The most famous (and to avoid) pseudosciences
Climate change deniers are accused of practicing pseudoscience, as are intelligent design creationists, astrologers, ufologists, parapsychologists, alternative medicine practitioners, and often anyone who moves away from the mainstream science.
The problem lies in the boundary between science and pseudoscience; for, in fact, it is notoriously charged with defining disagreements because the categories are too broad and confusing, and the term "pseudoscience" is subject to adjective abuse against any assertion that one dislikes for any reason.
Many scientists recognise that the boundaries between science and pseudoscience are much more diffuse and permeable than many want to believe.
It was the Austrian philosopher Karl Popper who identified what he called "the problem of demarcation" as the object of finding a criterion for distinguishing between empirical science, such as the successful 1919 test of Einstein's general relativity theory and pseudoscience, such as the theories of Sigmund Freud, whose followers only sought to confirm the evidence by ignoring the unconfirmed cases.
Einstein's theory could have been falsified if the solar eclipse data did not show the necessary deflection of starlight bent by the gravitational field of the sun. Freud's theories, however, could never be refuted, because there was no verifiable hypothesis open to refutability. Therefore, Popper stated that "falsifiability" is the last criterion of demarcation. Scientific theories are not falsifiable.
The problem is that many sciences are not impossible to forge, such as string theory, the neuroscience surrounding consciousness, the great economic models and the extraterrestrial hypothesis.
Regarding the latter, in the absence of searching every planet around every star in every galaxy in the cosmos, could we ever say with certainty that extraterrestrials do not exist?
According to Princeton University science historian Michael D. Gordin, "No one in world history has self-identified as a pseudoscientist.
“There is no person who wakes up in the morning and thinks to himself: I will go to my pseudo-laboratory and perform some pseudo experiments to try to confirm my pseudo-theories with pseudo-factors.”
However, pseudoscience confuses the public about the nature of evolutionary theory and how science develops.
Here, perhaps, there is a practical criterion for solving the problem of demarcation: the behavior of scientists reflected in the pragmatic usefulness of an idea.
That is, does the new idea generate interest on the part of scientists working to adopt it in their research programs, produce new lines of research, lead to new discoveries, or influence existing hypotheses, models, paradigms, or worldviews?
If not, it is probably pseudoscience.
Thus, science is a set of methods designed to test hypotheses and construct theories.
If a community of scientists actively adopts a new idea and if that idea spreads across different fields and is incorporated into research that produces useful knowledge reflected in presentations, publications and especially new lines of research, it is likely to be science.
Determining what pseudoscience is not discriminatory, but not doing so is detrimental to society.
If you're trying to determine if something is a pseudoscience, there are some key things you can look at:
- Consider the purpose. Science focuses on helping people develop a deeper, richer, and a more complete understanding of the world. Pseudoscience often focuses on promoting some kind of ideological agenda.
- It considers how it faces challenges. Science accepts challenges and attempts to refute different ideas. Pseudoscience, on the other hand, tends to welcome any challenge to its dogma with hostility.
- Look at the research. Science is backed by a growing body of knowledge and research. Ideas about the subject may have changed over time as new things are discovered and new research is done. Pseudoscience tends to be quite static. Little may have changed since the idea was first introduced and new research may not exist.
- Can it be proven false? Falsifiability is a hallmark of science. This means that if something is false, researchers could prove it was false. Many pseudoscientific claims are simply unverifiable, so there is no way for researchers to prove these claims wrong.
Phrenology is a good example of how pseudoscience can capture the public's attention and become popular.
According to the ideas behind phrenology, the shape of the head was thought to reveal aspects of an individual's personality and character.
Physician Franz Gall first presented the idea in the late 18th century and suggested that the shapes in a person's head corresponded to the physical characteristics of the cerebral cortex.
Gall studied the skulls of individuals in hospitals, prisons, and nursing homes and developed a system for diagnosing different characteristics based on the bulges of a person's skull. His system included 27 "faculties" that he believed corresponded directly to certain parts of the head.
Like other pseudosciences, Gall's research methods lacked scientific rigor. Not only that, any contradiction to his claims was simply ignored.
Gall's ideas survived him and became enormously popular during the 1800s and 1900s, often as a form of popular entertainment.
There were even phrenology machines that were placed on a person's head and provided a measurement of the different parts of the skull and the characteristics of the individual.
