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Thread: Science/pseudoscience

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    Stephen T-B
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    Science/pseudoscience

    Thoughts on distinguishing between the two.

    Science is tentative.
    Pseudoscience is assertive.

    If a statement which purports to be a statement of fact cannot by refuted - if it is assertive -then it is not scientific. It is the expression of an opinion or a belief, and one person's right to uphold it is no greater than another person's right to reject it.

    This applies to every statement - no matter who made it or where it is found - regarding the truth to be found in sacred texts, and the nature, attributes and behaviour of gods and all other supernatural beings.

    "God is good and all powerful".
    Refuted by: "He is either not good or he is not all powerful; if he were, there'd be no evil in the world."
    Countered by: "His goodness is beyond our comprehension".

    And that is an irrefutable statement. Unfalsifiable, and therefore an opinion/belief.
    It is not a fact.

    Similarly “God created the Earth in six days, 6,000 years ago”.
    Refuted by: “Ice cores, varves, the fossil record, the geological column and radiometric dating methods show that to be false.”
    Countered by “Nothing is beyond the power of God to accomplish, and the Bible being true, every science-based evidence which suggests it isn’t must therefore be flawed.”

    Creation “science” is based on this assertion; this statement of belief.

    (I should add that although scientific dating methods appear to be cast iron, they represent the limits of our present knowledge; in the light of what we know today, they appear to be cast iron, but they are, in fact, tentative and might, at some later date, be shown to be unreliable.)

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    While science is inherently tentative, it isn't clear that all pseudoscience (rather than merely some) lacks that particular quality. Pseudoscience has could potentially be tentative but lacking in other scientific properties. I also wonder whether your particular examples are "pseudo-science" rather than just non-science more generally or even anti-science. Pseudo-science (fake science) is non-science that dishonestly presents itself as though it is science.


    One common trait of pseudoscience is discounting the value of "consensus" in science. It goes hand-in-hand with another common feature of "cherry-picking", where the person cites a single "expert" or even published study that argues for their position, ignoring that it in not-representative of (or even contradicted by) the vast majority of experts or published studies. When their cherry picking is criticized, then then claim it is irrelevant that it goes against the majority of consensus, b/c consensus has no validity, usually by dishonestly treating consensus as just an appeal to authority or claiming conspiratorial theories that assume most scientists have shared motive to lie.

    You see this more and more in discourse, especially on social media, whether among the COVID deniers, climate change deniers, and those "intelligent design" folks that present it as though it is legit science (rather then overtly Bible based creationism like in your examples.

    First, relevant science experts are not just "authorities" to whom an appeal would be fallacious or irrelevant, but rather they have demonstrated skills and knowledge of the relevant evidence and scientific methods in the area which are generally required to obtain the degree and academic positions in those fields.
    The principle of valuing consensus among relevant scientific experts is entirely rational and an essential feature of valid science. It isn't plausible for most people (even scientists outside a specific area of expertise) to evaluate all the possible evidence directly. So, relying upon expertise is essential to all real world rational and scientific thinking. But an individual person can have a PhD can make an error, can be a liar, or be biased by having already personally staked part of their career on an idea. But each individual scientist has a unique set of personal biases, and they have no shared authority that controls them, and they have no motive to always agree with the majority and not to challenge existing conclusions. In fact, the exact opposite is true, since the more one is able to demonstrate empirical weaknesses of prevailing ideas, the more likely one is to get published, tenure, promotions, and public recognition. It is actually hard to get work published if it just shows the same thing that is already widely accepted. All this, makes it near impossible that a broad consensus can be reached in science by bias or authority, and instead will almost always reflect the position that at that time is most logically coherent with the total body of evidence. This is especially true when science is conducted within free secular societies. That means that whenever a small number of experts disagree with the consensus, the odds are much higher than any error, bias, or dishonesty is within the small minority.

    Of course this only holds among scientists, and not in areas that fail to reward rational evidence based independent thinking, such as society generally and religion in particular (or even in business where lies and untruths can often be profitable).

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    Falsification is the way to tell between science and pseudoscience.


    There isn't much more to add.

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    Administrator lpetrich's Avatar
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    Science vs. pseudoscience is the "demarcation problem", and philosophers of science have scratched their heads about it quite a lot.

