06 March 2009

Nonscience and pseudoscience

One of my interests is pseudoscience. There are a couple of lines I like to draw, between science and nonscience, and between nonscience and pseudoscience. I think science is a good thing, pseduoscience is a bad thing, and nonscience can be anything in between.

Let's start with science. Ultimately, my philosopher friend tells me, it is an impossible job to cleanly define science such that everything which is science is inside the line you draw, and nothing that isn't science is inside. Ok. So I have some fuzzy boundaries for inside vs. outside. Some things might move more cleanly inside, in time, and others will start fuzzy and then move outside. For the most part, though, the fuzziness doesn't cause me problems.

Inside science we have things where people are trying to understand the natural universe, using sharable methods and data, and is subject to further testing. Each of those elements is important. Science is about understanding. Making use of your understanding (say to build a better computer) is engineering. This is one of the many good things that isn't science. Science is about the natural universe. If you're discussing the nature of God, whether there is one, etc., you're over in theology, not science. If you, say, have an experiment where only you can get a certain result, and if I stood next to you and looked I wouldn't see what you did, then you've left science. The most difficult part, for both scientists and non-scientists, is the last -- whatever your conclusions and understanding are today, you have to be open to new data that will cause you to revise yourself tomorrow.

This last is perhaps the quickest method to find pseudoscience. The related point is, in science you don't start with your answer. The flat earth and young earth sites over in the 20 links game all start with their conclusion that the earth is flat, or young, and then assemble whatever arguments they can, however contrived and ultimately dishonest, to support their conclusion. A useful question, then, is "What evidence would cause you to change your mind?". If there's none, the person isn't interested in the science.

Having divided to science and nonscience, keeping in mind that 'nonscience' is not a slam, it's time to think about pseudoscience. I've got a shelf or two of examples on my bookcases at home. Essential to being pseudoscience is that the authors/fans/... have to claim that they are indeed doing science. Baseball, painting, theater, plumbing, ... are all good areas and aren't science. But it's also the case that none of them claim to be science. In baseball, I think the designated hitter rule is bad. This isn't a matter of science; no evidence you present will (at least nothing I've heard in 40 years on the topic) change my mind. But no problem, it isn't science.

Where we get to the pseudoscience is with the claim that it is science, even though it fails to be science. So, for instance, it is possible that the earth really is flat -- if we're being scientific we have to be open to the possibility that tomorrow we'll get a batch of fresh information about optics, gravity, etc., that will lead to the conclusion that the earth is flat after all. But the flat earthers are maintaining it in spite of the fact that there is not such evidence now.

Perhaps my favorite pseudoscience is biorhythms. It's something that could have turned out to be science. The problem only being that when it didn't, the believers didn't stop believing that it was. The idea here is that your body has certain rhythms (which it does in some things) that could predict whether you were in better or worse shape, and more or less accident prone. We're ok so far -- the topic is natural universe, the data are sharable (did people have more accidents, when were they born, where were they in their biorhythm(s), etc.). But when it came down to comparing the observations to the predictions, it failed. There were some problems with the idea (ex: how did the body maintain such a precise timing of the rhythms over a lifetime?), but if the predictions accorded with observation, that's ok. Just means more research is needed, this time to answer those questions.

I first read about this in the 1970s. At that time, one of the books mentioned that there really was a lot of data in support of the idea, but it was in a steamer trunk on a ship that sank during World War II. Bit puzzling that with almost 30 years since the sinking the proponents hadn't managed to find more data, but I was younger then and it didn't strike me as odd as it should have. In the mid-1990s, I looked again (forget the reason) and a recently published book was repeating the steamer trunk story. Come on! Another 20 years on, 50 years after the event, the fans still hadn't managed to find new data. This is 'the dog ate my homework', not science. If a process that is supposed to be going on today can't be supported with observations today, you've lost the 'sharable data' part of being science.

Pseudoscience is unfortunately common when you start looking for information about climate. On the other hand, most of it is fairly easy to identify, being not even as close to science as the biorhythm business.


Alastair said...

It is not the amount or even the existence of evidence that produces a scientific idea. For instance, the average man is presented with overwhelming evidence daily to support the thesis that the Earth is flat. It is only when he goes to the sea shore, and can see the masts of distant ships but not their hulls that there is any direct evidence for the curvature of the surface of the Earth. How often does anyone do that?

Of course there is other evidence that the Earth is spherical. For instance, it is possible to sail or fly around the Earth. Only a very small percentage of my aquaintances have done that. Or it is possible to look down from a satellite and see that the Earth is a globe. Neither I, nor anyone I know has done that.

Over 99% of the evidence that I have points to the Earth being flat. It is only from indirect evidence that I have learnt from others, such as stories of Copernicus, which persuades me otherwise.

Biorythms are a scientific fact. Our mood changes on a daily basis, with a feeling of tiredness every late evening. Women have a 28 day mood swing which we men tend to not to discuss. But mood is not only affected by time. These cycles can be disturbed by events such as imbibing of too much alchohol, news of an unfaithful lover, or jet lag from a long air flight. But the diurnal biorythm still exists. It is just that it has been perturbed.

The apparent flatness of the Earth, and biorythms are just casualties of our modern frenetic life styles.

You wrote "Pseudoscience is unfortunately common when you start looking for information about climate." A few examples please. I tend to accept evidence, whether it comes from sceptics or believers. Evidence is evidence. I am sure you agree :-)

Cheers, Alastair.

John Mashey said...

