Pseudoscience Is The Real Pandemic
Some people will believe anything because they can’t tell the difference between real science and pseudoscience. Not only have these people held back humanity, they have gotten people killed. Enough already.
On April 30th, 2020, armed protesters stormed Michigan’s capitol building, demanding an end to lockdown orders meant to stop the spread of Covid-19. With body armor and assault rifles, the protesters stood down a line of police officers, while some members of government donned bullet proof vests out of fear of the situation escalating. Outside, a protester held a sign that read “Tyrants get the rope.”
By October, this sentiment boiled over into a full-blown plot to kidnap and possibly kill Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. The FBI arrested and charged 13 people with domestic terrorism, as they planned to put her on trial for treason.
Among the many issues these incidents bring up, it demonstrates the tendency for some people to believe they know more about science than actual scientists. These domestic terrorists were not epidemiologists, virologists, immunologists, or any other type of medical professionals, and their opposition to sound medical advice was entirely unfounded. When scientists said we need to lockdown to stop the spread of a largely unknown virus, they opposed it because they thought they knew better. Because of this mentality, the US is rapidly approaching 250,000 deaths, many of which could have been prevented.
Likewise, in 2001, President George W. Bush signed into law a funding ban on embryonic stem cell research. He incorrectly reasoned, as did many religious leaders, including Pope John Paul II, that the research would lead to more abortions and said it was equivalent to murder. Again, the scientific community said one thing, and certain non-scientists believed they knew better. Today, stem cell research is being used in a myriad of life-saving treatments thanks to continued research in other countries during the US ban and thanks to the ban being reversed in 2009 by Obama.
Moreover, state school boards face an uphill battle every year against creationists, who assert their Biblical creation myth has more validity than the fields of biology, geology, astronomy, and pretty much the rest of science. In the US, only about 65% of science teachers report teaching evolution as a settled science, with the rest incorporating (or being forced to incorporate) creationism into their curriculums to varying degrees or avoiding the topic all together.
The list of non-scientists opposing science is never ending. Just to name a few: astrologists, flat-Earthers, anti-vaxxers, cryptozoologists, numerologists, conversion therapists, climate deniers, among many, many others. In the middle of a pandemic, it’s unbelievable people are claiming the virus is not real, that 5G cell towers are causing it, that a Covid vaccine will contain a microchip, or any other weird conspiracy theories.
The beliefs of all of these people are founded on the idea that scientists are wrong or lying and that they and their group know the real truth, that they have the real science.
What fuels this mentality? What makes people believe they are experts in a field they know little about? With little to no scientific training, how can they decide what is science and what is not? Part of the answer is the Dunning-Kruger effect, but most of the answer is an inability to tell the difference between science and pseudoscience.
The Demarcation Problem
The Demarcation Problem is the attempt to draw a sharp line between science and pseudoscience, an endeavor that is harder than it seems.
Aristotle first attempted this in his Analytics, although only to a limited extent. He explained that knowledge can be produced through syllogisms, in which the conclusion is derived from demonstrable truths. An example of one of the many types of syllogisms is the following: A=B and A=C; therefore, B=C. In this example, we started with already demonstrated facts and produced new knowledge. Therefore, the line between knowledge and pseudo-knowledge, at least according to Aristotle, is drawn between what can be demonstrated and logically derived on one side and what cannot be demonstrated or has been incorrectly derived due to the use of logical fallacies on the other side.
However, despite being logically sound and a pillar of Western philosophy, Aristotelian logic is limited when trying to test and explain the natural world.
Since Aristotle laid this groundwork in the 300s BCE, philosophers have continued to refine the definition of knowledge. In the 1200s, Albertus Magnus distinguished between revealed truth and experimental observations, and Robert Bacon emphasized the need for evidence and to question widely held beliefs for which evidence did not exist. In the 1600s, Francis Bacon built on the work of Nicolaus Copernicus and Galileo Galilei to create the scientific method, which demands observations, experiments, and measurements to confirm or disconfirm hypotheses. With the scientific method, virtually every field of science exploded in following centuries.
However, philosophers were not satisfied, as the demarcation problem still had not been solved. They claimed the knowledge being produced by the scientific method could not overcome the problem of induction. Made famous by Hume, the problem of induction states that no amount of empirical evidence is ever enough to be 100% certain about the conclusion. For example, you can create a hundred experiments which show that A causes B, and you would be reasonably justified to assume that the next experiment would show the same result. However, this assumes that the universe is unchanging and that our limited experience is enough to extrapolate about the rest of the universe. That is, you don’t really know that A will always cause B.
