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Pseudoscience: Distinguishing the Quack from the Credible

Navigating health-related advice on the internet is confusing. Infact, it’s a minefield. Just typing “back ache” into “Dr Google” generates over one million results. Were do you go to next?

Twitter:  helena_fordham

Navigating health-related advice on the internet is confusing. Infact, it’s a minefield. Just typing “back ache” into “Dr Google” generates over one million results.  Were do you go to next? Whilst some of these results will offer advice that is sensible, safe and based upon sound evidence, an alarmingly high percentage will make dubious statements and claim to be precisely the cure you’ve been looking for.  It’s impossible to avoid untrustworthy advice these days, so how do you distinguish the quackery from the credible?

What is pseudoscience?

Collins Dictionary defines pseudoscience as “a discipline or approach that pretends to be, or has a close resemblance to science”.  In other words, pseudoscience is “non-science” masquerading as genuine science (clear as mud?). Like it or loathe it, science is our most reliable source of medical knowledge.  Medicine uses up-to-date and reliable evidence, enabling clinicians to safely care for patients according to their individual needs and circumstances.

How to recognise pseudoscience – some general pointers

  • Pseudoscience is aimed at the general public and as such is not verified by appropriately qualified professionals (and no, celebrity endorsements don’t count).
  • Lacks detail and makes sweeping statements.  For instance, “do this and you need never fear Parkinson’s/stroke/cancer again” (delete as appropriate).
  • Claims to be able to cure a disease (such as cancer) that is not yet fully understood by medical science.
  • Whereas bona fide science relies upon analytical thinking and self-questioning to arrive at a definite answer, pseudoscience lacks good quality research to back up its elaborate claims.
  • Pseudoscience will frequently contain spelling and grammatical errors.
  • Any research discussed are described in the vaguest of terms with little/no mention of the methods used.
  • Pseudoscience relies heavily on anecdotal evidence. Just because your neighbour’s grandmother swears that bone broth cured her arthritis, it doesn’t mean it actually works or that it will work for you.
  • Limitations and flaws are overlooked, excused, concealed, forgotten or avoided (reliable science is transparent and admits its weaknesses).
  • Pseudoscience typically attempts to persuade the reader by appealing to their emotions, faith and beliefs. Pseudoscience wants to convert not convince.
  • The reader will not learn anything concrete other than the idea being “pushed”.
  • Pseudoscience often appears alongside adverts selling questionable products (courses, books or supplements for instance).

This list is by no means exhaustive. Nor is all pseudoscience complete nonsense, ineffective, or all of its authors charlatans. Indeed, the authors may well understand elements of their topic and have no ill intents.  However, a little knowledge can be dangerous when used incorrectly, and their claims rarely compare to the evidence based counterparts.

Pseudoscience can be dangerous (a quick search on children’s health remedies throws up particularly worrying results).  It can also delay people from accessing urgent medical treatment. Stick to reputable sources such as NHS Choices, and remember that if something sounds to be good to be true, it almost certainly is.  Finally, question everything that you read and hear, and check any concerns with your doctor.

Any opinions above are the author’s alone and may not represent those of his/her affiliations. Any comment is based on the best available evidence at the time of writing.  All data is based on externally validated studies unless expressed otherwise. Novel data is representative of sample surveyed. Online recommendation is no substitute for seeing your own doctor and should not be taken as medical advice. Article reviewed for publication by Lewis Germain

Image courtesy of Pixabay

 Links and further reading:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26720821

https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/pseudoscience

http://www.bmj.com/content/312/7023/71

http://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/health-quackery-spotting-health-scams?page=2

http://www.nhs.uk/pages/home.aspx

http://europepmc.org/articles/pmc4893033

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About Helena A L Fordham (5 Articles)
MMedSci student in Human Nutrition at the University of Sheffield. BSc (Hons) BA (Hons). Passionate about evidence based research.

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