WPS | Web Picks Sceptique for September 29, 2011

Archimedes Thoughtful

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WPS is a selection of links to blogs, news outlets, and cool little sites on the Web that relate to science, reason, skepticism, atheism, the fringes and borderlands of science, memes relating to science or skepticism, and anything that catches my eye or which I’m deluded enough to think might arouse the interest of you, my perspicacious readers. WPS is published weekly each Thursday on the Call.


Had to fix the links to Stephanie Zvan’s post and the one on millipedes.

Skeptefinitions: Pseudoscience & Antiscience

Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science

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This is the first in what I find to be increasingly needed on this site: a compilation of working definitions of the terms I use on the Call to refer to, well, just about anything I post on with even a vaguely technical nature that requires a more precise meaning than those same terms often used in common parlance.

I’ve found that most words are notoriously difficult to agree upon concerning how to define them, especially if used informally, drastically increasing the chances of misinterpretation and straw-persons, most of it avoidable if a specific set of meanings and usage are stipulated beforehand.

It’s not enough to rely on most published dictionaries to provide these, as even published sources can vary substantially in their wording, potentially distorting interpretations of that wording, and the cultural and historical context of the period and date they are published.

They are also ripe for quote-mining.

Many such words, even when the sources agree in the wording of their descriptions, have multiple ambiguous and even conflicting meanings, further muddying the waters of discussion, encouraging fallacies of equivocation and presumption.

In this series of posts, which I shall link back to periodically, are the operative meanings of those terms in the sense, or set of senses, that I use them on this blog, sometimes prefaced by…Let’s assume for the sake of argument…

Note that I may in this series repeat those stipulated definitions posted separately in previous articles, for ease of immediate reference and to avoid the hassle of opening browser tabs ad nauseam.

These are the meanings I use. Period. I’ll warn you: I may be a bit pedantic with this, but it’s important to be thorough:

  • First, there is the specified meaning of the ever-so popular word, sometimes loaded, though not always, Pseudoscience:

n. Any tenet, doctrine, claim, or belief-system that attempts to present itself as science, but which does not abide by its benchmarks or criteria and makes often demonstrably false claims or in principle untestable or unfalsifiable ones, in rejecting scientific reasoning, method, or its process, and which because its claims are not in accord with compelling evidence must promote and perpetuate itself by way of a mix of fabricated propaganda, logical fallacies, conspiracy theory, and/or anecdotal reasoning.

If there’s any question, I don’t use this word for ideas with that have nothing to do with claims about physical reality, nor for unorthodox ideas that are genuinely scientific. If an idea makes no claim to be scientific, implicitly or explicitly, or it abides by the rules of science in the methods used to discover and test it, it ain’t pseudoscience. The term does have derogatory connotations, so I won’t be using it that much regarding specific doctrines.

  • And then there is another that gets abused a lot, Antiscience:

n. Similar in some respects to pseudoscience, sometimes a sub-set of it, but focusing on denying and/or hindering scientific research for political, religious, economic, or other ideological ends and/or for financial gain by way of personal attacks, legislative bans and funding cuts, physical, psychological, or legal coercion, propaganda, logical fallacies, conspiratorial reasoning, out-of-context *gotcha!* anecdotal soundbites, and in extreme cases (look up Lysenkoism under Josef Stalin’s rule), the imprisonment, exile or capital punishment of the offending researcher. Primarily characterized by a rejection, implied, denied, or explicit, of the core scientific values of curiosity, empiricism, and progress through the advancement of objective knowledge.

I try to base my beliefs on objective reality, and it doesn’t matter whether that reality sits well with me, so I don’t use that last term on ideas that don’t meet the above criteria just because they make me uncomfortable.

But (with a big hat-tip to fellow blogger Lousy Canuck…)while I’m just as susceptible to bias and fallacies, and to accusations of these, as anyone else, I’m potentially just as susceptible to accusations of being a 500-foot tall Tyrannosaurus rex in a holographic human disguise with a bad habit of indulging in late night snacks of unrefined plutonium to fuel my atomic death-ray breath…


Such is life.

Science in Dire Straits: the Indoctrination Strawman

Understanding, mural by Robert Lewis Reid. Sec...

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It’s curious, but many people seem dead-set on opposing science, and not just the use and misuse of science, or findings they don’t like, but education in the very process and reasoning of science as well.

Why is it that so many on both the Right and Left alike are so fervently opposed to scientific literacy and critical thinking dissemination among the general public?

Partisans at both ends of the ideological spectrum have likened science and scientific reasoning to indoctrination, mind-control, even fascism, or as one conspiracy theorist has referred to rationalists, “skeptinazis.”

This coming from people who themselves are given to indoctrinating others in the very same ideologies — religious, political, spiritual, economic, or what-have-you — that they themselves were, and who project this upon others.

Unsurprisingly, it’s the people least acquainted with the thinking and process of science, though they may enjoy and use the fruits of its labors for their own ends, who oppose it the most: Those who fear and hate science the most fervently have themselves been deprived of an adequate understanding of it, and seek to deprive others of it as well, by specious arguments and political campaigns to cripple scientific literacy and cut funding to educational institutions that promote it.

An understanding of science empowers its possessors, an understanding of how the world really works, and those who lack it are among the disenfranchised, even though some of these may win the influence and votes to attain high public office.

It’s this disenfranchised but politically influential contingent, constituency and office-holders alike, who are most vocally antiscientific, for the scientific and analytical thinking among the general populace they so oppose would not lead to a country they would prefer.

It seems to me that they they would rather do away with a functional middle class, leaving only the very rich and the very poor, deprive the voting public of the education needed to make sound choices at the ballot-box, and restrict even further the voting rights of others whose choices would no doubt endanger the stay in office of corrupt leaders.

I’m not even going to go into the religious implications of complete authoritarian dominance. Those would be obvious to any who’ve spent time in the Bible-belt and seen the results of religious fundamentalism in action.

Science is a powerful institution in this society, and if one nation falls behind in its leadership in it, as it seems the U.S. may do perhaps as early as 2013, then another nation will probably take up the slack.

It looks like that may fall to China if the situation in the ‘States isn’t rectified, and soon.

Antiscience is not only endangering the public’s health, bank accounts, the environment, and public safety, but the very fabric of what’s left of a functioning democracy, permitting demagogues to further their own political agendas and wealth by crippling what remains of the understanding and will of the people and the knowledge and laws that allow the people to make use of their understanding to exercise that will wisely.

To paraphrase Carl Sagan, if we cannot be skeptical of those in authority, then we’re up for grabs.

To those in power accustomed to their comfort spots, people who can think for themselves are dangerous. And it’s the complete collapse of the public’s ability to think that so favors totalitarian regimes who capitalize on fear and confusion.