Bad science is normal (pseudoscience is neither)

Frankenstein's monster, immortalized by Boris Karloff's performance

Science gone bad. Frankenstein's monster, immortalized by Boris Karloff's performance.

I have an unhealthy interest in what some like to call the “pseudosciences”. Having spent quite a bit of time trying to understand this category from historical, sociological, and philosophical perspectives, I have also developed a keen interest for another category, “bad science”. Bad science and pseudoscience should not be confused with each other, however. While pseudoscience may also be bad science, most of bad science is not generally considered pseudoscience. In fact, bad science is normal. Pseudoscience, on the other hand, is defined precisely by deviating from the norm of science.

While that norm is certainly defined in part by methodological standards, it is certainly also defined by social, cultural, and historical factors. “Normal science” is what “normal” scientists do (in “normal” laboratories, “normal” universities, and backed by “normal” means of finance). Pseudoscience is what the cranks do, often in their spare time and with the backing of questionable coteries of interests.

Bad science, being normal, has the legitimacy conferred by the association with respected institutions. For this reason, bad science ought to be a much graver concern than pseudoscience. Especially to people who care about the state of science, and about the welfare of a modern society that is increasingly dependent on reliable information on crucial topics, bad science is without doubt the more dangerous of the two. How we as a society solve the energy crisis, stop global warming, cure cancer and Alzheimer, and feed 10 billion people will eventually be decided by the readers of Nature, not the Fortean Times.

It is therefore supremely important that scientific journals are reliable and bad science is kept at bay. Among scientific skeptics and professional debunkers, so much time and effort has been wasted on pointing out the obvious holes, gaps, and inconsistencies in pseudoscience. More of these should follow the example of Ben Goldacre, and give attention to the vastly more consequential problem of normal science gone bad.

Nikola Tesla was a fascinating historical figure, but it is not his "secret" and "suppressed technology" that is going to solve the world's energy problems.

Bad science is a category that covers the whole continuum from poor research methods and sloppy reasoning, through unchecked biases, to the tinkering with data and conclusions to fit the desired outcome (or the outcome more susceptible to lead to further funding), with the category of outright fraud at the extreme end. Here in the the Netherlands we had a serious case of such fraud at the end of 2011, when the respected and well-known social psychologist Diederik Stapel was revealed to have committed massive fraud throughout his career.

Cases like these are shocking – particularly to the academic communities and disciplines that they occur in. They instill a general uncertainty about published research, which undermine the system of trust among peers which the whole scientific enterprise in the end is built on. But fraud is only one very visible and extreme part of the problem, for while elaborate fraud is still an exception, bad science is normal.

I was recently reminded just how normal it is when the people at Clinical Psychology emailed me an infographic about the extent of the problem in psychological research in particular.  I promised to spread it, and this post is the result. The situation as presented by the infographic looks pretty bad, and no doubt needs to be taken seriously. If only half of these findings are true, or even half of them are half-true, a serious credibility problem is rising. It cannot be ignored, and should be dealt with in the professional self-correcting manner which science ought to proceed with. The graphic does suggest three possible ways to remedy the situation and make science more honest, and though I am not entirely convinced about all these (particularly the difficult question of whether anonymous publication should be made a norm), the discussion is very welcome.

Bad Science
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This blog post by Egil Asprem was first published on Heterodoxology. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


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25 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Bad science is not science, it is an income system wearing the trappings of science. Psuedoscience is research/theorizing that denies at least one of ‘normal’ science’s axioms or supports the existence of ‘things’ that ‘normal’ science denies, if that research is conducted outside of ‘normal’ channels. Lasting solutions to global problems will come from those who read Nature with the same skepticism as they read Fortean Times, who always keep facts separate from and above theory, and who would likely read both types of publication. Most 19th Century scientific luminaries were interested in the so-called pseudosciences to some degree.

    Every true advance must come from without the prevailing framework.

    • Hard to disagree with the point about the ideal scientific reader. In a sense, the problem with bad science’s normalcy urges readers of science to be extra critical. It is, however, far from an ideal situation.

      As to definitions of pseudoscience vs. “normal” and “bad” science, it quickly gets tricky. I’m not going to try and stipulate any final definition at the moment, but I think it seems safe to say that as far as normal use of these terms, and our intuitions about them are concerned, “pseudoscience” is defined more by the types of questions it asks (or does not ask) and that normal science wouldn’t ask, while “good” vs. “bad science” is determined by the ways in which one attempt to answer those questions (be they “pseudo” or “normal”).

