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“Scientific”: It’s just a catchphrase!

Sounds Sciencey

Sharon Hill

January 17, 2012

Hi, everyone! I’m grateful for this space to talk about science and the public. My goal is to highlight examples of claims that are dressed up like science to sound more authoritative and official; point out those people who claim to use a scientific method to sound more credible or engage in sham inquiry; and unmask the impostors faking science processes in order to spin their way onto the stage of legitimacy.

Sharon Hill

Each month I’ll bring you a new example of sciencey-ness that falls short of giving us credible knowledge yet fools at least some of the public into thinking that it is the real deal. For this initial go, I wanted to share my realizations about science talk and the people who utilize it like a toupee of credibility to hide the lack of substance underneath. Once you’ve spotted their ways, it’s hard to ignore.

Science.

It is a bit hard to define what that is. Meanings change through time. If you are one who values science as the most reliable way to understand the world, you likely have a much stronger definition of the term than someone who values it less. Science is all these things: a process, a way of looking at a topic, a community, an infrastructure, a career, a set of results, an authority, and more. We can use the word in many ways. That means it can be abused in many ways as well.

Daniel Patrick Thurs’s aptly named book Science Talk is an interesting walk through how we have historically talked about science. He takes us through the terms and rhetoric that the public and purveyors of sciences used through the development of the scientific age and demonstrates how meanings are constructed based on the needs we have at any time.

Popular ideas about science have evolved significantly since the word came to be. At first, it just meant a body of reliable and systematized knowledge. That really general way of referring to “a science” was in use until the early 1800s. When “scientist” became an actual profession—where certain training was expected, amateurs were pushed out, and a unique jargon was developed—boundaries formed (and were actively built) around science.

Constructed boundaries enhanced the reputation of science as a distinctive (perhaps “honored”) way of knowing about the world and excluded that which wasn’t science (conveniently judged by the scientists themselves).

The new and improved version of “science” now encompassed all the activities which, collectively, serve the aim of explaining the natural world and how it works.

As the scientific community organized into an “establishment,” an ethos [group of practices] developed. Certain standards of practice were expected of a “scientist,” foremost of which was the entrance to the club through higher education.

Scientific discoveries contributed to human societies in (mostly) positive ways; therefore, the prestige of being “scientific” grew. “Scientific” was associated with being “more true” and more reliable. The biggest drawback of this prestige—which was derived from the rigor and professionalism of science—was that the scientific community itself and the capacity to understand how science really worked receded from the grasp of the non-science public. Being a scientist was special because not everyone could do it. Being scientific was a high standard. Science was hard.

Use of the scientific method

Science progresses on a path quite different from what the public sees. Regular surveys about the public understanding of science tell us that the non-scientist doesn’t comprehend well the importance of critical concepts like controlled trials, peer review, skeptical criticism, and the holding of ideas as provisional. It’s not a surprise that the public doesn’t get how science works; they aren’t exposed to it. People form their ideas about science from the input they DO get—mostly from basic education and popular culture.

In order to do science and be scientific, we are told, you must follow the scientific method.

Once upon a time, though, “scientific method” was not part of the common vernacular. When it began to be used, in the mid-19th century, it was synonymous with “thorough” and “careful.”

Perhaps your first introduction to science may have been in elementary school, when you were taught the “scientific method” presented as a step-by-step prescription to investigate nature that went something like this: observe and gather facts; derive the question you need answered about those facts; propose an explanation for the facts that answers that question; test that explanation.

Sounds easy enough for anyone to do! But, it’s an oversimplification for today’s complicated world. There really is no foolproof, formulaic method that one can apply to all subject areas. Even diligently using the above process, one can go off the rails immediately and end up with nonsense.

Right off the mark, we are all noticeably poor observers—we assume many “facts” that have not actually been confirmed. Many trip up constructing the proper question in order to get a precise, meaningful answer. People regularly make utterly untestable hypotheses (e.g., invoke supernatural causes) then bias the evidence collection process to support a favored explanation, run bogus tests to confirm it, package their conclusions in an enticing way, and then sell it to others. Indeed, this happens all the time, often under the label of “science.”

