Phrenology, essential oils, homeopathy, reflexology, ESP, astrology, creation science, climate change denial, blood-type diet, vaccinations cause autism, quantum computing, smoking causes cancer, dinosaurs were killed by an asteroid impact, HIV causes AIDS, low-carb diet.
Which of the above would you classify as the products of good scientific research and which would you classify as pseudoscience? Put another way, what is pseudoscience and how does one recognize it?
Scientists and philosophers have long struggled to answer this difficult question. This is the question addressed in a fascinating book-length treatise; The Pseudoscience Wars: Immanuel Velikovsky and the Birth of the Modern Fringe by Michael Gordin. In it Gordin helps to refine our understanding of what pseudoscience is and how to recognize it 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 that all the major events in human history were the result of catastrophes brought on by past close encounters that the Earth had with Venus, Mars and other bodies of the solar system which proposed moved far more chaotically in the past.
Steven Shapin has written an wonderful review of Godin’s book which I highly recommend. It would be great it you read the book itself but if you only have 10 minutes to devote to gaining a better understanding of what pseudoscience is and how to identify it then this review is the place to spend that time. In this review Shapin examine how the scientific establishment recognizes and deals with pseudoscience. While his review does not relate the case of Velikovsky to the present day version of catastrophism that we call scientific creationism or young-earth creationism, the parallels in how leaders of creationism promote their views are obvious. (Gordins’ book does include a wonderful chapter relating his work with Velikosvsky to creationism). I would draw particular attention to the last paragraph of Shapin’s review article for one possible method of identifying pseudoscience that applies well to modern forms for young-earth creationism:
“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.”
Anyone who spends any time in the comment section of blogs (including this one) and FaceBook posts will quickly recognize all of the signs identified in the paragraph above.
With respect to defining and helping to identify pseudoscience when you see it I would also suggest the following article: The 10 Commandments of Helping Students Distinguish Science from Pseudoscience in Psychology. The first “commandment” from this article lists the many signs that collectively point to the peddling of pseudoscience. The other “commandments” are to help teachers help their students avoid the trappings of pseudoscience.