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The jury’s still out on science, with Wikipedia’s look at pseudoscience

Wiki WormholeWe explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,664,405-week series, Wiki Wormhole.

This week’s entry: Pseudoscience

What it’s about: Vaccines causing autism; the Pentagon being hit by a missile; Taylor Kitsch’s viability as a Hollywood leading man—people believe a lot of crazy shit there’s no real evidence for. Some of these unsubstantiated yet unshakeable beliefs gain enough traction that elaborate defenses spring up around them. While these defenses are invariably flawed—either not holding up to scrutiny, or making claims that are unprovable—they’re enough to give faithful adherents something to cling to. For having the appearance of logical reasoning behind them (as opposed to, say, “This is the New York Jets’ year!”), these beliefs—and there’s a long list of them—are categorized as “pseudoscience.”


Strangest fact: The line between real science and pseudo is blurrier than you’d think. As the scientific method is a process of trial and error, some fields of pseudoscience are merely dead ends of inquiry. The ancient pseudoscience of alchemy led more or less directly to the actual scientific field of chemistry, as those who failed to transmute one substance to another did at least manage to learn something about the properties of the materials they were working with. Even obviously (to modern eyes) unscientific topics like astrology or phrenology were borne out of the same impulse to explain the workings of the universe that drives scientific inquiry.

Biggest controversy: It’s actually harder than you think to draw a line between science and pseudoscience. Any good scientist knows a theory is only true until something comes along to disprove it. Even widely accepted ideas like Newtonian physics are revised over time as our scientific knowledge increases. In the end, the difference may simply by intent: A scientist aims to seek the truth, even if what they find disagrees with what they previously thought (or hoped) was true. Pseudoscience tends to focus on self-reinforcing events (the time the fortune teller predicted your future), and hand-wave away contradictory events (all the times the fortune teller was wrong but still charged you $50).

The supposed “face on Mars” (top)

Thing we were happiest to learn: Pseudoscience has gotten a shot in the arm recently—perversely, through advanced technology. Your Facebook feed has no doubt been flooded by grainy photos from the Mars rover, supposedly showing humanoid statues carved into rock that “prove” the one-time existence of intelligent life on the planet. This isn’t a new phenomenon, as the 1976 Viking 1 orbiter returned photos of a supposed “face on Mars” which later, higher-quality photos showed was just a rock with two depressions in it.


Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Belief in pseudoscience is probably as widespread as it is because of scientific illiteracy. Without understanding concepts like scientific rigor, or testing hypotheses, people are far less likely to examine their beliefs, and far more likely to only accept conclusions that reinforce what they already think is true. There’s often a gratification in statements that confirm our suspicions (“This washed-up actress agrees with me about vaccines!”), and negative feelings in ones that contradict them (“If climate change is real, than my habit of leaving both my SUVs running overnight to scare away raccoons might make me partly responsible!”). Those emotional responses can very easily override any concern for the facts.

Trofim Lysenko, who missed out on a lucrative career playing the villain in every movie ever made.

Also noteworthy: Lysenkoism—named for Trofim Lysenko, who first proposed it—was alternate theory of genetics, which stated (roughly) that traits created by external stimuli could be passed down. For example, he believed plants exposed to low temperatures would produce seeds that would grow more easily in the cold. His theories had a big supporter in Joseph Stalin, who actually banned Mendelian genetics and attempted to use Lysenko’s theories when establishing collective farms, although they were quickly abandoned when crop yields failed to materialize.

Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: The list of topics characterized as pseudoscience has no end of crazy theories, including perpetual motion, flat Earth, hollow Earth, antigravity, brainwashing, hypnosis, feng shui, colon cleansing, ear candling, faith healing, ESP, clairvoyance, spirit photography, telekinetic movement, full trance mediums, the Loch Ness Monster, and the theory of Atlantis.


Further down the wormhole: Pseudoscience is often characterized by what scientists call “the Woozle effect.” A Woozle involves publications offering proof by simply citing other publications, who in turn cited other publications, with none of the citations actually leading back to hard facts. (This often happens in journalism as well. Negativland once canceled a tour because a Minnesota teen who murdered his family was inspired by one of Negativland’s songs. The connection was breathlessly reported by the media, until it was discovered the killer in all likelihood had never heard of the band, and the only source on the story was a press release by Negativland itself.) It’s named for a chapter in A.A. Milne’s Winnie-The-Pooh, in which Pooh and Piglet follow the tracks of a Woozle, which turn out to be their own footprints. Pooh and Piglet are part of a long tradition of literature featuring anthropomorphic characters, and among the best-loved of that genre. Among the least-loved are the oft-misspelled Berenstain Bears, who we’ll visit next week.

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