Pseudoscience is a Good Thing™!

Pattern of scientific method (deductive reasoning)

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I know; If you’re a n00b skeptic like me, the letters, “WTF” followed by “???” may have just popped into your head from the title, but a little thought will show that it’s true: There is a very real upside to both mainstream anti-science and a lot of fringe-claims posing as science — they’re not completely negative in their implications.

Certainly, uncritical acceptance of pseudoscientific claims can crowd out good science with bad, both indicate and promote social irrationality, and in extreme instances can even kill, but but let’s look at a few reasons why it is, as the title of this post says, also a Good Thing™.

A note: We skeptics are NOT crusaders, we are NOT saviors, and we are NOT icons of rationality. We will never ‘stop the madness in a world gone insane’…We are not fracking superheroes.

…Get real…

…We are damage control, educators, and often rather outspoken advocates of, or just peeps who value, scientific literacy and skilled reasoning, and yes, reasoning is a skill — we must learn to do it well to think effectively and arrive at reliable knowledge.

We are humans, like everyone else, no better, no smarter, than our opposition and we would do well to remember that.

But without pseudoscience, there would be no such thing as scientific skepticism as it is known today*, no skeptical community, and science would not be nearly as rigorous as it is with anti-science and fringe-claims to contrast with and threaten it**.

Without pseudoscience, I would never be a skeptic, and in fact, would never have even heard of skepticism. Without claims of the paranormal, for example, there would be no reason to address them.

I love the paranormal, and claims that sound like science but ain’t, and I got into skepticism to assess these claims from a more rational and realistic perspective than I otherwise might as a believer.

Pseudoscience is interesting and cool.

Skepticism allows me the chance to examine these claims, and not only know if they are spurious, but exactly how and why as well. It allows me to sharpen my reasoning skills, to learn from those more skilled and knowledgeable than I, the skeptics, teachers, scientists, magicians, philosophers, and others, past and present, even across centuries.

Pseudoscience has from the beginning existed alongside science, and it serves the essential function of providing something to contrast with it, to force scientists and philosophers of science to look closer, to better examine the conceptual tools of their craft, and make them better.

It forces scientists to better communicate their findings with the public, spotty though this sometimes is, it forces them to more closely look at and improve their methods, and yes, a linear “classic scientific method” is a fiction that exists only as a popular misconception.

Challenges to science force scientists to better polish their argumentation, and their public speaking and debating skills when necessary, as the need to openly counter the fallacious arguments of anti-science leads to the making of better, stronger arguments by scientists, not always, but the impetus is there, and often gets effective results.

Irrational claims posing as science, and even occasional scientific fraud, show the limitations of its corrective mechanisms, leading to more examination of these limits, and improvements in the conduct of science when they are addressed and adjusted, better allowing scientific progress and evolving it by tweaking how it works.

Pseudoscience drives the need to improve scientific literacy, the thinking and methodology as well as the data, and thus provides a reason to promote better education in public schools, such as that often is.

And none of this would ever come to be without pseudoscience and paranormal claims around to make it all happen***.

That is all. Fnord.

*That is, more exactly, scientific skepticism as it is also practiced by those not themselves professional scientists. Of course any scientist worthy of the job is skeptical in approach. In light of commentary on this piece I seem to have not made this very clear. My bad.

**I seem to have overstated this a bit, as the conduct of science could be nearly as rigorous, but pseudoscience, fraudulent science, and ideological attacks on science may serve to force examination of it and improvement, other social influences lacking.

***Correction: It could come to be, but not to the extent that it has in terms of the public promotion of science and skeptical advocacy. While without pseudoscience, science itself may have done quite nicely, the fact remains that anti-science nonsense exists, and by its own existence has created the need to actively oppose it. A better way of putting this would be that without pseudoscience, we would need something else to use to show us what science is rather than by examining and deconstructing its mirror universe evil twin and reliably demonstrating what it also is not.

8 thoughts on “Pseudoscience is a Good Thing™!

  1. I’m not sure the benefits of pseudoscience you describe outweigh the unimaginable harm that is done by purveyors of homeopathic “immunizations” against malaria – from which people can and have died – or from people who fail to get cancer treatment because they bought into the cynical and exploitative sales-pitch of some quack faith healer.

    Otherwise, your comments remind me of Hitchens’ remark that he doesn’t want nutcase religiosity to be gotten rid of completely, because it’s a good reminder of how much more sane the alternative is.


  2. Erratum: I should say that homeopathic immunizations don’t actually kill people, but in preventing them from getting real immunizations that work, they increase their risk of death in countries where malaria exists. Similar mistake in the “from” of “from people”. Despite these minor errors, I hope my message is clear.


    • True enough, I’d say. Pseudoscience can kill, and does, and I don’t mean to imply that the benefits exceed the cost of the consequences, not always, but that despite the often lethal hazards, there are contrasts between it and science that let us look more closely at both, and work to improve the latter. After all, superstition and magical thinking have been around very much longer than science, and like it or not, will probably be around at least a while longer, so if we can’t stamp it out completely, which by all means we should strive to, it’s best to examine it and make some small use of it, without advocating or promoting it, of course.


