How to tell the difference between fairytale/snake oil science and good human science?

How can one tell the difference between fairytale/snake oil science and good human science? This question is as relevant today as when Nikolaas (Niko) Tinbergen first proposed the need for critical questions determining the plausibility of biologic behavior. We are living in a world rampant with pseudoscientific explanations and interventions regarding the human organism that is be spread at an unprecedented level by way of the internet. Unfortunately, much of this pseudoscience also makes its way through peer-reviewed processes to be published in both low and highly referred journals. It doesn’t matter whether we blame it on the many cognitive biases that are associated with these explanations or the pressure on these authors that one should publish positive or perish, there doesn’t seem to be any consistent system is in place to stop this from happening. Therefore, the ability to read and determine the value of an article falls upon the reader.

Fundamentally, for something to be scientifically plausible there needs to be a basic scientific understanding of how we define said biologic behaviors. For human sciences, the most empirically sound evidence is based in evolutionary science. For a biologic behavior to have any form of plausibility, it cannot conflict with the empirical evidence of evolutionary science.

To identify a conflict with evolutionary science, Niko proposed 4 basic questions regarding the evolutionary plausibility of a biologic behavior. These questions are simple and should be kept handy whenever we read a study. When you identify the proposed biologic behavior for a theory, intervention, etc. that is presented in the article, you simply need to ask the following questions about the plausibility regarding the biologic behavior:

  • What is the evolutionary history (phylogeny) of the behavior in a human organism?
  • What are the developmental explanations (ontogeny) of the behavior in a human organism?
  • What is the function (adaptive value) of the behavior in a human organism?
  • What is the mechanism(s) (causation) underlying the behavior in a human organism?

The inability of a proposed biologic behavior to provide answers for all four of these basic evolutionary questions means the underlying theories are not scientifically valid and have not passed basic scientific standards that qualify them for use of any kind. Let’s see how well you can do with the following proposed biologic behaviors:

  • Myofascial restrictions
  • Heart rate variability
  • Nociception
  • Trigger points
  • Motor behavior variability
  • Meridians
  • Davis’ Law of soft tissue adaptation
  • Dry needling
  • Wolf’s Law
  • Core stability
  • Hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis

Provide your thoughts on the above proposed biologic behaviors using Niko’s 4 questions in the comments below or via any of the shared social media posts:

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