Pseudoscience

James Chastek reflects on science, pseudoscience, and religion:

The demarcation problem is a name for our failure to identify criteria that can distinguish science from pseudo-science, in spite of there being two such things. In the absence of rational criteria, we get clarity on the difference from various institutional-cultural institutions, like the consensus produced by university gatekeepers though peer review (which generates, by definition, peer pressure), grants, prestige, and other stick-and-carrot means.  Like most institutions we expect it to do reasonably well (or at least better than an every-man-for-himself chaos) though it will come at a cost of group-think, elitism, the occasional witch hunt etc..

The demarcation problem generalizes to our failure to identify any meta-criterion for what counts as legitimate discourse or belief. Kant’s famous attempt to articulate meta-criteria for thought, which concluded to limiting it to an intuition of Euclidean space distinct from linear time turned out to be no limitation at all, and Davidson pointed out that the very idea of a conceptual scheme – a finite scope or limit to human thought that could be determined in advance – requires us to posit a language that is in-principle untranslatable, which is to speak of something that has to meaning. Heraclitus was right – you can’t come to the borders of thought, even if you travel down every road. We simply can’t articulate a domain of acceptable belief in general from which we can identify the auslanders.

This is true of religion as well. By our own resources we can know there are pseudo ones and truer ones, but the degree of clarity we want in this area is going to have to be borrowed from an intellect other than our own. The various religious institutions are attempts to make up for this deficiency in reason and provide us with clearer and more precise articulations of true religion in exactly the same way that we get it in the sciences. That a westerner tends to accept Christianity arises from the same sort of process that makes him tend to accept scientific consensus. He walks within the ambit of various institutions that are designed to help him toward truth, and they almost certainly succeed at this more than he would succeed if left solely to his own lights. Anyone who thinks he can easily identify true science while no one can identify true religion is right in a sense, but he doesn’t recognize how heavily his belief is resting on institutional power.

Like Sean Collins as quoted in this earlier post, Chastek seems to be unreasonably emphasizing the similarity between science and religion where in fact there is a greater dissimilarity. As discussed in the last post, a field is only considered scientific once it has completely dominated the area of thought among persistent students of that field. It is not exactly that “no one disagrees,” so much as that it becomes too complicated for anyone except those students. But those students, to an extremely high degree, have a unified view of the field. An actual equivalent in the area of religion would be if virtually all theologians accepted the same religion. Even here, it might be a bit strange to find whole countries that accepted another religion, the way it would be strange to find a whole country believing in a flat earth. But perhaps not so strange; occasionally you do get a poll indicating a fairly large percentage of some nation believing some claim entirely opposed to the paradigm of some field of science. Nonetheless, if virtually all theologians accepted the same religion, the comparison between science and religion would be pretty apt. Since that is not the case in the slightest, religion looks more like a field where knowledge remains “undeveloped,” in the way I suggested in reference to some areas of philosophy.

Chastek is right to note that one cannot set down some absolute list of rules setting apart reasonable thought from unreasonable thought, or science from pseudoscience. Nonetheless, reflecting on the comments to the previous post, it occurs to me that we have a pretty good idea of what pseudoscience is. The term itself, of course, means something like “fake science,” so the idea would be something purporting to be scientific which is not scientific.

A recurring element in Kuhn’s book, as in the title itself, is the idea of change in scientific paradigms. Kuhn remarks:

Probably the single most prevalent claim advanced by the proponents of a new paradigm is that they can solve the problems that have led the old one to a crisis. When it can legitimately be made, this claim is often the most effective one possible. In the area for which it is advanced the paradigm is known to be in trouble. That trouble has repeatedly been explored, and attempts to remove it have again and again proved vain. “Crucial experiments”—those able to discriminate particularly sharply between the two paradigms—have been recognized and attested before the new paradigm was even invented. Copernicus thus claimed that he had solved the long-vexing problem of the length of the calendar year, Newton that he had reconciled terrestrial and celestial mechanics, Lavoisier that he had solved the problems of gas-identity and of weight relations, and Einstein that he had made electrodynamics compatible with a revised science of motion.

