Pseudoscience and Popular Misconceptions

Larry Gilman. Scientific Thought: In Context. Editor: K Lee Lerner & Brenda Wilmoth Lerner. Volume 2. Detroit: Gale, 2009.


The prefix pseudo- means fake. Pseudoscience is fake science. Many people hold pseudoscientific beliefs. Some of the better-known of these include extrasensory perception (ESP), unidentified flying objects (UFOs), the planetary theories of American psychologist Immanuel Velikovsky (1895-1979), pyramid power, alien abductions, the Loch Ness Monster, Bigfoot, and creation science. Popular misconceptions about science, as distinct from pseudoscience, are commonplace but mistaken ideas about the physical world or about how science works. Such beliefs may be encouraged by pseudoscience or may arise from inadequate science education.

Historical Background and Scientific Foundations

Most people in modern society assume that science is the most reliable source of knowledge about the physical world. By claiming to be scientific or using scientific-sounding words, almost any claim can gain some believers. This is true even for claims based on incomplete information, flawed experiments, hallucinations, or private fantasy. People who lack critical-thinking skills or science education are often taken in by pseudoscience.

Today, science is a growing, interlocked system of strictly defined facts and explanations tested against observations. This form of science only came into being after the Scientific Revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. When speaking of beliefs held before or even during that period, it is not historically meaningful to speak of “pseudoscience,” because no distinction was yet possible. Until the eighteenth century, even leading scientists often held beliefs that today would be considered pseudoscientific.

For example, German astronomer and mathematician Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) was a founder of modern science who discovered the first mathematical laws of planetary motion. Yet Kepler believed that the orbits of the planets could be explained by a mystical relationship between the five Platonic solids (the cube, tetrahedron, and three other polyhedrons having identical faces). Kepler was also a professional astrologer (a person who predicts human affairs from the positions of the moon, sun, planets, and stars). Today, both astrology and the mystical significance of the Platonic solids are considered pseudoscience.

Another example is English physicist Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727). Newton established the elements of modern mechanics, the science of objects in motion. Yet he spent at least as much time on alchemy, a mystical system devoted to transforming physical elements and the inward, spiritual self, using a combination of laboratory methods and magic spells.

Only with the development of strict scientific standards of experiment, verification, and publication over generations did a clear separation appear between science and pseudoscience. The word “pseudoscience” itself was not coined until 1844.

Some philosophers, such as Paul Feyerabend (1924-1994), have argued that it is not possible to define “science” clearly enough to distinguish scientific from pseudoscientific claims. However, most working scientists would agree that all real science has certain features:

  1. Falsifiability. To be scientific, a claim must be capable of being disproved or falsified. For example, the statement that there is an elf in the room who cannot be seen, heard, smelt, felt, or observed by instruments cannot be proved false; such a statement is therefore not scientific. The claim that gravity bends light waves, on the other hand, can be tested by experiment. If it is false we can prove that it is false. It is therefore a scientific claim. (It turns out to be true.) Yet falsifiability is not the only feature of a scientific claim; simply making up falsifiable statements is not a form of science. Some pseudoscientific claims can be disproven, in whole or part, but this alone does not mean they are scientific claims—even if the people making them happen to have academic degrees in science. For example, if a person claims that they can fly by flapping their arms, their statement can be falsified but it is not science.
  2. Clear relationship to existing knowledge. To be scientific, a statement must employ terms from existing scientific knowledge. For example, statements about “energy” that do not employ any scientific or testable definition of “energy” are pseudoscientific.
  3. Repeatability of observations. Scientific claims must be based on observations that can be made by any properly equipped observer. It is a popular misconception that science can only study events that can be directly observed. However, scientists can often study events that are hidden from direct view or that happened in the past. They do so by reasoning from information that they gather in the present, such as fossils, DNA samples, rocks, or astronomical observations. What is essential for science is that these data can be checked by other scientists.

It should be noted that not all nonscientific beliefs are pseudoscientific. Beliefs about right and wrong, meaning, religion, and beauty, for example, are not generally considered pseudoscientific. Only when claims are made about the nature of the physical world without sound scientific basis does pseudoscience appear. For example, a person who claims that spirits make their car go is making a pseudoscientific claim; science cannot consider supernatural explanations because there is no way to observe supernatural forces, if any such exist. We can, however, verify that the person’s car will not run without gas in the tank.

