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What is Pseudo-Science?

  • Aug 12, 2013 · 7:00 PM
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What is Pseudoscience?

The public’s view of science can be as fickle as fashion. At various times in human history astrology, alchemy, phrenology and clairvoyance have all been considered as sciences. These days, those subject areas would be considered among the pseudosciences. On the other hand, some fields of study, or hypotheses, once considered pseudoscience, are now accepted as science. For example, before experimentation appeared to validate the general relativity hypothesis, the hypothesis could have been considered pseudoscience. Without experimental confirmation it is difficult to determine whether emerging fields of study, such as string theory or the multi-verse, should be considered as science.

We can probably maintain a distinction between pseudoscience and bad, sloppy and/or fraudulent science. The supposed finding of ‘cold fusion’, originally presented as science, was found to be – charitably – sloppy science. The ‘MMR vaccine causes autism’ claim was originally published in a prestigious peer-reviewed medical journal, but the results were later found to be fraudulent. Equally, one can see the difference between science and anti-science, where the latter maintains that science and technology are leading humanity down a path towards moral and environmental destruction. In this case the debate is less about science or pseudoscience and more about the influence and role of science in our lives.

There is controversy among the public, less so among scientists, whether certain recent hypotheses should be considered science or pseudoscience. For example, there is strong support, especially in the United States, for ‘creation science’. In the 1950s, the ‘worlds in collision’ theories of Immanuel Velikovsky were published by a major scientific publisher. Many consider acupuncture and alternative medicines to be valid through simple observation; however, the scientific community does not consider any of these subject areas to be valid science.

For the purposes of this background note, let us describe ‘pseudoscience’ as hypotheses, theories and arguments which represent themselves as science, but which fail to meet accepted standards of what is science. So our discussion would then of necessity centre on what we mean by science. But how certain are we about the elements of the scientific method?
• Some assert that falsifiability - a result can be disproved - is a key element. But while a disproved result may indicate a hypothesis is invalid, falsifiability in itself is not a sufficient condition. Alchemy, for example, can make a number of testable claims; that does not mean it is science. ‘Cold fusion’ could be considered contemporary alchemy; it made testable claims, but failed its own tests.
• Some assert that testable claims must be replicated by the experimental results of others. While this is a building block in the scientific method, it is not without its own perils. For one thing, the nature of the experiment must be specified in enough detail to be replicable with exactitude. More seriously, the connection between the experimental result and the hypothesis must be logically sound; it may not be enough to say that the results of an experiment are consistent with a hypothesis.
• Peer review is often presented as a guarantor of scientific credibility. However, peer review (argumentum ad populum?) has permitted errors in the past and, in any case, favours the status quo over innovation. That said, science is more often considered as a community, where results are shared and reviewed, rather than the practices of one individual experimenting in secret, or one corporation hiding results behind proprietary walls.

Fields of endeavour or study not considered to be science can nonetheless be useful and helpful in our lives, as well as seem to be in accord with our perceptions and experience. Many people swear by the benefits of homeopathy, acupuncture and indeed clairvoyance and astrology. Billions have found solace in religion. So it is fair to say that science does not hold a monopoly on perceived truth.

However, most would argue that the experimentally-verified, peer-reviewed result of scientific inquiry cannot be said to be in any sense false. Those who have asserted the falsity of accepted scientific truths (e.g., Velikovsky, Daniken) have been vilified by the scientific community – while at the same time selling millions of books and enjoying widespread popular acclaim.

This leads to the suggestion that pseudosciences are generally more interesting to the general public than actual sciences. Pseudosciences are interesting but false. Actual sciences are boring through true. Has the public a fascination with falsity, or is it that we lack enough magic in our lives?

• Perhaps we can start the discussion by identifying the common characteristics of pseudosciences. Is there a pseudoscientific method?
• How could a practitioner of pseudoscience critique the scientific method?
• What belief or judgement changes occur within the scientific community when a (former) science becomes a pseudoscience and when a former pseudoscience becomes a science?
• When we characterize something as pseudoscience, are we saying anything about its truth or usefulness in our lives?

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  • A former member
    A former member

    I still think this is a great topic and came across the following article:
    http://www.salon.com/2013/09/01/is_cancer_research_facing_a_crisis/. Perhaps a session on risk and/or confidence might be good at some point. (Or did we already have one?)

    September 1, 2013

  • A former member
    A former member

    'Twas fun to moderate. Lots of fresh perspectives, and some solid thoughts.

    August 12, 2013

  • Lorne H.

    Sorry, last minute change of plans. I can't make it tonight. I hope someone on the waiting list can take my spot.

    August 12, 2013

    • Lorne H.

