Thursday, June 17

On the Fringe by Michael D Gordin: Why Pseudoscience is Here to Stay | Science and Nature Books

During the Covid-19 pandemic, we have watched the science evolve almost daily with every news headline and report. We’ve heard competing ideas explained about how the virus came about, how it spreads, whether you can get it through the mail, whether masks work, the effectiveness of new treatments, and the risks of new vaccines. As scientists debated, gaps in knowledge were revealed and theories were questioned. There were even accusations of pseudoscience. But according to Michael Gordin, this is how science works.

The label of pseudoscience has been applied to everything from ufology and eugenics to the search for Bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster (or cryptozoology, to use its scientific name). What do we understand by pseudoscience and why do these fringe ideas continue to prevail in our techno-scientific era? These are the questions Gordin seeks to answer in this short (about 128 pages) but fascinating book.

Karl Popper tried to distinguish science from non-science by the principle of falsifiabilityIf a theory could be proven wrong by experiment, then it was science. But for Gordin, pseudoscience is a more complex phenomenon than this allows, one more closely intertwined with scientific endeavor. For example, in the cold war, fears of a “psi gap” with the Soviets led the CIA to pay physicists $ 50,000 to investigate Uri Geller’s spoon-bending skills and the potential of the “ESPionage.” His approach is more historical than philosophical and, ultimately, it is much more revealing about the nature of science itself. For Gordin, the book is not just an explanation of fringe ideas: it is also about how our knowledge of the world evolves.

Uri Geller holds up a spoon that he claims to have bent using supernatural powers.
Uri Geller holds up a spoon that he claims to have bent using supernatural powers. Photograph: David Furst / AFP / Getty Images

Gordin divides what he calls marginal doctrines into four main areas. Some are based on outdated science (“vestigial sciences”), including astrology and alchemy; those, like Lysenkoism in Stalin’s Soviet Union, which ally itself with state ideologies (“hyper-politicized sciences”); and the sciences of counter-establishment, including 19th century phrenology and current creationism, “exemplary pseudoscience in the West.” Finally, there are sciences that postulate extraordinary mental powers, from telepathy to clairvoyance.

Refreshingly, Gordin rejects the idea that you only need to bombard the people with the most science to make them see the error of their ways. Most followers of the flat Earth theory learned about the shape of our planet in school: “pseudosciences don’t develop because people don’t have enough scientific information.”

Rather, he argues convincingly that fringe ideas are generated by the contradictory scientific process itself, “shed from consensus as it changes.” Science and pseudoscience are the yin and yang of our imperfect and ever-evolving attempts to understand the universe and our place within it. We will never eliminate pseudosciences completely. In fact, if we did, Gordin argues, we could destroy science too.

On the Fringe by Michael D Rosengarten is an Oxford publication (£ 14.99). To support The Guardian, request your copy from Shipping charges may apply.

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