Research Thoughts Thoughts

Why Pseudoscience is Dangerous

We’ve all seen them. Scrolling down our Facebook feeds. From the extreme “Eat cinnamon to prevent cancer”. “Grow these plants in your house to filter out toxins” to the plausible sounding but nonetheless empirically awful claims on the powers of coffee, power posing, red wine etc. etc.

There’s so much junk out there that it’s a waste of time to debunk each one personally. And there’s really no point. Whack something down and something else will just rise to take its place. In my own life, I steer well clear of garbage science. It’s not hard to do, just look up the journals that are being cited and if no journal is being cited, toss it out. You’ll be amazed at how much plausible “real science backed” stuff actually has no backing whatsoever.

Ask someone else to do it though and you often get a range of laziness fueled reactions. Most of them are at least partially fueled by the idea that “Well, even if it’s not true. There’s no harm and who knows right?” #postitanyway #filltheworldwithgarbage. Wrong. If there’s no evidence to back something up, I firmly believe that it is does real measurable harm and that people who share such nonsense are irresponsible twats. Here’s some reasons why.

  1. It makes it hard to hear actual science

Finding the real science behind anything hard. Damned hard. The more I devote my life to it, the harder it gets. The voice of real science is like a gentle soft whisper on the wind… There’s absolutely no need for folks shouting out nonsense at the top of their lungs to drown it out.

“But Science is always changing what it says!!”. Absolutely, that’s almost the definition of Science (i.e. the systematic study of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment). Emphasis on systematic, emphasis on study, emphasis on observation and experiment. Science is not defined as the truth. It’s defined as our best current understanding of the world based on current observation and experiment.

It’s kind of like deciding what the hardest thing in the universe is. You go out and grab a piece of wood. “HARDEST THING EVER”. You grab a rock and smash the wood. “HARDEST THING EVER’. You go on and on, alternating between updating your model with a new “HARDEST THING” and confirming what you have in hand is the “HARDEST THING”. You’ll never ever be absolutely sure you have the hardest thing (Gutter, mind, out). Like that first moment with the piece of wood, there could well be something harder you just haven’t tested yet. Even while you’re testing, new materials could be being made that didn’t exist when you started. The only thing you can be sure of is that, to the best of your knowledge (i.e. observation and experiment), what you currently have is the HARDEST THING.

It gets worse when we realize we live in an age where a tsunami of ideas, both sane and crazy, compete in a high-speed evolutionary arms race for our attention. Memes (in the Dawkin’s original use of the word) that have that perfect blend of eye-catching graphics (which this note does not), catchy-writing and just plausible enough content that we want to believe, constantly hone themselves by fighting off other just slightly less gripping content. Science is never going to be able to compete with flashy garbage which is allowed to say whatever it wants and is not bound by any rules. Folks give it a damned good try but alas, pop science is just that. Intellectual popcorn that over time just starts focusing on catchy dodgy science or cutting edge stuff that has a 90% chance of being debunked fairly soon (damaging public opinion of high-quality science even further with it). My 2 cents. Just accept it. I think science is awesome, but not because of big explosions or grand reality warping thingamajigs or magic beans. It’s awesome because it edges us closer towards understanding the core truths of everything. It doesn’t have to be glitzy and glamorous to be worth our time. It’s worth our time because it’s the only thing we have that gives us real hope of understanding how anything in the world works. Enough said.

  1. It makes it hard to care about actual science

Building on the first point, one of the reasons pseudoscience catches on like wildfire comes from the amazing promises they make. “Cures Cancer!” “Wipes out Alzheimer’s!” “Makes You Live Twice as Long!”. In contrast to, “May slightly reduce the risk of (highly specific subtype of a cancer) for people who meet (these criteria) given (these conditions)”, “May slow the prognosis of (specific type of Alzheimer’s) for (specific studied case group), pending 50 years of research if funding can be obtained” etc. etc. You get the picture. The hyperbole, glitz and the glamor of pseudoscience can quickly make real science so much less exciting that folks prefer the fraud. Usually with reasons like “Well it may not do all that but if it promises so much it must do something”. To which I have a firm. NO. NO. and NO. If it promises so much it’s far more likely to do nothing at all. It’s like a man trying to sell you the golden gate bridge. He’s not likely to actually have a smaller bridge that he actually owns for sale. If something promises the sun and moon and you think that because of that it might have a few sparks of star-dust, RESEARCH whether it does. If it does, great! If it doesn’t, toss it out. Assuming folks won’t completely make up stuff if there wasn’t anything behind it betrays a nativity of human nature and how the internet really works.

