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Science and pseudo-science

When science is set up as a replacement for religion, it becomes a "pseudoscience."

See also:
how to answer questions (and logical fallacies)

Introduction

Sometimes people refer to religion as pseudo-science. Ironically, this kind of statement is itself pseudo-science.

Perhaps the term "pseudo-science" applies to some religions. But the Mormon church never claimed to be a science, and so is properly a non-science and not pseudo-science. In contrast, many unscientific statements against the church do pretend to be science. Ironically, they become the very thing they pretend to despise.

Carl Sagan's "Demon Haunted World"

Part of this page is a response to Carl Sagan's last book, "The Demon Haunted World" - a polemic against all belief systems that are not based on science. It is a fine book, and contains a great deal of good sense. But it has one major flaw, and several minor ones.

The one major flaw is that Sagan can only praise science by ignoring almost all the important questions of life. He never discusses the big issues of politics or economics or philosophy or law or desire. For example, when discussing religion, he sees it just in terms of healings or predictions. Yet anyone who finds religion satisfying knows that these things are not at the center of religion. They are just interesting appendages. The center of religion is the big issues - the issues that Sagan ignores.

As to the minor flaws, they will be discussed later. But it is worth noting that "demon haunted world" could apply to Sagan's own view of science. Sagan's model of science is of a system that can answer every question that could ever need to be answered. But science has never had that power and is unlikely to ever have it. So Sagan's idea of science is an imaginary one - a powerful jinni that does not in fact exist.

Sagan's description of science is almost identical to mainstream Christianity's description of the Holy Spirit. (To see how, do a search for "spirit" at the Theology Today website) Both are long on faith-promoting anecdotes, but in both cases the anecdotes fall far short of providing the evidence needed. Mainstream Christianity has not proven that its spirit can solve the big problems of the world, and neither has Sagan. Both are at once very close to the truth and yet very far away. Both are really just expressions of hope. Sagan, it seems, was haunted by his own demons.


Contrasting science and pseudo-science

Defining terms

Usually when people discuss science and religion, they are all talking about different things. So the discussion goes nowhere. Let us start by agreeing on terms. (Science, Non-Science and Pseudo-Science are as defined by Virginia Commonwealth University.)

Science The experimental method.
Every idea must be testable under controlled conditions. Ideas are only accepted if they are developed by this method.
Pseudo-Science Anything that claims to be science, but is not.
Non-Science Anything that claims to have truth, but is not science.
Religion In general A system of beliefs that defines 'right' and 'wrong.'
It usually (but not always) involves belief in spirits.
Specifically (On this page) The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Some causes of pseudo-science

  1. Poorly defined terms:
    To be strictly accurate, the result of a scientific experiment can only be applied to the precise conditions of the experiment, and using the exact same question. So, for example, the question, "Is the Church true" can have different answers depending on what you mean by the church, and what you mean by "true." If "true" means "completely internally consistent," and "the church" means "the people," then the church is not true (because all people have weaknesses and are inconsistent in some way). But if "true" means "has not been disproved" and "the church" means "the teachings that allegedly get you to heaven," then the church is true. These are just two extremes. there are many other ways to interpret the question.
  2. Over-generalizing:
    It is very dangerous (and illogical) to extrapolate the results of one experiment to something else. This is most obvious in biology. If a lab rat behaves in a certain way, does that mean we have discovered something that applies to humans as well? It applies to all scenic subjects, including humans. For example, if one sub-group behaves or thinks in a a particular way, does that mean that all their main group will behave that way also?

Pseudo-Science is wrong

Before going further, let me emphasize that pseudo-science is wrong. It claims to be something it is not, and so it is dishonest. I have no desire to defend pseudo-science. For this reason, I reject the pseudo-scientific categorization that labels anything we believe in as 'science' and anything we do not believe in as 'pseudo-science.' If we wish to avoid pseudo-science, the first thing we need to do is be more precise in our thinking.


All attacks on religion are pseudo-science

Logical fallacies

Anyone who seeks to attack another position will be tempted to use rhetoric rather than science. And this means appealing to fallacies rather than logic. Many of these are discussed elsewhere. The rest of this page has examples of rhetoric that are particularly used against religion.

Wild generalizations

Science is an approach to information. Religion is class of information. The idea that one must logically invalidate the other is foolish. There are so many different approaches to religion that we cannot dismiss all religion with any single approach. Science may well destroy some concepts, but it will support others. The wild generalization that says 'science disproves religion' has no scientific basis. It is, itself, a form of pseudo-science.

