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 continents.
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