Irrefutable

Science doesn’t work by beginning with the premise and searching for evidence to support it or, holding onto the premise no matter what evidence contradicts it. This is true close-mindedness.

A theory can be worded in such a way that it can never be shown to be false. This is made very easy by incorporating the supernatural. For example, “God did it”. How might one prove otherwise when the God or creator can suspend natural law indiscriminately?

Sham inquiry researchers will play down the importance of certain evidence and explain it away and ignore or rationalize failure. They will refuse to critically examine their logic. Instead, they resort frequently to special pleading. The fallacy of special pleading is when someone argues that a case is an exception to a rule based upon some characteristic that does not really warrant that an exception be made [1]. It’s an excuse. Using ad hoc explanations to explain away disconfirming evidence is a means to ensure that no conceivable piece of evidence produced will effect the outcome. The theory is nonfalsifiable.

Another fail-safe option to protect your theory against refutation is to place the burden of proof on the skeptic, which does not make logical sense. When this tool is used in an argument, one can conclude that rules of logic and fair play have been thrown out.

When a proponent asserts absolute certainty in their interpretation, and will not provide a reasonable answer to “What evidence would make your theory false?” (or worse, requires the scientist to “Prove me wrong”) it is a clear signal of pseudoscience. Intellectual honesty would require one to admit that any theory may eventually someday be proven false but can never be proven absolutely true.

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[1] Carey, S. S. (2004). A Beginner’s Guide to Scientific Method, Wadsworth. p. 19

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Fancy jargon

Fancy jargon and complexity

Science is loaded with jargon which serves as an efficient way to get a complex idea across in a neat package. Scientists name everything and give precise definitions. Thus, jargon is a hallmark of science.

Whereas the jargon of science is meant to be precise and useful, the jargon of pseudoscience is additionally used to convey an impression of technicality, and may deliberately be used to obfuscate the outsider. Inventive jargon and elaborate detail can hide the lack of real discussion about evidence and logical argument. [1]

Pseudoscientific gurus frequently misapply genuine scientific words. New scientific-sounding terms are created because they also sound right to an untrained ear. The most egregious offense may be the misuse of scientific concepts that are typically peppered throughout their literature and commentary. “Energy” and “quantum” are perhaps the most commonly incorrectly applied and highly overused terms.

While it sounds impressive, fancy-sounding language does not make a concept scientific. Elaborate systems of painstaking analysis and exacting interpretation doesn’t make what comes out at the other end any more true. It’s just a sham.

When a proponent asserts absolute certainty in their interpretation, and will not provide a reasonable answer to “What evidence would make your theory false?” (or worse, requires the scientist to “Prove me wrong”) it is a clear signal of pseudoscience. Intellectual honesty would require one to admit that any theory may eventually someday be proven false but can never be proven absolutely true.

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[1] Levitt, N. (1999). Prometheus Bedeviled, Rutgers Univ Press. p. 90

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Immutable

Immutable and Closed to Criticism

A half-century makes a huge difference in science these days. Consider physics, astronomy and medicine from just 50 years ago.

Today’s great pseudosciences are ancient arts – astrology, traditional medicines, dowsing, divination. Apart from incorporating some new technology into their practice, like computers and electronic gadgets, the explanatory basis for these is the same as it was centuries ago – mystical, not scientific. Pseudosciences appeal to their long, unchanging history as evidence of their correctness. The general public is unaware that these science pretenders are missing the testing, modifying and revising of ideas that spurs progress and creates new knowledge. [1] “Ancient” and “traditional” does not equate to “correct”.

Theories given the boot from modern scientific circles can last forever in the same old format because they are not part of a self-correcting process. When no criticism is allowed, the theory does not improve. Several pseudoscience communities will overlook, ignore or demonize rival explanation and exclude discussions of such from their forums. They will make a specific effort to exclude outsiders from their primary means of communication – specialized journals, email discussion lists and internet blogs and message boards.

To observe this closed-circuitry, try politely questioning or posting a skeptical comment on a Bigfoot or psychic-friendly internet message board or blog. Dissenting views are unwelcome. It’s likely that you will be called a “troll” and silenced.

Ironically, pseudoscience views science as narrow-minded, yet they commit the behavior they say they detest in others. To be fair, there is value and enjoyment in conversing with other like-minded folks. However, when one is defending an idea purported to be science, you can not actively exclude your critics and remain credible.

Genuine science is self-correcting, requiring new input, peer review and open criticism as part of the necessary process. Science requires skepticism and considers this quality necessary for science to progress in a positive direction. If any theory, revolutionary or conventional, has sufficient evidence, it will be considered. If it is show to be valid, it will eventually be accepted as knowledge. If the scientific methodology is not followed, or just selectively followed, it can’t be called science.

