Science, Non-Science, and Pseudoscience

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John Wilkins points to a post by Nick Smyth with the delightful title Science, Pseudoscience and Bollocks on the demarcation problem and what Smyth thinks is a flawed tactic in the war against ID/creationism. Smyth’s basic argument is that labeling ID/creationism as non-science, or as pseudoscience, fails because there is no clear demarcation between science and non-science; we do not have criteria such that we can draw a bright line between science and all other human intellectual enterprises.

However, ID/creationism was once “science” – William Paley used the best science available to him in his Natural Theology. But ID/creationism is a failed scientific endeavor; Philip Kitcher calls it “dead science” and calls its proponents “resurrection men.”

Unfortunately, Smyth’s post implicitly equates “pseudoscience” and “non-science.” That conflation leads him to mistake the core issue and to reverse the nature of the appropriate approach. He thinks the lack of a clear demarcation criterion that tells us what “science” is makes it impossible to classify, say, ID/creationism as non-science or pseudoscience. But the task as I see it is not to define science in such a way that one can point to something and say “That’s science.” It seems to me that it’s quite possible, in principle at least, to argue that ID/creationism, for example, is “pseudoscience” without the necessity of reference to a demarcating definition of science. If one starts with the complementary problem, namely defining pseudoscience independent of any particular definition of science, then we might make more progress. That is, it may be more fruitful to demarcate pseudoscience than to attempt to demarcate science.

This approach has the advantage that it does not require us to worry about questions like whether history is a science or an art (the topic of a faculty development workshop I attended eons ago). We don’t have to wonder if the conjecture of the existence of multiple universes is ‘real’ science or fanciful speculation. We can focus on the pathology and ask what its defining properties are.

So, what are some of the properties of “pseudoscience”? We are not here engaged in defining “science” or finding a demarcation criterion that allows us to point at something and say “That’s science” or “That’s not science”, but rather are attempting to define pseudoscience in a way that allows us to reliably identify instances. I can think of a few identifying marks and scars that don’t depend on having a crisp definition of science or that refer to or explicitly contrast with genuine science. Note that I’m not here attempting to develop something like John Baez’s crackpot index, though it’s undoubtedly related. I’m not after generic cranks, but after a specific question: How can we tell that some view is pseudoscience. I take this to be something akin to medical diagnosis, where we can at least tentatively identify disease states without necessarily having a full definition of what it is to be completely healthy.

Here’s my first cut at some diagnostic properties of pseudoscience, generated right off the top of my head and listed in no particular order. I welcome additions, corrections, or amendments.

1. Inflationary Credentialism. Habitually inflating credentials or citing proponents’ credentials that are irrelevant to a view as though they lent authority to pronouncements about the view. For example, in the Discovery Institute’s Dissenters from Darwin list, the institutional affiliation listed for a signer is often that of the most prestigious institution with which the signer has ever been affiliated at one time or another, not the current affiliation as of the signing. Thus Stephen Meyers’ affiliation is listed as “Cambridge University,” where he got his Ph.D., and not the Discovery Institute, his current employer, or Palm Beach Atlantic University, the conservative Christian institution that IIRC was his employer in the period when the list was being constructed. Many of the signers have no credentials relevant to a question in biology, but are recruited to the cause anyway. The description of William A. Dembski as “The Fig Isaac Newton of Information Theory” by Robert Koons is another example of inflationary credentialism.

2. Perseveration with demonstrably false arguments. This is illustrated for creationism by the ability to construct an Index to Creationist Claims which describes the plethora of such false arguments, rebutted over and over in the scientific literature but persisted in by creationists. A contemporary example is William A. Dembski’s perseveration in his misrepresentation of a simple illustration of cumulative selection, a misrepresentation now lasting nearly a decade.

3. Perverse mistreatment of evidence: Empirical evidence is perpetually re-interpreted, misrepresented or ignored in order to preserve a view. This, of course, is closely related to #2. Pseudoscience is characterized by the persistent mistreatment of evidence, mistreatment that is not merely a matter of differing interpretations that can be resolved by finding new evidence or of drawing alternative implications from incomplete evidence that can also be resolved by gathering further data that are agreed by the disagreeing parties to be relevant. Pseudoscientists admit of no evidence contradicting their position and do not identify potential research or data that would contradict that position.

4. Claims of unfair exclusion or even persecution. The best recent example, of course, is Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. IIRC, in the McLean trial creationists made the claim that their papers were unfairly rejected from mainstream scientific journals. When examples of such papers were requested, none appeared. That claim re-surfaced in the Ohio State Board of Education battles in 2002-2003.

5. Claims of maverick status: Related to #4. Pseudoscientists often explicitly cast themselves as mavericks, claiming that they are bucking the tide of “mainstream” science and creating new scientific “paradigms” (a term that should be cast into the outer darkness; Thomas Kuhn has a lot to answer for there). The Wedge document illustrates this sort of phenomenon with its goal “To replace materialistic explanations with … theistic understanding …”.

6. [Your contribution here]

Clearly there is an implicit contrast with the properties of ‘real’ science, but notice carefully that all those properties could characterize a position even if ‘real’ science did not exist and even if we had no conception of what ‘real’ science might be. They are independent of any definition of ‘real’ science. Now, we clearly would assign value or utility to a view described by them on account of their difference from ‘real’ science, but I don’t think we require a crisp-set definition of real science in order to diagnose pseudoscience. We don’t need to know what perfect health is in order to diagnose illness.

330 Comments

#6) How about attempting to go around the usual scientific checks and scrutiny and pretend to the public that their snake-oil is a fully legitimate alternative to the standard science, without having done any work to get there? A good example would be where in the Wedge Document, the first stated goal was to establish a credible scientific theory of Intelligent Design and the second was to push it through to the public, whereas in actuality they didn’t bother doing any work at all and went straight to the PR machine.

So efforts that exist almost exclusively as publicity and salesmanship would be “pseudoscience” when trying to pass themselves as actual science.

6. Petitions or lists This is a converse to #5. Pseudoscientists often claim that they represent a widely supported view, by collecting lists of experts who support them. Such lists often include experts with no expertise in the subject area, and sometimes with no credible claim to expertise in anything (see also #1). Sometimes the claim on the list is actually fairly innocuous as worded, but is then rephrased in presentation as saying something stronger (see also #3). An example is the Dissent from Darwinism list.

I believe this topic is covered in detail in the “crackpot” entries on the net.

One well-known one is at http://math.ucr.edu/home/baez/crackpot.html

jonathan said:

I believe this topic is covered in detail in the “crackpot” entries on the net.

One well-known one is at http://math.ucr.edu/home/baez/crackpot.html

Erm, I linked to that in the OP, and explicitly said I am not after generic crankhood, but specifically after diagnostic properties of pseudoscience. To give one example of the difference, Baez’s list contains no reference to inflationary credentialism, yet that’s endemic in ID/creationism.

Thinking a bit more about inflationary credentialism, I remembered another instance that struck me at the time. Decades ago Robert Gentry, the old-time creationist physicist, came to the local Nazarene college to speak on creation science and polonium, haloes. As it happens, Gentry has no earned doctorate but has an honorary degree from Columbia Union College, now called Washington Adventist University, a Seventh Day Adventist institution. Nevertheless, he was introduced by the chairman of the biology department as Dr. Robert Gentry. As Gentry began he remarked almost sotto voce that “my doctorate is honora causa,” and then went on with his talk. This to an audience of American undergraduates who wouldn’t know an “honora causa” from a carp. It was an interesting instance of wanting to have one’s cake and eat it too: allow the credential to be attributed while quietly disclaiming it.

Perhaps this is related to (part of?) item #3:

Assertions or conclusions not warranted by the evidence presented. Your own recent (Sep. 9) PT post about the Demski/Marks journal article points to just one very recent and nicely detailed example. But most ID/Creationist literature is packed with “conclusions” that are simply non-sequiturs relative to whatever “observations” they might mention.

This stands apart from the vagueness and doubtful veracity of whatever “observations” they mention, which is yet another common symptom.

Inflated credentials, absolutely. I like the one used by Stephen Meyer regarding his “peer reviewed” paper snuck in by Sternberg. The journal resubmitted the paper for a real peer review, resulting in a retraction of the paper with the summary that it had no scientific merit. Yet such items continue to appear, and are presented when these people make appearances (when lecturing the church circuit).

The second one is outrageous claims, e.g., if the universe, which is googly light years across, were it just “one inch” shorter, we wouldn’t be here. The ooohs and aaaahs upon hearing such jibberish point to the ignorance of the audience, yet they ignore to respond to challenges. Could we make that 2.54 cm instead?

Maybe something about trying to wage a debate in popular media and appeals to the intelligence of the masses.

Aside from a discussion we had earlier on this topic, I would emphasize the persistent set of misconceptions, promulgated by the pseudo-science practitioners, of those working concepts that are already well-established in science and its technological spin-offs.

All of the ID/creationist nonsense has its roots in these persistent misconceptions and their concomitant misrepresentations of science and scientific practice. In over forty years of observing these characters, I have yet to see an exception.

Pseudo-scientists as a group do not understand even the current science; and it is their egos as well as their ignorance that leads them to push ideas that directly conflict with what anyone can verify with a little effort.

So they already get all the tested and verified stuff wrong to begin with. Their only advantage in pushing their own junk is the ignorance or naiveté of many in the general public.

When they attempt to drum up support and business using political means in front of naive audiences, it is a pretty good bet they are fakes.

Pseudo-scientists can’t stand the crucible of scientific peer review. The only time they want to interact with scientists is to leverage “credibility” from the scientific community in front of people who don’t have enough knowledge or judgment to tell the difference.

I tried posting this to Smyth’s blog, but it’s too long or something. Here are my thoughts:

Hi Nick (Smyth) – Nick Matzke here, I worked on the Dover case along with Pennock et al.

I understand that your post is well-intentioned, but it really isn’t very convincing. Primarily all of the important points on the demarcation issue have been made by Pennock 2009 in depth and with great force, and you haven’t responded to them in any depth except for just reasserting all the same mistakes that Larry Laudan made and which Pennock points out, so I won’t go over it all. But several very obvious things which you have apparently missed should be pointed out.

Claim #1. “In the defense of progress and civilization, some very smart people are marshalling a weak and ill-defined concept which cannot support the rhetorical weight they have placed upon it. The cranks may one day discover that this is so, and they will immediately (and devastatingly) point to the irony involved in being called irrational by people who do not know what they are talking about.”

This warning is a bit late. The creationists have used the anti-demarcationist argument ever since Laudan first made it after the 1981 McLean v. Arkansas decision against “creation science.” In fact, the ID people dependably cited Laudan’s demarcation critique in virtually every single discussion they ever had of the McLean decision in the 1990s and 2000s. We knew they would do it in the Kitzmiller case, and they did. They quoted Laudan at trial. They read Laudan to Robert Pennock on cross, and he responded. They had their own philosopher of science (Steve Fuller) testify for their side.

Well, so how did this devastating tactic, which you are so afraid of, work for them in court? It didn’t!! The claim that science can’t be distinguished from pseudoscience is just absurd on it’s face in court. Courts do it *all the freakin’ time*. **It’s part of their job.** The Supreme Court put forward a number of guiding criteria in the famous Daubert case on the use of extra testimony. The criteria were explicitly put forward to help courts to discount “expert” testimony that was actually junk science.

Furthermore, the claim that we can’t tell science from pseudoscience, or that particular criteria aren’t important, is easily rebutted on cross-examination. As Behe found out, if you loosen the definition of “scientific theory” enough so that something like astrology comes in, then you’ve effectively just refuted yourself.

Another common bind the ID people, and other fans of anti-demarcationism, get into is self-contradiction. Like everyone else, they actually all know/agree that testability, peer-reviewed publication, reliability, etc. are good signs for scientific credibility, and the lack of these are bad signs. And a classic pattern with pseudoscientists is that they think science is right about the bogusness of all the other pseudosciences, it’s just that it’s made a mistake with their pet one. But when they say why the other ones are wrong, they invoke the same typical criteria everyone else uses too.

Claim #2: “To put my position bluntly, the problem with creationism isn’t that it’s “pseudoscience”. The problem with creationism is that it’s bollocks.”

