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Phrenology is regarded today as being a classic example of pseudoscience.

Pseudoscience is a term commonly applied to any body of knowledge, methodology, or practice that is portrayed as scientific but diverges substantially from the required standards for scientific work or is unsupported by scientific research.[1] (See Scientific method.)

The term "pseudoscience" generally has negative connotations because it asserts that things so labeled are inaccurately or deceptively described as science. As such, those labeled as practicing or advocating a "pseudoscience" almost always reject this classification.


The standards for determining whether any body of knowledge, methodology, field or practice is scientific vary from field to field, but involve certain widely agreed upon principles. Because science is extended for its potential benefit to others, scientific work today is expected to be open to repeated close scrutiny by others. The standards for legitimate scientific investigation include reproducibility and intersubjective verifiability — so that all relevant evidence can be reproduced and/or measured given the same conditions — which allows further investigation to determine whether a hypothesis or theory related to given phenomena is both valid and reliable for use by others, including other scientists and researchers. Scientific methods are expected to be applied throughout, and bias is expected to be controlled or eliminated, either directly, through the manipulation of factors, by double-blind studies, or statistically through fair sampling procedures. All gathered data, including experimental/environmental conditions, are expected to be documented for scrutiny and published for peer review, thereby allowing further experiments or studies to be conducted to confirm or falsify results, as well as to determine other important factors such as statistical significance, confidence intervals, and margins of error. Fulfillment of these requirements allows other researchers and practitioners a reasonable opportunity to assess whether to rely upon those results in their own scientific work or in a particular field of applied science, technology, therapy or other form of practice.

In the mid-20th Century Karl Popper suggested the additional criterion of falsifiability. Certain theories cannot be proven false under any circumstance, for example, the theory that God created the universe. Such theories may be true, but are not scientific; they lie outside the scope of (at least present-day) science. String theory, as a current example, has been criticized for being unfalsifiable; it may be termed a protoscience rather than a pseudoscience because it is conceivable that with further work it will have a sufficiently clear structure to become verifiable — to date this type of theory may be more accurately termed a theoretical speculation than a scientific theory per se. Another criterion applicable to theoretical work is a heuristic such as Occam's Razor. A number of attempts have been made to apply philosophical rigor to the notion, with mixed results. These include the historiographical approach of Imre Lakatos in his Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes.

Some historians and philosophers of science (including Paul Feyerabend) have argued, from a sociology of knowledge perspective, that a clear philosophical distinction between science and pseudoscience is neither possible nor desirable. Both the theories and methodologies of science evolve, sometimes very slowly, and in other cases quite rapidly. In addition, standards applicable to one branch of science may not be those employed in another branch. For instance, physicists may expect a 100% correlation of cause and effect in certain areas of inquiry, any significant divergence from this signifying a serious lack of understanding of the causal factors, the method of measurement and/or the testing environment; whereas psychologists may find 5% statistical correlation worthy of consideration if it can be consistently repeated. Even within a particular field, specific standards may vary; quantum physicists may expect and even hope for certain kinds of statistical variations in their results.

Some critics of pseudoscience consider some or all forms of pseudoscience to be harmless entertainment. Others, such as Richard Dawkins, Mario Bunge and Carl Sagan, consider almost all forms of pseudoscience to be harmful, whether or not they result in immediate harm to their followers. These critics generally consider that advocacy of pseudoscience may occur for a number of reasons, ranging from simple naïveté about the nature of science and the scientific method, to deliberate deception for financial or political benefit. At the extreme, issues of personal health and safety may be very directly involved, for example in the case of physical or mental therapy or treatment, or in assessing safety risks — in such instances the potential for direct harm to patients, clients or even the general public may also be an issue in assessing pseudoscience. (see also: Junk science)

The concept of pseudoscience as an antagonist to bona fide science appears to have emerged in the mid-19th century. The first recorded use of the word 'pseudo-science' appears to have been in 1844 in the Northern Journal of Medicine I. 387 "That opposite kind of innovation which pronounces what has been recognised as a branch of science, to have been a pseudo-science, composed merely of so-called facts, connected together by misapprehensions under the disguise of principles".

