The Antiquity of Man

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How does science differ from pseudoscience?

Every good scientist must realise that the past, to a very very large degree, is constructed in the present. Influencing factors do include social background, ideology et al. Emphases are placed on certain issues and sometimes silences on other issues & issues which history ignores at particular points in time. At essence, scholars create theories and methodologies which allow them to evaluate, select and exclude different pasts. It is this latter methodology which distinguishes post-modernism (and other poor and pseudoscience) from good practice.

Unfortunately, partly because of the way school curriculums are constructed and partly because of the way teachers are prepared, science (as well as many other disciplines) are handled as received knowledge handed down from authorities. One of the successes of pseudoscience in general is that people have only the word of one authority figure versus another and have to take both essentially "on faith". So, in a sense, it is "preached as gospel" or at least it is received and/or perceived that way. One exciting way forward is the way the current South African curriculum includes "indigenous knowledge systems" in its science teaching which will ultimately help students learn to distinguish between scientific and non-scientific concepts.

This remainder of the article consists of abstracts from Professor Arthur Strahler's "Science and Earth History: The Evolution/Creation Controversy" (1999, second edition, Prometheus). All copyright is hereby acknowledged.


Acquiring a full appreciation of science is much like climbing a high, rugged mountain peak - it can only be done in steps, sweated out one by one. The beginning may be the worst part, as it is for all difficult undertakings. Where to start?

Science philosopher Mario Bunge of McGill University thinks of the various mountains of human knowledge as cognitive fields... Here is how Professor Bunge gets started on that organization: "We shall characterize a science, as well as a pseudoscience, as a cognitive field, genuine or fake. A cognitive field may be characterized as a sector of human activity aiming at gaining, diffusing, or utilizing knowledge of some kind, whether this knowledge be true or false. There are hundreds of cognitive fields in contemporary culture: logic and theology, mathematics and numerology, astronomy and astrology, chemistry and alchemy, psychology and parapsychology, social science and humanistic sociology, and so on."

Professor Bunge has not told us what knowledge is, but he has told us something new and important, something of great substance. Notice the pairing of the cognitive fields he has listed. The first member of each pair belongs to science; the second to pseudoscience, or false science. Not all my readers will agree with the professor on the things he has put in the pseudoscience group; for if you are a believer in astrology or parapsychology, you may feel outraged.

Nevertheless, a salient point has been made here. The mountains of knowledge can be separated into two mountain ranges, between which lies a great gulf. so there are two kinds of cognitive fields. One, Bunge says, consists of belief fields, in which the knowledge rests on belief - belief in something that cannot be observed to exist. He cites religions and political ideologies as examples. He also puts pseudoscience in with the belief fields. The other, Bunge says, consists of the research fields, in which knowledge rests solely on observation of the real world. He puts science - both basic and applied varieties - in this category along with the humanities. Bunge gives us one distinguishing feature that clearly separates the two fields: "Whereas a research field changes all the time as a result of research, a belief field changes, if at all, as a result of controversy, brute force, or revelation."

To meet the special needs of science, those that are scientific statements must conform to a special standard of quality, both in the manner in which they are arrived at and in the language by which they are transmitted.

Scientific knowledge: the best picture of the real world that humans can devise, given the present state of our collective investigative capability. By "best" we mean (a) observe), (b) the most satisfactory explanation of what is observed in terms of interrelatedness to other phenomena and to basic or universal laws, and (c) description and explanation that carry the greatest probability of being a true picture of the real world. Scientific knowledge represents the harvest of human endeavor; it is an artifact and its makers are fallible. Therefore, scientific knowledge is imperfect and must be continually restudied, modified, and corrected; it will never achieve static perfection.

Scientific method: the method or system by which scientific knowledge is secured. It is designed to minimise the commission of observational errors and errors of interpretation. The method uses a complex system of checks and balances to offset many expressions of human weakness, including self-deception, narrowness of vision, defective logic, and selfish motivation.

[Science is comprised of four pillars.] First, the value attached to a scientific statement must in no way be connected with the personal characteristics of the scientist who makes that statement... The strength or weakness of a hypothesis must be considered strictly on its scientific content and supporting evidence. It should make no difference whatsoever that the scientist is of a certain race, religion, sex, age, political affiliation, and so forth.

Second, findings made by one scientist must be shared freely and openly with the entire scientific community. Publication of such findings is thus a moral obligation. This is the principle of communality. It doesn't help us to distinguish scientists from the practioners of pseudo-science; the latter publish compulsively and could not be restrained from doing so - verbal diarrhoea is their chronic disease.

