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Pseudoscience vs. Science
12 years ago
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This topic is about the differences between pseudoscience and actual science.  Other questionable variations will be considered also.

The motivation for this topic is that there seems to be no clear distinction between science and pseudoscience among many people, even some philosophers of science, and the media.  Most scientists and scientifically educated people (hereafter included under the term "scientists") may have some difficulty with general definitions if they haven't considered the question, but will respond with something like, "I know pseudoscience when I see it."   They are probably correct, but that isn't terribly helpful.

My motivations have three sources. 

First, in my experience as a research scientist, I had more exposure to pseudoscientific notions than I'd usually like to recall.  But, empirically, with little initial interest in studying the phenomenon, I noticed that pseudoscientific arguments in widely different fields had a lot of common features, very generally including the unwillingness to consider or even acknowledge certain kinds of meaningful evidence and reasoning.  The ideas of the proponents of pseudoscientific ideas included people who sought to challenge well established theories of evolution, thermodynamics, quantum mechanics, astronomy, and even gravity.

Second, attacks on the existing practice of science have come from various sources, most recently and notably from religious rightwing fundamentalists allied with certain business/polital interests who have ideological axes to grind; and from extreme post-modernists who suggest that science is merely a social construct which can be readily deconstructed.  These attacks are not generally helped by much of the popular media, which likes nothing better than a good argument and attempts to portray these debates as "balanced" when they generally are not.

My third motivation has been recent reading in history and philosophy of science.  I had previously been unimpressed with much of philosophy of science because it seemed that the authors were unfamiliar with the nitty-gitty of actuallydoing science.  Reading work by authors who are or were scientists such as Gould, Mayr, Michael Ghiselin, and Martin Rudwick, and by philosophers of science, such as Philip Kitcher, who are very well educated in science has convinced me that these fields of investigation may make some progress just as science itself does.

Following Kitcher, I will not generally argue that historical figures who argued against scientific ideas that are now well established were necessarily practicing pseudoscience.  I will argue that to argue for those outdated theories today is pseudoscientific.  Along with Kitcher, I believe that a psychological desciption of pseudoscience is applicable:  "Pseudoscience is just what [pseudoscientists] do."   I will discuss some other practices such as fringe science and protoscience, which may eventually yield good science, and descriptors such as junkscience and sound science. 

First some uncontroversial definitions from Wikipedia.  I do not entirely agree with these, but they are a good starting point.  I suggest anyone interested in this topic read the entire Wikipedia topics, although i will attempt to abstract the essential points in the following posts. 

12 years ago

Pseudoscience (edited for length and retention of content)

Pseudoscience is any body of knowledge, methodology, belief, or practice that claims to be scientific but does not follow the scientific method.  Pseudosciences may appear scientific, but they do not adhere to the testability requirement of the scientific method and are often in conflict with current scientific consensus.

The term pseudoscience appears to have been first used in 1843... The term has negative connotations, because it is used to indicate that subjects so labeled are inaccurately or deceptively portrayed as science. Accordingly, those labeled as practicing or advocating a "pseudoscience" normally reject this classification. ...

Beyond the initial introductory analyses offered in science classes, there is some epistemological disagreement about whether it is possible to distinguish "science" from "pseudoscience" in a reliable and objective way.

Pseudosciences may be characterised by the use of vague, exaggerated or untestable claims, over-reliance on confirmation rather than refutation, lack of openness to testing by other experts, and a lack of progress in theory development.


The standards for determining whether a body of knowledge, methodology, or practice is scientific can vary from field to field, but involve agreed principles including reproducibility and intersubjective verifiability. Such principles aim to ensure that relevant evidence can be reproduced and/or measured given the same conditions, which allows further investigation to determine whether a hypothesis or theory related to given phenomena is both valid and reliable for use by others, including other scientists and researchers.

Identifying pseudoscience

A field, practice, or body of knowledge might reasonably be called pseudoscientific when

(1) it is presented as consistent with the accepted norms of scientific research; but

(2) it demonstrably fails to meet these norms, most importantly, in misuse of scientific method.

The following have been proposed to be indicators of poor scientific reasoning:

Use of vague, exaggerated or untestable claims

Assertion of scientific claims that are vague rather than precise, and that lack specific measurements

Failure to make use of operational definitions. (i.e. a scientific description of the operational means in which a range of numeric measurements can be obtained)

Failure to make reasonable use of the principle of parsimony, i.e. failing to seek an explanation that requires the fewest possible additional assumptions when multiple viable explanations are possible

Use of obscurantist language, and misuse of apparently technical jargon in an effort to give claims the superficial trappings of science.

Lack of boundary conditions: Most well-supported scientific theories possess boundary conditions (well articulated limitations) under which the predicted phenomena do and do not apply.

