Philosopher Karl Popper famously asked how to tell the two apart. His answer—falsifiability—hasn’t aged well, but the effort lives on.
Jettisoning falsifiability won’t solve our initial problem, however: demarcation is simply inevitable. Scientists have finite time and therefore must select which topics are worth working on and which are not: this implies some kind of demarcation. Indeed, there seems to be a broad consensus about which doctrines count as fringe, although debate remains about gray areas.
This concise video goes over a lot of important ground by first establishing basic ideas about observations, explanations, and scientific models and then moves on to the problems of models that don’t actually simplify anything. Ultimately this leads to a discussion of science and pseudoscience. She also has other great videos on her channel as well.
Passages from his book, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, below are two passages that are especially prescient about our current moment. This book was published in 1995.
“We’ve arranged a global civilization in which most crucial elements profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces…
“I worry that…pseudoscience and superstition will seem year by year more tempting, the siren song of unreason more sonorous and attractive. Where have we heard it before? Whenever our ethnic or national prejudices are aroused, in times of scarcity, during challenges to national self-esteem or nerve, when we agonize about our diminished cosmic place and purpose or when fanaticism is bubbling up around us– then, habits of thought familiar from ages past reach for the controls. The candle flame gutters. Its little pool of light trembles. Darkness gathers. The demons begin to stir…
“Science is more than a body of knowledge; it is a way of thinking. I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time — when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and whats true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness. The dumbing down of America is most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media, the 30-second sound bites (now down to 10 seconds or less), the lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance.”
Jacob Bronowski on the dangers of dogma
Relatedly, here is a clip from the 1970s television adaptation of the book, The Ascent of Man by Jacob Bronowski.
Jacob Bronowski explains why the pursuit of science is better than seeking absolute knowledge.
But now, the pseudoscience isn’t as much of a taboo as it used to be. It’s been embraced by young people, who jokingly ascribe the inconveniences of life — a delayed train, a broken laptop — to Mercury’s retrograde. They know that Pisces are sensitive and Leos are self-involved and Geminis are kind of the worst. They follow astrology podcasts such as “Stars Like Us,” buy zodiac-themed candles and fragrances and crystals, and share astrology memes from Instagram accounts such as Drunk Astrology and Not All Geminis.
“There’s a tendency that if there’s an app for it, it somehow gives it more credibility,” Alcock said.
But the app horoscopes are just like the wrappers: momentarily poignant, but disposable. When you look at your natal chart, you’re the center of the universe. But everyone else is the center of theirs.
Knowledge Questions: What is the impact that knowledge has on the knower? What are our limitations in acquiring knowledge? What are the limitations in our abilities to reason? What is the role of skepticism in acquiring knowledge?
As I read this article, it reminded me of a passage from the novel, The Three Body Problem. Linked here is the passage that pass about pseudoscience and magicians.
Below is an article about related issues.
The episode shows how human fallibility can lead scientists astray, even when they appear to be conducting valid experiments. And why not look to magicians for insights into the blind spot in our perceptions? Many of them are experts on ways people can be fooled. As Benvensite showed the world, an advanced degree in something like immunology does not make one immune to self-delusion.
As the famous Richard Feynman quote about science goes: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”
Knowledge Questions: What separates science from pseudoscience? What are the characteristics of “good” science? To what extent can we expect scientific knowledge to be “certain”?
From his basement in upstate New York, Herbert MacDonell launched modern bloodstain-pattern analysis, persuading judge after judge of its reliability. Then he trained hundreds of others. But what if they’re getting it wrong?
Although the reliability of blood-spatter analysis was never proven or quantified, its steady admission by courts rarely wavered, even as the technique, along with other forensic sciences, began facing increasing scrutiny.
In 2009, a watershed report commissioned by the National Academy of Sciences cast doubt on the whole discipline, finding that “the uncertainties associated with bloodstain pattern analysis are enormous,” and that experts’ opinions were generally “more subjective than scientific.”
Still, judges continued allowing spatter experts to testify.
A second article from Propublica
The FBI Says Its Photo Analysis Is Scientific Evidence. Scientists Disagree.
ProPublica asked leading statisticians and forensic science experts to review methods image examiners have detailed in court transcripts, published articles and presentations. The experts identified numerous instances of examiners overstating the techniques’ scientific precision and said some of their assertions defy logic.
From the probiotics aisle to the vaguely ridiculous Organic Integrity outreach effort (more on that later), Whole Foods has all the ingredients necessary to give Richard Dawkins nightmares. And if you want a sense of how weird, and how fraught, the relationship between science, politics, and commerce is in our modern world, then there’s really no better place to go. Because anti-science isn’t just a religious, conservative phenomenon—and the way in which it crosses cultural lines can tell us a lot about why places like the Creation Museum inspire so much rage, while places like Whole Foods don’t.
This is an interesting example of the debate over what science is and who gets to define it. The validity and value of the forensic sciences has been greatly debated over time and despite people’s confidence in these sciences (mostly because of tv shows), research has proven that these sciences are unreliable. What happens when questioning the value of science undermines the institutions built upon that science? In this case, law enforcement seems to have exclusive domain over determining the value and validity of these sciences and these sciences are made to serve their purposes.
“Every independent critique of our forensic science system comes back to the same basic conclusion about both the root of the problem and how to fix it: Forensic science rests under the exclusive control of police and prosecutors, and its legitimacy and integrity have suffered as a result.”
“The professional association for the nation’s district attorneys criticized the report for its insufficient attention to “the ancient debate over precisely what constitutes ‘science’ ” while asserting that the final arbiter of good science should be lawyers and courtrooms, not scientists and laboratories.”
And another article from the Times about the same issue. Once again, gets to the question about what science is.