Pseudoscience and conspiracy theory are not victimless crimes against science

News of anti-vaxxer movements, demands to teach creationism in schools as science, and dubious claims for the health-giving properties of strange diets is enough to make you wonder if some people have forgotten or forsaken the scientific method entirely.

Astronomer Carl Sagan once said:

In every country, we should be teaching our children the scientific method and the reasons for a Bill of Rights. With it comes a certain decency, humility and community spirit. In the demon-haunted world that we inhabit by virtue of being human, this may be all that stands between us and the enveloping darkness.


Image: LifeHacker

Despite the progress of education and living standards, the world must seem like a scary place for many people – full of chemicals in the sky, aliens trying to abduct us, and government or corporate conspiracies. As Stephen Hawking drily remarked: “If governments are involved in a cover-up, they are doing a much better job of it than they seem to do at anything else.”

What’s the harm in ‘alternative’ science?

What’s the harm in applying alternative medicine to treat cancer? Why should others care if I don’t vaccinate my children? Such decisions are all too often based on a poor understanding of how science works – and usually guided by someone’s commercial interest.

For example, US blogger Vani Hari, known as the Food Babe, claims to research and reveal problems with food (while receiving sponsorship from “natural” food companies). Among her profound research conclusions were that, when studying the effects of microwaves:

Microwaved water produced a similar physical structure to when the words “Satan” and “Hitler” were repeatedly exposed to the water.

The truth is that in science there are no authorities. There are experts at most, and even their opinions can be challenged by anyone – so long as there’s evidence to back up the argument. When some people are taken as “authorities” and their claims, however wacky, believed, then the subsequent decisions that millions of people may take could harm them or even bring a premature end to their lives.

If that sounds outlandish, consider two “wellness” bloggers from Australia. Belle Gibson punted her wholefood recipes and alternative therapies (available as a book and smartphone app) as a “natural” weapon in her fight against cancer – a cancer she later admitted she’d entirely fabricated. Or Jessica Ainscough, the Wellness Warrior, whose very real sarcoma was not hindered by the “natural healing” pseudoscience she advocated on her blog. Ainscough died in February 2015.

Cancer is terrifying for those facing it and their families. What some of these “wellness” bloggers do whether misguided or for the sake of personal profit is not only an insult to these people and those that have lost loved ones to the disease, but also an irresponsible act.

Similarly, the misinformation and ignorance of science of the anti-vaxxer movement not only endangers their own children but also affects the lives of the rest of the population.

The spread of pseudoscience can kill, and that’s exactly why we should be doing more to spread understanding of the scientific method, to equip others to apply scepticism in the face of extraordinary claims.

1940s electro-metabograph, claiming to cure ailments with radio waves. No scientific basis of course – but doesn’t it look good?
akuchling, CC BY

The demon-haunted world

But instead of teaching children how to critically analyse the world around them for themselves through a lens of healthy scepticism, the educational system is based on arguments from authority, encouraging them to accept what they’re told. Over time, this may develop into a deep ignorance of a scientific approach resulting in a huge difference in outlook and approach to the world between the scientifically trained and everyone else. Into that gap steps mistrust, charlatans and conspiracy theories.

The world we have is bound up with science and technology, yet very few of us understand that science and technology. This is a recipe for disaster, and in the 20 years since Sagan’s book: The Demon-haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark was published, the situation has not improved.

It can be difficult for someone without a university education – or even without a scientific degree – to understand and interpret scientific results. Even those working in one scientific field can struggle to understand developments in others, due to the extent of specialisation required for further progress. Mastering this specialisation requires time, of which we humans have only a limited amount. Gone are the days of all-purpose geniuses such as da Vinci and Leibniz, whose expertise stretched from maths, mechanics and invention, to philosophy, politics, anatomy and medicine.

Scientific enquiry, in a nutshell.
Whatiguana, CC BY-SA

Closing the gap

Lucky for us, knowing all is not a requirement for scientists, nor even for scientific thinking. In fact truly scientific thinking echoes Socrates’ words, that the wisest of men is he who knows that he knows nothing. “There is no shame in not knowing,” Neil deGrasse Tyson said. “The problem arises when irrational thought and attendant behaviour fill the vacuum left by ignorance.”