Here are some more tricks that are used for criticizing religion::

Vague, woolly thinking

Science is typically confused with technology, and technology is confused with the application of technology. But the person who uses technology (e.g. by driving a car) is no more scientific than the person who uses religion (e.g. by getting married). Similarly, religion is confused with particular instances of religion - so it is condemned by choosing individual examples and ignoring good ones.

Chronological snobbery

It is often assumed that, because science is now fashionable, life is now better or happier than any system that went before. This is not a rational view. Even at the height of the Dark Ages, many people thought that they were living in a triumphant and advanced period. One result of this snobbery is to decide we are intellectually superior. Thus, we decide that we can learn nothing from our ancestors. If they have scriptures, we refuse to accept them as evidence, and see it as our duty to analyze them and come up with our own version of what they 'really' mean. There is no scientific basis for many of these conclusions - they are pseudo-science at its most arrogant.

Ontological reductionism

A frequent attack is that a complex object is 'nothing but' the sum of its parts. For example, humans are 'nothing but' collections of atoms. Similar reasoning sees humans as basically just apes, and everyone us basically just a bunch of chemicals. This is clearly nonsense, as complex systems have properties and behaviors that are not exhibited by their individual parts.

The myth of objectivity

People sometimes talk as if scientists are machines - purely objective, and not really human. This is of course untrue. Even the best scientists are influenced by human feelings. For example, the history of 'cold fusion' "has proved to be a stern reminder that scientists are just as vulnerable to the human failings of greed, vanity and spite as anyone else." - New Scientist 19 Jan 1991 p.48

Naming or explaining?

Sometimes people name and describe a phenomenon, and think that they then understand it. For example, scientists can describe gravity with great precision. But still nobody knows how it works. It is the same for religion. I have read many scholarly commentaries on the scriptures. The authors know their Greek and Hebrew, and are up to date with the latest lines of research. But their work is sterile, cold, and gives no clue as to why any thinking person could be a passionate believer. Sometimes pseudo-psychological theories are suggested, but they are seldom based on any real understanding of the phenomena. They can name, but they cannot explain.

'God of the Gaps' - and 'the search for God'

This refers to a pit that some theologians have dug for themselves. All theists are sometimes assumed to subscribe to this notion. The theory is that, since science appears to be able to explain everyday phenomena, God must be at arm's length. That is, he sets things in motion and then sits back to watch. But this approach relies on gaps in knowledge - wherever there is a gap, we can say 'that is where God acts!' However, this approach is self-defeating. As more and more is discovered about the universe, God retreats further and further into the background.

This theory is one of a number that use the "looking for God" approach. As if God was hiding somewhere, and we clever humans have to search for him. It is crude, naive, and certain to fail - by definition, God is far more subtle and intelligent than we can imagine. If he wants to act, he can do so in subtle ways. If he wants to be seen he will. If he wants to be hidden he will. This "search for God" idea is doomed to failure. It is also pretty pointless. What would you do when you found him?

A far better approach is to ask 'what benefits are there from believing in God?' By understanding what he can do, we will understand his relationship to us. By understanding his relationship, we can begin to understand him. And all the time we are learning, we are also benefiting. This is much better than the arrogant, naive, and futile attempt to force him into our existing scheme of knowledge.

'Right' and 'wrong'

Perhaps the biggest sin of the critics is the appeal to 'right' and 'wrong.' In the middle of criticizing religions for pseudo-science, critics often suggest that some words are 'moral' or 'immoral,' 'right,' or 'wrong.' Wait a minute! Since when were these terms scientific? What is the scientific, experimental basis for attaching a moral value to something? It is true that some research has been carried out into altruism - e.g. sacrificing your genes for someone else's. I do not know how scientific the studies have been, but I do know that (a) altruism is not the same as a definition of 'right' and 'wrong,' and (b) such tightly focused experiments cannot be generalized across complex societies.

Anyone who uses words like 'right,' 'moral,' 'beautiful,' etc., cannot at the same time claim to have ideas that are based on science.

Conclusion: who is really into pseudo-science?

Consider a discussion between a Mormon and an atheist who claims to have a scientific basis to his life.

Perhaps the Mormon is a complete idiot and ties himself in knots. It does not matter, because, as a Mormon, his allegiance is clear. Whatever he may or may not say the only people with ultimate authority to speak for the church are the General Authorities (the prophet, the twelve apostles, etc.) These people never claim that Mormon doctrines are derived from science. They claim that the doctrines come from personal revelation. Unlike, say, astrology, there is no attempt to surround the teachings in scientific jargon. The teachings of Mormonism come from (a) revelation, and (b) authority. Hence, because they do not claim to be science, they are not open to the charge of being pseudo-science.

