September 18, 2008
It's pretty simple to assume what pseudoscience means, right? "Pseudo" means fake, and "science" means, well…science. I didn't need to consult a dictionary for that. I decided to obtain a working definition of the word pseudoscience because upon going to use it, I realized I had only my personal interpretation of the word to draw upon, which I wanted to assure was correct and not skewed.
I will say that in the argument over pseudoscience, all roads lead to falsifiability. In general, any statement can fall into three categories:
1. A statement which is falsifiable, but has not yet been falsified;
2. A statement which is falsifiable, and has been shown to be false;
3. A statement which is not falsifiable.
Put simply, unfalsifiable statements or falsifiable statements that have been proven false are not scientific statements. For this reason, I currently don't think that creationism or intelligent design qualify as scientific ideas. There might be an isolated component in any form of either idea that is falsifiable, however. For example, the various forms of the moon-dust argument.
Essentially, scientific explanations are limited to those based on observations and experiments that can be substantiated by other scientists. Empirical data produced by experiment or observation is a prerequisite to science. Testability involves falsifiability which requires logical counterexamples, and reproducibility means the argument itself must be amenable to controlled testing. It is also said that in order for a theory to be scientific, it must be able to produce hypotheses, and by this we mean that a set of testable, logical predictions manifests if the theory is correct.
Wikipedia gives a four-tier criteria for identifying the phenomenon of pseudoscience:
"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."
1) Pseudoscience is claimed to be scientific or made to appear scientific. This would be the first and most logical criterion for us to start with. If something does not claim to be scientific, or if something is not "made to appear scientific," then that something cannot be fairly labeled as pseudoscience. After all, a methodology or body of knowledge can't be fairly declared non-science unless it appeals to claims of science in the first place, right?
2) Pseudoscience does not adhere to the scientific method. Although I agree fully with this second-tier criteria, I wanted to know just what was meant by "adhere to the scientific method." Adherence is the property of adhesiveness or sticking-to. According to Wikipedia, the scientific method is, "…the body of techniques for investigating phenomena, acquiring new knowledge, or correcting and integrating previous knowledge. It is based on gathering observable, empirical and measurable evidence subject to specific principles of reasoning. A scientific method consists of the collection of data through observation and experimentation, and the formulation and testing of hypotheses."
3) Pseudoscience lacks supporting evidence or plausibility. I have serious issues with this third-tier criteria. To say that something "lacks supporting evidence" is an entirely subjective claim. However, certain ideas can be reasonably classified as implausible; for example, the idea that I can walk out my front door in waking state and fly down to Los Angeles using nothing but my body.
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.
4.) Pseudoscience lacks scientific status. This fourth-tier claim is equally subjective as the third. It essentially allows publishers, universities and academies the power to label an idea pseudoscience on the subjective presumption the idea "lacks scientific status." That particular criterion is pretty ambiguous, don't you think? Who's the judge? People told Einstein his ideas lacked scientific status. I would say the measure of whether an idea lacks scientific status or not depends on the idea's amenability to the scientific method, which is really just an iteration of the second-tier criterion.
I personally accept only the first and second-tier criteria above. Aside from cases which I feel to be the exception rather than the norm, the third and fourth-tier criteria are demonstrably subjective and provide no objective point of reference for evaluating the nature of a methodology or body of knowledge. As demonstrated, by the third-tier criteria Edwin Hubble's ideas were pseudoscience until they assumed a respectable level of supporting evidence sufficient to justify their plausibility; that is, until enough people believed them. Both the third and fourth-tier criteria are tied inextricably to subjective human opinion, which is a wonderful servant but a horrible master when it comes to objective measures of truth, which is what science ought to be about.
Always remember that falsifiability is a prerequisite only of science, not truth. There are many deep and profound truths that are not and cannot ever be amenable to empiricism.