Pseudoscience

astrology

perpetual motion by norman rockwell

Pseudoscience refers to concepts that are presented as scientific, but which do not adhere to a valid scientific method, or cannot be reliably tested. Pseudoscience is often characterized by the use of vague, exaggerated or unprovable claims, an over-reliance on confirmation rather than rigorous attempts at refutation, a lack of openness to evaluation by other experts, and a general absence of systematic processes to rationally develop theories. So-called ‘Pop science’ blurs the divide between science and pseudoscience among the general public, and may also involve science fiction (it is disseminated to, and can also easily emanate from, persons not accountable to scientific methodology and expert peer review).

Pseudoscientific beliefs are widespread, even among public school science teachers and newspaper reporters. The demarcation problem between science and pseudoscience has ethical political implications (as well as philosophical and scientific). Differentiating science from pseudoscience has practical implications in the case of health care, expert testimony, environmental policies, and science education. Distinguishing scientific facts and theories from pseudoscientific beliefs such as those found in astrology, medical quackery, and occult beliefs combined with scientific concepts, is part of science education and scientific literacy.

The term ‘pseudoscience’ is inherently pejorative, because it suggests something is being inaccurately or even deceptively portrayed as science. Accordingly, those labeled as practicing or advocating pseudoscience normally dispute the characterization. While the standards for determining whether a body of knowledge, methodology, or practice is scientific can vary from field to field, a number of basic principles are widely agreed upon by scientists. The basic notion is that all experimental results should be reproducible, and able to be verified by other individuals. These principles aim to ensure experiments can be measurably reproduced under the same conditions, allowing further investigation to determine whether a hypothesis or theory related to given phenomena is both valid and reliable. Standards require the scientific method to be applied throughout, and bias will be controlled for or eliminated through randomization, fair sampling procedures, blinding of studies, and other methods. All gathered data, including the experimental or environmental conditions, are expected to be documented for scrutiny and made available for peer review, allowing further experiments or studies to be conducted to confirm or falsify results. Statistical quantification of significance, confidence, and error are also important tools for the scientific method.

In the mid-20th century, philosopher Karl Popper put forth the criterion of falsifiability to distinguish science from nonscience. Falsifiability means a result can be disproved. For example, a statement such as ‘God created the universe’ may be true or false, but no tests can be devised that could prove it either way; it simply lies outside the reach of science. Popper used astrology and psychoanalysis as examples of pseudoscience and Einstein’s theory of relativity as an example of science. He subdivided nonscience into philosophical, mathematical, mythological, religious and/or metaphysical formulations on one hand, and pseudoscientific formulations on the other, though he did not provide clear criteria for the differences.

In 1942, American sociologist Robert K. Merton identified a small set of ‘norms’ which characterized what makes a real science. If any of the norms were violated, Merton determined the enterprise to be nonscience. His norms were defined as: Originality (the tests and research done must present something new to the scientific community); Detachment (the scientists’ reasons for practicing this science must be simply for the expansion of their knowledge); Universality (social class, religion, ethnicity, or any other personal factors should not be factors in someone’s ability to receive or perform a type of science); Skepticism: (one should always question every case and argument and constantly check for errors or invalid claims); and Public accessibility (the results of any research should be openly published and shared with the scientific community). In 1978, Canadian philosopher Paul Thagard proposed that pseudoscience is primarily distinguishable from science when it is less progressive than alternative theories over a long period of time, and its proponents fail to acknowledge or address problems with the theory. In 1983, philosopher and physicist Mario Bunge suggested the categories of ‘belief fields’ and ‘research fields’ to help distinguish between pseudoscience and science, where the former is primarily personal and subjective and the latter involves a certain systematic approach.

