The main reason why I choose to discuss this topic is that, as time goes on, it is likely to become ever more discursively relevant. The growing popularity of different pseudoscientific ideas/pursuits amongst both the ordinary citizens and socially prominent policy-makers substantiates the validity of this suggestion. While exploring the chosen subject matter, I intend to make references to both the course materials and the outside sources of relevance. The main idea that I will promote throughout the paper’s entirety is that, contrary to what many people assume to be the case, there is nothing particularly challenging about distinguishing science from pseudoscience.
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The analytical part of this paper will consist of three segments. In the first of them, I am going to outline what accounts for the most fundamental differences between science and pseudoscience and what causes the latter to represent much appeal to many people. In the second segment, I will explain the discursive implications of the “scientific method” epistemic paradigm, within the context of how a demarcating line is being drawn between the two. Throughout the final segment, I will expose what are commonly deemed to be the most typical indications of pseudoscience and expound on what is the secret of pseudoscience’s popularity with undereducated individuals.
There can be very little doubt about the fact that it is indeed very important to educate people about how they can tell science apart from pseudoscience. The reason for this is apparent: “Pseudosciences are far from harmless, and can have serious effects on society and human health” (Boudry, Paglieri, and Pigliucci 433). However, as the practice indicates, such an undertaking often proves to be extremely challenging. After all, the very existence of pseudoscience is predetermined by the fact that many pseudoscientific ideas do appear to be scientifically legitimate, in the casuistic sense of this word (Lewis 216). What adds even more complexity to the issue is that, as of today, there are no universally accepted definitions as to what the concerned terms stand for. Nevertheless, it is still possible to conceptualize the two as being representationally similar but methodologically inconsistent. In this regard, legitimate science is best referred to as the epistemic system that provides people with the systemically sound approach to understanding the discursive significance of the surrounding reality’s observable emanations.
Pseudoscience, however, is best seen as the as a collection of unrelated quasi-scientific claims, which aim to undermine the conventional scientific model of how the world turns around: something that is usually being done by mean of appealing to different irrational anxieties in undereducated individuals. As Boudry, Blancke, and Pigliucci aptly observed: “Pseudoscience, as the etymology of the word suggests, is a form of imitation or fakery. It exhibits the superficial trappings of science, but all it offers is epistemic fool’s gold” (1178). The very notion of science presupposes the spatially prolonged and strongly collective nature of how scientific knowledge is being accumulated. The epistemic approach of a pseudoscience, on the other hand, is concerned with exposing the least-known aspects of the studied phenomenon as such that imply the overall wrongness of the conventionally scientific understanding of what the former is all about.
Even though a legitimately scientific view of the world often seems incomplete, it is nevertheless systemically harmonious. In this respect, a certain parallel can be drawn between indulging in the fully legitimate scientific pursuit and the process of filling out a crossword puzzle. In order for every particular word to fall in place, it must properly intersect with at least a few of the previously identified ones. A pseudoscientific approach to addressing the same challenge presupposes that there is only one criterion for defining the appropriateness of assigning every specific word to a particular crossword slot: the number of words in it.
This, in turn, predetermines yet another important difference between science and pseudoscience. Contrary to what it is being the case with most pseudoscientific claims, the newly emerged scientific theories do not seek to completely refute the validity of the older ones, but rather to validate them on a qualitatively new level. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity did not result in bringing about the complete abolishment of Newtonian mechanics. Instead, it showed that these mechanics are only valid at speeds much slower than the speed of light. The rise of Darwinism did not result in rendering useless the classification of organisms by Carl Linnaeus, despite the fact that contrary to the provisions of the Evolutionary Theory, Linnaeus was a biological essentialist.
Pseudoscience, on the other hand, aims at nothing short of shaking the very foundations of legitimate science, as such that serve the function of preventing humanity from acquiring some “sacred” knowledge about the nature of things: all in full accordance with the conspiracy theory’s classical canons. Hence, yet another distinctive trait of pseudoscience: the strong aura of sensationalism around just about every pseudoscientific claim/idea.
