Should we stop using the term “pseudoscience”?

Pseudoscience cartoonThe term “pseudoscience” is obviously pejorative. Nobody wishes whatever he does to be labeled with that appellative. Recently, Katie Burke has written an essay for American Scientist arguing that we should drop it altogether. It isn’t the first time someone makes this suggestion, and I’m betting it won’t be the last one. Here is why Burke and others are wrong.

Pseudoscience refers to “any body of knowledge that purports to be scientific or to be supported by science but which fails to comply with the scientific method,” though since there is no such thing as the scientific method, I would rather modify the above to read “with currently accepted scientific standards.”

This is an important point, since scientific standards change through time — as they ought to, if science makes progress — so that a certain body of evidence may fit such standards at one point, but not later on. Take, for instance, phrenology. One can reasonably argue that it was a notion to be debated in the early part of the 19th century, when it was popular. But anyone practicing phrenology today would unquestionably be relegated to the category of a pseudoscientist.

The term pseudoscience apparently originated in 1796, when James Pettit Andrews and Robert Henry used it in their History of Great Britain, from the death of Henry viii. to the accession of James vi. of Scotland to the crown of England: “The fantastical pseudo-science of alchemy has in all ages had its numerous votaries.”

Back to Burke’s essay, which takes its cue from media reports labeling swimmer Michael Phelps’ use of “cupping” as pseudoscience (and rightly so). Burke says we shouldn’t use the label because “it is divisive and lacks agreed-upon scientific or journalistic norms, so the evidence justifying its use is unclear. Furthermore, its cultural meanings come along with a flawed history of use for defamation.”

Let’s stop here for a second and unpack that passage. The fact that a term is divisive is irrelevant to whether journalists or anyone else should use it. “Liberal” (or “conservative”) is a highly divisive term, but it does identify two broadly distinct — if varied — constituencies of people, whose interests, ideologies, and behavior at the poll are in fact statistically well differentiated from each other.

Further, I’m not sure where Burke gets the idea that the term lacks scientific (or, more properly, philosophical) normativity, since there is a large literature on pseudoscience — including my co-edited (with Maarten Boudry) collection of essays, which she cites, likely without having read it — establishing precisely such norms.

As for journalistic standards, I wonder whether journalists have “norms” for the use of any other divisive term, such as liberal, conservative, pro-choice, pro-life, race, and so forth. If so, I’d like to know where such norms are published, and on whose authorities they are being deployed.

Finally, yes, “pseudoscience” has been used to defame certain notions, though we’ll return in a minute to Burke’s questionable examples of such defamations, but — again — so have plenty of other terms that journalists keep using nonetheless, like all of those listed in the previous paragraph.

Burke continues: “The term pseudoscience inherently creates this framing, pitting those who believe in ‘real’ science against those who believe in ‘fake’ science. But these discussions really indicate whom we trust.”

Well, yes, because there are such people. Vaccines are “real” science, antivaxx rhetoric is not. Astronomy is “real” science, astrology is not. And so forth. I get that the people who find themselves on the “pseudo” side of that divide won’t like it, but life is tough, isn’t it?

“With the hindsight of history it is clear that what exactly was labeled pseudoscience in both popular media and scholarly studies had as much to do with culture and ideology as it did with logic and fact.”

Here Burke links to a book chapter that talks about phrenology, which is an odd example to pick, since as I said before, it’s evolution from debatable science to pseudoscience is both typical and expected. Some notions begin as outright pseudoscience (see antivaxx), and others start out as plausible and provisionally acceptable and then descend into what Maarten and I informally refer to as the “pseudoscience black hole.” (It’s a black hole because it’s hard to find historical examples of a notion that, once it began to be labeled as pseudoscience, emerged back out into the area of acceptable science. If anyone can think of counterexamples we’d like to hear about them.)

Next, Burke provides her readers with three more examples of allegedly questionable use of “pseudoscience”: many (but unspecified) areas of psychology, continental drift, and eugenics. The latter is in the same category as phrenology, i.e., a notion that originally held some degree of scientific credibility — at the time of Francis Galton — and then slid into pseudoscience, so it doesn’t represent a problem for my account.

The other two are interesting. I am not aware of Richard Wegener’s theory of continental drift ever having been labeled pseudoscience, tough it might have. It was, for sure, a controversial theory for a number of reasons, including the lack of a mechanism underlying it. Eventually it became accepted and is firmly entrenched in modern geology — so that if someone did call it pseudoscience, the label doesn’t seem to have brought about long lasting negative effects.

