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Pseudoscience consists of statements, beliefs, or practices that claim to be both scientific and factual but are incompatible with the scientific method. [1] [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. [2]


The demarcation between science and pseudoscience has philosophical, political, and scientific implications. [4] Differentiating science from pseudoscience has practical implications in the case of health care, expert testimony, environmental policies, and science education. [5] Distinguishing scientific facts and theories from pseudoscientific beliefs, such as those found in climate change denial, astrology, alchemy, alternative medicine, occult beliefs, and creation science, is part of science education and literacy. [5] [6]

Pseudoscience can have dangerous effects. For example, pseudoscientific anti-vaccine activism and promotion of homeopathic remedies as alternative disease treatments can result in people forgoing important medical treatments with demonstrable health benefits, leading to deaths and ill-health. [7] [8] [9] Furthermore, people who refuse legitimate medical treatments to contagious diseases may put others at risk. Pseudoscientific theories about racial and ethnic classifications has led to racism and genocide.

The term pseudoscience is often considered pejorative particularly by purveyors of it, because it suggests something is being presented as science inaccurately or even deceptively. Those practicing or advocating pseudoscience therefore frequently dispute the characterization. [2] [10]


The word pseudoscience is derived from the Greek root pseudo meaning false [11] [12] and the English word science, from the Latin word scientia, meaning "knowledge". Although the term has been in use since at least the late 18th century (e.g., in 1796 by James Pettit Andrews in reference to alchemy [13] [14] ), the concept of pseudoscience as distinct from real or proper science seems to have become more widespread during the mid-19th century. Among the earliest uses of "pseudo-science" was in an 1844 article in the Northern Journal of Medicine, issue 387:

That opposite kind of innovation which pronounces what has been recognized as a branch of science, to have been a pseudo-science, composed merely of so-called facts, connected together by misapprehensions under the disguise of principles.

An earlier use of the term was in 1843 by the French physiologist François Magendie, that refers to phrenology as "a pseudo-science of the present day". [15] [16] [17] During the 20th century, the word was used pejoratively to describe explanations of phenomena which were claimed to be scientific, but which were not in fact supported by reliable experimental evidence.

Dismissing the separate issue of intentional fraud—such as the Fox sisters' "rappings" in the 1850s (Abbott, 2012)—the pejorative label pseudoscience distinguishes the scientific 'us', at one extreme, from the pseudo-scientific 'them', at the other, and asserts that 'our' beliefs, practices, theories, etc., by contrast with that of 'the others', are scientific. There are four criteria:
     (a) the 'pseudoscientific' group asserts that its beliefs, practices, theories, etc., are 'scientific';
     (b) the 'pseudoscientific' group claims that its allegedly established facts are justified true beliefs;
     (c) the 'pseudoscientific' group asserts that its 'established facts' have been justified by genuine, rigorous, scientific method; and
     (d) this assertion is false or deceptive: "it is not simply that subsequent evidence overturns established conclusions, but rather that the conclusions were never warranted in the first place" (Blum, 1978, p.12 [Yeates' emphasis]; also, see Moll, 1902, pp.44-47). [18]

From time to time, however, the usage of the word occurred in a more formal, technical manner in response to a perceived threat to individual and institutional security in a social and cultural setting. [19]

Relationship to science

Pseudoscience is differentiated from science because – although it usually claims to be science – pseudoscience does not adhere to scientific standards, such as the scientific method, falsifiability of claims, and Mertonian norms.

Scientific method

The scientific method is a continuous cycle of hypothesis, prediction, testing and questioning. The Scientific Method (simple).png
The scientific method is a continuous cycle of hypothesis, prediction, testing and questioning.
A typical 19th-century phrenology chart: During the 1820s, phrenologists claimed the mind was located in areas of the brain, and were attacked for doubting that mind came from the nonmaterial soul. Their idea of reading "bumps" in the skull to predict personality traits was later discredited. Phrenology was first termed a pseudoscience in 1843 and continues to be considered so. PhrenologyPix.jpg
A typical 19th-century phrenology chart: During the 1820s, phrenologists claimed the mind was located in areas of the brain, and were attacked for doubting that mind came from the nonmaterial soul. Their idea of reading "bumps" in the skull to predict personality traits was later discredited. Phrenology was first termed a pseudoscience in 1843 and continues to be considered so.

A number of basic principles are accepted by scientists as standards for determining whether a body of knowledge, method, or practice is scientific. Experimental results should be reproducible and verified by other researchers. [22] These principles are intended to ensure experiments can be reproduced measurably given the same conditions, allowing further investigation to determine whether a hypothesis or theory related to given phenomena is valid and reliable. Standards require the scientific method to be applied throughout, and bias to be controlled for or eliminated through randomization, fair sampling procedures, blinding of studies, and other methods. All gathered data, including the experimental or environmental conditions, are expected to be documented for scrutiny and made available for peer review, allowing further experiments or studies to be conducted to confirm or falsify results. Statistical quantification of significance, confidence, and error [23] are also important tools for the scientific method.


