Science and Pseudoscience
Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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The Heaven and Hell episode of Cosmos contains a digression that puzzles most viewers about the theories of a psychiatrist named Immanuel Velikovsky, who in 1950 published a book arguing that there have been close encounters between the earth and other planets in historic times. The episode on Mars discusses the imaginary canals on Mars claimed by Percival Lowell and others. Elsewhere Sagan takes on UFO's and states flatly "evolution is a fact, it really happened."
Theories that claim to be scientific but fly in the face of scientific consensus are often called pseudoscience, and the clash between science and pseudoscience is a recurring theme in Cosmos.
The Intellectual World and the Intellectual Counterculture
Above is an attempt to classify knowledge and represent the major domains of intellectual activity.
For every legitimate intellectual activity there is a counterculture equivalent. It frequently comes as a revelation to people to learn that there is an intellectual counterculture, that not everything claimed to be intellectual really is.
||Ideological Abuse of Science
||Use of science to support ideology, or false claim that an ideology is scientific (extreme Marxism).
||Ancient astronauts, Atlantis, extensive pre-Columbian Old World contacts with the Americas, Afrocentrism
||The Bell Curve is on the fringe between legitimate sociology and the counterculture. It argues that interracial differences in IQ as shown by testing are real and based in genetics. Most of the commentary on the book comes from people who never read it; its principal flaw is that group differences in traits have little bearing on how we should treat individuals.
||Naziism, extreme Marxism, militia groups
||Piss Christ, a photo of a crucifix in a jar of urine. In the debate over whether such a work should be exhibited or funded, hardly anybody asked the key question: how did anything so trivial and juvenile ever come to be taken seriously as art?
||Esalen, EST, recovered memories, Satanic cult hysteria
||Doesn't disagree with scientific findings but rejects the scientific method or world view. May view rationalism as supporting imperialism, corporate power, or social inequality on the one hand, or a danger to traditional values on the other. 1970's writers Jacques Ellul, Theodore Roszak, Lewis Mumford and Charles Reich were prominent examples.
||Extreme Islamic and Christian fundamentalism (it is possible to adhere to strict interpretations of the Bible and Koran without being an extremist)
||Angle trisectors, amateur solvers of celebrated problems.
||Velikovsky, Creationism, UFO's, Bigfoot, Loch Ness Monster, Psychic phenomena
||Pseudoscience used for practical purposes: denying unpleasant realities or winning a legal contest.
Dangers Of The Intellectual Counterculture
- Some theories are dangerous in themselves
- Political Extremism
- Racism can be used to justify racial and ethnic violence
- Quack medical cults can lead people to avoid conventional medical treatment
- Connections to extremism
- Some counterculture beliefs are used to lend intellectual legitimacy to extremist movements. There was a sharp rise in crank movements in Germany paralleling the rise of the Nazi Party, some of which tied their theories to Nazi ideology.
- On the other hand, counterculture beliefs can serve as a safety valve for frustration. Someone who blames the world for his misfortunes is probably better off channeling his anger into getting worked up over Area 51 than building bombs.
- Symptom Of Societal Irrationality. Just as fever and vomiting are symptoms of bodily sickness, widespread acceptance of counterculture theories is a symptom of widespread irrationality.
- The ritual child abuse and Satanic cult hysteria of the 1980's was a literal witch hunt. Not a single case was ever proven.
- Recovered memories are a more recent and related phenomenon. While therapy can sometimes reveal repressed memories of trauma, irresponsible therapists have caused incalculable damage. Families have been split and people have gone to prison over false memories. The good news is that some therapists have lost their medical licenses and been hit with multi-million dollar judgments.
- Confusion Over Methodology
- Acceptance of Faulty Data and Reasoning
- Scientific Illiteracy
- Logical Illiteracy
The purpose of the mind, as of the mouth, is to open it in order to close it on something solid.
The Scientific Counterculture And The Nature Of Science
- Reject Findings of Science
- Ideological Abuse Of Science
- Reject Limitations of Science
- "Junk Science"
- Practical pseudoscience used to create doubt about inconvenient scientific facts
What Is Pseudoscience ?
