The Rise of Junk Science in Modern Life

Failures of medicine combine with poor science education to bolster quackery.

Posted Sep 24, 2020

Formal religions are in a terminal decline in developing countries. Yet, we see lots of pseudosciences associated with “spiritual” practices, beliefs, and remedies (1). Is this due to the resilience of superstitious thinking, or a failure of science education, or both?

Most junk science begins with a false separation of mind and matter.

The Basic Dualist Fallacy

Much superstitious thinking begins with the premise that there is a mental/spiritual realm that is separate from the physical world accessed by our senses. In natural sciences, there is only a material world.

The dualist fallacy emerges in virtually every religion and many branches of pseudoscience, from astrology to reflexology.

It is present in the earliest religions, including shamanism, which imagines spirits controlling material events, such as the movements of game animals. Shamans engage in elaborate rituals or consume hallucinogenic drugs that open up a spirit world where they can negotiate with the spirits and arrange for successful hunting.

Shamanic healing also involves negotiating with or subduing demons, who are considered the fundamental cause of serious illnesses.

The Rise of Spiritualism and the Decline of Formal Religions

We live in a secular age in the sense that the number of people who support organized religion in developed countries is low and shrinking.

At the same time that interest in, and respect for, mainstream religion is declining, there is an increased interest in “spirituality.” Affluent populations around the world investigate various aspects of other religious traditions in much the same spirit as they investigate worldwide cuisine (1).

The implications range from taking courses in astrology to using yoga exercises for relaxation, to spending time being at one with nature, to using one of the many mind-body medical treatments, some of which are loosely based on Indian religious mysticism.

We live in a period of greatly improved health according to objective measures, such as low infant and child mortality, and increased life expectancy.

Despite these objective data, there is a great deal of malaise around. A substantial proportion of the population suffers from chronic conditions, like autoimmune disorders, metabolic diseases associated with obesity, chronic anxiety, sleep disorders, chronic pain, asthma, chronic fatigue, and so forth.

Scientific medicine does not currently have much understanding of these disorders or how to cure them.

This provides an opportunity for a number of pseudoscientific approaches to treatment, from chiropractics to body cleansing, and from homeopathy to healing with crystals. Perhaps these quack treatments provide some sense of control over illness. Maybe they relieve existential insecurities previously eased by religious beliefs. They could also recruit the placebo effect that is produced by scientific medicine also.

Unfortunately, psychology has been in the pseudoscientific mix from early on, with Sigmund Freud's entry to clinical psychology beginning with a fascination for mesmerism (or hypnosis), and continuing with the “subconscious,” myths, and the interpretation of dreams.

Junk Science From Freud to Reflexology and “Energies”

Much of Freudian thinking is dualistic. It assumes that adult behavior is controlled by repressed memories of unresolved childhood conflicts.

Such notions were criticized by Karl Popper as being untestable and thus failing the key test for science. Yet, there is little doubt that childhood trauma, such as physical or emotional abuse, affects adult psychology and behavior. However, the Freudian interpretation here has been replaced by a neuroscientific explanation (2).

Similarly, Freud's view of repression is supplanted by the knowledge of mechanisms through which stress interferes with memory storage. The phenomenon is real, of course, with many murderers losing the memory of their crime and entertaining a false belief in their own innocence, for instance.

A combination of the rising incidence of unexplained chronic illness and a Freudian tradition in psychotherapy opened the floodgates for an astonishing variety of quack remedies.

These practices are founded on the desperation of people whose ills are not understood by physicians. Modern medicine has little understanding of autoimmune disorders at a time when they are becoming more and more common, even in younger people who suffer from a variety of problems, such as asthma, allergies, and metabolic disorders. If the rise of pseudoscience mirrors medical failures, the success of spurious treatments reflects weak science education.

Failures of Science Education

That people in developed countries are willing to give questionable therapies the benefit of the doubt speaks to weakness in education. We live in a world where one person's opinion is as good as another's.

There is no editorial supervision on social media, and the educational system is not doing a good job of training students to discriminate between reliable information and marketing, or spin.

Moreover, ostensibly pseudoscientific treatments can sometimes be effective, as illustrated by the use of acupuncture in the treatment of pain.

Scientific findings can also be contradictory. This means the public is ill-equipped to distinguish between treatments that work and those that are pure snake oil.

References

1 Zuckerman, P. (2008). Society without God: What the least religious nations can tell us about contentment. New York: New York University Press.

2 Kalinichev, M., Easterling, K. W., Plotsky, P. M., and Holtzgman, S. G. (2002). Long-lasting changes in stress-induced corticosterone response and anxiety-like behaviors as a consequence of neonatal maternal separation in Long-Evans rats. Pharmacology, Biochemistry, and Behavior, 73, 131-140.