Ignoring the problem of induction, by the 1920s, the scientific community adopted the position of logical positivism. This states that an idea can only be considered scientific if it is empirically verifiable. Any statement that cannot be verified through experiment was not scientific and considered either pseudoscience or metaphysical. Also known as verificationism, this position still holds to some degree today, although it came under heavy fire from Karl Popper and his idea of falsifiability, which is arguably the best-although imperfect-solution to the demarcation problem.
In 1934, Karl Popper published his Logik der Forschung, in which he proposed falsifiability as a solution to the demarcation problem.
Popper explained that scientific knowledge is not created by scientists proving a hypothesis true, rather by scientists trying to disprove it. The more attacks a hypothesis survives, the more likely it is to be true. Overtime, having survived multiple, well-thought-out attacks through the scientific method, a hypothesis can reasonably be assumed to be true, at which point it can be considered scientific knowledge. He said that “Since we can never know anything for sure, it is simply not worth searching for certainty; but it is well worth searching for truth; and we do this chiefly by searching for mistakes, so that we have to correct them.”
For example, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity has withstood countless attempts to disprove it. Non have succeeded, and, with each one, the theory becomes more and more likely to be true. However, it would only take one incorrect predication to prove it wrong. That is, if you say that all swans are white, the existence of only one black swan is enough to disprove the hypothesis. If Sir Arthur Eddington had not seen the stars in the predicted positions around the eclipse in 1919, if we didn’t detect the gravitational waves created by the merger of black holes in 2015, if it didn’t explain the strange orbit of Mercury, etc. then Relativity would be falsified. However, despite many opportunities for it to be wrong, it still stands, making it far more than likely to be true.
Therefore, Popper separates science and pseudoscience by which ideas have been rigorously tested and survived on one side and which ideas have been falsified, have not been rigorously tested, or cannot be tested on the other side. He claimed that “Our aim as scientists is objective truth; more truth, more interesting truth, more intelligible truth. We cannot reasonably aim at certainty. Once we realize that human knowledge is fallible, we realize also that we can never be completely certain that we have not made a mistake.” He means that science is a never ending process of refinement, in which ideas are continually tested.
How to Spot Pseudoscience
Pseudoscience is everywhere and it may be difficult to discern, as it can look and smell like science.
We all have that friend or relative, with whom simple conversations get derailed into nonsense. If we’re talking about a new baby, we’re suddenly having a debate about whether vaccines cause autism. If we’re talking about finding a new job, he or she mentions Mercury is in retrograde. If we’re talking about unseasonable weather, we have to listen to a mind-numbing rant about how carbon dioxide isn’t a greenhouse gas. Both sides claim to have done their research and to have the real evidence, so how can we tell who is right?
The answer is to use Popper’s falsification.
First of all, we need to first ask if a person’s claim can even be tested. For example, if someone claims “Zeus is real,” this cannot be falsified. That is, there is no way to test it to show that it is wrong. On the other hand, if someone claims that “increasing the velocity of an object results in increasing time dilation” as predicted by Relativity, then this can be falsified. We can devise any number of tests to see if this claim is accurate, and, if it is not, then it is falsified. Another example is if a Reiki masters says that he or she can heal a patient’s energy field. This is not measurable, as ‘energy field’ in this context doesn’t have a concrete definition, let alone a way to measure it. However, if this Reiki master says that he or she can alter a patient’s magnetic field, then this is falsifiable. ‘Magnetic field’ refers to a specific and measurable part of nature. Therefore, one telltale sign of pseudoscience is that it does not make testable claims. Despite fanciful rhetoric, emotional appeals, and mental gymnastics, the bottom line is that pseudoscience does not put itself on the chopping block to be falsified.
Second, pseudoscience has not been rigorously tested. Even if it makes falsifiable claims, it still needs to have a long history of surviving falsification attempts that adhere to the scientific method. For example, if you claim that the alignment of the planets will help your favorite team win and then your favorite team actually wins, this is not enough. Yes, you made a falsifiable claim, and yes, your hypothesis survived. However, one experiment does not mean a whole lot. If, instead, you repeated this experiment numerous times, had your methods and results checked by others, took into account the results produced by other researchers, adhered to the principles of the scientific method, etc. and your results still showed a better than average result, then this begins to approach something we can call scientific. Pseudoscientists don’t adhere to this, as they often point to one study and anecdotal evidence. For example, Dr. Andrew Wakefield’s 1998 study is often cited by pseudoscientists to demonstrate the alleged link between vaccines and autism. Unfortunately for them, no other studies can support his findings. Therefore, another telltale sign of pseudoscience is that it has not been seriously tested, such as through randomized control trials, double blind studies, etc.
