The Idea of “Pseudo-Science”

When I was poking my nose around philosophy of science in the 1990s, I was told that Larry Laudan’s critique of “the demarcation criterion” had pretty much scuppered the very idea of “pseudo-science.”    Since I don’t work in philosophy of science, but take a keen (and amateurish) interest in the debates about creationism and intelligent design, I found this unfortunate.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I found that some philosophers of science still take the idea of “pseudo-science” seriously and are intent on rescuing it from Laudan’s criticism.  First, I bring to your attention a recent NY Times article, “The Dangers of Pseudo-Science” (part of the usually excellent NY Time series The Stone, which brings philosophy out of the rarefied atmosphere of academia into the very slightly less rarefied atmosphere of the NY Times readership).   The authors, Massimo Pigliucci and Maarten Boudry, are also the editors of Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem — which, guessing from the table of contents and reviews, will be an excellent collection.

28 thoughts on “The Idea of “Pseudo-Science”

  1. Interesting topic. I think it is important to link the philosophy of science with science and technology studies in general. I did a masters in Science and Society a few years ago which was more about the sociology of science than the philosophy. There was a module on anti-science – a term which covered both pseudo-science and opposition to the scientific establishment which I found a very convincing. If you think of science as a methodology, social structures and set of values which has been enormously productive then it is easier to identify behaviour which (a) pretends to be science but isn’t (b) is undermining or attacking science.

    You can see it in Denyse’s characterisation of the scientific establishment as a conspiracy of tax-payer funded atheist megalomaniacs.

  2. I like Feynman’d concept of cargo cult science. This is what he says is missing:

    Now it behooves me, of course, to tell you what they’re missing. But it would be just about as difficult to explain to the South Sea islanders how they have to arrange things so that they get some wealth in their system. It is not something simple like telling them how to improve the shapes of the earphones. But there is one feature I notice that is generally missing in cargo cult science. That is the idea that we all hope you have learned in studying science in school–we never say explicitly what this is, but just hope that you catch on by all the examples of scientific investigation. It is interesting, therefore, to bring it out now and speak of it explicitly. It’s a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty–a kind of leaning over backwards. For example, if you’re doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid–not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you’ve eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked–to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.

    And that “utter honesty”, it has to be said, is not always present in science. What can be said for science, however, is that the goal of achieving it is built into the methodology. The more rigorous we are at sticking to the methodology, the more scientific the science!

  3. When I was poking my nose around philosophy of science in the 1990s, I was told that Larry Laudan’s critique of “the demarcation criterion” had pretty much scuppered the very idea of “pseudo-science.”

    That attitude is distressingly common. The feeling seems to be that unless the boundary between science and pseudoscience is sharp and precisely located, then it is meaningless to talk about pseudoscience at all.

    It’s as silly as arguing that the concept ‘orange’ is meaningless because there is no sharp, universally accepted ‘demarcation criterion’ between orange and red.

    Virtually everyone will agree that quantum electrodynamics is science and that Time Cube is pseudoscience, just as almost everyone will agree that this is red and this is orange. Fuzzy boundaries by themselves do not undermine the validity of the concepts on either side.

  4. Meanwhile, the likes of physicist Sean Carroll and Phil Plait have been pointing out pseudoscience, and explaining why it isn’t science, all this time.

  5. keiths,

    I think that’s right, keiths. “Analytic” philosophers were initially inspired by Frege’s treatment of concepts as functions that map from members to sets, and sets do have precise boundaries. So this gave rise to a lamentable tendency to treat conceptual distinctions as sharp boundaries. Fortunately this aspect of analytic philosophy is (more or less) a thing of the past.

    Lately I’ve been thinking about the need for more than one sub-category of “pseudoscience.” For example, creationism is pseudo-science because it makes empirical predictions which have been shown to be false, but the creationists cherry-pick the data, play fast and loose with definitions and terms, and sometimes obfuscate and distort in order to insist on the ‘scientific’ status of their claims. Whereas intelligent design is pseudo-science, not because it makes false empirical predictions, but because it makes no empirical predictions at all. (As the endless quarreling at Uncommon Descent shows, intelligent design claims that there will be data which supports it, but never makes any specific claims about what that data will be.)

    Ironically, this distinction between different kinds of pseudo-science indicates that intelligent design is not “creationism in a cheap tuxedo”.

