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critical thinking study topics - pseudoscience fact sheets

Distinguishing Science and Pseudoscience

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PSEUDOSCIENCE argues from ignorance, an elementary fallacy. That is, pseudoscientists base their claims on incompleteness of information about nature, rather than on what is known at present. But no claim can possibly be supported by lack of information. The fact that Don Bullard saw something in the sky he didn’t recognize means just that … he didn’t recognize what he saw. We cannot use this fact as evidence that flying saucers are from outer space, since we have no evidence he saw a flying saucer—or anything else! Maybe he saw a ghost! The statement, "Science cannot explain…" is common in pseudoscience literature. In may cases, the fact is that science has no interest in the supposed phenomenon because there is no evidence it exists; in other cases, the scientific explanation is well known and well established, but the pseudoscientist is not aware of it or deliberately ignores it to create mystery.

PSEUDOSCIENCE argues from alleged exceptions, errors, anomalies, strange or paranormal events, and suspect claims—rather than from well-established regularities of nature. The experience of scientists over the past 400 years is that claims and reports which describe well-understood objects behaving in strange and incomprehensible ways tend to reduce upon investigation to deliberate frauds, honest mistakes, garbled accounts, misinterpretations, outright fabrications, and stupid blunders. It is not wise to accept such reports at face value, without checking them. Pseudoscientists always take such reports as literally true, without independent verification.

PSEUDOSCIENCE appeals to false authority, to emotion, to sentiment, or to distrust of established fact. A high school dropout is accepted as an expert on archaeology, though he has never made any study of it! A psychoanalyst is accepted as an expert on all of human history, not to mention physics, astronomy, and mythology … though his claims are inconsistent with everything known in all four fields! A show business celebrity swears it’s true, so it must be. A physicist syas psychic Smoori Mellar couldn’t possibly have fooled him with simple magic tricks, although the physicist knows nothing about magic and sleight of hand. Emotional appeals are common: "If it makes you feel good, it must be true." "In your heart you know it’s right." Pseudoscientists are fond of imaginary conspiracies: "there’s plenty of evidence for flying saucers but the government keeps it secret." They almost always argue from irrelevancies: "Scientists don’t know everything!"—but we weren’t talking about everything, we were discussing the evidence for the tooth fairy.

PSEUDOSCIENCE makes extraordinary claims and advances fantastic theories that are in contradiction to what is known about nature. Not only is no evidence offered that the claim is true, the problem of how all previous investigations led to precisely opposite conclusions is ignored totally. ("Flying saucers have to come from somewhere—so the earth is hollow, and they come from inside." "This electric spark I’m making with this elecgtrical apparatus is actually not a spark at all, but rather a supernatural manifestation of psycho-spiritual energy." "Every human is surrounded by an impalpable aura of electromagnetic energy, the auric egg of the ancient Hindu seers, which mirrors the human’s every mood and condition.")

PSEUDOSCIENCE makes heavy use of an invented vocabulary in which the new terms introduced do not have precise or unambiguous definitions, and most have no definitions at all. The listener is forced to interpret the statements according to his or her own preconceptions. What, for instance, is "biocosmic energy?" Or a "psychotronic amplification system?" By spouting gibberish that has a vaguely "technical" sound, the pseudoscientists believe they imitate the jargon of actual scientific and technical fields.

PSEUDOSCIENCE appeals to the truth-criteria of scientific methodology, while simultaneously denying their validity. Thus, a procedurally invalid experiment which seems to show that astrology works is advanced by the pseudoscientist as "proof" that astrology is correct, while he simultaneously ignores thousands of procedurally sound experiments that show it does not work in any way or sense. The fact that someone got away with simple magic tricks in one scientific lab is "proof" that he is a psychic superman, while the fact that he was caught doing his tricks in several other labs is ignored.

PSEUDOSCIENCE claims that the phenomena it studies are "jealous." The phenomena appear only under certain vaguely specified but vital conditions (i.e., when no doubters or skeptics are present; when no experts are present; when nobody is watching; when the "vibes" are right; only once in human history.) The attitude of science is that all phenomena must be capable of being studied by anyone with the proper equipment, and that all procedurally valid studies must give consistent results. No actual known natural phenomenon is "jealous" in this way. There is no way to construct a TV set or a radio that will function only when no skeptics are present! A man who claims to be concert-class violinist, but does not appear to have ever owned a violin and who refuses to play when anyone is around who might hear him, is most likely lying about his ability to play the violin.


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