During the mid-20th century, the philosopher Karl Popper emphasized the criterion of falsifiability to distinguish science from nonscience. [24] Statements, hypotheses, or theories have falsifiability or refutability if there is the inherent possibility that they can be proven false. That is, if it is possible to conceive of an observation or an argument which negates them. Popper used astrology and psychoanalysis as examples of pseudoscience and Einstein's theory of relativity as an example of science. He subdivided nonscience into philosophical, mathematical, mythological, religious and metaphysical formulations on one hand, and pseudoscientific formulations on the other. [25]

Another example which shows the distinct need for a claim to be falsifiable was stated in Carl Sagan's publication The Demon-Haunted World when he discusses an invisible dragon that he has in his garage. The point is made that there is no physical test to refute the claim of the presence of this dragon. Whatever test one thinks can be devised, there is a reason why it does not apply to the invisible dragon, so one can never prove that the initial claim is wrong. Sagan concludes; "Now, what's the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire and no dragon at all?". He states that "your inability to invalidate my hypothesis is not at all the same thing as proving it true", [26] once again explaining that even if such a claim were true, it would be outside the realm of scientific inquiry.

Mertonian norms

During 1942, Robert K. Merton identified a set of five "norms" which he characterized as what makes a real science. If any of the norms were violated, Merton considered the enterprise to be nonscience. These are not broadly accepted by the scientific community. His norms were:

Refusal to acknowledge problems

During 1978, Paul Thagard proposed that pseudoscience is primarily distinguishable from science when it is less progressive than alternative theories over a long period of time, and its proponents fail to acknowledge or address problems with the theory. [28] In 1983, Mario Bunge suggested the categories of "belief fields" and "research fields" to help distinguish between pseudoscience and science, where the former is primarily personal and subjective and the latter involves a certain systematic method. [29] The 2018 book about scientific skepticism by Steven Novella, et al. The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe lists hostility to criticism as one of the major features of pseudoscience. [30]

Criticism of the term

Philosophers of science such as Paul Feyerabend argued that a distinction between science and nonscience is neither possible nor desirable. [31] [Note 2] Among the issues which can make the distinction difficult is variable rates of evolution among the theories and methods of science in response to new data. [Note 3]

Larry Laudan has suggested pseudoscience has no scientific meaning and is mostly used to describe our emotions: "If we would stand up and be counted on the side of reason, we ought to drop terms like 'pseudo-science' and 'unscientific' from our vocabulary; they are just hollow phrases which do only emotive work for us". [34] Likewise, Richard McNally states, "The term 'pseudoscience' has become little more than an inflammatory buzzword for quickly dismissing one's opponents in media sound-bites" and "When therapeutic entrepreneurs make claims on behalf of their interventions, we should not waste our time trying to determine whether their interventions qualify as pseudoscientific. Rather, we should ask them: How do you know that your intervention works? What is your evidence?" [35]

Alternative definition

For philosophers Silvio Funtowicz and Jerome R. Ravetz "pseudo-science may be defined as one where the uncertainty of its inputs must be suppressed, lest they render its outputs totally indeterminate". The definition, in the book Uncertainty and Quality in Science for Policy (p. 54), [36] alludes to the loss of craft skills in handling quantitative information, and to the bad practice of achieving precision in prediction (inference) only at the expenses of ignoring uncertainty in the input which was used to formulate the prediction. This use of the term is common among practitioners of post-normal science. Understood in this way, pseudoscience can be fought using good practices to assesses uncertainty in quantitative information, such as NUSAP and – in the case of mathematical modelling – sensitivity auditing.

The astrological signs of the zodiac Venice ast sm.jpg
The astrological signs of the zodiac


The history of pseudoscience is the study of pseudoscientific theories over time. A pseudoscience is a set of ideas that presents itself as science, while it does not meet the criteria to be properly called such. [37] [38]

Distinguishing between proper science and pseudoscience is sometimes difficult. [39] One proposal for demarcation between the two is the falsification criterion, attributed most notably to the philosopher Karl Popper. [40] In the history of science and the history of pseudoscience it can be especially difficult to separate the two, because some sciences developed from pseudosciences. An example of this transformation is the science chemistry, which traces its origins to pseudoscientific or pre-scientific study of alchemy.

The vast diversity in pseudosciences further complicates the history of science. Some modern pseudosciences, such as astrology and acupuncture, originated before the scientific era. Others developed as part of an ideology, such as Lysenkoism, or as a response to perceived threats to an ideology. Examples of this ideological process are creation science and intelligent design, which were developed in response to the scientific theory of evolution. [41]

Indicators of possible pseudoscience

Homeopathic preparation Rhus toxicodendron, derived from poison ivy Rhustox.jpg
Homeopathic preparation Rhus toxicodendron, derived from poison ivy

A topic, practice, or body of knowledge might reasonably be termed pseudoscientific when it is presented as consistent with the norms of scientific research, but it demonstrably fails to meet these norms. [1] [42]

Use of vague, exaggerated or untestable claims

Over-reliance on confirmation rather than refutation

Lack of openness to testing by other experts

Absence of progress

Personalization of issues

Use of misleading language

Prevalence of pseudoscientific beliefs

United States

A large percentage of the United States population lacks scientific literacy, not adequately understanding scientific principles and method. [Note 8] [Note 9] [64] [Note 10] In the Journal of College Science Teaching, Art Hobson writes, "Pseudoscientific beliefs are surprisingly widespread in our culture even among public school science teachers and newspaper editors, and are closely related to scientific illiteracy." [66] However, a 10,000-student study in the same journal concluded there was no strong correlation between science knowledge and belief in pseudoscience. [67]

