Sunday, January 22, 2012

An Excerpt on Science vs Pseudoscience

"I don't want you to get the wrong impression. Science is a very human activity. Its practioners share all the flaws and shortcomings we all possess. It is a dynamic, highly competitive activity. Emotions often come into play. But there is also a strongly cooperative aspect of science. Most scientists have a sense of allegiance to the long-term honesty and integrity of the process. Science is, among other things, an organized means for testing the validity of ideas and claims. When a hypothesis fails to stand up to repeated tests, it is discarded. Pseudoscience operates by slightly different rules.

Science is a process of searching to understand nature and is always undergoing revision. There is a strong no-holds-barred, let-the-facts-fall-where-they-may attitude. Pseudoscience clings emotionally to comforting ideas long after they've been shown to be most likely wrong.

Scientists try to be careful to limit their claims to matters that they can support reasonably well, with good evidence. Pseudoscientists make wild and exaggerated claims that go far beyond the evidence.

Scientists actively seek out comments and criticism from well-informed colleagues before publishing a claim. Pseudoscientists usually do all they can to avoid informed criticism before publication.

Scientists usually publish their research in scientific journals that take steps - peer reviews - to ensure that the work meets minimal standards of competence and accuracy before accepting it. Pseudoscientists usually go straight to the public, their claims first appearing in commercial books whose publishers make no independent efforts to verify accuracy, or in ther publications that care only about a good story.

Scientists usually frame a hypothesis in such a way that if it is wrong it can be proved wrong. Pseudoscientists attempt to frame their claims in such a way that they cannot be proved wrong. They constantly shift the grounds for substantiation or purposely make vague or ambiguous statements that cannot be tested.

Scientists realize that the burden of proof is on the investigator making the claim. A hypothesis is not accepted as valid until it has stood up to many tests. Pseudoscientists place a burden of disproof on the critics. They generally hold that their claim is true unless others "disprove" it. Scientists accept that the stronger the claim made (that is, the more it contradicts previously demonstrated evidence), the greater the evidence must be for it before it can be accepted. Pseudoscientists thrive on the probability that the more sensational the claim, the more publicity it will get , and thus the more supporters it will gain among sympathetic segments of the public.

Scientists realize all information is imperfect. They try to avoid absolutes. They attempt to present an honest assessment of the amount of error attached to all  measurements and of the degree of reliability associated with all claims. Pseudoscientists often present their claims as infallibly true. They make no effort to distinguish between the varying quality of evidence they use to support their claims.

Scientists build on other scientific work. They familiarize themselves with previous relevant research before attempting to extend or modify it. Pseudoscientists often ignore previous studies altogether, especially research results that conflict with their pet hypotheses.

When shown to be wrong, most scientists usually acknowledge that fact - not always immediately and not always gracefully, for they are human - and they usually either modify the work according to the criticisms or go on to other things. Pseudoscientists tend to be committed believers .They feel any criticism is only a sign of the closed minds and ignorance of scientists. They are quick to don the role of martyr. They appeal to public sympathies.

Science, all in all, is an error-correcting activity. Pseudoscience is an error-promulgating activity.

No wonder, then, that the borderlands of science, where pseudoscientists and their gazetteers so frequently trod, are littered with the wreckage of misbegotten ideas, misleading information, and misdirected hopes. What good scientific ideas do emerge in the borderlands - and some occasionally do - are quickly obscured and made unrecognizable by the accumulating layers of unevaluated, untested nonsense.

Not that any of this deters pseudoscientists and their ideas from reaching public prominence. To the contrary. They appeal straight to the public and they speak with confidence and certainty - no wishy-washy qualifications and none of that technical language that scientists are always putting in their writings to confuse us. They direct their appeal toward the personal interests and deepest psychological needs of the audience. The public eats it up, publishers find it profitable, television talk-show and entertainment programs know that audiences love it. Soon there is so much misleading information flying about that the consumer has no way of distinguishing tested ideas from half-truths and falsehoods, or responsible scientific speculation from outright fantasy. Many don't care. Those prone to accept exotic claims uncritically really aren't concerned about the truth. Others just see it all as harmless entertainment.

I do think, however, that there is a large segment of the public that honestly does prefer accurate to inaccurate information and facts to nonfacts. Most people do want to base their opinions on some semblance of a realistic view of the world."

Frazier, Kendrick. Paranormal Borderlands of Science. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1981. IX, X, XI. Print.

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