The Future Is Here
We may earn a commission from links on this page

10 Pseudo-Science Theories We'd Like to See Retired Forever

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Pseudo-science theories are a little like puppies. They're fun, fluffy things to talk about, and most of the time they're harmless. Sometimes, however, they get big, mean, aggressive, and have to be put down. Here are a few pseudo-science theories that need the Old Yeller treatment.

10. Phrenology

When I was thinking about this list, I thought about mentioning graphology - handwriting analysis that supposedly reveals personality characteristics and is still used by some companies to evaluate job applicants. I thought about body language experts who claim that slouching shows deep things about a person's psyche. I thought about typology, which analyzes body shape and makes conclusions about the personality. But it's all just phrenology. Phrenology was the first time palm-readers cloaked themselves in science, and although phrenology itself has been beheaded, it sends out new heads, like the hydra.


Want to know what someone's like? Get to know them, or talk to a lot of people who know them. Handwriting won't tell you anything, unless the letters are written in blood. If you think someone's posture indicates their character, I wish you an uncomfortable chair for the rest of your life. And as for deciding that someone's body shape is an indication of what they're like inside - we got taught to know better than this in kindergarten, people. Get it together. I have no doubt that there will always be new forms of this crap floating around. Some charlatan will always find a way to claim physical characteristics indicate moral character. Give it the hydra treatment. Chop off its head and burn its neck stump.


9. Aliens Built the Ancient World

Look, I know it's easier to think that aliens came down to Earth thousands of years ago than it is to believe that the ancient peoples of Egypt or South America and Central America had any skill, brains, or artistry. But you still have to fill in questions like, "Why, of all the things aliens could do with the world, did they choose to make giant stone pyramids?" If you went to an alien world, would you want to build giant stone pyramids, or would you prefer to loot the world of all of its precious materials? (Or, if you were more benevolent, teach the natives how to cultivate penicillin?) While we're on the subject, why did aliens give up their interest in architecture? It's only been a couple of thousand years, and we could really use some help building vertical farms or supercities, or, I don't know, space ships. But I get it: We're smart, ancient people are not. Keep it to yourself from now on.

8. The Vaccinations and Autism Hoax

Yeah, I know. We've talked about this issue on this site so many times. Still, it's just an awful, soul-sucking monster of a pseudo-science theory. Just thinking about the time, the money, the effort, the honest scientific inquiry, and, of course, the lives that were consumed by this theory makes me so tired. It makes me want to invent time-travel technology and take up a collection, so I could go back in time and give Andrew Wakefield a lot of money and set him up as a "conceptual artist" or a fashion photographer or something. Anything that gives him the money and attention he so obviously craves without doing the damage he did. If it cost half a billion dollars, it would still be a bargain.


Vaccination Image: CDC/Reuel Waldrop

7. Genetic Memory

A little sentimentalism about one's ancestors can be quite pleasant. It's interesting to look around an old family house, or take a trip to the "homeland." Things get a little more complicated when people lay claim to the gifts and talents of their ancestors. What works in novels doesn't work in real life, and "innate knowledge," leads to all kinds of pseudo-scientific nonsense. We're not salmon. We don't have a instinct that leads us back to our origins.


6. Baby Genius Programs

There are two possible ways to be a genius: extraordinary luck or extraordinary hard work. Either you work incredibly hard to train your brain to make connections that other people can't make, or you are born with a brain that has a great talent for a certain subject. There is no other route to genius, and most of the experts disagree on even these two routes. The one thing they agree on is it's not possible to make your kid a genius via the savvy purchase of consumer products. If you think fifteen minute word games, or a series of videos, or playing classical music at a poor pregnant woman's uterus is going to make your kid a genius, you better hope your kids have the willingness to work hard, because they certainly don't have luck on their side.


5. Polygraphy

I'm not saying that lie detector tests never work. I'm just saying that they don't work well enough. Consider the following conversation:

"She passed a lie detector test."

"Really? I still think she's guilty. How would I prove that?"

"I guess you go ahead and investigate her just the way you would if she hadn't passed a lie detector test."

"Why did we have her take one, then?"

"I forget."

Pretty bleak, but not as bad as the alternative conversation:

"She failed the lie detector test."

"Hang her!"

See the problem?

4. Homeopathy

Homeopathy claims water can cure you, because it once held medicine. That's like saying you can eat off an empty plate because it once held food. Cut it out, people! You're better than that! Everyone is better than that.


3. Quantum Mysticism

Quantum mechanics does flip the tables on our sense of the way the world works. There are limits to what we can know, it seems to say. Particles can communicate over a distance with no link between them, it seems to say. One particle can be in two places at once, it seems to say. I add "seems to say" at the end of every one of these sentences, because scientists and lay people debate each and every one of these points fiercely. If you want some time-wasting fun, go to quantum mechanics books on Amazon, especially those that feature "the Copenhagen Interpretation," as a sub-headline, and read the five-star reviews or the one-star reviews. You'll find plenty of people, expert and lay, fighting about what quantum mechanical behavior means.


They are fighting about what the physics means. They are not asserting that your mind, your inner essence, or your dead pet has the same properties as a photon. (I know Schrodinger did it, but he did it with his tongue in his cheek.) New Agers have a bad habit of claiming that quantum mechanics implies that people and single particles share the same properties. It doesn't work like that. Quantum mechanics no more proves that we can teleport than ornithology proves that we can fly.


2. Intelligent Design

I'm not here to argue about whether Intelligent Design is true, because I don't think we should even get that far. If the ultimate answer to every question you could possibly ask is "because God wanted it that way," you aren't studying evolution of any kind. You are doing a psychological work-up on God. Read The Bible and Jung, and leave the people doing actual evolutionary research alone.


1. "Toxins"

Here is a scientific definition for a toxin: It's a poisonous substance produced by living cells, especially one that, when introduced into a new body, spurs the creation of antibodies. That's a toxin. That's what it is, where it's made, and what it does.


Here is a definition for a "toxin": It's a mysterious bad thing that's in all the stuff I don't like. I don't know what it actually looks like, or its chemical composition. I don't know exactly how it's produced. I don't know the precise process it sets off in the body. I only know that it definitely, definitely causes the awful thing that I always thought would, and indeed should, happen to people doing stuff I don't like.

We need to step on the idea of "toxins." We need to step on it until it's dead. We're not going stop people from blasting woo at us any time we eat anything that's not kale or live anywhere that's not the windswept peak of a mountain, but with concerted effort, we can at least make them sound ridiculous when they do it. I think the new term for toxins should be "evil pixie dust."


Bacteria Image: Tom Kirn, Ron Taylor, Louisa Howard - Dartmouth Electron Microscope Facility