Science Questions with Surprising Answers
Answers provided by
Dr. Christopher S. Baird

Is there a difference between mainstream science and alternative science?

Category: Society      Published: September 1, 2015

mars globe
One important method of science is scientific observation, such as was used to capture this image of Mars. Scientific observation is misued or rejected by pseudoscience so that an idea can be promoted that does not agree with reality. Public Domain Image, source: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Yes, science and pseudoscience are polar opposites. The ultimate mission of science is to discover facts about the physical universe, no matter how complicated, disheartening, or unexpected those facts may be. In contrast, the ultimate mission of pseudoscience is to reject physical facts in order to promote ideas that are not consistent with reality. Pseudoscience is inherently dishonest and deceptive because it claims the mantle of science while rejecting scientific methods and contradicting scientific facts. Pseudoscience can take on many forms including astrology, free-energy devices, ufology, fad diets, crystal healing, laundry balls, and magnet therapy. Sadly, pseudoscience is all too prevalent, even in the aisles of mainstream drugstores and bookstores.

Not every promoter of pseudoscience is deliberately lying. There are many people who sincerely believe in a flat earth, vaccine ineffectiveness, perpetual motion, homeopathy and other such ideas. But even for such people, there is still deception involved. When a person believes in an idea that is disproven by scientific facts and methods, he is ultimately deceiving himself. Science has proven itself time and time again to be the most successful way to collect and connect facts about the physical world. Therefore, even if a person sincerely pursues pseudoscientific ideas in order to find the truth, by rejecting scientific facts and methods he will most likely end up tangled in a web of false notions.

This is not to say that scientists always have the answer. Indeed, unraveling the laws of the universe is a messy, difficult, multiperson task that involves a lot of bumps along the way. However, scientific methods will get you nearer to the correct explanation of the physical world than any other method. Science is designed to be inherently honest. If an error is made, science is designed to detect it, fix it, and tell others about it. This does not mean that scientists themselves are always honest. However, when a scientist seeks to hide his errors or refuses to fix errors that have been exposed, he is not really doing science any more. He is doing pseudoscience. There are even some instances in history of famous scientists succumbing to crackpot theories and fraud. Such instances do not indicate that the scientific approach itself is defective; only that humans are fallible.

Note that pseudoscience and pure religion are entirely different things. Pseudoscience claims to be science and yet rejects the methods and facts of science. In contrast, pure religion neither claims to be science nor attempts to describe the physical world. In this way, pure religion is honest and truth-seeking without being science. It's true that many people misuse religion in order to promote their own non-scientific ideas about the physical world. However, when that happens, religion is just being turned into pseudoscience. For instance, an explanation of the geological nature of rock layers that relies on the bible is not really pure religion. It is pseudoscience dressed up as religion. The fact that religion is misused does not mean that pure religion itself is dishonest or necessarily at odds with science.

Let me relate two personal experiences to illustrate the difference between science and pseudoscience. A few years ago I was using an excellent textbook to aid me in a research project involving semiconductor structures. While applying the equations in the textbook to my research, I discovered that one of the equations was wrong. I performed my own mathematical derivations as well as numerical tests in order to ensure my equation was correct and the one in the book was wrong. Generally, the use of an incorrect equation can ruin an entire research project, so it's a big deal when an advanced textbook is wrong. I therefore emailed the author of the textbook, told him about the mistake, provided the correct equation, and forwarded to him the material proving it to be the correct equation. He repeated my work, confirmed that my equation is the correct one, and graciously thanked me for catching the mistake in his textbook. In the next edition of his textbook, he published the correct equation and gratefully recognized me for my contribution. This is how science works: results are openly shared, experiments are repeated, equations are improved to match results, and errors are removed upon being found. When the goal is to uncover the truth and not to make money or get famous, then the truth is most efficiently reached.

