Skepticism about science and medicine

In search of disinterested science

Posts Tagged ‘pseudo-science’

From uncritical about science to skeptical about science: 4

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2021/01/05

Learning about science from beyond the pale

Synopsis for this series of posts:

From post #1:
“Could my opinion be erroneous about a decline in the trustworthiness of science?
If not, why is it that what seems so obvious to me has not been noticed, has been overlooked by the overwhelming majority of practicing researchers, by pundits and by scholars of scientific activity and by science writers and journalists?
That conundrum had me retracing the evolution of my views about science, from my early infatuation with it to my current disillusionment.”

My interest in the Loch Ness Monster led indirectly to learning about other topics that science similarly ignores, dismisses, or denigrates, often by calling them pseudoscience (UFOs, Bigfoot, etc.). Trying to understand how studying such matters differs from doing science automatically meant trying to understand what makes science special; so by learning about pseudo-science one learns as well about science itself. As Rudyard Kipling put it, “And what should they know of England who only England know?” (from poem, The English Flag).


Continuing the narrative:

 Fortuitously for me, several things happened at about the same time in the mid-1970s: There was a shortage of potential graduate students, because the job market for PhDs had collapsed. My large 5-year grant came to an end, and new grant funds were more and more difficult to come by. There was a widespread infatuation, including at NSF, with the supposed value of interdisciplinary work, and my university was urging faculty to develop interdisciplinary projects as a way of attracting grant money. And some tangible evidence that the Loch Ness Monster is a real animal had been widely publicized: Underwater photographs of large flipper- or paddle-like objects apparently appendages on an indistinct large shape [1].

So I recruited an eminently interdisciplinary team of faculty members — a journalism professor, an historian of science, a philosopher of science, a sociologist — to study how scientific understanding or belief changes as evidence accumulates: Science had long been fairly sure that reports of the Loch Ness Monster were baseless; now that substantive evidence was accumulating, how would the scientific community accommodate it?

Our proposal to NSF was unsuccessful, but one of the reviewers’ comments set me off in a new direction. If we wanted to study how science treats unorthodox claims, a reviewer suggested, why not look into the Velikovsky Affair?

I had never heard of that, and obviously I should have; so I did look into it, and found it very interesting indeed. The psychoanalyst Immanuel Velikovsky had published a popular best seller, Worlds in Collision [2], in which he inferred from legends and myths about heavenly happenings that Jupiter had ejected a comet-like object that had come close to several other planets, producing on Earth effects that included such events reported in the Bible as the parting of the Red Sea and the collapse of the walls of Jericho.

Several things struck me about the Velikovsky Affair.

—> Many a people had found Velikovsky’s scenario plausible or even convincing.
—> That included some quite accomplished historians and social scientists, who had ventured strong criticisms of the scientists who had unceremoniously dismissed Velikovsky’s scenario as utter nonsense.
—> Scientists had indeed been arrogantly dogmatic, making the declaration of nonsense without attempting to address the substantive details in Velikovsky’s book, indeed famously saying that they had not bothered to or needed to read the book. They had behaved unscientifically, in other words.
—> I was struck particularly that everyone was quite wrong in several respects about the nature of science — not only media pundits and humanists but also scientists, including social scientists.

So I resolved to write a book, to be titled Velikovsky and the Loch Ness Monster, setting out the realities about science and illustrated by one example of science getting it right about an unorthodox claim (the Velikovsky Affair) and an example of science getting it wrong (the Loch Ness monster). Altogether, I had found all this so interesting, and the prospects for well-funded scientific research so gloomy, that I decided to make a permanent change of academic career, from chemistry to something like history or philosophy or sociology of science.

It was a very good time for such a move. Historians and philosophers and sociologists of science were teaching interdisciplinary courses together, sometimes establishing joint Centers or Departments, together with some political scientists, engineers, and scientists interested in science policy. The intellectual Zeitgeist was presaging an integration of disciplines that is now the actuality usually named Science & Technology Studies or Science, Technology & Society (the acronym STS works for both; earlier incarnations included “Science Studies”, “Science and Society”, and the like).

