Well the nutcase thread inspired me to post a very brief and rather dry essay I had to write once for a TOK class. It examines the possibilities of determining whether a claim is pseudoscience or real science. I uploaded the .txt version of it.
And on second thought since it is short enough, I'll just insert it.
And on second thought since it is short enough, I'll just insert it.
Distinguishing a scientific argument from a pseudo-scientific argument is not always an easy task There will exist certain circumstances in which one may almost immediately pick out a pseudo-scientific argument, however other cases are not always as easy to discern immediately. Before it is possible to assess such a difference a suitable definition of a scientific and pseudo-scientific argument must be made, and this definition must include criteria that must be met. Even within these parameters, it is not an easy matter always to distinguish the two. As I have found pseudo-scientific arguments usually come in varying degrees of how scientific they may be.
The definitions I have found that work the best for defining a scientific and pseudo-scientific argument illustrate the difference between the two in their pure and ultimate form. A scientific argument is one that is backed up with mathematics, and which is internally consistent as well as externally consistent. What is meant by internally consistent is that the argument has no circular logic within it, nor does it at any time contradict itself. Externally consistent then means that the argument's claims do not violate known laws of science foremost, and generally accepted theories second. The authorities within the respective fields of science should provide a reliable standard for ensuring that these accepted values are indeed themselves rather accurate and as such provide a key source of knowledge from which to validate the definition. A pseudo-scientific argument is not as easily defined as they can take on many forms, and as such can be broken down into a caste system. Lower level pseudo-scientific arguments are very poorly organized and have no internal consistency, which may include the complete lack of any mathematical backing. A second tier argument will generally have internal consistency but lack the external consistency altogether. Harder to discern is the one that occurs more often at the more publicly visible level, which has a slight mixture of both internal and external consistency and lack thereof. Yet, by applying a careful analysis to the argument being made it is still possible to discern such pseudo-scientific arguments.
Now that a suitable set of definitions have been outlined, the application of them is what will actually be used to distinguish between the types of arguments. When I am presented with an argument that may be scientific or not, I find the best way to start is to first and foremost always assume it is guilty of being pseudo-scientific until proven otherwise. This approach makes a sometime difficult task easier, but it is still difficult. First when I look at the claim, I immediately look to test it for the lowest level of pseudo-scientific argument status. The easiest pseudo-scientific arguments to identify will immediately have no mathematical backing. This automatically sends up red flags that there is not a valid argument occurring in terms of being scientific. If there is math to it, I can then use what I have learned about mathematics, or derived myself (that agrees with the accepted basis of mathematics). Here is where the argument can branch off into a second level pseudo-scientific argument. If the math does not make any internal consistency present, then it is automatically a pseudo-scientific claim. Should it provide some internal consistency, the next step is to evaluate how the argument fits in with the external world. In other words, does this argument go against what is widely accepted by the whole community of the field the claim is in. For example, if I am presented with an argument that claims that it is possible to travel faster than the speed of light, and I have checked out that math and it is shown to be internally consistent, I can then apply what I have learned about physics and know this claim is pseudo-science. The reasons are the well-established and widely accepted theories of relativity. However, second level pseudo-scientific claims cannot always be dismissed based off accepted laws and theories. Rather, a suitable body of evidence must also be present to provide backing to the claims against the pseudo-science. The reason for this being that sometimes claims that go against accepted values may just well be new science in its own right. However to be more generally evaluate this it is best to treat the argument in terms of the third kind of suspect claim.
The third kind of suspect claim is the far more difficult and more frequently public pseudo-scientific argument. This one has potentially both internal and external consistency to a degree. It has just enough buried in it to make it seem possible that it is a genuine scientific claim. This is where the true difficulty in distinguishing between the arguments exists. I have found such claims are often buried in a flurry of mathematics that takes a great deal of time and patience to sort through, and claim to make only slight changes to known scientific laws or theories. Generally this is why scientific communities exist. They exist to check arguments collectively and communicate better the ideas so that consensus can be achieved and hence pseudo-science can be caught and dismissed. However, lacking the advantage of being in such a society, an individual, such as myself has to rely on their own logic, intuition even, and knowledge derived from the scientific circles to determine this particular class of argument. An example of such an argument would be one that claims the Lamb shift in quantum electrodynamics is not actually what has been theorized but instead is slightly different. After stating such, the argument begins with a flurry of highly technical and abstract mathematics. This can daunt any person into believing that it is a valid scientific claim. At first glance it very well may be, for a genuine scientific argument may indeed follow such lines. However, the keys lie in the math and the extrapolations of such. A pseudo-scientific argument will resort to math that is not consistent, often buried within the heart of the argument, or make assumptions to fill the gaps where they could not support their idea with known mathematics. Or the pseudo-scientific claim will lead to some absurd thing in the real world such as perpetual energy, or faster than light travel, very rapid evolution, immortality, or other such things. The main point is that when claims such as this are made, it is important to have keen sources of knowledge to fall back on. I find that using first logic to evaluate the claim works, then applying authority (which may also apply rationality and empirical data gathering on their own), as well as an intuition that develops over time works rather well to screen this class of argument. As a matter of fact, where the other two levels have a general scheme to search for key patterns, this approach not only works for the designated class of pseudo-scientific arguments, but for the other two as well.
This is a lot of work to do in order to determine if an argument is scientific or pseudo-scientific. As such, it is no simple matter. The main reason this arises is that often times highly abstract natures will be addressed, or the very nature of science will add to this problem. Science is an overall progressive area of knowledge, in which new arguments are being put forth all the time that modify existing knowledge. This creates a field ripe for pseudo-scientific arguments to abound. As was pointed out the scientific community has established systems to check arguments to ensure that pseudo-science does not enter the mainstream, however for the individual it requires a different route. While I find it greatly useful to rely on the authorities ultimately to assess an argument, there do exist times in which I have to rely on my memory of what they say, my own rationalism, and my own ability to assess the argument. As such the approach of guilty until proven innocent works the best. Checking for internal consistency, external consistency, or the one I use more, both types of consistency seems like a simple matter. However, the sheer complexity of many claims makes distinguishing most arguments very difficult. While some will be easily distinguished, others, most often public ones, are not always so easy to distinguish due to their very nature, and the progressive nature of science itself.