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How To Discern Science's Poseurs

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In solidarity with rwenzori: Κοπρος φανεται

« on: April 04, 2007, 12:40:15 PM »

This comment, ironically found at the "Fearlessly Seeking Honest Open Disclosure" blogspot, gives a brief generic treatment of pseudoscience.  It is a deft educational piece, reminiscent of Sagan's "Baloney Detection Kit," that deserves wider exposure and is therefore reproduced here in full:
Pseudoscience is research that has the appearance of science but does not follow the scientific method, usually lacking peer review and repetition of observations by independent researchers.

First, let us discuss the characteristics of real, true, "good" science:

  • It has verifiable and valid data and measurements
  • It is properly documented
  • It is reproducible by others
  • It is available for peer review and critique
  • It follows the established scientific methods
  • Bias is expected to be controlled or eliminated, by double-blind studies, or statistically through fair sampling procedures
  • Further experiments or studies are to be conducted to confirm or falsify results

Characteristics of pseudoscience:
  • It is presented as consistent with the accepted norms of scientific research; but demonstrably fails to meet these norms, most importantly, in misuse of scientific method
  • Use of vague, exaggerated or untestable claims
    • Vague scientific claims
    • Misuse of technical jargon
    • Lack of operational definitions
    • Lack of conditions or boundaries
    • Lack of specific measurements
  • Assertion of scientific claims that cannot be falsified in the event they are incorrect, inaccurate, or irrelevant
  • Assertion of claims that a theory predicts something that it has not been shown to predict
  • Assertion that claims which have not been proven false must be true, and vice versa (known as the "Argument of Ignorance")
  • Selective use of experimental evidence
  • Reversed burden of proof. In science, the burden of proof rests on the individual making a claim, not on the critic. "Pseudoscientific" arguments may neglect this principle and demand that skeptics demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt that a claim is false
  • Lack of openness to testing by other experts
    • Evasion of peer review
    • Failure to provide adequate information for other researchers to reproduce the claimed results
    • Assertion of claims of secrecy or proprietary knowledge in response to requests for review of data or methodology
  • Personalization of issues
    • Critics = enemies
    • Attacking the motives or character of anyone who questions the claims (known as the ad hominem argument)
    • Assertion of claims of a conspiracy on the part of the scientific community to suppress the results

The Debunking:
Not too many scientists will take on "fringe" claims. In general, there are two reasons for this. The first, and most obvious one, is that most real scientists are too busy doing real science. The second reason is that most scientists find pseudo-scientists to be very irritating.

In fact, many real scientists think that pseudo-scientists should be ignored. They reason that they do not want to give these guys publicity, and that taking them on legitimizes their theories.

Debunking fringe theories is usually not trivial. For example, Richard Hoagland has been making his (mistaken) claims about Mars for literally decades. The breadth and depth of his claims is astonishing! It would take forever to debunk everything he says, as it would for most pseudoscience theories. Every time you debunk one thing, they pop up with another claim, instantly ignoring that you just destroyed their last argument.

Debunking Hoagland, it's showing his math is fallacious, his image analysis poorly done, and his conclusions based on a misunderstanding of how digital images work.

Debunking Gary Voss is showing that "antigravity" does not exist, violates long established laws of energy conservation, and can be explained by basic, battle tested electromagnetic principles.

These pseudo-scientists are very glib. They are excellent at misdirection, avoiding answering direct questions, obfuscating issues. Debating them is a losing scenario, because they seem like they win when in fact they have not said anything of substance at all. If you listen carefully to what they say, you will find that they commonly are not really saying anything. There are lots of inferences, many accusations, but no real meat to it.

Pseudoscientists ignore huge gaping holes in their logic, and instead focus on small, niggling pieces that the debunker may not be familiar.

There are people out there who want to scare other people into buying their products (books, pamphlets, DVDs, etc...). Maybe these pseudo-scientists believe what they say, and maybe they are evil conmen preying on people who do not know any better. Either way, they are wrong and their impact must be minimised.

Cover JA, Curd M (Eds, 1998) Philosophy of Science: The Central Issues, 1-82

Macmillan Encyclopedia of Philosophy Vol 3, "Fallacies" 174 'ff esp. 177-178

Bunge M (1983) Demarcating science from pseudoscience Fundamenta Scientiae 3:369-388, 381

Lakatos I (1970) "Falsification and the Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes." in Lakatos I, Musgrave A (eds.) Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge 91-195; Thagard (1978)

Wilson F (2000) The Logic and Methodology of Science and Pseudoscience, Canadian Scholars Press [ISBN 1-55130-175-X]

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