"If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once
in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things." - Rene Descartes
The scientific method starts with a foundation of accepting a universe
regulated by "natural laws" that cause consistent results. Science is the
study of causation, not purpose, and does not bring in supernatural forces.
In its most basic aspect the scientific method always involves doing
appropriate reality checks, and eliminating subjectivity. No experimental
results are considered valid unless they are duplicated by the researcher,
and then duplicated by an independent experimenter or researcher. No
observational claims are considered valid unless they are observed and
carefully and objectively recorded by multiple observers. - Site Author
by Jason Goodman
SCIENCE, PSEUDOSCIENCE, CRACKPOTS AND SKEPTICISM: WHAT ARE THEY?
INTRODUCTION AND PURPOSE
This will serve as an introduction to what the various concepts in
the title are. In the scientific community, these terms are quite often
thrown around in a manner that reeks of subjectivity. It is, then, my
intent here to present to you these things in an objective manner. A
logical analysis of these terms–their common usages, their actual
meaning, etc.–will be given, culminating with concrete definitions that
(hopefully) can never be used in a subjective manner. I will be drawing
lots of material from a natural science lecture. (Note: The page with
the lecture is now defunct, but still cached in the Google search
engine. Just type "natural sciences tier" and it should come up).
WHAT IS SCIENCE?
Science has long been an activity that has been under more scrutiny than almost
any other in history. While there have been various religious (e.g., persecution of
supporters of Copernicus by the medieval church), philosophical (e.g., postmodernists
and others who consider science as just another arbitrary social construct), and social
(scientific illiteracy and suspicion of science by the public) objections to the scientific
enterprise, there are still other dangers to science. A noticeable portion of modern
mainstream science, primarily in the fields of cosmology and fundamental physics, is a
potential danger to its own community–possibly just as much so as groups like those
mentioned above. Many alternative (read: non-mainstream) theories have been labeled as
"unscientific" and their proponents called "crackpots."
While a handful of theories and their advocates have been appropriately labeled as such,
many others have been wrongly labeled. This probably is the result of many scientists in the
astronomy and physics community either having a highly subjective definition of "science"
or still not having a full grasp of what science is. It is thus imperative that we construct a
foolproof definition of science. Here are a few great examples of usages of the word "science"
to see how it relates to the nature of science and/or what science is:
"...the goal of science is to seek naturalistic explanations
for phenomena... within the framework of natural laws and principles and the operational rule of
testability." - The National Academy of Sciences
"Science is the human activity of seeking natural explanations
for what we observe in the world around us." - from the original draft of the Kansas State
Science Education Standards that was written by a 27 member committee of scientists and educators
"The systematic pursuit of useful, reliable, quantitative knowledge
through the scientific method." –quoted from the above mentioned natural sciences lecture
"The study of the physical world and its manifestations, especially
by using systematic observation and experiment." - from Encarta Dictionary
The second to last usage of the word "science" mentions the scientific method. Don Scott
gives an excellent overview of the method on the "Introduction" page on his website. [ed note
–see it here: http://www.electric-cosmos.org/introduction.htm ]
What can we determine from the above definitions? Simple. Science can be simply defined as
"the practice of seeking naturalistic explanations for the world around us through the scientific
method, which is a systematic search for useful generalizations about nature." It is a simple
definition. It works.
So, a scientist can be defined as "Any person who engages in the practice of science.
" Mainstreamers often complain about non-specialists try to "invade" another field
(like plasma physicists and electrical engineers developing a cosmological theory), as well as
basically saying that amateurs (especially those who don't have advanced degrees in a field) have
no business "siding" with alternative theories as they "wouldn't know what they were
talking about," or other similar comments. Despite the complaints, "Scientists may be
professional or amateur; so long as they adhere to the scientific method, they are scientists.
It's not a matter of university degrees; It's a question of method."
However, these definitions of "science" and "scientist" are still disregarded
by large parts of mainstream science. Most alternative theories are still constantly referred to as
"pseudoscience." Well, let us examine that term then, shall we?
WHAT IS PSEUDOSCIENCE?
This is a term that is thrown around a lot. Usually, it is used to connote any theory that does
not fit with mainstream science. However, this definition is hopelessly flawed and does nothing more
than promote bias towards or against particular theories. It is then necessary to construct a foolproof
definition of the term "pseudoscience."
This is somewhat more difficult to define than science is, though. We should break down the word
into its two word roots. The second word root is "science." We have already gone over this,
of course. So let's proceed to the other word root, which is the prefix "pseudo-". This prefix
is used to denote things that are either false (e.g. a "pseudonym" is a false name) or appear
to be similar to something but isn't (e.g. a cellular "pseudopod" appears to be a foot of sorts,
but isn't actually a foot).
"Pseudoscience" is then easy to define. It can be defined as "Something that pretends
to be science but is not subject to testing (and falsification) by the scientific method...," to
once again quote the above mentioned natural sciences lecture. It is, quite simply, something that isn't
science. It is something that is not empirical; that is, it is unanswerable to data. That says some things
about quite a few ideas in mainstream cosmology and physics (things like "multiverse theories
" come to mind).
WHAT IS A CRACKPOT?