These developments in the scholarly world were another sign that the role of science in the wider society was undergoing significant changes following World War II. the Vannevar Bush Report to the President had resulted in dramatic increases in funding of research. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists had been founded in 1945 by some of those who had worked on the Manhattan Project and were very conscious that policy makers needed information and insights from the technical community for sound planning.

 To make my intended change of academic field possible, I needed time to learn at least the basics of the history and philosophy of science. But as member of a Chemistry Department, it was my obligation to garner grants and support and mentor graduate students, too time-consuming to allow for much new learning and thinking. So I applied for administrative jobs, which would be undemanding intellectually and leave ample time for reading and learning subjects new to me. After a couple of dozen failed applications, I lucked into what turned out to be perfect for me: Dean of Arts and Sciences at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (VPI&SU, formerly VPI, but now everywhere known as “Virginia Tech”).

It was easy for me to gather an informal group of people interested in interdisciplinary projects and coursework combining Humanities and Social Sciences with Engineering and Physical and Biological Sciences. The agriculture, engineering, and science departments at Virginia Tech were long-established, with strong research components; and several of the faculty in History and Philosophy in particular had already been teaching some interdisciplinary courses with faculty from technical fields.

Soon we created a Center for the Study of Science in Society (A few years later came interdisciplinary degrees, initially undergraduate but soon graduate as well. More recently the Center was replaced by a full-fledged Department of Science, Technology, and Society.

I learned a great deal about science from the discussions leading to the establishment of that Center, but my belief in the trustworthiness of science, or at least the fundamental potential trustworthiness of science, was not at all shaken. Indeed it may have been enhanced by learning how uncertain, by comparison, is the knowledge commanded by social science [3]. I also learned a great deal about differences between the various subjects professed in a College of Arts and Sciences [4]. But first I want to concentrate on what I learned about science — what can in general be learned about science by looking into matters like the Velikovsky Affair.

My planned volume of Velikovsky and the Loch Ness Monster proved far too ambitious, and eventually emerged as two separate books[5, 6]. I was again extraordinarily fortunate that the Velikovsky manuscript had been sent by the publisher for review by Marcello Truzzi, a sociologist of science long interested in scientific unorthodoxies.

 After World War II, there had come much public interest in topics like Velikovsky — the Yeti of the Himalayas, UFOs (unidentified flying objects, at first “flying saucers”), psychic phenomena, and more [7]. On all of those topics of great public interest but ignored or dismissed or denigrated by authoritative science, there were some quite well-established scientists, engineers, and other scholars who believed that there was sufficient substantive evidence, enough sheer facts, to warrant proper scientific investigation. A group of these mavericks was in the process of founding a Society for Scientific Exploration to exchange experiences and learn from one another. Because Truzzi had read my Velikovsky manuscript, I was invited to join in founding that Society .


[1]    Reprinted in many places, for example “The Case for the Loch Ness Monster: The Scientific Evidence”, Journal of Scientific Exploration, 16(2002) 225-246
[2]    Immanuel Velikovsky, Worlds in Collision, Macmillan 1950
[3]    P. 128 ff. in Scientific Literacy and the Myth of the Scientific Method, University of Illinois Press, 1992 ; pp. 151-5 in Science Is Not What You Think: How It Has Changed, Why We Can’t Trust It, How It Can Be Fixed, McFarland 2017
[4]    To Rise above Principle: The Memoirs of an Unreconstructed Dean (under the pen-name ‘Josef Martin’), Wipf & Stock, 2012 (1st ed. was University of Illinois Press, 1988)
[5]    Beyond Velikovsky: The History of a Public Controversy, University of Illinois Press 1984
[6]    The Enigma of Loch Ness: Making Sense of a Mystery, University of Illinois Press 1986 [7]    The Literature of Fringe Science, Skeptical Inquirer, 11 (#2, Winter 1986-87) 205-10

Posted in funding research, politics and science, resistance to discovery, science is not truth, science policy, scientific culture | Tagged: , , , | 3 Comments »

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