The atheist, on the other hand, claims to be scientific. But in condemning religion in general, and especially if he uses words like 'right' and 'wrong,' he is not being scientific. Therefore he is practicing pseudo-science.

The danger of being 'in denial'

It seems that we are all deeply into unscientific beliefs and behaviors. Since we all have them, the healthy thing is to examine them, try to make them consistent, and open them for public scrutiny. The member of an organized religion does that. The critic who claims to be scientific does not.

Which is the healthier position?


Carl Sagan, pseudo-science, and religion

Introduction: Sagan in decline

Most great scientists do their best work when young - in their 20s or 30s. Sometimes when they get old, they seek to regain their old fame and branch out in new areas. This can be a very good thing, but it is easy when you are famous to believe your own publicity and grow a little inflexible in the mind. Linus Pauling comes to mind - a Nobel prize winner, who spent his last years trying to prove that massive doses of Vitamin 'C' could cure cancer, and just about every other disease. Another famous scientist who decided to stop being cautious was Carl Sagan.

I am not saying that every old scientist goes senile, but good science requires precise thinking, and above all, restraint and self analysis. So I was a little concerned when I read that "Like some maturing thinkers, he decided late in life to escalate his criticism of mystical mumbo-jumbo." I agree that much of what he condemns (astrology, mysticism, etc.) is pseudo-science and thus deserves to be condemned. But he went further than that. This section refers to Sagan's last book, "The Demon Haunted World." In it, he creates his own pseudo-science. The term 'maturing thinker" is something of a euphemism.

He could have been referring to his own book when he concluded, "Many people believe almost anything they're told, with no evidence."

A friend kindly summarized what he felt were the main points. If I have misunderstood, I apologize. But Sagan makes points that others also make, and they deserve an answer. I agree with most of Sagan's comments in general. But he seems unaware that he, as a human being, is guilty of the same muddled thinking that he condemns in others. In summary:

The main point - does science drive progress?

Even though this book was not his best, Sagan was still a great thinker. I have no complaint with much of what he said. In general:

I agree
that science is essential for progress.

I disagree
that science is the overwhelming drive behind progress.

Science is less significant than non-science. For example:

Now let's look at the individual points.

The real problem is ignorance

"Skepticism does not "sell well" People don’t want to hear it."
Ditto serious religion. That goes for anything that requires thought and action.

"95% of Americans are science illiterate"
Ditto religion - most cannot even name a single book of the Bible, let alone know what any of it says!

"The consequences of science illiteracy are grave"
Ditto religion.

"How can we make intelligent decisions without a grasp of the underlying issues?"
Ditto religion.

"Whose interest does ignorance serve?"
Ignorance is 'in the eye of the beholder.' E.g. organic farmers and GM farmers both see themselves as on the side of good science, and both see the other side as ignorant.

"Better to lose self-delusion and move on than to persist in self-gratifying concepts."
Agreed. But like ignorance, self-delusion is always easier to see in others. For example, I see scientists claiming that scientific advances will solve world hunger. I think they are deluding themselves. Changes in politics, economics, and beliefs, are more powerful.

"Do they really know what they claim to know?"
Does anyone? Does Sagan know much about religion? And do scientists "know" things? All science can do is hold tentative theories until they are disproven.

Ignorance of religion

"Instead of admitting ignorance (which is not the same as stupidity), there's a tendency to explain the unexplained with a divine or ethereal element."
Or to explain it by attacking the thing you do not understand (as in Sagan's case). Or to appeal to popular but false ideas about science. By the way, not everyone sees religion as simply there to explain things. That does not motivate believers as much as the fact that it provides practical benefits.

"Religion means reliance on prayer, chants, amulets"
Not to me. Prayer does not replace thought and action - it strengthens it. And I do not use chants or amulets, though that might be fun.

"Think of how many religions attempt to validate themselves with prophecy."
Not this one. Mormons use prophecy, not to prove anything, but because it's nice to know.

"Think of how many people rely on these prophecies, however vague, however unfulfilled, to support or prop up their beliefs."
The same can be said of science - plenty of people comfort themselves with statistics they have heard, or ideas that they remember out of context. Does this invalidate science?

"Has there ever been a religion with the prophetic accuracy and reliability of science?"
Yes. Name me one prophecy made by science that can compare with those made by Joseph Smith!

"[Scientific prophecies are] precise, and repeatedly demonstrated before committed skeptics."
Was Sagan really that ignorant? What does science predict - the movements of the stars? Religions have been doing that for millennia. Or the behavior of simple, closed physical systems? That does not compare with the predictions of religion -concerning human happiness, the fate of empies, etc. Sagan is not comparing like with like.