Acupuncture is the use of fine needles to stimulate certain areas and balance the flow of qi. There is no known anatomical or histological basis for the existence of acupuncture points or meridians. It has been the subject of active scientific research since the late twentieth century, and its effects and application remain controversial among medical and clinical researchers. Because it is a procedure rather than a pill, the design of controlled studies is a major challenge, as with surgical and other procedures. Some academic reviews conclude that the effects of acupuncture are primarily a placebo, and others find likelihood of efficacy in particular conditions.
The Flat Earth Society states that the Earth is flat and has the shape of a disc. There are different versions of the 'Flat Earth Society', but we can find its origin from the mid-twentieth century. The first organisation of this type was created in 1956 by the Englishman Samuel Shenton who followed the doctrine of the writer Samuel Rowbotham, who proposed that the Earth is a flat disc focused around the North Pole and surrounded by a giant wall of ice, basically Antarctica. His 'senses' and the Bible supported this argument. Earth planners hide behind the fact that technology (special effects, Photoshop...) helps to continue hiding the 'truth' about the shape of our planet. It is nothing more than the most multitudinous pseudoscience, there is nothing scientific to found in this theory.
There is more than sufficient evidence that demonstrates that the Earth is spherical.
This is the invented astronomical connection between many megalithic monuments. The followers of this pseudoscience consider that Stonehenge could have been an observatory and that its disposition, as well as that of other similar megalithic sites, is oriented according to celestial cycles.
Although Neolithic societies possessed astronomical knowledge mainly related to the sowing and harvesting cycles, there is no solid basis for any of its astronomical implications with this type of monument. Pure pseudoscience.
This lunar conspiracy considers that the original moon landing was false; that is, the Apollo Program moon landing conspiracy theories expose that the Apollo Program moon landings between 1969 and 1972 never occurred. This pseudoscientific argument justifies the term conspiracy because of the controversies arising from some photographs of the moon landings, however, all these statements lack scientific rigour.
Wilhelm Reich was a psychiatrist in love with Sigmund Freud's works and even worked with him, albeit briefly. In 1940, he moved to the United States and developed his own theories. One of them is the orgon or orgonic theory. According to Reich, he had scientifically demonstrated the existence of a compound that he described as a form of energy in the body that was the physical manifestation of the libido, which accumulated in the body until it was successfully eliminated through an orgasm (very Freud-like).
Reich built a machine that would allow him to study this energy, crossing the threshold not only between psychology and biology, but also between Eastern ideas and Western methods. He called energy "orgon" because he had discovered it while investigating the mechanics of orgasm.
Today, there are still organisations (such as the American College of Orgonomy) that formally study Reich's work and offer Orgone Therapy as an option for the treatment of diseases including post-traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia, anorexia, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Another of the unusual theories that are spreading throughout our planet is the one that postulates that the Earth is hollow.
The Hollow Earth theory is a pseudoscientific belief and conspiracy theory that the Earth is full of people whose skulls are hollow.
The theories include that a smaller sphere exists within the larger sphere (it is sometimes said that this object functions as a sun for the inhabitants of the inner Earth, who would be aliens) that is more in line with the theory of gravity, though not with geology.
The idea of the hollow Earth has been proposed many times in history, even in mythology and religion (such as the Greek underworld).
It was proposed by the British scientist Edmond HalleyWikipedia to explain the anomalous compass readings.
It is now known that the anomalies are caused by changes in the Earth's magnetic field, as well as in mountains and localised iron ore deposits.
Among the pseudosciences related to the Earth, cryptozoology also stands out. It is based on the search for Bigfoot (also known as Yeti), the Loch Ness monster, El Chupacabra and other creatures that biologists are more than convinced do not exist.
In fact, a study in which the supposed DNA samples of 'The Abominable Snowman' were analyzed uncovered the truth.
Most of the samples belong to bears: Asian black bears, Himalayan brown bears or Tibetans, so he neither inhabits the mountains of Asia nor is he any creature out of the ordinary.
According to astronomer Frederic Petit, the Earth has a second moon. From an observatory in Toulouse, France, he claimed in 1846 that the presence of the second moon explained all the astronomical irregularities with which other astronomers had difficulties.
He stated that this second moon had an orbital time of only 2 hours, 44 minutes and 59 seconds and that at its furthest point it was about 3,570 kilometres from the Earth. No one took his findings seriously when he made them public, but he continued to launch new discoveries about his moon and its effects on the real Moon and the Earth for 15 years after its initial discovery.
