Pseudoscience is significantly worse than what science claims to be, and that’s the problem: science isn’t actually what it claims to be. Many people who boast about their extremely scientifically oriented thinking don’t actually know what science is, and they’re actually thinking religiously or even dogmatically.

Whew. That’s a rather provocative first paragraph, isn’t it? I’ll have to be extremely scientific to avoid getting shouted at by would-be scientists. Don’t worry, dear scientists, I’m not against science! I’m a huge fan of it. Until some “scientist” starts making overly general statements. That’s where it stops making sense. Why? Well, let’s have a brief look at how science works.

Science: the science behind it

First off, let’s define what science actually is. It’s a systematic way of drawing conclusions from observations, for the purpose of making predictions about future situations. For example, if you observe that objects that you pick up fall down when you let go of them, scientifically it makes sense to assume that there is a context (in this case, the gravitational field of our planet) in which things always fall down when let go of.

This definition doesn’t work too well for fields of science like mathematics (which exist in a logical system that doesn’t need observations in the real world to make sense), but I’m not going to talk about these. For all other fields of science, often called empirical sciences, things always work like this:

  • Observations are made;
  • Conclusions are drawn from the observations, assuming that there won’t be any conflicting observations in the future;
  • A model or theory is formally stated that is consistent with the conclusions made in the previous step.

Note that one of the fundamental elements of empirical science is the assumption: firstly it’s assumed that observations actually say something about a real outside world (this is an assumption that can’t be formally proved, which you know if you’re into philosophy), then it’s assumed that when the observations made, exceptions were carefully outruled. Of course researchers try very hard to gather all possible kinds of observations, but again, it’s formally impossible (or so it’s thought; nobody has managed prove this either, yet) to know whether you have gathered all relevant observations that you could possibly make. Consequently, even the most rigorous research will never be able to state confidently that something is impossible: their model or theory might say that it’s impossible, but it’s based on an assumption that could be found to be incorrect later on.

A history of corrections

In fact, science frequently has frequently had assumptions that were later found incorrect. Take Newton’s laws of motion, for example… nobody doubted them for over 200 years, but then it turned out that they’re not very accurate when you look at very small things (particles), very high speeds or very strong gravitational fields. They’re still used because they’re useful for everyday applications, but it has been discovered that they’re not technically correct. And that’s just one example out of thousands.

It would be very simple to just assume that by now we have the full truth. Of course, reading that sentence, you can immediately see the problem with it: that assumption could be wrong. The problem is that many people believe their scientific knowledge is The Truth, anyway. These are the people who tell you that certain things “aren’t scientifically possible”. They are wrong, of course: in fact, these things just don’t fit today’s scientific models. In fact, we don’t know (to a degree of certainty that would be acceptable in science) whether these things are possible.

If you are in favour of a certain point of view without being able to prove it, it’s not science; it’s a belief. Beliefs are useful, in fact more useful than most people think they are, but they’re not something you can support your position with in arguments. That’s the link to religion that I hinted at: religion is the same way. It’s a set of beliefs, and probably a powerful one (perhaps positively powerful, perhaps negatively so) if you really believe in it, but your belief typically won’t be enough to convince others to believe the same way.

Both can go a step further from useful by adopting a dogma. In the general sense, that’s when you believe in something because an authority tells you to believe in it, and you better not argue. It’s often hard to tell apart from non-dogmatic beliefs, but you can only have a dogmatic belief if you have never critically examined it and haven’t ever really looked at opponents of the belief. If you’ve got some belief and know of an alternative belief that’s acceptable to you, yet you prefer the one you currently have, you can be pretty sure that that’s not a dogmatic belief.

So how’s that related to science? Often people parrot scientific knowledge when they don’t really know what they’re talking about. That’s dangerous, because they’ll often misrepresent the knowledge or even echo things that don’t actually have any conclusive evidence going for them. For example, many non-scientific journals and newspapers frequently report findings of a scientific study or another. You’ll often find them foregoing statements such as “in some cases this was observed”, simply because that makes the findings boring. Who wants to know that something is sometimes true? Thank you, we already knew that people are stupid sometimes. But a study that “proves” that people are always stupid, or is reported to have proved that – now that’s going to sell and create attention for your publication and your scientists!

How pseudo is pseudoscientific, really?