What Pseudoscience Is
- Demonstrably faulty observations or theories, or elaborate speculation without an adequate basis.
- Usually Supported by logical fallacies. The only way it's possible to accept faulty data is through faulty reasoning.
- In open defiance of scientific consensus
What Pseudoscience Is Not
- Errors Made in Good Faith
- polywater involved the claim that some chemists in the 1960's had created a form of water that consisted of long chains of water molecules. It eventually turned out the observations were due to contamination of microscopic quantities of water by impurities. The original claimants eventually admitted their mistake.
- Cold Fusion was the claim in the 1990's that it was possible to create nuclear fusion in the laboratory under ordinary laboratory conditions. The original observations were the result of some chemists using unfamiliar instruments and not having their findings checked properly. It was sloppy, but not pseudoscience. Some scientists continue to push cold fusion and some of the advocacy is skating on the borders of pseudoscience, however.
- Informed Speculation. Attempting to estimate the number of habitable planets and the possibility of life in the universe may or may not bear fruit, but it's based on real data and is not pseudoscience. Speculating on the history, culture, and geography of those planets, in the total absence of data, is pseudoscience.
- Defined by personal disagreement
- Defined by personality or style. Critics and supporters alike agreed Immanuel Velikovsky was a perfect gentleman. That doesn't make him right.
The Spectrum Of Scientific Probability
The chart below combines a numerical scale proposed by Arthur Strahler and a zone description by James Trefil. Possible examples are listed in the center column.
|10,000:1 IN FAVOR
|10:1 IN FAVOR
The Frontier is the most interesting area to scientists. It's hard to identify topics in the 10- or 100-to-one range for or against because these areas are under active exploration, and ideas at these levels rapidly move in to the center or out to the fringe. Ideas don't stay in the Frontier long. Anything more than 100 to one against is probably too iffy to interest most scientists, but there are always a few high rollers who consider the gamble worth the potential payoff.
I put extraterrestrial intelligence at even money because, while there's nothing at all unscientific about the concept, there is absolutely no way of knowing when we will resolve this issue. I put paleolinguistics, the attempt to reconstruct the earliest human language, at 10:1 against, because languages pick up a lot of random changes as they evolve, and this random noise is thought by many scientists to limit how far back we can trace words. 100:1 against is probably being generous to Bigfoot and Nessie. There's nothing inherently unscientific about the existence of unknown animals, it's just extremely hard to hide large unknown animals in small spaces. I put UFO's and the paranormal at 1000:1 against because, although the evidence put forward to date has been total rubbish, neither idea is wholly impossible.
Branches of Pseudoscience
Authoritarian: Validate Received Truth
- 666 Theories
- Lysenkoism (Lysenko was a Soviet geneticist who used an obsolete model of evolution to support Marxism. Since he was a friend of Stalin, he had a lot of power in Soviet science)
Mystical: Validate Subjective Experience
- New Age
Tabloid: Titillation or Resentment of Authority
- Area 51
- Conspiracy cults
Junk Science: Pragmatic Applications of Pseudoscience
- Dismissal of dangers of smoking by tobacco companies
- Dismissal of dangers of marijuana by legalization advocates
- Denial of energy shortages
- Denial of environmental problems
- Perpetual motion machines. Frankly I am amazed these have not made a comeback.
- Diet fads
- Quack medical cures
Science Denied: Simply Ignoring Scientific Results
- Shroud of Turin. There's nothing inherently unscientific about the idea that there might be a physical relic associated with Christ. But the Shroud of Turin radiocarbon dated as medieval. End of story. Or is it? Shroud believers simply ignore the dating results.
- Internet pseudoscience. Tracking pseudoscience in the days of the Internet is like trying to dry out New Orleans after Katrina with a Q-Tip. Essentially the Internet has created a host of parallel universes where believers in odd ideas can get all their evidence and confirmation from each other and not have to bother with reality at all.