If you can tell the difference between science and bollocks, you can tell the difference between science and pseudoscience in just the same way. That’s pretty much what people mean by pseudoscience, perhaps with the only addition being something like “It’s bollocks which some people are trying to give credibility by wrapping it in the aura of science.”

3. “Take, for example, the second and third requirement. If we banish everyone who has either (2) seriously employed a false argument, or (3) has had some position refuted, it’s hard to imagine that there will be many scientists left to speak of. These requirements are patently absurd.”

What, so now judges are not allowed to hear testimony and decide that one side’s arguments don’t work? In (2) and (3), Jones is just summarizing the points made extensively at trial, namely (2) the IC argument is just a negative argument against evolution, even if true it wouldn’t establish that ID is correct, because “not evolution, therefore ID” is a contrived dualism (“contrived dualism” is a phrase that the judge in McLean used). And (3) just summarizes the point that the IC argument, and the other anti-evolution arguments that the ID movement used, were refuted in great detail at trial. The plaintiffs had days of testimony devoted to showing transitional fossils which refuted the claim that there were no transitional fossils, and showing biochemical intermediates which refuted the claim that biochemical intermediates to IC systems were impossible, and scientific literature on the evolution of “IC” systems which refuted the ID movement’s claims that there was no scientific literature showing the evolution of IC systems (and note the ID movement trying to use a standard demarcationist argument against evolution! irony alert!).

Nothing drives me more nuts in poorly-considered critiques of the Kitzmiller case than critisms that ignore the details of the massive amount of empirical, exhibit-ridden scientific testimony, and assume instead that the judge just went out for a walk one day and decided to judge certain things to be science or not on a total lark, or on the assertion of just one of the witnesses, Robert Pennock. Pennock was but 4 hours of a 6-week case, and but 4 hours of about 8 days of scientific direct and cross-examination from each side.

3. PS: Pretty please, for the love of the FSM, don’t now jump to the claim that “You’re saying that ID is both false and unfalsifiable!” This argument, again, was explicitly brought up at trial, discussed by Pennock in Pennock 2009, and explicitly mentioned in the decision. I.e.:

ID’s negative claims *about evolution* are testable and refutable, because they are claims about evolution, a specific theory with empirical implications and consequences. But all this says is that *evolution* is testable, which we already knew.

ID’s positive claims *about the ‘explanation’ of ID* are so vague and unconstrained as to hardly even exist, and as such are not testable.

4. “Want to keep creationism out of schools? Point out that we shouldn’t teach bollocks in schools, and that constitutional freedom of religion cannot imply that false things should be taught as if they were true things.”

It’s true that we shouldn’t teach bollocks in schools. That is a (rationally) effective moral argument, and a (somewhat less) effective political argument. But it has jack squat to do with the Constitutional prohibition on establishment of religion. The Constitution bans governmental promotion of particular religious or anti-religious views, whether they are bollocks or not. Pseudoscience is totally cool, Constitutionally speaking. The Constitution won’t stop the public schools from teaching about Bigfoot. One might argue that the Constitution *should* have been written differently, but that’s a different argument.

So, some people who think they’re being clever then proceed to ask: “Hey! That’s right! All the Kitzmiller folks needed to do was show that ID was religious, they didn’t have to get into the oh-so-mysterious question of what science is! They could have avoided all of that deep philosophical water entirely!”

Clever, but totally ignorant of the facts of the case, which were:

a. The plaintiffs filed suit asserting that teaching ID was a constitutional violation of church-state separation.

b. The *Defense* then argued, *in their official Reply*, that, no, ID wasn’t teaching religion in science class, because, actually, it’s teaching science in science class! That argument was the Defense’s defense!

c. Faced with this Defense, the plaintiffs had no choice but to rebut it. Which was done. Extremely effectively. But apparently a few people think they know better, and that the “ID is science” claim should have just been allowed to pass unchallenged, apparently mostly because Larry Laudan said some incredibly naive things about a previous court case 20+ years ago.

In other words, it’s the ID movement’s fault that science came up in the case, and it’s their own fault that they were hoisted on their own scientific petard. The moral of the story is, don’t claim you’ve got a scientific theory unless you can back it up and show it’s ready for prime-time. At least, don’t do it in court, where the whole point of the exercise is to decide a specific legal question after a thorough-but-not-endless examination of the evidence.

Point #5 Lastly, words like “true”, “false”, “right”, “wrong”, etc. tend to get used in a very binary way by anti-demarcationists. I.e., they seem to have the view, which is totally freaking absurd in many real-life situations, that claims are either all true or all false. They seem to have lost the gene for approximation – even though approximation is absolutely central to understanding truth statements in science (or law). Thus, I close with the following:

—————————————————– “[W]hen people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together.”

Isaac Asimov (1989). “The Relativity of Wrong.” The Skeptical Inquirer, 14(1), 35-44. Fall 1989. http://chem.tufts.edu/AnswersInScie[…]yofWrong.htm ====================================================

Thanks for letting me comment. Forgive my sharp tone, I don’t have any hostility towards Nick who is obviously sincere and on the right side of the evolution/creationism issue for instance. But he did make some blanket statements about how the Kitzmiller decision and its fans were full of it, and thems’ fightin’ words, so I replied in kind. So anyway, if you’re ever in Berkeley, let’s have a beer. ;-)

Here’s the real deal:

As Laudan puts it, “If we could stand up on the side of reason, we ought to drop terms like ‘pseudo-science.’… They do only emotive work for us.”

Source: “The Methodological Equivalence of Design and Descent”, Stephen C. Meyer, www.arn.org

FL

FL, thank you for reiterating Nick (Matzke)’s point that creationists have been arguing for years that science and pseudo-science should be one big happy family. And thanks for that word “Methodological” again. It’s always fun seeing that one pop up somewhere. And Stephen C. Meyer too. It’s always such wonderful joy hearing about Stephen C. Meyer.

#6 ‘Appeals to the Masses.’(Which I actually believe should be more robustly attempted by the real researchers)

Direct appeals to Church Groups, School Boards, scout groups, cooking clubs, anything to bypass inspection at any moderately serious level.