The only requirement for scientific thinking is to learn how to apply the scientific method to what we encounter in our daily lives. That is what scientists should be teaching others – science is the only approach to the truth we have, error-correcting machinery connected to self-criticism that tests our ideas against the real world. And the proof of its veracity is all around you – from the scientific principles that underlie the screen you’re reading this on, to the manufacturing processes and materials required to build it, and the electricity that powers it.

Science might not be perfect but it is the best tool mankind has developed to understand itself and the world around us. With a grasp of the scientific method the world is suddenly revealed not as a place to be feared, but to be understood. As Carl Sagan also said: “There are wonders enough out there without our inventing any.”

The Conversation

Eduardo Nicolas Schulz, Research Fellow, University of Birmingham

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Conversation

20 thoughts on “Pseudoscience and conspiracy theory are not victimless crimes against science

  1. I'm Inventzilla

    I’m glad Carl Sagan had the courage to say what he did. There are reasons that Democracy gives a better deal to its citizens that dictatorships. Arguments like that used to be common in speeches and in school curriculums. You cant argue with a dictatorship if they put nuclear plant next door or oif the police start pushing drugs like they do in Argentina.. People are much better off if they have a voice in their government and if they can turn nuts like Snyder out of office.

  2. Ed

    Unfortunately for the world much of mainstream science is psuedoscience and this includes modern medicine. The truth is horrific when it comes to medicine when you consider that flouride in any quantities is toxic and cumulative and that every person who dies of cancer is murdered.

    The we can look at the idiotic view of people who are sensible and do not vaccinate their children. How is it possible for an unvaccinated child to be a threat to someone who is vaccinated. If they are vaccinated and if the vaccines work they cannot be. The vaccines are supposed to prevent disease and if your are vaccinated you are not supposed to get it.If a person next ouy as the theory goes has the disease and you are vaccinated you cannot get it. So why the fuss? To peddle more of the poisons.

    The push behind the unsubstatiated “dark theories” of cosmology is to convince people dark forces, IE Satan, rule the universe. Every single one of them is easily disproven. EG Where is DM in the local universe. As with MOND it is always a distance related phenomena. It is an accepted fact that the suns gravity dominates the solar system in te gravitational sense so where is DM. The expanding universe? Why is the denisty of the universe of the same density no matter how far back in time we look?

    Most of the Big Questions that are supposed to have been answered are still regarded as mysteries. I and many others are of the opinion that most of “cutting edge” cosmology is made up nonsense.

  3. Ed

    The ad hominem attack. The last bastion of the ignorant fool.

    You are of the class I have come to realise dominates the responses to my posts. None including you are able to respond in any other manner. None have ever out of ~ 50 posts even attempted to address my statements, no doubt you are unable. Just the same old same old sick ad hominem attacks.

    Being of imited intellectual capacity you people seem quite unable to see your responses simply confirm my point of view. But it is not to you I write is it? It is your failed master to whom I speak. I fought for my life in primary school against such as you, 3 died that day and nothing was done. Over time many more have, if you wish I will afford you the same privlige sooner rather than later. I suggest you get your affairs in order.

    I will think of you next time I flush the toilet.

  4. A Poskitt

    I agree with Ed on the vaccine stuff and I’m a scientist. Most vaccines are spreading the diseases they are supposed to cure and the unvaccinated are getting the blame. Remember the polio vaccines of the 1960s that were giving children paralysis? No? That’s no surprise, the pharmaceutical companies did a great job hushing that one up. Same as the MMR autism link. Total correlation in spite of the fudged stats the media likes to confuse the issue with. Diet is key to great health and a superbly functioning immune system. You must beware of the toxic brew of formaldehyde, aluminum and mercury as well as animal and human DNA and RNA that can cause serious side effects.

  5. Alan Poskitt

    Thanks Ed, I think these other folks are trolls sponsored by the pharmaceutical industry and vaccine manufacturers, or they are probably just dumbed down. I feel sorry for them and most of all their children whose health and natural vitality is being put at risk because of their parents’ one sided viewpoint and unwillingness to seek out scientific knowledge not main stream media propaganda.