The unspecified “areas of psychology” bit in Burke’s article has a link, which leads to a book chapter that refers to a hodgepodge of notions, including IQ measurements, Skinnerian behaviorism, and parapsychology. The latter is clearly considered pseudoscience by a consensus of competent researchers, while the other two are, respectively, controversial (politically as well as scientifically) and superseded (as a scientific theory).

Sure, someone, somewhere, has used the term “pseudoscience” where it doesn’t seem to properly belong. I don’t think that the concept of IQ is pseudoscientific, it is more likely only marginally relevant to the study of intelligence; and I don’t think Skinner was a pseudoscientist either, but his ideas have indeed been superseded by developments in cognitive science over the last several decades.

Again, though, if we stopped using a word because someone misapplies it for ideological reasons, we would have to excise a good portion of our dictionaries. It is far better to engage in a case-by-case discussion and inquire into the validity of this or that label, given currently acceptable epistemic standards.

I’d also like to notice that the examples mentioned by Burke are taken from a book entitled Deconstructing Social Psychology, which has a distinctly postmodern flavor to it (including a chapter on something called “psychoanalytic feminism,” whatever that is).

Burke then goes on to cite a 2011 dissertation by Paul Lawrie that argues that “dismissing… scientific racism as ‘pseudo-science,’ or a perversion of the scientific method, blurs our understanding of its role as a tool of racial labor control in modern America.”

Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t. But scientific racism is a pseudoscience, and it is widely recognized — again by the relevant epistemic community — as such. The political use of pseudoscience is a very interesting topic, but one that seems to me entirely distinct from whether a notion is or is not pseudoscientific. After all, actual science also has political uses, sometimes positive, sometimes nefarious.

“The cries about pseudoscience and quackery were generally made with good scientific intentions, and they were often biased in favor of the convictions and interests of doctors and scientists. But because the group of people who tended to make such proclamations has lacked diversity over the past centuries — €”and still does today — €”their defamatory rhetorical context has a history of being culturally insensitive and even misinformed.”

The link accompanying that bit? To literature on “indigenous science.” I may have more to say about this particular topic soon, since I’ve been invited to a conference in Canada early next year on attempts to teach indigenous medicine in university curricula, but for now I maintain that there is no such thing as Native American, or Chinese, or whatever, science. There are bodies of local knowledge, which should be (and often are, nowadays) appreciated for what they are but still need to be subjected to the more rigorous standards of systematic observations and controlled experiments. Those are the standards that help us figure out whether a notion has theoretical or empirical validity or not. And what characterizes a pseudoscientific stand is the insistence on passing for science notions that have, in fact, repeatedly failed those standards — regardless of which ethnic group, gender, political group, and so forth originally proposed those notions.

At this point Burke shifts gears and links the use of pseudoscience with the defense of the ideology of scientism, going so far as suggesting that “perhaps the assault the Christian Right has waged on many aspects of science education and funding in the United States represents just such a backlash.”

Well, if it does, I’d like to see some solid empirical evidence of that causal link.

But the author does have a point concerning a connection between scientism and pseudoscience. As I will argue in a chapter of a forthcoming collection also co-edited with Maarten Boudry, on the varieties of scientism (out next year by Chicago Press) in some sense pseudoscience and scientism are mirror images of each other, each the offspring of a priori ideological positions, not of sound empirical investigation or cogent philosophical arguments.

Burke concludes with a series of alternative suggestions to the use of pseudoscience, so let’s take a look.

“One can simply state what kind of scientific evidence is available … if scientific evidence directly contradicts a claim, saying so outright is much stronger than if a fuzzy term like pseudoscience is used … if fraudulent behavior is suspected, such allegations are best stated overtly rather than veiled under the word pseudoscience; [we should be] replacing pseudoscience with descriptors such as emerging and still-experimental, as yet scientifically inconclusive, scientifically debated, and lacking scientific evidence [or, when appropriate] fraud (suspected or proven), fabrication, misinformation, factually baseless claims, and scientifically unfounded claims.”

But we, in fact, already do all of that! Except that some ideas don’t simply “lack scientific evidence,” and yet they are not “fraud or fabrication,” nor are they simply the result of “misinformation,” and they are certainly not “still-experimental.” They are, well, pseudoscientific!

Look, I get it: labeling something a pseudoscience carries the danger of alienating people and of discouraging research into potentially interesting areas. But not doing so also carries risks, in particular that of lending legitimacy to notions that shouldn’t have it, some of which notions are positively dangerous for people’s health (homeopathy, antivaxx) or even the future of the planet (climate change denialism). So it isn’t a question of not labeling, but rather of labeling as accurately as possible, and of supporting whatever label one wishes to use (including that of “science” or “scientific”) with good arguments and solid empirical evidence.

