Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Anatomy of Pseudoscience

Call it "Woo"*, pseudoscience, irrationality, or quackery; it has a distinct style.

I was recently inspired to consider pseudoscience again when the news went viral about the changes to the astrology system. Parke Kunkle, who I'm assuming teaches astronomy at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, hit the headlines when he pointed out that our more-than-2000 year old astrology charts required updating in light of the precession of the earth's rotational axis. Basically, due to the earth's wobble, our angle in orbit changes very gradually over time. The result is that the sky we see is a very different sky to the ancient forefathers of astrology and, accordingly, a reading of astrology based on accurate solar and stellar positioning would mean that people actually have very different birth "star signs" than they do on the (conventional western) "tropical astrology" system. It also means that the typical twelve signs of the zodiac should be extended to include at least one long-overlooked one, my own new sign: Ophiuchus.

You can read a good article about the recent astrology news here (Hat tip: Jonathan from Spritzophrenia).
You can also read a very funny take on the whole thing by NZ comedian Raybon Kan here (Hat tip: Mumsy dearest).

When I read the various articles, saw people's panicked responses (especially the people with zodiac tattoos), and heard astrology proponents respond in defence of their methods, I quickly realised that an excellent case study in the anatomy of pseudoscience was forming.

Added Bonus! If you're really dedicated I'll give you a treat at the end in the form of an entertaining and enlightening video.

Dubious or pre-scientific origins.
It doesn't always take much to get a good falsehood or fallacy ingrained in society. Sometimes it just takes time. It may be highly likely that ancient astrologers were simply doing the best science available to them at the time... possibly with a fallacy or two thrown in for good measure (we'll get to that). But why do people take it seriously these days? The Weight of Ages adds a street cred that is hard to fabricate. Astronomy and astrology were quite closely aligned in ancient India (2000 BC), Babylonia (1600 BC), and astrology was also practiced amongst the ancient Greeks (300 BC). It is mentioned in the Rig Veda but, realistically, we can't put a finger on who dreamed up the idea first. With celestial beings, bodies, and forces being seen to control crops and weather, it isn't too hard to imagine the cultural leap taken into the anthropologically significant spheres of Birth and Fate. Even if Astrology could be narrowed down to the origin in one group or person, you will find that the actual details of this original context will have been carefully groomed over time by skilled storytellers who are already committed to making the tale run in their favour.

Conclusion? 'Good' pseudoscience enjoys unquestioned Tradition, opaque origins, and charismatic yet unscrupulous (or naive) founders.

Inability to be explained by clear, up to date science.
Some fringe explanations for natural phenomena are simply not provable in principle. Unfortunately, this makes them either (1) deeply significant or esoteric universal mysteries, or, (2) completely unpractical, purposeless, unscientific nonsense. Caveat emptor.

Another possibility is that a fringe explanation is correct and not yet accepted by the prevailing and relevant community of experts (whether they happen to be Village Elders, Shamans, Physicists, etc). This area is what Michael Shermer calls, 'the borderlands of science' (he even has a book about it). This is good, this is fun, and this is where cool heads prevail and entrenched ideas cause problems. (A fellow blogger, Santi, has two in a series of relevant posts about critical thinking and worldviews here and here.) Plenty of currently accepted knowledge or serious theory started out life in this camp. Good scientists or thinkers aren't afraid of the borderlands. Neither are they afraid of trying running with an idea that may fail in the name of knowledge.

The third option is that some fringe explanations are only difficult to explore in practice. This is the exciting area where innovation and creativity rules. Whole contemporary scientific disciplines have 'bootstrapped' themselves into existence by running with a fantastic idea decades before their core mechanisms were fully understood (consider when DNA, the essential part of heredity, was discovered). This is an area where honesty needs to rule, of course, because "I'll prove it later, honest" can only get you so far.

Conclusion? Good pseudoscience needs moving goalposts, highly creative and adaptable people with the ability to invent ad hoc workarounds, and proponents who lack true investigative rigour. Pseudoscience thrives on mystery and people who feel that "unprovable in principle" isn't a methodological barrier for truth seekers.

"Aries: today you will be asked to choose between Loyalty and Cynicism. Follow your heart."

Refusal to change in light of relevant new facts.
As Shelley Ackerman, from this article, said:
"This [new astronomy information] doesn't change your chart at all. I'm not about to use it ... I've told all of them not to worry about it."
Astrologers didn't change their systems for every new change, she said.
"...when there are new discoveries you don't change the entire system; you just work with it to see if and where it fits into the existing system."
Astrology, like any pseudoscience, doesn't need to change any further than is required to maintain basic relevance in the eyes of society. If people are happy to use a 5,000 year old system devised to discern fate or fortune then why rock the boat? Even better if the entire system can be justified in its immutability; no explanation needed, no update required, no effort gone into creating an accurate synthesis with any future data.

