How to Tell Pseudoscience and Pseudoscholarship from the Real Thing

How to Tell Pseudoscience and Pseudoscholarship from the Real Thing February 15, 2013

Geology professor Callan Bentley received an e-mail from the Discovery Institute asking for permission to use a photo of his. He refused, explaining why. He has shared the back and forth between himself and them on his blog (HT P. Z. Myers and Hemant Mehta).

The entire thing is worth reading, but I’ll quote the ending of the post here, not just to give you a taste, but also because it gets at a core issue:

Pseudoscience like Intelligent Design puts the conclusion first, and that’s the easiest way you can tell Intelligent Design creationists apart from scientists.

The point is not that one may not have a hunch or flash of insight, and then investigate it, which might seem to be reversing the order Bentley says is definitive of genuine science. The point is that the evidence is definitive. If you have a genuinely paradigm-shifting insight, you will be able to provide data, evidence, and arguments. Otherwise, you may think you have a revolutionary idea, but you really don’t.

All of us have “Aha!” moments when we suddenly think of a different way of looking at things. Most of them will not fit the evidence, and scholars and scientists learn to test our ideas against the data and abandon the ideas when they do not fit. Crackpots, on the other hand, are so enamored with their own ideas, and the conviction of their own genius, that data and evidence have to take second place.

And that’s the difference.

The photo above is the one the Discovery Institute asked to use. Of related interest, see Sabio Lantz’s post on creationist whack-a-mole and Vorjack’s post on conspiracy theories.

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  • Chollie

    And the book is being published by HarperCollins! For shame! I guess that’s one way to tell if it’s pseudoscience…

  • arcseconds

    I don’t think it’s very helpful advice.

    It’s not like ID folk openly admit they’ve got a pre-determined agenda. While some of them may know full well that they’re engaging in a rhetorical game for Jesus, many (hopefully most) honestly think that ID is a better theory than evolution, and that should be obvious even if one isn’t already a theist.

    So they don’t think they’re putting the conclusion first.

    So how do we know that ID people have a conclusion that they’re looking for evidence to support? We conclude that because of how they behave: they argue from incredulity, they misrepresent the claims of evolutionary science, they fixate on anomalies, and they resort to conspiracy theories and insult when they don’t make any headway.

    (and we conclude this in spite of what they say about themselves)

    So a pre-set conclusion is more of a conclusion that we reach about them, rather than an observation that we make. We don’t need to conclude that they aren’t scientists because of their pre-set conclusion: we can already conclude that from the same set of evidence that we use to conclude that they have a pre-set conclusion.

    But if you already have a good handle on how a scientist behaves, this isn’t news to you: it just tells you what you already know. For someone who is genuinely confused on the matter, the advice is even less useful. ID people will just say “no, it’s evolutionists that have the preset conclusion! that’s how we know they’re not scientists!”

    What is needed is an explanation for why ID arguments don’t pass master as science, and that isn’t going to be explained in a sound-bite. For someone who doesn’t understand science, it may be a big journey. I don’t think it’s helpful to pretend the difference between science and not-science can be explained to someone in a sentence.

    • arcseconds

      to make it a bit clearer:

      – it’s no good telling ID people that they have a pre-determined conclusion, because they’ll just deny it and insist you do.

      – it’s no good telling the undecided that they have a pre-determined conclusion, because this will be yet another claim and counter-claim match that they don’t know how to make sense of.

      – it’s no good telling a supporter of evolution that ID people have a pre-determined conclusion, because they already know.

      They know this because of the sophistry, which is the easiest way to tell that they’re not being scientists. Not that it’s actually all that easy — it already assumes that you know what counts as scientific argument, and if you know that, you already know ID people aren’t usually engaging in scientific argument (or can see it as soon as you see them argue).

      So there’s a kind of hidden circularity here, alongside simplifying how easy it is to see the difference between science and non-science, and there’s also a degree of preaching to the choir.

      • Ian

        Definitely. I think Callum’s post also was a bit remiss in asking where the big paper with the big idea was. I think big all-encompassing paradigm-overturning papers are rarely how science works. Normally you make your case piece by piece. It is hard to do both. The big changes tend to only work when you’ve got a lot of existing research on problems, and someone comes along and shows how all the problems align under a single explanation. Like Relativity, for example — much of which was already known for more than a decade (Lorentz transformations, constant speed of light, lack of evidence for the aether). So my advice to creationists (and mythicists, incidentally) wanting to overturn the paradigm is to first go out and carefully do the lower level work: accumulate the data from the broadest range of angles. Show how the problems are broad and persistent. And then you’ve a shot of giving a solution. Otherwise you’ve only got a solution to an ideological problem, not a scientific/scholarly one.

        • arcseconds

          I actually thought the ‘big paper’ idea was a good one. I read it more as ‘you can’t expect us to actually believe you until you’ve produced your Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica or Origin of Species or Einstein’s 1905 articles’.

          The case for quantum physics was made piecemeal (including one of Einstein’s 1905 articles, of course), so one seminal work isn’t necessary.