  6. Robbyn

    lol – there are no words an intellectual mind can surmise to script an understanding or explanation of how Science works when modern medicines are concerned…

    The concept of extended life in Today’s World as opposed to 200years ago, or the fact that many of the viruses that plagued Mankind not 100 years ago have now been limited to a few small pockets of existence…the idea that we safe more lives that quackery and create more health and Life than the so-called “wellness” fanatics out there must not speak volumes for itself…???

    Clearly, we are the Researchers and Developers of something that frightens you…something that is beyond your grasp…

    For someone who likes to claim himself an intellectual, you don’t seem to be able to grasp basic science…

    It’s nice to see the failed minds reach for threats over their comfortable keyboards – good job…not that anyone fears you, I simply think it beneath an intelligent mind to threaten people with a difference of opinion – especially when the difference is based upon facts rather than whatever deluded noise you hear in your sleep…

  7. Robbyn

    Haha – I’m not sure if you’re joking, or being serious…

    I’m a researcher as well. I specialised in microbial genetics and now I’m furthering my studied in Bioinformatics with a core focus on viral RNA…

    I’m just going to say it once – vaccines work…they do not spread disease…whilst they do not prevent a person (or animal) from contracting the disease 100% of that person’s (or animal’s) life, they increase the chance of survival and combat against the target disease dramatically…often to the point that the viral infection becomes null and the patient shows no signs of infection :)

    I’d call that a success…

    If you’re a “scientist” then you should understand how vaccines work – and you wouldn’t be concerned about “oxic brew of formaldehyde, aluminum and mercury as well as animal and human DNA and RNA that can cause serious side effects” – which is what makes me think you might just be joking…one can never be too sure on forums…lol…and the use of the MMR conspiracy…that was a good line (also false though, Wakefield is a moron)

    Again, I wasn’t sure if you were joking (in which case ignore me) or being serious (in which case, give back that “science” degree)

  8. Ed

    By describing you choice of career you have just disqualified yourself from being taken seriously in this debate. You are one of those in a position to have a lot to lose from the truth coming out. There are those of us who know the truth and will not be silenced by the sort of attacks we get from people like you which includes the psuedoscience tactic.

    The evidence to those who will accept it is clear. Many of todays vaccines are causing far more harm than they prevent whilst making money for Big Pharma. Why give babies a Hep B vaccine? it is a sexually transmitted disease and vaccines overload a babies immune system if they are given to many. Is it to create chronic diseases or to make money?

    In your post a little was scientific but it contained the normal ad hominem attacks which are always the last bastion of the ignorant fool. Why do you people always act in identical ways to your fellows? Do you know? You are all governed by the same entity, you all speak his mind and not your own.

    Perhaps not you but ALL others I have been able to closely study who act in your manner have been shown to have nothing between their ears, empty. They have all been little more than loudspeakers for their controller. Being completely oblivious to this

    every one of them has believed themselves to completely autonamous beings with total control of themselves. They think this as they are told to think this, so they do, unquestioningly.

    To really stir things up I will state that the evidence is unequivocal that the sickest and most evil people as a class on earth are those from the medical professions.

    A Dr invented the gattling gun justifying it by saying such a murderous weapon would stop people from killing each other. It and its variants, machine guns, have killed far more people far more horribly than any other device. He invented it because he knew it would be used to kill people much more efficiently or he was a complete idiot.

    And such as you say we should trust you. Give us a break.

  9. Ed

    Oh yes, which vaccine are you talking about? No one doubts one vaccine can be found that works, one.

  10. Ed

    More of the same like a broken record, forever and endlessly repeating itself. The only non self inflicted sick days I have ever had in my entire life was after receiving a flu vaccine. I nearly died and my Dr at the time refused to accept or report my reaction to the vaccine. Perhaps it was just my Dr trying another failed attempt to kill me.

    Read the literature, understand the truth and stop the personality attacks that reveal so much. I did not expect anyone to be frightened, you have attributed thoughts to me that just do not exist. A sure sign of wishful thinking.

    Everyone who dies of cancer is murdered. My Drs have tried a least 9 times to kill me and of course failed every time. I am not frightened of you, again you are suffering from wishful thinking, a sure sign of a certain personality type.

    The responses I get are all of the same type, all using the same tactic of character attacks. AD HOMINEM ATTACKS. Insult him and he will shut seems to be your mindset. It has always failed and it will always fail as it simply serves to reinforce my position to me and the observer. There are many.


