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Signs of Pseudoscience: Thinking Critically About Evidence

Updated on July 20, 2014

Good Science v. Bad Science

Science is an art. It involves constant change in an attempt to find evidence that may or may not support a hypothesis. Scientists must be able to separate their own beliefs, motivations, and biases from the evidence. Furthermore, replication is a stalwart of science, where other people need to be able to replicate the results from the experiment provided. Evidence that cannot be replicated and hypotheses that cannot be tested are some signs of bad science.

The Hypothesis

Before diving into pseudoscience, I need to touch on the hallmarks of a good hypothesis. Hypotheses are the educated guesses and explanations for what may be seen, how something happens, and/ or why something happens. There are three things that build a good hypothesis:

  • Falsifiability: The hypothesis should be testable.
  • Refutable: There should be a way for the hypothesis to be proven wrong.
  • Plausible: The hypothesis should make sense.

The Scientific Method

Historically, the scientific method is the go-to technique list for acquiring empirical evidence:

  1. Question
  2. Background Research
  3. Hypothesis
  4. Experiment
  5. Analyze Data
  6. Draw Conclusions
  7. Share!

Types of Biases

Proper usage of the scientific method sets standards that limit the presence of bias. The main biases are:

  • Confirmation Bias: Finding evidence that reinforces the belief. An example of this occurs in everyday situations when prejudice allows people to find evidence that supports that prejudice.
  • Appeal to Novelty: Finding new evidence with the underlying belief that the novel evidence is somehow more true.
  • Narrative Fallacy: Finding evidence that fits the "story."

Signs of Pseudoscience

  • Ad Hoc Hypotheses: Hypotheses that excuse any evidence that refute the hypothesis. An example of this hypothesis occurs during paranormal researching: "The spirit may not communicate if it feels threatened by the onlookers." Such a hypothesis cannot be tested because it cannot be proven false, since no evidence may indicate the presence of "threatening onlookers."
  • Anecdotal Evidence as Support: Testimonials and anecdotes are not objective and cannot be taken as evidence.
  • Islands of Evidence: The science does not build off current knowledge or it may not provide the methods and materials list necessary for replication.

Being a Skeptic v. Being a Cynic

Not trusting the conclusions provided to you does not make you a cynic, but it does make you a skeptic. A healthy practice of skepticism will allow you to muddle through the pseudoscience and biases of the scientists so that you may make your own conclusions regarding the evidence provided. Skepticism is an open-mindedness that requires you to change your system of beliefs as new evidence crops up.

Conclusion

All conclusions should be taken with a grain of salt. Good science involves building upon previous knowledge. With every datum and piece of evidence, the tower of knowledge continues to grow.

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