Philosophers of science, such as Paul Feyerabend, argued that a distinction between science and nonscience is neither possible nor desirable. Among the issues which can make the distinction difficult, is variable rates of evolution among the theories and methodologies of science in response to new data. In addition, specific standards applicable to one field of science may not be applicable in other fields. Epistemologist Larry Laudan has suggested pseudoscience has no scientific meaning and is mostly used to describe our emotions: ‘If we would stand up and be counted on the side of reason, we ought to drop terms like ‘pseudo-science’ and ‘unscientific’ from our vocabulary; they are just hollow phrases which do only emotive work for us.’ Likewise, professor of psychology Richard McNally states, ‘The term ‘pseudoscience’ has become little more than an inflammatory buzzword for quickly dismissing one’s opponents in media sound-bites’ and ‘When therapeutic entrepreneurs make claims on behalf of their interventions, we should not waste our time trying to determine whether their interventions qualify as pseudoscientific. Rather, we should ask them: How do you know that your intervention works? What is your evidence?’

Although the term ‘pseudoscience’ has been in use since at least the late 18th century (used in 1796 in reference to alchemy) the concept of pseudoscience as distinct from real or proper science appears to have emerged in the mid-19th century. Among the first recorded uses of the word ‘pseudo-science’ was in 1844 in the ‘Northern Journal of Medicine’: ‘That opposite kind of innovation which pronounces what has been recognized 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.’ In the history of science and ‘history of pseudoscience’ it can be especially hard to separate the two, because some sciences developed from pseudosciences. An example of this is the science chemistry, which traces its origins to pseudoscientific alchemy. The vast diversity in pseudosciences further complicates the history of science. Some modern pseudosciences, such as astrology and acupuncture, originated before the scientific era. Others developed as part of an ideology, such as Lysenkoism in the Soviet Union or as a response to perceived threats to an ideology, such as creation science and intelligent design, which were developed in response to the scientific theory of evolution. Despite failing to meet proper scientific standards, many pseudosciences survive. This is usually due to a persistent core of devotees who refuse to accept scientific criticism of their beliefs, or due to popular misconceptions.

Paul R. Thagard used astrology as a case study to distinguish science from pseudoscience and proposed principles and criteria to delineate them. First, astrology has not progressed in that it has not been updated nor added any explanatory power since Ptolemy. Second, it has ignored outstanding problems such as the precession of equinoxes in astronomy. Third, alternative theories of personality and behavior have grown progressively to encompass explanations of phenomena which astrology statically attributes to heavenly forces. Fourth, astrologers have remained uninterested in furthering the theory to deal with outstanding problems or in critically evaluating the theory in relation to other theories. Thagard intended this criterion to be extended to areas other than astrology. He believed it would delineate as pseudoscientific such practices as witchcraft and pyramidology, while leaving physics, chemistry and biology in the realm of science. Biorhythms, which like astrology relied uncritically on birth dates, did not meet the criterion of pseudoscience at the time because there were no alternative explanations for the same observations. The use of this criterion has the consequence that a theory can at one time be scientific and at another pseudoscientific.

Science is also distinguishable from revelation, theology, or spirituality. For this reason, the teaching of creation science and intelligent design has been strongly condemned in position statements from scientific organizations. The most notable disputes concern the evolution of living organisms, the idea of common descent, the geologic history of the Earth, the formation of the solar system, and the origin of the universe. Systems of belief that derive from divine or inspired knowledge are not considered pseudoscience if they do not claim either to be scientific or to overturn well-established science. Moreover, some specific religious claims, such as the power of intercessory prayer to heal the sick can be tested by the scientific method, though they may be based on untestable beliefs.

If the claims of a given field can be experimentally tested and methodological standards are upheld, it is not ‘pseudoscience,’ however odd, astonishing, or counterintuitive. If claims made are inconsistent with existing experimental results or established theory, but the methodology is sound, caution should be used; science consists of testing hypotheses which may turn out to be false. In such a case, the work may be better described as ideas that are ‘not yet generally accepted.’ ‘Protoscience’ is a term sometimes used to describe a hypothesis that has not yet been adequately tested by the scientific method, but which is otherwise consistent with existing science or which, where inconsistent, offers reasonable account of the inconsistency. It may also describe the transition from a body of practical knowledge into a scientific field.

