Pseudoscience

Merriam-Webster Dictionary Definition of pseudoscience:

A system of theories, assumptions, and methods erroneously regarded as scientific. pseu-do-sci-en-tif-ic, an adjective

Skeptic’s Definition:

A belief or process which masquerades as science in an attempt to claim a legitimacy which it would not otherwise be able to achieve on its own terms; it is often known as fringe- or alternative science. The most important of its defects is usually the lack of the carefully controlled and thoughtfully interpreted experiments which provide the foundation of the natural sciences and which contribute to their advancement. Stephen Lower, Chem1 Virtual Textbook

US Government: Pseudoscience has been defined as “claims presented so that they appear [to be] scientific even though they lack supporting evidence and plausibility” (Shermer 1997, p. 33). In contrast, science is “a set of methods designed to describe and interpret observed and inferred phenomena, past or present, and aimed at building a testable body of knowledge open to rejection or confirmation” (Shermer2 1997, p. 17). “Science and Engineering Indicators 2006” National Science Board.1

Practical Definition: A derogatory term coined by skeptics to label subjects with which they disagree. This disagreement is seldom based on known instances of bad science, but rather because, in the skeptical view, the subject is not supported by orthodox science. This term is virtually always used in conjunction with efforts to convince an audience that to dislike, mistrust or even fear the subject.


Introduction

For fifty years now, people around the world have recorded Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP). Careful, well-educated people have devised ways to test EVP in an effort to determine what causes the phenomenal voices. In many cases, good science has been conducted leading to peer-reviewed reports that reinforce the one important fact that no known physical principle has been found to explain the existence of the intelligible voices. If a physical explanation cannot be found, then it is sensible to look for nonphysical explanations.

In a different forum, researchers have discovered that it is possible to influence the environment at a distance with intentionality. Substantial research has been conducted on what is commonly referred to as “psi functioning.” The term, “psi,” is commonly used to denote mental influence of subtle energy. The nature of this subtle energy is still mostly unknown. Since current instruments of science do not directly detect this energy, it is studied by how it is affected by intentionality (psi functioning). For instance, random event generators are known to become less random when near a group of meditating people.3 Similar decreases in randomness have been detected during successful remote viewing sessions as opposed to ones less successful. If a physical explanation cannot be found to explain these effects, then it is sensible to look for nonphysical explanations.

Beyond converging hypotheses designed to explain them, two common characteristics of these phenomena are that they promise a huge benefit to humankind if current hypotheses stand and they are both branded as pseudoscience by the skeptics. Since good science is often conducted in these studies, the pseudoscience accusation is technically not accurate. The real reason for the branding is that skeptics, acting as apologists for science, believe that mainstream science does not allow for the existence of these phenomena and therefore they cannot be real. The net result has been that the possible benefit to humankind offered by these and similar phenomena has only partially developed, and if the skeptics prove successful, the benefit will never manifest.

This article about pseudoscience addresses this issue and explores ways our community might respond.

The Scientific Method

Science is basically the organized inquiry into the nature of reality. In its simplest form, it is observation of nature leading to hypothesis describing what is observed. This in turn leads to predictions about the behavior of what has been observed. For science to be practiced these predictions must be able to be tested and the results of those tests must be used to modify the hypotheses so that it can better describe that in nature which was observed. Let us call this science with a small “s.”

Anyone can conduct science, however, the three very important tools are usually considered to be necessary if real Science (with a capital “S”) is to be conducted. The most important is that there must be a well-considered protocol describing how the predictions are to be tested. This protocol should be designed to assure that unnoticed artifacts of the experimental process do not contaminate the results or lead to misleading conclusions. The protocol must also allow for the collection of results that might confirm or disprove the theory.

The second tool is development of a research report and some form of media for publication that will support vetting of the report by a community of subject-matter specialists. In short, science requires that a community of qualified people is able to review the results and agree that the hypothesis has been tested and the results have been analyzed to produce a reasonable conclusion. Here, “reasonable” will generally be determined by best practices for that field of study. For instance, trans-etheric influences are experienced or detected differently than are physical phenomena such as apples falling from a tree. It may be unreasonable to arrive at a firm conclusion about the meaning of an EVP and there should be many more indeterminate results in etheric studies than there are in physics.

