Psuedo-science or Proto-science?

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No automatic filter for fruitless topics
No need to fear dangerous topics
Arrogance is a poor research strategy
What about the Kidnappers from Space?
Looking a little deeper
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Most scientists and people who are interested in science believe that certain subjects are intrinsically unscientific, or at least a-scientific -- topics that cannot be legitimately (or successfully) studied scientifically. This belief in the existence of "unscientific" topics is dangerous to the practice and teaching of genuine science. 

Anything real can be studied scientifically. Whether someone's favorite topic corresponds to anything real or not may be an open question, a question that may never be answered.

For a scientists to claim that a topic is no more than "unscientific nonsense," or "psuedo-science," writing off an entire area of interest, when neither they nor any other scientist has ever actually studied it scientifically, is an expression of arrogance. "Unscientific" interests, a better term for which is "pre-scientific," are the necessary beginning point of scientific exploration in any new area. The exploration itself automatically improves the quality of the participants' understanding.

The term "unscientific" does have a legitimate, non-arrogant meaning in cases where a certain topic is well understood, scientifically. Pre-scientific beliefs about that topic may persist for quite a long time, even for centuries, alongside the gradually more-and-more generally accepted scientific understanding. For example, there are still prople who are apparently quite serious about claiming that the Earth is flat, not spherical. In such cases it is natural to refer to the older beliefs as unscientific or prescientific.

Another legitimate, non-arrogant use of the terms "unscientific" and "psuedo-scientific" is in cases where dogmatic or simply ignorant claims are being made which conflict with well established scientific understanding. In some cases the term "anti-scientific" would be more accurate, as in the case of "Creation Science" or the efforts of tobacco companies to discredit epidemiological research into the medical risks of smoking.

Finally, "unscientific" and "psuedo-science" may used legitimately in cases of out-and-out charlatanism, con-personship, fraud, hate mongering, grandstanding, exaggeration, hypocracy, quackery, and so on. Scientists and non-scientists alike may involve themselves in such activities, and both scientists and non-scientists may take part in exposing them, and in sometimes being wrong in such accusations; and all the parties can and will do whatever name calling they deem appropriate. 

However, to claim that an entire area of study is unscientific, when no well-developed scientific understanding of that area exists, is an altogether different matter. How can such a claim be any more than simple arrogance?

The notion that certain topics are unscientific is another aspect of the standard Magical-Science view of what science is and how it works (the magical "Scientific Method" cannot be applied to the study of these topics). 

Although the term "unscientific," used in this way, rarely appears in formal instruction about science, it forms part of the common background of dogmatically held beliefs about science. These beliefs can be just as misleading as the concepts that are explicitly taught, and they are far more difficult to correct because no one takes responsibility for them. They are beliefs about science that are held dogmatically by many scientists, science fans and even people who think they hate science.

This dogmatism is corrupt in two ways: The first corruption is the dogmatism itself, since any kind of dogmatism is a violation of the fundamental scientific commitment to careful reasoning, based on evidence derived from unbiased investigation. The second type of corruption is that this particular dogmatic belief would cut off whole realms of human experience from scientific understanding.

Obviously individuals and groups of scientists will become ensnared in dogmatic views about some topic, once in a while, but the whole process of science as a comprehensively critical communal exploration tends to expose these problems and remove them. However, when science as a whole has adopted a dogmatic view, the distortion can go on for generations (as this one has). 

The communal effort called science is so immense that one pretty much has to respect the conclusions of specialists working in areas outside one's own discipline. In principle one could examine for oneself the evidence and the logic in all of these other areas; but in practice that is obviously impossible. No one is thoroughly trained in more than a very few different disciplines. We rely on colleagues we don't know -- most of them people we have never even heard of -- to care for their particular strand of the mutual fabric.

In the case of the dogmas we are discussing, however, no one is actually taking responsibility for these claims, and no one has ever done the research that would warrant them. Passed on from one generation to the next, these beliefs survive because no one ever notices that nothing could be more unscientific than the dogmas themselves.

