PSYCHOLOGICAL IMPEDIMENTS TO COGENT THINKING

Discussion: Carefully read the attached essays by Donald Simanek, Pseudoscientists and Their Worlds; Harriet Hall,

Playing by the Rules; and Elizabeth Sherman, Science and Anti-science in America: Why It Matters. As you read these

essays take careful notes. You are asked to write a personal response in your ‘main post’ and a ‘response post’ to

another student`s ‘main post’
Book Review
Donald Simanek
Volume 32.4, July / August 2008
Worlds of Their Own: A Brief History of Misguided Ideas: Creationism, Flat-Earthism, Energy Scams, and the Velikovsky

Affair. By Robert Schadewald. Xlibris, 2008. ISBN 978-1-4363-0435-1. 272 pp. Paper, $19.99; hardcover, $29.99.
The word pseudoscience is a bit slippery. It suggests something “fake” or “fraudulent”—something that is not a science

but pretends to be. We can easily name some of the classic examples: astrology, phrenology, homeopathy, parapsychology,

and creationism. People who promote such pseudosciences have been called “paradoxers,” because they propose ideas that

superficially seem plausible but on closer examination are internally contradictory or counter to what is possible in the

real world. The term has been applied to circle-squarers, perpetual motionists, and those who believe the Earth is flat.

Sometimes the term “fringe science” is used.
We must admit that in the history of science, some of the early “accepted” ideas would, if judged by the standards of

today’s science, qualify as pseudoscientific: astrology, alchemy, geocentric solar system models, the luminiferous ether.

So how do we distinguish science from pseudoscience?
Bob Schadewald had a continuing interest in fringe science and pseudoscience. This posthumous collection of his published

and unpublished materials (skillfully edited by Schadewald’s sister Lois) is a highly readable account of several

varieties of pseudoscience, including Flat Earth theories, perpetual motion, creationism, and predictions of the end of

the world. The unifying theme is “fringe thinkers” who create their own versions of reality, contemptuous of the models

of nature accepted by established mainstream science. Schadewald treats his subjects with respect and even sympathy (he

knew many of them personally), but he clearly reveals why their ideas are flawed and misguided.
Here you will find the stories of colorful characters such as Immanuel Velikovsky, who rewrote the book on solar system

astronomy; Charles Johnson, who was certain that Earth was as flat as a pancake; John Keely, who claimed he could tap

etheric energy to power a freight train coast-to-coast on a gallon of water; and assorted creationists, who freely

engaged in “lying for God.”
One might suppose that these folks and their worldviews have little in common. Surely one who believes the Earth is flat

and one who believes it is hollow cannot think alike. But, as this book reveals, they have more in common with each other

than they do with mainstream science. Looming large in their thinking and their motivations was a literal belief in the

King James Bible. Velikovsky used biblical sources freely. Flat earthers’ beliefs were bound up with fundamentalist

religious beliefs. Creationists and flat earthers have common historical roots, and I don’t know of a single perpetual

motionist who was not also a religious fundamentalist. The flat earthers were united in their contempt for the idea of

gravitational force. To them, it was a sufficient explanation to observe that “things fall because they are heavy.” Even

here we find a parallel to Velikovsky, whose 1950 book Worlds in Collision and three subsequent books made much of

electromagnetic interactions between planets and comets while dismissing gravity as nonexistent or relatively

unimportant.
Velikovsky supposed that a comet was ejected from Jupiter, went careening around the solar system brushing Earth and

Mars, and finally settled down to become the planet Venus. In several passes of Earth it managed to cause the walls of

Jericho to tumble, interrupted Earth’s rotation (making the Sun appear to stand still for Joshua), caused the plagues of

Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, and miscellaneous other seemingly miraculous events of recorded history. Few who read

these books realized that Velikovsky had published a little-known pamphlet Cosmos without Gravitation (1946) in which he

declared “The moon does not ‘fall,’ attracted to Earth from an assumed inertial motion along a straight line, nor is the

phenomena of objects falling in the terrestrial atmosphere comparable to the ‘falling effect’ in the movement of the

moon, a conjecture which is the basic element of the Newtonian theory of gravitation.” Velikovsky clearly rejected

Newtonian gravity, replacing it with electromagnetic interactions.
Bob Schadewald recognized that some pseudosciences are relatively harmless, but he considered the creationists a serious

threat to the integrity of science because of their political campaign to inject their religiously motivated philosophy

into public-school science courses. For this reason he attended creationist conferences (calling them “great

entertainment”) to see what they were up to and was on friendly terms with many of the prominent creationist spokesmen.

