What Pseudoscience Tells us About Science

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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Models of the Scientific Method

Many definitions of the scientific method have been formulated, and all have their merits. However, every single one can be counterfeited by pseudoscientists. Thus, pseudoscience has profound implications for models of science.

Experimental Verification

The stereotypical picture of science is developing a hypothesis and performing an experiment to test it. Although this approach is useful for testing highly specific claims, no single experiment can rule out the possibility that a hypothesis might be false in some other context, and many phenomena in science are hard to test experimentally. What experiment would show why the dinosaurs died out, for example?

Pseudoscientists have been known to fake experiments outright, but much more common are cases of faulty or biased technique. Even if these results do not stand the test of time, they tend to be cited by pseudoscientists as valid results that favor their beliefs. Pseudoscience is rife with selective citations of obsolete or faulty experiments that agree with their beliefs, while later and better results tend to be ignored.

Prediction

The ability to make successful predictions is a hallmark of valid scientific theories, but prediction is also one of the tools most abused by pseudoscientists. Velikovsky's infamous "predictions" that Jupiter should emit radio waves or Venus should be hot are prime examples. Prediction is valid only if the prediction follows rigorously from the theory, which Velikovsky's do not. Scattergun predictions, random hits, and after-the-fact coincidences with vague predictions are not valid.

Falsification

Falsification was cited by Karl Popper as the defining characteristic of science. Although an idea can be proven valid in a specific case, we can never be entirely sure it won't be false in some other case. However, if we prove an idea false, it is false, period. Although falsification is perhaps the most workable universal definition of science yet proposed, it's not perfect. Many falsifications have turned out to be wrong because they were based on erroneous assumptions. Simon Newcomb, one of the most famous American astronomers at the beginning of the 20th century, "proved" that heavier than air craft were impossible. His assumptions about the strength of materials and the weight of power sources were far too conservative. Indeed, the Wright Brothers devoted a great deal of effort to finding a power source light and powerful enough to propel an airplane. Also, in many cases, it is possible to verify claims. It makes far more sense to say we have determined the chemical composition of a material than to say we have falsified all other compositions.

Scientific Creationists have had a field day with falsification. They have argued that it is impossible to falsify evolution and that it is therefore a philosophy or theology on a par with their own beliefs rather than a scientific concept.

Pseudoscientists also make extensive use of naive falsification, the assertion that a single contrary result is enough to undermine a scientific concept. For example, physicist Dayton C. Miller performed the Michelson-Morley Experiment (the basis of Relativity) in the 1930's and got results contrary to everyone else. There continue to be people who argue that his contrary results show that:

However, any such conflict has two sides. On the one hand we have an anomaly that indicates the prevailing scientific view is wrong, on the other we have a large body of accumulated data that indicates that the anomaly either doesn't exist, was incorrectly observed, or has some other explanation. Since there's a huge body of evidence in support of relativity and no credible experiments in support of Miller, we are justified in concluding that Miller's experimental methods were wrong rather than relativity.

It's also possible to appear to submit ideas to scientific testing while not actually doing so. One common approach is to devise tests that are known in advance to be impossible or impractical. For example, creationist Robert Gentry has argued that granite formed within seconds, and that the earth must have been created almost instantly. "All" it will take to falsify his theory, he states, is the laboratory synthesis of a fist-sized chunk of granite from molten rock. "All" you need to perform the experiment is a pressure vessel capable of sustaining temperatures of 600-800 C and a couple of thousand atmospheres for perhaps a few decades, a setup costing millions of dollars. Atheists who claim they would be convinced of the existence of God if they could witness a miracle are in pretty much the same class. There are all sorts of rational reasons why a God might choose not to perform miracles on demand, therefore the fact that we live in a universe where miracles do not occur on demand proves nothing.

Replicability

Replicability is another powerful criterion for testing scientific theories. When someone rejects replicability, as paranormalists do, for the sole reason that his findings are not reproducible, we are justified in labeling him a pseudoscientist if not a charlatan.

However, replicability does not necessarily make an idea correct. The French physicist Prosper Blondlot claimed to have discovered mysterious rays called N-rays, and he was able to repeat his measurements in total darkness in front of skeptics. His house of cards came down when Robert Wood showed that not only could Blondlot repeat his observations, he could do so even when vital pieces of his apparatus were missing.