These are primarily features of ID advocates, and not features of ID theory. I think that that is the place where you really see the difference between science and pseudo-science, in the features of researchers rather than the features of theories, but it’s also certainly part of the reason the line is hard to draw. People working on real scientific theories certainly act very badly some of the time, and while ID is an especially bad case, there have been sincere researchers in many fields we’d call pseudo-science; as you note, creationism was a real research project in times past.

This distinction also seems to be the source of considerable amounts of confusion, as some have seemed to think that they can make distinctions among theories rather than among researchers (Popper, for example), and as a result others (like Laudan) have claimed that there can’t be any distinction because they have (correctly) noticed that the distinction can’t be drawn at the level of theories.

Nick (Matzke) said:

I tried posting this to Smyth’s blog, but it’s too long or something. Here are my thoughts:

Hi Nick (Smyth) – Nick Matzke here, I worked on the Dover case along with Pennock et al.

I understand that your post is well-intentioned, but it really isn’t very convincing. Primarily all of the important points on the demarcation issue have been made by Pennock 2009 in depth and with great force, and you haven’t responded to them in any depth except for just reasserting all the same mistakes that Larry Laudan made and which Pennock points out, so I won’t go over it all.

Thanks for letting me comment. Forgive my sharp tone, I don’t have any hostility towards Nick who is obviously sincere and on the right side of the evolution/creationism issue for instance. But he did make some blanket statements about how the Kitzmiller decision and its fans were full of it, and thems’ fightin’ words, so I replied in kind. So anyway, if you’re ever in Berkeley, let’s have a beer. ;-)

Writing stupid crap about Larry Laudan and attributing views to him he does not have is also fighting words.

It’s too early in the morning right now. I’ll write more later.

But isn’t it obvious: any of us who disagree or who point out problems with the current popular twisted conflation of Hopper and Pempel’s approach to philosophy of science by the Courts must be a) secret ID/Creationists b) secret ID/Creationist symps? c) ID Creationist fellow travelers d) secretly advocates of “teach the controversy” or some such nefarious thing.

Wny its been argued again and again on PT.

Anyway, I’d like to thank Richard Hoppe for this post. It raises a lot of interesting points.

But maybe in the interim, instead of quote mining Larry Laudan as the Creationists do, perhaps people could take the time to read him, or at least to read the following post from the PT archives about Larry Laudan:

http://pandasthumb.org/archives/200[…]emarcat.html

In the interim, here is what Laudan has really had to say about science, YEC/ID, relativism and a whole bunch of other silly stuff:

“I did not write this work merely with the aim of setting the exegetical record straight. My larger target is those contemporaries who – in repeated acts of wish-fulfillment – have appropriated conclusions from the philosophy of science and put them to work in aid of a variety of social cum political causes for which those conclusions are ill adapted. Feminists, religious apologists (including “creation scientists”), counterculturalists, neoconservatives, and a host of other curious fellow-travelers have claimed to find crucial grist for their mills in, for instance, the avowed incommensurability and underdetermination of scientific theories. The displacement of the idea that facts and evidence matter by the idea that everything boils down to subjective interests and perspectives is – second only to American political campaigns – the most prominent and pernicious manifestation of anti-intellectualism in our time.” — Larry Laudan (Science and Relativism: Some Key Controversies in the Philosophy of Science)

I’m not, mind you, saying I agree in every detail with everything Laudan has ever written, and not even on the demarcation problem. But he sure as hell is preferable to twisting up Hopper and Pempel.

One last point for this morning’s rant in response to Richard:

Don’t blame Kuhn-blame the silly Kuhn thumpers-which isn’t to say I endorse Kuhn. But I do understand your annoyance with how people throw the word paradigm around to justify anything.

It seems as if Smyth is conflating “science” and “scientist”. Specifically:

ID [Intelligent Design] fails on three different levels, any one of which is sufficient to preclude a determination that ID is science. They are: (1) ID violates the centuries-old ground rules of science by invoking and permitting supernatural causation; (2) the argument of irreducible complexity, central to ID, employs the same flawed and illogical contrived dualism that doomed creation science in the 1980’s; and (3) ID’s negative attacks on evolution have been refuted by the scientific community. (Jones 2005, 64)

It’s hard to properly describe how bad this ruling was, how incredibly vulnerable it is to logical and factual attack.

Take, for example, the second and third requirement. If we banish everyone who has either (2) seriously employed a false argument, or (3) has had some position refuted, it’s hard to imagine that there will be many scientists left to speak of. These requirements are patently absurd.

There is a distinction, and once it is made, this particular point sort of evaporates.

Richard B. Hoppe Wrote:

[Your contribution here]

Actually Jerry Coyne’s contribution: quote mining (note Behe’s insertion of a period in Coyne’s sentence to change the meaning). Not to take anything away from your excellent post, but Coyne noted early on in the ID scam that it was pure “crank science.”

Perhaps another feature that identifies pseudoscience is that it is almost always either 1) based on pre-scientific folk knowledge, confirming what ordinary people either believe or want to believe or 2) it makes promises that are too good to be true, like miracle cures, free energy or that the universe was custom designed with you in mind.

Real science, in contrast, often reaches results which are counterintuitive or noone has ever thought of before, or splashes cold water on cherished beliefs.

Of course IDC is not science. There is no designer science for it to be. What about biology, geology, astronomy, and so forth? There is a vast amount of science under each of these headings. IDC on the other hand consists of bad arguments, false claims and quote mines. A complete “demarkation” of a category is not needed to recognize cases of something not being in that category. There may be close calls, but there are also clear strikes and balls.

Some comments notice that the top post refers to actions as well as results. Sure, science is both an activity and its results, as is pseudoscience (a form of non-science). I would still note, despite RBH not meaning the post to be about generic crankery, that Denialism is an important idea in the context of creationism.

I have to agree with Nick Matzke on nearly all his points, especially on what has been well and rightly dealt with in court. I think he is too generous in calling Fuller a philosopher of science, but that’s just his generous nature.