Petit's theory might have gone completely unnoticed by the scientific community if it had not been picked up by Jules Verne in his book 'From Earth to Moon'. The reference is brief, but enough to lift the spirits of pseudoscientific believers. In 1989, a man named Georg Waltemath claimed to have discovered that the planet was orbited not only by a pair of moons, but by a whole network of mini moons. (My goodness!).
Among the pseudosciences related to the paranormal we find numerology in a prominent place. It is based on the belief in a relationship between certain numbers and people or events. It is often associated with the paranormal, alongside astrology and similar divinatory arts. Despite the long history of numerological ideas, the word "numerology" does not appear in the records before 1907.
Experts argue that numbers have no hidden meaning and cannot by themselves influence a person's life. At least two studies have investigated numerological claims, and both have produced negative results: one in the United Kingdom in 1993 with 96 people who found no association between number 7 and psychic abilities and another in 2012 in Israel with 200 participants, which was designed to examine the validity of a numerological diagnosis of learning problems, such as dyslexia and ADHD, and autism. The experiment was repeated twice and still produced negative results.
Marcel Vogel started the research after discovering that plants also have feelings (how beautiful), at least more or less. He investigated the responses of plants to stimuli: cutting, tearing and damaging plants, which provoked a response that could be read and understood in terms of released energy. According to Vogel, he discovered that plants responded, but only in conjunction with their own emotions and energy.
He determined that they stored their mental energies and released them as he interacted with them. The idea is not accepted by the scientific community, since plants, among other things, lack a nervous system.
Hypnosis has been performed since at least the 18th century when it was said that "mesmerism" implied a "magnetic fluid" or a special force called "animal magnetism". This supposedly "scientific" theory was abandoned when no evidence was presented.
In modern psychology, two main theories have long competed to explain the extraordinary effects hypnosis can have. Certain theorists claim that hypnotic suggestions induce an altered state of consciousness or hypnotic trance in which highly suggestible people are willing to obey the hypnotist and behave in uncharacteristically, such as remembering forgotten events, forgetting what they have just done, and obeying post-hypnotic suggestions to perform some embarrassing action when given a signal. Others assert that these events are best explained by role-play and suggestibility.
The human eye has been considered as a window to the soul. For centuries, medical professionals have studied the eyes of their patients to assess their well-being. While our eyes can certainly reflect our health, or lack thereof, Hungarian physician Ignatz von Peczely took the idea to a new level. It began when, according to reports, he noticed a black mark on the eye of an owl with a broken leg. Although the incident occurred when he was young, he stayed with him during his medical training at the Medical College of Vienna. By the time he graduated in 1867, he had studied the eyes of countless patients and had created a table of which part of the iris was related to which part of the body. According to von Peczely, any disorder in the body could be diagnosed by looking for changes in the color of the iris. They firmly believed that it was absolutely unnecessary to perform a physical examination of a patient. Instead, looking at the portion of the iris that corresponded to the part of the body in question would reveal exactly what was wrong.
Unfortunately, to this day there are still guilds of practicing iridologists who are 'trained' to detect genetic diseases and defects through the eyes.
"And in the beginning... there was ice." In the 1920s the Austrian engineer and inventor Hanns Hörbiger published a theory that everything is made of ice.
According to this hypothesis, called Welteislehre, ice was the basis of any kind of matter in the universe.
The cosmic ice theory therefore states that our solar system originated from the collision of a dead star, flooded with water, with our sun. The resulting explosion threw water in all directions. The water froze into blocks, which became the cosmic entities we can see today: the Moon, the planets, the stars and, in particular, the Milky Way.
The theory goes on to explain how the solar system evolved after this ice spiral. Basically, more remains were expelled, and these were absorbed by the outer planets, which explains their large size.
The fundamentals of the Cosmic Ice Theory were born when Hörbiger was looking at the Moon one night and it occurred to him that its surface looked so bright because it was composed of ice.
Logically there is no real scientific evidence to back it up.
To a certain extent, the attraction we feel to mysterious forces is natural.
Throughout our evolution, before the advent of science, the realities about nature were unknown to us. Some of our ancestors believed that thunder was a sign of unhappy gods. In the same way, disease was seen as a punishment for wrongdoing. Sadly, many of these beliefs remain with us today. Like Feng Shui, the ancient Chinese art of organising buildings and their interiors in order to promote a favourable qi balance.
Historically, Feng Shui was incredibly important in oriental architecture, extending from China to neighbouring countries such as Korea and Japan. Therefore, temples, castles and cities were built by situating the main entrance to the south, as it was believed to be the most correct direction for a favourable qi.
