The Problem with Pseudoscience

 Note: We are republishing this article with the kind permission of Dr. Ben Davis. We highly recommend checking out Dr. Ben’s Fb page

The Problem with Pseudoscience

 So, I try not to rip on my students in general. I especially try to avoid poking fun at them online. But occasion one does something so monumentally stupid that I have to talk about it (don’t worry, I don’t share my postings with them, and no names or places will be mentioned). In this case, there was an event from my public speaking class that I think worthy of discussion. I had my students give an hour long presentation (actually 45 minutes). At the beginning of the term, I told them to pick any subject they were passionate about. The idea was to teach them the skills needed for an effective presentation after all, not to make the assignment hurt even more by forcing them to research something they didn’t care anything about. Now, one student asked if he could do a presentation on “higher dimensions” of existence. I wasn’t entirely sure where he was going with it, but I thought, “how bad could it be?” Again, I’m grading the presentation, not the pet interests of the students. If he can generate a talk, no problem. Well, problem. But it has proven instructive for me and all the rest of the students in the class.

Fake It ‘Till You Make It, It’s a Thing

Things were as bad as you could possibly imagine. There wasn’t bloodshed. That’s the only limit to the carnage. On the night of the presentation, he begins talking about the normal spacial dimensions we all know and love… and getting even that wrong. He starts off by saying a plane is a one dimensional object, that we all live in two dimensions, and that we become spiritual, and “fully aware” when we reach the third and fourth dimensions of existence. I asked him for his source on the information, and he literally tells me “some guy on the Internet.” He then ignores my look of absolute horror and proceeds to tell me, still with a straight face, that there are 7 universal laws connected to 7 known dimensions of reality. I simply could not make this kind of malarkey up. The other 6 students in the class look at me to see what I, their teacher (and physicist), is going to do about this obvious train wreck. The only person that didn’t seem to be aware this was a locomotive disaster was the conductor himself. As appalled as I was, I continued to listen. I wanted to just see how deep we were going into this rabbit hole. If he was truly aware that he’d lost his entire audience, peers and professor alike, within his first 7 minutes, he did a wonderful job of hiding it.
So, here’s why I find the whole thing instructive. This is pseudoscience. It’s obvious to me and everyone else in the room that it’s pseudoscience. What makes it special is that the polished veneer has been stripped away. It’s so bad, that it’s crap even to the most casual observer. And with that, it demonstrates the basic formula used by all pseudo-scientists.

You Don’t Already Know This Because “They” Just Don’t Want You to Know

Have you ever noticed how when someone wants to believe something that goes against mainstream thinking that they always want to claim some sort of conspiracy? Sorry, but none of the people I know are that organized … or dishonest. Scientists and engineers included. Religious people can’t bury a new religion that works better than theirs. They can barely deal with holding their own against competing religions and atheism (or just materialism) these days. Car manufacturers would be happy to put oil companies out of business (and take their market share) if they could make a car that ran on water. And every scientist/engineer I know would dearly LOVE to be able to build a perpetual motion machine. Get over yourself. No one is out to get you. I sincerely doubt they’ve even noticed you.

Leveraging (and Corrupting) the Things You Hate

The next trick is to start with established science. You know, like saying the first 3 of your 7 dimensions of reality begin with the ones we already know, and then building on that. Another example might be homeopathy, where they start off with viable drugs but then argue that they can be diluted down to concentrations literally comparable to the proverbial drop in the ocean – and just think of all that 100 million year old dinosaur pee that you’re drinking every day – because, you know, the water “remembers.”

Make Everyone Else Work Harder Than You

When you ask a pseudoscience true believer how they know all the things they’re touting, the answer is often some variant of “why not?” “Who’s to say that the universe isn’t a bigger place than science realizes?” “Who’s to say this isn’t exactly the way things work?” “Can you prove me wrong?” Learn to recognize this argument in all it’s forms. It’s not logically feasible to prove a negative. I can’t even conclusively prove that the Tooth Fairy doesn’t exist, but that’s not the point. One can prove something does exist. You can show me the Tooth Fairy, have her say “hi” and give me a couple bucks for a molar, now I have evidence. It’s not my job to prove your pet theory WRONG. That’s the intellectual equivalent of turning me into Sisyphus and asking me to push a rock up a hill forever. No, it’s your job to probe your pet theory, and then provide the evidence to prove it RIGHT. Einstein had a really odd theory. Most didn’t believe it could possibly be correct. He then spent the next 20 years or so convincing people. If he wanted to see it done, it was his job to do it. And that was a Nobel Prize winning scientist.

