How to Distinguish Between Religion, Pseudoscience, and Science

Sometimes people theorize about things that have never been seen. We all sit around and think about our favorite comic book heroes fighting or what we would do if we won the lottery. Sometimes the question is something along the lines of “what if this exists?”

Scientists pose the exact same question in the pursuit of knowledge. If there’s a way to verify it, then it lands in the realm of what we call “science.” If we research it, test it, and discover that whatever the question is asking is “no, this does not exist” but people still persist in believing in it, then the concept is discarded. However, some individuals may continue to promote that idea as their own brand of “science.” Anything we’ve tested exhaustively and know to be false (for example: astrology, chemtrails, or psychic energy) then we can label it as pseudoscience and move on. Sometimes it gets a bit more confusing whenever we consider quantum theory, cutting edge astronomical phenomena, religion, ghosts, etc. We can’t prove it one way or the other with sound theory nor can we necessarily prove falsification of what little evidence may exist.

Why do I keep bringing up verification? That’s the key metric of scientific inquiry. Can we confirm it? Can other people independently confirm it using our recorded methods? If so, it’s accepted! If not, it’s rejected. It’s as simple as that.

Pseudoscience is everything that’s left over that can still be studied. Orgone energy, healing crystals, ghost hunting, and chemtrails are some examples. These examples are not immediately verifiable to be false and are based entirely on anecdote. They’re often said to be less effective around skeptics. Ghosts apparently don’t like nonbelievers and Reiki healing only works if you believe in it, I suppose. There’s no currently known scientific principle that allows for the remote reconstruction of damaged biological tissue using human thoughts. There’s always the possibility of discovering such a miracle but there’s also no evidence. That makes it a pseudoscience.

What happens when we can’t verify it and we can’t even start to test it? If it is something that could just never be verified, then it just isn’t science. If it’s “unknowable” and requires faith, that puts belief in it into the realm of religion. Religious belief can be thought of as things which are believed for traditional, familial, or emotional purposes. Some religious belief is fueled by an emotional event such as the belief that a deity has spoken directly to them. Why isn’t religion a type of pseudoscience? Religion doesn’t claim to be knowable or verifiable. Religion requires faith. Religion is a topic that this blog will never touch as I believe that such topics are up to the individual to decide what’s best for them. Regardless of where you fall on the spectrum of religion, spirituality can be regarded as a true human need.

What’s the purpose of classifying these things? Fundamentally, science carries a result. If you’re sick with cancer, the careful application of physics and chemistry can cure you. No one ever got a rocket into space by assuming that the curvature of the Earth didn’t matter. Healing crystals never actually heal anyone.

What happens when science is wrong? Well, let’s take a look at alchemy. Alchemy was the mixture of religious aspects into what ultimately was a pseudoscientific pursuit of immortality. Alchemy was conducted before the principles of chemistry were well understood. As a result of alchemy, we did learn a lot more about the world around us. Alchemists applied what scientific principles were known in order to achieve a result. As everything they tried failed, they kept discarding idea after idea until eventually the ultimate goal of producing the Philosopher’s Stone was itself discarded.

As humanity advances in knowledge, we can better serve our fellow man. Continuing to persist in dead lines of scientific inquiry ultimately harms our species. With rising rates of unvaccinated children, the thriving herbal remedy industry, and a chiropractor on every corner, I often worry about what the future looks like.