What Pseudoscience Tells us About Science

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, Universityof Wisconsin - Green Bay
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Models of the Scientific Method

Many definitions of the scientific method have been formulated, and all have theirmerits. However, every single one can be counterfeited by pseudoscientists. Thus,pseudoscience has profound implications for models of science.

Experimental Verification

The stereotypical picture of science is developing a hypothesis and performing anexperiment to test it. Although this approach is useful for testing highly specificclaims, no single experiment can rule out the possibility that a hypothesis might be falsein some other context, and many phenomena in science are hard to test experimentally. Whatexperiment would show why the dinosaurs died out, for example?

Pseudoscientists have been known to fake experiments outright, but much more common arecases of faulty or biased technique. Even if these results do not stand the test of time,they tend to be cited by pseudoscientists as valid results that favor their beliefs.Pseudoscience is rife with selective citations of obsolete or faulty experiments thatagree with their beliefs, while later and better results tend to be ignored.


The ability to make successful predictions is a hallmark of valid scientific theories,but prediction is also one of the tools most abused by pseudoscientists. Velikovsky'sinfamous "predictions" that Jupiter should emit radio waves or Venus should behot are prime examples. Prediction is valid only if the prediction follows rigorously fromthe theory, which Velikovsky's do not. Scattergun predictions, random hits, andafter-the-fact coincidences with vague predictions are not valid.


Falsification was cited by Karl Popper as the defining characteristic of science.Although an idea can be proven valid in a specific case, we can never be entirely sure itwon't be false in some other case. However, if we prove an idea false, it is false,period. Although falsification is perhaps the most workable universal definition ofscience yet proposed, it's not perfect. Many falsifications have turned out to be wrongbecause they were based on erroneous assumptions. Simon Newcomb, one of the most famousAmerican astronomers at the beginning of the 20th century, "proved" that heavierthan air craft were impossible. His assumptions about the strength of materials and theweight of power sources were far too conservative. Indeed, the Wright Brothers devoted agreat deal of effort to finding a power source light and powerful enough to propel anairplane. Also, in many cases, it is possible to verify claims. It makes far moresense to say we have determined the chemical composition of a material than to say we havefalsified all other compositions.

Scientific Creationists have had a field day with falsification. They have argued thatit is impossible to falsify evolution and that it is therefore a philosophy or theology ona par with their own beliefs rather than a scientific concept.

Pseudoscientists also make extensive use of naive falsification, the assertionthat a single contrary result is enough to undermine a scientific concept. For example,physicist Dayton C. Miller performed the Michelson-Morley Experiment (the basis ofRelativity) in the 1930's and got results contrary to everyone else. There continue to bepeople who argue that his contrary results show that:

However, any such conflict has two sides. On the one hand we have an anomaly thatindicates the prevailing scientific view is wrong, on the other we have a large body ofaccumulated data that indicates that the anomaly either doesn't exist, was incorrectlyobserved, or has some other explanation. Since there's a huge body of evidence in supportof relativity and no credible experiments in support of Miller, we are justified inconcluding that Miller's experimental methods were wrong rather than relativity.

It's also possible to appear to submit ideas to scientific testing while not actuallydoing so. One common approach is to devise tests that are known in advance to beimpossible or impractical. For example, creationist Robert Gentry has argued that graniteformed within seconds, and that the earth must have been created almost instantly."All" it will take to falsify his theory, he states, is the laboratory synthesisof a fist-sized chunk of granite from molten rock. "All" you need to perform theexperiment is a pressure vessel capable of sustaining temperatures of 600-800 C and acouple of thousand atmospheres for perhaps a few decades, a setup costing millions ofdollars. Atheists who claim they would be convinced of the existence of God if they couldwitness a miracle are in pretty much the same class. There are all sorts of rationalreasons why a God might choose not to perform miracles on demand, therefore the fact thatwe live in a universe where miracles do not occur on demand proves nothing.


Replicability is another powerful criterion for testing scientific theories. Whensomeone rejects replicability, as paranormalists do, for the sole reason that his findingsare not reproducible, we are justified in labeling him a pseudoscientist if not acharlatan.

However, replicability does not necessarily make an idea correct. The French physicistProsper Blondlot claimed to have discovered mysterious rays called N-rays, and he was ableto repeat his measurements in total darkness in front of skeptics. His house of cards camedown when Robert Wood showed that not only could Blondlot repeat his observations, hecould do so even when vital pieces of his apparatus were missing.

