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.

189 thoughts on “Should we stop using the term “pseudoscience”?

  1. Disagreeable Me (@Disagreeable_I)

    Hi EJWinner, Massimo,

    Agreed. I was laughing at the idiotic notion if selecting for religiosity.

    I don’t see that it is idiotic.

    First, let’s clarify a few things. It is clearly impossible to select for religiosity per se. One cannot be religious unless one is exposed to religion. But it is not obvious to me that a predisposition towards religiosity might not have a strong genetic component. The same genes might predispose one to Christianity in a Christian culture or devotion to the leader in a communist society.

    These genes would predispose one to religiosity only indirectly. For instance (and I realise I’m speaking as someone who takes a dim view of religiosity — I’m sure a more positive picture could be painted by someone with a more favourable view) these genes could work by first predisposing one to be a seeker of “deep meaning” and “higher purpose” and a need to believe in “something greater”, to readily accept dogmatic truth handed down from an authority and to desire to conform to the society and traditions into which one is born. In the right context and environment. These tendencies will tend to favour religiosity in typical environments, but in the right environment, e.g. one where atheism is the majority view and all the authority figures are atheist, then religiosity is not going to follow automatically.

    So while there can’t specifically be selection for religiosity narrowly defined, I don’t see anything wrong with the hypothesis that it might be possible to select for the predisposition to religiosity as described above. I don’t see any evidence that selection for such a predisposition is either definitely doable nor absurd. There is nothing idiotic about that possibility, and in particular it should not be supposed that entertaining that possibility assumes a naive view of inheritance. I have no doubt that the gene-gene and gene-environment interactions in all this are extremely complex, but such complexity doesn’t mean that selection is impossible (after all nature does it and breeders do it), it just means that we have our work cut out understanding the genetic mechanisms at play.

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  2. synred

    I don’t see anything wrong with the hypothesis that it might be possible to select for the predisposition to religiosity as described above

    –>Doesn’t mean we should do it though..
    –>And to do it would require a degree of control that is unacceptable in order to distintquish environmental from selection effects. Farmers after all raise their animals all pretty much the same.
    ==> Possible in principle, but not a good idea…as much as I’d like to see religiosity reduced
    ;_||=

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  3. Coel

    Hi DM et al,

    First, I don’t see any particular problem in defining and detecting “religiosity”. Second, twin studies suggest that the diversity of religiosity (as with most aspects of our personalities) has a genetic component [e.g. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15745438 ].

    The problem with instituting selective breeding on the basis of religiosity [e.g. allowing only those who go to church a lot to breed, and shooting all the atheists] is that people would immediately fake religiosity. So, one would need a fake-proof way of detecting religiosity. A sufficiently advanced brain scanner could in-principle distinguish genuine believe-in-god feelings from fake believe-in-god feelings. Given that, I’ve little doubt that one could, if one really wanted to, selectively breed for religiosity. At least, I don’t see why not.

    [Sadly, I no doubt need to add the caveats that: (1) yes of course environment and upbringing and social customs also have a huge influence on religiosity, likely a bigger one that the genetic component; and (2) I really don’t think that eugenic breeding to increase or to decrease religiosity would be a good idea.]

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  4. Daniel Kaufman

    While I wouldn’t call it a “big problem” the self-congratulation to which scientismists and their fans are prone in this discussion — we’re so rational! We make sure never to fool ourselves! — combined with the uncharitable caricatures of others — those self deluded, irrational people, who crave dogmatic authority — is all rather nauseating.

    I have not found that scientists are any more rational or less self-deluded, the moment one steps an inch outside of their discipline, than anyone else. Indeed, I have often found that the opposite is the case. So we can jeer all we want at the astrology folks and the homeopathy enthusiasts, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find that those doing the jeering have various beliefs and enthusiasms that are just as wacky if not wackier. (And before people start protesting that they don’t … anyone can say anything on the internet.)

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  5. Disagreeable Me (@Disagreeable_I)

    Hi Arthur,

    What you said goes without saying. It would be impractical and immoral to select for religiosity.