  6. Kantian Naturalist: Ironically, this distinction between different kinds of pseudo-science indicates that intelligent design is not “creationism in a cheap tuxedo”.

    I see “creationism in a cheap tuxedo” as a polemic, rather than as a description.

    After you posted this topic, I did think a little about it. I’m not sure that “pseudo-science” is a particularly useful term. I would class YEC creationism as pseudo-science, but I would not consider ID to be pseudo-science. I guess I see ID as mostly philosophy (probably bad philosophy), with a tiny amount of not-very-good-science mixed in.

    On the broader question — most scientists can distinguish between science and non-science, but the borders are a bit fuzzy.

  7. It is important to not forget history in this discussion. One of the indicators of the demarcation is the constant stream of hatred directed by members of the ID/creationist community at those who know the history of ID/creationism and keep them from injecting their sectarian beliefs into public education.

    Intelligent Design/creationism is the sectarian socio/political movement formally started by Henry Morris and Duane Gish in 1970 when they founded the Institute for Creation Research. Answers in Genesis and the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture are spin-offs from ICR.

    There is not only this political history that links them; there are all their fundamental misconceptions and misrepresentations of science that link them. Their socio/political tactics of attempting to get evolution out of the schools link them.

    Part of their major propaganda push has been to erase and deny their history. They take umbrage at being linked; but they don’t understand the fact that their intellectual roots are glaringly evident in all of their “arguments.”

    The people over at UD are trying desperately to appear to be a legitimate intellectual exercise in critiquing science. But how can they possibly do that when they carry all the intellectual baggage of their socio/political roots? They don’t appear to ever take the time to understand basic scientific concepts at the most elementary level.

    All their attempts to formulate an alternative to science are based on the fundamental misconceptions and misrepresentations of science they inherited from “scientific” creationism. They believe they understand science, and they believe they are presenting devastating critiques of science. Nevertheless, they are locked into their own misconceptions and misrepresentations. ID/creationism is not science; it doesn’t even critique real science. It demonizes its own straw man; but all ID/creationists believe their straw man to be real science.

    ID/creationist pseudoscience is unique among all the pseudosciences out there vying for recognition. While most purveyors of pseudoscience seek free rides on the backs of scientists or seek the endorsements of science, ID/creationists go farther and want to debate with scientists in public in order to gain “legitimacy.” They still have a socio/political agenda to foment grass roots political activity to inject their beliefs into public education.

    ID/creationists don’t do and have never done any real scientific research. How can they? None of their concepts have anything to do with the real world; their concepts have no purchase whatsoever in the laboratory. It is not just cargo cult science, it has become an entire Potempkin village constructed to look like science over decades of trying to get around the courts and appear legitimate.

    If one wants to try to find some demarcation between pseudoscience and science, one has to allow for the fact that ID/creationism is part of a larger socio/political movement that includes rewriting history and the US Constitution as well. And this movement has consciously attempted to blur the boundaries between legitimate, evidence-based research and pseudo-research based on preconceptions that have nothing to do with reality.

  8. Kantian Naturalist: Ironically, this distinction between different kinds of pseudo-science indicates that intelligent design is not “creationism in a cheap tuxedo”.

    I agree. It’s different in kind. If there is any truth to the cheap tuxedo jibe it was specific: Of Panda’s and People really was creationism in a cheap tuxedo – as we know from the fact that the word “creationism” was subsequently simply replaced by “intelligent design”.

    But it’s fair to say that ID isn’t YEC in a cheap tuxedo, I think. Although a fair few YECers seem to want to wear the ID tux, and maybe get it at a discount.

  9. Which ID?

    1. There’s God of the gaps ID. (missing transitionals)

    2. There’s bad analogy ID and overextended metaphor ID. (information theory)

    3. There’s baraminology and special creation ID.

    4. There’s fine tuning ID.

    5. There’s denial of extrapolation ID (irreducible complexity; microevolution but not macroevolution)

    6. There’s continuous creation ID. (quantum twiddling)

    And maybe others.

  10. What seems always to me to be odd is that science can’t rule out God. It’s theology’s job to explain how God makes sense given what we know about the universe, and mostly does a pretty good job.

    So either IDers are worried that science allows people to think there is no God, or they are worried that science is ruling out God. If the second, then that doesn’t say much for their faith, and in any case they are wrong.

    If the first, then, well, tough.

  11. I think the problem is fairly simple. Science does not support the idea that god is active in the world and doing detectable miracles.

    I think it’s really that simple.

