Distinguishing Science and Pseudoscience: How to Judge Whether a Treatment is Worthwhile

From the TV, internet, mail-advertisements, and billboards, we are inundated on a daily basis with solicitation for the newest “cure-all” treatment. This problem is not limited to the psychological community, and it is increasingly prevalent in new-age communities that focus on “holistic” or “energy” treatments. Of course these treatments sounds intrinsically appealing, and we all want to find a way to reduce our pain and suffering in the most non-intrusive manner possible.  However, it is important to realize that just because a treatment sounds intuitively logical, does not necessarily lead to results. Research actually suggests that our intuition can often lead us astray when we ignore evidence to the contrary (Lillienfeld, 2010).  A popular example of a dubious treatment is chiropractic, which has shown some evidence of effectiveness for back pain, but is dubiously advertised for everything from heart disease to middle ear infections without any evidence to substantiate these claims (Redwood, 2008).  In addition, some studies have found no difference between chiropractic treatment and sham/placebo treatment for back pain, indicating that chiropractic does not work according to the proposed mechanisms (manipulations of the spine), and instead works through the placebo effect (Hawk et al. 2005).
This leads us to quite a quandary.  We want to spend our hard-earned money carefully to treat our ailments, but how do we know what treatments are worth our dime? The answer lies in acquiring a healthy degree of skepticism that allows us to examine the treatment options we are offered everyday from an objective perspective. Fortunately, researchers like Carl Sagan (1996) have listed some important guidelines to help us differentiate between science and pseudoscience. One of his points is that every scientific theory must be falsifiable. This essentially means that if we say a therapy works in a particular way, it needs to be possible to determine if it does not work. If, for instance, we run a well-designed study on a treatment and it does not outperform a placebo, as consumers we should not attempt to rationalize the treatment failure and should instead accept that the treatment may not work! This is a criterion that psychics are notorious for ignoring. For instance, if you have your palm read and the psychic incorrectly predicts something about your life, he/she may rationalize the mistake by claiming “I can’t work under these conditions”… “Your skepticism is hindering my performance”… “My aura must be out of sync today,” etc. Of course in some instances it is preferable to simply admit a mistake was made and that either our therapy is incorrect, or the supposed psychic cannot see the future. 

It is also important for us to not be overly attached to our treatments. If a theory is correct, the data will show it repeatedly regardless of our commitment to the theory. It is too often the case that our investment in a treatment type hinders our ability to see its shortcomings. If we keep an open mind to the wide range of possible outcomes in an experiment without hedging our bets in one particular outcome, we are better prepared to evaluate our treatment options. Similarly, it is important to not rely on the testimony of authority figures in evaluating a treatment. It does not matter if a professor from an Ivy League school endorses a particular product if that product is ineffective. Much research has shown that people are biased by who is telling us to buy the product: No wonder so many celebrities try to sell us expensive cars!

While we are on the topic of testimonials: whenever you see a testimonial about a product, beware that you may fall prey to the works of pseudoscientists! Testimonials do not count as data toward a particular claim, because for every person endorsing one product, there will be another person endorsing another product. If a commercial relies solely on testimonials as evidence for their treatment, one should be cautious. Without randomized, controlled trials (where each participant has an equal chance of either receiving the active treatment or the placebo), we have no way of truly evaluating the validity of a particular claim.

The above guidelines should be taken as just the starting point in evaluating treatments. There is a multi-billion dollar industry that capitalizes on consumers ignoring science when making treatment decisions. Don’t fall victim to their commercialized tactics! The more that you are aware of the characteristics of pseudoscience, the more that you will begin to see the overabundance of dubious therapies. This is not intended to make you cynical about all treatment options, but it is important to be skeptical of any treatment that we are offered in order to ensure that we don’t put our health, or our money, at risk!

Hawk, C., Long, C., Rowell, R.M., Gudavalli, M.R., Jedlicka, J. (2005). A randomized trial investigating a chiropractic manual placebo: A novel design using standardized forces in the delivery of active and control treatments. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 11, 109-117.

Lillienfeld, S.C. (2010). Can psychology become a science? Personality and Individual Differences, 49, 281-288.

Redwood D: Chiropractic. In: Complementary and integrative medicine in pain management. Edited by Weintraub MI et al. New York: NY: Springer; 2008.

Sagan, C. (1996). The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. New York: Random House Publishing.