Replicability by independent observers is the only reliable way to test the validity of scientific claims. "Independent observer" is not necessarily synonymous with "skeptic" because some skeptics can be so biased that their own results are no more trustworthy than the ideas they are trying to refute. Independent observers are those capable of testing a hypothesis in an impartial manner. There will also be a far wider circle of scientists who care little about the details of some controversy except insofar as it affects their own work.

What Pseudoscience Reveals About Science

There is no Single "Scientific Method"

No single criterion yet formulated has succeeded in defining science completely, leading to two possible interpretations. Either we haven't found the all-sufficient definition yet, or it doesn't exist. The latter seems to be much more likely. Thus it is wrong to speak of the "Scientific Method". Rather, there is a constellation of scientific methods. The most robust definitions - those of widest applicability, most immune to abuse and capable of correcting errors - revolve around replication of results by independent observers and seeking ways to falsify theories. But the specific details of what constitutes replication and falsification vary so much from case to case that it is probably better to abandon the quest for a Scientific Method and think instead somewhat the way social scientists do, of a constellation of attributes that are shared by valid scientific theories. The constellation is larger than the attributes of any single theory so that testing of any scientific theory makes use of some subset of the whole constellation.

Although no single concept seems to define science, we can go a long way by applying falsification and replicability, especially in detecting and refuting pseudoscience. In particular, pseudoscientists are very loath to submit their ideas to testing and falsification by independent investigators. A good general cut-through-the-crap question I use whenever I deal with someone I suspect of playing games rather than seeking truth is "what would it take to convince you that your ideas are false?" The responses I get range from a deer-in-the-headlights look of utter bewilderment to spluttering rage that I would even make such a demand, but very rarely do I get any evidence of serious thought. But fair's fair - if I expect somebody to define what would refute his ideas I'd better be prepared to do the same with mine.

Science is Content as Much as Structure

Since every imaginable structural feature of science can be counterfeited by pseudoscience, one conclusion is clear: no structural or process definition of science can be valid. Science is determined by content, in addition to structure. Science is a constellation of methods that have proven useful in deriving testable, repeatable results, but it is also the results themselves and the subject areas within which those results lie. Astronomy, for example, is the accumulated knowledge of planets, stars and galaxies, but it is also the study of those subjects - the discovery of hitherto unknown facts.

Thus, not only does the accumulated knowledge of science expand, but so do its methods and its domain. The French philospher Auguste Comte once cited the chemical composition of the stars as an example of knowledge that would be forever beyond reach. Within 20 years, astronomers were using spectroscopy to study the chemistry of the stars. A new method had been shown capable of yielding valid results, and in turn opened up a new domain for study. Numerous aspects of the social sciences like linguistics and archaeology are moving more and more into the domain of science as their methodologies evolve.

Applying Scientific Methods Elsewhere

It's considered hubris - probably rightly - to think we will ever apply the methods of science to all human affairs, but we can go much further than we presently do in testing ideas. A couple of examples:

Does gender-free language reduce sexism?
We might try looking for languages that have, for example, a single pronoun for he, she and it. Turkish does: the single word "o" means he, she or it. In fact, Turkish has no grammatical gender at all. Anyone care to argue that Turkey has gender equality? Going further, it turns out that most languages lack the concept of gender; Indo-European and Semitic (Afro-Asiatic) are the two great families with gender, one of the reasons linguists suspect they share a common remote ancestor. Now it may or may not help our own society to reduce gender-specific terminology (in most cases it can be done so seamlessly it's not even noticed) but it's also clear that the most shrill advocates of gender-free language have, at best, a superficial knowledge of language.
Was Piss Christ meant as an attack on Christianity?
The work Piss Christ generated a firestorm of controversy when it was exhibited, in part with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Defenders of the work, a photo of a crucifix in a jar of urine, claimed it was not intended to insult Christians. Bypassing the rich question of how anything so juvenile came to be taken as serious art, the intent of the work strikes me as eminently testable. Create a similar work, a photo of Martin Luther King in a jar of urine, and call it Piss King. See if defenders of Piss Christ react in the same way. Exhibit the work in a black community. Can you predict the response? Would it be justified?

Some key questions we can apply just about anywhere:

The Baseball Model of Science

To Nolan Ryan, the strike zone is a big target. There are many different correct ways to throw a baseball, none necessarily more correct than any other. To a Little Leaguer, however, the strike zone is a tiny target.

Now imagine the stands are full of people who have no idea at all how to play baseball. Some think you throw the bat at the ball, some think the object is to hit the batter, others think the object is to throw the ball as far as possible into the stands. From out in the bleachers, the strike zone is a pinpoint and there is only one correct way to throw a baseball. At that distance, fastballs, curves and sliders are trivial variations on a single theme. This analogy is to baseball exactly what pseudoscience is to normal science, and the study of pseudoscience is important because it helps to develop an external perspective on science that most scientists, immersed in the minutiae of their own specialties, do not have.

Relativistic concepts of science work well in a graduate student bull session or a faculty tea where the participants, for the most part, are well educated and share a common set of assumptions. Just as a group of major league pitchers might enjoy discussing the many ways to throw a baseball, scientists enjoy discussing the role of alternate viewpoints about science and the way it works. This approach would not only be utterly irrelevant to a totally naive audience, it would be positively misleading. Discussing all the ways of throwing a pitch would be meaningless to somebody who didn't know the rules of baseball; worse yet, it might actually mislead him into thinking that hitting the strike zone wasn't crucial. Similarly, discussing science as a social construct serves to mislead many non-scientists into thinking there's reason to doubt many findings that are rock-solid.

Just About Everything is False

Skilled professionals can dwell upon the nuances of their trade because they simply tune out the (to them) irrelevant ways that outsiders can get confused. But if we're looking at things with the outsiders' perspectives in mind, we cannot do that. Consider what we can call idea space, the realm of all the possible ideas that could ever exist, regardless of how bizarre they are. When we consider all the ideas that could conceivably exist: atoms, angels, dragons, plate tectonics, ghosts, unicorns, DNA, we observe that:

Of All Possible Ideas, All But an Infinitesimal Fraction are Trivially False

By trivially false, we mean that we don't learn anything of value by refuting them. We don't know the exact age of the Earth, but we know for certain it is not a year, 10 years, 100 years ..., and also it's not a trillion, 10 trillion, and so on. The Earth is not an exact sphere, and a detailed description of its shape is a complex affair. However, we do know it's not a cube, pyramid, disk, ring, and so on. These ideas are so far off the mark that refuting them does nothing significant toward telling us what is right. Nevertheless, there are people who believe some of them, and here the study of pseudoscience plays a vital role by showing just how vast the realm of invalid ideas is and just how many people live there. Lots of folks insist that the Earth is only about 10,000 years old and hollow-earth cults existed in the 19th century and even later.

Of All Remaining Ideas, All But an Infinitesimal Fraction are Non-trivially False

These ideas are false, but in the process of refuting them we can come significantly closer to a correct answer, especially if we can rule out entire classes of ideas. The Earth is almost certainly not 4 billion years old, or 5 billion. Its estimated age is 4.6 billion years, but the true value could easily be 100 million years one side or the other of that value. Between 4.5 and 4.7 billion years there are an infinite number of possible ages, only one of which is correct. If we can rule out, say, all ages younger than 4.58 billion years, we still have an infinite number of possible wrong answers, but we have also narrowed the range of possible answers a great deal.

Likewise, the Earth is not a perfect sphere. It's an oblate spheroid flattened at the poles by about 1/298 of its diameter. Well, actually not 1/298; more like 1/298.3, or 1/298.26, or 1/298.257. Even that last figure isn't entirely correct, because the Earth's equatorial diameter is a smidge longer in one direction (longitude 14 degrees) than 90 degrees away. And the Earth isn't really an ellipsoid; it has slight bumps and hollows. Each refinement means that all earlier approximations are false, but also that the new value is a significantly better one. And the earlier approximations can still be useful in certain contexts. A spherical earth works just fine for world maps; it's only for small-scale maps where we want to measure locations very accurately that the ellipsoidal shape becomes important.

The Range of Valid Ideas is Infinitesimally Tiny

When we consider the ideas in all domains of knowledge that have proven even minimally valid, and compare them to the range of all the possible ideas that could ever exist, the domain of valid ideas is an infinitesimal point. It is only when we focus on the domain of valid ideas with what amounts to an electron microscope that we see even hints of internal structure at all.

Scientists and philosophers who focus on the tentativeness of science, who view science as a social construct and are fascinated by the role of alternative models have a lot to say that is useful. However, we need to bear in mind always that they are focused on the ultramicroscopic structure of a domain that is itself submicroscopic compared to the universe of palpably false ideas around it. To parody Isaac Newton's famous analogy, they are playing with pebbles on the beach while the great ocean of untruth lies undiscovered (indeed its very existence unsuspected) all about them.

