Is there a way to tell if something is science versus pseudoscience?

Is there a litmus test to know whether something is science or pseudoscience?
There are many things which is quite ambiguous like ayurveda, homeopathy, psychology, biology, etc…

16 Answers

This question is closely related to a problem in philosophy of science known as the demarcation problem. A good starting point for
broad overview would be the SEP article.

To answer you question directly, I first need to clarify what you mean by “litmus test”. I will assume you mean that there is a short checklist of criteria that can be fairly easily evaluated such that whenever something which purports to be science meets enough of those criteria we can be confident it really is science. If it does not meet enough of the criteria then we can determine it is pseudoscience.

If something roughly like this is what we mean by “litmus test” then the answer is clear no. There is no such simple test that distinguishes science from pseudoscience in every case.

The most common thought for how to construct a test would be to say that real science is research conducted in accordance with the scientific method, while pseudoscience does not. However, this just turns the original problem into a problem of how to operationalize “the scientific method”. Nobody has has solved this in way that is uncontroversial, universal, and sufficiently specific. There are proposals which are detailed and specific, and which might thus be used as some kind of effective test. However, these have limited scope (only covering certain types of scientific disciplines or only pertaining to particular stages in the historical development of the sciences) and they usually represent a specific viewpoint within the scope of legitimate scientific disagreement.

On the other hand, often people invoke broad generic characterizations of science such as “Science is systematically gathering evidence in order to construct and test abstract theories”. This might be sufficient to rule out certain activities from being science, for example, when somebody who just invents a theory and never tries to test it with any sort of evidence but nevertheless describes what they are doing as “science”. Such cases might be called pseudoscience, and could easily be rejected as not being science based on not seeking or responding to evidence (so in this sense there is a limited litmus test). However, it could be misleading to call such examples pseudoscience since they don’t even have the appearance of science. Generally, to be pseudo-something, you need to appear to be the real deal while actually being ersatz. We might be better to categorize such claims to being “science” as examples of ideology, hucksterism, cultish thinking, or conspiracy theory.

It is only when people put real effort into at least appearing that they are gathering evidence and making arguments for their theories that questions of science vs. pseudoscience raise distinctive issues. For example, think of parapsychology researchers or climate change denying climatologists or anti-vaccine doctors. (I do not mean to imply that those three examples all have equal epistemic status, just that all might be considered pseudoscience by some.) In cases like these (which are the sort of cases that matter) no generic account of scientific method will be sufficient to differentiate science and from pseudoscience.

Another issue is that even within the legitimate sciences and legitimate scientific research institutions, there are many examples of research that is sloppy, biased, or even fraudulent. It would not be right to mistake badly done science with pseudoscience (although if an entire field were riddled with such poor methodology we might say this). So any proposed litmus test would need a way not just to evaluate specific research as good or bad science but to determine whether this research is part of a larger discipline of scientific research that is somehow self-correcting. Legitimate sciences respond to fraud and scandal by trying to develop mechanisms to prevent similar abuses in the future. However, these protective mechanisms are never perfect and change over time.

Finally, these considerations point to something else. There is no all-or-nothing, once-and-for-all answer to the question of whether something science or pseudoscience. It is a matter of degree how epistemically reliable a given discipline’s scientific methodologies are and this reliability fluctuates over time.

In short, we should not be seeking a simple test for whether something is science or pseudoscience. Instead we should ask for an understanding of what makes research programs more or less based on reason and evidence, as well as more or less self-correcting in the face of abuses, corruption, and ideology. Such an understanding would be quite complex and not amenable to being turned into a simple test. This is the kind of knowledge one develops from through a broad education in critical thinking and by studying the history and philosophy of science.

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