Letting Your Brains Leak Out

When disagreeing with them, pseudo-scientist will often give you disapproving looks and tell you that you just aren’t open-minded enough. As the saying goes, “keep your mind open, but not so open that your brains fall out.”* Not everything imagined is real. That goes for unicorns, ancient Greek gods, flat home planets, or mind altering drugs in jet contrails. I mean, how concentrated does that stuff have to be to fall 35,000 feet out of the sky, spread all across the ground, and still have a measurable impact from the bit you actually breathe in? Maybe it’s homeopathy again.

“We Just Can’t Get No Respect” (And There’s Probably a Reason)

We may not always like experts, especially when they tell us things we don’t want to hear… like “eat more kale and less sausage.” If we’re reasonable and mature, we even understand that they can occasionally be wrong in their assessments, but still mean well and have likely done their due diligence. We certainly accept that they’ve probably had some training and put some effort into being good at what they do. I remember talking to a “ghost hunter” in a panel and having her tell me that her biggest problem was a lack of respect from the scientific community. She could do so much, if only scientists would actually listen to her. My response was not the standard “that’s because you’re a kook” or “you’re untrained.” No, I took a different tack. I told her that if she had evidence of anything paranormal that I would approach the scientific community on her behalf. I would introduce her to researchers. I would help her write the papers. And then I gave her and her friends my card. That was 6 years ago. I’m still waiting. I still see her every year at the same convention. I try to walk up and make sure she still knows how to get ahold of me when she finds a real haunted house, or whatever. She usually avoids eye contact and goes the other way. When I am able to catch up to her, she just says she’s still looking for “a really good case” for me to study.

Pseudoscience

                   Carl obviously had to deal with all the same rubbish, even pre-Internet.

In Conclusion

So what is “THE” problem with pseudoscience? It always starts with a predetermined notion, and ignores, nay FIGHTS, any and all evidence to the contrary. That’s not being open-minded. That’s pushing a pet agenda for something you’ve already decided to believe. And usually someone is profiting from it. Even as they condemn all the money the nasty old establishment is making.
More articles from Dr. Ben to come in the near future.
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4 Responses to The Problem with Pseudoscience

  1. ScottY242 says:

    The REAL problem with pseudoscience is that there is no way to logically separate (or demarcate) science from pseudo-science. An atheist can only label theism “unscientific” by first defining science in terms which rule out theism. But this is the very essence of circular reasoning (Latin: circulus in probando).

    This is what is known as “the demarcation problem in science.” Philosopher of science Larry Laudan explains that philosophers of science have been completely unable to find a logically sound way to distinguish (or demarcate) science from non-science, in his influential essay about the demarcation problem in science titled The Demise of the Demarcation Problem .

    “We live in a society which sets great store by science. Scientific ‘experts’ play a privileged role in many of our institutions, ranging from the courts of law to the corridors of power. At a more fundamental level, most of us strive to shape our beliefs about the natural world in the ‘scientific’ image. If scientists say that continents move or that the universe is billions of years old, we generally believe them, however counter-intuitive and implausible their claims might appear to be. Equally, we tend to acquiesce in what scientists tell us not to believe. If, for instance, scientists say that Velikovsky was a crank, that the biblical creation story is hokum, that UFOs do not exist, or that acupuncture is ineffective, then we generally make the scientist’s contempt for these things our own, reserving for them those social sanctions and disapprobations which are the just deserts of quacks, charlatans and con-men. In sum, much of our intellectual life, and increasingly large portions of our social and political life, rest on the assumption that we (or, if not we ourselves, then someone whom we trust in these matters) can tell the difference between science and its counterfeit.”

