What's Your 'Favorite' Pseudoscience?

First, what is pseudoscience? Pseudoscience: a claim, belief, or practice which is presented as scientific, but which does not adhere to a valid scientific methodology, lacks supporting evidence or plausibility, cannot be reliably tested, or otherwise lacks scientific status. Pseudoscience Hallmarks:

  • Experimental results are not reproducible or able to be verified by others, sometimes through lack of openness of data

  • Lack of effective controls (not properly randomized or double blinded, as the case may be)

  • The scientific method has not been rigorously adhered to

  • Not falsifiable (the result can not be disproved)

  • Not testable

  • Often overturns established science and proven laws of nature

  • Vague scientific claims, often lack specific measurements

  • Failure to define the operational terms so that others can independently measure or test them

  • Failure to use Occam's Razor (the explanation that requires the fewest possible additional assumptions is usually the most accurate)

  • Technical jargon or obscure language meant to confuse and sound like an authority in science

  • Lack of boundary conditions (real science specifies limits where the predicted phenomena do and do not apply)

  • Heavy reliance on testimonial and anecdotal evidence or personal experience

  • Argument from ignorance (just because a claim hasn't been proven false, they say it must be true)

  • Selection Bias (cherry picking the results to only use the hits and suppress the misses)

  • Evades peer review before publicizing results

  • Appeal to secrecy when an independent review is requested

  • Failure to progress with additional evidence of the claims

  • Lack of self correction

  • Claims there is a conspiracy to suppress their results

  • Ad Hominem: They attack the motives or character of anyone who questions their claims

  • Creating scientific sounding terms to persuade non-experts to believe false or meaningless statements

  • Using established terms in idiosyncratic ways that show they are unfamiliar with the mainstream work in that discipline

  • Not cited in sources like Google Scholar, Scopus and Web of Science (These databases record how many times the topic or person is referred to in scholarly publications that are peer refereed. A subject that is accepted as part of the mainstream is likely to have many thousands of citations, one that is not accepted very few)

So what are some examples?

  • Homeopathy

  • Astrology

  • Intelligent Design

  • Intercessory Prayer

  • Ghosts

  • ESP

  • Telepathy

  • Clairvoyance

  • Communicating with the dead

  • Reincarnation

  • Channeling

  • Reiki

  • Healing Touch

  • Mayan Calendar/2012 apocalyptic scenario

  • Lunar effect (the myth that the moon influences human behavior)

  • Apollo Moon landing hoax accusations

  • Crop circles

  • Cryptozoology

  • Dowsing

  • EVP: Electronic voice phenomenon

  • Psychic surgery

  • Ufulogy

  • Parapsychology

  • The polygraph

  • Subliminal perception

  • Past life regression

  • Alternative medicine

  • Biorhythms

  • Brain Gym

  • Chiropractic

  • Applied Kinesiology (muscle-strength testing)

  • Colon cleansing

  • Anti-aging creams

  • Faith healing

  • Hypnosis

  • Ayurveda

  • Therapeutic Touch

  • Traditional Chinese Medicine

  • Acupuncture

  • Urine Therapy

  • Vitalism

  • Dianetics

  • Feng shui

  • Quantum mysticism

  • Perpetual motion, free energy and water fueled cars

  • Cosmetics (often, not always)

This is by no means a complete list. Wikipedia has a more complete list and I'm sure there are others online. Understanding and recognizing pseudoscience can really help you save money and time on useless products and techniques that keep you from real science-based medicines and technology. We've all heard of the horrific news stories of people being treated with homeopathy or faith healing and dying tragic deaths due to lack of proper medical care.

I am not sure what my 'favorite' pseudoscience is. I find them all frustrating. When I look over the list, I am amazed at how many I used to believe in and use in my life. I have come a long way as a critical thinker and skeptic.

Note: I am not an expert in these areas. If you have a Sacred Cow and believe in ghosts, chiropractic, anti-aging creams  or another pseudoscience, I'm not going to argue with you about it. If you want to tell us what pseudoscience bothers you the most and why, go ahead!

My friend Sophie shared the following link with me. It's awesome! The Periodic Table of Irrational Nonsense


  1. I would single out health claims as the most bothersome, by which I particularly mean serious ailments that could be averted or kept from spreading by proper treatment. In the worse case, that could result in death. For the most part that means psychic and homeopathic "treatments."