  2. Unfortunately it’s a challenge forming a definition for pseudoscience that doesn’t come across as a pejorative. For many, the defining features do seem to refer to anything that doesn’t match the beliefs of a dominant authority (as Ultros insinuates above).

    I don’t think really works all that well, and I think distinguishing ‘bad science’ from pseudoscience only further contributes to this circular definition of the term.

    Personally, I think it’s preferable to see pseudoscience and science as an epistemological spectrum. At one end, there is an ideal of trying to only gain or lose confidence in an idea under the influence of values that tend to inform a scientific methodology (appropriate use of logic, falsification, blinding, rigour, repetition etc.). At the other there are influences of culture, tribalism, resources, esteem and so forth, that increase or decrease that confidence in an idea for irrational reasons.

    Of course, it’s hard to see where we stand on such a spectrum at any given moment thanks to the way our brains work. And it’s always other people who are further to the pseudoscience end (never you or the people you trust!).

    I see what you’re saying with the idea of bad science being entrenched in the dominant scientific culture, therefore being more dangerous. And I agree. However the reasons behind these deviations are broadly the same that lie behind pseudoscientific culture and should be viewed sociologically in the same category.

    • Thanks for the comment, Mike. I tried to flesh out some thoughts on “pseudo” and the “good vs. bad” question in my response to Ultros above. I see why you would like to collapse the terms, and philosophically at least that might make sense. However, I think that as sociological and historical phenomena, “pseudoscience” and “bad science” are of somewhat different orders, and need to be accounted for somewhat differently.

      • I was thinking more on it after my response, and I think there might be good reason to view them as separate in terms of a scientific hegemony. In such a case, pseudoscience is a response to the perceived authority of a scientific community – in a cargo-cult manner, it attempts to borrow the appearance of science while holding onto irrational beliefs under the influence of non-scientific values. On the other hand, ‘bad science’ is exhibited by those who already subscribe to the hegemony, and act not to legitimise a culture they see as threatened by science but to maintain what they see as the status-quo.

        Food for thought either way. 🙂 Thanks for the inspiration.

      • That’s definitely closer to the way I was thinking about it in the post. Good to hear that it makes some kind of sense, or at the very least provokes interesting thinking! Which is maybe the best one can hope for, anyway. 😉

  3. Reblogged this on Gideon Jagged and commented:
    In the interest of fairness; science has its share of frauds as well. Difference being, the script they deviate from is the Scientific Method, which has proven its worth in countless ways.

    • Pseudoscience would then seem appropriately defined as research that does not avail itself of the scientific method. ‘Bad’ science would then follow that method, for whatever reason, poorly or lie/fabricate data.

      The case of cold fusion, with the initial controversy, claims of fraud, and with it now being sanctioned research at, at least some, academic institutions, suggests that in some cases the labels of ‘bad’ and pseudo-science are merely weapons used to defend positions of prestige and protect funding. Scientific activity is currently dominated by the dictates of economics, and follows the commands of money to seek out new sources of profit or to satisfy the philanthropic concerns of the wealthy. The only arena in which the domain of scientific research is not likely to face artificial bounds is for military and national security projects; which would explain how and why that technology might be said to be 30+ years ahead of the civilian.

      • Again, good reflections. Another point to make re. the cold fusion case is that the boundaries of what is considered “pseudo” and what is legit are open to negotiation and change over time, as establishments change, but also in as specific sciences “progress” on a conceptual level.

        Re. the role of scientific method, I would still hold, I think, that it is possible to commit “pseudoscience” while pursuing it in accordance with good scientific methods. The problem seems rather to be what kind of questions are asked at the outset. The history of parapsychology has a number of illustrative examples of this, I think, where experiments are sometimes so neurotically controlled that they they beat most mainstream psychology research in terms of method. Problem is they consider seriously the possibility of law-defying effects such as precognition and ESP.

  4. Thank you for a very interesting post. I’m glad I found your blog. I also, through my history of science background, have developed something of an interest in pseudo or fringe sciences, especially Victorian spiritualism. I have also read around zetetic astronomy (essentially flat-Earth-ism), perpetual motion, ether theory, cold fusion and others.

