Pseudoscience Red Flags

Pseudoscience Red Flags

The following list was taken and modified directly from Science or Not

Their website is a treasure trove of information, and I highly recommend referring to it often when evaluating a claim. In addition to this list, I will also add a brief summary as to why it is wrong, and using the example of ‘Cannabis as medicine’, show how faulty claims use this language to convince people of the validity of their argument. I chose to use Cannabis, because almost every single one of these fallacies is present in the typical pro-marijuana line of reason. This is not intended to act as a be all/end all for the cannabis argument. I’m well aware of some of the imperfect analyses perpetrated by a number of anti-marijuana advocates.  I plan to do a more detailed exposé on this topic at a later date which covers the many nuances of the subject.

The clue: Explanation and why it’s fallacious: How it’s used:
The ‘Scientifically Proven’ Subterfuge A claim says that it is scientifically proven, (therefore valid) or that a claim cannot be scientifically proven and is therefore not valid. The problem: Science seeks never to prove or disprove anything; there is either enough evidence to accept a hypothesis or reject it.  Many who use this tactic are referring to a single study, often times credulously. “By saying that it is unlikely marijuana holds the cure for many diseases, you are denying what scientists have already proven. If you can’t prove it’s impossible, how can you say that it’s unlikely?”
Persecuted prophets and maligned mavericks: The Galileo Gambit Users of this tactic will claim they are akin to a lone sage, being repressed by the establishment, similar to Galileo or Pasteur. It is the appeal that many great ideas were persecuted before eventually being accepted as mainstream. The problem is that, while many geniuses may have been laughed at, it doesn’t mean all who are laughed at are geniuses. “Someday, the truth will come out, and you will realize that marijuana is not dangerous and is only illegal for political purposes. History will look back on this debate and say your views are barbaric.”
Empty edicts – absence of empirical evidence This tactic shows up when people make claims in the form of bald statements – “this is the way it is” or “this is true” or “I know/believe this” or “everybody knows this” – without any reference to supporting evidence. Empirical evidence consists of recorded data, collected from the real world by some kind of measurement technique which is reliable and accurate. “Everyone knows hemp is a widely beneficial plant.”
Anecdotes, testimonials and urban legends Those who use this tactic try to present stories about specific cases or events as supporting evidence. The stories range from personal testimonials, to anecdotes about acquaintances, to tales about unidentifiable subjects. “My aunt suffers from severe ulcers and erosions in her esophagus and stomach. Smoking cannabis is the only thing that helps her eat and keep it down.”
Charges of conspiracy, collusion and connivance The aim is to persuade us that the evidence cannot be trusted because scientists or other influential figures have colluded to manipulate it. Usually, the more their model fails to explain the overwhelming evidence against their claims, the more massive, clever, and deeper the conspiracy runs. Most conspiracy theories are false, and driven by someone with a vested interest in derailing the consensus. They have the effect of diverting attention from real problems and preventing their solutions. Conspiracy theories should only be accepted with strong supporting evidence. “The FDA seeks to silence any doctor or scientist who speaks out in favor of cannabinoids as medicine. Pharmaceutical companies can’t patent a naturally growing plant, so there is no money in it for them to research it or promote it. Our healthcare system thrives on sick people, if everyone knew the secrets to cure themselves, they’d all be out of a job! WAKE UP!”
Stressing status and appealing to authority People who use this tactic try to convince you by quoting some ‘authority’ that agrees with their claims and pointing to that person’s status, position or qualifications, instead of producing real-world evidence. The tactic is known as the argument from authority. While this is acceptable if the person’s credentials are relevant to the subject, they mean absolutely nothing more than the average layman’s opinion when the credentials are outside the scope of the subject matter. “Carl Sagan, the pioneering astrophysicist, science author, and professor at Cornell University, was a user and ardent proponent of marijuana; his widow, Ann Druyan, presided over the board of directors for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML)”
Devious deception in displaying data: Cherry picking When people use legitimate evidence, but not all of the evidence. Rather than accept the logical conclusion that the bulk of the evidence goes against them, they select segments of evidence or data that appear to support their argument and hide or ignore the rest of the evidence which tends to refute it. Cherry-picking can be assumed to be subconscious confirmation bias at best and dishonest at worst. In any case, it is misleading. “A 2010 study found that states that decriminalized marijuana for medical use had a statistically significant decline in the amount of traffic related deaths compared to states who outlawed all forms of cannabis.”





