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Separating The Pseudo From Science

From: Terry W. Colvin <fortean1.nul>
Date: Wed, 19 Sep 2012 10:38:24 +0700 (GMT+07:00)
Archived: Wed, 19 Sep 2012 18:38:55 -0400
Subject: Separating The Pseudo From Science


[forteana] Separating The Pseudo From Science
Date: Sep 19, 2012 1:18 AM

Sounds like this guy's book will be interesting to Forteans from
a procedural perspective as well as for the content.



The Chronicle Review
September 17, 2012
Separating the Pseudo From Science
By Michael D. Gordin

The term "pseudoscience" gets thrown around quite a bit these
days, most notably in debates about the dominant consensus on
anthropogenic climate change. Say "pseudoscience," and
immediately a bunch of doctrines leap to mind: astrology,
phrenology, eugenics, ufology, and so on. Do they have anything
in common? Some posit unknown forces of nature, others don't.
Some are advocated by outsiders to the scientific community,
while others have been backed by the elite. And the status of
each can fluctuate over time. (Astrology, for example, was
considered an exemplary field of natural knowledge from
antiquity through the Renaissance.) For millennia, philosophers
have attempted to erect a boundary between those domains of
knowledge that are legitimate and those that are anything but -
rom Hippocrates' essay on "the sacred disease" (epilepsy) to
editorials decrying creationism. The renowned philosopher Karl
Popper coined the term "demarcation problem" to describe the
quest to distinguish science from pseudoscience. He also
proposed a solution. As Popper argued in a 1953 lecture, "The
criterion of the scientific status of a theory is its
falsifiability." In other words, if a theory articulates which
empirical conditions would invalidate it, then the theory is
scientific; if it doesn't, it's pseudoscience.

That seems clear enough. Unfortunately, it doesn't work.
Epistemologists present several challenges to Popper's argument.
First, how would you know when a theory has been falsified?
Suppose you are testing a particular claim using a mass
spectrometer, and you get a disagreeing result. The theory might
be falsified, or your mass spectrometer could be on the fritz.
Scientists do not actually troll the literature with a
falsifiability detector, knocking out erroneous claims right and
left. Rather, they consider their instruments, other possible
explanations, alternative data sets, and so on. Rendering a
theory false is a lot more complicated than Popper imagined - and
thus determining what is, in principle, falsifiable is fairly

The second problem is that Popper fails to demarcate in the
right place. Creationism, for example, makes a series of
falsifiable claims about radioactive dating, rates of erosion,
and so on, while the more "historical" sciences, like geology
and astronomy, pose theories that are more explanatory
narratives than up-or-down (and therefore falsifiable) protocol
statements of empirical bullet points. Any criterion had better
at least replicate our common-sense notion of "science," and so
far no clear criterion has been able to do so. No wonder most
philosophers have given up on the task. As the prominent
philosopher of science Larry Laudan put it 30 years ago: "If we
would stand up and be counted on the side of reason, we ought to
drop terms like 'pseudoscience' and 'unscientific' from our
vocabulary; they are just hollow phrases that do only emotive
work for us." Demarcation is distinctly out of fashion among
philosophers today.

On the other hand, "emotive work" is pretty interesting from a
historical perspective. Scientists consider a great many
doctrines to be wrong, even wrongheaded, but not all of them get
labeled "pseudoscience." No one in the history of the world has
ever considered himself a pseudoscientist. It is a term of abuse
that is deployed by some members of a scientific community
against individuals they consider threatening. By tracking under
which conditions scientists denigrate others as
"pseudoscientists," we can actually learn how scientists define
healthy science at a particular moment. Instead of attempting to
find a one-size-fits-all demarcation criterion, we should think
about pseudoscience historically. This helps us understand how
science functioned in the past as well as in the present.

Over the past several years, I've undertaken to do just that, in
studying Immanuel Velikovsky. Velikovsky (1895-1979) is no
longer a household name - very few people under 50 have heard of
him - but from 1950 to 1980 he dominated debates about
demarcation. At issue were his catastrophist theories, first
promulgated in his 1950 blockbuster Worlds in Collision
(published by Macmillan, then the most respected publisher of
scientific books in the United States), and later extended and
elaborated in a half-dozen further volumes.

Velikovsky had a big idea. When he read ancient myths and
legends from around the world - especially the Hebrew Bible and
other texts from the ancient Near East - he came across similar
images: fire raining from the heavens, enormous earthquakes,
epic flooding, and so on. What if these were not just metaphors
or hallucinations, but actual eyewitness observations? What if
they described not different disasters, but one single global
catastrophe? Velikovsky claimed that by properly correlating and
interpreting these texts, one could deduce the outlines of a
series of celestial catastrophes, beginning around 1500 BC.

In brief, according to Velikovsky, a comet was ejected from
Jupiter and became gravitationally and electromagnetically
trapped by Earth, wreaking enormous trauma on our planet. After
breaking free and struggling with a displaced Mars, the comet
settled into an orbit around our Sun. We now call this
destructive comet Venus. Velikovsky's theory unified an
idiosyncratic version of ancient history with a new account of
the solar system; it also contravened every accepted premise of
geology, paleontology, and celestial mechanics.

The fate of Velikovsky's theory is instructive for two principal
reasons. First, Worlds in Collision was, so to speak, "born
pseudoscientific." Before it, fringe doctrines (say,
parapsychology or phrenology) had been introduced by a given
scientist, a lively debate ensued, and those doctrines were then
excised (and their proponents exiled) from the scientific
community. Not so with Velikovsky. Although he was trained as a
medical doctor and psychoanalyst, he was not a member of any of
the communities with which his book engaged. His theories were
not discussed dispassionately and then set aside; they were
vehemently attacked even before the book appeared (the advance
publicity set certain people off), the publisher was threatened
with a boycott, and for decades he remained a prime target for
self-appointed demarcators, including the distinguished
astronomers Harlow Shapley and Carl Sagan.

