There is a vital need to define and draw the line between science and pseudo-science. The main reason is that pseudo-science uses the language and attitude typical to science in order to lend credibility to nonsense; it is inherently parasitical and follows the credibility of science. We must therefore carefully learn the difference between the two, because science is a good tool for understanding reality and pseudo-science is not.
Another, and perhaps an equally important, reason is that a lot of pseudo-science has an important role: lending the credibility of science to reactionary ideologies. This is the category of pseudo-science that interests me here.
Belief systems like graphology, astrology and homeopathy are socially insidious but not particularly hard to detect as pseudoscience for anyone who looks at them even the least bit rigorously. They are also widely recognized as pseudoscience despite equally widespread belief in them.
Belief systems that perpetuate the status quo, on the other hand, may be harder to detect precisely because they sound like the kind of things we hear every day. For most Christians, Intelligent Design doesn’t seem to be pseudo-science. To most people, economics or evolutionary psychology don’t seem incredible at all. The kind of prejudice they support is perfectly normal and therefore nothing about it seems fallacious.
The standards regarding how to detect pseudo-science are already well defined. But these criteria are mostly about the appearance of the rhetoric issued by pseudo-science advocates. This is most useful for detection, but I want to look at more fundamental aspects of pseudo-science as well.
One can’t go ahead and list the steps of the scientific method as a guideline, because there is no such thing as “the scientific method.” The way we gather data and test claims in astronomy, medicine and anthropology are all very much different. Each discipline has its own methods, standards and values. So we necessarily have to speak in generalities.
So going into generalities, I think the following points describe some basics that all scientific disciplines must have:
1. They have an existing and defined area of inquiry. Whatever they are about is clearly observable. Compare with chiropractic medicine and its non-existing “subluxations.”
2. Their basic premises are sound. Compare with astrology, which is based on the scientifically unsound premise that distant stars somehow imprint on human behavior at birth.
3. They have a range of phenomena to study and explain. Compare with UFOlogy, whose proponents cannot clearly demonstrate that there are UFO phenomena that needs explanation.
4. Their proponents make empirical, verifiable (and if possible, testable) hypotheses. Pseudoscience proponents generally believe their belief system can explain any set of data, even contradictory ones.
5. Its body of knowledge (i.e. working models of some aspect of reality) is constantly revised following the verification of hypotheses. Most pseudosciences evolve very little if at all; and when they do it’s because of social pressure, not because of new data.
Most, if not all, pseudosciences break point 4 and 5, and I would guess many also break points 1, 2 and 3.
But, as I said, I want to look specifically at those pseudosciences that are reactionary in nature, and look exactly at how they are reactionary.
* Evolutionary psychology: I don’t think I need to point out exactly how evolutionary psychology is reactionary (and neither evolution nor psychology), since I’ve written a whole entry about it. For those of you who haven’t read it, my basic thesis is that evolutionary psychology exists to support, quoting Susan McKinnon, “Victorian sexual norms and neo-liberal economic values.” Proponents do so by assuming that some feature of accepted Western behavior is universal, making up a just-so story from an imaginary Pleistocene human society, and selling it as scientific.
Apart from a few skeptics here and there writing books (e.g. Susan McKinnon, Cordelia Fine) and blog posts (e.g. P.Z. Myers), the opposition to evolutionary psychology is scarce; the discipline’s “results” are generally accepted and bandied about by the mass media because stories telling us that our prejudices against women, against the poor, against people of color are justified sell papers. And of course there will always be institutions on hand that depend upon, and therefore support, these prejudices.
Evolutionary psychology claims the language of evolution (genes, genotype/phenotype, natural selection, reproductive fitness, psychological adaptations) but uses there terms in ways which bear little relation with actual evolutionary science: genes become active agents which pursue their own self-interest, “genotype” becomes behavior which follows evopsych principles and all divergent behavior due to culture is called “phenotype,” and natural selection becomes this bizarrely selective force which only applies to the time period and social environment imagined by the “researcher.”
Contrary to point 2, the basic premises of evolutionary psychology are scientifically unsound (this entry contains my rebuttal of these premises, starting at the sentence “Evolutionary psychology is based on three premises”). They also cannot back up their imaginary “environment of evolutionary adaptedness” using archaeological data (point 3). Because of this, their “results” are untestable (point 4) because we can’t, like real evolutionary scientists do, go back to the fossil record or DNA to confirm or reject them. Since evolutionary psychology is still relatively new, it still remains to be seen whether it will ever change or not, and how.
* Economics: It is widely recognized that economics has no predictive power and that its working models are woefully inadequate. The premises of the various economics denominations (they are called “schools” but they are really denominations of a central dogma) have major logical flaws (see for instance this refutation of neoclassical premises and this refutation of Austrian premises).
