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September 30, 2016

Not long ago, Katie Burke suggested in American Scientist that the term pseudoscience should stop being used, arguing that:

Using the term pseudoscience... leads to unnecessary polarization, mistrust, disrespectfulness, and confusion around science issues. Everyone—especially scientists, journalists, and science communicators—would better serve science by avoiding it.

But would that really be true? And what descriptions should replace the term pseudoscience if that is true?

Burke offers some suggestions that gets into the specific context in which the alternatives might apply on either side of what has become known as the demarcation problem in describing science versus pseudoscience, which can be thought of as the challenge of distinguishing between credible scientific effort in new or less-studied fields and outright fraud that has been dressed up and presented in scientific clothing:

There are great alternatives to the term pseudoscience—ones that are much more explicit and constructive. One can simply state what kind of scientific evidence is available. If scientific evidence is lacking, why not say so and then discuss why that might be? And if scientific evidence directly contradicts a claim, saying so outright is much stronger than if a fuzzy term like pseudoscience is used. Of course, if fraudulent behavior is suspected, such allegations are best stated overtly rather than veiled under the word pseudoscience. Words that are clearer, stronger, and avoid such fraught cultural and historical baggage include the following: For the first use of the term, I suggest replacing pseudoscience with descriptors such as emerging and still-experimental, as yet scientifically inconclusive, scientifically debated, and lacking scientific evidence. For the second use of the term, stronger wording is appropriate, such as fraud (suspected or proven), fabrication, misinformation, factually baseless claims, and scientifically unfounded claims. All these terms make the nature of the information clearer than invoking the word pseudoscience and they have established journalistic norms around their substantiation.

Steven Novella responded to Katie Burke's arguments in Neurologica's blog, defending the use of the term pseudoscience as it has come to be commonly used in all its meanings. More importantly, he takes on the demarcation problem directly.

Burke refers to the demarcation problem, the difficulty in distinguishing science from pseudoscience, but derives the wrong lesson from this problem. The demarcation problem is a generic philosophical issue that refers to distinctions that do not have a bright line, but are just different ends of a continuum.

Arguing that the two ends are meaningless because there is no sharp demarcation is a logical fallacy known as the false continuum. Even though there is no clear dividing line between tall and short, Kareem Abdul Jabar is tall, and Herve Villechaize is short.

Rather than discarding a useful idea because of a demarcation problem, we simply treat the spectrum as the continuum that it is. What this means is that we try to understand the elements that push something toward the science or pseudoscience end of the spectrum.

Novella then goes on to identify the features of pseudoscience that make its illegitimacy recognizable as such on the pseudoscience end of the continuum.

  • Cherry picks favorable evidence, often by preferring low quality or circumstantial evidence over higher quality evidence
  • Starts with a desired conclusion and then works backward to fill in apparent evidence
  • Conclusions go way beyond the supporting evidence
  • Fails to consider plausibility, or lacks a plausible mechanism
  • Dismisses valid criticism as if it were personal or part of a conspiracy. This is part of a bigger problem of not engaging constructively with the relevant scientific community
  • Violates Occam’s Razor by preferring more elaborate explanations or ones that involve major new assumptions over far simpler or more established answers
  • Engages heavily in special pleading
  • Tries to prove rather than falsify their own hypotheses
  • Not self-correcting – does not drop arguments that are demonstrated to be wrong or invalid.

We can certainly attest to having directly witnessed each one of these unscientific or unprofessional behaviors since launching our "Examples of Junk Science" series.

Novella then puts his finger directly on the real distinction between science and pseudoscience:

Science vs pseudoscience are about process, not conclusions, and therefore not values and beliefs (except for valuing science itself – and that is the entire point)....

In the end this is not about us vs them (again, this has been exhaustively discussed already in the skeptical literature). It is about understanding the process of science and all the ways in which that process can go wrong or be deliberately perverted.

That is pseudoscience. It is worth understanding and it is helpful to label it honestly.

There's a lot of discussion that falls in the section covered by the dot-dot-dot of the ellipsis in the quoted passage above, where we cannot recommend reading the whole thing strongly enough!

Science vs Pseudoscience Demarcation Problem


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