But at the same time, he helped found the National Center for Science Education and served on its board. This

organization is on the front lines in the battle to preserve the integrity of science in the schools against the efforts

of creationists to redefine science to include the supernatural.
This book can be enjoyed on several levels, for Schadewald writes with droll humor, and many of his characters have comic

dimensions. Included are his interviews with Immanuel Velikovsky and flat-earther Charles Johnson. Here is the story of

naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace, who in 1870 unwisely accepted a wager with flat-earther John Hampden on the flatness

of the water in the Old Bedford Canal. John Worrell Keely’s story was fodder for late-nineteenth-century journalists, who

delighted in reporting on his antics promoting machines that ran on etheric energy. Keely was a clever showman who kept

his Keely Motor Company going for twenty-six years without producing a single product or paying a dividend to his wealthy

investors. Nor did he reveal his secrets.
Concluding chapters on “The Philosophy of Pseudoscience” explore the common characteristics of these independent

thinkers. This is an informative and entertaining book of continuing relevance, for pseudoscientific ideas of this sort

never die but are continually reborn in new clothing.
Donald Simanek
Donald Simanek is an emeritus professor of physics at Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania. His website includes

science, pseudoscience, humor, and satire.

Playing by the Rules
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Feature
Harriet Hall
Volume 33.3, May / June 2009
It is useless for skeptics to argue with someone who doesn’t play by the rules of science and reason.

If no amount of evidence will change your opponent’s mind, you are wasting your breath.
I recently read Flock of Dodos: Behind Modern Creationism, Intelligent Design, and the Easter Bunny (Barrett Brown and

Jon P. Alston, Cambridge House Press, New York, 2007, no relation to the movie Flock of Dodos). It’s a hilarious,

no-holds-barred send-up of the lies and poor reasoning employed by the intelligent design movement. I was particularly

struck by a quotation from William Dembski’s book Intelligent Design: “We are dealing here with something more than a

straightforward determination of scientific facts or confirmation of scientific theories. Rather we are dealing with

competing world-views and incompatible metaphysical systems.”
That doesn’t just apply to intelligent design. It cuts to the essence of what skeptics encounter on every front, from
dowsing to homeopathy, from ESP to therapeutic touch. We are trying to evaluate the science behind claims that are often

not based on science but on beliefs that are incompatible with science. The claimants are happy to use science when it

supports them, but when it doesn’t they are likely to unfairly critique the science or even to dismiss the entire

scientific enterprise as a “materialistic worldview” or “closed-minded.” We are talking at cross purposes. How can we

communicate if we say “this variety of apple is red,” and they insist “it feels green to me”?
We get frustrated when we show these folks the scientific evidence and they refuse to accept it. Dowsing fails all tests,

but dowsers “know” from personal experience that it works for them. Homeopathy is not only implausible, but it has been

tested and has failed the tests. Yet proponents refuse to acknowledge those failures and still want to talk about data

from the nineteenth century and make claims for the memory of water. We have to realize we are not even speaking the same

language. We are trying to play a civilized game of gin rummy, and they are dribbling a basketball all over the card

table. Before competing, doesn’t it make sense to define what game you’re playing and what the rules are?
Before arguing with a mathematician about the solution to a geometry problem, it’s essential to establish whether he is

following the rules of Euclidean geometry, where parallel lines never cross, or non-Euclidean geometry, where they

sometimes do.
Science has been a very successful self-correcting group endeavor. It wouldn’t be successful if it didn’t follow a strict

set of rules designed to avoid errors. (Note: there are no rules written in stone; I’m talking about conventions that are

generally understood and accepted by scientists, conventions that grow naturally out of reason and critical thinking.) If

proponents of intelligent design or alternative medicine want to play the science game, they ought to play by the rules.