    Most religious people are not happy with a mystical interpretation of god, or a deistic god. They want a super person watching over everything and approving and disapproving, and catching the sparrows that fall.

  12. Kantian Naturalist,

    Lately I’ve been thinking about the need for more than one sub-category of “pseudoscience.” For example, creationism is pseudo-science because it makes empirical predictions which have been shown to be false, but the creationists cherry-pick the data, play fast and loose with definitions and terms, and sometimes obfuscate and distort in order to insist on the ‘scientific’ status of their claims. Whereas intelligent design is pseudo-science, not because it makes false empirical predictions, but because it makes no empirical predictions at all.

    Yes. Or to put it a bit more abstractly, good science is associated with a constellation of important characteristics. Something is scientific (or pseudo/nonscientific) to the extent that it possesses (or lacks) these characteristics. Many characteristics = many different ways to be pseudo- or nonscientific.

  13. Lizzie,

    What seems always to me to be odd is that science can’t rule out God.

    Science can (and has) ruled out specific gods, such as the YEC version of Yahweh.

    Gods of the (current) gaps can’t be ruled out now, but they better not be claustrophobic.

    Gods whose existence has no testable consequences can’t be ruled out by science, but then again anything whose existence doesn’t have testable consequences can’t be ruled out by science either.

  14. Lizzie: So either IDers are worried that science allows people to think there is no God, or they are worried that science is ruling out God.

    The problem for ID, is that their god is too small. Their god is quite incapable of creating a universe and creating natural processes within that universe that would lead to the origin and evolution of life. Their god can only do it by magically poofing things into existence.

    If their’s were a grander god, they would see evolution as the working out of their god’s plan.

  15. petrushka: I think the problem is fairly simple. Science does not support the idea that god is active in the world and doing detectable miracles.

    I don’t think that’s correct. Some people have a conception of a grand god, such that every event that occurs is an activity of their god.

  16. Most of the pseudo sciences with which I am familiar attempt to add something extra in order to “explain” something that science is purported not to be able to explain.

    Pseudo scientists frequently claim to have found a “principle” that stupid scientists have overlooked. If one looks carefully at the pseudoscience, one finds grotesque misconceptions or misrepresentations of the real science; and the “principles” that the pseudo scientists have “discovered” or “invented” are the “explanation” about why the pseudoscience works and the real science doesn’t.

    Here, for example is Joseph Newman and his energy machine:

    Those who state that “one can never build a device which exceeds 100% efficiency” do not understand the nature of the phenomenal efficiencies (in excess of 800%) produced by the Newman motor/generator.

    Such a statement demonstrates an inability to distinguish between CONVERSION efficiency and PRODUCTION efficiency. To state that Joseph Newman’s motor/generator is 8.2 production efficient, i.e., that it produces over eight times as much external energy output as external energy input, is different from stating that the invention approaches 100% conversion efficiency, i.e., that it converts the internal mass of the copper coil into energy in accordance with E=mc^2. The former process involves production efficiency and the latter process involves conversion efficiency. These two different types of efficiencies should not be confused.

    Here is the “official summary” of Newman’s “principle”:

    To restate:

    The “official” description of Joseph Newman’s electromagnetic aspect of his Theory of the Gyroscopic Massergy is: “the Newman Motor/Generator produces ‘greater external energy output than external energy input.'” That, in principle, is no different from a conventional nuclear fission reactor. Joseph Newman’s work represents a total confirmation and corroboration of the First Law of Thermodynamics. His technology has profound social/political implications with respect to our country’s future since it would replace all conventional energy sources and enable Americans to become truly energy independent.

    The rest of Newman’s site, as well as his YouTube videos, are hilarious only because they don’t represent a socio/political movement attempting to get Newman’s “science” into public education by force of law.

    When it comes to ID/creationism, the pseudoscience follows a similar pattern. Real science is portrayed as being unable to account for specified phenomena, and a pseudo scientific and pseudo mathematical explanation replaces the distortion of the real science, thus “explaining” what the real science is “not able” to explain.

    In ID/creationism, life and abiogenesis “violate the second law of thermodynamics” in practice (but not really, wink, wink; if pressed). Molecular assemblies follow the “law,” n^l, where n is the number of kinds of molecules from which to choose, and l is the length of the chain made up of these molecules.

