That Which Is Not So ...Yet
©1996 William J. Beaty
Skeptical scientists are the avowed enemies of crackpot theories, of
pop-culture pseudoscience, and of quack medicine. In order to fight
against these, scientists must first recognize them. One criterion by
which pseudoscience is commonly judged is by whether or not the topic
violates what is known to be true. Does an apparently scientific claim
run counter to the findings of current science? If so, then the topic
belongs to the "enemy." It can be rejected as untrue, or it can be fought
against as being a dangerous product of ignorance and superstition.
However, pseudoscience and crackpottery have a fundamental connection with
legitimate science. Out at the far edges of scientific advancement there
is little difference between "protoscience" and "pseudoscience". Both of
these involve speculation, untested ideas, unlikely connections, intuitive
knowledge, and unorthodox conceptual structures. Both involve trial and
error, with heavy emphasis on the "error". Pseudoscience and protoscience
both spring from that intuitive and irrational part of the human mind that
is responsible for creativity. Both are rife with wishful thinking and
biased interpretations of the evidence. And most importantly, neither the
"crackpottery" nor the "frontier science" is accepted by mainstream
scientists as being true. Only after the process of "doing science"
proceeds do the insane ideas become speculation, do the speculations
become grant proposals, and does the successful research and replication
finally generate solid new knowledge which becomes part of the
contemporary scientific worldview.
The grey area between protoscience and crackpottery is a source of
problems for skeptics. Because pseudoscience and legitimate scientific
creativity overlap into each other, skeptics make a grave mistake in
trying to quickly identify and suppress all pseudoscience. If we assume
that pseudoscience is not part of mainstream science and therefor is
easily recognized, then we will wrongly lump scientific creativity
together with pseudoscience and treat both as the hated enemy. Attempts
to suppress pseudoscience might end up suppressing creativity and killing
off unconventional new ideas. Attempts to preserve Science against the
onslaught of crackpots can also preserve Science against needed growth.
If we defend too strongly against crazy ways of thinking, then we will
also suppress those improved ways of thinking which, when first
encountered, appear crazy.
But pseudoscience and crackpottery are NOT the same as preliminary
scientific ideas and speculations. Revolutionary discoveries are
different than pathological science. Superstition, ignorance, quacks, and
crackpots really do cause harm, and it really is worthwhile to fight
against them. We should not abandon the fight against real pseudoscience
in order to preserve Frontier Science. What's to be done?
First, it is of prime importance to thoroughly investigate a subject
before attacking it as erroneous. History teaches us that mistakes in
this regard have been made too many times in the past. New ideas have
been accidentally suppressed and progress has been held back because novel
research has been mistakenly declared to be part of pseudoscience. We
must avoid erecting barriers against crackpottery which are too high for
revolutionary discoveries to cross. We must beware of applying too broad a
criterion while fighting pseudoscience, lest we include new ideas and
unorthodox approaches with the folly we wish to eliminate.
Second, it's important to realize that often it's not possible for us to
instantly separate the creative/unorthodox from the superstitious/insane.
Therefor we should not attempt to suppress every trace of crackpottery,
and we should not attempt to suppress it instantly without forethought.
Preservation and encouragement of new ideas is far too important to chance
destroying them in our zeal to destroy folly and error. If "error" is
suppressed, than "trial and error" is suppressed as well. An environment
which is intolerant of pseudoscience is also an environment which
suppresses valid, valuable unorthodoxy.
Those who control the purse strings should set aside a small percentage of
funding for projects which fall outside the conservative, safe guidelines.
Journal editors should put less emphasis on keeping out every trace of
strangeness, because in so doing they may also keep out occasional works
of genius. And skeptics should think twice before practicing knee-jerk
ridicule and derision of any works which appear weird, unconventional, and
crazy. Such things as polywater and N-rays do show the need for a
conservative approach, but a conservative approach will suppress Goddard's
space flight, Chandrashekar's Black Holes, and Wegner's drifting