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:
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!