Departments

Pseudoscience

Because historians do not understand science, scientists write their own history. So when the perimeters of science change – when what appeared to be a science turns out to have been a pseudoscience – the dead or, worse, retired scientists who pursued it are sorted ex post facto. The ones who anticipated the change remain scientists; the ones who fell for it turn out to have been pseudoscientists. Of course, they were pseudoscientists all along – everyone knew it – but that media, that irresponsible media, they were the ones who made it seem otherwise – we scientists always knew better; it’s your fault for being gullible, you cargo cultists.

You can watch this happening to string theory. In one direction or the other expect to see it in climatology. Let us rehearse the explanations in advance. Someday you may recognize one or the other as a news item or a footnote in history.

Case A:

Despite the overwhelming evidence for the anthropogenic origin of global warming, a movement of so-called skeptics, organized through the resources of corporations and political parties whose interests were threatened by the urgent measures the situation required, were able able to delay action until the forces behind climate change had become irreversible. Certain scientists, some through misplaced but sincere conviction, but most because it was convenient and attention-getting, continued to cast doubt on the evidence even after the scientific consensus was incontrovertible. Nonetheless, none of the best scientists failed to see reason, and it is simply false to assert, as some have, that scientists themselves were at fault.

Case B:

In the tense political atmosphere of the early 21st century it was only natural that movements were eager to enlist scientific evidence to support their policies. Given the apocalyptic mood of the time – a quick look at the box-office returns for the first decade of the century will show that the impending end of the world was a cultural commonplace – it is unsurprising that what developed was a superficially scientific vision of the apocalypse. The media too were part of this zeitgeist, and they freely exaggerated a concern many scientists had with the unknown effects of carbon dioxide, and certain alarming high-level trends, into a movement complete with speeches, rallies, and platforms. Nonetheless, none of the best scientists failed to see reason, and it is simply false to assert, as some have, that scientists themselves were at fault.

I am not proposing a debate. I am not trying to convince you of anything except the irrelevance of your convictions. Climate change is just a convenient subject.

(For the record my view is: better safe than sorry. The absence of anthropogenic global warming would be harder to explain than its presence; I therefore am in favor of anything short of irreversible geo-engineering.

Though I do admit to disgust for those who condemn “economists’ reliance on models” with one fork of their tongues, while the other extols “the proven science of climate change” – as if modeling the economy were any harder than modeling the climate.)

I am sarcastic because I am disgusted. But I am not attacking science. I trust that what has been declared a pseudoscience is so. In this retrospect science is as good as infallible. But I dispute the hypocrisy which would pretend that pseudoscience has never entered the mainstream of science, or that if it ever had, it would have been due to outside meddling.

“No true scientist would have participated in X; therefore any so-called scientist who participated in X was not a true scientist.” The whole history of the relation of science and pseudoscience is constructed with this tautology.

True, science is not just a vocation, but also an affiliation, a group, and therefore, like any other group with a purpose, compromised by loyalties and solidarities. But the more acute problem is that science and pseudoscience are not dichotomous. Degrees exist between them.

The world protoscience has been advanced for the pre-scientific pursuits that lead into sciences – as astrology lead into astronomy, as alchemy lead into chemistry, as doctoring lead into medicine. There may be many more intermediate degrees of this kind, but I propose only one. Some scientific pursuits are neither sciences nor pseudosciences, but placeholder sciences. The textbook scientific method expects, within a science, that observation, hypothesis, and theory will follow in order. But in much scientific work the science itself is a hypothesis. The first question is not, “What law governs this phenomenon?” but “Is this a phenomenon at all?”

Most -ologies are not really fields at all, but gambits. In science a field does not arrive and then demand methods, subjects, a center and journals; rather the methods, subjects, the center and the journals are how hopeful scientists attempt to bootstrap a new science into being. In the end the attempt either succeeds as a science, or fails as a pseudoscience; but in the meantime it is neither – it invites a science and clears a space for it, saves it a seat. It is a placeholder.

For scientists of a later generation to judge a placeholder science according to its final result is unfair. The scientists who failed were not cranks; the scientists who succeeded were not visionaries. To suppose they could have known better in advance is to posit a faculty which, if it did exist, would make actual science superfluous. A scientist can no more anticipate a pseudoscience than a computer can anticipate a halting problem.

All sciences begin as gambits. The sooner we recognize this, the sooner we can avoid misplacing the faith due a mature science in its placeholder; but more importantly, the sooner this is recognized, the sooner we can begin, not just accommodating such gambits, but encouraging them.