I’ve never been happy with the word “pseudoscience.” Skeptics throw around this word much like monkeys in cages throw their poo; they just want it to stick and smell bad. But the closer you look at it, the more vague it becomes and nearly impossible to apply to most real world situations.
Merriam Webster dictionary defines pseudoscience simply and in a vague, unhelpful manner:
A system of theories, assumptions, and methods erroneously regarded as scientific
Wikipedia has a somewhat more lengthy explanation:
Pseudoscience consists of statements, beliefs, or practices that claim to be both scientific and factual but are incompatible with the scientific method.[Note 1] Pseudoscience is often characterized by contradictory, exaggerated or unfalsifiable claims; reliance on confirmation bias rather than rigorous attempts at refutation; lack of openness to evaluation by other experts; absence of systematic practices when developing hypotheses; and continued adherence long after the pseudoscientific hypotheses have been experimentally discredited.
This seems reasonable, except I’ve never actually seen this. What’s described here is so far off the deep end that it would be almost universally uncontroversial. Kind of like the flat earth theory. It would be more of a joke than anything else. There’s no need to describe it as pseudoscience because aside from a small handful of weird people, no one takes it seriously enough for it to matter.
For most topics that get the pseudoscience tag slapped on them, this definition wouldn’t apply. Once you start looking more closely, what you see is usually just science embroiled in controversy.
For this word to be more relevant, the definition needs to be drastically narrowed.
My own definition looks something like this:
Pseudoscience is a deliberate attempt at misinformation through the use of falsified scientific studies to lead people to a particular, false conclusion.
I chose this definition because it is unambiguous and clearly states what pseudoscience is and what it isn’t. Any other definition creeps into gray areas where it can end up being applied arbitrarily. Here’s the problem:
While Flat Earthers arguably fit the pseudoscience definition, how about cold fusion? Is this also pseudoscience? Are you sure? Because the U.S. Department of Energy gave a $10 million dollar grant for that research in February of 2023.
How about Astrology? Surely that’s pseudoscience. Right? Didn’t a large study by Shawn Carlson published in the journal Nature in 1985 demonstrate that astrology is bunk? Actually, no. In a 2009 paper, Ken McRitchie outlined the problems with the study, and demonstrated that those errors, when corrected, supported Astrology. So a major study published in Nature shows that astrology is not pseudoscience.
How about Parapsychology? Also nope. The Parapsychological Association has been an affiliate of the American Association for the Advancement of Science since 1969. They were vetted a long time ago by mainstream scientists as doing real science.
You can add Reiki, with its medical studies, Naturopaths, who have their own accredited medical programs, chiropractors, who also have a body of research and many other areas where claims of pseudoscience simply aren’t true.
The main problem with throwing around the term pseudoscience is that science is about measurement and if you can measure something, you can examine it scientifically. So if you apply the pseudoscience label to whole areas of scientific inquiry, you are missing the obvious problem that for any particular subject you can have both real science and pseudoscience.
The term is almost never used in some areas where it should theoretically apply, such as The Multiverse Theory, String theory and some areas of psychology. Also left out of discussions of pseudoscience are some of the most obvious and dangerous pseudosciences out there: doctored pharmaceutical studies and tobacco science.
When we’re talking about pseudoscience, we really should be talking about individual experiments, where errors in theory and erroneous conclusions can be definitively found. But even that has its own problems.
Even if an experiment has errors in theory and conclusions, what distinguishes pseudoscience from a bad experiment with a faulty conclusion? You can find terrible experiments with faulty conclusions in almost every science from physics to evolution to psychology. It happens all the time. Everything that can be measured can be measured incorrectly and every experiment has the potential to be badly flawed. But we don’t normally regard that as pseudoscience.
And then we move on to yet another problem with using the term pseudoscience. If a controversial area of science has a number of criticisms lodged against it, that is not enough to call it pseudoscience either. The existence of criticism just means that something is controversial. One first has to determine whether those criticisms are valid.
Controversies exist in science either because the available data is ambiguous, such as UAP’s or because there are deep, fundamental differences of underlying assumptions, such as is the case for parapsychology.
This opens the door to individual interpretations based on the weight people will give to various facts and opinions they encounter based on their prior beliefs. There is typically a lot of ground to cover: The original experiment, the criticism, the rebuttal, the rebuttal to the rebuttal, the commentary and analysis by third parties and the ensuing discussions.
It’s a rabbit hole that few people will go down and it takes more time and energy than most people are willing to devote. Yet this where truth lies. Anything else is just taking sides based on prior beliefs.
If you take a step back and look at who is using the pseudoscience argument the most and why, what stands out is the political nature of it. It’s more of a talking point than a scientific assessment. The accusation of pseudoscience is most often leveled by self described skeptics who are firm believers in materialism against the many sciences and practices that have evidence disputing this philosophical position. Materialism, -a belief that the universe is material-, is disproved if psychic ability is true. It’s disproved if psychic healing is true; if homeopathy works; if there’s something to astrology and if many holistic medicines work.
The term pseudoscience, when used in this context is nothing more than a dog whistle for skeptics. It doesn’t advance our understanding of anything. It’s analogous to saying “Make America Great Again.” When this phrase is used, it tells you more about the person saying it than the subject they’re addressing. In the same manner, using the word pseudoscience ends up telling you more about that person’s scientific beliefs than about the science they’re speaking of.
My suggestion is that the word be limited to clear cut demonstrations of intentional scientific deceit. Otherwise the word pseudoscience is almost useless.