In recent years, Feng Shui has been used by ex-psychologists and other individuals to sell books and make people spend money, basically.
The pseudoscience known as personology was born in the 1930s with a judge from the Los Angeles judicial system. After seeing a defendant, Judge Edward Jones began associating facial appearances with the crimes they committed. After the judge paved the way for this 'science', the editor of a newspaper called Robert Whiteside did more research.
According to his findings, a person's face could be a clear indicator of what kind of personality he had; both were genetically determined and, therefore, connected.
We now go back to the beginning of the 20th century. A doctor named Albert Abrams claimed to have discovered the secret to diagnose and cure almost any ailment of the human body. He claimed that the answer was in the vibrations that came from each cell. These vibrations, which he called Abrams' Electrical Reactions, could be read by examining something related to the patient and then adjusted by using one of his many devices. The practice was called radionics, and those who practiced it proclaimed that they could diagnose the patient by observing a body sample (blood, saliva, nails...) or even by examining a personal effect belonging to the afflicted.
Scientific American together with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) shelved the issue by sending a couple of blood samples for radionic studies to investigate whether the results were accurate. The first sample was diagnosed with colitis, although the person from whom it was taken was actually dead.
An amputee was diagnosed with arthritis in the leg he had lost, and a chicken was diagnosed with a sinus infection. The unusual? That at this point there are still organisations that practice this pseudoscience called 'radionics'.
This pseudoscience is "endorsed" as a method to find water, metals or precious stones underground using a divination rod. It is based on the human being's faculty to perceive radiations. In it, this inexplicable process in which people use a twig or bifurcated wire to find lost and hidden objects, is usually used both to fetch water and to hunt ghosts or look for jewellery. Sometimes it is a Y-shaped rod or branch, sometimes a pendulum used on a map until it swings (or stops swinging) over a point where the desired object can be found.
Part of the reason for the longevity of this pseudoscience is its versatility in the New Age and paranormal worlds. According to many books and experts in dowsing, the practice has a robust history and its success has been known for centuries.
For example, in the book "Guessing the Future: Prognosis from Astrology to Zoomance," Eva Shaw writes: "In 1556, 'De Re Metallica', a book on metallurgy and mining, discussed dowsing as an acceptable method of locating rich mineral sources.
This reference to 'De Re Metallica' is widely cited among dowsers as proof of its validity, although there are two problems.
The first is that the argument is a transparent example of a logical fallacy called "appeal to tradition" ("it must work because people have done it for centuries"); the fact that a practice has lasted for hundreds of years does not mean that it is valid.
For nearly 2,000 years, for example, doctors practiced bleeding, believing that balancing non-existent body humours would restore sick patients to health. Furthermore, it seems that the advocates of dowsing did not actually read the book because it says exactly the opposite of what they expose: instead of endorsing dowsing, the author asserts that those seeking minerals "should not use an enchanted twig, because if he is prudent and expert in natural signs, he understands that a bifurcated stick is of no use to him.
Although some people swear by the efficacy of dowsing, Zahoris have undergone many tests over the years and have had no better results than control conditions.
Not surprisingly, water can often be found with dowsing rods, because if you dig deep enough you'll find water anywhere.
A man named Alfred William Lawson - a professional baseball player - used to spread the word about how wonderful and brilliant his thoughts were. When he tired of his profession, he turned to aviation with mixed success.
Then he founded Lawsonomy University, where his ‘sages’ would teach only one thing: the science of Lawsonomy, in which any book and studies other than those invented by Lawson were absolutely forbidden. Among the beliefs of this curious pseudoscience was the fact that there is no energy, only a constant battle between things with high density and low density. And that the Earth is in an ether where all matter is immersed in a black hole at the North Pole and distributed through the planet's internal arteries.
Food and nutrition are complicated concepts in Lawsonomy, for plants are parasites of the Earth, and they are likely to communicate with each other in a way that we cannot understand. When primitive humanity lived off plants, we were a healthy and robust species. We became weaker and more prone to disease when we started cooking our food, as cooking absorbs all life and nutrients from food. We can't say it's not imaginative.
Inventors have been trying to create such a device since the Middle Ages. The generally accepted definition of the perpetual motion machine is one that produces a greater amount of power than the fuel it consumes, which is, of course, impossible. That didn't stop John Keely from saying he made one. He announced that he had discovered a completely new form of physical energy that could produce an astonishing amount of power. Using the energy of water molecules, Keely was able to synchronise molecular vibrations with his machine and create infinite power.