    This also goes to your earlier comment about why the scientific validity of eugenics should be an issue once we’re all agreed that it is unethical:

    The only reason it is an issue is because some people are proposing eugenics as an example of a pseudoscience, and I don’t think that’s right. I think eugenics is potentially scientifically valid even as most incarnations of it would be morally indefensible. So nobody is saying we should be enthusiastically rushing to adopt eugenics, but I do think it is a poor example of a pseudoscience.

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  6. synred

    (And before people start protesting that they don’t … anyone can say anything on the internet.)

    Well, I don’t. There I said it on the internet. But I could be wrong…
    [/;L)=

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  7. synred

    DM: I basically agree. It might be nice to think that things we shouldn’t do, can’t be done, but that’s clearly not the case. Guns work, bombs work, drones work, eugenics likely would ‘work’. To deny the possibility is not to face the danger.

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  8. Massimo Post author

    Garth,

    First off, I don’t object to people or attitude only if they are extremely dangerous for the world. There are degrees of detrimentality. Second, scientism has been around far less than religion, just give it time. Oh, incidentally, I think the eugenics movement is a classic example of the dangers of scientism, and it has provoked plenty of damage.

    Coel, DM, et al.,

    Everything has a “genetic component,” when measured by standard statistical techniques, including “religiosity,” however defined and measured. But I’m betting as an evolutionary biologist that a eugenic program aimed at decreasing (or increasing, for that matter) religiosity would be an utter failure, because of the many times mentioned extremely nonlinear gene-environment interactions involved, as well as the likely very high degree of phenotypic plasticity of the “trait.”

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  9. Coel

    Dan,

    … the self-congratulation to which scientismists and their fans are prone in this discussion — we’re so rational! We make sure never to fool ourselves! …

    The congratulations are about the method, not the people. Today’s scientific method recognises that people — scientists and scientismists — are so prone to bias that they cannot be trusted. The only way to get reliable results is to get around their biases by not telling them what is going on. Hence double-blind testing. Hence procedures that, as far as possible, place the verdict out of the control of scientists (asking them to predict what they don’t know, and then verifying the outcome, is a way of doing this).

    I have not found that scientists are any more rational or less self-deluded, the moment one steps an inch outside of their discipline, than anyone else.

    The fact that scientists — people — are not any less self-deluded when not applying the scientific method is entirely in line with my account, Again, the lauding is of a method to overcome people’s biases, not a lauding of people who work in a particular area.

    You are welcome to explain how quality control and avoidance of self-fooling operates in other areas such as academic philosophy. A procedure along the lines of “I found Professor Dawson’s paper on X to be erudite and persuasive, therefore we have pronounced each other to be experts on the topic” does not seem — in comparison with double-blind testing of predictions — to be all that reliable.

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  10. synred

    “decreasing (or increasing, for that matter) religiosity would be an utter failure, because of the many times mentioned extremely nonlinear gene-environment interactions involved,”

    The “extremely non-linear environment” is one of the reasons I object to Eugenic. You would have to treat people like farm animals to control for that, so as to distintquish between the environmental an genetic effects.

    If somebody tried they’d likely get results, but likely quite different from what they were seeking to do.

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  11. synred

    So is AI pseudo-science?

    I think is currently skirting along the edge with talk of ‘singularities’ and such. On the hand I’m basically a materialist, so I think it’s in principle possible, but I don’t think we are remotely close even with the Google Car.

    A generation of true believers [in AI], steeped in the technocratic and optimistic artificial intelligence literature of the 1960s, clearly played an early part in the collapse. Since then the same boom-and-bust cycle has continued for decades, even as AI has advanced. Today the cycle is likely to repeat itself again as a new wave of artificial intelligence technologies is being heralded by some as being on the cusp of offering “thinking machines.”

