What are the boundaries between science and pseudoscience? Before answering, look at some of the stories that made headlines on science news sites recently.
- Legendary science: Siberia plans to study the Yeti, reported PhysOrg. Yeti has nothing to do with extra-terrestrial intelligence; it’s the popular name of a legendary abominable snowman locals report having seen living in the Himalayas, like Bigfoot in North America. “Officials in a Siberian region have announced plans to open a scientific institute for researchers to study yetis, despite opposition from academics,” the article said.
A local university hurried to distance itself from this project. But is the absence of solid evidence grounds for branding something as pseudoscience? After all, cosmologists look for dark matter, dark energy, cosmic strings, inflation, and other unobservable entities. Biologists search for missing links. Throughout the history of science, credible researchers have sought evidence for unobservable things in the name of science, SETI being a notable example.
- Martian invasion: Space.com seriously entertained the notion that life on Earth began at Mars. “New Tool May Reveal Your Alien Ancestry,” announced Mike Wall; “It’s possible that the family tree of all life on Earth has its roots on Mars – and a new device could put that theory to the test in a few years, researchers say.” David L. Chandler also wrote up the story on PhysOrg.
The test would involve digging in Martian soil, separating out possible organisms, and sequencing any DNA or RNA found. An instrument being developed at MIT and Harvard is being given the name SETG: Search for Extra-Terrestrial Genomes. “It’s a long shot,” one of the designers said. A positive detection would not necessarily mean life originated on Mars; “we could have originated on Mars” is one option; “Or if it started here, it could have been transferred to Mars.” Space.com interviewed Chris Carr [MIT], one of the inventors, who emphasized the looking before the understanding. When, though, does this become a science project? How does SETG differ from the YETI institute?
- Intelligently designed Everglades: Thousands of mounds in the Everglades offer high ground for rich collections of plants, birds and wildlife. Where did they come from? A new theory suggests that some of them are unnatural; “Heaps of trash left behind by prehistoric humans might have given rise to many of the tree islands found in the Florida Everglades,” claimed Live Science.
“This goes to show that human disturbance in the environment doesn’t always have a negative consequence,” a proponent of the theory from McGill University said. “Hundreds to thousands of years ago, some of the things humans did actually created valuable ecosystems.” It’s not clear if Gail Chmura was suggesting modern landfills can be beneficial, but one thing is clear: to test her hypothesis, she had to use intelligent design techniques – i.e., to determine if humans left their trash in these heaps on purpose. How the unobserved tribes lived in the swamps before the middens piled up was not explained.
- They came from space: Panspermia and six other theories about the origin of life were posted by Charles Q. Choi on Live Science. The seven notions – Miller spark discharge, clay, deep-sea vents, cold fusion, RNA world, metabolism first, and panspermia are all controversial and mutually contradictory.
Does having multiple controversial, contradictory theories improve the odds that at least one will turn out to be scientific? Unless and until one of them succeeds, are any of them scientific? Even if one wins a consensus, will it have any necessary connection with the real world, or will it remain a hypothesis forever, since no one can go back in time to test it?
- Futurist paleoanthropology: Some day the successors of humans may find bones of us and wonder what they were. That’s a speculation posted on PhysOrg in the name of science. This thought experiment, like a Russian doll, embeds deeper puzzles: “Further research would show Homo sapiens walked upright, lived in communities and buried their dead,” the article said; “But this future intelligent organism might be faced with an old puzzle–determining where Homo sapiens came from.”
What this implies is that scientists today do not know where Homo sapiens came from. Bernard Wood “argued it’s not so easy to determine whether relatively new fossil finds are early members of the human evolutionary family or prehistoric apes.” In the article, Wood shared a number of worries about understanding human history.
Wood’s paper was described as a thought experiment – a term some in science consider an oxymoron. Does getting funding from the National Science Foundation confer scientific legitimacy on puzzles embedded in a thought experiment? How much time do paleoanthropologists get to figure things out and still be considered scientists?
- In the matrix: Mike Treder titled an eye-catching article on the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies website, “We’re all alone and no one knows why.” He invoked the Fermi Paradox (if aliens exist, they should have found us by now) and the Copernican Principle (we are nothing special) to sort out the pros and cons of three propositions: (1) We are the first beings capable of expanding into the cosmos, (2) Others have migrated but have made themselves undetectable, or (3) Others have hit roadblocks either by destroying themselves or hitting an impassible radius. He considered the first proposition absurd based on evolution and the Copernican principle. The third option he considered more plausible than the second.
After considering objections, he concluded that aliens just can’t get out very far. He wanted to avoid any conception that we are somehow special, if not unique. “All in all, it seems clear to me – irrefutably logical – that some sort of cosmic roadblock, as yet unidentified, must exist,” he ended. “Either that or we are in a simulation.” Since none of his speculations are testable, but rely on assumption-driven deductions, do his ideas belong in science, pseudoscience, philosophy, or some other category?
All the above weird and speculative claims were tolerated and even promoted by leading science reporting websites. Creationists and advocates of intelligent design, though, are routinely excluded from offering their research, evidence and insights within academia and the media. Why is that? Is it because their ideas are more weird than the above? After all, Dykstra’s Law quips that everyone is someone else’s weirdo. Is science a matter of sociology, then – being in the right peer group? On what basis do the science news media exclude intelligent design ideas while promoting all the above without with nary a peep of criticism?
For decades now, philosophers of science have pointed out that there is no set of necessary and sufficient conditions for calling a theory scientific; there is no one set scientific method, and there is no means of validating science from within. There is no agreement on scientific explanation, scientific evidence, scientific verification, or scientific objectivity; and the sociological influences on science cannot be ignored. Within this messy situation, one would hope that observation plays a leading role, along with honesty, fairness, and logical consistency.
Just as an accountant can count but not account for counting, a scientist can do science but not scientifically test science. Science can’t even account for the validity of our sensations relating to the external world. Some evolutionary epistemologists have tried to argue that our survival required evolution to give us reliable sensation of the external world, but that is not necessarily so, even assuming evolution: all natural selection would do is ensure reproduction. Besides, the argument is circular, assuming evolution to base a conclusion on evolution. One cannot escape philosophy – and ultimately, theology, which validates philosophy (philosophy cannot account for the laws of logic it employs).
The only starting point that is logically consistent is faith in a personal righteous God who made the world and has granted to humans the ability to perceive the creation using the somewhat trustworthy, if not infallible, sense equipment he provided. This accounts for intelligence, the laws of logic, values of honesty and integrity, and the correspondence theory of truth (that our senses provide access to a real world). Any other starting point is hopelessly muddled in self-contradiction, trying to account for these requirements without sufficient causation or validation.
Everybody has faith in something. A scientist may as well have faith in a world view that works: “in the beginning was the Word… all things were made by Him” (John 1:1–3). The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, Solomon said; it’s only the beginning. You can’t even start being wise without it. As evidence we offer some of the bullet points above.