How pseudo-science beats science

January 13, 2009 | By | 1 Reply More

How does pseudo-science “beat” science?  I’m still thinking this through, but here is where I am at the moment.  Here are three steps often employed by pseudo-scientists:

Step I: Claim that honest work done by careful scientists is not credible without having any appreciation of the intense and meticulous work done by the scientists to come to the conclusion.  When the scientists make any announcement (“X”) that conflicts with a pseudo-scientists religious beliefs, the pseudo-scientist thus needs to do is one or more of the following:

Claim that we need more evidence before he/she can believe X.
Claim that X sounds implausible.
Claim that X is promulgated by a vast Conspiracy of scientists who are biased and manipulative.
Launch other Ad hominem attacks
Claim that you can’t trust anything you can’t see.
Claim that you can’t extrapolate.
Claim that statistics lie.
Claim that experts disagree with each other, even when X is accepted by 99% of skeptical scientists
Claim that he/she just doesn’t accept X.
Claim that X can’t be true because it’s not in his/her book of ancient sacred writings.
Claim that even though X seems highly likely, that it is not worthy of belief because it is not CERTAIN.
Claim that nothing less than CERTAIN is worthy of belief.

Step II:  The pseudo-scientists knows how to keep his/her favorite things (“Y”) out of the line of fire, and justify them based on a much less stringent burden of proof.  This combination allows the pseudo-scientist to doubt carbon dating but to believe that a virgin had a baby.  Feelings of certainty are worth nothing at all in the scientific world, but they are reveled by pseudo-scientists.  Throughout the ages, nuts and kooks have set records for self-confidence. Favorite lines by the pseudo-scientist include:

I just know Y to be true.
God told me that Y.
I read about Y in an ancient book
I just feel that Y is true.
Ex hominem tactic (someone I like and trust believes Y too)

Step III:  The above combination of high standard of proof for the scientist and no standard of proof for the pseudo-scientists allows the confirmation bias take the pseudo-scientist wherever he/she wants to go.  Whenever the pseudo-scientist is called to the mat regarding this shell-game of variable burden of proof, the pseudo-scientists responds to the charge by saying something like this:

You wouldn’t understand
Someday you’ll understand
It’s a different way of understanding
You aren’t keeping your mind open.
You have bought into a pro-science bias.

Parting Thoughts

-Responsible thinkers protect themselves from the confirmation bias. Most pseudo-scientists revel in the confirmation bias.  Scientists work hard to employ double-blind experiments to avoid the effects of the confirmation bias.  They also allow passion-less machines to measure and count (letting machines “call” the data —e.g., radioactive dating–thus removes bias).  Good scientists invite scrutiny, whereas pseudo-scientists avoid scrutiny.

-It takes a lot more effort to dispel bullshit than to make it up, just like it takes a lot longer to build a bridge than to blow up a bridge.  Pseudo-scientists are easily able to gum things up because it takes so long to explain where they’ve gone wrong, especially since they are so unwilling to listen with open minds.

-You can know pseudo-scientists by their conclusions and their lack of supporting evidence. It might not be easy to always spot the tactic when one analyzes only one issue, but if you force pseudo-scientists to set forth a comprehensive list of what they truly believe and don’t believe, their method will become quite apparent. Their conclusions inevitably line up with fundamentalist beliefs (old Earth, gays are bad, women are inferior, natural selection cannot explain the origin of species).

-You can know pseudo-scientists by the fruits of their labors. Whereas scientists enable people to create real things (airplanes, medicines and new ways of harnessing energy), pseudo-scientists provide no such assistance. All of their talk is only good for, at best, social bonding/self-stroking.

-You also know these pseudo-scientific types by the types of conclusions they draw. Their conclusions are dead-ended; they don’t lead further inquiry, nor to any possibility of rigorously testing those conclusions. Nor do their conclusions lead to any productive spin-off questions.  Only to more social bonding.

-True science is what Daniel Dennett called “universal acid.” It is entirely portable–applicable to any new situation. It has no restrictions on use. It is coextensive with the common sense that all of us use 99% of the time, although it is a more rigorous form of common sense. It issues its highest awards to those who can demonstrate that they approach to understanding is correct. Science is thus a great leveler, where a young scientist with good data and clearheaded thinking can destroy, to rousing applause, an inferior theory developed by a venerated older scientist.  In this way, science is the antithesis of pseudo-science, which works hard to honor the past, no matter how vague or self-contradictory.

-Science v pseudo-science is a political struggle to see who gets to interpret the other.  In each mind, only one of these viewpoints prevails at a given time, much like the duck/rabbit illusion.  Once a new viewpoint is politically established, it can make for many individual converts.   We’ve just had a bit political shift that appears to be accompanied by an intellectual shift toward respect for genuine science.  Perhaps Barack Obama’s term will result in a lot less wasteful talk and lot more worthwhile scientific information from people who are qualified to give it.   That is certainly my hope, that 2009 will be an era where pseudo-science won’t fare well.


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Category: Psychology Cognition, Religion, Science, scientific method

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    Pseudo-science appeals to laymen because it offers simple explanations that seem to fit the common knowledge and extrapolate the uncommon.

    As an example, consider the dynamotor.

    A dynamotor is an electric motor driver electric generator. Dynamotors are used to convert between DC and AC voltages (or dc to dc) at high amperage. They have largely been replaced by the electronic power invert in most applications. To the layman, it would seem that if you connected the output from a dc to dc dynamotor to its input, that you would have a perpetual motion machine. OF course the layman usually doesn't know that a generator has magneto-resistive feedback between its elements when the electricity flows.

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