Over-reliance on confirmation rather than refutation

Assertion of scientific claims that cannot be falsified in the event they are incorrect, inaccurate, or irrelevant.

Assertion of claims that a theory predicts something that it has not been shown to predict.

Assertion that claims which have not been proven false must be true, and vice versa (Argument from ignorance)

Over-reliance on testimonials and anecdotes. Testimonial and anecdotal evidence can be useful for discovery (i.e. hypothesis generation) but should not be used in the context of justification (i.e. hypothesis testing). 

Selective use of experimental evidence: presentation of data that seems to support its own claims while suppressing or refusing to consider data that conflict with its claims.

Reversed burden of proof. In science, the burden of proof rests on the individual making a claim, not on the critic. 

Appeals to holism: Proponents of pseudoscientific claims, often resort to the “mantra of holism” to explain negative findings.

Lack of openness to testing by other experts

Evasion of peer review before publicizing results ("science by press conference").  Some proponents of theories that contradict accepted scientific theories avoid subjecting their work to the often ego-bruising process of peer review, sometimes on the grounds that peer review is inherently biased against claims that contradict established paradigms, and sometimes on the grounds that assertions cannot be evaluated adequately using standard scientific methods.  

Failure to provide adequate information for other researchers to reproduce the claimed results. 

Assertion of claims of secrecy or proprietary knowledge in response to requests for review of data or methodology.

Lack of progress

Failure to progress towards additional evidence of its claims

Lack of self correction: scientific research programmes make mistakes, but they tend to eliminate these errors over time. By contrast, theories may be accused of being pseudoscientific because they have remained unaltered despite contradictory evidence.

Personalization of issues

Tight social groups and granfalloons. Authoritarian personality, suppression of dissent, and groupthink can enhance the adoption of beliefs that have no rational basis. The group tends to identify their critics as enemies.

Assertion of claims of a conspiracy on the part of the scientific community to suppress the results

Attacking the motives or character of anyone who questions the claims (Ad hominem fallacy)

12 years ago
I think we need an all-embracing definition of the scientific method in this thread. I mean one that actually accounts for ALL branches of natural science, not the simplistic "straw man" variety some people hear about in high school classrooms. Shall I dig up one myself, or will Roger do that next?

This post was modified from its original form on 18 Mar, 21:12
12 years ago

the psuedo is a very interesting and factual science...psuedo has been played, explored and experimented with in every single entity of physical dynamic (not creation) and emotional and mental attributes in existence...without us even realising it completely...

without psuedo-science we would not even begin to comprehend actual science...there would be no pathway to thought, analysis or perception...they would be dis-connected complexities without the psuedo highway of energy...and there would definately be no conclusion or solution!

x tracy

Protoscience and Fringe Science
12 years ago


Protoscience is a term sometimes used to describe a hypothesis that has not yet been adequately tested by the scientific method, but which is otherwise consistent with existing science or which, where inconsistent, offers reasonable account of the inconsistency. It may also describe the transition from a body of practical knowledge into a scientific field.  By contrast, "pseudoscience" is reserved to describe theories which are either untestable in practice or in principle, or which are maintained even when tests appear to have refuted them.

Protoscience is a field of study that appears to conform to the initial phase of the scientific method, with information gathering and formulation of a hypothesis, but involves speculation that is either not yet experimentally falsifiable or not yet verified or accepted by a consensus of scientists.  Protoscience is distinguished from other forms of speculation in that its formulation strives to remain coherent with all relevant fields of scientific research so as to achieve falsifiability and verification as soon and as accurately as possible.

History of the term
The philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn first used the word in an essay first published in 1970:

"In any case, there are many fields — I shall call them proto-sciences — in which practice does generate testable conclusions but which nevertheless resemble philosophy and the arts rather than the established sciences in their developmental patterns. I think, for example, of fields like chemistry and electricity before the mid-eighteenth century, of the study of heredity and phylogeny before the mid-nineteenth, or of many of the social sciences today. In these fields, too, though they satisfy Sir Karl's demarcation criterion, incessant criticism and continual striving for a fresh start are primary forces, and need to be. No more than in philosophy and the arts, however, do they result in clear-cut progress.

"I conclude, in short, that the proto-sciences, like the arts and philosophy, lack some element which, in the mature sciences, permits the more obvious forms of progress. It is not, however, anything that a methodological prescription can provide. Unlike my present critics, Lakatos at this point included, I claim no therapy to assist the transformation of a proto-science to a science, nor do I suppose anything of this sort is to be had." – Thomas Kuhn, Criticism and the growth of knowledge

Fringe Science

From Wikipedia

Fringe science is a phrase used to describe scientific inquiry in an established field that departs significantly from mainstream or orthodox theories.