Examples of pseudoscience include creation science, intelligent design, cold fusion, ch’i, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, reflexology, astrology, biorhythms, facilitated communication, extrasensory perception, ancient astronauts, acupuncture, ayurvedic medicine, and homeopathy. American writer Robert T. Carroll stated in part: ‘Pseudoscientists claim to base their theories on empirical evidence, and they may even use some scientific methods, though often their understanding of a controlled experiment is inadequate. Many pseudoscientists relish being able to point out the consistency of their ideas with known facts or with predicted consequences, but they do not recognize that such consistency is not proof of anything. It is a necessary condition but not a sufficient condition that a good scientific theory be consistent with the facts.’

In his book ‘The Most Precious Thing’ Carl Sagan discusses the government of China and the Chinese Communist Party concern about Western pseudoscience developments and certain ancient Chinese practices in China. He sees pseudoscience occurring in the U.S. as part of a worldwide trend and suggests its causes, dangers, diagnosis and treatment may be universal. In Spain, another science writer Luis Alfonso Gámez was sued after he notified the public about the lack of efficacy to support the claims of a popular pseudoscientist. In the US, 54% of the population believe in psychic healing and 35% believe in telepathy. In Europe, the statistics are not that much different. A significant percentage of Europeans consider homeopathy (34%) and horoscopes (13%) to be reliable science. Over the past decade, consumer interest in the use of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) practices and/or products has increased. Surveys demonstrate that the people with the most serious medical conditions, such as cancer, chronic pain, and HIV, are the most routine consumers of CAM.

Pseudoscientific thinking has been explained in terms of psychology and social psychology. The human proclivity for seeking confirmation rather than refutation (confirmation bias), the tendency to hold comforting beliefs, and the tendency to overgeneralize have been proposed as reasons for the common adherence to pseudoscientific thinking. According to Beyerstein (1991), humans are prone to associations based on resemblances only, and often prone to misattribution in cause-effect thinking. Lindeman states that social motives (i.e., ‘to comprehend self and the world, to have a sense of control over outcomes, to belong, to find the world benevolent and to maintain one’s self-esteem’) are often ‘more easily’ fulfilled by pseudoscience than by scientific information. Furthermore, pseudoscientific explanations are generally not analyzed rationally, but instead experientially. Operating within a different set of rules compared to rational thinking, experiential thinking regards an explanation as valid if the explanation is ‘personally functional, satisfying and sufficient,’ offering a description of the world that may be more personal than can be provided by science and reducing the amount of potential work involved in understanding complex events and outcomes.

In our culture and thinking, people appear to have trouble distinguishing science from pseuodoscience. The prime reason people believe in wishful things is because they want to, it feels good and it is consoling. Many weird beliefs give immediate gratification. Immediate gratification of a person’s belief is made a lot easier by simple explanantions for an often complicated and contingent world. The scientific and secular systems of morality and meaning are generally unsatisfying to most people. Humans are, by nature, a forward-minded species pursuing greater avenues of happiness and satisfaction, but we are all too frequently willing to grasp at unrealistic promises of a better life. Research suggests that illusionary thinking is not unusual, and given the right conditions, illusions are able to occur systematically even in normal emotional situations. One of the things pseudoscience believers quibble most about is that academic science usually treats them as fools. Minimizing these illusions in the real world is not simple. To this aim, designing evidence-based educational programs can be effective to help people identify and reduce their own illusions.

In the philosophy and history of science, Imre Lakatos stresses the social and political importance of the demarcation problem: the problem of distinguishing between science and pseudoscience. His historical analysis of scientific methodology suggests, ‘scientists regard the successful theoretical prediction of stunning novel facts – such as the return of Halley’s comet or the gravitational bending of light rays – as what demarcates good scientific theories from pseudo-scientific and degenerate theories, and in spite of all scientific theories being forever confronted by ‘an ocean of counterexamples.” Lakatos offers a ‘novel fallibilist analysis of the development of Newton’s celestial dynamics, [his] favorite historical example of his methodology’ and argues in light of this historical turn, that his account answers for certain inadequacies in those of Sir Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn. ‘Nonetheless, Lakatos did recognize the force of Kuhn’s historical criticism of Popper – all important theories have been surrounded by an ‘ocean of anomalies,’ which on a falsificationist view would require the rejection of the theory outright… Lakatos sought to reconcile the rationalism of Popperian falsificationism with what seemed to be its own refutation by history.’

