The Dangers of Pseudoscience

We must use the COVID crisis as a teaching moment. Otherwise we’ll repeat it.

Posted Mar 19, 2020

I teach at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, and this semester I’m teaching a course called “Scientific, Pseudoscientific, and Medical Reasoning” (SPMR). At King’s, all students are required to take two philosophy classes; SPMR is one option they have for their second. It’s the first time I’ve taught this particular course (although it was inspired by other critical-thinking courses I have taught), but I began it in the same way that I always do: by heading off the usual objections.

“Why do I have to take two philosophy classes? I’m not a philosopher; I’m never going to use this.”

Some student always asks this. My answer is simple.

"At King’s, we not only teach you how to make a living, but how to live. (It’s our motto.) A liberal arts education is not just about getting you a job. It’s about making you a better person—the kind of person that can contribute to your community and make the world a better place. Drawing informed, evidence-based conclusions about important topics is essential to being that kind of person, and studying philosophy is essential to drawing informed, evidence-based conclusions.”  

The course then continued as I expected. The students learned the basics of why scientific reasoning is necessary (our senses, memory, and intuitive reasoning can easily lead us astray), how to recognize pseudoscience (it does not measure up to the criteria of adequacy), and how to examine claims scientifically (using what Ted Schick calls "The SEARCH method"). Their term paper is to write a paper debunking a medical pseudoscience—like acupuncture, applied kinesiology, or vaccine denial—using what they have learned.

But then the COVID-19 crisis happened, and King’s moved all courses online.

Now, we start up again tomorrow—and since I was having the students turn in all their work online anyway, I don’t think the transition is going to cause a huge problem. But in the last week, I have realized how much this is a giant teaching moment—one that I would be remiss not to take advantage of. My students are taking a course on medical reasoning and pseudoscience during an officially recognized worldwide pandemic! (That sound you just heard is all the “when are we ever going to use this in the real world” objections suffering a fiery death.)

This could arguably be the most useful and important course they take their entire college career. My motivation to ensure that the course ends successfully raised dramatically.

But then I realized just how much pseudoscience has contributed to making this pandemic worse. Not only are pseudo-cures (like gargling salt water or even drinking bleach) floating around the internet, but baseless claims that it was a “hoax,” or just another exaggerated end-of-the-world scenario, were ubiquitous. We ignored the experts who said that a travel ban on China could only delay the inevitable, and we didn’t use the extra time it bought us to prepare by distributing tests, expanding hospital capacity, or spreading accurate information.

As a result, the United States was woefully unprepared. And now, many people are refusing to adhere to social distancing guidelines, because they think it's "just like the flu." According to the recently released report from Imperial College London, if we don’t adhere to social distancing, more than two million Americans (and 45 million worldwide) could die.

“This is it,” I said to myself. “This is the opportunity. Do you want to make them into better people, the kind of people that help the community? Understanding the science behind all this (like why social distancing saves lives), and not being sucked into the pseudoscience, is essential! This class is critical to King’s mission.”

But then, my dial got turned up to 11. I read about the role that Traditional Chinese Medicine (or TCM), which is definitely a pseudoscience, played in all this. Not only are there multiple fake TCM cures/treatments for COVID-19 being promoted and used, which probably aided its spread, but TCM likely played at least a minor role in the creation of the pandemic in the first place. The live animals' markets in China, where the COVID-19 outbreak began, are popular partly because wild animal organs are called for in many TCM cures.

Now, to be clear, I’m not trying to blame any person, race, or nation here. All nations and cultures have their own pseudosciences, and each is very dangerous. (Swine flu started in the U.S. because we eat swine, but I wouldn’t blame all U.S. citizens for the Swine flu or call it an "American virus.") And not all people in a nation or culture embrace its pseudoscience. (Although, in the U.S., it sometimes feels like it.) But what this made me realize was that the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to create a kind of negative feedback loop.

What do I mean by that?

What helped cause and has exacerbated this pandemic is pseudoscience. But the pandemic is closing down public schools and making colleges (and their courses, like mine) move online. If this affects the quality of the education students receive (especially in classes like mine), students will be less likely to recognize pseudoscience and more likely to embrace it. And the more people do that, the worse the pandemic will be, and the more likely another one is to occur. And that will make it harder to educate students about pseudoscience, and that will make another pandemic more likely to occur, etc.

And so I now find it even more imperative to use the COVID-19 pandemic as a teaching moment. We can’t let it make another pandemic more likely; it must make it less likely. So we need to use it to raise awareness about pseudoscience, not dampen it. It should be an object lesson in the dangers of pseudoscience. The numerous pseudo-cures should be used as a way to teach people how to identify pseudoscience. We must fight back!

It’s often said that those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it. This is very true. But it is also true that those who don’t study pseudoscience are likely to fall prey to it. And if the Imperial College London report is accurate, falling prey to pseudoscience could be more deadly than repeating the second World War. We can’t let that happen.

David Kyle Johnson, copyright 2020

Update: A new study suggests that the pangolin was the vector of transmission between bats and humans, If true, this solidifies the idea that pseudoscience played a key role in the creation of the COVID pandemic because the pangolin is poached mainly for it scales, which are then used in traditional Chinese medicine concoctions.