    I’m also a big fan of Ben Goldacre’s book, and especially try to recommend it to my medical friends. I feel the category of bad science is, as I think you argue, separate to pseudo or fringe science (which I think are also separate categories, possibly on a spectrum the defining characteristic of which is accepted-ness: thus: normal -> fringe -> pseudo; but there is also a historical element to this, not least regarding the actual use of specific terms, and much is also dependent on who has the authority to decide what is ‘accepted’).

    I think you are correct to note that ‘good’ or ‘bad’ science refers to method, and the ‘normal’ through ‘pseudo’ spectrum relates to aims, goals, and questions. In this way, we can have good or bad normal science as we can have good or bad pseudo science. This seems to be supported historically; although some might point to the existence of unfalsifiable dogmas in pseudo sciences, falsifiability in the Popperian sense does not necessarily need to be our criterion for normal science, and furthermore we could find examples of normal science being dogmatically upheld. Just because it turned out to be accepted later does not reflect back to justify its dogmatic acceptance before sufficient proof was accumulated. In this way I feel we can gain from the Strong Programme as formalised by David Bloor, at least when looking at pseudo and fringe sciences.

    I am particularly interested in the historiography of fringe sciences, and own a few books from the early c20th onwards which deal with them very generally. I feel the ways in which we write about the fringe sciences of previous generations and of our own time can tell us a lot about changing notions of science more generally, because they present something with which we can compare accepted science. I intend to write something about this on my own blog ( at some point soon.

    Thanks again for a very thought-provoking post.


    • Hi Michael, thanks for a very elaborate and stimulating response! It sounds like we are working with very similar conceptions indeed. I too borrow from the sociology of science, and have been interested in finding a “sustainable use”, let’s say, of such things as the strong programme and ANT. Finally since you brought up Popperian falsificationism: I think it is pretty much useless as a demarcation criterion for science/non-science, even though it is in there somewhere as a normative principle in the “hard core” of most progressive research programmes. As far as the philosophy of science goes, I tend to find that coherence-theoretical approaches are generally more useful (and historically sensible) than reference-theoretical ones (where I think you could place Popper). Now things may turn a bit fuzzy, but in general I think that absolute falsificationism is not good for progressive normal science (and has historically not been the way it works); instead one need to overrule “local” disconfirmations some times, for the sake of upholding “global” coherence.

      Look forward to follow your blog!


  5. Another useful way of framing this is to consider Latour’s “Factish”.
    He summarised this way:

    1 When facts are well fabricated (Good Science), facts are autonomous. They allow for reality to be autonomous.

    2 When fetishes (into which might fall the pseudosciences) are well fabricated they are what make us act rightly. They too allow for reality to be autonomous.

    (On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods)

    I’m a painter (out of my depth with science and philosophy!). I guess I have a fetish for paint! But art, well fabricated, is a dynamic presence that can act decisively and autonomously in the social and political sphere. Europe has seen the best and the worst of this.

    It is important I think, for when you say: “How we as a society solve the energy crisis, stop global warming, cure cancer and Alzheimer, and feed 10 billion people will eventually be decided by the readers of Nature, not the Fortean Times.” I can’t entirely agree.

    These crises belong to the tangled concerns of many spheres – personal, social, political, artistic and of course scientific. It will take a certain artistry to solve the energy crisis, and to heal us. Our totems must change if we are to “act rightly”. We need the right words and the right symbols (both political and *poetic*) if society is to address a new challenge, or even to feel the need; and it is the percpetion of ‘need’ (urgency) that might determine funding!

    The readers of Nature can inform the socio/political sphere, but they cannot determine its progress, neither of course can the readers of Fortean Times, nor indeed The Economist! (A pseudoscience if ever there was!). Even if a cure for cancer were discovered, the readers of Nature could only then appeal to the social/political milieu to make the treatment available. One practice can never short-cut another.

    The Fortean Times looks poorly fabricated to me! It doesn’t inspire me to feel differently about my world – let alone to *act* differently. But to some it does.

    I’d suggest (very tentatively!) that a pseudoscience can be recognised by a confusion of symbolism between practices: Artistic practice and Scientific practice (speaking very broadly). There ensues a confusion between pattern (correlation) and ’cause’. This isn’t to say that correlations are themselves without interest; well fabricated (as for millenia astrology was considered) they might even become embedded (autonomously) into the prevailing socius (or even into scientific practice itself – brain ‘states’ and correlative emotional response?).

