Wednesday, September 24, 2008

An encouraging trend

The National Science Foundation publishes a biannual report called Science and Engineering Indicators. It's a comprehensive review (588 pages in the 2008 report) of developments in the US relevant to science and engineering, including a section on the public understanding of science. I've been tracking this report for years to see how the NSF views what it regards as "pseudoscience." That word first appeared in its 2000 report.

Exemplars of pseudoscience in that year's report included "yogic flying, therapeutic touch, astrology, fire walking, voodoo magical thinking, Uri Geller, placebo, alternative medicine, channeling, Carlos hoax, psychic hotlines and detectives, near death experiences, UFOs, the Bermuda Triangle, homeopathy, faith healing, and reincarnation." For a section of an NSF report supposedly concerned with the lack of critical thinking skills, this is one of the most peculiar, and as such inadvertently ironic, lists I can imagine. Surely it should have also included Santa Claus and Batman.

References in this section clearly cite as their source the rabidly skeptical society formerly known as CSICOP. Not surprisingly, the wording makes it appear that belief in such pseudosciences indicates that the US educational system is devolving dangerously into a hellish middle ages. A footnote in the 2000 report cites as evidence of this mental decline the "'most frightening” results of a poll of students in Columbia’s graduate school of journalism: 57 percent of the student journalists believed in ESP."

Three pages of this report are devoted to such arguments. The author's disdain for the woefully ignorant masses (apparently including grad students at Columbia) is palpable.

The 2002 report also devotes about three pages to a discussion of pseudoscience, and again, you can practically feel the author's veins throbbing as you read through this section. Fortunately (for the sake of the NSF's credibility), the word "placebo" is no longer provided as an example of pseudoscience, nor is "Uri Geller." In the 2004 report this section shrinks to about one page and is not quite as strident. In the 2006 report the pseudoscience list again shrinks, now to less than a page, and it cites as examples of pseudoscience only "astrology, lucky numbers, the existence of unidentified flying objects (UFOs), extrasensory perception (ESP), and magnetic therapy."

The 2008 report shrinks to two paragraphs and only gives astrology as an example.

This trend is the right direction, and the hysterically skeptical tone in earlier reports seems to be calming down. I take this as a favorable sign. I'm completely in favor of improved science education, which should include not just critical thinking, but also how to tell the difference between skepticism and pseudoskepticism. A few lessons on humility might not hurt either.

11 comments:

gregory said...

pseudo-science is a term i had heard before, close cousin to magical thinking, etc.

but pseudo-skepticism is a new one for me ... skeptics, oh my, they are rife, like rabid religious fundamentalists, often enough ...

my question is another, and that is with a certain rigidity i am finding in science lately. not the science which results in technology, but that which attempts to explore the verities. neuroscience, in particular, looks very odd from some points of view. guys figuring out the surface of an orange, why there are bumps, and wow, pigment, while all the while inside is the magic of the fruit, and thy mystery of seeds, able to make more oranges ... just seems primitive, those guys.

fear and avoidance masking itself with "objectivity". like, a deliberate go slow is happening.

anyway, nice blog,

enjoy, gregory lent

Bharat said...

Even after the 'Mars Effect' and Tarnas's book, people find it so easy to discard astrology, I do not understand at all why but this might be because in the earlier part of my life, I was raised in a culture that didn't have such venomous skeptics with an axe to grind.

Agreed, though, Dean. This is certainly encouraging mainly because this whole proseletysing evangelical materialistic view propogated by many public scientists seems to be losing potential scientists rather than gaining any.

Atheistic Mystic said...

Is it possible that The National Science Foundation is just getting lazy? :p

Thomas said...

That is very interesting and encouraging. Thanks for the post.

Ronnie said...

This is good to know, and this reminds me...

http://michaelprescott.typepad.com/michael_prescotts_blog/2008/09/i-feel-a-chill.html

I do indeed smell some kind of strange trend.

Zetetic_chick said...

Exemplars of pseudoscience in that year's report included "yogic flying, therapeutic touch, astrology, fire walking, voodoo magical thinking, Uri Geller, placebo, alternative medicine, channeling, Carlos hoax, psychic hotlines and detectives, near death experiences, UFOs, the Bermuda Triangle, homeopathy, faith healing, and reincarnation

The fallacies in the NSF's 2000 report is that it confuses (real or supposed) phenomena with the disciplines that study them.

Uri Geller isn't a science nor pseudoscience; he's a man (psychic or not, it's another question). Likewise UFOs aren't a science or pseudoscience, but a anomalous phenomenon (studied by a science or pseudoscience, called ufology). The same is valid to reincarnation, placebo effect, etc.

Planets and galaxies aren't sciences or pseudosciences... but objects studied by a science: astronomy.

Also, it's interesting the inclusion of the "placebo" in the category of pseudoscience, because: isn't the "placebo effect" the main argument used by skeptics to dismiss some of the alternative medicine's positive results? Were skeptics invoking a pseudoscience (placebo) to debunk another one (alternative medicine)?

Reading the book "The Spiritual Brain" of Mario Beauregard, I understood that placebo effect can't be explained by materialism (It could explain the inclusion of placebo as "pseudoscience" in the NSF's 2000 report), because most materialist doctrines don't accept that the mind has a causal affect on the brain.

However, placebo effect is a clinically accepted fact. No label like "pseudoscience" can make it dissapear.

Also, "pseudoscience" is a controversial concept in meta-scientific studies and philosophy of science, and it shouldn't be used so superficially:

http://www.hyle.org/journal/issues/8-1/bauer.htm

gregory said...

i clicked through to zitetic_chick's site, and was happy to see a great book title .. the taboo of subjectivity ... and thought, maybe i am not the only one to see neuroscientists as fearful fundamentalists afraid to look at reality, avoinding it with every fiber of their being ...

please excuse the hyperbole .. :-)

so, two cool sites to put into my file

thanks for the dialogue .. i still cannot figure the pov of entangled minds, but nice writing anyway ..

enjoy, gregory lent

Pilot57 said...

I hope you are correct about the trend, sir. It seems "skeptics" cannot accept effects without known causes. Science once thrived on finding causes to observed effects, now they seem to avoid them publicly while (maybe) being interested privately. Thanks for being public in your endeavors. You give me hope in real science.

Joseph Capp said...

Dear Greg,
This is good news. For decades I have witnesses these attacks on the truth of some of these realities. The people who experience these phenomenon are pursued publicly with the fervor of a mental witch hunt as debunkers used the same tactics and emotions as fundlementalist religious people do when they are challenged. You might say they have science to back them up. But the truth is they don't. Take for example UFOs. Where is the study that says there are no UFOs...name one. The first study came to the conclusion some of these may be interplanetary. That was project Sign... was that pseudo science? Every other study found UFOs, that to this day have never be explained and in most of those sightings seemed to be craft.

Joseph Capp
UFO Media Matters
Non-Commercial Blog

Chris said...

Dean:

This really tickled me! How can anyone say with a straight face that Uri Geller is pseudo-science (or indeed, any person)? Hilarious!

And listing placebo effect as pseudo-science is utterly bizarre...

Pseudo-science really does mean "heretic" these days, doesn't it? ;)

Take care!

gregory said...

heretics in the court of science fundamentalism ... lol ... a good place to be, and interesting friends too ..

science does nicely with the physical universe, technology ... anything to do with meaning, or consciuousness, and science, with its ta-da scientific method, starts to show its limitations ...