Witches, demons, and pseudoscience

Witches, demons, and pseudoscience

Halloween and el Día de los Muertos are almost upon us so it’s the time of the year when reality, imagination, and folklore mix to make life a little more interesting. Science and mythology converge in October’s pick from the Recharted Territory reading list. The late astronomer Carl Sagan (from the original “Cosmos”) published “The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark” in 1996, shining a light on myths, creatures, demons and the pseudoscience that supported their popularity.

Sagan contrasts the supernatural claims with a call to adopt the scientific method as we explore the unknown. He uses stories about aliens, faith healers, witches, and other tales as a lens to tackle more general concepts, like the attractiveness of pseudoscience, the influence of culture on our beliefs, and the universal role that science and democratic processes can play as an alternative light in the darkness.


What is pseudoscience?

Myths backed by pseudoscience, like UFOs, witches, demons, and the Bermuda triangle, all lack sufficient evidence. Their supporters tend to ignore clues that point to other explanations for the strange phenomenon. Artifacts of pseudoscience often appear to include elements of science (namely keywords) but are not based on the scientific method. The standards for evidence are lower than for science, but the media tends to support the spread of these ideas. At best it’s harmless fun, at worst pseudoscience has caused death, including the long crusades against “witches” that led to mass murders around the world.

Pseudoscience is powerful in its ability to address concerns and desires that science doesn’t yet cover. Or people aren’t aware that science can answer. It can offer relief to our hope for personal power and immortality, help us deal with ambiguity, unite groups, and provide answers in an uncertain world. Unfortunately, it can also be an effective way to deceive others by borrowing credibility from science.

As Sagan discusses different myths of pseudoscience in each chapter, it was interesting to hear about the varying cultural symbols that emerged over the ages to explain the supernatural. Apparently, the majority of reports of alien abductions by the typical big-eyed aliens in flying saucers are from North America. Other countries have their own version of visiting aliens, with different characteristics and behaviors. The images of pseudoscience are often a reflection of cultural norms and beliefs.

People who believe in pseudoscience are usually not aware that they’re embracing pseudoscience. They’re just following the patterns that their culture has encouraged. On top of cutural influences, hallucinations can seem real, the presence of testimonials can count as evidence, and in some cases, therapists can get wrapped up in a hoax as well and add to the credibility. At some point, it can be difficult to decipher reality from the story.

“[M]emories of an event more closely resemble a story undergoing constant revision than a packet of pristine information.”

– Elizabeth Loftus, psychologist


How is this different from science?

Pseudoscience is different from science in the approach for creating and vetting conclusions. Scientists frame hypotheses so they can be disproved. They create alternative hypotheses and design experiments to test them. Even though false conclusions are sometimes made, other scientists are skeptical of results. So they test them, moving the field closer to the truth. Even if it’s hard to understand the reasoning behind a finding without years of training (like quantum mechanics), you can usually still review and understand the results of experiments.

Pseudoscience creates hypotheses that are difficult to test. Creators of the myth discourage skepticism and sometimes say that scientific observation is a plot to suppress the belief. The findings of science and pseudoscience can be equally strange, and in some cases, pseudoscience reveals concepts that are much more familiar than what science unveils. What’s important is to teach the methods of science so that people can distinguish the differences for themselves.

“[M]agic, it must be remembered, is an art which demands collaboration between the artist and his public.”

– E.M. Butler

Magicians depend on the audience suspending disbelief, shutting down skepticism in favor of wonder. Science, in contrast, depends on both wonder and skepticism. Openness to ideas moves the field in new directions but it’s a self-correcting practice. Science polices itself. In contrast, faith healers don’t tend to expose other faith healers.


Why do we care about all of this?

As humans, we gravitate towards both pseudoscience and science because they help us make sense of the present and prepare for the future. We need to choose which approach will help us make better decisions today.

In our daily lives, pseudoscience may no longer manifest itself in stories of witches and demons. But there are plenty of stories of the latest cure-all approach for any ill, the must-buy product, and the allure of stories with little evidence to back them up. We just tend to read about them on our smartphones now instead of hearing about them in the town square.