  2. I was always a big fan of phrenology.

  3. Homeopathy - premise: Like cures like; in other words, the body is healed by ingesting concoctions made of substances that bring about the same symptoms you are trying to rid yourself of... Patently absurd, and of course, Zero proof. It gets better: the "stronger" the concoction you ingest, the weaker it actually is - To make the potion (I refuse to call it medicine)stronger, you put in exponentially less of the active ingredient! As anyone who has any knowledge of this hocum is aware, the potions are so diluted as to have absolutely none, zero, zip, of the so called active ingredient - not a molecular trace - the equivalent of a drop of water in the ocean. Skeptics like Randi have much to say on this topic. Bottom line: placebo effect (which is "real" in certain instances); Many of the maladies treated, like most benign, temporary health problems, will, in time, simply vanish on their own - due to their inherent pathologies and/or the bodies immune system doing it's incredible (evolved) job. Bottom line: the moment "alternative" medicine works, it is no longer "alternative", it is simply medicine. Homeopathy is not medicine.

  4. i am not fully sure Chiropractic should be on this list, as just "Chiropractic".

    first, please note: i've NEVER had a chiropracter do anything other than hurt me. but i'm weird and unusual. i know MANY people who have REAL results. the most specific; i know a woman whose wrists were absolutely destroyed by a "physical therapist". as in, the bones of her wrist slip out of joint at 2 pounds of pressure, as do the BONES OF HER FORARM. she went to a chiro when her ulna had slipped out of her elbow. he put it back. she does have to go in about once a month for this - but NO ONE ELSE has EVER given her anything better. surgery did not fix the problem [made it worse]. the only person to help her at all was her chiro.

    a lot of it *IS* silly. but a lot more of it works. provably so. so...? i don't know.

  5. I could write volumes on chiropractic, but I won't. (A personal note: I have evolved into a full fledged Skeptic/rationalist, etc...) What I have witnessed and experienced first hand as a one time long term chiropractic patient ranges from incredibly sound,sensible and effective, to almost criminally outrageous diagnostic procedures and applied therapies. My wife, a one time certified massage therapist, also worked off and on for years directly with, and on referral of, many "chiro's". My experience, and much research bears this out, is that chiropractic can be a very legitimate and effective therapy for certain musculoskeletal conditions. But its founding theory of subluxations is scientifically unsound, and disproven. Chiropractic simply wont help with allergies, obestiy, autism, chronic fatigue syndrome, viral conditions, and on and on. Case in point: a had recurrent stomach pain and diarrhea for months - went to my M.D. - no help. On a non-related trip to the chiro, we discussed my ongoing and increasing misery - he gave me the hard sell on how aligning my subluxed spine would balance my overall system, and subsequently, cure my problem... I didn't buy into it for a minute, and politely told him so (also never went back to him). Returned to M.D. - at my insistence I was referred to a gastroenterologist - test were run - verdict: Giardia, an intestinal parasite; received medication - "cured." I don't think any amount of twisting my spine would have rid me of the little buggers. Chiro's need to stick to what works: a form of physical therapy and spinal manipulation that does have some proven efficacy, and stop trying to be medical doctors, because they aren't.

  6. Conclusions based upon graphs. Statistics second, but definitely graphs. Hate 'em. Also calls on consensuses, so-and-so is right because all these people say so too. And lastly labeling the opposition.

    Which basically sums out CO2 global warming (my aren't I being controversial today?)

    You may tune out there or dare to continue on.


    The only evidence in support is a graph. No, not about global warming in total. See, I'd be crazy to say that there isn't any global warming, just that CO2 causes it all. Which, this graph never happens to graph all the other known issues that affect temperature.

    Everybody acknowledges that methane might be even worse than CO2 with it's effects on temperature, yet this acknowledgment never effects their view on CO2. You see, if we know of more than one thing that affects temperature, and both are increasing, we thusly can conclude that it isn't JUST one of them doing raising the temperature. And that's only one well-known example of something that knowingly affects temperature. Might be why every single estimate has been wrong, repeatably, yet none of them even once change their tune.

