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Reposting: Defining Pseudoscience

I’ve been thinking a lot about shroud pseudoscience. In recent years, there has been a lot of speculation about how the image was formed. It goes like this:  Energy or some kind of radiation kicked off by a miracle in which we are asked to imagine a body dematerializing and/or becoming mechanically transparent and/or doing nothing at all for the moment, encodes an image on a piece of cloth that may or may not be passing through the body. Are we not metaphorically giving wings to a unicorn? Or is it the other way around? I certainly hope our Lord regains mechanical untransparency before walking down the road to Emmaus lest he walks right through his robes or sinks down through the roadbed. 

The following was originally posted on March 4, 2013.  It needs to be said again (with a couple of edits in red — and be sure to read the red at the bottom).  It is my view, these days, that if we are ever going to get to the truth about the Shroud, and perhaps make a rational case for its authenticity, we need to get past all of the pseudoscience. Maybe pseudoscience isn’t the best word for it.  Hugh Farey once called some of it made-up-science. That may be a better term to use.

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Colin Berry somewhat clarifies his now work-in-progress 2013 once-upon-a-time 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 their 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 the 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 who happens to be an 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 the 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 . . . or Robert Rucker . . . 

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 for the sheer fun of it and because I don’t like Michael Shermer, may I ask if we know that it is neuroscience that is surrounding consciousness.  Of course not!

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?

I’ve been speculating philosophically that miracles are plenary, that is to say not lacking for anything. They may, I suppose, create matter and energy on demand without process. Miracles, I also think, are impermeable meaning they cannot be examined, tested, or manipulated. They have no need for nature (including pseudo-nature) and are inaccessible to nature. We can know nothing of their workings, only the results.  They are, I imagine, the will of God and are imposed on our reality when and where God desires them. They are, I suspect, analogous to the travel of angels in Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica

Admittedly, I believe in miracles. And this is the best that I can do for now in trying to explain what I imagine. If I didn’t believe in miracles, I would be falling over laughing. Such is faith.  

Which came first, the idea that a unicorn needed wings or the idea that miracles needed nature to do things.  

The illustration by Alex Robbins appears in Scientific American.

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