In his book The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan discusses the government of China and the Chinese Communist Party's concern about Western pseudoscience developments and certain ancient Chinese practices in China. He sees pseudoscience occurring in the United States as part of a worldwide trend and suggests its causes, dangers, diagnosis and treatment may be universal. [68]

During 2006, the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) issued an executive summary of a paper on science and engineering which briefly discussed the prevalence of pseudoscience in modern times. It said, "belief in pseudoscience is widespread" and, referencing a Gallup Poll, [69] stated that belief in the 10 commonly believed examples of paranormal phenomena listed in the poll were "pseudoscientific beliefs". [70] The items were "extrasensory perception (ESP), that houses can be haunted, ghosts, telepathy, clairvoyance, astrology, that people can communicate mentally with someone who has died, witches, reincarnation, and channelling". [70] Such beliefs in pseudoscience represent a lack of knowledge of how science works. The scientific community may attempt to communicate information about science out of concern for the public's susceptibility to unproven claims. [70] The National Science Foundation stated that pseudoscientific beliefs in the U.S. became more widespread during the 1990s, peaked about 2001, and then decreased slightly since with pseudoscientific beliefs remaining common. According to the NSF report, there is a lack of knowledge of pseudoscientific issues in society and pseudoscientific practices are commonly followed. [71] Surveys indicate about a third of adult Americans consider astrology to be scientific. [72] [73] [74]


There have been many connections between writers and researchers of pseudoscience and their anti-semitism, racism and neo-Nazism backgrounds. They often use pseudoscience to reinforce their beliefs. One of the most predominant pseudoscientific writers is Frank Collin, who goes by Frank Joseph in his writings. Collin is well known for starting the National Socialist Party of America, or NSPA, which formed after Collin left the National Socialist White People's Party (NSWPP) after being outed as part Jewish by the party director Matt Koehl. The NSPA later became what is now known as the American Nazi Party. [75] The NSPA became more well known after they planned to march in Skokie, Illinois, a suburb that has a predominantly Jewish population where 1 out of 6 residents were Holocaust survivors. Although this march did not take place, the court case National Socialist Party of America v. Village of Skokie 1979 ultimately ruled that they were able to display a swastika as well as organize marches according to their first amendment rights. Collin was later arrested after child pornography and other evidence of sexual abuse against young boys was found in his possession. He was expelled from the American Nazi Party and served three years in prison. [75] After he was released, he began a career as an author and editor in chief for Ancient American Magazine from 1993 to 2007. [76] However, before publishing works, he changed his name from Frank Collin to Frank Joseph. Joseph became a successful writer. The majority of his works include the topics of Atlantis, extraterrestrial encounters, and Lemuria as well as other ancient civilizations. Joseph's writings are considered pseudoscience, or information that is claimed to be scientific yet is incompatible with the scientific method. These may be unfalsifiable, exaggerated, or highly biased claims. Joseph's books are riddled with exaggerated claims as well as bias towards white supremacy due to his Neo-Nazi background. [77] As a white supremacist and self-described Nazi, Frank Joseph wrote about the hypothesis that European peoples migrated to North America before Columbus, and that all Native American civilizations were initiated by descendants of white people. [78] Joseph and many other writers like him also claim that there is evidence that Ancient Civilizations were visited by extraterrestrials or have had help from more advanced people, directly going against Occam's razor. They suggest that the only way to explain how people of other cultures could be so far advanced is because these civilizations were helped by outside intelligence, thus assuming that ancient civilizations were not smart enough to create their own advanced technology. Joseph also speculates that many Atlanteans were most likely white and many of them were blonde with blue eyes, an Aryan stereotype. [79] These pseudoscientific books were met with criticism because they do not give Ancient Civilizations credit for their advanced technology, and promote white supremacist ideas. Not only can these racist biases be found within new age ancient mystery writers such as Frank Joseph, many newspaper authors have written articles citing pseudoscientific "studies" to back up and reinforce antisemitic stereotypes.

The Alt-Right using pseudoscience to base their ideologies on is not a new issue. The entire foundation of anti-semitism is based on pseudoscience, or scientific racism. Much of the information that supports these ideologies are extremely biased, with little evidence to support any of the claims. In an article from Newsweek by Sander Gilman, Gilman describes the pseudoscience community's anti-semitic views. "Jews as they appear in this world of pseudoscience are an invented group of ill, stupid or stupidly smart people who use science to their own nefarious ends. Other groups, too, are painted similarly in "race science", as it used to call itself: African-Americans, the Irish, the Chinese and, well, any and all groups that you want to prove inferior to yourself". [80] Neo-Nazis and white supremacist often try to support their claims with studies that "prove" that their claims are more than just harmful stereotypes. In 2019 the New York Times published Bret Stephensons column "Jewish Genius". However, regardless of his intentions, Stephens's line of argument displays a particularly problematic use of science (or at least an appeal to scientific authority) as a tool to justify specious claims. The original version of the column (now removed from the New York Times website and replaced with an edited version) made reference to a study published in 2006 that claimed that the disproportionate number of famous Jewish "geniuses"—Nobel laureates, chess champions, and others—was exemplary of the paper's claim (quoted by Stephens) that "Ashkenazi Jews have the highest average IQ of any ethnic group for which there are reliable data." Stephens fully embraces this apparently empirical claim, writing: "The common answer is that Jews are, or tend to be, smart. When it comes to Ashkenazi Jews, it's true." However, the scientific methodology and conclusions reached by the article Stephens cited has been called into question repeatedly since its publication. It has been found that at least one of that study's authors has been identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a white nationalist. [81]