    Markoff, John. Machines of Loving Grace: The Quest for Common Ground Between Humans and Robots (p. 130). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

    ==>Current Martin Perl Book Club selection

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  12. Daniel Kaufman

    You are welcome to explain how quality control and avoidance of self-fooling operates in other areas such as academic philosophy. A procedure along the lines of “I found Professor Dawson’s paper on X to be erudite and persuasive, therefore we have pronounced each other to be experts on the topic” does not seem — in comparison with double-blind testing of predictions — to be all that reliable.

    I know! It’s terrible that people like me get Ph.D.’s. All that honor and prestige, not to mention university space and salaries you have to share with us unworthies; people whose positions are based on nothing else than someone’s say-so.

    If only the scientists ran the place … we’d clear out all those pseudo-experts, real quick.

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  13. synred

    Fisher, R. A. (1936). “The Use of Multiple Measurements in Taxonomic Problems”. Annals of Eugenics . 7 (2): 179–188. doi :10.1111/j.1469-1809.1936.tb02137.

    It’s an ill wind that blows no good …

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  14. synred

    The Annals of Human Genetics is a bimonthly peer-reviewed scientific journal covering human genetics. It was established in 1925 by Karl Pearson as the Annals of Eugenics, with as subtitle, Darwin’s epigram “I have no Faith in anything short of actual measurement and the rule of three”.[1] The journal obtained its current name in 1954 to reflect changing perceptions on eugenics.[2] The editor-in-chief is Mark G. Thomas (University College London). According to the Journal Citation Reports, the journal has a 2012 impact factor of 2.21

    –>So in this case Eugenics Morphed into Genetics, shedding the pseudo aspects.

    Francis Galton’s many contributions have also been read out of history as he was the founder of Eugenics though I don’t think he was involved in any of the abuses.

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  15. marc levesque

    Massimo,

    I’m not very enthused by the term pseudo science, I follow that it can be defined somewhat clearly, but I don’t like it’s imprecise usage and the pejorative sense it takes on once it is used in the public sphere, case in point even Coel who considers himself scientific use the expressions ‘pseudo science’ and ‘bunk’ interchangeably.

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  16. dbholmes

    Hi Coel, on the eugenics stuff I generally agree with you and DM. It was largely an application/extension of animal breeding techniques to humans. And it was about all sorts of traits, not just intelligence. On that last point, it seems obvious you can affect general intellectual or emotional capacities through restricted “breeding” if you wanted. As long as there is a strong genetic component involved (unlike the “component”… if you want to call it that… for “religiosity”) that is possible.

    Certainly what people tried to do with that generic possibility, and the added belief (among many false beliefs) they could choose what physical/mental traits count as “better” (usually tied to racial stereotypes), made for really bad science which since perpetuated as good science became a pseudo-science… not to mention a social horror. Cruel, unjust, dishonest.

    I think it was useful to drop the name (as Synred’s post suggested happened) to distinguish an interest in mechanisms of inheritance (and so genetics), from this grotesque political/social movement (eugenics). But we may still end up using some of its techniques and new ones like gene editing in specific situations (as DM was I believe suggesting) where a very real genetic factor linked to health is desired to be removed or introduced. For example, if Zika became some uber-virus threatening to affect all births from now on (shades of Children of Men), I don’t see where people would be rejecting gene editing to remove that threat, or depending on the level of problem even restricting births with Zika defects.

    However, on the scientism question, I think you are wrong that it does not pose a problem, and especially that things like double-blind experiments might reduce the errors scientismists make. Their error is not with handling experiments or data. The error is exactly the one you foisted off on philosophy. A bunch of scientists (or science enthusiasts*) pat themselves on the back claiming how they agree with each other’s thesis that science can deal with X, Y, and Z… heck it can deal with just about everything! Double-blind does not remove that sort of self-fooling.

    *Note about science enthusiasts: I’ve encountered more than a few scientismists that while praising science to no end seem to know as little about it and the scientific method as some religious fundamentalists know about their religious doctrine. I don’t know if I’d call scientism a pseudo-science, but it seems to be a certain fundamentalist attitude or enthusiasm which isn’t very useful or scientific.