Third, scientists must practice organised scepticism. Each scientist must scrutinize the publications of others in the same area of specialization and express his or her criticism in print, in journal articles, reviews, and letters, as well as orally from the floor of a meeting room or a seat on the debating stage. This activity is a form of mutual policing needed to sustain a high quality of published scientific information. Perhaps the most important part of the policing action occurs through peer reviews of articles submitted to scientific journals. Reviewers must take their job seriously; they must search closely for errors in observations and weaknesses in arguments. They receive no monetary reward for this service, which draws time from their own research programs, but it is to the mutual benefit of all.

The scrutiny of one's work by colleagues is a feature wholly lacking in the publication of pseudoscience literature. Velikovsky, von Daniken and their publishers' editors never sort critical reviews from scientists familiar with those areas of astronomy, geology, and archaeology that form the skeletal structure of their scenarios. If those authors had submitted their manuscripts to scientific journals, rejection notices would have been swift in coming. It looks, then, as if authors of pseudoscientific material shy away from the scientific community. Instead, they seek support in the nonscience community, and particularly from those persons having little higher education in any field of knowledge. Prima facie evidence of this audience selection lies in the fact that pseudoscience is published by those same publishing houses (or divisions within a publishing house) that handle fiction, science fiction, and the more sensational forms of biography and autobiography. You would not find a Worlds in Collision or a Chariots of the Gods? on a publisher's list of scientific textbooks and monographs.

A fourth norm [is] disinterestedness, meaning that a scientist's research should not be guided by desire for personal rewards. He refers to such rewards as private economic gain, glory in the eyes of the nonscientific public, and even the honors and medals awarded by scientists to each other. We must be careful here to emphasize that such personal rewards are essentially excrescences or trappings that do not always accurately measure the quality of the scientific work of the individual. We of university experience know former that nearly every senior professor has a following of former students who conspire to get the "old prof" a medal or prize. Award committees rely mostly on the number of nominating letters received in support of a candidate for the honor.

Of the four norms presented here, this last one is least likely to be observed within the scientific community, and is often flagrantly violated that it is perhaps little more than a sham. I can assure my readers unfamiliar with the academic profession that nearly every scientist seeks to maximise private economic gain in one way or another, and many try to get public exposure through the news media. Many (with thinly veiled understandings of reciprocity) encourage colleagues to come through with an honor.

As for the pseudoscientists, the norm of disinterestedness is simply not there, and no shame is to be incurred from violating such a norm. emphasis is on rolling up the royalty earnings and fees from book sales, TV/motion picture adaptations, and lectures to lay audiences, on public exposures through media interviews, and on receiving expressions of adulation from fan clubs within the cult. Pseudoscience is big business and very little else!

Professional recognition has a meaning here quite distinct from the personal rewards listed above. Recognition is judged primarily in terms of acceptance of one's scientific reports for publication in journals operated by peers in one's own field of specialization. Peer-reviews serve to let pass only the highest quality products, while the excess in number of submitted manuscripts makes competition severe. Journals that can be the most chosey confer the highest value upon the papers they publish. Thus, faculty committees who must evaluate a colleague for tenure appointment tend to place higher value on the candidate's articles that have appeared in the more prestigious journals. another source of professional recognition comes from the citation of a scientist's published works in the texts and bibliographies of other scientists' works. A high frequency of citation is equated to high value of the product.

As to the producers of pseudoscience, professional recognition within the scientific community is nonexistent. They are excluded in a very form manner. Exclusion is then seized upon by the pseudoscientist and attached cult as an opportunity to indulge in paranoia.

Attitudes and Activities of Scientists and Pseudoscientists
Typical attitudes and activities Scientist Pseudoscientist
Admits own ignorance, hence need for more research Yes No
Finds own field difficult and full of holes Yes No
Advances by posing and solving new problems Yes No
Welcomes new hypotheses and methods Yes No
Proposes and tries out new hypotheses Yes Optional
Attempts to find or apply new laws Yes No
Cherishes the unity of science Yes No
Relies on logic Yes Optional
Uses mathematics Yes Optional
Gather or uses data, particularly quantitative ones Yes Optional
Looks for counterexamples Yes No
Invents or applies objective checking procedures Yes Optional
Settles disputes by experimentation of computation Yes No
Falls back consistently on authority No Yes
Suppresses or distorts unfavourable data No Yes
Updates own information Yes No
Seeks critical comments from others Yes No
Writes papers that can be understood by everyone No Yes
Is likely to achieve instant celebrity No Yes

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