Science and Pseudoscience

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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The Heaven and Hell episode of Cosmos contains a digression that puzzles most viewers about the theories of a psychiatrist named Immanuel Velikovsky, who in 1950 published a book arguing that there have been close encounters between the earth and other planets in historic times. The episode on Mars discusses the imaginary canals on Mars claimed by Percival Lowell and others. Elsewhere Sagan takes on UFO's and states flatly "evolution is a fact, it really happened."

Theories that claim to be scientific but fly in the face of scientific consensus are often called pseudoscience, and the clash between science and pseudoscience is a recurring theme in Cosmos.

The Intellectual World and the Intellectual Counterculture

Above is an attempt to classify knowledge and represent the major domains of intellectual activity.

For every legitimate intellectual activity there is a counterculture equivalent. It frequently comes as a revelation to people to learn that there is an intellectual counterculture, that not everything claimed to be intellectual really is.

Intellectual Domain Counterculture equivalent Examples
Any Ideological Abuse of Science Use of science to support ideology, or false claim that an ideology is scientific (extreme Marxism).
History Cult Anthropology Ancient astronauts, Atlantis, extensive pre-Columbian Old World contacts with the Americas, Afrocentrism
Sociology Racism The Bell Curve is on the fringe between legitimate sociology and the counterculture. It argues that interracial differences in IQ as shown by testing are real and based in genetics. Most of the commentary on the book comes from people who never read it; its principal flaw is that group differences in traits have little bearing on how we should treat individuals.
Politics Political Extremism Naziism, extreme Marxism, militia groups
Fine Arts Artistic Narcissism Piss Christ, a photo of a crucifix in a jar of urine. In the debate over whether such a work should be exhibited or funded, hardly anybody asked the key question: how did anything so trivial and juvenile ever come to be taken seriously as art?
Philosophy Pop Psychology Esalen, EST, recovered memories, Satanic cult hysteria
Philosophy Anti-Science Doesn't disagree with scientific findings but rejects the scientific method or world view. May view rationalism as supporting imperialism, corporate power, or social inequality on the one hand, or a danger to traditional values on the other. 1970's writers Jacques Ellul, Theodore Roszak, Lewis Mumford and Charles Reich were prominent examples.
Theology Religious Extremism Extreme Islamic and Christian fundamentalism (it is possible to adhere to strict interpretations of the Bible and Koran without being an extremist)
Mathematics Crank Mathematics Angle trisectors, amateur solvers of celebrated problems.
Science Pseudoscience Velikovsky, Creationism, UFO's, Bigfoot, Loch Ness Monster, Psychic phenomena
Science Junk Science Pseudoscience used for practical purposes: denying unpleasant realities or winning a legal contest.

Dangers Of The Intellectual Counterculture

The purpose of the mind, as of the mouth, is to open it in order to close it on something solid.
-G.K. Chesterton

The Scientific Counterculture And The Nature Of Science

What Is Pseudoscience ?

What Pseudoscience Is

What Pseudoscience Is Not

The Spectrum Of Scientific Probability

The chart below combines a numerical scale proposed by Arthur Strahler and a zone description by James Trefil. Possible examples are listed in the center column.

10,000:1 IN FAVOR  Heliocentric Astronomy
Quantum Mechanics
1,000:1 Evolution
100:1   FRONTIER
10:1 IN FAVOR Impact-caused Extinction  
1:1 Extraterrestrial Intelligence  
10:1 AGAINST Paleolinguistics  
100:1 Loch Ness
1,000:1 UFO's
Psychic Phenomena
10,000:1 AGAINST Velikovsky

The Frontier is the most interesting area to scientists. It's hard to identify topics in the 10- or 100-to-one range for or against because these areas are under active exploration, and ideas at these levels rapidly move in to the center or out to the fringe. Ideas don't stay in the Frontier long. Anything more than 100 to one against is probably too iffy to interest most scientists, but there are always a few high rollers who consider the gamble worth the potential payoff.

I put extraterrestrial intelligence at even money because, while there's nothing at all unscientific about the concept, there is absolutely no way of knowing when we will resolve this issue. I put paleolinguistics, the attempt to reconstruct the earliest human language, at 10:1 against, because languages pick up a lot of random changes as they evolve, and this random noise is thought by many scientists to limit how far back we can trace words. 100:1 against is probably being generous to Bigfoot and Nessie. There's nothing inherently unscientific about the existence of unknown animals, it's just extremely hard to hide large unknown animals in small spaces. I put UFO's and the paranormal at 1000:1 against because, although the evidence put forward to date has been total rubbish, neither idea is wholly impossible.

