some alternative medicine really works for documentable biological or psychological reasons. But many forms of it are just money-making schemes packaged in scientific-sounding claims. In the past ten years, American spending on alternative medicine has increased by billions of dollars. Echinacea, St. John's Wort, Goldenseal, Saw Palmetto, Kava Kava, Ginseng, Ginko Biloba, Valerian, Dong Quai, homeopathic medicine, aromatherapy . . . how much of that money has gone toward actually making us healthier and how much has gone only toward giving its consumers, as my dietician mother would put it, expensive urine?

And on the flip side, there is a whole lot of valid science that goes unheeded. For example, numerous scientific studies have been documented to show that good nutrition will make you healthier, but people often continue to eat badly when they are being treated for illness, believing that pills or herbs or some other 'magic bullet' alone can help their malady. In the past, my dietician mother has been asked to speak on panels with practitioners of alternative medicine. "I am not alternative!!" she objects. Because nutrition is a holistic approach to health that entails sweeping life changes instead of merely adding a pill to one's daily regimen, people often discount the research showing that, for example, vitamin E is more effective in your body when obtained from food than from a vitamin. (We'll learn more about vitamin E specifically later in the quarter.)

Where Should We Draw the Line?

What is valid science and what is pseudoscience? Sometimes it can seem murky-how can you make an educated decision about where the line is? After all, many pseudoscientific claims have a kernel of legitimate science at their foundation-the fact that they are pseudoscientific is because the legitimate science has been distorted beyond recognition; invalid implications have been inferred by the popular press (the dihydrogen monoxide example being an extreme case of this).

Coming up with good criteria to distinguish pseudoscience from real science is difficult, and it is not a new problem. In the 1920's, the Vienna Circle set themselves the task of what they called solving the "demarcation problem" between science and pseudoscience. They came up with a criterion of "verifiablility." Things like metaphysics and ethics, they said, are a matter of taste and not verifiable. A philosopher named Karl Popper extended their analysis and came up with the criterion of "falsifiability." If an as yet unencountered (but test-able) counter-example would prove a statement wrong, he said, then that statement is falsifiable and counts as valid science. For example, the theory of gravity is falsifiable; if ever a situation were documented in which it was not obeyed then it would be wrong. On the other hand, astrological predictions are proven wrong every day, but this does not invalidate astrology for its adherents. Popper would say that astrology is set up such that it is not falsifiable.

Some people use "predictive power" to draw the line between science and pseudoscience. If a scientific theory can consistently and correctly predict phenomena, then those people would count it as valid science. An historian of science named Thomas Kuhn warns us to be careful with this: science is not the only discipline that predicts. Horoscopes predict, and many people believe that they predict correctly. But horoscopes typically can be interpreted as having predicted correctly no matter what happens, and incorrect predictions do not invalidate astrology for its adherents as they would for scientists. The point being that it's not predictive power alone that measures whether a scientific claim is valid. You have to define carefully what you're predicting, how you measure success, and what implications the experimental outcome would have for the viability of the claim. (Note: We're not trying to make you feel guilty for reading the horoscope section of a magazine. Horoscopes can be fun; the point we're trying to make here is merely that they're not science and should not be confused with science.)

What You Will Do

Over the next week, your lab group will grapple with an issue surrounding the nature of science and pseudoscience by doing a case study of three articles: one from a scientific journal and two from the popular press. You should evaluate the relative merits of the claims made in these articles and develop a 5-minute presentation explaining what you learned. Next week in lab, you will present your case study to the class.

Due in lab next week:

1. Your group's 5-minute presentation In your presentation, you may decide to take one of two tacks. 1. You might want to point out popular misconceptions of your topic and explain what is wrong with them. 2. Alternatively, you could give a straight presentation of the subject material in which you clarify the issues surrounding the topic. Be sure to run through your presentation a couple of times beforehand. You will do a much better job if you practice and try to anticipate what questions will be asked. You might want to listen to NPR or a TV newsbrief sometime this week while you are planning what you will say.

2. Write-up You will be looking at 3 articles in this project. When you are reading them, look at the following questions and think about them. Fill in the matrix with brief answers to the following questions for all three of your articles. You will turn in your write up before your presentations next week, so you may want to make a copy for yourself. You may find the science journal article challenging. Do your best-even researchers find journal articles outside of their field challenging. Try to look for the general flow of ideas and use the guiding questions to analyze the scientific approach. Feel free to ask the faculty or TA's for help (not at the last minute, though).

After the presentations in lab next week, you will be asked to reflect upon one of them (to be assigned after the presentations are over). In your reflection, you should first explain what you understood from the presentation. Then answer the following three questions:

  • How did this presentation present or prevent scientific misconceptions (pseudoscience)?
  • What are some of the challenges to popular press science writers in writing science?
  • How can these be minimized or prevented?
If you want more information:

Following are some web references that either are pseudo-science, deal with a pseudo-science related issue, or are valid science. I leave it to you to decide which are science and which are pseudoscience. Many of the following come from the website of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal:, which contains way more articles than I had time to investigate fully, but even many of the ones I didn't read looked really cool.