  3. I understand the point you’re making, but I’m not sure it’s historically precedented that pseudoscience helped test existing scientific understanding to the level where it had to be adapted. For instance, quantum theory – for which the evidence is very impressive indeed! – is based on a complete reworking of what was known before. This required a huge leap (several in fact) of the imagination. This all came from scientists, not from cranks.

    I think the problem is this: pseudoscience is generated by cranks. And cranks have no interest in evidence, so they’re not interested in testing the real science against real data. They’re interested in denying science. (Sadly, to many examples to mention.)

    Accordingly, what they do is waste time, because they spread misconceptions. Take Behe and ID: “irreducible complexity” is not an imaginative test of scientific ideas; it’s completely wrong and demonstrably so. The only outcome is widespread confusion, misconception and the tragic waste of time for people who do good work who now have to fight Behe as well as everything else.

    I understand the sentiment behind your view that pseudoscience encourages skepticism, but I politely disagree:

    Scientists have to be skeptics even if the cranks aren’t around, and there are plenty of examples of this.

    Secondly, scientists aren’t being good scientists if they don’t question their conclusions with more and more challenging experiments. It’s part of what they do to test the limits of their thinking; not sit back and wait for pseudoscience to come and criticise them.

    Thirdly, pseudoscience, as I said, is based almost always on complete misconstruals of the actual science and is therefore not in a position to offer valid challenges.

    Finally, a lot of pseudoscience and the cranks who sell it love to attack science for being dogmatic, merely because they don’t like that their silly views aren’t given credit. Some – particularly the “crystal energy healing” types and their “intellectual” cousins (faith healing, reiki, homeopathy, etc.) try to seed doubt about science as a source of knowledge altogether, for example by re-enforcing the fallacy that “it works for me” is a valid way of evaluating the efficacy of their treatments, and that people who demand more evidence than anecdotes about subjective experiences are closed-minded cynics. They love relativism and subjectivism because it goes against science and appears to give their views validity.

    These are very real problems for science and the way it’s perceived, and ultimately what consequences are brought about. I would say that is far, far deeper than any benefit derived from confronting cranks and pseudoscience in general in the public sphere.


  4. On a related but slightly different note:

    One way in which pseudoscience could be a benefit would be if more effort was put into understanding what drives the people that generate and disseminate it. It’s easy to speculate, but doing proper research into this would mean we would stand to gain a proper scientific understanding about the fallibility of human reasoning AND the motivations behind it.

    Take someone like Lloyd Pye (google him). He is fringe, but everything he says is completely wrong. Literally everything that is his own interpretation is wrong. And he, apparently, fools quite a number of people. It’s not so hard to find his fans online.

    It’s easy to guess at what drives Pye and his believers, but that’s quite different to finding it out properly through good research. If that were done, pseudoscience would at least have contributed to our understanding of the human mind.


  5. Fair enough. It’s good that you’re making these points, since they provide more input to better get things in perspective.

    While scientists must be skeptical due to the very nature of the profession, most people aren’t, for a number of reasons, including the current state of science education.

    As much of an often tragic waste of time and sometimes life as pseudoscience is, as you suggest, it’s roots lie in the nature of human psychology. To paraphrase Michael Shermer, science requires training, magical thinking comes naturally.

    Like it or not, it’s here, and by its own problematic nature it did create a need for public outreach, and the work of science popularizers like Carl Sagan, Martin Gardner, and Neil Tyson, as well as the rise of the modern skeptical community outside of science proper.

    Things would probably be much smoother going without pseudoscience to muck things up, I grant you that, and we would be much better off without it, but its own nature, fallacious and wrong as it is, provides an easy target to line up against real science, and help give us a clearer picture of what it is as well as what it is not.

    Conceptually, though there are real differences between science and pseudoscience, there’s not a neat and easy point of separation between them, and they do shade into each other along a continuum, which gave philosophers of science like Karl Popper such a problem when he thought that falsifiability alone was the key to telling them apart.

    Needless to say, it didn’t work.

    From my perspective, to have more than a trivial understanding of how science should work, it’s necessary to also know how it can go wrong, often grossly wrong.

    This is only anecdotal, mind you, but I don’t think that I’m completely unique in that it was pseudoscience, namely ancient astronaut theories, creationism, and the like, that initially sparked my interest in science and led to my current interest in skepticism.


  6. Besides falsifiability, there are other differences between genuine science and pseudoscience, like that capacity has a large number of things that try to limit cognitive biases (peer review, openness of all data, references for all claims, calculation of error bars, probabilities, R2 values, etc, etc.) Pseudoscience avoids this because most of its claims aren’t even testable, nevermind to what extent. Or otherwise it is based on demonstrably false things (e.g. Pye doesn’t understand what chromosomes do, or if he does he lies about it; or take Phillip E. Johnson, the IDer, who doesn’t/didn’t understand or purposely misrepresented what role mutations play in natural selection). So the differences aren’t that hard to pinpoint between science and pseudoscience. There maybe a handful of “grey” areas but I can’t think of any off the top of my head right now.


  7. Oh, and you should take credit for reaching to science and skepticism when faced with pseudoscience. I’m not sure you should credit pseudoscience with that.

    Bart Ehrman learned ancient languages because he loved Jesus so much he wanted to read the gospels in their original versions. When he did that he found that they were v. different to the version he learned in English as an evangelical. That helped undermine his faith. But you can’t credit Christianity with that; it’s Ehrman’s determination and curiosity that did it.


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