On Science and Pseudoscience.

Author:Rosenhouse, Jason
 
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Is the line between science and pseudoscience set arbitrarily by an often arrogant scientific elite? Henry Bauer, emeritus professor of chemistry and dean emeritus of social studies at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, believes that it is. While he doesn't claim that extrasensory perception, unidentified flying objects, Bigfoot, cold fusion, and any other variety of fringe studies is necessarily legitimate, he does claim that many of them might be. He further claims that science does itself a disservice when it allows a stifling orthodoxy to squelch offbeat ideas. Since many of the best ideas in human history began as heresies, we do well to be careful before passing judgment on anything.

In his latest book, Science or Pseudoscience: Magnetic Healing, Psychic Phenomena, and Other Heterodoxies (2001), Bauer writes: "Comparisons between anomalistics and science as it is actually practiced will show that no sharp division can be established" (anomalistics being a politically correct term for the study of bizarre claims). He is not impressed by the various checklists served up by philosophers for distinguishing science from pseudoscience. He points out, quite correctly, that not one item perfectly distinguishes between the two.

But Bauer is creating a false dichotomy. Science and pseudoscience are opposite ends of a continuum, not rigidly defined categories. Subjects like extrasensory perception are dismissed neither for their inherent absurdity nor for their inability to conform to an arbitrary set of philosophical criteria. They are dismissed because they have never manifested themselves under properly controlled conditions.

Confronted with this obvious fact, Bauer can only reply with cliches: Maybe the presence of skeptics kills the vibes necessary for ESP to manifest itself. The numerous eye-witness accounts of paranormal activity should be considered viable evidence. The experts have been wrong before. The unexplained residue of cases that haven't been debunked strongly suggests the reality of the paranormal.

These are all fine points if your goal is merely to defend the logical viability of various anomalous claims. But as arguments for rethinking the nature of science, they fall flat. Since even the most hardened skeptic wouldn't deny the possible validity of paranormal phenomena, it seems that Bauer is defending the obvious.

Arrayed against his eminently sensible position, Bauer sees a shadowy troika made up of...

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