"The sword of science is double edged so more responsibility and a high standard is needed"
It is the same with religion. Let's make a deal. You don't focus on bad religions, and I won't focus on bad science.

"Science thrives on error-correcting mechanism built into the scientific method."
So does organized religion. Organized religion's error-correcting mechanism is the freedom to leave. If believers do not make the church worthwhile, it dies.

"Pseudo-science is framed immune to criticism"
Agreed, because it is disorganized, and hence presents no clear target. Organized religion, on the other hand, can be understood, criticized, and left or opposed.

"Authoritative unchecked decisions yield pseudo-science"
Agreed. But dos this apply to the Mormon church? The doctrine of personal revelation allows every decision to be checked. Every decision can be rejected, or at least interpreted.
Also, a clear structure minimizes the potential for abuse. First, not everyone has the right to say "thus saith the Lord." Second, relatively few rules or doctrines are given, and then in general terms. Third, it allows most statements to come under the category 'policies and procedures,' which are not assumed to be divinely inspired.

What leads to progress?

"Religion led to 10 centuries of the dark ages."
Bad religion did. And good religion led to the end of the dark ages (e.g. concepts of individual worth and of authority beyond the current rulers)

"Advances to humans have been led by science and the scientific method."
Not true. Advances to humans, like every other significant action, have been led by non-science. For example, perhaps the biggest changes come from economic forces. And all social changes rely on powerful leaders and public feeling, which in turn depend on second hand opinions - scientific, religious, political, whatever. Science is a marvelous tool, and essential to progress, but let's see it in perspective.

"Scientific curing resolve 100x or 1000x more than the alternatives."
So-called 'scientific curing' relies on non-science. Modern doctors are no more scientific than medieval doctors - they both look for symptoms, and they both rely on logical enquiry (the intellectual foundation for the medieval world was scholasticism, a very logical framework as long as you accept its premises). But modern doctors do benefit from better education, better access to information, better infrastructure, better government, better tools, a better economic situation etc.

"Science has given us more free time"
Here, Sagan confuses science with technology. Yes, science is needed, but it does not appear on its own - it is a result, and relies upon, non-science. The men who designed my computer did so because it would make them money. And they were allowed to do so because of the political system they enjoy. The science was essential, but is the slave to larger forces.

"Advances in agriculture, medicine have saved more lives than all the wars have killed."
Agreed! And medicine relies on non-science for its promotion.

Sagan relies on pseudo-science
i.e. unsupported claims, pretending to be science

"It is morally wrong not to care whether a thing is true or not."
Morals? What is the scientific basis for this concept? It seems that you are letting non-science cloud your clinical mind! :-)

"Which give us leverage in our future? Which gives us more real character?"
Why use words like "leverage" and "character" in a call to be more scientific? If these concepts masquerade as science, they become pseudo-science.

"Our ties to apes yield a better appreciation for nature and the need to care for it."
Pseudo-science again. We could also say that our ties to inanimate matter yield a better appreciation for the benefits of genocide.

"Pseudo-science fills emotional needs that science often leaves behind."
Sagan later states that "pseudo-science" includes all religion. Such a generalization is pseudo-scientific nonsense. Just before saying this, he said that "skepticism is a heavy burden." So it appears that:

  1. Sagan has an emotional need.
  2. He fills it by attacking religion.

"Wishing makes it so = pseudo-science"
Sagan is a little confused here. By this definition, most scientific activity = pseudo-science, since most experiments have a purpose - some goal that is wished for. A more accurate definition is: "non-science pretending to be science = pseudo-science."

"Religion = state protected pseudo-science"
No, because religion does not claim to be science. Also, Sagan is confusing freedom with state sponsorship. The state sponsors religion in the same way that it protects any other belief - including scientifically derived beliefs. Perhaps Sagan meant to say "state protected non-science," which put it in the same class as education, human rights, the legal system and all those other subversive ideas.

How Sagan's approach leads to pseudo-science

"Difficult to separate religion from pseudo-science"
Actually quite easy - good religions make it clear that they are non-science. However, it is much harder to separate science from pseudo-science. Sagan shows this by presenting ignorant prejudice as being good science.

"Pseudo-science can win by default if science-lovers don't debate"
Exactly. It is not practical to debate everything, so science cannot provide a real alternative to pseudo-science. The only other alternative is non-science, which Sagan has already rejected.

"100,000 fortune tellers are in Japan"
The most scientifically literate nation on earth. This seems to confirm what he said - that science leaves an emotional gap.