Fringe science is, by definition, at the fringes of a mainstream academic discipline. Fringe science is seen by most scientists as unlikely (given current knowledge and scientific consensus), but not irrational.

Some of today's widely-held theories (such as plate tectonics) had their origins as fringe science. As with all categories, disagreement is widespread regarding what ideas are legitimate fringe science, and what ideas might be more accurately described as pseudoscience. Traditionally, the term "fringe science" is used to describe unusual theories that have their basis in established scientific principle, and which are advocated by a scientist who is recognized by the larger scientific community (typically due to publication of peer reviewed studies by the scientist).

Fringe science can be a field of inquiry which is not yet considered a "real" science (see protoscience) by the vast majority of scientists, but which nevertheless bears some resemblance to the norms of the scientific method. Based upon the merits of a specific hypothesis and methods of the inquiry, specific instances of fringe science may or may not come to be included in the canon of actual science.

The phrase "fringe science" is sometimes considered pejorative. For example, writing in the Journal of American Culture, Lyell D. Henry, Jr. commented that "'fringe science' [is] a term also suggesting kookiness."

Contemporary Examples

Aubrey de Grey, featured in a 2006 60 Minutes special report, is working on advanced studies in human longevity.  Many mainstream scientists believe his research constitutes "fringe science."

A nuclear fusion reaction called cold fusion occurring near room temperature and pressure was reported by Fleischmann and Pons in March 1989.  Numerous research efforts at the time attempted and were unable to replicate these results.   Since then, many scientists with a variety of credentials have contributed to the field or participated in the international conferences on cold fusion.  In 2004, the United States Department of Energy (USDOE) decided to take another look at cold fusion to determine if their policies towards cold fusion should be altered due to new experimental evidence and so set up a panel on cold fusion.

Fringe science can be distinguished from some similar-sounding, but pejorative in nature, categories [such] as

(1) Pseudoscience:  Reproducibility is typically a problem in pseudoscience but not in fringe science. 

(2) Junk science - Junk science is used to describe agenda-driven research that ignores certain standard methodologies and practices in an attempt to secure a given result from an experiment. Fringe science, as in standard methodology, proceeds from theory to conclusion with no attempt to direct or coax the result.

12 years ago


striving for a fresh start are primary forces, and need to be.





12 years ago
I'm not entirely sure what you are getting at, but to the degree that I follow, I would expect you might be very interested in self-organization and complexity science, which are good examples which are in the process to transition from fringe science to mainstream science.   My point in this thread isn't to argue for stasis.  Unlike pseudoscience, IMO fringe science can be a very good thing.  Actually I'm amazed anyone is reading these dry definitions!
Essay I wrote about the scientific method
12 years ago

There are many branches of natural science and they include astronomy, biology, chemistry, geology, and physics.  Some of these branches, like astronomy, biology, and geology, have a historical element to them because they deal with events in the distant past as well as the present. Others, like chemistry and physics, do not, at least not of themselves. So for those which do not have a historical element to them, like chemistry and physics, it is indeed appropriate to define the scientific method strictly in terms of repeatable experiment to test any hypothesis. As for others which do have a historical element, like astronomy, biology, and geology, the scientific method  for them must also include testing a hypothesis via further observations, including forensic methods commonly used by police to solve crimes, and not just via experiments. Indeed in the case of astronomy, experiments are actually impossible (how could you do an experiment on celestial bodies?), and ONLY further observations can be used to test any hypothesis in astronomy! The discovery of the planet Neptune is classic example of such a process. Thus is indeed inappropriate to take a standard made for chemistry or physics and try to apply them to ALL branches of natural sciences! If the branch of science includes a historical element, you MUST use the standard of evidence that allows the branch of scientific knowledge to expand as much as possible, while still demanding that hypotheses be testable.

The process of scientific investigation regarding past events requires that there be two or more completing hypotheses regarding a certain issue,  (such as the extinction of the dinosaurs, or the origin of the universe). As more and more physical evidence is gathered and analysed, completing hypotheses are falsified one by one until one is left. If a single hypothesis is left that explains all the physical evidence, it is considered a "fact", but even that fact is provisional. At any time, new evidence may surface that allows for a new hypothesis to be established which them may challenge and even overthrow the earlier "fact". Science by nature is not dogmatic.

From wikipedia, about experiments
12 years ago

In the scientific method, an experiment (Latin: ex-+-periri, "of (or from) trying"), is a set of actions and observations, performed in the context of solving a particular problem or question, to support or falsify a hypothesis or research concerning phenomena. The experiment is a cornerstone in the empirical approach to acquiring deeper knowledge about the physical world.

