How To Spot Pseudoscience

By the end of this short piece of writing, you’ll know what pseudoscience is. It’s everywhere, and fortunately, it can be generalized to one sentence.

Here’s what pseudoscience looks like: “Do ten jumping jacks, and you might find ten bucks on the street. If you don’t, try again tomorrow. If you do, I’m right.”

What does jumping jacks and ten dollar bills have to do with pseudoscience? Well… nothing. But, you see, you can replace “jumping jacks” and “find ten bucks” with anything. That sentence is simply the pattern behind pseudoscience.

Perhaps these sentences are familiar:

  1. Sign up for this get-rich-quick program, and you might be rich next month! If you don’t, you need more time. If you do, please recruit your friends to sign up.
  2. Down this pill and you might lose ten pounds! If you don’t, you should buy this better pill. If you do, here’s our referral code to share with your friends.
  3. Work hard for ten years and you might be successful! If you don’t, you haven’t worked hard enough.
  4. Say this and you’ll enchant your partner! If you fail, say that instead.
  5. And on, and on, and on…

Here’s something a pseudoscience-spouter would say: “Oh, you haven’t found the ten bucks? Well, you just aren’t walking at the right time this morning. Your jumping jacks are done correctly, but, y’know, this thing needs more time. Nothing is instant; patience is key. Tomorrow morning, do the usual jumping jacks and start your walk three minutes and twenty-seven seconds earlier. You might find the ten bucks by doing it that way.” (The next day, after failing to find the ten bucks, the pseudoscience-spouter can just say “walk six minutes and four seconds earlier” or “instead of ten jumping jacks, do eleven”.)

Now that you’ve read this, you can see the “jumping jacks” and “ten bucks” around you, don’t you? If you don’t, read this again tomorrow…

P.S. To read more about this, look up the idea of good explanations by David Deutsch.