If they won’t play by the rules, they effectively take themselves out of the scientific arena and into the metaphysical

arena. In that case, it is useless for us to talk to them about science.
If you want to play the science game, here’s what you do:
1. Submit your hypothesis to proper testing. Testimonials, intuitions, personal experience, and “other ways of knowing”

don’t count.
2. See if you can falsify the hypothesis.
3. Try to rule out alternative explanations and confounding factors.
4. Report your findings in journal articles submitted to peer review.
5. Allow the scientific community to critique the published evidence and engage in dialogue and debate.
6. Withhold judgment until your results can be replicated elsewhere.
7. Respect the consensus of the majority of the scientific community as to whether your hypothesis is probably true or

false (always allowing for revision based on further evidence).
8. Be willing to follow the evidence and admit you are wrong if that’s what the evidence says.
If you want to play the science game, here are some of the things you don’t do:
1. Accuse the entire scientific community of being wrong (unless you have compelling evidence, in which case you should

argue for it in the scientific journals and at professional meetings, not in the media).
2. Design poor-quality experiments that are almost guaranteed to show your hypothesis is true whether it really is or

not. Use science to show that your treatment works, not to ask if it works.
3. Keep using arguments that have been thoroughly discredited. (The intelligent design folks are still claiming the eye

could not have evolved because it is irreducibly complex; homeopaths are still claiming homeopathy cured more patients

than conventional medicine during nineteenth-century epidemics).
4. Write books for the general public to promote your thesis—as if public opinion could influence science!
5. Form an activist organization to promote your beliefs.
6. Step outside the scientific paradigm and appeal to intuition and belief.
7. Mention the persecution of Galileo and compare yourself to him.
8. Invent a conspiracy theory (Big Pharma is suppressing the truth!).
9. Claim to be a lone genius who knows more than all scientists put together.
10. Offer a treatment to the public after only the most preliminary studies have been conducted.
11. Set up a Web site to sell products that are not backed by good evidence.
12. Refuse to admit when your hypothesis is proven wrong.
Changing Our Minds
Scientists will change their minds when the evidence warrants. Before we waste time arguing, one thing we can do is ask

our opponents what it would take to change their minds. One woman I asked said no amount of evidence could change her

mind because she knew from personal experience that her claim was true, so any evidence that said otherwise would have to

be false and fabricated. End of discussion. She’s out of the game.
The rules of science are pretty clear about what it takes to change our minds. I’ll use the example of Helicobacter and

ulcers. We used to think that stress and too much stomach acid caused ulcers; now we think a bacterium causes ulcers.

Here’s a summary of why we changed our minds:
1. Scientists noticed bacteria in biopsy samples from ulcers.
2. They identified the bacteria as Helicobacter pylori.
3. They found a strong correlation between ulcers and the presence of the bacteria.
4. One of the researchers, who was healthy and not a Helicobacter carrier, was able to induce an ulcer in himself by

ingesting the bacteria.
5. They found that treating patients with antibiotics cured ulcers.
6. They found that antibiotics were superior to previous ulcer treatments.
7. The studies were replicated and conducted in different ways that corroborated each other.
8. The bacterial hypothesis was not inconsistent with the rest of scientific knowledge.
If we had the same quantity and quality of evidence for homeopathy, we’d gladly accept it. In fact, if the evidence met

criteria 1 through 7, we’d provisionally accept it while we kept checking the data and tried like crazy to figure out the

mechanism behind homeopathy. (For more on this, see “Bacteria, Ulcers, and Ostracism” in the November/December 2004

Skeptical Inquirer.)
There are two issues that are often misunderstood: scientific consensus and prior plausibility.
Prior Plausibility
Homeopathy is completely implausible. We would have to accept robust evidence that it worked, but we would require much

stronger evidence than we would for, say, a new antibiotic. If the claims for homeopathy were true, we would have to

revise much of what we know about physics, chemistry, and physiology.
The crossword analogy is helpful. If you think the answer to 1-across should be “library” but the clue to 1-down is a

five-letter word for the author of Tom Sawyer and the clue to 2-down is a four-letter-word for the name of Eve’s husband

in Genesis, you have to reject “library” and keep looking for a word that starts with T-A. You have to recognize that no

matter how strong your conviction that 1-across must be “library,” you must be wrong and there must be another answer

that you just haven’t considered.
Consensus
It’s easy to dismiss the scientific consensus as a popularity contest, a vote on opinions. But it’s far more than that.

