Thoughts on Pseudoscience, the baby, the bathwater, and the big picture

Pseudoscience is a term we hear again and again, and it's on my mind a lot as I tend to be overly analytical while remaining fairly open-minded about the nature of truth and possibility. It’s always seemed unwise to me to rely on a single method of inquiry, such as empirical observation, when considering purpose and direction, especially since such a large percentage of the universe is empirically unobservable. Given this fact it feels indulgent to hold what humanity “knows” too tightly, as history teaches us harsh lessons about this modality. This more "open" approach inevitably leads me to an interesting mix of authors, podcasters, theories and thoughts. Predictably, some of the works are extolled by science while others bear the dreaded moniker of “pseudoscience.”


Thoughts on Pseudoscience - My booklist is not Pseudoscience approved

Here’s a list of my book/audiobook purchases for the last six months:

  • Emergence (Derek Rydall) 
  • The Quantum Enigma (Bruce Rosenblum, Fred Kuttner) 
  • A Brief History of Time (Stephen Hawking) 
  • Magicians of the Gods (Graham Hancock)
  • The Surrender Experiment (Michael Singer)
  • The Tibetan Book of the Dead (Karma Lingpa)
  • Turning to One Another (Margaret J. Wheatley)
  • Abundance (Elon Musk)
  • The Truth (Neil Strauss)
  • Never Broken (Jewel)
  • Man’s Search for Meaning (Victor Frankel)
  • Conversations with God (book 1, 2, 3, Neale Donald Walsch)

There are scientific books in this list as well as books that have little to do with science. However, there is a third category of books represented in this list, a category I think of as “science-plus.” These books take a generalist approach in which empirically collected data is synthesized with non-scientific ideas in an attempt to paint larger picture, one empiricism alone could never see.  

Graham Hancock's Magicians of the Gods is such a book, it contains a wealth of scientific facts as well as a fair amount of speculation, and it pays careful attention to point out where the two diverge, where knowledge ends and speculation begins.  This modality is something I appreciate about Graham Hancock as an author, and this discipline is absolutely key in my opinion, as it keeps the reader informed, engaged, and knowing that he or she is free to consider as much or as little as is comfortable now that the line between science and speculation is reached. Sadly, books such as Graham's latest are typically flagged as being pseudoscience.

Thoughts on Pseudoscience - the scientific method is its own force

Pseudoscience: a collection of beliefs or practices mistakenly regarded as being based on scientific method. includes beliefs, theories, or practices that have been or are considered scientific, but have no basis in scientific fact. This could mean they were disproved scientifically, can’t be tested or lack evidence to support them.

In case anyone hasn't seen it, the scientific method looks something like this:

  1. Ask a Question
  2. Do Background Research
  3. Construct a Hypothesis
  4. Test Your Hypothesis by Doing an Experiment
  5. Analyze Your Data and Draw a Conclusion
  6. Communicate Your Results

To say this method of inquiry has been revolutionary is an understatement. The scientific method has grabbed the physical world by the horns and in a few short centuries has catalogued, prodded, tested, verified, healed and incinerated. More accurately, humanity has done these all these things using its new tool, as the scientific method is incapable of offering advice on its own application, (something worth keeping in mind as one looks at the state of the modern world.)

There was a time when humanity lived in ignorant bliss and the sky was nothing more than a ceiling with holes in it allowing light to pass through. As Desjardin points out, science has altered the human condition: the telescope has removed our ceiling, the microscope has dissolved our floor, and advances made in archeology and other specializations have given us insight into the true age of humanity as well as the Earth's past and future.

Our gathered knowledge has effectively knocked out the walls of our "evolved" reality, removing us from our “cradle” in space and time and abruptly exchanging it for a single bed. Using the scientific method humanity has managed to identify its location within the whole, and here we remain, drawn forward through space and time together, and yet alone. Having disproven our cradle, we now a find ourselves in a cold, dark, and seemingly empty universe. Some posit this to be the underlying source of stress, disquiet, and depression in modernity (although many believe it to be a necessary stage for our growth and evolution as a species). 

Humanity has been climbing towards a high ridge, dreaming of finally gazing beyond and better understanding our place in the mystery of all things. We've now reached that ridge and have been steadily widening our cosmological viewpoint, exploring a beautiful and inhospitable universe in awe, and perhaps dissatisfaction. Our search has birthed powerful technology and exponential progress, but it has largely abandoned meaning as an end. Without shared meaning humanity has learned to rely upon the scientific method to set our direction, settling for blind progress as our default modality.  

Yes, science has been leading a revolution, it's undeniable. Science has “terraformed” human society, and it's only warming up, and that's the “rub,” the scientific method has proven itself more than up to the task of taking on the physical world, after all, that's what the method was designed to do. But more and more humanity has been looking for science to lead, relying on a process designed for physical analysis and forgetting that physicality alone doesn't define the world we inhabit, only one aspect of it.

(I previously mentioned the importance alerting the reader when departing from known science. In this spirit I'll point out that I do not believe our existence is fully represented by the physical, I think consciousness is quite real and likely fundamental to physical existence, that each physical aspect is a reflection of its non physical reality. Having said, it illustrates how out of balance modern thought is when "intellectual" discussion requires a disclaimer regarding conscious and whether or not the experience we're collectively having is real.)

Thoughts on Pseudoscience - Nature is an Art Generation Machine

In Alan Cohen’s analogy of the scientists and the masterpiece a team of physical scientists are asked to analyze a famous painting. They set about their business dutifully, noting the chemical elements, the wavelength frequencies, the height, the weight, etc. The process of analysis necessarily destroys the painting and, in the end, they have missed the artist’s entire point. 

While insightful, Cohen’s argument treats the scientific method somewhat unfairly as the process was never intended for art appreciation. Essentially Cohan has constructed a no-win scenario for the fictional scientists in his thought experiment. Still, Cohan’s illustration makes one point perfectly clear: there is a larger picture to reality and the scientific method is not singularly capable of investigating it--it was never intended to--we seem to be have forgotten that part of late.

“Pseudoscience” is a word which, by definition, appears to be reserved for those involved scientific pursuits, which is presumably why the word was created in the first place. As it stands, the word has become a bludgeon used to punish people, to target thinkers and searchers who dare enter the domain of speculation while simultaneously including existing scientific research. These thinkers are not specialists, not even scientists in many cases, they are those who seek to trace the outline of the nonphysical into places where empirical observation is not possible.

Perhaps these people still believe there is something to see from the top of the ridge, if only we’d stop looking so hard and take a step back. Instead, we practice possessiveness with our knowledge and ideas, offended that someone would dare include our hard work and research in their crazy, unscientific theory. This type of thought claims pseudoscience not when science is practiced improperly, but when data collected using the scientific method is considered in works that are not purely scientific, as if we have one choice: physical or nonphysical. I can't prove it, but I suspect that when humanity finally glimpses the big picture we will find that it will contains both aspects perfectly. 

It's simple enough I suppose, eliminate the non-physical aspects of life and the scientific method becomes instantly capable answering all questions. It’s an understandable impulse as it’s hard to admit there are things we may never know, and of course, fear readily takes-up residence within the unknown. No one ever said being alive was easy, but to shout down people who dare to speculate beyond the current limits of scientific knowledge as a “pseudoscientists” seems not only egotistical, but short-sighted and dangerous. As I look around at the world and take in what’s happening, my gut tells me that this is not a time for limitations on thought, speech, and expression, on the contrary, it's a time when out-of-the-box thinking and creative, heartfelt solutions are needed more than they ever have been. 

Consider turning the scientific method back on the the word “pseudoscience” the next time you hear it used. You may find it tells you more about the person saying the word than the person they're saying it about.

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