Ghost science: no substance at all

Instead of playing by the established rules, fields of study with premises that have been rejected by mainstream science attempt an end run around the scientific process. Working backwards from conclusions to evidence so they can support their pet ideas, they co-opt the symbols and processes of science. Dressing up and acting all sciencey-like is a tactic used by intelligent design advocates/creationists, cryptozoologists, ghost hunters, and UFOlogists, among others. It’s a handy gimmick—one that is frequently effective with the public as laypersons may not notice the missing rigor. That it works so often is a reflection of how shallowly the public understands science.

For example, let’s examine the popular paranormal-based hobby of ghost hunting/paranormal investigation.

About half of all paranormal research groups prominently boast that they use a/the “scientific method.” (Whether they use the definite or indefinite article, you will see, does not matter at all.) They frequently present themselves this way to clients, public audiences, and the media.

Curious as to what they meant by that, I contacted a number of paranormal research groups that specifically said they used a “scientific method” or “science” in their methodology. I picked several that really spread the scienceyness on thick. “Science” was in their name or appeared to be of great importance to them. If they promoted science so strongly, were they, in fact, scientists? Did they have a well-thought-out protocol? Since science is a community activity and you are expected to put your findings out there for others to critique, I expected they would be confident in sharing their work with others and defending their conclusions.

Not so much.

The replies I received, though few, spanned a curious range from haughty self-confidence to realistic admissions of failure.

When asked if any of their group members had experience in scientific research outside the paranormal group, a few said “No” outright but several hyped their personal background, equating their ghost investigation activities, computer science experience, or electronics expertise with “scientific training.” That’s not only odd but disingenuous, stretching even the most generic idea of “scientific.”

What did they mean by a scientific method? As I anticipated from the emphasis on gadgetry on their websites, they defined their methods in terms of objectivity, such as data collection through use of equipment. But, nearly universally, their idea of being scientific was simply to be methodical and systematic. For one group their idea of doing science was only “in depth research and investigation,” harkening back to the original and nonspecific idea of science as the organized study of anything. Nonetheless, many who claim to be objective use various subjective means of investigation: intuitives (psychics), dowsing, pendulums, and even Ouija boards.

One particular group with the word “sciences” in its name offers classes to the community on how to investigate using a scientific method. My respondent replied to the question “What about your methods is scientific?” with the elementary definition: identify problem, form hypothesis, test, and conclude. She also added that they were “creating a model of examined evidence or data then trying out different hypothesis.” That sounds sufficiently perspicacious and purposeful, but according to the investigation results from their fancy-worded website they weren’t producing anything testable or vaguely coherent enough to be called a “model.” Their “facts” were more appropriately labeled “opinions,” “feelings,” or “stories.” Their conclusions were unsupported and biased by their obvious belief in paranormal explanations.

Finally, I queried the host of a local radio show called Paranormal Science (You can’t get much more sciencey than that!) who proved to be both the most vague and the most direct at the same time. The group leader said, “I think what we are referring to is ‘as scientific as possible with the means we have.’” Contrasting this to the use of metaphysical means of investigation (i.e., psychics or occult means), they wish to document “hard” evidence, yet admit they are never in a position to fully control the environment.

I would guess that this is the first time anyone has asked them questions about science as they outright concede, “We by no means are using THE Scientific methods [sic]. Just various “as-scientific” methods or ways of trying to document activity.”

I was puzzled. Calling themselves “scientific” where there was no admittedly no science going on was dodgy, to say the least. When I had asked if they had science training, I got a resounding “Yes!” but no details. When they started talking about quantum physics and “energy,” I figured out they knew enough high-falutin’ sciencey talk to be dangerous to the public, who are often too easily impressed by a cheap tuxedo, so to speak.

I saw them as science poseurs who were playing up a manufactured sense of self-importance. They wanted to “take an intelligent look at all this stuff, or at least a common sense approach. LOL!.”

In a P.S. to my reply, the Paranormal Science show host blew the game by conceding, “The ‘science’ in Paranormal Science just refers to the ‘workings’ behind various topics we will be covering. It has nothing to do with actual science. Just a catch phrase. LOL!”

