Crosstalk: Science and Pseudoscience in This ‘Age of Magic’

There have been many clashes of civilisation over the centuries, over which the fate of humanity hung. Perhaps the biggest one that remains is that between science and pseudoscience.

Credit: fdctsevilla/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Credit: fdctsevilla/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

“Science is the most durable and non-divisive way of thinking about the human circumstance. It transcends cultural, national and political boundaries.”
– Sam Harris

What is not science?

If you randomly ask three different people what they think science is, you’ll get three different answers. Often, these answers are at two ends of a spectrum. One end will describe science as “a collection of facts”, while the other suspiciously looks at science as a belief system. Yet, science is neither. It is a systematic effort to accumulate knowledge based on evidence, and form testable explanations about the universe. Science relies on recognising patterns, and being able to generalise rules from them, which can be tested, and if false, eliminated.

Unfortunately, treating science as a mere collection of facts is easy. After all, science textbooks are full of information, and our current education system glorifies the memorisation of these bits of information. Generations have grown up memorising formulae that state that force equals mass times acceleration, or famously E=mc2 and the like, without the faintest clue about what this means, or how these came about, and why these stand to be true. Easier still is treating science as a belief system, which is a reflection of our society, and of human nature. Since we as humans rely on belief systems for many things in our life, we tend to impose the values of our belief systems to all systems. Yet, science stands alone in being not a system, but a process, where the pursuit of knowledge relies on collecting knowledge based on evidence.

The amazing thing about science is that anyone can think like a scientist. However, if you just observe, collect information, and think something “feels right”, or that something “makes sense”, this isn’t sufficient to be science. For something to become a scientific endeavour, an observation will lead to a hypothesis, which then needs to be empirically tested. Indeed, in earlier columns, we have explored these aspects of the scientific method and the process of science, ranging from the importance of a testable hypothesis to inductive reasoning, through conditions that enable science to thrive.

Through this, we can easily understand attributes of science. Science is never complete, but a continuing, dynamic process with constant refinement. Knowledge constantly accumulates, and science constantly progresses. So it is important to be able to differentiate what is science, from what is unscientific. Verifiability (by testing and analysing a hypothesis) remains a cornerstone of science, but this is often difficult to actually do. For example, it was difficult to verify that light is both a wave and a particle (though it did happen). In this, the philosopher Karl Popper stands out in his simple benchmark for distinguishing what comprises science.  Instead of just verifiability, Popper describes the use of falsifiability as the benchmark of scientific theories.

Unlike verifiability, falsifiability is the inherent possibility that any idea can be proven false. Now, in order to be able to question a hypothesis or an idea, you at least need to be able to theoretically falsify it or prove it wrong. By using falsifiability as a demarcation criterion, anything that is (even theoretically) not falsifiable becomes unscientific. This is a remarkably simple, and elegant way to think of what is scientific. This notion of falsifiability, when scrupulously applied, is very effective in weeding out the unscientific. This then allows you to separate science, from the all-pervasive, pernicious influence of that remarkable shape-shifting beast, pseudoscience.

Pseudoscience is a belief that masquerades as science and even extensively uses terminology from science to claim validity. One defining aspect of pseudoscience is to start with a conclusion, and then find “facts” that support it. This also means that the field cannot change since inception. Any challenge to an existing idea is considered hostile, and any observation that is not consistent with the original idea is usually thrown out. The very possibility of falsifiability is impossible. And to be effective, pseudoscience cloaks itself in scientific sounding words (“inner energy”, “positive molecules”, “refined antioxidants”, “cosmic balance”) that are utterly meaningless.

Science everywhere

Carl Sagan brings these concepts together in his book The Demon-Haunted World, where his famous dragon appears. Supposing you say that a fire-breathing dragon lives in your garage, surely I’d ask you to show me. But now, what if you assert that the dragon is invisible? In that case, I’d say you could use paint on the floor to find its footprints. But if the invisible dragon also floats in the air, and no solid object can mark it? Then I’d ask to measure the heat from the fire. But now if you assert that the invisible, flying dragon also breathes heatless fire? Here, more than verifiability, every possibility of falsifiability fails, and so you are left holding on only to belief. In this space where pseudoscience thrives, there are really no goalposts of ideas, and not just merely shifting goalposts.

