Discerning Between Science and Pseudoscience

By Lisa Wallace, MSN, RN, PHN

Doing an Internet search for the term “Morgellons” will most certainly return results displaying a variety of theories on the etiology of Morgellons. Such popular folklore theories that are currently circulating are:

  • Morgellons is nanotechnology distributed in chemtrails in a plot by the government for some sort of gain of power or population control.
  • Morgellons is a disease from outer space and/or aliens.
  • Morgellons is a man-made disease intended to be used as a bio-weapon.
  • Morgellons is the result of GMO foods.
  • Morgellons is indicated in the “Transhumanism” movement, which contends that the government is conducting experiments in forced or directed evolution of the human genome.
  • "Targeted Individuals” are purposely being infected by Morgellons as some sort of government plot / mind control ploy.

And as long as imaginations are allowed to go unchecked by the mechanisms of the scientific method, more theories are bound to arise!

The harm of these theories and the pseudoscience that purports to give them credence is that it discourages real scientists from undertaking research into Morgellons for the fear of being associated with these unsupported theories, and the potential to cause damage to their reputations and professional careers. Furthermore, it is a precarious situation to gain funding for research studies, and most funders will not support implausible or highly controversial theories.

But it is even more concerning that when people believe such theories, serious harm may occur to the sufferer. They may fall prey to con artists proposing the latest so called Morgellons treatments or the suffering individual may avoid getting a proper medical evaluation and treatment if they believe that the cause of Morgellons is outside the realm of medical pathology. Research has shown that Borrelia burdorferi, the bacterial spirochete responsible for causing Lyme disease has been found in every investigated Morgellons’ tissue sample (Middelveen & Burugu, 2013, Middelveen, Mayne, Kahn, & Stricker, 2013, Mayne et al., 2013). Therefore it is of no surprise that many of the symptoms reported by sufferers of Morgellons mimic symptoms of Lyme disease. Clinical evidence witnessed by Dr. Peter Mayne, Dr. Raphael Stricker, and Dr. Ginger Savely has shown that when Morgellons patients are treated for their Lyme disease infection (and co-infections), many patients do report an improvement in their health and reduction of symptoms, including some of the more unusual Morgellons symptoms.

What Pseudoscience Is:

Discerning between real science and pseudoscience is critical in the pursuit of finding the real cause and cure of Morgellons. To begin to understand the difference, one must first know how pseudoscience is described. Professor Steven Dutch provides a straightforward explanation (Dutch, 2010):

  • Pseudoscience is demonstrably faulty observations or theories, or elaborate speculation without an adequate basis.
  • Pseudoscience is usually supported by logical fallacies. The only way it's possible to accept faulty data is through faulty reasoning.
  • Pseudoscience is in open defiance of scientific consensus.

Scientific Theory vs. Pseudoscientific Theory

The key difference between genuine science and pseudoscience is that pseudoscience theories lack the substance of science, but present themselves as scientific. Key definitions are ("Rationale: Austhink," 2013):

  • A scientific theory makes claims that are testable. The claims it makes prohibit particular events or occurrences from happening. That is to say, these claims are conceivably refutable.
  • A pseudo-scientific theory makes claims that are not testable. Its claims prohibit nothing. There is nothing that could count as disconfirming evidence against such claims.

Author Garrett asserts that “pseudoscience is more often characterized by vague, exaggerated or falsifiable claims, with an over-reliance on confirmation rather than rigorous attempts at refutation” (Garrett, 2012). Pseudoscience theorists assert that their opponents are usually of the “narrow-minded positivist scientific community, medicine, or big-pharma”. Furthermore, pseudoscience proponents hold the contention that their theory is under attack by some government or organization who is working to undermine them (Garrett, 2012).

Criteria to Distinguish Science from Pseudoscience

To discern between science and pseudoscience, it is necessary to use criteria to form a basis of comparison. Dr. Massimo Pigliucci of the University of Tennessee proposes a useful list of evaluating criteria to distinguish science from pseudoscience (Criteria, n.d):

