Pseudoscience

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Image:Phrenologychart.png Pseudoscience is any body of knowledge, methodology, or practice that is erroneously regarded as scientific [1].

Contents

Introduction

The standards for determining of any body of knowledge, methodology, or practice as nonscience vary, but often include lack of empirical evidence, unfalsifiability, or failure to comply with scientific method or apply a heuristic such as Occam's Razor. A number of attempts have been made to apply philosophical rigor to the notion with mixed results. These include Karl Popper's criterion of falsifiability and the historiographical approach of Imre Lakatos in his Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes. Other historians and philosophers of science (including Paul Feyerabend) have argued, from a sociology of knowledge perspective, that a clear philosophical distinction between science and pseudoscience is neither possible nor desirable.

The term "pseudoscience" often has negative connotations, implying generally that things so labeled are false and deceptive (though a strict interpretation of the term would not necessarily have it mean either). As such, those who are labelled as practicing or advocating a "pseudoscience" almost always reject this classification, and often the distinction itself.

Some critics of pseudoscience consider some or all forms of pseudoscience to be harmless entertainment. Others, such as Richard Dawkins and Carl Sagan, consider almost all forms of pseudoscience to be harmful, whether or not they result in immediate harm to their followers. These critics generally consider that advocacy of pseudoscience may occur for a number of reasons, ranging from simple naïveté about the nature of science and the scientific method, to deliberate deception for financial or political benefit.

The concept of pseudoscience as an antagonist to bona fide science appears to have emerged in the mid-19th century. The first recorded use of the word 'pseudo-science' appears to have been in 1844 in the Northern Journal of Medicine I. 387 "That opposite kind of innovation which pronounces what has been recognised as a branch of science, to have been a pseudo-science, composed merely of so-called facts, connected together by misapprehensions under the disguise of principles".

Classifying pseudoscience

Pseudoscience fails to meet the criteria met by science generally (including the scientific method), and can be identified by a combination of these characteristics:

  • by asserting claims or theories unconnected to previous experimental results;
  • by asserting claims which cannot be verified or falsified (claims that violate falsifiability);
  • by asserting claims which contradict experimentally established results;
  • by failing to provide an experimental possibility of reproducible results;
  • by failing to submit results to peer review prior to publicizing them (called "science by press conference")
  • by claiming a theory predicts something that it does not;
  • by claiming a theory predicts something that it has not been shown to predict;
  • by violating Occam's Razor, the heuristic principle of choosing the explanation that requires the fewest additional assumptions when multiple viable explanations are possible; or
  • by a lack of progress toward additional evidence of its claims.

Pseudoscience is distinguishable from revelation, theology, or spirituality in that it claims to offer insight into the physical world by "scientific" means. Systems of thought that rely upon "divine" or "inspired" knowledge are not considered pseudoscience if they do not claim either to be scientific or to overturn well-established science. There are also bodies of practical knowledge that are not claimed to be scientific. These are also not pseudoscience.

Pseudoscience is also distinguishable from misleading statements in some popular science, where commonly held beliefs are thought to meet the criteria of science, but often don't. The issue is muddled, however, because it is believed that "pop" science blurs the divide between science and pseudoscience among the general public.

The term "pseudoscience" is often used by adherents of fields considered pseudoscientific to criticize their mainstream equivalents. Hence, for instance, supporters of creationism often characterize evolution as a pseudoscience, as do supporters of Dianetics with respect to psychiatry. Such criticisms are, however, generally regarded as fringe viewpoints.

Pseudoscience contrasted with protoscience

Pseudoscience also differs from protoscience. Protoscience is a term sometimes used to describe a hypothesis that has not yet been tested adequately by the scientific method, but which is otherwise consistent with existing science or which, where inconsistent, offers reasonable account of the inconsistency.

Pseudoscience, in contrast, is characteristically lacking in adequate tests or the possibility of them, occasionally untestable in principle, and its supporters are frequently strident in insisting that existing scientific results are wrong. Pseudoscience is often unresponsive to ordinary scientific procedures (for example, peer review, publication in standard journals). In some cases, no one applying scientific methods could disprove a pseudoscientific hypothesis (that is, untestable claims have been made) and failure to test and disprove these claims is often cited as evidence of the truth of the pseudoscience.

