Science, Pseudoscience, and Psychoanalysis

By Joseph Alfon

The word ‘pseudoscience’ conjures up images of close minded, dogmatic, near-crazy individuals. From flat-earthers to homeopaths, pseudoscientists are taken to be embodiments of ignorance, a reputation that is well earned. Without disputing this, I want to see whether we can find value in such pursuits as opposed to engaging in blanket condemnation of them. In particular, I will use the example of psychoanalysis to demonstrate the method by which some pseudoscientific pursuits can be modified and salvaged from criticism. First, we must make clear what is meant by the term ‘pseudoscience’, and this task in turn depends on our definition of science.

The demarcation problem – What is science?

The demarcation problem is that of determining the boundary, if it exists at all, between what is and is not science. As defining such a boundary partially depends on how one defines science in the first place, this problem is central to the philosophy of science. An early attempt at providing a solution was made by the logical positivists, who drew a line between those statements that are empirically verifiable and those that are not, with the former constituting the body of knowledge of science and the latter being rejected as mere meaningless propositions. Note that this viewpoint not only drew a line between science and non-science, but it denigrated that which is outside of science as having no value – a point we will come back to later.

Popper criticised the logical positivists as disingenuous, claiming that rather than attempting to solve the demarcation problem they were aiming to achieve “the final overthrow and the annihilation of metaphysics”, and more crudely, to “kill metaphysics by calling it names”[1]. In fact, they were so enthusiastic in their attempt to exclude metaphysics from science that they ended up excluding empirical science too! This is because empirical science makes universal statements about reality, so these universal statements cannot be verified by any finite number of empirical observations. Therefore, the findings of empirical science, along with metaphysics, are condemned by the logical positivists as meaningless pseudo-statements. 

To correct this, Popper proposed ‘falsifiability’ as the criterion distinguishing science from non-scientific pursuits such as metaphysics. Under this criterion a body of knowledge or method is falsifiable if there are possible observations that would disprove it. So, the statement ‘all swans are white’ is falsifiable as it is (in principle) possible to observe a black swan, which would disprove the initial statement. However, metaphysical assertions such as ‘the world is made up of X’ cannot be disproved through any empirical observation, as for any observation O, it can be claimed that O is ‘really’ an instance of X. For Popper, the scientist demonstrates the truth of their hypothesis by repeatedly failing to disprove it rather than by directly proving it.

An example of how to not meet this criterion is shown in Freud’s theory that every dream is a wish-fulfilment. He recounts a dream of one of his patients, who was already acquainted with his theory of dreams, where she was travelling with her mother-in-law to a cottage where they were to spend the summer together. This patient had previously told Freud that this was precisely the outcome she had successfully avoided in real life, presumably since she was not a big fan of her mother-in-law. It’s fair to assume that the theory would be proven wrong by observing such a dream that is clearly not a wish-fulfilment. However, when Freud was presented with this dream, he rebuts the criticism by claiming that the very fact that the dream contradicts his theory proves his theory to be correct. “According to this dream, I was wrong; but it was her wish that I should be wrong, and this wish the dream showed her as fulfilled.”[2] Since any piece of evidence contradicting his theory can be contorted into one that supports it, the theory is non-falsifiable and, therefore, non-scientific.

Popper’s definition of science also has its limits, as falsifiability cannot account for the phenomenon of scientific revolutions, where a paradigm shift occurs along with the overhaul and replacement of an old theory with a new one. In spite of this I will use falsifiability as our definition of science as this is how ‘normal’ science progresses outside of such scientific revolutions.

Non-science and Unscience

But here we have been speaking of the boundary between science and non-science; what about pseudoscience? Is everything non-scientific automatically pseudoscientific? Further, do non-science or pseudoscience necessarily contradict science? To answer these questions, I will reference the simple diagram below.

The first distinction, whose boundary forms the content of the demarcation problem, is that between science and non-science. Non-science contains much that we find valuable, including literature, religion and (some parts of) philosophy, so to say that something is non-scientific is not necessarily pejorative.

Within the set of non-science, there is that which is referred to as ‘unscientific’ – that which in some sense contradicts science or scientific enquiry. An example of this would be certain forms of creationism: which is the idea that the universe was created by a divine being. I say certain forms of creationism because this belief in itself can be consistently held in conjunction with scientific theories and is therefore not unscientific. The big bang theory explains how, not why, the world was created; answering the question of what caused the creation of the universe is beyond physics. Creationism steps into unscientific territory when it asserts that the earth is a few thousand years old, that the universe was formed in seven (literal, 24 hour length) days, or that humans didn’t evolve from animals through natural selection. To be clear, I’m not claiming that the bible itself is unscientific (although even the pope would agree that it is non-scientific) – merely that it can be interpreted and utilised in unscientific ways.


Now that we have a grip on what unscience is we can go a step further and distinguish pseudoscience from unscience. Pseudoscience is a subset of unscience, so it must also have the property of contradicting or conflicting with science. What defines pseudoscience is that while asserting claims that contradict science, it paradoxically purports to be science itself.

To highlight what this means in practice, let’s use the example of flat-earthers. Claiming that the earth is flat does not in itself constitute pseudoscience. It is merely unscientific, as it contradicts the overwhelming scientific evidence pointing towards the earth being round. But rejecting scientific reasoning or consensus alone does not constitute pseudoscience. What makes flat-earthers pseudoscientific is their attempt to support their position with evidence that purports to be scientific, when it is not. That the evidence they cite is not scientific is down to two main reasons. Firstly, many of the experiments cited as evidence have later been shown to contain errors, such as forgetting to adjust for the effects of atmospheric refraction in the Bedford Level Experiment. More important, as this is an error in principle rather than in practice, is the fact that flat-earthers do not follow Popper’s criterion for what counts as science, as they are not trying to falsify their theory through the use of experiments; instead, they are trying to demonstrate its correctness. Instead of trying to disprove their own theory, they attempt to disprove the conflicting theory that the earth is round, and thereby infer that it is flat.

