As of late I've been coming across a lot of people online who are convinced that, without much (or any) formal training and often without any collaboration, they have solved a major unsolved problem in the quantitative sciences. They are incredibly attached to the correctness of their solution. They often talk about their god-like cognitive abilities and act as if the scientific community is dogmatic (One guy said he has a "vulcan-like" mind, which I thought was hilarious). Often their "quantitative" theory doesn't even have any real math in it, and they almost never make any experimental predictions.

As someone who has and probably will continue to tutor kids in math and science, I'd like to know what kinds of events at what stage of development lead people to this insane level of hubris and confirmation bias.

Some requested examples:

This youtuber thinks he's proven the Collatz conjecture and other famous problems.

This youtuber solves a bunch of made up problems in fluid dynamics and has a few uncontrolled experiments on video to demonstrate the effectiveness of his model.

This guy. . .thinks he has a theory of everything. . .he wrote an article basically bashing the physics community for not having come up with his theory. I found this Quora post about him.

Many examples are people my age (undergrad) who have approached me in real life and, once we discover a common interest in quantitative science, they start throwing around technobabble about a "major" problem that they've contrived.

There's also a pretty good example of the pretentiousness exhibited by these people in the stack exchange posts linked in the comments.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I'm guessing you could into research on delusions as the closest thing to what you ask about that has been studied extensively. Or even conspiracy theories, e.g. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3412387 or ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3694217 $\endgroup$
    – Fizz
    Jun 28 '18 at 13:39
  • $\begingroup$ This reminded me of a question which was asked here recently and which I migrated to Academia. Maybe you ran into the same guy? 🙂 $\endgroup$
    – Steven Jeuris
    Jun 28 '18 at 16:07
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    $\begingroup$ @Chris I added examples as per your request - wasn't really sure how to make them anonymous as its difficult to explain incoherent solutions (for the first example), and I didn't feel like watching multiple hours of YouTube content or reading a 350 page book for the others. Ultimately, I wouldn't want an answer to focus on any of the specific subjects, but I realize that research this topic might be slim (which is why I originally prefaced my question saying it might be inappropriate). $\endgroup$ Jun 29 '18 at 0:31
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    $\begingroup$ It would be useful to have demarcation criteria for what constitutes pseudoscience so we know what we are referring to. Here is a survey article on the concept: plato.stanford.edu/entries/pseudo-science $\endgroup$ Jun 30 '18 at 19:16
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    $\begingroup$ @FrankHubeny I've cited your comment below, hope you don't mind. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Jul 1 '18 at 5:17

I can relate a small academic exercise more than several decades ago, though it wasn't published.

An individual had made contact with some physics undergraduates about some theories he'd like to discuss with the chairman of the physics department.

After some time considering the situation, the chairman decided that a teaching moment was within reach and arranged for a small informal meeting with the individual and about a dozen physics undergraduates in a classroom in the physics building. After about 30 minutes of discussion where laborious calculations and elaborate drawings that showed a great deal of time and effort had been put into this research, it reached its final conclusion that the number pi was in fact equal to 3.

The room was fairly quiet, the individual was thanked and treated with respect throughout by all, including the chairman.

The undergraduates had an informal discussion later and concluded that people who work hard to try to understand the world can be quite serious, earnest, and may work in a way quite similar to how other individual researchers (rather than collaborations) work.

Combining the lesson I learned that day with decades of reading about researchers with ideas that were soundly rejected for decades, until they were discovered to be important and even sometimes completely correct, I would propose that there may not be a lot of "sound" research on the "pseudo-scientific mindset" because it is problematic to even define "pseudo-science" or objectively distinguish between it and "real science".

This follows @FrankHubeny's comment which includes a link to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy's entry for Science and Pseudo-Science, and calls into question the premise that a "pseudo-scientific mindset" is a useful term to begin with.

