It’s Time to Stop Misusing “Pseudoscience”

Jonathan Dinsmore
Nov 8, 2019 · 9 min read

Pseudoscience is a term that we hear a lot these days, particularly among the skeptical community. First coined by historian James Pettit in 1796, it has always been a defamatory term, and lately has come to be used for anything that attempts to say something true about the world without agreeing with the scientific consensus, even in cases where the results of legitimate scientific experiments contradict current paradigms.

But is this an appropriate use of the word? What exactly is pseudoscience, or what deserves the label? Is there a clear definition?

As with all other terms, it is what we make it; as a signifier of something, we collectively determine what it signifies. Let’s explore this perhaps vague and over-used term, and ponder how we might use it more meaningfully.

Science, Pseudoscience, and Pseudo-Pseudoscience?

The demaracation between science and pseudoscience is a matter of differentiating between “claims” which are purported to be based in scientific fact and actually are, and those which purport to be, but actually are not. In other words, real scientific statements vs. statements pretending to be scientific. While this might seem simple enough, it’s actually quite complicated, and various philosophers debate and disagree on where the exact demarcation should be.

In broadest strokes, the main problem is between the specific usage of the word, and those who use it more vaguely. In the first case, “pseudoscience” refers specifically to information, rhetoric, or claims in which people attempt to “give the impression of being scientific.” So, even the specific usage of the word is still somewhat hazy. What constitutes “giving the impression” of being scientific? This is because the word was never invented to be exact, but to be a dismissal of whatever is considered to be nonsense, essentially.

The second category of use is quite broad, and simply refers to any statement which attempts to say anything true about the world at all, on any basis other than that which is purely scientific in the most orthodox sense, or at least doesn’t violate mainstream science. Hence, in this broader use of the word, many things which don’t explicitly claim to be scientific are often called pseudoscience anyway, i.e. astrology, alchemy, paranormal investigation, divination, even psychology is accused of being pseudoscience by some.

Beyond this primary distinction, various demarcations have been proposed, rebutted, debated, and expounded upon somewhat tiresomely, as academic philosophers tend to do.

The Problem with a Reasonable Definition of “Pseudoscience”

Without getting too bogged down in the intricacies of the philosophical arguments, let’s talk about what pseudoscience should (perhaps) mean to the lay-person, and why.

The prefix “pseudo-” is generally used to refer to something which “superficially appears to be (or behaves like) one thing, but is something else.” So, in the case of pseudoscience, we would expect the term to be used to refer to things which appear to be scientific, but aren’t. Since it’s accusatory, it’s generally also implied that this appearance isn’t an accident, but that someone is knowlingly attempting to make their statements or “claims” appear scientific, either out of ignorance or charlatanism.

However, what constitutes such pretense? Furthermore, what constitutes “appearing scientific”?

Some cases are relatively straightforward; for instance, when a health supplement company claims that their product is “proven to detoxify the liver,” when no such proof (which would normally require scientific evidence) exists at all. This is clearly an attempt to adopt the “truth power” of science for marketing purposes, with no science whatsoever behind what’s being said, a clear-cut case of pseudoscience.

However, we get into much murkier water when we start to touch upon statements that are less related to science, but still propose to be saying something true about the world; for instance, when a holistic healer says that a client’s back pain is related psychosomatically to their sense of carrying a heavy burden. Is this statement attempting to appear scientific?

The statement of the healer certainly has no basis in science, but it also doesn’t necessarily claim to have. It simply claims to know something about the world, presumably by some other system of knowledge that is non-scientific, at least according to the modern standards of science. Presumably, the healer making the statement isn’t under the impression that the correlation between back pain and a sense of burden was discovered through peer-reviewed, double-blind studies.

It’s in cases like this where we begin to run into some problems, and those problems have to do not just with knowledge, but power.

The Politics of Knowledge

Central to this dilemma are questions about knowledge as a broad domain of human endeavor, and how it relates to science. There are various “systematized domains of knowledge” that exist, which are non-scientific, and have things to say about the world. These include the arts, some aspects of the social sciences, business practices, holistic health practices, and certainly anything related to religion or spirituality, among other things.

It is precisely when people subscribing to and speaking on behalf of these other systems of knowledge begin to “trespass” or “encroach” upon the “domains” typically dominated by scientific explanation that the word “pseudoscience” begins to be applied, even when what they’re saying actually has nothing to do with science. This is especially true if it violates any of the primary dogmas of the scientific orthodoxy.

This is because, from a perspective of scientism, nothing can be said about various phenomena like the body, subatomic phenomena, the mind, or virtually any aspect of the physical world at large, without implying an attempt to “be scientific,” because obviously only science can justifiably talk about those things.

