The invasion of pseudo-science

The invasion of pseudo-science

Author: Mariano Artigas
Published in: Revista Nuestro Tiempo, nº 418, p. 66-73.
Publication date: April 1989

The proliferation of pseudoscience is one of today's most striking and worrying phenomena.

These words are found on the back cover of a new book by Martin Gardner (La ciencia: lo bueno, lo malo y lo falso. Alianza, Madrid 1988) which contains 38 articles on pseudoscience. He goes on to add: "Thanks to freedom of expression and the technical revolution in the media, the cries of crackpots and charlatans are sometimes heard more loudly and clearly than the voices of scientists".

Gardner states: "I don't think the presence of books about useless science, promoted to bestsellers by cynical publishers, does much harm to society except in areas such as medicine, health and anthropology". Those areas, indeed, have particularly palpable repercussions: the success of Nazism, for example, was linked to very particular theories about man. Our image of man determines, to a large extent, our attitudes towards society, religion and ethics. One wonders what, in the long run, would be the fate of a society whose members are convinced that they are just little animals a little smarter than their anthropoid relatives, or see robots as a future reservation of conscious beings who will outstrip humans in intelligence and moral innocence.

But what is pseudoscience? In a first approximation, a theory can be considered pseudoscientific if, on the one hand, it is presented as if it were endorsed by the method characteristic of science, while, in reality, it does not satisfy the demands that this method implies. The case is worse when, in addition, a deliberate attempt is made to avoid the control of rigorous science.

Attempts to further refine the notion of pseudoscience have given rise to the problem of the demarcation criterion. This is a question that has been considered by Karl Popper as central to the philosophy of science.

The demarcation criterion

The birth of modern science in the seventeenth century and its spectacular progress in the following epochs provoked different studies aimed at establishing what it is that gives experimental science its peculiar reliability. Attempts followed one after the other until our century, but none of them hit the mark.

In the late 1920s, the neopositivists of the Vienna Circle claimed that it is the empirical verifiability of theories that determines the superiority of science. agreement According to their point of view, only scientific theories are verifiable. All other claims of knowledge, especially metaphysics and theology, would escape any possibility of verification and, for that reason, should be thrown into the dustbin as meaningless. Empirical verifiability would be the demarcation criterion separating scientific knowledge, which is rigorous and meaningful, from metaphysical speculation, which is arbitrary and empty of content.

Karl Popper, a friend of some members of the Vienna Circle, showed that verifiability does not work as a criterion of demarcation. One of the reasons he gave was that such a criterion could not even be applied to science itself, whose theories do not admit of conclusive demonstration. Hence his famous claim that the positivists, in their eagerness to annihilate metaphysics, annihilate, along with it, natural science.

Instead of verifiability, Popper proposed falsifiability as a demarcation criterion. According to this criterion, a theory is scientific if consequences can be deduced from it that conflict with experience. It is no longer a question of abandoning metaphysics, which, according to Popper, makes sense and can be the subject of rational discussion. According to agreement , a theory is pseudo-scientific if it is accepted as scientific and, at the same time, placed above any possible empirical criticism. A consequence of Popper's point of view is that it would never be possible to demonstrate the truth of scientific theories; they would always be hypotheses or conjectures that are accepted provisional insofar as, for the time being, they pass the experimental tests to which they are subjected.

A convinced sceptic

Popper's perspective can be subjected to critical analyses that would take us too far. But it is widespread in the contemporary cultural world. Martin Gardner basically identifies with it when he states: "all scientific hypotheses are conjectures, to which both scientists and laymen at subject assign Degrees of belief between one and zero". The difference with Popper is that, according to strict Popperianism, one cannot even speak of "Degrees of belief".

Gardner is well known for his contributions to Scientific American, where he was, for many years, a regular columnist, and for his books on scientific issues. His wide-ranging knowledge and writing skills make him one of those people with whom it is inadvisable to engage. Anyone who challenges Gardner's dialectic can be sure to be met with scathing answers, full of facts and logic.

In 1952, Gardner published a book graduate In the name of science, later republished under the title Fads and fallacies in the name of science. Since then, he has devoted many articles to criticising different manifestations of pseudoscience, along the lines of that book. His style is that of a professional journalist: little reasoning and lots of data, from agreement with the motto "a laugh is worth ten thousand syllogisms". This does not mean that he avoids dialectics; on the contrary, the counter-arguments put to him are examined and shredded down to the last detail by his agile and accurate pen. Since he has criticised many ideas in the concrete field, these counter-arguments have been abundant. In his recent book he collects them in Annexes after his articles, followed by corresponding counter-arguments.

