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.
It seems to me that the defensive hyperscientism comes in response to the accusation of pseudoscience. So, what led to that accusation? Obviously the response to the accusation is not what led to the accusation. I think we need to know how to have the insights that lead to an accusation of pseudoscience.
I have a lot of sympathy for your desire for insights in spotting pseudoscience. In pediatrics I have been dealing with antivaxxer nonsense for many years and despite being versed in the supporting data for vaccines I still was struggling with the antivaxxer arguments. Over the past 2 years I have been educating myself on the problems with antivaxxer arguments and am better than I was. But it is a slow process. Fortunately they consistently just rebrand a relatively small number of recurrent tropes so I have hope.
The good news is that proponents of the various pseudosciences seem to use many of the same ploys and so I have found many lessons translate well (although with the other pseudosciences I am well aware my knowledge is only marginally greater than the average novice).
Becoming well versed in at least one topic is also helpful in being able to identify experts in other fields (and as a general rule, when in doubt, I find it usually pays to trust the experts).
Some other personal observations (which should therefore be taken with a grain of salt):
-Pseudoscience proponents seem to be remarkably vocal which is what I have seen most commonly elicit the accusations of pseudoscience.
-Their focus tends to revolve around just a few (or only one) very specific pieces of data which seem to support them unless you have a good understanding of the topic (listen to a flat Earther if you want a good demonstration).
-They also struggle to identify anything that would convince them they are wrong or add such stringent requirements to the finding or experiment as to make it impossible and/or unethical.
-An excessive love of pedantry and semantics feels like another common trait but I find this one especially annoying so recall bias is likely at play.
Hope this helps, I am relatively new to skepticism and countering pseudoscience so if I am off base I would welcome correction and/or advice.
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Thanks for your thoughts. I think this is very helpful. I could pull a few of those together and say that many (but not all) pseodoscience peddlers operate from the left side of the Dunning-Kruger effect curve.
Rather than worry about when to accuse someone of pseudo-science, I think it is best to learn how to lead others into a true scientific discussion. A favorite technique of the pseudo-scientists is to focus on an anomaly or a bit of unexplained evidence. It is entirely a negative process. They do not attempt to address the evidence as a whole. Thus, the young-earth books and websites will try to point out some particular measurement that was obviously bad, but they pick and choose what evidence to discuss or ignore. Ask them if they have examined evidence for an old earth, e.g. coral reef deposits that are so deep at Eniwetok Atoll that, even if we assume the maximum know rate of coral reef growth in one year and extrapolate, implying that every year was a record year, we cannot possibly fit the evidence into 10,000 years or less.
It would be most useful to educate people that real science involves looking at ALL the evidence and coming up with the most reasonable explanation that has the fewest remaining items of unexplained evidence. Science does not involve looking at rare exceptions and ignoring most of the available evidence.
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“this duck might be a quack”
What a great line.
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Yeah! I have to remember that line.
In the case of creationism vs science, science papers are written with great care, all sorts of cross checks to make sure that the result is correct. It’s typically 95% quality control, 5% actual results. Creationists substitute Bible quotes and derogatory remarks about mainstream science for quality control.
Good ideas. I’ll have to get the book. Yes, pseudo science will protest too much to try and prove how it is “real science” and everyone else just doesn’t understand or is hiding the truth. Another thing is a real scientist, teacher, etc. will tend to patiently explain things while someone pushing pseudo-scientific ideas will bombard his target with terminology, jump from one topic to another, and sound like he is making a sales pitch.
Here’s a link to a pdf of the review, in case you’re like me and don’t have access to full London Review of Books content.
Click to access shapin_lrbgordin.pdf