Identifying pseudoscience

A body of knowledge, field, or practice is legitimately called pseudoscience when (1) it has presented itself as science or scientific; and (2) it fails to meet the accepted norms of scientific research, most importantly the use of scientific method. Within the various expectations of legitimate scientific methodology, by far the most important is that of making documentation of data and methodology available for close and repeated scrutiny by other scientists and researchers, as well as making available any additional relevant information used to arrive at particular results or methods of practice. To the degree that thorough documentation of data and method is unavailable for detailed scrutiny by others, a body of knowledge, practice, or field of inquiry will tend, as a result, to meet at least several of the characteristics of pseudoscience introduced below.

Pseudoscience can be identified by a combination of the following characteristics. As more and more of these characteristics are met, further credibility may be attached to a claim that a particular field or practice is pseudoscientific:

  • asserting claims which cannot be verified, or falsified in the event they are inaccurate, incorrect or irrelevant (see also: falsifiability);
  • failing to make use of operational definitions;
  • failing to submit results to peer review prior to publicizing them (called "science by press conference")
  • failing to provide adequate information for other researchers to reproduce the claimed results;
  • claiming a theory predicts something that it does not;
  • claiming a theory predicts something that it has not been shown to predict;
  • violating the principle of parsimony, i.e., failing to seek an explanation that requires the fewest possible additional assumptions when multiple viable explanations are possible (see Occam's Razor);
  • claiming secrecy or proprietary knowledge in response to requests for review of data or methodology;
  • habitually changing the nature of its claims in response to criticism;
  • a lack of progress toward additional evidence of its claims.

Some characteristics that are often true of pseudoscience are also true to some extent of all new genuinely scientific work. These include:

  • claims or theories unconnected to previous experimental results;
  • claims which contradict experimentally established results;
  • work failing to operate on standard definitions of concepts;

Pseudoscience is distinguishable from revelation, theology, or spirituality in that it claims to offer insight into the physical world by "scientific" means. Systems of thought that rely upon "divine" or "inspired" knowledge are not considered pseudoscience if they do not claim either to be scientific or to overturn well-established science. There are also bodies of practical knowledge that are not claimed to be scientific. These are also not pseudoscience.

The term "pseudoscience" is often used by adherents of fields considered pseudoscientific to criticize their mainstream equivalents. Hence, for instance, supporters of creationism often characterize evolution as a pseudoscience, as do supporters of Dianetics with respect to psychiatry. Such criticisms can be decided by applying the above methodological and substantial criteria. Some statements and commonly held beliefs in popular science may not meet the criteria of science. "Pop" science may blur the divide between science and pseudoscience among the general public, and may also involve science fiction. [2] Indeed, pop science is defined by the fact that it is disseminated to, and can also easily emanate from, persons not accountable to scientific methodology and expert peer review. Another class of pseudoscience, called pseudoskepticism, refers to non-rigorous skepticism that is itself erroneously presented as scientific.

Pseudoscience contrasted with protoscience

Pseudoscience also differs from protoscience. Protoscience is a term sometimes used to describe a hypothesis that has not yet been tested adequately by the scientific method, but which is otherwise consistent with existing science or which, where inconsistent, offers reasonable account of the inconsistency. It may also describe the transition from a body of practical knowledge into a scientific field.

Pseudoscience, in contrast, is characteristically inadequately tested; indeed, may even be untestable in principle. If tests appear to contradict its evidence, supporters may insist that the existing scientific results are false. Pseudoscience is often unresponsive to ordinary scientific procedures (for example, peer review, publication in standard journals). If untestable claims have been made, the failure to test and disprove these claims is often cited as evidence of the truth of the pseudoscience.

The boundaries between pseudoscience, protoscience, and "real" science are often unclear to non-specialist observers and sometimes even to experts. Especially where there is a significant cultural or historical distance (as, for example, modern chemistry reflecting on alchemy), protosciences can be misinterpreted as pseudoscientific. Many people have tried to offer objective distinctions, with mixed success. Often the term pseudoscience is used simply as a pejorative to express the speaker's low opinion of a given field, regardless of any objective measures.