Duplicity and distraction – false dichotomy In this tactic, people assert that there are only two possible (and usually opposite) positions to choose from, when in fact there are more. They try to argue that if one position is shown to be false, then the other must be correct. “When you deny people the capability to choose which form of medical treatment is right for them, you’re denying their basic liberties as a human being. Are you saying that sick people should be arrested and jailed for using their medicine under their doctor’s recommendation?”
Wishful thinking – favoring fantasy over fact We use this tactic on ourselves. It’s hard to avoid because it’s part of human nature. We prefer things to turn out the way we would like them to turn out. Unfortunately, some people exploit this human trait and use it for their own benefit. When we engage in wishful thinking, we avoid proper evidence from the real world. This means we are likely to come to conclusions that are unscientific and false. “If cannabis was a legal and accessible option for everybody, our society wouldn’t have to rely so much on toxic pharmaceuticals.”
Appeals to ancient wisdom – trusting traditional trickery People who use this tactic try to persuade you that a certain explanation, treatment or model must be correct because it’s been around for a long time. “Marijuana has been cultivated and used worldwide for thousands of years for medicine, meditation, and religious purposes.”
Technobabble and tenuous terminology: the use of pseudo scientific language In this tactic, people use invented terms that sound “sciencey” or co-opt real science terms and apply them incorrectly. They leave their audience to assign meanings according to individual preconceptions. The result is that their argument has no foundation, since the concepts used to justify it are meaningless. “The molecules in cannabis can interact with the human nervous system to cause feelings of well-being. Strains used for depression produces a head high that can break up negative thought patterns.”
Confusing correlation with causation: rooster syndrome This is the natural human tendency to assume that, if two events or phenomena consistently occur at about the same time, then one is the cause of the other. Hence “rooster syndrome”, from the rooster who believed that his crowing caused the sun to rise. “Portugal and the Netherlands have decriminalized marijuana. Ever since, Portugal and the Netherlands have had lower suicide and homicide rates, and higher life expectancy. I’ll bet that if we decriminalized marijuana, our suicide and homicide rates would decrease, and our life expectancy would go up.”
Straw man: crushing concocted canards People use this tactic to distract you from an argument that they can’t answer. This may be because the argument is too persuasive, but it may be simply that they don’t have the knowledge or reasoning power to address it. They substitute a weaker argument that may appear superficially to be similar, in the hope that you will be fooled into believing they have picked holes in the original. “Marijuana costs pennies in comparison to pharmaceutical drugs. There may be lots of reasons, but it all boils down to greed and suppression of the competition.”
Indelible initial impressions: the anchoring effect


Anchoring is the human tendency to rely almost entirely on one piece of evidence or study, usually one that we encountered early, when making a decision. Anchoring prevents us from considering alternative models. It makes us less likely to abandon models that have been falsified or modify ideas that don’t fit the real-world evidence.


“Medical Marijuana is SAFE! You can’t even overdose on it.”
Perceiving phony patterns: apophenia . AKA The Gambler’s Fallacy This is one of those tactics we use on ourselves – a cognitive bias which prevents us from thinking rationally. We have all evolved the ability to detect patterns and regularities in our environment. Apophenia leads you to believe, wrongly, that you have evidence to support a position when you don’t. “Whenever I use marijuana before taking a test, I do really well. The last time I did poorly, I hadn’t used marijuana. I used marijuana this morning before my test, so I expect I will do well.”
Esoteric energy and fanciful forces This tactic is easy to pick because people who use it try to convince you that some kind of elusive energy or power or force is responsible for whatever effect they are promoting. “When you use herbal remedies that nature provided for us such as cannabis, you feel at one with the earth, freeing yourself from the false institutions that were keeping your mind closed.”
Banishing boundaries and pushing panaceas – applying models where they don’t belong Those who use this tactic take a model that works under certain conditions and try to apply it more widely to circumstances beyond its scope, where it does not work. Look for jargon, sweeping statements and vague, rambling “explanations” that try to sound scientific. “Marijuana is an anti-inflammatory, so it can be helpful toward any immune system disorder that causes tissue inflammation: asthma, bronchitis, gastritis, arthritis, meningitis, headache, back and neck pain, rashes, hives, spasticity, MS, tumor, HIV…”
Averting anxiety with cosmic connectivity: magical thinking Magical thinking is present when anyone argues that everything is connected: thoughts, symbols and rituals can have distant physical and mental effects; inanimate objects can have intentions and mystical influences. Often, the connectivity is supposedly mediated by some mysterious energy, force or vibration and there is much talk of holism, resonance, balance, essences and higher states. “Consuming cannabis is like reconnecting your body to the vibrational frequencies and lightwaves present when the universe was created.  The 7 points of the leaves represent the 7 arrays of consciousness/power vortex chakras/ periods of the realization of space. It is the holiest number; and the symbol of health and divinity.
Single study syndrome – clutching at convenient confirmation This tactic shows up when a person who has a vested interest in a particular point of view pounces on some new finding which seems to either support or threaten that point of view. But the problem is, in science, it’s the overall weight of evidence that matters, not one jigsaw piece in the puzzle. In a huge study that followed 65,000 California HMO patients for 10 years, tobacco use, as expected, resulted in rates of lung cancer as much as 11 times that of nonsmokers. But marijuana smokers who did not use tobacco actually had a slightly lower rate of lung cancer than nonsmokers.
Appeal to nature – the authenticity axiom