    The reciprocal of n^l is the probability, p, of the assembly. Then it is asserted that there were not enough operations, N, in the history of the universe to make Np ≥ 1, (or, equivalently the negative of the logarithm to base 2 of p to be less than 500) thus producing the specified assembly within the lifetime of the universe. Therefore a new “principle” is added, namely intelligence, to “explain” what science is “not able” to explain.

    So the “logical structure” of ID/creationism misrepresents science and then fills in with a “principle” and some pseudo mathematics to get the job done.

    As far as the pseudoscience is concerned, ID/creationist thinking is little different from Joe Newman’s thinking. It’s the politics of ID/creationism that obscures these similarities.

    Note also that Newman has a socio/political agenda to sell perpetual motion machines to the government and to anyone who will buy.

  17. There’s good science and bad science, and a lot of ground in between. Labelling something ‘pseudoscience’ is a way to be dismissive of it, but possibly better, if one has the patience, is to explain how the science could be improved (or some science imported in the first place). Saying something is pseudoscience is not really saying much. But there are more wrong trees to be barked up than right ones, a lot of people barking, and much determination to stick to guns, so this is pretty time-consuming.

    “Cargo cult science” is brilliantly dismissive.

  18. The ID movement is creationists in cheap tuxedos with cheap tricks. Not YEC for the most part. OEC with specific theopolitical goals.

  19. LizzieIt’s theology’s job to explain how God makes sense given what we know about the universe, and mostly does a pretty good job.

    In an episode of Yes Primeminister I caught the other day, theology was described as “a way to keep agnostics in the church”.

  20. Has anyone tried to distinguish pseudoscience from crank science?

    I personally think of pseudoscience in the context of marketing quack medicine and fraudulent technology.

    Crank science is characterized by claims — usually by someone having minimal qualifications — of having overthrown some well established scientific principle or some vast body of historical fact.

    I think ID fits better in the category of crank science.

    There is another arena that hasn’t been mentioned, and that would be closeted beliefs.This category is well documented in ID literature.

    Closeted beliefs are beliefs held by competent, practicing scientists that appear to be contrary to well established findings. When I say closeted, I do not mean that the holder of these beliefs actually hides them, but that they do not appear to interfere with daily job performance in mainstream science. The contrary beliefs are compartmentalized. An extreme instance of non-overlapping magisteria, in which one seems to contradict the other.

    A less extreme example might involve seeing phenomena as non-contradictory, but having physical and spiritual aspects that cannot be perceived together. Wave and particle, so to speak.

  21. Lizzie:
    What seems always to me to be odd is that science can’t rule out God. It’s theology’s job to explain how God makes sense given what we know about the universe, and mostly does a pretty good job.

    So either IDers are worried that science allows people to think there is no God, or they are worried that science is ruling out God.If the second, then that doesn’t say much for their faith, and in any case they are wrong.

    If the first, then, well, tough.

    I wouldn’t say that “science can’t rule out God.” It depends on whether the theology itself has empirically verifiable entailments. To take an example from Elliot Sober, if the theology itself commits us to saying,

    (1) There exists a being of an infinite power which would have done everything within its power to make sure that everything in the universe is pink.

    then that theology is empirically refuted. And creationism is, basically, a variation of (1).

    Likewise, I’m not sure that “it’s theology’s job to explain how God makes sense given what we know about the universe”. I would say that it’s theology’s job to make sense of human experience in all of its suffering, pain, joy, gratitude, despair, sorrow, tragedy, anger, beauty, cruelty by showing us how to see ourselves in the light of redemption. Theology may provide an intelligibility or understanding, but one that I, at any rate, would distinguish from the kinds of explanation in which the sciences trade.

    For the non-theist, the substitute for theology isn’t science but art. Or, as Goethe put it, “He who possesses art and science has religion; he who does not possess them, needs religion.”

  22. I don’t disagree with that, KN.

    I was being somewhat cynical.

    I would say, however, that science can probably falsify virtually any god that isn’t part of a pretty nifty-footed theology.

    And that given how good science now is at explaining things by reference to self-consistent laws within the universe, theology has to be especially nifty these days.

    Although, possibly ironically, in many cases that means going back to pre-scientific theologies in which nobody tried to claim that a religious belief was empirically supported, because empiricism wasn’t established as a methodology.

    So Thomism, I would argue, survives better than, say, biblical literalism.

  23. Lizzie: So Thomism, I would argue, survives better than, say, biblical literalism.

    Oh, quite! My objections to (contemporary) Thomism are (for the most part) political, not epistemological.

