Pseudoscience versus science – is there an answer?

I first became aware of pseudoscientific nonsense when I was a student back in the 1970s. I remember many of my fellow students buying little plastic pyramids in the belief it gave them more ‘energy’ or made them smarter – particularly around exam time. A good friend of mine was an acupuncturist and was prone to pointing out meridians on the diagrams in my anatomy textbooks, almost as if the authors had forgotten to include them. I admit I was tempted by some of this but I never really bought into any of it. Perhaps my memory of events has edited itself since that time but I recall that when I challenged the dubious beliefs of some of those around me, I was answered with “science doesn’t know everything” and “there’s more to the world than science you know.” There seemed to be a dividing line between the natural and the supernatural and you either believed in the latter or you didn’t.

Nowadays I find things rather different. Many pseudosciences are trying to hijack genuine science and I don’t just mean those shampoo advertisements that plagiarise technical-sounding language. Some pseudoscientists are proclaiming themselves as the true scientists whilst portraying those who disagree with them as blinkered and ignorant. My early experiences when science was just dismissed as ‘not knowing everything’ was a more honest approach than the current trend that tries to turn truth on its head.

Science has given us much in the modern world, including real effective medicines and vaccines and perhaps it’s this success that the pseudoscientists wish to latch onto. The problem is however, that the way much of the gibberish is sold in the false name of science exposes its own perversion; for saying something is scientific is not synonymous with saying it is correct. Science is not so much about facts but about a method of getting to the facts. It starts with a hypothesis tested to destruction with the intent of proving it wrong. Only if it stands up to this deep scrutiny does it become promoted to a theory, but even then it is open to modification and disproof. (I have a YouTube video that attempts to explain the scientific method in 15-minutes).

Science is the toughest of masters. It is indifferent to egos or careers and can shoot down someone’s pet theory without a second glance (I have personal experience and so I know). Those that just want to evoke the name of science to support their own point of view find this very hard to grasp. And then criticism of their fantasy often triggers personal derision in response.

Most pseudoscientists have had no scientific training and are like someone proclaiming themselves a world-class concert pianist without ever having had a piano lesson. They get onto the stage and then just bang away at the keys. They might attain a following of those who enjoy such avant garde music but then they claim their rendition of Mozart’s piano sonata is far superior to that played by professional pianists who have spent years perfecting their art. This does not mean that science is the exclusive property of scientists – far from it. It means that if you don’t understand something, you can’t just make something up to fill the gap.

Our understanding of nature is evolving and changing all the time and it’s likely that the physics of 20 years time will say different things to what it does today. The discovery of dark matter and dark energy, for example, are likely to lead to a rewriting of the standard model of physics. The rigour and robustness of this science however, versus that of pseudoscientific research (if that’s not an oxymoron) are light years apart. In the meantime there will be those that will blur the edge between science and pseudoscience to sow the seeds of confusion. I find this worrying, not because I feel that science itself is threatened but because those still deciding which path to take can be seriously misled.

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