The “pseudoscience” card as intellectual bullying

If you’re in the scientific biz and you really don’t like what someone else is doing or saying, one of the easiest cards to play is the”pseudoscience” card, especially if the object of your scorn challenges accepted orthodoxies. The tag can be devastatingly effective and stick for a long time.

Some people commit big chunks of their careers to taking down the work of others in this way. For example, Stephen Barrett is the founder of Quackwatch, a site devoted to the relentless criticism of alternative medicine and natural health care and their providers, as a 2008 piece in the Village Voice reports.

Not so easy

Of course, there are quacks, charlatans, and frauds out there who masquerade as having knowledge, evidence, and expertise they simply don’t possess. They should be called on it.

But on other occasions, playing the pseudoscience card is a form of intellectual (or is it anti-intellectual?) bullying. It’s a way of diminishing work that threatens or questions accepted theory and practice.

Michael Shermer, in a piece for the Scientific American titled “What is Pseudoscience?” (link here), recognizes that the lines between science and pseudoscience are not as easily drawn as one might think. But rather than simply railing against the difficulties of doing so, he sets out a fair minded way of making the distinction. Shermer asks:

…(D)oes the revolutionary new idea generate any interest on the part of working scientists for adoption in their research programs, produce any new lines of research, lead to any new discoveries, or influence any existing hypotheses, models, paradigms or world views? If not, chances are it is pseudoscience.

On the other hand:

If a community of scientists actively adopts a new idea and if that idea then spreads through the field and is incorporated into research that produces useful knowledge reflected in presentations, publications, and especially new lines of inquiry and research, chances are it is science.

Fear and intolerance

Two years ago, I saw just how strongly the scientific and public health establishment can react to challenges of conventional wisdom when two very reputable health journalists were skewered because they dared to report on research that questioned the efficacy of flu vaccines. Their article appeared in The Atlantic just as the country was facing the H1N1 flu virus.

The harshest criticisms of The Atlantic piece came from the mainstream health sector, but a lot of others with no apparent scientific or medical expertise jumped on board. For example, one prominent law professor, apparently beset by fear and rage, blogged that “many people will get sick and some may even die because these two are too stupid to be able to analyze and evaluate the relevance of evidence,” adding that the authors were “dangerously stupid” and “irresponsible hacks.”

Not too long ago, doctors appeared in ads and commercials touting low-tar menthol cigarettes. Over the years, those trying to lose a few pounds have been alternately urged to eat more meat or less meat, more pasta or less pasta. Soldiers without visible wounds who could not return to the front lines were once deemed “shellshocked.”

In other words, we don’t have to return to the Middle Ages to find plenty of examples where conventional scientific wisdom was simply wrong. We are not even close to reaching the outer frontiers of knowledge about ourselves and the world around us. That awareness hopefully brings with it a humility that gives us pause before we engage in facile putdowns of cutting-edge work.

One response

  1. Oh, yeah. YEAH.

    Ask anyone who’s had a chronic illness that doesn’t respond easily to first-line treatments. Or anyone who challenges the “calories in/calories out” paradigm after exhausting every weight loss effort out there and still failing to lose weight or maintain weight loss. For all that scientific inquiry has brought us–and that’s a LOT–there is the danger of dismissing alternatives in an irresponsible, bullying manner. It not only stifles legitimately creative, honest scientific inquiry, but it hurts those of us who don’t fit into the prescribed box.

    Good job, as usual!

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