The emergence of this new method of policing pseudoscience says
a lot about the organization of science during the cold war. In
the geopolitical clash between the United States and the Soviet
Union, science and technology assumed a central place (think of
nuclear weapons, or Sputnik). As a result, science was better
financed, more visible, and more prestigious than ever, but also
laden with newfound anxieties about oversight and integrity. A
second reason to focus on Velikovsky is the nature of the
evidence. Most fringe doctrines do not survive their creators;
with their deaths comes a cleaning of the attic and a trip to
the dump. But in 2005, Firestone Library at Princeton University
announced the opening of the Immanuel Velikovsky Papers to
researchers. (Velikovsky had lived in Princeton, N.J., from 1952
until his death, and he was a frequent presence in the library
and around town, although he never had any affiliation with the
university.) I went to take a look, the name striking a chord
from my youthful reading of UFO lore and other nerdy arcana.

His papers are among the most comprehensive personal archives I
have ever seen, spanning 65 linear feet of material: drafts of
manuscripts, fan mail, hate mail, assorted correspondence, and
much more. Here we can trace the microdynamics of a demonized
theory from birth, charting its rise in popularity and
eventually its fairly sudden senescence after Velikovsky's
death. One could do a lot with this material: elucidate how both
mainstream and marginal publishing worked, for example, or track
how social movements on the fringe coalesce and develop. I chose
to sift through Velikovsky's manuscripts and explore the issue
of pseudoscience. A few hours poring over the vitriolic
correspondence by scientists excoriating Macmillan for
publishing Worlds in Collision and threatening a boycott of the
press were so fascinating that I felt I needed to keep reading
about how boundaries of science were being defended. I was most
struck by one dominant theme running through all the pro- and
anti-Velikovsky documents: Everyone demarcates.

After the publishing succ=C3=A8s de scandale of 1950, Velikovsky
stepped back from heated confrontation with what he and others
came to term "establishment science." Instead, he courted his
fellow Princeton resident Albert Einstein for legitimacy and
sought to bolster the scenario from Worlds in Collision with
claims that discoveries from the emergent Space Age confirmed
his theories about Venus and other planets. He tried to
establish himself through testimonials from scientific
authorities and validated predictions as a legitimate scientist,
not a crank. When some creationists attempted to tie their
theory of a global flood to Velikovsky's cosmic catastrophism,
he counterattacked ferociously, arguing that their fusion of
science and religion was distinctly unscientific. Likewise, John
C. Whitcomb and Henry Morris, authors of The Genesis Flood - the
book that resurrected flood geology as the basis for scientific
creationism - purged hints of Velikovskianism from their text.
He was too "pseudo" for the creationists, and vice versa.

There is an important lesson in this. All so-called
pseudoscientists believe they are simply scientists, albeit ones
with heterodox views marginalized by the mainstream. (They
aren't necessarily right - many people have mistaken self-
conceptions.) But to be a scientist, you need to behave like
one, and one thing scientists do constantly is, well, demarcate.
Velikovsky and his peers knew there was an edge to legitimate
science, and they policed it very carefully, just like
"establishment" scientists did and continue to do. I have come
to think of pseudoscience as science's shadow. A shadow is cast
by something; it has no substance of its own. The same is true
for these doctrines on the fringe. If scientists use some
criterion such as peer review to demarcate, so will the fringe
(creationists have peer-reviewed journals, as did
Velikovskians). The brighter the light of science - that is, the
greater its cultural prestige and authority - the sharper the
shadow, and the more the fringe flourishes.

Fringe theories proliferate because the status of science is
high and science is seen as something worth emulating. Since
World War II, science has been consistently prestigious, and
heterodox doctrines have proliferated, but the pattern holds in
the past as well. Late Enlightenment France and Victorian
Britain were high points of scientists' status, and clusters of
such movements (mesmerism, spiritualism, phrenology) cropped up
at these moments as well. Paradoxically, pseudoscience is a sign
of health, not disease. Shadows are also an inevitable
consequence of light. Carl Sagan and other anti-Velikovskians
believed that greater scientific literacy could "cure" the ill
of pseudoscience. Don't get me wrong - scientific literacy is a
wonderful thing, and I am committed to expanding it. But it
won't eradicate the fringe, and it won't prevent the
proliferation of doctrines the scientific community decries as

Nevertheless, something needs to be done. Demarcation may be an
activity without rules, a historically fluctuating marker of the
worries of the scientific community, but it is also absolutely
vital. Not everything can or should be taught in science courses
in school. Not every research proposal can or should receive
funds. When individuals spread falsehood and misinformation,
they must be exposed.

We can sensibly build science policy only upon the consensus of
the scientific community. This is not a bright line, but it is
the only line we have. As a result, we need to be careful about
demarcation, to notice how we do it and why we do it, and stop
striving for a goal of universal eradication of the fringe that
is frankly impossible. We need to learn what we are talking
about when we talk about pseudoscience.

Michael D. Gordin is a professor of history at Princeton
University. He is the author of The Pseudoscience Wars: Immanuel
Velikovsky and the Birth of the Modern Fringe, due out in
October from the University of Chicago Press.

Leslie Ellen Jones, PhD
Jack of All Trades and Doctor of Folklore


Terry W. Colvin
Ladphrao (Bangkok), Thailand
Pran Buri (Hua Hin), Thailand
[Terry's Fortean & "Work" itty-bitty site]

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