Defining Pseudoscience: It Takes a Rocket Surgeon

imageColin Berry somewhat clarifies his now work-in-progress letter to the Royal Society when he writes:

Thus my resort to the RS – to suggest new technology for addressing the blood-first claim, hopefully that would not require snipping bits off the Shroud, i.e. could be applied in situ, custodians permitting. If they don’t permit, then folk can be left to draw their own conclusions (and the RS asked to state which existing evidence it considers science, which pseudo-science). . . .

There is in this an implied threat. But that makes me wonder. What if, instead, the custodians of the shroud invited the Royal Society to design and conduct tests to see if the bloodstains were formed before the image and that prestigious organization declined to do so. Should folks be left to draw there own conclusions? Colin’s suggestion sounds more like bluffing in poker than doing science. In fact, I wonder, is this a form of pseudoscience? Maybe.

Why the Royal Society? Why not the National Academy of Science in Washington? Why not the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences? And why is it any of Royal Society’s business to consider “which existing evidence it considers science, which pseudo-science”?

The title of Colin’s blog includes this phrase: “Separating the science from the pseudo-science…” (ellipses his). Which is fine if that is what is happening in his blog. Is it?

And in this blog, many of us, including me, have labeled the work of others pseudoscience. That’s fine if it’s true. But is it?

The problem in answering all of these questions lies in the definition of pseudoscience. I imagine that if you ask Sir Paul Nurse (PRS), a prominent geneticist and the President of the Royal Society and Sir John Polkinghorne (FRS), a theoretical physicist, Anglican priest and also a Fellow of the Royal Society to define pseudoscience, you might get two very different definitions. If you ask Francis Collins, a convert from Atheism to Christianity who, like Nurse, is a prominent geneticist who directed the Human Genome Project and now heads up NIH in Bethesda and is a Fellow of Pontifical Academy of Sciences you might get a third answer. And if you ask Colin Berry you might get a fourth answer. And if you ask John Jackson . . . 

Michael Shermer, founder of the Skeptics Society and Skeptic magazine, and a vocal skeptic of the shroud’s possible authenticity, explains the problem. In an article in Scientific American, he writes:

Climate deniers are accused of practicing pseudoscience, as are intelligent design creationists, astrologers, UFOlogists, parapsychologists, practitioners of alternative medicine, and often anyone who strays far from the scientific mainstream. The boundary problem between science and pseudoscience, in fact, is notoriously fraught with definitional disagreements because the categories are too broad and fuzzy on the edges, and the term “pseudoscience” is subject to adjectival abuse against any claim one happens to dislike for any reason. In his 2010 book Nonsense on Stilts (University of Chicago Press), philosopher of science Massimo Pigliucci concedes that there is “no litmus test,” because “the boundaries separating science, nonscience, and pseudoscience are much fuzzier and more permeable than Popper (or, for that matter, most scientists) would have us believe.”

It was Karl Popper who first identified what he called “the demarcation problem” of finding a criterion to distinguish between empirical science, such as the successful 1919 test of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, and pseudoscience, such as Freud’s theories, whose adherents sought only confirming evidence while ignoring disconfirming cases. Einstein’s theory might have been falsified had solar-eclipse data not shown the requisite deflection of starlight bent by the sun’s gravitational field. Freud’s theories, however, could never be disproved, because there was no testable hypothesis open to refutability. Thus, Popper famously declared “falsifiability” as the ultimate criterion of demarcation.

The problem is that many sciences are nonfalsifiable, such as string theory, the neuroscience surrounding consciousness, grand economic models and the extraterrestrial hypothesis. On the last, short of searching every planet around every star in every galaxy in the cosmos, can we ever say with certainty that E.T.s do not exist?

And why not perfectly natural phenomena perhaps kicked off or energized by a miracle? Can we ever say with certainty that miracles do not exist?

