In the popular late 1980s tv show ‘Exploring Psychic Powers… Live’, skeptic and magician James Randi invited people with extraordinary claims of paranormal powers to display their abilities on-air. On offer for anyone who could prove their powers to the host and viewing audience was a million USD cash prize, so Randi had no trouble attracting astrologers, psychics, and tarot readers, among a plethora of other creative professions. Many came on Randi’s show — some more talented and persuasive than others — but for decades, until the ‘One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge’ was eventually terminated in 2015, no one managed to claim the prize.
Back in the 80s, my mother was one of those many people who would regularly fall prey to the types of claims that James Randi sought to debunk, so there might be a genetic reason for why I often find myself getting duped by scientific-sounding explanations that I know deep down are probably too good to be true. Unlike my mother, I am not fooled by people claiming magical abilities and extrasensory perception, but I occasionally find myself persuaded by pseudoscience disguised as scientific facts.
You may have come across pseudoscience yourself when reading about ‘superfoods’ with amazing health benefits, the newest nutritional supplements or, in its more extreme variant, the dangers of medical vaccines, with some very real consequences throughout Western societies. In a world where people increasingly get their news and information through social media and other unchecked and unverified sources, pseudoscience is pervasive, hard to avoid and, for the layperson, increasingly hard to tell apart from the real thing.
Pseudoscience is false science, which lacks carefully controlled studies that result in publicly verifiable knowledge. It consists of statements, beliefs or practices that claim to be scientific and factual, but are exaggerated, unprovable or even contradictory. The spread of pseudoscience relies on confirmation bias rather than rigorous attempts at refutation, lack of openness to evaluation by peers, and absence of systematic practices when developing theories. Its assertions and claims are either overrated, unproven or unable to be replicated. Pseudoscience dons the garb of science, but lacks the validity and reliability expected from scientific claims. Propagators of pseudoscience produce fake experts with a credible scientific track record, but with views contrary to established knowledge. They cherry-pick data and papers that question the dominant view to discredit the entire body of research.
Pseudoscience is by no means a new phenomenon. The term has been in widespread use since the mid-19th century. One of the first recorded uses of the word was in Northern Journal of Medicine in 1844. Here, pseudoscience was described as being “composed merely of so-called facts, connected together by misapprehensions under the disguise of principles”.
Despite the concept’s old age, the rise of pseudoscience in its modern form can be, at least partly, attributed to the democratization of knowledge and information made possible by the internet. Much like the recent wave of fake news on social media during the 2016 U.S. presidential election, it is testament to the fact that more information does not necessarily mean better information.
One very real example of the impact of pseudoscience is the anti-vaccination movement. Mumps, measles, rubella, and whooping cough, all diseases that can be prevented through immunization, are experiencing a resurgence in Western countries, notably the U.S. and UK. Proponents of the anti-vaccination movement display some of the central traits of pseudoscience, chief among them the cherry-picking of scientific claims from select sources, which are then combined into a convincing narrative.
In the U.S., the anti-vaccine movement recently caused the worst measles outbreak in 20 years. In Italy and Germany, laws are being passed to prevent such epidemics. German kindergartens must inform authorities if parents have failed to consult a doctor about vaccinating their children, with parents who refuse advice being subject to fines worth up to EURO 2500. While in Italy, children must be vaccinated to be eligible for enrollment in kindergarten. Vaccine skeptic, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., has been in touch with President Trump about a vaccine safety commission and will be chairing a federal panel on vaccine safety, and Andrew Wakefield who started the anti-vaccine movement was invited to a 2017 inaugural ball. Pseudoscience is no longer relegated to the margins, and is part of the mainstream, perhaps more now than ever before.
Among those standing at the forefront of the anti-vaccination movement in the U.S. is former actress and Playboy model Jenny McCarthy. Despite McCarthy’s lack of medical training, she claims with great certainty that vaccinations caused her son’s autism, which she insists can be cured by healthy eating. McCarthy, who went on Oprah and the Larry King show to spread awareness of her anti-vaccination campaign, had herself obtained her knowledge and expertise online. “The university of Google is where I got my degree from” she said in a 2015 interview, suggesting that she — and indeed anyone — can do their own medical research online from which to draw their own conclusions.
Despite McCarthy’s claims being refuted by a number of scientific studies, it is very likely that she and others who share her convictions have contributed to the decline in the number of vaccinations across the United States. In 2000, measles was declared eliminated from the United States. Yet, in 2015, the first confirmed death from measles in 12 years was recorded in Washington State. In 2013, the three biggest outbreaks of measles were attributed to clusters of people who were unvaccinated, and the number of cases quadrupled in 2014 to 644, the highest since 1996 (508 outbreaks).
What makes this even more baffling is that scientists have long known that the supposed connection between autism and vaccinations is simply not true. In 1998, British doctor, Andrew Wakefield suggested a possible relationship between bowel disease, autism and the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine (MMR). Subsequently, Wakefield claimed that the MMR vaccine was not properly tested before being put into use. These stories gained attention in the media, and ignited public fear and confusion. In 2010, the journal that published Wakefield’s original work retracted it because his research was proven to be manipulated and could not be replicated. Investigators found that Wakefield had a conflict of interest when publishing his research, and he was struck from the medical register in Great Britain and barred from practicing medicine. Wakefield’s claims however received wide media attention, celebrities shared his claims, and this was followed by a significant increase in incidences of measles and mumps. And even today, his debunked theories continue to live a life of their own online.
