Commentary Science Pseudoscience: the Differences

James Randi

Every time I glance at the shelf in the JREF library that holds only the ten books I've written — substantially enlarged by the different editions in other languages and formats that have ensued, presently 28" of books — I'm aware that all of that combined doesn't add up to one of Carl Sagan's books in respect to the erudition and expertise that is represented there. Carl — and Dick Feynman, Stephen Gould, Martin Gardner, Isaac Asimov, Richard Dawkins, and so many others I've known — all were able to organize their thoughts and their words far more eloquently than I have ever managed. I'm awed by that, and with that fact in mind I lose no opportunity to get to my keyboard and record my thoughts before the inevitability of time catches up with me. I estimate that I have two more books in me. Perhaps quantity will substitute for scholarship.

As I promised — or threatened — last week, I'm offering you here just a simple essay I jotted down a while back. I felt it might interest you, and perhaps give you some ammunition when the grubbies assail you with their nonsense. This is only my own personal view expressed, I'm a layman, and I urge you not to take this as being definitive. I'm sure it can be improved upon, substantially. Here it is….


I'm often asked for my personal definition of "science," and I usually limit it to this: Science is an organized, disciplined, unbiased search for knowledge of the world around us. Given the opportunity, I hasten to add to this my observations that science does not discover "facts," but rather it finds statements (theories, formulae, descriptions) as a result of having examined the real world, statements that describe what may be expected to be found under stated conditions. And, just as importantly, science is always prepared to adjust, reverse, abandon, and/or add/subtract to/from its statements, in order to more closely approach "the truth." Obviously, we can always go on from there to define "truth," which I regard as an unreachable goal (truth, not the definition) — though in spite of Zeno's Paradox, we do eventually and essentially get there. But let's not examine that can of worms….

Science and pseudoscience are exact opposites, as are rationality and religion. Science, as a working method, employs basic principles such as objectivity and accuracy to establish a finding. It often also uses certain admitted assumptions about reality, assumptions that must eventually support themselves and be proven, or the resulting finding fails verification. Pseudoscience, however, uses invented modes of analysis which it pretends or professes meet the requirements of scientific method, but which in fact violate its essential attributes. Many obvious examples of pseudoscience are easy to identify, but the more subtle and therefore more insidious and convincing cases, require better definitions of the attributes involved.

Religion is based on blind faith; it is not evidence-based. It rests on basic beliefs — dogma — that are not derived nor supported by observation or by performance, but by need. It is wishful thinking used to simplify everything; it requires no real thinking. It survives on the need for an uncomplicated and easily explained world, and prides itself on its rejection of rationality. Its mascot/saint is Pollyanna. Religion eschews reason, investigation, and logic, as disturbing and unwanted elements of life. Religion is comforting, but also sophistic and — to me — soporific. I'll have none of it.

For a better understanding of science, it is of primary importance to realize that knowledge is advancing rapidly, in the accelerating mode referred to as "geometric progression." Many times, what was once regarded as legitimate science has later come to be viewed, and shown to be, pseudoscience. I was recently asked by the ABC-TV 20/20 people for examples of science having apparently "proven" something, and then having been forced to admit that it had been wrong. This proved to be a very interesting inquiry; while we still have some demonstrably erroneous ideas such as "cold fusion" with us, certain other just-as-powerful notions in the past rose and fell rather quickly. Phrenology is a good example of that class, one that I offered to ABC. This was a once-science that involved deducing character, abilities, and proclivities by interpreting the bumps and depressions generally found on the skull. It was at one time actually regarded as a legitimate type of psychology, and at the JREF we have a collection of more than forty books dealing with this subject. I must explain that the only reason we have this extensive a section in our library is that it arrived as part of a large shipment from an auction purchase which contained much more valuable material. Those who examine this part of our collection often join me in speculating about the colossal expenditure of time and talent that was squandered in creating such volumes as those shown here in our illustration; books expounding on this delusion can be found on our shelves in five different languages. Today, phrenology is looked upon as just another device invented by naοve scientists, then used by others for duping ignorant laymen. Although its originators (Gall, Spurzheim, Combe) might have actually believed it to be valid, certainly the subsequent practitioners had to have discovered that it was nonsense.

Other once-sciences would include astrology — predicting the future by the stars, palmistry — predicting a person's future and character by "reading the life lines" on the palm, or numerology — predicting one's future by interpreting the order of numbers in the birth date, or the numbered-order of the letters in the name. These were all at one time regarded as fairly reputable sciences, and millions of words were written about them. Courses in some universities were offered in these "ologies," and degrees were awarded. Today they are clearly defined as quackery, though such bed-companions as homeopathy and chiropractic have yet to fully make this transition. I'll add that astrology is still actually offered as a course at the Sorbonne in Paris, at the Kepler College of Astrological Arts Sciences in Lynnwood, Washington, and as part of the standard curriculum at certain Indian Universities. Incredible, but true….

