Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Pseudoscience Zombie - It's In Their Head

If you've never heard of Robert K. Merton, I'm sure you've at least heard of some of the phrases he's invented, such as self-fulfilling prophecy, or maybe you know of the Thomas Theorem or Matthew Effect. Aside from being the father of Nobel Economist Robert C. Merton, Robert K. was a giant in his own right, a social scientist whose principal area of research was the scientific process itself. Robert K. wrote a lot about science and even pseudoscience, and when I look around our community to see what is happening on the CAOs and SMP, I feel like we're living in a Robert K. Merton research project on pseudoscience.

The Stanford University Philosophy Department has a website about pseudoscience which discusses Robert K.'s ideas, along with those of others.  It is an excellent read. On that website, there is a list of pseudoscience criteria that really hits home for me. Here is what it says.

"One such list (of criteria for identifying pseudoscience) reads as follows:
  1. Belief in authority: It is contended that some person or persons have a special ability to determine what is true or false. Others have to accept their judgments.
  2. Nonrepeatable experiments: Reliance is put on experiments that cannot be repeated by others with the same outcome.
  3. Handpicked examples: Handpicked examples are used although they are not representative of the general category that the investigation refers to.
  4. Unwillingness to test: A theory is not tested although it is possible to test it.
  5. Disregard of refuting information: Observations or experiments that conflict with a theory are neglected.
  6. Built-in subterfuge: The testing of a theory is so arranged that the theory can only be confirmed, never disconfirmed, by the outcome.
  7. Explanations are abandoned without replacement. Tenable explanations are given up without being replaced, so that the new theory leaves much more unexplained than the previous one. (Hansson 1983)"
In short, when I read this list, I can't help but hum the refrain from Zombie, the 1994 protest song from the Irish rock group, The Cranberries. Although written for a different time and place, the refrain still seems relevant to aspects of our lives here. When is something non-science?  When it's, "In your head, in your head ... ZOMBIE .... ZOMBIE ... ZOMBIE ... heh ... heh ... heh ... OH!

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