1.19 Pseudoscience: Examples & Definition

Jan 16, 2020 | ch1 History & Approaches in Psychology, Courses, Intro to Psychology

In science fiction, pseudoscience can be used as an exciting plot device to move a story along, but where does it fit in the real world? Through this lesson you’ll learn what defines pseudoscience and gain insight into how and why it exists.

What Is Pseudoscience?

Many fans of science fiction have a great love for television shows like The X-Files and Fringe, which present a number of different stories and plots that are thrilling and are often rooted in real scientific principles. Yet, while these shows are framed in scientific principles and language, its generally understood that they are not actual representations of scientific possibility; rather, they are what would be considered pseudoscience.

In the scientific community, pseudoscience is a term used to describe something that is reported to be a product of science but in reality, has no connection to proper scientific methodology and cannot be realistically proven. So-called evidence that has been produced to support the existence of Bigfoot, for example, would be considered pseudoscience because its not based on empirical evidence.

Typically, when scientists engage in research, they use a particular methodology to conduct research that is based on fundamental principles and widely accepted theories that allow for their research to be replicated, thus backing up their work. It’s important to understand this because pseudoscience tends to lack these things and instead tends to be based on misunderstandings of scientific principles and unverifiable theories.

Pseudoscientific Beliefs

It can often be difficult to differentiate between pseudoscience and legitimate science because one of the hallmarks of pseudoscience is that it looks an awful lot like actual science. For example, astrology is the practice of studying planets and star patterns with the belief that they have a powerful influence on human behavior and future outcomes. Although astrology uses seemingly scientific language and borrows here and there from the study of astronomy, its not actually based on any real scientific knowledge, but is instead based on archaic beliefs.

Similarly, in recent years theories about ancient astronauts have been gaining popularity, thanks in part to television and the Internet. According to believers, the ancient astronaut theory suggests that extraterrestrial beings visited earth thousands of years ago and provided ancient civilizations with knowledge and technology that allowed for, among other things, the building of the pyramids. In this case, people are misunderstanding existing evidence or distorting information in order for it to fit their claims, which is unacceptable in the scholastic research community.

A much more serious example of pseudoscience is the numerous vitamins and supplements that are often advertised on television or on the Internet. The ads use a careful manipulation of scientific language to make their products sound as though they have been rigorously tested and verified, when they have in fact never been tested or approved.

There is an incredible amount of things that fall into the category of pseudoscience, like psychics or belief in horoscopes, but they all tend to have in common the fact that they are unverifiable. In the simplest terms, if it sounds like science fiction and you can’t find any legitimate evidence, then it’s probably pseudoscience.

Why Does Pseudoscience Exist?

There are a number of reasons that people would accept pseudoscience as being the real thing, and the issue has been researched from the perspective of different fields. For example, in psychology, one of the predominant theories is known as belief dependent realism, which is the brain’s natural inclination to search for evidence and meaning in something. In this case, the brain would evaluate something like the existence of Bigfoot and essentially find reasons why it could be true, rather than reasons why it couldn’t.

Another strong theory about belief in pseudoscience is cognitive bias, which is when a person is heavily influenced by his or her beliefs or the beliefs of others, drawing conclusions about something regardless of logic or reason. For example, if someone already had strong beliefs in the existence of extraterrestrials and was certain that they had visited earth, it wouldn’t be a big leap for him or her to accept the ancient astronaut theory, despite a lack of evidence or verifiable research.

What’s the Big Deal?

On an individual basis, pseudoscientific beliefs are probably harmless, but when they become collective beliefs, they can be problematic. For example, if someone who was diagnosed with cancer comes across a pseudoscientific treatment that sounds legitimate, he could end up subjecting him or herself to something that is not only useless but also dangerous.

On a larger scale, because it often relies on a manipulation of actual scientific principles and language, pseudoscience has the potential to blur the lines between it and actual scientific practices. This allows people to become misinformed and confused, could lead to bad decisions being made, and encourages irrational thinking.

Lesson Summary

Pseudoscience is a broad category that refers to research or areas of interest that claim or appear to be scientific in nature but lack any of the standards and hallmarks of legitimate scientific study. Astrology, for example, can be considered pseudoscience because it uses seemingly scientific language but is actually rooted in very old socio-cultural belief systems that have no connection to science. Similarly, pseudoscientific theories, like those relating to ancient astronauts, are growing in popularity thanks to television and the Internet.

There are a number of different reasons why people believe in pseudoscience, such as belief dependent realism and cognitive bias. In general, the scientific community has a negative opinion of pseudoscience because it has the ability to mislead the public, encourages poor decision making, and can lead to exposure to harmful and untested medical treatments.

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