And what is the distinction between science and pseudoscience?
Pseudosciences, as mentioned in my discussion of cryptozoology, are “false” sciences. They are enterprises which are fundamentally unscientific, but cloak themselves in the trappings of science to legitimize themselves in the public eye. A discipline may appear scientific if it is flood with jargon and ‘rules’, but the rules, jargon, and facts of proper science are secondary products of its central enterprise. Michael Shermer, in his book Science Friction: Where the Known Meets the Unknown, makes the distinction nicely: science should be thought of “as a set of methods to answer questions about nature instead of a body of facts to be dogmatically distilled.”
To better understand the distinction between science and pseudoscience, let’s take a critical look at an ancient pseudoscience which still exists today: astrology.
The basic assumption of astrology is that the positions of celestial bodies (the sun, planets, etc.) can directly influence the course of human lives. Those with the proper training can read these celestial influences and therefore shed light on human affairs past, present, and future. An astrologer can divine information about anything from your personality to the results of a political election. Keep in mind, astrology arose well before humanity understood its place in the solar system; before we even understood that there was a solar system. Before the modern age, astronomy and astrology were indistinguishable: they were both lumped together as the study of the heavens. Frankly, nobody knew any better.
Consider the staggering changes in the scale of known existence since the birth of astrology, sometime in the 3rd millennium BC. At first, we thought a handful of bodies revolved around the Earth; then we realized the Earth revolves around the sun (with more planets, to boot); then we upgraded to an entire galaxy of such systems; then an entire universe — and now some cosmologists are proposing that our universe may exist among a multitude of others (multiverse theory).
That’s an awful lot of change. As times changed, some of the people studying the heavens adapted, incorporating new data as it arose and actively searching for yet more empirical evidence. These people became astronomers. Others became entrenched in the tradition of astrology, thus it has come down to us with the same core claims as it has ever proposed. (I would not argue that astrology has not changed with the times, but the fundamentals have remained the same. Modern astrology has undergone more rebranding than revolution.)
Ironically, celestial bodies do impact things here on earth. Any modern astronomer could explain to you that the gravitational effects of all the bodies around us shape the Earth’s orbit, or that the radiation from the sun provides the energy necessary for the existence of life on our planet. However, we have no reason to believe that the relative positioning of Jupiter and Mars should influence whether or not you’ll be lucky in love.
Though, when one looks at the complex rules, charts, and rich tradition of astrology, it is easy to assign it undue heft. Perhaps it has cultural significance, but complexity and tradition are not evidence of truth in and of themselves. It’s easy to tell ourselves that “they must be on to something” given the persistence of the tradition — but this is a fallacy. The only thing a pseudoscience must do is prey upon human nature. People will always want easy access to prophecy or insight, and as long as people want these things astrology will linger.
Tradition for tradition’s sake is the antitheses of science. Science requires that we think critically about all things, science itself included. This is usually where pseudosciences diverge from true sciences — they lean heavily on presupposed beliefs. Science proceeds thusly: “Here are the facts, what conclusions can we draw?” Pseudosciences, on the other hand, are more likely to operate under a creed along the lines of “Here are our conclusions, what facts can we find to support them?” (This is assuming that pseudosciences would want to bring facts into the mix in the first place — many are content to follow their precepts blindly.) Modern astrology stubbornly clings to the same basic presumptions it has had since it was founded. Admittedly, science can be (and has many times been) guilty of clinging to dogma — ultimately, however, it weeds out bad ideas, no matter how entrenched they may be.
Professor Paul DeHart Hurd, a major figure in modern science education reform in America, argued that “being able to distinguish science from pseudo-science such as astrology, quackery, the occult, and superstition” is a large part of scientific literacy. For my own part, I emphasize that scientific literacy is of ever-growing importance in the modern world. Our way of life is only possible because of the advances brought about by science: medicine, architecture, electricity, the Internet. Heck, you couldn’t even be reading this if not for the pragmatic application of knowledge gained through science.
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This is process which attempts to resemble science, but is not in reality a science discipline since it lacks controlled environments for experiments.
A pseudoscience is a methodology, claim or belief that is proported to be a scientific discipline but actually lacks in any scientific merit or validity. It has evolved into a pop culture term and is frequently used to mark claims that have arisen in pop culture as fake or disengenuous. This is frequently done to protect the public from being exposed to things that can be harmful.
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