Pseudoscience – More on what it is & what it ain’t

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No single, simple definition can possibly encompass a concept as varied and complex as pseudoscience; indeed, whole books could be written about the subject — and have been — like Massimo Pigliucci‘s excellent recent work, “Nonsense on Stilts,” which I highly recommend. But here are a few of the features that stand out the most at this point, and which at least indicate some of the red flags to look out for when hearing or reading of such ideas.

  • Most such ideas involve the use of manifestly erroneous, often so flawed as to be not even be worthy of being called ‘wrong,’ theoretical statements and speculations about reality made on demonstrably poor grounds. This includes both doctrines that are demonstrably false and those so framed that they cannot even in principle ever be shown wrong, such as the “heads I win, tails you lose” attitude in psi-research toward defending rather than meaningfully testing its hypotheses, in which even null results can be interpreted to show a psi effect. As for myself, it all sounds a wee bit like special pleading, but hey, what do I know?
  • Logical fallacies, often quite elaborately framed, are used to support pseudoscientific doctrines, like the logical contortions used by those who deny well-supported scientific findings and some psi-researchers who like to try their hand at subverting the dominant paradigm, whatever that’s supposed to mean (*snark*). After all, you can only support bad data with bad logic, however carefully crafted it may be to seem compelling to the unwary.
  • Pseudoscience denies, defies, ignores, and/or rejects outright a scientific consensus, any that disagrees with its claims, and a consensus in science is not an electoral vote or popularity poll, unlike politics. It is not an argument from authority to rely on and refer to the statements of qualified experts, since none of us are experts on everything despite what we may think. A scientific consensus, when it is reached, is a simple recognition of reality by those with the relevant expertise to so recognize. If every legitimate astronomer agrees that gravity is the principle large-scale binding force of the universe, then it would be wise to give them the benefit of the doubt unless and until they are convincingly shown wrong by peeps of similar qualifications who play by the same rules and use the same methods.

Here too are a few things that pseudoscience isn’t,

  • Erroneous conclusions made in good faith: The process of science is messy, since those who do it are human and fallible just like the rest us. Also, the raw data in any study is just as messy, needing processing before firm conclusions can be drawn from it. Most initial research studies don’t pan out with further attempts at replication. Sometimes scientists make mistakes, honest ones, But pseudoscientific doctrines are often riddled with willfully false claims and faulty reasoning. One fringe author wrote his most popular books while in prison for fraud.
  • Speculations with a basis in sound reasoning and data: Pseudoscientific doctrines are marked by a tendency toward speculation without any real grounding, any sound informational basis for it. Oftentimes, pseudoscientists, who tend to be self-isolated and incommunicado with the wider community of researchers, are frequently unaware of actual scientific developments, and just make sh*t up and pass it off as official doctrine, while claiming the very same for the scientific mainstream.
  • Pseudoscience is not distinguished by personal disputes more among it’s proponents than of the scientific mainstream, and in some pseudosciences with a New Age or postmodern relativist bent, there is often a degree of cooperation among different camps of the same general claim, as though they are willing to put aside or ignore their differences in doctrinal points to better combat their mainstream opposition.
  • Pseudoscientists do not generally differ from their mainstream counterparts in terms of personality, flaws, style or quirks: Just as some scientists have well-known human shortcomings and failings, some fringers can be well-mannered, urbane, and scholarly in demeanor, though the nature of their scholarship is at odds with that of science. Pseudoscientists can be just as cultured and outwardly gentlemanly, or ladylike, as any scientist. One does not have to seem cranky to be a crank.

Hopefully the above will be useful in helping to note something fishy going on when what may superficially look like science isn’t, and I’ll conclude this with a quote from a fictional character whom I created for my short stories:

“Bold and allegedly revolutionary claims alone to not make a science.”

~ Aloysius Hawthorne-McGrath, “Paleontologist Extraordinary”

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