Branches of Pseudoscience

Authoritarian: Validate Received Truth

Mystical: Validate Subjective Experience

Tabloid: Titillation or Resentment of Authority

Junk Science: Pragmatic Applications of Pseudoscience

Science Denied: Simply Ignoring Scientific Results

The Appeal of Pseudoscience

Logical Structure of Pseudoscience

Is It Fair to Reject All Conspiratorial Theories?

It's not proper to dismiss an idea solely because it postulates a conspiracy. It is proper to insist on debating solely on the merits of the argument. For most conspiracy believers, that takes all the fun out of it. You'd think people would be relieved to find out the world is not filled with powerful, malevolent conspiracies, but people fight tooth and nail to hang on to conspiracy beliefs.

A Nation of Jailhouse Lawyers

Freedom of Speech

Pseudoscientists often appeal to their right to free speech. Unless opposition becomes intense enough to constitute harassment (and merely being thin-skinned won't do it), opposition in itself is not a violation of free speech. Nowhere does the Constitution promise immunity to criticism. Nor does the Constitution promise any results for free speech; it doesn't guarantee acceptance of a paper, finding a publisher, or acceptance of ideas.

Legal Evidence

In criminal cases, a suspect is innocent until proven guilty, and some have argued that the same principle applies to ideas. UFO sightings are valid until proven wrong, and so on. Criminal suspects are innocent until proven guilty (and we all know the system fails) but ideas are wrong until proven right.

In criminal law, the standard is proof "beyond a reasonable doubt." As the O. J. Simpson case showed, there is such a thing as unreasonable doubt, and the whole strategy of pseudoscientists is to create unreasonable doubt.

But there's another kind of law that's a much better analogy to science than criminal law: civil law. In civil law there are two particularly relevant standards:

The Data Base of Pseudoscience

Two Common Types of Bad Data

"Gee Whiz" Facts "

A Million Children Are Reported Missing Every Year"
Right. And 99% are found within 24 hours. About a quarter of the U.S. population is under 18 - over 70 million people. At face value this statistic means about a quarter of all children would disappear before adulthood. I think we'd notice that. True abductions are almost always spouse or partner abductions. The abductions that terrify parents most, predator abductions, are a tiny part of the total.
"Suicide Is the ---th Leading Cause of Death Among Teen-agers"
Without in any way trivializing this issue, teenagers are past the age of vulnerability to childhood diseases and not yet subject to diseases of aging. Organic diseases do not kill many teenagers. That leaves accident, suicide, and homicide.
  • Suicide will always be a principal cause of death among teenagers, simply because there are so few other causes.
  • For every group, there will always be a leading cause of death.
  • Anything other than accident, suicide, or homicide, in that order, indicates a serious problem
  • If AIDS, measles, tuberculosis, cancer, or any other disease were on the list it would point to a massive breakdown of public health.
  • If homicide were to be the leading cause, as it is in some inner cities, it would point to gross social disorder.

Anecdotal Evidence

To Be Valid, Anecdotal Evidence

Example: the Millionaire Who Pays No Income Tax. The actual data are below:

Income (Source, 1987 IRS Data) Average Tax  % of Income
$19,000-22,000 $1739 8.5
$40,000-50,000 $5276 11.8
Over $1,000,000 (Average $2,422,000) $703284 29.3
Income (Source, 1999 Statistical Abstract of the United States) Average Tax  % of Income
$50,000-75,000 $7300 12
Over $1,000,000 (Average $2,800,000) $875000 31
Income (Source, 2000 IRS data; 2003 Statistical Abstract of US Table 491)    
$9,000-11,000     $470 4.7
$22,000-25,000 $1,815 7.7
$50,000-75,000 $6,824 11.2
$100,000-200,000 $22,783 17.3
Over $1,000,000 (Average 3.4 $M)  $945,172 27.7

The income is adjusted gross income, not gross income. It would be interesting to see a tabulation for gross income to assess the impact of various exemptions. On the other hand several patterns do emerge:

The anecdote may be true; there are millionaires who can offset their income against losses and end up paying no tax, but it is not representative.

Urban Legends

The scholar who all but single-handedly brought this phenomenon into general awareness was Jan Harold Brunvand of the University of Utah. He noted that urban societies are rife with undocumented stories that are very similar to legends in ancient and medieval times and in non-technological societies.

If you have friends who love to circulate Internet stories, bet that a lot of them are urban legends.

Common Elements

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Created 02 March, 2006, Last Update 02 June, 2010

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