Wednesday 6 March 2024

The Psychology of Pseudoscience

Stefaan Blancke is a philosopher of science at the department of Philosophy at Tilburg University in the Netherlands and a member of the Tilburg Center for Moral Philosophy, Epistemology and Philosophy of Science (TiLPS). 

His current research mainly focuses on the role of cooperation and reputation in science, pseudoscience, and morality. His website is; you can also find him on Twitter (@stblancke). This post is about a special issue on the Psychology of Pseudoscience, which Stefaan was an editor for. 

Stefaan Blancke

As a philosopher of science, I have since long been interested in pseudoscience. Not only because pseudoscience induces us to think about what science is – so that we can explain why pseudoscience is not science; but also, because I want to understand what makes our minds vulnerable to beliefs that plainly contradict our best scientific theories. Examples of pseudoscience abound, from creationism over homeopathy and anti-vaccination to telepathy. Given that we should expect the mind to reliably represent the world this is surprising. Why do so many people cherish weird beliefs?

To answer this question, we must first understand the human mind, which inevitably brings us to the domain of psychology. Building on research in evolutionary and cognitive psychology and anthropology we can assume that pseudoscientific beliefs tend to become widespread because they tap into our evolved intuitive expectations about the world. These intuitions are in place because they allow us to effectively navigate our surroundings. 

However, they also create biases by which we are disposed to adopt beliefs that conflict with a scientific understanding of the world. Creationism, for instance, taps into our psychological essentialism and teleological intuitions, whereas mechanisms for pathogen detection and aversion make us suspicious of and even oppose modern technologies such as genetic modification. Their intuitive appeal makes these beliefs contagious. Furthermore, pseudoscientific beliefs also adopt the trappings of science to piggyback on the epistemic and cultural authority of science. This study of the spread of pseudoscientific beliefs has resulted in an epidemiology of pseudoscience.

In line with this research on the frailness of the human mind I, together with a team of fellow philosophers and psychologists, edited a special collection on the psychology of pseudoscience for Frontiers in Psychology. The collection consists of four contributions each of which sheds a new light on a different aspect relating to the central theme. As three out of the four articles will be presented in more detail by the authors, I will just briefly introduce them here. Tiffany Morisseau, T.Y. Branch, and Gloria Origgi discuss how people often use scientific information for social purposes which makes them less concerned about the accuracy than the plausibility of the information. 

This allows controversial scientific theories to spread. Joffrey Fuhrer, Florian Cava, Nicolas Gauvrit, and Sebastian Dieguez provide a conceptual analysis of pseudo-expertise, a phenomenon notoriously common in pseudoscience. The authors also develop a framework for further research. Biljana Gjoneska investigates how the cognitive styles of analytic thinking, critical thinking and scientific reasoning relate to (dis)trust in conspiratorial beliefs. And, finally, in an article not presented here, Spencer Mermelstein and Tamsin C. German argue that counterintuitive pseudoscientific beliefs spread because they play into our communication evolution mechanisms.

I heartily recommend reading next week's post from Tiffany Morisseau on her paper in the issue, and consulting the articles of our collection. I hope you enjoy the read!

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