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Pseudoscience is something that appears to be science but is not. The science/pseudoscience distinction should be understood as a manner of degree; between black and white, there are shades of gray. The "social sciences" often seem like such a gray area. But one can nevertheless recognize the extremes of this continuum.
Various Criteria for Recognizing Pseudoscience
Sir Karl Popper distinguished real science from pseudoscience by claiming that pseudoscientific theories cannot be falsified. He came up with this criterion after encountering Marxists' and Freudians' always having an answer for everything, even seemingly clear falsifications. Though this is a common feature of pseudoscientific theories, there are additional features worth noting.
Irving Langmuir's symptoms of "pathological science":
- The maximum effect that is observed is produced by a causative agent of barely detectable intensity, and the magnitude of the effect is substantially independent of the intensity of the cause.
- The effect is of a magnitude that remains close to the limit of detectability; or, many measurements are necessary because of the very low statistical significance of the results.
- Claims of great accuracy.
- Fantastic theories contrary to experience.
- Criticisms are met by ad hoc excuses thought up on the spur of the moment.
- Ratio of supporters to critics rises up to somewhere near 50% and then falls gradually to oblivion.
His most notable example was "N-rays", which had been "discovered" a century ago by French physicist René Blondlot. He and his colleagues reported numerous features of N-rays, yet they were barely detectable -- when they could be detected. They turned out to be unconscious figments of their observers' imaginations. By contrast, X-rays, discovered a few years before, were glaringly apparent when one knew what to look for.
Martin Gardner's ways of recognizing a pseudoscientist:
- He considers himself a genius.
- He regards his colleagues, without exception, as ignorant blockheads.
- He believes himself unjustly persecuted and discriminated against.
- He has strong compulsions to focus his attacks on the greatest scientists and best established theories.
- He often has a tendency to write in a complex jargon, in many cases making use of terms and phrases he himself has coined.
From the classic book Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science; a very curious, but common, response was to get indignant over just one chapter, while thinking that the rest of the book is excellent. Parallel to this, many pseudoscientists show great critical sense about theories other than theirs.
More recently, Robert L. Park has listed "The Seven Warning Signs of Bogus Science":
- The discoverer pitches the claim directly to the media.
- The discoverer says that a powerful establishment is trying to suppress his or her work.
- The scientific effect involved is always at the very limit of detection.
- Evidence for a discovery is anecdotal.
- The discoverer says a belief is credible because it has endured for centuries.
- The discoverer has worked in isolation.
- The discoverer must propose new laws of nature to explain an observation.
The last one deserves some explanation; mainstream scientists are careful to propose new laws only if they:
- explain new findings accepted laws didn't explain,
- account for what accepted ones successfully account for, while pseudoscientists often have little regard for that. Thus, the developers of relativity and quantum mechanics were careful to ensure that their new theories reduce to Newtonian mechanics in the appropriate limits.
And John Casti has listed these criteria:
- Anachronistic thinking.
- Seeking of mysteries.
- Appeals to myths.
- Casual approach to evidence.
- Irrefutable hypotheses.
- Spurious similarities.
- Explanation by scenario.
- Research by literary interpretation.
- Refusal to revise.
- Shifting the burden of proof to the other side.
- A theory is legitimate simply because it is new, alternative, or daring.
Research by literary interpretation can be extended to include research by theological interpretation, research by the way one interprets one's favorite sacred books.
Finally, John Baez's Crackpot Index is "a simple method for rating potentially revolutionary contributions to physics"; one adds points for each of various telltale features of pseudoscience. Though originally designed for physics, it can easily be adapted to evolutionary biology, as illustrated below.
An especially annoying feature of pseudoscientists is that they often consider themselves martyred in Galileo fashion; more recently, they often claim that their theories are great paradigm shifts. One often senses some argument to the effect of "My theories are rejected and I am persecuted, therefore I am right." And they often make such claims and arguments without having as much as a single rejected paper to show for their efforts.
And though they may be isolated from the mainstream of the scientific community, like-minded pseudoscientists sometimes form their own communities and "professional societies," and publish their own journals -- sometimes complete with their own peer review. However, isolation from the mainstream scientific community is very unhelpful; most great discoveries are not made by lone geniuses working in isolation. They were all made either by mainstream scientists or by those in close contact with the mainstream scientific community and its theories and observations.
Related to this is their tendency to seek vindication in support by the general public or cliques of followers; these are not the mainstream scientific community.