The Appeal of Pseudoscience
- Genuine Conviction
- Feelings of Powerlessness
- Desire for Fame
- Practical Benefits
- Denial of Unpleasant Realities
- Medical Quackery
- Perpetual Motion Machines
- Junk Science
- Adventure, Escapism, Fun
- Loch Ness Monster
- Catastrophe Theories
- Conspiracy Theories
- Social Concerns
- Religious and Quasi-religious
- Creationism. Anti-evolutionists attribute all the ills of society to evolution and its alleged weakening of belief in the Bible.
- Geocentrism. You thought this went out with Copernicus? Guess again. These people agree that evolution is bad, but they think the real problem began when the Copernican Revolution defeated religious authority.
- End-Time cults. You can read Tim LaHaye's apocalyptic Left Behind saga as a what-if story for the most part, but read the last volume, Glorious Awakening, to get a full understanding of LaHaye's venomous, perverted brand of Christianity.
- Islamic: for now, mostly parallels Christian opposition to evolution, but watch for distinctively Islamic pseudoscience to develop. Some likely forms:
- Denial of the Apollo moon landings
- Claiming European inventions as Islamic (not claiming things of undeniable Islamic origin, but things of undeniable European origin)
- Conspiratorial theories of history to account for the decline of Islamic power
- Revival of "Aryan Physics" - the Nazi attempt to create a physics without "Jewish" ideas like relativity or quantum mechanics.
- Occult. Basically these offer all the conventional comforts of religion without all the inconvenience of restraints on conduct.
- UFO Savior Myths
- Psychic Phenomena
- New Age
Logical Structure of Pseudoscience
- "Galileo Fallacy" "They laughed at Galileo, and he was right, so I could be right too."
- They may have laughed at courageous mavericks. They also laughed at clowns.
- For everyone labeled a crackpot who turns out to be a persecuted genius, there are a thousand who are merely crackpots.
- The Galileo affair is far more complex than the popular stereotype, and far more interesting. It includes Galileo antagonizing fellow scientists and a healthy dose of politics, Italian style.
- "Residue Fallacy" After all the bad data is eliminated, there are still a few observations that are unexplained. The real question is this: if 90% of the observations are faulty, why shouldn't we assume the remaining 10% are also faulty?
- Explanation by Default. If science can't explain something, but the pseudoscientist can, his explanation is probably right.
- Even if something can't be fully explained, it's often possible to show that a lot of proposed explanations are wrong.
- Often science can explain the alleged anomaly, but the explanation is concealed or dismissed. We do know how the Pyramids were built.
- Distortion of the Term "Theory"
- A theory is any organized body of ideas used to account for some set of observations.
- Theories can be true (heliocentric astronomy), false (Ptolemy and epicycles) or debatable.
- Many theories are not in the least doubtful or hypothetical: number theory in mathematics, stress theory in engineering, music theory in music.
- Some scientists have attempted to defuse this issue by redefining "theory" and restricting it to mean a body of ideas that has been confirmed. Apart from being intellectually dishonest, this definition is flatly wrong and contradicts all historical usages of the word.
- Attacks on Inference and Deduction. If you go home and find your room trashed and your stuff stolen, will you let the police dismiss it as merely "inferring" that you were burglarized?
- Exaggeration of Uncertainty
- Extreme Relativism, Solipsism
- Catch-22 Arguments, Buzzwords
- Conspiratorial outlook. The single most reliable indicator of pseudoscience. Almost every pseudoscientist sooner or later (usually sooner) claims to be the victim of a conspiracy to suppress his discoveries, or the theory itself revolves around a conspiracy.
Is It Fair to Reject All Conspiratorial Theories?
- Erroneous Use of Terms. Often the term "conspiracy" is used incorrectly. Failure to use a simple word accurately doesn't inspire confidence in the person using the word.
- If there's no attempt at secrecy there is no conspiracy. Planned Parenthood will give you a bushel of literature if you ask. Some people may oppose them, but they're not a conspiracy.
- Making a common effort or having a common goal is not a conspiracy.
- Criticism is not persecution, and widespread criticism or opposition does not constitute a conspiracy. It more likely is evidence that the individual is wrong.