          Of course, you’re right that normally these are preceded by the scientific community recognising there was a problem. In the case of the Principia and Origin they knew they were in want of a compelling theory to make sense of the phenomena they had in front of them, which they could see were connected, but didn’t know exactly how. ID is more in the position of a QM-aspirant in the early 19th century: there’s an incumbent and very successful research programme which they need to demonstrate is problematic.

          • arcseconds

            So the way we might expect this to work is “show us your Michelson-Morely or Fizeau experiment and we’ll admit you may have a point. Come up with a Principia and we’ll start to believe you.”

          • Ian


            I think that creationists believe Dembski and Behe et al *have* written their Origin or Pricipia, though. At least, they seem to talk about them in those terms when arguing with me.

  • arcseconds

    Say, is ‘rhetorical whack-a-mole’ Ian our Ian? The avatar graphic isn’t the same, but other things seem similar…

    • Ian

      Yup, twas me.

      • arcseconds

        I worked it out a little later — just had to be a bit more persistent in the web-crawling!

    • Yup, it is the infamous Ian — I am very lucky to have him as a commentor and on my RSS feed at his site.

  • One thing to note is that the DI drone, when he says:

    “As Charles Darwin himself stated, ‘A fair result can be obtained only by fully stating and balancing the facts and arguments on both sides of each question.’”

    … is quote mining. What Darwin actually said was:

    “This Abstract, which I now publish, must necessarily be imperfect. I cannot here give references and authorities for my several statements; and I must trust to the reader reposing some confidence in my accuracy. No doubt errors will have crept in, though I hope I have always been cautious in trusting to good authorities alone. I can here give only the general conclusions at which I have arrived, with a few facts in illustration, but which, I hope, in most cases will suffice. No one can feel more sensible than I do of the necessity of hereafter publishing in detail all the facts, with references, on which my conclusions have been grounded; and I hope in a future work to do this. For I am well aware that scarcely a single point is discussed in this volume on which facts cannot be adduced, often apparently leading to conclusions directly opposite to those at which I have arrived. A fair result can be obtained only by fully stating and balancing the facts and arguments on both sides of each question; and this cannot possibly be here done.”

    Contrary to the implication arising from the period the DI inserted where none existed, the quote-mined part was not a complete thought. Darwin was not saying that every alleged theory has to be weighed before a fair scientific result can be reached. He was saying that he had many more facts in support of his theory but could not fit them all in the scant 490 pages he had at his disposal in the Origin.

    Quote mining is one very strong indication of pseudoscience.

  • arcseconds

    I also don’t think the peer-review thing is all that helpful, either. Callum makes the important point that passing peer-review doesn’t mean it’s true or even believed: it just means it gets through the door and maybe is worth some consideration. It’s not obviously nonsense and doesn’t make completely blatant errors.

    But peer-review only gives you some guarantee of this if you trust the community of peers.


    – people who accept evolution already generally trust the scientific community

    – people who are on the fence on the matter don’t know who to trust

    – people who accept ID explicitly don’t trust the scientific community (at least on this issue)

    Plus apparently there are peer-reviewed ID journals, so we’d just end up having a mirror-argument where the ID people say “we are publishing in peer-reviewed journals” and the evolution people say “we don’t trust your community”.

    So appealing to peer review gets us nowhere.

    What’s needed is an account of why we should trust the mainstream scientific community, and once you’ve done that, the peer-review thing becomes a side-issue.

    • arcseconds

      And again, the account of why we should trust the mainstream scientific community is going to be a little longer than a knock-down sound-bite.

  • Well said! Thanx for the links — that was fascinating letters back and forth. And thanx for the mention.

    Concerning pseudoscience, I like reading the Ancient Way blog of an acupuncturist (me being a former one too) who has come around and seen the devastating lack of evidence to support acupuncture. It is as interesting seeing what he does since he makes a living on acupuncture and is highly invested in it. The parallels to the variety of responses Christians have as they see through what they were taught about the Bible and Jesus.

  • Cdbren

    Pseudoscience is a claim, belief, or practice which is presented as scientific, but does not adhere to a valid scientific method, lacks supporting evidence or plausibility, and cannot be reliably tested.

    There are many accredited scientists teaching at leading universities that adhere to ID and in fact have written scientific articles and even books on the subject of ID. ID scientists use the same methods, etc. as anyone else so it does pass the scientific test.

    Not sure why some comments are calling ID pseudoscience. If we are calling it that then digging up fossils and placing them in some sort of tree of life based on mere similarities is pseudoscience. (Several of these fossils are now found alive today.)

    I don’t think one can not have a pre-determined conclusion or not fall back on a pre-determined conclusion. If you look at ID, there is much more scientific evidence overwhelmingly pointing to an intelligent designer than there is that things just came about by chance.

    • rmwilliamsjr

      re: If you look at ID, there is much more scientific evidence overwhelmingly pointing to an intelligent designer than there is that things just came about by chance.

      i’d be interested in seeing this scientific evidence for ID. things do not just come about by chance, NS is a non-random filter that pushes populations towards a greater fitness in their current environment. it is the mutations that NS works on that appear to be random, not the evolutionary process itself.