Key Concept: Pseudoscience uses the language, and attempts to use the authority, of Science without
being true to its method. Pseudoscientists often play upon the audience's fears, wishes, and
prejudices, rather than relying on rigorous approaches to arrive at a best possible (but provisional)
Kida has a useful list of characteristics of pseudoscientific thinking:
- Preconcieved notion of what to believe (that is, conclusions first)
- Search for evidence to support a preconcieved idea (that is, search only from confirmatory--not disconfirmatory--evidence)
- Ignore evidence that would falsify a claim or belief
- Disregard alternative explanations for a phenomenon
- Hold extraordinary beliefs (such as non-parsimonious or non-consilient beliefs)
- Accept flimsy evidence to support an extraordinary claim
- Rely heavily on anecdotal evidence
- Lack of tightly controlled experiments to test a claim
- Employ very little skepticism
There are varying degrees and causes of pseudoscientific claims. Sometimes there are honest mistakes; other times, they are less honest. For example, people can often see images in random patterns (pareidolia) or make connections that aren't supported by clear causation or logic (apophenia): these are simply manifestations of the fact that the human mind is sometimes confused. Also, we can be honest victims of other people's dishonesty.
A harmless case of mistaken observation: reports on 31 July 2008 stated the following:
July 31, 2008
There have been several reliable sightings of an animal fitting the description of a cougar on the campus. The description of the sighted cat is: light tan and tawny brown, about 4 feet long with a 4 foot tail, and weighing about 50 pounds.
Several sightings have been reported from the area of Cole Field House, near the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, and continuing through the wooded areas to the area of the Comcast Center and Arena Drive Garage.
There has been no report of aggressive behavior on the part of the animal, but community members are warned that cougars are a predatory species and that, if seen, the animal should not be approached.
If you see the animal, please contact the university police at 301-405-3555.
University police are working with other agencies to remove the animal from the campus area.
Captain John Brandt
Crime Prevention Unit"
Subsequent footage from video footage from near the Arena Drive Garage revealed that the cat in question turned out to be a savannah cat, a hybrid of domestic cat and the African serval. So it wasn't a wild animal, but someone's thousands-of-dollars pet! (So far as I know, the cat was never captured.)
In this case, an extraordinary claim was quickly overturned by additional evidence, and that evidence was quickly conveyed to the public. The problem is that this is not always so, and because of this pseudoscientific claims can thrive.
For example, the claims that a rotting plesiosaur carcass was found by a Japanese fishing vessel in 1977 continue to be made, even though it was established in 1978 that it was just the remains of a dead basking shark! The media widely reported the "dead plesiosaur" hypothesis, but did not follow up on the results of the investigations that showed a much less exciting answer.
Even when a claim is strongly falsfied, there are some "true believers" who refuse to give them up. A classic case is the "Face on Mars". As the Viking Orbiters gave us some of our first good photographs of the surface of Mars, they caught an unusual image in the region of Cydonia Mensae:
Notice how through a trick of lighting & shadow (and some well-placed coincidental pixel dropouts) one of the mountains looks like a human face, with vaugely Egyptian headgear:
This image drove the UFOlogists, Ancient Astronaut fans, and others into a frenzy: Proof of Human-Like Martians! Even when much better pictures were taken of the mountain by more advanced probes launched in the 1990s and 2000s, such as:
that clearly show it isn't a face, the supporters of the Face-claim do not back down.
Pseudoscience can be promoted for financial reasons. Pulp science fiction magazine publisher Ray Palmer (of Amazing Stories) ran a series of letters by Richard Shaver in the 1940s. Shaver claimed that during WWII he had wandered into the Hollow Earth, which was populated by four-foot tall bald grey deranged robots called "deros", who flew around in disk-shaped ships, caputered people, probed them, and released them with mind-controlling implants. Shaver's letters caused Amazing Stories' sales to soar, and others began to write in about their own similar experiences!
In Spring 1948 Palmer (under the pseudonym "Robert N. Webster") started publising Fate magazine, dedicated to the "Shaver Mystery" and similar paranormal tales. The feature article of issue one was the story of Kenneth Arnold and the "flying saucers" (see Sagan Chapter 4).