If the claims of a given field can be experimentally tested and methodological standards are upheld, it is real scientific work, however odd, astonishing, or intuitively unacceptable. If claims made are inconsistent with existing experimental results or established theory, but the methodology is sound, caution should be used; much of science consists of testing hypotheses that turn out to be false. In such a case, the work may be better described as as yet unproven or research in progress. Conversely, if the claims of any given "science" cannot be experimentally tested or scientific standards are not upheld in these tests, it fails to meet the modern criteria for a science.

In such circumstances it may be difficult to distinguish which of two opposing "sciences" are valid; for example, both the proponents and opponents of the Kyoto Protocol on global warming have recruited the help of scientists to endorse contradictory positions, because of differing political goals. The enlistment of science in the service of politics or business is sometimes called "junk science".

Ultimately, whether something is pseudoscience or not has less to do with the ideas under study than the approach used to study or justify them. Acupuncture, for instance, while it involved a prescientific system, is not inherently pseudoscientific. This is because most of the claims can be tested scientifically so acupuncture can be viewed as a protoscience. Of course, a scientific investigation might fail to support the claims of acupuncture. In the presence of a number of tests that successfully falsify a particular claim, insisting that the claim is still scientifically supported becomes pseudoscience.

Problems of demarcation

Main article: Demarcation problem

After more than a century of active dialogue among philosophers of science and practicing scientists of numerous widely varied fields, the question of precise boundaries of science remains less than completely settled. As a consequence the issue of exactly what constitutes pseudoscience continues to be controversial. Nonetheless, broad consensus exists on certain basics of scientific method and the problem of demarcation both within the scientific community and among philosophers generally.

Many commentators and practicioners of science, as well as supporters of fields of inquiry and practices accused of pseudoscience, have called into question whether there is a rigorous way to tell the difference, especially since many disciplines currently thought of as science exhibited at one point in their development features which are often cited as those of pseudoscience, such as lack of reproducibility (for example, due to the necessity of large, expensive, and specially created instruments), or the inability to create falsifying experiments. Thus, many accepted scientific theories of our time — including the theory of evolution (Thagard, 131 ff), plate tectonics (Thagard, 157 ff), the Big Bang (a term originally chosen by Fred Hoyle to poke fun at the idea), and quantum mechanics — were criticized by some as being pseudo-scientific when they were first proposed. In retrospect, it is clear that this was a response to the fundamental challenge they posed to accepted doctrines, and a reflection of the difficulty in gathering evidence for new theories. Further, because of the heterogeneous nature of the scientific enterprise itself, it is increasingly difficult to create a set of criteria which can apply to all disciplines at all times.

Fields often described as pseudoscience

Main article: List of alternative, speculative, and disputed theories

The following is a list of theories and fields of endeavor which their critics fault as failing to meet the norms and standards of scientific practice in one way or another.


Pseudomathematics is a form of mathematics-like activity undertaken by either non-mathematicians or mathematicians themselves which do not conform to the rigorous standards usually applied to mathematical theories.

Criticisms of the concept of pseudoscience

Since it implies rejection by the mainstream scientific community, the term "pseudoscience" removes the perceived legitimacy afforded by the category "science". Since, historically, it has been applied to competing theories and interpretations of empirical evidence within the mainstream--sometimes with emotional overtones--critics caution against its over-use.

Another criticism is that it is impossible to define the term pseudoscience with the degree of rigor commonly demanded of scientific definitions. Although various definitions have been proposed, controversy remains over what the term really means.

Further information: Demarcation problem

When seen from the perspective of scientific paradigms, the term pseudoscience can be seen as one of many tools used by the establishment to describe a perceived threat. Thomas Kuhn has postulated that proponents of competing paradigms may resort to political means (such as invective) to garner the support of a public which lacks the ability to judge competing scientific theories on their merits.