#6) claims exist (solely) to promote an agenda and/or product. Snake-oil salesmen engage in pseudoscience to SELL SNAKE OIL, IDiots wage their anti-evolution campaign to further their religion - if one applies something like the Lemon-test, and the claim in question fails, it’s not science.

correction - if one applies something like the Lemon-test, and the claim in question fails, it MIGHT NOT be science (or MIGHT be psudeo-science)

read aloud in the voice of Jeff Foxworthy - if you promote a ‘potentially scientific claim’ that is counter to or disproven by established science, solely to promote your personal religious views (or product), you might be a crackpot

A few additional factors that advocates of genuine scientific theories never think of doing – some of which were obliquely covered in earlier comments:

1. Websites promoting pseudo-science often have a “Statement of Faith” requirement, clearly indicating that their goal is the validation of scripture, rather than producing a verifiable explanation of natural phenomena.

2. Lacking genuine research to support their “science,” promoters resort to polls and popular opinion to “validate” their position.

3. Engaging public relations to promote their “science.”

4. Recruiting scientifically ignorant allies to promote their “science” – such as elected school boards, elected legislators, and journalists.

The descriptor given here is in essence a sociological descriptor of pseudoscience. It declares something to be pseudoscience based on the behavior of the individuals promoting the idea. That seems worrisome even if as a heuristic such data might be useful to decide what is worth paying attention to and what is not worth paying attention to.

A relevant distinction I am fond of is that of Imre Lakatos. Lakatos suggested that we should think in terms of research programs. A research program has a central core of ideas and has surrounding hypotheses that expand and protect it. A good research program leads to new ideas, experiments and broader hypotheses or even separate related research programs. A degenerate research program is a research program where the only hypotheses generated are purely defensive hypotheses to preserve the core theories of the program. Extremely degenerate research programs are pseudoscience. Under this test, ID is clearly pseudoscience.

More generally, for all these tests, the exact dividing lines are not clear. We make a mistake if we think that these tests are therefore not helpful. The line between species is not always clear, but the notion is still a very helpful one that we would be foolish to reject. Just because their are borderline cases or difficulties with certain types of demarcation does not mean that any form of general approach is not helpful. Moreover, there’s some correlation between meeting one of the criteria for pseudoscience or meeting one of the criteria for being bollocks and meeting other such. This suggests that all these criteria can be useful.

If a subject meets many different descriptors of pseudoscience such as that given by Hoppe or the various commentators here, one can safely consider a subject pseudoscience. If it also meets the bollocks criteria, then a fortiori it is pseudoscience. Indeed, most subjects widely considered to be pseudoscience (such as ID) meet many such criteria.

Interesting post & discussion. To dispense w/ Creationism & ID, all we need is a mildly sophisticated standard for what counts as a good scientific theory. On any such standard, ID is a lousy theory.

Trying to come up with symptoms for pseudoscience can run us into unnecessary difficulties. A young, immature but promising theory can possess quite a few symptoms of psuedoscience. For example, you can plausibly make the case that all 5 of these proposed symptoms held to at least some degree for Copernicanism in (say) 1616.

To be clear: I’m not arguing that Copernicanism in 1616 was pseudoscience. It wasn’t. It was a very promising theory that had some pretty serious problems & some very powerful opponents. I’m just saying that you want to make sure your weedwacker takes out just the weeds and not the ready-to-bloom roses.

Copernicanism in 1616 would not fail criterion 1,2, or 3 above (nor my proposed 6)

- I like the weekwhacker analogy - but if one examines INTENT the roses would be safe

Nick Matzke somewhat anticipated what I had planned to say. The “demarcation problem” is a higher-stakes issue in the United States because there’s no constitutional objection to teaching bad science, only to teaching religion. Therefore, we in the colonies have a practical need that the mother country does not to find some way to say “X is not science at all,” rather than “X is bad science.” To be sure, I cringed a bit at the McLean court’s excursion into philosophy of science, but, as often happens in law, an inadequate theory often still works well enough to get the right result.

I don’t think we’ve yet had: references to scientific papers which are long outdated, and known to be outdated by everyone in the field. For example the moon-dust argument. Or articles on human evolution in the 1990’s which didn’t reference anything less than 30 years old.

That’s a classic example of pseudoscience: something looking superficially like science without actually being science.

Pseudoscience has attracted earlier significant work. Robert Park lists seven indicia:

1. The discoverer pitches the claim directly to the media. 2. The discoverer says that a powerful establishment is trying to suppress his or her work. 3. The scientific effect involved is always at the very limit of detection. 4. Evidence for a discovery is anecdotal. 5. The discoverer says a belief is credible because it has endured for centuries. 6. The discoverer has worked in isolation. 7. The discoverer must propose new laws of nature to explain an observation.

He does not require all seven to categorization. These are from his book “Voodoo Science,” but they are expanded from earlier concepts of Vannevar Bush.

I suggest you read Paul R. Thagard’s famous piece, “Why Astrology Is A Pseudoscience” on this topic:

http://www.cavehill.uwi.edu/bnccde/[…]thagard.html

Rather than categorizing an entire “science” as pseudo, it might be more useful to categorize individual theories as scientific or not. A scientific theory must propose a mechanism that can be investigated by physical methods and must lead to repeatable physical results.

In “Signature in the Cell,” Stephen Meyer attempts to place ID on a scientific footing. However, in all 611 pages, he fails to propose any mechanism (I’d call it a “noetic interface”) by which his intelligence actually imparts biological information into a physical medium. He refuses to characterize any capabilities, attributes, or limitations of this intelligence. For this reason, we can justifiably label ID as a pseudoscientific theory. Contrast this with Darwinian evolution.

(As a test case, how about string theory? It does propose a mechanism, and people are working on ways to investigate it experimentally, even though these might not be feasible with today’s technology. Maybe string theory is on the edge, a protoscientific hypothesis :-)

Reply to Ben (something went wrong with the block quoting)

Is my argument valid? Suprised you give it any credibility.

Negative arguments are an acceptable logical method though not a complete one - I agree on this. My arguments are posted elsewhere.

But for sake of full disclosure…I am a Christian who believes in the Genesis story. God is the creator of all things. We see beauty because our faculties are for more than survival. Humans have true purpose, true will, true virtue. God defines reality. Science is the discovery of this created order, not arbitrary conjecture about nature - as was the sin of the Church in the past.

wile coyote said:

Jordan Wallace said:

An acknowledgement of some prime-mover of the universe is still an ID argument.

