The Trouble with Pseudoscience—It Can Be a Catastrophe
January 30, 2013
Pseudoscience is what one might call a two-dollar word. Skeptics often throw it around because of its weightiness and the values it transmits. We need to talk about this word, where it came from, and why we should be cautious about using it.
Pseudoscience is a pejorative term that is bestowed upon a set of ideas, not used by choice by the holder of those ideas. It’s “false” science, fake science, an imitation missing a vital part, the knockoff, the wannabe, the cheap imitation… OK, you get what I mean.
Contrary to what we think we can say constitutes pseudoscience, there are no set criteria to identify it. It's not a simple thing but a sticky wicket. It's whatever scientists say doesn't belong to legitimate science – a problematic definition. We often must use examples to explain what we mean. Wikipedia has a list of topics that have been characterized as pseudoscience by someone, sometime. Common examples include: astrology, cryptozoology, paranormal investigation, ufology, parapsychology, psychoanalysis, alternative medicine, homeopathy, and creationism.
Because science has authority in our society, it is worthy of imitation. Pseudoscience is science's shadow, which makes it hard to separate from the real thing. It can't exist without science. This science imitation was evident to me upon researching paranormal investigation and cryptozoology. I concluded it was useful to have a set of reasonable guidelines one could use to determine if the methodology and the resulting body of knowledge was scientific or lacking in a critical way. The more of these characteristics one can attribute to the field in question, the more likely it is fairly categorized as “pseudoscience.” But since those are fuzzy, subjective criteria, some theories we now regard as legitimate might have qualified as “pseudoscience” at one time, such as Einstein's special theory of relativity, Mendel's heredity, meteorites, and Wegener's continental drift.
There is no continuum between science and pseudoscience. Nor is there a clear boundary or litmus test for what qualifies as science and what lies outside the lines. This is called the “demarcation problem”—a term that Austrian philosopher Karl Popper coined in the late 1920s to describe the issues of marking a solid line between what is scientific and what is nonscientific. It turns out Popper's solution to the problem was not so hot. He thought it lay in the criterion of testability/falsifiability. But that fails since several theories are not practically falsifiable.
Any series of characteristics commonly attributable to pseudoscience, such as my pet list of criteria, also fails for various reasons. After all this searching for a demarcation criterion without success, philosopher Larry Laudan remarked that we might fairly conclude that “the object of the quest is nonexistent.”
Pseudoscience is just what pseudoscientists do, say the scientists. That is not very helpful for someone who wants to make heads or tails out of a controversial area of research.
This is the thread that winds through Michael Gordin's book The Pseudoscience Wars. Gordin describes the origin of our modern characterization of pseudoscience as starting with “a book and a man”—Immanuel Velikovsky and his book Worlds in Collision.
As a skeptical newbie long ago, I'd seen the name Velikovsky in the literature, in older journal issues, and sprinkled here and there as an “example” of pseudoscience. But I had never read Worlds in Collision and I couldn't have articulated the difference between Velikovsky and Von Däniken, who wrote another popular piece of “fiction science,” Chariots of the Gods. All I could tell you is they were both very popular “cranks” at one time and they had some strange, fringe views about ancient history. I didn’t much care to know more because their ideas were called “pseudoscience”; I assumed they were not worth paying attention to.
In his book, Gordin not only provides an enlightening perspective on the cultural concept of “pseudoscience”—illustrating this through the story of Velikovsky's conflict with the scientific community—but he opines that the word pseudoscience can only be defined in terms of those who use it against others. It's a label skeptics find practically useful. He demonstrates that the fringe imitators (“pseudoscientists” we might call them) are a signal that science is healthy and powerful, not that it’s diseased. And as long as there is science, its shadow will darken the door as well.
Velikovsky's Universal Ideas
Who was Velikovsky? He was a medical doctor and trained psychoanalyst. Worlds in Collision and the collective body of writings by Velikovsky were about a series of global catastrophes, caused by extraterrestrial agents (not aliens but Venus and Jupiter, for example), that befell Earth in historic times. These events explained stories of the Bible, such as the Exodus from Egypt. The work avoided Biblical language but, as described, was only understandable as part of a religious concept. The reason science did not interpret history in this way, Velikovsky believed, was because of collective amnesia. He explained the reason for our missing understanding of a Velikovskian version of history in terms in psychoanalysis.
Many red flags are obvious around Velikovsky's idea—catastrophes, religious context, a reliance on a psychoanalytical excuse to explain why the idea is not accepted. Gordin's book does not completely bridge the gap of understanding as to why so many members of the public accepted it. The important take away is that they did accept it. In the millions. Velikovsky's views resonated with the public. He sounded sciencey; the ideas were plausible if you did not have a foundation in physical sciences.
The name Velikovsky will still pop up here and there. The author of a piece on recent weather catastrophes invoked the legacy of Velikovsky. The Velikovsky affair is a story worth knowing for several reasons. As well as illustrating “pseudoscience” and its issues, it provides insight into the scientific community and the public's relationship to science at that time. Woven into Velikovsky's lifetime of attempting to gain scientific credibility are encounters with the likes of Einstein, Asimov and Sagan. This was no small deal. Gordin makes the story worth telling by using the store of letters and documentation Velikovsky saved, pro and con, from his life's work.