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Categories: Philosophy of Science

189 replies

  1. It seems to me that there is quite a good deal of bunk that doesn’t even pretend to be scientific.

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  2. Massimo,
    To clarify, I don’t know why I said “somewhat clearly”, I think pseudoscience can be defined clearly, and I don’t think the term should be dropped.

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  3. Ok. Pseudo-science is a subset of bunk.

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  4. As I noted in my first comment on this article, Massimo’s main point seems entailed in this:

    “It is far better to engage in a case-by-case discussion and inquire into the validity of this or that label, given currently acceptable epistemic standards.”

    Now, I stand accused of not having the time to read Burke’s article, but aside from some arguably questionable points, the above is note substantially in disagreement with Burke’s statement quoted by Massimo later in his article:

    “One can simply state what kind of scientific evidence is available … if scientific evidence directly contradicts a claim, saying so outright is much stronger than if a fuzzy term like pseudoscience is used … if fraudulent behavior is suspected, such allegations are best stated overtly rather than veiled under the word pseudoscience; [we should be] replacing pseudoscience with descriptors such as emerging and still-experimental, as yet scientifically inconclusive, scientifically debated, and lacking scientific evidence [or, when appropriate] fraud (suspected or proven), fabrication, misinformation, factually baseless claims, and scientifically unfounded claims.”

    To which Massimo comments as follows:

    “But we, in fact, already do all of that! Except that some ideas don’t simply ‘lack scientific evidence,’ and yet they are not ‘fraud or fabrication,’ nor are they simply the result of ‘misinformation,’ and they are certainly not ‘still-experimental.’ They are, well, pseudoscientific!”

    There’s seems a circularity to Massimo’s comment that perhaps I mistake or wrongly attribute. Does this claim defeat Burke’s several qualifications or does the cited comment defeat or suggest a fundamental disagreement with Massimo’s earlier comment? To my mind, it doesn’t.

    The suggestion is that Burke’s contention to dispense with the overuse of a term that has come to be used as a pejorative is incorrect and, instead, her claim to state explicitly how and why a scientific theory is amiss (as both actually appear to suggest) should somewise be deflected to allow elbow room for those who want engage in conceptual contortions regarding the term itself.

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  5. http://www.innocenceproject.org/causes/unvalidated-or-improper-forensic-science/

    Lots of ‘junk’ science in the court room. This is not necessarily pseudo science since many of these techniques could be made to work if properly, double blind validations were done.

    E.g., the forensic examiner often (maybe nearly always) knows which sample are which and what their significance to his employers (usually the state) is.
    Even the ‘gold standard’ of finger prints has not been properly validated.

    Some techniques like fiber analysis (Wayne Williams) border on pseudo science.

    We need the methods to be validated, the experts to be independent and ‘blind’. It would cost some money.

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  6. Why does philosophy so often descend into these disputes about words?

    Neither I nor anyone else is going to stop using the term ‘Pseudo Science’ to characterize Pseudo Science. If it quack like a duck, why not call it a duck? We will in any case call it a duck.

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  7. davidlduffy,

    “Ordinary breeding techniques would be the “best” way to improve such a polygenic trait, in that it affects all relevant loci simultaneously”

    From the letter you linked to :

    “Studies of genetic analyses of behavioural phenotypes have been prone to misinterpretation, such as characterizing identified associated
    variants as ‘genes for education’. Such characterization is not correct for many reasons: educational attainment is primarily determined by environmental factors, the explanatory power of the individual SNPs is small, the candidate genes may not be causal, and the genetic associations with educational attainment are mediated by multiple intermediate phenotypes14. To illustrate this last point, we studied mediation of the association between the all-SNPs polygenic score and EduYears in two of our cohorts. We found that cognitive performance can statistically account for 23–42% of the
    association”

    Taking EduYears as an example and knowing it correlated with 76 loci to various degrees, what I meant was that those 76 loci, individually and in groups of various sizes, also correlate in complex ways with other behaviors, and I think that that along with what others have said is one more reason why complex trait manipulation like religiosity cannot be said to work.

    “On Huntingdon’s and other genetic diseases, I would use the term eugenics to include …”

    I’m not questioning genetic manipulation but I wonder why the term eugenics with all its negative connotations would be used for disease treatment.

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  8. http://www.infowars.com/

    Pseudo Science and more. Currently on Rachael Maddow – apparently Hillary apparently as MS, Parkinson’s strokes, use a wheel chair, etc. and Trump son re-twitted it!

    And Sandy Hook was faked!

    Makes us simple JFK buffs look sane.

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  9. Robin, you didn’t say anything naughty, but you did insert more than one link in your post, so the system automatically blocked it. It is published now.

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