In a previous blog I suggested that one difference between science and pseudoscience is that pseudoscience can’t move on when evidence comes along which disproves its’ ideas: science does.
Another difference is that science attempts to, and is usually successful, in working out the underlying mechanism to explain the evidence.
Take for example the field of medicine. Early explanations of disease tended to blame it on vengeful gods, evil spirits or on “bad air”. When various herbal or mineral medicines were found to have some beneficial effects, the treatments were thought to work by either pleasing the gods or repelling the evil spirits or bad air, and were often administered with incantations.
As time progressed, observations seemed to suggest that many diseases resulted from disruptions within the body itself. Using the limited knowledge of the time disease was viewed by the Greeks as an imbalance of the four humours (phlegm, blood, yellow bile and black bile), while in Ayurvedic medicine it was viewed as an imbalance of three elemental substances. Treatments therefore sought to rebalance these humours/elements in various ways, some more harmful than others (e.g. bloodletting to remove “excess” blood).
Incredibly the idea of humours prevailed through to the 19th century, and was only disposed off when scientific discovery revealed the real causes of disease.
In 1747, Scottish Naval surgeon, James Lind carried out the first recorded clinical study to discover that the disease scurvy was a deficiency disease which could be treated by consumption of citrus fruit.
The work of Ignaz Semmelweiss, Oliver Wendell Holmes and Louis Pasteur demonstrated that many diseases were caused by microbes which could be killed through the use of antiseptics such as carbolic acid, while Paul Ehrlich develop stains which allowed some of these microbes to be studied under the microscope. By the end of the 19th century many disease causing microbes had been discovered.
The determination of the structure of DNA in 1953 by Watson and Crick opened the door to a better understanding of genetic based diseases, including various cancers, while the development of fields such as biochemistry and molecular biology has revealed the biochemical pathways which can be targeted for treating various diseases caused by errant genetic instructions or by microbes.
The development of techniques which can monitor the environment around us has also revealed how environmental contamination can cause some diseases. Minamata disease, for example, results from high levels of mercury poisoning.
As we move into the 21st century we now understand that diseases can be caused by microbes, genetic malfunctions, environmental contaminants and sometime by deficiencies in various essential substances. An understanding of the biochemistry/ molecular genetics of the diseases also helps us develop targeted approaches to treatment, particularly in the design of new drugs.
If we compare this to various pseudoscientific therapies, their mechanisms have been disproven (Ayurvedic medicine), are contrary to scientific understanding (homeopathy, astrology based herbalism) or both (reikki, faith healing). Other pseudoscientific beliefs can also arise from ignoring the evidence and claiming one cause while ignoring those supported by the evidence (e.g. suggesting that HIV can be treated by vitamins rather than with antiretroviral drugs).
Medical treatments which are supported by evidence and a clear understanding of the underlying biological mechanisms not only provide a better understanding of the disease, they also provide clues to appropriate cures, a claim that cannot be made by pseudoscientific treatments such as homeopathy, reikki, faith healing and Ayurvedic “medicine”.