How to spot pseudoscience
How to spot pseudoscience
Jon Cleland Host, Midland Daily News - 06/25/2006
The advocates for creationism and those for evolution accuse each other of pseudoscience. Since both pseudoscience and science claim to be science, how can we tell them apart? Luckily, there are many marks of pseudoscience to guide us. Here are a few, with examples.

Stacking the Evidence. In science, evidence is accepted or rejected based on objective criteria such as reliability, physical tests, and confirming evidence. In pseudoscience, evidence is accepted if it supports the pseudoscience, and rejected otherwise. This is why stories such as a plesiosaur caught by a Japanese fishing boat are used as "evidence" by creationists, while the same creationists reject mountains of verified data, such as the transitional features in fossils like Rhodocetus, Mesohippus, Archeopteryx, Tiktaalik and hundreds of others.

Vague or Inconsistent Terms. In a pseudoscience, terms must be kept vague because there is no hard evidence to anchor them to. For instance, what exactly is a creationist's "kind"? In some creationist writings, "kind" = "species." In others, "kind" is a large group (like a genus , or even a whole order). Some creationists believe "kinds" don' t evolve (such as Mr. Vanderkooi in his April 21 Forum article). Others (presumably Mr. Schlafley from the webpage he cites in his June 4 Forum article ) believe in rapid formation of many species (sort of a "hyper-evolution") from a common ancestor on the ark. Other terms, like "day," "theory" and "information" are similarly vague or inconsistent in creationism. In science, terms have definitions that are largely agreed upon and adhered to.

Imagining a Conspiracy. Supporters of a pseudoscience often complain of being "suppressed " by a conspiracy of scientists in their field. For creationism, this would require a vast left-wing conspiracy, since aspects of evolution are supported by dozens of entire fields of science, ranging from archeology to zoology.

Irrefutable Hypotheses. In science, a hypothesis is useful if it can be tested and conceivably disproved by future evidence. In pseudoscience, hypotheses are chosen so that no conceivable evidence could show them to be wrong. The hypothesis " space aliens fabricated our entire world yesterday" is irrefutable, since any possible evidence (such as historical records of the civil war, or geological records of life a billion years ago) can be dismissed with "well, the aliens planted those records to fool us."

Exegetical Research (such as Quote Mining). In science, claims are evaluated based on the data, regardless of the specific wording used by the researchers who present it. In pseudoscience, printed words are cut and pasted to obtain any meaning desired, regardless of what the author originally meant or the context of the quote. Here is one from the dozens of examples of a scientist being quote mined in creationist writings:
* "The record jumps, and all the evidence shows that the record is real: the gaps we see reflect real events in life's history not the artifact of a poor fossil record. The fossil record flatly fails to substantiate this expectation of finely graded change." (Eldredge, et al, 1982)
It seems to support creationism, doesn't it? However, reading the full text shows that Eldredge is talking about the dinosaur extinction (not the whole fossil record, as implied by the creationists), and that the quote is stitched together from different pages. The book by Wells mentioned by Mr. Schlafley is filled with mined quotes as well. In addition to changing the meaning by changing the context , creationists often misrepresent debates, such as the debate over the relative role of gradualism vs. punctuated equilibrium (two models of evolution), portraying it instead as a debate between evolution vs. creationism.

Another form of exegetical research is quoting non-scientists about science or even quoting without saying who the quote is from, as Barbara Phillips does in her June 18 Forum article. Real research is not just a search for quotes. More on quote mining is here.

Clinging to Hoaxes. In science (as in any human work), hoaxes sometimes occur. When discovered in science, they are exposed and refuted (such as the "Piltdown man"). In pseudoscience, hoaxes are refuted reluctantly if at all. Some examples of well known creationist hoaxes that are still being used today include the Paluxy "man" tracks, NASA's "lost day," or the iron pot "found" in coal. Even the well known Lady Hope fraud, ( which was fabricated over 30 years after Darwin's death and immediately exposed as a heartless hoax) is still used by creationists such as Ken Schlafley in his Forum article.

The common thread in all of these marks of pseudoscience is the attempt to bend the evidence to support a pre-existing conclusion, instead of honestly following the evidence wherever it may lead. Many creationists openly admit that the evidence is of only secondary importance, as can be seen in point D6 on the Answers in Genesis page, here

A full discussion of creationism and of the many scientific fields that have confirmed the fact of evolution will require more than letters to the editor and a few Forum articles, since a creationist can toss out a distortion in a sentence or two, which often requires a paragraph to correct. With high quality schools like SVSU, CMU and Delta nearby, it can't be that hard for the Midland Daily News to get reliable, scientifically accurate information. This would help us all see why evolution is supported by an overwhelming majority of scientists, including thousands of Christians.

Jon Cleland Host is a Midland resident.