Pseudoscience: A Cultural Pathogen

by Bruce G. Stewart

General Objectives and Study Guide

Your objectives for these Notes on the Web and associated readings and exercises are:

  • To define and understand the meaning of the term „pseudoscience“;
  • To describe and explain illogical, biased and/or naive rationales for holding pseudoscientific beliefs;
  • To appraise biased and/or naive rationales for ignoring evidence of such things as the damaging effects of smoking, drug abuse, poor diet, poor exercise patterns, and any other known damaging behavior;
  • To discover and use the internet site of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry;
  • To combine, integrate, and express scientific knowledge ion a synthesis essay about why a particular pseudoscience is not science;
  • To discover and use reliable Internet resources that expose quackery, scams, and hoaxes.

What Is Pseudoscience?

Any belief that does not meet the criteria and characteristics of science is simply not science. Beliefs that are claimed to be science but which do not meet the criteria of science are called pseudosciences (= false sciences). Examples of pseudosciences include astrology, iridology, water witching (= dowsing), „scientific creationism“, cryptozoology, palm reading, crystal healing, pyramid healing, spirit rapping, extra-sensory perception (ESP), and a host of others too numerous to list here. Many pseudosciences find some „believers“ even in otherwise science-based disciplines.  This is especially true in „alternative medicines“ and „alternative health“ treatments.  Check out this link on the so-called „therapeutic touch“ treatment which claims to have health benefits by modifying imaginary energy fields: Therapeutic Touch.

Do you know what each of these particular pseudosciences is? Iridology, for example, is the belief that one can map characteristics of the iris of the human eye and then make medical diagnoses based on the iris’ characteristics. There is no scientific evidence to back up this assertion. Does this sound wild? Well, note photograph in Fig. 2 of an „iridology clinic“ that exists in southeastern Oklahoma!

Astrology is familiar to most people. It is the belief that our personality and future is largely predestined and strongly affected by the positions of stars, planets, sun and other heavenly bodies. Water witching (or dowsing) is the belief that hidden water can be found by using sticks or wires which magically are attracted to them when held by a „dowser“. „Scientific creationism“ is the belief that there is scientific evidence that supports one particular literal interpretation of the Book of Genesis of the Bible. Cryptozoology is defined by its promoters as the „scientific study of hidden animals.“   (http://www.cryptozoology.com REMEMBER this is a pseudoscientific site!)  Palm reading is the belief that features of the palm and hand can be used to predict your future. Crystal healing is the belief that crystals possess some mysterious capacity to direct life healing energy to humans with illnesses. Pyramid healing is like crystal healing, but it is the pyramid that is said to direct life-healing energy to the recipient. Spirit rapping is the belief that spirits can communicate to the living by coded raps. ESP is the belief in brain to brain communication through mysterious mental messages that are transmitted through space. The fact is that none of these beliefs are accepted as having a scientific basis.

In and of themselves, beliefs such as these are not pseudosciences. It is when the ‘believer’ claims that there is scientific evidence to back up these beliefs that they enter the realm of pseudoscience. How many people truly believe these pseudosciences? The answer is that a disturbing percentage of people in our supposedly scientific and technological culture believe that such pseudosciences are true! Many studies show this to be a characteristic of our culture. Science education journals such as the Journal of Geological Education, Creation/Evolution (published by the National Center for Science Education), and The Skeptical Inquirer (published by the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry) periodically publish papers that address this problem. Gallop Polls have shown that the general public is incredibly scientifically illiterate.

If you believe that someone really has paranormal powers, such as the ability to „water witch“ then why not get them to collect a $1,000,000 prize for demonstrating their abilities?  That is right!  The James Randi Foundation has a one million dollar „paranormal challenge“ that would award $1,000,000 to any person who can demonstrate paranormal powers under acceptable, controlled scientific conditions. 