Replicability by independent observers is the only reliable way to test thevalidity of scientific claims. "Independent observer" is not necessarilysynonymous with "skeptic" because some skeptics can be so biased that their ownresults are no more trustworthy than the ideas they are trying to refute. Independentobservers are those capable of testing a hypothesis in an impartial manner. There willalso be a far wider circle of scientists who care little about the details of somecontroversy except insofar as it affects their own work.

What Pseudoscience Reveals About Science

There is no Single "Scientific Method"

No single criterion yet formulated has succeeded in defining science completely,leading to two possible interpretations. Either we haven't found the all-sufficientdefinition yet, or it doesn't exist. The latter seems to be much more likely. Thus it iswrong to speak of the "Scientific Method". Rather, there is a constellationof scientific methods. The most robust definitions - those of widest applicability, mostimmune to abuse and capable of correcting errors - revolve around replication of resultsby independent observers and seeking ways to falsify theories. But the specific details ofwhat constitutes replication and falsification vary so much from case to case that it isprobably better to abandon the quest for a Scientific Method and think insteadsomewhat the way social scientists do, of a constellation of attributes that are shared byvalid scientific theories. The constellation is larger than the attributes of any singletheory so that testing of any scientific theory makes use of some subset of the wholeconstellation.

Although no single concept seems to define science, we can go a long way by applyingfalsification and replicability, especially in detecting and refuting pseudoscience. Inparticular, pseudoscientists are very loath to submit their ideas to testing andfalsification by independent investigators. A good general cut-through-the-crap question Iuse whenever I deal with someone I suspect of playing games rather than seeking truth is"what would it take to convince you that your ideas are false?" The responses Iget range from a deer-in-the-headlights look of utter bewilderment to spluttering ragethat I would even make such a demand, but very rarely do I get any evidence of seriousthought. But fair's fair - if I expect somebody to define what would refute his ideas I'dbetter be prepared to do the same with mine.

Science is Content as Much as Structure

Since every imaginable structural feature of science can be counterfeited bypseudoscience, one conclusion is clear: no structural or process definition ofscience can be valid. Science is determined by content, in addition to structure.Science is a constellation of methods that have proven useful in deriving testable,repeatable results, but it is also the results themselves and the subject areas withinwhich those results lie. Astronomy, for example, is the accumulated knowledge ofplanets, stars and galaxies, but it is also the study of those subjects - thediscovery of hitherto unknown facts.

Thus, not only does the accumulated knowledge of science expand, but so do its methodsand its domain. The French philospher Auguste Comte once cited the chemical composition ofthe stars as an example of knowledge that would be forever beyond reach. Within 20 years,astronomers were using spectroscopy to study the chemistry of the stars. A new method hadbeen shown capable of yielding valid results, and in turn opened up a new domain forstudy. Numerous aspects of the social sciences like linguistics and archaeology are movingmore and more into the domain of science as their methodologies evolve.

Applying Scientific Methods Elsewhere

It's considered hubris - probably rightly - to think we will ever apply the methods ofscience to all human affairs, but we can go much further than we presently do in testingideas. A couple of examples:

Does gender-free language reduce sexism?
We might try looking for languages that have, for example, a single pronoun for he, she and it. Turkish does: the single word "o" means he, she or it. In fact, Turkish has no grammatical gender at all. Anyone care to argue that Turkey has gender equality? Going further, it turns out that most languages lack the concept of gender; Indo-European and Semitic (Afro-Asiatic) are the two great families with gender, one of the reasons linguists suspect they share a common remote ancestor. Now it may or may not help our own society to reduce gender-specific terminology (in most cases it can be done so seamlessly it's not even noticed) but it's also clear that the most shrill advocates of gender-free language have, at best, a superficial knowledge of language.
Was Piss Christ meant as an attack on Christianity?
The work Piss Christ generated a firestorm of controversy when it was exhibited, in part with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Defenders of the work, a photo of a crucifix in a jar of urine, claimed it was not intended to insult Christians. Bypassing the rich question of how anything so juvenile came to be taken as serious art, the intent of the work strikes me as eminently testable. Create a similar work, a photo of Martin Luther King in a jar of urine, and call it Piss King. See if defenders of Piss Christ react in the same way. Exhibit the work in a black community. Can you predict the response? Would it be justified?

Some key questions we can apply just about anywhere:

The Baseball Model of Science

To Nolan Ryan, the strike zone is a big target. There are many different correct waysto throw a baseball, none necessarily more correct than any other. To a Little Leaguer,however, the strike zone is a tiny target.

