Scientific vs Pseudoscientific Methods
R. David San Filippo, M.A., LMHC
July 12, 1991

In this paper I will compare and contrast scientific and pseudoscientific methods of research. My particular focus will be in the area of human science inquiry methods. According to Siever (1968), the major objective of scientific endeavour is to make general laws from specific observations. Most pseudoscience does not create laws but attempts to give reason for enigmas and mysteries (Radner, 1982). Research into the human sciences attempts to find explanations for human phenomena and to present the data as in an organized, informed method. Science, as defined by Goldstein & Goldstein (1978), is a search for understanding, by means of general laws or principles, and that these laws or principles can be experimentally tested. It is important that scientific methodologies, such as the collection of facts, the testing and analysis of the data, and the clear communication of the findings, be used in the research of human sciences in order to avoid the stigma of the research being considered pseudoscientific. Because of the personal nature of human science research, due to the research being conducted by a human researcher regarding a human subject, it is necessary to utilize the appropriate scientific methodology to insure the validity of the human study. Based upon the type of research to be performed, the method of data collection and analysis, and the communication of the findings to the scientific/academic community, the researcher will chose the appropriate methodology to study a specific aspect of human science. Pseudoscientific information is considered to be fallacy and not scientific fact due to the looseness of the pseudoscientific research methodology and its inability to withstand critical analysis and refutability.

Comparison Of Methodologies:

 "For a theory to be part of science we must be able to imagine the possibility that some kind of evidence, if it were available, would tend to make us doubt the theory. It has been said that for a theory to be scientific it must be refutable" (Goldstein, 211). "Pseudoscientists delight in irrefutable hypothesis. If no possible state of affairs is allowed to count against what they say, they need have no fear of the facts ever proving them wrong" (Radner, 40).

Scientific and some pseudoscientific methods of human science research employ the procedures of gathering data, formulating a hypothesis, testing the hypothesis, and then sharing the knowledge gained with the scientific/academic community. Science and pseudoscience use scientific data findings to interpret research questions. The major difference between scientific and pseudoscientific data interpretation is how the data is interpreted and reported as information. Most scientists will first report their findings to their peers, whereas pseudoscientists will generally report their findings directly to the public, (Montgomery, 1986). Most scientists will not present information unless the facts are supported by experimental testing and/or observation and have been subjected to critical analysis by their peers. Most pseudoscientists tend to present their information as fact if the "facts" provide a plausible explanation to their theory. However, some scientists are not always driven by the pure reason for the pursuit of truth and clarity, but similar to many pseudoscientists, they may be motivated by pride, greed, the hunger for fame, and the accolades and benefits associated with scientific achievement (Goldstein, 1978).
"Pseudoscientists do indeed pick and choose their "facts", but what is at issue is the method used to do the sorting. Science requires that its practitioners be able to reject the poisonous mushrooms as not providing genuine food for science. Pseudoscientist come along and pick the poisonous ones and offer them as food - after all they want us to swallow them. At the same time they reject the mushrooms the scientist have picked. The pseudoscientists are not prepared to say what makes their mushrooms edible and the scientist's inedible." (Radner, 70).
Most scientific methods, similar to most pseudoscientific methods, utilizes the gathering of data and the formulating of a hypothesis in the development of knowledge. However, most scientific methods formulate a hypothesis based upon the data gathered, where as the most pseudoscientific methods formulate a hypothesis to support the data gathered. Human sciences utilize various scientific inquiry methodologies to test or explain a hypothesis of human phenomena in order to confirm the hypothesis. The pseudoscientific method of research utilizes the testing and/or explanation of a hypothesis to support the hypothesis, not to validate its assumptions.

Sometimes utilizing quantifiable measurement techniques to validate a hypothesis and interpret the data differs between the scientific and pseudoscientific methodologies. The scientific quantification methods allow for the scientific findings to be refuted, replicated, and analyzed for validity and reliability. Pseudoscience attempts to provide "irrefutable" evidence to support a hypothesis by using pieces of scientific data to substantiate a theory without considering data contrary to the pseudoscientific theory (Radner 1982).
"(In scientific research) the drawback is that a strong commitment to one side of a dispute tends to make one overlook negative evidence and overstress the importance of positive evidence. But what tends to protect science as a whole from such errors (although it doesn't eliminate them) is that science rests, in the long run, on the consensus of scientists, not on the authority of any one individual, no matter how outstanding." (Goldstein, 255).
Although the basic formulation of the inquiry methodologies utilized by both the scientific and pseudoscientific scientists are similar, the contrast of the two methodologies are in how the data, hypothesis, testing or explanation results are interpreted, and how the findings are communicated to the scientific/academic community.

Marks Of Pseudoscientific Research:

Pseudoscientific research methods differ from scientific methods by the methodologies that are used to prove a given hypothesis. Radner & Radner (1982) have identified nine marks that differentiate the pseudoscientific methodology from the scientific methodology of inquiry.

