Science vs. Pseudoscience: Essential Differences

by Perette Barella

Monday, August 24, 2009

I was recently considering the extraordinary variety there is among pseudoscience: homeopathy; astrology, numerology, and various other fate-based bullshit; Shiatsu, Reiki, faith-healing and other mystical energy-based crap; reflexology, cranial-sacral therapy and other pseudopsychological-based nonsense. There's so much, and it's all either unrelated to each-other or, sometimes, even in contradiction with other pseudoscience. And best of all, the amount always seems to grow.

Compare to science: Astronomy, physics, chemistry, and biology all reinforce eachother. They are all, in actuality, different applications of the same rules; each uses a different template or prioritizes things in a different way that's convenient for that particular field of study. While science is sometimes refined as our understanding grows, it doesn't seem to grow nearly as fast as pseudoscience. We don't see whole new ways of applying scientific principles in different convenient ways. Why?

People of science search for consistency. New discoveries have to explain the behavior of things we encounter in predictable ways, and those ways have to jive with previous knowledge—or need to explain the situations in which they differ, and why. Scientific advances need solid, repeatable evidence to validate and justify the refinement they claim to be. Thus, science weeds out junk theories1 .

People of pseudoscience are also searching for consistency. Instead of comparing all the data and theories against each-other and reality, pseudoscience types compare data against what they individually think/feel/want. All that's needed is a correlation, and not necessarily one with anything concrete: a correlation with what you think is happening is good enough.

We're frequently exposed to metamystical ideas via television and movies which love metamystical junk because, frankly, science is hard and can be confining if you want to make up interesting stories. Believers love to watch "reality" programs that explore ghost hunting, spirit contact, and so forth. The popularity of this pablum reinforces the erroneous faith in this nonsense, with dramatic editing and special effects making it seem plausible—even easy—that these things could be real.

With all these things around us, all a pseudoscientist needs is to encounter a theory that agrees with his or her perception of reality. All too often, at that point it is accepted as reasonable because it seems to explain what has been encountered. If existing explanations are unacceptable, new ones can be make up to explain a perception, which adds to the growing pseudoscientific heap: a heap that, because it grows so easy, becomes a bear to debunk because of its uncontrolled growth.

But even if you do try to debunk it, how do you do so? Pseudoscientific types don't trust science already, saying that science is too confining and that it denies any aspect of reality that you can't prove or measure. How can it be reality if you can't objectively measure it? Because you can feel it. And we're back to my point that all you need is a correlation of faith:

  • I spread the Tarot, and you see a story. The Tarot must be magic.

    (Never mind that the human brain is exceptional at finding patterns in randomness, and is correlating data from your experience to match the random spread of cards.)

  • I wave my hands over you, saying I'm healing you; you feel better.
    1. It must have involved magic.
    2. Not a Pagan? It must have been Grace.
    3. Not a Christian? It must have been invisible energy fields around your body.
    4. Don't believe in invisible energy fields around your body? How about I just push on your skin a few times—these are meridians that contain the life energy flowing through your body.
    5. Don't believe in life energy in your meridians? There must be a correlation with the nerves and the brain and sensory apparatus, just that science hasn't found a good explanation for these.

      (Never mind that placebos would explain the phenomenon just fine, and that the idea is contradicted by the variety of placement of meridians or pressure points among different practitioners—meaning that practically any point on the body is part of somebody's alleged meridian system.)

Thus, pseudoscience grows, and will continue grow, as it perpetually creates new explanations adapted to people's individual, preconceived notions about how they'd like the universe to work. Notions that, because people are making money on these ideas, they have a reason to sell you—but with no reason to debunk the crap, nobody does. And without training in science, the average Joe has no idea how to evaluate for accuracy. Pseudoscience is resistant to skepticism because skepticism uses science and logic, which aren't understood or trusted. Thus, the dungheap of pseudoscience grows indefinitely, always filling up with new and different variations of nonsense that people want to believe in, all disjoint from one another.