Third, many fields of pseudoscience have already been falsified but continue to exist. That is, some pseudoscience made falsifiable claims, stood up to many falsification attempts, but was eventually falsified. For example, astrology makes the claim that the alignment of constellations during a person’s birth gives them certain personality traits. This can be tested, as it is possible to do a simple study in which personality traits are compared to those of other people born around the same time. For those that believe in astrology, it seems to have withstood many falsification attempts, as it has been around a long time, it is hugely popular around the world, and their own experiences with other people seem to confirm its assertions. However, astrology has been falsified numerous times. For example, in 1948, Bertram R. Forer gave his psychology students a personality test and then told them that they would all receive a unique analysis. However, he gave them all the exact same analysis, which was based on vague claims made by astrology. The students were then asked to rate how accurate their analyses were, with the average rating being 85% accurate. The only conclusion is that the claims made by astrology are written in a way to be appealing to as wide a group as possible, meaning that astrology is nonsense.
Why Is Pseudoscience so Common?
Because it is easy to understand, it makes people feel good, most people are not aware of their cognitive biases, and some people benefit from helping it continue.
Pseudoscience does not require people to understand complex principles, perform high-level mathematics, or read complicated texts. Real science is not easy. A first year university physics course, for example, requires students to use calculus, differential equations, linear algebra, etc. to explain experiments done first-hand. People naturally gravitate away from difficult subjects to easier ones, which helps explain why some people are more willing to accept pseudoscience instead of actual science.
Furthermore, many pseudoscientific fields give people a sense of comfort. In particular, they give people a sense of understanding about the world, making it seem less erratic. For example, believing you can tell if a person will be loyal or not by their astrological sign, gives you the sense that you can discern who to have in your life and who to avoid. Before modern science, humans had little understanding of astrophysics, and people needed something to help them organize their lives, give them hope, predict the future, etc. Even though it didn’t really work, astrology made people feel good, so it continued. It gave them a sense of understanding about how the world works, so it reduced stress. In fact, it works so well that evidence of ancient astrology has been found in virtually every culture.
Likewise, pseudoscience makes people feel better about themselves because they believe they are part of an exclusive club that has the real knowledge, while everyone else is still being fooled by some conspiracy. Peruse some flat-Earther videos or forums and you will quickly hear statements about how the world has been fooled by hidden assailants and that flat-Earthers have taken off the veil. The rhetoric is almost identical amongst all pseudoscientists.
Perhaps the most common reason people support pseudoscience is that they don’t understand the difference between causation and correlation. The fallacy of correlation occurs when two events appear connected because they were observed together. However, correlation does not equal causation. Take for example the hilarious graph shown to the Kansas School Board in retaliation for mandating the teaching of creationism. The creator took the data on pirates and global average temperature and “proved” the decline in pirate population causes global warming. The data is real, but the conclusion is absurd.
Likewise, if my child didn’t have autism, then he or she gets a vaccine, and then he or she shows signs of autism, A did not necessarily cause B. If Mercury was in retrograde and I didn’t get the job, this certainly is not proving causation. If I sneeze and a plane crashes, is my sneeze to blame? Of course not.
Furthermore, many pseudoscientists fall victim to confirmation bias, in which a person seeks, interprets, and remembers only the information that will prove them right. This is also known as cherry picking, and it happens in virtually every debate. Get into a debate with a creationist, and he or she will inevitably use only 1 or 2 studies. What about the countless studies to the contrary? Well, they don’t matter to a creationist.
Another example is availability bias, in which people notice the examples that grab their attention due to an event and ignore the rest. If my age is 42, all of a sudden that number seems to be everywhere, simply because I pay more attention when it comes up. When debating an anti-vaxxer, it’s common to hear something like “Well, if vaccines don’t cause autism, then why did my niece get it?” Why is this pseudoscientist only focusing on the one example that is relevant to him or her? Because it stands out, not because it holds any special significance.
Well, then how the hell do we get around these biases? The answer is lots and lots of randomized controlled trials, even though it can be impractical. These involve strictly controlling the variables and then randomizing them. The idea is that if the same correlation is produced between two variables when all other variables are different in each case, it can be reasonably inferred that they are not changing the result. Repeating such a study again and again, with the same outcome, means a researcher can be more and more confident about the result.
