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  • Saranya H Menon

Demarcating Science and Pseudoscience

The explanatory and transformative power of science is so profound that merely the claim that something is scientific often discourages critical appraisal. The developments in the last century anticipated scientific literacy to sweep across the globe but now that we have access to a large amount of information, the grim reality is that misinformation spreads even faster. The demarcation between science and its look-alikes is imperative as the world must be united by a shared knowledge of well-attested facts. It matters as several individual and institutional decisions rest on our best understanding of the natural world. Therefore, we have to look across the dividing lines of the scientific community to learn for ourselves how to think in a way that reliably leads to the truth.

Demarcating science and pseudoscience is the task of determining epistemically warranted beliefs. The essential difference is that one is science and the other is something masquerading as science. Now, what exactly is science? Science is a proven principle to help explain facts and phenomena, providing a simplified version of the real world, a model. A scientific theory is meticulous, requires validation from authentic sources, and uses rational criteria to frame a hypothesis. Pseudoscience makes outlandish and rhetorical theories, cloaking the sloppy research with borrowed science terms to avoid scientific scrutiny. Astrology, an infamous example of pseudoscience, defines Leos as dominant, hot-headed, and arrogant. This can be proven correct by sampling the few Leos in politics, science, and entertainment. In essence, one can test a scientific claim to deem it false, but no test can disprove a pseudoscientific claim. While science looks for evidence to falsify its claims, pseudoscience looks for evidence that supports them. This is why science textbooks are updated every few years with the inception of new knowledge, but pseudoscientific theories are not since the basic claims are inaccurate, to begin with. If a model requires many assumptions to explain a few observations, it is unscientific. Conspiracy theories are a common type of pseudoscience: the earth is flat; the moon landing was staged and COVID is a bioweapon engineered for profit. One makes a lot of assumptions for these theories to align with reality. This is why we have to study the fringes of science and analyse extreme pseudoscience to find a pattern of cognitive flaws inherent in them.

As a young scholar growing up when both Freud’s psychoanalytic theories and Einstein’s theory of general relativity were in reigning, Karl Popper, an Austrian philosopher, ran into the problem of demarcation. Freud's psychoanalytic theory conveyed that our childhood experiences hold a heavy bearing on adulthood, that is, one could explain intimacy issues by being extremely coddled or not being coddled enough as a child. Meanwhile, Einstein waited for the solar eclipse to disprove his theory of general relativity. Unlike the latter, who attempted to verify his claim through attempts to falsify it, Freud had evidence everywhere to support his claim.

The best-known solution to the demarcation problem proposed by Karl Popper is “falsifiability” which means a statement is scientific if it could at least in principle be falsified by some piece of data. No theory could be considered proved regardless of all available evidence. Rather a theory should only be approved until it has been falsified. So, the claim that all swans are white may be falsified by the discovery of one black swan. Once a claim is falsified, we must accept the evidence and move on to another falsifiable claim. The key point is that a claim must be testable, refutable, and falsifiable. On this account, we can formalise that science disconfirms while pseudoscience confirms.

Popper’s proposal, however, classifies many canonical examples of pseudoscience as scientific. Astrology and energy medicine are claims that are not only falsifiable in principle but also utterly wrong. In this case, the distinguishing factor is ambiguous, as it confers scientific status on outlandish theories. Science studies show that falsification cannot work in principle, as a theoretical prediction is never the product of a single theory but requires many other theories. Denying the scientific theories that are objectively true also undermines public confidence in science. Pseudoscience is also a natural by-product of science that forces scientists to improve their methods, thereby advancing science.

New problems arise every time discoveries are made. So, the research done is infinite and has to be based on facts and right relations. The hallmark of science is scepticism towards even the most cherished theories. Scepticism, logic, reason, and critical thinking are the tools we must use to arrive at a better answer than that we had yesterday.

By Saranya Menon


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