The popularity of Fate led to many similar magazines: some professionally produced, others privately made "fanzines". At least some of the latter were actually created as hoaxes. Gray Barker, head of Saucerian Publications and known UFO photo hoaxer, invented the "Men In Black" in his 1956 book They Knew Too Much About Flying Saucers. More recent hoaxers that created entirely new pseudoscience legends include crop circles and Charles Berlitz's Philadelphia Experiment and revivals and retroconditioning of the Atlantis story and of the Roswell Incident.
A famous pseudoscience movement of the 20th Century was the Ancient Astronaut hypothesis. It claimed that the legends of ancient people interacting with heroes and gods who taught them skills and knowledge were actually a partial record of encounters with aliens. As archaeologist Kenneth Feder points out, Ancient Astronaut proposer Erich von Daniken suggests that alien knowledge was necessary for building numerous structures throughout history in Africa, Asia, and the Americas, but doesn't suggest that the people of Europe needed alien technology or skills to do their own contemporary buildings.
Some patterns of pseudoscience:
- Often uses the following argument when confronted with cases of fraud: "Well, perhaps many, even most
cases of [crop circles | UFO abductions | Bigfoot sightings | etc. ] are hoaxes or misunderstood
natural phenomena, but could they ALL be hoaxes or misunderstood natural phenomena?"
- In fact, a perfectly legitimate answer to that question is "Yes, absolutely! 100% of them could quite easily be hoaxes or misunderstandings!"
- Pseudoscience often begins as self-published literature ("samizdat", as the Russians' say). In today's world, with the WWW, there are uncritical self-published websites ("samizdata") for just about any pseudoscientific subject out there.
- Pseudoscience attempts to use the language of Science (big words, especially!), but not the methods of Science (especially parsimony, falsifiability, and multiple working hypotheses).
- Part of the appeal of pseudoscience is that the audience is let in on the "Big Secret" that the "Authorities" don't want them to know!
We've seen some cases of pseudoscientific claims that are basically benign ("all in good fun, so what's the harm"). But it isn't always that way...
Pseudoscientists can often be benign, but their lack of critical thinking has in the past allowed unscrupulous people and movements to take advantage of them. For example, Adolph Hitler's rise to power in Germany is at least in part due to pseudoscientific movements of the early 20th Century:
- The National Socialist German Workers' (NAZI) Party, founded in 1920 and of which Hitler became President in 1921 was a combination of two previously existing parties:
- those being the National Socialist Party and the German Workers' Party, populist right-wing parties organized to get the support of the common German people as a counter to the rising Communist Party. These two proto-Nazi parties were created by:
- the Thule Geselleschaft, with its symbol the swastika derived from Indian iconography. This organization was a rabidly anti-Semetic and anti-Communist Bavarian branch of the:
- Germanenorden, a fellowship interested in the study of the origin, history, and culture of the Aryan peoples. ("Aryan" in this context is equivalent to today's term "Indo-European": a major group of languages with a shared ancient historical connection). The Germanenorden combined "secret society" aspects of Freemasonry with the turn-of-the-century movement of:
- Theosophy, a religion combining then-current natural historical sciences (especially historical geology, evolutionary biology, anthropology, and archaeology) with occult mysticism.
Within cultures like the Third Reich, the USSR, and other oppressive authoritarian regimes, pseudoscience could flourish for a variety of reasons:
- Lack of free and open discourse between domestic and with international researchers meant that the debate and dialogue necessary for critical evaluations of ideas could not go on.
- Ideas lacking in critical merit, but which made the policies or ideologies of the State look favorable, would be officially promoted; those which made the policies or ideologies of the State could be dismissed, made illegal, suppressed, or simply regarded as "unpatriotic".
- Individuals which the State looked upon favorably for any reason might get their own pet theories promoted regardless of merit; similarly, those ideas developed by "enemies of the State" could be supressed even if they had no bearing on the policies and ideologies of the State.
Germany in the early 20th Century had a very well-educated public and was on the cutting edge of many lines of scientific and technical research. Nevertheless, in Nazi Germany many types of pseudoscience flourished alongside real science and technology. In the realm of the Earth sciences, bizarre notions of a Hollow Earth or the World-Ice-Theory found official support.
After the end of the war, legends quickly developed about the possible survival of Hitler and some of his cronies. Among the more bizarre claims were that he may have fled to a secret base in Antarctica, or in the Hollow Earth, or off to the Moon!
Here is a recent essay about 7 Famous Unsolved Mysteries Science Solved Years Ago.