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What is pseudoscience?

To answer the question what is pseudoscience it is easiest to address the question “what is science?”. We discussed what science is in this previous blog and this lecture on mysportscience academy: Myths in sports nutrition and we defined science as a process with the aim of getting closer to the truth.


The scientific method

Science relies on (and insists on) continuous self-questioning, testing and analytical thinking that make it very difficult to fool yourself or to avoid facing facts. Science follows a very transparent process: the first step is obtaining background information and making observations of the phenomenon we want to study. We then form a hypothesis that can be tested, we carefully design an experiment that tests the hypothesis, we then meticulously conduct the experiment and analyse the results. We interpret the findings. These findings may not support the hypothesis, in which case it is rejected. Then the whole process starts again. When you cannot reject your hypothesis, it is likely that we are a little closer to the truth. But before we can communicate this message as a “fact” there is a lot more that needs to happen. First we need to go through a process of peer review. Our fellow scientists get a chance to poke holes in our methods, in the way we conducted the study, the way we analysed the results and the way we interpreted it. Even after a paper is published there is still opportunity for scientists to scrutinize the studies. This is all part of a pretty rigorous process. The process is stringent but not flawless. Some publications slip through the net and get published even though the methods are far from perfect. Even when a paper is published the findings are not a “fact”, but we will slowly move closer to becoming a “fact” as more studies confirm the results.


Pseudoscience is almost the opposite of science, even though it dresses up in science’s clothes. But underneath those clothes, everything is very different from science. In this infographic some of the key differences between science and pseudoscience are listed.


Infographic of science v. pseudoscience

Pseudoscience is the opposite of science

Pseudoscience, on the other hand, has no process at all. In fact, pseudoscience tries to prevent a rigorous process at all cost. It preserves the ancient, natural, inborn, irrational, unobjective modes of thought that have persisted for hundreds of thousands of years. These are the thought processes that have given rise to superstitions and other fanciful and mistaken ideas about humans and the world around us. Examples of this are voodoo, the flat earth, or a house-shaped universe where God sits in the attic, Satan in the cellar and man on the ground floor; from doing rain dances to torturing and brutalizing the mentally ill to drive out the demons that possess them. All the way to more modern therapies like homeopathy, reiki, and cupping which rely on superstition and belief in magic. Pseudoscience encourages people to believe anything they want. It supplies inaccurate or erroneous "arguments" for fooling yourself into thinking that any and all beliefs are equally valid. Science begins by saying, let's forget about what we “believe”, and try by investigation to find out what actually is so. These roads don't cross; they lead in completely opposite directions.


Pseudoscience is everywhere

Pseudoscience is spreading rapidly like a plague. It multiplies and spreads much more rapidly than science, because conducting good science takes time and resources. It takes time and money to collect data, conduct experiments, analyse them, have them reviewed, and then published. You need multiple experiments to show that findings are not “accidental” and something will not be accepted as a scientific “theory” until the evidence are overwhelming (e.g., the Theory of Evolution). In the time it takes to conduct good research, many fake experiments can be conducted, or even faster: theories and opinions can be put forward and sold as science and communicated to the masses as “science” without any evidence. Social media plays a crucial role in this and makes it extremely easy for messages to be distributed rapidly to large numbers of people. In fact, “fake news” on social media spreads further and deeper than “the truth” in all categories of information (1).


Pseudoscience in social media

The vast majority of information on social media is not science based and even if it is science based it is often a half truth, wrongly interpreted or at least incomplete information. It is impossible to add enough detail in messages that are restricted to 280 characters (e.g., on Twitter) and messages lose their context easily. It is also difficult to check the credentials of people posting them. So often the views expressed on the internet and in particular social media are the views of the ones who shout the loudest, not necessarily the ones that have the most knowledge of the subject area. A study from Brazil showed that fitness influencers on Instagram tended to share unsupported, low-quality advice, and that those with the most followers tended to have the least credentials (2). Practitioners, professionals, educated, rational people see pseudoscience as too nonsensical and preposterous to be dangerous. It is often treated as a source of amusement rather than fear. Unfortunately, this is not a wise attitude. Pseudoscience can be extremely dangerous (3).


Although pseudoscience is often treated as a source of amusement, pseudoscience can be extremely dangerous

For any practitioner, coach or athlete and in fact probably for everyone, it is an important skill to be able to distinguish pseudoscience from science. In order to do this, we have to understand better what science is and how science is conducted and presented. If you search the internet for sports nutrition information, it becomes immediately obvious that there is a wide range of information available, often with conflicting information and advice. You will find articles about how slow proteins improve protein synthesis and you will find articles about how fast proteins are superior. You will find information about low carbohydrate and high carbohydrate diets. Each of those diets will have proponents and claim that theirs is best. This gives the impression that the field of sports nutrition is complex and confusing and scientists cannot make up their minds. This is far from the truth. The area is not that complex, there is consensus about most of the main principles, and the vast majority of the details. And in other areas there is healthy debate as part of the scientific process and it is probably too early to draw conclusions and give advice. But it all starts with the very important skills of critical thinking and critical reading, as we outlined in a free eBook on critical reading. Critical is a positive word here, not a negative! You interact with the information you are given, you question it, and decide how useful it is.


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References

  1. Vosoughi S, Roy D, Aral S. The spread of true and false news online. Science. 2018 Mar 9;359(6380):1146-1151. doi: 10.1126/science.aap9559.

  2. Marocolo M, Meireles A, de Souza HLR, Mota GR, Oranchuk DJ, Arriel RA, Leite LHR. Is Social Media Spreading Misinformation on Exercise and Health in Brazil? Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2021 Nov 13;18(22):11914. doi: 10.3390/ijerph182211914.

  3. Tiller NB, Sullivan JP, Ekkekakis P. Baseless Claims and Pseudoscience in Health and Wellness: A Call to Action for the Sports, Exercise, and Nutrition-Science Community. Sports Med. 2023 Jan;53(1):1-5. doi: 10.1007/s40279-022-01702-2. Epub 2022 Jun 10. P.

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