The third tool is a history of prior research. This is a body of knowledge developed over time which will help to provide a foundation for development and evolution of the hypotheses. In principle, science is conducted in a continuum so that the present inherits some characteristics of the past and contributes to the future. Prior art is very important in Science.

The practice of Science (capital “S”) is supported by a well-established community based on universities (academia) professional organizations and publications, both government (public) and private funding and a culture of professionalism, peer pressure and a growing community of apologists. It is not fair to stand outside of this community and say what is and is not right about it. It is often reported that peer pressure is very strong, especially in academia. This, we are told, makes it difficult for a person seeking a successful career in science to step very far from the mainstream.

While I am not part of the scientific community, I am directly affected by the apologists who act as if they are science police defending the good name of Science from the vulgar unwashed practicing quack medicine and promoting woo-woo ideas about alternative realities and little green men. The skeptical community has become just that, and while Science is largely neutral, even open-minded when it comes to new ideas, skeptics have amplified whatever dogma Science may bring to society and are doing everything they can to assure the public sees it their way.

Good or Bad Science

Like anything involving training and experience, Science may be poorly done. The methodology of Science represents a best practice. If a protocol is used that does not really test the hypothesis and the vetting process does not catch this, then it is possible that Science would not really be very meaningful. In such a case, it is not the problem of the frontier subject. Bad science like this can occur in any discipline. On the other hand, if “bad science” is the rule, then there may be systemic problems which can be addressed without discounting the fundamentals of the subject.

Inappropriate Science

In some frontier subject, the usual methodology of mainstream science may be inappropriate. In etheric studies, the etheric is hypothesized to be a mostly conceptual environment in which intention may be an equivalent to the physical forces of the more objective physical. Any protocol that does not take into account the experimenter effect or the near impossibility to shield from psi influences is simply inappropriate.

In another way, statistical analysis has its place but one should remember that some phenomena are very rare. Yes, a Class A EVP can be dependably recorded by a confident practitioner given enough sessions, but statistical analysis can be expected to reject the rare Class A example simply because it is considered a statistical “outlier.”

Another example of possibly inappropriate science is the approach to testing experimental repeatability. I discuss this problem in my critique of Imants Barušs’ two articles about EVP published by the Journal of Scientific Exploration. Barušs’ protocol called for college students as practitioners. Recording EVP is repeatable to a point, but like may mundane practices; it is very difficult to conduct research if one does not have a skilled practitioner, which Barušs apparently did not. The conclusion that the protocol had effectively tested the subject is not supported by best practices.

It is inappropriate for a person to conduct research and report the results as good science if he or she is not trained in an applicable discipline. It is common for skeptics to argue that pseudoscience is the product of an amateurish approach to science, yet virtually all of the research done to show that subtle energy is not real has been conducted by people trained in psychology. While many of the reports about subtle energy phenomena are perceptual (the mind as the receiver for the trans-etheric influence), actual study of these effects involve technology. The “Failure to Replicate” studies by Barušs are an example. EVP needs to be studied from a electronic technology (physics) perspective first and perceptual (psychology) second. Barušs’ degree is in psychology and his EVP/ITC research does not indicate support of engineers or physical scientists. The file drawer effect cannot apply to research if it is conducted by a person who is working out of his or her field and if the resulting report does not differentiate areas of qualification. Research that fails this test should not pass “peer review” unless the inappropriate qualifications are accounted for.

Pseudoscience

Pseudoscience is a term either invented by a skeptic or adopted by skeptics to describe everything that does not conform to their since of what is scientific. It is a very effective term because part of its definition is that people who practice pseudoscience will naturally deny that what they do is not real science. As you can imagine, “No it isn’t” is not much of a defense against a well-organized attack of zealous defenders of the public safety. As defined by skeptics, features of pseudoscience include:

Dogmatic; ignores contradicting facts

This is to say that people who believe in a form of phenomena such as energy healing ignore all efforts by others to show that healing does not and cannot occur in that way. That is the skeptical view. In practice, many researchers follow the expected practices of Science for the study of these phenomena. The resulting data clearly indicates effects that are not predicted by mainstream theory. The real issue is that the skeptics refuse to consider the evidence, and because of their influence, mainstream scientists dare not consider the evidence.