Lastly, some groups make a lot of money peddling pseudoscience. Perhaps the best example of this is the famous tobacco trials in the late 1990s. Tobacco companies were accused of misleading people about the dangers of smoking, and they responded by creating their own studies, which, of course, “proved” that smoking was not harmful. Their studies looked like real science, but they certainly did not get anywhere near Popper’s standards. Almost like they were following the same playbook, Exxon created their own pseudoscience to mislead the public about climate change. Likewise, a lot of people make money off of selling nonsense products, such as herbal supplements, the market for which is projected to reach $86.74 billion by 2022. This is the same for astrology websites, even though the movement of the moon, the planets, or distant stars have zero impact on your life, other than the light they emit or reflect and their gravitational pull, which is negligible at this distance. No other known fundamental forces connects you to them. They have no effect on your personality, your relationship, your job, or in anything else for which you need guidance.
Why Does Any of This Matter?
Because pseudoscience is counterproductive and dangerous.
This article started by discussing examples of how pseudoscientists hold back scientific research and are getting people killed. Here’s a few more.
Ronald Reagan had an astrologist name Joan Quigley on speed dial. His Chief of Staff claimed that “Virtually every major move and decision the Reagans made during my time as White House Chief of Staff was cleared in advance with a woman in San Francisco who drew up horoscopes to make certain that the planets were in a favorable alignment for the enterprise.” So the most powerful man in the world used astrology to make decisions on the Cold War, the invasion of Grenada, the invasion of Lebanon, the AIDS pandemic, the Iran-Contra scandal, the War on Drugs, among an alarming amount of other major events.
In 391, Theophilus, the Bishop of Alexandria, personally set fire to the Library of Alexandria, one of the largest repositories of knowledge in the ancient world. Following the decree of Roman Emperor Theodosius I, all non-Christian places of worship and study were to be eliminated, as they posed a threat to the empire’s new official religion. While this Library of Alexandria is not the famous one by the same name, its loss certainly set humanity back quite a bit.
In an attempt to insult his opponent, President Trump said that Biden would “ listen to the scientists “ regarding how to handle the pandemic if he were elected. Because Trump knows better than the scientists? If he’s not listening to the scientists than who is guiding his decision making? Perhaps this explains why the US response has been so tragic. Moreover, his flagrant disregard for experts like Dr. Fauci has inspired his base, who take pride in not wearing a mask, not social distancing, and not expressing a modicum of concern for the dead or vulnerable. Dr. Fauci and his family have gotten death threats and need a security detail. Why? Because some pseudoscientists in the US are well-funded, well-armed, and intensely stupid.
Roughly half of the US doesn’t believe climate change is a problem and supported President Trump pulling the country out of the Paris Climate Agreement. Meanwhile, humans continue to perpetuate the 6th mass extinction.
When the Large Hadron Collider was set to open, protesters put their poor understanding of physics on display when they claimed the supercollider would create a blackhole that would eventually swallow up Earth and even the entire galaxy.
The list is never ending.
How many more examples do we need before we realize there is a pandemic of pseudoscience? How much obstruction can we endure and how many people have to die before we put an end to it?
So What’s the Solution?
Learn science, teach science, vote for candidates that support science, and stop giving pseudoscientists leeway.
It’s that simple. If you want to be part of the change, learn the science yourself. You don’t need to be an expert. Just get the basics. Many scientists these days are engaging with the public in a way that the average person can understand, so it wouldn’t be that difficult. Read their books, listen to them speak, and download their podcasts. Then do what you can to help others understand the science. Engage them in conversation, share intriguing posts, recommend books, do experiments together, etc. Most importantly, make it fun, especially with children.
For the love of God, vote out people that are openly hostile to science. In the US, Republicans in the last few decades have put up several candidates that have shocking views on basic science. For example, Todd Akin said in an interview that “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” Todd Akin was a Missouri Congressional representative from 2001 to 2013, during which time he fought against abortion rights, expanding children’s medical coverage, better school lunches, etc., while opposing climate change and the teaching of evolution in the classroom. Akin is the poster child of pseudoscience. For science to move forward, people like him should never see the inside of a government building. Instead, former astronaut and clear science lover, Mark Kelly, is running for senator in Arizona. Image what the pandemic response would have been if the US government was run by people like him.
Lastly, stop letting your friends and family get away with spreading nonsense. Call them out when they send you those stupid memes or when they make idiotic statements at Thanksgiving. Yes, it’s confrontational, but it might actually save lives.
Anyone else tired of living in a world run by pseudoscientists? Well, then do something about it.
Originally published at http://thehappyneuron.com on October 22, 2020.