Economists and their supporters are bound to reply that a modern economy is just too complex for any kind of accurate prediction. That’s a clever pseudo-scientific way of saying it’s just so darn complicated that you need to trust the “experts” (who have jargon but little expertise). One refuge from reality is to hide in pointless complexity, as anyone who’s read philosophy texts can attest.
Economics is an ideological weapon, and a very powerful one, used against the third world and poor people in first world countries. It’s hard to tell how many people have died due to neoliberalism, but it is known to be at least in the millions. Everywhere it goes, massive poverty and suffering follows.
Also, the role of economics as a pseudo-science propping up the credibility of the State as an economic agent (taxation and government spending as tools of economic control), capitalist hierarchies in general (the corporation, the work contract, treating labor as a resource), and vulgar individualism (hello homo economicus!), should not be underestimated.
* Sociology: Fundamental to all sociological research are two concepts, structure and agency. I’ve already discussed how the term “agency” carries with it irrational and reactionary assumptions. Therefore any research which takes “agency” seriously is politically motivated pseudo-science.
* Intelligent Design: Perhaps the most insightful strategy used by the Creationists was to reframe “Creationism,” a term with strong links to theology, as “Intelligent Design,” a term which draws analogy with material forms of design. But Intelligent Design is no more scientific than the fairy tale of Creationism, although it is couched in scientific terms.
Like the theology it is derived from, Intelligent Design assumes that God created the universe (although they are very careful in not saying “God”) and seeks to construct a system of thought to rationalize this assumption. By definition it cannot change in response to new evidence because the conclusion is preordained. These two facts imply that Intelligent Design has nothing in common with actual scientific inquiry.
ID proponents attempt to portray their pseudo-science as being on par with evolution, on the sole basis that they are about the same subject. That’s like considering magical curses and the germ theory of disease two equally viable alternatives because they both supposedly explain why people get sick.
* Neurosexism: The perennial quest to prove that gender is innate and natural, and therefore desirable or inevitable, has a long and fraudulent history. Psychological tests and brain scans are only one new chapter of that history, and it’s equally fraudulent.
The biggest flaw in neurosexist research is that it is ultimately circular reasoning: the researchers start from a fixed, Western conception of gender which they assume is innate, and go from there to “prove” that reality conforms to this conception. But there is no conception of gender without culture, and gender changes wildly depending on changes in the larger culture.
Take for example a study which had me fooled for a while, the incredibly stupid study on vervet monkeys. They had these young monkeys playing with human toys (a ball, a police car, a human doll, a cooking pot, a toy dog and a picture book), found that the females played more with the “girl” toys (but found no differences for males), and concluded that gender differences are innate.
There are a great number of things wrong with this study (see for example). But my point is that the conception of gender used in the study does not correspond to anything that even might be innate. The concept of a police car would be incomprehensible to anyone not living in the 20th or 21st century, and the concept of police would not make sense in any society where such a role does not exist. A ball could stand in for pretty much anything round, and therefore does not clearly refer to gender. In many societies (including Western ones today), caring for infants and cooking are not only the mother’s job but also the father’s, so neither the human baby nor the cooking pot refer to only one gender.
Equally importantly, monkeys don’t have cars, human babies, pet dogs or picture books, and therefore their behavior towards these toys cannot possibly tell us anything about vervet monkey roles; and if that’s the case, then how can it tell us anything about gender roles?
Or take as another example the studies which try to explain why women are worse at mathematics by showing that “female brains” are better at integrating data and communicating, and not as good at detailed work like manipulating equations. This astounding feat is accomplished by taking brain scans of a few individuals performing various abstract tasks, calculating the difference between the brain activity blobs for men and the blobs for women, and showing the resulting blobs on the outline of a brain, impressing everyone with this great blob science.
But the fact is, once you remove stereotype threat (e.g. by telling women prior to the test that the stereotype does not apply to them), women actually score higher than men. So the gender assumption they make is actually false. But it doesn’t matter because the (false) assumption that women are bad at mathematics is proven by the result of the study based on an evaluation which assumes that women are bad at mathematics! Make-believe “facts” are easy to prove when you evaluate all the data by using those “facts” as your standard.
* IQ racism: IQ racism is similar to neurosexism in that it seeks to confirm Western prejudice by interpreting data on the basis of that prejudice. In fact, if you look at the historical progression of IQ-racism and intelligence-racism in general, you see that it changes depending on the racism of the day: white people used to be at the top, but now Ashkenazi Jews (the darlings of the IQ-racist world) and Asians have pole-vaulted over Whites.
The principle that IQ tells us something about intelligence (whatever the hell that is), let alone innate intelligence, is the foundation of IQ racism. But this principle is false. It is now well known that IQ scores can change based on all sorts of environmental factors, including family environment, work environment, and schooling (see for example).