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No automatic filter for fruitless topics

One way the term "unscientific" is used is to indicate areas of study that are supposedly impossible to study scientifically. Similarly, calling work some area of interest "psuedo-science" is often intended to mean that no work in that area could ever be more than a pretense of scientific work. Could anyone who uses those terms in that way ever have a valid evidential basis for making such a claims? Maybe Omniscient Jones could do so, but we ordinary mortals have no such ability.

It may be that some aspects of human existence or the natural world really are unsuitable candidates for scientific study, in the sense that all efforts directed toward the study of those topics would prove to have been wasted. That seems like a ridiculous notion, since we learn from our mistakes as much as, if not more than, we learn from our successes, but suppose for a minute that there are such intrinsically fruitless topics. Even if there are such topics, we have no way to predict which topics can be studied fruitfully and which cannot.

The problem for any effort to predict which areas of research will never bear fruit is this: New scientific disciplines come into being only when tools are invented and discoveries are made that make fruitful work in that area possible. We cannot predict such things accurately. We can sometimes make reasonable projections about what kinds of studies will become possible if certain trends in technological development continue; but to accurately predict that no such developments, nor any relevant discoveries in other disciplines, will ever make fruitful scientific study of the domain in question possible, is obviously much more difficult, if not impossible.

Thus, what is actually a waste of time is the effort to mark off certain areas of potential interest as "unscientific" in this sense. There may be topics that will never bear scientific fruit, no matter how diligently they are studied, or by however many multitudes of avidly interested investigatiors, but until we know in advance which areas those are, any claims to the effect that certain areas are intrinsically unscientific can hardly be more than arrogance.

On the face of it, dogmatic claims that some topic or another is "unscientific," are a violation of the very nature of science itself. What is science except unbiased interest in the natural world?

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No need to fear dangerous topics.

It is certainly true that many strongly held beliefs will be turn out to be delusionary (like the beliefs of a religious group that claimed that the world would end a few years ago); but so what? 

Science itself is full of ideas that turn out to be inadequate in various ways, and a few more would hardly be noticed. Science is an incredibly robust endeavor -- all kinds of things go wrong, wrong in just about every way immaginable, and in ways that are not even immaginable untill they actually happen -- and still the progress is so rapid that no one could possibly keep up with it.

Science seems to be a fundamentally democratic enteprise -- it requires a kind of dedication that never emerges unless one is wholeheartedly in love with the work. Participants are responsible for, and only responsible for, their own interests. It is like a parallel processing computer with no central executive unit: No individual or group controls or coordinates the whole of scientific progress. 

Peer review works well; but the peers of someone working in a new domain are the other people who are also working in that area. Science as a whole should be reluctant to accept prejudgments about any aspect of the natural world, or of the super-natural world, for that matter. No suppression of pre-scientific or proto-scientific interests is required.

As for anti-scientific crusades, of course there is reason to fear them, not scientifically but politically. Scientifically, they have no more influence than any other irrational ideas, but politically anti-scientific dogmas can wield considerable influence.

How do we distinguish pre-scientific fermentation from anti- scientific dogma? Here is a brief checklist:

Some distinctive features of pre-science and anti-science
No competing scientific discipline
Strong competing scientific discipline
Chaos of competing approaches
Minimal internal disagreement

The natural scientific enemies of creationism, for example, are geology, paeleontology, paleoanthropology, archaeology, and astrophysics. Astrology, in contrast, has no natural scientific competitors; students of astrology are not claiming that some subset of the body of science is wrong -- astrologers accept and use the results of astronomy. What astrologers are claiming is that science is incomplete.

The emergence of any scientific field is chaotic; competing views are rampant and in constant flux. No generally accepted core of established results exists-- the field is divided into camps devoted to different approaches which generally ignore each other, with little or no evidence of mutual respect untill the discipline as a whole is attacked from outside.

