February 20, 2002 | David F. Coppedge

Define Pseudoscience

A couple of articles lately have lumped creationism in with astrology, ESP, space aliens and lucky numbers.  How valid is this grouping?
    Randolph E. Schmid (Associated Press; see Live Science) conveyed statistics presented by Jon Miller (Michigan State U) and a panel of researchers at an AAAS meeting in San Francisco this past Saturday.  “People in the U.S. know more about basic science today than they did two decades ago, good news that researchers say is tempered by an unsettling growth in the belief in pseudoscience such as astrology and visits by extraterrestrial aliens,” Schmid began.  A few sentences down, he adds, “In addition, these researchers noted an increase in college students who report they are ‘unsure’ about creationism as compared with evolution.
    The association was strengthened farther down in the article, when a paragraph about bigfoot and aliens was followed by a paragraph about creationism.  “But there also has been a drop in the number of people who believe evolution correctly explains the development of life on Earth and an increase in those who believe mankind was created about 10,000 years ago,” Schmid writes, presuming to lump these all together into the box labeled pseudoscience.  “Miller said a second major negative factor to scientific literacy was religious fundamentalism and aging.”  These “negative” factors, Schmid contends, could be offset by the “positive” influences of college education, “informal science learning through the media,” and having children at home.
    Seth Shostak of the SETI Institute also chimed in on this theme.  On Space.com he asked, “When Did Science Become the Enemy?”  Shostak deplored the portrayal of scientists as dark, mysterious, suspicious villains, and explored why the media become so infatuated with unscientific heroes and celebrities.  “We’re most interested in people, in the same way that click beetles are most interested in click beetles,” he explained.  “That’s evolution.”  Evolution is also responsible for human attraction to heroes, he argued.  “Heroes, in other words, have survival value.  The peculiar thing is that American heroes aren’t often very good at science.”
    So what does science really represent, in contrast to pseudoscience and pop culture?  Shostak did not attack creationism directly in the article.  The association was implicit, though: the lead illustration prominently displays icons of science: a spiral galaxy and other astronomical objects, an equation, and the fatherly portrait of Charles Darwin.  See also last week’s entry by another SETI Institute leader, Edna Devore, who advocated celebration of Darwin Day and Evolution Sunday as ways of honoring science (02/11/2007).

In both of these articles is the overt or covert message that if you love science, you will love Charlie, and if you are a fool or afraid of science, you will mistrust the Father Figure of Evolution and run to your security blanket, the Bible.  This is how propaganda works, particularly the use of association and loaded words.  The goal is to achieve a subliminal response without making you think.  The message is: the real heroes in the world are the Charlie-worshipers, and the poopheads are the creationists and other pseudoscientists like UFO chasers who live by their daily horoscope or read the Bible.
    Surely many creationists reading this will say, “Wait a minute; I abhor astrology.  I love science.  I have nothing but contempt for the supermarket tabloids about space aliens and ESP.”  Many may have degrees in science, teach science, or sit on public school boards.  How did you get lumped into the same pool with fruitcakes?  The answer is: it’s a trick.  It’s an escape from debating and understanding the issues in the creation-evolution controversy.
    We could play that game, too.  In fact, how would they like it if we launched a campaign to call Darwinism pseudoscience?  We could certainly make a good case.  We could call attention to the fact that it is held to with religious ardor despite being repeatedly falsified, engages in mythmaking, dogmatizes its victims and relies on irrationality for its maintenance.  Yes!  Let’s rid our schools of pseudoscience.  Out with Darwin!  No more Darwin exhibits in our national museums.  No more finch beak pseudoscience in the textbooks.  Portray, instead, the noble, lonely ID scientist as the seeker of the truth wherever the evidence leads, even if it leads toward design.
    Or, we could go on a smear campaign to lump all Darwinists with Hitler.  If you think natural selection is a good idea in any sense, you are in favor of incinerating people in ovens.  We must rid the world of hate, anti-Semitism, communism, apartheid, evolution, Jonestown-like cults, despots and dictators.  How’s that?  Isn’t association a fun game?
    Such lumpings of conglomerates into emotionally-charged labels represent shoddy thinking.  A case can be made that Darwin influenced Hitler, and that his ideas underlie many destructive ideologies.  It does not follow that Seth Shostak is a Nazi because he believes in evolution.  There are creationists who accept a young earth (one just earned a PhD in science at a secular university: see story at Uncommon Descent).  It does not follow that they expect a miracle around every corner.

Another problem in these articles is their failure to define pseudoscience.  They do not define it because it cannot be defined.  Any time philosophers of science try to create a line of demarcation between science and pseudoscience, they wind up excluding “legitimate” sciences and including illegitimate ones.  There are no sufficient conditions that, if met, guarantee something is science, and no set of necessary conditions that, if not met, guarantee something else is pseudoscience.  Falsifiability, explanatory power, ability to make predictions, testability, adherence to natural law or mathematical expression, simplicity, elegance, holding a theory tentatively, acceptance by consensus of professionals – put together any combination of criteria you wish, and you will include some pseudosciences and exclude some recognized sciences.  Furthermore, there is no one scientific method!  You cannot find all sciences adhering to a methodology or set of methods that cannot also be found in non-scientific fields, and you will find some pseudosciences that use the same “scientific” methods in their work.  This is not to argue that science and pseudoscience are all of the same cloth, but the problem of demarcation is much more difficult than often realized.

The Darwin dogmatists are only speeding the collapse of their ideology by relying on propaganda tactics like the reckless application of the pseudoscience label on their critics.  Let them attend to the rampant pseudoscience in their own house.  Meanwhile, let all who honor science practice its values: make the best case you can based on evidence, and, humbly recognizing the limitations of science and the human propensity for self-deception, be willing to follow the evidence where it leads.  (One might notice that these values are not entirely foreign to theologians or practitioners in most other scholarly disciplines.) 

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Categories: Bible and Theology, SETI

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