There are many theories/disciplines that have been categorized as pseudoscience in the scientific community.

The list includes many things that are regularly even quoted in media like graphology, astrology, psychoanalysis, personality types, etc.


  • What attracts people to such theories? Do any cognitive biases make people believe them easily? Which part of pseudosciences acts as a stimulus that triggers this cognitive bias?

  • If there's a cognitive bias behind people believing in pseudoscience, knowing that a majority of the population does that – is there any term for such a phenomenon in social psychology?

  • A majority of the population believes in some kind of pseudoscience. Does this signify an evolutionary aspect of our minds – that people are still evolving into better species that might one day believe in proper science? Pseudoscience seems to be older than science; correct me if I am wrong here.

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    $\begingroup$ note the irony of your last question. You make a teleological statement about evolution -- a common mistake of pseudoscience ;). $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 16, 2012 at 20:47
  • $\begingroup$ Oh, there is a term for it!! Thanks for pointing that out. Even a greater irony is that I subscribed to this pseudoscience without even knowing it exists!! LOL $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 17, 2012 at 10:36
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    $\begingroup$ @forbidden-overseer: some do help and work for people and there are gaps in science. There is an element of art to life that has real outcomes and can not always be organized in thought. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 13, 2014 at 4:58
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    $\begingroup$ There's more than one answer, but regarding medical quackery, I wonder if the placebo effect plays a role. Placebos have a demonstratable benefit over doing nothing, and when actual treatment is unavailable or prohibitively expensive, belief in chicken noodle soup is perfectly rational. When you tell someone that the soup does nothing, you are taking away the benefit of the soup. I'm assuming here that people are unconsciously aware of their self-deception, and we're getting into pascal's wager territory here, so feel free to downvote. $\endgroup$
    – James
    Commented Apr 12, 2014 at 22:14
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    $\begingroup$ In my experience, a combination of personal constructs and confirmation bias. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 6, 2017 at 23:26

4 Answers 4


There are two great TED talks that together help shed some light on your question:

  1. David Deutsch (2005) "A new way to explain explanation", and
  2. Richard Dawkins (2009) "Why the universe seems so strange"

At a fundamental level, science is about explanation (and sometimes using that explanation to make predictions). Thus, to most people, science is useless unless they understand the story it tells. The problem with modern science is that to have a good grasp of its explanatory power, you need a lot of (often difficult) background. As you gain this background, you develop what Feynman would call the most fundamental skill in science: always questioning, being able to say "I don't know", and to hold contrasting ideas together. If you don't invest in acquiring this background, most of science seems like witchcraft passed down by ivory-tower academics in funny gowns and hats.

What pseudoscience (or even cargo-cult science) provide is explanations that require less background, purport to be more certain, have something for everyone (Forer effect), and reassure you that "there is an answer". If you look at much of pseudoscience (or ancient myths) more closely, you will notice that they tend to personify their subject matter much more than science (my favorite example is the homunculus fallacy). They use this personification to provide agency, intent, and meaning to their explanations.

The great advantage of these human stories is that our minds are optimized for them. If you subscribe to Dunbar's Social Brain Hypothesis, then one of the main things evolution produced is a mind built to understand social structure, and other people. When an agent does not adhere to its role and violates our theory-of-mind and behaves erratically, without discernible intent and meaning, this is dangerous to us and our society; it causes us great discomfort. When you hijack the social mind to try to explain further and further afield parts of nature, you try to build the same sort of characters.

When you have to say "I don't know" or "I don't understand" this character, it creates discomfort. Pseudoscience thrives on this by giving an arbitrary, simple, shallow and easy to change explanation. Since most lay-people never pursue this explanation far enough to notice its contradictions, and since it shapes their observations (in the Popper-sense and through confirmation bias) they never get a strong enough cognitive-dissonance to overcome to positive feeling of having an understandable 'explanation'.

Unfortunately, all I can do in this answer is provide a intuitively appealing, intent and agency based explanation. Reread my answer and make note of unnecessary personifications I made -- just like much of pseudoscience, science is a story and there is the biggest rub.

