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The History and Philosophy of Skepticism


The History of Skepticism

 

The Philsophy of Skepticism

 

Pseudoscience and the Paranormal

 

Definitions of Categories

We often use the word paranormal to refer to all of these phenomena, but there are important specific differences:

Anomalous phenomena are uncommon and weird, but certainly natural and presumably ultimately explainable by science. Anomalies are natural but exist due to the current limits of scientific knowledge. Skeptics readily accept the existence of anomalies and investigate and attempt to explain them using scientific methods.

Paranormal, preternatural, and supernormal are synonyms; these terms refer to phenomena that are beyond or above the normal or beyond or apart from nature and natural law as now understood. Paranormal is the preferred term. These phenomena are currently unexplained by science, but are potentially part of nature and thus potentially explainable by modern science. Paranormal, preternatural, and supernormal phenomena either exist due to our incomplete or incorrect understanding of nature by science, or do not exist because of a false understanding of nature, incorrect application of science and critical thinking, or self-deception. Skeptics maintain that such phenonena more likely do not exist for the reasons stated, but nevertheless investigate and attempt to understand them.

Preternatural is somewhat confusing since it implies the existence of a realm or world beyond the natural that cannot be studied by science (since science studies only the natural using only naturalistic methods--this is termed methodological naturalism). This realm, however, is best described by the word supernatural (described below). It is best to understand the word preternatural as meaning aside or apart from the natural, not beyond it as the word literally means. I state this because preternatural has always been used in a sense synonymous to paranormal, not in the sense synonymous to supernatural. I will use the term paranormal in preference to preternatural throughout this site, despite paranormal's possession of mixed Greek and Latin roots (preternatural is derived solely from Latin roots), because it is used far more frequently in both the popular and skeptical literature.

Supernormal, despite using the modifying root super, is a synonym of paranormal and preternatural rather than supernatural. The reason is because the word normal is a highly general term referring to common human experience, while natural has specific epistemological meaning in its reference to the totality of nature and natural law. So despite being above the normal rather than beyond the normal, supernormal phenomena and explanations are not supernatural phenomena and explanations. I will not use this term further, and I recommend that it not be used by the skeptical community because of its confusing etymology and definition.

Because English is a language with words composed of roots from three separate language families--Germanic (Anglo-Saxon), Latin, and Greek--it frequently has more than one word for the same or similar thing, action, or idea. This sometimes makes English confusing and difficult to learn or understand, since it has so many words with the same, similar, or subtly different shades of meaning. This is the case with the three terms described above.

Supernatural phenomena are above nature, not part of nature, are never explainable by science (as science is understood and practiced), and are part of a realm that includes miracles, deities, and other nonscientific and mystical processes and entities. Supernatural phenomena either exist but we can't know or understand them by science (as now practiced, since science studies only nature, i.e., the natural part of reality), but only by philosophy or religion, or do not exist due to a false philosophical understanding of reality due to ignorance or self-deception. Skeptics maintain that supernatural phenonena almost certainly do not exist for the reasons stated, but nevertheless investigate and attempt to understand why people believe in them.

In my continuum of scientific demarcation (normal science <--> frontier science <--> fringe science <--> pseudoscience), anomalous phenomena are found in both normal and frontier science, alleged paranormal phenomena are found in both fringe science and pseudoscience, and alleged supernatural phenomena are found only in pseudoscience.

Continuum of Scientific Demarcation

The Continuum of Scientific Demarcation is one of the most important concepts of modern skepticism, but also one of the most poorly understood. Even supposed experts who have written books about pseudoscience do not fully understand it. Here is why: Most philosophers of science have concluded that it is very difficult to identify, draw a line between, or demarcate science from pseudoscience. Philosophers of science--such as Karl Popper, Larry Laudan, and Michael Ruse--have examined the demarcation problem. While there are sincere and compelling claims to the contrary, it is fair to say that the current philosophical understanding is that it is difficult or impossible to demarcate science from pseudoscience.

The problem with this conclusion is that most philosophers of science and scientists have a poor understanding of pseudoscience because they have never seriously studied it. In addition, most skeptics and scientists have a poor understanding of the philosphy of science. Only someone who has studied all three--science, pseudoscience, and the philosophy of science--will begin to appreciate the complexities of the problem and be able to reach a more cogent conclusion.

