Saturday, May 30, 2015

Skeptical of Science: "What Exactly is Pseudoscience Anyways?"

In a recent comment, I was referred to a blog called "TheWarfareIsMental", owned by blogger cl.  This blog was cited as being a good example of rational discussion and logical argument.  I had been to that blog once before, but only to read and reply to one particular post. 

So I took a look at it, and observed that it is well designed, and covers a variety of topics.  In his statement about himself, cl says, "Unlike many Christians, I am enthusiastic about and respectful of science."  His blog includes a number of posts on scientific topics, and as I looked at a few of them at random, I noted first that there is a distinct skepticism of science in general, and second that he doesn't seem to know much about science as he would have us believe.

Let me say that I believe a skeptical attitude is healthy.  We should be skeptical about everything, and that goes especially for the things we believe.  In fact cl himself endorses this idea.
I’m not talking about the “thoughtless doubt” or pseudo-skepticism reserved for teens and new atheists. By “skepticism” I mean genuine, reasoned doubting of one’s self and others.
So three cheers for cl's skeptical attitude, except for a couple of little facts: (a) that despite his claim that he respects science, I don't think he believes it much, and (b) he certainly shows no skepticism whatsoever for the religious beliefs that he holds (and please correct me if I missed it).  Given that he is skeptical of what is best substantiated, and not of what is most worthy of serious doubt, I think his skepticism is somewhat misplaced.  So much for healthy skepticism.

I'd like to look at some of this scientific skepticism in a little more detail.  I'll start with the first topic I looked at, a post relating to pseudoscience, wherein he misinterprets and then takes issue with the definition of pseudoscience.

The definition is given as
Pseudoscience is defined as a body of knowledge, methodology, belief, or practice that is claimed to be scientific or made to appear scientific, but does not adhere to the scientific method, lacks supporting evidence or plausibility, or otherwise lacks scientific status.
OK so far.  But cl sees this as four tiers:
1) Pseudoscience is claimed to be scientific or made to appear scientific.
2) Pseudoscience does not adhere to the scientific method.
3) Pseudoscience lacks supporting evidence or plausibility.
4) Pseudoscience lacks scientific status.
Apparently, he thinks all of these attributes must be met in order for something to meet this definition of pseudoscience.  Actually, the definition says that #1 is true, and #4 is true because of  #2 or #3, or some similar reason.  These individual clauses are not "tiers" at all.  He then goes on to say that he accepts tiers 1 and 2, but he takes issue with tiers 3 and 4.

The rebuttal he gives for "tier 3" is this:
If a theory or hypothesis is perceived by the majority of professional scientists as lacking supporting evidence or plausibility, which can often be matters of opinion and interpretation, does that justify the theory's a priori exclusion from the body of science? Great scientists are so far ahead of the game that they see as possible exactly the things their colleagues decry as impossible. At one time, the accelerating cosmic expansion theory incontrovertibly lacked supporting evidence and plausibility; so were Hubble's ideas pseudoscience pre-1927? If so, at what point did they graduate to science? That the latter question can be truthfully answered illustrates the subjectivity of the criteria. Man's pronouncements of scientific truth are subject not only to change but error, and we see this all the time.
This is revealing in a number of ways.  First, and most obvious (at least to me) is that cl is ignorant of both the relevant science and its history.  He thinks that the postulation of an expanding cosmos was not based on evidence.  Actually, it was.  It was based on the observation of Doppler shift in the spectral signature of celestial bodies.  In 1927, Georges LemaĆ®tre proposed a law of cosmic expansion derived from the theory of general relativity, that predicted that objects at greater distance would recede at greater speeds.  Hubble then made careful measurements and correlated the Doppler shift to distance, thus providing confirmation for this law in 1929 (not 1927). 

A few more things are worth mentioning about Hubble's work.  Hubble certainly did follow scientific method.  He was never regarded as someone who made unsupported speculations (except perhaps by cl), and no serious scientist at the time decried cosmic expansion as impossible.  He was a scientist, who worked within the scientific community, and based his work on observations and evidence.  Also, this expanding cosmos theory was not the same as the more recent hypothesis of accelerating expansion (which is also based on observation).  In Hubble's time, it was generally supposed that gravity would gradually decelerate the cosmic expansion.  Only since the 1990s have we made observations that would lead to the postulation of some kind of dark energy that accelerates the cosmic expansion.  So cl doesn't know which theory he's talking about.

Finally, the idea that the scientific community is arbitrary, and would dictate a theory's "a priori exclusion from the body of science" is hogwash.  What is the "body of science", anyway?  If you consider it to be only the set of theories that are widely accepted (or "settled"), then there could never be a growing body of science, by cl's way of thinking, since any theory that has not yet been accepted would be rejected before it ever had a chance to gain acceptance.  Obviously, science has to be open to new ideas and hypotheses.  An idea doesn't "graduate to science".  It is either scientific, or it isn't, even though it may not be regarded as a "settled" theory.  A scientific hypothesis may fail to pan out, but that doesn't make it unscientific.

Why would a theory or hypothesis lack "scientific status"?  Someone like cl may think that it is the scientific community that decides what is "in" and what is "out", but it is the purveyor of pseudoscience that excludes his own ideas by defiantly or obstinately refusing to work within the scientific community, and following the norms of scientific practice.  Those norms include independent corroboration and peer review.  Take, for example, Rupert Sheldrake, who apparently is much admired by cl.  He postulates something called "morphic resonance".  It is not based on observable data.  It is not detectable or measurable.  There is no way to verify this supposed phenomenon, and no physical explanation for it.  The theory can't be used to predict events or behavior in any consistent and repeatable manner.  It's not testable or falsifiable.  In short, there is no reason for scientists to accept this as anything more than unsubstantiated speculation.  The scientific community does not a priori reject the notion of morphic resonance.  Rather, Sheldrake himself excludes it from scientific examination.  This is pseudoscience.

If cl is "respectful of science" as he claims, he should at least have some knowledge of the topic he lectures about, and he should understand the difference between science and pseudoscience.  It appears his respect for science is only lip service.  I'll have more on cl's scientific skepticism in future posts.


  1. Definition of pseudoscience: When an atheist uses Science!™ as an incantation, but is himself not a scientist.

    Secondary definition: When an atheist scientist uses his knowledge in one sphere to blather on about something he knows nothing whatsoever, or has gotten everything wrong (i.e., philosophy). Examples: Dawkins and Hawking.

  2. I thought you were all about calm, rational debate.

    Tell me:
    - Does cl misinterpret the definition of pseudoscience, as I pointed out?
    - Is cl's hero Sheldrake not a purveyor of pseudoscience?
    - Did cl get his historical facts wrong about Hubble?
    - Would it be reasonable to think that Hubble's work fits any definition of pseudoscience?
    - Does cl understand the difference between Hubble's expanding cosmos and the current hypothesis of accelerating expansion?

  3. Does cl misinterpret the definition of pseudoscience, as I pointed out?

    I prefer my own definitions. Much closer to reality, and of greater utility.

    As for your questions, I have not read cl's comments on Hubble, and have no particular interest in his opinions on the matter (and even less interest in your opinion of his opinions). Let cl defend his own comments. I have no dog in this fight.

    1. So by your definition, only atheists engage in pseudoscience?

      And what of theists who blather about logic and philosophy, when they really don't understand the logical implications and incoherent aspects of their own beliefs?