Science and pseudo-science
Scientific reasoning is designed to generate reliable beliefs about the natural world.
Not all reasoning is scientific nor should it be: (I’m allowed to be a Milwaukee Brewers fan even if good scientific reasoning - or good logical and critical thinking - might force me to acknowledge that the St Louis CardinaIs would be a more rewarding team to follow)
Some reasoning, though, passes itself off as scientific, hoping to gain the credibility of scientific reasoning without accepting the rigours and implication of the scientific method. This is pseudo – or ‘fake’ – science: non-scientific reasoning that masquerades as science in order to make its claims seem more robust or secure than they are in fact.
Pseudo-science often uses scientific language in order to pass itself off as genuine science:
“Many crystals have healing properties that you can discover. Crystals vibrate at different frequencies to enhance healing. Quartz crystals have excellent healing properties. Quartz also has the ability to transform an imbalanced energy field. When you feel stressed the crystal can balance your energies and revitalize you. Other minerals beside quartz crystals display healing properties. Small quartz crystals left in water will ionize the water and are a good drink for healing.”
Science suffers in part because of its own success. If it weren’t widely accepted that science gave us good reasons to accept claims about the natural world, pseudo-science would have no motivation to portray itself as science.
Some of the typical features of pseudo-sciences and the ways in which they contrast with genuine science are as follows:
The scientific method requires scientists to look for ways to falsify their hypotheses. By contrast, pseudo-science tends to start from a claim to which the advocate is committed and looks for evidence to support that claim. Pseudo-science seeks confirmations and science seeks falsifications.
Scientific claims are falsifiable: there are observable outcomes that would be impossible if the claim were true. Pseudo-scientific claims tend to be unfalsifiable. Phillip Henry Gosse’s claim that God created the world to look older than it was cannot be shown to be false, since every thing which seemed to conflict with it could have been created by a God intending to fool us. To the extent that the claim was presented as a scientific claim, Gosse was being a pseudo-scientist. (See Science and falsification video).
Science is committed to the idea that we can find evidence to establish with certainty that a claim is false, but that we can never establish with certainty that a claim is true. So the scientist accepts that her best hypotheses and theories are always provisional; she accepts that they could be shown to be false. The pseudo-scientist, by contrast, is typically convinced that her claims are true. (One important implication of this is that we need to be careful not to confuse scientific acceptance of uncertainty with ‘everyday’ uncertainty: scientists are committed to the acceptance of uncertainty as a methodological matter, but they will often have very good grounds for confidence in their beliefs).
A broader implication of this is that scientists – and good logical and critical thinkers more generally – must come to their enquiries with an open-mind, remaining ready to follow the evidence and the arguments where they lead.
Notice that none of these differences have to do with the content of any particular scientific or pseudo-scientific claim. The difference between science and pseudo-science has to do with the attitudes and methods that are brought to an enquiry, not whether a particular claim is true. The scientific model gives better grounds for adopting beliefs because it is more likely to identify beliefs that are false. It is not that the claims of science are more plausible in advance. The differences are ones about the method of enquiry; about whether pseudo-scientists are being good logical and critical thinkers.
And, as we saw in the brief article on scientific theories, science does get things wrong: clever, careful scientists working with the very best tools available to them were just mistaken about the position of the Sun in the solar system and about how diseases were transmitted, and no doubt current theories will be shown to be false or to need improvement in the future.
Science accepts the inevitability of error and sets out to find and eliminate it.
Because pseudo-scientists tend to start from a pre-existing commitment to their views, they don’t want them to be shown to be false. They don’t come to the enquiry with an open-mind genuinely intending to test their claims.
That would be fine if they were not seeking the benefits of having their claims regarded as science, but that is exactly what classical pseudo-sciences do: they want the benefits of science without the potential costs.
© Tim Dare, University of Auckland