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Distinguishing Science and Pseudoscience

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Journalists, in particular, seem completely unable to comprehend this last point. A typical reporter asked to write an article on astrology thinks he has done a throough job if he interviews six astrologers and one astronomer. The astronomer says it's all bunk; the six astrologers say it's great stuff and really works and for $50 they'll be glad to cast anyone's horoscope. (No doubt!) To the reporter, and apparently to the editor and readers, this confirms astrology six to one! Yet if the reporter had had the small degree of sense required to realize he should have interviewed sever astronomers (all of whom are presumably knowledgeable about the planets and their interactions, but all of whom are also disinterested in astrology, and therefore able to be both knowledgeable and objective) he would have gotten the correct result: seven informed judgments that astrology is nonsense.

Comparison lists of the kind we have shown here can be continued almost indefinitely, because there is no overlap between science and pseudoscience at any point. They are precisely opposed ways of viewing nature. Science relies on, and insists on, difficult, narrow, strict procedures of self-questioning, testing and analytical thinking that make it hard to fool yourself or to avoid facing facts. Pseudoscience, on the other hand, preserves the ancient, natural, irrational, unobjective modes of thought that are hundreds of thousands of years older than science ... the modes of thought which have given rise to most superstition and to most of the fanciful and mistaken ideas about man and nature ... from voodoo to racism; from the flat earth to the house-shaped universe with God in the attic, Satan in the cellar and man on the ground floor; from doing rain dances to torturing and brutalizing the mentally ill to drive out the demons that possess them. Pseudoscience encourages you to believe anything you want, and supplied many examples of specious "arguments" by which you can fool yourself into thinking your belief has some validity, despite all the facts being to the contrary. Science begins by saying, let's forget about what we believe to be so, and try by investigation to find out what actually is so. These roads don't cross; they lead in completely opposite directions.

Some confusion on this point is caused by what we might call "crossover." "Science" is not an honorary badge you wear, it's an activity you do. Whenever you cease that activity, you cease being a scientist. A distressing amount of pseudoscience is generated by actual or self-proclaimed scientists, in several ways we need to discuss. A scientist almost invariably winds up doing pseudoscience when he moves out of a field in which he is knowledgeable and competent, and plunges into another field of which he is quite ignorant. A physicist who claims to have found a new principle of biology -- or a biologist who claims to have found a new principle of physics -- is almost invariably doing pseudoscience. A scientist becomes a pseudoscientist when he defends an idea when all evidence and experiment is against it, because he is emotionally or ideologically committed to it.

A scientist who forges data, or suppresses data which do not agree with his preconceptions, or refused to let others see his data for independent evaluation, has become a pseudoscientist. Science is a high peak of intellectual integrity, fairness, and rationality. To carry the analogy further, the peak is slippery and smooth. It requires a tremendous effort to remain near it. But any slacking of effort carries one away, and into pseudoscience.

A fair fraction of all pseudoscience is generated by individuals who have received a small amount of very narrow and specialized scientific or technical training, but who are not professional scientists and do not comprehend the nature of the scientific enterprise -- yet think of themselves as "scientists." Particularly notorious in this respect are medical doctors and engineers, as well as psychoanalysts and technicians of one kind or another, as well as, more recently, "computer scientists."

One might wonder if there are not examples of "crossovers" in the other direction; that is people who have been thought by scientists to be doing pseudoscience, who eventually were accepted as doing valid science, and whose ideas were ultimately accepted by scientists. From what we have just outlined, one would expect this to happen extremely rarely, if ever. In fact, neither I nor any informed colleague I have ever asked about this, knows of any single case in which this has happened during the hundreds of years the full scientific method has been known to and used by scientists. There are a large number of cases in which a scientist has been thought to be wrong by his colleagues, but whose ideas were later shown to be correct. A scientist may get a "hunch" that some possibility is the case, without having enough evidence to convince his associates that he is correct. Such a person has not become a pseudoscientist, unless he continues to maintain that his ideas are correct as the evidence does come in and shows conclusively that he is incorrect. Being wrong or mistaken is unavoidable; we are all human, and we all commit errors and blunders. A scientist, however, is alert to the possibility that he might blunder, and is quick to correct mistakes, since these mistakes are fatal to future studies which he might undertake if they are not found and rooted out. A scientist, in short, when shown that he is mistaken by his associates, will abandon his mistaken ideas. A pseudoscientist will not. In fact, a short definition of pseudoscience is that it is a method for protecting and rationalizing obviously incorrect and mistaken concepts about man and nature -- for excusing, defending and preserving errors.

It is, unfortunately, vital for each citizen to learn to distinguish carefully between science and pseudoscience. In a democracy, every voter must be capable of seeking and recognizing vital sources of information. Pseudoscience often strikes educated, rational people as too nonsensical and preposterous to be dangerous, a source of amusement rather than fear. Unfortunately, this is not a wise attitude. Pseudoscience can be extremely dangerous. Penetrating political systems, it justifies attrocities in the name of racial purity; penetrating the educational system, it drives out science and sensibility; penetrating the health professions it dooms thousands to unnecessary death or suffering; penetrating religion, it generates fanaticism, intolerance, and holy war; penetrating the communications media, it makes it nearly impossible for voters to obtain factual information on public issues of extreme importance -- a situation which at present has reached crisis proportions in the U. S.

Pseudoscience Fact Sheets: Resources to Promote Critical Thinking are produced by the Austin Society to Oppose Pseudoscience (with the assistance of AFF).

The complete collection of Pseudoscience Fact Sheets is from AFF Electronic Bookstore. 43 pp.

FOR FURTHER READING:

  • Science and Unreason, D. & M. Radner, Wadsworth, California, 1982.
  • Exploring the Unknown, Charles J. Cazeau & Stuart D. Scott, Jr., Plenum, New York, 1979.
  • Fact, Fraud and Fantasy, Morris Goran, A. S. Barnes, New Jersey, 1979.
  • Flim-Flam! By James Randi, Prometheus, New York, 1982.
  • Paranormal Borderlands of Science, Ed. by Kendrick Frazier, Prometheus, New York, 1981.
  • Science Confronts the Paranormal, Ed. by Kendrick Frazier, Prometheus, New York, 1985.
  • Science, Good, Bad and Bogus, Martin Gardner, Prometheus, New York, 1981; Avon, New York, 1982.
  • Science and the Paranormal, Ed. by George O. Abell and Barry Singer, Scribners, New York, 1981.
  • Extrasensory Deception, Henry Gordon, Prometheus, New York, 1987.
  • Pseudoscience and the Paranormal, Terence Hines, Prometheus, New York, 1988.

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