Bullshit, Pseudoscience, Or Bad Science: Which is It?

Posted on 10 Jan 2015 23:29

See Also What if the Fitness Industry was Really Scientific and Fitness Bullshit and Philosophy: A Fool-Proof Recipe!

What am I doing? Why do I keep returning to this theme of bullshit? As I begin to write this post, that is what I ask myself. And I find that I have an answer. We all have a great need to categorize. To recognize, and to define. Why are conspiracy theories so popular? They simplify. They categorize the unknowable; what may seem like chaos. They bring an illusion of order. So, the question I ask is whether there is order to bullshit, pseudoscience, fraud, lying, bad science, or just plain stupidity. Can we draw a line between them?

I think the answer is yes. Before I start I want to relate a personal anecdote that relates how I, myself, will categorize bullshit based on simple cues that I believe to signal motivation and intention.

Here, I compare Vani Hari "The FoodBabe" and the celebrity cook (I will not call him a chef) Jamie Oliver, the obesity crusader. I was having a discussion with a friend about an NPR article from two days ago Is The Food Babe A Fearmonger? Scientists Are Speaking Out.

Uh, yes, she is, and speak out, scientists! She is a fearmonger. A terrible, lowdown, dirty, fearmonger who just finds big words related to food and says "wow, aren't these big words terrifying?" She pisses me off. She pisses off a lot of people. She does harm.

However, during this conversation about the NPR article, Jamie Oliver came up (probably because I brought him up haha) and I said that he pisses me off worse than Vani Hari.

"What? You can't be serious?" How can Jamie Oliver be worse than Vani Hari?"

Well, what happens when the Food Babe is attacked and questioned? What does she do? She digs in harder. She strengthens her assault and attempts to convince. Does she use weaselly bullshit tactics to do it? Sure. Does she want to make money? Probably. Is she making lots of money? Probably. But, does she BELIEVE? Deep down inside, is there a deluded little voice saying "You're helping." I think yes, to both these questions as well. She is a zealot.

What happens when Jamie Oliver is doubted and questioned? What does he do? Well, he cries. He says "Why can't they see I just want to help? Why do they fight me?" Boo-hoo. He gets absolutely distraught.

What does that signal to most people? Passion? Caring? Disappointment? Not to me. When I put it together with all his other behavior, his misinformation, his terrible cookbooks, his sensationalism, I think it signals bullshit.

When Oliver cries, I do not think it is because he is disappointed that a bunch of kids will become obese because they didn't like his god-awful school lunches. Or because the schools blocked his efforts. I don't think so at all.

"Why can't they see I just want to help?" What do you think that question means? Think on it. What is he expressing disappointment about? Notice that it is about how HE is perceived, rather than about those he purports to want to help?

That's right. This, to me, is a signal of bullshit. Bullshit is about the bullshitter. The bullshitter cares more about how they are perceived than about what they say. Van Hari, quite frankly, is willing to be hated by thousands of people. Jamie Oliver just wants to be loved. Deep down inside, perhaps, he knows that he can't cook and doesn't know what the fuck he is talking about. His concern is that we perceive him as being right and spreading the truth. Does this means he cares about what the truth is? It is not required.

You can rightfully say that I have made sweeping conclusions from a dearth of data. Yes, I have. I could be wrong. I probably am wrong. But it is the exercise that counts, for me. After all, these issues that Van Hari and Jamie Oliver bring up are serious issues and effect people's relationship with food and health. It affects the way they make decisions.

I have a need to categorize these things and, perhaps, I can come close to doing it some day. Of course, bullshit versus zealotry is a fairly easy subject to tackle. The ways in which these differ are fairly obvious. Sure, a zealot can be a bullshitter, and vice versa. But what about when bullshit is compared to that other nasty little bugger we call pseudoscience?

Pseudoscience has a lot of competition besides bullshit. What about bad science? Is that the same? Or scientific fraud? I've said before that I'm not quite ready to deal with those differences. But then, as I continue my reading and education, I keep coming upon materials that are forcing me to do just that. I can't blithely make conclusions concerning Vani Hari versus Jamie Oliver, for example without looking at the pseudoscience angle.

Is Vani Hari hawking pseudoscience? Or is it just bad science? What if someone called it nonscience?

The latter is a good place to start. It is not nonscience. Nonscience implies no value judgement. Nonscience means simply that something is not science. Being a musical critic is a nonscience profession. That is not a judgement. So, Vani Hari does not hawk nonscience. Nonscience just means something is "not scientific." I could do research and gather information, or even evidence, and do a good job of it, but still be in the realm of nonscience.

So, is it bad science? Not everybody bothers to make a distinction. Ben Goldacre, in his book Bad Science: Quacks, Hacks, and Big Pharma Flacks, discusses, among many other topics, homeopathy. A very good case can be made that homeopathy is not really just bad science, but is pseudoscience. Although Goldacre uses the word pseudoscience in the book, he does not bother to make a distinction between the "bad science" in the title and specific instances of pseudoscience that he does discuss. He seems rather to place pseudoscience under the umbrella of bad science. I am quite fine with this decision, but I'm not sure if it really explains the two, once and for all.