"Concept of Chi (life energy) popular in China"
An officially atheist state...

"Despite incredible proof of science, people continue to believe pseudo-science"
Because science is still of little direct use in their daily lives - e.g. to get money, love, etc.

"Pseudo-science is part of a global trend. Appeals to emotions, shock value; it is niftier"
So it is growing in influence? Then perhaps it is a result of the decline in organized religion? Sagan has already stated that science leaves an emotional need.

"There has been a dumbing-down of America to provide more instant satisfaction"
Some would see this as a side effect of the rise of science. Science is complicated, and provides idiot-proof technology. So it tends to creates an Úlite minority and a lazy majority.

"When threatened, people reach for pseudo-science, religion."
Sagan is feeling threatened, so he reaches for pseudo-science and religion as scapegoats. Actually, my experience does not support Sagan's generalization. But he does like to present his prejudices as science. Thus he creates his own brand of pseudo-science. Perhaps he does this to illustrate his point?

Burning Witches

[Note: this is not a defense of witch burning! The medieval church was apostate and corrupt, and did many bad things. But to suggest that religion was the main cause and pure science solved the problem is just plain wrong.]

"People used to say, 'witches MUST exist, else how do these things exist.'"
And Sagan says "religious people MUST be guilty, else why does so much pseudo-science exist?" Sagan has conjured up his own witches - the churchgoers. He does not understand them, so he thinks they must have caused all the bad things that happen.

Did Religion cause witch-hunting?

The desire to believe in bogeymen is not a particularly religious thing, as Sagan has shown by demonizing Christians. Indeed, the original belief in witches was rational - Wicca was a genuine religion, and some of its adherents claimed the ability to cast spells. The legal response was quite sensible - for example, the old Salic law of the Franks would only condemn a witch if there was physical proof, and even then the punishment was relatively mild.

The widespread belief that witches caused evil was not a result of religious belief. An early document (first mentioned 906) of church law, the Canon Episcopi, said it was a heresy to even believe in witches! The first Papal Bull on the subject was in 1233, and in Pope Alexander IV (Rinaldo Conti) told the Italian Inquisitors to not judge any cases of witchcraft unless there was a very strong reason to suppose that heretical practice could be amply proved. When the church was at its most powerful and unquestioned - right up to the 14th century - persecution of witches was virtually unknown.

Then how did witch burning begin?

Systematic opposition to witches was triggered not by religious belief, but by the need to find an enemy. The inquisitors had run out of Waldensians and Albigensians to burn, and they needed to justify their existence. They had to struggle to justify their position in the face of church law, but they managed (no doubt helped by the fact that heretics' property could be confiscated and kept). Persecution of witches reached its height in the 16th and 17th centuries, when Catholicism was crumbling and Europe was feeling insecure.

How much of this madness was uniquely religious? The worst persecution was in Spain, not Rome. The Pope expressed concern that they were being to severe. A Spanish monk (Ramond of Tarrega) even wrote a book suggesting that demons, since they were created by God, were not such bad creatures anyway.

Did the educated people outside the church oppose it?

Did the educated people of the time oppose witch-hunting? No - they may have encouraged it more than anyone! The ordinary person had just the usual interest in attacking unwanted neighbors (which is not a peculiar religious trait- see Nazi Germany in the 1930s for example). But the real incentive was for the cynical local rulers to confiscate the property of their enemies by having them declared heretics.

And what of the doctors - the university educated elite? "The witch-craze also coincided with a new professional attitude among male doctors, one based more on theoretical training in the universities than on bedside practice. ... Thus, some historians see the medical establishment as abetting the witch-burnings because they eliminated competition. [The old women with potions tended to be local healers]" - "Encyclopedia of Heresies and Heretics" by C. S. Clifton, p. 138 (California, ABC-CLIO, 1992) The "Hammer of Witches" (the basic anti-witch textbook) stated that the people who decided whether a illness was decided by a witch or by natural causes - hence whether they were guilty - were the doctors, the ones with the university education!

Witch-burning ended, not because people had suddenly become scientific, but because the forces that caused it (the need for a scape goat) ceased to exist. Individual cases were ended - not by atheists or religious heretics, but by orthodox religious ministers (such as, in the case of the Salem witch trials, the staunch Puritan minister Increase Mather).

Conclusion: Carl Sagan's Witches

Religious people are demonized. Like the medieval witches, they are condemned without a fair trial.

Why can't we learn to live together?
Religion needs science.
But science also needs religion.

 

The bottom line

Religion does not claim to be science. However, when false arguments are dressed up as science, they then become pseudo-science.

 

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