An example of a field just emerging into science is the currrent situation in psychology: in some areas, such as the study of personality or psychotherapy, chaos still reigns, with many mutually disrespectful camps and little accumulation of generally accepted progress; in other areas, like the study of perception, progress is steady and there are only a few main camps still ignoring each other.

Science has rarely any need for some authority figure to arbitrate these disputes, to insist that the combattants play nice or get out of the lab. Let the wild rumpus start! 

Well, it seems to have already started, and we have these people clamoring at the gates. Let them in -- or keep them out -- it doesn't much matter. As long as real curiosity persists they will keep trying to make sense of whatever it is they are studying, untill eventually they may come up with some reproducible results that are open to public inspection. It is really none of our business, unless we are actually interested in working with them.

What is our business is to find something better to do with our time than making arrogant pronouncements about things we have never studied.

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Arrogance is a poor research strategy

Confessions of a Former Behaviorist: a case study

Experimental psychologists have a long history of efforts to create a safe highway to true understanding. This determinedly scientific discipline called itself "experimental psychology" to emphasize that whatever other people who call themselves "psychologists" may be doing, what we are doing is science

Only a few decades ago behavioristic psychology tried to buy itself respectability among the "real" sciences by giving up the possibility of ever studying any aspect of human experience. Nothing "mental" -- people's beliefs or feelings or experiences of any sort -- could be considered evidence; overt behavior was the only evidence deemed acceptable. The rest was to be marked off-limits with warning notices: "DANGER! UNSCIENTIFIC!"

That was a serious mistake, from which scientific psychology still has not completely recovered.

It wasn't all just metaphysical politics and opinion slinging: There had been some quite vivid clashes between two different schools of "introspectionist" psychology (guys who were trying to use direct personal observation of the contents of consciousness as their main way of doing research). One camp had clear "evidence" that thought depends on visual images (among other things) and the other camp was sure that no such images were required. It turned out that what observers "saw" in their introspections was strongly influenced by the professors who trained them. 

The behaviorists claimed that the whole mess resulted from trying to use private awareness as evidence, and interdicted any and all studies of the contents of consciousness as fundamentally and irrevocably inaccessible to science.

It didn't work out very well. The methods that the behaviorists required each other to use had produced a lot of very reliable experimental results that, in retrospect, didn't actually seem to be about anything. We pretty much had to start over. 

Fortunately, there were a lot neighboring disciplines like linguistics, computer science, biology and anthropology which had never got the message about how science had to proceed, and they had made quite a lot of progress studying these things that could not be studied. 

Even some areas within psychology, like the study of perception and a lot of physiological psychology, were spared. (I guess that, in perception research at least, it doesn't really matter much whether you believe you are studying what the person saw, or studying what the person says they saw.)

We had learned several painful lessons but this one was the most vivid: People who have never successfully studied some particular topic may find it comforting to claim that it cannever be studied successfully, but allowing those people to direct traffic around the areas that they are afraid of can be a big mistake. 

The best way to understand a difficult subject seems to be to let people who are interested in it go ahead and study it! Let those who want to study mental events or other difficult subjects give it their best shot.

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What about the Kidnappers from Space

Frankly, Scarlet, I don't give a ...

The best way to understand a difficult subject may be to "let people who are interested in it go ahead and study it," as a Very Wise Person recently suggested; but what if no competent scientists are interested, and no interested people are willing to do the work of becoming competent scientsts?

- So?

I mean, that might mean that it would not be studied compently ever at all.

- So?

We might have hundreds -- millions -- of people running around believing stuff that is total nonsense!

- So? 

You're not really so heartless that you don't care about that many people wasting their time on ridiculous crap.

- We have that already. In fact we have very good evidence that nearly everyone beleives stuff that is total nonsense. That's one reason science is so much fun. Some of us enjoy having our little bubbles popped, and we enjoy popping them ourselves even more.