 Subject to confirmation-bias by selectively reporting evidence and research results

In Science, this is referred to as the “file drawer effect”4 and is not unique to subjects branded as pseudoscience. Speaking only for our community in which there is virtually no funding for research, few people who are both knowledgeable about the subject and qualified to conduct Science and almost no place to publish results, the problem is more “What do I do with my results” than “How do I hide them or make them look good?

ATransC is a good example of this. A few members have the necessary academic training and one or two are actually conducting research. Through the Sarah Estep Research Fund, ATransC has paid for research, but in one case, the time between start of the project and final report was so long that the information was essentially obsolete by the time it could be publicly reported. The question of kind of investigation and evolution of culture are discussed below.

Hypotheses cannot be tested

This argument may be true of some of the global questions such as the existence of a first cause, nut the real subject skeptics are trying to cover concern questions of cause and effect that can be tested. Researchers are not saying that there is some godly intervention which cannot be tested. They are saying that “If we do this, this happens.” That is a very testable hypothesis. For instance, if a video loop is set up in a certain, repeatable way, resulting recording will often contain human faces that are detected by others without prompting. Where those faces come from and why are separate issues. People speculate, and in some cases, that speculation can be tested.

No evolution in understanding or theory

This is a typical problem of frontier subjects in that there is such a small population of people actually studying the phenomena. In fact, understanding does evolve depending on the time people are able to study the subject and available funding. Astronomy is a sexy subject that attracts thousands of people. There is a substantial amount of information and a well-established support community. The amount of taxpayer money going to what can only be considered scientific luxuries for such things as star gazing and gravity wave detectors is embarrassing to a society that desperately needs alternative energy, new clean water sources, a safer food supply and better availability of health care.

Theories evolve depending on the researcher population, funding and lapsed time. EVP for instance, was discovered about fifty years ago. Sarah Estep began the AA-EVP about twenty years later in 1982; however, it was not until the movie, White Noise, came out in 2005 that EVP became a common term. There are literally thousands of people around the world using EVP. Amongst those are a relative few who are seriously experimenting with the technology and just a handful of academically trained people conducting serious research. There is hardly any funding for research and very limited media for publishing results.

Even so, understanding about what EVP is not is well documented. What it is and how it is formed remains theory, but that has evolved considerably. For instance, it was popular wisdom just a few years ago that EVP was some form of electromagnetic phenomena. We know empirically that it is not. EVP was thought to only occur at higher frequencies or lower frequencies, depending on which theory you listened to. Today we know empirically that the EVP occurs pretty much where a person is listening.

An appeal to recognized authority is used to support claims

A good example of this is the effort by some researchers to explain observed phenomena with principles of quantum physics or holography. In their never-ending efforts to insult people, skeptics call this “Quantum Mysticism.” Perhaps the best approach for researchers is to say that the phenomena appear to behave according to these principles. The phrase I prefer is “quantum-like” because explaining phenomena with quantum theory presupposes the phenomena are physical. If the presence of an etheric aspect of reality is allowed, then there is reason to believe many of these observed effects can be explained without quantum theory.

Appeal to authority can also be seen by the use of celebrity pioneers. Virtually everyone seems to think Thomas Edison is the first people to use EVP. Albert Einstein is a favorite as well. Skeptics have succeeded in getting the US Government to use some of their material, and in turn, routinely refer to that material as authoritative support for their argument.

Metaphorical/analogy driven thinking

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Anecdotes as evidence

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Lack of explicit mechanisms

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Special pleading (elusive evidence)

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Conspiracy theory

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Concept is described for the public rather than scientists

These characteristics are really matters of culture, education and unexplored subjects; all characteristics of frontier subjects. I will discuss this more below, but here I will say that it has taken thousands of people many years and a whole lot of money to achieve what we see in mainstream science today. In this context, “frontier” is intended to mean “frontier.” One of the more important challenges facing people studying these subjects is learning how to talk about them in a rational and clear manner.