This is another frequently heard term. It is almost always used to label proponents of non-mainstream
theories. A crackpot is defined as "somebody who is regarded as having unconventional or wild ideas
(informal insult)," to quote the entry in the Encarta Dictionary.
Roget's thesaurus has the following entry: "A person regarded as strange, eccentric, or crazy:
crazy, eccentric, lunatic. Informal : crank, loon, loony. Slang : cuckoo, ding-a-ling, dingbat, kook,
nut, screwball, weirdie, weirdo." This is, of course, an entirely subjective term.
The term "crackpot" is nothing more than an insult, used to denigrate those whose theories
they disagree with. Is Halton Arp "crazy"? Was Hannes Alfven "eccentric"? Was Ralph
Juergens a "lunatic"? Are the proponents of plasma cosmology, catastrophism, or non-expanding
universe models nothing but a bunch of "cranky loons"? It all depends on who you ask.
A long time ago, scientists like Alexander Graham Bell, Nikola Tesla, Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler,
Wegener and many others were considered crackpots. Yet they were eventually vindicated. Of course, not
all of their ideas were perfect, but these people all made important contributions to science. Conversely,
many mainstream scientists of the past like Kelvin, Chapman, and especially Ptolemy, turned out to be wrong.
Saying "You are a crackpot" is no different than saying "You are a bad artist."
It is a subjective term that doesn't need to be used by responsible scientists. If anything, the term
"crackpot" would best be reserved for scientists whose personalities and/or practices resemble
those of fictional characters such as Frankenstein, Moreau, or anyone else that psychologists would
WHAT ARE SKEPTICS AND SKEPTICISM?
Michael Shermer, Martin Gardner, and many other advocates of mainstream science refer to themselves as
"skeptics." They usually refer to a "skeptic" as a person who doubts "crackpot
Well, let's take a look at this word. "Skeptic," which comes from the Greek skeptikos
(skeptikos), means "somebody who questions the validity or truth of things that most people
accept." Skepticism is "an attitude marked by a tendency to doubt what others accept to
We learn something immediately from this. A skeptic is, quite simply, somebody who doubts what
others accept to be true. Schermer, et al., are skeptics because they doubt the conclusions of
alternative science. Arp, Thornhill, Scott, the Achesons, and myself, among others, are skeptics
as well. We doubt what the mainstream cosmological and physics community accept to be true (e.g.,
the BBT, Standard Model, relativity, etc.). In fact, since everybody on Earth will doubt what some
other person holds to be true, every single individual is, by definition, a skeptic.
That leaves very little special meaning left for the term "skeptic" for mainstream
supporters like Shermer. Personally, I think that Shermer has the right idea, and I respect many
of his general outlines, but, like many other mainstreamers, he just goes about it the wrong way.
WHAT HAVE WE LEARNED?
Science is a realm of inquiry devoted to explaining the natural world through naturalistic
means. "Pseudoscience" can be reduced to a term that can be used to describe things
that aren't science but pretend to be. What can we draw from this?
Things that employ the scientific method can be called "science", while things that
employ unscientific methods while trying to appear as science can be called "pseudoscience."
Simple as that. Pseudosciences are, in essence, theories and fields that employ such things as
supernatural or paranormal causation.
Supernatural forces are by definition beyond the realm of nature, and thus beyond the realm of
science. Therefore, something that is reliant on supernatural causation cannot be science.
To quote philosopher of science Arthur Strahler:
"Supernatural forces, if they exist, cannot be observed,
measured, or recorded by the procedures of science–that's simply what the word
"supernatural" means. There can be no limit to the kinds and shapes of
supernatural forces and forms the human mind is capable of conjuring up from "nowhere."
Scientists therefore have no alternative but to ignore "claims" of the existence
of supernatural forces and causes. This exclusion is a basic position that must be stoutly adhered
to by scientists or their entire system of processing information will collapse. To put it another
way, if science must include a supernatural realm, it will be forced into a game where there are no
rules. Without rules, no scientific observation, explanation, or prediction can enjoy a high
probability of being a correct picture of the real world."
Pseudosciences are, in actuality, not quite as common as the mainstream lets on. However, such
pseudosciences can be rather prominent. A great example of a pseudoscience is astrology, which
claims that the position of the planets and stars at the time of a person's birth tells them their fortunes.
The BBT, Standard Model, fusion star theory, and most other mainstream theories–problematic,
false, correct, or whatever they may be in someone's particular professional opinion–are scientific,
actually, because they rely on naturalistic explanations. But so are plasma cosmology, non-expanding
universe scenarios, electrical catastrophism, and a plethora of other non-mainstream theories.
Granted, many alternative theories have problems or are, for all intents and purposes, doubtful or
just not good enough, but many are also right. It doesn't change the fact that, if they fit the
description of science as has been outlined, then they are scientific. It is, then, a matter of
which theory is simpler (as per Occam's Razor) and which fits the observations better.
As far as subjective terms or special titles like "crackpot" or "skeptic"
go, we can all do without them, especially those of us in the scientific community. It will not
suffice to force everything into–or disregard it if it can't fit with–, preexisting theory, either.
A real scientific debate between the various theories cannot ensue within the current system. That
inspires more conflict than debate.
Science has enough dangerous enemies without such friction. We need an atmosphere more tolerant of
alternative science. I think this is the best general advice for people who value scientific research
and the scientific method.