Category: Science

How to Spot Pseudoscience

Written by Debra Alper

The term “pseudoscience” refers to practices that appear to be medically or scientifically related, but actually lack a basis in evidence. In other words – non-scientific products or theories dressed up as science. Indeed, our screens and news feeds are cluttered with countless products and interventions, vying for our attention with endorsements such as “doctor supported,” “scientific secrets,” and my personal favorite, “mom approved.”

Fortunately for the attuned consumer, there are several tell tale ways to determine whether what you are viewing is actually rooted in science, or simply masquerading as such. Here are a few questions to ask before committing to, or aligning yourself with, any product or claim:

  1. What is the source of the information?  Is the individual making the claims someone with expertise in the area he or she is operating? If so, what is the source of his expertise? It’s important to look for reputable or degrees and institutions that stand behind the individual or intervention.
  2. Does the individual or institution behind the product or program have an agenda? If so, what is it? This question, like all our others, should be asked of all published claims. In a scientific paper, it is standard practice that all sources of funding for the research are disclosed. Therefore when reading a non-scientific source, one must be especially cautious. What does the person or institution making the claim gain from doing so? Are they trying to sell you a product, or convince you that something is wrong with you so that you will purchase their solution?
  3. Do their claims strike you as extraordinary? If they do, are they supported by extraordinary evidence? Here, the “if it seems too good to be true…” principle applies. Amazing findings are certainly made, but in order for them to be credible, they must be backed up by consistent evidence garnered from systematic research. Only then are they worth your time and money.
  4. Do the claims rely heavily on anecdotal evidence, or testimonials? Products and claims that have been adequately studied and validated are able to cite verified evidence. Such evidence-based interventions go through a scientific process, including peer reviewed research that is published in academic or scientific journals. When a party relies only on statements such as “Terry, a dad of three boys, found that…” it’s a pretty good sign that more empirical evidence simply isn’t there.
  5. Can the claims that are being made be tested? Watch out for words like “proprietary” or “secret.” If an individual or institution is unwilling to submit their intervention to scientific critique or clinical review, it’s a red flag that they themselves are not confident it can pass muster. Watch out as well for vague claims that are impossible to disprove, such as “guaranteed to improve your life”. If it can’t be tested, it shouldn’t be called science.

Keep your eyes open, fellow consumers. With an informed mind and a discerning eye, you too can be a guardian of science!

Ignorance is Not Bliss

Written by Molly Swanberg

If you are someone who watches the news regularly you will notice that there has been a lot of media chatter recently about the field of mental health. Usually it is something along the lines of “why do people get depressed?” or most recently in the wake of Robin Williams’ death sentiments such as “how could someone so loved take their own life?” People are paying attention to mental health because the consequences of ignoring it are becoming more and more damaging.

Something that is very apparent to professionals in the field is how little the average person seems to know about the signs and symptoms of mental illness. Without basic information on the subject how can people be expected to know the difference between “getting the blues” and major depression, or the difference between panic attacks and heart attacks, for that matter? Our ignorance sometimes has severe consequences: As a society, we are clearly missing major behavioral warning signs when teens go on to kill their classmates with automatic weapons. Why are these individuals not being noticed and cared for before it is too late? Why aren’t we identifying the risks when teenagers isolate in their rooms for hours at a time Googling ways to end their lives or the lives of others and drawing up detailed plans for disaster? Perhaps the biggest reason is that we are ignorant – everything makes sense in hindsight, but on a day-to-day basis we don’t know what to look for.

To make matters worse, when people do turn to mental health they tend to look for answers to large and very complex questions such as “why do mental health problems exist?” Or even “how and when we can fix the mental health problems in our society?” Suffice it to say, broaching the macro-level questions of mental health is an enormous task. It is my opinion that it will take a lot more than every psychologist, psychiatrist, social worker, or any other clinician in the field to tackle such issues! Instead, perhaps we should go back to basics. Perhaps we can provide basic education about common psychiatric problems, warning signs, and simple interventions that we know are effective (e.g., having a steady bedtime and exercise routine are key to preventing depression). Perhaps basic information about mental health could be distributed to parents and teachers – the first responders during the most developmentally important years of a person’s life. Shouldn’t anyone with the responsibility of raising or caring for a child have at least have basic knowledge of the signs and symptoms of mental health issues and how to respond to them? In New York City our subways are flooded with signs and messages that say: “If you see something, say something.” Of course they are referring to identifying suspicious packages or reporting terrorist behavior, however, why shouldn’t the same protocol be applied to all behavioral warning signs? If we can educate people about the basics of what to watch out for, then perhaps we can start to prevent some of these “worst case scenarios”