I was asked to write this short article to be published in the January newsletter of the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship (SAFS): see SAFS Newsletter, Number 75, January 2017, pages 8-10. A longer version of the article, with references, will be published in a 2017 SAFS conference proceeding.
If we accept an operational definition of “pseudo-science” as whatever any critic of so-called “pseudo-science” probably means, then vehement criticisms of the said “pseudo-sciences” are generally made for one of four reasons:
- To invalidate unworthy ideas, as part of the normal course of science itself — a classic example is the 1989 case of “cold fusion” and its fallout, in the field of condensed matter physics and chemistry
- To celebrate and maintain the middle-class belief that modern society is based on scientific knowledge; to fight against idolatry in the realm of ideas; to participate in improving public discourse and consciousness
- To provide false legitimacy for problematic areas of establishment science that survive owing to systemic financial and professional interests — the preeminent example being establishment medicine (see below)
- To attack a legitimate criticism of a dominant scientific position (collateral attack by appeal to authority or “consensus”, using denigration)
Thus, the full array of motives for engaging in the sport of “pseudo-science” bashing spans a spectrum from good scientific practice to ordinary social behaviour in structured society to support for organized fraud to outright base competition that is incompatible with the science ideal. Here, I outline the last three reasons, as follows. A longer version of this article, with references, will be published elsewhere.
Popular support for establishment science as state religion
Given the epidemic lack of understanding of science concepts, it is not surprizing that there is a wide array of beliefs that are at odds with the school lessons about science, including: astrology, “intelligent design”, “free energy”, “orgone”, “creation biology”, and homeopathy.
Realistically, virtually all citizens are entirely unable to critically evaluate what we take as being scientific truth, regarding public policy and regulatory questions. Thus, “public education” means state propaganda. We are reduced to “scientists have concluded” or “there is a scientific consensus that” and so on.
Systemically, from an operational perspective, establishment science is a state religion. It is not anchored in empirical evidence that can be evaluated by the non-expert individual using reason and intellectual discernment. It frames and supports the established order. It provides legitimacy to government programs. It purports to appease our deepest quests for meaning, and supplies a creationist mythology (cosmology, string theory, and so on). Its high priests are venerated and occupy top ranks in the class hierarchy.
Ordinary well-educated citizens have invested in many beliefs delivered by establishment science, and have integrated these beliefs into their personal identities. It is therefore natural that middle-class and professional-class individuals have a learned and reflexive impulse to attack “pseudo-science”. These attacks can be individual or can coalesce via the animal behavioural collective phenomenon known as mobbing.
Legitimacy for problematic areas of establishment science
A stunning example is the organized barrage of criticism and legislation against “alternative medicine” that is largely benign and harmless, intended to imply that establishment medicine — said to be scientifically sound — is the only trustworthy system for repairing individual health.
The problem here is that establishment medicine is anything but shaped by objectively evaluated empirical evidence, and anything but scientifically sound. The eminent medical researcher Dr. John P.A. Ioannidis has demonstrated that “most published research findings are false”.
In North America, between 6% and 8% of citizens will be killed by medical errors of all types. In just one area of establishment medicine, Professor Dr. Peter C. Gøtzsche has come to the point of flatly concluding that long term use of psychiatric drugs cause more harm than good. In his words, based on a decade of research: “Psychiatric drugs are responsible for the deaths of more than half a million people aged 65 and older each year in the Western world, as I show below. Their benefits would need to be colossal to justify this, but they are minimal. ... Overstated benefits and understated deaths ...”
Attacking legitimate criticisms of establishment positions
Climate science has major domestic and geopolitical implications. It is routine to attack critics as immoral or crazy, and for influential actors and groups to seek legal instruments of intimidation and enforcement. The Wikipedia list of “pseudo-sciences” includes “climate change denial”.
This is a remarkable inclusion because several high-profile establishment climate scientists expressly reject the so-called “consensus”, including: Judy Curry (Georgia Institute of Technology), Richard Lindzen (MIT), Hendrik Tennekes (Royal Dutch Meteorological Institute), Nir Shaviv (Racah Institute of Physics), Craig D. Idso (Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change), and many others. Furthermore, detailed studies contradict claims that industrial-era CO2 has had a causal effect on climate and extreme-weather events.
Agitation against “pseudo-science” has two illegitimate interrelated societal mechanisms: Institutionally, it is propaganda (by word and by action) intended to legitimize and impose establishment science. Individually, it serves to preserve the identity-tied personal investment in belief of the teachings of establishment science.
For those of us who cling to the ideal of the university, a review of anti-“pseudo-science” agitation should lead us to support a strict meaning of academic freedom, which does not admit institutional suppression or containment of any chosen research direction and expression. We must trust that actual freedoms of research and expression lead to the best that society can be, through the discourse that arises, whatever that discourse will be.
Denis Rancourt is a former tenured full professor of physics at the University of Ottawa, Canada. He has published over 100 articles in leading scientific journals, and writes social theory articles. He is the author of the book Hierarchy and Free Expression in the Fight Against Racism, and a regular contributor to Dissident Voice.
BRAVO. Well written and accurate and a perspective I share.
Thanks for this Denis. I see the same issue in the hijacking of the "free market" economy. We need open and freed science. The establishment making trillions on the control of sciences will not let go easily.
Curry (stadium waves) Shaviv (cosmic rays) Lindzen (Iris) Idso (it's the sun!)etc need to get over themselves and realise their failed hypotheses just don't work.
