The Dangers of Pseudoscience


Philosophers of science have been preoccupied for a while with what they call the “demarcation problem,” the issue of what separates good science from bad science and pseudoscience (and everything in between). The problem is relevant for at least three reasons.

The first is philosophical: Demarcation is crucial to our pursuit of knowledge; its issues go to the core of debates on epistemology and of the nature of truth and discovery. The second reason is civic: our society spends billions of tax dollars on scientific research, so it is important that we also have a good grasp of what constitutes money well spent in this regard. Should the National Institutes of Health finance research on “alternative medicine”? Should the Department of Defense fund studies on telepathy? Third, as an ethical matter, pseudoscience is not — contrary to popular belief — merely a harmless pastime of the gullible; it often threatens people’s welfare, sometimes fatally so. For instance, millions of people worldwide have died of AIDS because they (or, in some cases, their governments) refuse to accept basic scientific findings about the disease, entrusting their fates to folk remedies and “snake oil” therapies.

It is precisely in the area of medical treatments that the science-pseudoscience divide is most critical, and where the role of philosophers in clarifying things may be most relevant. Our colleague Stephen T. Asma  raised the issue in a recent Stone column (“The Enigma of Chinese Medicine”), pointing out that some traditional Chinese remedies (like drinking fresh turtle blood to alleviate cold symptoms) may in fact work, and therefore should not be dismissed as pseudoscience.

Written By: Massimo Pigliucci and Maarten Boudry
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  1. This article gives a good account of the problem. Wherever I find that a theory precedes evidence, I know I am dealing with pseudoscience. Whereas the Higgs boson was posited long before it was discovered to exist, it was posited on the basis of extensive empirical and mathematical data. Qi and meridian points, by contrast, are posited on the basis of no data whatsoever. Likewise the god of the creationists, the intelligent designer of the intelligent design advocates and the divinely guaranteed inerrancy of the biblical literalists – all posited on the basis of no data at all. We are of course free to believe whatever we like, but if we wish our beliefs to be taken seriously and even perhaps accepted as true, or at least highly probable, we have to be able to give good reasons for them. The scientific method has arisen as the best method so far of doing so.

  2. A better example of creeping faith into science is String Theory. I even heard the likes of Steven Weinberg saying that falsifiability of a Theory is no longer important. Tisk!

  3. Perhaps the craziest and most damaging superstition is that a male with HIV can cure it by raping a virgin female. It has the exact opposite effect of spreading the disease.

    Even if someone thought the superstition were a crock, they might use it as an excuse for rape.

  4. All new medicine is “alternative medicine”. I don’t see anything wrong with studying various folk remedies. After all, most of our drugs came originally from Amazonian folk remedies. The stupidity is persisting in putting your faith in a remedy proven to be ineffective, like homeopathy.

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