Science vs. Pseudo-science

Sunday, March 2, 2008

What is it

Astronomy is science; Astrology is pseudo-science. Evolutionary Biology is science; Creationism is pseudo-science. How about cultural anthropology, abstract economics, string-theory, and evolutionary psychology – science or pseudo-science? Is pseudo-science just politically incorrect science? Or is there an objective difference? John and Ken tackle these questions with Stuart Vyse from Connecticut College, author of Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition.

Listening Notes

How do we distinguish the venerated and benevolent discipline of Science from its evil doppelganger Pseudo-Science? Ken worries that perhaps there isn't a deep-level distinction between the two, and Science simply designates those things that the reigning scientific community accepts, and pseudo-science classifies those theories that the community does not. But John thinks that there are important differences. Science is approved of because it exhibits characteristics that make it worthy of approval: its tested, objective, rational, and holds rigorous predictive power.

Stuart Vyse agrees. Science is characterized by the use of scientific methodology: valuing evidence based in experimentation.  Superstitions are often based in experience, such as the attachment of luck or bad luck to particular artifacts, but in these cases there is little control nor extensive testing of the attachment. And this poverty is, in most cases, obvious. So why do so many people, even in the modern, developed world, believe in superstition?

Ken points out that the ubiquity of superstition in human history suggests that we naturally believe in things with less than scientific proof.  Stuart agrees.  Scientific methods are often difficult, and many important aspects of our lives remain uncontrollable and unpredictable.  Superstitions give people the psychologically-comforting illusion of influence.  Ken proposes that for many, (the renowned spiritual guru Yoda included), a demystifying scientific lens deadens our experience of the world.  Some pseudoscientific systems of belief can reinvigorate life for us.

Meanwhile, enthusiastic callers pour in, in defense of astrology, kabbalah, reincarnation.  And each call leads to a new quandry for our speakers.  In the last segment, they grapple with ethics of pseudo-science.  They conclude that its okay to indulge in the comfort and enchantment pseudo-science gives us, so long as that in doing so, we are not doing harm.  Which is certainly not always the case.  We're in great peril in working with serious academic disciplines in which scientific proof is impossible.  Global climate change, among other things, comes under discussion.

  • Roving Philosophical Report (seek to 5:20): Most people, our host and speakers included, classify astrology as a pseudo-science. But many believe in its description of the universe, and in the predictive power of the discipline. April Dembosky interviews a local political astrologer attempting to apply astrology to the Democratic nomination for the 2008 presidential election.
  • 60-Second Philosopher (seek to 49:35): Ian Shoales takes on the question of climate change, asking what side is pseudo and which side is science. He wades his way through many contradictory interpretations of the same facts, and many contradictory facts. The statistics will make your head spin.

Stuart Vyse, Joanne Toor Cummings ’50 Professor of Psychology, Connecticut College


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