Some excerpts from James Gleick's paper on sexual harassment by aliens will help us get into an appropriately surly frame of mind:

The Doctor's Plot

Copyright © 1994 James Gleick. First published in The New Republic, 22 May 1994. 

In the world of professional wrestling, fans fall into two categories, known as the Smarts and the Marks. The Marks believe that they are watching spontaneous contests of strength and skill. The Smarts know that they are watching a fascinating, highly plotted, roughly scripted form of dramatic entertainment--a sort of sweaty soap opera. The Smarts and the Marks have a lot to talk about, though their conversation sometimes seems at cross-purposes. They have both developed an enthusiastic appreciation for the phenomenon, but on different levels. 

In the world of unidentified flying objects, John E. Mack (or, as his book jacket labels him, "John E. Mack, M.D., the Pulitzer Prize-winning Harvard psychiatrist") is a Mark masquerading as a Smart. 

Mack believes that little gray aliens have been abducting Americans in large numbers and subjecting them to various forms of unwilling sex. (Yes, that again.) Mack also believes that, for a bunch of cosmic rapists, these aliens are a pretty benign bunch. They're trying to bring us in touch with our spiritual sides, or trying to remind us how important it is to care about the planet, or otherwise trying to help our consciousness evolve.

* * *

The core of Mack's belief is the following cocktail-party syllogism: 

People think they were abducted. 

They don't seem crazy. 

We're experts on mental illness. 

Therefore people were abducted. 

It sounds more respectable in psychiatrist talk, naturally: "Efforts to establish a pattern of psychopathology other than disturbances associated with a traumatic event have been unsuccessful. Psychological testing of abductees has not revealed evidence of mental or emotional disturbance that could account for their reported experiences." Ergo ...

* * *

Anyway, all this scientific, methodological criticism rolls off believers like water off a duck. It's merely "rational" or "empirical" or, worst of all, "Western" (generic terms of dismissal). Mack knows his hypnotism sessions are a collaboration, and he's unrepentant: 

"I cannot avoid the fact that a co-creative process such as this may yield information that is in some sense the product of the intermingling or flowing together of the consciousnesses of the two (or more) people in the room," he says. "Something may be brought forth that was not there before in exactly the same form. Stated differently, the information gained in the sessions is not simply a remembered 'item,' lifted out of the experiencer's consciousness like a stone from a kidney. It may represent instead a developed or evolved perception, enriched by the connection that the experiencer and the investigator have made. 

"From a Western perspective this might be called 'distortion'; from a transpersonal point of view the experiencer and I may be participating in an evolution of consciousness." 

Arguing with someone who uses language in this blousy manner is like dancing with smoke. It is useless to find errors in reasoning or logic. Logic? What an beggarly, earthbound affair. 

* * *

The problem is that, by and large, the Smarts aren't interested in arguing with the Marks. It seems unprofitable, when no amount of rational discourse can change the mind of a believer. A few worthy organizations devote themselves to this sort of thing, most notably the Committee for the Scientific Investigationof Claims of the Paranormal, publishers of the Skeptical Inquirer. But most astronomers, physicists, and paleontologists have better things to do, though they are the sorts of people best equipped to explain just how infinitely unlikely it is that our corner of the universe should be receiving alien visitors in such strikingly near--human form at just the eyeblink of history when we have discovered space travel. Outside of hard science, all too many academics have fallen into the literary conceit that anyone's version of reality is as valid as anyone else's, and here in the real world, it's a conceit with bad consequences. 

Not that mental-health workers have nothing to contribute to understanding phenomena like the abduction myth. On the contrary--scores or perhaps even hundreds of people do "remember" having been kidnapped by aliens, and this needs to be understood. There is an explanation. As with so many belief manias, the explanation is unwelcome to many people: 

We are not fully rational creatures. 

Our minds are not computers. We see people, we hear voices, we sense presences that are not really there. If you have never seen the face of someone you know, in broad daylight, clear as truth, when in reality that person was a continent away or years dead, then you are unusual. 