The problem is that if we call something bad science, we may NOT mean that it is pseudoscience. The prefix pseudo- speaks to something that is standing in, in a bogus way, for the real thing. It is a sham. It is, essentially, FAKE. So, pseudoscience is fake science.

When we say something is bad, we don't always mean fake. If we say that an apple is bad, we mean it has spoiled. We aren't saying it is not a real apple. This can apply to science, as well. Everyday there are, for example, bad studies published in scientific journals. These are not pseudoscience. The scientists are real and the science they are attempting is real. But, they make mistakes or come to wrong conclusions about their data, etc. After all, designing very good studies that are above reproach is extremely difficult to do. So, with the best intentions, real science can turn out to be bad science.

Does this sound like it is the same as pseudoscience? Is homeopathy, for example, real science with a lot of mistakes in it? Of course not. Homeopathy is fake science. It uses a veneer of scientific sounding concepts and language to make it look similar to real science, if only to the unprepared. It is not based on evidence but relies solely on piles of anecdotes, shifting semantics, and an elaborate framework of sciency sounding concepts, without on iota of clinical evidence of its effectiveness. When the science, or lack thereof, is examined, and it is pointed out that there is nothing in homeopathic preparations but water, or sugar with a drop of water, the pretense to science is abandoned and we are told of mysterious mechanisms which we do not understand. It works via these mysterious mechanisms, even thought there is no evidence it works. This is pseudoscience. It is not real science gone wrong.

So, let's define it: Pseudoscience is anything that is presented as scientific but is not grounded in the scientific process. The scientific method is not used to determine the veracity or lack thereof. There is no evidence which can confirm it or lend credibility to it.

If you think that definition makes it easy to clearly identify pseudoscience versus bad science, think again. The two are quite often bedfellows.

However, media reports of single studies provide a very good example of "bad science." Often, the conclusions in such media coverage are entirely incorrect, even though the study itself is rigorous. The science is real, the articles are bad. This is an example of bad science, not pseudoscience.

What many readers may not be aware of is that scientists themselves often use deceptive and misleading language in describing their work to the media, even when they do no such thing in the actual journal papers they publish. For example, they may overstate the importance of their work in the non-scientific media while maintaining a rigorous devotion to the scientific method and its restraints in their actual work. Is this bad science? Maybe an example will help. What if a scientist calls his work groundbreaking and revolutionary when speaking to the media, when no such language would ever be used in his or her published work?

Here is one that may be more confusing. I just talked about it in my review of Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience. There are claims based on "neuroplasticity" and the idea that brain imaging pioneered by neuroscientists means that we can precisely "train" the brain, and that this is based on neuroscience. Which category is this? Bad science or pseudoscience?

Neuroscience is real. Yet, just about everything you read about it is not real. And here is where we get into trouble. If someone tells you that scientists have taken real-time pictures of the brain in action and discovered a part of the brain that identifies, say, a "disgust center," this is bad science. Yes, certain areas of the brain may light up when we are feeling disgust, but this does not mean that there is a unique center of the brain responsible for feelings of disgust. These same general regions my light up during other emotional states. So, reports of a disgust center, by misrepresenting or making mistakes about real science, is an example of bad science.

If this were all there was too it, it would be easy. But if you look at something like Brain Gym which is extensively used in U.K. schools, you see a mixture of misrepresented neuroscience and completely fake science or pseudoscience. When such a system uses the veneer of pseudoscience to sell its ideas, and we notice the complete and utter nonsense (if we aren't too gullible and impressed by big words) we might, if we don't know any better, conclude that neuroscience is bunk! Ben Goldacre explains the bunk that is Brain Gym in his book, linked above, and I'd encourage you to read about it and the many other examples he gives.

An example of a pseudoscientific claim made by Brain Gym is that students should drink water before learning because water is an essential component of blood and blood carries oxygen to the brain. It also claims that holding water in your mouth will cause the water to be absorbed through the mouth to be transported directly to the brain. This may sound scientific to many people, but it is not based on any evidence. That is, there is no evidence that drinking water before learning enhances learning by increasing oxygen flow to the brain. There is certainly no evidence that holding water in your mouth has anything to do with, well…anything.

Pay enough attention to Brain Gym and you begin to see that it comes down to what I started with: Bullshit. Brain Gym is bullshit. Pseudoscience, I think, may or may not be bullshit. Bad science may or may not be bullshit. I often dismiss all kinds of things I see as nonsense by just calling it bullshit. However, what I have discovered is that the more I become a bullshit detector, the more prone to bullshit I become! It may be that being primed to look for and point out bullshit means, often, that we fail to think critically about the information we see. This habit could cause us to categorize good science gone wrong and pseudoscience the same way: It's all bullshit! But it's not.

It is interesting that the more I look at bullshit as a discrete entity, the more careful I am about where I apply the label. Bad science may well have many merits. It may point the way to new research, for instance. Pseudoscience may well teach us about science by showing us what science is not. Can bullshit teach us anything?

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This page created 10 Jan 2015 23:29
Last updated 06 Aug 2016 19:15

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