Let’s take something pseudoscientific as an example, from parapsychology: telepathy (communicating with other people over a distance without any gadgets). Looking at our current scientific models, that would indeed sound like a big load of nonsense. Is it impossible, though? We don’t know. Some people might conclude that I’m saying that it must be possible. Of course not… that would be even stupider. The point is: if it’s possible, we haven’t managed to systematically observe it yet. But it’s not entirely unreasonable. For example, there could be a force in the universe that we haven’t discovered yet, perhaps a force that can be manipulated directly with our minds. We haven’t managed to design an experiment that could prove the existence of such a force. Perhaps that’s because this force doesn’t exist, perhaps it’s because we haven’t been looking hard enough (or, how about this, because this force is completely impossible to measure; akin to Heisenberg’s principle of uncertainty which basically states that when you measure something very exactly, you cannot prevent influencing its characteristics). Only time can tell, and even that isn’t certain.

Of course, all the complaints about pseudoscience aren’t completely stupid. The problematic point is that many pseudosciences claim that they can prove things, whereas the scientific community at large isn’t satisfied with the proofs or has come up with contradictory results. The question is: who’s wrong? That’s very hard to say. Both could be. Pseudoscientists are frequently not very educated about the scientific method; on the other hand, in “real” science, bogus theories have often survived long past their due, i.e. even when contradicting evidence had already been found. It just took some time until the scientific community was willing to acknowledge and accept this new evidence.

And the moral of the story is this: it’s easy to discredit claims. It’s a bit harder but still easy to conduct research that discredits the claim. It’s less easy to dissect the claim, pick the things that are actually consistent with what you know, and keep the rest in mind for future experiments. If these future experiments support the claim, you’ve done something great. If they don’t support the claim but you have still found evidence that expands the range of the possible, you’ve done something just as great. If you don’t find any evidence at all… better luck next round. And keep the claim in mind anyway; perhaps you’ll eventually stumble across something that supports it purely by chance.

Your homework: find a piece of pseudoscience in popular scientific arguments.

10 responses to this post

  1. Kev says:

    In the case of telepathy, science does indeed allow for the possibility. The lack of any evidence to support telepathy, however, (given that we/people have a vested interest in seeking evidence for telepathy) and the lack of any evidence for any of the mechanics or systems required to support telepathy (such as a field) vastly reduces the probability that telepathy could exist, at this moment in time from our collective perspectives.

    To believe telepathy is likely, or even worthy of investigative time and effort, without any reasonable demonstrations of the phenomena (and certainly without any evidence to support it), is a much more religious and dogmatic view than the ‘scientific’ view that the probability of its existence is tiny.

    Don’t get caught only thinking in possibilities. Thinking in probabilities (assuming you are happy to change your calculated probabilities as new evidence comes to light) appears to be much more useful. Possibility approach: “we know nothing about the world”. Probability approach: “we’re not sure, but the world looks like this.”

    Kev

    • Jan says:

      Okay, let’s battle this out! ;)

      Scientifically speaking, you know nothing at all about the probability that telepathy is possible. You don’t even know anything about the likelihood of its existence… going from the statistical meaning of the two terms, of course. Talking about probabilities does not make a lot of sense without some kind of concrete underlying statistical model (of the probability space and/or the probability distribution). If you have one, I’ll be glad to look at it.

      Without any sort of underlying model, you can use neither frequentist probability theory (we could be dealing with an ill-defined non-atomic sample space) nor Bayesian probability theory (there is no plausible way to pick a prior probability).

      In fact I’m tempted to claim that statistics can’t be meaningfully applied at all to the “probability of discoveries”, but naturally it’s impossible to prove that (or even say anything about how probable it is… hint hint). At any rate, saying that “the lack of any evidence […] reduces the probability” is, statistically speaking, utter nonsense. Probability doesn’t work that way and it never has. So if you want to talk about probabilities at all here, it will have to be in the layman’s sense, i.e. as some ill-defined concept of (un-)certainty that is based on nothing but intuitions about the nature of probability… and it’s no big secret that humans are not, by default, very good at intuitively judging probabilities, particularly if things like Bayes’ theorem get involved.

      That’s just the statistical side, though. The whole “reasonable demonstrations” thing you mentioned is equally interesting. “Reasonable” is not very well defined. In the end it always comes down to the belief that the human mind is capable of seeing things objectively enough to judge what is reasonable and what isn’t. Anyone who has studied stuff like cognitive psychology knows that humans are chock full of cognitive biases.