There is an old saying that “It is hard to remember you are supposed to be draining the swamp when you are up to your neck in alligators.” It apples her in that it costs virtually nothing to be a skeptics. People like James Randi and Michael Shermer have made their reputation by being “in your face” skeptics and they have a hug following of minions dedicated to attacking anything not mainstream they can find. There are relatively few people brave enough to study these subjects. As a rule, it costs personal money and time. Since academia has advocated its responsibility, most people who do study these subjects are not accustomed to academic standards of communication. Right now, the alligators are winning hands down and all of these characteristics are symptomatic of this and not really relevant to the subject.

Alternative Terms for Pseudoscience

Other than “pseudoscience,” skeptics will sometimes refer to science they disagree with as “Junk Science.” This is often used in political and legal context to brand science as spurious and is commonly claimed to be a form of fraud and ignorance by the skeptical community.

A second common derogative term is “pathological science” which is a reference to science which involves barely detectable phenomena that is then reported a being carefully studied. It is interesting that this is an example of circular referencing. Irving Langmuir coined the term. While he has the 1932 Nobel Prize in Chemistry and probably ran into a good deal of bad science, he is also a darling of the skeptics. In his Irving Langmuir’s Symptoms of Pathological Science:

  1. The maximum effect that is observed is produced by a causative agent of barely detectable intensity, and the magnitude of the effect is substantially independent of the intensity of the cause.

  2. The effect is of a magnitude that remains close to the limit of detectability. Or, many measurements are necessary because of the very low statistical significance of the results.

  3. Claims of great accuracy.

  4. Fantastic theories contrary to experience.

  5. Criticisms are met by ad hoc excuses thought up on the spur of the moment.

  6. Ratio of supporters to critics rises up to somewhere near 50% and then falls gradually to oblivion.

These characteristics are very similar to other such lists that can be found around the Internet and rather similar to the one above for pseudoscience.

Scientism

If skeptics are associated with an ideology which amounts to a faith-based view, it would be Scientism, which is the ideological belief that science—mainstream science—is the only authority on the nature of reality. It is helpful to understand this. When confronted by a skeptical person, it is important to determine whether or not the person is concerned with the validity of your viewpoint because he or she has sincere questions or simply refuses to consider your proposition because it is contrary to his or her worldview. If it is the later, then you may as well change the subject.

A Community Response

If you are actively seeking understanding about possible survival of personality beyond physical death (transition), trans-etheric communication (EVP/ITC), reported hauntings phenomena (trans-etheric influences) and the nature of subtle energy involved in such human abilities as remote viewing and energy healing (psi functioning), then you are a member of the frontier subject community I refer to as “Etheric Studies.” In the essay, “Point of View,” I discuss some of the differences amongst organizations supporting paranormal interests and the point of view I refer to as “Metaphysical” represents this community.

Take a little time to search the Internet in an effort to find our community. If you search for “skeptic,” you will find page after page of listings for pro-skeptical websites. That community is clearly branded. Our community has no such clear identity. For every serious study group, there are hundreds of groups talking about ghosts or trying to sell classes in parapsychology. Did you know that the religion known as Spiritualism is more properly a member of this community than it is a religion? Did you know that parapsychology is really only tentatively part of the community since probably half of the parapsychologists will not consider survival of personality as a viable hypothesis?

Out first task is to learn how to look like a community. We can begin to do that by learning to talk with a common vocabulary; one that does not feed the monster skeptic or make what we think is true sound like religious dogma. But before we begin, it is important that we know who we are. “Etheric Studies” is a name which evolved out of a lot of discussion and what remains after many other names simply did not work. There are still problems with it because it is awkward to say, “I am a person who is involved in etheric studies,” when we would like to say, I am a “metaphysician” or I am an “ethericist.” You can see that the name needs work.

Suggestions from you are welcome. Just ask yourself who you are in terms of your interests. Do you want to be branded as a “believer,” “proponent” or “fringe advocate?” Of course not, but we should all understand that is how our community is seen by the majority of the world. Parapsychologists fair much better because they have managed to achieve some level acceptable branding because of their academic training. How do you want to be known?

