How to counter pseudoscience; it’s not about the evidence

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People try to make sense of their experiences. Some of that sense-making is pseudoscientific. The Sense-making fulfills psychological needs. That creates an emotional attachment to the pseudoscience. To persuade people to favor science over pseudoscience, one has to enter their latitude of acceptance – the range of acceptable ideas. Slowly shifting the range broadens the mind to accept things one typically rejects. To counter pseudoscience or conspiracy theories, focus on the believer’s psychological needs, and invite science through the Latitude of Acceptance. It’s not about the strength of your evidence; it’s about how you persuade.

The blunder

Instead of providing evidence, understand the believer’s purpose

Years ago, I wrote a post on why the human brain can’t participate in extrasensory perception and how any explanation about ESP using the brain is pseudoscience. That was a blunder. My biggest writing blunder. Not because I suddenly started believing in telekinesis or telepathy, but because I approached the article in the wrong way. I wrote a crass piece trying to “disprove” ESP abilities. That was the blunder. All I got was some appreciation from hardcore anti-pseudoscience people and a barrage of comments from believers ranging from empaths to clairvoyants who felt dismissed and insulted. Why? Because countering the pseudoscience of supernatural brain abilities translated into me dismissing their way of life that revolved around helping others.

How I wish I had written this article first. Had I known how to approach the problem, I’d have (probably) gotten my point across better. I don’t endorse making money by scamming others, but I do support people trying to help people with whatever “sense-making” capacity they apply. In this case, unfortunately, those who were helping others soaked themselves in pseudoscience to gloriously explain away empathy and good intuitive counseling skills. For them, the pseudoscience gave them purpose and meaning.

The Desire

Pseudoscience is a sense-making process that comes with psychological needs

When you want to counter pseudoscience, figure out why someone has a need to believe in it instead of providing evidence against it. Providing stark contradictory evidence can backfire because it can create a belief-polarization.

Belief in pseudoscience almost never has a base in the mechanism or validity of the pseudoscience. It may not even emerge from misinformation. Even though the believers justify the faith with what they call legitimate evidence. This evidence could be fake news or misinformation too. People try to interpret their experiences in ways they find acceptable, even if they are not scientifically accurate interpretations. That’s called Sense-making. Astrology, spirituality, science, religion, numerology, creationism, conspiracy theories, quantum consciousness, etc. are sense-making activities. Emotional attachment to one’s sense-making usually comes down to what gives psychological security and what gives meaning to an experience (or legitimizes it).

For example, belief in astrology is often strong because it helps one form and express an astrological identity, communicate that identity (using signs) and explain uncertainty, negative experiences, and reduce ambiguity in things beyond one’s control. Frameworks like astrology return a sense of control to the believer.

When you want to counter pseudoscience, figure out why someone has a need to believe in it instead of providing evidence against it. Providing stark contradictory evidence can backfire because it polarizes. Share on X

The first step to counter pseudoscience is to identify it’s purpose in one’s life

Behind every belief in pseudoscience or any conspiracy, there are psychological needs or desires that manifest in many ways. People have a:

  1. Need for defining oneself – identity & self-concept
  2. Need for removing uncertainty – gaining control & clarity
  3. Need for meaning and purpose – sense-making & meaning-making for “grand” claims
  4. Need for validating experiences – affirmation & validation
  5. Need for growth – self-improvement
  6. Need for improving attitude toward oneself – self-esteem & self-affirmation
  7. Need for belonging – becoming a part of a tribe or collective
  8. Need for autonomy – feeling in control & independent
  9. Need for entitlement – feeling like things should go your way
  10. Need for security and safety – avoiding threats and protecting those close to you above all else

Science or pseudoscience can fulfill these needs, but pseudoscience or a conspiracy offers a more sensational way to satisfy these needs. Pseudoscience promises. Science suggests. Pseudoscience looks profound. Science looks stressful. When the needs are met, people get emotionally attached to their pseudoscience or conspiracy theories. They defend it because it becomes a part of their reality.