  • Aczel, Amir D. (2005), Descartes’ Secret Notebook, Broadway Books, New York, NY.
  • Putnam, Hilary (1990), "A Reconsideration of Deweyan Democracy", Southern California Law Review 63 (1990), 1671–1697. Reprinted with modifications in (Putnam 1992).
  • Putnam, Hilary (1992), Renewing Philosophy, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
  • Runes, Dagobert D. (ed., 1972), Dictionary of Philosophy, Littlefield, Adams, and Company, Totowa, NJ.
  • Thagard, Paul (1992), Conceptual Revolutions, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.
  • Webster's New International Dictionary of the English Language, Second Edition, Unabridged, W.A. Neilson, T.A. Knott, P.W. Carhart (eds.), G. & C. Merriam Company, Springfield, MA, 1950.

Further reading

  • Bernstein, Richard J., Beyond Objectivism and Relativism: Science, Hermeneutics, and Praxis, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, PA, 1983.
  • Brody, Baruch A., and Grandy, Richard E., Readings in the Philosophy of Science, 2nd edition, Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1989.
  • Brookfield, Stephen D., Developing Critical Thinkers, Challenging Adults to Explore Alternative Ways of Thinking and Acting, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, CA, 1987.
  • Burks, Arthur W., Chance, Cause, Reason — An Inquiry into the Nature of Scientific Evidence, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, 1977.
  • Dewey, John, How We Think, D.C. Heath, Lexington, MA, 1910. Reprinted, Prometheus Books, Buffalo, NY, 1991.
  • Earman, John (ed.), Inference, Explanation, and Other Frustrations: Essays in the Philosophy of Science, University of California Press, Berkeley & Los Angeles, CA, 1992.
  • Feyerabend, Paul K., Against Method, Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge, 1st published, 1975. Reprinted, Verso, London, UK, 1978.
  • Gadamer, Hans-Georg, Reason in the Age of Science, Frederick G. Lawrence (trans.), MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1981.
  • Gardner, Martin, Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, 2nd edition, Dover Publications, New York, NY, 1957. 1st published, In the Name of Science, G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1952.
  • Gerovitch, Slava, From Newspeak to Cyberspeak: A History of Soviet Cybernetics, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2002.
  • Greenberg, Daniel S., The Politics of Pure Science, New American Library, New York, NY, 1967.
  • Habermas, Jürgen, Knowledge and Human Interests, Jeremy J. Shapiro (trans.), Beacon Press, Boston, MA, 1971. 1st published, Erkenntnis und Interesse, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, Germany, 1968.
  • Hines, Terence, Pseudoscience and the Paranormal: A Critical Examination of the Evidence, Prometheus Books, Buffalo, NY, 1988. ISBN 0-87975-419-2.
  • Holton, Gerald, Thematic Origins of Scientific Thought, Kepler to Einstein, 1st edition 1973, revised edition, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1988.
  • Kuhn, Thomas S., The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, 1962. 2nd edition 1970. 3rd edition 1996.
  • Kuhn, Thomas S., The Essential Tension, Selected Studies in Scientific Tradition and Change, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, 1977.
  • Latour, Bruno, Science in Action, How to Follow Scientists and Engineers through Society, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1987.
  • Losee, John, A Historical Introduction to the Philosophy of Science, Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK, 1972. 2nd edition, 1980.
  • Misak, Cheryl J., Truth and the End of Inquiry, A Peircean Account of Truth, Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK, 1991.
  • Popper, Karl R., Unended Quest, An Intellectual Autobiography, Open Court, La Salle, IL, 1982.
  • Rorty, Richard, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1979.
  • Shimony, Abner, Search for a Naturalistic World View: Vol. 1, Scientific Method and Epistemology, Vol. 2, Natural Science and Metaphysics, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 1993.
  • van Fraassen, Bas C., The Scientific Image, Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK, 1980.
  • Wiener, Norbert, God and Golem, Inc., A Comment on Certain Points where Cybernetics Impinges on Religion, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1964.

