The historical persistence of pseudoscience | Sunday Observer

The historical persistence of pseudoscience

4 July, 2021

Pseudoscience, often defined as a set of ideas presented as science without any basis in scientific fact, have been a part of human history since even before science itself. In spite of scientific evidence, believers of pseudoscience obstinately resist any challenge or criticism of their beliefs which has led to many ideas persisting to this day. While most pseudosciences remain innocuous, some beliefs can be dangerous not just to believers themselves but to the very societies they live in, as is the case with climate change denialism and anti vaxxers.

Due to the controversial nature of pseudoscience, it is difficult to trace its history. However, since the first use of the phrase in the 18th century, certain criterias were proposed by scientists and philosophers to distinguish science from pseudoscience, such as falsifiability and Mertonian norms. Since that demarcation, many beliefs, theories and practices have been identified relatively concretely as pseudoscience, an important distinction in recognizing potentially harmful ideas to society.


One of the earliest recognized examples of pseudoscience was Phrenology, the measurement of indents in the skull to predict behavioural traits. Developed by German physician Franz Joseph Gall in 1796 and popular during the early 19th century, Phrenology was based on certain scientific and biological concepts like specific areas of the brain serving specific functions.

Phrenology as a scientific theory became discredited as early as the 1840s, but by then many European supremecasists had used Phrenology as “scientific” proof of their superiority to other races. Phrenology would also have certain positive impacts, such as developing theories that would advance research towards neuropsychology.

Another popular pseudoscience is the spiritualism movement that began in the 19th century. While spiritualism as a belief existed long before then, all across the globe, Modern Spiritualism, also known as Modern American Spiritualism was started then by the Fox sisters, The three sisters claimed to be mediums communicating with spirits and held public seances that used trickery to convince audiences of their legitimacy.

One of the sisters went on to confess to the hoax and publicly demonstrate how the tricks were done. Popular figures like Harry Houdini also make careers by exposing Mediums as frauds. Despite this, the spiritualism movement would continue to grow, and to this day would remain immensely lucrative.

Ultimately, Pseudoscience remains a controversial topic for many. While the idea of it is usually challenged by those believing in what it criticizes, Pseudoscience as a concept is also considered divisive as some argue that distinguishing science from pseudoscience is not possible.

As scientific understanding progresses, certain theories considered to be pseudoscience may someday be reconsidered to be science, as was the case with concepts like plate tectonics. However, as the support for potentially disastrous beliefs like the anti vaccine movement and over reliance on alternative medicine grows, identifying and denouncing pseudosciences has only become even more important.