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Experiment XIX: Science vs. Pseudoscience

Object:

To determine the difference between scientific and pseudoscientific information.

Discussion:

When obtaining information from a web site or other source we can often determine the reliability of that information by looking for scientific and/or pseudoscientific traits. Many sources of information have some of each type of trait so we must often make a decision on the reliability of the information based on the balance of those traits.

Traits of Science

1. Scientific theories are potentially falsifiable.

A scientific theory must be stated in such a way that another person has an opportunity to

prove it wrong. Look for: (1) An experiment designed so that it could give a positive or negative response to the theory. (2) A statement that tells how the experimental results could support or deny the theory. Example: The Etheric hypothesis of light (Around 1800 -1895) held that space is filled with a substance called ether. Ether has no mass and is perfectly transparent BUT under some circumstances light MUST travel slower through the Ether than in other circumstances. In 1895 Michelson shows that the speed of light does not change no mater what the circumstance. Therefore Ether does not exist.

2. Scientific theories are backed by hard evidence from well-designed experiments

and observations. Look for: (1) A description of the experimental procedure. (2) The experimental data is cited or listed. (3) An explanation of how the data was analyzed. (4) Any standard test used by the experiment must be identified so that others can use the same test. Example:

The catastrophic theory of the extinction of the dinosaurs holds that the cause of the extinction was the striking of the Earth by a large (1 km diameter) asteroid. The resultant cloud of vaporized water and rock would create a cloud that could cover the entire world and last for three years. To determine if such a big asteroid hit the earth analysis of samples were collected from a clay layer located just above dinosaur fossil bearing rock. All samples indicated the presence of vaporized meteorite material. The experiment was repeated hundreds of times from material gathered from dozens of sites located all around the world.

3. This evidence must be reproduced many times by other objective researchers

A single positive result is not enough to conclude an experiment is a success. Look for:

Data showing the experiment was repeated several times. A list of citations of previous research and suggestions for additional research.

Example - Quarks: The existence of the Top Quark was not officially announced until after a dozen experiments were performed successfully. Within one month the work was verified at several other sites.

4. Every link in the reasoning must be valid.

Look for: (1) An explanation of how the experimental technique answers the question. (2) An explanation of how the final result is linked to the initial conditions of the experiment. Example: Newton’s Arguments for the existence of satellites 1646. Throw a ball and it falls to the earth in a curved path. Throw the same ball with the same force from a higher

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spot and it falls to earth further from the start. If you could throw a ball with enough force from the top of a mountain it would fall with the same curve as that of the earth. Therefore if you could get a high enough mountain and a big enough force the ball would fall around the world. Therefore artificial satellites which could circle the Earth must be able to exist.

Traits of Pseudoscience:

1. Use of Anecdotes and rumors.

Claims that are not supported by physical evidence. Claims that are not falsifiable or repeatable. Look for: (1) Any statement such as “Hundreds of people report that.” (2) A

statement like “People think that

citing the research. Example: any UFO sighting used as a proof of the existence of aliens.

2. Use of bad statistics.

Many people are unfamiliar with the laws of probability and underestimate the likelihood

of two events happening in sequence. The biggest mistake is called After the Fact

Reasoning. This comes from a false belief that a correlation in time between two events means the first must cause the second. Look for: (1) A description of two events in time without any explanation of how the first could cause the second (2) A failure to examine all of the events that occurred before the second. Example: A person gets sick after eating strawberries for the first time. Obviously it was the strawberries.

(3) The statement “Research shows that…” without

3.

Appeal to ignorance.

In

science support comes from positive evidence in support of or denial of a theory NOT

from a lack of negative evidence. Look for: (1) “Scientists can not explain why this

works

Because scientists can not prove the crop circles were not created by aliens they must

have been.

4. Failures are rationalized.

Failures are explained away as unimportant. In science failures often tell us more than

success. Look for (1) “While not exactly what was expected

its wrong

cold fusion is wrong. The other people just didn’t know how to do it right.”

(2) “Something may exist that science doesn’t know about!” Example:

” (2) This does not mean

Example: Cold fusion. No one else got this to work. “That doesn’t mean that

5.

Look at the person, not the science.

A

scientific report is about the experiment not the scientist. Look for: (1) A comparison

of

the scientist to a scientist from history whose theory was first attacked then accepted

(Often Copernicus or Galileo.) (2) Attacks on the personal characteristics of the scientists that developed the competing theory. Example 1 Many of Galileo’s claims were disputed by established scientists and later found to be correct. Many of Telsa’s claims are disputed by established scientists therefore Tesla was correct. Example 2: Einstein was a

terrible husband and father, (even he admitted it) but that in no way reflects on the validity of his work.

6. Arguments from authority.

Arguments about the experiment that cite some outside authority not the experiment. Look for: (1) Extensive citing of the credentials of the person supporting the theory. (2) Rejecting a theory because the originator was operating outside of her/his specialty. (3) Citing the stance of a religious or political body. Example 1: The particle theory of light was retained for 100 years mainly because Isaac Newton supported it. Example 2: The

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theory of plate tectonics was rejected for 50 years because the man who suggested it was a meteorologist not a geologist. Example 3 Galileo’s work on the motion of the Earth was not removed from the list of banned books by the Catholic Church until 1967 7. Either/Or Fallacy Also called “The false dilemma.” This is an attempt to force you to choose one extreme

position or the other by excluding all of the intermediate choices. Then if they discredit

the other choice you will be forced to adopt theirs. Look for: (1) “either

must be one or the other” Example: Both sides of the Evolutionist vs. Creationist debate:

“Either life was divinely created 6000 years ago or it evolved for 3 billion years” This argument does not allow for any middle ground solution even though there are many

other theories both evolutionary and creationist that adopt a middle ground

or

” (2) “It

Procedure:

Go to the web sights supplied by the instructor. Read the required material. Classify each sight as scientific, pseudoscientific or a mixture. You must justify your classification by giving at least three illustrations from the sight. Scientific sights should have several of the scientific traits and none of the pseudoscience traits. Pseudoscience sights could have pseudoscience traits or lack the science traits.

Generic examples of proper justification from various UFO sights.

Example: The statement “Hundreds of people reported the lights, flying in formation, over Phoenix” is a use of anecdotes and rumors.

Example 2: The paragraph starting: “Dr. X has authored dozens of books about Unidentified Flying Objects including (a list of several books follows) and is a recognized scientist at the Institute for -----“is looking at the person not the science

Example 3: The sight fails to show any hard evidence by omitting any measurable data showing that the lights were saucers not airplanes.

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Science vs. Pseudoscience Worksheet

Evaluate the credibility of each site listed below. Classify the site as science, pseudo-science or mixture. Explain why it is or is not a reliable source of information. List at least three reasons to support your assessment of each site by citing sentences or phrases from the site. You may cite either lack of trait or presence of a trait.

For example: The statement “Either life must have originated three and one half million years ago and evolved, or it was created by a supreme being.” is an example of the Either Or Fallacy because it does not allow for any intermediate possibilities.

Site 1:

Read the article on this medical hypothesis.

Site 2:

The author’s claim is that credible evidence exists for the existence of giants.

Site 3:

Site 4:

The link below is the main site. Read the reports and compare to site three in terms of science and pseudoscience.

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