- The existence of a conspiracy is irrelevant to the issues.
- The objectives may be morally acceptable. The D-Day invasion and the Manhattan Project were clothed in deep secrecy and engaged in deception. By any reasonable definition, they were conspiracies.
- Sometimes secrecy is necessary. The Constitutional Convention of 1787 decided at its very first meeting not to take minutes because they wanted delegates to feel free to change their minds without being accused of caving in or selling out.
- Immoral conspiracies are immoral because of their goals and methods, not their secrecy. The problem with Al-Qaeda isn't its secrecy, it's that it flies airplanes into buildings.
- Conspiracy arguments are intellectually dishonest
- They are impossible to disprove so they can't be tested.
- Conspiracy believers can rationalize away any anomaly. The less evidence there is, the more powerful and far reaching the conspiracy is because it is so good at concealing itself. Conspiracies for which there is no evidence at all must be incredibly powerful.
- Conspiracy arguments are an appeal to emotions instead of facts. The conspiracy argument is designed to arouse anger and create sympathy for the purported victim of the conspiracy.
- Conspiracy arguments poison the climate of debate. If you doubt the existence of a conspiracy, you must be either a supporter or a dupe. Who can have a meaningful debate in such a climate?
It's not proper to dismiss an idea solely because it postulates a conspiracy. It is proper to insist on debating solely on the merits of the argument. For most conspiracy believers, that takes all the fun out of it. You'd think people would be relieved to find out the world is not filled with powerful, malevolent conspiracies, but people fight tooth and nail to hang on to conspiracy beliefs.
A Nation of Jailhouse Lawyers
Freedom of Speech
Pseudoscientists often appeal to their right to free speech. Unless opposition becomes intense enough to constitute harassment (and merely being thin-skinned won't do it), opposition in itself is not a violation of free speech. Nowhere does the Constitution promise immunity to criticism. Nor does the Constitution promise any results for free speech; it doesn't guarantee acceptance of a paper, finding a publisher, or acceptance of ideas.
In criminal cases, a suspect is innocent until proven guilty, and some have argued that the same principle applies to ideas. UFO sightings are valid until proven wrong, and so on. Criminal suspects are innocent until proven guilty (and we all know the system fails) but ideas are wrong until proven right.
In criminal law, the standard is proof "beyond a reasonable doubt." As the O. J. Simpson case showed, there is such a thing as unreasonable doubt, and the whole strategy of pseudoscientists is to create unreasonable doubt.
But there's another kind of law that's a much better analogy to science than criminal law: civil law. In civil law there are two particularly relevant standards:
- Preponderance of the Evidence. In criminal law, where the State is pitted against an individual, the odds are so one-sided that we try to stack them in favor of the defendant. That cannot be done in civil law; the plaintiff has been hurt, the defendant will be hurt if he loses. There are two more or less equal parties and one or both of them will come out of it unhappy. Biasing the proceedings either way will give one side an unfair advantage. So the standard is not proof "beyond reasonable doubt," as in criminal cases, but "preponderance of the evidence." Ideas in science do not have to be proven to the satisfaction of every doubter, nor do minor anomalies serve to undermine a theory if the evidence in favor of it is strong.
- Control of the Facts. If you are hiring job applicants, the person in the best position to document whether or not discrimination is taking place is you. Therefore, you have to keep records. You can't appeal to absence of evidence if the only person who could have collected evidence is you. In science, the person in the best position to document that a theory is wrong is the doubter, therefore, the burden of proof in science is on the challenger. Another way to say it is that science is innocent until proven guilty.
The Data Base of Pseudoscience
- Random Events Collected Into Spurious Patterns
- Parapsychology is probably the best example of this phenomenon, where occasional coincidences or runs of correct guesses are interpreted as a real effect. People who look for patterns in lottery numbers are doing the same thing.
- Real Phenomena Misinterpreted As Anomaly
- Venus As UFO. Many UFO sightings have turned out to be the planet Venus, especially if it's seen in an unfamiliar setting or time of night. Lots of these sightings come complete with accounts of windows, exhaust flames, and so on.
