Science, Pseudoscience and Bollocks

by Nick Smyth

I

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The nuclear ash from the Bloggingheads Incident may have settled, but it's a pretty good bet that creationism—and its related, kooky, attention-grabbing brethren—will continue to dominate internet headlines. It's an even safer bet that many of us will continue to oppose religious/mystical/creationist “cranks” in the name of Science. One of our main lines of attack will be territorial: we will accuse them of being on the wrong side. Science is over here, we will say, and you are over there, and we all know what that means.

The most interesting thing about this manoeuvre is that almost no-one performing it—scientist, philosopher, or otherwise—will be in possession of a single defensible definition of “science”. In other words, they won't know what they're talking about.

The situation is not good. In the defense of progress and civilization, some very smart people are marshalling a weak and ill-defined concept which cannot support the rhetorical weight they have placed upon it. The cranks may one day discover that this is so, and they will immediately (and devastatingly) point to the irony involved in being called irrational by people who do not know what they are talking about.

What's worse, I contend that this ignorance is unavoidable: there is no real boundary between “science” and “non-science”, and all of our posturing amounts to little more than power politics under the guise of reasoned discussion.

Now, if you believe, as I do, that the research programmes associated with what we commonly call “science” are among the most reliable guides to truth and progress, then you will want to know how we can defend those programmes against real threats to their authority without attacking them for being “pseudoscientific”. I hope to show that there is a far better option available to us, and it involves a simple change of focus.

To put my position bluntly, the problem with creationism isn't that it's “pseudoscience”. The problem with creationism is that it's bollocks.

“Bollocks” is one of the Great British Words underappreciated in North America. It denotes rubbish, nonsense, or claptrap with guttural force and not-very-subtle sexual undertones. Say it to yourself right now. Its derisive power should strike you immediately.

Yet, the very idea of creationism as bollocks implies a crucial change in focus, one which sets us back on a path that we unwisely abandoned at the turn of the 20th century. In short, we must drop our modern obsession with science as a formal category and recover the older conception of science as intimately connected with epistemology, with issues of truth and justification. For some of us, this will not be easy.

II

“Science” entered the English language in the 14th century (from the Latin scientia) as a near-synonym for “knowledge”[1]. Specifically, it was the sort of accurate, systematic, demonstrative knowledge that traditional folk-wisdom often lacked.

By the late 17th century, there was an explosion of interest in new ways of thinking and reasoning from experience. Yet, historians have noted that until at least 1775, absolutely no-one described themselves as doing “science”[2]. Even the works of such 19th century luminaries as chemist Antoine Lavoisier, mathematician Marquis de Laplace and the philosophers John Stuart Mill and William Whewell[3] show no traces of our modern obsession with “science” as a monolithic concept. Rather, each thinker had independent reasons for believing that a powerful truth-finding method was emerging, and they made (competing) generalizations about what this method was. To think about “the sciences” was to think about knowledge, about truth and justification.

While early positivists such as Auguste Comte and Ernst Mach were the first to attempt the strict demarcation between science and non-science, I do not have space to describe the development (and fiery demise) of positivism here. What is important is that by the 1930s a subtle revolution had taken place, and a new breed of philosopher began to speak urgently of the need for a strict demarcation between science and “pseudoscience”. Sir Karl Popper remains the most prominent (and tragic) figure in this movement. In Popper's work, we find a search for formal criteria of science, abstract features of its method which can once and for all tell us what science is, just as elementary geometry textbooks tell us what squares and triangles are.

In particular, Popper sought to rule out Freudianism and Marxism. He was somehow convinced that the essence of science was contained in the negation of psychoanalysis and Marxist theory[4]. His proposal was seductively simple. Such theories were unscientific because they were not falsifiable. That is to say, someone like Freud (allegedly) did not specify experimental conditions under which he would completely abandon his programme. In the face of troublesome data, he would (allegedly) just reinterpret the data.

Note that we are no longer focusing on which fields make true or justified claims and which fields make false or unjustified claims. In other words, we are tearing scientia and episteme apart, something John Ruskin called a “modern barbarism”[5]. The concept of “science” that remains is a purely formal category. We are trying to exclude certain fields of inquiry from this category, and we are failing miserably, for there is now general agreement that the late Sir Karl's demarcation criterion was not just wrong, it was spectacularly wrong.

Astrological claims can easily be falsified (just wait until 2012), yet clearly astrology is not meant to be on the “good” list. Ditto for many creationist claims. Conversely, many genuine scientists routinely “re-interpret” strange data in order to preserve central theoretical apparatus; in other words, they protect their hypotheses from falsification. Furthermore, Popper's tunnel-vision focus on physics blinded him to the magnificent and definition-defying diversity of scientific practise.