1. Anachronistic Thinking:

Anachronistic thinking represents an outdated mode of thinking. Pseudoscientists revert to theories that have been disproved or have never been proven to attempt prove or provide creditability to a pseudoscientific theory. Scientists continuously update their information and thinking based upon new scientific findings.

2. Looking for Mysteries:

Common pseudoscientific research deals with the enigmas and mysteries of the human experience, such as UFO's, paranormal psychology, etc. Pseudoscience tends to reject adverse scientific theories that do not support pseudoscientific research in favor of theories that will explain a mystery or anomalous event. Scientific research does not look for the anomalies in science but to prove facts of science.

3. Appeal to Myths:

A common method of attempting to prove a pseudoscientific theory is to use myths to provide evidential support of a theory. Myths are presented as representing factual information. Scientific theory is usually based upon tested and validated facts.

4. Grab-Bag Approach to Evidence:

Pseudoscientists will grab volumes of evidence, with limited regard to the validity or quality of the evidence to help prove their theories. Science will only accept proven, quality, refutable evidence as opposed to quantities of evidence.

5. Irrefutable Hypothesis:

Pseudoscientists belief that his/her theory is irrefutable. Pseudoscientists pride themselves in never being proved wrong. Scientist, who follow scientific methods of inquiry, welcome the refuting of their theories as further documentation of the validity of their hypothesis.

6. Argument from Spurious Similarity:

This pseudoscientific method argues that the principles upon which a pseudoscientific hypothesis are based are part of legitimate science, since their theory is similar or related to an earlier theory. Scientists, however, even though they may find similarities between a proven hypothesis and their claim, do not believe that it is consistent with what other scientists believe unless there is additional validation of the data.

7. Explanation by Scenario:

Pseudoscience does not use general laws of science to explain a phenomenon but reverts to the use of explaining theories by telling scenarios of events. "He says that one thing X explains another thing Y, but he does not bother to tell us how X is supposed to explain Y." (Radner 1982, page 46). Science uses proven laws of science and empirical data collection to provide credibility to its claims.

8. Research by Exegesis:

Exegesis is defined as the exposition, critical analysis, or interpretation of a word. Pseudoscientists focus on the words and wording used in scientific research not on the underlying facts and reasoning supporting the research. Pseudoscientists attempt to validate their assumptions by using the specific words of scientists, out of contexts, to validate pseudoscientific theories.

9. Refusal to Revise in Light of Criticism:

Pseudoscientific knowledge is not static. Once a theory has been expounded and "facts" are gathered to prove the theory, pseudoscientists are reticent about not changing their theories in light of new evidence. Science by nature is self-correcting, in that scientific knowledge is constantly being updated through empirical research.

Human science research can be nebulous, non-tactile, non-objective, and experiential in nature. Often the researcher is closely involved with the study and may be a subject of the study. Therefore, it is important that human science research avoid the marks of pseudoscientific research in order to maintain it creditability and validity. Human science research must be open to critical analysis and refutability by the scientific/academic community, similar to the other sciences such as the natural sciences, which is contrary to the believed irrefutably of pseudoscientific claims by pseudoscientific scientists.


In the scientific studies of human beings it is important to insure valid research methodologies to confirm a hypothesis. The lack of valid scientific research methodologies could cause the research to face the possibility that its findings could be considered invalid and not confirm the proposed hypothesis. Human sciences employ empirical, psychological/philosophical, and spiritual inquiry methods to research human experiences. Due to the personal, experiential nature of some human science research methodologies, experiential facts can not always be empirically proven and therefore may utilize some of research methodologies similar to those used in pseudoscientific research, such as the explanation by scenario method. The pseudoscientific method of explanation by scenario is similar to the human science research method of phenomenological research. Near death consciousness experiences are events that can only be recorded and reported by the use of data collection techniques applied to the experiencer of the phenomena. In scientific human science research, the explanation by scenario or the phenomenological research methodology would ideally confirm each claim in order to provide the validity for the entire hypothesis.

Scientific and pseudoscientific research methodologies are similar in that they both gather data and formulate a hypothesis. They often differ in how they test and prove the hypothesis. Scientific research uses observable and/or quantifiable data, along with replicable experiential and experimental data. Pseudoscientific research may use some or all of the scientific data available and then expand or construct their own findings utilizing some of the previously discussed "marks" of pseudoscience. The pseudoscientist will sometimes use mythology, as well as scientific facts to prove a theory.

In order for scientific research to be considered valid, it must be open for critical analysis and refutability. Pseudoscientific research methods often do not provide the ability to be adequately replicated, yet pseudoscientist consider their knowledge claims to be irrefutable. Many pseudoscientific statements are vacuous in construction so they do not make a valid scientific claim but a pseudo-explanation to a knowledge claim. The validity of a human science hypothesis is in how the scientific and pseudoscientific data, associated with human science research, is validated, replicated, and shared with the scientific/educational community. Because of the personal, experiential nature of human science, research care should be taken not to be associated with, or perform activities that could be considered part of, pseudoscientific knowledge.


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