  • $\begingroup$ Your story was pretty amusing but I wonder how relevant. Most science venues have as acceptance criteria an algorithm like (1) evaluate the importance and plausibility of the research's conclusions assuming the details are correct and (2) investigate the details for correctness etc. The pi = 3 research fails (1) so it would not receive consideration in serious venues. I don't know any professional academics who would spend 30 minutes listening to a proof that pi = 3, assuming the conclusion is stated beforehand. $\endgroup$
    – Fizz
    Jul 1 '18 at 8:18
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    $\begingroup$ @Fizz That's right. The exercise made use of the serious venue to provide a practical exercise in the application of precisely those criteria. In other words, you can lecture all day about the importance of the scientific method, how do to research, how to examine the research of others, etc. but telling people how to think is not always sufficient, and the application of such thought in situations that arise naturally is important as well. I think if you read through to the end, you'll find some relevance in my answer. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Jul 1 '18 at 9:04
  • $\begingroup$ The demarcation problem is surely interesting philosophically, but most people I know who hold some pseudo-scientific beliefs don't come close to the borderline cases. It\s usually some outright nonsense (wearing tiny magnets making you healthy and the like). $\endgroup$
    – Fizz
    Jul 1 '18 at 9:08
  • $\begingroup$ @Fizz then you are clearly at an advantage. I don't have access to the same level of statistics as you; i.e. I don't have friends like that ;-) $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Jul 1 '18 at 9:13
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    $\begingroup$ You made the point better with your answer than I dd indirectly in my comment. The term "pseudo-science" is not a useful label. $\endgroup$ Jul 1 '18 at 12:29

I'm alas not aware of systematic studies on cause of the pseudo-scientific mindset... But knowing some people who are inclined to that as well as believing some conspiracy theories... I suspect these two share some common causes. It's a lot easier to find science articles about the latter.

One posci article lists some of the usuals suspects regarding the pseudo-scientific mindset:

  • distrust of scientists/academics (goes well with those inclined to believe conspiracy theories)

  • various cognitive biases, including

  • money or other personal gains, although this isn't necessarily a true mindset, it just looks the same in may contexts, so can be hard to differentiate by an outside observer (let's not get to fMRI studies about detecting lying)

As you can see the putative causes can be pretty diverse...

It turns out there are some studies (and they generally support the above theorizing), for instance:

pre-existing paranormal beliefs were associated with an increased likelihood of students finding paranormal reports scientific, believable and credible.


Dagnall et al. (2007) suggested that while belief in the paranormal in undergraduate students is not necessarily associated with weakness in probabilistic reasoning, it is more strongly related to weaknesses associated with their understanding of randomness and misunderstanding of chance factors.

Also mostly as a response to uhoh, an NSF survey:

Of the 1,574 [US] adults that were surveyed, only one-third understood and could accurately describe the scientific process. Many Americans also agreed with a variety of pseudoscientific beliefs such as the existence of UFOs (30 percent), astrology (40 percent), and psychic powers (60 percent).

That was in 2003. I doubt things have gotten better in the age of alt-facts. In fact, researchers studying the campaign of Marine Le Pen (MLP), found...

that alternative facts are highly persuasive: voters exposed to MLP rhetoric move their policy conclusions and voting intensions toward MLP. Fact checking does nothing to undo these effects despite improving factual knowledge of voters. Being exposed only to official facts also backfires on voting intentions, as it increases political support for MLP, although to a smaller extent than alternative facts, despite moving posteriors about facts toward the truth.

To me that sound similar to some the findings about how pseudoscience gets adopted by some.

  • $\begingroup$ Brains try to build models from experience, I wonder if you might include an option based on the mind simply trying to do it's job (make sense of the world) with a missing step (e.g. comparing to other people's models) along with your options that might be considered negative (distrust, bias, personal gain, lying)? $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Jul 1 '18 at 4:43
  • $\begingroup$ The edit and supporting links are very helpful. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Jul 1 '18 at 12:20

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