Gardner is highly sceptical of such topics as parapsychology and the extraterrestrial origin of the UFO phenomenon, and deploys his batteries in an effort to show that these theories have no scientific basis. He also criticises some sensationalist interpretations of respectable scientific theories, such as quantum mechanics, black holes and catastrophe theory. His reasoning does not touch directly on religion; however, it does extend to various manifestations of Protestant fundamentalism in the United States: judging by the truly exotic data he throws at the reader, he may not be without reason. As his style is always strongly polemical, he sometimes gives the impression that he is opposed to any acceptance of supernatural realities.

Parapsychology and magic

Gardner's favourite target of criticism is undoubtedly parapsychology. Many of his articles are devoted to this topic. The performances of Uri Geller and his defenders are examined in detail and mercilessly shredded.

Parapsychology has presented itself with the pretensions of being true science. One of its arguments is that there are perceptual capacities that are not included in conventional science. This is a claim that is difficult to refute. Indeed, the possibility exists and is even plausible. We know of perceptual mechanisms possessed by various animals that humans do not possess. In the face of criticism, parapsychologists point out that revolutionary scientific theories have always faced resistance from established scientific circles, an assertion that finds some support in history.

The positive reasons given, however, are another matter, and that is where Gardner comes in with all his guns blazing. Especially when parapsychologists cite scientifically controlled experiments in their favour. Gardner notes that, for several decades, his main hobby has been magic. He points out that, in the experiences being adduced, what is really needed is an expert magician. Scientists are used to rigour, not fraud and deception using financial aid tricks.

The reader of Gardner's book is treated to an extensive parade of allegedly scientific experiments that are skilfully dissected in order to show the specific flaws. For example, Gardner explains the thousand and one ways of bending metal objects in private and in public, without the inexperienced spectator noticing the frauds.

Something similar happens when parapsychologists adduce the testimony of reputable scientists in their favour. For example, two letters from Albert Einstein are included which explain why he could be used, contrary to his convictions, as if he were a militant in favour of parapsychology. A more serious case was that of John Archibald Wheeler, one of the living patriarchs of modern physics, whose authority was also used by parapsychologists. Wheeler wrote at length and sent a strongly critical letter to the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

However, some leading scientists have come out in favour of parapsychology. Among the varied documentation offered by Gardner is an extensive letter, published in a prestigious New York magazine, which is signed by several physicists, among them the Nobel laureate Brian D. Josephson award . Gardner's retorts highlight, time and again, the suspicious connections between ostensibly scientific studies and manipulations found in the realm of theatrical magic.

UFOs and extraterrestrials

Gardner does not deny that there are problems in explaining some of the UFO data. But he is strongly opposed to the use of this phenomenon for the benefit of phantasmagorical theories in which alleged encounters with extraterrestrial beings are witnessed. His criticism revolves around Steve Spielberg's film Close Encounters of the Third Kind and the novel associated with it.

According to Gardner's interpretation, the enthusiasm for alien encounters may be due to the fact that some seek a kind of salvation there as a substitute for religious redemption: "for those who cannot believe in the Second Coming, nor in the messianic hopes of orthodox Judaism, there are the UFOs! If the Earth is being visited by aliens, if the sky (as an Indian Sahdu points out in Encounters) is singing for us, surely the aliens must be friendly or we would have learned otherwise by now. It is this childish possibility that has kept flying saucers in the limelight for thirty years - thirty years! Exactly the age of Mr. Spielberg" (the article is dated 1978).

To this Gardner adds that "obviously, there is no way that the Air Force or anyone else can prove that we are not being visited by alien spacecraft". We might add that even agnostic scientists like Carl Sagan, who are convinced that the universe must be relatively full of other intelligent beings and nurture the illusion of one day encountering them, warn that, in all likelihood, such beings must be at least several thousand light-years away.

One can always resort, as indeed one does, to fantasies about the possibilities of passing from one universe to another, as if by magic, through mysterious black and white holes, or the like. Precisely one of the characteristics of pseudoscience is that it exploits to its advantage the conviction, which seems to be based on ever-increasing scientific and technical progress, that "everything that is not manifestly impossible is possible, and even probable". Thus, those who sound the call to rationality may be branded as backward-looking or unopen to the wonderful surprises that future progress may bring.