Actually, I think there's one category missing, I'd add d) to your three.

a) Science
b) Non-Science
c) Pseudo-science
d) Anti-science (whose study is sometimes called agnotology)

The distinction, to me, is that people engaged in pseudo-science think they have an explanation for something, and it doesn't work, and data doesn't support it, and for it to be true may well requires overturning big chunks of well-established science.

Anti-science tries to make some elements of science just disappear, typically by creating doubt, and sometimes by employing the results of pseudo-science. The latter is especially amusing when someone doing anti-science points at several mutually-contradictory pseudo-science efforts to cause confusion about real science.

Hence, in climate, I think Svensmark's ideas on cosmic rays might have been non-science, but have more likely moved into pseudo-science. Likewise Abdusamatov on solar causes, and I think Jaworowski on CO2, and a few others.

These might be called "scientist with an idea that just doesn't make it", but they stick to it long after the evidence against it is overpowering."

I'd say that in climate, anti-science is much more prevalent, and sometimes use pseudo-science arguments as well, or point at them.

Robert Grumbine said...

Alastair: the cycles you refer to are known, and not nearly as precise as you seem to think. But the key for the ones I'm referring to is that they were exactly on some specified periods (23, 28, 31 days), accurate to better than 1 day per 70 years. The 28 day cycle of women's you mention is often not 28 days, often not regular, and often can be shut down entirely (say by illness or excessive exercise), none of which are properties claimed for the biorhythm business (vs. real rhythms such as studied by coturnix and others).

For some links to pseudoscience on climate, check out the 'weeding sources' keyword on the right hand side and the sources being discussed there.

John: Hmm. In terms of classifications, I'm a lumper rather than splitter. That is, I try to keep minimal numbers of categories. I'm not sure that we really need a 4th for the anti-science group you're discussing. I think they fall perfectly well into pseudoscience. Your examples remind us that pseudoscience can be committed by scientists. But I do like the agnotology term and its write up on wikipedia. Have to think about it some more.

John Mashey said...

Think more on the split. It comes from studying a lot of pseudoscience also, reading Randi, etc. I just observe a strong difference between:

1) I have an idea B, and as a side-effect, it invalidates well-established theory A.


2) Theory A *cannot* be right, will not be right no matter what data there is, and here are 5 different (often conflicting) pseudo-science ideas (B, C, D, E, F) also, and besides A is a conspiracy, and anyway, we have a Googol signatures saying A is wrong, etc, etc.

Of course there is some overlap, but tactics for dealing with them can be fairly different.

Alastair said...

I know little about biorhythms, and never bothered to find out more because they always seemed a load of pseudo-science to me. My point is that it is not possible to use lack of evidence to dismiss them because evidence does exist.

I have a longer criticism on my blog.

I started going backwards in time through your "weeding sources" and the first that seemed relevant was on George Will. But you picked the wrong culprit for pseudo-science. The authors of the paper which "proved" that there had not been an ice age scare are the real culprits. I lived through that time, and a friend of mine in Scotland moved house to a lower altitude as a result of it. As I wrote in my blog, the problem is that mathematicians cannot believe that scientists can make mistakes.

Cheers, Alastair.

Robert Grumbine said...

Alastair: If there is no evidence in favor of something, and you believe it anyhow, then it isn't science. That's the 'sharable evidence' part of my definition.

You're also falling for Will's misdirection. You have a lot of company. The thing is, the claim is about what scientists believed and were saying. But his evidence, like yours, is popular media, not scientists. The research I linked to gave the summary of what was actually in the science at the time. What was in the media was rather different. But Will's claim was about science, not media.

Alastair said...

Bob, I readily admit if there is no evidence for something then the concept is unscientific. But if there is evidence, that does not make it scientific. There is some evidence for biorythms, and a flat earth but they are both unscientific. The existence of evidence on its own is not sufficient.

Will is using the correct definition. The scientists are charged with telling the public that an ice age was imminent. Some did. As you say, I have a lot of company on that issue.

Peterson et al. say "An enduring popular myth suggests that in the 1970s the climate science community was predicting “global cooling” and an “imminent” ice age, an observation frequently used by those who would undermine what climate scientists say today about the prospect of global warming." It was no myth. It is documented by Wiiliam Connolley here. But he moves the goal posts by adding "in scientific journals." The general public do not read scientific journals. They read newspapers, and if the scientist were issuing press releases then they were guilty.

George Will presented evidence of newspaper and magazine articles. Are you claiming the journalists made that up?

It is easy to see in the excerpt above from the abstract of Peterson et al. the motive for their paper is to counter "those who would undermine what climate scientists say today about the prospect of global warming." But they are doing quite the opposite by presenting sceptics, like Will, with an obvious case of a scientific paper with a political spin.

It may be worth pointing out that not everything in the scientific cannon is true. For me, science is what has been proved to be true, not whether it has been written by scientists.

Robert Grumbine said...

If your interest, and claim, is about what science had to say, you back that with observations of the science -- scientific publications, as the Peterson, Connolley, and Fleck article did, and Connolley's web pages have. And as Will did not. You further don't lie about what a source said, as Will did, for example about the 1975 New York Times article.

You also talk of press releases. You should read the articles, even the media articles. All or nearly all are media reporters looking for a quote from a scientist -- not the scientist looking for media. Given that I didn't, even 35 years ago, believe that all reporters quoted all scientists (or anyone else) accurately at all times, the media reports never impressed me as saying much of substance.

Time has passed and even people who don't have local public libraries that carry Science and Nature can still get, by way of blogs from scientists, answers direct from scientists. But 35 years ago, I did ok with Science, Nature, Science Digest, Scientific American. These days, Discover.