    I could go all day on this. But it basically ends with, we are f***ing this planet over dozens of ways... not one. I still remember bull headlines (and they still come up) about how fishermen line up the docs whining about how all the fish are dying off because of global warming, completely ignoring the obvious problem of overfishing. Even recently, acidification of the oceans... but no, that's caused by CO2, continue dumping trash and plastic into it.

    And for this, and saying such things, I must be a climate change denier. Because if I don't except the CO2 apocalypse version of things, I must deny climate change. False dichotomy of course. Love to be told of the "consensus" on the issue as well. And anybody who doesn't agree are like the big evil bought out guys or something like that.

    Rant end.

  7. My brother-in-law is a climate change denier. His house is also 6 feet above sea-level. I predict he will flip-flop within my lifetime.

  8. I'm not exactly saying their can't be people who "deny" it all. I'm severely doubting your brother denies every single thing we do wrong. He probably doesn't even deny that CO2 raises temperature, he probably just denies that it's catastrophic, and that it causes all temperature changes known to man. Which it doesn't.

    And again, you act like if the sea-level raises it must be CO2 to be the culprit and no others. Let me ask you something, do you ever wonder why they don't use actual scientific equations for the amount of CO2 will effect temperature? Because all of them kill the case for CO2 apocalypse. Go ahead and try to find one. Need some help? Try Lindzen maybe (will still be hard to find it).

    By the way, sea level rise is measured in mm, linearly, with no signs of increasing (against all the predictions over 4 years ago) and no reason to (actual science easily shows why). At the current rate, to get to 6 feet, it would take over nearly 40 years, even if it was possible. And is he at the shore? You know, many cities in mainland areas are way below sea level, but we aren't at any risk of being sunk.

    Rant part 2 (inconsequential to what you said): I'm going to talk about something right here too. If you think CO2 traps in heat, you are wrong. CO2 doesn't trap in anything, it absorbs radiation and then scatter emits it. It even has a max absorption rate. The term trap, and blanket, and so forth are used as simple allegory for the complex mechanism. And yet it's constantly used, even though it is a childlike understanding of greenhouse gasses.

  9. I'm a big proponent of retrophrenology:

    A peculiar and painful fad in literal-minded Ankh-Morpork.

    The reasoning runs: phrenology insists there is an inter-relationship between the outer shape of a person's skull, and those areas of the brain lying directly underneath. Thus, if there is a noticeable bump in the front of the skull, this is directly over the area of the brain thought responsible for intellect and should be evidence for an abnormal amount of brain development and activity directly underneath - ie, the intellectual personality.

    Ankh-Morpork takes this a step further. What if a series of carefully measured blows on the head with carefully graded hammers could adjust the shape of the skull, thus modifying personality accordingly? Unfortunately, the leading practitioner is Zorgo the Retro Phrenologist, a troll, to whom sublety is one of dem word fings in dat dict-ee-o-nary fing.

    You can go into a shop in Ankh-Morpork and order an artistic temperament with a tendency to introspection. What you actually get is hit on the head with a large hammer, but it keeps the money in circulation and gives people something to do.

    (thanks to Sir Terry Pratchett, atheist, skeptic and brilliant author)

  10. I make no act. Nor did I even mention CO2. I'm not sure what you are on about, unless you expect to get away with "Gish-Gallup" on Climate science. That said, I'm not a bit surprised there isn't any "actual scientific equations" for the amount of CO2 will effect temperature. First, the statement is so ill-defined as to be an obvious straw horse. Second, there isn't a formula for my breakfast cereal either, but I assure you that breakfast cereal is real, and that I ate cereal for breakfast. Climate science is complex, as you say, and there is no formulaic solution to the problem. That statement offers no evidence that the problem does not exist.
    CO2 is a so-called Greenhouse gas because it is transparent to light, but absorbs heat (infrared). The rate of heat exchange is therefore sensitive to small changes in CO2, and we tinker with it at our peril. I base that on my childlike understanding of absorbsion spectra: http://scienceofdoom.com/2010/03/28/co2-in-the-solar-spectrum/

    The sea-level change is likely much slower than you state, more like 1 meter in a century (last I read). I have zero expectation of living to see my In-law's feet get wet. Rather, my prediction has more to do with likely changes in insurance rates waking him to reality: http://business.timesonline.co.uk/tol/business/industry_sectors/banking_and_finance/article5949991.ece
    The science might be hard to understand, but when it starts to cost people real money, I think we will see an amazing turnabout from the majority of climate deniers. Call that a prediction too.