Some pages later, considering why paradigm change is considered progress, he continues:

Because the unit of scientific achievement is the solved problem and because the group knows well which problems have already been solved, few scientists will easily be persuaded to adopt a viewpoint that again opens to question many problems that had previously been solved. Nature itself must first undermine professional security by making prior achievements seem problematic. Furthermore, even when that has occurred and a new candidate for paradigm has been evoked, scientists will be reluctant to embrace it unless convinced that two all-important conditions are being met. First, the new candidate must seem to resolve some outstanding and generally recognized problem that can be met in no other way. Second, the new paradigm must promise to preserve a relatively large part of the concrete problem-solving ability that has accrued to science through its predecessors. Novelty for its own sake is not a desideratum in the sciences as it is in so many other creative fields. As a result, though new paradigms seldom or never possess all the capabilities of their predecessors, they usually preserve a great deal of the most concrete parts of past achievement and they always permit additional concrete problem-solutions besides.

It is not automatically unscientific to suggest that the current paradigm is somehow mistaken and needs to be replaced: in fact the whole idea of paradigm change depends on scientists doing this on a fairly frequent basis. But Kuhn suggests that this mainly happens when there are well known problems with the current paradigm. Additionally, when a new one is proposed, it should be in order to solve new problems. This suggests one particular form of pseudoscientific behavior: to propose new paradigms when there are no special problems with the current ones. Or at any rate, to propose that they be taken just as seriously as the current ones; there is not necessarily anything unreasonable about saying, “Although we currently view things according to paradigm A, someday we might need to adopt something somewhat like paradigm B,” even if one is not yet aware of any great problems with paradigm A.

A particularly anti-scientific form of this would be to propose that the current paradigm be abandoned in favor of an earlier one. It is easy to see why scientists would be especially opposed to such a proposal: since the earlier one was abandoned in order to solve new problems and to resolve more and more serious discrepancies between the paradigm and experience, going back to an earlier paradigm would suddenly create all sorts of new problems.

On the other hand, why do we have the “science” part of “pseudoscience”? This is related to Chastek’s point about institutions as a force creating conformity of opinion. The pseudoscientist is a sort of predator in relation to these institutions. While the goal of science is truth, at least to a first approximation, the pseudoscientist has something different in mind: this is clear from the fact that he does not care whether his theory solves any new problems, and it is even more clear in the case of a retrogressive proposal. But the pseudoscientist will attempt to use the institutions of science to advance his cause. This will tend in reality to be highly unsuccessful in relation to ordinary scientists, for the same reason that Kuhn remarks that scientists who refuse to adopt a new paradigm after its general acceptance “are simply read out of the profession, which thereafter ignores their work.” In a similar way, if someone proposes an unnecessary paradigm change, scientists will simply ignore the proposal. But if the pseudoscientist manages to get beyond certain barriers, e.g. peer review, it may be more difficult for ordinary people to distinguish between ordinary science and pseudoscience, since they are not in fact using their own understanding of the matter, but simply possess a general trust that the scientists know the general truth about the field.

One of the most common usages of the term “pseudoscience” is in relation to young earth creationism, and rightly so. This is in fact a case of attempting to return to an earlier paradigm which was abandoned precisely because of the kind of tensions that are typical of paradigm change. Thus one of their favorite methods is to attempt to get things published in peer reviewed journals. Very occasionally this is successful, but obviously it has very little effect on the field itself: just as with late adopters or people who never change their mind, the rest of the field, as Kuhn says, “ignores their work.” But to the degree that they manage to lead ordinary people to adopt their views, this is to act in a sort of predator relationship with the institutions of science: to take advantage of these institutions for the sake of falsehood rather than truth.

That’s kind of blunt, someone will say. If paradigm change is frequently necessary, surely it could happen at least once that a former paradigm was better than a later one, such that it would be necessary to return to it, and for the sake of truth. People are not infallible, so surely this is possible.

Indeed, it is possible. But very unlikely, for all the reasons that Kuhn mentions. And in order for such a proposal to be truth oriented, it would have to be motivated by the perception of problems with the current paradigm, even if they were problems that had not been foreseen when the original paradigm was abandoned. In practice such proposals are normally not motivated by problems at all,  and thus there is very little orientation towards truth in them.

Naturally, all of this has some bearing on the comments to the last post, but I will leave most of that to the reader’s consideration. I will remark, however, that things like “he is simply ignorant of basic physics because he is a computer scientist, not a physicist,” or “Your last question tells me that you do not know much physics,” or that it is important not to “ignore the verdict of the reviewers and editors of a respected physics journal,” might be important clues for the ordinary fellow.