Why shouldn't I believe in pseudoscience

Pseudoscience - a fighting term or more?

Recently, a discussion arose among members of the skeptical movement about what should actually be understood by science and pseudoscience.

Oops! That has been the theme of the movement from the start, that is for more than three decades. The official aim of the movement is to get you across from a critical, scientific point of view Pseudosciences informed. And it should not have been possible to clarify this fundamental concept up to now?

“Pseudoscience” sounds disparaging, like “false science”. So it is first of all a battle term. The skeptic movement likes to use it in their attacks on questionable practices, allegations and beliefs. In addition, she includes homeopathy, astrology, telepathy, intelligent design, quantum mysticism and many other things. One would also like to prove religion and esotericism with the verdict “pseudoscience”.

But it's not just about fighting. Behind the effort to clarify the terminology there is also a sincere interest in knowledge. It is a tradition in the skeptic movement to try to define the term “pseudoscience”. I think it's a good sign that the skeptics keep asking themselves how they see themselves.

An approximate idea of ​​what skeptics understand by pseudoscience reads in short as follows: Pseudoscience is something that claims to be science but is not.

Popper's demarcation of the statement systems

Science here - pseudoscience there. So we first need an idea of ​​what science is. The skeptics seek advice from Karl Raimund Popper.

Popper is concerned with statements, sentences and the systems of statements of empirical science formed from them. Such an empirical scientific system must be able to fail due to experience, he believes (Logic of Research, Section 6). This criterion of the fundamental Falsifiability Popper serves to differentiate the scientific systems of statements from the non-scientific ones.

Popper counts the metaphysical and the pseudoscientific statements among the non-scientific statements (assumptions and refutations, Chapter 11, Section 2).

This is where the skeptic hooks: Statements that are scientific, but which do not meet the criterion of falsifiability, are pseudoscientific.

The definition of pseudoscience, derived from Popper's criterion, has the charm of being very simple. It still has many supporters among the skeptics. According to this definition, intelligent design undoubtedly belongs to the pseudosciences, including quantum mysticism and all sorts of other questionable systems of expression. One also has religions like that at the wrap and some esoteric frippery.

But wait: religion and esotericism generally do not claim to be scientific. So you take yourself out of the running; they belong in the realm of metaphysics, but not in the realm of pseudosciences. Pseudoscience and metaphysics are not congruent; that comes into play now. Apparently Popper did not see the difference clearly enough at the time.

It's stuck

The inadequacy of Popper's criterion caught the eye of the philosophers among the skeptics: some things that are clearly pseudoscience for them fulfill the condition of scientificity: astrology makes concrete predictions and homeopathy makes healing promises. Predictions and promises of healing can be checked. So we are dealing with systems of scientific statements.

For some of the philosophers that is why it is Falsifiability criterion not suitable for defining the boundary between science and pseudoscience. Some of them reject it outright, others assign it a subordinate role as a differentiator among many.

Metaphysics versus metaphysics

What was needed was a more comprehensive definition of the term pseudoscience, one that was not limited to the known ones unverifiable Information systems of intelligent design and quantum mysticism recorded.

Leading skeptics dared to leap into the transcendent, they acquired a worldview that can be set against the beliefs they have rejected, naturalism, according to which there is one thinking independent reality that can also be recognized by us. Everything of knowing this reality with theirs immutable laws of nature serves, is Science. In contrast, that is illusory thinking and the resulting pseudoscience.

In this way, metaphysics is made into the standard of scientificity: areas of knowledge that do not meet the standard are pseudosciences. With this general foundation, the verdict “pseudoscience” becomes an all-purpose weapon against all unpopular attitudes. Finally it also affects religions, insofar as they make claims to knowledge, and esotericism. What remains is a battle term.

We have now completely lost sight of the fact that a pseudoscience definitely sees itself as a science. In fact, some skeptics have never liked this limitation. Since the scientific claim should no longer play a role, the name will be renamed. Pseudosciences in the sense just described are given the name Parascience. Parascience encompasses the pseudosciences in the traditional sense.

But the concept of pseudoscience itself has also changed due to the naturalistic reasoning: whether something corresponds to science or is to be classified as illusory thinking, remains the only criterion for us State of scientific knowledge.

Aside from the built-in hostility towards progress, the shortcoming of this approach is that it invokes unscientific metaphysics against unscientific pseudoscience. One can consider that absurd.

For good reasons, the skeptic movement is gradually saying goodbye to this metaphysical foundation of the concepts.