So instead, see how science can align with the psychological needs, dependence on pseudoscience will begin to vanish for most.

The Acceptance

There is a range of ideas that are believable and acceptable; ideas outside that range are rejected

People grow up around other people’s beliefs – Religion, myths, folk-science, ways of life, etc. Some of these contain pseudoscientific elements that are repeated so often that they seem like truths. Repetition causes familiarity and familiarity disguises itself as the truth. In psychology, this is called the illusory truth effect. Repeatedly hearing half-accurate statements creates so much familiarity with the information that it appears like intuitive knowledge, which is almost never questioned. Many such beliefs in pseudoscience or conspiracies start small and sense-making build’s them up with other pseudoscientific elements. Familiarity becomes a threat to updating scientific knowledge.

Repetition causes familiarity and familiarity disguises itself as the truth. In psychology, this is called the illusory truth effect. Share on X

As someone on YT said – you don’t need physicists to explain the earth isn’t flat. You need psychologists to figure out why they need to believe the earth is flat.

When you do want to provide evidence against it, offer it in what psychologists call the “latitude of acceptance[1]” or LoA. The LoA is a range of variation in a belief or idea that is acceptable. One’s preconceived notions are in the middle of that range. If you share a statement within that range, it is easier to believe. Attitude is most likely to change[2] when a suggestion is within one’s LoA. It is easier[3] to persuade people if it is in their latitude of acceptance. Marketers and salespersons know this well – they identify the need and then offer something the buyer can accept by staying inside the LoA. Like the marketers and sales teams, those who sell pseudoscience use this. They fill a psychological need by offering something the buyer can readily accept.

How to sell pseudoscience

Feeling helpless in the pandemic and need science to move faster? Offer immunity pills made from plants that you can take 10 times a day. Speak of ancient texts that boast of the miracle cures made from these plants. Speak of the misinterpreted “science has proven water is wet” that could be verified with a quick google search. What do you get? A hoard of buyers. This gives people the control they need, the comfort they need, and the sense-making they need.

How to counter pseudoscience (step 1)
People have a range of "acceptable and believable" ideas. That's the Latitude of Acceptance. It's easy to persuade when you are within the LoA. Ideas outside the LoA are often dismissed. Share on X

The Entrance

Entering the Latitude of Acceptance makes it easy to persuade believers

There are biases at play. Like the confirmation bias – people selectively highlight information that confirms their beliefs and ignores information that goes against the belief. Misinformation plays a huge role here. Belief-confirming misinformation will always be available because people inevitably create misinformation. Deliberately or by virtue of ignorance and poor understanding. Fake news and misrepresented science is a whole other problem, that’s a story for another day. 5G doomsday people could selectively misrepresent the meaning of radiation and ignore the fact that there is a difference between ionizing radiation (bad) and non-ionizing radiation (not bad). 5G is non-ionizing radiation and its effects on us are insignificant. Climate change deniers could cherry-pick small portions of graphs that make their case and say, “humans aren’t doing this.” However, providing evidence and context hasn’t helped counter this pseudoscientific conspiracy theory.

What could help in both scenarios (5G doomsday & climate change is a hoax) is entering their latitude of acceptance to address their need, but with stories. Figurately speaking, the latitude of acceptance is narrow and far away from scientific inquiry. However, you could enter the LoA by starting small and not even mentioning the grander disaster of climate change. Talk about birds and how they have changed migration patterns. Talk about the dead fish. Every story you tell should align with their psychological needs. To counter pseudoscience, it is important to speak in the language of “needs & acceptance” instead of “facts & differences”. After looking at those concrete problems, expand your conversation to include other problems like people dying because of droughts. Once you are done, leave it at that. Allow the person to make sense of those problems for what they are instead of reconciling them under “climate change”.