The body of evidence stands or falls on its own merits, and when the weight clearly tips the balance to one side,

everybody can see it. The scientific community is made up of experts who know how to evaluate the evidence and who thrash

out disagreements in medical journals and scientific conferences. It is easy for the scientific community to reach an

agreement based on clear evidence. There are times when the evidence is less clear and controversy among scientists is

appropriate, but there comes a time when it would be perverse not to accept the evidence, just as it is perverse to deny

evolution or germ theory. The scientific consensus on evolution and the germ theory is a recognition of reality, not a

matter of opinion.
A reasonable default assumption is that the scientific consensus is usually right; if it isn’t, it will change as the

evidence becomes clearer. Truth will prevail. It does no good to attack the scientific consensus as prejudiced or

closed-minded. The consensus will change only when it incorporates new and better evidence. One of the irrational tactics

we’ve seen over and over is for opponents to cite one or a handful of studies to support their belief. They ridiculously

assume that it was new information that the people who reached the scientific consensus had failed to consider or that it

somehow outweighs all the other studies that found the opposite to be true.
Play by the Rules or Go Play Your Own Game
There’s no point in arguing scientific facts with someone whose worldview is metaphysical and nonscientific. There’s no

point in presenting geological age data to someone who “knows” the age of the Earth from the Bible. Before we get into a

useless debate, maybe we should find out what game our opponents are really playing. If they are playing ping pong, it’s

silly for us to bring a football to the table. It would be handy if we could get them to say up front what game they are

really playing, but all too often they have deluded themselves into truly believing they are following the rules of

science.
If they won’t play the science game by the rules, we are justified in crying “foul” and disqualifying them. Then they can

go away somewhere else and play their own game by whatever rules they want, and we won’t be able to refute them. If they

are relying on beliefs unsupported by evidence, let them say so. Wouldn’t it be refreshing to hear a homeopath say, “I

believe homeopathy works based on my personal experience and on nonscientific evidence like testimonials, and I

categorically reject the results of any scientific trial that fails to support my beliefs. Homeopathy cured my neighbor’s

uncle’s cousin of cancer. Trust me. I’m a nice guy so you should believe whatever I tell you.”
If they’d say that up front, we wouldn’t waste any of our valuable time rehashing scientific evidence that they will just

ignore. They would be out of the game, permanently. And patients would have a better basis for giving truly informed

consent.
Harriet Hall
Harriet Hall is a retired physician who lives in Puyallup, Washington, and writes about alternative medicine and

pseudoscience for many skeptical magazines.

Science and Antiscience in America: Why It Matters
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Feature
Elizabeth Sherman
Volume 33.2, March / April 2009
If science doesn’t inform the decisions we make, the consequence is that people suffer.
Every time I fly, I do something that ensures the plane won’t crash. Just as I am stepping aboard the aircraft, I touch

the outside fuselage next to the door. And then the plane doesn’t crash! It’s a causal gesture. Every time I’ve flown

I’ve touched the outside of the plane, and it hasn’t crashed. One event reliably preceding another proves that the first

causes the second, right? Well, of course, intellectually, I know that my touching the plane doesn’t ensure that it won’t

crash. After all, I am a scientist and I have been studying how the material world works all my professional life. Having

said that, do you think I can ever bring myself to abandon my touching-the-fuselage practice? Well, what’s the harm? So

what if science doesn’t inform my behavior?
Yet as a biology professor, I am concerned that science does not inform our behavior, not just as individuals but as a

society. I can recall how this concern captured my attention with the urgency it now has for me: I was listening to the

then-president of the United States on the news (George Bush), and he suggested that the jury was still out on evolution.

