What is Pseudoscience?


A Nurturing Potential report - Part II



Shooting yourself in the foot is unfortunate; doing it repeatedly suggests a disorder rather than misfortune. 

 How scientific is psychotherapy?

 In Issue No. 15 of Nurturing Potential a pseudoscience was described as an established body of knowledge that masquerades as science in an attempt to claim a legitimacy that it would not otherwise be able to achieve.

Psychotherapy has often been accused of being pseudoscientific.  The different techniques for curing or alleviating mental or emotional disorders that shelter under the general umbrella of psychotherapy frequently are not tested scientifically.  When such tests have been carried out to demonstrate the effectiveness of a particular therapy and then compared with results obtained from a placebo alternative, too often there has been little evidence of the efficacy of one option or the other.

What is beyond doubt is that the last part of the twentieth century, particularly the 1970s and 1980s, produced a proliferation of therapies aiming to cash in on the increasing demand for miracle cures from an increasingly gullible public.  Particularly was this the case during the incredible growth in New Age therapies, at a time of virtually no State regulation, when many so-called therapies were nothing more than sophisticated snake oil.[1]

According to the Skeptic’s Dictionary “successful therapy should not require one to believe in God, reincarnation, alien abductions, possession by entities, inner children, primal pains, channelling, miracles, or any other metaphysical, religious or pseudoscientific notion.”

This may be regarded as too extreme a judgement.  Certainly there are many who take the pragmatic view “if it works, don’t knock it”.  But this introduction is not intended to judge, merely to describe.

It is salutary, however, to recognise that no prolonged period of study, nor conventional medical knowledge, is required for most practitioners of a psychotherapy.  To a great extent the popularity of psychotherapy is akin to the popularity of sliced bread in our age of "the instant solution".  And just as sliced bread may be lacking in the taste and benefit to the digestive system of an old-fashioned freshly baked loaf, so the long-term effect of an apparently successful "cure" by a "miracle" therapy, may be preferred by some to the lengthier, but more scientific, treatment by conventional methods.  This view may be reinforced by doubts even amongst medical practitioners about the efficacy of psychiatric treatment at the present time.

Paul R. McHugh, Henry Phipps Professor and Director of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, has written:[2]         

 During the thirty years of my professional experience, I have witnessed the power of cultural fashion to lead psychiatric thought and practice off in false, even disastrous, directions. . .   Roughly every ten years, from the mid-1960s on, psychiatric practice has condoned some bizarre misdirection, proving how all too often the discipline has been the captive of the culture. . .   Psychiatry may be more vulnerable to such errors than other clinical endeavours, given its lack of checks and correctives, such as the autopsies and laboratory tests that protect other medical specialities.  But for each error, cultural fashion provided the inclination and the impetus. . .

We psychiatrists don't know the secret of human nature.  We cannot build a New Jerusalem.  But we can teach the lessons of the past.  We can describe how our explanations for mental disorders are devised and develop - where they are strong and where they are vulnerable to misuse.  We can clarify the presumptions about what we know and how we know it . . .  With effort and good sense, we can construct a clinical discipline that, while delivering less to fashion, will bring more to patients and their families.

This is, perhaps, more than can be said by psychotherapists.

Is all psychotherapy pseudoscientific?

There are, of course, psychotherapies that claim to have been empirically tested.  One such is Cognitive Therapy, also known as Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT), developed in the 1970s by Aaron T. Beck.  Beck, a doctor who had a psychoanalytic practice, was frustrated by the slow progress of his patients.  His attempt to find a more effective and rapid therapeutic approach resulted in CBT, essentially a method that identifies and helps a person to correct specific errors in distorted thoughts that produce negative or painful feelings.  The techniques and strategies employed over a comparatively brief period of treatment were effectively employed – with apparently enduring results – in such situations as anger management, relaxation training, assertiveness training, and a variety of traumas.

In effect CBT believes that the way we perceive situations influences how we feel emotionally.  If we react positively, we feel happy; if we react negatively, we feel sad and discouraged.  When people are in distress, they often do not think clearly and their thoughts are distorted in some way. Cognitive therapy helps people to identify their distressing thoughts and to evaluate how realistic the thoughts are. Then they learn to change their distorted thinking.  When they think more realistically, they feel better. The emphasis is also consistently on solving problems and initiating behavioural change.

There are a number of other therapies that are not necessarily stigmatised by the term pseudoscientific.  Some of these may be described as alternative therapies, others, in seeking to attain a degree of respectability, prefer to call themselves complementary therapies, i.e. putting themselves forward as complementing orthodox medical treatment rather than being an alternative option to medical treatment.

Perhaps the best known of these is acupuncture, to which some general practitioners and hospitals nowadays refer patients.  Similar types of therapy, using the body's meridian pressure points, are acupressure, various forms of massage, and reflexology.  These come more conveniently under the heading of protoscience rather than pseudoscience where there is a reasonable expectation that as they are experimentally examined, they may produce some scientifically valid results. They are, at least, accessible to experimental examination.

Pseudoscience and Protoscience

Protoscience differs from Pseudoscience in that it is a hypothesis which has not yet been tested adequately by the scientific method, but which is either consistent with existing science or, where inconsistent, acknowledges the inconsistency.  Pseudoscience, as mentiioned earlier, is characteristically lacking adequate scientific tests or the possibility of them.  Pseudoscience is often unresponsive to ordinary scientific procedures (e.g., peer review, publication in standard journals). In some cases, no one applying scientific methods could disprove a pseudoscientific hypothesis (i.e. untestable claims) and failure to do so is often cited as evidence of the truth of the pseudoscience.

The boundaries between pseudoscience, protoscience, and "real" science are often unclear to non-specialist observers. They can even be obscure to experts. Many people have tried to offer objective criteria for the term, with mixed success. Often the term is used simply as a pejorative to express the speaker's low opinion of a given field, regardless of any objective measures.

If the claims of a given pseudoscience can be experimentally tested it may be real science, however odd, astonishing, or intuitively acceptable. If they cannot be tested, it is likely pseudoscience. If the claims made are inconsistent with existing experimental results or established theory, it is often presumed to be pseudoscience. Conversely, if the claims of any given "science" cannot be experimentally tested it may not be a real science, however odd, astonishing, or intuitively acceptable.

In such circumstances it may be difficult to distinguish which of two opposing "sciences" are valid; for example, both the proponents and opponents of the Kyoto Protocol on global warming  have recruited the help of scientists to endorse contradictory "scientific" positions, because of differing political goals. This enlistment of science in the service of politics is sometimes called "junk science".  

There is a subset of what is often called pseudoscience which differs from what has been here termed pseudoscience.  Sometimes this is referred to as "nonsense pseudoscience".  Most of these are mathematically based, and the problems are often phrased with tempting simplicity. They often live in a closed system of assumptions and premises, and depend on a faulty interpretation of the rules of that system. While pseudosciences have merely failed to prove themselves true, these undertakings can be proven impossible.

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[1]  The Psychotherapy Handbook (New American Library, 1980) is a guide to more than 250 different therapies in use at the time of publication.

[2]  An article published in The American Scholar, Autumn 1992.