Science vs. Pseudoscience: Essential Differences

by Perette Barella

I was recently considering the extraordinary variety there is among pseudoscience: homeopathy; astrology, numerology, and various other fate-based bullshit; Shiatsu, Reiki, faith-healing and other mystical energy-based crap; reflexology, cranial-sacral therapy and other pseudopsychological-based nonsense. There's so much, and it's all either unrelated to each-other or, sometimes, even in contradiction with other pseudoscience. And best of all, the amount always seems to grow.

Compare to science: Astronomy, physics, chemistry, and biology all reinforce eachother. They are all, in actuality, different applications of the same rules; each uses a different template or prioritizes things in a different way that's convenient for that particular field of study. While science is sometimes refined as our understanding grows, it doesn't seem to grow nearly as fast as pseudoscience. We don't see whole new ways of applying scientific principles in different convenient ways. Why?

People of science search for consistency. New discoveries have to explain the behavior of things we encounter in predictable ways, and those ways have to jive with previous knowledge—or need to explain the situations in which they differ, and why. Scientific advances need solid, repeatable evidence to validate and justify the refinement they claim to be. Thus, science weeds out junk theories1 .

People of pseudoscience are also searching for consistency. Instead of comparing all the data and theories against each-other and reality, pseudoscience types compare data against what they individually think/feel/want. All that's needed is a correlation, and not necessarily one with anything concrete: a correlation with what you think is happening is good enough.

We're frequently exposed to metamystical ideas via television and movies which love metamystical junk because, frankly, science is hard and can be confining if you want to make up interesting stories. Believers love to watch "reality" programs that explore ghost hunting, spirit contact, and so forth. The popularity of this pablum reinforces the erroneous faith in this nonsense, with dramatic editing and special effects making it seem plausible—even easy—that these things could be real.

With all these things around us, all a pseudoscientist needs is to encounter a theory that agrees with his or her perception of reality. All too often, at that point it is accepted as reasonable because it seems to explain what has been encountered. If existing explanations are unacceptable, new ones can be make up to explain a perception, which adds to the growing pseudoscientific heap: a heap that, because it grows so easy, becomes a bear to debunk because of its uncontrolled growth.

But even if you do try to debunk it, how do you do so? Pseudoscientific types don't trust science already, saying that science is too confining and that it denies any aspect of reality that you can't prove or measure. How can it be reality if you can't objectively measure it? Because you can feel it. And we're back to my point that all you need is a correlation of faith:

  • I spread the Tarot, and you see a story. The Tarot must be magic.

    (Never mind that the human brain is exceptional at finding patterns in randomness, and is correlating data from your experience to match the random spread of cards.)

  • I wave my hands over you, saying I'm healing you; you feel better.
    1. It must have involved magic.
    2. Not a Pagan? It must have been Grace.
    3. Not a Christian? It must have been invisible energy fields around your body.
    4. Don't believe in invisible energy fields around your body? How about I just push on your skin a few times—these are meridians that contain the life energy flowing through your body.
    5. Don't believe in life energy in your meridians? There must be a correlation with the nerves and the brain and sensory apparatus, just that science hasn't found a good explanation for these.

      (Never mind that placebos would explain the phenomenon just fine, and that the idea is contradicted by the variety of placement of meridians or pressure points among different practitioners—meaning that practically any point on the body is part of somebody's alleged meridian system.)

Thus, pseudoscience grows, and will continue grow, as it perpetually creates new explanations adapted to people's individual, preconceived notions about how they'd like the universe to work. Notions that, because people are making money on these ideas, they have a reason to sell you—but with no reason to debunk the crap, nobody does. And without training in science, the average Joe has no idea how to evaluate for accuracy. Pseudoscience is resistant to skepticism because skepticism uses science and logic, which aren't understood or trusted. Thus, the dungheap of pseudoscience grows indefinitely, always filling up with new and different variations of nonsense that people want to believe in, all disjoint from one another.

Science, meanwhile, is confined to the rate that we can develop theories, develop ways to validate them, actually test them, then (if they even work so far) publish the results so they can be peer-reviewed, repeated, and varied upon. When successful, work will become a tiny part of a larger picture—quite possibly just a refinement to the existing picture—explaining one little piece of the larger system in which we live. Science grows slowly, refining and maintaining consistency, culling inaccuracy over time.

Thus, there will always be a propensity for pseudoscientific theories to grow faster than scientific knowledge.