2010/02/07

Science, pseudo-science and non-science

As someone who holds strong opinions, I'm often found arguing with people; because my education is scientific, the debate is often around a subject where "scientific evidence" is expected to carry the day. Most of the time, the claimed "scientific evidence" is nothing of the sort - often, it's nonsense using "sciency" words to seem right.

It's quite simple to tell science from non-science, and not that much harder to distinguish pseudo-science from science. If you're planning to argue using "scientific evidence", please make sure it's genuinely scientific before you start.

Non-scientific claims are based on authority, not on testable evidence. Examples include "my doctor tells me that this drug will suppress the symptoms of my hayfever", or "the Bible tells me that God loves everyone". Non-scientific claims don't have to be false; they can be a useful shortcut to avoid going over basic knowledge again and again, or you could be in a realm that science cannot speak on.

Scientific claims have two properties. Firstly, they are based on testable evidence; secondly, when the claim has been tested, it has been found to be "not false".

Pseudo-scientific claims are very similar to scientific claims. The difference is that where a scientific claim has been found to be not false, a pseudo-scientific claim has been found to be true.

The distinction between found not false and found to be true is subtle, and bears further examination; it's about the way in which you test the relationship between your claim and your evidence. When you find a claim "not false", you start with your claim, and think of a way to gather evidence that the claim is false. You then try to gather that evidence; the claim is found not false when your evidence does not contradict the claim.

In contrast, when you find a claim "true", you start with the claim, and try and gather as much evidence as you can of the claim being true. The claim is found to be true if the evidence does indeed agree with your claim.

This does not sound like a huge difference; however, in practice, people tend to find the evidence they set out to gather, unless that evidence genuinely does not exist. What's more, for many of the claims we wish to evaluate, there are many reasons why the claim could appear true.

For example, earlier in the year, I suffered from a bout of flu, lasting about 4 days in total; during that time, I took Tamiflu. Now, I could claim that Tamiflu cured my illness, and point to the fact that I had flu, I took a course of Tamiflu, and I was then healthy again as evidence. This would be evidence that backs up the claim that "Tamiflu cures flu" in a pseudo-scientific fashion, and would be clearly flawed - would I have recovered without Tamiflu?

Against that, I might claim that my camera "sees" infrared light; the test would be to get a high intensity IR source, and if it didn't show up in a photo taken by my camera, I'd know my claim was wrong. If it shows up, then that reinforces the claim, and it's up to me to try another way of disproving it; as I struggle to find a way to disprove it that works, it becomes less and less likely that my claim is false.

The challenge, then, for people presenting "scientific" claims, is to show that they are backed by evidence, and that the evidence has been gathered by trying to prove the claim wrong. In an ideal world, you describe why you gathered the evidence you did, and how I could gather it myself, so that I can check your claim. I can then be confident in your claim, knowing that if I start to disagree, I can check it.