The boundaries between pseudoscience, protoscience, and "real" science are often unclear to non-specialist observers. They can even be obscure to experts. Many people have tried to offer objective criteria for the term, with mixed success. Often the term is used simply as a pejorative to express the speaker's low opinion of a given field, regardless of any objective measures.

If the claims of a given pseudoscience can be experimentally tested it may be real science, however odd, astonishing, or intuitively unacceptable. If they cannot be tested, it is likely pseudoscience. If the claims made are inconsistent with existing experimental results or established theory, it is often presumed to be pseudoscience. Conversely, if the claims of any given "science" cannot be experimentally tested it may not be a real science, however obvious or intuitively acceptable.

In such circumstances it may be difficult to distinguish which of two opposing "sciences" are valid; for example, both the proponents and opponents of the Kyoto Protocol on global warming have recruited the help of scientists to endorse contradictory positions, because of differing political goals. This enlistment of science in the service of politics is sometimes called "junk science".

Other examples of modern scientific pursuits that some consider protoscience include both the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) and Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence (CETI) research projects. However, these fields are not considered protoscientific by most scientists; they are genererally considered real science, albeit subjects that may offer only a low probability of revealing significant results.

The difference between these subjects as science and pseudoscience may be seen by these examples: Scientists involved in SETI and CETI do not claim that they know for certain that intelligent extraterrestrials exist, although most consider the possibility likely (see Drake equation). They test their beliefs against available data.

Ultimately, whether something is pseudoscience or not has less to do with the ideas under study than the approach used to study or justify them. Acupuncture, for instance, while it involved a prescientific system, is not inherently pseudoscientific. This is because most of the claims can be tested scientifically so acupuncture can be viewed as a protoscience. Of course, a scientific investigation might fail to support the claims of acupuncture. In the presence of a number of tests that successfully falsify a particular claim, insisting that the claim is still scientifically supported becomes pseudoscience.

The problem of demarcation

Main article: Demarcation problem

After more than a century of active dialogue, the question of what marks the boundary of science remains fundamentally unsettled. As a consequence the issue of what constitutes pseudoscience continues to be controversial. Nonetheless, reasonable consensus exists on certain sub-issues. Criteria for demarcation have traditionally been coupled to one philosophy of science or another. Logical positivism, for example, espoused a theory of meaning which held that only statements about empirical observations are meaningful, effectively asserting that statements which are not derived in this manner (including all metaphysical statements) are meaningless. Later, Karl Popper attacked logical positivism and introduced his own criterion for demarcation, falsifiability. This in turn was criticised by Thomas Kuhn, who illustrated with historical examples that falsification did not play a largely causative role in changes between scientific theories, and also by Popper supporter Imre Lakatos, who proposed his own criteria that distinguished between progressive and degenerative research programs.

Many supporters of both science and pseudoscience have called into question whether there is a rigorous way to tell the difference, especially since, historically, many disciplines currently thought of as "science" exhibit trends which are often cited as those of pseudoscience, such as lack of reproducibility (due to the necessity of large, expensive, and specially created instruments), or the inability to create falsifying experiments. Because of the heterogeneous nature of the scientific enterprise itself, it is increasingly difficult to create a set of criteria which can apply to all disciplines at all times.

Fields often associated with pseudoscience

Main article: List of alternative, speculative and disputed theories

Examples of theories and fields of endeavor that are often associated with pseudoscience (Many of these are highly disputed):

Pseudoscientific science and medical practices are often quite popular. Medical pseudosciences even sometimes show notable therapeutic benefits, possibly due to the placebo effect or observer bias.

Many pseudosciences are associated with the New Age movement and there is a tendency to improperly associate all practices of the "New Age" with pseudoscience.

Certain "watchdog" groups, such as CSICOP, have released statements expressing concern about the apparent growing popularity of pseudoscience, especially when it applies to scientific fields that are intended to save people's lives. A number of self-proclaimed alternative medicine treatments have been designated pseudoscience by critics, largely because some of these methods inspire false hope in terminally ill patients, and end up costing large amounts of money without actually providing any real benefit, treatment, or cure for various ailments.