The journal Nature has published a number of editorials in the last few years warning researchers about extremists looking to abuse their work, particularly population geneticists and those working with ancient DNA.</ref> The article in Nature, titled Racism in Science: The Taint That Lingers notes that early-twentieth-century eugenic pseudoscience has been used to influence US policy. The US Immigration Act of 1924 was consciously designed to discourage Southern Europeans and Eastern Europeans from entering the United States, and barred Asian immigrants outright. This was the result of race-making ideologies and racist studies seeping into politics. Racism is a destructive bias in research. However, the search by some scientists for measurable biological differences between 'races', despite decades of studies yielding no supporting evidence continues. Research has repeatedly shown that race is not a scientifically valid concept. Across the world, humans share 99.9% of their DNA. The characteristics that have come to define our popular understanding of race include hair texture, skin color, and facial features. However, these traits are only some of the thousands that represent us as a species, and the visible ones are only able to tell us population histories and gene-environment interactions. [82]


In a 1981 report Singer and Benassi wrote that pseudoscientific beliefs have their origin from at least four sources. [83]

A 1990 study by Eve and Dunn supported the findings of Singer and Benassi and found pseudoscientific belief being promoted by high school life science and biology teachers. [84]


The psychology of pseudoscience attempts to explore and analyze pseudoscientific thinking by means of thorough clarification on making the distinction of what is considered scientific vs. pseudoscientific. The human proclivity for seeking confirmation rather than refutation (confirmation bias), [85] the tendency to hold comforting beliefs, and the tendency to overgeneralize have been proposed as reasons for pseudoscientific thinking. According to Beyerstein (1991), humans are prone to associations based on resemblances only, and often prone to misattribution in cause-effect thinking. [86]

Michael Shermer's theory of belief-dependent realism is driven by the belief that the brain is essentially a "belief engine" which scans data perceived by the senses and looks for patterns and meaning. There is also the tendency for the brain to create cognitive biases, as a result of inferences and assumptions made without logic and based on instinct – usually resulting in patterns in cognition. These tendencies of patternicity and agenticity are also driven "by a meta-bias called the bias blind spot, or the tendency to recognize the power of cognitive biases in other people but to be blind to their influence on our own beliefs". [87] Lindeman states that social motives (i.e., "to comprehend self and the world, to have a sense of control over outcomes, to belong, to find the world benevolent and to maintain one's self-esteem") are often "more easily" fulfilled by pseudoscience than by scientific information. Furthermore, pseudoscientific explanations are generally not analyzed rationally, but instead experientially. Operating within a different set of rules compared to rational thinking, experiential thinking regards an explanation as valid if the explanation is "personally functional, satisfying and sufficient", offering a description of the world that may be more personal than can be provided by science and reducing the amount of potential work involved in understanding complex events and outcomes. [88]

Education and scientific literacy

There is a trend to believe in pseudoscience more than scientific evidence. [89] Some people believe the prevalence of pseudoscientific beliefs is due to widespread scientific illiteracy. [90] Individuals lacking scientific literacy are more susceptible to wishful thinking, since they are likely to turn to immediate gratification powered by System 1, our default operating system which requires little to no effort. This system encourages one to accept the conclusions they believe, and reject the ones they do not. Further analysis of complex pseudoscientific phenomena require System 2, which follows rules, compares objects along multiple dimensions and weighs options. These two systems have several other differences which are further discussed in the dual-process theory. [91] The scientific and secular systems of morality and meaning are generally unsatisfying to most people. Humans are, by nature, a forward-minded species pursuing greater avenues of happiness and satisfaction, but we are all too frequently willing to grasp at unrealistic promises of a better life. [92]

Psychology has much to discuss about pseudoscience thinking, as it is the illusory perceptions of causality and effectiveness of numerous individuals that needs to be illuminated. Research suggests that illusionary thinking happens in most people when exposed to certain circumstances such as reading a book, an advertisement or the testimony of others are the basis of pseudoscience beliefs. It is assumed that illusions are not unusual, and given the right conditions, illusions are able to occur systematically even in normal emotional situations. One of the things pseudoscience believers quibble most about is that academic science usually treats them as fools. Minimizing these illusions in the real world is not simple. [93] To this aim, designing evidence-based educational programs can be effective to help people identify and reduce their own illusions. [93]

Boundaries with science


Philosophers classify types of knowledge. In English, the word science is used to indicate specifically the natural sciences and related fields, which are called the social sciences. [94] Different philosophers of science may disagree on the exact limits – for example, is mathematics a formal science that is closer to the empirical ones, or is pure mathematics closer to the philosophical study of logic and therefore not a science? [95] – but all agree that all of the ideas that are not scientific are non-scientific. The large category of non-science includes all matters outside the natural and social sciences, such as the study of history, metaphysics, religion, art, and the humanities. [94] Dividing the category again, unscientific claims are a subset of the large category of non-scientific claims. This category specifically includes all matters that are directly opposed to good science. [94] Un-science includes both "bad science" (such as an error made in a good-faith attempt at learning something about the natural world) and pseudoscience. [94] Thus pseudoscience is a subset of un-science, and un-science, in turn, is subset of non-science.

