Distinguishing Science and Pseudoscience
Rory Coker, Ph.D.
The word "pseudo" means fake. The surest way to spot a fake is to know as much as
possible about the real thing—in this case, about science itself. Knowing science does
not mean simply knowing scientific facts (such as the distance from earth to sun, the
age of the earth, the distinction between mammal and reptile, etc.) It means
understanding the nature of science—the criteria of evidence, the design of
meaningful experiments, the weighing of possibilities, the testing of hypotheses, the
establishment of theories, the many aspects of scientific methods that make it possible
to draw reliable conclusions about the physical universe.
Because the media bombard us with nonsense, it is useful to consider the earmarks of
pseudoscience. The presence of even one of these should arouse great suspicion. On
the other hand, material displaying none of these flaws might still be pseudoscience,
because its adherents invent new ways to fool themselves every day. Most of the
examples in this article are related to my field of physics, but similar beliefs and
behavior are associated with iridology, medical astrology, meridian therapy,
reflexology, subluxation-based chiropractic, therapeutic touch, and other health-
Pseudoscience displays an indifference to facts.
Instead of bothering to consult reference works or investigating directly, its advocates
simply spout bogus "facts" where needed. These fictions are often central to the
pseudoscientist's argument and conclusions. Moreover, pseudoscientists rarely revise.
The first edition of a pseudoscience book is almost always the last, even though the
book remains in print for decades or even centuries. Even books with obvious
mistakes, errors, and misprints on every page may be reprinted as is, over and over.
Compare this to science textbooks that see a new edition every few years because of
the rapid accumulation of new facts and insights.
Pseudoscience "research" is invariably sloppy.
Pseudoscientists clip newspaper reports, collect hearsay, cite other pseudoscience
books, and pore over ancient religious or mythological works. They rarely or never
make an independent investigation to check their sources.
Pseudoscience begins with a hypothesis—usually one which is appealing
and spectacularly implausible—and then looks only for items which appear to
Conflicting evidence is ignored. Generally speaking, the aim of pseudoscience is to