Reading the Encyclopaedia of Pseudoscience: Intellectual Trolling, the authority of science, and mysteries

One of my everyday tasks is to read about the world, I read about many things, some things within my general interests (philosophy, technology, sociology, lolcats), but other things I read to have a greater understanding of the world, I read about disability related political and social issues, I read about the ongoing fight for gender and sexual equality, I even read about fashion (if you ask why, I normally give a Solid Snake/Snake Plissken style answer like: you never know when you’ll need a box of matches/smokes). Often these interests converge, or, in some way form a wider worldview from my part. I’ve started reading over the past month a very large text called the Encyclopaedia of Pseudoscience, edited by Michael Shermer, but with contributions from a great many other authors. I am about 1/9th the way through, which is a very proud sign, as it’s a very big book and with many details and suggestions for further reading. I shall address a few themes present from reading the letters A-C.

Overquoted examples, and trigger points

The subject of Goethe’s theory of colours is an example of an overquoted example, as well as a triggerpoint for fringe groups, and is often led with a springboard discussion on the ‘reductionism’ of science today and critique of contemporary scientific method. Goethe (as in the author of great works such as Der Erlkonig, Sorrows of Young Werther, and the better [than Marlowe] tale of Faust) was known for a theory of colours which among some groups (some serious, many not) have taken more attention to over the past few decades. However, it is because of the influence of certain individuals in the new age community that have taken Goethe (inter alia) as a call to authority about justifying discourse x.

There are many other similar examples, where some fringe group uses some experiment, or claim or quote to justify their point of view. The worry I have is between whether one can take some genuine philosophical insight on this issue, or if its a toy example to springboard to some view completely other than the historical context of the genuinely interesting insight. Examples of this love to involve Einstein, probably because he is such a beloved public intellectual and even though many (including myself) fail to understand his work in physics, there is a certain air of authority to anything he says, as if anything he does say outside of non-Euclidean spacetime would seem to have the same genius. There are interesting insights to be had, I would maintain, on say, Einstein’s disagreement with Quantum Mechanics, or his so-called belief in the Spinozan God of nature. It is interesting how many pseudoscience groups call on these examples in what I would call a troll-like manner to call on a sense of authority about discourse x. The sad thing is that many of these troll calls to authority often have genuine insight and perspective which is wasted to justify some specific discourse x. One finds it especially curious how in the aforementioned example, Einstein had troubles with QM on the basis of his views on the nature of natural science.

The distrust of scientific authority

Many movements, such as alternative archaeology, ancient astronaut studies, biorhythms and anthrosophy have an imbued critique of scientific authority. It is certainly true that many news stories relating to technology & medicine show the misapplications of scientific conduct or knowledge, and can give legitimate worries about the applications and loss of confidence in our trust in medicine and technology. This potential for a mistrust in science is also an unfortunate window of oppurtunity for some groups. Many fringe movements have their own body of beliefs about the proper nature of science, which often includes some way negotiating a distrust of conventional science (the sort conducted by PhDs in corporate R&D departments and universities the world over).

One common feature of these fringe groups as well as exploiting (often to the financial gain of its propagators) a distrust in science, is that many of these movements appeal to something that people in some element wish to believe or do in fact, believe. People may have a distrust of science, but they may also have some metaphysical beliefs about a natural order of the universe, or the metaphysical notion that ‘like attracts like’. There is a respect in which these movements confirm what people believe, and this is not what science should be. Natural science should be open to the tribunal of experience, and not the plaything of our prejudices. I have a similar view about the proper appreciation of music: our tastes should not always reflect what we want to hear and support what we already feel, but should challenge us and say that our beliefs may be wrong. One of the great features of scientific discovery is the ability to disconfirm what we believe, show that a given model is wrong, and often leave us in a position where our theorising is forced back to the drawing board where we can re-interpret the data in another way, but more importantly, this process with our new model will invariably repeat again and again. It’s not enough to say we are wrong, adapt another model, and then say that model is definately correct.

The misnomer of mystery

Another feature present in these pseudoscientific movements is the role of mystery in the world. There are genuine mysteries in the world, I shall assert, many of which we are forever separated from by the aspect of the passing nature of time (I for instance, shall never see my paternal grandparents alive, and that experience remains a mystery). There is a misconception about mysteries for many pseudoscientific people. Mysteries are things which are confused to them; for one, natural science seems to provide an image of the world which has no mystery, it is thus clinical and seemingly less interesting. This is plainly false. I am tired of those who have the view that having a better understanding of the natural world eliminates its mystique, but it is a view not without its precedents. What is interesting however, is that in the presence of mysteries, is also the oppurtunity for speculation. Speculation is no bad thing, not all the time anyway.

