Telling science from pseudoscience and the demarcation problem

demarcPhilosophers of Science have long puzzled over what they call “the” demarcation problem, of how to distinguish science from pseudoscience. In the early 20th Century the Logical Positivists proposed the verification principle, that a statement was meaningful and scientific only if it could be empirically verified. Karl Popper then proposed a similar idea, that a scientific idea is one that can be falsified.

There is a lot of truth in both proposals, but neither can be interpreted too narrowly. The problem is that no statement can be verified or falsified in isolation. Science constructs whole webs of ideas, and it is the whole construct that is then compared to empirical data, to be adjusted and improved as necessary. Further, a statement such as Newton’s law of gravity can never be verified in the general sense, all we can say is that it worked well enough — as part of the wider web of ideas — in the particular instance we tested. Nor is it straightforward to falsify such a law. If our overall model is inconsistent with an observation then we could indeed alter one of the laws; but we might also overcome the inconsistency by altering some other part of the overall model; or we might doubt the reliability of the observations.

For example, Newton’s law of gravity was indeed found to be inconsistent with the motions of stars at the edges of galaxies (and since gravity is very weak at the edges of galaxies, and since Newtonian gravity is the weak-field limit of General Relativity, it should work there). So either we must change the law of gravity (perhaps to Modified Newtonian Dynamics) or we hypothesize that there is additional “dark matter” that we have hitherto overlooked, and which then makes the gravity law consistent with the observations.

As another example, when observations at Gran Sasso laboratory suggested that neutrinos were traveling faster than light, in violation of Einsteinian relativity, the resolution was not that relativity is false, but that the observations were faulty owing to a poorly connected cable.

The realisation that we are comparing whole webs of models to empirical reality — referred to as the “Quinean web” account of science among philosophers — and that we have considerable latitude as to how to adjust models to ensure a match, such that we can never subject isolated statements to strict verification or falsification, superseded the Logical Positivist and Popperian accounts.

This, however, then landed philosophers with “the” demarcation problem. After all, pseudo-sciences are adept at avoiding falsification. “It never works when a skeptic tests it!” is a blatant but typical get-out. And “Sometimes God says no” is part and parcel of the claim that God answers prayers. Further, the believer in homoeopathy or crystal healing can simply reject the entire concept of double-blind controlled testing and proceed on anecdotes and the placebo effect. Given sufficient special pleading and ad-hoc excuses their world view can be satisfactorily reconciled with any facts about the world.

As a result some philosophers have concluded that there is no straightforward method of distinguishing between science and pseudoscience (while the post-modernists concluded that all such world views are merely social constructs with no more or less validity than any other). Meanwhile, through all of this, scientists themselves proceeded largely oblivious to the discussion and having no problem in practice distinguishing science from pseudoscience.

As I see it, the distinction can be stated straightforwardly, as being a matter of quality control. The principle is well-stated by Richard Feynman, in a speech about distinguishing good science from bad science that is still worth reading over 40 years later. Feynman sums up science saying:


The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.

All humans are prone to fooling themselves, and many methods of science (such as double-blind testing, or using statistics rather than gut feeling) are about trying to reduce the influence of human bias on the end result.

Good science is an aspiration, where we try for the best quality control with the fewest mistakes and the smallest influence of bias. Bad science is done sloppily or poorly or lazily or in a biased way. Pseudo-science results when the wishful thinking has run so rampant that it now dominates the enterprise.

“Quality control” provides a one-phrase demarcation between scientific and un-scientific approaches to advancing knowledge. Of course quality control is a matter of degree, and thus does not produce a sharp demarcation, but that is appropriate. All scientists know that there is plenty of sloppily or badly done science that still qualifies as “science” in the sense that it is published in reputable scientific journals.

It is equally obvious that much high-quality advancement of knowledge occurs in fields that are not usually regarded as “science”, such as history. But that division is merely an arbitrary human one, a tradition of regarding human concerns as somehow distinct from the natural world. If we’re discussing the basics of epistemology we should not make any distinction between high-quality work in history and high-quality work in historical sciences such as geology or paleontology or much of astronomy.

One could object that saying “quality control” doesn’t amount to much of a criterion unless one then specifies how the quality control is done. That’s a fair point, and there is no simple set of rules that amounts to quality control. Instead, science has developed a whole set of methods and attitudes for arriving at models that have the most explanatory and predictive power.

Many accounts of the methods of science are too simplistic. For example an emphasis on experiment and replication is good where it can be done, but is less applicable to historical sciences. Feynman’s instruction not to fool oneself governs everything, but from there the set of “scientific methods” appropriate to any situation is something that has been worked out by seeing what works, and thus is itself a product of science. The ultimate test is what has the most explanatory power and, in particular, what has the most predictive power. In the end, science is verified because it enables technology that works and because it enables us to predict things that we didn’t already know.

The above example of gravity is instructive. Modified Newtonian Dynamics does an OK job of explaining galaxy rotation curves (that’s what it was designed to explain), but if you then try to apply it other areas, such as explaining the fluctuations in the Cosmic Microwave Background, it doesn’t work at all well. The dark-matter model, in contrast, has proven to be far more robust and useful in explaining and predicting new observations that have come along, to the extent that the existence of dark matter is now widely accepted.

Lamenting the reburial of ancient bones

In 2015 ISIS captured the ancient city of Palmyra and proceeded to destroy ancient ruins that they regarded as pagan or polytheistic. The World Heritage Site monuments were typically 2000 years old. Did ISIS have a right to destroy them? Most of us would say no, and would lament the loss of a heritage that cannot be replaced.

In saying that we are being culture-ist. That is, we are placing the values of our culture above those of ISIS, who, after all, would regard their acts as virtuous and as mandated by the highest authority, namely their religion. I readily plead guilty to be unapologetically culturist.

This comparison might be considered inappropriate, but in Nature this week I read about a 12,600-yr-old skeleton, the “Anzick Child”, that had been passed to Native American groups for reburial. The article lists 12 other skeletons, all older than 8000 yrs, that have either been reburied or might be. Reburial here effectively means their permanent loss, since they would decay relatively quickly under normal burial conditions.

As a scientist I am saddened by the loss of irreplaceable material that could tell us much about the past history of humans. I would regard such remains as part of the common heritage of us all and am unhappy about one group destroying them in the same way that I am unhappy about a group taking it upon itself to destroy Palmyra or the Bamiyan Buddha statues. This is obviously very culturist of me, but then I’ve already pleaded guilty.


Why might we accept the right of a Native American tribe to dispose of ancient and irreplaceable materials, but not accept ISIS doing the same?

First, there is the issue of genetic relatedness. Under US law, the right to re-bury ancient human remains is being given to the Native American tribe that has the closest genetic match to the remains. However, no-one alive today could be regarded as any sort of close relative. We each have half the genes of a parent, a quarter of those of a grandparent, and an eighth of those of a great-grandparent, et cetera. The Anzick Child skeleton is from 500 generations ago.

Let us ask: suppose that some ISIS soldiers were found to be the closest genetic match to those who had built a temple at Palmyra 2000 years ago. Would we then accept their claim over it? I suspect that we would not, and would want the temple preserved whatever.

A second issue is that of religious affinity. We can say that the religion of ISIS is strongly antagonistic to that of the builders of the temple, and indeed that’s why they want to destroy it. In contrast, the Native American tribe would claim a religious and cultural affinity with the ancient ancestor, and would assert that the remains are being buried in line with their religion, and thus in line with the ancestor’s religion.

But can we really say anything much at all about the religion of a person who lived 12,000 years ago? Let’s consider, for example, the differences in religion between the UK today and the time of Stonehenge. We know almost nothing about the latter. For instance, most of our notions about Druids were invented in Victorian times; about the actual Druids we have only a few scraps of sentences from a few Roman writers, and then we note that Stonehenge, begun in 3000 BC, was further in the past from the Druids and Romans than they are from us.

The Anzick Child is more than twice as far into the past as Stonehenge. Even allowing for a much slower rate of change before the modern era, it is still fanciful and unlikely that the religion of today’s Native Americans aligns strongly with that of tribes 500 generations ago.

Lastly, of course, is the point that human remains are somewhat different from stone temples. All cultures have a special regard and reverence for human remains. It’s also true that Western museums have a track record of highly insensitive treatment of human material from “native” cultures that they didn’t properly respect. Often such material would be relatively recent, a matter of a hundred years or so, where we can be fairly sure of the cultural and religious affinities of the deceased.

I don’t suggest that we should ignore the wishes and feelings of such cultures. But I do suggest that such considerations be time limited. A time limit of perhaps 1000 years, maybe even 2000 years, might be appropriate. Before that, I personally would regard ancient remains as the common heritage of humankind, rather than of particular groups. And given the scarcity and irreplaceability of such material, and its high value to science and to our understanding of ourselves, I would always come down on the side of preservation.

Of course in the US this is all about politics. And today in the US identity politics matters far more than science. The Native American culture was largely destroyed by the arrival of Europeans, and they understandably reject anything that seems like cultural imperialism.

But from the Mayflower to today is only 400 years. That is one thirtieth of the time back to the Anzick Child. It saddens me that the politics of today mean the loss of irreplaceable material from a time far, far earlier that had nothing to do with the politics of today. Maybe I’m being insensitive and culturally imperialistic, but relics from that far back in our history are so rare that surely we should do our best to conserve them.

What the Muslim Council of Britain unfortunately did not say about Louis Smith

Statement (unfortunately not) by the Muslim Council of Britain regarding the Louis Smith video and the resulting ban by British Gymnastics. (Link to BBC account)

As Muslims we greatly appreciate the freedom to practice and voice our religion in a country that has not traditionally been Islamic. Such freedoms can only exist in a country where people can dissent from, and indeed criticise, other people’s beliefs, political views and religions. We recognise that, from Swift’s A Modest Proposal to Monty Python’s Life of Brian, Britain has a long tradition of satire and mockery that examines and holds to account both political and religious beliefs.

We maintain that truth has nothing to fear from examination, and that only falsehood and error seek the protection of censorship. Holding our religion to be the highest truth, we declare that it is far beyond being damaged by satire or mockery. We declare our truths to the world, openly inviting people to examine them for error. Critics please speak up, since we are confident that we can more than meet any challenge. If you want to mock us, go ahead!

We are perturbed that British Gymnastics appear to think that we Muslims need more protection than others, and that it seeks to prevent anyone offending us. This seems to treat us as if we were children, as though we are so immature that we must get upset and perhaps violent if our religion is questioned or mocked. Quite the contrary, our response to such mockery is the join with Voltaire in declaring that we disagree with such speech, but, in the interests of the freedoms that we all cherish, we will defend the right of people to speak.

We thus thank British Gymnastics for their rather paternalistic concern, but declare that it is not necessary. We strongly suspect that British Gymnastics would not have disciplined an athlete who had been filmed laughing at The Life of Brian, and we ask them to rescind the ban applied to Louis Smith.

We are also perturbed that the video was taken at a private event. It is fair for British Gymnastics to regulate the conduct of athletes when participating in public events where they would be directly representing British Gymnastics, but it is an intrusion too far for such a body to concern itself with their private and lawful speech.

When Parliament repealed Britain’s blasphemy laws — a relic of the time when the state was held to have the right to regulate a citizen’s religion — and when it passed an Act against inciting religious hatred, it wisely sought to protect free speech. Thus Parliament declared that nothing in the Act “shall be read or given effect in a way which prohibits or restricts discussion, criticism or expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule, insult or abuse of particular religions or the beliefs or practices of their adherents”. British Gymnastics should not take it upon itself to re-impose a blasphemy law that is beyond its competence and that the country does not want.

Parliament has upheld the long tradition of free speech in this country. Recognising that it is the very freedoms of this country that have attracted and still attract many to seek a new life within these shores, we, as citizens, have adopted this tradition as our own. Our religion will be mocked!

The Southern Poverty Law Center brands Maajid Nawaz an “extremist”

So the Southern Poverty Law Center have now declared that everyone must submit to Islamic rules about blasphemy, and that if one does not then one is an “anti-Muslim extremist”. How have we come to this? How can it be that those who think that participation in a religion should be a free choice, and that we should not be obliged to submit to the rules and diktats of someone else’s religion, are now regarded as “extremists”?

It used to be the case that “free speech” included the right to speak in ways that upset people. The point was often made that speech that upsets no-one does not need protection; it is only speech that someone else does not want you to say that needs support from the fundamental principle that in a free society we need to be able to speak our mind and criticize others.

But no, “free speech” now has clear limits. If someone else is at all upset by anything you say, then you are making them “feel unsafe”, and making them feel unsafe is an act of violence. And if you want to pursue your speech down that road, then you are an extremist, the sort of person whom the Southern Poverty Law Center was set up to oppose.

Yet people who espouse that doctrine are making me feel unsafe! They seem to be heading for the sort of society where the thought police can come knocking on your door, and inform you that someone has reported that they were made to feel “unsafe” by some comment that you made, and that you are now suspended from your job and are being taken away for “re-education”. But, of course, me feeling unsafe is not held to matter, because I am not from any of the groups that are regarded as “oppressed”, and indeed being white and male and Western I am too privileged for my feelings to matter.