      You are right that it’s not rational to be convinced of the existence of telepathy if you have no evidence of it. Believing in the possibility is not irrational by any rational (see what I did there?) standard, though. Neither is researching telepathy. I’m not saying we’ll be bound to see scientific evidence of telepathy any time soon just because a bunch of people start actively researching it, or that everyone should be encouraged to research telepathy… but I’m saying that if all people only assumed that things which don’t have any formal evidence speaking for them are impossible, many things we take for granted today would never have been discovered.

      Indeed we “know” nothing about the world, if knowledge is understood as involving certainty or objectivity. We can only make educated guesses. That makes it all the more important to remember that we don’t have any level of certainty… clinging to an educated guess that’s not strictly correct might end up preventing a whole new area of discoveries.

      Empirical science isn’t about certainty. It’s about having a structured way of dealing with uncertainty. Which brings me back to the main point of the article: science is useful but scientists are often overconfident in their conclusions.

      • Kev says:

        “I’m saying that if all people only assumed that things which don’t have any formal evidence speaking for them are impossible, many things we take for granted today would never have been discovered.”

        Which things? Science is about refining our model of how things happen. It appears reasonable for science to concentrate on things that can be shown to happen.

        Kev

        • Jan says:

          Well, if you focus only on showing things that have already been shown to happen, that doesn’t get you anywhere, does it? ;)

          A search of the internets yielded quite a few cases of hypotheses that were considered incorrect to due complete lack of evidence, yet shown to be correct later on.

          For example:

          And, of course, before Newton invented gravity, nobody would ever have believed that things fall. It’s called innovation. Sometimes you only get there if you keep trying. Mathematicians tried for more than 300 years to prove Fermat’s Last Theorem, first proposed without any proof in 1637. They failed, and failed, and failed again. Still, in 1995, British mathematician Andrew Wiles succeeded. Was it reasonable to keep trying? Perhaps not. But he did, and it paid off.

      • Anonymous says:

        actually, human intuition kicks ass; you just have to tune in to the absolute.

  2. Dennis says:

    Long… but dude, so wise!

  3. TN says:

    Hi Jan, thanks for this post.
    I’m not a trained scientist – a trained artist actually – but I’ve recently fallen back in love with the sciences, which used be a passion of mine before art took hold. I’ve been surfing the web to understand the big picture of things..I harbor no delusions of becoming a physicist, haha, I just want to know concepts well enough to comprehend them. My mates are quite interested in could be labelled as ‘pseudoscience’, and I find them entertaining. I can generally discern those of which are utter nonsense, but I have genuine trouble recognizing how credible a few of them are.
    When I search for addition information on science and skeptic forums/blogs, I generally find an extreme response in the lines of: “fraud, pseudoscience, total kook, get that shit out of here” but with no reasonable explanation, at least no scientific explanation. Apart from the occasional “that doesn’t fit into current paradigm” which isn’t quite a strong argument against someone who suggests their work ‘will change the paradigm’.
    I think it’s important to be discerning, and even skeptical, but it baffles me why many of the self proclaimed science-advocators have a misconception of what science is, particularly its limitation and purpose. And yes go on to label scientific knowledge as ‘absolute truth’. Yeesh.

    I’ve been recently learning philosophy, and was preparing to write down what was bashing around in my head, and I’ve found that you’ve articulated it (and much more) for me.
    So thanks.

    • Jan says:

      Thanks for the comment, TN! I’m happy that I’ve saved you some time. ;) Let me know if you have any other interesting ideas.

  4. Jeremiah says:

    “…go on to label scientific knowledge as ‘absolute truth’.”

    Hi TN, If i got you right, this is something that we both agree to be really so not right! Science itself exists because it is in search of the truth, so it’s impossible that it will be the truth itself. Or at least that’s how i see it.

  5. Michael says:

    The other day I sat in on a discussion that was titled “pseudoscience or voodooscience.” What an interesting group of individuals all of which were trying convince each other of their beliefs. On one side of the table were a group of cognitive neuroscience doctoral candidates and on the other, a group of nutritionists. The nutritionists were trying to convince the cognitive neuroscience folks about how different herbs impact cognitive function.

    Actually, the cognitive neuros came in to the discussion believing the nutritionists operated on the edge of true science, pseudoscience, and in fact many of them believed the nutritionists practiced voodooscience.

    It ended peacefully with both sides walking away with a lot more to think about.

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