    “lol – there are no words an intellectual mind can surmise to script an understanding or explanation of how Science works when modern medicines are concerned…”

    An admission they do not know what they are doing can hardly be called supportive of their position.

    What he is saying here is that he is of a class of intellectual that doesn’t understand what he is talking about, which is good thing and so is step above us? I think I would remove the word intellectual from the description and put a little more derogative term in to describe him.

    Watch this space for more variants on the ad hominem attack.

  11. Robbyn

    That’s cute bro – you crack me up with your shill-view of the Universe…

    When this so-called “truth” exhibits any substantial evidence based on actual fact rather than conspiracy theories you thumb-suck from nowhere, perhaps then we’ll listen…

    Rather than hide behind your power buttons – why don’t make yourself useful by researching (and I don;t mean using Google, I mean applying to a University and getting a qualification) some form of modern medicine so you can actually back your narrow and warped views with some facts…???

    I’d love to know who you think the so-called “controller” is – he (or she) owes me a pay-check :P

    Your use of the term “Big Pharma” already classes you as someone with little to no understanding of vaccinology, virology or microbiology…which means your voice is null as it is based on self perspectives and self motivation rather than an unbias view of Reality and Science…

    You use Priori Arguments, Affective Fallacy, the Argument from Motives, Argumentum ad Baculam, as well as several others – you jump around in circles to point out the flaws and mistakes of Science and blame corruption on Big Pharma and some imaginary “controller” that you cannot point to, see, hear or touch and cannot identify…

    Tell you what though – when you have an actual qualification in a related biological field of study, perhaps then you can point out the fallacies of Modern Science and Technology – or do you simply enjoy using what appeals to you and rejecting what you don’t understand…??? I mean, you’re using a computer that was developed by some Big Corp to monitor and control your very soul :)

    Haha :)

    When you’re qualified and serious, I guess then we’ll listen – try using facts rather than random ridiculousness :P

  12. Robbyn

    I enjoy how you take sentences out of context – it’s cute, like your rants about how we’re all going to die…

    And then tell us we’re using fallacies of ad hominem attacks while you do the same…

    Isn’t that hypocritical…??? Or do you simply enjoy trolling around scientific sites calling everyone shills of some imagined “controller” while you pay homage to whatever faceless god you pray to (assuming you have some belief to back your stories up)…???

  13. Ed

    Sheesh … more of the same, more of the same. How sad the degeneracy of modern society.

    I spoke out against the way I was being spoken to and you have simply done as before. It is not to you I am talking, it is to all the others who remain unknown that I speak and you prove what I say.

    Here we have a good example of childish name calling. The last time I experienced something like this was over 45 years ago in primary school. I have no doubt some here are still there.

    There is never any direct response to my science based arguments and statements. None of this is addressed, nothing of this nature even gets a mention. I have lost count of points raised and questions asked (here and elsewhere, same people) to have them all ignored. Nobody seems able to speak of the science or the facts.

    Why? I speak the truth.

    I find the same old same old tired hackneyed methods used by those with nothing in efforts to discredit/humiliate those with by the same old methods. Always a failure, always a failure.

    And always they show to those with eyes with which to see and ears with which to hear what I want them to.

    THEY PROVE MY VIEWPOINT, each time, every time.

  14. Brian

    This is what you get when industry lies to folks. Nobody believes anything anymore. Industries sponsor some 80% of the “research”. Studies have proven that funding biases results. Sometime people just plain cheat and lie so the industries can keep making false claims of safety and effectiveness. There are problems with mercury in vaccines, and MMR does cause side effects, but not autism as far as I can tell, yet there is no way to have a rational conversation on the subject and many others as a results of corrupted industry pr science. We know from history that industries have lied for decades about lead, tobacco, radiation, so we can assume they are lying now about whatever they are saying is safe and good for you. Most people do not have the scientific background or habits to figure things out, and it’s very heard when the data is defective as well.

  15. Ed

    You have chosen your psuedonym quite well, once again responding with the cheap ad hominem attack. So predictable, so predictable.

    There is a vaccine, its called the eradiction of all such as you, wich is comng and soon.


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