Science is also distinguishable from revelation, theology, or spirituality in that it offers insight into the physical world obtained by empirical research and testing. [96] [97] The most notable disputes concern the evolution of living organisms, the idea of common descent, the geologic history of the Earth, the formation of the solar system, and the origin of the universe. [98] Systems of belief that derive from divine or inspired knowledge are not considered pseudoscience if they do not claim either to be scientific or to overturn well-established science. Moreover, some specific religious claims, such as the power of intercessory prayer to heal the sick, although they may be based on untestable beliefs, can be tested by the scientific method.

Some statements and common beliefs of popular science may not meet the criteria of science. "Pop" science may blur the divide between science and pseudoscience among the general public, and may also involve science fiction. [99] Indeed, pop science is disseminated to, and can also easily emanate from, persons not accountable to scientific methodology and expert peer review.

If claims of a given field can be tested experimentally and standards are upheld, it is not pseudoscience, regardless of how odd, astonishing, or counterintuitive those claims are. If claims made are inconsistent with existing experimental results or established theory, but the method is sound, caution should be used, since science consists of testing hypotheses which may turn out to be false. In such a case, the work may be better described as ideas that are "not yet generally accepted". Protoscience is a term sometimes used to describe a hypothesis that has not yet been tested adequately by the scientific method, but which is otherwise consistent with existing science or which, where inconsistent, offers reasonable account of the inconsistency. It may also describe the transition from a body of practical knowledge into a scientific field. [24]


Karl Popper stated it is insufficient to distinguish science from pseudoscience, or from metaphysics (such as the philosophical question of what existence means), by the criterion of rigorous adherence to the empirical method, which is essentially inductive, based on observation or experimentation. [44] He proposed a method to distinguish between genuine empirical, nonempirical or even pseudoempirical methods. The latter case was exemplified by astrology, which appeals to observation and experimentation. While it had empirical evidence based on observation, on horoscopes and biographies, it crucially failed to use acceptable scientific standards. [44] Popper proposed falsifiability as an important criterion in distinguishing science from pseudoscience.

To demonstrate this point, Popper [44] gave two cases of human behavior and typical explanations from Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler's theories: "that of a man who pushes a child into the water with the intention of drowning it; and that of a man who sacrifices his life in an attempt to save the child." [44] From Freud's perspective, the first man would have suffered from psychological repression, probably originating from an Oedipus complex, whereas the second man had attained sublimation. From Adler's perspective, the first and second man suffered from feelings of inferiority and had to prove himself, which drove him to commit the crime or, in the second case, drove him to rescue the child. Popper was not able to find any counterexamples of human behavior in which the behavior could not be explained in the terms of Adler's or Freud's theory. Popper argued [44] it was that the observation always fitted or confirmed the theory which, rather than being its strength, was actually its weakness. In contrast, Popper [44] gave the example of Einstein's gravitational theory, which predicted "light must be attracted by heavy bodies (such as the Sun), precisely as material bodies were attracted." [44] Following from this, stars closer to the Sun would appear to have moved a small distance away from the Sun, and away from each other. This prediction was particularly striking to Popper because it involved considerable risk. The brightness of the Sun prevented this effect from being observed under normal circumstances, so photographs had to be taken during an eclipse and compared to photographs taken at night. Popper states, "If observation shows that the predicted effect is definitely absent, then the theory is simply refuted." [44] Popper summed up his criterion for the scientific status of a theory as depending on its falsifiability, refutability, or testability.

Paul R. Thagard used astrology as a case study to distinguish science from pseudoscience and proposed principles and criteria to delineate them. [100] First, astrology has not progressed in that it has not been updated nor added any explanatory power since Ptolemy. Second, it has ignored outstanding problems such as the precession of equinoxes in astronomy. Third, alternative theories of personality and behavior have grown progressively to encompass explanations of phenomena which astrology statically attributes to heavenly forces. Fourth, astrologers have remained uninterested in furthering the theory to deal with outstanding problems or in critically evaluating the theory in relation to other theories. Thagard intended this criterion to be extended to areas other than astrology. He believed it would delineate as pseudoscientific such practices as witchcraft and pyramidology, while leaving physics, chemistry, astronomy, geoscience, biology, and archaeology in the realm of science. [100]

In the philosophy and history of science, Imre Lakatos stresses the social and political importance of the demarcation problem, the normative methodological problem of distinguishing between science and pseudoscience. His distinctive historical analysis of scientific methodology based on research programmes suggests: "scientists regard the successful theoretical prediction of stunning novel facts – such as the return of Halley's comet or the gravitational bending of light rays  – as what demarcates good scientific theories from pseudo-scientific and degenerate theories, and in spite of all scientific theories being forever confronted by 'an ocean of counterexamples'". [4] Lakatos offers a "novel fallibilist analysis of the development of Newton's celestial dynamics, [his] favourite historical example of his methodology" and argues in light of this historical turn, that his account answers for certain inadequacies in those of Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn. [4] "Nonetheless, Lakatos did recognize the force of Kuhn's historical criticism of Popper – all important theories have been surrounded by an 'ocean of anomalies', which on a falsificationist view would require the rejection of the theory outright...Lakatos sought to reconcile the rationalism of Popperian falsificationism with what seemed to be its own refutation by history". [101]

Many philosophers have tried to solve the problem of demarcation in the following terms: a statement constitutes knowledge if sufficiently many people believe it sufficiently strongly. But the history of thought shows us that many people were totally committed to absurd beliefs. If the strengths of beliefs were a hallmark of knowledge, we should have to rank some tales about demons, angels, devils, and of heaven and hell as knowledge. Scientists, on the other hand, are very sceptical even of their best theories. Newton's is the most powerful theory science has yet produced, but Newton himself never believed that bodies attract each other at a distance. So no degree of commitment to beliefs makes them knowledge. Indeed, the hallmark of scientific behaviour is a certain scepticism even towards one's most cherished theories. Blind commitment to a theory is not an intellectual virtue: it is an intellectual crime.

