The Allure of Pseudoscience


Lubock Zodiac

by Sebastian Normandin

The persistence and proliferation of pseudoscientific thinking in contemporary culture demands explanation. Clearly there are some pragmatic reasons for its expanded existence, and people will often trot these out when discussing the topic. For one, there is the lack of basic science education, leading to gullibility and a lack of criticality with respect to ideas that sound “scientific”. This is likely exacerbated by modern communication channels, which allow people to distribute dubious ideas widely across various networks and webs. Add to this the uncritical faith people have in knowledge whose appearance is of a scientific or technological nature and you have a recipe for why we find ourselves floating in a thick, soupy broth of badly conceived concepts and ideas.

But none of this really speaks to the fundamental fact of the allure of pseudoscience. An allure that is quite complex but that can be simply summed up in one word: meaning.

Humans crave meaning. Through our very neurological make-up we are programmed to seek it out. To find patterns and connection between events, ideas and things. This is the essence of thought, and by extension language. To label something, to give it a name, is to give it meaning.

So much of what we do as human beings is rooted in meaning. The earliest examples of the quest for spirituality, the burial rituals of our ancient ancestors, speak to a need to give meaning to a life that, so often, can appear to have none. This impulse lies at the foundation of all the major religious and spiritual movements in history. Even those, like Buddhism and Taoism, that assert that life is ultimately meaningless, are creating a meaning that is beyond meaning.

Phrenology diagram, from People’s Cyclopedia of Universal Knowledge, 1883

In many ways, the promise of science is a promise of meaning lying at the very opposite end of the spectrum from the transcendent and intangible meanings created by the spiritual traditions of the East. It is a very “meaningful” meaning. Science is a meaning that crosses borders, exists beyond any one cultural framework or language and can often be expressed in the universal language of mathematics. It is also a form of meaning that has practical applications. It can be cumulative and reinforce itself, creating further meaning. It also ends up being meaningful even for those who don’t fully understand its ideas, theories and principles because of the impact of scientifically-supported technology.

But science, particularly the discourse we understand as “science” — the four hundred year project that largely began with the radical overturning of the geocentric paradigm — has failed to fulfill its promise of meaning. Its authority is at once both universal and uncertain.

This uncertainty, a built-in admission of the limits of understanding and the possibility of clear, objective knowledge, is a necessary component of scientific thought, but it is also what allows for the very idea of “pseudoscience.” One need only reflect briefly on the bizarre intersections of science with the pseudoscientific; of, say, the cross-fertilization of QED and other aspects of particle physics with Eastern philosophy and spirituality (consider, for example, the work of Fritjov Capra and Gary Zukav), to get a sense of how complex and muddled the waters become at the borderlands of “science” and “spirituality”.

Andreas Cellarius Harmonia Macrocosmica, 1660-61

And that word, spirit, speaks to a litany of other borderlands. The liminal between life and death (and afterlife), or the conscious and unconscious explored in the nominally “pseudoscientific” realms of ESP research, parapsychology, and psychical research, is one borderland. The vital spirit or life force that is an essential ingredient of all aspects of complementary and alternative medicine — acupuncture, chiropractic, osteopathy, homeopathy, all the way to “psychic healing” or “spirit healing” is another, and takes us to a borderland between borderlands.

These borderlands — of consciousness, existence and health, are where pseudoscience thrives. Therein are the edges of knowledge, where lies the unknown. And the unknown — and possibly unknowable — is a place where science and pseudoscience battle for supremacy. It is the place where pseudoscience and speculation have always thrived, where meaning has been searched for and supposedly found. Or perhaps “created” is a better term.