Even if we think that we reject pseudoscience, Sagan cautions that scientists (and therapists) are not immune to straying from the scientific method. We look for evidence that matches what we expect to see. Scientists can make errors that go uncaught for a long time if generations of scientists build upon the same assumptions. Therapists can impact the stories their patients tell, and be deceived as well.

When working on complex problems, we need to be aware of the influence of modern day “hoaxes.” Hoaxes are powerful because they address a need that we have to reduce uncertainty or feel more powerful or protected. Evidence can often appear at the last minute, supporting the hoax. Hoaxes distort reality, and can be so influential that, as Sagan says, “the confession of the hoax is greatly overshadowed by the sustained initial excitement.” Our susceptibility to deception can influence how we perceive the current state of the system we’re trying to change.


How can we encourage critical thinking?

Sagan encourages us to balance open-mindedness and wonder with skepticism. Modeling the behavior, he wrote this book with insightful discussions about the plausibility of events like alien abductions and UFO sightings. Let’s not reject ideas outright, he urges, without running them through the critical thinking filter.

The “truth” is an approximation and is fallible, Sagan says, so we should pursue the best approximation of the truth, with awareness of past errors. We should approach both new ideas and past wisdom with the same skepticism.

Sagan outlines some tools in a “baloney detection kit” (his words). These are tools that scientists employ, that we can all use to validate ideas and try to avoid deception.

Tools for skeptical thinking

  • Aim for independent confirmation of the “facts”
  • Encourage debates about the evidence from all points of view
  • Arguments from authority do not carry extra weight
  • Create more than one hypothesis
  • Don’t get attached to a hypothesis because it’s yours
  • Quantify where possible (qualitative issues can have many explanations)
  • Every link in a chain of argument must work, not just most of them
  • Remember Occam’s Razor (choose the simpler hypothesis when all else is equal)
  • Ask if the hypothesis can be falsified


What not to do

  • Attack the arguer and not the argument
  • Assume authority can always be trusted, always has more information, can make the best decision, and so on, without evidence
  • Argue that something must be true because of the adverse consequences of it not being true
  • Assume that the absence of evidence is evidence of absence (in other words, assume that whatever has not been proved false must be true)
  • Ignore observational selection (such as tendencies towards “counting the hits and forgetting the misses”)
  • Draw universal conclusions from small sample sizes
  • Misunderstand the nature of statistics
  • Inconsistently apply reasoning to problems
  • Ignore alternative possibilities
  • Encourage a false dichotomy (for example, considering only the extremes in a continuum of possibilities)
  • Evoke the slippery slope argument (such as the extreme will happen if we take one step)
  • Confuse correlation and causation
  • Create a straw man argument (a.k.a. caricaturing a position to make it easier to attack)
  • Suppress evidence or share half-truths
  • Use euphemisms to create or detract support from the same concept (ex. using or avoiding the rhetoric of war)


The scientific method is not just for scientists

Sagan also offers some advice for approaching the argument that some people just aren’t cut out for science. He reminds us that we’ve been thinking scientifically from the beginning, to solve problems as hunter-gatherers. Trackers in the !Kung San follow animals by combining past knowledge with new insights. Scientists do the same thing.

Children also wonder about the world around them and ask questions. Sagan advises us to encourage those questions and admit when we don’t have the answers. We should also promote public knowledge of science and the scientific method. Encourage people to ask “how we know” facts rather than having them memorize “authoritative pronouncements.”

We can also use the methods of science to improve social, political, and economic systems. Every policy or business change is an experiment. Sagan notes that combining the power of the scientific method and democratic procedures can help us deal with the unknown.

“Ubi dubium ibi libertas

Where there is doubt, there is freedom.”

– Latin proverb

Taking a scientific approach can help us “reset” and look at the world again through inquisitive eyes. Rather than accepting the facts that were given to us, we can keep questioning our assumptions about the world and continually refine our understanding. There are some real world stories and creatures that are way more fascinating than what we could dream up.

How will you apply the tools in the “baloney detection kit”?

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