Science and pseudoscience
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Science and Pseudoscience. Sorting Fact from Fiction J. David O’Dell, Ph.D. Associate Professor of Chemistry Glenville State College. What is Science?. From Latin scientia , meaning knowledge Often regarded as a knowledge base More specifically, scientific knowledge is

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Science and pseudoscience

Science and Pseudoscience

Sorting Fact from Fiction

J. David O’Dell, Ph.D.

Associate Professor of Chemistry

Glenville State College

What is science

What is Science?

  • From Latin scientia, meaning knowledge

  • Often regarded as a knowledge base

  • More specifically, scientific knowledge is

    • Achieved by a systematic process

      • Planned, ordered, methodical

    • Involves observation and experimentation

    • Is testable

    • If a statement is incorrect, it must be able to be proved incorrect

What is science1

What is Science?

“Science is built up with facts, as a house is with stones. But a collection of facts is no more a science than a heap of stones is a house.”

Henri Poincaré (1854-1912)

French Mathematician, Theoretical Physicist, and Philosopher of Science

What isn t science

What Isn’t Science?

  • Topics that are outside the realm of science

    • Matters of opinion

    • Matters of faith

    • Ethics/Morals

    • Newly evolving theoretical fields

      • Often outside scientific realm until technology develops for testing

  • Pseudosciences

    • Presented as being scientific but are not

Scientific method

Scientific Method

  • Observations

  • Question

  • Hypothesis

  • Prediction

  • Experiment

  • Analysis

  • Peer Review

Peer review process

Peer Review Process

  • Science is self correcting

    • Many studies with flawed methodologies and invalid conclusions are never published

    • Some are published, then retracted when new information becomes available

    • In order for results to gain credibility, the results must be repeated in subsequent experiments



  • Skeptic

    • One who only accepts information that is well supported by evidence

  • Denialist

    • One who rejects information that is well supported by evidence

  • Evidence

    • Assessed by accuracy of predictions

    • Not eyewitness evidence, as in court



  • Law

    • A descriptive statement (very often mathematical) that applies to a very broad range of conditions

    • Does not offer explanation

  • Theory

    • A highly accepted explanation of a phenomenon

    • Repeatedly confirmed through experimentation

    • Not in any way, shape, or form a guess or hunch

Facts theories and laws

Facts, Theories, and Laws

  • Fact

    • An object, when dropped, will fall toward the center of the Earth

  • Law

    • The force acting on the objects is directly proportional to the product of the objects’ masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between their centers of mass.

  • Theory

    • Spacetime is curved by the mass of the Earth

Unscientific popular method

Unscientific (Popular) Method

  • Observation  Conclusion

  • Post hoc, ergo propter hoc

    • After this, therefore because of this

    • Leads to erroneous conclusions

      • Cold weather causes colds

      • Good luck charm causes success

    • Makes sense

      • Joe got sick after eating that plant, so I’m not going to eat that plant.

What s wrong with that

What’s Wrong with That?

  • Lack of control group

    • No way to know if the effect was the result of the observed event or some other factor

  • Lack of statistical analysis

    • No way to know if observed differences are the result of the treatment or just due to chance

Science self correcting but sometimes slowly

ScienceSelf Correcting, but Sometimes Slowly

  • Antivax movement

    • Andrew Wakefield study (1998) linking autism to MMR vaccine

    • Small sample size

    • Published in The Lancet

    • Later retracted by the journal’s editorial staff (2010)

    • Initially thought to be bad science, later discovered to be fraud

  • Perfect (albeit bad) example of post hoc reasoning

    • Autistic children often begin to show symptoms around the age of vaccination

Public attitudes toward vaccines

Public Attitudes Toward Vaccines

  • Persistence of misconceptions

    • 2008 Survey

      • 19% agree that vaccines linked to autism

      • 43% not sure

    • 2009 Survey

      • 25% of parents believe vaccines cause autism

      • 12% refused at least one vaccine

  • Occurrence of childhood diseases now rising

Persistence of misconceptions

Persistence of Misconceptions

  • Antivax campaigns by celebrities

    • Jenny McCarthy, Oprah Winfrey

  • Comments by politicians

    • “I will tell you that I had a mother last night come up to me here in Tampa, Fla., after the debate. She told me that her little daughter took that vaccine, that injection, and she suffered from mental retardation thereafter.”

      • Michelle Bachmann (R, Minnesota) 2012

    • “It’s indisputable that (autism) is on the rise amongst children, the question is what’s causing it. And we go back and forth and there’s strong evidence that indicates that it’s got to do with a preservative in vaccines.”

      • John McCain (R, Arizona) 2008

Congressional hearing on vaccines and autism

Congressional Hearingon Vaccines and Autism

  • “I’m convinced that the mercury in vaccinations is a contributing factor to neurological diseases such as autism.”