    Also, I think you have little understanding of what my brother-in-law thinks. Your understanding of climate science has not overwhelmed me either. However, for a discussion of psuedoscience, you do offer some interesting examples of the techniques used to promote such things. Get serious man.

  11. I _so_ want to post a link to the Monty Python "Argument Clinic" sketch, just for the "Getting hit on the head lessons" bit right at the end. Alas, YouTube fails me, but here is the Fish Slapping Dance instead: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IhJQp-q1Y1s :-)

  12. You implied it, or are you not sure of the common use for the label "climate change denier"? You said it again at the end. The term, "climate change denier", is usually used to target those who deny CO2 global warming. I know, bogus, climate change denier should really mean climate change denier, but that's not how it is used nowadays (that's the labeling I was talking about from my first post) so affronting me for that is useless. Anyways, if your alluding to part two of the rant, I specifically noted that you said nothing about it.

    Straw horse? Bull. You do realize that every model and prediction uses an equation for CO2 and temperature right? I'm specifically talking about the amount of heat absorption capable of CO2. So, as you say, it's so complex to not give it yet every prediction and model uses one and like to claim absolute certainty that we are all going to die (oh, by the way, they've been wrong every single year for the decades). Note, that this formula used by most models is based upon graphs, between temperature and CO2, instead of scientifically measuring the absorption of CO2 (get my use of scientific equation now instead of a statistic equation?). This isn't a "formulaic solution", this is providing evidence of the link between the supposedly warming and CO2... or are you aware that the big trend is saying that all temperature increase is from CO2? What this is though, is the realization that we f*** up our planet in more ways than just CO2. As you said, climate science is complex, not so simple as temperature and CO2 are the only two bloody variables that matter. So complex, yet all that CO2 global warming fanatics cling to is one graph comparing the two.

    And no, the "rate of heat exchange" is NOT sensitive to small changes (I'm wondering what you think is small). You link doesn't even conclude that, in fact, your link is irrelevant. I was saying CO2 absorbs and doesn't "trap" in heat, so I'm not sure why you posted stuff agreeing with what I said to an extent.

    The term you're looking for, by the way, is a straw man, and asking for an equation for your breakfast cereal is one. Now if you were asking one for how fast your cereal gets soggy in milk, we can work with an equation. Far easier to make a statistical equation for it too. Now if we wanted make an equation based on the shapes, structures, and composition, that would be scientific. The statistical equation works easily for such a simple thing as measuring sogginess of cereal, not so for something as complex as climate models.

    Insurance companies, by the way, will find any kind of excuse to make more money. Anyways, floods and so forth causing more damage doesn't mean more floods or even harsher floods. Such as, from the article, more businesses are moving expensive equipment over to China, where there is more flooding issues. Nothing to do with climates changing, but with changing climates... Haha.

    I do have little understanding of what your brother-in-law thinks, which is why a real argument presented by you would have been to further explain that. In other words, you should have expelled my "doubt", as it were. Should my knowledge have overwhelmed you? I think not, I guess you completely missed all the points I made. Pseudoscience is more like what you did, ignored everything and just go on a tangent.

  13. Favorite, as in least favorite - well, it's a group. Least favorite would be any medical treatment that can't survive scientific scrutiny. Homeopathy, healing touch, etc. - the worst pseudosciences are the ones that either cause harm or dissuade people form seeking treatment that works. (An interesting data point on chiropractic. Its ascribing of all ills to subluxations is absurd, but I did try one once for migraines who did two treatments and then told me this wasn't a chiropractic problem and he couldn't help. It seems I had a very rare experience.)

    Finally - cryptozoology doesn't belong here. Hear me out. Some people are very unscientific in claiming animals exist when there's no proof, or in asserting animals could exist where they could not (see the many claims of "monsters" in lakes too small to support them). But cryptozoology is scientific because it deals in falsifiable hypotheses. "There is an undiscovered ape in North America" is a straightforward scientific hypothesis which can be proven or disproven. The resources may not be available to mount a search large enough to falsify the hypothesis for certain, but that's irrelevant to the question of validity. Zoologists like Dr. Alan Rabinowitz talk to local hunters and farmers in remote areas, listen to accounts of animals, and search for (and sometimes find) evidence of new species (including good-sized land mammals, BTW). How is that different? Maybe cryptozoology is an unneccessary term, and it's just zoology. But no matter how unscientific some overenthusiastic amateurs may be, looking for unconfirmed or presumed-extinct animals is a perfectly scientific thing to do. Saying cryptozoology is pseudoscience because it attracts many unsicentific people and claims is like saying nuclear physics is invalid because of Pons and Fleischmann.

