Picking apart popular pseudoscience

Molecular biologist Ollie Burton examines and refutes the pseudoscience practices that grind his gears as a scientist

9th March 2016

Fewer things get me wound up faster or more tightly than people trying to pass off unscientific garbage as the real deal. One of the things that will, however, is when such shills knowingly do this at the risk of the wellbeing of another human. When this happens, we have a much more serious problem. I tend to be quite unapologetic when it comes to dealing with pseudoscience, and it pervades our culture to a point that sincerely has me worried.

But how exactly would one characterise a pseudoscientific belief? In this case it’s probably best to define what we mean by science – knowledge based on rigorous testing and strictly empirical research. Those who practice pseudosciences however are usually unwilling to submit to scrutiny by other researchers in their field, and tend to rely heavily on distortion of experimental results and confirmation biases.

"there’s something satisfying about watching people flounder, and this is a sure-fire way to observe a charlatan in their natural habitat"

Obviously on the individual level it makes little difference if someone thinks they can read palms, for example. But large-scale groupthink and mass delusions can have very real sociological and economic impacts.

First and foremost – the so-called ‘antivaxxers’. I find them particularly aggravating, because whilst I respect the bodily autonomy of each and every individual out there, often they have children who might suffer because of their ignorance of demonstrable science. Herd immunity requires that the vast bulk of the group be vaccinated, and of course some individuals cannot have the appropriate inoculations for medical reasons. However, we can protect such vulnerable people by ensuring the rest of us aren’t walking polio conduits. No links to autism, no illuminati-style conspiracy to make us all drug-dependent, so remove your tinfoil hats at your own leisure.

How about a more celestial pile of sparkly nonsense? That’s right – astrology. It boggles the mind to think that the location of distant heavenly bodies could have any impact on your life choices or personality, and with good reason. Next time someone offers to give you an astrological prediction, ask them about the mechanism by which this is supposed to work. There’s something grimly satisfying about watching people flounder, and this is a sure-fire way to observe a charlatan in their natural habitat, and poke them with a sceptical stick while you’re at it.

But perhaps the group that succeeds in getting my proverbial goat with disturbing regularity is the homeopath community. No matter how many double-blind controlled trials we perform, no matter how many times they fail to give a scientifically plausible means of action for the products, their positively absurd system survives.

"no illuminati-style conspiracy to make us all drug-dependent, so remove your tinfoil hat at your own leisure”

Dissolve an infinitesimally small quantity of an active chemical ingredient into a relatively enormous quantity of water many times over. This is a on a scale of two orders of magnitude per division, so a so-called ‘1C’ dilution contains 1 part ingredient per 100 parts water, or a 1:100 ratio. The creator of the scale and founder of homeopathy, Joseph Hahnemann used to advocate for 30C dilutions of a given chemical agent. To give some sense of dilution scale, about 12C is where you will reach Avogadro’s limit, beyond which it is unlikely that even a single molecule of the original ingredient remains.

But of course, homeopathy is still available in some NHS hospitals, funded by the taxpayer no less, with absolutely zero evidence that it does anything beyond placebo. My gears are sufficiently ground, and I can only pray that education improves to the point where this is no longer the case.

To quote the great magician and sceptic James Randi – ‘If you open your mind too much, your brain will fall out.’

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