A Bringer of New Things

Musings on personal growth, books, motherhood, writing, and more. "Every hour is saved from that eternal silence, something more, a bringer of new things." – Tennyson

The Difference Between Science and Pseudoscience

By Creator:Aurora Consurgens [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Creator:Aurora Consurgens [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

What is it that makes astronomy a science and astrology a pseudoscience (only pretending to be real science)? Why is abnormal psychology a science, but not paranormal investigation? Evolutionary biology, but not creation science? Neuroscience, but not phrenology?

True sciences follow the scientific method of formulating a testable, or falsifiable, hypothesis and conducting experiments that either confirm or deny the hypothesis (and then repeating the experiments to eliminate room for accident). The procedures and order of steps may vary slightly from one science to another, but at the core, all true sciences make testable, falsifiable observations about their subject. Usually these observations could be disproven if only one counter-example is found.

Pseudosciences, on the other hand, usually make claims that cannot be disproven, at least not without impossibly exhaustive research and endless elimination of options. Many times their claims cannot be measured or tested, either. Although they claim to be sciences, pseudosciences do not follow the scientific method. 

Examples

An example of a falsifiable, genuinely scientific claim is “Every living human has a heart.” Only one living human without a heart would be needed to disprove this claim; in other words, there is one clear way for the statement to be disproven. This makes the statement falsifiable. It is also, of course, measurable and testable.

An example of a non-scientific, non-falsifiable claim is “Every living human has a guardian angel.” Obviously this claim is not measurable and testable, but more to the point, it is also not falsifiable; this claim cannot be disproven. Therefore, it is not scientific. 

Summing Up

Pseudosciences may have value, but that is not my point. My point is distinguishing between real science and pseudoscience. The difference comes down to whether it consistently makes observations that can be disproven. If it does, then it’s science. If it does not, it’s only pretending to be science.

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7 comments on “The Difference Between Science and Pseudoscience

  1. kdankovich
    September 24, 2013

    At the philosophy club meeting last night, Carol Campbell mentioned the “boulder in the teacup” test. You cannot unequivocally say that a boulder will not fit in a teacup unless you try it with every single teacup.

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  2. Margaret Agard
    September 24, 2013

    Exactly. Art is not science neither is humanity. Science can show trends of human behavior but not how an individual will react. Science is a tool of humanity, it does not explain humanity or bring happiness to individuals. Just as art and science are not mutually exclusive neither are other forms that reach the human heart.
    More important are the limitations on science shown by Godels incompleteness theorems (math being the language of science) and Heisenbergs uncertainty principle which shows the limits to logical (ie scientific) thought. You might try this link for a brief explanation. http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20080101021230AAiSTzU
    It was a sad day for me, a math major, when I learned of this. I was searching for that bedrock foundation of truth and stability on which all of knowledge can firmly rest. Alas, science and math are not the answer. You cannot even prove arithmetic without taking at least one assumption on faith. And when you change that assumption, all the results change.

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    • Witness
      September 24, 2013

      I agree with several of your points, Margaret. Art, science, and humanity are quite different from each other, and science is a tool. Science doesn’t “explain” vague concepts like “humanity,” and, while many scientists do seek, using science, to increase the happiness of individuals, increasing happiness isn’t the mission of science, and utilizing science is no guarantee of happiness.

      Science does have limitations; it isn’t the right tool for every one of the important challenges that humans face. Science is based on acknowledgment of the limits of our knowledge, and of science itself.

      If what you seek is a “bedrock foundation of truth and stability on which all of knowledge can firmly rest,” you’re right: Science and math are not good paths. Science teaches skepticism, and math teaches rigor; neither is compatible with fundamental certainty. Ultimate, all-encompassing, unshakable certainty is provided only by religion.

      Your comments seem to imply that Sarrah made claims in her blog that she didn’t make. You start with “Exactly,” but then spend your comment disagreeing with the notion that science is omnipotent and applicable to all situations. But no one here has made that claim. Sarrah’s blog merely explained what is science and what is not.

      I also started this reply in apparent agreement with you, but the root of my message is a challenge of what I understand you to have expressed. It’s a confusing technique.

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  3. Witness
    October 1, 2013

    Here’s a well written analysis of a case of mainstream confusion of science and pseudo-science: http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2013/10/01/the-new-york-times-touts-alternative-medicine-disses-science/#comment-558765.

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  4. Witness
    October 3, 2013

    And here’s (http://www.newrepublic.com/article/114754/steven-pinker-leon-wieseltier-debate-science-vs-humanities) a public discussion of the relationship between science and the humanities, and the role each should play in learning. This link is to the final exchange, and contains links to the previous essays.

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  5. Pingback: Responding to: The Difference Between Science and Pseudoscience | Jason Trivium

    • Sarrah J. Woods
      July 2, 2014

      Cool, Jason, this looks interesting. But I’m feeling a bit under the weather this week, so I don’t have the mental energy to devote to reading this at present. I’ll get to it as soon as I can, though. Thanks for the info.

      Like

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This entry was posted on September 24, 2013 by in Discoveries from Learning and tagged , .
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