This discord between what pseudoscientists take themselves to be doing and what they are really doing is why they are so unanimously disparaged. While this tension remains I don’t think that pseudoscience can be defended, as it contains deceit (or at least self-deception) at its core. However, I want to show that pseudoscience can be modified by placing itself outside of science, thereby removing the deceptive element within itself and resolving the discord. By changing how a pseudoscientific belief is justified, or the perspective from which it is viewed, we can stop it from being pseudoscientific. In adjusting what they claim to be doing, the pseudoscientist may still be engaged in a pursuit of knowledge that is wrong or futile, but at least it won’t be self-deceptive.

This doesn’t thereby make their beliefs acceptable, as some pseudoscientific claims made are indefensible regardless of their justification – especially when, as with the anti-vax movement, belief in such claims costs innocent lives. My argument doesn’t deny that, it merely claims that some forms of pseudoscience can be vindicated through such adjustments. Each one must be investigated to see whether this is possible rather than just being thoughtlessly brushed off as pseudoscience.


A case in point is psychoanalysis, a pursuit that, while often labelled as pseudoscientific, is taken by many to be valuable as a way of either improving our mental health or discovering truths about ourselves. Psychoanalysis is a theory of the origin of mental disorders, predominantly focused on the effect of the unconscious, and a set of techniques for alleviating such disorders. I’m not going to worry here about the details of whether psychoanalysis is or isn’t a pseudoscience. Instead, I will show that even in the worst-case scenario (for psychoanalysts at least) that it is a pseudoscientific pursuit of knowledge, psychoanalysis can be adjusted to avoid such a criticism without changing its content.

I’ll focus on one central insight of Freud’s: that irrational behaviours, such as neurotic symptoms, are not arbitrary and can be linked to past events in the individual’s life. Influenced by his scientific training as a doctor, Freud conceived of the human psyche in largely mechanistic terms, with mental activity being determined by the interactions between quantifiable conscious and unconscious forces. Within this framework explaining a neurosis consists in unravelling the causal chain of events leading up to it. Therefore, in finding a past event that relates to a neurosis Freud took himself to be explaining the irrational behaviour by finding the event that caused it. Eventually, after repeating this process with various patients, he began to formulate general laws for how neuroses are caused by traumatic events. This pursuit of finding causes and discerning the laws governing them was, for Freud, a scientific one.

This leaves psychoanalysis open to the criticism made by philosophers of science that if its claims cannot be falsified then they will not be able to find such causes reliably. The problem, according to such critics, is that psychoanalysis is making scientific claims about causality without using a scientific methodology to justify such claims.

One way of responding to this is by reframing psychoanalysis as a semantic rather than a causal theory. Instead of viewing it as an attempt to explain a neurosis by locating its origin, we can see it as an attempt to understand and make sense of such irrational behaviours. Unlike the process of explanation which aims at objectivity, the attempt to understand a person’s behaviour is rooted in the empathy and subjectivity of the psychoanalyst, so is not a scientific pursuit. Seeing psychoanalysis as a semantic theory therefore undercuts this criticism by reclassifying psychoanalysis as outside of science rather than a failing instance of it. As psychoanalyst Charles Rycroft puts it, “Analysts are claiming that psychoanalysis is what it is not, and… [critics of psychoanalysis are] attacking it for failing to be what it has no need to claim to be”[3].

I will admit that this solution will not be accepted by many psychoanalysts, especially orthodox Freudians, as for them psychoanalysis gains its legitimacy in virtue of its scientific status. Nevertheless, for the vast majority of psychoanalysts who have moved beyond the methods of Freud, reclassifying psychoanalysis in this way should not alter what they are doing, merely what they take themselves to be doing.

This is more than just an abstract discussion about the scientific status of psychoanalysis. For many, the results of this discussion determine the legitimacy of psychoanalysis. The claim that demonstrating the non-scientific nature of psychoanalysis and proving its worthlessness are equivalent contains the implicit (and, I would argue, erroneous) assumption that only science is intellectually respectable. However, this equivalence has some truth in it if psychoanalysis continues to claim to be a science, as then demonstrating that its claims are not falsifiable shows it to be self-contradictory and pseudoscientific. Cioffi writes that “It is a pity that the word science was ever introduced into the dispute over Freud’s claims to knowledge, though it is worth remembering that the term was introduced by Freud himself”[4]. If Freud had initially presented it as a semantic theory there would be no need for such criticisms, but his overestimation of the unique value of scientific truth caused him to commit the same error his critics later would. Both sides of the debate are confused by symptoms of the same disease – an unquestioning faith in science.


In the Tractatus, Wittgenstein claims that “philosophy is not a theory but an activity” [5], where this activity consists solely in clarifying true propositions, which can only be obtained through natural science. This ‘clarifying’ is a process of making clear and sharp thoughts which are “opaque and blurred” – analogous to the focusing of a blurred lens. Philosophy can also clarify pseudoscience, but we must go further and clarify as one clarifies butter – separating it into its parts and removing the unneeded elements to be left with a purer result.


[1] Karl Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery , p.36-38

[2] Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, p.60

[3] Charles Rycroft, ‘Causes and Meaning’ in Psychoanalysis Observed, p.14

[4] Frank Cioffi,

[5] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 4.112

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s