Post No.: 0223
Pseudoscience is presented to look and sound a lot like science but it’s not really science at all. For instance, a lot of media stories are about mere speculation (i.e. no actual study has been carried out for their claims) from certain ‘experts’ who want some publicity for themselves and/or are getting paid to say certain things (e.g. claiming to have ‘found the formula’ for something, such as the perfect holiday, in order to ultimately promote some holidays or holiday wear/accessories).
Like the most convincing lies, pseudoscience may involve a small grain of truth, but which has been misrepresented or warped into something that is simply not true. They often use visceral images and videos (e.g. computer generated images of molecules ‘dissolving’ viruses) to increase their persuasive power. Pseudoscience can also be used to fill pages cheaply with minimal journalistic effort, to reinforce stereotypes, or to give readers what they want to hear. Pseudoscience has superficial plausibility, and is expressed rapidly and repeatedly, as if ‘the more people hear it and believe in it, the more true it must be’ (an ad populum fallacy). They exploit our crude and fallible intuition that ‘if it looks or sounds like something – in this case a good scientific explanation – then it must be that something’.
Entrepreneurs often masquerade as ‘gurus’, ‘professors’ or ‘doctors’ – pseudoscience stories often come from public relations companies working for people who are surreptitiously trying to sell or promote something (all universities have PR departments and play the PR game too). These kinds of ‘news’ stories are attached to (usually less-than-clearly-declared-or-transparent) clients or sponsors who are ultimately trying to receive some PR to promote their own products or brands. A significant amount of news stories are at least partially constructed from second-hand materials and press releases provided by news agencies and the PR industry – promotional activities masquerading as news or uncritical rehashings of press releases moulded into content, or churnalism.
People may read such stories as ‘new scientific research’ when it’s just the hypotheses or opinions of a (sponsored) academic. Journalists are often pressured or incentivised to write this fuzzy nonsense up as ‘science news’. A story may claim that a mere survey is a reliable scientific study – for example, a PR company produces a survey of sexy walks for their client (who sells hair removal cream), and is looking for a doctor of psychology to come up with an ‘equation’ to work out which celebrity has the sexiest walk, with some ‘theory’ behind it to back up their survey finding (which they’ve totally fabricated) and to give it some weight – so the PR company specifically tells the academic virtually what they want written, and the academic in turn gets paid a fee to have their name attached to the PR firm’s ‘research’ (academics are human too and so can have human fallibilities and temptations to primarily serve their own self-interests too)! The academic and his/her university will also receive some publicity for themselves in the process. Lots of doctors from universities put their names to ‘advertising value equivalent’ (AVE) exposure for PR companies. (AVE is the calculated equivalent value of the media coverage gained by a PR campaign had it been paid for via advertising.)
As expressed in Post No.: 0174, not all types of scientific studies are equal – but fabricating findings is outright fraud and academics who write what they’ve been told to write by whoever’s paying them are unprincipled. If caught out, excuses may come that include ‘it was clearly just for fun’ or ‘we don’t all do it all of the time’. These stories are not science but pseudoscience, yet most readers will think they are hard science because they sound ‘science-y’, and so many readers are often misled, duped and confused about the field of science as a whole because their sources of ‘science news’ are such stories frequently found in the popular mainstream or social media.
Commercials are frequently crammed with intentionally opaque jargon and proprietary brand names that sound ‘technical’ and fancy (e.g. listen to all of those apparently ‘high tech’ ingredients found in shampoo or cosmetics adverts). Most people don’t want to question technical terms in case they seem stupid in front of others, but people will be stupid not to if they don’t truly understand them because frequently they’re just made-up or over-hyped marketing BS! Technical or marketing jargon is used in order to mystify and overcomplicate simple or made-up things in order to make them sound more impressive or exotic than they really are (e.g. peptides, or even better, pentapeptides!) and to foster consumer dependence upon their products because the consumer is unaware that the same results can be achieved else-how or elsewhere for far cheaper. In other words, the marketed USP of an advertised product is frequently not that exclusive at all (if the USP even has any real independent scientific support for what it claims it does at all) but is made to sound exclusive and proprietary.
To non-experts in a particular field, spurious terms and statements that sound ‘science-y’ and ‘technical’ add credibility, and quacks and professionals have known this trick and have exploited it for centuries, such as much of the jargon used in astrology, or neuro-linguistic programming, which is a great example of pseudoscience, or in alternative medicine to make the claims of their ‘treatments’ sound more credible. These examples also show how far from rational humans are because these pseudoscientific industries persist despite the consistent debunking of their claims via proper scientific methods. Yet jargon is not exclusive to pseudoscience e.g. lawyers and accountants use terms like ‘affidavit’ or ‘escrow’ rather than ‘sworn statement’ or ‘third-party holding account’ in order to make their professions seem more difficult to understand than they really are so that their services will be relied upon more by people who get scared about not understanding what all those terms mean.
This type of jargon bolsters these people’s authority (and ego) over their clients via an information asymmetry. This means that they can claim to ‘justify’ charging over-inflated fees too. We should take everything on a case-by-case basis but the general strategy is to give the impression that you cannot do or make something yourself and/or this stuff is different to everyone else’s, and so you will ‘need to’ pay for their goods or services or give them the job and pay them handsomely for it, when you can sometimes do or make that thing yourself or at least get it done or bought for cheaper elsewhere – or you may ultimately decide not to utilise their goods or services in the first place because they’re not necessary or they won’t work as claimed anyway (e.g. a lot of things regarding governmental services are free and simple to apply for, but opportunistic businesses crop up to make these processes sound difficult and so offer to do them for you for an otherwise unnecessary fee). The jargon makes information that’s already freely available elsewhere seem proprietary and overcomplicated. By carving a ‘technical niche’ for oneself, one pretends one has exclusive information or tricks that the client cannot obtain elsewhere or for cheaper, thus disempowering clients because they cannot assess their true options in the market properly.
Having said all that though, this doesn’t mean that all complex sounding stuff that one doesn’t personally understand is mumbo-jumbo – some complex or technical stuff is true and there are no simpler or more efficient terms to describe them (e.g. in the field of quantum mechanics; although, as a slight detour, science fiction movies often misapply real phenomena to explain fictional or yet-proven phenomena, but movies are made to entertain, not primarily teach – they’re supposed to be believable rather than necessarily represent reality), thus it’s up to oneself to learn what is true and what is bunkum, and not rely on crude rules of thumb. Well, assessing things on a case-by-case basis is what a critical thinker must do.
And if you don’t understand something then never be afraid to ask questions with somebody independent about it – after all, people who ask questions are the least likely to get duped, hence asking questions is what clever people do, and passively accepting things without question, even if you dearly hope them to be true because it’ll solve your problems, is what poor saps and fools do. Pseudoscience sadly typically exploits the vulnerable or insecure who are desperate for cures or treatments for their ailments or problems. Although, like any other type of con, it also exploits the greedy too.