pseudoscience from rigid, doctrinaire religion. Nevertheless, I want to acknowledge at the outset the prodigious diversity and complexity of religious thought and practice over the millennia; the growth of liberal religion and ecumenical fellowship during the last century; and the fact that – as in the Protestant Reformation, the rise of Reform Judaism, Vatican II, and the so-called higher criticism of the Bible – religion has fought (with varying degrees of success) its own excesses. But in parallel to the many scientists who seem reluctant to debate or even publicly discuss pseudo-science, many proponents of mainstream religions are reluctant to take on extreme conservatives and fundamentalists. If the trend continues, eventually the field is theirs; they can win the debate by default.
One religious leader writes to me of his longing for ‘disciplined integrity’ in religion:
We have grown far too sentimental . . . Devotionalism and cheap psychology on one side, and arrogance and dogmatic intolerance on the other distort authentic religious life almost beyond recognition. Sometimes I come close to despair, but then I live tenaciously and always with hope . . . Honest religion, more familiar than its critics with the distortions and absurdities perpetrated in its name, has an active interest in encouraging a healthy skepticism for its own purposes . . . There is the possibility for religion and science to forge a potent partnership against pseudo-science. Strangely, I think it would soon be engaged also in opposing pseudo-religion.
Pseudoscience differs from erroneous science. Science thrives on errors, cutting them away one by one. False conclusions are drawn all the time, but they are drawn tentatively. Hypotheses are framed so they are capable of being disproved. A succession of alternative hypotheses is confronted by experiment and observation. Science gropes and staggers toward improved understanding. Proprietary feelings are of course offended when a scientific hypothesis is disproved, but such disproofs are recognized as central to the scientific enterprise.
Pseudoscience is just the opposite. Hypotheses are often framed precisely so they are invulnerable to any experiment that offers a prospect of disproof, so even in principle they cannot be invalidated. Practitioners are defensive and wary. Sceptical scrutiny is opposed. When the pseudoscientific hypothesis fails to catch fire with scientists, conspiracies to suppress it are deduced.
Motor ability in healthy people is almost perfect. We rarely stumble and fall, except in young and old age. We can learn tasks such as riding a bicycle or skating or skipping, jumping rope or driving a car, and retain that mastery for the rest of our lives. Even if we’ve gone a decade without doing it, it comes back to us effortlessly. The precision and retention of our motor skills may, however, give us a false sense of confidence in our other talents. Our perceptions are fallible. We sometimes see what isn’t there. We are prey to optical illusions. Occasionally we hallucinate. We are error-prone. A most illuminating book called How We Know What Isn’t So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life, by Thomas Gilovich, shows how people systematically err in understanding numbers, in rejecting unpleasant evidence, in being influenced by the opinions of others. We’re good in some things, but not in everything. Wisdom lies in understanding our limitations. ‘For Man is a giddy thing,’ teaches William Shakespeare. That’s where the stuffy sceptical rigour of science comes in.
Perhaps the sharpest distinction between science and pseudo-science is that science has a far keener appreciation of human imperfections and fallibility than does pseudoscience (or ‘inerrant’ revelation). If we resolutely refuse to acknowledge where we are liable to fall into error, then we can confidently expect that error -even serious error, profound mistakes – will be our companion
forever. But if we are capable of a little courageous self-assessment, whatever rueful reflections they may engender, our chances improve enormously.
If we teach only the findings and products of science – no matter how useful and even inspiring they may be – without communicating its critical method, how can the average person possibly distinguish science from pseudoscience? Both then are presented as unsupported assertion. In Russia and China, it used to be easy. Authoritative science was what the authorities taught. The distinction between science and pseudoscience was made for you. No perplexities needed to be muddled through. But when profound political changes occurred and strictures on free thought were loosened, a host of confident or charismatic claims – especially those that told us what we wanted to hear – gained a vast following. Every notion, however improbable, became authoritative.
It is a supreme challenge for the popularizer of science to make clear the actual, tortuous history of its great discoveries and the misapprehensions and occasional stubborn refusal by its practitioners to change course. Many, perhaps most, science textbooks for budding scientists tread lightly here. It is enormously easier to present in an appealing way the wisdom distilled from centuries of patient and collective interrogation of Nature than to detail the messy distillation apparatus. The method of science, as stodgy and grumpy as it may seem, is far more important than the findings of science