Where is the proof in pseudoscience?

The word “pseudoscience” is used to describe something that is portrayed as scientific but fails to meet scientific criteria.

The Conversation

By Peter Ellerton

This misrepresentation occurs because actual science has creditability (which is to say it works), and pseudoscience attempts to ride on the back of this credibility without subjecting itself to the hard intellectual scrutiny that real science demands.

A good example of pseudoscience is homoeopathy, which presents the façade of a science-based medical practice but fails to adhere to scientific methodology.

Other things typically branded pseudoscience include astrology, young-Earth creationism, iridology, neuro-linguistic programming and water divining, to name but a few.

What’s the difference?

Key distinctions between science and pseudoscience are often lost in discussion, and sometimes this makes the public acceptance of scientific findings harder than it should be.

For example, those who think the plural of anecdote is data may not appreciate why this is not scientific (indeed, it can have a proper role to play as a signpost for research).

Other misconceptions about science include what the definition of a theory is, what it means to prove something, how statistics should be used and the nature of evidence and falsification.

Because of these misconceptions, and the confusion they cause, it is sometimes useful to discuss science and pseudoscience in a way that focuses less on operational details and more on the broader functions of science.

What is knowledge?

Testing the knowledge.
The first and highest level at which science can be distinguished from pseudoscience involves how an area of study grows in knowledge and utility.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The philosopher John Dewey in his Theory of Inquiry said that we understand knowledge as that which is “so settled that it is available as a resource in further inquiry”.

This is an excellent description of how we come to “know” something in science. It shows how existing knowledge can be used to form new hypotheses, develop new theories and hence create new knowledge.

It is characteristic of science that our knowledge, so expressed, has grown enormously over the last few centuries, guided by the reality check of experimentation.

In short, the new knowledge works and is useful in finding more knowledge that also works.

No progress made

It’s all in the stars.

Contrast this with homeopathy, a field that has generated no discernible growth in knowledge or practice. While the use of modern scientific language may make it sound more impressive, there is no corresponding increase in knowledge linked to effectiveness. The field has flat-lined.

 

 

 

At this level of understanding, science produces growth, pseudoscience does not.

To understand this lack of growth we move to a lower, more detailed level, in which we are concerned with one of the primary goals of science: to provide causal explanations of phenomena.

Causal explanations

Causal explanations are those in which we understand the connection between two or more events, where we can outline a theoretical pathway whereby one could influence the others.

This theoretical pathway can then be tested via the predictions it makes about the world, and stands or falls on the results. Classic examples of successful causal explanations in science include our explanation of the seasons, and of the genetic basis of some diseases.

While it’s true that homoeopathy supporters try very hard to provide causal explanations, such explanations are not linked to more effective practice, do not provide new knowledge or utility, and so do not lead to growth.

In the same way, supporters of neuro-linguistic programing claim a causal connection between certain neurological processes and learned behaviour, but fail to deliver, and astrologists offer no coherent attempt to provide an explanation for their purported predictive powers.

 

 

 

 

What is neuro-linguistic programing?
 

 

 

The lack of testable causal explanations (or models, if you will) that characterises pseudoscience gives us a second level of discrimination: science provides casual explanations that lead to growth but pseudoscience does not.

Operational aspects of science

The third level of discrimination is where most of the action between science and pseudoscience actually takes place, over what I earlier called the operational details of science. Getting these details right helps deliver useful causal explanations.

This is where battles are fought over what constitutes evidence, how to properly use statistics, instances of cognitive biases, the use of proper methodologies and so on.

It is where homeopathy relies on confirmation bias, where the anti-vaccine lobby is energised by anecdotes, and where deniers of climate science selectively highlight agreeable data.

This level is also where the waters are muddiest in terms of understanding science for much of the population, as seen in comments on social media posts, letters to the editor, talkback, television, media articles and political posturing.

The knowledge is out there

It is important to address these basic operational understandings, but we must also highlight, in both science education and science communication, the causal explanations science provides about the world and the link between these explanations and growth in knowledge and utility.

This understanding gives us better tools to recognise pseudoscience in general, and also helps combat anti-science movements (such as young-earth creationism) that often masquerade as science in their attempt to play in the same rational arena.

A vigorous, articulate and targeted offence against pseudoscience is essential to the project of human progress through science, which, as Einstein reminds us, is “the most precious thing we have”.

The Conversation

– This article was originally published at The Conversation.
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I was recently watching the live broadcast of the Australian Parliament  as the various members and ministers, on both sides of the house, rose to speak during Question Time. I soon began to get that familiar feeling of disappointment and bewilderment at the quality of the level of discussion so typical of the Westminster system of debate. So I tried a simple metacognition experiment.

As each speaker made their claims and touted their party’s policies in the House (which would also be recorded in Hansard) I simply asked myself: “But, is it true?” “Is what you are now saying a genuine attempt at making a fully true statement?”. And then I gave that statement a ‘truth rating’ out of 10 … 1 being low and 10 being high. An an Elector of Australia I can safely assume this is my right to do so.

Rarely could I confidently answer, “Yes, that is true!” If I had to make a subjective guess I would say that more than 80% of their statements and claims were only half truths … at best. And, as the widely-quoted Yiddish proverb says A half truth is a whole lie.

(NOTE: This is a simple experiment for you to try for yourself. Tune in to, or go sit in, your local equivalent of the Australian Parliament and try this for yourself. If you like, you can post your results below. The same experiment could be used in other situations where the detection of half-truths is required. In the media there are many opportunities to do this in current affairs, business, politics and other programs and articles. Religious sermons, TV commercials, blogs and tweets may also provide useful opportunities to detect half truths. )

For the first time in history lies can travel at the speed of light.

In our exploding world of cybermedia with social media, photoshop, digital manipulation, phone-hacking and peer2peer messaging at the speed of light, I believe that the global epidemic spread of lies may be one of the most serious challenges facing long-term human survival.

I believe this challenge needs to be taken very seriously and could be considered to be of a threat level similar to that of lethal epidemics like Avian or Bird Flu. Many scientists share this view.

As an antidote, SOT has put forward a new thinking methodology to help meet this challenge. To follow on from the previous SOT thinking tools, thinking hats and brain software, this new tool is called: greyscale thinking: how to sort a truth from a lie.

What Makes A Great Teacher?

I was once contacted by a young man in London who is a teacher/coach and personal trainer/consultant. He is in the early stages of his career and he sought my advice. He asked me this question: What makes a great teacher? That is a very good question. It’s exactly the question he should be asking as he embarks on this vocation.

My response to him was this: While there are many things that can make a teacher a much better one there is one non-negotiable, one litmus test, which defines a great teacher. This test is about how the teacher’s performance stacks up to the BIG question: IS IT TRUE?

How to choose Your Teacher. Ask: Is It True?

Is what the teacher is teaching a TRUTH or a LIE? The answer to this question is what sorts out the frauds from the professors. If this test is passed then the teacher can be a great teacher if not then the teacher will always be a failure … in my view.

Making Claims

Anyone can make a claim. All sorts of claims are made in business, in science, in religion, in families, in governments, in education, in politics, on blogs and in the media. But is it a true claim? How closely does it correspond to reality? Or, is the claim a lie? How do we know? Does it even matter?

Yes. It does matter whether a claim is a truth or a lie. For example, many people believe things which are dangerous lies. These lies may have been protected from thinking for hundreds of years. These lies all have consequences which may range from deception to dementia to death.

Like a brainvirus, these lies can infect the brains of very young children. This is happening right now to millions of children as you read this article. I do believe that the global epidemic spread of lies may one of the most serious challenges facing long-term human survival.

ACTION STEP: If you feel this is important (please don’t spam lists of people) but send this article on to a selected friend, colleague or family member who may find it useful.

Greyscale Thinking

To help meet this challenge I am introducing the idea of greyscale thinking (US grayscale). Greyscale thinking is simple, fast and scientific. Anyone, anywhere and anytime can use greyscale thinking to help sort out a truth from a lie.

Any child can learn to use it. Greyscale thinking can be taught to kids by parents and by teachers. Any employee can learn to use it. Greyscale thinking can be taught to employees by managers and business leaders.

The idea of greyscale thinking is: claim divided by questions equals truth or lie. This idea can be expressed as the formula c÷q=t>l.

This means that once a ‘claim’ is made it can then be subjected to ‘questioning’. Questioning reveals whether the claim is closer to being either a ‘truth’ or a ‘lie’.

Six True Questions
SIX TRUE QUESTIONS: The methodology of greyscale thinking is the cognitive skill or habit of putting a CLAIM to the SIX TRUE QUESTIONS: What and Where and When and Why and How and Who – (Click here for more on the questions).

The answers to each of the 6 questions moves the CLAIM to and fro along the greyscale continuum: |  TRUTH – w? w? w? w? h? w? -  LIE |

______________________________________________________________________________________________

|       TRUTH                     –           –           –           –                     LIE       |

______________________________________________________________________________________________

The answers to each of the 6 questions indicate, on the balance of the evidence, whether the CLAIM is more likely to be a TRUTH or more likely to be a LIE.

MAIN POINT: You will have noticed we are saying “a truth” rather than “The Truth”. Searching for truth is a journey and not a destination. We are more concerned with being right than being righteous. No individual brain can ever contain perfect knowledge of all possible facts. No brain can ever know the contents of the other people’s brains who are also involved in the situation. No brain can ever have perfect ownership of The Truth. And, that’s the point.

The rule of science is that you can have a good idea today, a better idea tomorrow, and the best idea … never! Why? Because there are always more facts to uncover–more opinions, more priorities, more options, more consequences, more positives, more negatives, more objectives, more measurements, and more experiments that can be tested. History has shown this to be a truth.

It is the deliberate effort one makes to move closer to a truth and to move further away from a lie that produces all the benefits of greyscale thinking.

No claim should ever be protected from questioning

Any claim that has ever been made in all of history and any claim that ever will be made can be illuminated, examined, investigated and accepted or rejected using the 6 true questions of greyscale thinking: What and Where and When and Why and How and Who – (Click here for more on the questions).

What is greyscale thinking?
Greyscale (or grayscale) thinking is a tool for sorting out truths from lies.

What is Truth?
Truth is that which, on the balance of evidence, corresponds to reality.

There are two serious cognitive problems we need to solve to survive and prosper. Greyscale thinking is a powerful tool anyone can use for solving both these problems.

Problem One: How to know if a truth is really a lie (or a half-truth)?
Problem Two: How to know if a lie is really a truth?

What difference does it make?
The difference is an immediate increase in:
– your survival intelligence: your skills to survive and prosper in a rapidly changing environment, and
– your speed of thought: the speed with which you can escape from your current view of the situation in order to find a much better view.

How long does it take to learn?
It takes ten minutes a day, for ten days, to learn greyscale thinking. 10 x 10.

 

Recently I was posed this question by a media personality in Ireland and asked to write my comments for an upcoming Q+A TV show on this topic. Here’s my personal view …

 

The Western education system teaches students to be logically irrational rather than creatively rational. We teach our children to debate and defend their viewpoints rather than to escape and find even better ones. We teach our kids to lock themselves defensively inside the square rather than take an innovative leap outside the square. This makes them very slow thinkers.

Of course, in spite of all this, there are always a few exceptions and, depending on our mood, we either sing their creative praises or we single them out for judgement and correction. Interestingly, there are deep historical reasons for why we do this in our schools and in Western culture a lot can be traced back to Plato’s thoughts about the concept of TRUTH. There are basically two strategies when it comes to TRUTH: defence or search.

Pre-enlightenment thinking was about the DEFENCE of truth. “There is only one truth”, “I-am-right-and-you-are-wrong”, “God is on our side”, “Do what we say, or else”, “We know better than you because we have authority and rank”, “Our truth is the right truth”, “We have THE TRUTH so stop looking elsewhere. Just do as you’re told”. “Kill the infidel”. etc.

This authoritarian approach to ownership and defence of THE TRUTH got going in a big way after St Thomas Aquinas embedded a somewhat distorted view of Plato’s thinking into the Church at a time when the first universities were being set up. And, later when the European education system was being disseminated around the world by Roman-controlled missionaries, this Greco-Roman logic became the basic cognitive operating system for all of Western education.

In Australia, Greco-Roman Logic was imported here about 200 years ago along with rabbits and various other European delights. Even today, our children are still taught the ‘right/wrong’ system of sorting information. “This-is-right-and-that-is-wrong”. Logic is somewhat useful for sorting out the past but totally inadequate for designing much safer and more productive futures. We have come to call this kind of Greco-Roman Logic, ‘inside the square’ thinking.

So what do we see? We see grown-ups deeply trapped in irrational logic in business, in economics, in our legal system and in our parliament. In Canberra, for example, all the adults on one side of the House say “We-are-right-and-you-are-wrong”. Meanwhile, all the adults on the other side of the House say, “No. We-are-right-and-you-are-wrong”. Many of these members of the parliament are highly educated people; lawyers, journalists, business people and teachers. Watching it all on TV can be a most cringing experience. Electors in Australia are deeply dissatisfied with the performance in Canberra and are leaving the established political parties in droves.

Yet there is another strategy for TRUTH other than it’s mere logical defence. Since The Enlightenment we now have the innovative and scientific SEARCH for truth.

To encourage this strategy I use the formula: escape + search = think. If we can first escape from the righteousness of historical or traditional or authoritarian truths we can then search, experiment, and design much better truths. This is an ongoing and never-ending process.

Science offers us the search for much better truths than we currently have and we have developed very powerful tools to assist us in this search. Post-Enlightenment we now have The Scientific Method. We also have Darwinian Thinking. We have the use of evidence. We have the technology for observation and measurement. We have the forensic power of questions. “Why is this so?”, “What is the evidence?”, “What other possible explanation could apply?”, “How do you know?”, “What else have you tried”, “Give me ten other options”, “What are ten other possible explanations?, “Who is doing this differently?”, “How can we make this faster?”, “Why not do an experiment in order to see what happens?” etc. We often call this kind of thinking, ‘outside the square’.

It’s been my experience that although many highly educated Western people do know about The Enlightenment and might even be able to write a short essay on it, they are still very much pre-Enlightenment logical thinkers. Curiously, this is not the case in China. My experience there is that most highly educated Chinese people are post-Enlightenment thinkers and this is giving them a big advantage over their Western competitors. It will be interesting to see how this unfolds in the next decade.

In short, Western education has been about teaching kids to learn and logically DEFEND THE TRUTH (as revealed by their teachers) rather than giving them the thinking tools to discover much better truths through searching and measurement.

Evidence of this is in the type questions that teachers ask their students in school. There are closed questions that seek a correct answer. e.g. When was the Magna Carta signed? There are open or authentic questions where the teachers can provide an opportunity for the student to do some fresh thinking. e.g. What might have happened if the Magna Carta was never signed?

In one Harvard study of a large group of the top teachers in the US, the teachers were asked to estimate how many authentic questions that they had asked their students in the first semester of that year. The shocking results were: less than 1!!

On this big question about Western education my opinion is: We do not teach our kids to think for themselves. We teach them to learn what we tell them.

As a consequence of that, when we become adults in business, in law, in the media and in government we spend an extravagant amount of our time and energy defending what we believe to be true rather than discovering what we are capable of finding out.