The red flags of pseudoscience and pseudo-treatments

Hi All,

I listened to a great podcast today which was very timely considering the discussions that have been had here lately over some controversial therapeutic MAV treatments. The purpose of the talk was to make clear what the main red flags are to watch for that are the heart and soul of pseudoscience and pseudo-therapies and to be able to distinguish them from legitimate science and legitimate treatments.

These are the key features or red flags you’ll typically hear or read of in pseudoscience and/or pseudo-therapies and should be aware of before spending your money and time:

  1. Hostility towards criticism – proponents of a specific belief respond to scientific criticism of that belief by saying they’re being picked on or singled out, or that there’s a conspiracy against them. Science, by contrast, thrives on criticism. Hostility towards criticism indicates that what the person is doing or believes in is not scientific.

  2. Proponents of a pseudoscience will try to make a virtue out of ignorance. Someone without a science background will typically say I am not brainwashed or indoctrinated to the “narrow-minded mindset of the scientist” … that they’re free to think outside the box. The reality is the more you learn about a topic and the deeper you dig, the more intellectual tools you gain to actually really think outside the box. The best science is the most creative as in finding new ways to explain new findings or test a hypothesis.

  3. Heavy reliance on testimonials and anecdotal evidence rather than specifically referenced research. The personal anecdote is essentially the cornerstone of any unscientific modality or treatment. They make vague references to data saying “doctors say…, experts say …” but never give a specific reference that anyone can check up on.

  4. Fundamental principles are often based upon a single case. Chiropractic for example stems from the DD Palmer belief that he healed someone’s deafness via one neck adjustment even though the pathway for hearing never passes through the neck. The inventor of iridology believes he diagnosed an owl’s broken wing by looking at its iris … and the entire elaborate structure was built around this one case.

  5. The pseudo-treatments often promise simplistic solutions to complex problems or questions. They come up with products that cover the theory of everything or claim to cure everything. This is a huge red flag. There is never one simple solution to explain all that there is, particularly in human disease. The more people try to explain things using less, the more skeptical you should be.

  6. Quacks start with a conclusion and work backwards. In other words, they propose that something works then work backwards cherry-picking or retro-fitting evidence and data that would seem to support their conclusion rather than looking at all the evidence and moving forward or modifying the hypothesis or theory as new evidence comes to light. Chiropractors and homeopaths, for example, are still saying the same things now that they said 100 years ago. Nothing evolves or changes. Fixed beliefs are not science; science continuously moves forward.

  7. The pseudoscientist uses scientific sounding but ultimately meaningless language or jargon (techno-babble and buzz words) in an effort to impress and add complexity to things without any specificity. They use bold and absolute statements rather than the very conservative and qualifying statements seen in real science. They’ll typically use words that are made to confuse rather than to illuminate. Real science uses legitimate language to increase the precision of language and to make things unambiguous.

  8. Pseudoscientists attempt to shift the burden of proof away from themselves saying things like “you can’t prove me wrong!” … that you can’t prove their theory is not true. This is backwards. If it’s their theory or cure, the burden is upon that person to prove it is correct.

  9. Pseudo-treatments will often overturn all existing and established science left and right to support one theory (think homeopathy). This of course makes things incredibly implausible and usually ridiculous.

  10. Pseudo claims typically fail to consider all hypotheses and commonly limit the explanations for something choosing the one they want. They falsely narrow the list of possible explanations to “rig the game”. Science, on the other hand, will go to great lengths to consider every possible explanation for an effect – especially an extraordinary one.

Scott 8)