And I began to push myself to articulate why I was so distressed. Each time I answered myself, I pushed again: so what? I

answered, again with “well, so what?” and again, “so what?” So what if science doesn’t inform the decisions we make as a

country, a people, a world?
The answer is that people suffer.
The absence of an understanding of how the AIDS virus is transmitted, for instance, has contributed to countless deaths

and millions of children being orphaned in Africa. Scientists had been predicting that a Katrina-like storm was bound to

hit low-lying areas in the U.S., and we now know the consequences of having ignored that prediction. Now scientists are

concerned that global climate change will have terrible consequences for people living in poor countries.
One obstacle to people’s understanding of science is that we have a tendency to infer that one event, A, causes another,

B, simply if B follows A. Moreover, we want knowledge to provide us with certainty. Science doesn’t always confirm

causality and can’t always provide certainty. We don’t know when the next Katrina-like storm will occur or when or what

the next pandemic will be. But these assumptions about direct causality and certainty speak of a misunderstanding of

science.
People seem predisposed to infer causality. I’ve wondered how this predisposition might have come about. Biologically

speaking, how might it have served our fitness as we evolved? Consider this: which is more risky, failing to attend to a

true positive (Uncle Bob ate that mushroom and died) or attending to a false positive (When I touch the outside of a

plane, it doesn’t crash). Attending to a false positive might not hurt me too much (that is, touching a plane before I

get on is not particularly detrimental to me) but ignoring a true positive? (Oops, I ignored the fact that Uncle Bob died

after eating the mushroom, and I then ate the mushroom and also died). So perhaps we are predisposed to infer causality.

It serves us to make associations. If we happen to goof on a false positive (the airplane) we can still reproduce. But if

we don’t make the association when someone eats a mushroom and dies, then we may die too. So on average, it probably

helped us to infer causality.
But what’s the harm in inferring causality at the least provocation? Recently, I read a report noting that some parents

in Indonesia have inferred a causal relationship between polio immunization and contracting the disease. In one instance,

an Indonesian mother brought her child to be immunized and a day later he developed polio. The most likely explanation is

that this child already had the virus incubating in his body prior to the vaccination and was vaccinated too late. But

without understanding how the disease is contracted and how the vaccine works, the mother’s logic made sense. She

discouraged her neighbors from immunizing their children, which will contribute to the spread of the disease.
Yet science relies on the association of events to make sense of the universe. Once we find an association or a

correlation, we can begin to look for causality—the mechanisms underlying a phenomenon. For instance, scientists noticed

an association between the acidification of lakes in the Northeast and the loss of many aquatic species of animals. And

now, we are beginning to uncover the causal relationship, the mechanisms by which the acid content in lakes hurts

animals.
The absence of certainty also contributes to a misunderstanding of science. Not every human being who smokes cigarettes

will develop lung cancer; we can’t even predict (at least not yet) who will. So what do we know? Of thousands of people

who smoke, some proportion of them will die prematurely as a consequence. We can only move closer to the truth of how the

material world works through the play of large numbers, and thus probabilities.
Science requires openness to possibilities and skepticism about how things work. What were your hypotheses? By what

observations or experiments did you test these hypotheses? What is your evidence?
The scientific method is such a powerful process because it is self-correcting: a hypothesis not supported by evidence

doesn’t hang around long. Scientists are constantly testing their ideas and those of others with the bar set pretty high

for what it takes to be persuaded. Just recently, a Nobel Prize-winning scientist retracted a paper she co-authored

because she could not replicate the results.
Science is powerful because it accurately predicts events from the virtually certain (if I drop a ball from a building,

it will fall to earth) to the probabilistic (people who don’t smoke are likely to lead healthier lives than those who

do).
A misunderstanding of science is pervasive in many institutions that shape how we see and act in the world. There are too

many such institutions to mention in this essay, so I’ll just highlight a few.
There is compelling evidence that the Bush administration manipulated data and coerced scientists when the data were not

consistent with the administration’s view of the world. I was gratified when President Obama stated that we would

