Pseudoscience: The word doesn't mean what you think it means

Let the term ‘pseudoscience’ die. This atheist pet word deserves it.

In his piece on the topic of pseudoscience, Prof. Steven Dutch of the University of Wisconsin says:

Theories that claim to be scientific but fly in the face of scientific consensus are often called pseudoscience

This is a strange definition of pseudoscience. It’s tempting to try to tighten the definition, but as I’ll argue, the very term pseudoscience is meaningless and not worth saving. Dutch provides three criteria for calling something the “p” word:

  1. Demonstrably faulty observations or theories, or elaborate speculation without an adequate basis.

This is so vague it could be applied to theoretical astrophysics and quantum field theory. Will he narrow down this definition a little more later on?

  1. Usually Supported by logical fallacies. The only way it’s possible to accept faulty data is through faulty reasoning.

This is full of irony, as it is itself a logical fallacy (affirming the consequent). Certainly one way people accept faulty data is through faulty reasoning, but it’s not the only way. Something as simple as a broken instrument can lead one to accept faulty data, even though their reasoning may be perfectly sound.

  1. In open defiance of scientific consensus

Science advances by new evidence, new discoveries, and new ways of thinking about things. Throughout history there’s been “scientific consensus” on all sorts of stupid ideas. When a minority of scientists came along to correct it, were they practicing “pseudoscience?” No. It’s a silly point. It needs a retraction.

He then goes on to provide a much longer list of what pseudoscience is not. He says pseudoscience is not “Defined by personal disagreement”. Well, now things are getting interesting! Couldn’t people legitimately disagree on what constitutes a “faulty observation” or “adequate basis?” And how does this square with the idea that anything that goes against the “scientific consensus” (whatever that is) is “pseudoscience?”

Dutch goes into listing what he calls branches of pseudoscience, including “mystical” and “resentment of authority”. At this point, I began to suspect that he was placing certain things under the heading of “pseudoscience” that were never put forth by anybody as real science. For example, under the “mystical” branch of pseudoscience, he gives the examples of “Psychic” and “Astrology.” While I’m sure Miss Cleo and others who stand to profit from it have claimed astrology is scientific, I don’t think most people who read horoscopes think that there’s anything scientific about astrology. Quite the opposite. If astrologers presented horoscopes as scientific, they wouldn’t be mystical, and that would make them boring to free-spirit types.

Think of this it this way: If a person believes that fairies speak to her through the television and give her visions of kittens eating rainbows and humming jazz tunes, would Dutch call this “pseudoscience?” I certainly hope not. It’s not even ostensibly scientific. It’s in a whole different realm.

Another branch he lists as a pseudoscience is “junk science.” He gives as an example, “Dismissal of dangers of marijuana by legalization advocates”. Again, this is not an example of wishful thinking put forth as science. Rather, it’s just denial of an conclusion supported by scientific evidence. He also lists “Diet fads” and “Quack medical cures” under this heading. These are his best examples of pseudoscience, and I think where his definition should focus. But the rest of his examples nobody even considers to be science.

Pseudoscience or pseudohistory?

Dutch then charges into a long bulleted list of the supposed reasons people believe in pseudoscience. One thing that caught my eye was the prediction that Muslims might begin to deny the Apollo moon landing. Of course, many people of other religions have already done this. But is this really pseudoscience, or pseudohistory? While the Apollo moon landing certainly involved a tremendous amount of scientific effort, and while landing on the moon was quite an experiment, the event itself is an historical event. Those who claim the U.S. never landed on the moon don’t dispute that lots of science was involved. In fact, many conspiracy theorists claim a lot of science went into faking the moon landing. They don’t dispute the science. What they dispute is the historicity. This isn’t pseudoscience. It’s just denying history.

Bizarrely, Dutch includes this gem among the reasons people believe in pseudoscience:

Creationism. Anti-evolutionists attribute all the ills of society to evolution and its alleged weakening of belief in the Bible.

No anti-evolutionist (e.g. creationist) attributes “all the ills of society” to belief in evolution. If Dutch simply read the first few chapters of Geneis, he’d realize that Scripture traces “all the ills of society” back to original sin. Giving him the benefit of the doubt, I won’t assume he included this simply as an excuse to take an embarrassingly weak cheap shot at Christians. Being charitable, I’ll assume his intellectual circle is insular, and he simply doesn’t know many Christians and doesn’t read the Bible all that much.

Inventing new logical fallacies

Many who write about science (be they scientists or not) either aren’t well trained in logic or have forgotten their training. While I don’t accuse Dutch of falling into this category, some of the “logical fallacies” he presents as markers of pseudoscience aren’t really fallacies at all.