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Nevertheless, even though the earlier outlined fundamental difference between science and pseudoscience implies that telling the one apart from another should not be much of a challenge, this is far from being the case. After all, as the practice indicates, it is not utterly uncommon for even the most intellectually advanced individuals to end up as the passionate supporters of the blatantly pseudoscientific theories. One of the reasons for this is that it is in the nature of just about any scientific research to be concerned with discovering new dimensions to the investigated phenomenon: something that calls for the periodic reassessment of conventional paradigms in science. By criticizing conventional science, pseudoscientists claim to be doing what empirical researchers are supposed to do, in the first place. Also, the exponential progress in the field of informational technologies makes it increasingly harder for people to “digest” the inflow of science-related information from different directions, hence, making it much more likely for them to end up confusing scientifically proven facts with pseudoscientific speculations.
There, however, exists a thoroughly effective instrument for demarcating science from pseudoscience in the situations when the difference between the two remains well-hidden to a naked eye: the “scientific method” (Santana 212). In this regard, we refer to the main principles of ensuring the dialectical credibility of rationale-based scientific knowledge. As Salmon pointed out: “One of the basic differences between knowledge (science) and belief (pseudoscience) is that knowledge must be founded upon evidence” (1). In order for a scientific idea/theory to be deemed fully legitimate, it must meet the following criteria of admissibility:
- Falsifiability. Here we refer to the “potential for a theory or hypothesis to be shown as false through contradictive statements or observation, and is an essential component of the scientific method” (Jupe and Denault 3). To be tested falsifiable, a particular epistemic system must be casuistically consistent with the ways of the surrounding physical/social reality. For example, if the existence of ghosts cannot be proven or disproven experimentally, this means that one’s belief in ghosts is unfalsifiable, by definition, and being such it cannot be considered scientifically legitimate. The concerned principle is not being used to define a particular theory as being false or true per se, but rather to gain an insight into whether its epistemic apparatus is compatible with the scientific (deductive or inductive) methods of conducting research.
- Reproducibility. To be considered scientifically legitimate, a theory must be capable of yielding comparable results while subjected to a series of empirical experiments. In this regard, reproducibility refers to the similarity of individual results obtained during the scientific experiment for the same sample by the same method, but under different circumstances (by different operators, on different equipment, in different laboratories, at different times, etc.).
- Predictability. This specific indication of the theory’s scientific validity is concerned with its presumed ability to provide falsifiable predictions about what are going to be the qualitative aspects of the studied phenomenon’s spatial development over a fixed period of time. This highlights yet another characteristic of a scientifically legitimate theory: it must represent a high practical value, even if it is yet to be realized in the distant future.
When it comes to demarcating science from pseudoscience, it will also prove to be a great asset being aware of what are the main secondary clues about the fact that a particular piece of seemingly scientific knowledge is, in fact, pseudoscientific. The most commonly occurring of them are as follows:
- Lack/absence of systemic integrity. Pseudoscientific narratives are strongly non-systemic, in the sense that they do not aim to go deep after the actual roots of the issue in question. The stories about alien abductions stand out as a good example. The most unacceptable about them is not the fraudulent sounding of the actual abduction accounts, but the fact that the concerned narratives do not aspire to discover the cause-effect rationale behind such an “extraterrestrial” practice.
- Uncriticalness. Pseudoscience does not scrutinize evidence, collected in support of its claims. This is the reason why it accounts for yet another pseudoscientific practice to refer to the oral myths, legends, and rumors, as the scientifically credible sources of information about the examined subject matter.
- Sensationalism. Because pseudoscience strives to directly appeal to the unconscious anxieties in people, it is very typical of the advocates of pseudoscientific theories to be claiming to possess the key to making this world a better place within a very short time. Pseudoscientists tend to proclaim that they have “miraculous” solutions to the socio-economic issues that humanity has not been able to address effectively.
- Commercialism. Pseudoscientific narratives very commonly offer the prospect of quick enrichment to the would-be affiliated parties.
- Intellectual inflexibility. The promoters of pseudoscientific ideas tend to regard the latter as such that constitute an undisputed truth-value, while often proving themselves incapable of adjusting/revising their views to be consistent with the newly emerged data of relevance.