Conclusion? Good pseudoscience tries to find ways to create internally logical systems of thought that don't require support or credibility from any outside sources. Cracks in their defense will let in the light of contradictory evidence and so are quickly patched up by careful and clever sympathisers.

Justified at a crucial point using logical fallacies.
Any explanation requires IF---THEN; information and conclusion; or cause and effect.

There are explanations of a whole host of fallacies available on the internet (try here for a big one, and here for a the 'top 20').

Consider: IF---THEN.

A faulty assumption ('IF') can lead to a logically consistent conclusion ('THEN'). That's not a fallacy, that's just bad data. A fallacy happens when the process of reasoning ('---') is done badly, making the conclusion unjustified. Happily(?), a false assumption can lead to a true conclusion using bad reasoning; in this case an unjustified and accidental answer (even if true).

There are probably a small selection of fallacies or errors largely contributing to the success of astrology:
  • Selection bias: the information sample used to justify belief is chosen using a bias. So surveys might be taken only amongst astrology proponents. Friends talk only about their horoscopes to sympathetic friends. Websites about astrology form a community of self-selecting, credulous individuals etc. 
  • Observation bias: only those pieces of data that supports your own position are noticed or remembered. "We see what we want to see." This would go down a treat with a sufficiently ambiguous horoscope reading.
  • Confusing association with causation: Assuming that because two things occurred at the same time they must be related e.g. "my partner left me and our star signs weren't compatible." 
  • Post-hoc ergo propter hoc ('after this, therefore because of this'): This is the act of assuming causation between one initial event and a preceding event, e.g. "my Boss yelled at me on the day that my horoscope cautioned me in the morning paper."
  • Special pleading / ad-hoc reasoning: The Magic Bullet of any pseudoscience, special pleading sneaks in subtle excuses for why any particular evidence or refutation doesn't happen to threaten the pseudoscientific claim at that time. Rules don't apply here, only boundless creativity!

Conclusion? Good pseudoscience doesn't like well researched evidence, rigorous peer review, and critically aware reasoning. Pseudoscience slips in bad assumptions or twists evidence to fit pre-determined conclusions using creativity, guile, and complexity.

Defended by conspiracy and personal attacks.
Every good organism requires an immune system and pseudoscience is no different.

A key fallacy that often comes into play here is the "ad hominem" attack. That is when somebody breaks the important rule, "play the ball and not the person."
A proponent of pseudoscience may attack the person presenting an idea using personal ammunition rather than addressing whether their ideas are actually correct. The only honest way to show why somebody is wrong would be to show why their evidence is bad, their assumptions are unreasonable, or their reasoning is flawed. The easy option, and the dishonest one, would be to disregard a good idea because it's being presented by an unideal messenger. Of course, everybody on both sides of most major debates would do well to keep this in mind (whether they are scientist/non-scientist or christian/atheist, I think we've probably all seen people do badly in this area).
There a type of ad hominem fallacy worth noting. Known as, "poisoning the well", it is where a pre-emptive ad hominem attack is made against a subject area in order to make conversation emotive and difficult ("only an idiot would think X", or, "Hitler also thought Y").

But as well as personal attacks, pseudoscientists often turn their ad hominems into grand, conspiratorial narratives. Just look at a few easy examples. The 9/11 'Truthers' think that the government is some infinitely capable secretive organisation able to micromanage world politics on a massive scale all while remaining under the radar of competent journalists. The Anti-Vaccine (vaccines cause autism) crowd think that any scientists who tell another story are in the pocket of big pharma. Also, many insular and wacky religious sects tend to suggest that everyone else is being dominated by the forces of Satan. All of these are ways in which ideas can easily be dismissed, regardless of the strength of their evidential support.

Conclusion? Good pseudoscience doesn't want to discuss evidence or progress via a careful, self-critical reasoning process. For pseudoscience to succeed, their proponents need to build up walls of irrelevant personal attacks or create grand conspiracies which create massive cognitive dissonance and allow them to reject any competing opinions outright.

And now, committed reader, since you have got this far I present your prize for 'Most Valuable Phrenist':


[Video: What a year on Earth really looks like!]

As if axial precession wasn't enough, apparently our boring and seemingly static "year" goes all over the show. It just goes to show that the universe really is more complex than our imagination usually gives it credit for. That's one reason why I think the facts are far more entertaining than any pseudoscience we might invent to explain it.

*Coined, I imagine, by the father of the modern skeptic movement, The Amazing James Randi.

Do you know your zodiac sign?

Do you take horoscopes seriously, even a little? On what basis?

Do you think horoscopes are nonsense? Are they harmless or are they a problem?

What do you think of my essentials of pseudoscience? Agree/disagree? Can you think of more?
Presuming nobody is perfect, can you identify any 'woo' in any of your own beliefs? (i.e. not about astrology)

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