Princeton University historian of science Michael D. Gordin adds in his forthcoming book The Pseudoscience Wars (University of Chicago Press, 2012), “No one in the history of the world has ever self-identified as a pseudoscientist. There is no person who wakes up in the morning and thinks to himself, ‘I’ll just head into my pseudolaboratory and perform some pseudoexperiments to try to confirm my pseudotheories with pseudofacts.’” As Gordin documents with detailed examples, “individual scientists (as distinct from the monolithic ‘scientific community’) designate a doctrine a ‘pseudoscience’ only when they perceive themselves to be threatened—not necessarily by the new ideas themselves, but by what those ideas represent about the authority of science, science’s access to resources, or some other broader social trend. . . .

Like religion? Like the resurrection of Christ?

The illustration by Alex Robbins appears in Scientific American.

49 thoughts on “Defining Pseudoscience: It Takes a Rocket Surgeon”

  1. This is an epochal post. Trash talking Shroud-deniers (how’s that for coining a phrase) like to label the STURP team results as pseudo-science even as they labor over their kitchen tea pots creating scorches of this and that.

    The point of the article and book is that pseudo-science has become a meaningless phrase because it has been too broadly applied to too many endeavors that turn-out to be worthwhile even if they are not science at all. Pseudo-science is thus the McCarthyism of our age. Joe McCarthy so debased Communist as an epithet that it became impossible to use that term intelligently to describe what a Communist really is.

    Thus Obama is a Marxist, Communist, fascist, Nazi, Hitlerite Stalinist all rolled up into one. (Actually, I don’t believe he is any of these.)

    Who is the pseudo-scientist: Colin Berry who throws the word around with abandon, or John Heller who discovered the nature of the blood stains on the Shroud by using a microspectrophotometer? I might have an opinion, but the point is it’s better that we move epithets and deal with what is.

  2. When I was doing my Biology degree (2000-2004), we were taught in the Philosophy of Science unit that philosophers of science had generally given up on the project of trying to demarcate what is “science” from “pseudoscience.” The problem was (as Dan mentions above), that the criteria proposed to demarcate “science” from “pseudoscience,” e.g. “testable,” “falsifiable,” “repeatable,” etc, would rule out as “pseudoscience” some fields generally regarded as “science,” e.g. string theory. And they would rule in as “science” some fields not generally regarded as science, e.g. Creation-Science. For example to claim that Creation-Science is “untestable” and “unfalsifiable” and then claim it has been tested and found to be false, would be self-contradictory.

    But that does not prevent science polemicists claiming that an opposing position is “pseudoscience.” Their aim is to rule out in advance an opposing view so that it cannot get a fair hearing. That saves them doing the hard work of showing that an opposing view is wrong.

    As regards Colin Berry claiming that the field of Shroud pro-authenticity (Sindonology) is “pseudoscience,” it would be helpful for him to state upfront his demarcation criteria of what he regards as “pseudoscience.” If it is any of the usual criteria, like “testable,” “falsifiable,” “repeatable,” then the Shroud pro-authenticity hypothesis would pass with flying colours.

    For example, the 1988 radiocarbon dating of the Shroud showed that the Shroud pro-authenticity position is both “testable” and “falsifiable”. It was claimed in NATURE that “The results provide conclusive evidence that the linen of the Shroud of Turin is mediaeval … A.D. 1260-1390,” and therefore the Shroud could not be authentic. That is, the Shroud was tested and found to be false (or so the dating laboratories thought).

    It would therefore be self-contradictory of Colin (and the Royal Society) to claim that Shroud pro-authenticity is “untestable” and “unfalsifiable” and yet regard the 1988 radiocarbon dating as having tested the Shroud’s authenticity and found it to be not authentic.

    As regards “repeatable,” all that is required is that the major features of the Shroud are replicated using knowledge, materials and technology available in the 14th century. Some have in fact tried to do that but to date all have failed.