“Pseudoscience” is the mark we have been branded with, so that is the first issue to consider. The idea is to begin branding ourselves in terms that we sound like we know what we are doing as well-informed and educated researchers. While we may believe these things to be true, we are not simply believers. We are open-minded people who want to know what causes these phenomena, how they affect us and their implications for our future. Anything we use to indicate this should not sound like a religion. For instance, “Spirit” anything has religious baggage. “Paranormal” presupposes what we study is not part of nature and is closely associated with bumps in the night and silly ghost hunting TV shows. For reasons discussed in the essay “The Power of Words,” it is time to rethink these terms.

Study, Research and Science

All three of these terms mean the acquisition of information about something. They are different in that they suggest a degree of exactitude and applied discipline. The problem is that an academically trained scientist will assign meaning to the terms based on how they are used in relationship to the methodologies of mainstream science. A person working in the outer reaches of a frontier subject will use the terms more in the sense of “this is what I am trying to do.” However, skeptics, the general public, governments, universities and funding agencies all take their lead from academically trained scientists. In that context, research and Science can only be conducted by an academically credentialed doctorate. A person may say that he or she is “researching a subject” as one might research a vacation, but it is not acceptable to us the term in any context that might imply research as part of Science. Something like “I am researching ghosts” is simply unacceptable terminology from the academic viewpoint.

It does not matter if you have a college degree, or if you have one, the subject of the degree. If you are studying a frontier subject, it is important that you consider what I said above about Science (capital “S”). If you are learning about it, maybe acting as a practitioner and trying to see what background sound works or what video noise is best, then you are studying the subject. You are not doing research and you are not conducting science. At best, you are a naturalist observing nature.

If you have devised a hypothesis and a protocol to test that hypothesis, then you are conducting research. If you put the results of that research in a coherent report with documented data that might be reviewed by others, and at least intend to publish it in some kind of a vetted journal, then you can reasonably call your work Science. The catch here is that you may not be conducting good science or you may not be conducting appropriate science. It is also important that you are formalizing your hypothesis and protocol by writing them down in case you plan to publish later.

Science Literacy

Most frontier subjects are technology intensive. To be able to negotiate the complexities of such concepts as field theory, radio, technology artifacts, optical effects, a host of psychological characteristics and the numerous physical process involved in chaotic systems, it is important to be able to follow a logical process. Fundamentally, that is what “being scientific” really means.

Carolyn Scearce provides a good discussion of science literacy in her essay, Scientific Literacy. In 1998, Rudiger C. laugksch reported in his essay, Scientific Literacy: A Conceptual Overview that Showalter integrated 15 years of relevant literature into a definition of scientific literacy consisting of seven dimensions:

  1. The scientifically literate person understands the nature of scientific knowledge.

  2. The scientifically literate person accurately applies appropriate science concepts, principles, laws and theories in interacting with his universe.

  3. The scientifically literate person uses processes of science in solving problems, making decisions and furthering his own understanding of the universe.

  4. The scientifically literate person interacts with the various aspects of his universe in a way that is consistent with the values that underlie science.

  5. The scientifically literate person understands and appreciates the joint enterprises of science and technology and the interrelationship of these with each and with other aspects of society.

  6. The scientifically literate person has developed a richer, more satisfying, more exciting view of

(From: Showalter, V. M. (1974). What is united science education? Part 5. Program objectives and scientific literacy. Prism II, 2(3 4).

Don’t panic. It is not necessary for you to become a scientist to understand what you need to know about scientific concepts. You deal with them every day, so this is not really a new idea. For instance, you know not to put plugged-in electrical appliance in water. That is a “water conducts electricity” principle. You know not to throw water on an oil fire … yes? Science is all about how things work and those are everyday kind of scientific principles. The problem is that in things paranormal, we deal with not so everyday principles.

