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How are you feeling, science?

By Zachary Araki
On January 16, 2018

While some of us may feel lethargic around the holidays, the internet, media and the public are bloated with junk pseudoscience year-round. Start the year right by putting things in perspective.

Rampant pseudoscience is not just a harmless breeze rushing by us and rankling stuffy chemistry nerds like me. It is dangerous deception. It lies in the conversion therapy that traumatized so many people. It lies in the homeopathy and naturopathy preying on vulnerable people diagnosed with an illness and saying that medicine cannot or will not cure them. It lies in telling cancer patients that the scientific community is conspiring against everyone by hiding a cancer cure, so they might as well forego treatment and try stones, faith, dilute poison, or anything else. It provides false hope while taking away people’s money and time, but hey, at least they do so with a nice smile, right? Last year, the Food and Drug Administration recalled Hyland’s homeopathic teething products after they were linked to the deaths of 10 children.

The evidence for pseudoscience around us can be seen in climate change deniers, anti-vaxxers, nature- and homeopathy, flat earth theorists, Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop website, “Big Pharma,” the belief that Megalodon still exists, crystal healing, the GMO debate, the claim that radio frequency identification chips were secretly implanted in humans, and the call not to sanitize water for fear that the government is putting nasty chemicals in it to control and poison us among others.

The above are easier to spot fallacies. Some pseudoscience manages to slip past what we consider to be tough barriers. They sound science like. They use science-y language. Essential oils, alkaline water and quantum mysticism are all unsupported by scientific evidence.

Science is our basis for understanding the world, and as such, it is our basis for decision-making. Without proper information, we cannot make proper decisions.

Are there issues in science? Yes, and many things are not quite certain. We continue to learn. We continue to redefine. Scientific progress, however, should not be confused with scientific absence. The absence of a definite explanation does not necessitate someone filling in the gap with nonsense. Every area is prone to criticism.

Even when people do not deny science as with global warming, they often accept scientific myths. Although pseudoscience may sound good and reasonable, it lacks evidence and is, at best, misleading. It could be based on a single study, and that study could prove unreliable. Anyone in science should tell you that an individual study or experiment does not science make. Although the common cold and the flu are viral, people still ask for antibiotics. Lightning doesn’t care if you think it cannot strike the same place twice. You can do fifty push-ups every morning for 21 days, and there is no guarantee it will be a habit. Attempts to replicate the study about the “power pose” or “superman pose” show little evidence that the trick actually works to boost confidence and performance level. Violent crime has seen a general decline in the US since the ’90s, even if people feel it is worse than ever. The belief that a fake smile will eventually make you feel better or happier is debated. Man-made chemicals are not inherently dangerous, though they can be. Many natural chemicals are more dangerous to humans and other animals. Have you ever tried eating Atropa belladonna? Hint, don’t. I don’t recommend feeding your dog chocolate, but its danger depends on dog breed, size, and type of chocolate. Grapes pose more of a threat.

It is easy to see why myths spread and stick. They are simple, memorable, did-you-know factoids that we can whip out in a conversation to appear smart and scientific. The likelihood that the other person will fact check you on the spot is slim. Science, however, is not the memorization of facts. Science is the careful, skeptical, slow search for truth in a quagmire of falsities.

For those unfamiliar with how research is conducted, it is not brilliant discovery after brilliant discovery, genius whimsies bouncing off the walls at high speeds. It is full of dead ends and tedious work. It is coming at the same problem every day from the same or different angles, trying to make everything perfect. It’s less like Tom Cruise in a laboratory and more like a cat with a laser pointer, except exponentially less adorable. At the end, you might only come out of it, frazzled and exhausted, with a “the problem is more complicated than first anticipated.” If you keep at it, you might find something that absolutely does not work. If you work at it ceaselessly, you could add a speck-sized piece to our understanding of the world and talk about it obsessively until everyone shuns you.

The problem, however, is not that people think pseudoscience is good. Pull a person from the street and ask if pseudoscience is good. I doubt the answer will be positive. The problem lies with identification.

The solution is not quite as clear cut or comforting as telling people to do their own research. Confirmation bias mean they will take in what affirms what they wish to be true and ignore contradictory evidence regardless of scientific standing. Misinterpreting that data can lead to people doing harmful things to themselves or family members in well-intentioned attempts to solve the problem. Even if not harmful, they may still waste money that could be better used on savings, bills, food or housing.

Data can be difficult to interpret. Things like quantum mechanics are full of technical jargon that run counter to intuition. When someone spouts technical babble with confidence, we’re prone to believe them because, heck, we don’t know any better and don’t want to appear stupid. It sounds elitist and derogatory to the human public, I know, but people cannot be trusted to do their own research. People can, however, exercise caution. I implore you to question everything, be skeptical and follow valid evidence. Making appropriate decisions necessitates becoming an informed, scientifically literate public. I have a few tips for discerning science from pseudoscience.

Natural does not mean safe. Correlation is not causation. Citing problems with A does not mean B must be true. Anecdotes must bow to statistical analysis. Science must be falsifiable and testable. Science relies on empirical evidence and models, not conjecture and pretty speculation.

You should question everything. Science revolves around questioning life and the world around us. This is different, however, from denying a flood of evidence. Asserting without sufficient, reliable evidence that all pharmaceuticals are evil gadgets designed to sicken the population is not the same as questioning whether we should scale back on the use of pharmaceuticals. Yes, evidence shows that in the face of an addiction epidemic and drug-resistant “superbugs” antibiotic and opioid prescriptions should be restrained. Does that mean we stop altogether prescribing antibiotics when they can and do save lives from bacterial diseases? Should physicians deny pain relievers to a patient in agony? These are questions that do not violate science. Whether or not vaccines weaken the immune system does. For those wondering, the answer is no.

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