My solution to this problem--and I claim this as an original insight and contribution to skepticism and philosophy--is that there exists a continuum of normal science to frontier science to fringe science to pseudoscience, and that while it is indeed impossible to demarcate any specific topic or study between any two adjoining categories--i.e., between normal science and frontier science, between frontier science and fringe science, or between fringe science and pseudoscience--it is possible to demarcate between non-adjoining categories, such as between either normal or frontier science and pseudoscience. The criteria to do this involve primarily the oft-cited and rigorously-analyzed possession of empirical evidence, presence of critical and logical reasons, possibility of testing and falsification of claims and phenomena, and the actual practice and history of such testing that results in either falsification or corroboration of hypotheses. In addition, I will include the contributions of the scientific community, publication of results in peer-reviewed literature, motivations and intentions of proponents of claims, and other topics in my analysis.

I do not intend to develop my thesis in detail here (this would take a long paper or short book, which I eventually intend to write). I only want to point out three things (from the point of view of my analysis of the demarcation problem): First, many weird or unusual phenomena and claims involving science are properly classified as fringe science, not pseudoscience. I frequently see ESP, UFOs, intelligent design, and other topics referred to as "pseudoscience" in the skeptical literature, when they are not--they are definitely fringe science. Second, and perhaps more controversally, some topics many would call frontier science are really fringe science: these include proponents of enormous subsurface deposits of pre-biogenic petroleum resources, global energy shortage alarmists, ESP, and the existence of extraterrestrial intelligent life.

Finally, and most controversially, I believe it is possible to demarcate science from pseudoscience using universally-acceptable necessary and sufficient criteria. Of course, this is possible only because I first define pseudoscience is a particular way that some philosophers might consider restrictive or too narrow. However, I argue that they have ignored or are ignorant of the category of fringe science, which I explicitly demarcate from pseudoscience with more than adequate justification. In brief, essentially no one in the philosophical literature of scientific demarcation correctly separates fringe science from pseudoscience, which I regard as an essential step. In fact, many do not even separate normal from frontier science. Every philosopher or scientist who has investigated the nature of pseudoscience or classified it has proposed usually two or very rarely three distinct categories. But there are four.

Let's briefly examine these criteria of demarcation and see how they help to recognize the four categories along the science-pseudoscience continuum.

To be continued . . .

The Bad Geology Site was created by Steven Schafersman for the skeptical investigation of three different areas of the science of geology that are often innocently misinterpreted or deliberately misrepresented: 

  1. Incompetent or misleading interpretations of real geological processes, events, deposits, and structures, usually characterized as fringe science.
     
  2. Incompetent, misleading, or mystical interpretations of real or alleged geological anomalies, often resuting in fringe science or pseudoscience.
     
  3. Deliberately deceptive claims about alleged paranormal and supernatural geological phenomena, always resulting in pseudoscience.

For Bad Geology, the term "Bad" covers quite a range, and means invoking scientifically-incompetent, misleading, paranormal, or supernatural explanations for both real geological phenomena and alleged geological anomalies. Such interpretations are not necessarily "bad" in a moral sense, since many--perhaps most--proponents of bad geology are sincere in their wrong-headed beliefs, in spite of the fact that they should know better. Some nonsense purveyors, however, know that what they advocate is preposterous, unscientific, and violates natural law, but they nevertheless attempt to convince other individuals to accept such nonsense as good science; this pseudoscientific activity is unethical. In short, most fringe science is not unethical but simply ignorant, while all pseudoscience is unethical.

Another reason for the name "Bad Geology" is that other skeptical and anti-pseudoscience sites have previously chosen this name: Bad Astronomy, Bad Meteorology, Bad Chemistry, and Bad Physics. I am following their lead for a descriptive title. My site, and theirs, could have been called "Anomalistic, Misleading, Ignorant, Paranormal, Mendacious, Fringe, and False Science," but that awkward title would be silly compared to the succinct "Bad Science."

