Gini Nelson\’s Engaging Conflicts

September 21, 2006

Science, Borderline Science, Pseudoscience, and Why Science Literacy Matter: The Series

Filed under: Theory To Practice — Gini @ 9:58 am

There are other sources for definitions, but, for ease, let me start with the categories included in a well-considered and stated post done by the A Blog Around The Clock blog, published by a Ph.D. student named Bora Zivkovic. His blog, as he describes it, “regularly covers many areas of biology including neurobiology of behavior within ecological and evolutionary contexts, science education, higher education and science communication, as well as intersection between science and politics – this not so much about science policy, but rather what science can tell us about the way people acquire their political ideology and why they vote the way they do.” In a post originally published August 5, 2005, but subsequently republished, most recently on August 31, 2006, he wrote:

According to Michael Shermer [author of The Borderlines of Science: Where Science Meets Nonsense; also the Founding Publisher of Skeptic magazine] there are:

– science
– borderlands science
– pseudoscience, and
– nonsense

Science is a methodology of figuring out, with as great confidence as possible, how the world works. Evolutionary theory is one of the biggest, strongest and best-supported bodies of all of science.

Borderland Science refers to first small steps in acquiring realistic knowledge about a not-well-understood aspect of the world. It aspires to become Science, but is often held back by various factors, e.g., difficulty in studying the phenomenon of interest, biases of the investigators, social biases against investigations of such phenomena, etc.

For instance, very little is known about hypnosis. It is a real phenomenon but very difficult to study. There is not much funding for it as there is a social bias against such research. Thus, it is still doing its first small pioneering steps and has not resulted in data that are good enough to place it in the realm of real Science.

Another example is Evolutionary Psychology – it is done by psychologists (thus real scientists) who understand biology very poorly, yet strive to make their research scientific. Their own biases make them go up wrong alleys and bark up wrong trees (I love adding up mixed metaphors, sorry). Yet, they are asking real questions about real phenomena and it is expected that at some point evolutionary psychology (lowercase) will get its methodology straight and make enough advances to become real Science.

Pseudoscience is an attempt to sell out-of-ass beliefs as scientific by using hifallutin’ terminology, perform meaningless calculations, draw elaborate charts etc. Examples are many (peruse past editions of the Skeptic’s Circle for examples) and include astrology, biorhythms, pyramid force, Feng Shui, crystal balls, alternative medicine, Holocaust denial, Intelligent Design Creationism, and many, many others. The main goal, usually, is making a quick buck, although more sinister motivations are sometimes behind such ideas, i.e., these may serve as methods for making an unrespectable ideology (e.g., Nazism) respectable again, or there is political gain to be had.

Nonsense does not even pretend to be scientific, e.g., Old Earth Creationism.

Knowing the differences between science and pseudoscience is important because, as he states in another recent well-considered post:

People argue bad science, pseudoscience and nonsense for a variety of reasons, some religiously motivated, some politically motivated, some out of ignorance, some out of arrogance, some out emotional needs, some due to psychological problems.

When they encroach onto the scientific turf and argue nonsense within a scientific domain, they use a limited set of rhetorical tools. The exact choice of tools depends on the motivation, as well as the forum where they advocate the nonsense. Some, the generals in the army in War On Science, have big soapboxes, e.g., TV, radio and newspapers. Some teach and preach in schools and churches. Some run blogs, and some – the footsoldiers of The War – troll on other people’s blogs.

So, when the motivation is political, when they are pushing for debunked conservative ideas, from femiphobic stances on anti-abortion and anti-stem-cell-research, through thinly-veiled racism of the War On Terror, to failed economic policies (“trickle-down”) and global-warming denial, they mainly use one set of rhetorical strategies.

When the motivation is religious, as in Creationism, the strategies are similar, but not exactly the same. Loony fringe pseudoscience, from the Left or the Right (and sometimes it is difficult to figure out if they come from the Left or the Right) – appears to employ very similar rhetorical devices as the religiously motivated pseudoscience, suggesting that perhaps both are sharing the same underlying emotional disturbances.

The links for both these posts are: on pseudoscience; on uses of bad science. I don’t agree with everything he says and concludes, but I read and consider them. His premise, which I share, is that there is much threatening political activity related to misuses of science and in conjunction with attacks on science, such that we critically need science literacy.

For me, there’s another, equally important need for science literacy — the fact that we are in a time of immense, even revolutionary developments in science, and will be for perhaps the next decade or two (for now). What are these developments? How will they relate to our practices as conflict specialists and otherwise to our lives in the world?


1 Comment »

  1. I guess free speech is still alive.. and ya’ gotta love WordPress for it.
    Keep bloggin’… cuz I luv readin’ yer posts. : )
    – Anjie in Little Rock, AK

    Comment by stage hypnosis — October 9, 2006 @ 11:10 am | Reply

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