Personification and pseudoscience
October 19, 2014 22 Comments
If you study the philosophy of science — and sometimes even if you just study science — then at some point you might get the urge to figure out what you mean when you say ‘science’. Can you distinguish the scientific from the non-scientific or the pseudoscientific? If you can then how? Does science have a defining method? If it does, then does following the steps of that method guarantee science, or are some cases just rhetorical performances? If you cannot distinguish science and pseudoscience then why do some fields seem clearly scientific and others clearly non-scientific? If you believe that these questions have simple answers then I would wager that you have not thought carefully enough about them.
Karl Popper did think very carefully about these questions, and in the process introduced the problem of demarcation:
The problem of finding a criterion which would enable us to distinguish between the empirical sciences on the one hand, and mathematics and logic as well as ‘metaphysical’ systems on the the other
Popper believed that his falsification criterion solved (or was an important step toward solving) this problem. Unfortunately due to Popper’s discussion of Freud and Marx as examples of non-scientific, many now misread the demarcation problem as a quest to separate epistemologically justifiable science from the epistemologically non-justifiable pseudoscience. With a moral judgement of Good associated with the former and Bad with the latter. Toward this goal, I don’t think falsifiability makes much headway. In this (mis)reading, falsifiability excludes too many reasonable perspectives like mathematics or even non-mathematical beliefs like Gandy’s variant of the Church-Turing thesis, while including much of in-principle-testable pseudoscience. Hence — on this version of the demarcation problem — I would side with Feyerabend and argue that a clear seperation between science and pseudoscience is impossible.
However, this does not mean that I don’t find certain traditions of thought to be pseudoscientific. In fact, I think there is a lot to be learned from thinking about features of pseudoscience. A particular question that struck me as interesting was: What makes people easily subscribe to pseudoscientific theories? Why are some kinds of pseudoscience so much easier or more tempting to believe than science? I think that answering these questions can teach us something not only about culture and the human mind, but also about how to do good science. Here, I will repost (with some expansions) my answer to this question.
There are two great TED talks that together help shed some light on this question:
- David Deutsch (2005) “A new way to explain explanation“, and
- Richard Dawkins (2009) “Why the universe seems so strange“
At a fundamental level, science is a narrative focused on explanation and only sometimes using that explanation to make predictions. This sentiment is not without controversy, and I think that many (physicists, especially) would echo Javier Rodriguez Laguna opposition:
If science is not required to provide predictions beyond the observed data, it’s no different from myth and religion … Prediction is mandatory, a nice story is not. A nice story to help understand is strongly recommended, sure. But science can proceed without. … Without the ability to make predictions, science is just another narrative.
Unfortunately, this prediction-centric view of science is not in accord with my own experience of doing science — although it might be a better fit to engineering or some parts of experimental science. From my experience, almost every theorist has as their goal to explain something. Only after they develop their theory do they realize that as a side-effect it made some new predictions. These predictions can be very sexy and hence we prefer to remember them, but they are not the motivators for the theory builder. Understanding is the motivator. As a case study, I would suggest either Maxwell on light or Dirac’s work on anti-particles. Both were motivated by trying to understand or better explain something that was to a large extent already known, only as a side-effect did they generate predictions which happened to be useful.
Thus, to most people, science is useless unless they understand the story it tells. The problem with modern science is to have a good grasp of its explanatory power, you need a lot of (often difficult) background. As you gain this background, you develop what Feynman would call the most fundamental skill in science: always questioning, being able to say “I don’t know”, and to hold contrasting ideas together. Although, I would argue that most scientists reliance on probability and statistics is still based on a myth of quantifiability of certainty. If you don’t invest in acquiring a scientific background, most of science seems like witchcraft passed down by ivory-tower academics in funny gowns and hats.
What pseudoscience (or even Feynman’s cargo-cult science) provide is explanations that require less background, purport to be more certain, have something for everyone (Forer effect), and reassure you that “there is an answer”. If you look at much of pseudoscience (or ancient myths) more closely, you will notice that they tend to personify their subject matter much more than science (my favorite example is the homunculus fallacy). They use this personification to provide agency, intent, and meaning to their explanations.
The great advantage of these human stories is that our minds are optimized for them. If you subscribe to Dunbar’s Social Brain Hypothesis (see this post for comparisons to some alternatives) then one of the main things evolution produced is a mind built to understand social structure, and other people. When an agent does not adhere to its role and violates our theory-of-mind and behaves erratically, without discernible intent and meaning, this is dangerous to us and our society; it causes us great discomfort. When you hijack the social mind to try to explain further and further afield parts of nature, you try to build the same sort of characters.
When you have to say “I don’t know” or “I don’t understand” this character, it creates discomfort. Pseudoscience thrives on this by giving an arbitrary, simple, shallow and easy to change explanation. Since most lay-people never pursue this explanation far enough to notice its contradictions, and since it shapes their observations (like Popper’s theory-laden observation and through confirmation bias) they never get a strong enough cognitive-dissonance to overcome to positive feeling of having an understandable ‘explanation’.
Unfortunately, just like much of pseudoscience, science is a story and therein lies the biggest difficulty of demarcation. But this can also be a source of strength, since it lets us share insights between literature (and its analysis) and science.