Beware the Pseudoscientist
Steven Dutch, Professor Emeritus, Natural and Applied Sciences,University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
Note to Speaker Coordinators
There is a good deal more material here than can be covered in a 30-60 minute talk. I will be happy to tailor the talk to emphasize themes that will be of particular interest to your group.
The Intellectual Domain
|Social Phenomena ||Abstract Thought|
The Intellectual Counterculture
|Social Phenomena ||Abstract Thought|
|Political Extremism||Pop Psychology|
|Cult Anthropology||Religious Dogmatism|
Ideological Abuse of Science
Dangers of the Intellectual Counterculture
- Some Theories Dangerous in Themselves
- Political Extremism
- Quack Medical Cults
- Connections to Extremism
- Lend Intellectual Legitimacy
- Serve as safety valve?
- Symptom of Societal Irrationality
- Confusion over Methodology
- Acceptance of faulty data and reasoning
Some Contemporary Effects of the Intellectual Counterculture
- Crank Social or Political Movements
- Child Abuse Cults
- Repressed Memories
- Scientific Illiteracy
- Logical Illiteracy
The Scientific Counterculture and The Nature of Science
- Reject findings of science
- Ideological Abuse of Science
- Reject limitations of science
What Pseudoscience is
Belief in false or extremely improbable scientific theories
- Without adequate supporting evidence
- Usually with demonstrably faulty logic
- Often in open defiance of scientific consensus
What Pseudoscience Is Not
- Errors made in good faith (polywater, cold fusion)
- Informed Speculation
- Defined by personal disagreement
- Defined by personality or style
The Spectrum of Scientific Probability
|10,000:1 in Favor ||Heliocentric Astronomy|
| 1,000:1 |
|10:1|| Impact-caused Extinction|
| 10:1 Against||Fringe|
| 100:1||Loch Ness, Bigfoot|
|1000:1||UFO's, Psychic Phenomena|
Branches of Pseudoscience
Validate Received Truth
- 666 Theories
Validate Subjective Experience
- ESP, Psychic
- New Age
- Loch Ness
Advance Practical or Political Agenda
- Denial of Tobacco Dangers
- Attacks on Expert Witness Standards
Junk science has moved into prominence in the 1990's. It may well be a product of the steady erosion of scientific literacy in the U.S. over the preceding decades.
The Appeal of Pseudoscience
- Genuine Conviction
- Feelings of Powerlessness
- Desire for Fame
- Practical Benefits
- Denial of Unpleasant Realities
- Medical Quackery
- Perpetual Motion Machines
- Adventure, Escapism, Fun
- Loch Ness, Bigfoot
- Catastrophe Theories
- Conspiracy Theories
- Social Agendas
- Religious and Quasi-religious
- UFO Savior Myths
- Psychic Phenomena
- New Age
Logical Structure of Pseudoscience
- "Galileo Fallacy"
- "Residue Fallacy"
- Explanation by Default
- Catch-22 Arguments, Buzzwords
- Exaggeration of Uncertainty
- Attacks on Inference and Deduction
- Distortion of the term "Theory"
- Extreme Relativism, Solipsism
- Conspiratorial Outlook
Is it Fair to Reject All Conspiratorial Theories?
- Erroneous Use of Terms
- Common Effort or goal =/= Conspiracy
- Criticism =/= Persecution
- Irrelevant to Issues
- Objectives may be morally acceptable
- Sometimes secrecy is necessary even for morally legitmate ends (D-Day)
- Immoral conspiracies are immoral because of their goals and methods, not their secrecy
- Intellectually Dishonest
- Impossible to disprove
- Can rationalize away any anomaly
- Appeal to Emotions Instead of Facts
- Poisons Climate of Debate
A conspiratorial theory is not necessarily wrong. We are not entitled to reject a theory merely because it is conspiratorial. We are entitled to insist conspiracy believers clean up their act and agree to debate solely on the facts before we consider their claims.
The Data Base of Pseudoscience
- Random events collected into spurious patterns
- Real phenomena misinterpreted as anomaly
- Venus as UFO
- Loch Ness and Bigfoot sightings
- Revisionist interpretations of well-understood phenomena
- Psychological Phenomena
- Biased observations
- Hypnogogic and Hypnopompic Dreams
- Second-hand data (Urban legends)
- Deliberate Fraud
- Genuine new discoveries
- Semmelweiss and Antisepsis?
- Robert Gentry and Radiation Halos?
Two Common Types of Bad Data
- "Gee Whiz" Facts
- Anecdotal Evidence
"Gee Whiz" Facts
- "A Million Children Are Reported Missing Every Year"
There are about 50 million people in the U.S. under 18. Taken literally, 1/3 of all children disappear before adulthood. I think we'd notice that. What this "fact" doesn't mention is that the vast majority of missing children are found within a few hours. At any given time the FBI has less than 100 stranger abductions on file.
- "Suicide Is the ---th Leading Cause of Death among Teen-agers"
Now think about it. What can kill teen-agers? They're beyond the age of childhood diseases (most of which are under control) and too young for diseases of old age. That leaves accident, homicide and suicide.
Anecdotal EvidenceTo Be Valid, Anecdotal Evidence --
- Must Be True
- Must Be Representative
Example: The millionaire who pays no income tax
The reality looks like this (Source, 1987 IRS data)
|Income ||Average Tax||% of Income |
Anecdote may be true, but is notrepresentative
Pseudoscience and American Values
Cook Versus Peary: the Race To the Pole (1982 TV Docudrama)
This docudrama seems to have launched a steady movement to vindicate Dr. Frederick Cook's claim to have reached the pole first, or at the very least, to discredit Robert Peary's claim.
The Career of Dr. Frederick Cook
- Ca. 1900 Attempts to pass off ethnic study of another worker as his own
- 1906 Fakes first climb of Mount McKinley
- 1908 Claims first visit to North Pole
- 1920's Imprisoned for mail fraud
TV docudrama made Cook, not Peary, the victim
Peary represents the values Americans are supposed to admire: perseverance and self-sacrifice
Cook represents everything Americans supposedly despise: dishonesty and theft of others' rewards
So Why Does the Cook Cult Exist?
- Americans are taught to revere explorers and innovators as heroes (Lindbergh, Lewis and Clark)
- In reality, many Americans resent those who succeed through hard work and effort.
- We often reconcile these conflicting emotions by making heroes out of anti-intellectuals and cranks and pretending they were really persecuted geniuses
- What does it take to prove an idea wrong?
- What does it take to prove an idea right?
- Can you find factual evidence?
- Keep your Eyes on the Prize
A Nation of Jailhouse Lawyers
- Freedom of Speech
- Criminal Cases
- Innocent until proven Guilty
- Civil Cases
- Preponderance of the Evidence
- Who Controls the Facts?
The purpose of the mind, as of the mouth, is to open it in order to close it on something solid.
Return to American Chemical Society Talks
Return to Professor Dutch's Home Page
Created 28 May 1998, Last Update 28 May 1998