About a century ago in France there was a flurry of interest in “the unknown” (linconnu). It was arguably sparked by the publication of astronomer and science popularizer Camille Flammarion’s book LInconnu set les problemes psychique (translated in English as LInconnu: The Unknown) in 1900. Flammarion was a master popularizer of the pseudoscientific before that word even entered the popular lexicon. He wrote about astronomy, of course, but he also wrote about the existence of the mind and consciousness independent of the living body and of the possibility of human settlement on Mars among other things. He even wrote a novel about the end of the world (entitled La Fin du Monde [1893]), which was the inspiration for a movie in the early 1930s, anticipating such films as Armageddon and Deep Impact.

French film poster for Fin du Monde, 1931

Of course rocks hitting the earth and wiping out human civilization are not necessarily pseudoscientific. But they are, thankfully, pretty remote possibilities. Theories of catastrophism like this have, however, been the foundation for some of the most well-known instances of pseudoscientific theorizing. Immanuel Velikovsky’s famously controversial pseudoscientific work Worlds in Collision (1951) is the best example. Velikovsky, who was trained as a psychiatrist but had exhaustive knowledge of the great texts of antiquity, argued that these texts contained clues to a cataclysm that struck earth in the early days of recorded history. He suggested that the earth had close encounters with Venus and Mars that left traces in the form of catastrophes recorded in the Old Testament and other ancient texts.

Velikovsky’s ideas sparked an enormous debate, known more formally as the Velikovsky Affair. The publication of Velikovsky’s ideas by a then reputable and well-known science publisher — Macmillan — drew the ire of many members of the scientific community. This controversy was the topic of a recent book — Michael D. Gordin’s The Pseudoscience Wars: Immanuel Velikovsky and Birth of the Modern Fringe — which points to Velikovsky’s work as the beginning of the contemporary era of pseudoscience. Gordin argues in his book that the scientific community responded so vehemently to Velikovsky’s ideas not because of what he said specifically, but because of what they represented. Because of their meaning.

Mysterious psychic forces; an account of the author’s investigations in psychical research, together with those of other European savants, Camile Flammarion, 1907

There’s that word again. Meaning. What truly, we may ask, is the meaning of meaning? For the post-structuralists, meaning is differential, not referential. That is to say that meaning is constructed not just by the simple act of labelling something, but by distinguishing it — highlighting its difference — from something else. This notion can give us a key insight into the allure of pseudoscience. It is not just a question of creating meaning but of creating distinct meaning. We see then how Velikovsky was both pseudoscientific and, at the same time, iconoclastic and unique.

In fact, theories of catastrophism — of sudden change outside the normal range of the gradual and almost invisible nature of evolutionary or geological transformation — largely seek to offer a distinct, differential meaning.

So it is with many other so-called pseudoscientific ideas. In the case of claims about parapsychology and psychical research, we find they offer a very different view of the nature of mind. Arguing for the psyche’s capacity to transcend the limits of materialism, these fields offer a much more dynamic, mysterious, non-linear and even patently spiritual (i.e. non-material) vision of thought. It is easy enough to appreciate how appealing this vision of the mind is — more empowering than the acceptance of a brain which is no doubt impressive (and perhaps the most complex structure in the known world) but also limited, flawed, subject to pathologies, preoccupations, disease, delusion, error and misperception.

Much the same can be argued about the differential meaning alternative medicine offers; the promise of occluded, largely unknown and sometimes miraculous cures in the face of illness. The hope and often overblown positivity that some alternative therapies offer can clearly be differentiated from the sober, taxing and limited nature of mainstream medical therapies in the face of rare, serious or virulent disease. Perhaps this is the most important differential meaning distinguishing science from pseudoscience — pseudoscience draws us in with the allure of meaning and hope.

Taken at face value, the scientific perspective on the human condition is not particularly hopeful. Science tells us we are merely one of a number of conscious, sentient, intelligent species on this planet, not some chosen or teleologically privileged group destined for some special purpose. In fact our 200,000 year existence as a species is really just a blip in an almost ageless universe of billions of galaxies with billions of suns each billions of years old.