The fallacy that anything ‘natural’ is good, and anything ‘artificial’, ‘synthetic’ or ‘man-made’ is bad. It’s wrong because naturalness is not an automatic guarantee of goodness or safety, nor is it wise to assume that one can’t overdose on something natural. There’s no agreed upon way to distinguish what is natural, and by using this label, it poisons the well to any new evidence-based solutions, materials, or discoveries that are deemed “unnatural.” “Cannabis is a plant. It’s safe, it’s 100% natural, and put here by God/Mother Nature. Are you saying that God/Mother Nature made a mistake? I’d much rather trust my health to nature’s medicine than to chemicals!”
The reversed responsibility response – switching the burden of proof This tactic is usually used by someone who’s made a claim and then been asked for evidence to support it. Their response is to demand that you show that the claim is wrong and if you can’t, to insist that this means their claim is true. But the burden of proof lies on the person making the claim. “I challenge you to show me any definitive studies anywhere that prove beyond reasonable doubt that marijuana does not safely treat a variety of health conditions.”
The scary science scenario – science portrayed as evil Used to try and convince you that scientific knowledge has resulted in overwhelmingly more harm than good, citing environmental disasters, accidents, human tragedies, hazards, and weapons; then linking the damage caused to the scientific discoveries that led to them. Also sometimes used to charge scientists themselves as being cold, apathetic people who will do whatever it takes to make breakthroughs. “Right, because doctors all have your best interest at heart-that’s why they charge thousands of dollars for your treatment! How many deaths have been caused by prescription drugs?”
False balance – cultivating counterfeit controversy to create confusion This tactic is promoted by peddlers of bad science and pseudoscience and is often taken up by journalists and politicians. In discussing an issue, they insist that “both sides” be presented.  By doing so, they give undue weight to a side of the issue that has little to no reliable evidence. Often this side claims underdog status, being oppressed by the mainstream, thus appealing to the public’s sense of fairness. “We’re talking about the controversial topic of medical marijuana. On my left is Dr. J.Q. Smith, Professor of Pharmacology at Stanford Medical School, and on my right, please welcome the concerned mother of 6 year old Sally, who was diagnosed with cancer at a young age, who says she’s been reading up on the benefits of natural therapies, and is convinced MMJ would help Sally, but has to fight for access to it.”
Confirmation bias – ferreting favorable findings while overlooking opposing observations Confirmation bias is part of human nature. We feel more comfortable when our opinions are reinforced. Contradictory evidence would upset our equilibrium, so we turn a blind eye. Unfortunately, confirmation bias leads us into errors of judgment because we ignore real-world evidence. “I heard that cannabis was effective for endometriosis, so I went online and found lots of websites that substantiated that claim. I think the skeptics just like being negative and are against people trying new things to better themselves”
Crafty contrarians and wily watchdogs – donning the mantle of shrewdness This is an attitude adopted by a person – and it’s usually an older male – who has achieved success within his profession. This person feels entitled to make pronouncements about areas in which he has no competence. He believes he has developed a knack for making good judgments based on ‘intuition’ or ‘gut feeling’ and you are expected to respect his opinions because of his reputation for astuteness. His opinions are often at odds with the accepted science “I’ve been smoking marijuana since the 60’s and have a very successful career in engineering. In all my years designing bridges, I just know when something works and when it doesn’t, so trust me when I say, marijuana works.”
The appeal to common sense – garbage in the guise of gumption The perpetrator tries to persuade you to accept or reject a claim based on what’s supposedly “common sense”. It is promoted as temptingly simple, straightforward and authoritative. The problem is common sense is not always right. And often, involves comparisons based on false equivalency. Adhering to common sense arguments can distract you from delving deeper into the science by priming you to ignore it. “Why do we even need to debate this? It’s safer than alcohol and tobacco! Obviously, marijuana has helped a lot of people, and has been used as a natural miracle for thousands of years. All these studies are a waste of money, but I guess common sense isn’t so common.”


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