Now contrast this experience with another experience I had. A few years ago I read a book on alternative medicine and publicly posted an online review of this book which pointed out several dozen basic science errors in the book. A little while later the author of this book personally contacted me. Rather than thank me for pointing out the errors in his book so he could fix them, he demanded that I erase my book review. To look tough, he proceeded to send dishonest emails to my employer and many of my university colleagues, accusing me of personal misconduct. Of course, my employer and colleagues had the good sense to completely ignore such a character. In an effort to be generous, I deleted by book review and thought that was the end of this affair. Over the next few months, this alternative medicine author had his lawyer send me several legal letters in which he announced he had begun preparations to sue me. He stated that he would push this lawsuit forward if I ever did anything again to make him or his book look bad. The threatening letters insinuated that he did not actually expect to win such a lawsuit. Instead, he expected such a lawsuit to be embarrassing enough for me that I should want to avoid it by doing his bidding. I ignored him and nothing came of it. This is how pseudoscience works: scientific facts are rejected, experiments are not repeated (or even done in the first place), errors are not fixed, critics are attacked, the truth is buried, and money is made selling error-filled books and ineffective products.

Sadly, many pseudoscientists have become very skillful at promoting their false ideas and ineffective products using slick packaging, inspiring rhetoric, science-sounding explanations, and promises of miraculous results. But beneath the smiling faces on the packages, the beaming testimonials, and the enticing promises lies a hornet's nest of error, fraud, deceit and intimidation.

Let us look at the methods of science and how they are designed to find the truth, while at the same time looking at how pseudoscience rejects or misuses each of these methods.

1. Observation
If you want to know if it's raining, you look out the window. If you want to know if a tomato is ripe, you go outside and look at its color. There's no point in guessing if an answer can be found simply by looking. The method of observation may seem to be too obvious to be worthy of mention, but even this basic method is rejected by pseudoscience. Observation can take the form of looking with our eyes, making measurements using tools, or running an experiment and observing the results. In everyday life, we often fail to use observation because we are lazy. For instance, we know that the best way to figure out the number of scales on a pine cone is to simply look and count. But it is easier just to guess. There is nothing wrong with making an educated guess as long as we are honest with ourselves that our guess is likely to be inaccurate and that follow-up work is needed to get a better value. In contrast, pseudoscience is inherently dishonest. It claims that guesses are more accurate than observations. Promoters of alternative science may not refer to their approach as guessing. They may call it common sense, intuition, metaphysics, the wisdom of the ancients, or the insight of a gifted genius. Whatever they may call it, a concept describing the physical world that is not based on accurate observation is ultimately just a guess. Guesses can be useful in science (scientists call them hypotheses) if they lead to observations. However, in pseudoscience, guesses are promoted as more accurate than scientific observations. Pseudoscience is therefore deceptive because it muddies the truth while claiming to do the opposite.

Why do pseudoscientists place guessing above observation, when it seems so obvious that observation is more accurate? As mentioned previously, one reason is laziness. Another reason is that pseudoscientists often lack the skills and resources to properly make scientific observations. Armchair scientists don't have electron microscopes or nuclear reactors to test their ideas. But these are not the main reason. The main reason that pseudoscientists value their guesses more than observations is that actual observations of the physical world tend to contradict their pseudoscientific ideas. An idea that consistently matches observations of the physical world is simply science. Therefore, in order for a pseudoscientist to promote his ideas without being immediately dismissed, he claims that his guesses are more accurate than physical observations. He may even claim that his ideas about the mechanisms of the physical world are completely outside the realm of observation!

For example, I once observed an alternative medicine provider try to sell his therapy to a friend of mine. My friend politely asked him to tell us about observational evidence that indicates his therapy works. He flatly responded that his type of medicine is outside the realm of observation. I thought to myself, “This is nonsense. Either his therapy helps his patients or it doesn't. Either an herbal pill lowers a patient's blood pressure or it doesn't. Either a vitamin shot reduces a patient's back pain or it doesn't. If a medical therapy has exactly zero observable effect on patients, then why pursue the therapy?” Whether this pseudoscientist sincerely believes in his therapy or not is beside the point. By claiming that his guess about how the body works is more accurate than observation, he is demonstrating that he is either intentionally deceiving his patients or is ignorantly deceiving himself. If you think about it, saying, “my medical therapy is completely outside the realm of observational evidence,” is really the same as saying, “my medical therapy has no physical effect on my patients,” which is the same as saying, “my medical therapy is useless.”

One way that a pseudoscientist tries to convince people that his guesses are more accurate than physical observation is by claiming that his ideas come from ancient practitioners or famous people, as if living during an age of scientific ignorance or being on television a lot automatically makes someone good at guessing how the physical world works. Another way pseudoscientists try to convince others that their guesses that are more accurate than scientific observation is by claiming to have a special gift. In this way, many pseudoscience movements are nothing more than cults of personality.

2. Use accurate and reliable measurement tools
While it is true that observation is the simplest, quickest way to obtain reliable information about the physical world, it is often difficult to make accurate observations. The human senses are notoriously unreliable, as made obvious by any book contianing optical illusions. In order to extract physical information without being tricked by our senses, we use tools that are designed to be reliable and accurate. For instance, imagine you are trying to determine whether your new fridge will fit into the space left by the old one. You will get an answer much closer to the truth by measuring the fridge with a tape measure than by looking at it using just your eyes. Similarly, you will get much closer to the correct weight of a postal box by placing it on a calibrated scale than by feeling how heavy it is in your hands.

Just because you are using a tool does not automatically make your measurement accurate or reliable. The measurement tool needs to be tested in order to make sure it consistently gives the same answer in the same situation. This ensures that the tool is reliable (scientists call this “precision”). The tool also needs to be calibrated using ground truth. This ensures that the tool is accurate. Once a tool is constructed and proven to be accurate and reliable, it will give much better observations than the naked human senses. Complex measurement devices such as particle colliders or electron microscopes are not that much different from tape measures or scales in that they are tools which extend the ability, accuracy, and reliability of the human senses.

Pseudoscientists either refuse to use mainstream measurement tools (since that would lead to observations which contradict their ideas), use alternative measurement tools that have failed to be proven reliable and accurate, or misuse legitimate tools. For instance, if a pseudoscientist wants to “find” that a six-inch pencil is nine inches long, he could either refuse to use a ruler and guess, use a ruler that is calibrated wrong (i.e. the inch marks are really 1.5 inches apart), or use a normal ruler but place the start of the pencil at the three-inch mark rather than at the zero-inch mark. The pseudoscientist may do such things deliberately as an act of deception, or ignorantly as an act of incompetence and bias.

3. Repeat observations to reduce error
Even if a person is using an accurate and reliable measurement tool, he can still make an honest mistake. This type of error is best minimized by making repeated measurements. In everyday life, you measure the length of a board twice before cutting it in order to minimize error. Scientists typically measure an item hundreds to thousands of times in order to obtain an accurate measurement. In fact, one measurement by itself is considered too prone to error to be useful and is thrown out if more measurements cannot be made.

Even if a scientist measures a property hundreds of times he could still get an incorrect result if he consistently makes the same mistake. In order to reduce this type of error, scientists repeat the measurements using different tools in different laboratories. Since it is so easy for one scientist to make a mistake when using complex research tools, reproduction of the measurements by an independent laboratory is the gold standard for establishing credibility. Pseudoscientists strongly oppose letting other labs test their ideas since they know that it would lead to their ideas being disproven. They do this either by being too vague to establish an idea that can be tested, by litigating against labs that cross their paths, or by attempting to publicly discredit other labs. Amazingly, promotion of pseudoscience sometimes leads an activist to declare that all mainstream scientific laboratories are part of a conspiracy devoted to manufacturing lies.

