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Flood of Pseudo-science in the Age of Information

An elderly relative of mine recuperating from an operation once inquired of me on the efficacies of a silver mattress purported to be the grand product of a Nano Technology research, handing me a full-page color ad in a major newspaper. Having been asked about these "so called" science- or technology-related matters on more occasions than I would like to care for, I have concocted an answer that would end the subject matter with the shortest round of follow up questions and/or the more acrid rebuttals. The prepared answer was that since I was not an expert on the matter at hand, which in her case was Nano Technology and medicine, in which I was even less of an expert, she should consult a specialist, who in her case would be her doctor. While this charade of ignorance or an occasional mildest apprehension of the product is being offered, I am time and again flabbergasted at another flagrant misrepresentation or a blatant lie of scientific or technological facts, another "pseudo-science" at work. And more so at the fact that so many otherwise competent people are so much science-impaired as to the point of being gullible to the wildest assertions, assertions that couldn't stand a chance again the slightest assault of scientific scrutiny.

A pseudo-science (the word pseudo meaning fake), to quote an expert on the subject, is "an established body of knowledge, which masquerades as science in an attempt to claim a legitimacy that it would not otherwise be able to achieve on its own terms and is also known as fringe- or alternative science". To put it in simpler terms, it is a set of ideas based on theories put forth as "Scientific" when they are "Not Scientific". I am not and have absolutely no intention of delving into the realms of science versus religion, a serious matter on which I can truly confess that I am no expert on. Let us just leave that science stops at the doorsteps of the Why's, whereas religion at the How's. At least I hope they will not try to sneak past the doorsteps. Getting back to the main topic, a proper science requires the following four steps, preferably in the order given: A series of objective observations, a hypothesis explaining the observations, a deductive reasoning leading to predictions and finally a controlled experiment to test the predictions. At every step of the aforementioned sequence, certain amounts of imagination and guesswork may come into play and even the most talented and the most honest of scientists can incorrectly interpret what he or she sees. However, unlike pseudo-science, with legitimate science these oversights are corrected by the original researcher or by their peers. Pseudo-science usually lacks or at best tries to circumvent the last two steps and is reluctant to be submitted to peer-reviews.

Categories and examples of pseudo-science that may be more familiar to the public are; astrology, psychic phenomena such as ESP, some methods of alternative medicine, and various forms of the so-called New Age things such as crystals and pyramids. Although many can be regarded as benign and even provide us with a passing amusement, as is the case with to-jeong-bi-gyul, others are not so benign ranging from a mere monetary loss, as with the Nano Technology silver mattress of my relative, to those verging on the life-threatening, as may be the case with some of alternative medicines. In this age of information and technology, pseudo-science is running rampant and the general public is exposed to an endless barrage of misinformation disguised as legitimate science. When confronted with deciding whether something is a pseudo-science or not, the following guidelines may be helpful.
- Always ask for evidence in favor of, and not disapproval of, the claim.
- The more outlandish the claim, the more convincing must be the evidence. For example, evidence proving that "UFO's are alien spacecrafts" must be much stronger than evidence that"your last name is Kim", the latter only requiring any one of government issued papers.
- Anecdotal evidences, ones based on personal testimony, are usually of very limited value. Scientific evidence, or at the least a statistical one, is essential for deciding on the validity of any claim. The fact that many patients cured their cancer with certain forms of diet offers no evidence that such regimen cures cancers.
- Downplay evidence based on authority. A popular actor, or a famous doctor for that matter, endorsing a certain wrist-band for migraines is no evidence that such wrist-band does alleviate migraines.
- Pseudo-science uses scientific jargon, usually completely out of context, to awe the laymen.
- It is impossible to prove a negative. It is impossible to prove that "ghosts do not exit".

  I have heard such remarks as "Well, once they thought Galileo was not very scientific" or "Think of what Wegener had to endure before his platonic theory was accepted" and most invariably followed by "Maybe such and such(e.g. ESP) will prevail later when science evolves to a higher state". Well, the problem with Galileo was not that he wasn't very scientific but rather he was denunciating the then omnipotent religious establishment, and the problem with Wegener's theory of shifting continents was not  lack of scientific evidences but an incomplete understanding of the earth mantle by the contemporary scientists. Yes, there have been many times when the society was not yet ready to accept new ideas, but they all shared the common feat of the four steps of a legitimate science mentioned above and were commonly devoid of the telltale signs of a pseudo-science.

    One might ask, what is the danger of some pseudo-science on society? To us, the generation of the well educated and the knowledge-laden, pseudo-science, far from posing danger, is at best too nonsensical and preposterous to be taken seriously and often times unwittingly provide an amusement. Think again! A recent poll finds that almost half of those polled believe that ESP exists and more than a quarter accept that aliens have visited the earth in their UFO's. Surprised? Not really, when you consider a society where decisions, from the National government body to the small businesses, are made on a Non-scientific rationale and where millions spend more than billions on Lotto's every week. It amazes me how few people, including the educated ones, rely on or even look to science in their everyday lives. Hence it is no wonder how in the resulting scientific vacuum pseudo-science, in many facets in many arenas of our daily lives, dictate how people make decisions based on beliefs that are completely unsupported by, if not outright contradicted by, actual facts. Quoting the famous Carl Sagan (not that one about "Billions of billions of stars…"), "How much pseudo-science is accepted in society is proportional to how little science is understood." Oh, instead of shying away from my relative's question, maybe I should have explained the fallacy of the Nano Technology Silver Mattress in terms that are more scientific!

 

Seong Kwan-jae  leesj117@dongguk.edu

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