SOME PURPORTED MARKS OF PSEUDOSCIENCE
Various authors offer different criteria for distinguishing real from bogus or
pseudo-science. Here are examples from two books:
Martin Gardner, Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science
In his book Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, Martin Gardner offers a
number of features as characteristic of "cranks." These are:
- "Cranks work in almost total isolation from their
colleagues." Gardner points out that during the Renaissance genuine scientists might
still be quite isolated: there were no journals or scientific societies, and there were
social (especially religious) pressures against communication (witness Galileo and, much
later, even Darwin).
Cranks claim that their isolation is due to the shortsighted
traditionalism of conventional science. (Here they might make use of Kuhn's point that
scientific education resembles indoctrination in some important respects.) And they can
point to examples of truthful claims which were scornfully rejected by mainstream science:
hypnotic phenomena, Semmelweis' claim that doctors should sterilize their hands before
delivering children, and the refusal of eighteenth-century astronomers to believe that
rocks fell from the sky. "Reaction against medieval superstitions and old wives'
tales was still so strong that whenever a meteor fell, astronomers insisted it had either
been picked up somewhere and carried by the wind, or that the persons who claimed to see
it fall were lying. Even the great French Académie des Sciences ridiculed this
folk belief, in spite of a number of early studies of meteoric phenomena. Not until April
26, 1803, when several thousand small meteors fell on the town of L'Aigle, France, did the
astronomers decide to take falling rocks seriously." Some stodgy traditionalism is
useful for science (as Kuhn and Popper both point out).
- A "tendency toward paranoia." This is exhibited in five ways:
- he considers himself a genius
- regards his colleagues "as ignorant blockheads." "To me truth is
precious. . . . I should rather be right and stand alone than to run with the multitude
and be wrong. . . . The holding of the views herein set forth has already won for me the
scorn and contempt and ridicule of some of my fellowmen. I am looked upon as being odd,
strange, peculiar. . . . But truth is truth and though all the world reject it and turn
against me, I will cling to truth still." from a 1931 booklet by Charles Silvester de
Ford arguing that the earth is flat.
- believes himself unjustly persecuted and discriminated against. (Journal rejections,
claims of scientific cliques, etc.)
- "he has strong compulsions to focus his attacks on the greatest scientists and the
best-established theories." (Attacks on Newton, Einstein; trisections of the angle,
perpetual motion machines; disease causes germs; glasses make eyes worse, etc.)
- writes in complex jargon, often involving self-coined terms.
(It's interesting to note that in his book, first published in 1952, Gardner explained
his failure to discuss astrology by writing that it "is so far removed from anything
resembling science that it does not seem worth while to discuss it.")
Daisie Radner and Michael Radner, Science and Unreason (Wadsworth, 1982)
Radner and Radner suggest nine marks of pseudoscience:
- Anachronistic thinking: returning to earlier, since rejected views
without better reasons or responses to objections: flat earthers, creationism, etc.
- Looking for mysteries (as opposed to finding anomalies, e.g. Michelson
& Morley's failure to measure the movement of the earth relative to the ether). (UFOs,
Bigfoot, Bermuda triangle, rains of fish and frogs . . ..)
- Appeal to myths (Von Däniken, Velikovsky, creationism; Julian
- Grab-bag approach to evidence: "Pseudoscientists have the attitude
that sheer quantity of evidence makes up for any deficiency in the quality of individual
pieces of evidence." Books on UFOs (anecdotal evidence), Bermuda triangle followers
(distorted or fabricated).
- Irrefutable hypotheses. Creationism (world created as if had
been much older), parapsychology (Journal of Parapsychology: official policy to
reject negative results for publication).
- Argument from spurious similarity (parapsychology, biorhythms).
- Explanation by scenario. (No appeal to scientific laws or principles;
just a story or plot. Velikovsky, Julian Jaynes. But compare continental drift.)
- Research by exegesis. (Quotations from Ray Palmer, former editor and
publisher of Flying Saucers magazine. Palmer quotes Admiral Richard E. Byrd, who
flew over the North and South Poles: "I'd like to see that land beyond the pole. That
area beyond the pole is the center of the great unknown"; "This is the most
important expedition in the history of the world"; "That enchanted continent in
the sky, that everlasting mystery." Creationists rejecting disavowals by authors of
the creationists interpretation of pieces they quote.)
- Refusal to revise in the light of criticism.
Last update: January 13, 2000.
Comments? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Curtis Brown | Philosophy of
Science | Philosophy
Department | Trinity University