4. Isolate the variables
Often when scientists make observations they don't just want one number. Rather, they want to understand the behavior of a certain property under different conditions, which requires making many observations. For instance, imagine that you wanted to know how the temperature in your front yard varies throughout the day. Making one measurement of the temperature would not be enough. You would have to systematically repeat the temperature measurements throughout the day, plot your results and look for a trend. If you actually did this, you would find the trend to be roughly sinusoidal, with the highest temperature occurring in the late afternoon and the lowest temperature occurring before sunrise. But now what would happen if you measured the morning temperatures in your front yard and the evening temperatures high in the mountains? Then you could not be certain if the dip in temperature was caused by the night time or by the mountain climate. For this reason, one of the important methods of science is to isolate the variables. This means that everything is kept exactly the same in a system except for the one variable that is being investigated. When human subjects are part of the research, isolating the variables involves taking steps to eliminate bias. Pseudoscientists fail to isolate variables because this allows them to see the trends they want to see rather than the trends that actually exist.

5. Build models that match observations and are self-consistent
Once scientists have made several measurements and plotted the data, the next step is to determine an equation that matches the data and build a model. Going back to the example of the temperature in your front yard, you could fit a sine wave to the data and write down the equation for the sine wave. By doing this you will have therefore established a model for the daily variation in temperature in your front yard at a certain time of year.

In addition to matching observation, models must be logically self-consistent in order to accurately describe physical reality. The width of my cell phone does not physically change when I measure it left-to-right and then again right-to-left. In the same way, a set of equations that models physical reality should give the same answer no matter in what order we apply the equations. If my model states that A = B and B = C while at the same time AC, then something is wrong with my model.

In the context of models, pseudoscientific ideas come in three forms: (1) they are so vague that they can't be compared against observations; (2) they are concrete but they are not self-consistent; or (3) they are concrete and self-consistent but do not match observations. Since failing to match observation reveals that a model is wrong, pseudoscience ideas often take the first two forms. Another reason that pseudoscience ideas often take the first two forms is that pseudoscience authors often lack the training to create concrete, self-consistent models. It's easy to throw out a vague claim such as, “vitamins kill warts because they flush out toxins.” It's much harder to develop an actual model containing self-consistent equations detailing how ascorbate molecules chemically react with the human papillomavirus. Vague models are easy for a pseudoscientist to defend since critics can not make enough sense of the models to know which observations to compare them against.

6. Seek out peer review
Even after a scientist has tried to carefully follow all the steps above, there may still be some fatal flaw in his reasoning or methodology which renders his entire study incorrect. Therefore, there is one more tool in the scientist's toolbox: peer review. In the peer review process, a scientist writes up his methodology, derivations, models, results, and conclusions, and then submits his paper to independent experts in his field for scrutiny. While the peer review process is not perfect, it is certainly better at minimizing error than having no peer review process. Academic journals know this. That is why all reputable academic journals subject the submitted research papers to peer review before publishing them. Formal peer review can take the form of submitting a research paper to an academic journal, giving a research presentation at an academic conference, or defending a research project before a panel of university professors. Informal peer review can take the form of research discussions held over lunch with other experts or the emailing of a draft of a research paper to a collaborator for assessment. Since genuine peer review successfully identifies pseudoscience as incorrect, pseudoscientists tend to reject or attack peer review. Pseudoscientists usually avoid peer review altogether and get their word out through self-publishing. At the same time, they often denigrate the peer review process in order to justify their avoidance. In some cases, pseudoscientists even create counterfeit peer review organizations in order to give the appearance of their work passing through peer review.

As the above sections should make clear, pseudoscience is the exact opposite of science. Science seeks to draw people closer to physical truth while pseudoscience seeks to draw people away from it. Science is based on honesty, transparency, impartiality, logic, physical reality, teamwork, cooperation and expertise while pseudoscience is based on deception, concealment, bias, emotionality, fantasy, isolation, intimidation and amateurism. Now that we have examined the various methods of science and how pseudoscience rejects or misuses each one, we can condense the discussion down to a handy list of red flags to help you identify and avoid pseudoscience, whether you are at the drugstore or the bookstore.

Red Flags That Identify Pseudoscience
In the list below, the word “author” represents either a single person, a movement, a company, or a product.

Topics: free energy, hypothesis, observation, pseudoscience, scientific method, speculation, vaccine denialism, vaccines