I had been thinking about this recently, so thought I’d run this up the proverbial flagpole!
Much contemporary research in nursing and the social sciences today adopts the methods of empirical science, but there are many alternative philosophical discourses that have also been gaining ground, and presented as valid alternative ways of exploring the world. However, a challenge arises if we try to characterize them as scientific inquiry as their foundational concepts, frameworks and beliefs are very different to established empirical science. To understand these distinctions more clearly, let us explore the nature of non-science, pseudo-science and quasi-science in relationship to scientific inquiry. There is frequently disagreement and conflation of these terms (even by scientists themselves) and the have many similarities. The separation of non-science and pseudoscience from scientific practices has philosophical, ethical and political implications for professional healthcare. So here is my take on the subject:
Simply put non-science refers to inquiry, academic work or disciplines that do not involve the process of empirical verification, or the scientific process to generate their products or knowledge base. These are disciplines that do not adopt a systematic methodology based on evidence. Many of the greatest human achievements represent non-science. They are activities that don’t purport to be scientific and are easily identified as non-scientific in their nature, including the arts, religion, and even philosophy. They usually involve creative processes, the acceptance of subjective knowledge, belief, revelation or faith in establishing their epistemological basis. The rejection of the principles of scientific inquiry is also frequently acknowledged in much postmodern thinking, which can also be categorized as non-science.
We should note that although non-scientific approaches to knowledge are widespread and highly valued in peoples throughout the world they are not highly valued in Evidence Based Practice (EBP), and in most public healthcare policies. This has led to much criticism of the ideas behind EBP. In effect non-science represents an alternative to scientific thinking, and these approaches have gained ground in some societies, illustrated by the growth of complimentary and alternative medicine (CAM) in many western countries since the 1990’s (Barker, 2007).
Pseudo-science is sometimes difficult to identify, but can be thought of as disciplines, inquiry or work that purports to be scientific, but upon examination are found to be non-science. Pseudoscience and non-science are frequently conflated, but I suggest they are quite different. The word “pseudo” comes from the Greek language for “false,” and in this case applies to non-scientific disciplines that purport to be scientific. Pseudoscientific practices are presented as scientific, but lack supporting evidence, and employ non-scientific methods and cannot be reliably tested or verified. They also frequently adopt highly implausible theoretical stances, but in many cases so do scientific theories, so this may not help in their differentiation. Pseudoscience is more often characterized by vague, exaggerated or unfalsifiable claims, with an over-reliance on confirmation rather than rigorous attempts at refutation.
Key features are usually vague or impenetrable theoretical stances that can only be truly understood by the inner cabal, a lack of openness to academic challenge and evaluation by other investigators, and the absence of established scientific processes in theory development and testing (Shermer, 2002; Gardner, 1957). They are also often characterized by arguments that the proponents of their discipline are besieged by a narrow-minded positivist scientific community, medicine or “big-pharma” or that a modern-day conspiracy/inquisition is hard at work to undermine them (or in the most extreme cases all of these arguments are used). Just because your paranoid….
Separating pseudoscience from science is far from easy, and the demarcation between science and pseudoscience has caused much debate in nursing and other health disciplines. For example many postmodern approaches to nursing knowledge such as Parse’s human-becoming theory (Parse, 1992) have been presented as alternative “caring science” but by any objective scientific perspective they represent pseudoscience. Pseudoscientific beliefs are also big business representing million dollar industries. They are even widespread, amongst university and public school science teachers and the media, and are evident in expert testimony, environmental policies, and even science education (Hobson, 2001). Of course, the best way to be able to identify pseudoscience is to know as much as possible about the real thing; in this case science.
Quasi-science is a term also sometimes encountered, and is difficult to separate from pseudoscience. We may consider that quasi-science resembles science, having some of the form, but not all of the features of scientific inquiry. Quasi-science involves an attempt to use a scientific approach but where development of a scientific theoretical basis or application of scientific methodologies is insufficient for the work to be determined as an established science. Differentiating quasi-science from pseudo-science or bad-science is complex and there is certainly some overlap, as some quasi-science falls into the realm of pseudoscience. But, generally quasi-science can be considered work involving commonly held beliefs in popular science but where they do not meet the rigorous criteria of scientific work. This is often seen with “pop” science that may blur the divide between science and pseudoscience among the general public, and may also be seen in much science fiction. For example ideas about time-travel, immortality, aliens and sentient machines are frequently discussed in the media, although there is insufficient empirical basis for much of this to be seen as scientific knowledge at this time. Quasi-science does not normally reject, or purport to be a new/alternative science and may be developed with an application of rigorous scientific methods into scientific work.
And lastly we have….
Bad science is simply scientific work that is carried out poorly or with erroneous results due to fallacies in reasoning, hypothesis generation and testing or the methods involved. Science, like any endeavor can be carried out badly, and often with the most noble motives. Occasionally scientists deliberately mislead for personal gain (and not always from their fortified secret island base), but in most cases bad science results from errors in the scientific process. Sometimes these errors are the result of poor practices, or the researchers unconscious imposition of their beliefs (looking for the answer they believe in). Science is an extraordinary process but as we have seen is not perfect, and has one notable flaw; it is carried out by people who are themselves unavoidably influenced by their own beliefs, and who are sometimes trained insufficiently and make mistakes (Barker, 2007).
This categorization seems to work for me, but I’d be interested on others ideas.
Barker, B. R. (2007). Snake oil science: The truth about complementary and alternative medicine Oxford ; Oxford University Press.
Gardner, M. (1957). Fads and fallacies in the name of science . New York: Dover Publications.
Hobson, A. (2001). Teaching relevant science for scientific literacy. Journal of College Science Teaching, 30(4), 23-243.
Parse, R. R. (1995). Illuminations: The human becoming theory in practice and research . Sudbury, Mass.: Jones and Barlett Publishers.
Shermer, M. (2002). Why people believe weird things: Pseudoscience, superstition, and other confusions of our time (2nd ed.). New York: Henry Holt.