The anti-vaccination movement illustrates how and why pseudoscience has become so effective at spreading. The internet, and specifically social media, has become an increasing number of people’s preferred source of news. A poll by Buzzfeed from 2016 reflects the power of social media sites such as Facebook in the proliferation of news. Respondents were asked which factors were most important in determining the trustworthiness of the news. For 82 percent of the respondents the news source was important, followed by who shared it within my Facebook network (63 percent), number of comments (33 percent), number of shares (30 percen) and number of likes (28 percent). Beyond the news source and any associated credibility with that source, people employ their personal decision-making logics, which can be inherently irrational and illogical. Personal preferences such as whether the consumer likes the content (41 percent) or whether they agree with the content or not (40 percent), were instrumental in determining trustworthiness of the news.
At the same time, there are surveys that show public trust in scientists is decreasing, at least in the U.S. The sociologist Gordon Gauchat studied survey data from 1974 to 2010 and found that despite increasing education levels, there has been a decline in the public’s trust in the scientific community. The World Economic Forum listed the dissemination of digital misinformation through social media as one of the main threats to our society.
A large survey of Facebook-users’ consumption of conspiracy theory and science-related news by the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) concludes that “information related to distinct narratives — conspiracy theories and scientific news — generates homogeneous and polarized communities (i.e. echo chambers) having similar information consumption patterns.”
Neuroscientist and science writer Dr Sarah McKay claims there is another reason why consumers flock to blogs and social media for information or scientific advice – there is a disconnect between what consumers are looking for and how scientists present credible information. Health and wellness bloggers, for instance, have a talent for presenting seemingly scientific knowledge and translating it in a more accessible language. They also build a relationship with their audience and establish trust.
Here, another factor that helps explain the rise of pseudoscience comes into play: the fact that consumer behaviour and decision making is not only driven by logic, but also by emotions. Research from the Annual Review of Psychology showed that emotions constitute powerful, pervasive, and predictable drivers of decision making. The research cites financial decision-making as a clear example. When making these kinds of decisions, we do not necessarily turn to experts or evidence to form our views and make choices. Instead we are influenced by people we like and trust, and this can lead some people, including savvy consumers, to make some unfortunate financial decisions. People are more affected by attractiveness and likeability of the source, than the actual quality of the message. Timothy Caulfield, a health and science professor and author of ‘Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?’ claims that the overall acceptance of pseudoscience is growing, partly as a result of celebrity wisdom trumping scientific facts.
Take wellness bloggers for example. They often possess the ability to effortlessly convey the image of perfection to their readers. Whether they are sitting in their perfectly mismatched kitchen, taking an idyllic walk or working out in the gym – the lighting is always perfect, and there is never a hair out of place. I’m sold. I’ll take three of whatever you’re selling.
The desire to live a certain way and share that way of life can be attributed to the ‘prius effect’, which means that we make decisions that are aligned with our identity package of who we think we are. We buy organic food, because we would like to be the kind of person who does that. And when we make such decisions, we want the entire world to know about it and laud us. The visibility made possible by social media gives us a powerful outlet to constantly project our lifestyle choices.
Other psychological factors are at play. Cognitive biases such as backfire effect and motivated reasoning also prevent us from deviating from strongly held beliefs, despite being presented with opposing evidence. When people are forced to confront information that conflicts with their deeply held beliefs, it leads to them to digging in their heels in and holding onto these beliefs even stronger. That, combined with motivated reasoning, where people cherry-pick the evidence that supports their existing beliefs and refutes attacks, is a powerful and dangerous cocktail. For example, a 2014 study published in the Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics found that parents hesitant about vaccinating became even less inclined to do so when given information debunking the myth that vaccines cause autism. This is not due to a lack of intelligence, but rather the ability to dismiss any evidence that challenges beliefs.
The visibility of pseudoscience is higher than ever, in part due to the speed of dissemination the Internet allows. Accepting social media as a trustworthy source of news means that we are increasingly susceptible to pseudoscience and misinformation — and that the peer review process, which is vital to the production of science becomes further removed from us. In principle, this can be remedied by ensuring the that we only gain all our information from journals or peer reviewed sources. But a more effective strategy rather than restricting what we read, which is not a fool-proof method, is to be a skeptic. Not every soothsayer or psychic can tell the future, and not every news or science article we read is true.
Professor Andy Oxman from the Norwegian Knowledge Centre for the Health Services conducted an experiment with his then 10-year-old son’s class in 2000. The students were given red M&Ms and told that these would help them write and draw more quickly, but that they also had side effects including dizziness and pain in the stomach. The students were challenged to find if this was true. The children figured out that they needed to conduct blinded, randomized trials and consume other colour M&Ms without prior knowledge. Before long they were questioning the findings and figured out that there was little if any difference based on colours. Adults are experts at motivated reasoning and at finding observations and findings that support their pre-existing point of view. It might therefore be worthwhile to get ‘em while they’re young, and turn the next generation into critical thinkers, who don’t turn to tarot card readers for life advice.