Pop descent into low quality

As a follow up to my last post on why cryptozoology may or may not be called a pseudoscience (depending on your criteria), I was reminding of the idea of “deviant” science as discussed by Dolby.

When a “deviant” science, or what might be labeled pejoratively as “pseudoscience” by mainstream scientists or commentators, appeals to a niche group and takes off primarily outside the scientific community, active enthusiasts keep it afloat instead of allowing it to die off like most popular trends. One can argue that this process has happened to many fringe topics such as UFOlogy, cryptozoology and ghosts (possibly add Creationism and global warming denialism as well). Here is a gem of a quote I found while researching “deviant” science:

“…work [on this deviant topic] is disseminated to a wider more passive group from which further enthusiasts are drawn…[T]hose with a mild and passive interest in the deviant science are sufficient in number to provide a market for further journalistic activity. They buy books and read popular articles on the subject. As their critical standards are usually not very high, the commercial pressures of writing for as large a market as possible encourage professional writers to write at a low intellectual level and discourage the display of the apparatus of scholarship. Popular literary traditions in deviant science therefore may be of low quality…”

– R.G.A. Dolby in “Reflections on Deviant Science” in On the Margins of Science: The Social Construction of Rejected Knowledge (1979), R. Wallis (ed.) pp 9-47.

Dolby also adds another dig at the quality of such material by noting it can happen that, “published literature of deviant science degenerates into a sterile tradition in which each author embroiders the presentation of his predecessors with minimal checking on their sources.” This “sterile tradition” was something I noticed long ago was typical of mass marketed ghosts/monster/UFO stories.

Dolby goes on to note that some people are just entertained by these stories and have no desire to dig into them. That’s a perfectly fine use for them. But, as that happens, you can no longer rely on those sources to support a more scientific view. They have left the closed system and are contaminated. In other words, it’s not rational to claim such stories as evidence in any way to support your theory about UFOs/ghosts/cryptids being real. Yet, this a widespread practice – the argument being “so many people report something, there MUST be something to it.” Argument from popularity? A logical fallacy.

5 thoughts on “Pop descent into low quality

  1. And here’s the neat thing: it’s testable.

    There are enough cases where authors cover the same ground, either geographically, conceptually, or whatnot.

    A prime example: Two biologists tackle UFOs and stranger phenomena in Utah

    Frank Salisbury’s The Utah UFO display: A biologist’s report (1974)


    Kelleher and Knapp’s Hunt for the Skinwalker (205)

    Or compare typologies of sea serpents. Methods and Theory for attacking UFO research. Explanations for Roswell. And so on. Each has books separated by decades.

    I will say, though that when it comes to pseudoarchaeology, the works have gotten more baroque, and the standards really couldn’t have gone down from the early days.

  2. I wasn’t familiar with cryptozoology. I have to say the taxonomy reminds me of a pantheon of saints, the intricacies of astrology or the many other fantastical endeavors that humanity seems to direct much effort and enthusiasm.

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