Thus a statement may be pseudoscientific even if it is eminently 'plausible' and everybody believes in it, and it may be scientifically valuable even if it is unbelievable and nobody believes in it. A theory may even be of supreme scientific value even if no one understands it, let alone believes in it. [4]

Imre Lakatos, Science and Pseudoscience

The boundary between science and pseudoscience is disputed and difficult to determine analytically, even after more than a century of study by philosophers of science and scientists, and despite some basic agreements on the fundamentals of the scientific method. [1] [102] [103] The concept of pseudoscience rests on an understanding that the scientific method has been misrepresented or misapplied with respect to a given theory, but many philosophers of science maintain that different kinds of methods are held as appropriate across different fields and different eras of human history. According to Lakatos, the typical descriptive unit of great scientific achievements is not an isolated hypothesis but "a powerful problem-solving machinery, which, with the help of sophisticated mathematical techniques, digests anomalies and even turns them into positive evidence". [4]

To Popper, pseudoscience uses induction to generate theories, and only performs experiments to seek to verify them. To Popper, falsifiability is what determines the scientific status of a theory. Taking a historical approach, Kuhn observed that scientists did not follow Popper's rule, and might ignore falsifying data, unless overwhelming. To Kuhn, puzzle-solving within a paradigm is science. Lakatos attempted to resolve this debate, by suggesting history shows that science occurs in research programmes, competing according to how progressive they are. The leading idea of a programme could evolve, driven by its heuristic to make predictions that can be supported by evidence. Feyerabend claimed that Lakatos was selective in his examples, and the whole history of science shows there is no universal rule of scientific method, and imposing one on the scientific community impedes progress. [104]

David Newbold and Julia Roberts, "An analysis of the demarcation problem in science and its application to therapeutic touch theory" in International Journal of Nursing Practice, Vol. 13

Laudan maintained that the demarcation between science and non-science was a pseudo-problem, preferring to focus on the more general distinction between reliable and unreliable knowledge. [105]

[Feyerabend] regards Lakatos's view as being closet anarchism disguised as methodological rationalism. Feyerabend's claim was not that standard methodological rules should never be obeyed, but rather that sometimes progress is made by abandoning them. In the absence of a generally accepted rule, there is a need for alternative methods of persuasion. According to Feyerabend, Galileo employed stylistic and rhetorical techniques to convince his reader, while he also wrote in Italian rather than Latin and directed his arguments to those already temperamentally inclined to accept them. [101]

Alexander Bird, "The Historical Turn in the Philosophy of Science" in Routledge Companion to the Philosophy of Science

Politics, health, and education

Political implications

The demarcation problem between science and pseudoscience brings up debate in the realms of science, philosophy and politics.Imre Lakatos, for instance, points out that the Communist Party of the Soviet Union at one point declared that Mendelian genetics was pseudoscientific and had its advocates, including well-established scientists such as Nikolai Vavilov, sent to a Gulag and that the "liberal Establishment of the West" denies freedom of speech to topics it regards as pseudoscience, particularly where they run up against social mores. [4]

Something becomes pseudoscientific when science cannot be separated from ideology, scientists misrepresent scientific findings to promote or draw attention for publicity, when politicians, journalists and a nation's intellectual elite distort the facts of science for short-term political gain, or when powerful individuals of the public conflate causation and cofactors by clever wordplay. These ideas reduce the authority, value, integrity and independence of science in society. [106]

Health and education implications

Distinguishing science from pseudoscience has practical implications in the case of health care, expert testimony, environmental policies, and science education. Treatments with a patina of scientific authority which have not actually been subjected to actual scientific testing may be ineffective, expensive and dangerous to patients and confuse health providers, insurers, government decision makers and the public as to what treatments are appropriate. Claims advanced by pseudoscience may result in government officials and educators making bad decisions in selecting curricula. [Note 11]

The extent to which students acquire a range of social and cognitive thinking skills related to the proper usage of science and technology determines whether they are scientifically literate. Education in the sciences encounters new dimensions with the changing landscape of science and technology, a fast-changing culture and a knowledge-driven era. A reinvention of the school science curriculum is one that shapes students to contend with its changing influence on human welfare. Scientific literacy, which allows a person to distinguish science from pseudosciences such as astrology, is among the attributes that enable students to adapt to the changing world. Its characteristics are embedded in a curriculum where students are engaged in resolving problems, conducting investigations, or developing projects. [6]

Friedman mentions why most scientists avoid educating about pseudoscience, including that paying undue attention to pseudoscience could dignify it. [107]

On the other hand, Park emphasizes how pseudoscience can be a threat to society and considers that scientists have a responsibility to teach how to distinguish science from pseudoscience. [108]

