Fake news, alternative facts, misinformation. These buzzwords have been making headlines all too regularly in the last few years. Who to trust and how to tell apart well-executed science from bunk has become increasingly challenging amidst the information overload of our internet era. The edited collection Pseudoscience: The Conspiracy Against Science brings together 22 contributions that examine the problem of pseudoscience from a variety of perspectives. The unbelievable things people believe in may be easy to mock, but, as this book makes clear, they are no laughing matter.
Despite the book’s strident title, the foreword immediately moderates the tone by pointing out that it is actually surprisingly difficult to clearly separate science from pseudoscience (this is known as the demarcation problem, see Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem). It is pretty straightforward to recognise the extremes at either end, but there is a grey area in between. An example is Christopher French’s chapter on parapsychology (telekinesis, telepathy, etc.) where he describes his journey from believer to arch-sceptic to moderate sceptic to someone who argues that the study of these phenomena can be done in a scientifically sound way, even though he still does not believe they are real. I feel this equally applies to the fringe discipline of cryptozoology (Abominable Science!: Origins of the Yeti, Nessie, and other Famous Cryptids has to be one of the best critical books on this topic).
Several chapters deal with the psychological side of pseudoscience, asking why we can be so easily fooled, and why thinking rationally can be so hard. These deal with cognitive development from childhood to adulthood and how we learn to think critically, and innate cognitive biases such as confirmation bias, pattern recognition, and seeing causality where there is none, all of which can reinforce incorrect beliefs. Several more chapters put forward ideas on how to combat pseudoscience. More and better education seems an obvious answer, with Herreid in chapter 18 specifically suggesting the dissection of case studies in a collaborative setting instead of fact-based learning. Another interesting suggestion is using cases of failure in science to publicly show how a discipline deals with this and is a self-correcting enterprise.
“it is actually surprisingly difficult to clearly separate science from pseudoscience”
Personally, I found chapters 12 and 13 about the rise of “predatory” journals the most eye-opening. I am in favour of open access publishing (the model whereby publications are free to tax-payers and authors pay the publisher to get their articles published), but there is a flip-side to it. A veritable cottage industry of prestigious-sounding journals has sprung up that, with minimal or no peer review, will publish pretty much anything you are willing to pay them for. This means that the scientific literature is becoming polluted with fringe science and unverified nonsense. Consequently, it is hard for science journalists and the general audience to tell apart good science from bogus. After all, having your ideas published in a scientific journal grants them a degree of legitimacy as readers traditionally have trusted on journals to act as gatekeepers. This system is now crumbling as the rise of unscrupulous predatory journals is eroding this trust.
About half of the book deals with practical examples of pseudoscientific “disciplines” (I shudder to use that word in this context). Kevin Folta contributes a strident rant in chapter 5 on the misguided fight against genetic engineering. Even though I reviewed Lynas’s Seeds of Science: Why We Got It So Wrong on GMOs recently, Folta serves up many other examples of the poorly argumented and misguided claims that anti-GMO activists bandy about. Alternative medicine repeatedly gets a well-deserved beating. Britt Marie Hermes’s whistle-blowing story, lifting the lid on naturopathy, is shocking. She quit naturopathy after she could no longer bear prescribing cancer patients homoeopathic treatments and advising parents against vaccinating their children. Unfortunately, this is not stopping the incorporation of “integrative” medicine (homoeopathy, energy healing, acupuncture and other quackery) in health care institutes throughout the US. The book leads the reader even deeper into the dark underbelly of pseudoscience when discussing the anti-vaccine movement and AIDS denialism. This is where the body count rises and it becomes impossible to maintain that there is no harm in entertaining wacky ideas.
“[naturopaths] prescribing cancer patients homeopathic treatments, the anti-vaccine movement, and AIDS denialism: this is where the body count rises and it becomes impossible to maintain that there is no harm in entertaining wacky ideas”
The field of pseudoscience is enormous, and this book is not intended to give an authoritative overview. Even so, I was surprised not to find any chapters dealing with creationism / Intelligent Design or with the distortion of climate science (is the latter pseudoscience or conspiracy theory? But if you are including a chapter on AIDS denialism… you see where I am going with this). Both of these areas are dealt with in depth elsewhere, so a point can be made not to include them here. I have included a small selection of recommended books at the end of this review to get the interested reader started. Instead, the book deals with hypnosis and intelligence tests – both can have some value when used correctly, but they are often abused – and the descent of drug prevention research into a pseudoscience. And then there is a curious chapter on risky play in children and how being overprotective harms children as they grow up, as evidenced by the rise of safe spaces and trigger warnings in the US educational system. I’m not quite sure what this chapter is doing in a book about pseudoscience.
The last few years have seen the publication of a crop of excellent titles dealing with pseudoscience and misinformation, both with causes (e.g. Creating Scientific Controversies: Uncertainty and Bias in Science and Society, The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters, and Respecting Truth: Willful Ignorance in the Internet Age) and countermeasures (e.g. Making Sense of Science: Separating Substance from Spin, A Survival Guide to the Misinformation Age: Scientific Habits of Mind or the second edition of Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk). All these books have a very clear focus. My concern is that Pseudoscience ends up being a bit of a jack-of-all-trades: too diverse to have a clear focus, but, despite 500+ pages, not diverse enough to be considered an authoritative overview. As it stands, the book presents a diverse – at times slightly eclectic – collection of chapters, most of which I found well written and interesting, some even outright fascinating. No matter from what angle you approach this topic, this book is bound to have multiple chapters that will intrigue you.
Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.
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Other recommended books mentioned in this review:
A small selection of books debunking creationism and climate change denialism: