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
Fine Arts
Physical Phenomena

The Intellectual Counterculture

Social Phenomena Abstract Thought
Artistic Narcissism
Political ExtremismPop Psychology
RacismReligious Cults
Cult AnthropologyReligious Dogmatism
Crank Mathematics
Ideological Abuse of Science
Physical Phenomena

Dangers of the Intellectual Counterculture

Some Contemporary Effects of the Intellectual Counterculture

The Scientific Counterculture and The Nature of Science

What Pseudoscience is

Belief in false or extremely improbable scientific theories

What Pseudoscience Is Not

The Spectrum of Scientific Probability

10,000:1 in Favor Heliocentric Astronomy
Quantum Mechanics
10:1 Impact-caused Extinction
EvenExtraterrestrial Intelligence
10:1 AgainstFringe
100:1Loch Ness, Bigfoot
1000:1UFO's, Psychic Phenomena
10,000:1Velikovsky, Creationism

Branches of Pseudoscience


Validate Received Truth


Validate Subjective Experience


Anti-authoritarian, Tittilation

Junk Science

Advance Practical or Political Agenda

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

Logical Structure of Pseudoscience

Is it Fair to Reject All Conspiratorial Theories?

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

Two Common Types of Bad Data

"Gee Whiz" Facts

Anecdotal Evidence

To Be Valid, Anecdotal Evidence --

Example: The millionaire who pays no income tax

The reality looks like this (Source, 1987 IRS data)

Income Average Tax% of Income
$19-22,000$ 17398.5
$40-50,000$ 527611.8
Over $1,000,000
(Average $2,422,000)

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

TV docudrama made Cook, not Peary, the victim

In Theory:

Peary represents the values Americans are supposed to admire: perseverance and self-sacrifice

In Theory:

Cook represents everything Americans supposedly despise: dishonesty and theft of others' rewards

So Why Does the Cook Cult Exist?


A Nation of Jailhouse Lawyers

The purpose of the mind, as of the mouth, is to open it in order to close it on something solid.

-G.K. Chesterton

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Created 28 May 1998, Last Update 28 May 1998

Pierre Abelard ca. 1100 A.D.1. Use systematic doubt and question everything2. Learn the difference between statements of rational proof and those merely of persuasion3. Be precise in use of words and expect precision from others4. Watch for error, even in Holy Scripture--Sic et NonBad Models of ScienceScience is TentativeScientific progress is Non-directionalScience does not find TruthQuantum Pop PhilosophyEverything is relativeThere is no such thing as certaintyPerception determines realityCognitive Development (Perry, 1970)I. Dualism1. Knowledge is dualistic: right-wrong, good-bad2. Ambiguity recognized but seen as illegitimate (bad information) or a test3. Ambiguity legitimate but temporary (incomplete knowledge)II. Relativism4. Ambiguity is real but either separate from right-wrong (special case) or it's what instructors want to hear5. Ambiguity is general, right-wrong knowledge is a special case 6. Need for orientation and commitment recognizedIII. Commitment7. Initial commitment8. Implications and responsibilities of commitment seen9. Need to continually redefine commitment seenThe Baseball AnalogyOf all possible ideas, all but an infinitesimally tiny fraction are trivially false The Earth is not a cube, tetrahedron, cylinder, torus, etc.Of the remainder, all but an infinitesimally tiny fraction are non-trivially false The earth is not a perfect sphere, or flattened by 1/10, 1/100, 1/1000, elongated along its polar axis, etc.Of all possible ideas, the range occupied by valid ideas is an infinitesimally tiny point