Attitude change is important, not the semantics

Eventually, one could believe many of the implications of scientific findings without ever feeling the need to adopt global abstract statements like “climate change is a hoax” and “big pharma is pushing medicines to make us complacent.” Perhaps those beliefs stem from thoughts like “big pharma failed to save my dad, and we even lost our money” or “you can’t put the burden of destroying the planet on me.”

The lesson here is that you can counter pseudoscientific claims by moving away from the abstract notion (or beliefs) to get closer to the concrete details. This is particularly effective against the “quantum woo magic cosmic consciousness” category of pseudoscience. Do this step-by-step by appealing to other’s needs and then entering the latitude of acceptance.

The Proposal

Any suggestion outside the Latitude of Acceptance can polarize beliefs

If you believe you are intelligent, you won’t readily accept the polar opposite: you are dumb. This is because it is way outside your latitude of acceptance. However, you might believe that you usually are intelligent, but you occasionally catch the dumbs. If you believe you can score 50% in an exam, it is easier to believe that you can achieve anywhere between 40–60%. If I tell you can score 100% right away, you probably will discard my claim.

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Your response is likely to be:
1. Aditya is wrong in thinking so
2. I have evidence that 50% is my expected score
3. I am just about average
4. Here are 10 reasons why you are way off the mark

Now, your mental position is likely to differentiate itself from mine. That means polarization. Your belief about your ability to score just about 50% will get stronger. All your reasoning will be in your awareness. Your justifications would be at the forefront.

And what happens to my belief that you can score 100%? It gets stronger too. I pull explanations to show why you are wrong and justify why I am right. Far too often, this is a breeding ground for interpersonal conflict.

From here, I may even overcompensate and say you are a genius. And you may conflate rejecting my position with your ability and demonstrate how poorly you can score.

A way to counter this belief is to say something like, “You can do 60–65%.” This range is at the fringe of your LoA of 40–60%. It’s easier to believe and accept 60–65% as something reasonable. Being reasonable, according to someone else’s perspective, is important.

The same happens when we try to counter pseudoscience. A gradual shift in the LoA by pushing for “slightly more scientific” can eventually shift the LoA to accept science openly. It has to be gradual and not extreme. This mechanism creates an upward spiral of scientific facts or a downward spiral of belief in more ludicrous pseudoscience or conspiracy theories.

how to counter pseudoscience (step 2)

The resolution

Counter the pseudoscience, not the believer

Had I tried to reconcile other’s way of life without sense-breaking using the latitude of acceptance, the backlash on my blunder would’ve been weaker. They probably wouldn’t have dismissed the science in favor of pseudoscience. They would’ve thought about the science and adopted evidence-based sense-making. Evidence-based sense-making is almost the same as using the scientific method or a rational approach.

This brings me back to my first paragraph. Recognize why someone believes in pseudoscience and it’ll show you a way to counter the pseudoscience without countering the person.

Recognize why someone believes in pseudoscience and it'll show you a way to counter the pseudoscience without countering the person. Share on X

The Method

7 cosmic steps to counter pseudoscience

There may be a method to counter pseudoscience. It clearly isn’t scientific; it’s based on my assessment of probably misinterpreted science. So you could call this a pseudoscience, too.

  1. Understand why one’s belief is strong.
  2. Identify the need that belief is fulfilling. It could be psychological comfort, explanations for events, familiarity induced comfort.
  3. Do not make countering pseudoscience a threat to one’s core psyche. People tend to defend their psyche no matter what. Forcing a change reinforces the original psyche.
  4. See how science can slowly enter their Latitude of Acceptance which may be full of misinformation and fake news.
  5. Incrementally guide people to accept science in a way that simultaneously aligns with their psychological needs. This way, the psychological needs aren’t unfulfilled, and the science is within their LoA.
  6. Focus on not disrupting the needs. Provide alternatives to satisfy those needs. Identify if science can fulfill those needs.
  7. Provide bits of science that are within one’s LoA until the LoA shifts closer to science.

