Belief buddies: a classic sign of pseudoscience


There are lots of ways to tell the difference between science and pseudoscience. Most involve analyzing empirical claims. There’s an even easier way to tell the difference between websites and message boards that disseminate pseudoscience compared to those that adhere strictly to scientific evidence. Pseudoscience depends in large part on “belief buddies.”

Pigliucci and Boudry, writing in Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem, explain:

These groups collect and disseminate information on issues where scientific information and approaches are more or less relevant. They often feel that their views are neglected or stigmatized in society at large. As a result, these belief buddies consciously attempt to affirm contributions that further their agenda; dissent is discouraged lest it lead to a splintering of the group…

[B]elief buddies may not welcome criticism … Their job is to convey information that supports their core project and to reassure beleaguered constituents.

Science, on the other hand, involves critical communities. Their job is to challenge the information that supports their core project and everyone and everything is a target for criticism.

Simply put: pseudoscience takes place in supportive communities, while real science takes place in critical communities.

How can the lay person tell the difference? Sometimes it is obvious; a group of belief buddies may insist that their community will only allow members who support each other in their belief in the core project.

Over the years, for example, has been explicit in promoting its anti-vaccination message boards as places of “support.” In a charmingly Orwellian formulation, the editors explain:

… Though Mothering does not take a pro or anti stand on vaccinations, we will not host threads on the merits of mandatory vaccine, or a purely pro vaccination view point as this is not conducive to the learning process.

Therefore, a layperson can be sure that any community that exists to support a specific belief will be a community of pseudoscience and have nothing to do with science.

But what if the leaders of the community do not helpfully inform you that they have no interest in anything that disagrees with their core beliefs? That’s easy, too. Just look at whether the community allows or bans dissenting opinions.

For example, at every level of homebirth advocacy, from clowns like The Feminist Breeder, through organizations like Lamaze; from self-proclaimed “experts” in obstetrical research like Henci Goer to people with academic credentials like Darcia Narvaez, PhD, the delete button is integral to maintaining control over what people read and think.

As in the case of totalitarian governments, efforts to remove dissent and create the image that dissent never existed are tools to support beliefs that could never be defended in an intellectually honest way. Deleting and banning reflect the desperation felt by those trying to hold onto power that was gained by lying to people in the first place. Most importantly, women (and men) should understand that professional homebirth advocates are terrified of letting people have free access to information. Who knows what might happen if they treated women like intellectually capable human beings instead of like sheep?

When homebirth advocates tell you they have “educated” themselves, and done “research,” they mean that they have visited communities of belief buddies. But belief buddies deal in pseudoscience and that means that members are indoctrinated, not educated.