Our memories cannot be trusted--not our five-minute-old memories, and certainly not our decades-old memories. They are weakened, distorted, rearranged, and sometimes created from wishes or dreams. With or without hypnosis, we are susceptible to suggestion. 

The painful irony is that of all the people--the Smarts--who should know these lessons and articulate them for the rest of us, none are better placed than professors of psychiatry.

To James Gleick's home page

I hope it will be obvious to everyone that Mr. Gleik has not proved that there are no aliens studying us, nor has he proved that none of the aliens that are studying us are pubescent aliens obsessed with sex. All he has proved, to my satisfaction at least, is that a certain line of argument depends on evidence that is unacceptibly highly susceptible to bias and / or delusion on the part of the person conducting the interview, the person being interviewed, or both.

He has not even proved that that crop of evidence could never be harvested with enough care and safeguards to make it reliable, and thus as least potentially valid. The Pulitzer Prize-winning Harvard psychiatrist, though, has certainly not done the very difficult work that would be required to do a double blind cross-validation of the interview methodology he and his buddies are using. Or at least if he did Mr. Gleik didn't bother to tell us about it. Or at the very least if he did I must have missed it somehow; but frankly, Scarlet, I don't care. If the presumably well-intentioned physician from Harvard had been responsible for the validation study I wouldn't believe the results anyway.

[This is in no way a criticism of the Pulitzer Prize. Dave Barry won a Pulitzer Prize.] 

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Looking a little deeper

The psychology of meditation, as it developed within the Buddhist tradition, provides an interesting counterpoint to our discussion. There we have a highly sophisticated and articulate system of theoretical understanding and practical training methods based on 2500 years of careful, unbiased observation, logical analysis, and critical discussion, constantly tested in the light of practical application. In the opinion of scientists who have trained in both systems, the Tibetan system is far superior to Western psychology in many of the areas addressed by both systems.

Is it science, or psuedo-science, or anti-science? Or is Buddhist psychology something else altogether, requiring a new category in our taxonomy? 

What it is is a scientific discipine developed in another culture. This presents a great opportunity: an opportunity to free our understanding of science, and how it works, from the historical details of our particular culture.

When we say "science," we generally mean Western science, which is supposed to have emerged during the Sixteenth Century, following Copernicus' anouncement that the Sun is the center of the Universe and Harvey's discovery of the circulation of the blood. However, many historians admit that this account is quite provincial: The basis of our science has come to us from many different cultures. From the Egyptian, Greek, Indian and Arabic cultures we received trigonometry, geometry, symbolic logic and algebra; our calendar came from the Egyptians, who improved upon one they got from the Sumerians of Babylonia. The list is long. At some point someone invented agriculture, and before that someone discovered that fire could be controled and used.

One of the most powerful of all scientific tools is what is called the comparative method. To better understand the anatomy, physiology, or behavior of an organism, for example, we compare it with other organisms that are different in various ways. By doing so we can begin to understand which characteristics are special adaptations of that particular type of creature and which are more general characteristics.

What I'm suggesting here is that Buddhist psychology can provide more than just suggestions on how to improve western psychology and related disciplines: it gives us an oportunity to add a comparative dimension to the scientific study of science itself, because many of the background beliefs and practices that the Buddhists took for granted are different than those we take for granted.

For example, we can see immediately that the materialist metaphysics that is so commonly assumed to be an vital step in the advancement of science is unnecessary for scientific progress.

We focus on the tools -- the instruments, the mathematical techniques, the computer databases, the laboratory procedures, the proper aquisition, preparation, recording and storage of specemins -- and the phenomena we are studying. The Buddhists focus on the state of mind of the scientist and the state of the scientific community. 

For example, Buddhist psychology began with the development a very reliable method for allowing the scientist to develop and stabilize a truly unbiased state of mind. Various minor improvements have been introduced over the centuries, mainly to accomodate the needs of people of varied tempraments, but basically the same training methods are used today with all who participate directly in the work. 



