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There are many theories/disciplines that have been categorized as pseudoscience in the scientific community.

The list includes many things that are regularly even quoted in media like graphology, astrology, psychoanalysis, personality types, etc.


  • What attracts people to such theories? Do any cognitive biases make people believe them easily? Which part of pseudosciences acts as a stimulus that triggers this cognitive bias?

  • If there's a cognitive bias behind people believing in pseudoscience, knowing that a majority of the population does that – is there any term for such a phenomenon in social psychology?

  • A majority of the population believes in some kind of pseudoscience. Does this signify an evolutionary aspect of our minds – that people are still evolving into better species that might one day believe in proper science? Pseudoscience seems to be older than science; correct me if I am wrong here.

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note the irony of your last question. You make a teleological statement about evolution -- a common mistake of pseudoscience ;). –  Artem Kaznatcheev Aug 16 '12 at 20:47
Oh, there is a term for it!! Thanks for pointing that out. Even a greater irony is that I subscribed to this pseudoscience without even knowing it exists!! LOL –  Forbidden Overseer Aug 17 '12 at 10:36
pseudoscience psychology / wikipedia –  vzn Feb 12 '14 at 18:55
@forbidden-overseer: some do help and work for people and there are gaps in science. There is an element of art to life that has real outcomes and can not always be organized in thought. –  Greg McNulty Feb 13 '14 at 4:58
There's more than one answer, but regarding medical quackery, I wonder if the placebo effect plays a role. Placebos have a demonstratable benefit over doing nothing, and when actual treatment is unavailable or prohibitively expensive, belief in chicken noodle soup is perfectly rational. When you tell someone that the soup does nothing, you are taking away the benefit of the soup. I'm assuming here that people are unconsciously aware of their self-deception, and we're getting into pascal's wager territory here, so feel free to downvote. –  JKDDOW Apr 12 '14 at 22:14

3 Answers 3

up vote 40 down vote accepted

There are two great TED talks that together help shed some light on your question:

  1. David Deutsch (2005) "A new way to explain explanation", and
  2. Richard Dawkins (2009) "Why the universe seems so strange"

At a fundamental level, science is about explanation (and sometimes using that explanation to make predictions). Thus, to most people, science is useless unless the understand the story it tells. The problem with modern science is to have a good grasp of its explanatory power, you need a lot of (often difficult) background. As you gain this background, you develop what Feynman would call the most fundamental skill in science: always questioning, being able to say "I don't know", and to hold contrasting ideas together. If you don't invest in acquiring this background, most of science seems like witchcraft passed down by ivory-tower academics in funny gowns and hats.

What pseudoscience (or even cargo-cult science) provide is explanations that require less background, purport to be more certain, have something for everyone (Forer effect), and reassure you that "there is an answer". If you look at much of pseudoscience (or ancient myths) more closely, you will notice that they tend to personify their subject matter much more than science (my favorite example is the homunculus fallacy). They use this personification to provide agency, intent, and meaning to their explanations.

The great advantage of these human stories is that our minds are optimized for them. If you subscribe to Dunbar's Social Brain Hypothesis, then one of the main things evolution produced is a mind built to understand social structure, and other people. When an agent does not adhere to its role and violates our theory-of-mind and behaves erratically, without discernible intent and meaning, this is dangerous to us and our society; it causes us great discomfort. When you hijack the social mind to try to explain further and further afield parts of nature, you try to build the same sort of characters.

When you have to say "I don't know" or "I don't understand" this character, it creates discomfort. Pseudoscience thrives on this by giving an arbitrary, simple, shallow and easy to change explanation. Since most lay-people never pursue this explanation far enough to notice its contradictions, and since it shapes their observations (in the Popper-sense and through confirmation bias) they never get a strong enough cognitive-dissonance to overcome to positive feeling of having an understandable 'explanation'.

Unfortunately, all I can do in this answer is provide a intuitively appealing, intent and agency based explanation. Reread my answer and make note of unnecessary personifications I made -- just like much of pseudoscience, science is a story and there is the biggest rub.

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I think the answer is OK, but there is a point in which I strongly disagree. You say that science provides explanation and, sometimes, predictions. If science is not required to provide predictions beyond the observed data, it's no different from myth and religion. Indeed your answer is scientific in this sense: it predicts that, whenever a pseudoscience succeeds it's always through extensive use of personification. –  Javier Rodriguez Laguna Aug 23 '12 at 8:32
Prediction is mandatory, a nice story is not. A nice story to help understand is strongly recommended, sure. But science can proceed without. E.g., quantum mechanics as seen by Bohr. Without the ability to make predictions, science is just another narrative. –  Javier Rodriguez Laguna Oct 14 '12 at 20:30
@ArtemKaznatcheev, your definition of science is extremely weak. It is hard to distinguish from religion or philosophy. I am a physicist myself, you might have guessed that much :), and I do believe that other wannabe sciences should be modelled with our same level of demand, no less. Physics, and any good science, is predictive every day, not just at special romantic situations. I use predictions in my daily work. That's why everybody relies on physics, they put their lives in our hands, e.g.: when you travel by plane. And nobody would risk their lives on the predictions of e.g. economy. –  Javier Rodriguez Laguna Oct 16 '12 at 14:03
I'm wandering if this desire for an "explanation" plagues scientists as well, only in the form of "publication bias", where positive explanations are far more likely to get published than "I tried, but still don't know" ones. –  Alex Stone Nov 3 '12 at 7:40
An addition to your great answer, Artem Kaznatcheev: Science produces knowledge, but people are interested in solutions. Much of scientific knowledge is either too complicated for the average person to understand or not yet applicable to reality due to its own incomplete understanding. It is a common error in reasoning among scientists, when they believe that science explains anything. It usually doesn't. For example, if I want to buy a new car and can't decide, should I study economics and engineering, or throw a coin? Throwing the coin is the recommended practice. –  what Aug 21 '13 at 13:19

Perhaps people are attracted to these theories in part because of the inability for mainstream science to answer anomalies.

The occasion of governmental

  • lying,
  • hiding of technology, and
  • corruption,

helps reinforce the idea that there exists real Science that is not known to the mainstream. In the absence of trust, people contemplate the possibilities (imagination) by which the breach of trust could harm them.

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I agree. People may, for instance, believe there is profit motive for modern medicine to "make good customers" of you by managing symptoms rather than effecting a cure; therefore, those people may choose to believe in alternative medicines. –  Randy Aug 21 '13 at 14:23

There are now many full-length books that focus on this deep, complex question about human nature/psychology and note newer/ongoing/active research in the area, some of it cited in them.

But some counterpoint from the reverse, flip side. Science is a complex, evolving, and at times subtle field in a way that was not fully recognized largely until the research in Kuhnian shifts.

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protected by Artem Kaznatcheev Apr 13 '14 at 0:51

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