  14. It's really hard to pick just one from that list. I tend to be the most upset by pseudosciences that my friends are into, especially if it's something I used to be into too.

    The most topical one now is astrology. With the recent popularization of the observation that the Earth's axis has shifted since astrology was invented, I'm seeing indications on Facebook that a lot more people than I thought were into astrology are actually heavily, emotionally invested in their sun sign. One friend posted a link today to an article quoting an astrologer saying that of COURSE they knew about all of that, modern astrology takes it into consideration and we can all proceed with the sun signs as previously understood. His comment was that he was really relieved to see that it had been "debunked" (I do not think that word means what he thinks it means) because thinking that he wasn't a Taurus kept him up all night. That's just sad. But what can I say? I used to think I was TOTALLY an Aries too. (How silly of me, obviously I'm a Pisces /snark)

    Homeopathy, quantum mysticism, and Intelligent Design are my runner ups. Intelligent Design is probably the biggest pet peeve of the three because its promotion threatens the quality of public education.

  15. I would have to go with creationism/Intelligent Design. Other than astrology, I can't really think of any subject that is a more classic pseudoscience.

  16. Well, it used to be astrology until I learned I'm really a Virgo, not a Libra! (Hey, according to Behe it could be a science!) *grrrr* My whole life has been a lie! ;-)

  17. Look into my eyes - deeper, deeper... Hypnosis: the jury is still out on this one. Like most other forms of mental/psychological therapies, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't - its relative success depends on a)the skill of the hypnotist b)the receptiveness of the person being hypnotized c) the psychological strengths/weaknesses/tendencies of the person being hypnotized - are they likely to commit to the process after the hypnosis session(s)? What most people don't know about hypnosis is that it is really based on the principle of "suggestibility"...the persons willingness to mentally accept and "ingest" the hypnosis process. Modern, rational based hypnotist realize that they are not really accessing the subconscious, or putting the client into a "trance state",but into a state of increased "suggestibility". Suggestibility is simply a state of mind where a person is open and accepting to external input...we see it all the time in religious services, powerful political speeches, or lectures by engaging and erudite speakers - the caveat: the person receiving the message/input is hearing what they want, or need, to hear, at that time in their life: When you go to counseling, psychotherapy, hypnotherapy, (church services, political rallies...) you are most likely is a state of mind already predisposed to be receptive of the message. So here's the surprise: hypnosis/hypnotherapy depends on an unspoken agreement between the giver and the receiver - the client is agreeing to "go along" with the hypnotist because they want it to work... Guess what? Yes - there is a huge degree of the famed, but repeatedly proven, placebo effect at work here! It works best if you believe it works - because remember, you have made a conscious decision to seek out the therapist, pay the money, and be hypnotized - you are mentally, physically, financially, committed to achieving a positive outcome. Is this all "woo woo"? Yes and no. Remember, we are talking about the brain/mind (however you care to frame it),not the body (yes, the brain is part of the body - work with me here). In physical medicine, an antibiotic works on a particular infection or it doesn't - it doesn't require you to believe it will work (although...). Just like my church service analogy, hypnosis effects may be short lived or long lived - it depends on your commitment - like an exercise regimen, to the process. People may leave church filled with love and compassion - until someone cuts them off in traffic - and depending on their personality/psychology propensities, they may go mental (like they always have in the past, or they may recall the days message of love and forgiveness, and choose to let it go). Any form of psychology is a soft science, unlike heart surgery, where x can measurably lead to y. Even as a hard core skeptic, I must allow myself to be open to possibilities outside the realm of strict cause and effect when it comes to issues of the "mind" - it operates by a different, flexible, and malleable set of rules, or non-rules... Hypnosis, counseling, psychotherapy, meditation, etc - it works for some, and not for others. Of course, I absolutely do not recommend hypnosis for serious medical conditions,persons who are suicidal, etc... however, as an adjunct to sound medical/mental services, why not? Now that you are done reading this you will begin to feel a slight sense of euphoria - you are slowly regaining full awareness - you feel rested and confident - you are a good person, and dog gone it, people like you!