      I just saw that my RSVP was still "Yes" despite my changing it an hour ago. RSVP has been changed to "No" and again I am sorry for the late notice.

      August 12, 2013

    • Mila

      RSVP was closed 24 hours before the event. I opened it later on especially for you to make changes.

      August 12, 2013

  • Cathbha

    My apologies; when you confirmed me this afternoon I was stuck in traffic on the 401. I would have replied sooner, but I don't do Rob Ford road-tricks. I hope you had a great discussion!

    August 12, 2013

  • Curt D.

    Oh. 'Cmon. I..., I 'gotta add two ideas here just for fun: a) Macro Economics. b) Scientific Socialism. Just so that the people I care about can sigh. :) As for wacky stuff, I also have to say that I have joined Adam's Transhumanist camp. Only way out really. He's right.. :) Only way.

    August 11, 2013

    • A former member
      A former member

      you mean the Daleks...

      1 · August 12, 2013

  • Mike N.

    OK I accept place offered

    August 9, 2013

  • Mila

    Dear Friend, As you know, the Socrates Café tries to encourage broad participation in debates about philosophical questions; we’ve had some good ones recently: on ‘evil’, ‘causality’, and ‘tolerance’. We’re open to a maximum of 20 members each meeting. Many meetings are over-subscribed; when that happens some of those who want to participate have to stay away. Yet many of our meetings actually have far fewer attendees than those who RSVP’d “Yes” to say they were coming. Those who say they are coming, but do not attend, in effect prevent others from attending. We think that’s not fair. We ask that you consider the legitimate rights of others to participate in the discussion and, therefore, to keep your RSVP status up to date. If you cannot attend, say so. The Meetup movement was founded on ethical and considerate behaviour, and we hope that our members will embrace that tradition.

    Thank you.

    August 9, 2013

  • A former member
    A former member

    Science includes the inductive method of observation, generalization, and repeated confirmation; creative formulation of hypothesis that can be tested by observation; and it must be falsifiable.

    July 29, 2013

    • A former member
      A former member

      My view us that it just needs to eventually be falsifiable... when you first explore new phenomena you may not have the tools or even enough theoretical structure to be able to effectively test, aka be falsifiable... if you want it to be just theoretically falsifiable, well, that includes everything isn't it?

      July 29, 2013

    • A former member
      A former member

      There's actually a story to be told about how falsifiability is actually carried out. Theories built on differential equations - which are pretty common in many (most?) branches of science use infinitely divisible dimensions but the actual testing of theories use computer simulations/data clean up etc. So the way falsifiability (and error from the ideal) is imposed over the data makes it a whole area of examination in itself. (This holds true for hard sciences like physics as well as "softer" sciences like bio or whatever. There's even a further issue about what it means for data to be "measurable", but that's another, though related thing.

      July 29, 2013

  • A former member
    A former member

    Thanks James for a great question. I take this to be the "problem of demarcation." Popper's influential view, alluded to below, is that the criterion of "falsifiability" does the job. That is, a system of statements ranks as science only if it is capable of conflicting with possible or conceivable observations. Some, like Kuhn, argue that this is not a necessary condition (at least with respect to "non-revolutionary" science) and I'd suggest it obviously can't be sufficient. If it were then any set of falsifiable statements would be science, but that would be much to generous.

    July 28, 2013

  • nicoleta

    Really like it what I gather from Erik's inside. Knowledge without investigation /awareness is not science. Thank you.

    July 25, 2013

  • nicoleta

    Thank you both for the comments and link. Very interesting. To understand what pseudo science is it is important to understand what science is and most importantly in what way it influences the way we think/investigate the known and the unknown. Most interesting is how do we discover that what we do not know (yet) in and out the scientific context. An interesting link for our discussion is that to CBC Ideas How to think about science http://www.cbc.ca/ideas/episodes/2009/01/02/how-to-think-about-science-part-1---24-listen/. Looking forward to our meeting. N

    July 25, 2013

  • Nick B.

    I'm not sure of the best place to post things of general interest. But in a way this fits. In quite a few of our discussions, quantum mechanics and the Heisenberg uncertainty principle have come up. Here's a piece from the New York Times philosophy blog, The Stone:

    http://nyti.ms/18tUKrV

    "Let’s put an end to the misuse of quantum physics to validate outlandish metaphysical claims."

    July 23, 2013

  • A former member
    A former member

    Huge topic. It seems (maybe all?) institutional groups function on the basis of exclusion and scientists are no exception. A tragic case might be Boltzmann's history. Later Wittgenstein and Foucault on institutions might be useful moderating voices in these sorts of discussions.

    July 23, 2013

  • A former member
    A former member

    Looking forward to discussing philosophy.

    July 17, 2013

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