The Decline of Pseudoscience?

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Lenny Teytelman Sep 04, 2015

Yesterday, I asked on Twitter whether there are more real scientists or pseudoscience charlatans. To be specific, on Twitter itself, more real or fake scientists? The consensus response was that Oz-like quacks dominate by a lot. Moreover, there was a sense in this thread that pseudoscience power is on the rise.

 

I want to push back on that assumption. No one has pointed me to any quantification of pseudo versus real science communication as a function of time. I don’t have any numbers either, but I see no reason to assume that things are getting worse.

 

1. There are so many loud and opinionated quacks!

That is indisputable. There are many and they cause real and serious harm. But there are also more scientists today than there have ever been (I would even argue too many PhDs). So while there are many charlatans, there are about 10 million folks with science or medical training. That’s a lot of people who can push back on the pseudoscience!

2. The quacks have full time jobs spreading nonsense and profiting from it, while scientists are busy.

Also true. But that has always been the case, and I don’t know if there are more Food Babes today than 20 years ago. I don’t know that they hold more sway. Let’s also not forget that there is a lot of good science programming on National Geographic, PBS, BBC and elsewhere (good example, “Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies”).

Let’s also not forget that all major newspapers have science sections. There are a lot of good science journalists whose job is to spread real science.

3. Newspapers are in decline and more people are getting the news from social media and alternative sources. 

And this is exactly the part that makes me wonder if, in fact, more real science reaches people today. From #2 above, it’s obvious that scientists twenty years ago had little ability to counter the charlatans. However, with blogging and Twitter, more and more scientists are taking the time to push back on the pseudoscience nonsense.

Also, alternative sources include The Daily Show and videos like John Oliver destroying Dr. Oz (7.5m views)

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I am genuinely curious about the science v. pseudoscience trend. It’s important to quantify – because if I am wrong and pseudoscience is actually gaining, we need to get every scientist onto Twitter to push back. And if I am right, we should encourage science outreach and communication, but perhaps not be so depressed about the charlatans.

After all, scams, as evil and harmful as they are, are not unique to science. They are an unfortunate aspect of our society and have been with us throughout all of human history. The 419 scam is terrible, as are sweepstakes, but most people invest via banks and financial planners. There predatory science publishers are a nuisance, but few publish there and essentially no one reads that crap. Swarms of scammers try to leech off of startups, but startups learn quickly and focus on real angels investors and venture capitalists.

I loathe scams and scammers. I take the time to fight them and think it’s critical that we all do more of that. But, I am not sure they are gaining.

Only proper to end this post with this gem from John Oliver:

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