Distinguishing real science from fake science

One of the remarkable things about science is that it works. It produces results that are repeatable, testable, and useful. So what is it about this enterprise that we call science that makes it so successful? Philosophers and historians of science have struggled for over a century to answer this question and the related question of how to distinguish science from non-science (the well-known ‘demarcation problem’), and have basically come up empty.

But the fact remains that we are bombarded on a daily basis with reports that invoke the undoubted prestige and reputation of science in order to persuade us of some proposition or other, especially in the fields of medicine and health. How do we evaluate the worthiness of such claims?

Emily Willingham tackles this somewhat more tractable problem of how to distinguish real science from fake science in popular media and comes up with ten guidelines that I thought were pretty good. Here are the ten questions she says that one should ask:

1. What is the source?
2. What is the agenda?
3. What kind of language does it use?
4. Does it involve testimonials?
5. Are there claims of exclusivity?
6. Is there mention of a conspiracy of any kind?
7. Does the claim involve multiple unassociated disorders?
8. Is there a money trail or a passionate belief involved?
9. Were real scientific processes involved?
10. Is there expertise?

Her article elaborates on how one can answer these questions and makes for interesting reading.


  1. says

    Philosophers and historians of science have struggled for over a century to answer this question and the related question of how to distinguish science from non-science (the well-known ‘demarcation problem’),

    This is, I feel, is mostly because philosophers like to complicate things unnecessarily. There are only two questions that you need to make this distinction: 1)Is it subject to empirical testing? and 2)Is the outcome objectively determinable?. If the answers are yes to both, it’s a scientific question. If not, it’s not. Examples of cases where the answers are 1)yes and 2)no would include music, for instance. You can empirically analyze the difference between two pieces of music, but which one’s better isn’t subject to objective determination. I can’t think of anything where the answer to 2 is yes but the answer to 1 is no, though.

  2. Ravi Venkataraman says

    If there exists no case when the answer to Q1 being no when the answer to Q2 is yes, then Occam’s razor should dictate that Q1 is redundant.

    I think being objective includes, by definition, the case of being empirical. Since no two persons can disagree on an objective assessment using logic and reason, it further follows that logic and reason are the more basic criteria that distinguishes science from non-science.

  3. mnb0 says

    Perhaps philosophers should focus on the question “what makes fake science fake science” instead of “what makes science science”. Feyerabend had a point when he stated that in science “anything goes” (he obviously meant to add “as long it works”).
    For me fake science is not too hard to recognize. It only accepts data that confirms its statements (Morton’s Demon), tends to explain everything (thus nothing), makes extensive use of Wikipedia’s list of logical fallacies, refuses to use precise definitions but prefers ambiguous meanings and yes, ultimately about always falls back on a conspiracy theory. That’s only logical, because conspiracy theories heavily rely on aforementioned features.
    Fake scientists aren’t too interested in doing empirical research (experiments, observations) either.

    I am not so fond of the list above for the simple reason that scientists are humans too and can make all kinds of mistakes. The results of these are bad science, not fake science. The two are not the same imo. Aristoteles for instance produced a lot of bad science but I wouldn’t call him a fake scientist, would you?

  4. slc1 says

    1)Is it subject to empirical testing? and

    What about the strings hypothesis (strings is not a theory as we sit here today as there is no empirical testing that can be performed with current technology)?

  5. mnb0 says

    In case somebody asks how we distinguish bad science from good science I’m afraid the answer is somewhat depressive: we can’t ultimately. We only can discuss, do some empirical research, discuss a bit more etc. until in the end we find out what works and what doesn’t. Just remember how and by whom the names Schrödinger’s Cat and Big Bang were coined. The scientific method is not a miracle cure or mankind already would have solved all thinkable problems.
    That’s one reason I think philosophers should concentrate on identifying fake science instead – thus the scientific method (whatever that means) remains flexible.

  6. says

    You’re right. That’s a case where Q2 is yes and Q1 is no. String theory objectively is or isn’t correct, but we can’t test it to find out. So, right now, it’s not science in a meaningful way, and won’t be until its conclusions are subject to empirical testing, through any combination of new technology or coming up with tests that can be performed using existing technology.

  7. Crudely Wrott says

    Just a guess but I’d say the chief determinant between good and bad science is time*. Complicating this is our relatively short life spans.

    *Also, useful consumer products.

  8. JEDS says

    I totally agree with what you’ve got here. I am in a bit of a debate with someone who is completely misinformed on a subject as they follow someone else’s teachings of fake science. It’s driving me nuts and the thing I can’t get over is how this person keeps accepting the info that’s being fed to them to spite the fact that it is so obviously self serving for the entity generating it. All the data and testimonials are internal. The language being used is enough to make me vomit as it carefully steps around truth and isolates like an abusive significant other. The “I can’t look outside of this sphere” grip of this company is scary. Thanks for this post. It confirms what I see going on here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *