Pseudoscience: what’s in a name?

A few weeks ago, I was having coffee with my Mom; we were chatting to a man who was explaining about his life when all of a sudden he started to talk about “ions” from a book he had read. Needless to say, as someone who has studied Biochemistry, I was wondering what sort of “ions” these were and how they could possibly float around in the atmosphere, affecting office workers moods (probably better explained by lack of sunlight than evil ions). A quick Google search suggests that the man may have been talking about “negative air ionization therapy” and is pretty much the claptrap that it seems to be.

Keeping up with the possible pseudoscience that is out there is very difficult, and what makes it harder is all the research that could be used as “support” for the said pseudoscientist’s position. Now, “study” is not synonymous with “truth”; in a perfect world, studies would be rigorously conducted with the proper statistical tests and controls, etc. However, we do not live in such a world and unfortunately not all studies are equal. That would be manageable if there was not a whole industry that feeds off of such publications, unscrupulously robbing the public whilst ignoring the studies that do not support their claims.

There is a good reason why peddlers of pseudoscience do not want to be associated with the “pseudo” part and give great weight to pushing their supposed credentials, from flouting their M.D to portrayals of a “crusader” image; we would not want to be treated by a pseudo-doctor or receive advice from a pseudo-lawyer, so why should we trust a pseudoscientist? The cynical use of argument based on authority aside, navigating the terrain of a scientific paper coupled with bad science teaching can make it virtually impossible for a citizen without any science training to spot pseudoscience let alone simply bad science.

It is unreasonable to expect every person to be fluent with every single field of science. But lack of knowledge about a field does not preclude the ability to spot pseudoscience. Critical thinking is the key; be wary of anyone claiming that they should be believed because they are an “expert” – M.D or otherwise – as their arguments should speak for itself. If all else fails, you could always follow this rule: if it seems too simple to be true, then it probably is (although there are exceptions).

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