Many pseudoscience fringe movements appeal to mystery (usually by a ‘failure of science’ or absence of explanation), and then to their patented money grubbing scheme as an explanation. If these groups assert an explanation to a given mystery, then ironically there is no mystery (if they are correct). The idea (if true) of aliens abuducting humans for experimentation; or advanced extraterrestrials creating the pyramids, if true, would simply be a ‘mystery’ explained, unless there was no mystery in the first place. These movements rely on the appearance of a mystery and also a claim to the exclusivity of their knowledge creating an ‘us and them’ mentality.

I would not rule out the mindset that seeks out mystery tout court. For there are many cases for interesting speculation, arguably within the confines of genuine science. In short, its not wrong to explore mysteries, perhaps that is why crime fiction is so enthralling, or Hugh Laurie playing Dr. Gregory House.

Demarcation isn’t fixed

If we listened to Einstein all the time we probably wouldn’t have developed the underlying research behind the GPS, or persued Quantum Computing. If we listened to Goethe the whole time I’d shudder to think what the world would be like, but there wouldn’t be enough deontological influences in research ethics, I’m pretty sure. To frame this issue in Popper’s terms, we can speak of a demarcation between genuine science and non science. Historically speaking, there are many cases where institutional factors have prevented areas of research to initially become accepted, perhaps this is the point where I mention other trigger point figures (Gallileo for instance).

As our knowledge of nature changes, so too must our demarcation criteria. There are many instances where genuine mysteries should be taken seriously. The article on Cryptozoology is interesting in that regard, how can we know about extinct or otherwise absent species? There are aspects of cryptozoology where the tribunal of experience comes down hard on the evidence: either new species are discovered by traces or they are not. The issue with cryptozoology however, is what counts as permissable evidence, for a great many, the rigour of permissable evidence is very poor.

There are however, interesting and genuine matters of speculation. Astrobiology is considered by a few friends of mine as a pseudoscience of sorts, being not scientific enough. It is perfectly legitimate to speculate on genuine mysteries, or to ask open questions such as: are we alone? Even if the answer to our evidence is “yes”. I’m sure people would still want to speculate on whether we still are alone, some questions are so personal that even the truth isn’t good enough. Turning speculations into more rigorous questions, however, is the task of any potential speculative scientist. From the question of: are we alone? we might turn to other empirical questions: can life forms survive in conditions different to the surface of the Earth? The answer to this in many instances is “yes”, microbes exist in low/zero oxygen atmospheres in the deep sea, and it is said that microbes exist in extreme heat. One subject which is close to my heart: memetics, is argued for and against later on in the encyclopaedia.


One thought on “Reading the Encyclopaedia of Pseudoscience: Intellectual Trolling, the authority of science, and mysteries

  1. Michael:

    “Natural science should be open to the tribunal of experience, and not the plaything of our prejudices.”

    What grounds this ethical injunction? Furthermore, all science is the ‘plaything of our prejudices’ – how could it be otherwise? You can try and single out some prejudices (e.g. physicalism) as better suited to science as we currently view it, but you can’t expect to have a scientific endeavour that is free of such biases.

    “One of the great features of scientific discovery is the ability to disconfirm what we believe”

    So one of the great features of the scientific endeavour is that it is very rarely forced to admit just how wrong it is? >:) Kuhn’s account clearly shows that disconfirming evidence does not overturn a paradigm, scientists don’t just admit that their model is wrong, and partly because the models are always capable of absorbing evidence of any kind, even that of a contrary nature.

    You’re valourizing the abstraction “science” to make the flaws of scientific practice sound like its strengths. Scientific revolutions are amazing historical events – but they are exceedingly rare, and they occur largely because one crazy fool pushes their new perspective despite resistance from every corner. Ordinary scientific practice tries to stomp out these new perspectives – Shermer is a classic example – it can scarcely be a strength of the practice of scientists that they do so if what you want to praise is the opposite.

    ‘Pseudoscience’ is a label applied to the unconventional – but the world-changing scientific discoveries may be pseudoscience when they are introduced, since the term is little more than an insult applied to the marginal. It won’t do to pretend that we can enforce this particular boundary – memetics, as you intimate here, is a classic example. If you want to erect a useful boundary of this kind, someone will have to do the work – right now, that doesn’t happen, and the boundary is nowhere to be found, being chiefly normative in nature.

    It’s funny, because I’m all for challenging the authority of ‘science’ – this desperately needs challenging, particularly in the context of medicalisation – but the irony for me is that the main groups involved in doing so (as you suggest here) have wild crackpot mythologies. This has the opposite effect – it makes ‘science’ seem more secure because the challenges are from ‘the lunatic fringe’. The case for the defence of ‘science’ can’t be the weakness of its ‘enemies’. What is that case? You don’t make it here, you just assume it, just like everyone else.

    Well, I really should be working. 🙂



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