Pseudosciences such as homeopathy, even if generally benign, are used by charlatans. This poses a serious issue because it enables incompetent practitioners to administer health care. True-believing zealots may pose a more serious threat than typical con men because of their delusion to homeopathy's ideology. Irrational health care is not harmless and it is careless to create patient confidence in pseudomedicine. [109]

On 8 December 2016, journalist Michael V. LeVine pointed out the dangers posed by the Natural News website: "Snake-oil salesmen have pushed false cures since the dawn of medicine, and now websites like Natural News flood social media with dangerous anti-pharmaceutical, anti-vaccination and anti-GMO pseudoscience that puts millions at risk of contracting preventable illnesses." [110]

The anti-vaccine movement has persuaded large number of parents not to vaccinate their children, citing pseudoscientific research that links childhood vaccines with the onset of autism. [111] These include the study by Andrew Wakefield, which claimed that a combination of gastrointestinal disease and developmental regression, which are often seen in children with ASD, occurred within two weeks of receiving vaccines. [112] [113] The study was eventually retracted by its publisher, and Wakefield was stripped of his license to practice medicine. [111]

See also

Similar terms


  1. Definition:
    • "A pretended or spurious science; a collection of related beliefs about the world mistakenly regarded as being based on scientific method or as having the status that scientific truths now have". Oxford English Dictionary , second edition 1989.
    • "Many writers on pseudoscience have emphasized that pseudoscience is non-science posing as science. The foremost modern classic on the subject (Gardner 1957) bears the title Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science . According to Brian Baigrie (1988, 438), '[w]hat is objectionable about these beliefs is that they masquerade as genuinely scientific ones.' These and many other authors assume that to be pseudoscientific, an activity or a teaching has to satisfy the following two criteria (Hansson 1996): (1) it is not scientific, and (2) its major proponents try to create the impression that it is scientific." [2]
    • '"claims presented so that they appear [to be] scientific even though they lack supporting evidence and plausibility"(p. 33). In contrast, science is "a set of methods designed to describe and interpret observed and inferred phenomena, past or present, and aimed at building a testable body of knowledge open to rejection or confirmation"(p. 17)' [3] (this was the definition adopted by the National Science Foundation)
  2. 'A particularly radical reinterpretation of science comes from Paul Feyerabend, "the worst enemy of science"... Like Lakatos, Feyerabend was also a student under Popper. In an interview with Feyerabend in Science, [he says] "Equal weight... should be given to competing avenues of knowledge such as astrology, acupuncture, and witchcraft..."' [32]
  3. 1 2 "We can now propose the following principle of demarcation: A theory or discipline which purports to be scientific is pseudoscientific if and only if: it has been less progressive than alternative theories over a long period of time, and faces many unsolved problems; but the community of practitioners makes little attempt to develop the theory towards solutions of the problems, shows no concern for attempts to evaluate the theory in relation to others, and is selective in considering confirmations and non confirmations." [33]
  4. 'Most terms in theoretical physics, for example, do not enjoy at least some distinct connections with observables, but not of the simple sort that would permit operational definitions in terms of these observables. [..] If a restriction in favor of operational definitions were to be followed, therefore, most of theoretical physics would have to be dismissed as meaningless pseudoscience!' [45]
  5. For an opposing perspective, e.g. Chapter 5 of Suppression Stories by Brian Martin (Wollongong: Fund for Intellectual Dissent, 1997), pp. 69–83.
  6. e.g., which claims that "The list of suppressed scientists even includes Nobel Laureates!"
  7. e.g. Philosophy 103: Introduction to Logic Argumentum Ad Hominem.
  8. "Surveys conducted in the United States and Europe reveal that many citizens do not have a firm grasp of basic scientific facts and concepts, nor do they have an understanding of the scientific process. In addition, belief in pseudoscience (an indicator of scientific illiteracy) seems to be widespread among Americans and Europeans." [62]
  9. "A new national survey commissioned by the California Academy of Sciences and conducted by Harris Interactive® reveals that the U.S. public is unable to pass even a basic scientific literacy test." [63]
  10. "In a survey released earlier this year [2007], Miller and colleagues found that about 28 percent of American adults qualified as scientifically literate, which is an increase of about 10 percent from the late 1980s and early 1990s." [65]
  11. "From a practical point of view, the distinction is important for decision guidance in both private and public life. Since science is our most reliable source of knowledge in a wide variety of areas, we need to distinguish scientific knowledge from its look-alikes. Due to the high status of science in present-day society, attempts to exaggerate the scientific status of various claims, teachings, and products are common enough to make the demarcation issue serious. For example, creation science may replace evolution in studies of biology." [5]

Related Research Articles

Astrology Pseudoscience claiming celestial objects influence human affairs

Astrology is a pseudoscience that claims to divine information about human affairs and terrestrial events by studying the movements and relative positions of celestial objects. Astrology has been dated to at least the 2nd millennium BCE, and has its roots in calendrical systems used to predict seasonal shifts and to interpret celestial cycles as signs of divine communications. Many cultures have attached importance to astronomical events, and some—such as the Hindus, Chinese, and the Maya—developed elaborate systems for predicting terrestrial events from celestial observations. Western astrology, one of the oldest astrological systems still in use, can trace its roots to 19th–17th century BCE Mesopotamia, from where it spread to Ancient Greece, Rome, the Arab world and eventually Central and Western Europe. Contemporary Western astrology is often associated with systems of horoscopes that purport to explain aspects of a person's personality and predict significant events in their lives based on the positions of celestial objects; the majority of professional astrologers rely on such systems.

