A post has been making its rounds on facebook letely, a Venn diagram of ideas that fall under the categories of Quackery, Religion, Pseudoscience, Paranormal and Conspiracy. A friend commented on my posting of this image that he wondered at one of his favorite theories being placed in the Pseudoscience category, and the resulting discussion shed some light on the matter for him and several others. The fact that ideas are considered pseudoscience is not necessarily bad. The word pseudoscience does not mean ‘fake’ science, but more “almost’ science. Even if some of those ideas that fall under the heading of pseudoscience are good, they have not been tested with good experimental design to rule out other explanations for results, with good sample sizes (more than enough samples to rule out chance and other factors for the results), adequate controls, replicability, and ample peer review. Nor are most of those ideas studied in depth so that we know exactly HOW these processes work, again using replicable research. I am a proponent of oil-pulling and vitamin megadosing, to some extent, but I’ll happily admit that my occasional good ‘results’ using vitamins is not the same thing as doing good scientific research. I also have to wonder sometimes about time-slips, but that idea is not really scientifically testable. These three ideas that I like, while pleasing to me, are not scientific.
I do not have adequate data, nor does anyone else really, to show conclusively that oil-pulling works to cleanse and restore one’s teeth and gums, and I am busy living my life, eating what I wish, using other dental treatments (toothbrush, toothpaste, mouthwash, etc.) so I can’t prove that oil-pulling, and not something else, is helping make my gums healthier. I take vitamins, including a super-B complex which falls just barely in the fringe of the megadosing practice, but I don’t take my vitamins every day, and I don’t always take all of them. I usually avoid the bigger ones and take them only when I feel I really ought to. So I think they are helping, but I can’t prove they are, nor can anyone else. People’s diets, genetics, stress-levels, water-intake and other habits and traits vary so much that I can say quite confidently that NO ONE has adequately researched supplemental vitamins, ANY vitamins, enough to be absolutely sure they work, or don’t work, let alone why they might work for a particular person. And time-slippage is impossible to prove because science needs time to move steadily in one direction in order to have causality as a meaningful term, and if time-slippage is occuring it is subjective and not subject to experiment. There are at least a dozen therapies included that have made a noticeable, significant improvement for my uncle’s family, scientific method or not. Just because you can’t explain it doesn’t mean it doesn’t work. BUT, if you can’t explain it, and no one else has done so with good scientific accuracy and reproducibility, it is not yet a result of proper confirmed ‘science’.
Really I think people have quite an exaggerated sense of what science can do. Science is very powerful, but it only works for hypotheses that are testable (not just a single occurance, reproducable, where the hypothesis is refutable, etc.). Anything that relies on subjectivity, or one-time events, or that is otherwise currently not disprovable given available technology is simply not something about which science can gain any traction. Calling something ‘pseudoscience’ implies that where possible people are trying to use the scientific method on that topic, but that the available research does not meet the basic criteria to be strictly scientific. It is not insulting to say something is a pseudoscience, any more than it is insulting to say that “Does God exist?” is not a question science can definitively answer. Most non-scientists don’t understand what ‘science’ means, so they also don’t understand what ‘pseudoscience’ means. But, if we are deciding questions as democratic citizens that require that we understand scientific concerns, we all need to understand what it means for us to do science, and why some things are just not science, even though they may still be very important, useful, interesting, good, or beautiful.