There are three categories of Bad Geology:

1. The incompetent or misleading interpretation of real geological or scientific data by legitimate scientists for often irrational or non-scientific reasons. The geologists or scientists who make such claims think their research is frontier science, but it is fringe science. Geological examples examined here: Alarmist or doomsday predictions of imminent global energy shortage, cosmic clouds or comets of viruses and bacteria travelling within interstellar space (panspermia); immense non-biogenic deep-subterranean petroleum deposits. Non-geological examples: cold fusion, SETI, global warming not anthropogenic, tobacco company health science, etc.

2. The misinterpretation of geological or scientific anomalies, events, and processes by non-scientists for the purpose of questioning the efficacy of science, promoting mysticism, celebrating the mysterious and unknown, and ignoring the use of critical inquiry and serious scientific investigation when making claims. Individuals who characterize this category are usually non-scientists, and their efforts constitute fringe science but can be pseudoscience, depending on the nature of the claims. Geological examples examined here: submerged, jointed beachrock interpreted as structures built by ancient astronauts; deposits of metallic spheres attributed to ancient alien manufacture rather than a natural process; geological structures and earth history formed by ancient catastrophic planetary interactions and impacts. Non-geological examples: ESP, UFOs, cryptozoology, crop circles, intelligent design by superhuman aliens, astrology, ancient alien astronauts, etc.

3. The misinterpretation of geological or scientific phenomena by using paranormal, preternatural, and supernatural explanations. This is pseudoscience and is the work of pseudoscientists, some of whom have advanced training and degrees in science, but who subordinate their knowledge to their religious, spiritualist, or Biblical literalist beliefs. Geological examples examined here: polystrate fossils and mass accumulations of fossils deliberately attributed to a global flood; thousands of feet of sedimentary strata attributed to a global flood; cutting of the Grand Canyon in only a few rather than millions of years. Non-geological examples: Biblical (young-earth) creationism, scientific creationism, intelligent design by a deity, free energy and perpetual motion machines, etc.

All three categories of bad geology will be investigated on the Bad Geology Site. There is a continuum (described below) of normal science, frontier science, fringe science, and pseudoscience; only the last two classes will be investigated by Bad Geology.

(to be continued)


The pages of the Bad Geology Site contain links to webites that skeptically examine specific pseudoscientific, paranormal, and supernatural topics and expose them as false beliefs. The Bad Geology Site also contains links to sites that support the truth or authenticity of such topics. The reason for this is quite simple: as advocates of free inquiry and critical thinking, we want readers to examine the evidence and arguments on both sides of publicly-controversial topics and, using their skills of critical inquiry and analytical reasoning, reach their own reliable conclusions regarding the veracity or duplicity of the subjects. This cannot be done if one examines only one side of an issue, and since the best advocates for the veracity of unreliable and implausible ideas like theism, creationism, UFOs, paranormal phenomena, etc., are the individuals and organizations who believe in them, it is appropriate to let them present their own arguments. The pursuit of truth cannot begin in earnest unless an author makes readers aware of viewpoints and arguments that oppose one's own. The only way to make informed decisions using critical inquiry is to investigate all the evidence and intellectually analyze opposing sides of controversies. We encourage authors of theist, creationist, paranormalist, and other pseudoscientific websites to provide links to our skeptical webpages if they agree with this principle.

Skeptics maintain that proponents of unreliable and implausible claims often misinterpret the evidence, misrepresent their lack of evidence, ignore the counter-evidence, use isolated quotes out of context to make unwarranted points, and use arguments that are specious, sophistic, misleading, invalid, or illogical. We believe that curious and intelligent individuals who practice critical thinking will see through the tissue of tendentious falsehoods that support theism, creationism, and other unreliable supernatural and paranormal beliefs. We therefore encourage interested readers to investigate both sides of these topics and investigate opposing websites as well as this skeptical one. The artful advocacy tactics used by supporters of strange and unreliable paranormal and pseudoscientific beliefs may work in a Sunday school class, a courtroom, a debate, in popular books, and on television or radio, but science and critical inquiry are not practiced by trying to fool the person you want to convince. Remember, we are supposed to be after the truth here, not an attempt to win a successful propaganda campaign.


Steven Schafersman at freeinquiry@gmail.com.
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"Sapere Aude • Dare to Know!"
Last updated: 2004/07/28