    It might be argued that the theory that the Shroud’s image was caused by radiation emitted by Jesus’ resurrection fails the “repeatable” demarcation criterion. But some parts of mainstream science are not “repeatable,” e.g. the Big Bang and macroevolutionary events. And the theory that the Shroud’s image was caused by radiation emitted by Jesus’ resurrection is not essential to the Shroud pro-authenticity position.

    So before Colin writes his letter to the Royal Society claiming that Shroud pro-authenticity (Sindonology) is a pseudoscience he should first clearly state his demarcation criteria of what he regards as “science” and “pseudoscience,” and then show objectively and non-circularly how Shroud pro-authenticity satisfied his “pseudoscience” demarcation criteria.

    1. Good point, Stephen. I agree 100%. However, I would add that Shroud studies have not always followed the standards methods and protocols true scientific research is to keep to. Mainly after the works by the STURP generation.
      Regarding CB’s call to the RS, it is really amazing that now he does not want the RS to demonstrate the scorch theory (like a few months ago). No, he wants to involve the RS to analyze the blood-first theory which makes everything even more confusing.
      I sort of understand this move as an implicit admitance of the difficulties he has found with the scorch theory. This seems as he wanted someone else to take over his work, disappear from the scene, start blogging on the origin of the “euskaldunak” and let someone else (RS) take the dialectic blows of his poor scorch theory. Good luck again Colin.

  3. Agreed. I was going to add that Shroud pro-authenticity has often published its findings and theories in peer-reviewed scientific journals, as STURP did; but by contrast Shroud anti-authenticity has rarely published its findings in peer-reviewed scientific journals.

    The publication of the 1988 radiocarbon dating of the Shroud in NATURE might be the only occasion that Shroud anti-authenticity published its findings in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. And even then it is doubtful if that paper went through peer-review.

    But it is not generally regarded as a demarcation criterion of science that a finding or theory must be published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. For example, Charles Darwin’s theories of evolution by natural and sexual selection were not published in peer-reviewed scientific journals even though they did then exist. And Walter McCrone’s Shroud anti-authenticity findings and claims were only published in his own in-house journal THE MICROSCOPE.

    Also, while not a demarcation criterion of science, a mark of good science is presenting one’s paper before one’s peers at scientific conferences. And Shroud pro-authenticity has held regular scientific conferences. On my bookshelf I have the proceedings of six such conferences. But Shroud anti-authenticity has never, as far as I am aware, ever held even one such scientific conference.

    So on any objective criterion of good science, Shroud pro-authenticity passes with flying colours, and Shroud anti-authenticity only receives a bare pass, if that.

    Another criterion of good science is the attitude of its proponents. Shroud pro-authenticity, for the most part, relies on evidence and argument, with personal attack being rare and frowned upon when it occurs. But Shroud anti-authenticity relies heavily on ad hominem attacks. For example, Harry Gove, in his book on the 1988 radiocarbon dating, ruled out of court Shroud pro-authenticity proponents like STURP, on the basis that they were all Christian believers (which wasn’t even true) and therefore biased in favour of the Shroud’s authenticity. But Gove, like most Shroud anti-authenticists, was blind to his own anti-Christian bias. Another example is a radio debate between Barrie Schwortz and Joe Nickell, where the latter relied heavily on ad hominem attacks against Shroud pro-authenticists, but Schwortz (a non-practicing Jew) simply presented the evidence for the Shroud’s authenticity.

    Indeed, if heavy reliance on ad hominem attacks is a mark of bad science in respect of the Shroud, then Colin himself is a prime example. Colin, for all his claims to be a scientist, seems unable to mount a rational argument without resorting to ad hominem attacks upon those he disagrees with. To me this is `body language’ which reveals that deep down Colin does not have confidence in his Shroud anti-authenticist position. Indeed, if I were Colin I would be embarrassed to draw the attention of the Royal Society to my blog!

  4. Another quote from Micheal Shermer, from the same source :
    ” We can demarcate science from pseudoscience less by what science is and more by what scientists do. Science is a set of methods aimed at testing hypotheses and building theories.”

