Separating pseudoscience from science

wizardIt’s so easy for people to “research” a new health technique or practice or dietary approach and find plenty of websites supporting it, but are these practices backed by science or do they just look and sound scientific?

Spoiler Alert: It’s almost always the latter.

A few symptoms of pseudoscientific hype from RationalWiki:

  • A simple idea that purports to be the one answer to many problems (often including diseases)
  • A “scientific-sounding” reason for how it works, but little to no actual science behind it; for example, quote mines of studies that if bent enough could be described in such a way to support it, outright misapplication of studies, or words that sound scientific but make no sense in the context they are used in
  • Prefers to use abundant testimonials over actual scientific research [emphasis added]

I’m not trying to imply that there are zero positive benefits to some of these practices. I just want to reinforce that many of these perceived benefits may very well be the result of the Placebo Effect, a real phenomenon in which people who are given a dud treatment experience measurable results. Medical studies and pharmaceutical trials administer placebo treatments to measure the difference between what the medicine can do and what the mind and body may do┬áif they think they are receiving a legitimate treatment.

Not every health technique, treatment, or method undergoes the strict scrutiny of a regulatory body. For some things, it simply isn’t commercially viable; for others, there exists enough empirical data to preclude testing entirely. This process exists for a reason though: anecdotes don’t cut it. One thing many articles on pseudoscientific processes share is a reliance on and overabundance of anecdotal evidence.

Another clue that what you’re reading isn’t based on actual scientific study is the presence of the word “toxin” which is almost always used incorrectly. Lists of aspecific toxins usually include things like heavy metals, bacteria, parasites, and food additives such as sugars and MSG.

Here are some common pseudoscientific practices that are not backed by valid clinical trials:

  • oil pulling
  • Kinoki foot pads
  • colon cleansing
  • acupuncture
  • homeopathy (ever taken Zycam for a cold?)
  • chiropractic
  • intercessory prayer
  • aromatherapy
  • reflexology
  • hypnotherapy
  • magnetic bracelets

At the end of the day, these things only affect the people that use them. If you believe in your mind that there is a benefit, then good for you. Understand though that warm, fuzzy feelings are not a valid medical measurement. And if you’re trying to rid your body of toxins, you may well be simply ridding yourself of your time and money.


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