    On the other hand, I have recently been greatly enjoying Eagleton’s Reason, Faith, and Revolution. He’s a non-dogmatic Marxist and a Christian of some unspecified variety. (The book is also available on iTunes University.)

    I don’t know if I’d happily call Eagleton a “serious” philosopher or theologian — his best arguments are taken from other philosophers, though he usually name-drops enough so one can identify his sources — but he’s witty and insightful.

  24. Eagleton is a Catholic Christian. I met him a few months back after a left-wing discussion. He dodged my question about Christianity and Marxism in front of a large audience, reverting to rhetorical play. But still, he’s certainly not an atheist or a ‘naturalist’ as far as anti-theism goes.

    The pseudo-science question is interesting, KN, especially on the philosophy of science front. Nevertheless, there’s some loose ends on the ‘Scientism’ thread you started recently that I’d hoped you’d return to.

    I don’t find your ‘political objections’ to Thomism well articulated so far, given that there are contemporary Thomists across the range of left to right and green to red. Just being a homophile isn’t significant as a political stand.

  25. petrushka: petrushka on October 13, 2013 at 2:53 pm said:
    Has anyone tried to distinguish pseudoscience from crank science?
    I personally think of pseudoscience in the context of marketing quack medicine and fraudulent technology.
    Crank science is characterized by claims — usually by someone having minimal qualifications — of having overthrown some well established scientific principle or some vast body of historical fact.
    I think ID fits better in the category of crank science.

    That seems like a fair question; but I think ID/creationism still falls squarely into the category of pseudoscience.

    ID/creationists have attempted to imitate every aspect of science; from using footnotes, to forming their own “peer reviewed” journals, to having their own “scientific conferences.” They aspire to be seen as practicing scientists even though none of them are; they are sectarian apologists instead.

    Cranks or crackpots, at least the ones like Joe Newman, want the endorsements of scientists and will frequently stalk scientists or name-drop to give the impression they have such approval. At the same time, they will accuse scientists of being idiots who don’t understand true genius.

    Here is a typical example from Joe Newman again.

    I will now tell you why I did that. I am 68 years of age and I have experienced a LOT during the course of my life. When I saw the mannerisms of those two individuals towards my presentation and heard their sarcastically-toned “forked” tongues, I became enraged. I was enraged for all humanity and for all creative minds that have ever been subjected to such insensitive and uncaring attitudes.

    For the past 40 years I have clearly seen that many so-called scientific intellectuals in high positions of influence are FRAUDS. Why? Because they have the mentality of a parrot. They have simply memorized the great contributions of important scientific innovators of the past and can quote those contributions like a parrot. Yet at the same time, they have absolutely no true understanding and especially curiosity regarding the subjects they quote.

    I tried for years to get them to debate me and they always refused. They said the “burden of proof is on me.”

    I then put forth the absolute proof of a Unified Mechanical Field Theory, followed by the Energy Machine. But the mental cowards have still refused to debate me.

    But ID/creationists do this also; as we see repeatedly over at UD and from Dembski’s constant whining.

    Joe Newman is not, as far as I know, part of an organized and well-funded effort to construct a Potempkin village of science about perpetual motion machines and their inventors. So perhaps crackpot or crank might be more appropriate because he is essentially a loner.

    ID/creationism definitely attempts to pass itself off as science.

  26. Gregory,

    I’m surprised Eagleton would be cagey about his views; he seems pretty clear about them here. Or possibly I’m reading too much of my own views into what he says

    Yeah, I should go back to the “scientism” thread. I’m still not happy with the shape of my own thinking on this problem.

    I hadn’t said anything substantive about my political gripes with contemporary Thomism. Briefly, I think that the new natural lawyers, like Robert George, get the phenomenology of erotic desire and intimacy badly wrong (John Corvino just has them dead to rights on this) and they haven’t thought through the difference between possibility and potentiality. They cleave so close to Aristotle that they repeat all the mistakes he made in his defense of slavery and patriarchy.

    But I have no problem with left-wing, Green Thomism!

  27. The pseudo science thing is just a dumb accusation attempt to dismiss creationism or criticism of global warming etc etc.
    By labelling they hope to avoid the merits of the case.
    they fear the common people are too ready to believe in creationism and can’t judge these issues. So label away.
    I say evolution is not science. Take that.
    What is science???
    prove scientific methodology as used for evolutionary biology conclusions!

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