What is pseudoscience and how does one recognize it? Scientists and philosophers have long struggled to answer this difficult question. A book published last year, The Pseudoscience Wars: Immanuel Velikovsky and the Birth of the Modern Fringe by Michael Gordin, helps to further refine our understanding of what pseudoscience is by examining the rise and fall of a form of catastrophism promoted by Immanuel Velikovsky. Velikovsky, was a Russian psychiatrist and scholar who wrote the best-selling book Worlds in Collision in 1950. In that book he proposed to explain all the major events in human history as the result of catastrophes brought on by close encounters that the Earth had with Venus, Mars and other bodies of the solar system that in the past, in his estimation, were more chaotically moving around the solar system.
Steven Shapin has written a review of Godin’s book which I highly recommend. Of course I recommend reading the whole book but if you only have 10 minutes then start with this review. In this review Shapin looks at how the scientific establishment recognizes and deals with pseudoscience. While not relating the case of Velikovsky to the present day version of catastrophism that we call scientific creationism, the parallels are obvious. I would draw particular attention to the last paragraph of Shapin’s review article for one possible method of identifying pseudoscience:
Gordin sides with those – like Einstein and a number of modern sociologists and philosophers – who doubt that universal and context-independent criteria can be found reliably to distinguish the scientific from the pseudoscientific. But here is a suggestion about how one might do something, however imperfectly, however vulnerable to counter-instances and however apparently paradoxical, to get a practical grip on the difference between the genuine article and the fake. Whenever the accusation of pseudoscience is made, or wherever it is anticipated, its targets commonly respond by making elaborate displays of how scientific they really are. Pushing the weird and the implausible, they bang on about scientific method, about intellectual openness and egalitarianism, about the vital importance of seriously inspecting all counter-instances and anomalies, about the value of continual scepticism, about the necessity of replicating absolutely every claim, about the lurking subjectivity of everybody else. Call this hyperscience, a claim to scientific status that conflates the PR of science with its rather more messy, complicated and less than ideal everyday realities and that takes the PR far more seriously than do its stuck-in-the-mud orthodox opponents. Beware of hyperscience. It can be a sign that something isn’t kosher. A rule of thumb for sound inference has always been that if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck. But there’s a corollary: if it struts around the barnyard loudly protesting that it’s a duck, that it possesses the very essence of duckness, that it’s more authentically a duck than all those other orange-billed, web-footed, swimming fowl, then you’ve got a right to be suspicious: this duck may be a quack.