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    $\begingroup$ Prediction is mandatory, a nice story is not. A nice story to help understand is strongly recommended, sure. But science can proceed without. E.g., quantum mechanics as seen by Bohr. Without the ability to make predictions, science is just another narrative. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 14, 2012 at 20:30
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    $\begingroup$ @ArtemKaznatcheev, your definition of science is extremely weak. It is hard to distinguish from religion or philosophy. I am a physicist myself, you might have guessed that much :), and I do believe that other wannabe sciences should be modelled with our same level of demand, no less. Physics, and any good science, is predictive every day, not just at special romantic situations. I use predictions in my daily work. That's why everybody relies on physics, they put their lives in our hands, e.g.: when you travel by plane. And nobody would risk their lives on the predictions of e.g. economy. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 16, 2012 at 14:03
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    $\begingroup$ @JavierRodriguezLaguna I am a physicists too (well, that is a lie, I am more a mathematician now) and I don't do engineering hence I rarely use predictions of physics. When I am doing science, I am explaining parts of physics that are not well understood, and then the engineers worry about the applications and predictions after. This is true of most of my colleagues as well, except for a few experimentalists. But we are going off-topic, if you want to discuss more then catch me on G+ or twitter. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 16, 2012 at 20:54
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    $\begingroup$ I'm wandering if this desire for an "explanation" plagues scientists as well, only in the form of "publication bias", where positive explanations are far more likely to get published than "I tried, but still don't know" ones. $\endgroup$
    – Alex Stone
    Commented Nov 3, 2012 at 7:40
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    $\begingroup$ An addition to your great answer, Artem Kaznatcheev: Science produces knowledge, but people are interested in solutions. Much of scientific knowledge is either too complicated for the average person to understand or not yet applicable to reality due to its own incomplete understanding. It is a common error in reasoning among scientists, when they believe that science explains anything. It usually doesn't. For example, if I want to buy a new car and can't decide, should I study economics and engineering, or throw a coin? Throwing the coin is the recommended practice. $\endgroup$
    – user3116
    Commented Aug 21, 2013 at 13:19

There are now many full-length books that focus on this deep, complex question about human nature/psychology and note newer/ongoing/active research in the area, some of it cited in them.

But some counterpoint from the reverse, flip side. Science is a complex, evolving, and at times subtle field in a way that was not fully recognized largely until the research in Kuhnian shifts.


Perhaps people are attracted to these theories in part because of the inability for mainstream science to answer anomalies.

The occasion of governmental

  • lying,
  • hiding of technology, and
  • corruption,

helps reinforce the idea that there exists real Science that is not known to the mainstream. In the absence of trust, people contemplate the possibilities (imagination) by which the breach of trust could harm them.

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    $\begingroup$ I agree. People may, for instance, believe there is profit motive for modern medicine to "make good customers" of you by managing symptoms rather than effecting a cure; therefore, those people may choose to believe in alternative medicines. $\endgroup$
    – Randy
    Commented Aug 21, 2013 at 14:23
  • $\begingroup$ Or, more relevantly, pharma will not make and distribute effective drugs that have a low (or negative) profit margin. No one has solved this even with creative schemes. Thus it is rational to presume that simple cures exist which cannot profit via IP. Is a drug 'alternative' only because it is unpatentable? $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 21, 2015 at 14:08

Taking Up John Berryman's challenge in the Comment to the Question:
Most people do not develop mentally past the Concrete Operations stage or early Formal Operations (Piaget). People with this (very common and normal) level of mental development do not reason well in abstract terms and cannot do advanced symbolic manipulations. They are prone to the many Cognitive Biases and other types of fallacy because they cannot see how proper reasoning is different from the fallacies and biases. (Indeed, if everyone could reason properly, the biases would not exist.)

So, like the common tendency to need glasses to see well, and the likelihood of having crooked teeth or getting cataracts, these are just normal situations that render many people unable to reason as needed to understand science. No amount of 'splaining' or 'edumication' will help.

People usually stop developing mentally when they finish school, unless they are unusually motivated to keep studying something out of interest or have very stimulating companions. (Note that this is not to say that anyone cannot develop farther mentally due to some sort of deficiency, merely that they do not, out of life choice and habit. So don't call me a bigot!)

  • $\begingroup$ You might want to link/mention that comment. $\endgroup$
    – Steven Jeuris
    Commented May 1, 2016 at 23:28

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