The situation has not changed much. For any formal definition of science, it either excludes too much, or includes too much, or both. It is enough to say that today, even those writing anti-pseudoscience manifestos[6] concede that it is not possible to give a complete definition of what constitutes science or pseudoscience. Rather, they tend to revert to weak, vague and totally indefensible “ballpark” definitions that are designed to exclude specific targets. Judge Jones’ 2005 ruling in the Kitzmiller creationism case is a recent example:

ID [Intelligent Design] fails on three different levels, any one of which is sufficient to preclude a determination that ID is science. They are: (1) ID violates the centuries-old ground rules of science by invoking and permitting supernatural causation; (2) the argument of irreducible complexity, central to ID, employs the same flawed and illogical contrived dualism that doomed creation science in the 1980’s; and (3) ID’s negative attacks on evolution have been refuted by the scientific community. (Jones 2005, 64)

It’s hard to properly describe how bad this ruling was, how incredibly vulnerable it is to logical and factual attack.

Take, for example, the second and third requirement. If we banish everyone who has either (2) seriously employed a false argument, or (3) has had some position refuted, it's hard to imagine that there will be many scientists left to speak of. These requirements are patently absurd.

The first requirement doesn't fare much better, for its meaning turns on the definition of “natural”, and to my knowledge no-one has been able to define this term meaningfully without resorting to the claim that “nature” is the stuff that natural science talks about. Circularity looms.

However, even if we can define these terms responsibly, this “ground rule” is of questionable historical validity. For example, we are going to have to explain why Newton's acceptance of alchemical principles and Kepler's devout mysticism don't disqualify them as scientists.

This is a serious problem. It's fine to talk about science in a loose and squishy sense, as a historical phenomenon or as a diverse, loosely related set of practises or what have you, but once you start denying someone else social and political power on the grounds that you are scientific and they are not, you'd better have more to say than simply “your theory is supernatural”. Otherwise, you will quickly be reduced to claiming that you just know science when you see it, and well, isn't that just the sort of maddening claim that those pesky “pseudoscientists” love to make?

III

I want to suggest that a century and a half of bad philosophy has infiltrated our thinking and convinced us that if we can't draw borders around ourselves (with Pinkers and Dawkinses manning the immigration booths) then all is lost. Roger Pennock (witness for the pro-science prosecution at the Kitzmiller trial) and George Reisch exemplify this attitude in their recent responses to demarcation skeptics:

Since the problem of creation-science is a live problem, and its outcome potentially very dangerous for the future of science education, this rejection [of demarcation] has also been potentially dangerous for science. (Reisch, G., 1998, “Pluralism, Logical Empiricism, and the Problem of Pseudoscience“, Philosophy of Science)

Distinguishing science from religion was and remains an important conceptual issue with significant practical import, and philosophers who say there is no difference have lost touch with reality in a profound and perverse way. (Pennock, R., 2009, “Can’t philosophers tell the difference between science and religion?”, Synthese)

This—there is no other word for it—hysterical response is indicative of a larger anxiety, one which is both irrational and highly unflattering to scientific practise. It is as though, without well-drawn and fiercely defended borders, the whole enterprise of responsible inquiry is in danger. The fact that research programmes have flourished for centuries without such borders should be enough to quell this panic, yet somehow it is not.

There is, I must insist, an alternative. We can go back 150 years and recover our epistemological focus. We will discover that truth is what matters, and that all we need to say about creationism, astrology and the like is that they are extremely bad truth-tracking programmes. They are, in a word, bollocks.

Want to keep creationism out of schools? Point out that we shouldn't teach bollocks in schools, and that constitutional freedom of religion cannot imply that false things should be taught as if they were true things. Want to keep government funding away from creationists? Point out that the government shouldn't fund bollocks. I could go on, but Reisch, Pennock and others seem to think that once we abandon formal demarcation we are left with “no difference” between molecular biology and talking snakes. This is clearly absurd.

The only rational and intellectually honest thing to do is to forget about demarcation and to give authority to powerful, accurate and consistent explanatory programmes. In other words, we must recover the original sense of “science” as a diverse, evolving set of human activities that are only important because they produce systematic knowledge. Otherwise, that clever creationist is going to come along one day and point out that a central pillar of our rejection of his doctrines—the concept of “pseudoscience”—is bollocks.


[1] Ross, S, (1962), “Scientist: The Story of a Word”

[2] Cunningham, A., (1988), “Getting The Game Right”.

[3] Although Whewell was the first, in 1834, to suggest the term “scientist” as a label “by which we can designate the students of the knowledge of the material world collectively”. (Whewell, The Quarterly Review, 1834, 51, 58-61)

[4] This practise of defining science in relation to what it is not continues to this day and should make us immediately suspicious. It is a clear sign that the aim is not to discover a genuine distinction but merely to exclude certain unwanted elements.

[5] Ruskin (1878, The Nineteenth Century, 107). Popper, 75 years later, explicitly admits to this change of focus in Conjectures and Refutations (1953): “The problem which troubled me at the time was neither, 'When is a theory true?' nor, 'When is a theory acceptable?'… I wished to distinguish between science and pseudo-science.” Popper evidently saw no danger in defining science in total isolation from its epistemic virtues.

[6] See Lillenfeld (2003), “Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology”, for a striking example.

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