According to Lakatos, ‘Many philosophers have tried to solve the problem of demarcation in the following terms: a statement constitutes knowledge if sufficiently many people believe it sufficiently strongly. But the history of thought shows us that many people were totally committed to absurd beliefs. If the strengths of beliefs were a hallmark of knowledge, we should have to rank some tales about demons, angels, devils, and of heaven and hell as knowledge. Scientists, on the other hand, are very skeptical even of their best theories. Newton’s is the most powerful theory science has yet produced, but Newton himself never believed that bodies attract each other at a distance. So no degree of commitment to beliefs makes them knowledge. Indeed, the hallmark of scientific behavior is a certain skepticism even towards one’s most cherished theories. Blind commitment to a theory is not an intellectual virtue: it is an intellectual crime.’ He concludes, ‘Thus a statement may be pseudoscientific even if it is eminently ‘plausible’ and everybody believes in it, and it may be scientifically valuable even if it is unbelievable and nobody believes in it. A theory may even be of supreme scientific value even if no one understands it, let alone believes in it.’

According to David Newbold and Julia Roberts, ‘To Popper, pseudoscience uses induction to generate theories, and only performs experiments to seek to verify them. To Popper, falsifiability is what determines the scientific status of a theory. Taking a historical approach, Kuhn observed that scientists did not follow Popper’s rule, and might ignore falsifying data, unless overwhelming. To Kuhn, puzzle-solving within a paradigm is science. Lakatos attempted to resolve this debate, by suggesting history shows that science occurs in research programs, competing according to how progressive they are. The leading idea of a program could evolve, driven by its heuristic to make predictions that can be supported by evidence. Feyerabend claimed that Lakatos was selective in his examples, and the whole history of science shows there is no universal rule of scientific method, and imposing one on the scientific community impedes progress.’

Alexander Bird wrote, ‘[Feyerabend] regards Lakatos’s view as being closet anarchism disguised as methodological rationalism. It should be noted that Feyerabend’s claim was not that standard methodological rules should never be obeyed, but rather that sometimes progress is made by abandoning them. In the absence of a generally accepted rule, there is a need for alternative methods of persuasion. According to Feyerabend, Galileo employed stylistic and rhetorical techniques to convince his reader, while he also wrote in Italian rather than Latin and directed his arguments to those already temperamentally inclined to accept them.

The demarcation problem between science and pseudoscience brings up debate in the realms of science, philosophy and politics. Lakatos, for instance, points out that the Communist Party of the Soviet Union at one point declared that Mendelian genetics was pseudoscientific and had its advocates, including well-established scientists such as Nikolai Vavilov, sent to a Gulag and that the ‘liberal Establishment of the West’ denies freedom of speech to topics it regards as pseudoscience, particularly where they run up against social mores. Pseudoscience is used recurrently in political, policy-making discourse in allegations of distortion or fabrication of scientific findings to support a political position.

The Prince of Wales has accused climate change skeptics of using pseudoscience and persuasion to hinder the world from adopting precautionary principles to avert catastrophic global warming. People have given attention to the climate skeptics and have tried to understand the kind of pseudoscience they are canvassing. But he insisted the ‘environmental collapse’ evidence is already here, not only in climbing temperatures but the imprint on particular species like honey bees. It becomes pseudoscientific when science cannot be separated from ideology, scientists misrepresent scientific findings to promote or draw attention for publicity, when politicians, journalists and a nation’s intellectual elite distort the facts of science for short-term political gain, when powerful individuals in the public conflate causation and cofactors (for example, in the causes of HIV/AIDS) through a mixture of clever wordplay, or when science is being used by the powerful to promote ignorance rather than tackle ignorance. These ideas reduce the authority, value, integrity and independence of science in society.

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