Science, meanwhile, is confined to the rate that we can develop theories, develop ways to validate them, actually test them, then (if they even work so far) publish the results so they can be peer-reviewed, repeated, and varied upon. When successful, work will become a tiny part of a larger picture—quite possibly just a refinement to the existing picture—explaining one little piece of the larger system in which we live. Science grows slowly, refining and maintaining consistency, culling inaccuracy over time.

Thus, there will always be a propensity for pseudoscientific theories to grow faster than scientific knowledge.

Example: The Flat Earth

Monday, September 7, 2020

Since the above essay was written in 2009, the flat earth idea has gained a great deal attention and following. Let's test the assertions of my original essay by seeing how it holds up to the flat earthers:

The spherical planet was established by theory and practice centuries ago. And, with satelite imagery, we can see that our planet is round. Flat earthers deny the validity of all this evidence, claim its all made up mathematics (which they admit they don't understand) and push their flat earth theory.
Let's see:
  • Explanation is adapted to people's individual, preconceived notions about how they'd like the universe to work? Perfect fit.
  • Key proponents are making money off it? Yep: various key people are paid for lectures, have T-shirts, flat earth models and other tchotchkes you can buy on-line or at flat-earth conventions.
  • Resistant to skepticism because they don't understand science? More math than science, but a close fit.
  • When proponents do try effective experiments and run into problems, do they stop and go back to the drawing board? No, they press on and come up with corrupt, worthless results—but they will use them to justify their belief.
  • When they succeed in an experiment and it contradicts their expectations, do they examine why? Yes, but always in the form of "Why wasn't my test valid in the first place?"

The flat earth theory is particularly ridiculous because there are so many easily observable contradictions and questions:

  • Tens of thousands of NASA engineers and astronauts are part of a conspiracy? Maintaining a small conspiracy is hard; on the scale necessary to fake the shape of our planet, is impossible.
  • Where do satellite dishes point? They have to be aligned to point rather precisely at something or they won't receive. So either (a) there's a satelite up there, but if we're on a flat earth, how's it stay up? Or (b) there are a bunch of people who have had to go up and bolt stuff to the underside of an alleged dome. Where are these guys?
  • In the summer, the sun rides high and the moon low; in the winter, the moon high and the sun low. Why don't they collide around the equinox as their ring-trajectories cross?
  • What explanation is there for their ring-trajectories changing with the seasons?
  • How are there lunar eclipses? What's blocking the light between the sun and the moon, if their ring-trajectories are both in circles above our flat earth?
  • How do the lunar phases work? If the ring-trajectories are in the same plane, we should always see a half-moon. To get a full moon, the moon would have to be rather further from us than the sun, so that the side the sun lit was the same side facing us. To get just a crescent of moon, the moon would need to be much closer to us than the sun, so mostly the backside and just a little bit we could see was lit.
  • But if the moon must be much further away than the sun when full, and much closer than the sun when a crescent, then why doesn't the visible size of the moon dramatically change every lunar cycle? Or, if the moon is in a fixed ring-trajectory, then why is the summer-winter cycle annual and not once per lunar cycle?
  • Why, on a big enough lake, can I not see the other side?
  • Why, when I look across Lake Ontario from Niagara-on-the-Lake, do I see Toronto's tall skyscrapers but not the lower-built suburbs of Oakville, Missisauga, or Oshuwa? If the earth is flat, I should be able to see everything on the remote shore.
  • If the sun and moon are spherical, why shouldn't earth be spherical?
The flat earth theory raises more questions than it answers. Nevertheless, proponents believe despite best evidence.

Science painstakingly tests theories and builds understanding based on truth. Pseudoscience just makes stuff up, with no speed limitation. It even falls back to nonsense that's long been discredited. Simply put, science can't keep up with debunking the nonsense, because scientists are too busy working on new real knowledge.

Footnotes: