Confessions of a Quackbuster

This blog deals with healthcare consumer protection, and is therefore about quackery, healthfraud, chiropractic, and other forms of so-Called "Alternative" Medicine (sCAM).

Friday, March 11, 2005

Recognizing Pseudoscience

Recognizing Pseudoscience
Ron Good

Pseudo-science poses as science but has no solid empirical evidence to substantiate its claims. Millions of U.S. citizens believe in various forms of pseudo-science and often are willing to part with hard-earned cash to receive the purported benefits. One of the oldest pseudosciences is astrology, a belief system dating back at least 3,000 years and often confused with astronomy. Astrologers claim that alignment of the planets and stars can predict human events and horoscopes appear in many newspapers and magazines. Confusion between correlation and causation is used and promoted by astrologers to convince many people that they should check their horoscope before making certain decisions. Although many forms of pseudo-science are relatively harmless, they promote careless, mystical thinking that can lead people into poor decision making.

Being willing and able to recognize pseudoscience requires an understanding of scientific methods and related habits of mind. Skepticism is one of the important habits of mind promoted by science and a need for credible evidence is another. When someone makes claims that seem hard to believe we should require that person to provide the evidence upon which the claims rest. For example, Viennese physician Franz-Joseph Gall (1758-1828) claimed the shape and size of the human skull are related to emotional and intellectual functions. His “theory” was called phrenology and, couched in scientific sounding terms, convinced many that skull contours revealed a great deal about personality and intellect. Future criminals and great leaders were predicted on the basis of head bumps and valleys and for about 100 years phrenology masqueraded as science until it was finally discredited for lack of credible evidence.

In the twentieth century Sigmund Freud convinced many that he could interpret people’s dreams and expose repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse or harmful sexual fantasies involving their parents. Although no credible evidence was offered to substantiate his claims, Freud was able to influence many people to pay a lot of money to lie on a couch week after week in search of solutions to their problems, real or imagined. Like Gall’s phrenology a century earlier, Freud’s psychoanalysis was eventually shown by scientists and other skeptics to be without credible evidence. Unlike Gall however, Freud’s ideas continue to influence many people’s beliefs and empty their wallets. For those interested in learning more about Freud‘s pseudoscience, Richard Webster’s Why Freud Was Wrong (1995), Allen Esterson’s Seductive Mirage (1993), and Elizabeth Loftus’ The Myth of Repressed Memory (1994) are good sources.

Promising solutions to health-related problems is a favorite ploy of scam artists and dressing up their “cures” in scientific-sounding words helps them pass themselves off as experts. One of the more prominent pseudosciences in current times is chiropractic. Chiropractic can be traced to Daniel Palmer, a grocer in Davenport, Iowa who dabbled in phrenology, magnetic healing, and other metaphysical approaches to health care during the late 19th century. Palmer proposed his “theory” of subluxations or blockages of nerves as the source of many health problems. Although neither Palmer nor any chiropractor or scientist since then has been able to establish the existence of subluxations, millions of people believe that spinal manipulation works to relieve a wide range of health problems. The mystical nature of subluxation theory and its Innate Life Force, as Palmer called it, is similar to religious believers’ claims of angels, witches, miracles, and other supernatural forces that are, by definition, not detectable by scientific methods.

Given more than a century of development, chiropractic today includes more than 60,000 practioners that represent a wide range of positions, from the traditional subluxation theorists to reformers who are critical of subluxation theory and its related pseudoscientific claims. Surveys indicate that only a small minority of chiropractors can be considered reformers while most follow subluxation theory in one way or another, making claims for which there is no scientific evidence. What keeps chiropractic and other forms of pseudoscientific health practices going is the belief by the patient that spinal manipulation (or its equivalent) is really an effective practice. This belief, like religious belief, can sometimes have a beneficial effect on the body. Believing in a positive outcome, whether the intervention is a sugar pill or a massage or a spinal manipulation or something else, can actually produce measurable effects in the body’s response to the intervention. This placebo effect has been demonstrated repeatedly in many studies and in scientific studies must be taken into account in research that seeks to learn of the effectiveness of certain medicines and related procedures.

Some might say, if certain pseudoscientific practices can actually produce a small, positive outcome in some patients, what is the harm in allowing or even encouraging them? If Nancy Reagan felt her husband was safer when her astrologer helped arrange his schedule, why not encourage others to give it a try? The problem with pseudoscience is it deceives people into believing that for which there is no reliable evidence, using the cloak of science in the process. Simplistic solutions are offered in place of carefully-conducted scientific studies and those who want to believe in these simple solutions are often relieved of their hard-earned money. In spite of the impressive accomplishments of science in understanding our natural world, including ourselves, people remain highly susceptible to claims for which there is little or no evidence. Robert Carroll’s The Skeptic’s Dictionary (2003) lists hundreds of beliefs for which there is no credible evidence and many of them, like chiropractic and scientific creationism, are pseudoscientific in nature. Developing a more critical, scientific outlook among all Americans is the goal of modern science education programs and pseudo-science impedes this important process. Pseudoscience not only robs people of their money, it interferes with their chance to become more scientifically literate. In The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (1996) well-known scientist and science educator Carl Sagan begins chapter one with a statement by Albert Einstein: “All our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike--and yet it is the most precious thing we have.” Recognizing and exposing pseudo-science are among the most important things we can do to help all Americans become more scientifically literate.


Carroll, R. 2003. The skeptic's dictionary: A collection of strange beliefs, amusing deceptions & dangerous delusions.
New York: Wiley.

Esterson, A. 1993. Seductive mirage: An exploration of the work of Sigmund Freud. Chicago: Open Court.

Loftus, E. & Ketcham, K. 1994. The myth of repressed memory: False memories and allegations of sexual abuse. New York:
St. Martin.

Sagan, C. 1996. Demon-haunted world: Science as a candle in the dark. New York: Ballantine.

Webster, R. 1995. Why Freud was wrong: Sin, science, and psychoanalysis. New York: Basic Books.