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Posted by on Feb 2, 2013 in Philosophy, Science, Skepticism | 1 comment

Sharon Hill on the trouble with pseudoscience

Sharon Hill has an article on the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry’s website, entitled “The Trouble with Pseudoscience—It Can Be a Catastrophe”. The article is mainly about Immanuel Velikovsky and the way his work was received by scientists (who were very hostile) and historians (who pretty much ignored it). However, it gets deeper into philosophical issues relating to the “demarcation problem” – the problem of how you can tell science from non-science, and in particular from pseudoscience.

What I like about Hill’s take is that she does not put forward some simplistic proposal that supposedly creates a clear boundary. She seems correct that there is no single criterion or set of criteria that will enable us to make straightforward judgments about where science (including incompetent or otherwise bad science) ends and pseudoscience begins.

That’s not to say that we cannot reasonably classify a body of claims as pseudoscience – of course we can, in many cases. We can find various extensive sets of propositions that ape bodies of scientific theory and are supported by arguments that ape scientific styles of reasoning… but which are bogus. We might even be able to talk about what makes them bogus. For example, we may be able to show a lack of good faith, perhaps even fraud, or that these “theories” have been more or less plucked out of the air, then rationalised, and they have not proceeded through the incremental process of scientific justification that is more typical of genuine science. The people putting forward the “theories” may be obvious charlatans, the “theories” themselves may integrate badly or not at all with robust scientific findings from contiguous areas, and so on. In a large class of cases, the situation is fairly clear cut. In these cases, we can say with confidence that a body of propositions, with its associated line of inquiry and process of justification,  is a kind of bogus aping of the superficial appearance of science, rather than the real thing. There’s no reason, in that case, not to call it “pseudoscience”.

Still, what do we make of other categories, such as merely bad science, dubious science, fringe science, or highly speculative science? Should we classify Creation Science as pseudoscience or “only” as very bad science. I’m inclined to go for the former, but possibly because I can imagine very bad science being done in good faith, whereas I am inclined to think that Creation Science is not even a good faith attempt at scientific investigation – but is that really so? What is “good faith” for this purpose? Or “bad faith”, if it comes to that – does it require an actual attempt at fraud? Is it enough if the practitioners believe in key conclusions on some other basis and will never accept that those conclusions are incorrect?

I don’t have a neat answer to the demarcation problem. As far as I can see, there will be all sorts of grey areas, though there will also be plenty of clear cases of pseudoscience.

At any rate, although Hill goes into some of this she does not try to solve the problem.  In considering Velikovsky’s claims and methods – a rather clear-cut case of pseudoscience – she raises interesting questions about the best tactics for dealing with popular varieties of pseudoscience. Do you engage or ignore? If you engage, how aggressive or personally nasty should you be? If it depends, what does it depend on? Can even pseudoscience sometimes contain a grain of inspiration or insight that is worth investigating?

These are good questions, so check out the article.

  • I suspect that when we speculate about what people “believe” or “want” or are “trying” to do, we naturally run into these walls because minds are complex and differ greatly from our folk psychology. To really make sense of a question like whether or how a single person can be both a fraud and a true believer, we may need to consult psychological research, and lay our own natural categorizations open to question.