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  17. Disagreeable Me (@Disagreeable_I)

    Hi Massimo,

    But I’m betting as an evolutionary biologist that a eugenic program aimed at decreasing (or increasing, for that matter) religiosity would be an utter failure

    And I’m not disagreeing with you, in that I am happy to take your word for it that that would be a good bet. But it’s a far cry from saying something is unlikely to work to saying the very idea is idiotic, as Garth was doing.

    I’m not saying we could breed for (a predisposition towards) religiosity. I don’t know that we could. But it doesn’t strike me as completely beyond the bounds of possibility.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. marc levesque

    On eugenics working or not (please correct me if I’m wrong Massimo),

    I don’t think we can say it works for the reasons Massimo and others brought up, and also because the more genes are involved in a trait the more of those genes will be involved in other traits. So the more complex the trait one hopes to target the more effect one will seen in other traits that aren’t being targeted.

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  19. Robin Herbert

    Hi Coel,

    That claim sounds highly dubious to me.

    Yes, of course it sounds highly dubious to you, it is nevertheless true.

    I have studied the experimental practices of the pseudo scientists in quite a lot of detail and have made comparisons to what is considered real and even good science.

    Compare the experiments of Bem, Radin and others in “pre-cognition” to say: http://www.nature.com/neuro/journal/v11/n5/full/nn.2112.html which seems to be regarded as good science by figures of whom you approve.

    They are comparable because the structure is similar.

    Now if Radin or Bem had produced a paper like this they would have been laughed out of court. Imagine if they had just trawled around the data using various methods until they found something that correlates with event(s) in question.

    If you read the paper carefully, the results of the Soon et al experiment are not particularly counter-intuitive or startling as some (like Jerry Coyne) would claim, in fact they are pretty much in line with what most people would expect.

    But they are pretty dubious given the conduct of the experiment. In fact most people don’t seem to be aware of the structure of the experiment – Jerry Coyne’s account (https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2010/07/28/the-free-will-experiment/) is highly misleading.

    But, yes, this is just one example. With others (such as IIT) I am left wondering if there was any structured scientific method applied to it.

    The problem with the idea that the scientific method fixes human limitations is that the scientific method is implemented and reviewed by those very same limited humans.

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  20. Robin Herbert

    I would suggest the ID, ganzfeld, PEAR, GCP are the visible tip of the pseudo science iceberg because they are so obviously pseudo science, and that there is a large body of pseudo science that goes unremarked because the people involved have chosen less obviously absurd claims to pursue, or because the claims fit a fashionable metaphysics view or ideology.

    As I have pointed out before, PEAR was instituted and led by a highly qualified, highly experienced and apparently highly skilled physicist. It was given a dedicated department by one of the most prestigious Universities in the world for 28 years and was disbanded, not because of the lack of results, but because Jahn himself decided he had had enough and that he did not require any more evidence.

    PEAR is just the most egregious example of a very common occurrence. The system seems pretty easy to game.

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  21. Robin Herbert

    Before I said “The experimental practices of some pseudoscientists is considerably better than much of what is accepted as real, even good, science.” and some people doubted this.

    I appear to have said something naughty in my first response, but suffice to say that if you look in detail at the experimental practices of Radin, Bem etc and compare it with some other experiments, which are accepted as real and even good science, then I believe this claim is borne out.

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  22. synred

    Double blind is not possible for particle physics. We only recently (15-20 years ago) adopted single blind.

    There were 4 experiments at the LEP accelerator [a] at CERN. One thing there were trying to measure is a number called R_b (R sub b) the ration b-quark production to all quarks. When there was a LEP talk at SLAC they always presented a ‘strip’ chart showing R_b for each experiment. My favorite question/comment was to estimate the chisq per degree of freedom from the chart and ask them why it was too good. The probability of the experiments agreeing as well as they did gven just the statistical errors was absurdly small.

    Clearly, they we (unconsciously) tuning on each others results. It was bad science though none of the numbers did not turn out to be vastly wrong.

