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Pseudoscience surplus

By Sergio Della Sala


We are besieged by misinformation on all sides. When this misinformation masquerades as science, we call it pseudoscience. The scientific tradition has methods that offer a way to get accurate evidence and decrease the chance of misinformation persisting for long. The application of these rules marks the difference between science and pseudoscience. Perhaps more importantly, accepting these rules allows us to admit what we do not yet know, and avoids the pomposity too often associated with the notion of scientific authority.

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We are easy prey for pseudoscience. We are natural believers, especially in things that we would like to be true. This belief may be fostered by trusting web surfing. We come to believe that our children can improve their scholastic performances by gulping up fishy pills or other improbable supplements. We would like to be more intelligent and show off our skills in solving puzzles, have better memory and absorb volumes of material effortlessly, and to flaunt our astuteness and acumen at parties. To reach these goals by long hours of swotting is a daunting prospect, so we jump at the idea of a quick fix and are prepared to pay for it.

Take the simplistic dichotomy between the two brain hemispheres that informs a series of training programmes. Such programmes are based on the popular assumption that our brains have a nerdy left hemisphere, which acts as a rigorous accountant, opposed to a creative, hippie half, the right hemisphere (which usually needs to be awakened).

Newsmakers fuel belief in tall tales by running uncritical stories advertising outlandish methods and ignoring their obvious flaws. So we can blame the journalists: easy target. However, when we scientists engage with the public, do we really do any better? We are now all desperate to engage the public; our institutions push us to branch out and reach out, and we get brownie points if we do so. This activity too often translates into a scientist going to the media saying “I have nothing to say, and I want to say it on TV.” It sometimes seems that it is the engagement itself that is valued, independently of what we actually say.

There is nothing wrong if you are not interested in science, but if you are then nowadays there are plenty of opportunities to indulge your curiosity. Science festivals are springing up in every city. However, the idea that simply discussing science publicly can counter misinformation is naïve. I posit that too often than it would be advisable, scientists themselves promulgate pseudoscientific thinking, so even science festivals may be counterproductive. Engaging with the public should push scientists to show the evidence and praise scientific methods. We should not abuse the position to dominate by authority.

The Royal Society‘s motto ‘Nullius in verba’ is Latin for, roughly, ‘take nobody’s word for it’. We scientists should remember this motto, not only in our labs, but also when disseminating our ideas. Yet we seem to know no better. Kary Mullis, Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, asserted in his autobiography his belief in astrology. But he is a Capricorn. I’m a Libran, and Librans do not believe in astrology.

 Sergio Della Sala is Professor of Human Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Edinburgh, and co-editor of Neuroscience in Education: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.

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Image credit: Cod liver oil capsules. Photo by Adrian Wold. CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.

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