The idea goes back to “believe what you wish but know what you believe.” If you think something is paranormal, then ask yourself if you know it is. Do you have reasonable belief? Do you understand the physical principles involved? For instance, photographic orbs are most often either illuminated particulates close to the lens or light flares caused by bright objects. The physical principles are very clear for this, yet hundreds of people have attributed such orbs to paranormal causes. That could have been avoided: 1), if the person thought to question what he or she assumed and did a little research; 2), if the person trusted the authority of others who said they have studied the subject and the orbs are mundane; or 3), if the person recognized that he or she did not have all of the information needed to make a decision and suspended judgment about the orbs until more was known. If you are going to be a “believer,” the idea is to be an informed believer.

A brief word about “trusted authorities” mentioned above. I fancy myself a person who is knowledgeable about many of these subjects. That is one of the reasons I think I know enough to write about them as if I can teach you. Well, the truth is that there are many of us writing about these subjects for the same reason and we do not necessarily agree. The first and most important step for you in learning about these subjects is to develop a sense of discernment and critical thinking. Study more than one “advisor” or source of information and then pick one you go to first. Then always question that source, because right once does not guarantee right twice. Science literacy is all about logical though and discernment, but mostly it is about good judgment.

Vetted Publications

In the essay, “Peer Review or Vetting,” I discuss the benefits of vetting an article, as opposed to the usual behind closed-door peer review. In “Peer Reviewed Online Journals,” I discuss some of the considerations for using the Internet as a media for frontier subject publications and vetting. The Journal section at atransc.org is functioning as a place to publish both research results and theory articles for ATransC. It is not yet vetted, although some unofficial reviews have been conducted. I do not consider any of the articles Science in the sense intended in this essay.

Mediawiki has shown us that community editing can produce articles. The ability to have an article page with linked edit history, and a discussion page with linked comment history, is a powerful tool for collaboration because it allows the astute reader to see how the article arrived at its current form. We would be happy to host such a collaboration tool for the purpose of developing an online vetted journal for our field of study. Please use the Contact tool at the bottom of the website to let us know if you are interested and/or have suggestions. Access to such journal would be restricted to members of our community willing to use their real name. Subject matter specialists would be agreed to prior to reviewing articles. In effect, the whole project would be committee operated.

Conclusion

It is tempting to ignore the skeptic’s insults and focus on the work at hand. The majority of our efforts to understand these phenomena are actually efforts to prove the reality of these phenomena to the rest of the world and that puts us in direct conflict with the science apologists. If we do nothing, I expect we will just see more aggressive academic and governmental efforts to marginalize frontier subject. Remember Galileo was forced to recant his theories by the church. Today, the church is represented by science apologists.

The most constructive response I can think of is to show them they are wrong; not by proving anything, but by learning to represent these concepts in rational terms and not based on faith or poorly developed theories. To do that, we need to nurture a culture of collaboration and critical thinking. As it stands today, we give ourselves to our distracters by demonstrating our lack of critical thinking. Even if it may be possible to provide substantial empirical proof for what we think is true, few of us are able to articulate that proof in a way that appears reasonable. The problem is not that we are wrong or that we are stupid. The problem is that we do not have experience communicating these concepts. The solution is training, collaboration and acceptance of community norms based on best practices.

In the final analysis, “pseudoscience” is simply name calling, but like any school yard bully, the name caller will not simply go away if ignored. Bullies pray on the weak, and the more we appear to be a minority community of uneducated mystical cranks, the more aggressive the bully will become.

Reference

  1. National Science Foundation, “Science and Engineering Indicator 2006, Chapter 7: Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Understanding,” www.nsf.gov/statistics/seind06/c7/c7s2.htm

  2. Shermer M. 1997. Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time. New York: W. H. Freeman and Company. See michaelshermer.com

  3. Radin, Dean, “Experiments Testing Models of Mind-Matter Interaction,” Institute of Noetic Sciences http://media.noetic.org/uploads/files/random_radin.pdf. originally published Journal of Scientific Exploration, Vol. 20, NO. 3, pp. 375401, 2006

  4.  Novella, Steve (2010), “The ‘File Drawer’ Effect: Failure To Publish Negative Studies,” April 2010. Better Health Network, News, Opinion, Research, http://getbetterhealth.com/the-file-drawer-effect-failure-to-publish-negative-studies/2010.04.01)

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