A few beliefs that were once dismissed as pseudoscience have since been accepted by science. For example, in the 1700s and early 1800s, official scientific bodies such as the French Academy of Science maintained that reports of hot stones falling from the sky were a popular delusion. In 1808, U.S. President Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) dismissed a report that two professors had verified a meteorite, writing that he “would rather believe that two Yankee professors would lie than believe that stones fall from heaven.” However, meteorites are now known to be real (they are rocks that fall to earth from space). More recently, the theory of continental drift, first proposed in 1908, was not accepted by most geologists until the 1960s.

Acupuncture was long considered pseudoscience by conventional medical authorities in the West. However, numerous scientific studies over the last few decades have shown that acupuncture is partly effective for some medical conditions. In 1997, a panel of experts convened by the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) to evaluate acupuncture stated that “there is sufficient evidence of acupuncture’s value to expand its use into conventional medicine and to encourage further studies of its physiology and clinical value.” There is a large body of scientific evidence that acupuncture does have some effectiveness for treating postoperative pain, chemotherapy nausea, and lower back pain; according to the NIH, “the data in support of acupuncture [for some conditions] are as strong as those for many accepted Western medical therapies.” However, acupuncture has not been shown to be more effective than placebo in treating arthritis, depression, asthma, cancer, and nicotine addiction. While it may seem effective, that effectiveness is either psychosomatic or based upon different physiological principles than supposed by pre-scientific traditions. Belief that acupuncture can treat any medical problem at all is pseudoscientific.

Some claims that were once widely accepted as scientific have since been relegated to the status of pseudoscience. For example, claims that men are more intelligent than women and that darker-skinned groups are more childlike and more closely related to apes (hence less intelligent) than light-skinned groups were widely considered scientific throughout the nineteenth century and early twentieth century. These beliefs are now seen as pseudoscientific.

Science vs. Pseudoscience

A selection of common pseudoscience ideas follows, accompanied by brief explanations of why they are not scientific.

Velikovsky’s planetary mechanics. In 1950, Immanuel Velikovsky published a book, World’s in Collision, to propose a number of ideas about planetary mechanics. For example, he proposed that the planet Venus did not form out of the primordial disk of dust and gas orbiting the sun, but was ejected from Jupiter a few thousand years ago by an unspecified mechanism and passed through the inner solar system several times before settling into its present-day orbit. He claimed that the craters on the moon were produced not by meteorite impacts but by giant electrical sparks. Velikovsky’s theories violate many laws of physics and have not contributed to modern planetary science. They have been refuted in detail by Carl Sagan (1934-1996) and many other scientists. However, his book has long been a best seller and remains in print.

UFOs. A 2001 Gallup poll of American adults found that 30% affirm the statement that “some of the unidentified flying objects that have been reported are really space vehicles from other civilizations,” while 33% affirmed that “extraterrestrial beings have visited the earth at some time in the past.” However, there is no scientific evidence for either of these statements. No unambiguous, clear video footage of an alien spacecraft has ever appeared, despite the proliferation in recent years of hundreds of millions of video cameras around the world; no space probe, satellite, or manned spacecraft has encountered any sign of nonhuman races in space; no ancient structure, such as the Great Pyramids of Egypt, contains alien technology that could not have been built by ancient human engineers, despite many assertions to the contrary in UFO literature. There is no scientific reason to believe that UFOs are real.

ESP. Belief in ESP (extrasensory perception) is also common; according to a 2001 National Science Foundation survey, 60% of U.S. adults believe that “some people possess psychic powers or ESP.” Most people have personal experiences that seem to them to have an inescapably psychic or extrasensory dimension. However, over half a century of efforts to clearly identify psychic powers have failed. There has been no scientific proof that any person has been to be able to predict the future, view remote events, read minds, or move objects telekinetically.

Energy healing. In recent years, a wide range of alternative healing practices going by names like “energy work,” “subtle energy medicine,” and “vibrational healing” have arisen. These practices typically employ pseudoscientific language to promote themselves: for example, one practitioner promises to “treat people by using pure energy” utilizing “specialized forms of energy to positively affect the energetic systems that may be out of balance. This energy acts as a type of wave-guide to redirect or realign the subtle energies [of the body] that may be affected.” Despite the use of technological-sounding words like energy, energetic system, waveguide, redirect, and realign, such methods use no measurable, physical form of “energy” and are pseudoscientific. People often feel better after receiving such treatments, but this is not scientific evidence that “energy” is being manipulated.

Rather, they reflect the fact that people who believe that they have received any effective treatment tend to feel better even if they have received a placebo (a useless treatment), such as water pills. Other pseudoscientific healing techniques include homeopathy and Reike.

Creation Science and Intelligent Design

Creation science and intelligent design theory are pseudoscientific ideas that are particularly prominent today.

