TEDx on spotting pseudoscience

TEDx has recently been used as a platform for pseudoscience, and in response they have published an open letter full of good advice on how non experts can spot pseudoscience.

The letter makes it clear that there are some usually visible differences between good science and pseudoscience:

Marks of good science:

  • It makes claims that can be tested and verified
  • It has been published in a peer reviewed journal (but beware… there are some dodgy journals out there that seem credible, but aren’t.)
  • It is based on theories that are discussed and argued for by many experts in the field
  • It is backed up by experiments that have generated enough data to convince other experts of its legitimacy
  • Its proponents are secure enough to accept areas of doubt and need for further investigation
  • It does not fly in the face of the broad existing body of scientific knowledge
  • The proposed speaker works for a university and/or has a phD or other bona fide high level scientific qualification

Marks of bad science:

  • Has failed to convince many mainstream scientists of its truth
  • Is not based on experiments that can be reproduced by others
  • Contains experimental flaws or is based on data that does not convincingly corroborate the experimenter’s theoretical claims
  • Comes from overconfident fringe experts
  • Uses over-simplified interpretations of legitimate studies and may combine with imprecise, spiritual or new age vocabulary, to form new, completely untested theories.
  • Speaks dismissively of mainstream science
  • Includes some of the red flags listed in the two sections below

3 thoughts on “TEDx on spotting pseudoscience

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  1. The letter was great as far as it went, and I’m very glad they put it out, given the importance of the topic.

    But it would have been more helpful if they had also pointed to some (Law school/business school type) “science or pseudoscience?” sample case studies, so people (all of us) could calibrate. (Has anyone provided these, e.g. as a MOOC sibling to the Duke “Think Again” Coursera offering? If not, is there a Knight Foundation? Gates Foundation? for applied/epistemological science literacy, that could fund it?)

    Because while being given the description of a category is helpful, it isn’t always enough, for categorizing.

    And it’d also help understanding & acceptance if the letter had clarified that if something has “no sound scientific basis”, this doesn’t mean it ain’t true, it may just mean we don’t have a good enough basis yet for KNOWING (scientifically, with confidence) that it’s true.

    p.s. Re the blogpost with the letter, I have a TED blog critique: if my browser shows what others do, TED’s visible-user-feedback setup is designed to show applause only, it makes no effort to avail itself of the wisdom of its crowd. If they want two-way wisdom, they could probably use a community gardener, and make comments more visible.

    1. Keeping up with Mr Watts is a chore some of us really should take on. Most of what he publishes is in this category.

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