See also

  • Bad science : pejorative term used to derogate purportedly scientific data, research, analyses or claims which are driven by perceived political, financial or other questionable motives.
  • Bible code (or Torah codes) : belief system that there are meaningful intentionally coded forms in the text of a holy scripture.
  • Cargo cult science : term to describe work that has the semblance of being scientific, but is missing "a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty".
  • Critical thinking : mental process of analyzing or evaluating information, particularly statements or propositions that are offered as true.
  • Extrasensory perception (or ESP) : any ability to acquire information by means other than the five canonical senses (taste, sight, touch, smell, and hearing), or any other sense well known to science (balance, proprioception, etc).
  • Junk science : pejorative term used to derogate purportedly scientific data, research, analyses or claims which are driven by perceived political, financial or other questionable motives.
  • Mind myths : misconceptions sometimes used to support pseudoscientific belief systems.
  • Magical thinking : used by historians of religion to describe one kind of non-scientific causal reasoning.
  • New Age : broad movement of late twentieth century and contemporary Western culture characterised by an individual eclectic approach to spiritual exploration.
  • Pathological science : term to describe ideas that would simply not "go away", long after they were given up on as wrong by the majority of scientists in the field. The term is semantically loaded, and has often been taken as a personal insult implying utter foolishness in the target.
  • Pathological skepticism (or Pseudoskepticism) : class of pseudoscience masquerading as proper skepticism, where claims of "reason" and having a "scientific worldview", but frequently uses logical fallacies, attempts to silence opponents, and employs various invalid strategies of persuasion.
  • Protoscience : new areas of scientific endeavor in the process of becoming established and sometimes used to describe a hypothesis which has not yet been tested adequately by the scientific method.
  • Pseudohistory : term for information about the past, which purports to be historic or supported by archeology, but which is judged to fall outside the domain of mainstream history.
  • Pseudophilosophy : any idea or system that masquerades itself as philosophy while significantly failing to meet some suitable intellectual standards.
  • Pseudophysics : physics-related theories or beliefs which purport to be scientific but are not supported by experiments, or are fundamentally untestable or inconsistent (often associated with claims of "free energy", physics-based explanations for spirituality or ESP, faster-than-light travel, or other fantastic phenomena contrary to established physical science)
  • Sokal Affair : famous hoax played by physicist Alan Sokal upon the editorial staff and readership of a leading journal in the academic humanities.
  • Technobabble : confusing scientific or technical language, sometimes used to confuse the uninitiated or 'explain' pseudoscience.
  • Ufology : study of Unidentified flying object (UFO) reports, sightings, and other related phenomena
  • Quackery : practice of producing medicine which may lack any commonly respected evidence of their effectiveness and are generally considered to be in the business of selling false hope to ill-informed people.


  • Erich von Däniken : controversial Swiss author who is best known for authoring works about prehistoric times.
  • Michael Shermer : science writer, founder of The Skeptics Society, and editor of its magazine Skeptic.
  • Marcello Truzzi : professor of sociology at Eastern Michigan University and director for the Center for Scientific Anomalies Research.
  • Ernest Muldashev : Russian ufologist


  • Crank (article which contains a list of theories)
  • List of alternative, speculative and disputed theories
  • List of misconceptions


  1. ^  "Pseudoscientific - pretending to be scientific, falsely represented as being scientific", from the Oxford American Dictionary, published by the Oxford English Dictionary.
  2. ^
  3. ^  pseudoscience and "A Scientific Look at Alternative Medicine"

External links

Look up pseudoscience in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
  • Bad Astronomy - discussion of cases in which incorrect astronomy and physics have been promoted by the media, such as the Apollo moon landing hoax accusations.
  • James Randi Educational Foundation - organization that investigates and attempts to verify claims that seem to contradict established science. Using controlled experimental conditions, the JREF has yet to find evidence of anything not explainable by established science.
  • The Skeptic's Dictionary - collection of essays critical of claims that are considered pseudoscientific. See also Skeptic's Dictionary.
  • Umbrellaology - this article amusingly illustrates some of the difficulties of deciding whether a subject is scientific or pseudoscientific.
  • Quackwatch - A guide to pseudoscience of a medical nature
  • - The Skeptics Society and Skeptic Magazine
  • - Associação Nacional de Combate às Pseudociências [Brazil]

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