Saturday, February 25, 2012

Weekend Post - Pseudoscience

Perhaps the single biggest threat to science and the progress and benefits it offers is it’s illegitimate cousin, pseudoscience. I think it poses a greater threat than all the religious literalists, conservative denialists and political opportunists combined.

So what is pseudoscience? The simplest definition is:
“a set of ideas based on theories put forth as scientific when they are not scientific.”
Someone using scientific sounding language but who is actually spouting scientific nonsense is talking pseudoscience.

A very good example is a piece of glass called the Biodisc that a company called Qnet will sell you. This really is no more than an engraved piece of glass but Qnet will have you believe that the disc “increases luminescence, designed with Biophoton production in mind”. What’s more they say the disc “can reduce water surface tension value. This in turn makes water more hydratious, which therefore improves the compatibility of water molecules with the body’s cells”.

It doesn’t take too much recollection of our school science lessons, or too much skepticism, to realize that this is utter claptrap. I’m not sure how water CAN be made “more hydratious” when that just means “watery”. Extra-watery water is an intriguing concept. However, they get away with this because many people fall for the pseudoscientific language. Referring to “surface tension”, water molecules and luminescence lends the product an air of science, if only because many of us seem to find long words impressive.

The key difference between science and pseudoscience is simple but not obvious. Scientific ideas can be disproven, pseudoscientific ones cannot. Not proven, disproven. It would be the easiest thing in the world to test the Biodisc to see if it can reduce surface tension. You and I could do that at home with a glass of water, a Biodisc and a needle. I know, I did a similar experiment with my Dad as a kid.

I admit that the Biodisc is a silly example, as well as being a silly product. It does precisely nothing so the only thing it can harm is your bank balance. The real danger is from pseudosciences that might actually have an impact on you and me or the people we care about. The father of modern scientific philosophy, Karl Popper first spotlighted Freudian psychoanalysis as a pseudoscience. All of Freud’s theories of unconscious desires, the id, ego and superego, are all based on assumptions and theories that aren’t properly testable. They can’t be disproven. So psychoanalysis isn’t scientific. It also doesn’t help that it’s hogwash.

The contrast that everyone draws is with Einstein’s theories of relativity. These theories would be very easy to disprove. They all make predictions about the behavior of light, gravity, space and time. So far every time they’ve been tested they’ve held up well under the strain. Of course one or all of them might be disproven tomorrow, it just hasn’t happened yet. It’s safe to assume for now that they’re correct.

Even worse than pseudoscience is scientific fraud. The history of science is littered with theories that have been put forward, thoroughly tested and disproven but which stick around because someone is making money out of them. Homeopathy is a good example. Homeopathic “remedies” contain no active ingredient. The pseudoscientific idea, one that has been disproven countless times, is that the water somehow remembers an ingredient it once contained but that has subsequently been diluted into nothing. It’s utter nonsense but you still see them being peddled by pharmacies all over the place.

However, at worst homeopathy is no more than a waste of money. It gets worse. There are pseudoscientific claims that kill people. For once I’ll overlook the HIV/AIDS denialists. We’re lucky enough to live in a country where I’m sure we’ve all see the impact of HIV and, just as importantly, the impact of anti-retroviral drugs. We all must have seen a relative or friend whose life has been improved almost immeasurably when they started taking ARVs.

But that’s not all, there’s also the whole “debate” about the causes of autism. There was a brief period when mercury poisoning was thought to play a role in the development of autism, particularly the mercury that was once in vaccines given to young children. This fear was based on a number of pseudoscientific ideas.

It began with the coincidence that autism often starts to develop around the time many kids get vaccinated against diseases like measles. But coincidence is not the same as causation. Kids also learn to ride bicycles at that age but nobody thought that bicycles cause autism. There is, and this is actually quite simple to understand, even for objectors to vaccination, whatever their motivation, absolutely no evidence of any relationship between childhood vaccinations and autism. None whatsoever. The effect of these denialists, using their pseudoscience, was to kill small children. After years of various countries being almost free of certain diseases, children started to die again. That’s where the danger lies. Pseudoscience kills children.


For a comprehensive overview of pseudoscience (and the definition I gave) see the Skeptic's Dictionary.

If you want a laugh take a look at the Biodisc here on the Qnet web site.

There's a comprehensive profile of Karl Popper on Wikipedia along with many links to other sites about him and his work.

For information on the absence of a link between mercury and autism see a Reuters story and a good description of the whole controversy here. Also see the Skeptic's Dictionary article here.

1 comment:

About Me said...

Thanks Richard. Always informative and logical.