Ah, so you admit that “God intelligently designed evolution” as would Frances Collins or Ken Miller? And that AiG and UD and all those lads are barking up the wrong tree?

Is evolution part of the Design? Or isn’t it? Yes? No? Simple question.

No

Jordan Wallace said: Science is the discovery of this created order, not arbitrary conjecture about nature

Correct. Science is the discovery of the natural laws of the universe, and it is based on observation, measurement, and experiment – not arbitrary conjecture.

So what’s your problem?

Jordan Wallace said: No

Well, Frances Collins and Ken Miller tell me YES. Why should I believe you? After all they are much more articulate and persuasive.

You assume alot from science. In fact you seem to assume that it gives you answers.

No, we OBSERVE that science gives us answers – very useful answers, which your dumbass religion has yet to match.

You are using the word “assume” incorrectly, despite being explicitly informed of this in the past. I therefore conclude you are being intentionally dishonest.

On top of that, the rest of your comments are just plain incoherent and nonsensical, at best, if not observably false.

Jordan wrote:

“So, you are arguing that because these matters seem to have no intelligent pattern, evolution must account for them. But wait, you didn’t say they have no pattern, just that there could not have been an intelligent pattern. How do you know? The similarities may actually be evidence for a common intelligence.”

Thanks for responding to my questions.

Yes, my point is that these observations make absolutely no sense whatsoever, assuming there was an intelligence responsible. If you disagree, the burden of proof is on you to demonstrate exactly why an intellignce would have designed things this way. Notice that the observations are exactly what are expected if no intelligence or planning was involved in evolution.

You do know that SINEs are genetic mistakes shared between species, right? You do know that the nested hierarchey of SINE insertions exactly matches the molecular phylogeny for these species right? You do know that the phylogeny constructed using SINEs is concordant with the fossil record right? You do know that there is no reason for these plagarized errors to be produced by intelligence right? Or are you claiming that God copied the mistakes?

Please notice the “God works in mysterious ways” is not an explanation for anything. Also please notice that most people would not want to worship a God who is deceitful or a moron.

I will wait patiently for your response.

Wily asks:

Is evolution part of the Design? Or isn’t it? Yes? No? Simple question.

Jordan answers:

No

Well, that’s awkward, since most technical people, even creationists, admit that some degree of evolution exists (They have to, it’s easily demonstrated. Creationists have to waffle on about how it’s “microevolution”, versus “macroevolution” or “evolution within kinds” or some similar fudge, but they can’t actually deny it’s there and still be taken seriously).

Or are you going to insist that there is no evolution in any degree? (Which would be stupid of you, since there are at least two dozen directly documented examples of speciation, so don’t do that, its a rookie mistake)

So now you’re proposing that there are at least two mechanisms affecting the flora and the fauna, ID and some degree of evolution. So how do I tell them apart?

Thus the complexity of a cell (for instance) has two options, 1) it was designed and this guides the inferences one draws or 2) we observe the cell and have to theorize of all the potential anomalies that could have led to the existence of that cell. That seems to allow for a great deal of imagination.

Okay, let it guide your inferences. GODDIDIT, you claim. Fine.

Then what???

How can you possibly learn anything about anything if you just shrug and say “God did it”?

If that were still the prevailing attitude, there would be no weather forecasting (“God did it”), antibiotics (“God did it”), astronomy (“God did it”), agriculture (“God did it”). See?

There may be a god, but, as far as we can tell, it’s indistinguishable from natural law.

E=mc2 is indistiguishable from E=mc2+GOD

Most of the modern world uses methodological naturalism (WYSIWYG) because it works.

Again, your heat, light, and computer didn’t poof into existence because someone prayed for them. People looked at how the world works and made use of that knowledge. That’s what biologists are doing too. If the knowledge conflicts with what your religion tells you, tough darts.

DS said:

Jordan wrote:

“So, you are arguing that because these matters seem to have no intelligent pattern, evolution must account for them. But wait, you didn’t say they have no pattern, just that there could not have been an intelligent pattern. How do you know? The similarities may actually be evidence for a common intelligence.”

Thanks for responding to my questions.

Yes, my point is that these observations make absolutely no sense whatsoever, assuming there was an intelligence responsible. If you disagree, the burden of proof is on you to demonstrate exactly why an intellignce would have designed things this way. Notice that the observations are exactly what are expected if no intelligence or planning was involved in evolution.

You do know that SINEs are genetic mistakes shared between species, right? You do know that the nested hierarchey of SINE insertions exactly matches the molecular phylogeny for these species right? You do know that the phylogeny constructed using SINEs is concordant with the fossil record right? You do know that there is no reason for these plagarized errors to be produced by intelligence right? Or are you claiming that God copied the mistakes?

Please notice the “God works in mysterious ways” is not an explanation for anything. Also please notice that most people would not want to worship a God who is deceitful or a moron.

I will wait patiently for your response.

You arbitrarily assume a common ancestor and massive speciation. The fossil record does not support massive speciation and intermediary fossil evidence that builds the theory of phylogeny. Your argument is dubious because you assume phylogeny. Perhaps the best inference is that these SINEs exist due to a common decay. If phylogeny is untrue and decay is occuring then the SINEs can be accounted for. The better question is why the designer would allow this decay.

As a matter of definition - as one commentor has challenged - I use evolution as macroevolution more commonly held in Darwinian notions, not as small variation within typically acknowledged species.

Raging Bee said:

You assume alot from science. In fact you seem to assume that it gives you answers.

No, we OBSERVE that science gives us answers – very useful answers, which your dumbass religion has yet to match.

You are using the word “assume” incorrectly, despite being explicitly informed of this in the past. I therefore conclude you are being intentionally dishonest.

On top of that, the rest of your comments are just plain incoherent and nonsensical, at best, if not observably false.

Actually, you observe data sets and probabilities and THEN make assumptions. At best you cannot reject your hypothesis, at worst you have to reject it. Your inference to fact is only a ratification of probabilistic hypothesis into personal assumptions. If you make inferences, you make assumptions.