Natural experiments

The term "experiment" usually implies a controlled experiment, but sometimes controlled experiments are prohibitively difficult or impossible. In this case researchers resort to natural experiments, also called quasi-experiments. Natural experiments rely solely on observations of the variables of the system under study, rather than manipulation of just one or a few variables as occurs in controlled experiments. To the degree possible, they attempt to collect data for the system in such a way that contribution from all variables can be determined, and where the effects of variation in certain variables remain approximately constant so that the effects of other variables can be discerned. The degree to which this is possible depends on the observed correlation between explanatory variables in the observed data. When these variables are not well correlated, natural experiments can approach the power of controlled experiments. Usually, however, there is some correlation between these variables, which reduces the reliability of natural experiments relative to what could be concluded if a controlled experiment were performed. Also, because natural experiments usually take place in uncontrolled environments, variables from undetected sources are neither measured nor held constant, and these may produce ilusory correlations in variables under study.

Much research in several important science disciplines, including economics, political science, geology, paleontology, ecology, meteorology, and astronomy, relies on quasi-experiments. For example, in astronomy it is clearly impossible, when testing the hypothesis "suns are collapsed clouds of hydrogen", to start out with a giant cloud of hydrogen, and then perform the experiment of waiting a few billion years for it to form a sun. However, by observing various clouds of hydrogen in various states of collapse, and other implications of the hypothesis (for example, the presence of various spectral emissions from the light of stars), we can collect data we require to support the hypothesis. An early example of this type of experiment was the first verification in the 1600s that light does not travel from place to place instantaneously, but instead has a measurable speed. Observation of the appearance of the moons of Jupiter were slightly delayed when Jupiter was farther from Earth, as opposed to when Jupiter was closer to Earth; and this phenomenon was used to demonstrate that the difference in the time of appearance of the moons was consistent with a measurable speed of light.

So observations CAN be considered experiments, according to that article?

Junk Science, Sound Science, and Popular Science
12 years ago

Junk Science

The term "junk science", as used in political and legal disputes in the United States, brands an advocate's claims about scientific data, research, analyses as spurious. The term generally conveys a pejorative connotation that the advocate is driven by political, ideological, financial, and other unscientific motives.

The term was first used in relation to expert testimony in civil litigation. More recently, it has been used to criticize research on the harmful environmental or public health effects of corporate activities, and occasionally in response to such criticism. "Junk science" is often counterposed to "sound science", a term used to describe studies that favor the accuser's point of view. It is the role of political interests which distinguishes debate over junk science from discussions of pseudoscience and controversial science.

The terms 'junk science' and 'sound science' do not have an agreed-upon definition or significant currency within the scientific community; they are primarily terms of political debate.

Sound Science

The term "sound science" has been used in public policy discussions, usually in contrast to "junk science". Typically an advocate will use sound science to describe his side and junk science to describe his opponent's side.

The argument of a "lack of sound science" is often used to discredit concerns of activists and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in fields such as public health, consumer rights, public safety, and environmental risks.

The phrase is often used by corporate business, industry public relations, national and international government agencies, and environmental groups to describe the scientific research that is used to justify their political claims or positions, or to vilify research threathening their interests hence safeguarding their revenue.

"Sound science", however, has no specific scientific definition itself, so the phrase is used subjectively.

Popular science

Popular science, sometimes called literature of science, is interpretation of science intended for a general audience, rather than for other experts or students. Popular science differs from science journalism in that the latter generally focuses on recent scientific developments, while popular science is more broad-ranging and is often written by scientists rather than journalists. It is presented in many formats, including books, television documentaries, and magazine articles.

As a bridge between scientific literature (the professional medium of scientific research) and the realm of popular political and cultural discourse, popular science shares some of the purposes of both but is in many ways distinct from either. Popular science generally attempts to wield the authority of science, sometimes even on social and political issues, but scientific content—the facts and arguments of professional science—changes considerably in translation, with some aspects lost and others gained. For this reason, many science-related controversies play out in the public realm, where political, philosophical and ideological contexts can mix more freely with the formal elements of science—for example, the long-running debates over biological determinism and the biological (especially racial) components of intelligence, spurred by popular books such as The Mismeasure of Man and The Bell Curve. [roger's note: The Mismeasure of Man, by S. J. Gould was written in large part to disprove the ideas of The Bell Curve that racial differences in intelligence can be demonstrated by IQ tests and the like.]

One important difference between popular and professional science is in purpose. The purpose of scientific literature is to persuade other specialists of the validity of observations and conclusions and the efficacy of methods— in terms Aristotle's classification of rhetoric, it is forensic. Popular science attempts to convince scientific outsiders (including scientists in other fields) of the significance of data and conclusions and to celebrate the results, with their validity taken for granted—epideictic rhetoric. Statements in scientific literature are often qualified and tentative, emphasizing that new observations and results are consistent with and similar to established knowledge; other qualified scientists are assumed to recognize the relevance. By contrast, popular science emphasizes uniqueness and generality, taking a tone of factual authority absent from the scientific literature. Comparisons between original scientific reports and derivative science journalism and popular science typically reveals at least some level of distortion and oversimplification, often quite dramatic, even with politically neutral scientific topics.