  • "It wasn’t so bad when a child gets one or two or three vaccines… Mercury accumulates in the brain until it has to be chelated.”

    • Congressman Dan Burton (R, Indiana) 2012

Science understanding among american adults

Science Understanding AmongAmerican Adults

  • Science and Engineering Indicators 2012

    • Knowledge of Scientific Facts

    • Understanding of Scientific Process

    • Belief in Pseudosciences

Scientific facts

Scientific Facts

  • The center of the Earth is very hot. (True)

  • All radioactivity is man-made. (False)

  • It is the father’s gene that decides whether the baby is a boy or girl. (True)

  • Lasers work by focusing sound waves. (False)

  • Electrons are smaller than atoms. (False)

  • Antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria. (False)

  • The continents on which we live have been moving their locations for millions of years and will continue to move in the future. (True)

  • Does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth? (Earth around Sun)

  • How long does it take for the Earth to go around the Sun? (1 year)

    • Asked only if previous question answered correctly

Science facts

Science Facts

Science reasoning

Science Reasoning

  • Two scientists want to know if a certain drug is effective against high blood pressure.

  • The first scientist wants to give the drug to 1,000 people with high blood pressure and see how many of them experience lower blood pressure levels.

  • The second scientist wants to give the drug to 500 people with high blood pressure and not give the drug to another 500 people with high blood pressure, and see how many in both groups experience lower blood pressure levels.

  • Which is the better way to test this drug?

Which one

Which One?

  • First experiment has no control group

    • Any observed change could not be legitimately attributed to the treatment

  • Second experiment has a control group

    • Patients in the experimental group can be compared to patients in the control group

  • Second experiment is better than first

  • Second experiment could be better

Science reasoning1

Science Reasoning

Actual clinical trials

Actual Clinical Trials

  • Randomized

    • Test subjects have equal likelihood of being in the control group or the experimental group

  • Controlled

    • Control group is as identical as possible to the experimental group

    • Subjects in the control group take placebo

      • Placebo should be undistinguishable from drug

  • Double-blind

    • Neither the test subjects nor the researchers know who is in which group

  • Replicated

    • Sample size is sufficient to separate effects due to the treatment from effects due to chance

Attitude toward pseudosciences

Attitude Toward Pseudosciences

  • Survey Question on Astrology

    • Is it very scientific, somewhat scientific, or not at all scientific?

  • Astrology is not at all scientific

    • If planets/stars/moons/asteroids have effect on us, we could measure that effect

    • Believing that horoscope was accurate does not equate to evidence

      • Confirmation bias

Survey results astrology not at all scientific

Survey ResultsAstrology Not at All Scientific



  • Ideas which are presented as being scientific, but which fail to meet the standards of being scientific

Pseudoscientific method

Pseudoscientific Method

  • Conclusion

  • Experiment (sometimes)

  • Accept data that support conclusion

  • Reject data that contradict conclusion

  • Never modify conclusion



  • Locating water, minerals, other substances by use of divining rods

    • No scientific reason the process should work

    • No controlled scientific study has ever shown it to work

    • Another example of post hoc reasoning

      • The dowser said there would be water here, and we got a good well

    • How does the dowsing rod know what the dowser is looking for?

Why does it appear to work

Why Does it Appear to Work?

  • Ideomotor Effect

    • Psychological phenomenon

    • Unconscious response

    • Phenomenon behind operation of Ouija board

  • Device will point to where the operator knows or thinks the target is

Scientific evaluation

Scientific Evaluation

  • Munich Experiment 1987-1988

    • 500 dowsers tested for their “skill”

    • Best 43 were selected for further study

    • Subjects were asked to identify location of water running through pipe

    • Hundreds of tests during two-year period

    • Six dowsers found to have results better than chance

    • Independent data analysis concluded that unconventional statistics used to show the six better than chance

What s the harm

What’s the Harm

  • ADE 651 bomb detector

    • Dowsing devise used by Iraqi police to detect bombs

    • Claims to detect guns, bombs, ammunition, bodies

  • Global Technical GT 200 bomb detector

    • Used in Thailand, Mexico

  • Sniffex bomb detector

    • Purchased by U.S. military for testing

  • All have been shown to be no better than chance at detecting anything.

Intelligent design

Intelligent Design

  • Actually creationism

    • “Designer” substitutes for God

    • “Design” substitutes for creation

  • Creationism not pseudoscience, but rather is outside the realm of scientific study

    • Not testable

    • Based on faith rather than observation and experimentation

  • Intelligent design is pseudoscience because it presents religion as being scientific

    • Used in attempt to get creationism taught in science classes of public schools

Kitzmiller v dover area school district

Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District

  • 2004, Dover, Pennsylvania

  • School board required teaching of intelligent design as alternative to evolution

  • Tried in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania

    • Judge John E. Jones III

    • Conservative Republican appointed 2002 by George W. Bush

Basis for lawsuit

Basis For Lawsuit

  • Intelligent design is not scientific, but is religious

  • Teaching intelligent design violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment

    • “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . . .”