LOLs indeed…

I observed two things about these sciencey-sounding groups. First, they had little to no idea what modern science is or how to do it. Instead, they were operating on their perceived, old-fashioned idea of what sounded sufficiently sciencey and impressive to them. Second, they were co-opting the memes of science to appear serious and careful. They were perfectly comfortable playing scientists to their clients, the media, and the public, who assumed they were conscientious. But when someone who knew a little more about standards of real science knocked on the door to question them, they shifted their ground. Their methods were not scientific; their work was not science at all.

Calling out counterfeit science talk

I reached Daniel Thurs, the author of Science Talk, via email to ask why he thought these researchers who claim to use science immediately backpedaled from the strong version of the term when I questioned them on it.

The “scientific method,” he said, “seems to be one of the most portable parts of science.”

It works because it’s vague and it sounds prescriptive. Anyone can use it. When one tries to pin down exactly what aspects of science they are practicing and how they achieve each step in a scientific method, the smoky vagueness has to be cleared up. Are they possibly using the term “scientific method” to suppress debate? “Look! We use the scientific method so we obtain reliable results and are superior to that group who is just out to have fun.” If that’s a purpose, the usefulness is diminished by my questioning, which sent them scrambling to places where they were obviously uncomfortable (thus causing random outbursts of acronymical laughter).

But it’s not funny. These researchers claiming to use the scientific method failed to understand that science is powerful in our society precisely because it is hard and not everyone can do it. Instead, they adopted the gimmick of sprinkling “scientific method” and other sciencey-sounding words around because others relate to that and associate that with being more correct or genuine.

It is difficult to talk concisely about the practice of faking science, even though it is so prevalent. The words available to me were just not adequate to express what I was trying to say. I went through books and essays about “stuff” done outside of scientific orthodoxy. It was labeled as pseudoscience. Alternatively, one could be said to be conjuring science [Toumey 1996], constructing a scientific façade, imitating science, etc. The methods and ideas were described as “sciencey” or “scientif-ish.” No one term floated to the top as a succinct way to convey the meaning that claimants were mimicking science, especially when the perpetrators of the ruse may be sincere but misinformed.

One day, while working on the idea of “sham inquiry” as a description of what ghost hunters really do (work backwards from conclusion to evidence), I came across the word “scientifical.” I don’t remember how. Perhaps it popped into my head because it was the word that sounded just as silly as these weekend investigators looked to an actual scientist. It was not widely used although it existed in the Urban Dictionary:

“A term used to describe a situation when someone has mixed up or mispronounced words. It is so used because it is such a word itself. It is normally used to point out the persons [sic] blunder.”

And also,

“A way to make yourself sound intelligent when you have no idea what you are talking about.”

These definitions certainly resonated with me in terms of what I found when looking at amateur paranormal investigation groups. So I used it. Being scientifical means hijacking the authority of science to sound credible and believable by misappropriating the terms, methods, and imagery.

Acting scientifical reflects a desire to be included within the scientific realm as opposed to excluded and ridiculed. This semblance is convincing to the non-science public where real-life experience can be valued more highly than academic credentials.

Everyone wants science on their side. If you can’t get that to legitimately happen, it’s not too difficult to bluff by manufacturing a facsimile. You fool some of the people a lot of the time. Those who play at this also fool themselves. They fail at obtaining useful, reliable knowledge about the natural world. Still, they are certain of their ways—using their scientifical methods, telling the public how serious and important their work is, and succeeding at converting some nonbelievers that there is something to it. That’s dangerous and should be challenged.

References

Carey, S.S. 2004. A Beginner’s Guide to Scientific Method (3rd ed). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Thurs, D. P. 2007. Science Talk: Changing Notions of Science in American Popular Culture. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.

Toumey, C. P. 1996. Conjuring Science: Scientific Symbols and Cultural Meanings in American Life. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.

Sharon Hill

Sharon Hill's photo

Sharon Hill specializes in issues of science and the public and runs the Doubtful News website. Sharon can be reached at shill@centerforinquiry.net.