[Roger's note:  Popular science can be great when written competently by those who know their subject.  Darwin's Origin was popular science writing, but was rigorous enough to be addressed to the scientific elite of the 19th century, as well as to simply literate citizens.  But popular science as written in press releases is often sensationalism.]

12 years ago

Absolutely!  The distinction between an observation and an experiment is virtually meaningless, except to maybe indicate the level of intervention of the observer.  It makes no difference at all to the validity of the observation to note whether it is the result of an arranged set of preconditions or a observed set of preconditions.  There are also some critics who claim that laboratory experiments are invalid becasue they are not natural.  I wish those people would fight with each other and leave us alone. 

That's why, on another thread, I noted that the an essay by a critic of evolution, about scientific method, which referenced Wikipedia, didn't in fact agree with wikipedia on scientific method.

This post was modified from its original form on 18 Mar, 22:21
12 years ago

There Are Different Forms of the Scientific Method

A confusing aspect of science is that not all fields of science arrive at conclusions in the same way. The physical sciences, like physics and chemistry, use experimental forms of the "scientific method." The physical sciences do experiments to gather numerical data from which relationships are derived, and conclusions are made. The more descriptive sciences, like zoology and anthropology, may use a form of the method that involves gathering of information by visual observation or interviewing. What is common among all sciences, however, is the making of hypothesis to explain observations, the gathering of data, and based on this data, the drawing of conclusions that confirm or deny the original hypothesis. The difference is in what is considered data, and how data is gathered and processed.

Data for a physical scientist is numbers. The numbers are often plotted on graphs. Graphs can be used to derive equations that can be used for making predictions. Data, for an anthropologist, could be a recorded interview. Interviews can be compared to other related information. Hence the distinction between the exact sciences (physical sciences that use numbers to measure and calculate results), and other sciences that use descriptions and inferences to arrive at results. If you are not aware of this difference, you could produce a written report for your science project. Your project will then only show what you know about something instead of experimentally answering questions you have about observations you have made. The information given below assumes you are doing an experimental science project that uses the experimental method to gather data and test hypothesis.

12 years ago

The word science comes from the Latin "scientia," meaning knowledge.

How do we define science? According to Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, the definition of science is "knowledge attained through study or practice," or "knowledge covering general truths of the operation of general laws, esp. as obtained and tested through scientific method [and] concerned with the physical world."

What does that really mean? Science refers to a system of acquiring knowledge. This system uses observation and experimentation to describe and explain natural phenomena. The term science also refers to the organized body of knowledge people have gained using that system. Less formally, the word science often describes any systematic field of study or the knowledge gained from it.

What is the purpose of science? Perhaps the most general description is that the purpose of science is to produce useful models of reality.

Most scientific investigations use some form of the scientific method. You can find out more about the scientific method here.

Science as defined above is sometimes called pure science to differentiate it from applied science, which is the application of research to human needs. Fields of science are commonly classified along two major lines:
   - Natural sciences, the study of the natural world, and
   - Social sciences, the systematic study of human behavior and society.

Note: This web page goes on to clearly identify evolution as a branch of biology.

Science and Democracy
12 years ago

This thread concerns itself with the cognitive goals of science and how those goals fail to be served by pseudoscience.  (technically, I suppose I shouldn't say "the cognitive goals of science" but something like "the collective cognitive goals of the scientific community" but I hope my lack of precision will be tolerated generally)  However, the material or technological goals of the scientific endeavors, and the means by which these endeavors are promoted and achieved, may be more important issues in some cases. 

Most or many people would agree, I think, that increasing our understanding or our universe is a worthwhile overall goal, perhaps especially since we might very well believe, like RichardFeynman did, that this goal will never be fully achieved.  However, we may not all agree on the means of doing this and the costs  (not just monetary) involved.  Further, we may not agree that it is necessarily useful to increase our understanding if we also increase the likelihood of massive destruction at the same time.  Scientists frequently worry and disagree about these issues, which is why organizations such as the Union of Concerned Scientists exist.  

Personally, I feel that most animal research is now unwarrented, and would greatly curtail it and impose enormously stricter guidelines had I the power to do so.  For example, I certainly don't object to wildlife studies with minimal intervention, such as the admirable work of Jane Goodall, nor would I oppose Irene Pepperberg's Alex studies, but product testing on animals, esp. vertebrates would be banned.  This is a moral position, informed by, but not determined by scientific knowledge.  It's also related as an example, I don't want to argue these points here!

The members of a democratic community have every right to take moral positions which influence the procedures which scientist may be allowed to use, limiting harm to test subjects, or banning experiments or goals which may be destructive.  It is important to note that such decisions are based on moral conclusions, perhaps informed by scientific knowledge but not determined by scientific knowledge.  Many scientists are very moral and ethical people.  Some have not been, and some are not.  Understanding of science enables greater participation in decision-making by the informed citizens. 

12 years ago



12 years ago

Roger, you might want to read this thread:

Is animal testing wrong?

12 years ago
Yes, I agree with you.  I think there is no reason that tissue cultures could not be used for all destructive tests, and antibody production,  currently done on whole animals.  My notion of responsible animal research involves a good and full life for the animal and no more or frequent discomfort than a pet who occasionally goes to the veternarian.  I'm sure that's still too invasive for some people, and there are others who will scream it will be difficult to change current practice.  I'd volunteer for biopsies myself to support scinetific progress.  The current animal "testing" industry is absurd, it's almost like making animal sacrifices to the gods of healing. 
CreativeTension in Scientific Research
12 years ago

This may be tangential to the main topic, but I think it's important to note.  I found a few refs by googling but they weren't terribly helpful beyond suggesting to me that my own ideas are not completely out of line.  There may be a few more of these tangential topics.

Scientific effort consists of using established, even in a sense traditional, methods and rational throught processes to attack and solve problems.  However, in scientific research, these techniques only get you so far, and then innovation becomes necessary.  Furthermore, scientists tend to have egos just like everyone else, and each generally has a variety of motivations, involving advance of scientific knowledge, advance of career, solution or problems personally of interest to the individual scientist, and respect from one's peers.  Accordingly scientists generally would like to make important discoveries and advance significant hypotheses and theories, but don't want to be found to have made errors.  Making an honest error is not so terrible, it's part of the risk-taking involved in doing science, but best kept to a minimum for the sake of careeer and the opinion of peers.  As a result, when one has a good idea, it's often good practice to test the idea oneself before exposing it to general criticism.  Famously, Charles Darwin waited about 20 years before making his theory of evolution public.  This delay has been analized to death, but my interpretationis that Darwin wanted to "get his ducks in a row" and this required extensive review and testing.  In "The Triumph of the Darwinian Method" Michael Ghiselin advances the idea that all of Darwin's work was part of an integrated whole - one even longer argument.  Inparticular, after Darwin had outlined his theory in the mid-1840, he then spent about eight years working on Barnacle taxanomy, engaging in painstaking microdissection of preserved barnacles under the microsope for years and publishing works totaling about 2000 pages, which are still the authoritative work on this subject.  Ghiselin argues that Darwin tested his ideas of homologous structures and relatedness in working out the fabulously peculiar interelationships of extant and a few fossil barnacles.  Others have claimed that it couldn't be possible to do taxonomy [before DNA comparison] by use of evolutionary principles.  Ghiselin, who doesn't suffer fools, responds to those claims in his book:

"Their argument combines the modesty of Schopenhauer with the logic of Mary Baker Eddy; it does not follow from their own lack of imagination that Darwin or anyone else must fail."

The following  descriptions of "Darwinia" in a collection fail to understand the importance of the barnacle studies, which along with his earlier geological studies earned him the prestigious Royal Medal, to confirming Darwin's theory in his own judgement:

Eight years of minute research
Charles Darwin,
A monograph on the fossil Lepadidae, or, Pedunculated Cirripedes of Great Britain, bound with A monograph on the fossil Balanidae and Verrucidae of Great Britain.
London: Printed for the Palaeontographical Society, 1851-1854.

By 1846, as he completed his three-volume geological series, Darwin had only one specimen left unreported from the Beagle expedition, a tiny barnacle he had found in Chile in 1835 and expected to dissect and describe in a single short paper. The barnacle turned out to be very odd indeed, and barnacles themselves had just been newly recognized as crustaceans, rather than mollusks. Darwin found himself deferring his grand theory on natural selection and embarking instead on an eight-year project to describe all species of the barnacle family, fossil and living. He became especially fascinated by what barnacles (cirripedia) suggested about the process of sexual differentiation in the tiny creatures. Since this exhibit was first prepared, the two parallel Ray Society monographs on the Living Cirripedia have also been purchased from the Irvin Endowment. Together, the four volumes in which Darwin eventually published his barnacle research would remain standard scientific references for more than a century.

Why Darwin was awarded the Royal Medal before writing the Origin
The Royal Medal citation,
Transactions of the Royal Society, 1854.