    And from Ray Rogers defining the scientific method :
    ” Science is not “things.” It is a way of thinking. Classical Scientific Method is simply a method for objectively applying logic to the solution of problems. 1) The problem must be stated in clear terms, and obscure words must be defined clearly. The goal sought must also be stated clearly. 2) Everything known about the problem must be studied, and all references must be acknowledged. There must be no “hidden facts,” and it is not clever to “blind side” the opposition. Carefully planned observations should be made. Different methods of observation should be made when possible, and results must be checked for internal consistency and agreement with reported results. All observations must be taken seriously, until some justifiable and clearly stated reason can be found to eliminate any. 3) A “brainstorming” session, preferably with other workers familiar with the problem, should try to develop as many potential explanations (hypotheses) as possible (Method of Multiple Working Hypotheses), All hypotheses must be clearly stated. And 4), all of the hypotheses must be tested equally against the same, complete list of observations and facts. Testing may often involve making predictions on the basis of the hypotheses and testing the predictions by experiment. The Principle of Parsimony (Occam’s Razor) states that the hypothesis that includes the largest number of facts and observations will be closest to the truth. Hypotheses that do not accept many facts without “special pleading” should be discarded.”

    This is science. What it is not, call it pseudoscience, bad science, no science, naïve observation, or whatever, it is not science.
    And we should keep in mind that concerning the shroud most data published by the STURP result from basic scientific observations.

  5. I’m in favor of Colin Berry’s idea of having the Royal Society of London become involved in shroud research. No one who thinks that the shroud is real should have any fear of the truth from wherever. The Royal Society would be fairly good at such an undertaking. I also think we might start with the question Colin raises about bloodstains and go from there. Eventually, the question of C14 will need to be addressed. Maybe the Royal Society can get Oxford involved.

    I do think it is a bit naïve to think that a letter from Colin will do the trick. I therefore propose to start a petition campaign at The whole shroud community including SSG, BTST and readers of this blog could electronically sign the petition encouraging Paul Nurse to become involved. We could invite CSICOP and other skeptical organizations to sign the petition as well. Get enough groups involved and the media will get involved.

    BTW: I’m a bit confused. Colin tells us that the “Royal Society’s [has a] current policy of confronting and exposing pseudo-science.” As evidence of this he quotes the BBC saying, “Sir Paul believes strongly that scientists have a duty to speak out about science in public life and challenge pseudoscience.” I was not aware that what Nurse opines is ex cathedra policy for the entire society. He must be one powerful dude.

    Actually, Royal Society policy and policy work including confrontation “is organised around the following four themes.” 1)Sustainability, 2)Diplomacy, 3)Innovation and 4)Governance. I guess we could petition the society to add 5)Icons and Relics.

  6. Mentioning, pseudo-shroud science + pseudo-history + pseudo-forensics + pseudo-archaeology + pseudo-iconology, it’s amazing what an old sciencebod ‘losing it’ like Colin Berry (live from the Colin Berry Centre for promoting ‘new pseudo-shroud science’) brings himself to imagine, or believe especially when if fits his pseudo-historical, pseudo-forensic, pseudo-archaeological and pseudo-iconological preconceptions.

    1. What’s the French for “bring on the men with white coats”? MPH has just tried to troll my site under a new ID, with all the usual abuse (“bullsh*it” etc). But I have learned the hard way that WordPress’s “Report Spam” key is the only effective way to deal with him.

      Shame. He could have achieved so much if only that detail-absorbing mind of his, combined with focus, could have been applied to more constructive purposes.

      1. CB’s Crap & Bullshit Center for promoting new pseudo-shroud science IN THE NAME OF Science, this is an ‘abuse’ to true Science.

        1. Shame on the site’s host for deleting my protest re this individual’s trolling of my site, while allowing the evidence for my charge to be allowed here. I may well have more to say when I have had time to think about this new turn of events.