It's comforting to know that some curious and dedicated scientists have actually troubled to look into such strange "discoveries" as "polywater" and "N-rays," and have relegated these to the trash bin — though these phenomena were both thought, at one time, to be glowing examples of progress in chemistry and in physics, respectively. The first was thought to be water with super-wet characteristics; the evidence offered for this conclusion was found to have been the result of laboratory glassware with unnoticed traces of detergent present; that would certainly increase the "wetting ability" of the contents. "N-rays" were a finding of the French at the beginning of the last century — considered by them to be a parallel discovery to the Germans' Rφntgen Rays which we now call "X-rays." N-rays were "found" and investigated by a very prominent and much-awarded Gallic scientist (Renι Blondlot) who claimed that they were emitted by an amazing variety of substances. They were, he said, invisible and very difficult to detect and to evaluate. Indeed they were: they didn't exist at all. Though some 30 scientific papers reporting additional validation and characteristics of the supposed rays had been issued by academics all over the world during the first few months after the announcement of their birth, those reports were all quietly withdrawn when the subject was found to be imaginary. In both polywater and N-rays, science nicely corrected itself, as it was designed to do.

Ah, but don't think that we are presently free of wrong-headed notions originated by trained and accredited scientists. For example, though N-rays are long gone, we now have "E-rays" to deal with. These, discovered recently by German science, are said to originate from unknown sources deep within the Earth, and cannot be detected by any known scientific means — except by dowsing rods and certain hand-held "secret technology" devices. In Europe, special blankets, amulets, and other shielding devices, as well as detecting "meters," are sold widely to protect people from the cancer-inducing effects of this mysterious radiation, and an entire industry has sprung up based upon this totally spurious claim. Here in the United States, we can take great pseudo-pride in the discovery of "cold fusion," a notion that is still prevalent in some circles, joining the free-energy and perpetual-motion claims that have cost countless millions of research dollars that could have been usefully spent.

One problem in identifying pseudoscience is that some loosely-accepted methodological approaches to important questions are partly scientific and partly pseudoscientific, combining legitimate with illegitimate methods, inferences, and/or assumptions. Two examples of this are, first, what's known as naturopathy — a notion which rests partly on verified physiological principles and partly on scientifically unsound ideas of how the human body works, and second, what's called "religious science" — which rests partly on objectively verified psychological principles of suggestibility such as "mind-over-matter" and partly on scientifically unconfirmed notions of bodily processes such as that all illness is "mental" and can be cured by thought alone.

The general features of a pseudoscientific approach to phenomena are those which ignore, deny or violate the essential attributes of valid science. Among the outstanding hallmarks of a pseudoscience are that:


It is illogical, violating one or more of the basic rules of inference, definition, argument, or proof; think of homeopathy and extreme dilution.

Pseudoscience is unsystematic in that its various parts do not necessarily relate to and support each other. It has no consistency; think of astrology vs. astronomy.

It begs for suspension of some basic rules of reason and established modes of examining theories and ideas, claiming exemption from those "outmoded" procedures because of its own far-reaching assumptions; think cold fusion and basic physics.

It is usually subjective rather than objective, often relying on unique personal interpretations of phenomena made by a particular authority — a dogma, a Bible or its equivalent, some sort of oracle, or a charismatic leader, one perceived by his or her followers as having god-like qualities; think of L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology, and of Mary Baker Eddy and Christian Science.

Pseudoscience is "fixed" or "closed" rather than accumulative and progressive; its statements are not changed to agree with new evidence. The Church taught that the Sun was perfect and unblemished, and condemned a real scientist such as Galileo when he found it was marked with spots. They could not incorporate this discovery into their view of their God's creation.

One sure test of any truly scientific statement is its ability to predict the future — to say what will happen under given circumstances. When subjected to valid and objective measures of prediction, pseudoscience performs no better in this respect than does random guesswork alone, in contrast to real science; think of history as predicted by astrology, compared to gravity and s = ut + ½at2.

Since the layman is untrained in the basic intellectual aspects of science, he often cannot distinguish between legitimate scientists and their imitators. All around him, every day, he hears or sees apparent authorities — often with titles, genuine or assumed — who exhort him to believe their assertions. The resolution of this quandary is an overwhelming task for the layman, for who and what is reputable — and therefore reliable — in science, is a question demanding knowledge both of science in general and of the particular field involved. Therefore, the non-specialist is very often confused by conflicting claims made in the name of science. The legitimate scientist himself, at times, can be thus misled when faced with seemingly cogent arguments that lie outside of his field of special knowledge. In parapsychology, this is frequently found: parapsychologists — in common with other scientists — are often unwilling to call in specialists such as conjurers, who may very well have the specialized expertise required to explain factors that would otherwise not be understood — or even noticed — by the observer untrained in that respect.

