The importance of language and why I don’t like the term Pseudoscience

Pseudoscience.  What is it?

According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, Pseudoscience is “a system of theories, assumptions, and methods erroneously regarded as scientific” [1]
Examples of things that are pseudoscience are often debated because, as Scientific American states, no one says they are a pseudo-scientist [2].  For those interested in lists, a (very debatable) list can be found in a Wikipedia article.

But I dislike the term “pseudoscience.”  Why?  Because it puts a limit on the scientific process.  In its most basic sense, it puts a limit on what can/should be researched.  And this limit is VERY debatable.  Now, does this mean that I believe in every conspiracy theory?  Of course not.  Yet, if I simply classify a science idea as “fake” science and not be willing to even read studies or am not willing to be proved wrong, then I should not be in science.  Calling something “pseudoscience” does nothing except confuse the public.  If an idea truly is spreading false information, then we should focus on educating why this view is false.  Not resort to calling it pseudoscience.

So what are the side effects of calling something pseudoscience?  I am going to classify them into two different groups:  Damage to the public and Damage to Science.  

It damages the public because it is confusing.  In the limited knowledge that the general public has about scientific processes, it is easy for them to misunderstand.  Much like the term “theory” is misunderstood by the public to mean something completely different.  When a scientist uses the term pseudoscience, he might mean “the methods are flawed,” “it is very biased,” the conclusions do not match the data at all,” etc.  However, it is interpreted by the public as “that scientist does not understand basic ideas,” “How can they not see the obvious?” “they are not a real scientist.”  This is detrimental because we then see the public using this word incorrectly:  “I disagree with you, ergo you are using pseudoscience.”  This ultimately boils down to a scientific communication problem and using language that your audience will understand

On the flip side, the term pseudoscience can be detrimental to the scientific process because one can feel “pressured” to conduct research in a certain way.  We see many examples from the past in which scientists were criticized for there ideas.  Some turned out to be true and some false but unless each idea is given an equal chance to gain merit, we are not conducting true science.  Science is about idea sharing, peer testing, and ultimately, coming to conclusions.  But if all possible ideas are not considered, how can we claim we have the right conclusion?

Note that this does not mean that we should throw resources to ideas that ultimately have no merit.  But it does mean that every idea should have a chance to enter the scientific process. Therefore, should we stop using the term pseudoscience?  I think it has its place.   However, I do believe that it is detrimental to science to use prematurely.

What do you think?

Toulmin’s Model of Argument

Arguments.  Have you heard about them?   Of course you have.  Arguments are one of the side effects of a society that can think for themselves.  This makes it a good thing!  In this post, I want to touch a little bit on the Toulmin model of argument.  If you’ve taken a speech class or have debated competitively, odds are you’ve heard of this important model of argument which is based on the work by philosopher Stephen Toulmin.

Even if you are not into debate, understanding the Toulmin model of argument is essential in helping to analyze biases that we encounter in our everyday life. For example, when we come across some information, what unstated principles or beliefs are behind them? Toulmin calls these warrants. As an example, there is a looming proposal in northern Illinois and my community to build a major railroad line through rural land to ease up rail traffic in the Chicagoland area. The main warrant behind the argument for the railroad is that a new rail is the only way to solve the traffic problem. I do not support the addition of a new rail line but I came to that conclusion after examining many things including the warrants (for more info about the Great Lakes Basin Railroad, visit the company website for pros or this page for some cons)

So, now comes the big question – how do people use the elements of argumentation that were identified by Toulmin and more specifically, what does this mean for an increasingly interconnected world?  To answer this question, I want to turn your attention to 2 different types of online communications:  1) News Media, and 2) Social Networks.

News Media

Many of us have heard the phrase “fake news” – this phrase has been used and misused for centuries.  Online news media is both a blessing and a curse.  It is a blessing because news can be assimilated almost instantaneously and any errors can be updated just as fast.  However, because of this speed and ease, we see people taking their preferred news website’s word as facts.  Though most report facts accurately, it is important to understand that they are never free from bias.  In a recent article from CNN, editor Chris Cillizza presents two recent pictures from the meeting between President Donald Trump and Pope Francis.  Depending on your opinion of the president, odds are that you’ve only seen one of these photos (one shows only the president smiling and the other shows both the president and the pope smiling).  Your preconceived notions, and more so those of your news source, chose which image you saw.

Social Networks

The second topic is social networks.  We’ve already talked on this blog about some of the pros and cons of social media but now I want to focus on how these elements get lost in arguments on social media.

Find a popular and controversial “tweet” or Facebook “post” and find the comments.  How many are arguments?  Probably most of them (“I love it!” “I agree,” “HATE IT!” “You are weird,” etc. all count as arguments).  Now how many have evidence?  Facts?  How about qualifiers?  Rebuttals?  In fact, how can one sort through these comments and come to an educated conclusion?   Everyone can say anything – the hard part comes with supporting it.  This “everything I say is true” mentality has contributed to cyberbullying – a term that had no existence before the dawn of social media.  If we as a society are to move forward in the digital age, we need to apply the same rigorous standards of information & decency in the online world.  That starts with arguments – how we make them and how we react to them.


So why does this all matter?  Because if we are only seeing one side of a story (reading one news source or only making or reading one kind of post), our opinions are made for us.

Think about that.

If we don’t think for ourselves and analyze arguments critically from BOTH SIDES OF A TOPIC, our opinion is not really our opinion.  We didn’t make it.  Someone else shaped it. But if we read multiple sources from a wide range of viewpoints and use Toulmins model to make conclusions, our opinions will be our own.

So what about you?  What do you think of Toulmins model and are your arguments your own?  I’d love to hear your thoughts!