The only thing we can be sure of about the future is that it will be absolutely fantastic. So if what I say now seems to you to be very reasonable, then I have failed completely. Only if what I tell you appears absolutely unbelievable, have we any chance of visualizing the future as it really will happen.

- Arthur C. Clarke (h/t Brin)

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Pseudoscience Symptoms

In a remarkably patient and detailed examination of the new journal Homeopathy, Timmer, Lee, Gitlin and Ford in the technology site Ars Technica come up with a list of the characteristics of pseudoscience.

Remarkably, it seems to me that every single one of them applies to the patterns of many prominent climate change denialists. See if you agree:
  • Ignore settled issues in science: We know a great deal about the behavior of water (and evolution, and other contentious topics), but there are many efforts to introduce new science without ever addressing the existing body of knowledge. As such, many of the basic tenets of topics such as homeopathy appear to be ungrounded in reality as we understand it.
  • Misapplication of real science: Quantum mechanics is an undeniably successful description of parts of the natural world, but the limitations of its applicability are widely recognized by the scientific community, if not the general public. Pseudoscientists such as homeopaths appear to cynically target this sort of ignorance by applying scientific principles to inappropriate topics.
  • Rejection of scientific standards: Over the centuries, science has established standards of evidence and experiment to ensure that data remains consistent and reproducible. But these strengths are presented as weaknesses that make science impervious to new ideas, a stance that is often accompanied by...
  • Claims of suppression: Pseudoscience is rejected because it does not conform to the standards held by the scientific community. That community is depicted as a dangerous hegemony that rejects new ideas in order to perpetuate a stifling orthodoxy. This happens in spite of many examples of radical ideas that have rapidly gained not only acceptance, but major prizes, when they were properly supported by scientific evidence.
  • A conclusion/evidence gap: Many areas of pseudoscience do not set out to examine a phenomenon but rather have the stated goal of supporting a preordained conclusion. As such, they often engage in excessive logical leaps when the actual data is insufficient to support the desired conclusion.
  • Focusing on the fringes: All areas of science have anomalous data and anecdotal findings that are inconsistent with the existing understanding. But those anomalies should not obscure the fact that the vast majority of current data does support the predominant theories. In the hands of a pseudoscientist, these unconnected edge cases are presented as a coherent body of knowledge that supports the replacement of existing understandings.

Perhaps the clearest theme running through many areas of pseudoscience, however, is the attempt to make a whole that is far, far greater than the sum of its parts. Enlarging a collection of terminally-flawed trivia does not somehow strengthen its scientific significance. This is especially true when many of the components of the argument don't form a coherent whole. For example, quantum entanglement, structured water, and silica are essentially unrelated explanations, and any support for one of them makes no difference to the others. Yet, somehow, presenting them all at once is supposed to make the case for water's memory harder to dismiss.

In extracting these consistent themes, it was remarkably easy to recognize similar instances of most of them in many of the more contentious areas of pseudoscience, such as intelligent design, creationism, and denial of the HIV/AIDS connection. We've intentionally avoided discussing those topics in detail, but we hope those who read this article are willing to perform that exercise on their own.

I made similar observations recently.

It makes me wonder if there is a pseudoscientists' professional association for the exchange of these techniques across subdisciplines, perhaps an AAAPS? Is the pinnacle of achievement in this field to get pulished in Pseudoscience or Supernature? Update: :-)

6 comments:

ks said...

this is a great post. IMO, connecting various denialist movements is an excellent way to demonstrate their collective inaccuracy. rarely will you find a person that is sympathetic to both climate change denialism and HIV denialsim or westernized medicine denialism. Evolution denialism... well thats tends to be the root of climate change denialism. Collectively there is a dangerous movement to undermine science as a whole. It is quite concerning.

John Mashey said...

I don't think there's any such association, no is there likely to be:

CSI's Magazine Skeptical Inquirer publishes many studies of investigations of such things, and recently published a nice tutorial on global warming, www.csicop.org/si ... and the editor Kendrick Frazier was stunned to get a bunch of vehement letters denouncing SI for its support of AGW "foolishness".

hence, while some people consume all sorts of pseudoscience, others say:

a) I'm against stupid pseudoscience
b) Except in this one case...

As a result, I suspect an association of pseudoscientists would find little common ground.

Steve Bloom said...

For the climate PS, there is already E&E.

Steve Bloom said...

Most of the denialists we run into in the blogosphere are of the libertarian variety and thus are largely not anti-evolutionists, but there is a definite overlap between anti-evolutionism and AGW denial on the Christian right (although not all of it). "Young Earth"-believing anti-evolutionists almost have to be anti-AGW because of the importance of paleoclimate evidence to AGW. Also don't forget the nexus of AGW, CFC, toxic chemical and tobacco denialism.

Thanks for the CSI pointer, John. I'll have a look. (An appeal from the lazy: Hotlink those URLs.)

inel said...

Hi Michael,

I just added my three penn'orth to your earlier post.

Here's a hot link to THE denialism blog for Steve (to make up for disappointing him the same linkless way yesterday, though for my own good reason).

A professional pseudoscientist sounds like a contradiction in terms to me. Quackaholics Anonymous, anyone? ;-)

It is easy to see how people could be taught pseudoscientific techniques, in the same way sales techniques and other communications habits and styles can be taught. However, that does not mean that it is easy to learn, let alone adopt, these means of dealing with others and use them successfully. Some people, though, seem to get enormous satisfaction out of practising pseudoscientific techniques.

PR professionals can manage the presence of an organisation or special interest group—for example by helping opinion leaders and others, such as pseudoscientists, to combine and use their different skills to best effect. Someone would have to pay a significant amount of money for a high-degree of high-level coordination, and must be willing to relinquish a substantial amount of autonomy to a PR firm for this coordinated approach to take effect. That, however, is one way to make "the whole" appear far greater than "the sum of its parts".

Pseudoscientific 'evidence' is just one tool in the PR firm's kit that can enable the building and maintenance of an alternative reality ;-)

Such underminers tend to be cause-based, I think, so could coalesce when causes do, and separate just as easily when they don't.

John Mashey said...

Steve:

Yes, there are some clear overlaps, as I've encountered people who believed almost any pseudoscience, to those who loved exactly one. Skeptical Inquirer has occasionally printed articles on that, i.e., with surveys.

Note: I distinguish between clear true believers (which I was talking about) and those perhaps doing it for other reasons, where what they believe and what they say may well differ, i.e., the nexus acolytes of Luntzspeak.