It's not just the fake news: How pseudoscience is fueling our infowars
By Charlotte Cerminaro
web posted December 18, 2017
“Come now, let us reason together,” says the Lord. (Isaiah 1:18)
“Ego sum, ergo cogito.” Spanish philosopher Gomez Pereira, 100 years before Descartes
For several years now there’s been a steady decline in the amount of television I watch. It’s not just that I’m busy, or that I’d rather spend my down-time in different ways. Even the ubiquitous nightly news doesn’t get into our living room any more. The explosion in fake news, infowars and tawdry headlines is truly nauseating and the more I take in, the more I notice a steady decline in brain function. Adding itself to this charming mix, though, is the exponential growth of pseudoscience and the large numbers of people who actually believe it, no questions asked.
It’s difficult to say exactly when and how this started, but the increase in theoretical sciences and the so-called experts touting them, just fueled an appetite for the preposterous. These theoreticians don’t just muddy their own water, they frequently and publicly cross the line into other areas of well-established science, ignoring the scientific process and turning research and theory into a free-for-all. The list of theoretical “scientists” is long and growing longer each day. Their books, lectures and television appearances have made them almost as well-known as the true scientific geniuses and innovators---who have much to say regarding this difference between science and pseudoscience.
For the sake of clarity I will not attempt to debate the various political, religious or other ideological worldviews, but will instead focus on inconsistencies, fallacies, dishonesty, and the forums and tools pseudoscientists employ to promote their ideas. It’s abundantly clear they rely on their fans and followers to not use critical thinking, either.
The late Carl Sagan cited what he called the “Invisible dragon living in my garage” to illustrate a type of fallacy that is quite common. Sagan stated that a hallmark of false science and a false hypothesis is one that can not be tested, leaving no way to either prove or disprove it. It amounts to nothing more than a personal opinion. Here he uses his example, where he approaches a neighbor and says he has an invisible dragon in his garage. The neighbor wants to see it, but he reminds the neighbor it’s invisible. The neighbor wants to hear it, but he tells him it’s silent. The neighbor wants to touch it, so he says the dragon won’t let anyone near it. And on it goes. So when a theoretical astrophysicist claims that he has a model of what the universe looked like at 10^-23 seconds after the big bang singularity, one can’t help thinking of that invisible dragon. No way to prove or disprove a hypothesis like this because there’s no way to even test it.
Richard Feynman, the late Nobel Laureate and theoretical physicist, had much to say on this topic as well. A professor of physics at the California Institute of Technology, he was famous for his work unifying quantum mechanics and providing measurable data on subatomic particles and photons. He was also on the Rogers Commission to investigate the space shuttle Challenger disaster; the “O-ring” failure and subsequent solution were his discoveries. In a commencement address he gave in 1984 at CalTech, he issued a firm warning to students about the dangers of dishonest, false and empty science. He told them that, as scientists, they must scrutinize themselves and uphold the highest ethics and honesty in their own work. He criticized the “Cargo Cult Science” that was already spreading its way through academic institutions and the media, unchallenged. Defining “Cargo Cult Science” as a particularly insidious form of pseudoscience, it has the outward appearance of science. It includes techno-babble, publications, teaching and “research”, but completely lacks solidity. It does not use the scientific process, and poses no solutions--only empty theories and preposterous, untestable hypotheses. Government research grants are solicited and gained using empty words and the trappings of science, but vast amounts of money are wasted because no real research on problems or solutions actually occurs.
A particularly shining example of this type of pseudoscience took place in November 2006 at the Salk Institute for biological studies in LaJolla, CA. In a highly publicized symposium entitled, Beyond Belief: Science, Religion, Reason and Survival, a group of popular scientists met for what was supposed to be enlightenment, solutions, education and reasoning. Attendees included Neil deGrasse Tyson, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, among others. The proceedings took such an alarming turn, even the journalists from the New York Times (that bastion of progressive thinking) were quite alarmed. They reported, “It is a free-for-all on science and religion, and a political party built on a single plank: In a world dangerously charged with ideology, science needs to take on an evangelical role, vying with religion as teller of the ‘greatest story ever told.’” At one point a Templeton spokesperson warned against this unfettered, “commercialized ideological scientism”.
In another example of inconsistency and zealotry that should not be associated with science and reason, biologist Richard Dawkins was asked what he thought about the teaching of Intelligent design. In his hallmark reactive fashion, he called it “brainwashing” and “child abuse”. When Ben Stein was questioning him on intelligent design in the form of alien progenitors, though, Dawkins considered it a viable theory. In his enthusiasm, he forgot that this theory created more problems than it solved, namely, the problem of infinite regress.
While the spread of purely theoretical science has grown vastly in recent years, a quote by Nikola Tesla indicates it had its birth pangs over a century ago. He stated, “Today’s scientists have substituted mathematics for experiments, and they wander off through equation after equation, and eventually build a structure which has no relation to reality.” And if we take Albert Einstein’s definition of truth as that which “conforms to reality”, it seems that an edifice has been built, not one based on truth and reason but on politics, dishonesty, personal gain and media sensationalism. The agreed standard on which all research and theory are supposed to be conducted, the scientific process, has been mostly discarded. The general population has been trained, even indoctrinated, to not ask questions, to not think for themselves, delegating these important responsibilities instead to those who are most undeserving. In return, we have entered an age of unenlightenment more resembling the dark ages, where it is once again unusual, even dangerous, to challenge the most indefensible theories.
Charlotte B. Cerminaro is a Juilliard-trained classical musician who, in addition to being a studio and orchestral musician, enjoys writing. © 2017