IEET > GlobalDemocracySecurity > Vision > Contributors > Massimo Pigliucci > HealthLongevity > Philosophy > SciTech
The Pseudoscience Black Hole
Massimo Pigliucci   Nov 11, 2013   Rationally Speaking  

As I’ve mentioned on other occasions, my most recent effort in philosophy of science actually concerns what my collaborator Maarten Boudry and I call the philosophy of pseudoscience. During a recent discussion we had with some of the contributors to our book at the recent congress of the European Philosophy of Science Association, Maarten came up with the idea of the pseudoscience black hole. Let me explain.

The idea is that it is relatively easy to find historical (and even recent) examples of notions or fields that began within the scope of acceptable scientific practice, but then moved (or, rather, precipitated) into the realm of pseudoscience. The classic case, of course, is alchemy. Contra popular perception, alchemists did produce a significant amount of empirical results about the behavior of different combinations of chemicals, even though the basic theory of elements underlying the whole enterprise was in fact hopelessly flawed. Also, let's not forget that first rate scientists - foremost among them Newton - spent a lot of time carrying out alchemical research, and that they thought of it in the same way in which they were thinking of what later turned out to be good science.

Another example, this one much more recent, is provided by the cold fusion story. The initial 1989 report by Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann was received with natural caution by the scientific community, given the potentially revolutionary import (both theoretical and practical) of the alleged discovery. But it was treated as science, done by credentialed scientists working within established institutions. The notion was quickly abandoned when various groups couldn't replicate Pons and Fleischmann's results, and moreover given that theoreticians just couldn't make sense of how cold fusion was possible to begin with. The story would have ended there, and represented a good example of the self-correcting mechanism of science, if a small but persistent group of aficionados hadn't pursued the matter by organizing alternative meetings, publishing alleged results, and eventually even beginning to claim that there was a conspiracy by the scientific establishment to suppress the whole affair. In other words, cold fusion had - surprisingly rapidly - moved not only into the territory of discarded science, but of downright pseudoscience.

Examples of this type can easily be multiplied by even a cursory survey of the history of science. Eugenics and phrenology immediately come to mind, as well as - only slightly more controversially - psychoanalysis. At this point I would also firmly throw parapsychology into the heap (research in parapsychology has been conducted by credentialed scientists, especially during the early part of the 20th century, and for a while it looked like it might have gained enough traction to move to mainstream).

But, asked Maarten, do we have any convincing cases of the reverse happening? That is, are there historical cases of a discipline or notion that began as clearly pseudoscientific but then managed to clean up its act and emerge as a respectable science? And if not, why?

Before going any further, we may need to get a bit more clear on what we mean by pseudoscience. Of course Maarten, I and our contributors devoted an entire book to explore that and related questions, so the matter is intricate. Nonetheless, three characteristics of pseudoscience clearly emerged from our discussions:

1. Pseudoscience is not a fixed notion. A field can slide into (and maybe out of?) pseudoscientific status depending on the temporal evolution of its epistemic status (and, to a certain extent, of the sociology of the situation).

2. Pseudoscientific claims are grossly deficient in terms of epistemic warrant. This, however, is not sufficient to identify pseudoscience per se, as some claims made within established science can also, at one time or another, be epistemically grossly deficient.

3. What most characterizes a pseudoscience is the concerted efforts of its practitioners to mimic the trappings of science: They want to be seen as doing science, so they organize conferences, publish specialized journals, and talk about data and statistical analyses. All of it, of course, while lacking the necessary epistemic warrant to actually be a science.

Given this three-point concept of pseudoscience, then, is Maarten right that pseudoscientific status, once reached, is a "black hole," a sink from which no notion or field ever emerges again?

The obvious counter example would seem to be herbal medicine which, to a limited extent, is becoming acceptable as a mainstream practice. Indeed, in some cases our modern technology has uncontroversially and successfully purified and greatly improved the efficacy of natural remedies. Just think, of course, of aspirin, whose active ingredient is derived from the bark and leaves of willow trees, ‚Äčthe effectiveness of which was well known already to Hippocrates 23 centuries ago.

Maybe, just maybe, we are in the process of witnessing a similar emergence of acupuncture from pseudoscience to medical acceptability. I say maybe because it is not at all clear, as yet, whether acupuncture has additional effects above and beyond the placebo. But if it does, then it should certainly be used in some clinical practice, mostly as a complementary approach to pain management (it doesn't seem to have measurable effects on much else).

But these two counter examples struck both Maarten and I as rather unconvincing. They are better interpreted as specific practices, arrived at by trial and error, which happen to work well enough to be useful in modern settings. The theory, such as it is, behind them is not just wrong, but could have never aspired to be scientific to begin with.

Acupuncture, for instance, is based on the metaphysical notion of Qi energy, flowing through 12 "regular" and 8 "extraordinary" so-called "meridians." Indeed, there are allegedly five types of Qi energy, corresponding to five cardinal functions of the human body: actuation, warming, defense, containment and transformation. Needless to say, all of this is entirely made up, and makes absolutely no contact with either empirical science or established theoretical notions in, say, physics or biology.

