Science and Pseudo-science

19 March 2010

One can imagine a kind of sceptic being put off by this way of setting up the episode. For one might think that  the question of separating science from pseudo-science is really a political question in disguise.  And by that we don't mean to buy into the stereotype that, for example,  Democrats like science, because they're in favor of evolution, and Republicans like pseudo-science, because they're in favor of creation science.  That's not what we mean at all. 

To see what we  mean, suppose that some devotee of a so-called pseudo-science asks, “Who are you guys to say what counts as science and what counts as pseudo-science? What gives you the authority?”   We'd probably be tempted to say,   "Well, we’re philosophers. It’s part of our job to decide what’s worthy of believing and what isn’t worthy of believing. Science is worthy of belief. Pseudo-science is not worthy of belief." 
And the reason that science is worthy of believing and pseudo science isn't is because science is rational and objective and pseudo-science isn't.   Pseudo-science may pretend to be those things, but isn’t.

Of course, our sceptic might respond by saying that in  calling something scientific  we're just expressing our approval of it and by calling something pseudo-science we are just expressing our disapproval of it.   Because John and Ken have tenure in an elite university, their disdain or approval matters.  Okay not so much their distain or approval in particular, but the distain or approval of the entire academic-scientific-industrial-military-governmental complex -- of which John and Ken  are admittedly an insignificant part.

But that's really a silly line of argument.  There's more to being scientific than being approved of by the academic-scientific-industrial-military-governmental complex. That complex approves of certain things because those things produce results – objective, repeatable, testable results. Science deserves our approval; Psuedo-science deserves our disapproval.


Of course, it's easy for us to say that -- ensconced as we are in the complex.   Many people outside of that complex really do believe in what we're prepared to dismiss as  pseudo-science. Take creation science. It’s a big deal. Its advocates challenge the whole way we teach biology and evolution. They'd no doubt strongly object to being told that what they so fervently believe just isn’t worthy of being believed.


We, of course, believe that they are wrong --  plain wrong.    But that brings us back to the question just why so many people persist in believing in such things and why they so fervently resist any pressure to give up such beliefs.  That strikes us an extremely important question -- though it's not really a purely philosophical question.   We'd very much like to think that rational argumentation might ultimately lead people to  abandon their pseudo-scientific beliefs.  And we'd also like to believe that the resources of philosophy might play some small role in  equipping people not  to fall prey to pseudo-scientific thinking in the first place. 
Who knows if we are right,  but give a listen and see if we make any kind of dent in the problems. 

 

Comments (10)


Guest's picture

Guest

Friday, March 19, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

To me, the epistemological line of demarcation bet

To me, the epistemological line of demarcation between science and pseudo-science is fairly clear: science adjusts its conclusions to conform to the evidence, whereas pseudo-science adjusts the evidence to conform to its conclusions. Whether it be Creationism, Nazi racial theory or global warming denial, the one thing these pseudo-sciences have in common is that they only acknowledge evidence, no matter how questionable it may be, which supports their theory while ignoring all evidence that contradicts it, no matter how credible.
Just because someone's taken the trouble to accrue some scientific evidence to support a theory doesn't make it scientific. What makes a theory scientific is one's willingness to accept falsifiability and to conform one's findings when confronted with facts that contradict it.

Guest's picture

Guest

Friday, March 19, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

There is something amazing in pseudo-science--both

There is something amazing in pseudo-science--both postmodern and pre-scientific (or just pre-rational?)--that manages to exercise the irrational aspects of the American right and left with almost equal vigor in surprisingly similar ways.
As far as those (generally) on the left, I mean people who, for lack of a better word, we might call hippies, in all their wide-eyed, crystal-powered glory. Also academics who for whatever reason have become infatuated with French thought that reject on mostly nonsensical grounds, the scientific method as the machinations of, as you say, the academic-scientific-industrial-military-governmental complex and as somehow a social/linguistic construct with no real epistemic authority. But all this strikes me special pleading for some sort of political correctness.
Meanwhile, those on the religious right have persuaded themselves that faith is the highest card in the deck and trumps any and all rational or empirical argument. Needless to say, this doesn't impress my philosophical sensibilities.
I used to think these two streams of thought were as far apart as they could get. But then I saw this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2FARDDcdFaQ
Imagine, king of the Fox sophists declaring that truth is subjective! I can only guess where is unholy marriage of conservatism and postmodern arms will take us. I suspect we'll be seeing more pseudo-science.

