Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Pseudoscience, 1981

I've been looking back through early issues of the Skeptical Inquirer, which has been one of my favorite magazines for a long time. It began publication in 1977. For it's first three issues, it was called The Zetetic, meaning inquirer.

SI is a good popular science magazine. It uses the debunking of pseudoscience and occultism as a way of articulating the relevant scientific knowledge and critical thinking to its subjects.

A perpetual favorite topic of theirs is UFOs. Part of what makes SI enjoyable is that you can get the guilty pleasure of reading about UFOs, ghosts, lost civilizations, etc., without going to true-believer sources.

Back in their Summer 1981 issue, UFO debunker Philip Klass reviewed a book by Ronald Story, UFOs and the Limits of Science (1981). According to Klass, Story did a pretty decent earlier book debunking the claims of convicted forger and professional con man Erich von Däniken about extraterrestrials manipulating early human cultures. But Story apparently decide to cash in on the more credulous market with UFOs and the Limits of Science. Klass writes:

[Story] quotes from a study by a psychologist who concludes that "a goodly number of scientists are not only narrow-minded and dull, but also just stupid." And after citing several instances of scientists who manipulated their data, Story concludes: "Fabrication and fudging almost seems to be the order of the day in modern science." This provides Story with a comfortable rationale to explain why the scientific community is not impressed with the UFO evidence that he finds so impressive.

Although scientific methodology has shown its ability to cope with challenging mysteries ranging from subatomic particles to pulsars, Story says his book is intended "to demonstrate one overriding fact—namely, that science has its limits and can only go so far in explaining the UFO phenomenon at the present time. ...

This is the common bond that links such diverse phenomena as UFOs,
poltergeists, Sasquatches, N-rays, and "psychic phenomena." When their existence cannot be demonstrated using accepted scientific methodology, then clearly scientific methodology is fatally flawed and must be abandoned. [my emphasis]
This kind of pseudoscientific thinking is also what we see today in creationism, climate change denial, pseudohistory and even economics. It's ultimately a reckless way of thinking.

Klass closes his review by quoting Story from his earlier book debunking Von Däniken:

If our planet is to survive, if social injustices are ever to be rectified, and if we are ever to have an ethical society, we must practice all forms of honesty. This includes distinguishing carefully between science and pseudoscience. Wild speculations in the guise of science and a collection of half-truths will only retard our progress.
And this was before we had the kind of global climate change issue we have today!

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