According to the scientific history of life on Earth, which is accepted as factual by approximately 99.9% of scientists who work in geology and the life sciences, the Earth is 4.5 billion years old. Life arose several billion years ago and has evolved since then into a wide variety of forms. All living things, including humans, are related to each other through common ancestors, just as cousins descend from common (shared) grandparents.

However, some people prefer a literal (exactly-what-it-sounds-like) interpretation of the biblical book of Genesis. These persons believe that Earth is about 10,000 years old rather than 4.5 billion years old, and that the ancestors of living species did not evolve but were brought suddenly into being by miracles—created.

Hence, this belief is called creationism. According to a 1997 Gallup poll, about 44% of the U.S. public affirms the statement that “God created man pretty much in his present form at one time within the last 10,000 years.”

In the late 1960s, after the U.S. Supreme Court decided in the case Epperson v. Arkansas that states cannot ban the teaching of evolution in high-school science classes, creationists developed a new form of creationism called “creation science.” Creation science claims that the literal Genesis account, including a 10,000-year-old Earth and a Noachian flood, is supported by scientific evidence. The scientific community rejects this claim. In 1987 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Edwards v. Aguillard that creation science is religious, not scientific, and so cannot be taught in high school science classrooms.

In response to the Court’s decision, a new form of creationism called “intelligent design” was developed, becoming popular in the 1990s. Intelligent design, which usually strips all references to religion from its arguments, argues that some aspects of living things are too complex to have evolved and therefore prove the existence of an intelligent designer. Advocates sometimes deny that this designer is necessarily God. Some intelligent design advocates are willing to admit the shared ancestry of all living things and the great age of Earth, but all insist that intervention by an intelligent designer must have occurred at some point in the history of life.

Many major scientific organizations, including the National Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, have issued statements warning that intelligent design is not science at all. In 1999 the United States National Academy of Sciences stated: “Creationism, intelligent design, and other claims of supernatural intervention in the origin of life or of species are not science because they are not testable by the methods of science.”

Proponents of intelligent design accuse mainstream scientists of defending old ideas—in this case, evolution—for unscientific reasons. They point to the slow acceptance of continental drift and other cases where ideas originally considered pseudoscientific were eventually accepted as science and say that their theory is in the same position. What distinguishes authentic maverick or rebel science from pseudoscience, however, is that authentic science eventually produces fruitful research that can stand up to detailed review by independent experts. This is how continental drift theory became mainstream science. In over 15 years of existence, by contrast, intelligent design theory has not produced any original research. In 2005, in the case Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, a federal judge ruled that intelligent design’s claims to be scientific (instead of religious) are a “sham,” not sincere. Intelligent design, like creation science, is pseudoscience.

There is no authentic scientific debate about intelligent design or creation science. However, political controversy on the subject remains intense, especially in the United States. Both creationists and some antireligious philosophers such as Daniel Dennett (1942-) and Richard Dawkins (1941-) proclaim that religion and evolution are natural enemies, and that one must destroy or drive out the other. However, many large religious organizations—for example, the Catholic Church, the Episcopal Church, and non-Orthodox Jewish denominations—officially deny that there is conflict between their beliefs and evolutionary biology.

Characteristics of Pseudoscience

Pseudoscientific claims, though they vary widely in nature, tend to share typical features:

  1. Supporters rely on weak evidence. Blurry photographs, uncheckable stories of personal experiences, poorly designed experiments, anecdotes, and faked artifacts are often used.
  2. A pseudoscientific theory is often constructed so as to avoid falsification.
  3. Alternative explanations such as fraud, coincidence, placebo effect, and self-deception are dismissed without serious consideration. Positive evidence is taken as proof; negative evidence is explained away.
  4. Supporting evidence, if any, is drawn from out-of-date scientific sources; newer sources are ignored or downplayed.
  5. Pseudoscientific research programs do not progress. This has been the case with Velikovsky’s theories, ESP, UFOs, and intelligent design. No new knowledge is produced.

Popular Science Misconceptions

Popular science misconceptions are mistaken ideas about the physical world. Some appear in science textbooks intended for elementary and high school students. The U.S. National Research Council identifies five forms of science misconception:

  1. Preconceived notions, for example, the idea that because water flows in rivers above ground, it must flow in rivers underground too;
  2. Nonscientific beliefs from religious or mythical sources, for example, the idea that the earth is only about 10,000 years old;
  3. Conceptual misunderstandings arising from inadequate science teaching, for example, persistence in the belief that objects slow down when not pushed by a continuous force;
  4. Vernacular misconceptions arising from confusion between everyday words and sound-alike words in science, such as “work” or “energy”; and
  5. Factual misconceptions, that is, false beliefs about particular matters of fact, such as the belief that the Gulf Stream is caused by the Mississippi River.