Guest's picture

Guest

Friday, March 19, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

I guess you guys are wise enough to realise your f

I guess you guys are wise enough to realise your first comments are replete with the sort of language usually reseved for polemics - "fall prey to"? "persist in"?. How about some cool anaylis? I guess the only things that could reasonably be called pseudo-science would those that make some sort of, at least implicit, claim to be scientific (for the sorts of presumed kudos you mention). Creation science would certainly be one of these, but I am not sure all the others you mention make any such claim to be "scientific". So I guess you are just presuming to throw a "scientific" (or, being polemical, "scientistic") template over areas of human enquiry, and, as they do not match up, you declare them pseudo-science. Your real problem is why most people in most of their lives do not accept your template. Or rather, they accept the rather banal requirements of basing their beliefs and actions on reason and evidence, but don't accept your templates for "reason" and "evidence"? (Have a look at Islamic Jurisrudence if you want to see evidence and reason fanaticism in wondrous action.)Are there any such "scientific" templates, anyway, applicable across the disciplines - from quantum physics to sociology? The answer is, of course, no, you just feed your proposals into the "established" academic machine, and some come out shiningly legitemated as "scientific", others do not fare so well, but are not condemned, others manage just to be bad science, and not a few are unscientific. But here is a thing. How much of the results of human curiosity would a sane person want to submit to this machine? Would you attempt to throw your template over imaginative writing, and declare this pseudo-scientific, or would you be content with a lesser charge, that it is "just a story"? I don't doubt that there are mad creationists trying to hijack the putative prestige of science for their own carnal ends, so quite understand your sharpening your polemical tools to prevent them boarding. However, the white coats (polemic alert!) do not, and never will, own, or even define the rules for, the whole domain of human curiosity. Lastly, it is a bit disengenuous to link the "success" of science - whose basics, in physics, cosmology and biology, are intellectually in a complete ferment/mess - to the success (I admit that must be the word) of technology, but at least it does highlight the limited domain of the "scientific" template.
Good luck in your endeavours.

Guest's picture

Guest

Friday, March 19, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

According to B.F. Skinner's Theory of Behaviorism,

According to B.F. Skinner's Theory of Behaviorism, people would do more of what works (because they're rewarded by results) and less of what doesn't work (because they're penalized by the lack of results). Science gets results and pseudo-science doesn't. The number of people who still believe in pseudo-science therefore strongly suggests that Skinner's Theory of Behaviorism is at least partially in error.

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, March 20, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

Unfortunately for most people, especially the most

Unfortunately for most people, especially the most learned, Truth is a pseudo-science.
=
MJA

Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, March 21, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

there are many interesting in our world, and most

there are many interesting in our world, and most of them is a part of Science

Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, March 21, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

Great article and good topic. I think that calling

Great article and good topic. I think that calling it "science" anything like that gives, Ghost Hunters, a relevent place in the modern psyche.
"Well, we?re philosophers. It?s part of our job to decide what?s worthy of believing and what isn?t worthy of believing. Science is worthy of belief. Pseudo-science is not worthy of belief." I think this word belief is the true problem. It shows our weakness to detach from everyday superstition.

Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, March 21, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

Consensus defined science incorporates precise log

Consensus defined science incorporates precise logic, mathematical logic and analysis in particular. That aspect is rarely contested. Valid scientific method next incorporates empirical data. Thereby usually lies the rub in that instruments and experiments have margins of error or uncertainty (e.g. the factors in global warming).
Fortunately there is the availability of consensus and peer review among experts which historically vastly increases the likelihood of accurate conclusions. Therefore we have "rocket science" as compared to the story about the Chinese emperor who strapped the newly-developed rockets to his throne in order to fly to the moon. Good idea up to a point!

Guest's picture

Guest

Tuesday, March 23, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

The central question of epistemology is: "Why is

The central question of epistemology is: "Why is astronomy a science and astrology is not?" It turns out that a clear and precise answer to that question is not easy. Without such an answer, aren't we just calling names when we say that something is a "pseudo-science"? I agree with the intuition about where the lines are to be drawn between sciences and pseudo-sciences (although there are hard cases, like psychoanalysis). But without a clear, testable explanation of the difference, it is only an intuition. (I also think that philosophers have little to offer on the subject. Those who do science likely can determine where genuine knowledge (as opposed to pseudo-science) in their field lies, but I doubt that philosophers have anything to add to their conclusions.)

Guest's picture

Guest

Tuesday, March 23, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

It's clearly the same exact question as what is r

It's clearly the same exact question as what is reality? (Metaphysics) The reality is not either mental(pseudo) or physical(science) it is the collaboration of both... Now before anyone express any false cause down opinion lane, allow me to explain - Then do your worse!! ("For every action there's a ... See Morereaction but ... See Morewithout a source there will be no action. For every purpose there's a source but without a meaning there will be no purpose!") We have to understand that science only validate theories that are proven which implies isn't so flexible outside the box! Now Pseudo is the opposite which in this case it is a process that is not tangible so it is a real challenge to materialize that which is not objective! However challenge doesn't mean idea can never be rationalized into something logical or even a sound theory! After-all, The foundation of all Science are manifestations of pseudo concepts (assumption practice) that has been analyzed, tested, rationalized, until the logic became valid and sound. Not all "Pseudo science" can be rationalize to become valid or even sound, however, rest assure the idea that does will become science!

 
 
 

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