    But, despite the immense prestige and respect which our culture accords to science, there is no way to logically discern science from pseudo-science. This is a very big problem for atheists who try to promote their worldview as “scientific,” whereas belief in God is “unscientific.” As Laudan notes, drawing a logical line of demarcation between science and non-science has, for millennia, proven to be an unachievable task for philosophers of science:

    “For a variety of historical and logical reasons, some going back more than two millennia, that ‘someone’ to whom we turn to find out the difference usually happens to be the philosopher. Indeed, it would not be going too far to say that, for a very long time, philosophers have been regarded as the gatekeepers to the scientific estate. They are the ones who are supposed to be able to tell the difference between real science and pseudo-science. In the familiar academic scheme of things, it is specifically the theorists of knowledge and the philosophers of science who are charged with arbitrating and legitimating the claims of any sect to ‘scientific’ status. It is small wonder, under the circumstances, that the question of the nature of science has loomed so large in Western philosophy. From Plato to Popper, philosophers have sought to identify those epistemic features which mark off science from other sorts of belief and activity.”

    “Nonetheless, it seems pretty clear that philosophy has largely failed to deliver the relevant goods. Whatever the specific strengths and deficiencies of the numerous well-known efforts at demarcation, it is probably fair to say that there is no demarcation line between science and non-science, or between science and pseudo-science, which would win assent from a majority of philosophers. Nor is there one which should win acceptance from philosophers or anyone else…”

    Similarly, in his essay The Methodological Equivalence of Design and Descent, Stephen Meyer cites the philosopher of science Martin Eger:

    “Demarcation arguments have collapsed. Philosophers of science don’t hold them anymore. They may still enjoy acceptance in the popular world, but that’s a different world.”

    As a side note, Eger’s above comments call to attention a frequently recurring issue: Many atheistic arguments which persist at the popular level (in atheist blog posts, in books by science popularizers, in Wikipedia posts, etc.) have long since been dismissed by scholars who specialize in the respective field of study. Demarcation arguments which try to define belief in God as “unscientific” are a virtually omnipresent component of atheist propaganda. But demarcation arguments have long since been abandoned by philosophers of science, because the demarcation problem has proven insurmountable.

    But rather than just taking someone else’s word for it, why not examine some of the various demarcation criteria which have been proposed to demarcate between science and non-science? Those who have spent any time debating atheists who perceive their worldview to be “scientific,” and theism to be “unscientific,” will recognize many of these criteria:

    Observability: “Belief in God is not scientific because God is not observable.”

    As Stephen Meyer notes, because many scientific theories are not supported by actual observation, observability cannot be cited as a logically sound criterion to demarcate between science and non-science:

    “Many entities and events cannot be directly observed or studied in practice or in principle. The postulation of such entities is no less the product of scientific inquiry for that. Many sciences are in fact directly charged with the job of inferring the unobservable from the observable. Forces, fields, atoms, quarks, past events, mental states, subsurface geological features, molecular biological structures all are unobservables inferred from observable phenomena. Nevertheless, most are unambiguously the result of scientific inquiry.”

    “During the race to elucidate the structure of the genetic molecule, both a double helix and a triple helix were considered, since both could explain the photographic images produced via x-ray crystallography. While neither structure could be observed (even indirectly through a microscope), the double helix of Watson and Crick eventually won out because it could explain other observations that the triple helix could not. The inference to one unobservable structure the double helix was accepted because it was judged to possess a greater explanatory power than its competitors with respect to a variety of relevant observations. Such attempts to infer to the best explanation, where the explanation presupposes the reality of an unobservable entity, occur frequently in many fields already regarded as scientific, including physics, geology, geophysics, molecular biology, genetics, physical chemistry, cosmology, psychology and, of course, evolutionary biology.”

    Cosmology presents another perfect example of a theory which cannot be supported by observation, but which is nevertheless regarded by many as “scientific”: The multiverse (or multiple universe) theory is, in fact, frequently cited by atheists as an alternative to God, but cannot be supported by observation, because universes other than our own are fundamentally unobservable.

