Photo by Mathew Schwartz

Philosophy and Junk Science — how to tell if you’ve been deceived

The Lake Wobegon Effect, coined by Dr. David Myers, is “a natural human tendency to overestimate one’s capabilities”. This, in turn, extends to how rational we think we are. There are many, many people who consider themselves smart, rational beings yet believe in what is known as “junk science” — a historically charged word that describes research that is fraudulent and unscientific.

Some junk science may seem obvious: the Earth is flat, chemtrails are turning frogs gay, politicians are actually a lizard-men coalition. But there still remain common beliefs floating in our society that are inaccurate or completely wrong. It’s important to note the distinction between junk science and a misconception; one is a pseudoscientific theory, the other mere ignorance.

Imagine believing this.

What’s the difference between junk science and real science?

This is an important question to ask, and leads us to the demarcation problem. One of the most influential topics in the philosophy of science, the demarcation problem poses a simple question: what is science?

Is science doing experiments in a controlled environment? But certain schools like astronomy are built upon observations and predictions. There is no control group.

Is science falsifiable? Yes, but so is junk science. Falsifiability is too broad to include only authentic science.

Is science the result of the scientific method? Technically. It’s important to note the scientific method has changed drastically over the years and continues to change. Saying the scientific method is testing hypothesis and reaching conclusions (the kind you learn in elementary school) is too broad, and risks letting in pseudoscience. Pinpointing the scientific method to specific actions (labwork, computer models) leaves out any new methods that may arise in the future.

In Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, he argues that science exists in different paradigms built upon fundamental observations and axioms. Normal science is the standard puzzle solving that occurs within a paradigm. Over time, more and more inconsistencies and problems arise from the paradigm until a scientific revolution occurs and the paradigms shift to a new one. This postempiricist view of science as not examining reality, but rather a socially constructed phenomenon, became a large subject of debate. Karl Popper argued that simply establishing a paradigm and solving puzzles within it is not sufficient to earn the label of “science”, citing common pseudoscientific theories like astrology. Others have taken issue with Kuhn’s idea of paradigmal incommeasurability, the idea that no two paradigms are comparable nor more correct than the other — an agrarian society who believes ravens spell bad luck in the future would be seen as equally as valid as the current framework for theoretical physics in the modern sphere.

Science on Wikipedia is defined as “a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe.” A great definition, even if it’s a little vague. Some pseudosciences like Traditional Chinese Medicine and chiropractic that contain elements of truth and falsehood could be considered science under this demarcation.

The truth is, there is no philosophical consensus on what truly demarcates non-science, junk science, pseudoscience, and science. But why has science flourished? Surely there must be some common ground that scientists operated on in order to progress to the scientific luxuries that we enjoy today?

In David Harker’s book Creating Scientific Controversies, he advocates for a “empirical attitude” towards science. It offers no hard lines, but rather a mental exercise for each theory as to whether or not it counts as junk science or real science. Questions like “is this theory developed in good faith?”, “does this theory stand up to peer review?”, and “does this theory happen to serve the interest of one specific group?” are all important questions to ascertain the validity of a theory. A genuine scientific controversy, to Harker, would have to pass the following three barriers: Is there a difference between public and scientific consensus? Is there legitimate, peer-reviewed debate? Does the controversy serve the interests of a specific group?

Those are some concrete questions you can ask of a proposed scientific theory or controversy — amongst many others by adopting an empirical attitude. But the question of junk science vs. real science has not yet been answered. I propose the most important criterion for distinguishing junk science and science:

Is there peer-reviewed, widespread scientific consensus?

“Widespread” here means consensus from a variety of groups and interests. This criterion is not perfect, but the majority of junk science fail this litmus test. The scientific consensus on climate change is that it is both heavily anthropological and will result in incredible damage to the Earth’s biosphere. Thus, we (the common people) should accept that as the best theory regarding climate change for now. Likewise, the scientific consensus on vaccines is that they do not cause autism — we (even if you personally may not agree) should accept that as the best theory regarding vaccines and autism.

Not considered peer review.

Is it ever reasonable to disagree with the scientific consensus?

If you are not a scientist disagreeing with a topic in your specific field: No.