Of course, anyone who thinks that extraterrestrials are already here is confronted with facts that are difficult to explain. For example, the existence of many highly specialised astronomical observatories all over the world. It seems unthinkable that there is no reliable public data on the subject. Unless one resorts to a conspiracy, which, of course, should be on a global scale. According to some experts on topic, who narrate their personal encounters with extraterrestrials with a peaceful B, there are conclusive documents which together would carry considerable weight. The drawback is that they are secret.

Throughout his articles, Gardner mentions quite a few pseudo-scientific books with huge print runs. One could add to his repertoire works by Erich von Däniken, Juan José Benítez and others, where connections are made between quite a few religious phenomena, including those narrated by the Sacred Scripture, and performances by extraterrestrial beings. Continuing the aforementioned argument, it would seem that sometimes religious faith based on authentic motives is abandoned in favour of phantasmagorical speculations that are presented in scientific garb, even if they only appear to be scientific in appearance.

Scientists and pseudoscience

Gardner's examples show that scientists are not immune to pseudoscience. Gardner sample has little support for any subject of supernatural phenomena, and sympathetically cites some scientists who have published popular works in which traditional religion is replaced, in the name of science, by a materialist vision (Carl Sagan) or by a strange cosmic pantheism (Paul Davies).

On one occasion, however, his criticism extends to Carl Sagan. Referring to a passage in his book Broca's Brain, he states: "This is Sagan with his most whimsical sense of humour. But no one could be more seriously concerned about the frontiers of tomorrow's science. Near the end of his book's introduction, Sagan predicts that in the next few decades astronomers may even get the answer to this terrible question: How did our cosmos get started?"

Gardner's comment is as follows: "If Sagan is concerned only with the choice between a single big bang model and an oscillating model that endlessly repeats explosions and crunching, he may be right, but if he is concerned with the solution to the ultimate riddle of the origin of the universe, I must respectfully quibble. Neither model touches on the metaphysical problem of genesis. On this question no one can even imagine any progress in cosmology that would place science in a better position to solve the enigma than Plato or Aristotle enjoyed". True.

There is nothing to object to Gardner's observation. It is striking that, in this case, he uses a gentle criticism, which contrasts with his usual hurtful tone. This is probably due to his sympathy for Sagan.

However, there are grounds for claiming that one of the worst forms of pseudoscience is that which comes from some respectable scientists whose solvency is beyond doubt. And it could also be added that this subject of pseudoscience is on the rise. The cases of Sagan and Davies, whose works have achieved great popularity, are paradigmatic, as is the fact that they have recently been joined by none other than Stephen Hawking.

In the works of these scientists we find informative expositions that, on occasions, reach an acceptable quality. But there are also reflections that go far beyond what scientific methods can provide, and which are treated with a poverty of resources that would make any amateur with an average skill blush about these subjects. For example, in the name of science, materialist ideologies are defended or it is claimed that the self-creation of the universe from nothing is conceivable.

This subject of pseudoscience, which is disseminated in the form of books, interviews and articles accessible to the general public, has an impact B today. And the public has very few defences against it. After all, in ordinary cases of pseudoscience, there is always recourse to scientific experts to clarify the situation; but when these experts speak of metaphysical ideas about the world, man and God, and present their views as if they were the result or the projection of current scientific developments, to whom can one turn? If it is true, as some claim, that in today's society scientists have the prestige and authority that was once attributed to priests, it seems that the court of last resort written request will be one's own, since it is a question of the value of what scientists say.

The bad thing is that, no matter how educated you are, it is not always easy to understand what quantum gravity, superstrings or the like mean. These are very hypothetical theories that even scientists don't really understand. If you take them seriously, you can end up in the psychiatrist's office, which seems destined to really become the court of last resort written request. But neither is the psychiatrist usually a very effective remedy for ideas. It is usually most effective when it comes to giving pills.

Anti-depressants are fashionable, and there is reason to believe that they will become increasingly so. Perhaps one way to avoid this, with the permission of the pharmaceutical industry, would be to contribute to the critique of pseudoscience. This is a task to which Martin Gardner has devoted commendable efforts. But much remains to be done.