But why might it even be important to separate the scientific from the unscientific? Venki Ramakrishnan, the president of the Royal Society, and who’s pioneering work on how proteins are made led to a Nobel Prize, notes ruefully in a column that if you say you don’t know anything about music, or hate art, or despise reading, you are an uncultured ignoramus. However, it is perfectly fine (or even a badge of honour) to say you know nothing about science or math, or that “you hate science”. Yet science, which is so pervasive in every aspect of our society, should be something that is enjoyed, appreciated and celebrated every bit as much as art and culture.

Even if not for the grandeur of understanding the natural world, there is a great need to understand the scientific process. As Arthur C. Clarke famously said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Today, we live in an age of magic. A hundred years ago, a simple infection from a wound would invariably be fatal. In World War I, many more soldiers died of hospital infections than actually killed in battle. By World War II, this was not a problem, thanks to the discovery of antibiotics, which have saved millions of lives. Sadly, people today know more about wines or craft beer than how antibiotics work (or how antibiotic resistance comes about). This list of magical science is everywhere; in medicine, in transportation, in communication, in protection from the elements, or in how we produce enough food to sustain more people on earth at this moment, than have lived in all humanity before 1950. Today, it is critical for every educated person to know how scientific knowledge is acquired, and how scientific foundations are built. It should be embarrassing for someone to say they know nothing about science, or how to recognise something as scientific, and yet it isn’t!

Falling for pseudoscience

What all this does is create an ideal breeding ground for pseudoscience. When everyone is exposed to scientific sounding words, without either an understanding of what they are, or an appreciation for the scientific method, pseudoscience can flourish. One of the oldest examples of pseudoscience was in the field of phrenology. People claimed to know the intelligence of an individual merely by measuring the size of their skull, and observing the number and shape of the bumps on their head.  Today, phrenology is considered absurd, because it easily fails every test of falsifiability, with a mountain of evidence to show that this is meaningless. Yet, this field influenced colonialism (and Europeans with their “superior skulls and therefore brains”), slavery (and the abolishment of it), gender stereotyping (with women obviously holding the short end of the stick), and more. But even today, ask a bunch of people if the idea of phrenology is true and the answer will be split evenly between yes, maybe it could be true, and no.

What has this thriving culture of pseudoscience led to? The most obvious is the breeding of a variety of quackery, with the quacks becoming persons of enormous influence and importance in that society.  Their voices thunder about the brilliance of ancient knowledge, easily feeding into conspiracy theories of how the ancient knowledge was lost or looted by invaders. Or, there are absurd claims, which easily fail the falsifiability test, that cancer or AIDS or whatever else can be easily cured. Usually, this should fall under the category of snake oil sales, yet cultures of pseudoscience will tolerate, and even promote such quackery. A thriving culture may flourish on how the knowledge of the exact time of birth, mapped on to a meaningless sample of planetary orbits can reveal the fate of that person, or knowledge of their likely misfortune.

Few pseudoscientific fields have had as much influence over the centuries as astrology (not to be confused with astronomy, which is a serious study of planetary bodies). Confusion through belief in such pseudoscience can lead to a paralysis of the ability of a person to make rational, effective decisions, or worse. Immense harm has been done by the pseudoscience of the anti-vaccine movement, which based itself entirely on one now falsified study (a deliberate fraud of epic proportions). Yet the anti-vaccine movement not only relies on that study, but even imagines a conspiracy theory where the whole proving of the study to be false itself was fabricated, ignoring a mountain of scientific evidence. As a result, vaccines, which have saved more lives (and eliminated devastating diseases like small pox and polio), now run the risk of not being effective, putting millions of children at risk.

There have been many clashes of civilisation over the centuries, over which the fate of humanity hung. Perhaps the biggest one that remains is that between science and pseudoscience. We know the lessons of history, but can we learn from it?

Sunil Laxman is a scientist at the Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine, where his research group studies how cells function and communicate with each other. He has a keen interest in the history and process of science, and how science influences society.