intellectual self-defence science

The choice of facts

Robert Park’s article ‘The Seven Warning Signs of Bogus Science is a result of his attempt to help judges faced with expert witnesses making scientific arguments. He has attempted to come up with heuristics of bad science: ‘indicators that a scientific claim lies well outside the bounds of rational scientific discourse’

Here they are:

  • 1. The discoverer pitches the claim directly to the media.
  • 2. The discoverer says that a powerful establishment is trying to suppress his or her work.
  • 3. The scientific effect involved is always at the very limit of detection.
  • 4. Evidence for a discovery is anecdotal.
  • 5. The discoverer says a belief is credible because it has endured for centuries.
  • 6. The discoverer has worked in isolation.
  • 7. The discoverer must propose new laws of nature to explain an observation.

It’s a good list. Sadly, however, telling the difference between sense and nonsense is never going to be easy. Even the best of us, when we get out of our field, can feel at a loss. It feels to me that your position on the classic controversial science debates (global warming, alternative medicine, creationism) is utterly removed from the facts either way, but instead depends on the pre-theoretical commitments you have made. So, for example, a preference for conventional vs alternative medicine, or creation science vs evolution, is in fact impossible to refute from within the frame of reference of the person with that preference (this will be obvious to any creationist who has tried talking to an evolutionist, or vice-versa). Rather than a choice which can be faulted on facts, it is really a case of choices about what kinds of information define facts. All views of the world have biases in them, the distinction between a scientist and a pseudoscientist is not about which each believes to be true, but rather about what set of systemmatic biases each has decided to place their faith in.

5 replies on “The choice of facts”

Do you really think the debate on climate change is comparable to the creation/evolution and the alternative medicine/medicine “debates” ?

Methinks you’re a tad too pessimistic.

Not comparable in terms of the evidence – facts do exist – but comparable in the sense that both involve choices about who to believe which in turn influence what you believe

I disagree. Both sides in the climate change debate use scientific arguments (well, if you are willing to forget about the censoring urges of the alarmist side) whereas there is no debate on creationism* or quackery; there are just people who do not accept facts they disagree with. So there is a real debate on climate change, whereas there is none on both other subjects.

* mind you, I do believe in creation, but not in creationism.

I agree with you that there is no real debate on quakery and creationism, contra climate change, but I do believe that if you are not as scientifically literate and intellectually poised as ourselves (!) then you can’t tell this in any easy way. The scientific truth in all three cases is not as obvious as the majority of skeptics maintain

There’s a disconnect between how scientists think science and technology progresses and how it does so in practice. A scientific paradigm is a useful thing… until it fails to be useful, then it needs to evolve or die. Usually it (or the older scientists) die before the paradigm shifts.

There’s also the underlying assumption that disciplines advancing human knowledge, wisdom and technology aspire to be scientific. The facts are that people have been advancing these areas in very unscientific ways. In many cases the scientific paradigm hindered progress.

A lot of technology is created before science is able to explain how it works so we shouldn’t be surprised that people pushing the envelope in what is thought possible are labelled pseudo-scientists.

Who cares what a particular in-group say, we’ll get on with creating the future.

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