“restore science to its rightful place,” in his inaugural address. Nevertheless, we must attend to the consequences of

the Bush administration’s disregard of evidence in its decision-making process. In February of 2004, sixty-two leading

scientists (including Nobel laureates, National Medal of Science recipients, and advisors to the Eisenhower and Nixon

administrations) criticized the Bush administration for its science policies. Their declaration includes the statement

that “When scientific knowledge has been found to be in conflict with its political goals, the administration has often

manipulated the process through which science enters into its decisions.” For example:
• After Bush took office, the Department of Health and Human Services deleted Web site references to the efficacy of

condom use in the fight against the spread of AIDS
• NASA scientists have reported that they have been pressured repeatedly by Bush appointees to alter or delete climate

change findings in their reports
• The Bush administration interfered with stem-cell research, which could have facilitated the development of treatments

to ameliorate Parkinson’s disease and diabetes
So what if science doesn’t inform our decisions? People suffer.
Alas, the way in which science is often taught at colleges and universities can contribute to its misunderstanding. Too

often, science is presented as a disembodied collection of facts. How many of us had science classes that failed to

engage us in the actual enterprise? How many science classes insist that students generate their own questions, design

and carry out appropriate experiments, and grapple with evidence?
I also have concerns regarding the ways in which the media report on scientific issues. For example, in the fall of 2005,

the Dover (Pennsylvania) Area School Board passed the following resolution: “Students will be made aware of gaps/problems

in Darwin’s theory of evolution and of other theories of evolution including, but not limited to intelligent design.” The

school board further required that science teachers read a kind of evolutionary disclaimer to their biology classes. The

board was sued by a group of parents upset by this decision, and the case was widely reported for some time. Various

print, TV, and Internet media interviewed one person who was in favor of the resolution and one who was not, as though

both points of view reflected equally legitimate scientific understandings. At the time, I was teaching a course called

“Science and Antiscience in America,” and I asked my students what they thought about this tendency of the media to

present all sides (or more typically “both sides”) of an issue, particularly as it pertains to scientific questions.

Mostly, my students thought that it was an appropriate way to cover an issue in order “to be fair.” I asked them to

suppose the story was about teaching that the world was flat versus round? “Oh, that’s different,” they’d say. Yet the

preponderance of evidence for the fact of evolution is as robust as that for a round earth.
It is, at times, difficult for any of us to confront our own biases and examine them in light of evidence. Many of my

students had no difficulty disparaging the folks who eschew evolution. But some of them bristled when I suggested that

dismissing science as simply “a vehicle for continued male domination” is equally problematic. When you begin your

inquiry with the answer rather than the question, whether the answer is “God did it” or “Western intellectual thought is

simply a way to ensure the power of white men,” then it isn’t inquiry at all; it’s dogma.
Finally, I am deeply disturbed that roughly half of Americans don’t accept evolution. (I don’t like to use the phrase

“believe in” evolution; it’s like choosing whether or not to believe in gravity.) Darwinian evolution (including the

modifications biologists have brought forth over the years) is the only explanation that scientists have found for the

relevant data. The wealth of data is so vast, evolution explains these data so well, and nearly the entire community of

professionally trained biologists is so persuaded by this explanation that it is unlikely any other explanation will come

along to supplant it. However, as good scientists, we remain open to the possibility of a better idea developing to

explain the data. Until it does, there is no scientifically valid reason to hold any other view than that our species

(and all other species of animals, plants, fungi, and bacteria) have arisen on the planet through the process of

evolution.
But more than that, this denial of evolution speaks to an anti-intellectualism, a brand of antiscience that contributes

to human suffering. If people can deny evolution, which is well supported by scientific evidence and widely accepted by

the professional scientific community, then they will deny any scientific findings they dislike. The same methods and

insights that have informed how scientists understand the movement of the planets, how molecules work, and what medical

remedies are most effective have also informed our understanding of evolution. We can choose to cherry pick only the data

that support a particular bias about how the world works, but how does that help us if the world does not work that way?
Science is a way of asking testable questions about the material world; the knowledge we have gained is imperfect,

provisional, and can be derived only through the play of large numbers, and yet it is the best we can do in addressing

certain problems. Einstein expressed this view most eloquently:
All our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike—and yet it is the most precious thing we have.
Elizabeth Sherman
Elizabeth Sherman is a professor of biology at Bennington College, Bennington, Vermont, and teaches classes in animal

behavior