While technology, as an offshoot of science, may give us a sense of hubris and an awareness of our incredible capacity to affect and change our environment, we are at the same time reminded that our ability to change and affect the “unnatural” processes our actions have set in motion may be quite limited. Science, in short, is sobering and provides no succour.

Harry Price’s ghost-hunting kit, from Confessions of a Ghost-Hunter, Harry Price, 1936

Pseudoscience, in contrast, is comforting in the extreme. It rashly speculates on connections and contexts that are poorly supported and largely impossible to prove but that suggest all sorts of possibilities which, while they may seem appealing, are simply not tenable. In their quest to create an easy or oversimplified meaning, pseudoscientists engage in all sorts of scientifically dubious practices — using vague or untested claims, focusing more on confirmation rather than refutation (in this respect the pseudoscientific forgets philosopher Karl Popper’s central notion of falsifiability — essentially that science advances through negation rather than confirmation), making their beliefs about a particular idea a point of personal pride, and, finally, a general lack of rigour in methods and means of expression (i.e. language).

In the quest for meaning and in our desire to see meaningful patterns in our lives and in nature as a whole, we all fall prone to these sorts of psychological crutches and shortcomings.

Science is a challenging business. It is incredibly difficult to make inroads into our understandings of the natural world. Misperceptions, misunderstandings and missed ideas are common. In many ways, science is like life. Difficult, challenging and rarely what we initially expect or hope it will be. And like the ups and downs of life, it also rarely provides any consistently comfortable meaning.

But to be truly scientific requires us to be comfortable with the fact that there are unknowns. Moreover, that while we may gain glimmers of insight into what is really going on, the larger picture — the theory of everything — may always be over the next hill and beyond our perceptions. Most of us are uncomfortable with the unknown and the uncertain in life and so it is with science. It serves, in many ways, as a psychologically destabilizing force. The fact that it offers no cohesive and fully coherent “big picture”, that it is always changing and subject to revision, and that we are never able to just rest and say “this is it…this is the answer” explains much of why people are drawn to the pseudoscientific.

As a species, virtually all our cultural constructs attest to deep and prolonged attempts — one might call them unconscious impulses — to create meaning. The religious and spiritual traditions that lie at the heart of many of the world’s cultures act as pillars, rooting those communities through meaning to a specific context and narrative.

Science, in contrast, lies in the shifting sand, subject to constant change and revision. And this is true not only of its claims, but even of the ways in which it makes these claims. What was once an oasis — a place where knowledge is made and grown — can become an intellectual and theoretical desert. For all the rhetorical veneration of a ubiquitous “scientific method” it is clear that epistemologies and methods change in the sciences. Perhaps not so quickly as the facts which make up those scientific fields, but nonetheless they do change.

In arguing for the way in which human beings gravitate to meaning and how this differs from the scientific mode, one is certainly not arguing that science is meaningless. Quite obviously this is not the case. But the kind of meaning it provides is, by definition, dynamic, shifting, and in a constant state of flux and change. And this is not the kind of consistent and comfortable meaning that most seek. The kind of completed puzzle most are psychologically drawn to.

There are many ways to distinguish science from pseudoscience, and many reasons — philosophical, psychological, social, and even economic — why individuals are drawn to pseudoscientific thinking. I only looked at a general way that we can distinguish the scientific approach from the pseudoscientific, and it revolves around the kinds of meanings that we as human being seek to create. It is a subtle but a key insight into the nature of human thought, our psychological make-up and the allure of pseudoscientific thinking. Hopefully, that makes it meaningful.

About the Author:

Sebastian Normandin received his Ph.D. from McGill University in 2006. His research focuses on the history and philosophy of biology and medicine, particularly vitalism, a concept he has written about in a recent co-edited volume, Vitalism and the Scientific Image in Post-Enlightenment Life Science, 1800-2010 (Springer, 2013). He is currently an independent scholar writing a book about cultural, medical, historical, and philosophical ideas involving breath and breathing practice in a global perspective. You can find him on Twitter @weirdhistorian.