The data showing that people of different races have different IQ averages is therefore not surprising from a constructionist perspective (especially considering the powerful and pervasive influence of stereotype threat in lowering intellectual performance). Even if we assume that race is a coherent concept, IQ does not, and cannot, demonstrate the superiority of any race.
The ultimate goal of IQ racism is to support conservative beliefs by “proving” that helping minorities is useless and that inequality is validated by innate racial attributes. It is therefore inherently anti-egalitarian.
* Law of Attraction and positive thought movement: The New Age in general does get into pseudo-science territory quite a bit, although some of the worst offenders are the Law of Attraction nonsense and the positive thought movement in general. We are constantly told that thinking positive will bring better mental and physical health, stave off depression, bring about success at work, and even literally lengthen your life! The same grandiose claims are made for optimism as a whole.
Both quack claims are based on the famous pseudo-scientific principle that “like attracts like” (a sort of voodoo-like concept which sociologists call imitative magic), a principle which also underlines homeopathy. By performing some ritual which is similar to the greater goal being sought, they hope to actually bring that greater goal into effect.
In the case of the Law of Attraction, the ritual is to act as if one’s desire has already come true, and it will magically come true. In the case of homeopathy, the ritual is to take a substance that causes a symptom and dilute it in a ritualistic way until none is left, which is supposed to magically produce a cure.
Like all intolerant dogmas, positive thinking will fail, because we are largely not in control of our own thoughts (anyone who’s done any amount of meditation can easily prove this to themselves). The fascistic self-control needed to censor our thoughts at all times must inevitably lead into a complete collapse into oneself. And as many cults demonstrate, it is much easier to control people when they are only concerned with themselves. Politicians, businessmen, policemen want you to be as little concerned with the plight of others as possible.
The Law of Attraction and positive thinking are make-believe. Yes, obviously a higher level of self-esteem would often be beneficial to someone involved in a competitive environment (although positive thinking is psychologically damaging if one actively censors oneself and breaks up friendships with “negative people”). I’m not disputing that. But the belief that what you think has any sort of direct influence on “the universe” (“the universe returns back what you send to it,” “the universe wants you to succeed”) is raving lunacy. And yet that is the very basic principle of this supposedly scientific field.
Even the more run-of-the-mill positive thinking ideology is basically circular: the entire field is based on the assumption that positive thinking is good for you.
* Ancient astronaut beliefs: It is perhaps a tenuous label to call things like ancient astronaut beliefs pseudo-science, since they barely pretend to be scientific in the first place, but archeology and anthropology are occasionally invoked in their defense. Most of the case, however, seems to be made on the grounds of spurious art appreciation (this drawing from ancient Aztecs clearly depicts a spaceship!) and absolute bullshit claims (the Nazca lines are clearly a landing field for spaceships!). All this supposed evidence is presented with a heaping of appeal to mystery (isn’t this mysterious? just think about it!) and negative proof (you can’t prove it’s NOT aliens!).
I include them on this list because, as many people have pointed out before, ancient astronaut beliefs often reflect a profound racism. We can’t possibly imagine “primitive” people building the Pyramids or Stonehenge, so aliens must have done it. “Primitive” people couldn’t possibly have invented myths and stories, so it must have happened for real and aliens did it (although again, driving home the racist aspect, you never hear such claims about, say, the Odyssey, or other Greek or Roman legends).
* Scientology engram theory: As a Scientology watcher I couldn’t help bringing this up. Scientology claims that during moments of unconsciousness (how many of these do we have exactly?), any words uttered around us will imprint on our minds and make us do things. Like all of Hubbard’s bullshit, this was claimed to be a scientific finding, but an actual scientific study found no evidence of the existence of engrams. Of course this never stops the True Believer ™.
* Risk assessment: We sometimes hear “experts” on television opining about the risks to the population presented by various chemicals. Risk assessment is the “scientific” field created to describe the process that leads to such evaluations. Unfortunately it’s all quackery.
In 1995, three well-known and respected risk assessors- Anna Fan, Robert Hows, and Brian Davis- published a detailed summary of the status of risk assessment, in which they pointed out that there is no scientific agreement on which tests to use to determine whether someone has suffered immune system, nervous system, or genetic damage. In other words, the best available science lacks the tools with which to provide definite, quantitative answers to the questions that are at the heart of risk assessment… Science has no way to analyze the effects of multiple exposures, and almost all modern humans are routinely subjected to multiple exposures: pesticides, automobile exhaust, dioxins in meat, fish and dairy products; prescription drugs; tobacco smoke; food additives; ultraviolet sunlight passing through the earth’s damaged ozone shield; and so on… Risk assessment, it is now clear, promises what it cannot deliver, and so is misleading at best and fraudulent at worst.