Now imagine the stands are full of people who have no idea at all how to play baseball.Some think you throw the bat at the ball, some think the object is to hit the batter,others think the object is to throw the ball as far as possible into the stands. From outin the bleachers, the strike zone is a pinpoint and there is only one correct way to throwa baseball. At that distance, fastballs, curves and sliders are trivial variations on asingle theme. This analogy is to baseball exactly what pseudoscience is to normal science,and the study of pseudoscience is important because it helps to develop an externalperspective on science that most scientists, immersed in the minutiae of their ownspecialties, do not have.

Relativistic concepts of science work well in a graduate student bull session or afaculty tea where the participants, for the most part, are well educated and share acommon set of assumptions. Just as a group of major league pitchers might enjoy discussingthe many ways to throw a baseball, scientists enjoy discussing the role of alternateviewpoints about science and the way it works. This approach would not only be utterlyirrelevant to a totally naive audience, it would be positively misleading. Discussing allthe ways of throwing a pitch would be meaningless to somebody who didn't know the rules ofbaseball; worse yet, it might actually mislead him into thinking that hitting the strikezone wasn't crucial. Similarly, discussing science as a social construct serves to misleadmany non-scientists into thinking there's reason to doubt many findings that arerock-solid.

Just About Everything is False

Skilled professionals can dwell upon the nuances of their trade because they simplytune out the (to them) irrelevant ways that outsiders can get confused. But if we'relooking at things with the outsiders' perspectives in mind, we cannot do that. Considerwhat we can call idea space, the realm of all the possible ideas that couldever exist, regardless of how bizarre they are. When we consider all the ideas thatcould conceivably exist: atoms, angels, dragons, plate tectonics, ghosts, unicorns, DNA,we observe that:

Of All Possible Ideas, All But an Infinitesimal Fraction are Trivially False

By trivially false, we mean that we don't learn anything of value by refuting them. Wedon't know the exact age of the Earth, but we know for certain it is not a year, 10 years,100 years ..., and also it's not a trillion, 10 trillion, and so on. The Earth is not anexact sphere, and a detailed description of its shape is a complex affair. However, we doknow it's not a cube, pyramid, disk, ring, and so on. These ideas are so far off the markthat refuting them does nothing significant toward telling us what is right. Nevertheless,there are people who believe some of them, and here the study of pseudoscience plays avital role by showing just how vast the realm of invalid ideas is and just how many peoplelive there. Lots of folks insist that the Earth is only about 10,000 years old andhollow-earth cults existed in the 19th century and even later.

Of All Remaining Ideas, All But an Infinitesimal Fraction are Non-trivially False

These ideas are false, but in the process of refuting them we can come significantlycloser to a correct answer, especially if we can rule out entire classes of ideas. TheEarth is almost certainly not 4 billion years old, or 5 billion. Its estimated age is 4.6billion years, but the true value could easily be 100 million years one side or the otherof that value. Between 4.5 and 4.7 billion years there are an infinite number of possibleages, only one of which is correct. If we can rule out, say, all ages younger than 4.58billion years, we still have an infinite number of possible wrong answers, but we havealso narrowed the range of possible answers a great deal.

Likewise, the Earth is not a perfect sphere. It's an oblate spheroid flattened at thepoles by about 1/298 of its diameter. Well, actually not 1/298; more like 1/298.3, or1/298.26, or 1/298.257. Even that last figure isn't entirely correct, because the Earth'sequatorial diameter is a smidge longer in one direction (longitude 14 degrees) than 90degrees away. And the Earth isn't really an ellipsoid; it has slight bumps and hollows.Each refinement means that all earlier approximations are false, but also that the newvalue is a significantly better one. And the earlier approximations can still be useful incertain contexts. A spherical earth works just fine for world maps; it's only forsmall-scale maps where we want to measure locations very accurately that the ellipsoidalshape becomes important.

The Range of Valid Ideas is Infinitesimally Tiny

When we consider the ideas in all domains of knowledge that have proven even minimallyvalid, and compare them to the range of all the possible ideas that could ever exist, thedomain of valid ideas is an infinitesimal point. It is only when we focus on the domain ofvalid ideas with what amounts to an electron microscope that we see even hints of internalstructure at all.

Scientists and philosophers who focus on the tentativeness of science, who view scienceas a social construct and are fascinated by the role of alternative models have a lot tosay that is useful. However, we need to bear in mind always that they are focused on theultramicroscopic structure of a domain that is itself submicroscopic compared to theuniverse of palpably false ideas around it. To parody Isaac Newton's famous analogy, theyare playing with pebbles on the beach while the great ocean of untruth lies undiscovered(indeed its very existence unsuspected) all about them.