  1. Anachronistic thinking - If an argument is based on the wisdom of the ancients or on the use of outmoded scientific terminology, there is good reason to be suspicious.
  2. Seeking mysteries - Pseudoscience tends to emphasize the existence and supposed unsolvability of mysteries, while science’s objective is to solve mysteries.
  3. Appeals to myths - Humans tend to use pseudoscience in an attempt to formulate an explanation for things that they cannot easily understand.
  4. Casual approach to evidence - Real science has evidence to back up its claims! Solid, verifiable evidence is the cornerstone that sets science apart from pseudoscience. Hearsay is not considered solid evidence.
  5. Spurious similarities - This is the trap of human thinking that attempts to draw parallels between concepts or phenomena that seem reasonable. These presumptions require an in-depth analysis to be verified. Similarities in phenomena can sometimes yield viable insights; however, they require a high standard for verification beyond what appears to be a correlation.
  6. Explanation by scenario - This occurs when the pseudoscience proponent is trying to explain phenomena by “storytelling”, which is when one invents a scenario to fit the presumed story.
  7. Research by literary interpretation - This fallacy occurs when the proponents of a pseudoscience position claim that statements made by scientists are open to alternative interpretations that should be regarded as equally valid, in spite of a lack of evidence to support the alternative.
  8. Refusal to revise - One of the hallmarks of pseudoscience is the refusal on the part of the pseudoscience proponent to revise their position in the face of new evidence. Pseudoscience proponents will repeat their same arguments over and over, in spite of evidence to the contrary. Real science supports that a claim about a phenomena is evolving as new research evolves; it is not a stationary, fixed idea that is not open to revision as new evidence is discovered.
  9. Shift the burden of proof to the other side - When a pseudoscience proponent proposes an alternative theory that is contrary to the established, scientifically backed theory, the burden of proof for the pseudoscience claim is on the pseudoscience proponent! Pseudoscientists love to play this game of trying to shift the burden of proof. Furthermore, it is faulty thinking by the pseudoscience proponent to claim that their theory is just as plausible as the established theory because their claim has not been disproven. More often than not, if a claim can’t generate real interest from scientists in the research community, it is most likely because that theory is not plausible, and therefore not worth the time and money necessary for further exploration.
  10. A theory is legitimate simply because it’s new, alternative, or daring

Proponents of pseudoscience often try to make their claim seem plausible by citing instances of past scientists who were initially ridiculed for their theories that eventually proved to be found correct. This phenomenon is called “The Galileo Effect”. There are many proposed theories that will never meet the scientific burden of proof to be considered a valid theory.

Warning Signs of Pseudoscience

Philosophers have identified distinguishing features that can serve as warning signs that may alert that the claim being made is pseudoscience (Lilienfeld, 2013). The warning signs are as follows:

  • Pseudoscience has the tendency to invoke ad hoc hypotheses, which can be thought of as “escape hatches” or loopholes, as a means of immunizing claims from falsification.
  • Pseudoscience has an absence of self-correction and an accompanying intellectual stagnation.
  • Pseudoscience has an emphasis on confirmation rather than refutation.
  • Pseudoscience has a tendency to place the burden of proof on skeptics, not proponents, of claims.
  • Pseudoscience has excessive reliance on anecdotal and testimonial evidence to substantiate claims.
  • Pseudoscience has evasion of the scrutiny afforded by peer review.
  • Pseudoscience has an absence of “connectivity”, that is, a failure to build on existing scientific knowledge.
  • Pseudoscience uses impressive-sounding jargon whose primary purpose is to lend claims a facade of scientific respectability.

References

  • Dutch, S. (2010). Science and Pseudoscience. Retrieved from http://www.uwgb.edu/dutchs/PSEUDOSC/SciPseudosci.htm
  • Garrett, B. (2012, April 27). Non-science, pseudoscience, quasi-science and bad science; is there a difference? [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://blogs.ubc.ca/realscience/2012/04/27/non-science-pseudoscience-quasi-science-and-bad-science-is-there-a-difference/
  • Lilienfeld, S. O. (2013). The 10 commandments of helping students distinguish from pseudoscience in psychology. Retrieved from http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/publications/observer/2005/september-05/the-10-commandments-of-helping-students-distinguish-science-from-pseudoscience-in-psychology.html
  • Mayne, P., English, J. S., Kilbane, E. J., Burke, J. M., Middelveen, M. J., & Stricker, R. B. (2013). Morgellons: A novel dermatological perspective as the multisystem infective disease borreliosis. F1000 Research, 2(118). http://dx.doi.org/10.12688/f1000research.2-118.v1
  • Middelveen, M. J., Burugu, D., Poruri, A., Burke, J., Mayne, P. J., Sapi, E., ... Stricker, R. B. (2013). Association of spirochetal infection with Morgellons disease. F1000 Research, 2. http://dx.doi.org/doi: 10.12688/f1000research.2-25.v1
  • Middelveen, M. J., Mayne, P. J., Kahn, D. G., & Stricker, R. B. (2013, Janaury 8). Characterization and evolution of dermal filaments from patients with Morgellons disease. Clinical, Cosmetic and Investigational Dermatology, 6, 1-21. http://dx.doi.org/10.2147/CCID.S39017
  • Science & pseudo-science. (2013). Retrieved , from http://rationale.austhink.com/rationale2.0/ib/exercises/tok/science_pseudoscience.htm
  • Science vs. pseudoscience: Where is the difference? [PDF]. (n.d). Retrieved from http://www.physics.smu.edu/pseudo/Pscience/science-pseudoscience.pdf