class notes: top five

Five Ways to Spot Pseudoscience

Sharon A. Hill, EdM ’11, Geologist Supervisor, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania; Pseudoscience Debunker

Conceptual illustration of Pseudoscience.

Illustration: Mark Hoffmann

Interview by Rebecca Rudell and Jeff Klein


Millions of Americans believe in ghosts, space aliens and countless other forms of pseudoscience and the paranormal, and eagerly consume all the books and TV shows that tout them. Then there’s Sharon Hill, who, in addition to her career as a geologist with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, is a leading debunker of pseudoscience. Her websites (Doubtful News, Spooky Geology) and podcast (“15 Credibility Street”), as well as her articles for other sites, use real science to puncture questionable claims involving psychics, money-making schemes, alternative medicine, Bigfoot, the anti-vax movement, yetis and anything else you can shake a dowsing stick at.

Hill, who lives in Harrisburg, Pa., believed in haunted houses and the Loch Ness Monster as a child, but those beliefs burned away under the bright light of education. Now she describes herself as “a skeptic who has not found compelling evidence for the paranormal, yet remains fascinated by these subjects.” That fascination found expression most recently in Hill’s new book, “Scientifical Americans: The Culture of Amateur Paranormal Researchers.” It was based on her master’s thesis for the EdM degree in science and the public she earned through UB’s Graduate School of Education online program.

Hill is someone who knows science from “sciencey,” so we asked her for five tips on how to separate fake from fact.

Five ways to spot pseudoscience:

1. It’s too good to be true
Beware any claim in which a simple fix solves complicated problems. For example, a “revolutionary” diet pill or supplement won’t transform your body; losing weight requires hard work and discipline.

2. Secondhand emotions
If someone’s using the testimonial of a layperson—“my child was injured by a vaccine”—rather than a scientist, it’s not science-based; it’s emotion-based. Beware.

3. Says who?
If information isn’t coming from a professional, that’s a red flag. There’s a fuel-saving device that claims it increases gas mileage—but mechanics aren’t telling you about it and auto manufacturers aren’t putting it in cars. There’s a reason: It doesn’t work.

4. It’s all a conspiracy
Think Kevin Trudeau, whose books offered health and financial advice that “they” (doctors and bankers) didn’t want you to know. He made millions playing into people’s suspicion of the medical and financial industries—and now sits in federal prison for fraud.

5. As (not) seen on TV
Many people see TV series like “Ghost Hunters” as science. But has it ever shown an actual ghost? Any lack of verifiable evidence—on a ghost show or anywhere else—is a dead giveaway. By the way, did you know there are around 2,000 DIY ghost-investigating groups in the U.S. alone?