Sunday, September 18, 2016

Stop Using the Word Pseudoscience

Via by Katie L. Burke

Over the course of the past two weeks, a bunch of media reports came out about marks on swimmer Michael Phelps’s body from a bodywork technique called cupping that uses suction to pull up on the skin and connective tissue underneath, relieving tension and pain—or so its devotees claim. Many media reports referred to this technique as pseudoscience. As a journalist and trained scientist, the term makes me cringe. It is divisive and lacks agreed-upon scientific or journalistic norms, so the evidence justifying its use is unclear. Further, its cultural meanings come along with a flawed history of use for defamation.

A guiding tenet has emerged through years of climate change discussions and other polarizing scientific debates: Framing issues as “us versus them”—with a clear ingroup and outgroup—encourages polarization. The term pseudoscience inherently creates this framing, pitting those who believe in “real” science against those who believe in “fake” science. But these discussions really indicate whom we trust. And maybe if people trust alleged pseudoscience over science, we should be discussing why, rather than dismissing their values and beliefs.

As others have written (many, many, many, many, many times), the distinction between science and pseudoscience is not clear. The term pseudoscience was used in the mid-1800s in reference to phrenology and homeopathy. At the time, there was a real need for some quality control in the healing arts, both within and outside of the medical profession. Physicians at the time were practicing bloodletting, for example, and prescribing all sorts of scientifically untested concoctions with ingredients such as arsenic, morphine, opium, cocaine, and mercury. But with the hindsight of history it is clear that what exactly was labeled pseudoscience in both popular media and scholarly studies had as much to do with culture and ideology as it did with logic and fact.

Plenty of stuff that sounded crazy at one point, but turned out to be legitimate, was thought to be pseudoscience, including many areas of psychology and the idea that the Earth's continents have moved over time. And plenty of stuff with widespread contemporary scientific acceptance, such as the eugenics movement of the early 20th century, was later called pseudoscience. Still, as historian Paul Lawrie notes in his 2011 dissertation about race and labor in America around the turn of the 20th century, "Dismissing... scientific racism as 'pseudo-science,' or a perversion of the scientific method, blurs our understanding of its role as a tool of racial labor control in modern America." The rise of the term’s use in medicine and in other scientific fields came from the blatant need for quality control in these fields during the 19th and early 20th century. The cries about pseudoscience and quackery were generally made with good scientific intentions, and they were often biased in favor of the convictions and interests of doctors and scientists. But because the group of people who tended to make such proclamations has lacked diversity over the past centuries—and still does today—their defamatory rhetorical context has a history of being culturally insensitive and even misinformed. A tragic example is American obstetricians’ marketing campaigns against midwives in the 1800s, which resulted in worse care for infants and mothers.

Pseudoscience tends to be used interchangeably to describe two different things (more definitions abound, but I’m just going to talk about what I see most often). First, pseudoscience is used to describe claims that lack scientific evidence. That lack of evidence may be due to a dearth of experimental studies, a failure to explain a mechanism behind the purported effects, experimental limitations—for example, an inability to conduct double-blind experiments or an inconsistency in methods attempting to do so—or some combination of all three. Based on current evidence, Michael Phelps’s cupping falls into this nebulous category. What makes this first category so problematic is a lack of agreement about when replication has reached a level that indicates a strong conclusion in the face of the bias that we know influences scientific interpretations.

The second way the term pseudoscience is used refers to claims that are scientifically known to be misleading but their proponents nevertheless allege to have the support of science. For example, the entrepreneur William Radam was able to use scientific language from his contemporaries Robert Koch and Louis Pasteur to market his dubious “Microbe Killer” concoctions in the 1890s, for which he also owned the patents. Short-lived fads that claimed to be scientific, such as phrenology, also fall into this category.

So pseudoscience can refer to a wide range of things—from outright fraud to ideas that lack a consensus about scientific support and that some scientists do not like. This imprecision makes it difficult for people to interpret what is meant by pseudoscience: Who are the fakers and liars, who are the people who are part of a field of knowledge that predates or falls outside of science, and how do we tell them apart? Because the term has been misapplied or used to call out people without the social power to effectively refute the allegations, its cultural meanings are all the more divisive. When an ingroup in a position of power rejects the beliefs of an outgroup and makes statements that are insensitive to the values, culture, and observations of that outgroup—then the outgroup stops trusting the ingroup in power. I think the rise of the antivaccination movement is a great example of this kind of backlash, an idea author Eula Biss explores in her critically acclaimed book On Immunity: An Inoculation. And a clever sketch from the show 30 Rock (Episode 9, Season 3) serves as commentary on medicine and race as the characters Tracy Jordan and Kenneth debate whether diabetes is caused by diet, which Tracy thinks is a “white myth.” Philosopher and historian of science Ehud Lamm goes so far as to suggest that calling out pseudoscience in medicine can be unethical.

The word pseudoscience is also used to claim a certain value system: scientism, or valuing and trusting science exclusively. Relatively few people ascribe to scientism, even if they like science. Many if not most people, at least in the United States, value science and see it as an important decision-making tool. But most people—even many scientists—are religious or simply not doggedly empirical, and believe in truths other than those derived from science. In such views, science is a tool with limits, and outside those limits lie beliefs, ideas, and knowledge gathered through art, philosophy, intuition, metaphysics, or culture. When science-affiliated factions use a term that inherently implies that people are ignorant or fakers for having such beliefs, an antagonistic communications environment usually emerges. Perhaps the assault the Christian Right has waged on many aspects of science education and funding in the United States represents just such a backlash.

There are great alternatives to the term pseudoscience—ones that are much more explicit and constructive. One can simply state what kind of scientific evidence is available. If scientific evidence is lacking, why not say so and then discuss why that might be? And if scientific evidence directly contradicts a claim, saying so outright is much stronger than if a fuzzy term like pseudoscience is used. Of course, if fraudulent behavior is suspected, such allegations are best stated overtly rather than veiled under the word pseudoscience. Words that are clearer, stronger, and avoid such fraught cultural and historical baggage include the following: For the first use of the term, I suggest replacing pseudoscience with descriptors such as emerging and still-experimental, as yet scientifically inconclusive, scientifically debated, and lacking scientific evidence. For the second use of the term, stronger wording is appropriate, such as fraud (suspected or proven), fabrication, misinformation, factually baseless claims, and scientifically unfounded claims. All these terms make the nature of the information clearer than invoking the word pseudoscience and they have established journalistic norms around their substantiation.

Using the term pseudoscience, then, leads to unnecessary polarization, mistrust, disrespectfulness, and confusion around science issues. Everyone—especially scientists, journalists, and science communicators—would better serve science by avoiding it.


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