It seems pretty absurd, but Keely was convincing. He soon had investors and $5 million in capital to set up the Keely Motor Company.
His company went public in 1890, and that's when organisations like Scientific American began to show some pretty big holes in their theory.
Logically, there was water everywhere. He kept the company and the money for another eight years until he died in 1898. By then, the Keely Motor Company had been in business for 25 years without a product on the market and without paying investors a single dividend.
In 1903, the scientific community was still enthusiastic about the concepts of radiation and X-rays. French scientist René Blondlot was experimenting with X-rays when he claimed to have stumbled upon something incredible: he called them N-Rays. His experiments were met with a combination of overwhelming excitement and skepticism. The skepticism was partly due to the fact that the N-ray theory had one of the main characteristics of pseudoscience: the inability to easily repeat the results. His instructions on how to detect N-rays were quite questionable. They included locking themselves in a dark room for a while before conducting the experiments to make sure that the eyes were properly adjusted and that, while some people could see them right away, others would have to try again and again and perhaps again.
Still, Blondlot and his French scientific colleagues drew up a list of the properties of N-rays, partially stimulated by the fact that German competition had discovered X-rays. According to the reports, N-rays could pass through anything that could block light and would be stopped by transparent materials. This uproar was calmed when a physicist from Johns Hopkins University showed that everything was an absolute fallacy. A year after the innovative discovery, Blondlot was ruined.
The protagonist of this pseudoscience is Franz Mesmer. The theories of this popular hypnotist had a tricky beginning when he "wrote" his dissertation on the impact of the movement of the planets on the human body in 1766. After marrying a wealthy widow and opening his own practice, he began treating patients who refused conventional treatments. From here he got what he called "animal magnetism". He used electricity, metals and wood.
His contemporaries viewed the practice with considerable skepticism, even when he claimed to have restored sight to a woman who had been blind since the age of three. At the scientific level, her experiments were far from serious science.
We've all heard of the polygraph, the lie detector. Commonly used in criminal investigations, this device actually measures nerve arousal.
It operates on the premise that if a person tells the truth, he or she will remain calm. It is based on ancient techniques for detecting witches, in which, for example, an alleged witch was thrown into a raging river with the premise that if she floated, she was taking advantage of demonic powers and thus confirming to be a witch.
Such techniques never had much credibility.
No one dies from a polygraph test, of course, and the results are mostly inadmissible in court. However, a person who is otherwise exonerated by the evidence may bear the legal risk of being unjustly incriminated in the eyes of the investigators. Although polygraph machines seem scientific and measure responses such as sweating and increased pulse rate with exquisite precision, they are crude in their conception. In fact, they are no more sophisticated than the old witch tests.
There has been much controversy about whether lie detectors work. Some experts claimed that a high proportion of people who "failed" on the polygraph later confessed to crimes. On the other hand, the test generates many false positives, that is, people who tell the truth but whose polygraph test suggests they are lying. From a scientific perspective, there is no reason to use a polygraph test because it is invalid.
The list of pseudosciences is very long. Among other pseudosciences related to Earth, we could also highlight the Bermuda Triangle theory which is postulated as the area where inexplicable events have occurred, such as disappearances of ships and planes, biodynamic agriculture, a type of organic agriculture that has some non-scientific farming methods or mythical creatures: the belief that fairies, goblins, goblins and gnomes exist.
Among the pseudosciences related to the paranormal, there is also Channelling, which involves communicating with a spirit through a person, the Electronic Phenomenon of the voice, used by ghost hunters to record messages of spirits, the Extrasensory Perception, which covers various methods for obtaining information such as clairvoyance, telepathy and remote visualisation or Levitation: picking something up and suspending it in the air.
Psychoanalysis, holocaust denial, dianetics, handwriting analysis or scientific racism are not missing from this list either.
As we can see, there are examples of pseudoscience in a variety of different fields and areas.
Seen in this light, there seems to be a need to highlight the scientific method even more strongly, underlining the importance of following a trail of evidence while retaining a good dose of skepticism.
This could also help children overcome their innate attraction to pseudoscience and lead them to better decision-making in their daily lives.
Today, however, nearly half of high school students do not even take a science subject.
Now, more than ever, in a post-truth world replete with false news and alternative facts, our education system needs to move forward and catch up with today to equip our young people with the right tools to cope with social realities.