Jordan,

Thanks for trying, but no you are completely wrong. The shared SINE insertions are evidence that speciation did indeed occur. The assumptions concern only the dynamics of retro transposition which are well studied and well understood. That is precisely why these characters are optimal for use in phylogenetic reconstruction. They are extremely unlikely to undergo convergence or reversal and they provide a very strong phylogenetic signal.

Now, your turn. Please explain why hippos and cetaceans share the same SINE insertions. Please explain why this data shows that hippos are the closest living relative to cetaceans, exactly the topology shown by many other moleculac data sets. Please explain why the intelligent designer created a pattern exactly congruent with speciation and macroevolution for no apparent reason. Please explain exactly why your hypothesis should be preferred since it was not predicted by ID and cannot be explained by ID.

Also, please note that the same argument can be made for human evolution. There are many data sets that demonstrate conclusively that chimps are the closest living relative to humans, including SINE insertions. How do you explain this?

Jordan wrote:

“You arbitrarily assume a common ancestor and massive speciation. The fossil record does not support massive speciation and intermediary fossil evidence that builds the theory of phylogeny.”

As I have already explained, the SINE data is completely congruent with the fossil record. There are at least eleven different species intermediate between artiodactyls and cetaceans in the fossil record and they occur in precisely the right sequence expected if cetaceans are derived from artiodactyl ancestors. Perhaps you should familiarize yourself with the fossil record of this group.

Also, please note that the developmental evidence is completely consistent with this hypothesis as well. You are the one who is assuming that speciation did not occur. This is totally unwarranted and contrary to all the available evidence.

As for decay, what are you talking about? Do you understand anything about retro transposition? The whole point is that the transposons are inserted into the genome and are stable, they persist for millions of years, through speciation events. Do try to formulate hypotheses consistent with the available evidence,

Perhaps the best inference is that these SINEs exist due to a common decay.

Of what exactly? The perfect whale? Leviathan, maybe?

Or they were all just plugged in to various creatures, and they then all “decayed” exactly the same way? How and why, exactly? “GODDIDIT”? See how useless that idea is?

Talk about grasping at straws…

Jordan Wallace said: Actually, you observe data sets and probabilities and THEN make assumptions. At best you cannot reject your hypothesis, at worst you have to reject it. Your inference to fact is only a ratification of probabilistic hypothesis into personal assumptions. If you make inferences, you make assumptions.

Huh? Wow. The data are your posts. From this, I assume that you are a green space alien from Venus made of cheese blown out of the nostril of a Neptunian writing this by focusing your brain waves through the gravitational field of Sirius. Or I could “assume” that you are human. Not all assumptions are equal. Nor are all interpretations. Second of all, you seem to have no practical experience in either the practice or mechanics of science. Witness your plainly ignorant statement about SINEs, amply addressed in the last two comments. Coming into this conversation late (I have been doing “science” by gathering data and testing “hypotheses”), my impression is that you are “pontificating” in the worst sense of the word, having either an inability or unwillingness (equally probable interpretations given the data of your posts) to understand the posts.

Jordan Wallace said:

You arbitrarily assume a common ancestor and massive speciation. The fossil record does not support massive speciation and intermediary fossil evidence that builds the theory of phylogeny. Your argument is dubious because you assume phylogeny. Perhaps the best inference is that these SINEs exist due to a common decay. If phylogeny is untrue and decay is occuring then the SINEs can be accounted for. The better question is why the designer would allow this decay.

As a matter of definition - as one commentor has challenged - I use evolution as macroevolution more commonly held in Darwinian notions, not as small variation within typically acknowledged species.

If phylogeny is false, then how come you have yet to provide any evidence to support this claim, as well as provide evidence that explains why the contrary is strongly inferred?

Oh, wait, you’re just yammering without actually looking at or even attempting to provide any evidence.

I agree with Mike on this part: Interesting post & discussion. To dispense w/ Creationism & ID, all we need is a mildly sophisticated standard for what counts as a good scientific theory. On any such standard, ID is a lousy theory.

The most generally applicable rules of science don’t seem to have changed much since Isaac Newton wrote some rules for “natural philosophy”. And we can very easily show how ID breaks at least three of his rules, probably all four.

Finding ways to recognize pseudo-science as opposed to non-science may have value. But the original list here – I don’t know how you divide “non” from “pseudo” in practice (maybe by asking if they call it science?), but consider religion. Christianity seems to meet all five criteria. I assume you don’t require every single creationist to give false arguments or what have you before calling their view pseudoscience. And we could easily find Christian apologists showing each of the five properties. Even if we ignore this odd creationist fellow here, I mean.

(I don’t think I’ve read all the comments; I can see Stephen P makes a good suggestion, but one that doesn’t help laymen.)

The fossil record does not support massive speciation and intermediary fossil evidence that builds the theory of phylogeny.

That is why discussions of the evidence for evolution also include anatomical and DNA comparisons (i.e., matching nested hierarchies), geographic clustering of close relatives, lack of sharp boundaries between closely related species, in addition to the fossil series that have been discovered.

By itself, the fossil record shows that most species with hard parts are modified copies of earlier species. That’s expected if species evolved, and is an unexplained fact if they didn’t.

Henry

You forget, henry: for the hard-of-thinking,”god did it” explains everything. End of discussion.

To dispense w/ Creationism & ID, all we need is a mildly sophisticated standard for what counts as a good scientific theory.

How about this: A proposed theory needs to explain pattern(s) that is/are consistently observed in the relevant data, but which is highly unlikely to occur by accident if the theory is wrong. That pattern should be a logical consequence of the premises making up the theory. The theory needs to be better than any competing theories that it would contradict. It needs to predict some observations (preferably measurements) before they are or were made.

Henry

I think a more solid approach is to ask whether or not the scientist wannabes can point to a substantial program of research that is bearing fruit and currently forms the foundation for research by others in the established research community.

We no longer have to be concerned with what happened in the past when the whole notion of scientific investigation was in its nascent stages. We already have a well-established and working model and program in our hands right now. We have a few centuries of hard evidence that it works and we know why it works.

Scientists who have done research successfully, who have been in the game for a while, who know the current issues; these are the people who can smell a rat far more sensitively than can anyone who has no research experience. And rats fear them most because rats don’t know their way around in the science laboratory or in the science community.

