What is pseudoscience and how can it be differentiated from science? This ‘demarcation problem’ has occupied many of our best minds and which nevertheless is largely unresolved. Two brave academics have recently published a paper aimed at providing organisations within the justice system with an overview of:
a) what science is and is not;
b) what constitutes an empirically driven, theoretically founded, peer-reviewed approach;
c) how to distinguish science from pseudoscience.
In it, they demonstrate that not all information which is presented as comprehensively evaluated is methodologically reliable for use in the justice system. Even though it does not really solve the old demarcation problem, I found their article important and informative and therefore take the liberty of quoting a brief excerpt here:
Organisations within the justice system do use empirically and theoretically supported approaches. However, some implemented approaches lack empirical evidence. In more perturbing cases, police officers, lawyers and judges may resort to pseudoscience – that is, bodies of information that may appear to be scientific but, in reality, lack the characteristics of scientific knowledge. … if members of the justice community are not advised about the publishing process then pseudoscientists can be fairly proficient at providing counterarguments. In addition, pseudoscientists can use several other fallacious arguments to achieve maximum support for their approaches.
For example, pseudoscientists might argue that their approaches are supported by a select number of articles, theses or books, and that they are reliable due to their acceptance by important organisations. However, if upon reading such literature it becomes apparent that there is no empirical or theoretical support, or that the steps leading to the conclusions are not thoroughly justified (be this methodologically or through evaluation), the implementation of their approaches remains merely destitute of vision. In addition, such reference to important organisations – often known as ‘name-dropping’–is detrimental by nature; doing so lends support to the notion that one might be unable to distinguish pseudoscience from science and may not understand the role that science plays in developing better professional practice.
Fallacious arguments from pseudoscientists can also address negative comments in a way that attempts to discourage further criticism from members of the scientific community. They can engage in legal threats and ad hominem attacks – that is, opposition to an argument ‘by questioning the personal circumstances or personal trustworthiness of the arguer who advanced it’. For example, if academics raise concerns regarding a particular pseudoscience without having attended its associated seminars, pseudoscientists might assert that the academics do not have the required understanding and that, as such, their criticism is of no value. If the academics had indeed attended the seminars, the pseudoscientists might instead suggest that their concerns are raised out of obscure or malicious reasons. Pseudoscientists might even state that they are criticised due to their revolutionary approach and refer to a quote dubiously attributed to the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer: ‘All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as self-evident’. However, as Sagan rightly points out,
the fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.