In dealing with non-scientists who may be far outside the realm of ideas that are validby even the most charitable definition, it's clear that the first order of business is toshow them where the strike zone is. Descriptions of science that focus on tentativeness,social constructs and alternative models are utterly premature at this stage. Worse yet,they are positively misleading. If a description of science creates the impression thatit's permissible to remain in the domain of invalid ideas, that description is false,regardless of how valid it might be in the ultrafine structure realm.

The Library of Babel

The analogy above is similar to what we find in a famous short story by Jorge Luis Borges, The Library of Babel. The story involves an incomprehensibly vast universe of hexagonal cells, each containing bookcases which are believed to hold every possible permutation of characters. All the books are identical in format and size. Hidden in these cells are useful books, but as Borges' narrator states:

for every sensible line of straightforward statement, there are leagues of senseless cacophonies, verbal jumbles and incoherences.

On the other hand:

every copy is unique, irreplaceable, but (since the Library is total) there are always several hundred thousand imperfect facsimiles: works which differ only in a letter or a comma.

The imperfect copies correspond to the non-trivially false ideas in science. Indeed, the closest copies wouldn't even be false because the errors would be easily correctible or insignificant - if a copy spelled "the" as "tje" would anyone even notice or care?. At some point a copy would become sufficiently corrupted that its meaning would be ambiguous and it wouldn't be immediately clear which interpretation was valid. Beyond those books would be myriads that were trivially false; that stated that Thomas Edison discovered America or Christopher Columbus walked on the moon or that herds of walruses once roamed the plains. Beyond even those would be a vast (but finite) number that made no sense at all. Indeed, the figures specified by Borges (four walls per cell with shelves, five shelves per wall, 35 books per shelf, 410 pages each, 40 lines per page, 80 characters per line, 25 characters) imply that each book contains 1,312,000 characters. Each character can have one of 25 values, so the total number of possible books is 251,312,000 (2 x 101,834,097) or inconceivably more than the number of atoms in the universe. Since the books are discrete, not only is their number finite, but even if the library were infinite, the books would be countably infinite. There are infinitely more points on a line an inch long than there would be books in this infinite library.

(Just for fun, each hexagon contains 4 x 5 x 35 = 700 books, so the number of cells is 2.8 x 101,834,094. If hexagons are five meters in diameter and two meters high, they occupy 65 cubic meters apiece, or a grand total of 1.9 x 101,834,096 cubic meters. The library, if it were a cube, would be 2.7 x 10611,365 meters on a side, or 2.8 x 10611,352 light years or 2.1 x 10611,342 times the size of the visible universe. This number is so huge that scaling up from a single room to the size of the universe makes only a tiny difference in the exponent. Then you wonder where the paper came from to make the books, and why the library doesn't collapse under its own gravity.)

The universe of pseudoscientific nonsense is obviously far smaller than Borges' library, since people who spout utter gibberish are generally ignored if not locked up. But Borges' story illustrates the point that the domain of meaningful content is insignificant compared to the domain of nonsense.

Does Science Find Truth?

Many scientists reject the idea that science finds truth. They prefer to speak of the validityof ideas, and reserve the term truth for philosophical constructs. But consider:

Thus, many scientists want to take a plain term like truth and reserve it only for somelevel of certainty that can never be attained in practice and that some scientists thinkcan never be attained even in principle. At the same time we are deprived of a term todenote ideas that have survived such rigorous scrutiny that their validity seems securebeyond any reasonable doubt.

It makes far more sense to use the term "truth" in its commonsensedefinition, to denote ideas that are valid beyond any reasonable doubt and which haveproven so useful that, even if further refinements occur, the ideas will still be usefulapproximations or heuristic devices. Kepler's Laws are going on 400 years old; when theywere developed it was widely believed that one could determine what theology wasabsolutely true and that it was justifiable to force others to conform. It was alsouniversally believed that slavery was morally acceptable. Kepler's Laws have endured; itstheological and philosophical contemporaries have not. Although there are many finecorrections to Kepler's Laws that are necessary for the most accurate predictions ofplanetary motions, Kepler's Laws are still employed in most astronomical desktop computerprograms. We are justified in saying that Kepler's Laws are "true" in anyreasonable sense of the term.

But this definition of "truth" means that occasionally an idea willbe labeled as "true" and later discovered to be false.. Correct. Sowhat? Show me a definition of "truth" that hasn't occasionally turned outto be false.

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Created 1 May 1999, Last Update 15 January 2020

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