How To Distinguish Science From Pseudoscience

Posted on June 18th, 2013

Pseudoscience is applied to any field of inquiry that appears to use scientific methods and tries hard to give that impression, but is actually based on inadequate, unscientific methods and makes claims that are generally false.1

Characteristics of Science

  • precise definitions of the phenomena being measured
  • reliable and valid measuring tools that yield useful and interpretable data
  • generally accepted research methodologies
  • a system of logic for drawing conclusions and fitting those conclusions into general theories

Characteristics of Pseudoscience

  • a false association with true science
  • a misuse of the rules of evidence by relying excessively on anecdotal data
  • a lack of specificity that avoids a true test of the theory
  • an oversimplification of complex processes

How To Check Information Credibility

Before you make any conclusions after reading something even if it scientific, consider asking some questions to clear things up.2

1. Does the claim presented make sense?

  • If it is too outrageous to believe, disregard it.

2. Where did the information come from?

  • If it is based on personal opinions, be aware that one person’s perception does not make something true.

  • Information from government agencies, universities, and nonprofit organizations is generally sound.

  • Check the credentials of the person providing the information. If they do not have a legitimate degree in the specific field, treat the material with skepticism. If no credentials are listed, there is no way to determine if they are qualified to give this information.

3. Was the information based on well-designed experiments?

  • Reliable information is based on scientific studies that use proper controls, include enough experimental subjects to get reliable results, and collect quantifiable data.

  • Studies published in peer-reviewed journals have been evaluated for accuracy before they are published.

4. Were the experimental results interpreted accurately?

  • Compare news reports to study results to see if the importance of the study has been exaggerated to make the headline more attractive.

  • If the study was done in animals, consider carefully whether the results will also apply to humans.

5. Who stands to benefit?

  • If the information is helping to sell a product, it may be biased toward that product.

  • If the information is making a magazine cover or newspaper headline more appealing, the claims may be exaggerated to promote sales.

6. Has it stood the test of time?

  • If the study is the first to support a particular finding, wait before making any serious changes in your life.

  • If the finding has been shown repeatedly in different studies over a period of years, it will become the basis for reliable recommendations.

7. Does it pose a risk?

  • Be sure the expected benefit of the product is worth the risk associated with using it.

  1. Goodwin, C. J. (2010). Research in psychology: methods and design (6th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley. 

  2. Smolin, L. A., & Grosvenor, M. B. (2010). Nutrition: science and applications (2nd ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley. 

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