  1. It makes folks question actual science

Here’s where we run into an interesting philosophy of science crossroads. Some folks believe you should always see everything in the world as being uncertain and questionable, i.e. DOUBT EVERYTHING. Sometimes they’re trying to sell you magic oil, sometimes they’re genuinely honest scientists. Others, like me, believe that we should instead, to the greatest extent possible, base our worldview and lives on the best science knowledge possible, hold that as the current absolute truth yet at the same time be ready to change in a heartbeat the moment better evidence comes along. I’d love to go into more detail into why I, and many others, hold this stance but for now suffice it to say that the former view is vulnerable to loads of logical flaws and bullshit (think climate change, intellectual relativism, tobacco company shenanigans etc.).

The problem with flooding the world with garbage and putting that crap at the same intellectual level as real science is that it makes it look as though everything is nonsensical and meaningless. So you might as well do nothing and not bother learning anything. This so far from the truth that it’s painful to see people go down that route.

  1. People treat their health and lives like wet market bartering

Folks have a pretty weird (if you think about it right) tendency to approach taking care of their health like they’re trading for fish (or how I prefer to see it, haggling with death). “It’s okay if I do this bad thing because I did that good thing”, “I’ll make up for doing this by doing that”. This rarely works out for lots of reasons. (1) Assuming a zero-sum game is possible, you need to be damned sure you’ve compensated properly. This almost never happens. Few think, 2 scoops of Baskin Robbin = 40 minute (8 kph) jog! It’s usually something silly like a 30-minute walk which knocks down maybe a third of that.

Knowing that weakness, spreading fake currency around for folks becomes down right irresponsible. Guilty about all that foie gras? No problem, a glass of wine will wash those fat molecules away (it won’t), Guilt reduced! Likelihood of exercising diminished! Chance of heart attack increased! Stop it. Don’t give folks reasons not to practice things that actually have evidence behind them.

Doling out quick fixes to complicated, difficult issues gives folks an easy way out to not actually practice the less pleasant things that actually make a real difference. “Placebo effect~!” often gets happily popped out as a merry defense. “As long as I think it helps, that’s all that matters. It will help”. Nope. Not really. At least not the way you think it does. Placebos do a great job with symptoms that can actually be brain modulated like pain perception, stress, possibly insomnia, fatigue etc. To the best of my knowledge, placebos do not cure cancer, reduce cholesterol, etc. And often these pseudo-treatments cost very real cash and have very real side effects (https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/herbal-supplements-heart-health). It’s far better and safer to pursue scientifically validated methods that have a good chance of working (which are far often cheaper, usually free) and benefit from a placebo effect from those even if they don’t actually help.

What to do Instead

“But, I really want to share things that will help people”. Great! Here’s how to do it if you’re not an expert in the area. First, find something you really want to share helpful things on. Second, head to a journal database (http://www.sciencedirect.com/ is a good one) and search for what you want to share on and add the words “meta-analysis” (e.g. meta-analysis fish-oil depression, meta-analysis cinnamon cancer (really? *sigh*). The reason why focusing on meta-analyses are a good idea is that most single papers have regrettably high odds of being incorrect. It’s just the way science works. Live with it. It often takes hundreds of studies to be able to draw firm conclusions on how anything works. Meta-analyses (while imperfect in many ways in and of themselves) are the best way for laypersons like you and me (every scientist is a specialist in a very tightly defined field and should not be trusted too much outside of it) to have the best chance of saying something accurate about a field.

Now the annoying thing is that you likely won’t be able to read many of the articles in full, which would be ideal. Paywalls and area expertise often stand in the way. However, you can read the abstracts for most of the articles that pop up and that will give you a pretty decent sense of what they have to say.

To really do a good job of this. Try surveying a few meta-analyses before posting. Try limiting to recently published ones (we’ve come a long way since the 1980s) and if you can, only use the ones published in good journals (sciencedirect tends not to index garbage but I really haven’t looked too hard to find that so buyer beware).

Steer clear of pop science websites and videos. If a scientist isn’t saying it on a platform where he/she can and will be judged by his critical peers, IMHO, it’s probably no good and should not be trusted.

And if all of this sounds like too much work to do, then you really don’t care about sharing things that actually help people. You want to seem intellectual, tout something you think you know that someone else doesn’t, maybe get a little psychological boost from a bunch of likes. If that’s your goal, go for it. Just be sure you’re fine with all the damage you might cause. That one soul out there could collapse from a heart attack a little sooner than they might have if they hadn’t read the nonsense you’re about to post on detoxing and fat cleansing.

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