A field guide to quackery and pseudoscience

After a long absence for the holidays, Prometheus is back, with part one of his Field Guide To Quackery and Pseudoscience. An excerpt:

The purpose of scientific jargon (and almost all “real” technical jargon) is to allow people familiar with the field to communicate ideas in an efficient manner. The purpose of pseudoscientific (or quackery) jargon is to obscure meaning and cover a lack of definition.

To illustrate – what, precisely, is meant by the quack term “detoxification”? What is being detoxified, from where and how? The same applies to various “field” and "energy" references in pseudoscience. What are they, how are they generated and how can they be measured?

Pseudoscience (and quackery) jargon serves to allow the promoter to sound scientific without actually having to define their terms or be scientific. They use scientific-sounding words to confuse and distract their audience , whereas the “real” scientific and technical jargon serves to inform and improve communication efficiency. By using terms that are unclear or foreign to their audience, the pseudoscientist or quack is sending the message, “This is too technical for you to understand, but it’s real science – trust me!”

Most of the jargon used in quackery and pseudoscience has roots in real science, so the audience – which is usually no more scientifically literate than the general population (which is to say, not very) - will understand only that they are technical terms. It is unlikely that many members of the audience will understand what the terms actually mean and even less likely that someone will realize that they are being used in a nonsensical fashion.
Good reading, and I look forward to additional entries.


  1. One of my favorite QuackWords is "works". Something "works". What does it do? It "works".

    Well, like Hunter said, it "works" for me.

  2. James Laidler described this sort of pseudoscientific language as "a jargon or pidgin that combines scientific terms and constructs with absolute nonsense." I wish I had thought of "pidgin" myself.

    Many alties are offended when a scientifically-literate person dismisses one of their statements offhand, arguing that they should at least "check it out" or "consider it." But the reason for the offhand dismissal is that anyone who understands the meanings of the words in the statement can immediately tell that the statement is meaningless. Someone who knew little or nothing about sports might be impressed if I told them that I once batted twenty touchdowns in a basketball game, but anyone who's sports-literate would immediately recognize it as bullshit. Similarly, anyone who's scientifically literate would immediately dismiss a claim that "every disease has a unique electrical frequency" because the notion of a disease having an electrical frequency makes as much sense as a basketball player batting a touchdown.

  3. It's seldom that we who fight quackery can see the horrible results of altmed, but here is something that will shake you to your core. Pick up a copy of Business Week snf look at the pt x-rays in the article "Is this diagnosis Real?" I had not seen any of the evidence before and was following the case of Aetna v Cavitat only because Tim Bolen was getting his butt handed to him in court. Bob Baratz calls this "assult and Battery". I think it's worse. If you can't get a copy of the mag send me an email and I will send a .pdf of the article.


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