Science and pseudoscience…

The pseudo in pseudoscience means false, or fake, or deceptively resembling; pseudoscience is fake science. What then is ‘real’ science? You can think of it as knowledge found by observation and experimentation in the natural or physical world. It is is a ‘systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe.’ This is done by the scientific method.

We are introduced to natural science in school when we study physics, chemistry and biology; geography and geology are earth sciences. Social sciences include economics, politics, sociology and psychology; logic and maths are formal sciences.

Applications of natural science include medicine and engineering; in social sciences, law and business administration; and in formal science, computer science.

The scientific method ‘involves careful observation, applying rigorous skepticism about what is observed, given that cognitive assumptions can distort how one interprets the observation. It involves formulating hypotheses, via induction, based on such observations; experimental and measurement-based testing of deductions drawn from the hypotheses; and refinement (or elimination) of the hypotheses based on the experimental findings.’

Scientific experiments should be reproducible; the method used in the experiment should allow other workers to repeat the experiment, and produce similar findings.

The words used in scientific enquiry have precise meanings, and these aren’t always the same as the everyday meaning. A hypothesis is a supposition, an idea to be shown to be right or wrong, or a provisional explanation. A theory is an explanation, based on a supposition which has been tested. The words prove and proof are tricky; they can mean to demonstrate the validity of something, or they can be used with the meaning of ‘a test’. Proving yeast when making bread means testing it to see that the yeast is still alive; ‘proof spirit’ has been tested to confirm its alcohol content. Induction means taking particular truths to find a general one, where as deduction is the inference of a particular truth from a previously known general one.

It should be possible to make predictions from a theory, and such predictions should be capable of being tested. For example, in the solar system, modern theory has the Earth rotating on its axis and revolving around the sun. Foucault suspended a heavy lead bob from the dome of the Panthéon in Paris; as it swung back and forth it marked out the Earth’s rotation.

Newtonian physics predicts that the Earth is flattened at the poles, and bulges at the equator; it is ‘orange shaped’. French scientists disputed this, saying that the Earth was pointed at the poles, and narrow at the equator, like a lemon. In the early 18th century, the French Academy of Sciences sent an expedition to Lapland, and another to Ecuador, on the equator, to measure a degree of latitude. This, together with previous measurements, showed that the Earth is oblate, flattened at the poles.

If the Earth really does revolve around the sun, then its position in space changes. Stars, seen from Earth, should be in a slightly different position at the extremes of the Earth’s orbit. This is the stellar parallax, and was confirmed in the early 19th century.

An important feature of a scientific theory is falsibility; that is, there should be within the theory the potential for disproving it. Thus, if the ‘theory of swans’ says that ‘all swans are white’, then it is sufficient to disprove the theory by finding a black one. If fossils of today’s rabbits were found in ancient pre-Cambrian rocks, the theory of evolution would be disproven.

The history of science is littered with discarded theories. The phlogiston theory held that a fiery element, phlogiston, was released during combustion. The discovery of oxygen rendered the theory obsolete. Disease was thought to be due to bad air or miasmas before germs were identified. In 1870, Alfred Russel Wallace suspended marker poles 13 feet above the Bedford level (to avoid atmospheric refraction), an unimpeded straight six mile stretch of water. He viewed them from one end using a telescope; the centre pole was elevated above the poles at either end, confirming the curvature of the Earth.

Science progresses forwards, building on ideas, experiments and theories, casting aside the incorrect and seeking an ever better, more comprehensive understanding or theory. Pseudoscience does the opposite; it starts with a given, fixed and ‘correct’ end point and works backwards seeking facts to confirm this, while ignoring things that don’t fit. Pseudoscience may be inerrant and infallible, that is incapable of being falsified.

For many centuries knowledge was the preserve of the Church. Their teachings were based on the Bible and on the wisdom of some pre-Christian thinkers. Problems began when these teachings were at variance with human experience and thought. The retrograde movement of the planets was well known; it’s when the planet’s movement in the sky suddenly turns backwards for a while, before continuing; a sort of ‘looping the loop’. In Ptolemy’s geocentric model he explained this through a complicated set of epicycles, wheels within wheels. King Alfonso, when this was explained to him, supposedly said ‘If the Lord Almighty had consulted me before embarking on creation thus, I should have recommended something simpler’. Copernicus’s heliocentric solar system was much simpler, but implied that the Earth moved around the sun; the Bible disagreed. Galileo using his telescope saw things that the naked eye could not such as the four largest satellites (moons) of Jupiter. This was at total variance with Aristotle’s view that all heavenly bodies circled the Earth. Galileo’s observations of the phases of Venus could not be reconciled with the Ptolemaic geocentric theory. Despite this experimental evidence of heliocentrism, Galileo was called before the Inquisition and ordered to recant.

Archbishop James Ussher produced his Biblical chronology in, 1650 establishing that creation began on 23 October, 4004 BC. His work was based not only on the Bible, but also on extensive reading outside it. This chronology became popular when it was printed in the King James Bibles. However, geologists such as James Hutton, studying the development of rock strata in Scotland became convinced that the Earth must be much older than this, at least several million years old.

Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859; in this and the later Descent of Man he described how man had descended, not from today’s apes, but from an ancestor common to both.

Science now says the universe is about 13.8 billion (13,800,000,000) years old, the Earth is about 4.54 billion years old, with life beginning about 4 billion years ago. The original ancestor of man is perhaps 6 million years old, with the Neanderthals appearing about 350,000 years ago, and modern man emerging about 250,000 years ago.

These scientific views are not accepted by all. There was a considerable fundamental Christian evangelical revival in the US in the late 19th and early 20th century, and alongside Prohibition and sexual purity, they championed the Biblical views of the creation of the Earth and of humans. In 1925, Tennessee passed the Butler Act which prohibited the teaching of the evolution of man:

“That it shall be unlawful for any teacher in any of the Universities, Normals and all other public schools of the State which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State, to teach any theory that denies the Story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.”

In the 1960s, Creation Science was an attempt at a formal synthesis of creation theory, but fell foul of the US constitution. It was rebranded as Intelligent Design; some see it as a genuine alternative to evolution.

There are many, many more pseudosciences. Some, such as the idea of a flat earth, are simply risible. Others are harmful. Homeopathy, for example, offers ineffective nostrums and ‘vaccines’.

Dr Andrew Wakefield published an article in 1998 in the Lancet; this purported to show a connection between the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine and ‘autistic enteropathy’. Subsequently, vaccination rates fell, and there were significant outbreaks of disease. Over a decade later, investigation showed that his research was, as the British Medical Journal said, ‘a fraud’. He was struck off by the General Medical Council, and is now in the US.

There is now a significant ‘anti-vax’ movement; parents refuse to vaccinate their children against common diseases. The use of vaccine-preservatives containing a mercuric preparation is said to be toxic; this includes at least one vaccine which has never used the compound. Fraudulent science has now combined pseudoscience with conspiracy theory.

The vast majority of scientists who have studied it agree that global warming is happening, and that we may be reaching a ‘tipping point’ where change becomes irreversible. Global warming became ‘climate change’ at the behest of denier organisations whose public relations advisers thought it sounded less threatening. Climate change denial is a dangerous pseudoscience.

Eugenics is a pseudoscience, discredited on both moral and scientific grounds. Its malign shadow persists as “scientific racism”; I hope to return to this in a future post.

There is a list of references and further reading here.

My thanks to SeaanUiNeill, Dr Madeleine Morris and Prof Sean Danaher for their comments on an earlier draft of this post.