Sunday, May 6, 2012

Pseudoscience vs. Pathological Science

A comment asking about pathological science was left on my post about cryptozoology, so it's probably worth contrasting the two kinds of "science gone wrong".
  • Pathological science is basically being led astray by wishful thinking and excitement while making observations at the very limits of perception.
    • Pseudoscience is basically holding beliefs that are not subject to observation or experiment but still claiming they are scientific facts or theories.
  • Pathological science is usually experimental in nature. 
    • Most pseudoscientists call themselves theorists.
  • People involved in pathological science tend to have the degrees and backgrounds that would prepare them for real science.
    • Pseudoscientists are more often self-educated or amateurs. 
  • Because of the background and experience of the person who generates pathological science, his idea is often widely accepted among the scientific community at first.  However, as time goes on others find it difficult or impossible to replicate the initial successes; this becomes much more noticeable as experimental equipment improves.  As a result, support for the idea diminishes to practically zero. 
    • Pseudoscience is less likely to become popular in the scientific community.  Because it does not depend on observation or experiment for validation, it tends to persist at a more-or-less constant, low level of support from the general public. 
A few important things must be pointed out.
  • Real science may give wrong results through honest mistakes or bad luck.  Pathological science or pseudoscience may be factually correct through dumb luck.  The real difference between them is that real science has a methodology that can be trusted to generally yield good answers and to eventually correct itself when it is wrong. 
  • A hypothesis can come from anywhere and still yield good science -- as long as it is subject to being tested by observation or experiment.  A good example is Heinrich Schliemann's discovery of Troy from geographic clues in Homer's Iliad.
  • The scientific community can get caught up in pseudoscience, too, because scientists are also people.  A notable example is the rise of "Aryan physics" in the Third Reich, which involved some really big names in physics, and some Soviet science was likewise distorted by politics.


  1. Thanks! That definitely answers my question. I am going to print this and show it to my students.

  2. Wow thanks! So interesting and useful! Really needed to know this.