Three scholars were asked by Tec Review to clarify where the line is between a scientific explanation and one that appears to be so but isn’t.
What is pseudoscience? How can we identify it? When Julieta Fierro Gossman gives a lecture on the subject, she turns to cartomancy.
“In my classes on Ancient Egypt, I read tarot cards so that my students can see how easy it is to predict something, and why the Arts of Divination are so attractive,” says this researcher from the Institute of Astronomy at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM).
She uses the cards as a teaching resource that allows her to show how the Egyptians made ambiguous predictions about natural phenomena based on a practice we would now consider a pseudoscience, although for them it was simply wisdom.
According to Fierro Gossman, science is a discipline that seeks to understand nature, how it works, and the principles that govern it. Unlike pseudoscience, the strength of science lies in its ability to predict accurately.
“You can only achieve this through research and evaluation, which means every time science proposes a new theory, it is tested, analyzed, and rectified. This method gives it strength. What’s more, science recognizes that it can be wrong,” says the astronomer.
According to Alejandro Ricardo Garciadiego Dantán, a Philosophy of Science professor at the UNAM’s Faculty of Sciences, understanding a natural phenomenon means measuring it mathematically. Pseudoscientists don’t do this and are sometimes not even aware of it.
“There are people who think they understand a phenomenon, and that they can explain it. However, they ignore the fact that they don’t have a solid scientific background that would enable them to realize their mistake,” states this academic.
This specialist also says that some pseudosciences have eventually transformed themselves into sciences. Alchemy, which became chemistry, is proof of this.
“When it came to alchemy, there were phenomena that couldn’t be explained accurately, and so mythical characteristics were attributed to them. For example, there was talk of water turning into powder if it was heated, and that was seen as an act of magic,” says Garciadiego Dantán.
However, the alchemical interpretation was disproved in the 18th century, when Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier, the father of modern chemistry, performed experiments to measure water evaporation.
“Lavoisier demonstrated that if a flask of water is weighed beforehand and the flask with residual powder is weighed again after the water has evaporated, it has the same weight as the original container. This means that water does not turn into powder. What happens is that when it’s heated, some the container’s material comes off and stays at the bottom, but there’s no magic act to transform the water into powder,” explains this UNAM academic.
This is how science has improved over the centuries. It has become more rigorous. In contrast, there are other fields of knowledge, such as tarot card reading, which continue to be mired in explanations without an experimental basis.
However, science is built on obvious premises that are impossible to prove. They’re principles that we believe without explanation. “A quantity is equal to itself” or, “If two quantities are equal to a third quantity, they are equal to each other”, are some examples.
“The axioms are accepted because they’re obvious and very simple, and mathematics has been built based upon them. Magic is an attempt to break the causality derived from axioms,” claims Fernando Ángeles Uribe, coordinator of the Control and Electronics Workshop at the UNAM’s Faculty of Sciences.
The idea is that it’s only valid to derive statements about axioms through logic. When you don’t do this, you’re tempted to violate this rule of causality, and so it becomes pseudoscience.
In this respect, Ángeles Uribe recalls that he once read a British medical paper in which a connection was established between students’ intelligence and the fact they chewed gum.
“The doctors made a causal correlation about something that was only a correlation. They assumed that students are intelligent because they chew gum. This is a mistaken causality, because it’s not chewing gum that makes students intelligent, but it just has to do with some question of brain activity that leads them to chew on something.”
According to Ángeles, there are even criticisms of science communication, because it sometimes uses mistaken concepts in an effort to shorten explanations, in order to make them understandable to the general public.
“It’s difficult to communicate the chain of ideas that leads to a specific conclusion, which is why it’s simplified to such an extent that it can turn into a pseudoscientific explanation.” Hopefully, that’s not the case with this text from Tec Review.