Nasty pseudoscience and counterproductive behavior

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I have a new Sounds Sciencey piece up. This one took a good bit of work – it’s a book review as well as an analysis of an issue in scientific circles, the labeling of fields or works as “pseudoscience”.

Have a look: The Trouble with Pseudoscience—It Can Be a Catastrophe.

Pseudoscience is what one might call a two-dollar word. Skeptics often throw it around because of its weightiness and the values it transmits. We need to talk about this word, where it came from, and why we should be cautious about using it.

gordin_coverI describe how this plays out through the book, The Pseudoscience Wars: Immanuel  Velikovsky and the Birth of the Modern Fringe.

Those new to the skeptical community may come in through a very different door than I did. Many are interested in specific topics they want to dig into right away. There is so much current info – websites, blogs, podcasts – to digest, it seems like they are unaware of some of these classic fringe ideas. This is a good one to learn and know. It can teach us many things. Having researched the concept of “pseudoscience” before, I found myself cringing a bit whenever the word was casually used. I hesitated to use it myself because it’s poorly defined and has no objective criteria on which to judge a field or piece of work as legitimately scientific or non-scientific. But it IS clear that the word and the concept is very useful in a social sense. We can disparage fields or works or people by labeling them in this way. It clues others in that this thing is nonsense and not worth pondering. That’s a hazard but for the most part, it works pretty well. There is little sense is taking astrology, phrenology, homeopathy, etc. seriously in terms of how nature works. But it is worth taking seriously if we are talking about the public perception of science.

I recommend Gordin’s book for those interested in fringe ideas, for Forteans, and for those curious about science and the public. It’s a good lesson.

As I was writing the piece linked above (it’s a bit long but hopefully not dull), I saw some surprising similarities between the scientists’ actions against Velikovsky (seen as an intruder) and the current skeptical kerfuffle about opposing viewpoints.

I urge you to read it yourself and see if you see it as I did.

What I noticed was a power play going on. Orthodoxy was picked on. Those doing the picking vehemently guarded their own orthodoxy. Hypocrisy and cognitive dissonance abounded. People spoke definitively even though they were out of their realm of expertise. Cults of personality were evident; it became about the person and ideological concept instead of about facts and reasonable conclusions. There were boycotts and threats, shunning and dismissiveness. Arguments and misunderstandings erupted over selling books and being popular in contrast to presenting an accurate view of things that might be LESS popular or dramatic. There were those that demonized Velikovsky, made him a personal enemy, only to have this tactic backfire and make him more interesting and popular to the observers of the drama. There was the opposite tactic taken by historians who said this guy isn’t worth our time to attack, he is so wrong that it’s not worth it. That ended up being the best solution to this sticky problem.

Take from that what you will.

Please let me know what you think. I appreciate feedback. Write in comments or via email paskeptic[at]gmail[dot]com.

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7 thoughts on “Nasty pseudoscience and counterproductive behavior

  1. spookyparadigm

    I’m going to have to disagree with some of this, while I found other parts helped my finally answer a question I’ve been working over. I’ll take it in reverse order.

    The question is the issue you pose at the end about whether it is better to ignore obviously wrong ideas, or not. I remember some time last year seeing research that attacking such claims doesn’t help. And I’ve seen other evidence to suggest this, that therefore the historians are right, if you ignore it, it will go away. But I think there may be an issue of correlation vs. causation here. In this case, famous scientists critiqued and attacked Velikovsky, and the argument would be that it didn’t help, or made things worse, while the historians took another path. Yet in my own field of archaeology, very few archaeologists even bother, other than an occasional off-the-cuff swipe, to discuss let alone attack non-scientific archaeological claims. A few do, but the only times it ever gets as detailed or personal as in the Velikovsky case, it is usually against someone considered a serious member of the field who has gone astray (Marija Gimbutas would be an example). When it comes to something quite popular, but obviously wrong, like ancient aliens, the vast majority of professional archaeologists have no interest in addressing it. They take the historians’ tack. How has that worked out? Has it gone away?

    No, it hasn’t. I think trying to correlate the memetic failure or success of a wrong idea with the response by the scientific community doesn’t work. I think there are instead two key reasons a wrong idea does well in the “free market” (not including stuff like Lysenkoism here, promoted by government or similar authority).

    The short-term reason is media promotion, and is hinted at by your review. If you look at the history of wrong ideas, their popularity almost always depends nearly exclusively on the mechanisms of their media promotion. If they can somehow luck out and be published or broadcast, they become popular for a while. But this popularity is not usually due to grass-roots mass popular interest, but usually due to either pure random chance, or a small group of promoters in their own little subculture or network, which is then chanced upon by a publisher or broadcaster. Ancient aliens is a great example. The notion goes back vaguely to the 19th century, it was crystallized in a fictional format by Lovecraft in the 1920s, and then was re-introduced in drips and drabs to a small audience in the 1940s and 1950s. It exploded in the 1960s and 1970s when a major publisher decided to try it with von Daniken. And it yo-yoed back down, and then up with television giving it another shot on the History Channel, and so on. This wasn’t because of an upswinging parabola of popularity in a grass-roots fashion. But instead that an idea on the fringe (which acts as something of a beta testing audience to smooth the idea out) was seen as ripe for the taking by a larger publisher, who then introduced it to a mass audience. Velikovsky got lucky and got his worked picked up by a major publisher, and got popular.