- Loch Ness Monster and Bigfoot sightings. Apart from the hoaxes, people who expect something big and unknown to be out there may interpret a fleeting glimpse of a real but familiar animal as something exotic. And let's face it, after going to all the expense of traveling to Scotland, you really want to see the Loch Ness Monster.
- Revisionist Interpretations of Well-understood Phenomena
- Erich Von Daniken's books of the 1970's took numerous well-understood ancient monuments and reinterpreted them as the work of ancient astronauts.
- Scientific Creationism telescopes the geologic time scale into the Biblical Deluge.
- Psychological Phenomena. When I first became interested in pseudoscience, one question I asked was "how often do perfectly healthy and mentally stable people hallucinate?" The answer is "surprisingly often."
- Biased Observations. We have a strong bias for seeing patterns. As someone once put it, "it's better to run from an occasional nonexistent tiger than to fail to spot a real one." But people will often interpret weak evidence in support of a belief as confirmation but will dismiss contrary evidence. Fleeting glimpses of something ordinary may be interpreted as something fantastic.
- Hypnogogic and hypnopompic dreams. Hypnogogic dreams are those that happen while going to sleep, hypnopompic dreams happen while waking up. Both mix dreams with waking stimuli and are obvious sources of strange observations, for example, waking up and seeing a spirit in the room or a spacecraft in the back yard.
- Confabulation is a tendency to fantasize so intensely that the subject actually experiences some of the sensations associated with the fantasy. People prone to it are often relieved to know it is a recognized phenomenon and they are not mentally ill; often they have worked out their own methods for testing whether a sensory stimulus is real or not. But people unaware of the phenomenon may well imagine things that are not there. If I had any idea how to induce this state deliberately I could be fabulously wealthy (think of going on Spring Break just by imagining it), but I don't.
- Second-hand Data (Urban Legends) Urban legends are a well studied phenomenon (see below) but there are innumerable similar ideas around that contribute to misconceptions and reinforce stereotypes.
- Deliberate Fraud
- Parapsychology is rife with cases of fraud, usually by researchers who sincerely believe in the phenomena but want to strengthen the evidence. The observational evidence is so compromised by now the only course of action possible is to junk it all and start from zero.
- Erich Von Daniken wrote his books about ancient astronauts while serving time in prison for fraud.
- Genuine New Discoveries
- Semmelweiss and antisepsis. Ignatz Semmelweiss is an icon to crank scientists because he was expelled from his post for insisting that doctors use disinfectants, and he was, of course, right. But Semmelweiss was a bit of a crank himself and hypothesized that disease was actually carried by the "aura of death" clinging to the doctors. Even Joseph Lister, who won general acceptance for antisepsis, believed incorrectly at first that germs were in the air. As a result, doctors worked in an irritating cloud of antiseptic spray. Lister himself later confessed embarrassment for his misconception.
- Robert Gentry is a physicist and believer in scientific creationism. He has published research, in regular scientific periodicals, on haloes created in minerals by the decay of radioactive elements. Some of the haloes are produced by short-lived elements, and Gentry interprets this as evidence the rocks containing the haloes must have formed almost instantaneously. Although the evidence against that conclusion is overwhelming, Gentry's observations themselves were carefully done and documented, and the explanation of his mystery haloes is unknown.
Two Common Types of Bad Data
- "Gee Whiz" Facts
- Anecdotal Evidence
"Gee Whiz" Facts "
- A Million Children Are Reported Missing Every Year"
- Right. And 99% are found within 24 hours. About a quarter of the U.S. population is under 18 - over 70 million people. At face value this statistic means about a quarter of all children would disappear before adulthood. I think we'd notice that. True abductions are almost always spouse or partner abductions. The abductions that terrify parents most, predator abductions, are a tiny part of the total.
- "Suicide Is the ---th Leading Cause of Death Among Teen-agers"
- Without in any way trivializing this issue, teenagers are past the age of vulnerability to childhood diseases and not yet subject to diseases of aging. Organic diseases do not kill many teenagers. That leaves accident, suicide, and homicide.