Pseudoscientific Beliefs in Oklahoma

Evidence supports the view that pseudoscientific beliefs are disturbingly common in southern Oklahoma. Let me back up my claim with some survey data. Tracey Eddy, Angela Eddy, and I conducted a study of beliefs of MSC freshman and sophomores and of area high school seniors in the ten-county service area of our college. We prepared a questionnaire that included 47 previously published statements covering a variety of pseudoscientific beliefs. Questionnaires were sent to 50 randomly selected MSC freshmen and 50 MSC sophomores. Questionnaires were also sent to 30 randomly selected area high schools that were asked to administer the questionnaire to a senior English class. Response rates were 42% for MSC freshmen, 50% for MSC sophomores, and 40% for area high schools. There were 21, 25, and 274 total student responses, respectively. The respondents indicated one of five categories for each statement ranging from strong agreement to strong disagreement.

Some highlights of the high school results go as follows:

  • 47 % believed in psychic phenomena,
  • 43% believed that dinosaurs and humans lived at the same time,
  • 66% believed that the devil actually possesses people,
  • 55% believed that the literal account of creation in the Bible has a valid scientific foundation,
  • 43% believed that mysterious levitation by mental forces can be done, and
  • 46% believed that ESP exists.

Overall percentages of scientific responses increased with education with 35% for high school students, 42% for freshmen, and 43% for sophomores; however, levels of pseudoscientific responses were consistently high at 34%, 35%, and 34%, respectively. Only the college sophomores had a statistically significant higher scientific than pseudoscientific response rate, but even in this group the percentage of pseudoscientific response remained high as noted above.

Why do People Hold to Pseudoscientific Beliefs?

Our study was consistent with other local, regional, and national surveys. Clearly, scientific literacy is in question. Why? Some have suggested that students in small rural schools have poorer educational opportunities compared to students in larger school systems. Perhaps the high science illiteracy rates were due to the representation of small schools in our sample. However, we compared small school to large school results and found no statistically significant differences based on school size. In fact, the actual percentage of pseudoscientific answers was slightly higher in the large school sample!

Religious background was another possible factor that we suspected could lead to bias in students’ responses. Southern Oklahoma is dominated by conservative Protestant religions and is located in a region of the United States commonly called the „Bible Belt.“ To explore the possibility that answers were influence by this well-known religious belief system, we selected questions for analysis that were likely to be answered with a bias by someone with a conservative Protestant background. What we found supported the religious bias hypothesis. There was a strong pattern that showed significant bias toward answers consistent with conservative Protestant beliefs. For example, students did not believe such pseudosciences as crystal healing and pyramid healing which are not consistent with Protestant religions. On the other hand, students believed strongly in pseudosciences such as demonic possession and scientific creationism that are consistent with many Protestant religions.

I suspect that high levels of pseudoscientific beliefs are likely due to three primary factors: A) lack of critical thinking skills, B) lack of thorough science backgrounds, and C) bias due to religious and other traditional teachings that students due not realize are in the domain of faith, not science.

There is a saying that if you don’t stand for something you will fall for anything. In science education, I would modify this to the following: If you don’t have scientific knowledge, you will belief anything. My hope is that my students will come to realize the importance of good knowledge so that they can make informed decisions about what they believe.

The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and the Journal, The Skeptical Inquirer

A vast number of professional scientific societies and science education societies address a plethora of issues relating to the nature, fallicies, and dangers of pseudoscience. Several of these will be presented in other units of our course, particularly with respect to the pseudoscientific nature of the confoundingly named „scientific creationism“ and its close cousin, „intelligent design.“ For now, however, you are asked to become familiar with one very pertinent society (The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry) and its official journal (The Skeptical Inquirer).

The following is quoted from this nonprofit scientific and educational society’s statement of objectives and purposes. This may be found in issues of The Skeptical Inquirer in the Murray State College Library.

CSI encourages the critical investigation of paranormal and fringe-science claims from a responsible, scientific point of view and disseminates factual information about the results of such inquiries to the scientific community and the public.