Trust Us, We’re Experts: How Industry Manipulates Science and Gambles with Your Future, by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber
In practice, risk assessment is often used to support corporate PR campaigns, such as the recent effort to legitimize GMO foods in North America (having failed miserably in Europe already). Such evaluations are fabricated by financing fake studies, lying about existing studies, smearing opponents as extremists, and using “divide and conquer” tactics. Sadly, a lot of supposed skeptics have been suckered into supporting GMOs by this pseudo-science (listen for example to this absolutely nonsensical episode of Ask An Atheist).
Fundamentally, risk assessment “experts” try to shed doubt on the precautionary principle, which states that any new technology (like GMOs) must be tested to be safe on humans before it is released and imposed on the public at large. This principle was formulated to protect us from those corporations who profit from harming others or putting them at risk, and it is a sound policy. We all have a duty not to harm each other. But the risk assessment ideology, and its supporters, holds that caution gets in the way of profits and unfettered “progress.” It is an inherently right-wing propaganda front.
* Psychoanalysis: We know now that psychoanalysis began after Freud’s research in child abuse was not accepted by his fellow psychiatrists, and he invented mechanisms like the “Oedipus Complex” and the “Electra Complex” to make his findings more palatable. The practice of psychoanalysis, on the whole, has served to occult the reality of child abuse, promote the validity of pedagogy to its now adult victims, and slow down or prevent the full maturation of those adult victims.
* Polygraph test: The polygraph is a quack device which measures skin resistance (like a Scientology e-meter), as well as other independent measures like heart rate, blood pressure and breathing.
As I pointed out in the case of rape charges, polygraph tests are used to intimidate victims or suspects, depending on who is considered undesirable (such as rape victims). Like neurosexism, advocates of polygraph rely on small numbers and unreliable studies to draw unwarranted conclusions:
[V]ariability of accuracy across studies is high. This variation is likely due to a combination of several factors: “sampling variation,” that is, random fluctuation due to small sample sizes; differences in polygraph performance across testing conditions and populations of subjects; and the varying methodological strengths and weaknesses of these diverse studies. The degree of variation in results is striking…
Polygraph examinations may have utility to the extent that they can elicit admissions and confessions, deter undesired activity, and instill public confidence. However, such utility is separate from polygraph validity.
The Polygraph and Lie Detection, Committee to Review the Scientific Evidence on the Polygraph, National Academy of Sciences (US)
This quote, I think, makes clear the real value and utility of the polygraph to the judicial system: to “elicit admissions and confessions, deter undesired activity, and instill public confidence.” These effects are predicated upon a childish belief in the polygraph as a magical lie detector, a belief which is not contradicted in popular media; but this belief is pseudo-science at best.
The polygraph test is better than random at detecting lies, simply because lying does have certain physiological effects which can be measured, but it is an extremely flimsy basis of judgment, and it can be countered relatively easily if one takes the care to learn how (even Wikipedia offers recommendations for the would-be interrogee).
I don’t want to convey the impression that I mindlessly support science. Scientists operate under the pretense that they are “value-free,” which in practice means that they are especially vulnerable to systemic bias. The government, and now multinational corporations, have used this vulnerability to manufacture studies backing their agenda. They have also leveraged the power of university administrators to dictate the distribution of power in academia. This has a profound influence on how science is conducted. And even real scientists may use subterfuge (e.g. Climategate).
Organized science is a prostitute who sells itself to the highest bidder, and sings the praises of its johns to all who will listen. That is what prostitutes do in order to remain in “business.”
Pseudo-science is only effective so far as the population at large confuses it with actual, credible science. Reactionary pseudo-science therefore has a major advantage: not only does it imitate science, but people will be more likely to accept it as valid because we believe that our prejudices are factual and that therefore science should confirm them.
For example, we believe that women are factually mentally different from men and we expect research to prove it. Therefore when a study comes along which claims to prove it, it’s a lot more inherently credible than a study which claims to disprove it.
This creates a self-fulfilling prophecy mechanism. This is true of all pseudo-science, but it’s a lot more pronounced in this case. Someone taking a homeopathic remedy will experience a placebo effect by believing it’s a valid cure, sure. But the person who feels their prejudices are validated has their entire society behind them.
For example, there’s programs implemented in schools now which purport to teach subjects like mathematics differently for boys and girls. A teacher working in such a school has not only his own prejudice telling him that boys are better at mathematics, which will unconsciously push him to help boys more than girls and thus hinder girls’ abilities, but he has the whole school behind him as well, and the beliefs of society at large. This is a level of confidence that is closer to the level of religious faith (whatever that is) than the level of belief in acupuncture or homepathy.