The Trouble with Pseudoscience—It Can Be a Catastrophe

Sharon_hill_80pxBy Sharon Hill via The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry – CSI

Pseudoscience is what one might call a two-dollar word. Skeptics often throw it around because of its weightiness and the values it transmits. We need to talk about this word, where it came from, and why we should be cautious about using it.

Pseudoscience is a pejorative term that is bestowed upon a set of ideas, not used by choice by the holder of those ideas. It’s “false” science, fake science, an imitation missing a vital part, the knockoff, the wannabe, the cheap imitation… OK, you get what I mean.

telekinesis_fullpic_1149_300pxContrary to what we think we can say constitutes pseudoscience, there are no set criteria to identify it. It’s not a simple thing but a sticky wicket. It’s whatever scientists say doesn’t belong to legitimate science – a problematic definition. We often must use examples to explain what we mean. Wikipedia has a list of topics that have been characterized as pseudoscience by someone, sometime. Common examples include: astrology, cryptozoology, paranormal investigation, ufology, parapsychology, psychoanalysis, alternative medicine, homeopathy, and creationism.

Because science has authority in our society, it is worthy of imitation. Pseudoscience is science’s shadow, which makes it hard to separate from the real thing. It can’t exist without science. This science imitation was evident to me upon researching paranormal investigation and cryptozoology. I concluded it was useful to have a set of reasonable guidelines one could use to determine if the methodology and the resulting body of knowledge was scientific or lacking in a critical way. The more of these characteristics one can attribute to the field in question, the more likely it is fairly categorized as “pseudoscience.” But since those are fuzzy, subjective criteria, some theories we now regard as legitimate might have qualified as “pseudoscience” at one time, such as Einstein’s special theory of relativity, Mendel’s heredity, meteorites, and Wegener’s continental drift.

There is no continuum between science and pseudoscience. Nor is there a clear boundary or litmus test for what qualifies as science and what lies outside the lines. This is called the “demarcation problem”—a term that Austrian philosopher Karl Popper coined in the late 1920s to describe the issues of marking a solid line between what is scientific and what is nonscientific. It turns out Popper’s solution to the problem was not so hot. He thought it lay in the criterion of testability/falsifiability. But that fails since several theories are not practically falsifiable.

Any series of characteristics commonly attributable to pseudoscience, such as my pet list of criteria, also fails for various reasons. After all this searching for a demarcation criterion without success, philosopher Larry Laudan remarked that we might fairly conclude that “the object of the quest is nonexistent.”

Pseudoscience is just what pseudoscientists do, say the scientists. That is not very helpful for someone who wants to make heads or tails out of a controversial area of research.

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One response

  1. Very interesting insights.. Thaks for writing this.

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