Falsifiability Property of a statement that is written in an empirical language and contradicts some observations, realistic or not, that can be described in that language.

In the philosophy of science, a theory is falsifiable if it is contradicted by possible observations—i.e., by any observations that can be described in the language of the theory, which must have a conventional empirical interpretation. Thus the theory must be about scientific evidence and it must prohibit some possible observations. For example, the statement "All swans are white" is falsifiable because "Here is a black swan" contradicts it.

In philosophy of science, there are several definitions of protoscience.

Science Systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge

Science is a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe.

Scientific method Interplay between observation, experiment and theory in science

The scientific method is an empirical method of acquiring knowledge that has characterized the development of science since at least the 17th century. It involves careful observation, applying rigorous skepticism about what is observed, given that cognitive assumptions can distort how one interprets the observation. It involves formulating hypotheses, via induction, based on such observations; experimental and measurement-based testing of deductions drawn from the hypotheses; and refinement of the hypotheses based on the experimental findings. These are principles of the scientific method, as distinguished from a definitive series of steps applicable to all scientific enterprises.

Philosophy of science Philosophical study of the assumptions, foundations, and implications of science

Philosophy of science is a branch of philosophy concerned with the foundations, methods, and implications of science. The central questions of this study concern what qualifies as science, the reliability of scientific theories, and the ultimate purpose of science. This discipline overlaps with metaphysics, ontology, and epistemology, for example, when it explores the relationship between science and truth. Philosophy of science focuses on metaphysical, epistemic and semantic aspects of science. Ethical issues such as bioethics and scientific misconduct are often considered ethics or science studies rather than philosophy of science.

Imre Lakatos Hungarian philosopher of mathematics and science

Imre Lakatos was a Hungarian philosopher of mathematics and science, known for his thesis of the fallibility of mathematics and its "methodology of proofs and refutations" in its pre-axiomatic stages of development, and also for introducing the concept of the "research programme" in his methodology of scientific research programmes.

Paul Feyerabend

Paul Karl Feyerabend was an Austrian-born philosopher of science best known for his work as a professor of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley, where he worked for three decades (1958–1989). At various points in his life, he lived in England, the United States, New Zealand, Italy, Germany, and finally Switzerland. His major works include Against Method (1975), Science in a Free Society (1978) and Farewell to Reason (1987). Feyerabend became famous for his purportedly anarchistic view of science and his rejection of the existence of universal methodological rules. He was an influential figure in the sociology of scientific knowledge. Asteroid (22356) Feyerabend is named in his honour.

Scientism is the promotion of science as the best or only objective means by which society should determine normative and epistemological values. While the term was originally defined to mean "methods and attitudes typical of or attributed to the natural scientist", some religious scholars adopted it as a pejorative with the meaning "an exaggerated trust in the efficacy of the methods of natural science applied to all areas of investigation ".

Aušra Augustinavičiūtė

Aušra Augustinavičiūtė was a Lithuanian economist, and dean of the Vilnius Pedagogical University's department of family science. Founder of socionics, the pseudoscientific theory of information processing and personality types.

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to scientific method:

In the philosophy of science and epistemology, the demarcation problem is the question of how to distinguish between science and non-science. It examines the lines between science, pseudoscience, and other products of human activity, like art and literature, and beliefs. The debate continues after over two millennia of dialogue among philosophers of science and scientists in various fields. The debate has consequences for what can be called "scientific" in fields such as education and public policy.

History of pseudoscience

The history of pseudoscience is the study of pseudoscientific theories over time. A pseudoscience is a set of ideas that presents itself as science, while it does not meet the criteria to properly be called such.

Inductivism is the traditional, still commonplace view of scientific method to develop scientific theories. It aims to be a systematic research approach involving inductive reasoning that, applied diligently, enables scientists to objectively discover the sole naturally true theory in each domain.

Epistemological anarchism is an epistemological theory advanced by Austrian philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend which holds that there are no useful and exception-free methodological rules governing the progress of science or the growth of knowledge. It holds that the idea of the operation of science by fixed, universal rules is unrealistic, pernicious, and detrimental to science itself.

Credulity is a person's willingness or ability to believe that a statement is true, especially on minimal or uncertain evidence. Credulity is not necessarily a belief in something that may be false: the subject of the belief may even be correct, but a credulous person will believe it without good evidence.

Criticism of science

Criticism of science addresses problems within science in order to improve science as a whole and its role in society. Criticisms come from philosophy, from social movements like feminism, and from within science itself.

Bold hypothesis or bold conjecture is a concept in the philosophy of science of Karl Popper, first explained in his debut The Logic of Scientific Discovery (1935) and subsequently elaborated in writings such as Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge (1963). The concept is nowadays widely used in the philosophy of science and in the philosophy of knowledge. It is also used in the social and behavioural sciences.

Astrology and science

Astrology consists of a number of belief systems that hold that there is a relationship between astronomical phenomena and events or descriptions of personality in the human world. Astrology has been rejected by the scientific community as having no explanatory power for describing the universe. Scientific testing has found no evidence to support the premises or purported effects outlined in astrological traditions.

A non-science is an area of study that is not scientific, especially one that is not a natural science or a social science that is an object of scientific inquiry. In this model, history, art, and religion are all examples of non-sciences.


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Further reading