If you are: of course! Science cannot progress without disagreement, and thus every theory will always have scientists who disagree and actively try to disprove their components. This phenomenon is often used nefariously in order to sway public opinion. It’s true there exists dissenters to every scientific theory, which makes them ripe for cherry-picking. Industries like tobacco and cigarettes have historically cherry-picked studies in order to lessen or deny the harm that their products cause. It’s important to recognize that reading one study going against the consensus should not sway you. Rather, if multiple studies challenge the consensus and there is genuine debate in the relevant fields, then it’s time to call into question the validity of the theory.

What are some common junk science beliefs, then?

Climate change is negligible/natural/beneficial — the consensus is that humans are making an impact and the results will be incredibly harmful to the Earth.

Horoscopes — the consensus is that there is no causation between your date of birth and your personality.

Trans denial— the consensus is that gender and sex are distinct, and one can identify with a gender that is not their assigned one.

Vaccines cause autism — the consensus is that vaccines do not cause autism.

GMOs are harmful— the consensus is that genetically modified organisms are no more dangerous than non-GMO foods.

Alternative medicine works — if it worked, it would just be medicine.

Chiropractics works — the consensus is that it could help for lower back pain, but does not help or could hurt you for everything else.

Creationism — the consensus is that the Earth was formed 4.54 billion years ago, +- 50 million years. Creationism is incompatible with the current scientific paradigm.

Evolution denial— the consensus is that it happened, both on a micro and macro scale. The mechanisms are known, although the entire evolutionary picture is still being built.

I need a vaccination against .jpeg artifacts.

My personal beliefs don’t match the consensus. Why should I trust science?

Science is the most effective way humans can know things. It isn’t perfect, and many philosophers would argue that we can never observe true reality, but it’s the best system in place. One’s personal beliefs are inherently more subjective and prone to error than the scientific community’s combined findings.

Why trust science if it’s been wrong before?

Pessimistic meta-induction asserts that there is no rational basis to trust science since it has been wrong many times before. It plays off David Hume’s problem of induction in his book Treatise, the argument that after the repeated observation of an object F with attribute G, there is no rational basis that the next F will have G. In other words, if all swans ever observed have been white, there is no reason to believe that the next swan will be white.

Pessimistic meta-induction, on the same note, argues that “if past scientific theories which were successful were found to be false, we have no reason to believe the realist’s claim that our currently successful theories are approximately true”, commonly paired with historical examples such as geocentricism and bloodletting.

The counter to PMI is simple: scientific progress. Computers, cars, large cities, life-saving drugs — all from science, developed over hundreds of years. We have good reason to believe in science because of the results that it has given society. We can say our theory of DNA is approximately true when we eliminate genetic diseases. We can say our theory of electricity is approximately true when we create computers that surpass the limits of human memory.

With regards to religion or politics — those beliefs are able to be changed to fit the current scientific understanding of the world. Christians can say that God started the universe, and evolution simply took its course. Political beliefs can be modified to reflect scientific consensus or dropped entirely.

All humans are biased. All scientists are human. Why trust science if all scientists are biased?

Firstly, scientific training instills both knowledge and objectivity. The classic example is that of an x-ray: a tumour to the untrained eye is a minuscule splotch on a greyscale picture. To the doctor it could be obvious, and lives are saved. We can see that while scientists are human and therefore biased, their area of expertise lends them more objectivity than the common person. As well, scientific consensus calls upon the community of scientists to reach a conclusion regarding a theory — the most objective method possible to understanding a component of our world.

Secondly, we may not even want scientists to be completely objective. The idea of a “value free ideal” sounds nice; we definitely want scientists to be as neutral and objective as possible, right?

Heather Douglas in her book Science, Policy, and the Value-Free Ideal argues that the VFI is neither possible nor desirable. The idea is that different scientists from different backgrounds and with different values offer important alternative viewpoints on the same topic. Of course, the impact of values should be restrained to protect the integrity of science; but the entwining of human values and scientific enterprise offers unique analysis on the data.

Further, it should be a given that all humans are inherently biased, and thus affects our perception of the scientific observations— the classic example of a heliocentricist vs. a geocentricist is provided. The same observation of the sun moving across the sky seems to support two colliding theories that seek to describe the celestial bodies. We can see that neutral scientific observations can support multiple (even contradictory) theories.

Why are you like this?

So what’s the takeaway here?

Trust the scientific consensus.

And if there is no (genuine) consensus, then seek to understand the sides and nuances of the theory and formulate your own educated opinion.

Approach science with an epistemological attitude, aware of your own biases and seeking the truth above all else.

If you realize that your previously held belief is not scientifically sound, drop them and adopt the scientifically sound one.

Keep your mind open.