The age of pseudoscience

By Radoslav Serafimov

Is your cleanser really “scientifically proven” by dermatologists? The evidence would suggest no, actually, it’s just a marketing ploy.

Let’s start by dispelling some myths: were you aware that blue-light glasses do not help with eye strain? Or that alkaline water cannot regulate your internal pH? Or that Nesquik is not actually a healthy start to your day? That might admittedly not be quite as surprising, but it’ll be relevant later.

What is true for the above products is that they were marketed on questionable or outright false science, to not insignificant success. But how are you, an average consumer, to distinguish the sham and scam from the scientifically sound, when they’ve managed to slip by regulators and scientists? There are many confounding factors that allow for scientifically questionable products to spring up like weeds in the cracks between regulation, research and common sense. This pipeline is sustained by a stream of consumers being led on by traditional and digital marketing strategies. It pays to consider how the various factors meant to weed scams out fail to do so effectively.

We can perhaps start by innocently asking why anyone would create a product based on questionable science? The two biggest industries which see more pseudoscience than most are the cosmetics and wellness industries, valued at £447 billion and £4.2 trillion respectively. With that sort of money rolling into a deeply oversaturated industry, the ground is set for scams and fads. So let us consider regulatory bodies for a moment—after all, they are set up to prevent exactly this sort of thing. Can we not simply rely on them?

It is important to recognise the valuable work that regulators do in preventing poor science from being as widespread of an issue as it once was, but they face considerable challenges. The first comes in the form of regulatory classifications—sets of legislation which govern the compliance parameters for putting a product on market. These are largely dictated by intended use, and potential side effects. Cosmetics and general wellness products are both intentionally broad and relatively loosely regulated categories. This is done to align with the business model of these industries, which are fast moving and quickly growing. With constant technological and marketing development, regulators have a hard time keeping up, allowing unregulated language to appear before rigorous legislation can be passed through the various bureaucratic and scientific processes necessary.

Consider the current favourite vocabulary of pseudoscience, ‘natural’, ‘green’, ‘sustainable’, and ‘organic’, none of which are strictly regulated terms. There are no clearly defined legal requirements for what these terms mean or how they are substantiated, allowing companies to engage in ‘greenwashing’—falsely making their products seem more environmentally friendly to boost sales. In fact, a 2020 EU sweep across a variety of industries, including cosmetics, discovered that over half of sustainability claims investigated lacked sufficient substantiating evidence . On top of this, actually auditing companies is a logistical nightmare, investigating each product’s scientific backing is untenable for a public institution. If regulatory bodies are doing their best and things are still slipping through, what can we do about it?

Firstly, it is important to remember that pseudoscientific claims don’t have to be insane conspiracy-theory fodder, such as saying that a computer program can use “bioresonance patterns” to release homoeopathic remedies inside your body, but can be, and often are, a lot harder to spot. Quiet misinformation is just as problematic, if not more, being likely to mislead greater numbers of people. An example of this is Nestlé’s claim that their Ski yoghurts can “optimise the release of energy.” And while in an ideal world we would have the time to methodically and carefully research each product we want to buy, we find ourselves in a consumer economy, intentionally designed to minimise the time we spend not purchasing, and maximise the number of choices we have, making this an unlikely prospect for most people.

What we can do instead is arm ourselves with a critical eye. Be on the lookout for general phrases such as “boosts the immune system”, and “clinically proven”. While not surefire signs that a product is based in bogus science, they can prompt us to consider what exactly the product supposedly does. A favourite marketing tactic to watch out for is advertisers creating a problem to solve. Consider the example of alkaline water, which purports to be able to help manage your internal pH…something which your kidneys do very well, to the point of eliminating any effect that the water may have had. Dieting is another industry largely based on the same tactics, creating a problem out of thin air and ignoring or outright maligning our bodies’ existing mechanisms for managing it, to ruinous effect. Be mindful of social media algorithms, Facebook had a purposefully dedicated set of “pseudoscience” and “conspiracy theory” targeted ad categories which it was forced to remove in 2021. Finally, keep an eye out for what the good parts may be hiding—in 2015 Nestlé UK was forced to remove a bold slogan off their Nesquik drink by the Advertising Standards Agency(ASA). “A great start to the day!”, the chocolate drink claimed on the basis of its vitamin B, zinc and iron content. Instead, the ASA flagged the high sugar content of the drink (conveniently hidden on the back of the box), stating it encouraged “poor nutritional habits.” See, I told you it’d be relevant!

Whether it be a small company seeking to somehow break into a deeply oversaturated market, or a company whose presence is only matched by their continued failures of public trust, like Nestlé, reserve space for doubt when avoiding science scams. The cost-benefit analysis is rudimentary—scientific results cost a lot of money, the quicker a new piece of ‘innovation’ is on the market, the less it costs you, and the higher the chance it will outpace a competitor. Consumerist capitalism necessitates companies continue to push boundaries (regardless of if those boundaries need pushing) in an effort to raise profits in the face of a volatile economic system, hinging livelihoods on investors’ satisfaction with quarterly growth. The odds are somewhat stacked against the well-meaning producer and vigilant regulator. All we can do is stay mindful and remember the difference between genuine scientific research, and someone trying to sell us “the next big thing.”


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