    The long-term reason is, does the idea fit in well with a larger popular narrative, usually a deep-rooted one? Velikovsky today is a footnote, usually mentioned more by skeptics than anyone else, though I can think of exceptions. Again, contrast with ancient aliens. Why is the latter so much more successful? Because it is a somewhat more general idea, with more emotional oomph, and that is frankly, more religious. While Velikovsky was attempting to reconcile his religion with science, ancient aliens (and alien mythology more generally) is basically either religion or magic/folklore recast with a scientific covering, but thoroughly sacred/demonic and supernatural. And it has increasingly openly made this plain, especially with ancient aliens, by blending together with various forms of religion as well as political conspiracy theory, and becoming more extensions of those than its own entity. Velikovsky’s ideas, by contrast, are just a more eccentric form of a “scientific” perspective that just says the Bible is a historical document, but a historical document to naturalistic (if wrong) events with no sacred or supernatural meaning or resonance, no morality or insight.

    So if the health of a wrong idea doesn’t lie in whether or not professionals or other skeptics attack it or ignore it, where does that leave us? Is it pointless to criticize these ideas? No, I think it is actually extremely important, especially in the era of Google. I think the goal has to be to provide better answers, while knowing that attacking wrong answers won’t just make them go away, nor will ignoring them. Astronomers should have said Velikovsky’s ideas were wrong, and shown why. And yes, they should have criticized, but not tried to censor, presses (if those presses held themselves to be above-board legitimate academic or educational presses) that published hm). But not with the aim to shut him up. Instead, to do their bloody jobs, which is to inform us about nature. Sometimes that work is going to be cutting edge research meant initially only for creating new information and understanding, and communicating it to other researchers. But other times, it is bringing these ideas to a larger audience. And if the questions from that larger audience are framed by pseudoscientists (and yes, that’s a legitimate term here, more in a minute), then I think there are two responses that both need to be done. Initially, triage by answering those specific questions and ideas, directly. Second, working to create a better and more popular frame to outcompete bad ideas.

    Now, about the term pseudoscience. I think it is absolutely appropriate in any number of cases. While in some fields, having people with no training or experience claiming to be a researcher in that field might be uncommon, it is extremely common in my own field of archaeology. It happens all the time, for reasons I’m not going to expound upon here. Those are textbook pseudoscientists, people who claim to be scientists, but have no credentials, and their actions do not conform to any recognizable version of either the specific type of practice in that field, or more generally to anything responsibly scientific or scholarly. Velikovsky was a psychiatrist. Not an archaeologist, an epigrapher, or an astronomer. And yet he ended up wearing all of those hats, even if he didn’t literally call himself those things (I don’t know if he did; there are people that actually will do such in their publications or press biographies). That doesn’t mean he can’t be right. But if you then combine his practices with this kind of role-assuming, I again think pseudoscience is appropriate.

    Where pseudoscience as a concept runs onto the rocks is if one attempts to define it by content. Your post tries this by mentioning Wegener or Einstein. Did Wegener or Einstein argue there was a conspiracy against them? Did they spend most of their time attacking their critics as unenlightened dopes for the establishment? And so on.

    Science has produced many extreme ideas, as well as mundane ones. It is science’s method which marks it. Pseudoscience isn’t recognized by extreme ideas. Pseudoscience is recognized by extreme personalities and extreme practices.

    I agree that pseudoscience is in the shadow of real science. Which is why there has been a bit of a turn away from pseudoscience and back towards mysticism, since the 1970s. Be it in woo ideas (oh no, Bigfoot skepticism!), or in alternative medicines and such, compare 1970-2013 with the rest of the 20th century. There were of course straight up faith healers, channelers, and so on. But if you really wanted to move product, be it books about monsters and mysteries, or tonics and therapy sessions, one was far more likely to cloak under a false lab coat of science. Since the 1970s, more mystical and religious framing has become popular again. That this is occurring when large swaths of the populace have rejected science as either of the corrupting and conspiring devil, or of the corporatist polluting Man, is certainly a good correlation, and I suspect something of a causation.

  2. The history of science is the only really spare skepticism out there. The skeptical community, per se, is too caught up in the positivism of contemporary science. Those operating in that mode too easily forget that the only consistency in science is change. One era’s objectivity can easily become a subjectivity. I haven’t gotten all the way through Gordin yet, but other material on the Velikovsky affair reveals only too clearly that the clashes occurring on the fringes of science are quite often not about any substantive content or contention, but about the characters. Human motivations come to the fore time and again. This, I think, even more fully reinforces my point about the importance of a historical approach.

    Of course, given my profession, that too is a bias…

  3. I would propose that while the issues being brought up might be worth tackling, certain people aren’t.

    There are certain people who really just don’t deserve any of the attention they are currently enjoying. In that case, I would say being apathetic towards these people is probably the best way to go about them.

    • spookyparadigm

      I think the problem becomes one of how to do this, it isn’t easy. You can address the ideas, but at some point many of those touting the ideas will entangle themselves in those ideas At some point, if you keep saying that something is pseudoscience (or saying it is bad science, or its mysticism, or what not), those arguing for it will turn to the victim card and demand “Are you calling me a pseudoscientist (or whatever)?” They’re not playing by the same rules. What the content is won’t matter, the same tactic can be used for all sorts of ideas. And in some cases, if the idea is rooted in a popular or righteous ideology or community, they can also claim bigotry or discrimination “You are attacking my y-ian theory because you are a x-ist!”

      Skepticism as it is often practiced isn’t science. It is engaging people regarding science. There are examples of skepticism that I would say fall into the realm of science or scholarship. Examining a topic of dubious nature and of popular interest in an scholarly fashion. It has the educative cousin, building on such works but popularizing them. Another tack is something more like investigative journalism ranging from consumer protection to gotcha on frauds. But other forms are more like politics, engaging people and institutions in various ways. Which, hey, ok. But politics is nasty business, and it pretty much always involves damaging or defeating other people.

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