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Pseudoscience, Eugenics, and Demarcation

Marquage et délimitations au sol

Look here: A physicist who seems to understand the demarcation problem proceeds to demarcate “pseudoscience” on his own authority.

Alex Wellerstein reviewed a book on pseudoscience that explicitly warns about the challenge of differentiating between science and pseudoscience. Wellerstein, of the Center for the History of Physics, American Institute of Physics in Maryland, wrote in the Oct. 12 issue of Science this summary of what Michael D. Gordin said about the “demarcation problem” in his new book, The Pseudoscience Wars: Immanuel Velikovsky and the Birth of the Modern Fringe.

Velikovsky’s cosmic catastrophism is, for Gordin, also a case study on the famously intractable demarcation problem, the difficulty of coming up with firm criteria for what separates science from nonscience, or science from pseudoscience. Along with most philosophers and historians of science, he concludes that the problem is probably impossible to resolve unambiguously: “‘Pseudoscience’ is an empty category, a term of abuse, and there is nothing that necessarily links those dubbed pseudoscientists besides their separate alienation from science at the hands of the establishment.”

This is not to say that Gordin takes an anything-goes approach, that all forms of knowledge are equally valuable. He just doesn’t think there are some magic criteria that will let you sort science from pseudoscience in anything like a purely rational fashion. And indeed, as Gordin notes, the entire meaning of “pseudoscience” is that it mimics “science.” Come up with a criterion — peer review, say — and those eager to prove that they really do science will find ways to implement it as well.

We have no desire to defend Velikovsky’s views. His imaginative attempt to tie Biblical catastrophes to planetary improbabilities has nothing to do with intelligent design. His single-handed challenge to the establishment disappeared from the radar screen when he died in 1979, even though historians like Gordin resurrect the “Velikovsky Affair” from time to time as a case study in academic suppression. What’s important about Wellerstein’s review is how he contradicts himself by using his own demarcation criteria after agreeing such criteria are impossible.

The history of bad ideas is as interesting, and as important, as the history of good ones. Books on the histories of Creationism, eugenics, and Lysenkoism — to pick just a few famously bad ideas — have proven illuminating to those who want to know how science functions (or doesn’t) on the margins and how it is co-opted into popular (and political) ends.

This is a favorite trick of Darwin defenders: lump something you don’t like into a list of other things everybody dislikes (the association fallacy). Although he doesn’t mention intelligent design specifically, we know that Darwinian evolutionists routinely lump ID together with creationism. His trio of “famously bad ideas” is ridiculous. What is closer to eugenics than Darwinism? What is closer to Lysenkoism than the Darwinian worldview that supported the Soviet communist regime? What on earth did “creationism” have to do with either of them?

Another trick of ID critics is labeling. ID advocates (presumably lumped in with his list of associated cranks) advocate “fringe” views and “bad ideas”. They are “on the margins” of science instead of in the “mainstream.” Their ideas appeal to the “unwitting and easily misled public.” Instead of doing “science” they engage in “speculative nonfiction” that is “utterly erroneous.” They “co-opt” science for “popular (and political) ends.” Of course, mainstream scientists NEVER do ANY of that!

The Velikovsky story also intersects with many other “fringe” communities. Velikovsky’s writings and correspondence give Gordin the opportunity to discuss the “rehabilitation” of eugenics, the birth of scientific creationism, and the aforementioned Lysenkoism. In some cases (eugenics in particular), this feels like a bit of a narrative stretch, but it does end up adding breadth to the discussion of pseudoscience in general, and Gordin’s take on each of these topics is original.

So Wellerstein has been taught by this book that he cannot divide science from pseudoscience, but he just knows in his gut that “creationism” is bad, bad, bad. On what basis? It’s out of the mainstream and he just doesn’t like it. And this after Gordin warned him that “pseudoscience is an empty category, a term of abuse” to alienate groups that defy the establishment.

Almost everything that is consensus today was once outside the mainstream. The history of science is replete with examples of maverick views that won the day, thanks to brave individuals who stood their ground and were willing to challenge the establishment consensus. This does not mean, of course, that every challenger of the mainstream will win or deserves to win. It just calls Wellerstein’s bluff about “fringe” science. Pseudoscience is a term of abuse, not an empirical judgment.

It was Darwinism that gave birth to eugenics and Lysenkoism — especially eugenics. Lysenko’s link to Darwinism is more complex due to international politics, but eugenics was the product of Darwin’s own writings and the movement founded by his nephew, Francis Galton. And it was mainstream! As the Center for Science and Culture’s John West has explained in detail in his book Darwin Day in America (listen to his podcast on ID the Future), leading Darwinists supported eugenics all the way into the 1940s. And it’s coming back in new guises — not from ID advocates, of course, but from mainstream Darwinists supporting human genetic engineering to “improve” the human race. Wellerstein knows this, because Gordin’s book discussed “the rehabilitation of eugenics,” as he stated above.

Science printed Wellerstein’s emotionally charged review because it’s incumbent on the “mainstream” to keep their critics marginalized. It’s a reminder of why the intelligent-design movement often has to operate outside the self-proclaimed mainstream. It doesn’t mean that ID is pseudoscience, and it doesn’t mean that Darwinism is science, at least not persuasive science. It’s just a fact of human history: the power brokers at any given moment get to invent the categories and write the history books. It’s not a reason to quit or be discouraged; there’s a long list of scientific heroes who won by following the evidence where it leads, whether or not the establishment supported them from the first.

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