  18. "Hypnosis, counseling, psychotherapy, meditation, etc – it works for some, and not for others."

    Correction, works for nobody. Except counseling, you kind of snuck that one in there. And meditation, comparable benefits of a short nap.

    You just said why it doesn't work. It's pure placebo effect. That means the hypnosis part, didn't actually do anything at all. You could substitute an empty pill for it. Completely in the mind of the receiver.

    And quite frankly, even that won't work for everything. Then you have to start blaming the victim... well it didn't work for you because you didn't believe, or didn't follow through all the way, or so forth. They could keep trying, wasting valuable resources and time, become addicted even. You only looked at it from the mindset of nothing to lose... but there are things to lose in these games.

  19. I must disagree with comparing a sugar pill to hypnosis - although the placebo effect comparison is valid, it's still comparing apples to oranges... the delivery system is not comparable, ergo, the effect on the client/recipient is not the same. The effectiveness of the "treatment" may be inexorably tied to the delivery system. This relates to the educational principle of learning styles and differentiated instruction, which addresses how different people learn/acquire knowledge in different ways: some people are visual, some are auditory, some are kinesthetic learners (of course, most of us are a combination of all of these learning styles, but that's another conversation). The process of hypnosis may include some or all of the different instructional components, thereby increasing the receptiveness of the hypnosis client. My point is, the way in which someone receives treatment/therapy can be critical to its effectiveness - a pill, sugar or otherwise, is not hypnosis.
    I am curious as to your unqualified exception of counseling as an effective psychological therapy..what kind of therapy? There are almost innumerable types of counseling, and speaking from first hand experience, trust me, they ain't all the same! There are so many variables with counseling it's impossible to truly quantify the results, as with so many other things. Anyway, I'm out of gas for now - enjoying the chat - till next time...

  20. Well, Tomato, you can never go wrong with a good Fish Slapping Dance. :)

  21. Speaking of tangents, what IS this strange fascination you have for my brother-in-law?

  22. Thanks for all of your great comments everyone! Keep them coming if you have other "favorites". I think I'd have to agree with some of you that anything that purports to "cure" people when it can't stand up to scientific scrutiny is what frustrates me the most.

  23. Psychics and tarot. I used to work as a phone psychic, all I got paid to do was talk to people who had no one else to talk to. But now I am older and have better ethics and would never take money from someone anymore. I still "read tarot" only because I love showing people how easy it is to BS someone until they start telling on themselves and you are basically repeat them what they already know. It's fun at parties. People who really believe that stuff just need to have people to talk to, usually people already know the answers they are asking for, they just need someone to tell them everything will be ok.

  24. Hi Mari, thanks for sharing this with us. You're teaching people critical thinking now. That's awesome! :D
    I agree with you that people basically just want to be told that everything will be ok when they get a reading of any kind. I also used to do readings and I found that to be exactly the case. And they already knew exactly what they wanted to hear.
    I didn't know I was cold reading them at the time, but once I learned what that was, I realized I was basically just giving them what they wanted, and that's why they thought I was so good at it.

  25. "the delivery system is not comparable, ergo, the effect on the client/recipient is not the same"

    I think you're mistaking what a placebo is here. The placebo effect is the same whether or not it came from a suger pill or hypnosis... If something works only when the placebo effect kicks in, then that something doesn't actually work at all. The most brilliant thing about it is, that even if you know it's a placebo, the fact that people know that the placebo effect helps causes a placebo effect even. I say that's one of the most awesome things that has been found lately.

    The only thing required, is the belief that whatever your taking/doing is going to work... and yes, some people might be prone to believe in hypnosis more than say, sugar pills, but that in no way makes the effect different. I understand what you are saying, but you should be aware that a placebo effect does not mean that the treatment works.


    Counseling, why does it work? Only becomes it brings problems out onto the table. The actual fixing of the problems themselves are up to the patient, and quite frankly with psychological issues (that aren't physical) are only going to be fixed that way. The mistake would be thinking that counseling "fixes" things, that's not it's intention (even though it's common thought of it like that). It's a different type of game.