    I prefer thinking about quality of science: high quality vs. low quality. That is a continuous scale rather than a binary one, so I think that it gives us more to discuss.

    Even within what's commonly considered Real Science, there is a quality scale, from "hard" science to "soft" science. So if one extends that scale in the soft direction, one will encounter pseudoscience.

    PLOS ONE: "Positive" Results Increase Down the Hierarchy of the Sciences - the hard-soft hierarchy.

    From hard to soft:
    • Physical science
    • Biological science
    • Social science

    Physical science may be subdivided further into
    • Physics / chemistry (no clear boundary)
    • Earth science / astronomy (no clear boundary: planetary science straddles it)

    but I'll leave that aside.

    There is support for a hard - soft axis of variation from studies of lots of features, like number of colleagues acknowledged per paper, immediacy of references, and even the fraction of paper area dedicated to graphs. In one study, 222 scholars were asked to rate several academic disciplines by similarity. An analysis revealed three axes of variation:
    • Hard - soft
    • Pure - applied
    • Life - non-life

    Here it is: Biglan_-_1973_-_THE_CHARACTERISTICS_OF_SUBJECT_MATTER_IN_DIFFEREN T_ACADEMIC_AREAS.pdf

    There are some different opinions:
    • The social sciences cannot be objective
    • The natural sciences and the social sciences work much alike
    • They are all socially-constructed intellectual fashions

    An intermediate position would be to distinguish between a "core" and a "frontier" of a field. The frontiers of different fields may be much alike, while the cores may be very different. If the contents of advanced university textbooks are any guide, the cores are indeed different, with the physical sciences being much more structured and developed than the social sciences.
    Younger, less developed fields of research should tend to produce and test hypotheses about observable relationships between variables ("phenomenological" theories). The more a field develops and "matures", the more it tends to develop and test hypotheses about non-observable phenomena underlying the observed relationships ("mechanistic" theories). These latter kinds of hypotheses reach deeper levels of reality, are logically stronger, less likely to be true, and are more conclusively testable.
    Another issue is the question of how rigorous the analysis procedure is. Experimenter effects happen all over science, but they've been documented extensively in the behavioral sciences. The author suggests that researchers' will to believe could be an important part of the difference.

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    Deus Meumque Jus
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    'Science' is a repeatable method for producing knowledge. Knowledge produced by this method is science. Knowledge that isn't produced by this method, or any empirical method, but claimed to be science, is pseudoscience.

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    Administrator lpetrich's Avatar
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    So falsification is easier on the hard end than on the soft end, at least in the core parts.

    In the harder sciences, one can sometimes give a positive spin on negative results by citing an upper limit or lower limit.

    Consider Particle Data Group - 2020 Review - I looked for "Conservation Laws", then "CPT Invariance", a combination of matter-antimatter (C), space-reflection (P), and time-reflection (T) symmetries.

    The electron and its antiparticle have masses that have a relative difference of less than 8*10^(-9), their electric charges' magnitudes by < 4*10^(-8), and their magnetic moments' magnitudes by < 2*10^(-12). For the proton, these relative differences are < 7*10^(-10), < 7*10^(-10), and < 4*10^(-6). For the magnitude of the charge/mass ratio, it is < 7*10^(-11). For the neutron compared to its antiparticle, the relative mass difference is (9 +- 6) * 10^(-5). Etc.

    Elsewhere in that site, the mass of the photon is less than 1*10^(-18) eV, less than 10^(-27) the mass of the proton, and less than 10^(-16) the likely neutrino masses.

    The muon, a sort of heavy electron, decays into an ordinary one by emitting two neutrinos and maybe also a photon or two.

    But decay into an electron and a photon takes place at < 4.2*10^(-13) of the total decay rate, for two photons, < 7.2*10^(-11), and for two electrons and a positron, < 1.0*10^(-12). A hand-waving estimate from the Standard Model is ((neutrino mass) / (muon mass))^2 or 10^(-19).

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    Mazzie Daius fromderinside's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by rousseau View Post
    'Science' is a repeatable method for producing knowledge. Knowledge produced by this method is science. Knowledge that isn't produced by this method, or any empirical method, but claimed to be science, is pseudoscience.
    I sense hands waving. Is the method material (a set of physical empirical operations)? Is the data produced materially replicable (Is it public and can the operations be materially and publicly replicated) ?

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