        2. Colin, that is a surprise to me. I haven’t been near my computer in the last several hours. I just came out of a theater, turned on my iPhone and saw this message from you. How I deleted a comment I never saw or knew existed is a complete mystery to me. It must have been a miracle.

          Anyways, repost the comment, please. Or send it to me by email and I will insert it when I get home this evening.

          I just figured out how to post this comment with my iPhone. That too is a miracle.

        3. Dan: the comment that follows this one makes a reference to “white coats”, my own words. So at least one person – to whom my comment referred – saw it before it mysteriously disappeared. Have you perhaps shared your password with anyone else? Is it maybe Dan Porter Inc?

        4. Dan; “I just figured out how to post this comment with my iphone. That too is a miracle”

          Hahaha, …you still got it Dan!

        5. Re “the men with white coats”: REMINDER FOR CB: TURIN SHROUD caution: to be taken in small doses only

        6. (The above sentence is the SOLE inCRIMinating “bullsh*ted sentence” that ‘most mysteriously too’ disappeared from his site). My tongue-in-cheek reply was: “the men with white coats”, (you mean) the KnightsTemplar?

        1. My girlfriend too thinks CB’s histori-archaeo-iconological and forensic bla bla is just bullsh*t. She posted it on his blog as comment (she is French, I helped her with her English)

      2. What about French humour? Methinks CB can only tolerate/stand HIS English humour and insults at other’s expense.


  8. CB your are a troll in the true Sindon Science sphere. Shame on you who thinks and keeps claiming he is speaking on behalf of ‘science’.

  9. REMINDER FOR CB: TURIN SHROUD caution: to be taken in small doses only

  10. Soon for sure we’ll really have to “bring the men with white coats”. Just guess for whom?

  11. Re “white coats”, soon for sure we’ll really have to “bring the men with white coats”. Just guess for whom?

  12. I did not keep a copy of the comment I posted earlier – the one that MPH clearly saw – but has since mysteriously disappeared – but it went something like this:

    What’s the French for “bring on the men with white coats?”

    MPH has just trolled my site under a new ID with all the telltale signs of his vocabulary like “bullsh*t”” etc.

    Sadly I’ve learned the hard way that the only solution is to use WordPress’s “Report Spam”.
    Shame. He could have achieved so much, given his ability to absorb detail, if only he could have combined it with focus and used it for constructive purposes.”

  13. I said once I say it twice: Enough of the Joecolin Berrynickell arrognorant Show allegedly in the name of ‘science’! How long will CB falsely historical, falsely archaeological, falsely iconological and falsely forensical BLA BLA BLA be promoted at the expense of true History, true Archaeology, true Iconology and true Forensics?

  14. Nearly each time I read CB, I cannot help thinking his science PhD was only a waste of time.

  15. To disagree with CB and do some French humour at his expense (for a change) is to invite his wrath, insults and threats.

  16. CBs theory is ok for a movie or a novel. However here methinks it is high time to mean Good Science, Good Forensics, Good Archaeology, Good History, Good Iconology and Good Linguistics (as much as possible and as far as the TS is concerned).

    1. MPH – fantasist maybe, but just the man you need when you’ve mislaid the telephone directory. MPH = Mittyesque ‘Pluie Homme’? ;-)

      1. BTW rather call me MePHitz (as destroyer of iconological, historical, forensical & archaeological forensic falsehood plasterer like you).

  17. Somehow I just knew the first rebuke would be directed at me, Daniel R Porter, despite my receiving weeks of abuse from MPH on your site, much of it expressed in the coarsest of language.

    Any blog site that incubates and then turns a blind eye to a spammer-cum-troll is one that needs to take a long hard look at itself.

      1. Thank God! I think also annoyed with everytime you log on and look at the ‘Latest comments’, it’s filled with one name…Lets try to compress our thoughts into one or two comments please, but hopefully not too long a comment, (Yannick) ;-)


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