When you hear the word pseudoscience, obvious examples of “fake science” such as palm reading, astrology, and numerology might immediately spring to mind. However, there are also examples of pseudoscience that exist within psychology such as rebirthing therapy or primal scream therapy. A pseudoscience can be defined as a theory, practice, or method that is presented in a way that appears scientific but is not supported by real empirical evidence.
During the early nineteenth century, a German physician named Francis Joseph Gall (1758–1828) introduced a discipline known as phrenology, which suggested that personality, character, and intelligence could be determined by assessing the bumps on a person's skull. While it became quite popular, phrenology was discredited as a pseudoscience.
During the twentieth century, philosopher Karl Popper (1902–1994) suggested that falsifiability could be used to distinguish between science and pseudoscience. For example, the claim that God created the universe may or may not be true, but it is impossible to design a test to prove the claim false; the subject simply lies outside of the realm of science. So, in order for a claim to be proved, you must be able to present evidence that could possibly refute or disprove the idea.
Some of the classic signs of a pseudoscience include:
The use of testimonials or anecdotes in place of empirical evidence — This type of “proof” lends a highly personal aspect to a claim, but the results may actually be due to other factors entirely or purely coincidental.
A lack of peer review — As mentioned earlier, many psychological studies are published in professional journals. Prior to publication, research undergoes an intensive peer review process in which the methods and procedures are closely scrutinized. Pseudoscientific claims typically lack testing from outside sources; that is, only the individuals making the claims review them.
As you continue to learn more about psychology and explore further psychological research, consider some of the classic hallmarks of pseudoscience and analyze the scientific methodologies used in the research. By learning how to separate “junk science” from the good stuff, you will become a better-informed consumer of psychology research.