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.