It also promotes science and scientific inquiry, critical thinking, an appreciation of science education, and the use of reason in examining important issues. To carry these objectives the Committee:

  • Maintains a network of people interested in critically examining paranormal, fringe science, and other claims, and in contributing to consumer education.
  • Prepares bibliographies of published materials that carefully examine such claims.
  • Encourages research by objective and impartial inquiry in areas where it is needed.
  • Convenes conferences and meetings.
  • Publishes articles that examine claims of the paranormal.
  • Does not reject claims on a priori grounds, antecedent to inquiry, but examines them objectively and carefully.

By the time you complete our study of Unit One, you should be able to explain the objectives of CSI in terms of their relationship to science and logical thinking.

A Partial List of Books with Scientific Perspectives on Pseudosciences
Murray State College Library Collection.

The following is a partial list of some Murray State College Library resources. These are available on a first come, first serve basis under the procedures of the library. Remember that libraries share resources through interlibrary loans. If you are not able to travel to the Tishomingo campus of MSC, check with your local library about requesting these books through interlibrary loan. You can also obtain a wide range of other publications through this method from libraries around the State of Oklahoma!

Barrett, Stephen and William T. Jarvis. 1993. Health robbers: a close look at quakery in America. Prometheus Books, Buffalo, New York. pp. 526. ISBN 0-87975-855-4.

Frazier, Kendrick. 1997. UFO Invasion: The Roswell Incident. Prometheus Books, Buffalo, New York, 314. pp. ISBN 1-5739-213-19.

Gardner, Martin. 1989. Science: Good, Bad and Bogus. Prometheus Books, Buffalo, New York. pp. 412. ISBN 0-87975-573-3.

Keene, Lamar and Allen Spraggett, Ray Hyman, William V. Rauscher . 1976. The Psychic Mafia. Prometheus Books, Amherst, New York. pp.177. ISBN 1-57392-161-0.

Kusche, Larry. 1986. The Bermuda Triangle Mystery Solved. Prometheus Books, Amherst, New York. pp. 302. ISBN 0-87975-971-2.

Patten, Bernard. 2004. Truth, Knowledge, or Just Plain Bull: How to Tell the Difference. Prometheus Books, Amherst, New York. pp. 363. ISBN 1-59102-246-0

Polidoro, Massimo. 2003. Secrets of the Psychics: Investigating Paranormal Claims. Prometheus Books, Amherst, New York. pp. 301. ISBN 1-59102-086-7.

Randi, James. 1993. The Mask of Nostradamus: The Prophecies of the World’s Most Famous Seer. Prometheus Books, Amherst, New York. pp. 256. ISBN 0-87975-830-9.

Sampson, Wallace and Lewis Vaughn. 2000. Science Meets Alternative Medicine: What the Evidence Says about Unconventional Treatments. Prometheus Books, Amherst, New York. pp. 246. ISBN 1-57392-803-8.

Schnabel, Jim. 1993. Round in circles: Physicists, Poltergeist, Pranksters and the Secret History of the Cropwatchers. Prometheus Books, Amherst, New York. pp. 293. ISBN 1-59102-110-3.

Spellman, Frank R. and Joni Price-Bayer. 2011. In Defense of Science: Why Scientific Literacy Matters. Government Institutes, Lanham, Maryland. pp. 205. ISBN 987-1-60590-710-9.

Tiffin, Lee. 1994. Creationism’s Upside-Down Pyramid: How Science Refutes Fundamentalism. Prometheus Books, Amherst, New York. pp. 229. ISBN 0-87975-898-8.

Author

1999, 2005, 2007, 2011 Bruce G. Stewart

Professor of Biological Sciences
Certified Wildlife Biologist (TWS)
Advisor for Wildlife Conservation & Pre-profession Science Majors
and Chair of the Department of Science and Mathematics

Department of Science and Mathematics
Murray State College
1 Murray Campus Street
Tishomingo, Oklahoma 73460

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