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What belongs in the “gray area” between science and pseudoscience?

In determining what qualifies as solid science, controversy is inevitable.
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Key Takeaways
  • In his new book, On the Fringe: Where Science Meets Pseudoscience, historian Michael D. Gordin explores the complicated task of defining and categorizing pseudosciences.
  • Some pseudosciences started out as sciences but then fell out of favor. Others originated as pseudosciences.
  • One reason it is hard to conclusively categorize a certain practice as a pseudoscience is that virtually all new scientific claims are subject to controversy, Gordin argues.

Excerpted from On the Fringe by Michael D. Gordin. Copyright © 2021 by Michael D. Gordin and published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.

Controversy Is Inevitable 

The wide sweep of doctrines that have been called pseudosciences— from astrology to cryptozoology, from creationism to Aryan Physics, from parapsychology to alchemy—do not share enough of a common essence so we can declare: “Beliefs that claim to be sciences but possess properties x, y, and z are pseudosciences.” That does not mean, however, that we are unable to find occasional commonalities in their histories. Though a “pseudoscience” may not be a single identifiable thing, the act of labeling it follows a fairly common process. 

Pseudosciences can start out as sciences—as with the vestigial sciences of astrology, alchemy, and eugenics—and then gradually fall out of favor (typically through extensive theoretical and empirical criticism); any remaining adherents find themselves advocates of a fringe idea. Others are, in a manner of speaking, born pseudoscientific. Velikovsky’s propositions about cosmic catastrophism and ancient myth, or enthusiasm for the Yeti or the Loch Ness Monster, did not begin as domains of science, but were excoriated from their first appearance by the mainstream. Yet the process of fringing is the same in both variations: it is generated by the consensus of the relevant group of scientists. When the consensus shifts decisively against an idea, and instead of abandoning it its advocates double down, there is a strong chance that their beliefs could be labeled pseudoscientific. 

Yet between those two extremes (starting scientific, starting pseudoscientific) there is a gray area. Take the case of French physicist Prosper-René Blondlot. Blondlot was a respected scientist with a series of early successes in the cutting-edge field of electromagnetic radiation. In 1891, he made the first measurement of the speed of radio waves as 297,600 km/s, which happens to be within 1 percent of today’s accepted value of the speed of light, forming an important experimental confirmation of the theory of electromagnetic radiation postulated by James Clerk Maxwell. In 1903, Blondlot claimed to have discovered a new kind of radiation, which he called N-rays, named by analogy with the sensational X-rays discovered by Wilhelm Röntgen in 1895 and in homage to his home city of Nancy. He measured the presence of N-rays by observing the changes in brightness of a spark. The discovery was met with broad interest and many European scientists rushed to replicate the finding (some successfully). However, a year later, an American physicist named Robert W. Wood, having visited Blondlot’s lab and examined the set-up, averred that, when he surreptitiously removed a crucial part of the experimental apparatus while Blondlot was taking readings, the latter insisted he continued registering N-rays. Wood attributed the “discovery” of N-rays to Blondlot’s suggestible imagination, and within a year the previous experimental findings were dismissed as artifacts. N-rays were determined never to have existed. Blondlot’s reputation never recovered. 

How should we understand this case? It does not seem like Velikovsky’s, since Blondlot was a member of the scientific community in good standing and N-rays were treated as plausible when first announced. Then again, this was not quite like eugenics, either, given that the properties of N-rays were controversial from the outset and were subject to pointed skepticism throughout their brief heyday. It is tempting to consider this as a hallmark example of a pseudoscience; indeed, Irving Langmuir cited it as a canonical example of “pathological science.” Yet before Wood’s exposé, it seems like Blondlot was performing research similar to his measurements of radio waves. He was, in short, pursuing science normally.

This is a troubling claim, but it should not be a surprising one given what we have already seen. Among the doctrines classified as pseudosciences by the scientific community, there is a sizable complement of vestigial sciences, which by definition once counted as sciences and then ceased to. What makes them pseudoscientific today is that a significant group of people are still defending them as scientific after the mainstream consensus has decided otherwise. The straightforward implication is that any scientific position could receive the label of “pseudoscientific” depending on its future trajectory. Since we do not know the future, any present science has potential disgrace waiting in the wings. Not only is this possible, it is practically inevitable given two structural features of contemporary science. 

First, today’s science is adversarial. The way a scientist makes her reputation is by building on past findings, but if all she does is confirm what everyone already knew, her career stagnates. The pressures in scientific research are to do something new, and that usually means refuting a tenet of contemporary science. (We detect echoes of Karl Popper’s falsificationism.) Credit in science is allocated for priority (being first) and for being more correct than your competi- tors investigating the same questions. There will always be winners and losers. If the losers persist, they can and will get shunted to the fringe. 

The second reason is that science is increasingly expensive. There are limited resources to go around, and there are always too many researchers chasing after coveted grants and high-profile publication opportunities. Within a climate of scarcity, adversarial norms necessarily generate both an incentive for winners to defend their gains and resentment from those who lost. Anyone who jeopardizes your research—say, by defending a fringe theory that contradicts it—may be seen as a threat. When nonmainstream doctrines pose a threat (real or imagined) to professional scientists, the term pseudoscience gets bandied about.

Demarcation is built into our funding systems. Applicants need to present their own work as superior to those of wrong-headed competitors, and the panels that evaluate the grants must always reject a large number of proposals as less worthy than the few they endorse. Limited funds set up a ruthless machine for discarding scientific claims, some of which might end up on the fringe. Studying the category of pseudoscience thus yields some insights into how contemporary science works.

The gray area is produced by the fact that almost every significant new scientific claim can potentially be the subject of controversy, the fuel that powers the cycles of credit and reputation. But not all discarded doctrines experience the same fate. Even in a single domain—the scientific properties of water—some of the losers of controversies end up simply as yesterday’s news, sincere science that happened to be mistaken, while others are branded as ignominious and take up residence on the fringes of knowledge. 


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