The Persistence of Pseudoscience

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For a long time, from the days of the ancient Greeks to the advent of modern medicine in the early 19th century, physicians believed in the four humors that governed the human body: black bile, yellow bile, phlegm and blood. Medical cures, so mocked by Moliere in his comedies, consisted mostly in purging and bloodletting. This was not based on any evidence and we know now that it did more harm than good. With advances in chemistry, alchemy disappeared completely. In other areas we have not moved ahead at the same rate. Astronomy has made great strides with the perfection of the telescope and remarkably sensitive electronic image sensors and yet astrology is flourishing also. People read their horoscopes which rely on the position of the sun and stars in the Zodiac and many believe in them. (Ronald Reagan was a devotee during his Presidency)

Psychology has emerged as a distinct experiment-based discipline divorced from philosophy. Yet parapsychology persists. It concerns itself with clairvoyance, precognition, telepathy and near-death experiences. To return to medicine, homeopathy is the belief that the substance that causes the symptoms can be used to cure the symptoms. But then it argues that diluting that substance reinforces its potency.

Often pseudoscience hides behind scientific sounding names. Deepak Chopra’s “quantum healing” relies on the body’s self-correcting and self-healing capacities. It sounds impressive but also a little arcane. The explanation is vague like that of the Delphic Oracles that can apply to many situations, depending on personal interpretation.

The most recent manifestation of the anti-scientific attitude is the mobilization against the vaccination of children. Some parents suddenly decided that vaccination was harmful and are putting their children at risk of illnesses that were thought to have been conquered. At the same time they are endangering the health of other children. Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey affirms that parents’ rights allow them to do this. And now Rand Paul has jumped into the fray announcing that he “has heard of children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines.” Are they vying for the know-nothings’ vote or could it be that they sincerely adhere to these notions?

Some people believe in numerology or creatures like the Yeti or Loch Ness monster. It all depends on your suggestibility. Rational reasons are mixed with superstition and they are often hard to disentangle. I know many persons who believe in Qi, the Chinese concept that says that vital energy circulates around the body. Jeopardy contestants often bring lucky charms to the contest. It probably boosts their confidence and allows them to perform better. Auto-suggestion and self-hypnosis may be at work here and may account for any benefits derived from belief.

Science however, relies on experiments that can be replicated and verified and on peer evaluation. It starts with a hypothesis and if that hypothesis cannot be independently confirmed, then no matter how alluring and beguiling it appears it needs to be modified or discarded.

4 comments

  1. The vaccine thing really bothers me. Normally I think of pseudoscientific beliefs as being a feature of bad education, or cultures that are less advanced. The fact that the LEADERS of this ridiculous movement are the well paid, well educated, highly informed people blows my mind. I simply cant figure out at all why or how such beliefs can become so ingrained.

    I also don’t know of any solution! The more you try to give the logic or science, the more they use the science to say, “SEE! That is the problem!”

    Sigh, I wish I knew.

    And to the author – Glad to have more posts!

  2. In answer to the first comment, books on pseudoscience can be found in two places under the Dewey decimal system, which is used in most public libraries. Pseudoscience and the denial of science can be found at 500-50l. Books on the paranormal and all kinds of “new age” or unscientific beliefs can be found at 133. I hope this is helpful.

  3. Wonderful post, Simone. You are a fountain of wonderful information and enlightenment.
    I always look forward to your posts.

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