(Currently, my local PBS-TV stations are featuring both Dr. Wayne Dyer and Dr. Gary Null in their pledging period, to take advantage of the public's taste for quackery. Both these men flaunt degrees, both deal in nonsense. Dyer makes incredibly naοve statements such as that if you just summon up enough determination, "anything is possible," and Null prescribes magnets and other medieval tools to prevent aging. He preaches eternal youth. Now, Null is less than 60 years old, but I recognize dyed hair and make-up, and he looks much older even than I, a man who has 15 years on him. How could that be? My guess is that PBS's most favored peddler of magic, King of Quacks Deepak Chopra, is busy elsewhere selling his nostrums and isn't available to PBS this season.)

There is another false notion commonly held by the layman, that major scientific discoveries are often the products of amateur minds, and therefore that the authority of the scientist is sometimes to be critically suspected. The philosophical assumption of this is that the discovery of some new fact or idea is usually a matter of accident, and therefore that discovery in science is essentially no different than, say, the finding of a buried treasure, and anyone might stumble onto a chest of doubloons without having any education. While there was a time when big discoveries were made by gifted individuals — think of Alexander Fleming and penicillin, Marconi and radio — most developments are now brought about by organized teams or committees; think of the transistor and of Lunar exploration.

Of course, as we have often seen, a few trained scientists are simply charlatans, and a larger percentage are honestly self-deluded. For any scientist to assume that because he is highly educated he cannot therefore be deluded nor deceived, is a grave error. The layman has much greater difficulty differentiating between the real scientists and the scientists who are simply — innocently — wrong and have chosen to take up residence in that fabled — and increasingly crowded — Ivory Tower. While a scientist in a free society has the same right as any other citizen to speak out on any topic he wishes, many reputable scientists choose to speak or write publicly on subjects outside their established fields of accomplishment or expertise. When a scientist purports to speak authoritatively outside his field of knowledge, he may then be exploiting his reputation — accomplishments and attributes — and playing on that reputation to extend his authority in a possibly unrelated field. An academic who has achieved credibility in the field of statistics cannot legitimately claim that he therefore speaks authoritatively on politics, nor that he is able to detect trickery. In today's society, we are very accustomed to see celebrities — all too often people in science — endorsing various products and services that have no relationship whatsoever to their professional lives, and motion picture stars sell soap and mortgage plans freely without arousing very much wonder from the public about why they are found on our TV screens and in our magazines performing this task. We are easily blinded by glamour and reputation, which often do not lend any validation whatsoever to such endorsements. This applies both to movie stars and to Ph.D.s.

Then, too, popular views of science are often colored by a variation of Rousseau's "noble savage" theme — many believe that modern discoveries simply had to have existed in ancient times, and the further back in time, the better. They point to such things as the very early — and successful — use of various plant-derived substances by witchdoctors, and the very early recognition by Chinese scholars of the fundamentals of integral calculus — they discovered how to calculate the area of the circle, but then apparently went no further with this wonderful idea. While it's true that early thinkers often came upon very important discoveries, it was often by accident; digitalis would be an excellent example of an accidental discovery, though its effects needed to be observed and then carefully recorded in order to enter primitive pharmacopoeias. However, determining the area of a shape that could not be simply divided into a set of triangles, took a determined application of intellect and curiosity. That discovery was not stumbled upon; it was purposely sought out.

How often I hear that gleeful cry, "Science doesn't know everything!" or "Science isn't sure of anything!" thrown up to me as evidence of my abysmal naivety. The exultation and jeers increase when I freely admit that both those statements are very true, since that admission seems to establish the imperfection of science, while it does exactly the opposite. Science has never claimed to "know" everything, or for that matter, anything, to any absolute certainty. That is its glory, not its shame. It expresses statements, relationships, and measurements, it predicts outcomes of given circumstances, and it provides information — all of which are tentative though well-founded and dependable to definable degrees. We learn from what science reveals, how to handle and grow within the limitations of our world, how to survive, and how to convey to other generations what we have learned.

 And that is beautiful.


James Randi is a professional magician, author, lecturer, and investigator of unusual claims. His books include The Mask of Nostradamus, The Faith Healers, Flim-Flam!, The Truth About Uri Geller, and Houdini--His Life and Art. He is one of the founders of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) and belongs to numerous humanist and scientific organizations. Freequent contributor of Mukto-Mona.