In dealing with non-scientists who may be far outside the realm of ideas that are valid by even the most charitable definition, it's clear that the first order of business is to show them where the strike zone is. Descriptions of science that focus on tentativeness, social constructs and alternative models are utterly premature at this stage. Worse yet, they are positively misleading. If a description of science creates the impression that it's permissible to remain in the domain of invalid ideas, that description is false, regardless of how valid it might be in the ultrafine structure realm.

The Library of Babel

The analogy above is similar to what we find in a famous short story by Jorge Luis Borges, The Library of Babel. The story involves an incomprehensibly vast universe of hexagonal cells, each containing bookcases which are believed to hold every possible permutation of characters. All the books are identical in format and size. Hidden in these cells are useful books, but as Borges' narrator states:

for every sensible line of straightforward statement, there are leagues of senseless cacophonies, verbal jumbles and incoherences.

On the other hand:

every copy is unique, irreplaceable, but (since the Library is total) there are always several hundred thousand imperfect facsimiles: works which differ only in a letter or a comma.

The imperfect copies correspond to the non-trivially false ideas in science. Indeed, the closest copies wouldn't even be false because the errors would be easily correctible or insignificant - if a copy spelled "the" as "tje" would anyone even notice or care?. At some point a copy would become sufficiently corrupted that its meaning would be ambiguous and it wouldn't be immediately clear which interpretation was valid. Beyond those books would be myriads that were trivially false; that stated that Thomas Edison discovered America or Christopher Columbus walked on the moon or that herds of walruses once roamed the plains. Beyond even those would be a vast (but finite) number that made no sense at all. Indeed, the figures specified by Borges (four walls per cell with shelves, five shelves per wall, 35 books per shelf, 410 pages each, 40 lines per page, 80 characters per line, 25 characters) imply that each book contains 1,312,000 characters. Each character can have one of 25 values, so the total number of possible books is 251,312,000 (2 x 101,834,097) or inconceivably more than the number of atoms in the universe. Since the books are discrete, not only is their number finite, but even if the library were infinite, the books would be countably infinite. There are infinitely more points on a line an inch long than there would be books in this infinite library.

(Just for fun, each hexagon contains 4 x 5 x 35 = 700 books, so the number of cells is 2.8 x 101,834,094. If hexagons are five meters in diameter and two meters high, they occupy 65 cubic meters apiece, or a grand total of 1.9 x 101,834,096 cubic meters. The library, if it were a cube, would be 2.7 x 10611,365 meters on a side, or 2.8 x 10611,352 light years or 2.1 x 10611,342 times the size of the visible universe. This number is so huge that scaling up from a single room to the size of the universe makes only a tiny difference in the exponent. Then you wonder where the paper came from to make the books, and why the library doesn't collapse under its own gravity.)

The universe of pseudoscientific nonsense is obviously far smaller than Borges' library, since people who spout utter gibberish are generally ignored if not locked up. But Borges' story illustrates the point that the domain of meaningful content is insignificant compared to the domain of nonsense.

Does Science Find Truth?

Many scientists reject the idea that science finds truth. They prefer to speak of the validity of ideas, and reserve the term truth for philosophical constructs. But consider:

Thus, many scientists want to take a plain term like truth and reserve it only for some level of certainty that can never be attained in practice and that some scientists think can never be attained even in principle. At the same time we are deprived of a term to denote ideas that have survived such rigorous scrutiny that their validity seems secure beyond any reasonable doubt.

It makes far more sense to use the term "truth" in its commonsense definition, to denote ideas that are valid beyond any reasonable doubt and which have proven so useful that, even if further refinements occur, the ideas will still be useful approximations or heuristic devices. Kepler's Laws are going on 400 years old; when they were developed it was widely believed that one could determine what theology was absolutely true and that it was justifiable to force others to conform. It was also universally believed that slavery was morally acceptable. Kepler's Laws have endured; its theological and philosophical contemporaries have not. Although there are many fine corrections to Kepler's Laws that are necessary for the most accurate predictions of planetary motions, Kepler's Laws are still employed in most astronomical desktop computer programs. We are justified in saying that Kepler's Laws are "true" in any reasonable sense of the term.

But this definition of "truth" means that occasionally an idea will be labeled as "true" and later discovered to be false.. Correct. So what? Show me a definition of "truth" that hasn't occasionally turned out to be false.


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Created 1 May 1999, Last Update 02 June 2010

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