    An exacting knife edge level of precision (referred to as “anthropic fine tuning”) is necessary for life to exist on Earth. Theists cite creation by God as an explanation for this exquisite precision, whereas many atheists cite the multiverse or multiple universe theory. Harvard educated NASA astrophysicist John A. O’Keefe comments:

    “If the universe had not been made with the most exacting precision we could never have come into existence. It is my view that these circumstances indicate the universe was created for man to live in.”

    There are many values which must be exactly correct for life to exist on Earth. These values are referred to as “anthropic constants.” A few examples of these anthropic constants from the article in the preceding hyperlink:

    Oxygen Level

    Oxygen comprises 21% of the atmosphere, if the level moved to 25%, fires would erupt spontaneously. If it were 15%, human beings would suffocate.

    Atmospheric Transparency

    If the atmosphere were less transparent, not enough solar radiation would reach the earth’s surface. If it were more transparent, we would be bombarded with far too much solar radiation. (In addition to atmospheric transparency, the atmospheric composition of precise levels of nitrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide, and ozone are in themselves anthropic constants)

    Moon-Earth Gravitational Interaction

    If the interaction were greater than it currently is, tidal effects on the oceans, atmosphere, and rotational period would be too severe. If it were less, orbital changes would cause climatic instabilities. In either event, life on earth would be impossible,

    Gravity

    If the gravitational force were altered by 0.00000000000000000000000000000000000001 (37 0’s) percent, our sun would not exist, and, therefore, neither would we.

    According to the multiverse theory, so many universes exist that it is not surprising that one of these universes happened to randomly have the very extremely precise fine tuning necessary for the existence of life. In fact, some theorists have pointed out that as many as 10 to the 500th power (10 with 500 zeros after it) universes are necessary. Cambridge University astrophysicist John Polkinghorne notes:

    “Answering an argument by a suggestion is hardly conclusive. One problem is that we don’t just need a hundred other universes, or even a billion, but an utterly immense number—some string theorists suggest that there are up to 10 to the 500th power other universes. If you are allowed to posit 10 to the 500th power other universes to explain away otherwise inconvenient observations, you can “explain away” anything, and science becomes impossible.”

    Regarding Polkinghorne’s above comments, how many of these 10 to the 500th power universes do you suppose have actually been observed by anyone? The answer is zero, since other universes cannot be observed.

    Another problem with observability is that many theories or beliefs which are regarded as unscientific nonsense can cite observations as scientific support. For example, an observation out of one’s window could be cited as evidence in favor or the flat-Earth theory. If observability is the demarcation criterion which distinguishes science from non-science, then the flat-Earth theory must be deemed “science.”

    Testability: “Belief in God is not scientific because God is not a testable hypothesis.”

    Stephen Meyer explains how citing testability as the demarcation criterion separating science and non-science would render Darwinian evolution non-science, because it cannot be tested:

    Origins theories generally must make assertions about what happened in the past to cause present features of the universe (or the universe itself) to arise. They must reconstruct unobservable causal events from present clues or evidences. Positivistic methods of testing, therefore, that depend upon direct verification or repeated observation of cause-effect relationships have little relevance to origins theories, as Darwin himself understood. Though he complained repeatedly about the creationist failure to meet the vera causa criterion a nineteenth-century methodological principle that favored theories postulating observed causes he chafed at the application of rigid positivistic standards to his own theory.

    As he complained to Joseph Hooker: “I am actually weary of telling people that I do not pretend to adduce direct evidence of one species changing into another, but that I believe that this view in the main is correct because so many phenomena can be thus grouped and explained” (emphasis added).

    Evolutionary biologist and paleontologist Henry Gee (Senior Editor of the science journal Nature) eloquently commented on how Darwinian evolution is not testable, in 1999:

    “No fossil is buried with its birth certificate. That, and the scarcity of fossils, means that it is effectively impossible to link fossils into chains of cause and effect in any valid way…To take a line of fossils and claim that they represent a lineage is not a scientific hypothesis that can be tested, but an assertion that carries the same validity as a bedtime story—amusing, perhaps even instructive, but not scientific.”