- Conspirological overtones. Pseudoscientists often state that mainstream science intentionally misleads people, as to how the world turns around. To support such their claim, these individuals are known to evoke different conspiracy theories, such as the one reflective of the idea that the US Lunar mission was all faked.
- Hypertrophied intuitiveness. What contributes the most towards increasing the popular appeal of pseudoscience is that its claims correlate well with what people perceive as the dialectical order between causes and effects in this world. This, in turn, causes pseudoscientific ideas to be intuitively sound and cognitively plausible: something that explains why many of them continue to be regarded with much respect even today (Hansson 42). The lingering popularity of “creationism” is perfectly illustrative, in this respect: “Creationists and intelligent design proponents have openly admitted that the design inference is nothing but a formal elaboration of a common sense of intuition” (Boudry, Blancke and Pigliucci 1187). However, the casuistic soundness of a particular theory can no longer be deemed reflective of its veracity. The emergence and sub-sequential legitimization of Quantum Physics substantiates the full validity of this suggestion.
Finally, for an individual to be in the position to draw a line between science and pseudoscience, he or she must understand the actual mechanics of how the latter appeals to people. In his regard, one must mention the fact, unlike what it is the case with legitimate science, pseudoscience presupposes that it is indeed possible for just about anyone to acquire excellence in a particular scientific field, without having to apply much effort at all. Deep on an unconscious level, individuals find such an idea thoroughly plausible. This could not be otherwise: it is perfectly consistent with the hormone-driven workings of the limbic (primeval) part of the human brain that seeks instant gratification.
On the one hand, most ordinary people are perfectly aware of the fact that they lack academic knowledge for their science-related opinions to be deemed scientifically credible. On the other hand, however, these individuals also know that in terms of being “street smart”, they are no worse than most well-established scientists. Therefore, they feel naturally attracted to pseudoscientific ideas, especially if the promoters of the latter claim that the time has come to abandon conventional science as being much too methodologically rigid and corrupt. This, of course, creates the objective precondition for pseudoscience to continue having a strong effect on the discourse of post-modernity. The ongoing deterioration of academic standards in the West contributes to the process even further.
In light of what has been said earlier, it will be appropriate to summarize this paper as follows:
It is indeed possible to demark science from pseudoscience. The foremost difference between the two is that, unlike legitimate science, pseudoscience is disconnected from the body of scientific knowledge, accumulated by scientists over the course of centuries. The best way to assess the measure of a particular concept’s scientific veracity is to evaluate this concept in conjunction with the earlier outlined principles of the “scientific method”. In this regard, it will also come in as an indispensable asset being aware of what accounts for the most distinctive traits of pseudoscience. Overall, it must be stated that, even though pseudoscience does often succeed in posing as legitimate science, an educated person will be able to tell the two apart with ease. This will continue to be the case for as long science remains a rationale-driven (positivist) pursuit. I believe this conclusion resonates well with the argumentative line, deployed throughout the paper.
Boudry, Maarten, Fabio Paglieri, and Massimo Pigliucci. “The Fake, the Flimsy, and the Fallacious: Demarcating Arguments in Real Life.” Argumentation, vol. 29, no. 4, 2015, pp. 431-456.
Boudry, Maarten, Stefaan Blancke, and Massimo Pigliucci. “What Makes Weird Beliefs Thrive? the Epidemiology of Pseudoscience.” Philosophical Psychology, vol. 28, no. 8, 2015, pp. 1177-1198.
Hansson, Sven “Science Denial as a Form of Pseudoscience.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, vol. 63, no. 4, 2017, pp. 39-47.
Jupe, Louise M., and Vincent Denault. “Science or Pseudoscience? A Distinction that Matters for Police Officers, Lawyers and Judges.” Psychiatry, Psychology and Law, vol. 3, no. 1, 2019, pp. 1-13.
Lewis, David. Philosophical Papers. Oxford University Press, 1986.
Salmon, Wesley. The Foundations of Scientific Inference. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2017.
Santana, Carlos. “Why Not All Evidence if Scientific Evidence.” Episteme, vol. 15, no. 2, 2018, pp. 209-227.