Maarten Boudry, Stefaan Blancke and yours truly have published a paper on what we call the “epidemiology of pseudoscience.” Here is the abstract, to give you an idea:
What makes beliefs thrive? We model the dissemination of bona fide science versus pseudoscience, making use of Dan Sperber’s epidemiological model of representations. Drawing on cognitive research on the roots of irrational beliefs and the institutional arrangement of science, we explain the dissemination of beliefs in terms of their salience to human cognition and their ability to adapt to specific cultural ecologies.
By contrasting the cultural development of science and pseudoscience along a number of dimensions, we gain a better understanding of their underlying epistemic differences. Pseudoscience can achieve widespread acceptance by tapping into evolved cognitive mechanisms, thus sacrificing intellectual integrity for intuitive appeal. Science, by contrast, defies those deeply held intuitions precisely because it is institutionally arranged to track objective patterns in the world, and the world does not care much about our intuitions. In light of these differences, we discuss the degree of openness or resilience to conceptual change (evidence and reason), and the divergent ways in which science and pseudoscience can achieve cultural “success”.
This is obviously part of Maarten’s and my own continued interest in the science-pseudoscience “demarcation problem,” about which we have curated a volume of collected essays for Chicago Press.
Our approach in the paper is mix of philosophy, sociology and history of science and pseudoscience, as we believe that all three components are necessary to understand both cultural activities. This is different from an exclusively epistemic focus, which is characteristic of classic philosophy of science, as well as from one centered only or largely on sociology, which was the basic idea behind the so-called “strong programme” in sociology of science, centered at Edinburgh University around the figure of David Bloor, but that also included other controversial scholars, such as Harry Collins.
As always, of course, the interesting stuff comes not when one deals with uncontroversially pseudoscientific notions (such as “scientific” creationism, or astrology) or uncontroversially scientific ones (like evolutionary theory, or the Standard Model in physics), but rather when we consider less obvious cases, such as parapsychology (research about it has been carried out by legitimate scientists working at legitimate universities) or string theory (is it science, or mathematically based metaphysics?).