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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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