    Additionally, how would one administer a test to see if the most popular atheistic explanation for the anthropic fine tuning of the universe (the multiverse theory cited above) is correct? Would it involve a laboratory test involving a bunsen burner and test tubes? A test involving a microscope and a petri dish?

    Falsifiability: “Belief in God is not scientific because God cannot be falsified.”

    Proponents of falsifiability as a demarcation criterion argue that science must always first try to prove a theory to be false before accepting it. It is only after passing such a rigorous trial by fire that a theory or belief can be accepted as scientifically true. But any theory or belief which cannot even be exposed to such a trial is not falsifiable, and therefore should not be considered scientific. Falsifiability was first introduced as a demarcation criterion by the philosopher of science Karl Popper.

    Because there is no way to expose belief in God to such scrutiny (attempts to falsify), argue atheistic proponents of falsifiability, belief in God cannot be considered scientific. Much like belief in ghosts, there is no way to expose belief in God to attempts to falsify.

    The easiest way see that falsifiability fails as a demarcation criterion is to recognize that theories which have been falsified (or proven false) meet Popper’s criterion for what constitutes science. If a theory has been proven false, it must be falsifiable. Therefore scientific theories which have been proven false must be considered “scientific,” if falsifiability is the demarcation criterion that distinguishes science from pseudo-science. There is simply no way around this.

    For example, the flat-Earth theory was, most recently, proven false by satellite observations of the Earth. But, by Karl Popper’s logic, the flat-Earth theory must be considered “scientific” because it was proven false (falsified).

    Further, how could Darwin’s theory of evolution be deemed falsifiable? Philosopher Robert C. Koons comments on the un-falsifiability of Darwinian evolution:

    Any evidence that is found can be made to accord with schematic Darwinism, and so can be counted as evidence “for” the theory. Only by replacing the schema with a specific sequence of possible mutations and selective pressures can we find something that is both falsifiable and confirmable by collateral evidence. But this is exactly what has never happened, no doubt because of the problems of intractability, the inability to manage or control the reconstruction of the genotypes of extinct and even unattested hypothetical ancestors. Whatever the reason, the burden of proof was never met, and the presumption of design never rebutted.

    The history of science makes it virtually impossible to separate science from non-science.

    And finally, the history of science presents an insurmountable obstacle for discerning science from non-science. Regarding this point are some relevant excerpts from my essay titled A History Lesson for Darwinists:

    Biologist Lynn Margulis, winner of the U.S. Presidential Medal for Science, put it best in her book What Is Life?:

    …Science is asymptotic. [“asymptote” is derived from a Greek word meaning “not falling together.”] It never arrives at but only approaches the tantalizing goal of final knowledge. Astrology gives way to astronomy; alchemy evolves into chemistry. The science of one age becomes the mythology of the next.

    Those with a short-sighted view of the history of science are prone to overlook the fact that alchemy (which believed that metals such as lead could be turned into gold) and astrology were once considered scientifically respectable. In fact, as Margulis alludes to above, the scientific consensus of one age usually becomes the myth or superstition of the next age.

    Atheist mythology suggests that, as scientific knowledge grows, the need for theistic belief diminishes. However, in his pivotal work on the history, philosophy, and sociology of science titled The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, physicist Thomas Kuhn describes how the history of science makes it difficult to justify the characterization of science as “an ever growing stockpile [of] knowledge” or a “process of accretion”. In part, this is because most scientific theories (or models) which were accepted by the scientific communities of the past are now perceived as pseudo-science or myth.

    Kuhn cites the examples of Aristotelian dynamics (which was superseded by Newtonian physics), phlogistic chemistry (which said that a fire-like element called phlogiston is contained within combustible bodies and released during combustion), and caloric thermodynamics (which said that heat is really a self-repellent fluid called caloric that flows from hotter bodies to colder bodies). (Click here for dozens more examples). If these theories were regarded as “science” in their day, but as “error” and “superstition” today, then why should we not assume that the scientific theories of today will become the error and superstition of tomorrow? Kuhn writes:

    Historians confront growing difficulties in distinguishing the “scientific” component of past observation and belief from what their predecessors had readily labeled “error” and “superstition.” The more carefully they study, say, Aristotelian dynamics, phlogistic chemistry, or caloric thermodynamics, the more certain they feel that those once current views of nature were, as a whole, neither less scientific nor more the product of human idiosyncrasy than those current today. If these out-of-date beliefs are to be called myths, then myths can be produced by the same sorts of methods and held for the same sorts of reasons that now lead to scientific knowledge. If, on the other hand, they are to be called science, then science has included bodies of belief quite incompatible with the ones we hold today. Given these alternatives, the historian must choose the latter. Out-of-date theories are not in principle unscientific because they have been discarded. That choice, however, makes it difficult to see scientific development as a process of accretion.

    So with no logically sound way to separate science from non-science, atheists can only define belief in God as “unscientific” by first defining science in ways that rule out God. But this is the logical fallacy known as circular logic, the Latin term for which is circulus in probando.

    • Facebook Profile photoDavidian says:

      Appreciate the response, however this article is dealing with pseudoscience.. you know.. woo.
      It is not addressing a god belief.

      Personally I don’t believe belief or disbelief in a god is scientific.
      A sceptic would potentially want some scientific evidence to support a belief, especially if one claims knowledge their belief is true.

      We can examine specific claims with science, like the YEC claims and the 6 day creation myth – these are show easily to not be true using the scientific method.
      The evidence does not support the belief, so the belief is irrational.

      However a general belief in a god? or a general disbelief in a god? – both can be either rational or irrational.

      But back to the post it is addressing specifically pseudoscience, be it flat earth, antivax, homeopathy, chemtrails etc.

      Not every post on this site, nor every comment made by someone who happens to be an atheist, is to do with god.
      Also your comment that there is no logical way to separate science from pseudoscience… there is… the scientific method, peer review, etc.

  2. ScottY242 says:

    You suggest that peer review can serve as a means of demarcating science from pseudo-science. But the history of science tells demonstrates that this is not so. Biologist Lynn Margulis, winner of the U.S. Presidential Medal for Science, put it best in her book What Is Life?:

    …Science is asymptotic. [“asymptote” is derived from a Greek word meaning “not falling together.”] It never arrives at but only approaches the tantalizing goal of final knowledge. Astrology gives way to astronomy; alchemy evolves into chemistry. The science of one age becomes the mythology of the next.

    Those with a short-sighted view of the history of science are prone to overlook the fact that alchemy (which believed that metals such as lead could be turned into gold) and astrology were once considered scientifically respectable. In fact, as Margulis alludes to above, the scientific consensus of one age usually becomes the myth or superstition of the next age. Elite physicists Paul Davies and John Gribbin cite examples of this trend among scientific theories in their book The Matter Myth:

    A classic example concerns the “luminiferous ether.” When James Clerk Maxwell showed that light is an electromagnetic wave, it seemed obvious that this wave had to have a medium of some sort through which to propagate. After all, other known waves travel through something. Sound waves, for example, travel through the air; water waves travel across the surface of lakes and oceans. Because light, which Maxwell discovered is a form of electromagnetic wave, can reach us from the Sun and stars, across seemingly empty space, it was proposed that space is actually filled with an intangible substance, the ether, in which these waves could travel.

    So sure were physicists of the existence of the ether that ambitious experiments were mounted to measure the speed with which the Earth moves through it. Alas, the experiments showed conclusively that the ether does not exist…for nineteenth-century physicists, however, the ether was still very real.

    Dominant scientific theories have a history of eventually being radically revised, and outright rejected. William Dembski notes in Uncommon Dissent:

    Despite all the propaganda to the contrary, science is not a juggernaut that relentlessly pushes back the frontiers of knowledge. Rather, science is an interconnected web of theoretical and factual claims about the world that are constantly being revised. Changes in one portion of the web can induce radical changes in another. In particular, science regularly confronts the problem of having to retract claims that it once boldly asserted.