- Suicide will always be a principal cause of death among teenagers, simply because there are so few other causes.
- For every group, there will always be a leading cause of death.
- Anything other than accident, suicide, or homicide, in that order, indicates a serious problem
- If AIDS, measles, tuberculosis, cancer, or any other disease were on the list it would point to a massive breakdown of public health.
- If homicide were to be the leading cause, as it is in some inner cities, it would point to gross social disorder.
To Be Valid, Anecdotal Evidence
- Must Be True
- Must Be Representative
Example: the Millionaire Who Pays No Income Tax. The actual data are below:
|Income (Source, 1987 IRS Data)
|| % of Income
|Over $1,000,000 (Average $2,422,000)
|Income (Source, 1999 Statistical Abstract of the United States)
|| % of Income
|Over $1,000,000 (Average $2,800,000)
|Income (Source, 2000 IRS data; 2003 Statistical Abstract of US Table 491)
|Over $1,000,000 (Average 3.4 $M)
The income is adjusted gross income, not gross income. It would be interesting to see a tabulation for gross income to assess the impact of various exemptions. On the other hand several patterns do emerge:
- The proportion of income paid by different groups does not change appreciably with time, regardless of which party is in power and despite repeated accusations of changes in favor of the wealthy.
- Millionaires get about 100 times as much income as the lower middle class ($20,000 or so) but pay over 300 times as much tax (500 times in 2000).
The anecdote may be true; there are millionaires who can offset their income against losses and end up paying no tax, but it is not representative.
The scholar who all but single-handedly brought this phenomenon into general awareness was Jan Harold Brunvand of the University of Utah. He noted that urban societies are rife with undocumented stories that are very similar to legends in ancient and medieval times and in non-technological societies.
If you have friends who love to circulate Internet stories, bet that a lot of them are urban legends.
- Moral retribution for violating standards. Sexual themes abound. A very common theme is a spouse getting delicious revenge on a cheating spouse, or lovers meeting some horrible fate for engaging in illicit sex. The Internet legend of a man who arranges a sexual rendezvous on line and ends up meeting his daughter is a perfect example.
- Horror or Taboo. Typical themes include
- Cannibalism. The baby-sitter who microwaves the baby.
- Disgusting things. A 1960's version, when bouffant hairdos were in vogue, claimed that a girl with such a hairdo (which couldn't easily be washed) found a family of spiders or some other creatures in her hair. Stories of vile things in food, although sometimes true, are often urban legends. Another story claims that a kind-hearted woman adopted what she thought was a sick puppy, only to have the vet tell her it was a mangy rat.
- Inexorable malevolent forces (the modern equivalent of witches). One story claimed that a gang initiation involved driving around with lights off at night, then, after a motorist flashed the car, following the motorist home and killing him. Another story tells of someone who has a love affair on vacation, then later received a package from the lover. Inside was one nested box after another, and the final box contains a note saying "Welcome to the world of AIDS."
- Internet virus stories are electronic versions of the above. Typically it's a new virus undetectable by any protection software, and can only be deleted by going into your system directory and deleting a certain file. Usually the deleted file turns out to be some critical system file. These hoaxes can do as much damage as real viruses. They're a bit more cleverly worded than "smash your computer with a hammer" but otherwise on the same level. Real malicious software masks its identity and is never so easy to delete.
The best internet virus story is the Amish Virus. It says "we don't have a computer, so when you get this, please erase all the files from your hard disk, then mail this to all your friends."
- Urban legends are always plausible, which is why they circulate. Within certain cultures and subcultures, stories can be considered credible and circulate that would never gain credence elsewhere. The idea that a common corporate logo is a Satanic symbol is merely silly to most people but it circulated for a long time in religious circles, and the claim that the FCC is planning to ban religious broadcasting, though legally (and politically) absurd, keeps surfacing.
- Urban legends can almost never be traced to the original source, and they turn up in slightly different versions in each locality, always with details modified for the area.
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Created 02 March, 2006, Last Update 20 January, 2020
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