Research Methods

Characteristics of Pseudoscience

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General Characteristics

Example

Pseudoscientists believe that there is no more to be learned; they fail to generate testable hypotheses or to conduct objective tests of theory. There tends to be no advancement of knowledge in the field, which is resistant to change. There are few tests of previous claims Homeopathic medicine makes claims about cures that are not based on research. The ideas never change and believers do not conduct systematic tests that would disconfirm their ideas
Pseudoscience is based on dogma and uncritical belief; there may be hostility in the fact of counterevidence or disagreement. Creationism is accepted by some as a matter of faith. There is no attempt to subject its tenets to scientific scrutiny. In addition, when disagreements arise, believers often show antagonism toward the individual without dealing with the evidence.
There is a suppression of or distortion of unfavorable data; selective use of data, including looking only for supportive information (confirmation bias). People who believe that psychics can foretell the future will accept just about any statement that seems correct but will ignore errors in predictions.
Many ideas are not amenable to scientific evaluation; ideas are subjective and can't be tested objectively. There have been claims that we have an undetectable aura surrounding us. If it is undetectable, there is to way to verify its presence.
There is an acceptance of proof with data of questionable validity; the lack of evidence is taken as support that a claim could be true Some people conclude that there is evidence for the existence of UFOs on the basis of anecdotal reports in the popular media or ancient myths. There is little or no independent evaluation of ideas, but more a reliance on questionable evidence that is not questioned.
Personal anecdotes and events that cannot be tested systematically are used to provide evidence; there is often a reliance on "experts" with no real expertise. Anybody who claims an experience about foretelling the future or who relates a supposed experience with aliens becomes an expert whose statements are not to be questioned.
Pseudoscience involves terms that sound like scientific ideas, but the terms are not clearly defined. Often the ideas violate known scientific principles. Varieties of extrasensory perception include phenomena like telekinesis, which sounds scientific. In reality, it is a poorly defined (and undocumented) notion. Paranormal phenomena do not conform to known physical laws, such as the fact that for all known forms of energy, the force exerted declines over distance, which is not the case for ESP, according to its adherents.
Pseudoscientific phenomena are "shy" or "fragile" in that they often disappear or weaken noticeably when subjected to well designed experiments, especially with nonbelievers. The ability to identify stimuli that are not visible is sometimes striking when two believers conduct a study; when independent scientists conduct the study, the effect is often attenuated or eliminated.
Pseudoscience involves looking for mysteries that have occurred rather than trying to generate and test explanations for the phenomena. Sometimes people solicit incidents from people that seem unusual. For instance, mystery hunters look might look for instances when a person seems to have foretold the future in a dream, ignoring the fact that if you look at enough dreams, you can find coincidental patterns that resist normal explanations.
Pseudoscientists engage in explanation by scenario. They identify a phenomenon and provide an explanation that fits the facts after they are known, but doesn't provide a means for making predictions in advance. Some years ago, Julian Jaynes suggested that, historically, the two hemispheres in the human brain were not connected as they are now. Thus, brain activity in the right hemisphere was perceived to be the voices of gods. Unfortunately for this explanation, there is no credible evidence that it is true. In fact, given what we know about evolution, there is no realistic way that our brains could have evolved as Jaynes suggested.

 

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Last Modified August 2, 2005