Recognizing pseudoscience

© May 2014 Paul Cooijmans


Pseudoscience — unscientific beliefs falsely presented as science — has traditionally been practised mainly by occultists, alternative healers, and psychics, but long infiltrated what is considered serious science. This is the most obvious in social science, where it is now well established that much of the twentieth-century and later work is pseudoscience with political, ideological, religious, or ethnocentric motives. Exact science is not a safe haven either though, considering fields like climatology and economics.

The tremendous danger of pseudoscience lies in how it distorts the public perception of the actual state of affairs in the fields in question; the public notion of what is true and what is not. Pseudoscience may also affect politics and law-making, resulting in misguided policies and rendering it effectively impossible or illegal to openly contradict or criticize certain pseudoscientific doctrines. These effects are persistent and may continue for decades even after the pertinent pseudoscience has been exposed and rejected by real science. It is therefore of paramount importance to independently recognize pseudoscience when one comes across it. Hardly ever will they tell you "Watch out! This is pseudoscience!" Rather, they will present the pseudoscience to you as established facts long beyond discussion, and you will most likely fall for it. What follows is a description of characteristics of contemporary pseudoscientific movements.

Characteristics of current pseudoscientific movements

The "consensus" argument

One of the hallmarks of present-day pseudoscience is referring to "consensus" in order to demonstrate the truth of one's claim: "There is consensus among experts that..." In real science, truth depends on facts and logic, not on consensus. But since pseudoscientific claims are false, or at least not provable with scientific methods, there exist no facts or reasoning to support them, and therefore only the "consensus" argument remains.

The a priori nature of the theory

Pseudoscientific theory is not based on facts and reasoning, but made up to be roughly consistent with observed reality; whenever new observations or facts appear to contradict the theory, the theory is not dismissed or revised, but the new facts are interpreted into the theory, made to fit. The theory has no real scientific content, and there is no proof that it is superior to other theories about the phenomenon in question.

The non-falsifiable nature of the theory

Pseudoscientific theories are formulated such that no verifiable predictions can be derived from them; they are broad enough to accommodate any possible new fact or observation, and can therefore not be disproven by whichever actual development or result.

"Seizing the moral high ground"

Pseudoscience is often practised from a strong sense of imagined ethical superiority, as a result of which the pseudoscientist feels relieved from the task of providing proof and arguments for one's claims, and confines oneself to simply stating those claims as established facts or referring to "consensus". The same conviction of "holding the moral high ground" also frees the pseudoscientist from ethical constraints in dealing with opponents, who may be attacked through slander, intimidation, or character assassination without the slightest realization of doing wrong. Notice the causal connection between imagined ethical superiority on the one hand, and feeling entitled to be mean, dishonest, and behind-the-back on the other hand.

The authoritarian nature of the movements

Pseudoscience tends to take the form of a movement, often led in a more or less authoritarian manner; open and rational discussion of the movement's basic doctrines is not allowed, and dissenters within the movement are humiliated or expelled. This cult-like structure is a logical consequence of the non-scientific nature of pseudoscientific theory: a proper scientific approach would unmask it as such, and must therefore be suppressed through "thought control". Movements like this tend to be collectivist, with strong group loyalty and with in-group/out-group mentality wherein the out-group is treated different from the in-group.

Popularization of the doctrine

Pseudoscientific movements may popularize their doctrines through charismatic extraverted spokespersons in the media, who need not be scientists and need not be representative for those who form the actual driving force within the movement, but may simply be appealing figures who have been recruited into the movement for purposes of deception and promotion. Pseudoscientists themselves may use pseudonyms when appearing in public, disguising their identities and genealogical or ethnic origins. Spokespersons and apparent leaders may not belong to the group whose interest is served by the movement, thus hiding that group's dominance in the movement.

The ad hominem approach of opponents

Opponents of pseudoscientific movements — that is, anyone who publicly disagrees with their doctrines — are attacked personally with insults, slander, intimidation, or character assassination, instead of countered with facts and logical arguments. This is because (1) there exist no facts or arguments that support pseudoscientific claims, so that only personal attacks remain, (2) from a sense of ethical superiority one feels that "anything goes" when dealing with opponents, and (3) the cult-like authoritarian structure of the movement gives rise to in-group/out-group thinking, wherein all ethical constraints are removed with regard to dealing with the out-group.

Influencing law-making and justice

It is common for pseudoscientific movements to "lobby" or infiltrate politics in order to instate laws furthering their interests, including laws that make it hard or even punishable to question or contradict their doctrines. They will also file lawsuits against persons who expose them as unscientific. This may all be seen as an outward extension of the thought control that exists within the movement.

Pseudoscientific publication

Pseudoscientific movements tend to have their own publication media wherein dissent, or even proper scientific examination of one's theory, is missing. However, they may also publish in mainstream scientific journals, typically engaging in fraud such as "massaging" or even concocting the data to arrive at a pre-conceived outcome. When their fraud is exposed, one may see them formally apologizing in public, but without realization of having done wrong, and with a choice of words that betrays a deep misunderstanding of the scientific method. They may say that while their data were made up, they were made up such that the result of the study would be consistent with what many in the field were expecting anyway so that everyone would be happy, thus revealing that, for them, science is not about finding out how reality is, but about having a pre-existing image of reality that merely has to be confirmed by pro forma studies that are manipulated toward their desired conclusions. Typically, such figures continue to be revered within the movement, make much money giving lectures and writing books, and their forged results continue to be quoted in the popular media as established truths.

Paying lip service to the truth

When facts that are in sharp disagreement with a pseudoscientific theory have been established beyond so much doubt by hard science that one can no longer get around it, the pseudoscientist will typically briefly and formally admit those facts, only to subsequently completely ignore them and carry on with one's existing theory as if no contradiction existed. That is, the pseudoscientist pays lip service to the truth but lives on with the lie as if nothing had happened.


Members of pseudoscientific movements may engage in self-deception with regard to various aspects of the movement and its doctrines. They may actually believe in the theory, they may deny belonging to the group whose interests are served by the movement, they may claim to be part of the culture that is being attacked by the movement, and they may truly feel it is ethical to insult, slander, harrass, assault, or assassinate persons who do not agree with their ideology.

The true nature of the movement

When analysed at the core, pseudoscientific movements turn out to be of a political, ideological, interest-serving, religious, or ethnocentric nature. That is, their true goals may be to attack, criticize, or subvert a culture or societal order that they perceive as dominant and threatening, and/or to further the interests of a particular group.