At the start of the twentieth century, humans woke to a new dawn of motorized carts, electric power and light. Popular magazines were about science, electricity, space and discovery. People crowded to see scientific demonstrations and marvelled at new gadgets that worked as if by magic.
Over the preceding few hundred years a new breed of explorers- scientists- slowly pieced together a jigsaw puzzle from cryptic clues slowly revealing the machinations of the world we see.
It commenced with the enlightenment, a seventeenth-century diversion away from dogma, belief and mysticism along a new path that tested reality in a new way humans had not before. Above everything else it involved hypothesis, reason, repeatable and falsifiable testing, peer review and a desire for the truth of the facts at hand; not supposition based on a desire for something to be so.
Although nature commences with reason and ends in experience it is necessary for us to do the opposite, that is to commence with experience and from this to proceed to investigate the reason. Leonardo da Vinci
In a beautiful mosaic of discovery, science found clues upon clue building a case that informs our modern cosmological view.
Isaac Newtown in a flash of quantum genius understood and described the law of motion and gravity. He devised a mathematical language to describe it which is used to this day guiding satellites through space and keeping aeroplanes on course. Newtown also saw that light split into spectrums and began to understand the nature of light and waves.
Two centuries later Joseph Von Fraunhofer observed Spectral lines in light and realised those shadows revealed the atomic structure of the thing observed. It was if we were handed the code to the building blocks of everything.
We soon knew that the stars in the night sky were suns like our own and they were made of the same stuff as us.
Charles Darwin came to understand that all life on earth is interrelated and how we have evolved. His profound insights came from simple observations that defied his own beliefs and predilection at that time. True to the scientific method he let it take him to the truth. Two hundred years later close examination of DNA confirms his observations as both true and profound.
Albert Einstein, in Newtownian like flash of insight, realised that space and time are the same things by understanding light moves at a constant speed and that it is space and time that bends in its service, forever changing our view of the cosmos and hurtling us towards un-intuitive but powerful understanding as to the fabric of the cosmos.
Practical inventors like Alexandar Bell, Nicholas Tesla, Thomas Edison and others took these discoveries and turned them into the things we use today making our lives infinitely more comfortable than our predecessors.
Medical science went from hacking off limbs, exorcisms and leeches, to penicillin, hygienic surgery, vaccines and preventive medicine that has doubled and trebled our life spans and almost eliminated infant mortality.
In 1901 Marconi transmitted the first radio signal across the Atlantic ocean. In 1903 the Wright bros took flight for the first time, defying common sense. By 1961 man had been in space, and by 1969 touched the moon.
Science continues its discovery never assuming it knows but working towards greater truths. Science rejoices when a line of enquiry or hypothesis is proven wrong.
Yet it pushes against another human desire for transcendence, immortality and ultimate meaning.
Pseudoscience tries to do what science doesn’t. It starts with a point of view, which it is hell-bent on verifying. Lance Martin
Belief plays a large part in the human psyche. We love magic, myth, poetry and story.
We are wired to wonder, and of course, all knowledge is outside of the realm of any one human being. While some of us are content to know or admit we know very little, others burn with desire for meaning and knowledge that makes sense of them.
As the fruits of science have ascended myth and belief has been challenged, chasing away cherished ideas and perhaps starkly implying that a single human life has far less meaning in the grand-scale of everything than some people might like to believe.
Faced with this dilemma, pseudoscience rears its ugly head as an antidote to the unpalatable. It takes difficult to understand subjects and twists them into a new shape to verify the fantastic. It attempts to fuse mysticism with method.
And if doesn’t succeed, it accuses science of being corrupt, extreme, a religion (ironically attempting to besmirch it by implying a logical flaw that the critics themselves are proponents of) and even completely false or even deluded if it defies their needs.
So while science (nothing other than a methodology for testing reality) brought with it a new dawn, it has triggered in many the need for something else. As God has been chased from the clouds to the singularity of the Big Bang, and then to another dimension altogether, some humans have therefore felt a need to discredit the very thing that has brought them comfort, health and wealth as if some ancient instinct still grips them.
The term pseudoscience is considered pejorative because it suggests something is being presented as science inaccurately or even deceptively. Those described as practising or advocating pseudoscience often dispute the characterization.
Pseudoscience is the realm of climate change deniers, anti-vaxers, flat-earthers, creationists, and cults. What they all have in common is a fixed belief that must be served. They make the fundamental error of believing – because that is their worldview- that scientists and non-believers – in their cause – also serve a fixed belief. (say, “corrupt science” or “religious atheism”) thrusting themselves into a circular straw man argument with no exit.
Pseudoscience is often characterized by contradictory, exaggerated or unfalsifiable claims; reliance on confirmation bias rather than rigorous attempts at refutation; lack of openness to evaluation by other experts; and absence of systematic practices when developing theories.
Pseudoscience has risen out of the twentieth century running side by side with science, at times taking its best bits and at other times denying it.
Before the twentieth century, people saw goblins and witches. Vampires spirited them away. At the dawn of the space age, people saw UFO’s and were abducted and probed.
In a bid to have meaning, new religious movements, sects and cults have proliferated across the world often led by master proponents of pseudoscience, all claiming exclusive or divine knowledge. Many of these groups have beliefs informed by a modern worldview, with space-age themes, UFO’s, aliens or alien spirits playing central roles.
Easterns mysticism has fused with Christianity to birth the ‘new-age’ movement, where complex knowledge is reduced to aphorisms and mantra’s replacing complex thought and critical thinking.
Faith in a transcendent God and elemental superstitions has been replaced with belief in a personal or even inner dwelling God and “magical thinking” whereby thoughts alchemise into things and happenings. (conveniently explained by misappropriated science)
Science doesn’t pretend to answer all mysteries, though it seeks to uncover them. Pseudoscience pretends to know the answer already and accuses science of trying to hide them. The latter is both convenient and comforting to those who need to know the answer.
It’s persuasive because it finds answers people want and need quickly. And it removes uncertainty and gives purpose and mission.
Pseudoscience and its proponents have gathered followers who understand that fear is a great motivator and that the promise of knowledge is a great salve upon our mortal coils.
You can’t be talked out of errant beliefs. That requires the cognitive tools to be able to discern fact from fiction. It requires education and ensuring doctrine is seen as an interesting myth that no longer serves humanity in determining our future or informing our decisions that determine our individual and collective wellbeing.
We should still enjoy stories that embolden the human spirit. Stories of resurrection, romance and heroism. These are essential myths that all cultures recount in written word, film and theatre. Some things should remain sublime and tease the edges of our thinking and remain beyond an articulated thought.
We should at times glimpse our connection with the universe and the trillions of bits that make us. And we should feel uplifted and inspired by poetry, music and mystery. Ceremony and community are essential to mental and spirited growth.
As we discover ways to enjoy all that we are as humans, we should celebrate our unique capacity for critical thought and the power we have to discover the very fabric of the universe we live in. Even if that means we have to say we don’t know.