A list of links to my contributions about climate is here:
Reply to Anonymous: Curry and Shaviv and Lindzen and Idso are mentioned here as scientists who question the "consensus" on climate change. You criticize their "failed hypotheses" without any elaboration, apparently since you have no actual knowledge of any of their hypotheses, failed or not. They rightly engage in the essential and valid scientific activity of skepticism of the hypotheses of the extreme and unproven claims of their peers in the field of climate science. Science needs dissenting voices to keep other scientists honest and ensure that only reliable data is accepted. Climate "consensus" fits the definition of state-imposed religion and therefore of propaganda. Much of it is truly pseudo-science. Your reply actually proves the point of the author.
Given the epidemic lack of understanding of science concepts ...
Epidemic usually means something that has rapidly spread. The other meaning, that of being "widely prevalent” is much less in use. Is it really good for the reader to jump through this hoop, about a basic premise near the beginning of the article?
Systemically, from an operational perspective, establishment science is a state religion.
This sentence was difficult to read. I tried to do it better and came up with this:
'Within the wider society, establishment science operates as a state religion.'
- Its high priests are venerated and occupy top ranks in the class hierarchy.
- Eminent medical researcher Dr. John P.A. Ioannidis has demonstrated that “most published research findings are false”.
Eminent high priest ... spoke against the priesthood’s work.
What's all that about?
Did he suffer consequences for that?
Why not?! ....
(Oh well, the crooked timber of humanity. )
- For those of us who cling to the ideal of the university, a review of anti-“pseudo-science” agitation should lead us to support a strict meaning of academic freedom, which does not admit institutional suppression or containment of any chosen research direction and expression.
After some time of reading this, I found my mind wandering off and my eyes scanning the passage “to support a strict meaning” repeatedly. Then I stopped and translated the sentence for myself in this way:
'If the ideal of the university should have any effect on us, it should make us counter the agitation against “pseudo-science” with guardianship – a kind of guardianship that is as rigorous against ideological censorship as that censorship is toward its victims.'
- We must trust that actual freedoms of research and expression lead to the best that society can be, through the discourse that arises, whatever that discourse will be.
This trust: I tend to understand it as virtually synonymous with faith. If you wish, you may point to an operational difference.
(*) Closely related to the use of 'eminent,' while beyond the scope of the article,
a) I have an impression that emphasis on the prominence of some individuals, which is a thread running through this blog (viz., "remarkable professional persons"), acts subversively against another & more basic theme of this blog: namely, that a free society requires _everyone_ to be *the* center of self-emancipation, *the* center of initiative.
While that's just my nagging doubt,
b) It's objectively true that you’re biasedly in favour of some anti-establishment individuals. Regarding Assange's interview to Pilger, you tweeted “Assange is the brightest public intellectual on Earth.”
In fact, in that interview and elsewhere Assange made analytical mistakes of the kind any ordinary, mediocre person would do:
Thanks JR. Great comments.
Dear Dr. Rancourt,
I very much like your taxonomy, here—I think it’s quite useful.
However, if I might play devil’s advocate for a bit, I’d like to offer some defense of the thing you call government propaganda and other institutionally based actions that smack of censorship.
The academic freedom you are looking is, I believe, a chimera. As in any discussion of the meaning of “freedom” (including in the physical sphere), one cannot avoid the fact that the freedom one seeks is necessarily limited by the social context and pragmatic concerns related to the mission of the enterprise and the resources which sustain it. Missions constrain. Resources are limited.
Put another way, I believe that in all human affairs, the word “freedom” is given its meaning by the background it is viewed against: the rules of the game, the processes for making and changing rules, the inherent (i.e., intrinsic) consequences of breaking the rules, the legitimacy of those who apply those rules, and the generosity of those who “pay the freight”. I doubt that the preceding is an exhaustive list.
I agree that, as a rule, deceit is wrong. However, as with most things, that rule is not absolute, either!
Thanks again for a very interesting essay.
Best regards, etc.
Hi Featherless Biped,
Thank you for your thoughtful feedback.
Your general comment on the limits of rights is an oft-expressed position.
I critique and IMO surpass that position here:
Towards a Rational Legal Philosophy of Individual Rights
Also, see the essays in "Proportionality and the Rule of Law: Rights, Justification, Reasoning", 2014, Huscroft et al. (eds.), which I just discovered.
Thanks for your thoughts regarding a rational framework for human rights. I was in that camp for awhile, and eventually gave it up, as I thought it central to human dignity to include matters of motivation when judging any human action.
But it appears that we are both of the opinion that the "conflict of rights" business is untenable. The logic of many court decisions demonstrates an astounding level of arbitrariness, IMO. And I believe the current UN list of "human rights" has become laughable in its length and specificity.
The way I resolve the "conflicting rights" problem is rather different from yours: by definition.
If we consider rights as beyond all reach of human beings to abrogate them, and if we distinguish rights from privileges, I hold that no two rights are ever in conflict, in the same way that two true statements can never conflict. Thus, in a perceived conflict of rights, I believe the reality is that at least one of the posited rights is not a right at all, but some sort of privilege. The advantage is, obviously, that the list of rights is kept very short.
With that in hand, we can create a hierarchy of privileges (by agreement of the governed) so that to a large degree everyone can predict what the outcome of a conflict will be. (Exercise left for the reader. ;-) )
I agree with your points. Our views are compatible, IMO.
Have you read the seminal 1987 essay "Constitutional Law in the Age of Balancing" by T. Alexander Aleinikoff? It is very much in line with your main position, and gives great historic context.
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