The grumbling over Worlds in Collision by members of the scientific community began before it was even published as a book. Macmillan was a major science textbook publisher. But they marketed Worlds in Collision for the general public, not as a scientific work. Regardless, it was peer-reviewed beforehand and panned for its scientific content. The reviewers were clear that the science was bogus; accepting his ideas would require a total revamp of astrophysics, chemistry, and geology. Yet, as a popular book, the value was not in the scientific accuracy but in the ability to appeal to the general public who would buy it.
The boycott of the book and of Macmillan by scientists was a scandal in Post WWII academic circles. Gordin points out that Worlds in Collision wasn't even a science book! Velikovsky's motivation was to rewrite Middle Eastern history to reconcile it with his view of Jewish history. Yet, historians didn't bother making much of a fuss. Said Carl Kraeling, then director of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, “There is nothing we as historians can do about Dr. Velikovsky's work other than smile and go about our business.” This turned out to be a successful strategy for this situation.
Velikovsky was ostracized in a particular way by scientists. But not by everyone. He asked for a fair hearing from esteemed professionals. When he received a cordial, if negative, reply from an academic, he thanked him. But most of his inquiries were dismissed. Albert Einstein, with whom Velikovsky was an acquaintance because they both lived in Princeton, New Jersey, was sympathetic to him and read his drafts. Einstein's own ideas were considered by some to be “fringe” at one time, and they were also targeted by the Nazis. Einstein thought Velikovsky was unorthodox and his theory was no good, but he did not like the way it had been rejected out of hand by the scientific community. It looked less like a case of rejection due to bad scholarship and more like suppression of knowledge.
The overt dismissal of Velikovsky by the scientific community, members of which usually never even read the book, resulted in an oversight of an important aspect of his work. Catastrophism was essentially true. As we learned more about catastrophes on Earth (asteroids that cause extinction, rapid formation of impressive features like volcanoes or canyons, sudden breakup of ice sheets), Velikovsky was invoked as being correct. He certainly took advantage of these findings even though they did not specifically relate to his details. He may have had kernels of good ideas in his work, but the person and the overall tale were so absurd that he was rejected entirely. Credentialed academics either wanted nothing to do with him or treated him as a charlatan.
Velikovskianism exhibits many of those typical criteria that would be characterized as “pseudoscience.” He believed he had a scientific breakthrough, a paradigm shift. He also would not budge with his ideas; he was in love with his theory. The knowledge must be accepted “as is” because he was correct. Even though he desperately wanted to be accepted by the scientific community, he alienated them with his ego and behavior. Other signs of pseudoscience that we would recognize in the Velikovsky affair were the lack of integration with established knowledge (it was a “maverick” theory), his supporters were generally not scientists, and a community sprang up around him where the person, rather than the idea, was central. Velikovsky spent more time arguing against critics than refining and improving his theories. He capitalized on the perception that he was ostracized, which galvanized his supporters. Velikovskianism became a cult of personality in which one man was in control of the message and he did not allow questioning of his own orthodoxy.
As we see sometimes today with the teaching of Creationism and petitions to protect Bigfoot, the lay public may view science as a sort of Democracy—what is real and important can be established by popularity and effective rhetoric. They do not have the tools to judge good science from poor, or in the case of the Velikovsky affair, science from revisionist history made to sound sciencey. Protesting astronomers and geologists made a huge issue about the science, but there was essentially no science there to criticize. Velikovsky's approach was unscientific. This is one reason use of the term pseudoscience comes in handy even though it's problematic. By labeling the field “pseudoscience,” the entire subject in question can be swept aside as unimportant in one efficient motion. Labeling it in this way also serves to show other scientists they should not waste their time on such a thing. Calling a cadre of fringe fields “pseudoscience” provides a sense of what isn't science, thereby unifying and strengthening quality control over what is. So, regardless of how problematic and unscientific the word pseudoscience is, it serves practical utility and won't be going away any time soon.
To wrap up, we can learn from the Velikovsky affair and its characterization as pseudoscience. The primary blunder made by scientists was their attempt to demonize a person or idea. This backfired and made that person/idea more popular. Every negative review of his books enhanced the controversy and made people curious to read them to see what the fuss was all about. In their haste to prevent some outsider from destabilizing their establishment, they disregarded the importance of being civil and collegial. They didn't read his book. They couldn't be bothered to waste their time. The distance between the public and the scientific community grew from this event. Had Velikovsky's ideas been approached in a more balanced way, some academics may have noticed the interesting alternative explanation of catastrophes. They may have understood his appeal to the everyday person. Instead, scientist critics inadvertently reoriented the conversation to be more about something it was not about at all: control and power.
Here are the lessons I found noteworthy: We are not always correct; there is something to learn even in mistakes; and we should not be so quick to label and discard. It can have unintended consequences.
Frazier, Kendrick (editor). 1981. Paranormal Borderlands of Science. Prometheus Books.
Gordin, Michael. 2012. The Pseudoscience Wars: Immanuel Velikovsky and the Birth of the Modern Fringe. University of Chicago Press.
Hines, Terrence. 2002. Pseudoscience and the Paranormal (2nd edition). Prometheus Books.
Nobel, Philip. 2013. “What Catastrophe?” Metropolis magazine (January 9). Online at http://www.metropolismag.com/story/20130109/what-catastrophe.
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