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critical thinking study topics - pseudoscience fact sheets

Distinguishing Science and Pseudoscience

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PSEUDOSCIENCE "explanations" tend to be by scenario. That is, we are told a story, but we are told nothing else; we have no description of any possible physical process. For instance, pseudoscientist Velikovski claimed that another planet passing near the earth caused the earth’s spin axis to flip upside down. This is all he said. He gave no mechanisms. But the mechanism is all-important, because the laws of physics rule out the process as impossible. That is, the approach of another planet cannot cause a planet’s spin axis to flip. If Velikovski had discovered some way that one planet could flip another’s spin axis, he would presumably have described the mechanism by which it can happen. The bald statement itself, without the underlying mechanism, conveys no information at all. Again, Velikovski says that Venus was once a comet, and this comet was spewed out of a volcano on Jupiter. Since planets in no way resemble comets, which are rock/ice snowball-like debris, and which in turn have no connection whatsoever to volcanoes, and since Jupiter is not known to have volcanoes anyway (or even a solid surface!), there is no actual physical process underlying Velikovski’s assertions. He gives us words, related to one another within a sentence … but the relations are alien to the universe we actually live in, and no explanation for how these relations work or can exist is given. We have stories, not theories.

PSEUDOSCIENTISTS often appeal to the ancient human habit of magical thinking. Magic, sorcery, witchcraft—these are based on spurious similarity, false analogy, false cause-and-effect connections, etc. That is, inexplicable influences and connections between things are assumed from the beginning—not found by investigation. (If you step on a crack in the sidewalk without saying a magic word, your mother will crack a bone in her body; eating heart-shaped leaves is good for heart ailments; shining red light on the body increases blood production; rams are aggressive so someone born in the sign of the ram is aggressive; fish are "brain food" because the meat of the fish resembles brain tissue, etc.)

PSEUDOSCIENCE relies heavily on anachronistic thinking. The older the idea, the more attractive it is to pseudoscience—it’s the wisdom of the ancients! -- especially if the idea is transparently wrong and has long been discarded by science.

We have so far been discussing pseudoscience without making any direct comparison with science itself. However, it is informative to make a direct comparison, feature by feature.
For instance (see the below, Science—Pseudoscience):

SCIENCE: The literature is written for scientists. There is peer review, and there are rigorous standards for honesty and accuracy. SCIENCE: The literature is written for scientists. There is peer review, and there are rigorous standards for honesty and accuracy.

PSEUDOSCIENCE: The literature is aimed at the general public. There is no review, no standards, no pre-publication verification, no demand for accuracy and precision. PSEUDOSCIENCE: The literature is aimed at the general public. There is no review, no standards, no pre-publication verification, no demand for accuracy and precision.

SCIENCE: Reproducible results are demanded; experiments must be precisely described so that they can be duplicated exactly or improved upon. SCIENCE: Reproducible results are demanded; experiments must be precisely described so that they can be duplicated exactly or improved upon.

PSEUDOSCIENCE: Results cannot be reproduced or verified. Studies, if any, are always so vaguely described that one can't figure out what was done or how it was done. PSEUDOSCIENCE: Results cannot be reproduced or verified. Studies, if any, are always so vaguely described that one can't figure out what was done or how it was done.

SCIENCE: Failures are searched for and studied closely, since incorrect theories can often make correct predictions by accident but no correct theory will make incorrect predictions. SCIENCE: Failures are searched for and studied closely, since incorrect theories can often make correct predictions by accident but no correct theory will make incorrect predictions.

PSEUDOSCIENCE: Failures are ignored, excused, hidden, lied about, discounted, explained away, rationalized, forgotten, avoided at all costs. PSEUDOSCIENCE: Failures are ignored, excused, hidden, lied about, discounted, explained away, rationalized, forgotten, avoided at all costs.

SCIENCE: As time goes on, more and more is learned about the physical processes under study. SCIENCE: As time goes on, more and more is learned about the physical processes under study.

PSEUDOSCIENCE: No physical phenomena or processes are ever found, noticed or studied. No progress is made; nothing concrete is learned. PSEUDOSCIENCE: No physical phenomena or processes are ever found, noticed or studied. No progress is made; nothing concrete is learned.

SCIENCE: Individual defects, idiosyncrasies and blunders of investigators average out -- do not affect "signal" under study. SCIENCE: Individual defects, idiosyncrasies and blunders of investigators average out -- do not affect "signal" under study.

PSEUDOSCIENCE: Individual defects,   idiosyncrasies and blunders of investigators provide the only "signals" ever seen -- the average is zero. PSEUDOSCIENCE: Individual defects,   idiosyncrasies and blunders of investigators provide the only "signals" ever seen -- the average is zero.

SCIENCE: Convinces by appeal to the evidence, by arguments based upon logical and/or mathematical reasoning, by making the best case the data permit. When new evidence contradicts old ideas, they are abandoned. SCIENCE: Convinces by appeal to the evidence, by arguments based upon logical and/or mathematical reasoning, by making the best case the data permit. When new evidence contradicts old ideas, they are abandoned.

PSEUDOSCIENCE: Convinces by appeal to faith and belief. Pseudoscience has a strong quasi-religious element: it tries to convert, not to convince. You are to believe in spite of the facts, not because of them. The original idea is never abandoned, whatever the evidence. PSEUDOSCIENCE: Convinces by appeal to faith and belief. Pseudoscience has a strong quasi-religious element: it tries to convert, not to convince. You are to believe in spite of the facts, not because of them. The original idea is never abandoned, whatever the evidence.

SCIENCE: No conflicts of interest; scientist has no personal financial stake in any outcome of his studies. SCIENCE: No conflicts of interest; scientist has no personal financial stake in any outcome of his studies.

PSEUDOSCIENCE: Extreme conflicts of interest. The pseudo-scientist generally earns some or all of his living by selling pseudoscientific "services," e.g., horoscopes, predictions. PSEUDOSCIENCE: Extreme conflicts of interest. The pseudo-scientist generally earns some or all of his living by selling pseudoscientific "services," e.g., horoscopes, predictions.

 

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