The following are a few popular misconceptions of the factual-misconception type:

There is no gravity in outer space. Fact: gravity is everywhere. We feel its force only when we resist it, such as by standing on a solid surface. When we fall freely, such as when we jump off a diving board, we do not feel gravity. In space, objects are weightless because they are (in general) falling freely.

Oceans and lakes are blue because they reflect the sky. Fact: Water itself is blue. Small amounts of water only look clear because our eyes cannot detect their slight blueness. Large amounts of water are blue because they absorb enough of the red light passing through them so that the light which gets through looks blue to us. Impurities and reflections may add other colors to water, such as brown, gray, and green.

Dinosaurs are extinct because they grew too big for their brains. Fact: Dinosaurs were capable survivors that lasted for over 160 million years, about a hundred times longer than humans have been around. Not all dinosaurs were big or had unusually tiny brains. Dinosaurs became extinct for a number of reasons—including the impact of a giant asteroid about 65 million years ago whose dust darkened the sky and killed off most plants—but stupidity was not one of them. Extinction is normal: 99.9% of all species that have ever lived are now extinct.

Evolution means that only the strong survive. Fact: Evolution has little to do with being stronger or winning fights. Any creature that has descendants is an evolutionary success, and the world is full of weak, slow, or small creatures that are producing lots of descendants.

Lightning never strikes twice in the same place. Fact: Lightning often strikes repeatedly in the same place. A metal tower at the top of a skyscraper may be struck dozens of times in a single thunderstorm.

Impact on Science

Pseudoscience can distract scientists from real work because scientists are often called upon to write books or attend public debates to answer pseudoscientific claims. Sufficiently sophisticated pseudoscience can even, occasionally, get published as science, causing confusion and wasting research time, money, and effort sorting out false leads. One such case was the polywater affair. In the 1960s, Russian scientists claimed to have observed a new form of liquid water that did not freeze or boil like ordinary water. Polywater was hailed by some top scientists as a major discovery and a number of research projects were undertaken to study its supposed properties. Finally, however, polywater was shown to be only impure water, not a new form of water.

Another way in which pseudoscience can harm science is by confusing public opinion. Since much scientific research relies on public funding, political opposition to authentic science, as in the case of evolution, has the potential to reduce the money available for good science.

Modern Cultural Connections

Scientific misconceptions and pseudoscientific beliefs range from harmless to deadly. At the harmless extreme, a person may choose to believe in ESP, UFOs, Velikovsky, creation science, or other pseudoscientific ideas while remaining emotionally balanced and able to participate in work, family, politics, and other aspects of normal life. In short, pseudoscience is not a form of mental illness. At the other extreme, people may forego lifesaving medical care or even commit suicide under the influence of pseudoscientific beliefs. For example, in 1997, 39 members of a UFO cult in California called Heaven’s Gate committed group suicide in the belief that their minds would migrate from their bodies to a “higher evolutionary level” in association with the arrival of Comet Hale-Bopp.

Another example of dangerous pseudoscience has been popularized by the number-one bestselling book and movie The Secret (2006), by Rhonda Byrne, which proclaims that there is “universal law of attraction” by which people get what they desire. Note the similarity of the phrase “universal law of attraction” to “universal law of gravitation,” which is real science language. This form of pseudoscience borrows terminology from mechanics, particle physics, neurology, and other science fields to bolster its claim that people create their own realities. Since the law of attraction is supposed to work for negative results as well as positive ones, advocates say that people with cancer “attract cancer into their lives” or “cause their own cancer” and have advised that positive thinking can be substituted for medical treatments. However, while mental attitudes can interact with many health conditions, negative thoughts do not cause cancer and positive thoughts do not cure it. Cancer is caused by a variety of changes to DNA (hereditary molecules) in some of the cells in a patient’s body. It is treated by trying to kill the altered, cancerous cells while sparing normal cells.

Pseudoscientific beliefs have the sad effect of isolating people from the useful and beautiful system of modern scientific knowledge. Science links all phenomena into a single explanatory web of great subtlety. It continually tests its explanations for consistency with the real world and remains open to change based on real-world facts. It is the basis of all medicine and technology. Persons who are misinformed about science not only inhabit a shrunken, deformed intellectual world, but are less able to rise to science-related challenges facing the world such as global climate change and the evolution of new diseases.