The Royal Society, the premier scientific body in Britain, has two major annual awards for research, the Royal Medal and the Copley Medal. Darwin eventually won both, but this report of the President's speech in awarding him the Royal Medal makes clear the reputation he had built up as an original researcher in two distinct fields, geology and marine biology, before he took up the risky project of explaining natural selection to his scientific colleagues.

Roger's Review of Triumph of the Darwinian Method
12 years ago

I posted this review last year on, and assume I have the right to reproduce it here.

The Very Best Book on Darwin's Scientific Thought and Work, March 19, 2006

This book deals with Darwin's thought and method - his scientific methodology which is the foundation and the consistent basis for all of Darwin's work. It is not a biography. If you want the best biography, look at Janet Browne's excellent two-volume work. It is not a description of Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection. If you want that, read Origin of Species first. If you're interested in a modern treatment of evolutionary science, I must recommend a excellent textbook, Douglas Futuyma's Evolutionary Biology.

The Triumph of the Darwinian Method reads somewhat like a critical book review of nearly all of Charles Darwin's writings, and Michael Ghiselin has read them all. Few have, for they include, among other immense books and many technical papers, 1600+ pages of barnacle taxonomy, work which established Darwin among the top scientists of his time, and won him a prestigious Royal Medal. Because of this tedious, painstaking, but brilliant work, Darwin could expect to have his "big species book" taken seriously, but it was also undertaken to answer important questions about these unusual, varied and peculiar animals. Scientists have the greatest respect for this sort of dedicated, careful work. Darwin's barnacle monographs are still the primary references on barnacles today. The "big species book" was never published in toto; instead, Origin was rushed to the printers in 1859.

Besides the Introduction and Conclusions, the book has chapters sequentially dealing with Darwin's Geology, Biogeography and Evolution, Natural Selection, Taxonomy, Barnacles, orchids (titled "A Metaphysical Satire" for good reason), Variation, Evolutionary Psychology, and Sexual Selection, totaling 243 pages. Each deals with one or more of Darwin's books. But they are primarily a way of examining Darwin's method - how he did experiments (he did very many) how he observed, how he theorized, how he evaluated, discarded, or further investigated hypotheses. Ghiselin also shows that Darwin's few mistakes were the result of applying his powerful methodology consistently, but often without benefit of crucial information which later became valuable.

A mark of the value of this work is that the first rank of evolutionists, an extremely contentious bunch of scientists, have uniformly praised it since its first publication in 1969, although some do have minor nits to pick. And this is the more remarkable because Ghiselin pulls no punches when exposing flaws in their works. But he also isn't petty. He does have caustic words for some of the most serious errors of Darwin's less intelligent critics. Referring to the claim by some scientists that taxonomic work could not be used to discover information about relatedness and evolutionary mechanisms, he states:

"Their argument combines the modesty of Schopenhauer with the logic of Mary Baker Eddy; it does not follow from their own lack of imagination that Darwin or anyone else must fail."

This book is admirably concise and not dated at all. This edition includes a six page preface and one page bibliography written by Ghiselin in 2003, as well as the original 43 pages of appendix, chapter notes, and index. It is an important book for the any biologist, Darwin scholar, or scientist interested in the development of ideas, but it is quite accessible to the interested non-scientist.

12 years ago

The previous posts about "Science and Democracy" and "The Creative Tension in Science" lead me to an important point.  Science is a community activity, but it isn't a pure democracy, no one person - one vote.  In order to be taken seriously by a community of scientists, you must have learned a substantial amount of of relevant material.  Novices and people outside the elite (such as Wallace) do make substantial contributions from time to time; they are usually very talented and learned individuals.  However, I don't know of any cases where outsiders who knew virtually nothing about an established field of science have made any significant impact on that field, beyond some purely chance event like stumbling over an important fossil.  Even there, the knowledge or ability to recognize something unusual would be necessary.  The assistants that help paleontologists and physical anthropologists/ archeologists are generally highly skilled and knowledgable observers. 

Hence scientists are more apt to pay attention to claims from individuals regarded as trustworthy observers, without an ax to grind.  When creationists claim to have discovered conclusive proof that humans and dinosaurs co-existed in the past, debunking such claims is a thankless task to a paleontologist who has no reason to assign any credibility to the claims. (There have been many such claims and, IIRC, Dale has dealt with one in this group.)   Likewise, when someone claims to have built an electric car which recovers so much energy from regenerative braking ( a great idea, but not that good!) that the battery needs to be charged only once and the vehicle will then run forever (yeah, I actually heard this one years ago)  a competent engineer or scientist need not examine the vehicle to conclude that the claims are greatly exaggerated.  Note that in these two cases, the scientist dismisses purported factual claims, not theoretical claims. 

In the past few decades there were a couple of interesting, even extraordinary claims within the physical sciences.  One of these was "cold fusion."