    Since then most experiments have adopted ‘blind analysis’ in which a randomly generated number is added or multiplied to the result while analysis is in progress. And only removed just before publication. We did this for BaBar CP violation. It’s not perfect as a number that is wildly different than expectation is going to be examined carefully. Fortunately or unfortunately the standard model is so good that we rarely have no idea what to expect.

    The one number we have that is a little in disagreement with the standard model. That is the branching fraction for B decay to a D* and a tau-lepton which if I recall correctly is bigger than expected and cause a flurry of checks. It held up though and now has been confirmed by Belle experiment. It is not radical enough to bring the standard model crashing down.

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  23. synred

    expressions ‘pseudo science’ and ‘bunk’ interchangeably

    They sound pretty interchangeable to me. “Junk” usually refers to bad science in court, e.g., when I saw Steven Lucas convicted of killing his mother on CourtTV based on an ass-backward use of conservation of angular momentum by a so-called expert. There is a lot of ‘junk’ in court and the jury gets to decide whether to believe it or not. Steven should have taken a bench trial and hoped the judge had paid attention to physics in high school.

    He went to jail. It was Texas. At least they didn’t kill him.

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  24. davidlduffy

    Dear Marc Levesque

    “So the more complex the trait one hopes to target the more effect one will seen in other traits”

    See fig 2 of

    Click to access 5733736e08aea45ee838f69f.pdf

    Ordinary breeding techniques would be the “best” way to improve such a polygenic trait, in that it affects all relevant loci simultaneously. But if one somehow removed most of the alleles of larger effect that are associated with decreasing cognitive function in old age (APOE etc), this would also improve cardiovascular disease rates and extend life span.

    On Huntingdon’s and other genetic diseases, I would use the term eugenics to include practices such as using genetic testing to allow embryo selection or abortion. Using IVF, mutation-negative embryos can be implanted in the uterus, in some cases without the parent having to know whether or not they are a carrier themselves (respecting their choice not to know – only about 5% of people at risk are interested). There is plenty of room for ethicists, and everyone else too, to discuss how much we owe future descendants.

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  25. synred

    “So the more complex the trait one hopes to target the more effect one will seen in other traits that aren’t being targeted”

    That is not proof it couldn’t be done. The methods needed to try it humans would be draconian. That hardly nobody will try.

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  26. Thomas Jones

    I’ve been out of pocket for hours now, but wanted to thank Coel for attempting to answer my questions in a comment upthread. In my first comment on this article, I provided a citation to a brief explication of pseudoscience as a category. This entry is useful because of the many related links it provides including the attempt to distinguish “Obsolete scientific theories” from those that at some point seemingly become “pseudo” as opposed to “obsolete.” The entry is brief enough to quote in almost its entirety:

    “Pseudoscience is a broad group of theories or assertions about the natural world that claim or appear to be scientific, but that are not accepted as scientific by the scientific community. Pseudoscience does not include most obsolete scientific or medical theories (see Category:Obsolete scientific theories), nor does it include every idea that currently lacks sufficient scientific evidence (e.g. String theory).

    “This category comprises well-known topics that are generally considered pseudoscientific by the scientific community (such as astrology) and topics that have very few followers and are obviously pseudoscientific (such as the modern belief in a flat Earth). The pejorative term itself is contested by various groups for various reasons. Generally speaking, if an article belongs in this category, the article’s lead will contain a well-sourced statement that the subject is considered pseudoscience.”

    The appeal to authority (in a “community”) inherent here is not a major stumbling block for me. But I am intrigued by what seems the demarcation from the scientific obsolete to the scientific pseudo, or bogus. I think Coel is trying to address this question with allusions to a hypothetical continuum or scientific timeline wherein conceptual distinctions can be made by pointing to an agreed upon state of established science at a given point in time. But to retreat to a metaphor, though, we seem to be stipulating rules for a game of horseshoes for which no one can find the rule book when a dispute arises or, worse, they retrieve more than one. For this reason, I’m inclined to dismiss the usefulness of the term “pseudoscience” as a pejorative and little else at this point in time for those outside academia.

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