Pseudoscience and Signs
If you ask an average person - what’s the problem with pseudoscience? They’ll surely tell you that it’s “bad science”. But I don’t know if this is really the problem in the first place. If we actually look at different forms of pseudoscience, we can see why.
Herbal remedies, for example, are not necessarily unscientific - Willow bark is willow bark, whether or not it is purified into an aspirin pill or not, and it will relieve mild pain. In fact, many medicines are extracted from herbs and plants. There is even a major advantage to herbal remedies - if you’re producing them yourself, you have no direct ties to pharmacological companies. But, when we go to a store trying to buy “herbal remedies”, we will find that they often are sold overpriced with medical claims that simply cannot be true - and this is where the pseudoscience of herbal remedies emerges.
Chelation therapy is another example. Chelation therapy is actually a legitimate therapy for treating heavy metal poisoning. However, it is often sold in alternative markets as a cure for - you guessed it - potentially anything.
What about things like Chakras and Traditional Chinese Medicine? While I’m not an expert in either, we as mostly westerners interact with these Asian or Indigenous treatments in a highly westernized context, which removes a lot of the value these ideas probably had - much of which may not even be medical. Chakras weren’t originally about treating cancer, they were a part of a larger religious machine, one that makes no sense when isolated. But, in this westernized context, people think that it acts as a means to change their health. Can chakras really be concerning western medicine when the diseases that were recognized in the Vedas are completely different than those recognized by western science?
Some alternative health treatments, like chiropractors, applied kinesiology and orgone energy lack any sort of context like the above, and are pure pseudoscience. But all of these treatments originated as alternative explanations for mainstream medicine in the West, so of course they lack the differing context that makes herbal remedies or chakras have some context.
Understanding the history of these different pseudoscience treatments tells us that they’re all actually quite different. So, what unites them anyways?
It’s all in the signs!
The signs, or the things that we use to communicate certain properties of these treatments, are what’s attracting people to these ideas. By using signs that are like science, but different enough to be seen as an alternative, people can be coralled with their money. This can easily be seen in extreme examples, like Quantum Healing.
Obviously, we can use quantum mechanics in some aspects of health, such as building radiology machines and special measuring devices, but Quantum Healing directly takes the signs of science - “quantum” - and uses it to hide its lack of material content, to try to direct the flow of income right into their wallets.
In fact, this is what unites all pseudoscience together - it’s not actually whether or not it’s science, but how the signs of science are used to direct people’s money! For example, with herbal remedies, they can be sold at a high markup with unverified or outright wrong medical claims. Almost all pseudoscience is about a customer faced with a decision between purchasing “real science” and “fake science”. Indeed, attempts to fight this off, ranging from Quackwatch to the FDA, are rooted in consumer protection, not the legitimacy of science.
In order to truly understand pseudoscience, we have to reject the idea that pseudoscience is “bad science”, and understand its market interactions. In doing so, we start to gain a better grasp of how western science interacts with a privatized market, and what damage this market is doing to our own pursuit of scientific progress.