The situation is even more hopeless in the case of "herbalism," which originates from a hodgepodge of approaches, including magic, shamanism, and Chinese "medicine" type of supernaturalism. Indeed, one of Hippocrates' great contributions was precisely to reject mysticism and supernaturalism as bases for medicine, which is why he is often referred to as the father of "Western" medicine (i.e., medicine).

Based just on the examples discussed above - concerning once acceptable scientific notions that slipped into pseudoscience and pseudoscientific notions that never emerged into science - it would seem that there is a potential explanation for Maarten's black hole. Cold fusion, phrenology, and to some (perhaps more debatable) extent alchemy were not just empirically based (so is acupuncture, after all!), but built on a theoretical foundation that invoked natural laws and explicitly attempted to link up with established science. Those instances of pseudoscience whose practice, but not theory, may have made it into the mainstream, instead, invoked supernatural or mystical notions, and most definitely did not make any attempt to connect with the rest of the scientific web of knowledge.

Please note that I am certainly not saying that all pseudoscience is based on supernaturalism. Parapsychology and ufology, in most of their incarnations at least, certainly aren't. What I am saying is that either a notion begins within the realm of possibly acceptable science - from which it then evolves either toward full fledged science or slides into pseudoscience - or it starts out as pseudoscience and remains there. The few apparent exceptions to the latter scenario appear to be cases of practices based on mystical or similar notions. In those cases aspects of the practice may become incorporated into (and explained by) modern science, but the "theoretical" (really, metaphysical) baggage is irrevocably shed.

Can anyone think of examples that counter the idea of the pseudoscience black hole? Or of alternative explanations for its existence?

Massimo Pigliucci has a Doctorate in Genetics from the University of Ferrara (Italy), a PhD in Evolutionary Biology from the University of Connecticut, and a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Tennessee. He has done post-doctoral research in evolutionary ecology at Brown University and is currently Chair of the Philosophy Department at Lehman College and Professor of Philosophy at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His research interests include the philosophy of biology, in particular the structure and foundations of evolutionary theory, the relationship between science and philosophy, the relationship between science and religion, and the nature of pseudoscience.


Does String Theory qualify as pseudoscience?

“Pseudoscience” is the modern PC hate term for research that one dislikes or disagrees with.

When I acted as referee for scientific journals I had to express disagreement with cogent arguments. Today, I could just scream “Pseudoscience!”

Beware of intellectual fashions, they kill your mind.

The Inquisition used to burn unorthodox scientists, which is worse than calling them pseudoscientists, so I guess we have made some progress.

@Giulio, doesn’t Pseudoscience simply mean that something cannot be backed up by the all powerful scientific method? If there was a better method to test results I think we would have found it. Even the most sophisticated computer simulations, whether they are simulating climate change, or a nuclear blast, use the scientific method more or less so that others can do the same experiment. The scientific method is by far the greatest tool we have on earth, in my opinion.

So….what to do about these “intellectual fashions”. It’s not like we’re going to get rid of them, are we? Ideas are memes, and some of them are sticky. The term “pseudoscience” has become a meme, and it’s not going to go away any time soon.

Does it have any value? In my view yes for the reasons I discussed with Giulio in relation to “quantum mysticism”. Too many ideas are prevalent in our society that masquerade as “science”, benefiting from the reflected credibility it gives them, when in fact they are at best wild speculations and at worst outdated beliefs that clearly conflict with evidence.

Contrast this, for example, with Kyriazis’s views on immortality (see By his own admission these are speculative and conjectural, yet they are not (in my view) pseudoscience. They are a good example (again in my view) of that cauldron of creative thought that allows itself to become temporarily unhinged from the rigours of the scientific method, but without altogether losing touch with it, and which is essential for science to progress. Same with Kepler’s somewhat questionable obsession with ellipses.

It is, of course, possible that speculations and conjectures that are sufficiently original and plausible to hold some promise for enhancing our understanding will come to also be labelled “pseudoscience”, and thus Giulio’s (potentially self-fulfilling?) claim that it is a “hate term for research that one dislikes or disagrees with” will come true. What Pigliucci seems to be saying is that this appears not (yet) to be the case.

And this is an important finding, because Giulio’s critique has some plausibility. One can well imagine people referring to the ideas that the earth was round, or that it revolved and the sun, as “pseudoscience”, had the term existed back then. What we are discussing here is how to strike the right balance between closed-mindedness and excessive tolerance of nonsense.

@Peter re “how to strike the right balance between closed-mindedness and excessive tolerance of nonsense.”

Before going into that, I question my right to criticize your personal preferences. If you want to believe in the Tooth Fairy, that is perfectly fine with me provided you don’t force others to believe in the Tooth Fairy. What you think in your own head is not my business.

The term “tolerance” is misplaced here, because it implies an entitlement to thought-policing that I don’t accept. I am not “tolerant” of your personal beliefs, but _indifferent_, and I ask you to return the same courtesy to me.

Of course things are different when they are public, with consequences for others. Of course I agree that scientific consensus must be considered as one of the most important factors for, e.g., public school curricula and public funding requests.

But I respect the scientists who choose to explore far off and beyond the beaten path, because some of them will advance science.

