Just about every logical fallacy ever imagined turns up inpseudoscience, including:
Pseudoscientists are often very selective in their use of the data. Believers in theBiblical Deluge use flood legends from around the world in support of a worldwide flood inrecent times, but they take flood legends literally and ignore other types, like legendsof visitors from the skies. Erich von Daniken, on the other hand, takes accounts ofcelestial visitors seriously but ignores the flood myths.
In general the pseudoscientist looks only for evidence that supports his theory. Realscientists look for evidence against their theories as well. Even if they want desperatelyto see their theories accepted, they know full well that their opponents will be lookingfor weak spots; better to anticipate criticism or even junk a cherished belief rather thanbe blown out of the water by somebody else. The pseudoscientist not only looks only forconfirmation, but he often takes a very broad view of confirmation. ESP researchers pointto cases where subjects guess ESP cards with unusually high accuracy as evidence for ESP.If the test scores are unusually low, the phenomenon is called "avoidance" andis also considered evidence for ESP! Taken as a whole, the results of long-continued ESPexperiments conform to pure chance, but the runs that are somehow unusual are singled outas evidence for ESP.
Pseudoscience is amazingly static; it tries to portray itself as daring and innovative,but actually it is conservative, unimaginative, and dull. Pseudoscientists spend most oftheir effort rehashing their original theory, rather than developing it, elaborating it,or trying to relate it to the rest of science. Despite fifty years of berating sciencefor its refusal to accept Velikovsky, Velikovsky's supporters have yet to come up with aphysically plausible mechanism for altering the orbits of the planets the way Velikovskyinsists happened. UFO enthusiasts have spent years pressuring the Government to releasesupposedly secret data on extraterrestrial spacecraft, yet seem distressingly incapable ofgetting clear photographs of UFO's.
Erich von Daniken provided the single most spectacular example in all of pseudoscienceof failing to follow up on a theory. In Chariots of the Gods?, he claimed"parts of a belt made of aluminum lay in a grave at Yungjen, China". Now if Iwere seriously interested in showing that early man had contact with a technologicallyadvanced culture, this is exactly the sort of evidence I'd look for. Aluminum is verychemically reactive and very hard to extract from ores. It was not discovered until 1825,and not until 1886 was a way found, using electrolysis, to produce it cheaply. Aluminumwould have been utterly beyond the capability of ancient civilizations on Earth to produceon their own. If von Daniken really wanted to demonstrate the existence of ancient visitsby extraterrestrials, he should have been moving heaven and earth to document that aluminum belt!Instead, he dismissed it in one short sentence, provided no photograph, no references,didn't tell us where the belt is now, and indeed provided no proof at all that the beltreally exists. This one example pretty well sums up the value of the ancient-astronauttheory, and pseudoscience in general.
Pseudoscientists often fail to perform the simplest checks on the workability of their theories. For example, scientific creationists attempt to get around radiometric ages of rocks by saying that atoms may have decayed faster early in the earth's history. But to fit the geologic time scale into the creationist time scale, radioactive decay would have to have been up to a million times faster. We now get about 0.1 rem of natural radiationfrom radioactive elements in the rocks each year. 500 to 1000 rem in a short time isfatal. With radioactive decay a million times faster, the annual dose rate just aftercreation would have been 10,000 rem, or a fatal dose of radiation in a few weeks. Creationistsmake no effort to address this problem.
In those rare cases where the pseudoscientist does check his ideas to see if they work,he has a ready excuse for failure. Two of Velikovsky's supporters, Lynn Rose and R.C.Vaughan, reported in Velikovsky Reconsidered on calculations in which they triedunsuccessfully to explain how the planets could have moved in accordance with Velikovsky'sscenario and still end up in their present orbits. They wrote: "Let us not say thatour relative ignorance at present of the processes that damp electromagnetic effects inthe Solar System shows that Velikovsky is wrong ... At this point, it is largely a matterof attitude whether one sees these as vulnerable points of the theory or as strongopportunities for discovery ... We do not stand before a wall, we stand before adoor". In other words, failure is success. Orwell would add: War is Peace -- Freedomis Slavery -- Ignorance is Strength -- Doublethink.