Another way to express this is that the demarcation problem has a deeper concern than that of demarcating the selection of human activities that we have for various reasons chosen to call “sciences”. The ultimate issue is “how to determine which beliefs are epistemically warranted” (Fuller 1985, 331). [Stanford]

Claims and Domains

In science’s success in deciphering, predicting, and categorizing the physical world around us, it has gained a tremendous deal of cultural “clout”, and for good reason. Proper scientific evidence is now the gold standard of certainty, to the point that “scientific” has almost become a synonym for “true”. This means that science, like religion, has become an institutional definer of our existential context, which is always a position of power.

Science’s influence has also expanded into other disciplines, sometimes referred to as the community of knowledge disciplines. These include the social sciences, the arts, business practices, everything that would be taught as legitimate disciplines in academia.

It’s quite interesting, and perhaps telling, how the politics of knowledge is often referred to in terminology originating in property law, such as “claims” and “domains”; from this perspective, we might say science has been expanding it’s “territory,” and all of the various disciplines it has formed an alliance with are required to be compatible with the most sacred dogmas of scientific materialism, in order to remain legitimate; to bend the knee, and bow their allegiance. Literature can speak of ghosts, for instance, when they study Dickens, as long as it is always a given that ghosts are not real.

As a result, what is considered to be “valid” public thinking is increasingly determined by the various strictures, epistemological standards, and philosophical assumptions of science. If a system of knowledge isn’t based on scientific evidence, or isn’t at the very least compatible with orthodox scientific-materialist doctrine, then it is regarded as being outside the bounds of intellectual legitimacy, and this is what is truly meant when the word “pseudoscience” is used in it’s broader sense.

Monopoly On Thought

This is problematic for anyone who doesn’t see modern scientific research methodologies as the only legitimate way of understanding various phenomena in the world. That’s a pretty broad segment of the population, who have a variety of beliefs, methods, or bodies of knowledge outside science which they put stock in, ranging from psychic astrologers scrying in tea leaves, to continental and critical philosophers, to frontier scientists proposing bold and paradigm-shattering new ideas without the dispensation of academic institutional validation.

Furthermore, as science becomes more and more interwoven with the various domains of knowledge, it becomes more and more difficult to speak about anything without at least mentioning scientific facts about it, which the skeptical inquisition will immediately identify as “attempting to appear scientific,” therefore rendering it pseudoscience. However, just because one refers to scientific facts as part of one’s discussion of a topic doesn’t mean that one is necessarily saying that their propositions are grounded in, or derived exclusively from science.

For instance, if someone proposes that they think quantum entanglement could explain telepathy, simply because they are proposing a possible explanation derived from science doesn’t mean that they are attempting to give the impression that what they’re saying is validated or supported by scientific evidence, unless they say “The existence of entanglement proves telepathy must be real,” or, “Telepathy has been proven scientifically to operate via entanglement.” If they are simply drawing an inference, even if it’s a bit of a long-shot epistemically, why must this be pseudoscience?

Similarly, someone who says that, because the moon’s gravitational field has an effect on the ocean to create tides, it’s alleged effects on human behavior are more believable, is not saying that their belief in the moon’s possible effects on human behavior is proven or even supported by science, but simply that a known scientific fact could lend credence to the idea. Even if one disagrees, were they really attempting to “appear scientific” by citing that one fact? Only if you define “trying to appear scientific” as mentioning science in any way whatsoever.

Regardless of whether one believes in the doctrine that scientific institutions are the only source of truth about the world (scientism), expanding the meaning of a defamatory term simply to delegitimize ideas considered heretical by the scientific orthodoxy ultimately boils down to little more than a shifty semantic trick, at best, however people want to rationalize it to themselves.

Essentially, using it this way turns the word into an insult to hurl at anyone who contradicts, questions, or threatens the mainstream scientific worldview, and its perceived monopoly on legitimate intellectual thought, instead of a meaningful term with a clear and appropriate use.

Image Credit: Scientific American

A More Reasonable Concept of Pseudoscience

So, can we use the term “pseudoscience” without a weaponized expansion of it’s definition to the point that it loses any meaning beyond accusations of heresy?

I think so.

Even if philosophers continue to debate it until the end of time, I believe that the rest of us can and should collectively acknowledge the misuse of the term, and adopt a more common-sense etymological definition. Such a pragmatic definition might be that it only applies to statements that:

A. Claim what is being said is definitely true (not merely speculation, etc.)
B. Claim that how we know it’s true is scientific evidence
C. Are not in fact proven or supported by scientific consensus

For everything else, there are other, more appropriate terms, such as unscientific, non-scientific, quasi-scientific, proto-scientific, fantastical, non-empirical, balderdash, poppycock, humbug, etc.

On the flip side, those of us who are interested in fringe topics or alternative ways of knowing the world outside the domain of science should also be more careful about how we use science in the ideas we discuss or propose. It’s very important to be clear about how scientific fact X could explain anomalous phenomena Z, for instance, and not project unwarranted certainty that it does.

Perhaps if we can all be a bit more mindful and diplomatic about how we’re communicating, we can better approach the truth together, regardless of our differences.

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Jonathan Dinsmore

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Digital nomad, entrepreneur, and lover of all things philosophy, psychology, spirituality, and science.

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