A field can’t be “progressive” yet remain unchanged. Because it is not open to inquiry, criticism and revision, pseudoscience is not progressive and does not enrich knowledge.

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[1] Carey, S. S. (2004). A Beginner’s Guide to Scientific Method, Wadsworth. p. 123

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Unorthodox and proud of it

The category of unconventional theories is labeled “maverick”, “fringe”, “frontier” and “exploration” in front of the word “science” to describe the work. (This community is featured on The Anomalist website – www.anomalist.com.) The conclusions they reach are at variance with what is taught as conventional science. Because these ideas are outside of the mainstream consensus and so obviously at odds with some aspect of current understanding, this foremost characteristic should send up a red flag and prompt questioning [1].

Unorthodox does not automatically equate to “wrong”. The more controversial the theory, however, the more airtight the evidence must be to convince. In pseudoscience, one will find the evidence elusive, with a selective use of facts focusing on anomalies, not the main body of observations. (See here.) Capitalizing on the image of science as progressive and offering new insights, pseudoscientists will often mix in just enough real science to fool naive readers. It sounds exactly like science should sound.

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[1] Carey, S. S. (2004). A Beginner’s Guide to Scientific Method, Wadsworth. p. 17 ; Bunge, M. (1995). “In Praise of Tolerance To Charlatanism in Academia”. The Flight from Science and Reason (1996). P. R. Gross, N. Levitt, M.W. Lewis, New York Academy of Sciences. p. 101.

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Sour Grapes

“If you aren’t trying to get to the truth, you aren’t really inquiring”
-S. Haack [1]

A case of sour grapes

We live in a world of science. Because of its high regard as a source of truth about the world, the concept of ‘science’ is often abused by scoundrels [2] and its appearance is hijacked.  Presenting an alternate viewpoint  as a scientific theory is commonly used in order to elevate some unorthodox idea to a level to compete with real scientific ideas [3].  If your idea at least sounds scientific, you’ve got it made.  At least, in the public eye.

To make a case for a truth about the world without regards to evidence, logic or argument is called pseudoinquiry or sham reasoning/inquiry [4].  Sham inquiry gives the impression of scientific inquiry but lacks  substance and rigor. It’s hard to distinguish genuine science from false science (pseudoscience). Pseudoscientific ideas are elaborate, encompass lots of details, and use technical terminology.  A layman would be hard pressed to understand it, just like real science. (Pick up Nature and try to read one of the research reports.)

Many nonscientists want desperately to make a breakthrough, be endowed as an expert and be associated with the elite community of respected scientists. The scientific community does not usually respond warmly to a fringe theory. When scorned by the elite community, the theorist may come down with a bad case of “sour grapes” and seek other outlets to distribute their work because they are convinced of its great importance.

They believe they are advancing knowledge by the act of challenging orthodoxy.  One can evade the  demands and harsh critiques that authentic scientists have to face by appealing to a small circle of supporters .  Instead of true scientific accolades, the “maverick” can gain rewards thorough media attention and respect from a small group of ardent admirers.

Many characteristics consistently appear in false science and can be used as a general guide for spotting sham inquiry:

I’ll examine what it means to play pretend science. And, show you three examples of how they do it: Cryptozoology, Ghost Hunting, Creationism

I found unorthodox professionals elbowing in on good science.

And, I found the maverick scientist’s iconic example of how science is wrong.

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[1] Haack, S. (1995). “Concern for Truth and Why it Matters”. The Flight from Science and Reason (1996). P. R. Gross, N. Levitt, M.W. Lewis, New York Academy of Sciences. p. 58.

[2] Levitt, N. (1999). Prometheus Bedeviled, Rutgers Univ Press. p. 1

[3] Toumey, C. (1996). Conjuring Science, Rutgers Univ Press. p. 93

[4] Haack, p. 58.

VISIT MY SHAM INQUIRY PAGE

Sham Inquiry

As part of a research project, I looked at the phenomenon of sham inquiry. It’s when pseudoscience or a marketing scheme dresses up to look like science in order to add credibility. The public can be easily fooled – they think if you look like this:

Mad_scientist

…you must be a scientist.

Well, that’s obviously not true. No one I know looks like that. In public.

In this paper, I looked at three examples of my favorite (to poke) pseudosciences and I was astonished to find one example they ALL used to show how science doesn’t work. (They failed to show this, actually. It’s a bogus argument.)

I hope you enjoy this series beginning with “Sour Grapes”. I’d like to have your feedback.