    Economics, for example, with all its patterns and contoversies has become an autonomous beast that seems to dictate the very fabric of our lives. We broadly consider the value of inflation to be a ‘true’ indicator of prosperity; but it has no ‘good’ scientific basis whatsoever. Apologies to Marx!

    Pseudosciences can be instructive perhaps. They might tell us more about our ‘enlightened’ selves than we care to admit!

  6. “If only half of these findings are true, or even half of them are half-true, a serious credibility problem is rising.”

    Neurobonkers blog has detailed discussion of the poster and its merits.

    Also linked to the current criticism of psychology research is the Bem affair, which may be of special interest to you. (e.g.:

    Finally, in response, some projects have been kicked off to make the future research more transparent:

    • Thanks for posting these developments, Matus!
      And yes, I know the Bem controversy quite well, and would say it is only the most recent in a number of such discussions sparked by runs of psi claimed positive. E.g. there has been one on and off on meta-analysis after the Hyman – Honorton debate on the ganzfeld in the late 70s/early 80s.

      • I’m not well acquinted with parapsychology and it would be great if you could post on the historical context of the Bem controversy. I think even if the primary goal of this research is flawed, it shows us the merit of our research methods in psychology and as such it provides a valuable input to the discussion outlined in your post above. But maybe this already happened in the past, that results from parapsychology motivated psychologists to reflect and improve their methods. It would be interesting to know…

      • Certainly, there are strong arguments in favour of that – at least in certain instances. I might write up a post on some of this, seeing as I have just been writing about it in my own work recently… Ian Hacking had a great article on the role of parapsychology for the development of randomisation in experimental design in Isis in 1988. Might check that out; and it may be the subject of a post here. When I find/take the time.

  7. I don’t have particularly strong opinions about climate change (except its rebranding from “warming” says something interesting) – but the guys at the centre of the debate won’t release their raw data to sceptics – does that make what they say “bad science”?

    I honestly don’t know – but their behaviour bothers me.

    • Personally, I am infinitely more bothered by the denialists, and their questionable tactics of bullying scientists and consciously misinforming the public. Most recently seen in the case around Michael Mann and the Heartland Institute exposé (e.g. here and here)

      • “denialists” – it’s not religion. There is no heresy. It’s either got enough of a basis or it hasn’t. Just like the MMR scare, it was one guy versus the whole of the rest of informed opinion, but the media had to keep “balance”, when there wasn’t anything *to* balance.

        If people are bullying and their ideas can be shown to have the usual pseudoscientific features, such as hunting for one or two data points that seem to fall outside the trend or basic statistical faults, then I can’t see a problem.

        Not sharing data, and being fearless, is a problem in the current climate. It looks like it won’t stand up to scrutiny – screw the bullies – just help people like me believe in your integrity.

    • you must have missed which had funding from the Koch Foundation but the results they got were much the same as the others showing, while the people at UEA were childish, they did not do bad science.

      • I admit I don’t follow this particularly closely and am glad that others are being open about their data sets and approach. This is how it should be done, and more power to them.

  8. […] research to be conducted and how it is.  So I Tweeted my anger. The graphic should piss you off.… If it doesn't, I'd love to hear why. #badscience— Pasco Phronesis (@p_phronesis) […]

  9. […] – Science is broken. It’s still the best we have, but our current practice of peer review and replicating blinded studies leaves a lot to be desired, in terms of its capacity to filter out biases and errors. More at Heterodoxology. […]

  10. […] detail and simplifies the problem, I gave just brief mention to the post where I found it.  Titled Bad science is normal (pseudoscience is neither), the author, an avowed pseudoscience anti-fan, raises the notion that woo is not necessarily as big […]

  11. […] Bad science is normal. Outright fabrication and fraud is luckily less normal, but much more wide-spread than it ought to be. Results may be fabricated entirely to support desired conclusions; conversely, inconvenient results may be challenged by fabricated doubt – whether the fabricators are payed by tobacconists fearing the consequences of cancer research, or oil companies afraid of climate taxes and infrastructural changes. The result is false knowledge and fabricated ignorance – both serious threats to a complex global risk society that needs decisions to be made on the best possible foundation. […]

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