The first “fallacy” that I had to do some research on is the “Residue fallacy.” The fallacy is that if you have a phenomenon, like a UFO sighting, and you can explain away 95% of the cases, then the remaining 5% might be legitimate sightings. As someone who wants to combat pseudoscience, Dutch needs to be careful with this one because it cuts both ways. Consider the statement, “85% of smokers who died had lung cancer. The remaining 15% died of unexplained causes.” If you conclude that the remaining 15% might not have had lung cancer, then you’re guilty of the “residue fallacy”. Clearly, this isn’t a fallacy at all.

Conspiracy theories

The last and most intriguing one is “Conspiratorial outlook” and it deserves a closer look because Dutch himself is himself engaging in a logical fallacy by listing this. Dutch writes:

The single most reliable indicator of pseudoscience. Almost every pseudoscientist sooner or later (usually sooner) claims to be the victim of a conspiracy to suppress his discoveries, or the theory itself revolves around a conspiracy.

Replace the word “suppress” with “deny” and you’ll quickly see where I’m going with this. The first conspiracy theory that came to my mind was, “Big oil denying evidence of global warming.” The second was, “Intelligent design advocates suppressing the teaching of evolution in public schools.” According to this most reliable indicator, global warming and evolution are pseudoscience! Dutch really needs to rethink this one. Claiming a conspiracy isn’t a logical fallacy, nor is it even a sign of incorrectness. There are people who believe in conspriacy theories who also believe in real science. Saying that people who claim conspiracy theories are practicing pseudoscience, however, is a genetic logical fallacy – ad hominem.

Dutch follows with a more in-depth discussion of conspiracy theories. He says, “They are impossible to disprove so they can’t be tested.” That statement itself is impossible to disprove, and hence can’t be tested. In fact, some of what passes as science can’t be tested, let alone disproved. On the whole, however, he’s correct in his assessment that conspiracy arguments strike at the emotions and promote fantastical thoughts of forces so intelligent and powerful that they leave behind no evidence. But yet again, this is irrelevant to pseudoscience per se, and is only tangentially relevant to the supposed reasons people believe in pseudoscience – a term he still hasn’t defined very well.

Dutch somewhat clarifies his position at the end by saying, “It’s not proper to dismiss an idea solely because it postulates a conspiracy.” I can’t help but come away from this section thinking that this all has very little to do with pseudoscience. Many who believe in conspiracy theories are mentally ill, or at least have some psychological issues. Someone who believes aliens are conspiring with the government to control the weather isn’t necessarily practicing pseudoscience – maybe they’re just crazy. Once again, he’s stretching the definition of pseudoscience too far.

Science can’t prove itself right, so it must be wrong?

In the next section, Dutch makes a wild claim: “ideas are wrong until proven right”. If you buy that, then his statement is wrong until proven right. But Dutch never proves it right. He just puts it out there. So Dutch, according to his own statement, is wrong. Obviously, we have to start somewhere. But why start from the assumption that ideas are wrong until proven right? Why not start by assuming they’re right until proven wrong? He doesn’t answer this, which is a shame because he missed an opportunity to tighten his definition of pseudoscience and make his case against it much more compelling.

I’ll briefly address this notion of the benefit of the doubt – the question of whether we should consider ideas right or wrong until proven otherwise. Let’s take two examples.

Example 1

Your spouse comes up to you and asks to have $20 to go get gas in the car because it’s almost empty. Do you demand proof that the gas tank is almost empty? Or do you believe that it’s almost empty absent any evidence to the contrary?

Example 2

A stranger approaches you on the street and asks to have $20 to go get gas in his car because it’s almost empty. Do you demand proof that the gas tank is almost empty? Or do you believe that it’s almost empty absent any evidence to the contrary?

Where the burden of proof rests – with the claim or against it – depends on the circumstances and the people involved. I think many, especially those involved with science, don’t like to admit this because it looks biased. It’s hard to maintain the image of a dispassionate, objective scientist when you admit that you sometimes practice favoritism and appeal to authority. But the fact is everyone does it, even scientists. In fact, even Dutch himself alluded to this when he defended “scientific consensus” which is nothing more than appeal to authority–a real logical fallacy.

Conclusion

The bottom line is that “pseudoscience” is, at best, a useless term. At worst, it’s a propagandistic tool to stifle debate and free inquiry. Unfortunately, it seems most uses of the word fall under the latter. If your conclusion doesn’t agree with the scientific consensus (whatever that is), it’s therefore pseudoscience. Be gone! It’s time to let the word die. Rather than branding a wrong idea as pseudoscience, just call it what it is: wrong.

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