Thanks Giulio. I think this actually helps to elucidate a significant difference between our values, in that you regard indifference to others’ beliefs as a form of respect, whereas I regard it as more akin to negligence. If I am indifferent to your “private” beliefs, even though I think they may be harmful to you, then that means I am indifferent to you. And if you are talking about them, then they are no longer private, since you are also influencing others, which might also be harmed by them. More positively, you or others may benefit from your beliefs, and this (for me) rules out indifference as an ethical position as well.

@Peter - Indeed, I regard respect for others’ autonomy and self-ownership and indifference to (or, perhaps better, non-interference with) their personal beliefs, as a very primary value.

Of course our beliefs are not strictly “private” when we talk about them. But everything can be harmful to somebody in some cases, so we must draw a line somewhere. As we have discussed in the past, I draw the line at sticks and stones.

So feel free to use as many words as you wish to persuade me of your beliefs, and I will not object (I may stop listening at some point though). But don’t use sticks and stones to force me to adopt your beliefs.

I wasn’t intending to, Giulio, and of course you have the right to stop listening. Also, we can extend “sticks and stones” to include disrespectful discourse (hence Buddhist Right Speech).

So on that we are agreed. Where we still seem to disagree, though, or at least have somewhat different instincts, is on the extent to which indifference to each other beliefs is something to be welcomed, and what it depends on. Does this matter? No, not really…but I think it is still helpful to be clear about where we disagree, and why.

@Giulio, I was taught in elementary school the allegiance to the flag of America, that Columbus “found” “America”, and was very fortunate not being forced to go to church school. The first time I heard of the scientific method was possibly in 6th grade. The first time I learned about Socrates was late in high-school.

If you value education, and by that I mean responsible real education, then you do NOT “tolerate” other’s beliefs.

Of course no one should be taught the allegiance to any flag, that Columbus found America, or that you are going to hell/purgatory if you do not follow the strict rules of the church when your mind is young and believing what adults have to say.

So Giulio, I disagree with you that you are tolerant.

Although I could be wrong? Do you support education of people below the age of 18 about the examples I provided?

Wouldn’t people’s imaginations be much more rich if taught philosophy and science and responsible social issues at a very young age?

In India I was told that ayurvedic medical pratitioners, before the
British conquest, used to meet to compare notes about the empirical
efficacy of various treatments.  If true, this would mean that
ayurvedic medicine was to some extent evidence-based, and scientific
in a way, even though not Western.

But the keyword here is “was”. Much pseudoscience is based on ideas that were speculative but to some extent evidence-based at one time, but to which people have since developed an emotional attachment that causes them to believe in them even when there is clear evidence that they are false. This is why pseudoscience is such a black hole: because once a school of thought has resorted to pseudoscience, the ideas they are promoting are generally old, stale, and unlikely to lead to any further insights.

Like Giulio, I also respect the scientists who choose to explore far off and beyond the beaten path. Some of them will advance science. The question is whether there is any overlap between this type of exploration and pseudoscience, as defined by Pigliucci and Wikipedia. Where Giulio perceives a PC hate term, I perceive a useful distinction.

By the way, one interesting test case for Pigliucci’s hypothesis is mindfulness. Mindfulness began as a practice in Buddhism, but in the past few years has gained relatively mainstream acceptance within secular psychology, and it seems reasonable to regard mindfulness, as interpreted within the latter tradition, as sound science.

The question, in the context of the “pseudoscience black hole” hypothesis, is whether it was ever (or perhaps still is) “pseudoscience”, and here I think there may be semantic issues that Pigliucci has not (yet) adequately addressed.

One semantic issue that Pigliucci has addressed is what constitutes “pseudoscience”, and here the following is especially relevant: “What most characterizes a pseudoscience is the concerted efforts of its practitioners to mimic the trappings of science: They want to be seen as doing science, so they organize conferences, publish specialized journals, and talk about data and statistical analyses. All of it, of course, while lacking the necessary epistemic warrant to actually be a science.” But if we want to assess whether something is, or has been, a pseudoscience we also need to be clear on what that “something” is. One thing is clear: a word cannot be a pseudoscience, so “acupuncture”, “herbal treatment”, and “mindfulness” (or, for that matter, “quantum mysticism”) cannot, as words or phrases, constitute pseudoscience. What can constitute pseudoscience is a certain body of practice that tends to be associated with such words.

In this context I think Pigliucci might be being somewhat pessimistic about acupuncture and herbal treatment, and his hypothesis may therefore be questionable. I think he makes a good case for acupuncture and herbal treatment still to be regarded as pseudoscience, but I’m far less convinced that the practices and theories associated with them are incapable of yielding useful insights. Similarly, it would seem plausible to argue that the term “mindfulness” both has been and still is associated with practices that can reasonably be considered “pseudoscience”, yet it would be grossly damaging (in view of the enormous benefits that the practice of mindfulness can bring) to regard it as not having yielded useful insights, or as not having (in some of its manifestations) turned into a genuine science.

YOUR COMMENT Login or Register to post a comment.

Next entry: An alternate history where Twitter is genuinely disruptive

Previous entry: Risk of massive asteroid strike underestimated