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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

4 Answers 4

up vote 39 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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The problem may be in clarifying WHO IS REALLY CALLED UPON to distinguish science from pseudoscience. If we would say that a medical doctor is a man of science, then how do we explain the "second opinion" which may suggest a different diagnosis and a different procedure even though both doctors are of the same fund of scientific knowledge? Does that make medicine an "interpretive science", or even an "interpretive art"? And what if straightforward answers can't even come from those who signed those doctors' diplomas - simply because science is not finite, every day it gets corrected with new findings. Now and then an honest doctor will admit that the human nature is so complex that "modern" medicine is still in its diapers.

Are we really following the intellectual arrogance of all past eras that claimed to hold the bag with the Truth? I would say that progress always comes from those who dare to think out of the box, who dare question the validity of what we "know". It's a cheap blow to call them "pseudoscientific". Even the lay masses who seem to be attracted to the "unknown" and offering their clumsy explanations - are the very people with some exploring spirit, something that this world needs so badly.

It's a paradox that science, so opposed to religion actually shows symptoms of a religion, guarding its beliefs, threatening those daring brains with excommunication. - There are doctors who openly admit that most of prescription medications would be worthless without the help of placebo effect. Then why is placebo effect such a dirty word? Why not explore more about its potential. Maybe so called "pseudoscience" is an outcry of humanity after the so called "science", with all its technology hasn't made man's life essentially better.

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What does this have to do with the question? Yes, medical diagnosis is an interpretive art. There are thousands of cognitive science papers spanning decades of research comparing expert judgment-based diagnosis with algorithmic and actuarial diagnosis. –  Christian Hummeluhr Apr 22 at 8:38
"Then why is placebo effect such a dirty word?" It is not? It is a scientifically observed effect explaining the effects of a treatment without any measurable physiological effects. There are plenty of scientific studies on it ... "It's a paradox that science, so opposed to religion actually shows symptoms of a religion, guarding its beliefs, threatening those daring brains with excommunication." This is a very common argument against science which simply does not hold. What differentiates science from belief is exactly that it is falsifiable, and when done so its views are readjusted. –  Steven Jeuris Apr 22 at 9:38
This does not provide an answer to the question. To critique or request clarification from an author, leave a comment below their post - you can always comment on your own posts, and once you have sufficient reputation you will be able to comment on any post. –  AliceD Apr 22 at 10:04
The question was: "What makes people easily subscribe to pseudoscientific theories?" I thought by "people" the author meant general, lay population (myself included), not academia. And "people" mostly respond to effects of those sciences which have something to do with their well being. I don't think that an ordinary thinking Joe cares much about theoretical clashes between top scientists. So, it has been my impression that people's resorting to pseudoscience stems from their growing mistrust to mainstream science (medicine in particular) upon all dark statistics and personal experiences. –  Val 2 days ago
No matter how "well studied", placebo and "nocebo" have been a cause of frustration of doctors and pharmacologists with the effectiveness of sugar pills and fake surgeries which keep questioning validity of some standard procedures. As the field of the mind-body connection is gaining in popularity and its applications, the mechanistic and reductionist view of mainstream medicine seems to be losing its credibility. Not because I say so, but because so many doctors are shifting towards energy medicine and alike modalities. So, the expression "dirty word" was used in that context. –  Val 2 days ago

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

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