Decision of the court

Decision of the Court

  • “For the reasons that follow, we conclude that the religious nature of ID would be readily apparent to an objective observer, adult or child.”

  • “The evidence at trial demonstrates that ID is nothing less than the progeny of creationism.”

  • “. . . we find that while ID arguments may be true, a proposition on which the Court takes no position, ID is not science.”

Decision of the court1

Decision of the Court

  • “. . . it is additionally important to note that ID has failed to gain acceptance in the scientific community, it has not generated peer-reviewed publications, nor has it been the subject of testing and research.”

  • Accordingly, we find that the secular purposes claimed by the Board amount to a pretext for the Board’s real purpose, which was to promote religion in the public school classroom, in violation of the Establishment Clause.

Decision of the court2

Decision of the Court

  • “The citizens of the Dover area were poorly served by the members of the Board who voted for the ID Policy. It is ironic that several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID Policy.”

Decision of the court3

Decision of the Court

“Those who disagree with our holding will likely mark it as the product of an activist judge. If so, they will have erred as this is manifestly not an activist Court. Rather, this case came to us as the result of the activism of an ill-informed faction on a school board, aided by a national public interest law firm eager to find a constitutional test case on ID, who in combination drove the Board to adopt an imprudent and ultimately unconstitutional policy. The breathtaking inanity of the Board’s decision is evident when considered against the factual backdrop which has now been fully revealed through this trial.”

What s the harm1

What’s the Harm?

  • Gives students wrong idea about “controversy”

    • There is no scientific controversy regarding evolution, the age of the earth, the age of the universe, or other “controversial” topics

  • Gives students a disadvantage when studying science

    • Attempts to stifle critical thinking

  • Give students the false impression that science and religion are mutually exclusive



  • Samuel Hahnemann’s “law of similars” (1796)

    • Like cures like

    • If a concentrated solution causes symptoms, then a dilute solution alleviates symptoms

  • More dilute solutions are more potent

  • Dilutions are typically so large that no molecules of the original substance remain

  • Implies that water has a “memory” for the active ingredient

Developing homeopathic remedies

Developing Homeopathic Remedies

  • “Proving”

    • Administer substance to healthy individuals

    • Record all symptoms which occur after ingestion

  • “Succession”

    • Extract material in water or ethanol

    • Grind solids with lactose

    • Perform several serial dilutions

Serial dilutions

Serial Dilutions

  • Centesimal Scale

    • Substance diluted by factor of 100 at each stage

  • Hahnemann advocated 30C dilutions

    • Substance diluted by factor of 100, then that solution is diluted by a factor of 100, until the serial dilution has been performed 30 times

    • Results in a solution that has been diluted by a factor of 10030 or 1060.

    • Equivalent to putting much less than a drop of the substance in Earths oceans

Dilution terminology

Dilution Terminology

  • 4C = a 100-fold dilution performed four times

    • Dilution factor of 1004 or 108

    • Approximately equal to putting one drop of active ingredient in 1300 gallons of water

  • 6X = a 10-fold dilution performed six times

    • Dilution factor of 106

Science and pseudoscience

Active Ingredient

Anas barbariaehepatis et cordisextractum 200C

  • Inactive Ingredients

  • Sucrose

  • Lactose



  • French physician Joseph Roy examined flu victims during 1917 Spanish Flu epidemic

  • Claimed to find oscillating bacterium in blood of flu victims; named the bacterium Oscillococcus

  • Searched animals for the bacterium, claimed to find the bacterium in a duck liver

200c dilution

200C Dilution

  • Diluted by a factor of 100200, or 10400

  • Equivalent to diluting one drop of substance in a sphere the size of the solar system

  • And then repeating the dilution process eight times!

Other ailments

Other Ailments

  • Nausea?

    • Try ipecacuanha.

  • Can’t sleep?

    • Try coffea.

Why do pseudosciences persist

Why Do Pseudosciences Persist?

  • “It’s easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled.”

    • Mark Twain

  • Publicity in the media

    • Finding Bigfoot (Animal Planet)

    • Ancient Aliens (History International)

    • Ghost Hunters (Syfy)

    • Long Island Medium (TLC)

    • The Dr. Oz Show (syndicated)



  • Science provides method for systematically studying the physical world and gaining a greater understanding of its processes.

    • These processes are not affected by our beliefs, our feelings, or our opinions of them.

  • There are many topics which are outside the realm of science.

    • These topics cannot be studied by the scientific process.

    • Science and these topics are not mutually exclusive.

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