Superstitions 2.0: Reloaded


Superstition changed its shape. By mimicking science’s language and forms, irrational thinking become something even nastier and more powerful: pseudo–science.


«Dread and fear of Fate and Destiny is much felt (even nowaday, when superstition is almost banned from the world) by big and strong souls then by ordinary ones.»
Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837); Zibaldone di pensieri

Leopardi’s faith in an almost complete disappearing of superstitions from the whole world – a belief shared by many, before and after him – was doomed to frustration. Indeed, superstition just evolved, managing to thrive till today, and it’s still rampant. Irrational thinking just started mimicking habit and language of the very Science that so many believed would have doomed it to extinction. This kind of superstitions in scientific disguise is now known as pseudoscience.

How do science and pseudoscience differ? How can we sort them apart?

The fundamental difference between the two can be traced back to the origin of modern science itself. Science as we know it, was born in the XVII century from Galileo’s ingenious intuitions. Italian’s first modern scientist is most known for telescope’s invention, for his many discoveries (from Jupiter’s moons, to Moon’s mountains, to the fundamentals of laws of motion), and for his support to heliocentric model; support that almost brought him an excommunication. Nonetheless, this important achievements are not “Science” in themselves; they are indeed the proof of the superiority of scientific thinking over older philosophic ways to knowledge.

«Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge»
Carl Sagan

Before Galileo, scientific thinking rested basically on the axiomatic method, a formalism coded by ancient Greek philosophers, dating back to Aristotle, or even earlier. Practically speaking, axiomatic reasoning consists of finding the smallest amount of basic, obvious ideas (axioms or postulates) from which, one can deduce everything else, using well consolidated deduction rules.

Axiomatic reasoning had been a huge leap forward from previous ideas about how Nature works, and humankind actually owe to Greek philosophers who coded it, many essential elements of modern science itself, like the very idea of the existence of something like Laws of Nature, along with the rules of logic and also some of the most successful mathematical instruments we still use today, like euclidean geometry.

Nonetheless this way of thinking is affected by a serious flaw. If just one of the axioms one starts from turns out being wrong, all logic constructions upon them will be affected, and probably wrong, and maybe not of much use. But in axiomatic reasoning, one is never supposed to question axioms, that are considered, by definition, obvious, therefore given for certain.

Galileo’s revolutionary idea was simply that: never take anything for granted, neither axioms. And, most important, put experimental results above everything; again, above axioms too. Practically speaking, what makes Science what it is, is the concept that, if observations (either naturally occurring phenomena or laboratory results) do not match the theory – the whole of axioms and deductions – then, theory itself must be revised, and axioms with it. (To be fair, observations too can be “wrong“, and that’s why experiment replication is also a key element of modern science).

Notwithstanding the great achievements of this new way of thinking, axiomatic reasoning never died. It still survives today in pseudosciences: the believes that never did – or never wanted to do! – the passage to modern scientific thinking.

We now have a way to sort out science from pseudosciences; all we need to do, is just looking at the logic standing behind the claims we are investigating. If this claims stand on some kind of unquestionable – or just never–questioned, for that matter – set of axioms, chances are we are in front of bullshit pseudoscience (or, at best, really bad science popularization).

«Scientific journalism is too important to be left to journalists»
Richard Dawkins

Some examples will clarify the concept.

CREATIONISM – This philosophy stands upon the assumption that the Bible is a fairly accurate historical record. This assumption is never questioned by creationists. Even the most modern formulation of this philosophy, Intelligent Design, stands on at least one unquestioned assumption: ID activists simply refuse to consider the possibility that even the most complex and specialized biological features could have arisen step by step, by random mutations (and natural selection). Therefore, both ID and Creationism must be considered pseudoscience.

HOMEOPATHY – This medical discipline stands on at least two basic concepts. The first is that any substance that produces a certain set of symptoms, if diluted enough, can cure this same set of symptoms (“similia similibus curantur„). The second assumption is the infamous Water Memory, necessary to maintain that a preparation is still effective even when diluted well beyond Avogadro’s Number. Both this assumptions were never independently proven by anyone, nonetheless they are never questioned by homeopaths; on the contrary, they are considered as standing points, both origin and ending of most discussions inside this discipline, that ends up being supported almost exclusively by circular reasoning (an assertion is true because it comes out of axioms; axioms are true because they are coherent with the assertion). Therefore, homeopathy too is clearly a pseudoscience, despite the naive claims of those who would like it having same dignity as scientific medicine.

Considerations above give us also a useful tip on how to deal with pseudosciences. Their weak point stands in the unproved assumptions supporting them, and not necessarily in the internal coherence of the subject. Those who confronted homeopathy, for example, had likely discovered that this pseudoscience actually have an internal coherence strong enough to stand almost all arguments.

So, to debunk pseudosciences, one needs first to identify the unproven assumptions they stand upon; then one must stress the need for the proponents of this claims, to provide sound and independent proofs for what they claim. One must also carefully avoid being involved in any circular reasoning around unproved assumptions, clearly stating that deductions, by themselves, cannot prove the assumptions: they need to be confirmed by independent data, to be credible.

Easier said then done, sadly.


Informazioni su WorldsOutsideReality

«Hold faithfulness and sincerity as first principles. Have no friends not equal to yourself. When you feel you have faults, do not hesitate to correct yourself.» (Confucius; Analects, 9.25)

Pubblicato il 28 novembre 2012, in A Little Bit of This and That, Parlando di scienza con tag , , , , , , , , . Aggiungi il permalink ai segnalibri. Lascia un commento.


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