Creationist Philip Johnson, a lawyer, has written a number of bookscriticizing evolution from a legal standpoint. The competence of a lawyer orjudge to evaluate scientific evidence is nearly nil, and the court systemis poorly designed to deal with scientific issues. Scientists will notexclude valid data because the researcher didn't have a search warrant. If aninvestigation reveals a need to gather further data, scientists will go get it.A jury deliberating a technical issue can't ask the court to go perform anexperiment. The legal concept of evidence is so artificial, and so geared toallowing the opposing sides to manipulate evidence, that it is intellectuallyalmost worthless.
The Constitution gives you the right to free speech. It gives your criticsthe right to rebut your claims or ignore you. As the late Hubert Humphrey onceobserved during the Sixties: "The right to free speech does not imply theright to be taken seriously. That depends on what is said." Nowhere in theConstitution is anyone guaranteed a right to freedom from criticism.
Pseudoscientists sometimes appeal to the dictum that an accused person is innocentuntil proven guilty. People are innocent until proven guilty; ideas are wronguntil proven right.
Under our justice system, the State assumes the burden of proof in criminal cases. Wehave said, in effect, we would rather assume the risk of letting a guilty person go freethan risk punishing an innocent person. The actual standard is "guilt beyond a reasonabledoubt," a clear indication that there is such a thing as unreasonable doubt.For this reason, a smart lawyer will not attempt to deny the guilt of a client where theevidence is overwhelming, but will focus instead on mental illness, extenuatingcircumstances, and technical issues.
(What about cases where innocent people are punished? Tragically, short of abandoninglaw enforcement altogether, no system, however perfect, can possibly avoid an occasionalmiscarriage. Sometimes we misjudge the reasonableness of doubts.)
We can adopt the "guilty until proven innocent" standard because we as asociety have decided to accept a certain level of risk. We can do that in cases where oneparty is the State. But what about conflicts between private parties?
In conflicts between two private parties (Civil Law), we cannot automaticallyassign the burden of proof to one side or the other. In any such conflict, somebodywill be angry at the outcome. If we weight the system too heavily in favor of thedefendant (as was perhaps the case fifty years ago), we create a system where it becomestoo easy to run roughshod over the rights of others. If we weight the system too heavilyin favor of the plaintiff (as is the case now), we create a system where it becomes tooeasy to sue - and win - for the most frivolous reasons. And regardless of how ambiguous orunsatisfactory or incomplete the evidence is, the court will have to decide in favor ofone side or the other.
One standard that is used in civil law is called Preponderance of the Evidence.I have a perfect record as an expert witness: one case, one loss. It involved a gasstation accused of leaking gasoline into the ground water. The evidence was sketchy atbest but the gas station had been found to have a leaky fitting during an inspection. Farfrom sufficient for a criminal case, but while there were plausible other sources for thegasoline, there was no convincing evidence that any of them were actually responsible.Based on the preponderance of the evidence, the gas station was found liable (and went outof business).
Preponderance of the evidence is a much better model for science than the criminal-lawmodel. Despite all the efforts pseudoscientists devote to creating an appearance of"reasonable doubt", the preponderance of the evidence is that evolutionhappened, that UFO's are not extraterrestrial visitors, and that paranormal phenomena donot exist.
Another standard used in civil law is called Control of the Facts. Does itviolate presumption of innocence to have to present records to show that you paid yourtaxes? No, and for a good reason. You could simply deny having any income at all, andmerely by not keeping records, nobody could prove otherwise. You could discriminate, dumptoxic waste, ship weapons to terrorists, and without records, nobody could prove a thing.So in civil law, the principle used is that everyone must maintain reasonable records toshow compliance with the law. The person connected with an activity is in control of thefacts, that is, in a position to document what goes on, and has a legal obligation tomaintain documentation. (None of these admittedly good reasons diminish the fact that requiring a defendant to prove his innocence is profoundly unjust.)
However, when someone challenges established scientific ideas, science is cast in the role of defendant and the challenger is the plaintiff. Furthermore, since science can cite the evidence in support of its ideas, it's up to the challenger to produce the evidence to the contrary. Not only is it profoundly unjust to require a defendant (science, in this case) to prove his innocence, but the challenger of established science has control of the facts. The challenger is in the position to make the observations and collect the data needed to overturn established science.
Created 3 February 1998, Last Update 3 February 1998
Not an official UW Green Bay site