While quantum mechanics indicates that chemical processes, such as electolysis in electrochemical cells employed in cold fusion experiments, can't effect nuclear reactions, cold fusion doesn't contradict the most basic laws of physics.  However, calculations of nuclei tunneling through the energy barriers to fusion suggest the process will not occur under "ordinary" conditions of temperature and pressure, and chemical effects shouldn't  modify these barriers.  Interestingly, hydrogen, deuterium, and tritium atoms modified by replacement of electrons with muons, negatively charge particles with a mass 207 times as great as the electron, which allows the nuclei to get 207 times closer together, are observed to undergo a "cool fusion" under fairly accessible conditions, but it requires lots of energy to make muons, so this is only of scientific interest at this time.

Because cold fusion was reported by respected electochemists, the scientific community did take these claims quite seriously, but set about to verify or disprove them.  Much excitement resulted and polariztion of the community occurred.  There are still new claims put forward, but reliable reproduction of the experiments has not occurred, there are theoretical and experimental reasons for skepticism, and after eighteen years, the issue is no

Another recent event was the announcement of "high temperature superconductivity" observed above 21K.

Well they weren't really high temperature.  The first, a lanthanum barium copper oxide ceramic material, began superconducting at 35K, and the highest to date superconducts below 138K which is equal to -135C - pretty cold!  Again the scientific community began verifying quickly, and although there were problems with initial reproduction of results, due to the difficulty and complexity of making the materials, techniques became established fairly soon and the claims were verified, the discoverers winning a Nobel prize in physics.  In this case, although there had been hypotheses  put forward that transition temperatures above about 25-30K would be impossible, these were not well established theories, the innovators were perhaps not superstars, but were respected scientists, and the process of verification proceeded with minimal difficulty.

The scientific community does react to surprising results from trust-worthy observers, with neither blind acceptance nor outright dismissal.  However, repetitive claims from outsiders with a non-cognitive agenda are viewed with extreme skepticism, and scientists, who after all have to do certain work to make a living, are rather unwilling to waste time debunking claims that have been debunked previously.

A Pseudoscience Field Trip
12 years ago

Pseudoscience isn't just limited to creationists.  Today we have a virtual pseudoscience field trip, in the energy- for-free field:

Those who are curious might want to look at these sites.  They are very interesting! But beware.  The z-rays could damage your brain.  a forum for energy-for-nothing schemes  a very spiffily presented energy-for- nothing scheme company website, nice graphics, tasteful, aesthetic, etc, no substance, but loads of jargon. 

Finally a skeptical site.  refutation of Millsian energy-for- nothing

Many years ago, I happened to receive a copy of Randall Mills' vanity press published "Unification of Spacetime, The Forces, Matter, and Energy"   (get that title - no grandiosity here is there?) in which he postulates that you can demote the electron in a hydrogen atom to a fractional principal quantum number, making "shrunken hydrogen" (Mills' terminology) and get piles of energy!  His experimental verification of this consists of doing poorly controlled calorimetric studies on electolyzing aqueous solutions of potassium and rubidium carbonate and getting some anomalous and irreproducible heat outputs.  He has now, many years later, at BlackLight Power, apparently received some  significant private funding for his schemes.  There's a sucker born every minute. 

Roger's flippant question: If you really have an energy-for-free source, why not sell the power, build more, sell the power, build more, etc and become so rich people will have to pay attention, or at least you can pay them to pretend to beleive you.  Why are these guys always running around begging others for money?

12 years ago

(There have been many such claims and, IIRC, Dale has dealt with one in this group.)  

Could you be more specific, Roger, about the claim and how I dealt with it? And what does IIRC mean?

12 years ago

IIRC is If I Recall Correctly, which, unfortunately, I need to use a lot.

I believe I read some comments you'd made about a site, in Texas, where there were purported human and dinosaur tracks in the same deposit ? river bed.  But I can't find it.  Sorry if I made a mistake, my memory is no longer what it once was.  I do know that there have been such sites described and they've been pretty thoroughly debunked as exhibiting evidence of human-dinosaur coexistance.

The creationist claim: 

Talkorigins' thorough discussion and refutation:

My original comment on the Paluxy River "man tracks"
12 years ago

Here's a testimony from a man who went to investigate Creationist claims regarding "man-tracks" that were supposed to have been found near Glen Rose, Texas. Since I live near there (Fort Worth), I took great interest in this, especially since I also went to Dinosaur Valley in the summer of 2004, checked out the Creations Evidences Museum, and went swimming in the Paluxy river.

Because this thread has gotten so long and has even meandered a bit, I'll close it so we can move on to other issues. My deepest thanks to Roger for his excellent presentation!

Post deleted
11 years ago
The data on the missing posts are out of date.

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