How to Spot Pseudoscience

There are some misconceptions about what pseudoscience is. Before getting into its red flags, I will clarify what it is (and what it is not).

Pseudoscience Definition

Pseudoscience is a system of explanations, methods, and assumptions that may look scientific, but does not follow the scientific method. Another term for pseudoscience is false science.

Pseudoscience is not the same as bad science.

Bad science is a faulty version of good science. It follows the scientific method, but it makes mistakes. For example, in bad science, there may be methodological errors in the experiment or bias in the study design or interpretation of results. (Study replication is very important for identifying these types of mistakes.) Since bad science is a flawed version of good science, it is not completely off-track. With some improvements, such as better experimental design, bad science has the potential to become good science.

Pseudoscience, on the other hand, can never become good science because it is not science at all. Science requires testable hypotheses, rigorous experimentation, and conclusions that can change in the face of new data. Pseudoscience does not share these characteristics.

Pseudoscience Examples

Some ideas "supported" by pseudoscience are:

  • Homeopathy
  • Flat earth
  • Phrenology
  • Astrology
  • Animal magnetism

Pseudoscience Red Flags

Here is a non-comprehensive list of some pseudoscience red flags to look out for. These are signs that you should approach that idea or practice with skeptical caution.

Red Flag Explanation Example
Making unfalsifiable claims These are claims that can’t be proven wrong. There are undetectable spirits among us that cause sickness.
Reversing the burden of proof You commit this fallacy when you assume that your claim is true just because it hasn’t been proven wrong. No one has shown that aliens didn’t visit ancient Egypt, so they did.
Explaining away negative findings When the claims can be and are disproven, excuses are made. “Special pleading” is a logical fallacy in which you make up an exception when your claim is shown to be false. My psychic reading didn’t work this time because you didn’t believe it would.
Failing to use Occam’s razor Occam’s razor is the principle that requires the explanation that requires the fewest assumptions is usually correct Lunar eclipses are caused by an invisible shadow object that can only be detected when it casts shadows on the moon.
Putting too much weight on anecdotal evidence Personal experiences are useful when making decisions that affect you personally (like which foods make you feel unwell), but that doesn’t mean others will be affected in the same way. Repeated anecdotes are useful for generating testable hypotheses, but they are not proof of anything. My friend felt better after energy healing, so it must work!
Cherry picking data This is when you focus on data that confirms the claims while ignoring or minimizing data that refutes it. A study showed water memory is real! (A controversial study published in Nature in the 80s did report these results. It has never been successfully replicated under controlled conditions.)
Using science jargon Obscure, scientific-sounding terminology can be used in a meaningless way to confuse people who do not have a science background into thinking something legitimate is being said. Current treatment revert to biochemistry instead of relying on innate neurological defenses.
Speaking with too much certainty Science is open to self-correction, so scientists rarely speak in certain terms. Our health powder has been proven to boost brain function.
Being unchanging If an idea doesn’t change for a long time, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s wrong. But if an idea doesn’t change to reflect new data, that is a major red flag. Despite being contradicted by physics and chemistry, homeopathy has been using the same strategy for centuries.