How to Identify Pseudoscience

As a teacher, I have been told countless times that a factor or method is backed by science, when it is not. For example, I was told that teaching students how to read too early will damage their brains, that I need to identify students' unique learning style, that I need to teach 3-cueing, that teaching math formulas will cause math anxiety and damage students' abilities to learn math. And while, normally I would go into a detailed explanation as to why these things are not true, I will hope that today the reader can suffer my unsubstantiated claims to instead read a discussion of how these ideas became popular in the first place.
 

All of the above examples were pseudo-science. However, they are not unique, indeed pseudoscience often seems far more persuasive than real science. In my personal experience there are 4 main ways pseudoscience is spread:

 

  1. The author uses narrative and folksy wisdom, rather than science. They create a compelling reason for their belief and root it easy to understand anecdotes, but they don’t offer real proof. For example, saying students learn differently makes intuitive sense. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. But that does not mean we can identify students' learning style with a personality quiz and effectively match instruction to that result. 

  2. The author does use scientific research, but they either exaggerate the extent of that research, the outcomes of that research, or they cherry pick their studies. 

  3. The author relies on their qualifications instead of the quality of their research. There are a shocking number of professors with PhDs who have tried to sell a pseudo-scientific product based on the credibility of their degree, not just in education but across fields. (If you think education is bad, take 5 minutes to look at the fitness and nutrition industry). 

  4. The author tries to build a cult of personality. Cult leaders and pseudoscience promoters often both try to sell an idea that they alone are the only expert or truth teller. They will sell a narrative that everyone else is either wrong or lying and that their information is the only information worth consuming. 

 

That being said, pseudoscience is usually tied to a financial goal, IE a person trying to sell a product or book and because of that there are usually some warning signs. People selling pseudoscience often:

 

  1. Claim to have the silver bullet answer. (IE click this link and I will show you the one weird trick that will teach your kids how to read).

  2. Don’t have citations or the citations listed won’t actually be strong enough to support the claim being made.

  3. Will make wild claims about the efficacy of their product or the lack of efficacy of others. (IE my program is the only program that works for teaching reading.)

  4. Lack nuance. Well written science is usually accompanied by caveats and nuance. Whereas, pseudoscience often takes extreme positions and fails to make room for anything that does not fit the framework. IE: Claiming that consequences never help with classroom management. 

 

Books, blogs, and podcasts, can often be the biggest promoters of pseudoscience. There is a low barrier to entry unlike a peer reviewed journal and they are often specifically written to be accessible to people not trained in reading science. That being said there are also many great books, blogs and podcasts out there, so I wanted to give the reader a list of questions they could use to check the validity of a source, before they click that share button:

 

  1. Does the author use academic citations for their science claims?

  2. Are the types of citations used valid for the level of claim being made? (The stronger the claim, the stronger the evidence needs to be. IE: Claiming that something is necessary for learning, likely requires at least one well done meta-analysis, showing very significant results. Claiming that something is likely helpful could only require a handful of experimental or quasi-experimental papers).

  3. Do you yourself understand both the science being presented and the validity of those claims? 

 

Of course reading research is hard, it takes time, knowledge, and practice. That’s why I wrote a guide on the topic that can be found here: 

 

https://www.pedagogynongrata.com/a-beginners-guide-to-reading-research

 

And a second one here:

https://www.pedagogynongrata.com/an-intermediate-guide-to-reading-researc