In January 2013, I wrote about Immanuel Velikovsky, Worlds in Collision, and pseudoscience, referencing Michael Gordin’s excellent book The Pseudoscience Wars (2012). Well, I’m writing about it again, to be included in a book about amateur investigation groups “sounding sciencey” and fooling the public. I went back to some of my old sources and found a good one. It’s nice to know that even though you forgot you ever thought about this thing before, you actually wrote it down, and now realize you were on the right track.
A fascinating discussion by R.G.A. Dolby (1975) provides a case study about a popular idea that was nearly universally rejected by orthodox scientists, sold directly to the public by a non-expert, and even involved religious connections. It is a classic case of what we call pseudoscience.
I’ve been circulating in the Skeptisphere for a good long while. But I have not forgotten the value of being challenged and seeing alternative views. This draws me to paranormal conferences and events. I go there to be immersed in highly unskeptical ideas. It is immediately clear, to me at least, that I am out of my comfort zone at these events. I do not feel free to talk to anyone lest they determine I am not of their “ilk” and decide I should be shunned. But I am curious, and no one berates me for wanting to listen and observe. What is it about the paranormal culture that draws people here? Why is this population of people happy to spend a weekend engaged in these particularly paranormal activities, listening to speakers and making new friends?
This is a piece I wrote after I returned from a paranormal conference. I would strongly suggest all capital-S skeptics read it and would love to know what you think. I find myself cringing when I hear people (e.g. “skeptics”) laugh at paranormal believers (not beliefs but BELIEVERS) and soundly state “Bigfoot is a myth. Grow up!” How narrowly you see people. Skeptics lack empathy in many cases. You may decry me for giving paranormalists the time of day but I think they have something to say about being human. I’ve not been treated kindly by some in the skeptic-athesist community and I’ve been stabbed in the back and teased by some of the “skeptical believers” (I don’t accept their soft definition of “skeptic”) and of course you’re doomed if you are the Skeptic on a pro-paranormal forum. But, honestly, I’m so used to that. I write policy for a living. If I make everyone happy or NO one happy, I’m doing something right. It’s when I am only liked by one camp that I know I have a serious bias problem.
On the flip side, a new Sounds Sciencey was published this week as well.Read More »
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”.
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.
I 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.
Several years ago, while learning about the problem of science illiteracy, I discovered something of critical importance: You can’t get people engaged and enthusiastic or even respectful about a subject if they don’t see any value or connection to themselves.
Kids aren’t going to do well in high school science classes (or even choose to take those classes) if they feel no love for science. It is too late to instill that into them, perhaps. Besides, only a VERY small percentage of the kids would actually go on to become scientists. They probably don’t need biology, chemistry and physics knowledge to succeed in their eventual careers.
Yet, there is tremendous VALUE in knowing how science works. There is also a critical value in appreciating WHY science is one of humanities’ greatest inventions. It’s the process that produces the most reliable knowledge. It’s the best way we know how to learn what’s true about nature.
I looked into this topic back in graduate school after I saw it discussed in a book about the changing worldviews that occurred throughout our history. At one time, alchemy and astrology were the forebears of science. Astrology lives with us in its twisted illogic and nonsense violation of physical laws.
[…]going back to pre-scientific times, astrology was as real as it got. A precursor to astronomy, astrologers worked with facts that seemed apparent at the time. We have to give it some credit when considering the context.
Astrology sought to explain the nature of people in a time when humans were only vaguely aware of how hereditary and environmental influences affected their lives. The first concepts of astrology were based in the “facts” of the time—the universe was small, earth was at its center, the stars were part of a fixed sphere, the planets were imbued with deistic qualities, and an unknown force from these bodies certainly influenced humans at the exact moment of birth. In the sky, ancient man saw formations of animals and human figures and assigned them qualities. He split the sky into zones of the zodiac. He made attempts to define himself in terms of these assigned qualities. He zoned the sky into “houses.” The rules of astrology were (and still are) completely arbitrary, based on symbolism instead of experimentation or statistics.
Check out the article to see why astrology sounds sciencey…
There is a distinct tone of “sciencey-ness” to astrology. Practitioners will call it “scientific” based on the methodological, careful and systematic use of calculations and real astronomical position data. (Never mind the various natural laws these calculations utterly disregard.) They consider “research” to mean consulting tables and the rules.
but acts more like religion.
As always, you can send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org
My latest article for my Sounds Sciencey column is about chemistry. Or, more precisely, how it is viewed by the public.
There is this thing you might see on labels of products ranging from baby health goods to fertilizer: “CHEMICAL FREE”. But what does that even mean? I say it’s meaningless and is harmful for consumers.
Over the last 4 decades, the idea of chemistry has gotten a terrible reputation. People just don’t like chemicals. Yet, they certainly don’t understand that EVERYTHING we eat or drink or use in our showers or on our bodies is made of chemicals. Everything we use or wear is derived from a chemical process. To be without chemistry is to not exist. Our bodies run on chemistry.
The word “chemical” has been hijacked to mean “toxic”. And “toxic chemicals” has become a buzz word for environmental and health movements against everything from fracking to vaccines. That’s dangerous. In order to be an informed consumer and citizen, when talking science terms, you need to understand what you are actually advocating for or against. When you say “toxic chemicals,” what science-trained ears perceive from you is “this person is not scientifically literate”.
So, I advocate not to fall into the hype of “chemical-free”. Check out my piece and see how we got here as a society and what can be done about it.
The noises are widespread, varied in type, sometimes able to be explained and sometimes known to be hoaxed. But, because this spate of anomalies (a Fortean Flap, if you will) is in the so-called apocalyptic year 2012, the phenomena has attracted the acute attention of conspiracy theorists, End Times believers, and people just concerned that something weird is happening with the planet.
Though the sky noises phenomena is fading away – the receiving frequency of these claims are lowering like the Doppler effect – reports are still trickling in.
Followers of sky sounds were excited by the news that an actual scientist who sounded like he knew what he was talking about described the causes of strange sounds.
Reposted all over the web as being from an “acclaimed”, “credentialed” and “renowned” professor, unfortunately, this article immediately raised a slew of red flags with me and others who are sensitive to what real science looks like and how not so established ideas try to dress themselves up in sciencey getups. A cursory look revealed that this piece has hallmarks of pseudoscience and creates far more confusion than clarity.