We don’t push speculative science off onto unsuspecting school children even when the speculative ideas come from within the established scientific community. If these ideas are mentioned at all, they are pointed out as the frontier areas of science where questions are still open.

But these newer ideas are bootstrapping off current understandings; and those working in these areas know that results cannot violate already well-established science, and that currently established theories must somehow be limiting cases of any newer theories. The people in the science community know in great detail what these constraints are. Pseudo-scientists don’t; hence, an additional reason for their fear of real scientists.

In short, if you want to know if it is science, make the wannabes run their ideas by the people who have the best judgments about these questions; namely, the experienced people who do it routinely for a living and know the territory.

If that became the required rule, we might have fewer fakers attempting to slip past the novices currently guarding the gates.

Jordan,

Still waiting. If you are having trouble finding information on cetacean phylogeny, perhaps the following references would be helpful:

Mitochondrial DNA J. Mol. Evo. 50:569-578 (2002) Casein Genes Mol. Bio. Evo. 13:954-963 (1996)

Overlapping Genes Nuc. Acid Res. 30(13):2906-2910 (2000)

SINE Insertions Nature 388:666-370 (1997) PNAS 96:10262-10266 (1999)

You might find the last reference particularly instructive. It has a nice figure of artiodactyl phylogeny, including cetaceans. You know, the stuff you claimed could not happen. Perhaps you could provide references from the scientific literature for your claim about the limits of speciation. I can also provide references for the palentological and developmental evidence as well, if you are interested.

I would also recommend the talkorigins.org archive. Just search on the term “plagarized errors”. The article is complete with scientific references and refutations of all creationist claims. Enjoy.

Actually, you observe data sets and probabilities and THEN make assumptions.

No, fool, we draw CONCLUSIONS based on, and attempting to explain, what we observe. There’s a difference. Your continued misuse of the word “assumption” proves your intentional dishonesty. Beneath all the sciencey word-salad, you’re a liar and a fraud.

Jordan,

Still waiting.

Jordan,

Still waiting.

Mike Elzinga said:

And rats fear them most because rats don’t know their way around in the science laboratory or in the science community.

Maybe the rats are afraid because they do know what happens to rodents inside a laboratory.

stevaroni said:

Mike Elzinga said:

And rats fear them most because rats don’t know their way around in the science laboratory or in the science community.

Maybe the rats are afraid because they do know what happens to rodents inside a laboratory.

:-)

Hee hee hee!

If this thread is still open, I would like to take a shot at distinguishing science from pseudoscience.

I have developed a rather crude criterion as to what counts as science; Science is what is done by the scientific community.

For the past 400 years, there has been a tremendous expansion in human knowledge due to science. The vast bulk of theories devised by human minds has been flawed, and these theories have been refuted by scientists. The theories which are currently held as viable comprise a minute fraction of the sum-total of theories generated by human minds. The continued viability of these current theories is by no means assured - because science (unlike pseudoscience) is a self-correcting endeavor. Where science advances through the replacement of its theories, pseudoscience cannot advance because none of its “theories” are replaceable.

The case involving Mr. Darwin and the scientific community is rather instructive. Darwin was no biologist; In the Origin and the Descent, to me, he seems an amateur - enthused and winging it with his then novel depiction of nature - especially in the Descent with his quaint descriptions of the mating behavior of non-human organisms. Even though Darwin was no “official” biologist, his theories of natural and sexual selection were taken up rather quickly by the scientific community, where they have been subject to criticism, revision and possible refutation for over 140 years. (“ID theorists” should take note from Darwin when they are whining that their “scientists” are given short shrift and their “evidence” ignored; Darwin endured far more defamation in his day for trying to get his theories on the map than any “ID scientist” could begin to experience today.)

It is uncanny (and scary) that experimental research some 140 years after the publication of the Descent continues to sustain (and amplify) what Darwin said. No other scientist with the possible exception of Einstein can lay claim to such prescience and validation. For example in the last 2 decades or so (due to the explosion in the knowledge of genetics), the theory of sexual selection has picked up a momentum and a salience which would have made Darwin’s head spin; Some biologists (notably the late Ernst Mayr) have predicted that once science had a good understanding of genetics, sexual selection would eventually become recognized as the dominant driver of evolution.

Whenever I visit this board, I am struck by a rubbish notion implicit in posts of the ID people that biologists have - somehow - lost their final say over matters foundational to biology, ie. evolution. It is as though the final say over biology has been illicitly handed over to preachers, politicians (who have been grafted to take up the cudgels for ID theorists), judges or those in pressure groups whose interest in science is more about religious axe grinding than pursuing objective knowledge about this world.

Physicists, I do not believe, would sit idly by allowing an appearance that their branch of science was no longer under their control. If Quantum Mechanics were ever hauled out in front of a court or a legislature to “assay” its status as a scientific theory, I think that physicists would take to the streets, demanding that they be left alone to develop and test their own theory. How and why did biology become different from physics in this regard?

Physics is what physicists do; Astronomy is what astronomers do, and biology is what biologists do. When (or if) biologists decide (as a result of dis-confirming evidence) that evolutionary theory no longer explains what needs explaining, then it will - too - take its place in the ash-can of failed, scientific theories. Until then, we all should have a minimal amount of intellectual maturity to accept what biologists say about biology - that it pictures how nature works to the best of our current knowledge. (We should accept this unless we can produce stronger evidence and a superior theory (as Darwin once did) than the evidence and the theory which we now have.)

I have developed a rather crude criterion as to what counts as science; Science is what is done by the scientific community.

That rule of thumb would be adequate if it weren’t for the deliberate misrepresentations of science by certain groups.

Henry J said:

I have developed a rather crude criterion as to what counts as science; Science is what is done by the scientific community.

That rule of thumb would be adequate if it weren’t for the deliberate misrepresentations of science by certain groups.

Point very well taken…

However, it does take a very deliberately self-deceptive mind to convince itself that working with gravitational theory is not what physicists do, that working with the Big Bang theory is not what astronomers do, and that working with evolutionary theory is not what biologists do. The above 3 theories are viable scientific theories, and those who work with them are describable as scientists - not charlatans.

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This page contains a single entry by Richard B. Hoppe published on September 23, 2009 9:49 PM.

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