    Consider the following example from geology: In the nineteenth century the geosynclinal theory was proposed to account for the origination of mountain ranges. This theory hypothesized that large trough-like depressions, known as geosynclines, filled with sediment, gradually became unstable, and then, when crushed and heated by the earth, elevated to form mountain ranges. To the question “How did mountain ranges originate?” geologists as late as 1960 confidently asserted that the geosynclinal theory provided the answer. In the 1960 edition of Clark and Stearn’s Geological Evolution of North America, the status of the geosynclinal theory was even favorably compared with Darwin’s theory of natural selection.

    Whatever became of the geosynclinal theory? An alternative theory, that of plate tectonics, was developed. It explained mountain formation through continental drift and sea-floor spreading. Within a few years, it had decisively replaced the geosynclinal theory. The history of science is filled with such turnabouts in which confident claims to knowledge suddenly vanish from the scientific literature. The geosynclinal theory was completely wrong. Thus, when the theory of plate tectonics came along, the geosynclinal theory was overthrown.

    But science has provided us with air travel, amazing medicines, computers, and a whole list of other advances! Considering such facts, shouldn’t we just listen to what science has to tell us? Freeman Dyson, who holds the professorship in physics at Princeton University formerly held by Albert Einstein, comments in his 2011 essay “How We Know,” that the usefulness of scientific theories should not be confused with their truth:

    Among my friends and acquaintances, everybody distrusts Wikipedia and everybody uses it. Distrust and productive use are not incompatible. Wikipedia is the ultimate open source repository of information. Everyone is free to read it and everyone is free to write it. It contains articles in 262 languages written by several million authors. The information that it contains is totally unreliable and surprisingly accurate. It is often unreliable because many of the authors are ignorant or careless. It is often accurate because the articles are edited and corrected by readers who are better informed than the authors.

    …The public has a distorted view of science, because children are taught in school that science is a collection of firmly established truths. In fact, science is not a collection of truths. It is a continuing exploration of mysteries.

    …Science is the sum total of a great multitude of mysteries. It is an unending argument between a great multitude of voices. It resembles Wikipedia much more than it resembles the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

  3. ScottY242 says:

    Davidian, you suggest that the peer-review process is a way to demarcate science from non-science. Bu the history of science unmistakably demonstrates that the peer-review process has, in the past, endorsed much of what we now recognize as pseudo-science. Dominant scientific theories have a history of eventually being radically revised, and outright rejected. William Dembski notes in Uncommon Dissent:

    “Despite all the propaganda to the contrary, science is not a juggernaut that relentlessly pushes back the frontiers of knowledge. Rather, science is an interconnected web of theoretical and factual claims about the world that are constantly being revised. Changes in one portion of the web can induce radical changes in another. In particular, science regularly confronts the problem of having to retract claims that it once boldly asserted.”

    “Consider the following example from geology: In the nineteenth century the geosynclinal theory was proposed to account for the origination of mountain ranges. This theory hypothesized that large trough-like depressions, known as geosynclines, filled with sediment, gradually became unstable, and then, when crushed and heated by the earth, elevated to form mountain ranges. To the question ‘How did mountain ranges originate?’ geologists as late as 1960 confidently asserted that the geosynclinal theory provided the answer. In the 1960 edition of Clark and Stearn’s Geological Evolution of North America, the status of the geosynclinal theory was even favorably compared with Darwin’s theory of natural selection.”

    “Whatever became of the geosynclinal theory? An alternative theory, that of plate tectonics, was developed. It explained mountain formation through continental drift and sea-floor spreading. Within a few years, it had decisively replaced the geosynclinal theory. The history of science is filled with such turnabouts in which confident claims to knowledge suddenly vanish from the scientific literature. The geosynclinal theory was completely wrong. Thus, when the theory of plate tectonics came along, the geosynclinal theory was overthrown.”

    Biologist Lynn Margulis, winner of the U.S. Presidential Medal for Science, points out how the science of one age becomes the myth or superstition of the next age, in her book What Is Life?:

    “…Science is asymptotic. [“asymptote” is derived from a Greek word meaning “not falling together.”] It never arrives at but only approaches the tantalizing goal of final knowledge. Astrology gives way to astronomy; alchemy evolves into chemistry. The science of one age becomes the mythology of the next.”