But let’s now consider people who are brown or black, and who may indeed be female, and who belong culturally to the Islamic communities. Surely they are “oppressed”, and surely their views matter? Well yes, exactly. Except, not if they are moderates. Not if they want to reform Islam to make it more tolerant. Not if they exercise their right to doubt the truth of Islam. Not if they think that there should be no blasphemy laws and act accordingly.

You might think that the moderate reforming Muslims and the ex-Muslims who want secular societies would be among those seen as friends and allies by Western left-leaning liberals. But if you are so naive as to think that then you’ve not been paying attention. Quite the opposite. The allies of the left-leaning liberals are now the hard-line Islamists who want to impose their austere and intolerant version of Islam on whole populations, whether those populations like it or not. They are the authentic voice of true Islam, they are the oppressed people, whose right to impose Islamic diktats on others must be accepted because they (the imposers!) are the oppressed people here.

It follows that anyone who does not want Islam imposed on them (though they may want it as a choice), or who wants a more moderate and tolerant version of Islam, is then the extremist. By speaking against the diktats of Islamists they are oppressing those poor Islamists even more. And that makes them extremists.

So you might think that Maajid Nawaz, a former Islamist and member of the hard-line Hizb-ut-Tahrir, who has since rejected his former hardline ideology, and who now argues for a moderate and tolerant version of Islam and has founded the Quilliam Foundation to promote moderate Islam — you might think that such is a journey from extremism to moderation that would be welcomed by left-leaning liberals. Wrong! No, no, no! In the minds of the SPLC, that is a journey towards extremism. In that journey, Nawaz has become the oppressor!

So exactly how is Nawaz now oppressing Islamists? Well, chief amongst his vast legion of sins, was this. He tweeted a “Jesus and Mo” cartoon:

Nawaz's tweet of a blasphemous Jesus and Mo  cartoon.

If you’re not thinking the right way you might struggle to see anything oppressive about that rather innocuous cartoon. But the point is that hardline Islamists don’t want anyone to draw Mohammed at all. They want total control over how people think about Mohammed and Islam, and they want to enforce that with strict blasphemy laws.

And not accepting such diktats quite obviously oppresses the poor Islamists. Arguing in public for a moderate version of Islam makes the world “unsafe” for the hardline Islamists, because speaking against them makes it harder for them to impose their intolerant version of Islam on others. And, since that would upset them, only an extremist would do it. Which makes Nawaz the extremist.

That’s how we’ve arrived at the situation where moderates who want a free and pluralistic society along with free speech, and where religion would be a choice, not something to be imposed on others, are the “extremists” in the eyes of the SPLC, who presumably still think of themselves as “liberal” and as doing good in society. Where is George Orwell when we need him?

Deathbed conversions and the argument that Christians like best

Christians really don’t like atheists. Since their worldview is founded in faith (as opposed to evidence) the absence of faith worries them. Their defence mechanisms include denying that atheists exist (they’re just angry at God), or believing that when the chips are down atheists will revert to belief (“There are no atheists in foxholes”). Another tactic is to denigrate atheism as an intellectual position; it’s not enough to disagree with Dawkins’s God Delusion, it needs to be dismissed as puerile and lacking any knowledge of the topic. Or they try to maintain that atheism is a faith position just like theirs (“It takes more faith to believe that all of this arose by blind chance”). Atheism as a faith position doesn’t worry them, any more than other religions worry them, since that would accept the central role of faith. But atheism as a considered lack of belief, owing to the lack of evidence, is anathema.

Hence a favourite tactic: wait until a prominent atheist dies, and then declare that they had a deathbed conversion and died accepting Jesus Christ as their Saviour. The beauty of this tactic is that said atheist can no longer speak up and refute the suggestion. Further, if any other atheist publicly doubts the claim, they can then be accused of dogmatically rejecting the claim for ideological reasons. Christians thus invent such stories about anyone they dislike, from Charles Darwin to Thomas Paine. In fiction, such as Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, they can do deathbed conversions for real (as it were).

I was reminded of this by the recent claim by evangelical Christian Larry Taunton that Christopher Hitchens was seeking God as he approached death. The book has been roundly panned by the critics, but will still warm the cockles of those who want to believe that even the most strident of the New Atheists secretly longed for a God that surely had to exist. The fact that there is no evidence of this, other than Taunton’s self-serving claims, need not trouble them, since the claim is not about evidence, it’s about faith.