Another way out: catalog of criteria

The view is growing that “there is no single general-purpose criterion for delimitation” (skeptiker 3/2010, p. 160). A whole list of delimitation criteria now takes its place. You can find one of these in the GWUP position paper on the topic of para-science - pseudoscience from 5.1.2010.

In addition to the philosophical background assumptions, there are criteria for the following keywords: freedom of research, consistency, verifiability, explanatory power, predictive power, objectivity, connection to neighboring disciplines, objectivity in the sense of intersubjective verifiability.

Many of the criteria - better: characteristics - are from poppers Logic of research familiar.

The paper says: “With the help of these and other criteria, a well-founded decision can usually be made as to whether a field of knowledge is to be assigned to the parasciences or not. Even if such an assessment may not lead to a clear result in every case, it remains a rationally justifiable and well-founded delimitation. A field of knowledge that does not meet only 70 to 90 percent of the criteria used for the analysis can still rightly be regarded as a para-science. "

Now it is true that metaphysics is no longer the only decisive factor. But the arbitrariness has grown.

A debate among skeptics

Obviously, it is the dissatisfaction with this situation that has led some skeptics to re-enter the discussion of the terms.

  • I have often sat in the nettles because I called something “unscientific”, which in the common sense corresponds to science.
  • You can find the phrase "according to the tried and tested knowledge of people ..." in almost every esoteric book.
  • Fundamental falsifiability is of central importance for empirical science. So it is about agreements on the basis that contradicting things are sorted out. This selection leads to the evolution of empirical science. The common feature of the sciences is that they are based on social processes: knowledge is formed through agreements. This is how objective knowledge arises.
  • When evaluating hypotheses or theories, falsifiability is essential. To be (scientifically) useful, a thought should be phrased so precisely and not trivially that it can turn out to be wrong.
  • Even if one interprets falsifiability not in binary but in degree, it provides us with a criterion that classifies sciences and pseudosciences completely incorrectly. Just one example: The supposed effectiveness of homeopathy has been tested by high-quality studies and thus - in a pretty hard sense! - falsified.
  • It will be exciting to see how long it will be before the falsificationists finally give up this failed criterion of demarcation.
  • Of course, the core statements of homeopathy are originally scientific hypotheses - why not? You are just refuted. To continue working on the basis of these refuted hypotheses as if nothing had happened is pseudoscientific.
  • Then you do not use the falsification criterion to differentiate between science and pseudoscience, but a different one. The falsification criterion cannot be used to date the pseudoscientific nature of a hypothesis. A hypothesis is either pseudoscientific or not, and that is true for all time.
  • As you correctly show using the example of homeopathy, the status as a pseudoscience is often time-dependent. But then the delimitation criterion is no longer falsifiability, but anachronism or irrational clinging to the traditional. In addition, when we speak of pseudosciences, we usually always mean the discipline of the present.
  • Refutation does not make a science a pseudoscience. Carrying on as if nothing had happened: this is pseudoscience.
  • And with that, the falsification criterion is off the table. Because this is no longer about falsifiability, but about the fact that it was de facto falsified. That is another criterion.
  • For me, the falsification criterion is central to the identification of scientific statements. The state of science consists of the currently accepted scientific statements. In addition, there is the waste basket of the refuted statements. Anyone who continues to advocate refuted scientific statements is, in my opinion, doing pseudoscience. “Pseudoscience” therefore does not mean the statements themselves, but their use.
  • The falsification criterion, as Popper advocated it, is not a suitable delimitation criterion for the boundary between science and pseudoscience. Popper was probably not too interested in this limit. Popper's demarcation criterion concerns the statements themselves. He was primarily concerned with scientific theories and their demarcation from metaphysics.

What can we learn from it?

Obviously a new distinction is required: on the one hand there are systems of statements, hypotheses and theories - just sentences. This is where Popper's delimitation criterion of falsifiability comes into play: science on the one hand, metaphysics on the other. The classification of a statement system as scientific is independent of time.

On the other hand, there are the disciplines, areas of work with accepted sentences, methods and rules of conduct. Whether a discipline is scientific can change over time.

“Pseudoscience” is more than a battleground term. It stands for a meaningful demarcation. As Pseudosciences be valid

  1. metaphysical systems of statements that appear with the claim of scientificity and
  2. Disciplines that continue to represent scientific statements that have already been refuted.

(In an earlier essay on pseudoscience, the term “parascience” was used in the meaning it was used by the skeptics movement at the time. This has now changed. I decided years ago to abandon the term and turn away from the thrust associated with it.)