Learning From “Pseudoscience”

The second episode of BBC’s The Story of Science is about chemistry. It shows unusual sophistication by emphasizing that early chemists built on the alchemists. The alchemists invented techniques and equipment later used by “real” chemists such as Joseph Priestly — the ones who reached conclusions we still believe. Not everyone understands that some “pseudoscience”, such as alchemy, is valuable.

A few years after I became an assistant professor, I realized the key thing a scientist needs is an excuse. Not a prediction. Not a theory. Not a concept. Not a hunch. Not a method. Just an excuse — an excuse to do something, which in my case meant an excuse to do a rat experiment. If you do something, you are likely to learn something, even if your reason for action was silly. The alchemists wanted gold so they did something. Fine. Gold was their excuse. Their activities produced useful knowledge, even though those activities were motivated by beliefs we now think silly. I’d like to think none of my self-experimentation was based on silly ideas but, silly or not, it often paid off in unexpected ways. At one point I tested the idea that standing more would cause weight loss. Even as I was doing it I thought the premise highly unlikely. Yet this led me to discover that standing a lot improved my sleep.

Richard Feynman, in his famous “cargo-cult science” speech, failed to understand that “real” science can build on “pseudoscience”:

Another example is how to treat criminals. We obviously have made no progress–lots of theory, but no progress–in decreasing the amount of crime by the method that we use to handle criminals. Yet these things are said to be scientific. We study them. And I think ordinary people with commonsense ideas are intimidated by this pseudoscience.

Absence of obvious progress (such as no decrease in crime) doesn’t mean something is worthless. Bizarre ideas or unsupported ideas (“lots of theory but no progress”) doesn’t mean something is worthless. What’s worthless, in terms of science, is not paying attention to reality. Not caring about how the world actually is. The cargo cults Feynman mentioned weren’t worthless. They tested their beliefs. They found out the planes didn’t land. Fine. It wasn’t pseudoscience, it was just early science, where the reasons for doing stuff now appear ridiculous. Of course the alchemists had beliefs we now think ridiculous. How could they not have?

Science is fundamentally on the side of the weak, since it offers hope of improvement. The powerful not only can afford to ignore reality they would like to, because it might be inconvenient. So they do so as much as possible. When I’ve heard “the debate is over” (= it’s now time to ignore reality) it’s always turned out that the person saying this (e.g., Al Gore, mainstream journalists) was powerful or credulous.

It’s not bad that some people ignore reality. We need people like that. I think of the body: parts of it (e.g., sensory systems) are very sensitive to reality, parts of it (e.g., bones) are not. We need both. When leaders ignore reality is when trouble begins.

10 Replies to “Learning From “Pseudoscience””

  1. Heh, I was totally with you until the last paragraph.

    I disagree on two counts: first, bones are very sensitive: they use a piezoelectric sense to continually redistribute mineral deposits according the the direction and magnitude of stresses. Second, you can’t argue that some people ‘should’ be insensitive for the benefit of society – it’s like saying we need a race of Morlocks toiling underground. We don’t. Besides, folly doesn’t help anywhere, at any level of society, whether you’re a policy-maker or a fisherman. Blindness to reality is folly. The occasional accidental benefits of folly don’t make it indispensable.

    Foolish people aren’t so much like eyeless, insensitive people as people whose eyes can only see their own projections. When Al Gore looks at climate science data, he is projecting his own conclusions onto it. I can say this safely because to this day it is clear that we do not know what the truth is, so any overconfident conclusion – on either side – must be a case of projection. “The wish is father of the thought.”

    Some people will always be more thoughtful or perceptive, but no one should be living in their own hall of mirrors, out of touch with reality.

    I love that you nailed that Feynman argument: I’ve heard that used so loosely all over the place, as an automatic trump-card, so it’s good to see it downgraded from Scripture-status. You’re right, if the Cargo-cultists gave up their method after seeing it didn’t work, who can criticise them? Toddlers try out all sorts of things that seem stupid to adults just because they know more due to having already gone through the same experiments. If adults weren’t so judgmental (and afraid of being judged) they would learn a lot more.

  2. Congratulations, Seth, on discovering the value of research into the mechanisms of DNA replication, and sequencing genomes, and a million other things scientists do that don’t seem to result directly in immediately useful therapies.

  3. G, I didn’t know that about bones. That’s really interesting. I should have said that some parts of the body are much more sensitive to reality than other parts. Bones reflect reality more slowly than our eyes and ears reflect reality.

  4. A bit off topic, but I wish that I could actually watch the BBC here in the USA. BBC America is pretty awful. I simply want a feed of BBC One.

  5. You say “Whenever I’ve heard “the debate is over” (= it’s now time to ignore reality) it’s always turned out that the person saying this (e.g., Al Gore, mainstream journalists) was powerful or credulous.”

    I don’t think the claim that “the debate is over” is the same as saying it’s now time to ignore reality. I also think that when the debate is over, it’s OK to say the debate is over. Suppose someone asks me about, say, whether nicotine is addictive. That’s not something I have any firsthand knowledge of — I’ve never done an experiment that would answer this, nor even read a paper about such an experiment. But it’s my impression that, well, the debate is over. If I say so, am I ignoring reality?

  6. Someone asks you about nicotine. You say, “As far as I know, the debate is over.” That’s quite different than saying “The debate is over. Period.” Which has, as far as I can tell, the underlying additional meaning that I (the speaker) know more about it than you (the listener) and can’t be bothered to tell you why. But in any case I’m just describing my experience — cases where the speaker was uninterested in looking closely at the evidence behind the claim.

  7. When we’ve seen case after case of “evidence” — the best that can be mustered — turn out to be cooked or outright fabricated, it becomes entirely reasonable to lose interest in the next one. I went along, following up denialism claims to see what might be there, for longer than I should have.

    Here’s a time-saver: when you find somebody is trying to deceive you as part of making his case, you can stop looking at evidence, because you have already been notified that there is no case. Only an illegitimate claim stands to benefit from deception.

  8. Seth, I still don’t think that saying “the debate is over” is the same as saying “it’s now time to ignore reality.”

    Nathan, you can’t stop looking at the evidence when you find that someone is trying to deceive you. Piltdown Man was a hoax, but that doesn’t disprove the theory of evolution.

  9. Phil: It means whoever cobbled up Piltdown Man has nothing to offer me. And it means that Seth’s poster boys don’t either; I will continue looking at evidence about global climate change, but not from them. Fortunately there are plenty of other people who have no desire to deceive. It happens that all the other evidence shows incipient disaster, at least for thousands of other species. It’s just opinion that when thousands of other species go extinct, that’s will be bad for humans too, but it is prudent to expect so until it’s demonstrated otherwise.

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