Pseudomathematics

Pseudomathematics is a form of mathematics-like activity undertaken by either non-mathematicians or mathematicians themselves which do not conform to the rigorous standards usually applied to mathematical theories.

Criticisms of the concept of pseudoscience

The term "pseudoscience" removes the legitimacy afforded by the category "science"; leaving such a labeled body of theory to try to obtain legitimacy on other grounds.

Such attempts at attaining legitimacy include:

  • claiming all theories are equally scientific
    • some are just politically incorrect
    • some have more evidence, others less; but that doesn't make them not science
  • peer review has no value
    • for really new ideas
    • for politically incorrect ideas
  • theories rise and fall in scientific community support.

References

1. ^  Merriam-Webster dictionary definition of pseudoscience

See also

  • Bad science : pejorative term used to derogate purportedly scientific data, research, analyses or claims which are driven by perceived political, financial or other questionable motives.
  • Bible code (or Torah codes) : belief system that there are meaningful intentionally coded forms in the text of a holy scripture.
  • Cargo cult science : term to describe work that has the semblance of being scientific, but is missing "a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty".
  • Critical thinking : mental process of analyzing or evaluating information, particularly statements or propositions that are offered as true.
  • Extrasensory perception (or ESP) : any ability to acquire information by means other than the five canonical senses (taste, sight, touch, smell, and hearing), or any other sense well known to science (balance, proprioception, etc).
  • Junk science : pejorative term used to derogate purportedly scientific data, research, analyses or claims which are driven by perceived political, financial or other questionable motives.
  • Mind myths : misconceptions sometimes used to support pseudoscientific belief systems.
  • Magical thinking : used by historians of religion to describe one kind of non-scientific causal reasoning.
  • Memetics : scientific approach to evolutionary models of information transfer based on the concept of the meme.
  • New Age : broad movement of late twentieth century and contemporary Western culture characterised by an individual eclectic approach to spiritual exploration.
  • Pathological science : term to describe ideas that would simply not "go away", long after they were given up on as wrong by the majority of scientists in the field. The term is semantically loaded, and has often been taken as a personal insult implying utter foolishness in the target.
  • Pathological skepticism (or Pseudoskepticism) : class of pseudoscience masquerading as proper skepticism, where claims of "reason" and having a "scientific worldview", but frequently uses logical fallacies, attempts to silence opponents, and employs various invalid strategies of persuasion.
  • Protoscience : new areas of scientific endeavor in the process of becoming established and sometimes used to describe a hypothesis which has not yet been tested adequately by the scientific method.
  • Pseudohistory : term for information about the past, which purports to be historic or supported by archeology, but which is judged to fall outside the domain of mainstream history.
  • Pseudophilosophy : any idea or system that masquerades itself as philosophy while significantly failing to meet some suitable intellectual standards.
  • Sokal Affair : famous hoax played by physicist Alan Sokal upon the editorial staff and readership of a leading journal in the academic humanities.
  • Technobabble : confusing scientific or technical language, sometimes used to confuse the uninitiated or 'explain' pseudoscience.
  • Ufology : study of Unidentified flying object (UFO) reports, sightings, and other related phenomena
  • Quackery : practice of producing medicine which may lack any commonly respected evidence of their effectiveness and are generally considered to be in the business of selling false hope to ill-informed people.

People

  • Erich von Däniken : controversial Swiss author who is best known for authoring works about prehistoric times.
  • Michael Shermer : science writer, founder of The Skeptics Society, and editor of its magazine Skeptic.
  • Marcello Truzzi : professor of sociology at Eastern Michigan University and director for the Center for Scientific Anomalies Research.

Lists

External links

Look up pseudoscience in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
  • James Randi Educational Foundation - organization that investigates and attempts to verify claims that seem to contradict established science. Using controlled experimental conditions, the JREF has yet to find evidence of anything not explainable by established science.
  • Umbrellaology - this article amusingly illustrates some of the difficulties of deciding whether a subject is scientific or pseudoscientific.
  • Quackwatch - A guide to pseudoscience of a medical nature
  • Skeptic.com - The Skeptics Society and Skeptic Magazine
  • Ancop.com.br - Associação Nacional de Combate às Pseudociências [Brazil]

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