Tag Archives: Karl Popper

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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A Conspiracy of One

by Joachim I. Krueger, Ph.D. via Psychology Today

TheTruthIsNotThere_05_400pxConspiracy theories thrive at the fringes of polite discourse. They have the smell of paranoia if they get out of hand. Some conspiracy theories are true and being on one’s guard is a good idea. Caesar dismissed warnings about Cassius and Brutus plotting and paid with his life. Other conspiracy theories are so far-flung that the question of whether they are true is not even meaningful. These theories are not testable. They are deaf to the sound of evidence—at least on the disconfirmatory side. In a German-language paper, I explored what I call The Grand Conspiracy Theory (Krueger, 2010). The GCT suggests that a small group of individuals controls every aspect of the world that matters: the economy, the media, war and peace, what have you. The governments and their representatives that we see are not really in charge; they are front pieces of darker and stronger forces that remain out of view, and they may not even know it. With a bit of googling you can find examples of this sort of thinking. Amazon is not above selling books on the matter. Try Illuminati as a key word.

According to the GCT, there are no accidents in world affairs. Everything that happens is part of a grand design to put and keep the masses in material and spiritual bondage, and to further increase the power of the cabal (This idea is problematic because if their power were already as great as claimed, there would be no room for further increases—but I digress). Believers in the GCT claim that they are on to the cabal—that is a necessary part of the theory itself. They further claim that the conspiracy might fail, and that indeed such a collapse may be imminent, if only enough people awakened to the stark facts. This basic arrangement can go on and on over many generations, with the presumed identity of the conspirators changing with the times (Templars, Jews, Freemasons, aliens, and reptiles being favorites).

Looking at conspiracy theories, and the grand one in particular, I noticed certain similarities with judeo-christian ideation. There is the idea of the all—or at least very—powerful force that is hidden, that has a plan, and that moves the world toward a cataclysmic end. The major differences are that the god of monotheism has no one with whom to conspire and that the human-based GCT has fewer good things to say about the power that be.

Given the similarities in the psychological pattern, I felt that mundane conspiracy theories might be derivatives of religious belief. This is not a new idea. Sir Karl Popper suggested that “The conspiracy theory of society…comes from abandoning God and then asking: What is in his place?” Umberto Eco noted . . .

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