    Those with a short-sighted view of the history of science are prone to overlook the fact that alchemy (which believed that metals such as lead could be turned into gold) and astrology were once considered scientifically respectable. In fact, as Margulis alludes to above, the scientific consensus of one age usually becomes the myth or superstition of the next age. Elite physicists Paul Davies and John Gribbin cite examples of this trend among scientific theories in their book The Matter Myth:

    “A classic example concerns the ‘luminiferous ether.’ When James Clerk Maxwell showed that light is an electromagnetic wave, it seemed obvious that this wave had to have a medium of some sort through which to propagate. After all, other known waves travel through something. Sound waves, for example, travel through the air; water waves travel across the surface of lakes and oceans. Because light, which Maxwell discovered is a form of electromagnetic wave, can reach us from the Sun and stars, across seemingly empty space, it was proposed that space is actually filled with an intangible substance, the ether, in which these waves could travel.”

    “So sure were physicists of the existence of the ether that ambitious experiments were mounted to measure the speed with which the Earth moves through it. Alas, the experiments showed conclusively that the ether does not exist…for nineteenth-century physicists, however, the ether was still very real.”

    The usefulness of scientific theories should not be confused with their truth.
    But science has provided us with air travel, amazing medicines, computers, and a whole list of other advances! Considering such facts, shouldn’t we just listen to what science has to tell us? Freeman Dyson, who holds the professorship in physics at Princeton University formerly held by Albert Einstein, comments in his 2011 essay How We Know, that the usefulness of scientific theories should not be confused with their truth:

    “Among my friends and acquaintances, everybody distrusts Wikipedia and everybody uses it. Distrust and productive use are not incompatible. Wikipedia is the ultimate open source repository of information. Everyone is free to read it and everyone is free to write it. It contains articles in 262 languages written by several million authors. The information that it contains is totally unreliable and surprisingly accurate. It is often unreliable because many of the authors are ignorant or careless. It is often accurate because the articles are edited and corrected by readers who are better informed than the authors.”

    “…The public has a distorted view of science, because children are taught in school that science is a collection of firmly established truths. In fact, science is not a collection of truths. It is a continuing exploration of mysteries.”

    “…Science is the sum total of a great multitude of mysteries. It is an unending argument between a great multitude of voices. It resembles Wikipedia much more than it resembles the Encyclopaedia Britannica.”

    Atheist mythology suggests that, as scientific knowledge grows, the need for theistic belief diminishes. However, in his pivotal work on the history, philosophy, and sociology of science titled The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, physicist Thomas Kuhn describes how the history of science makes it difficult to justify the characterization of science as “an ever growing stockpile [of] knowledge” (or a “process of accretion”). In part, this is because most scientific theories (or models) which were accepted by the scientific communities of the past are now perceived as pseudo-science or myth.

    Kuhn cites the examples of Aristotelian dynamics (which was superseded by Newtonian physics), phlogistic chemistry (which said that a fire-like element called phlogiston is contained within combustible bodies and released during combustion), and caloric thermodynamics (which said that heat is really a self-repellent fluid called caloric that flows from hotter bodies to colder bodies). (Click here for many more examples). If these theories were regarded as “science” in their day, but as “error” and “superstition” today, then why should we not assume that the scientific theories of today will become the error and superstition of tomorrow? Kuhn writes:

    “Historians confront growing difficulties in distinguishing the “scientific” component of past observation and belief from what their predecessors had readily labeled “error” and “superstition.” The more carefully they study, say, Aristotelian dynamics, phlogistic chemistry, or caloric thermodynamics, the more certain they feel that those once current views of nature were, as a whole, neither less scientific nor more the product of human idiosyncrasy than those current today. If these out-of-date beliefs are to be called myths, then myths can be produced by the same sorts of methods and held for the same sorts of reasons that now lead to scientific knowledge. If, on the other hand, they are to be called science, then science has included bodies of belief quite incompatible with the ones we hold today. Given these alternatives, the historian must choose the latter. Out-of-date theories are not in principle unscientific because they have been discarded. That choice, however, makes it difficult to see scientific development as a process of accretion.”