Continually obtaining borderline results despite improvements in technology has been a common part of psi research, UFOlogy, cryptozoological crackpottery, etc. -- psychokinesis has not become easier and easier to measure, no crashed or crippled extraterrestrial spaceships have ever been found, no Loch Ness Monster has ever washed up on the shore of that lake, etc. Compare the case of the canals of Mars, which were observed by some astronomers, like Percival Lowell, but not by others, like Eugï¿½ne Antoniadi. But they were a borderline observation at best, and by the middle of the twentieth century, most astronomers had become skeptical of them. The question was decisively settled when spacecraft were sent to Mars in the 1960's and afterwards; those canals do not exist, and the "observation" of them only tells us something about human pattern recognition.
One possible problem with these criteria for recognizing pseudoscience is that only some of them are related to the contents of the theories, like containing demonstrably false statements, involving farfetched or contrived or ad hoc arguments, or being difficult or impossible to falsify. Many of them are related to the style of presentation and features of the presenters, meaning that they can be interpreted as ad hominem arguments. But while there is no necessary connection between these styles and features and the (in)correctness of the presenters' theories; it is nevertheless a very reliable empirical correlation.
Creationists as Pseudoscientists
Gardner 1: William Dembski has been called by his colleague Robert Koons the "Isaac Newton of information theory".
Baez 21: Creationists often imply that their theories have superior pedagogical value.
Gardner 5, Baez 14: William Dembski's argumentation often has this flavor; "complex specified information" sounds impressive, but what is it?
Baez 16: Creationists often call evolution "only a theory".
Casti 2: Creationists are fond of describing allegedly unevolvable features.
Casti 10: Creationists often seem to think that creationism is proved unless evolution can be proved.
Baez 9, 18, 22: Creationists' arguments often fall far short of the force needed to justify their claims.
Baez 35: Some "intelligent design" theorists claim that we can never know why the "designer" designed this or that.
Casti 9, Baez 5: Duane Gish is notorious for that, repeating various claims no matter how often he has heard them debunked during debates.
Casti 4: Many creationists are very imprecise in their discussions, using common names like "cat family" instead of some formal taxonomic names like Felis or Felidae.
Baez 2: Creationists sometimes go to great lengths to deny obvious homologies, like how the human coccyx is a vestigial tail.
Gardner 2, Baez 25, 26: Mainstream scientists are viewed as having "materialistic presuppositions" and worse.
Baez 27: Creationist quote-mining often has this thrust, implying that evolutionary biologists occasionally give away how weak their case is.
Casti 8: Creationists often make the argument that they and mainstream scientists observe the same phenomena but interpret them in different ways, as if that somehow makes them equals.
Park 6: Creationists seldom try to publish in mainstream scientific journals; their knowledge of the professional biological and geological literature often seems limited to their favorite collections of mined quotes.
Baez 19: Some "Intelligent Design" supporters imply that it is the next great paradigm shift in science.
Baez 34: Phillip E. Johnson has been known to state that Darwin's overthrow will complete the overthrow of the three great nineteenth-century materialists -- Darwin, Marx, and Freud.
Gardner 3, Park 2, Baez 31, 32, 33: Some creationists consider themselves persecuted, even though they are not suffering serious adverse consequences for being creationists.
Park 1: Creationists often look for support in the general public.
Baez 10: Creationists sometimes brag about their credentials -- which are sometimes phony, as in the case of Kent Hovind's "university degree".
Baez 13: Kent Hovind has offered $250,000 to anyone who can demonstrate evolution to him.
Langmuir 4, 5: Creationists often go into amazing contortions in their attempts to demonstrate that Noah and his family could have pulled off his legendary voyage with all those animals, and that Noah's Flood could have laid down the sedimentary rocks. Their attempts to argue away dating methods often have a similar quality, sometimes involving perhaps the ultimate in ad hoc hypotheses: Philip Henry Gosse's theory of created appearance.
Langmur 2, Park 3: Searches for Noah's Ark typically find only pieces of wood here and there -- and never anything approaching a whole Ark.
Casti 3, Baez 23: Creationists often believe in the literal truth of the Bible; in fact, some creationist organizations require that their members profess belief in the literal truth of that document.
Park 5, Casti 1: Creationists sometimes brag about the age of the Bible.
- "Pathological Science", Irving Langmuir (Colloquium at The Knolls Research Laboratory, December 18, 1953); transcribed here
- Martin Gardner, Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, 2nd Ed., 1957
- Robert L. Park, "The Seven Warning Signs of Bogus Science", The Chronicle Review, January 31, 2001. Online here
- John Casti, Paradigms Lost, 1990; his pseudoscience criteria summarized in Science vs. Pseudoscience at Massimo Pigliucci's Rationally Speaking.
- John Baez, The Crackpot Index