Robin Kornman (for the Shambhala Sun): As you note in A Brief History of Everything, there are already plenty of progressive theories of history and theories of spiritual evolution. Sometimes your theory sounds like Hegel's dialectic, sometimes like Darwin, sometimes like various Asian views of world mind theory. What makes it different from these other systems?

Ken Wilbur: Well, that's sort of the point. It sounds like all of those theories because it takes all of them into account and attempts to synthesize the best of each of them. That's also what makes it different, in that none of those theories takes the others into account. I'm trying to pull these approachs together, which is something they are not interested in.

Center for Integral Science

"Integral Science: Toward a Comprehensive Science of Inner and Outer Experience"

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Non-Arrogant Science and Spirituality:
A Dramatization 

Interviewer: What do scientists know about multiple incarnations?

Scientist: Nothing, as far as I know. What makes you think we would know anything about it?

Interviewer: Is there any reason to believe that it couldn't be studied scientifically? 

Scientist: I don't know. I don't see offhand how such a study could be done, but I've never really thought about it.

Interviewer: Has anyone ever tried? 

Scientist: I don't know. There could have been any number of failures that were not reported, but I suppose if someone had studied it successfully we would have heard about it.

Interviewer: How?

Scientist: That's a good question. I wonder what it would take to get the results of such a study published in one of our journals.... 

(long pause)

Scientist: I don't know. I have no idea. But I personally am not particularly interested in that question, so my opinion is probably not worth much. Have you tried to find scientists who are interested?

Interviewer: We tried, but couldn't find any; actually we did find a few who said they thought the concept was fascinating, but no one was interested in doing scientific research on it.

Scientist: Well, I'm afraid you'll have to add me to that list. Maybe you and your friends should consider taking some science courses.

( To be continued )
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Links and Sources


Closeminded Science "Unbridled gullibility can destroy science, but unbridled skepticism is no less a threat because it brings both the excessive preservation of the status quo and the supression of unconventional ideas." Excellent links.

Consciousness Research Laboratory does careful work on paranormal psychology. Includes the Virtual Laboratory, where you can participate in the on-line research projects.

Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research Scientific Study of Consciousness-Related Physical Phenomena. The laboratory published a book, Margins of Reality, on the results of their work. (A Web search on the title always gives interesting results!)
Synchronicity, Science, and Soul Making Vic Mansfield's Web Page.

Intuitive Technology: Shrines, Fung shui, and Synchronicity A Dharma-Haven page on likely prescientific research topics, chosen for their practical utility.

Oracles and Divination: Astrology and I Ching, Tarot and Tea Leaves Another Dharma-Haven page on likely protoscientific research topics. (Expands the synchronicity topic from "Intuitive Technology.")

The Elusive Open Mind: Ten Years of Negative Research in Parapsychology "What does a psychologist who’s had an extraordinary experience do? Sets up a research program to test for psi. The lessons are surprising." Into the Unknown

The Myth of the Magical "Scientific Method." A Dharma-Haven page with a warning about the so called "hypothetico-deductive method," and a look at the incredible flexibility of real scientific methodology.

Society for Scientific Exploration aims to "foster the study of all questions that are amenable to scientific investigation without restriction" and to "provide a professional forum for presentations, criticism, and debate concerning topics which are for various reasons ignored or studied inadequately within mainstream science." Their Journal of Scientific Exploration has an online version.


Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal Efforts to debunk everything from accupuncture to The X-files, from the publishers of The Skeptical Inquirer.

Why People Believe Weird Things : Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time; Michael Shermer.

Paperback - Hardcover - Audio Cassette

Annotated bibliography of books on skeptical topics from the SKEPTIC Discussion Group.

Alta Vista search: "Bad Science"


The National Center for Science Education Creationism Web sites and anti-Creationism Web sites.


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