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8 thoughts on “How to counter pseudoscience; it’s not about the evidence”

  1. Really interesting article and lines up with some processes I’ve been exploring. Would love to have more examples. I guess with anti-vaxxers, it might be to talk about other diseases that vaccines have eradicated? I’m not sure how to nudge that upper limit closer to science. Perhaps the first step is to find some commonality? Because if theyr’e really not seeing COVID as a danger at all, i.e. “It’s just the flu,” — maybe something like, “It’s just the flu for you and me, but your grandma who’s 80, your sister who’s immuno compromised, and your five year old child are far more at risk.”

    Reply
  2. I have identified the need (autonomy). I still don’t know how to get someone who is science-hostile to even accept the tiniest nugget of science in the right direction (I suppose that means in a way that fulfills the need(s) involved. Please help. They’re detoriating into antiCOVID19vaxxing and I don’t know what to do.

    Reply
    • Hey, I can understand where you are coming from. Here’s what I recommend:
      1. Make it salient that they have full control over getting vaccinated or not.
      2. Highlight the safety & health needs of their loved ones and tell them getting vaccinated is for everyone – them getting vaccinated determines how well they protect their loved ones.
      3. Tell them they get to choose how and when they get vaccinated.
      4. Tell them getting vaccinated is the fastest way to get the whole society back to normal
      5. If there is a need for control or certainty tell them that side effects are typically non-existent or unlikely
      6. Tell them how even a single dose of the vaccine has reduced covid hospitalizations dramatically.
      7. If you are taking the science route, try to draw analogies between how they have gotten sick in the past and how they (not science) helped them recover. How their actions built immunity (focus on their autonomy of action).
      8. Tell them it’s not anti-vaccine vs vaccine, it’s about how everybody wins or everybody loses in terms of new lockdowns, new mutations of the virus, longer restrictions. The faster they get it over with the faster everything returns to normal. You can delay dealing with the fact that people still have to wear masks and follow health protocols even after getting vaccinated.
      9. Try to pull local statistics on how many people in your community are sick, vaccinated, and ready to get vaccinated. Use guestimates, but don’t use this as proof, highlight how they are trusting the vaccine because of simple reasons like wanting to return to normal. Don’t make it about most people’s blind faith in science. Make about how they have the fastest route to highest autonomy.
      10. Show them how their decision benefits others

      Avoid
      1. How science has solved problems (there will always be a counter argument) or a major science failure anecdote
      2. Making covid seem more terrifying than necessary (this is subjective); it might backfire with “it’s not that scary”

      You can shoot me an email with some specifics too and I’ll try to help out better!

      Reply
      • Hello,

        First of all, thank you very much for writing such an article. Tackling the “pseudoscience” issue from a psychological point of view is a very interesting model and I would like to try it with my clients (I am a physiotherapist and several clients are antivaxx).

        The problem I have with the steps described above is :

        Step 1 : telling them they have full control of getting vaccinated or not just trigger the response “well then I just decide not to get vaccinated, why are we even having this conversation ?”

        Step 2 : telling them that “getting vaccinated determines how well they protect their loved ones” has never worked…for these people, that is the opposite. They are certain that “getting vaccinated means harming their own body”.

        Step 3: “Tell them they get to choose how and when they get vaccinated” simply triggers the answer “I might get it in 10 years time because no one can assure me that there are no long term effects of the vaccine”

        Step 4 : “Tell them getting vaccinated is the fastest way to get the whole society back to normal” is counter-argued by them saying “that is completely the opposite, herd immunity would have worked without the vaccine and we would be covid-free now without the vaccine”

        Step 5 : “If there is a need for control or certainty tell them that side effects are typically non-existent or unlikely” => they simply answer that “this is not true” and give view examples of people (they claim they personnally know) who had a stroke/side effects after gettting the jab…

        ….and I could continue on and on with every step.

        The situation is hopeless I think

        Reply
  3. Great article! This is definitely a useful tool that I look forward to trying out in friends and family who are deep into pseudos and conspiracies.

    Reply

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