But there is one argument that Christians like even more than deathbed conversions. And that is the apologetic line: “I too was an atheist until …”. The claim is usually accompanied by describing their past atheistic life as one of empty drifting, wallowing in meaningless depression. Lee Strobel, Josh McDowell, Malcolm Muggeridge, C.S. Lewis, Edward Feser: has there ever been an evangelical who has not tried this tactic?

Theologian Alister McGrath’s Twilight of Atheism claims five or six times in the first few pages that he is a former atheist (though this seems to have been only for a few months in his late teens), and his whole argument that atheism is in its “twilight” seems to be along the lines of “Well, I’ve stopped being an atheist, therefore …”.

The weird thing about such accounts, when read by actual atheists, is that they show such little awareness of how typical atheists tend to think that the claim of having been an atheist doesn’t ring true, and seems to be more of a rhetorical device, a parable. But, no matter, such books are not intended to be read by atheists, they are there to shore up the faith of the faithful, who are comforted by the notion that people who have known the (supposed) nihilism and despair of atheism have at last found their way into the bosom of Christ.

You can be sure that, whenever a Christian talks of apologetic works such as Strobel’s The Case for Christ, the first thing they mention, gushingly, is that “he is a former atheist you know”. The claim can be finessed further: Josh McDowell claims to have been an “angry” and “strident” former atheist, who set out to refute Christianity, but then found himself, totally against his will, being convinced by the evidence for Christianity.

But, the puzzled atheist asks, if that were really true, how come the arguments in his book are so pathetically bad? How come they are the sort of arguments that only appeal to those who already believe, rather than being something that would actually give an atheist pause? Again, that matters not, the audience is not the atheist, it’s the believers, who will lap up such works uncritically. The mere suggestion that atheists do eventually find their way into faith is all the “argument” that they need.

Hitchens deathbed conversion

Reflections on Brexit and the moral presumption of the EU

Well that was a surprise; like most people I’d presumed that the British people would “always keep a-hold of nurse, for fear of finding something worse” and so vote, grudgingly, to remain in the EU. Among the acres of comment on this topic I’m not going to argue the pros and cons of Brexit — I have mixed feelings and would have preferred to stay in a reformed EU, if that were on offer — instead I’m going to completely ignore the economics and reflect on just one aspect: the presumption that joining in with and being part of a larger state is somehow morally virtuous in its own right, rather than being something to be decided on pragmatic considerations or purely by cultural preference.

“I’m sure the deserters will not be welcomed with open arms” said Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, as though membership of the EU were a moral obligation from which non-compliance would be rightfully punished.

The presumption that “ever closer union” of Europe is morally mandated has had dire consequences, including the notion that the righteousness of the project justifies doing it badly, and — more seriously — that its righteousness overrides the lack of democratic assent. Thus the EU’s leaders are currently anxious to prevent further referendums — preventing their people from having any say — since that might reveal deep dissatisfaction with the EU much more widespread than the UK. No matter, the democratic will of the people is less important than the moral principle of ever closer union. Continue reading

The evolutionary argument against moral realism

Having abandoned Divine Command Theory around the age of 12, when I realised that I was an atheist, I then read John Stuart Mill at the impressionable age of 14 and instantly became a utilitarian. I remained so well into adulthood; it seemed obvious that morality was a matter of objective wrong and right, and that utilitarianism — the greatest good of the greatest number — was the way to determine such facts.

Of course I also became aware of the unresolved problems with utilitarianism: there is no way to assess what is “good” except by subjective judgement, and there is no way to aggregate over sentient creatures (should a mouse count equally to a human?) except, again, by subjective judgement. Both of those rather clash with the desired objectivity of the scheme.

Periodically I would try to fix these flaws, but never succeeded. Such mulling led me to the realisation that I didn’t actually know what moral language actually meant. “It is morally right that you do X”, can be re-phrased as “you ought to do X”, but what do those mean? I realised that I didn’t know, and had been proceeding all this time on the basis that what they meant was intuitively obvious and so didn’t need analysis.

But that’s not good enough if we’re trying to solve meta-ethics and understand the very foundations of morality. And so, I eventually arrived at the realisation that the only sensible meaning that can be attached to the moral claim “you ought to do X” is that: at least one human, likely including the speaker, will dislike it if you do not do X. “It is morally right that you do X” then becomes a declaration that the speaker will approve of you doing X and disapprove of you not doing X. Continue reading