when science isn’t scientific

One of the reasons that western civilisation abandoned Christianity was that a shiny new replacement was available. While religion was just superstition this new replacement dealt in absolute truth. Its claims could be tested and were subject to proof. It was incapable of error. This new system was called science.

There was much excitement at the time. And today the claims of science are almost universally accepted. If you’re not sure about something, ask a scientist.

The problem is that science has expanded and it has gone on expanding. Science now covers an immense range of academic disciplines. We can be assured that they are all real science. Their practitioners tell us so, and why would they lie?

The problem is that most of these fields are in reality not science at all. They simply borrow some of the trappings of science. Physics is science. One or to other fields of science are also real science. They employ the scientific method, and the scientific method is the one trump card that science holds. The scientific method is an assurance that we’re dealing with truth rather than superstition or opinion or even deliberate falsehood. For a theory to be accepted as true it has to be tested by experiment and the experiments have to be repeated multiple times just to make sure. It’s a fool-proof system. Physicists knew that the laws propounded by Galileo and Newton were true because they were tested by the scientific method and proof was obtained. Of course the laws propounded by Galileo and Newton later turned out to be wrong but that’s an annoying minor detail that is best ignored.

Most scientific disciplines do not employ the scientific method. Geology for example, or palaeontology. You might be pretty confident that a particular type of valley was the result of thousands of years of glacial action but you can’t very well set up an experiment to prove it. You might think that changing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere change the climate but you can’t set up an experiment to prove it.

This has always been a bit of an embarrassment but in the past few decades a solution has been found. If you can’t perform an actual experiment you can set up a computer model. And that’s just as good. The only problem here is that computer models are not just as good as performing an experiment. Computer models are amusing toys. They can be very expensive toys, but they’re still toys. They don’t prove anything.

At least geologists and palaeontologists try to be as scientific as they can. That can’t be said of many other sciences. In fact many disciplines that masquerade as sciences are completely unscientific. Psychology and anthropology for example. That’s not to say that it’s impossible for an anthropologist or a psychologist to have an accurate insight. It’s just that it’s not a scientific insight. Psychology is an art, not a science.

Then there are the social sciences. Like sociology. Such disciplines are very keen to be seen as scientific. In fact they’re political ideologies, not sciences.

And all of this is without taking into account the very real problems of scientific fraud, and the even bigger problems of scientists being motivated by political bias and cowardice. If you look at a field like climate science you get every single one of these problems.

Science’s claim to be able to give us undisputed truth is really rather unimpressive. In certain very narrow fields it can do so, up to a point. The fact that science has major deficiencies isn’t really a problem in itself. What is a problem is that so many people seem to be unaware of these deficiencies. When stuff like “climate science” starts to get taken seriously we’re a long way down the rabbit hole.

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actual science and pseudoscience

The inability to distinguish between actual science and pseudoscience is one of the major problems we face. It’s not just ordinary people who find it difficult to distinguish between the two. Intellectuals seem to have even greater difficulty with the concept.

It’s really pretty simple. If you can prove it by experiment it’s definitely real science. If you can’t prove it by experiment but you can point to actual evidence, as is the case with historical sciences like geology and evolutionary biology, then it’s real science but you can’t feel quite so confident that all the details will be correct. If it’s based on a mixture of wishful thinking and deliberately dubious methodology, like climate science, then it’s probably pseudoscience. If it’s based purely on subjective value judgments, as is the case with sorcery and psychiatry, then it ain’t science at all.

psychiatry, the story of a pseudoscience

I’m having way too much to do with the mental health system at the moment. No, they haven’t sent the men in the white coats to take me away. Someone close to me is however having some major problems with the system.

The major problem of course is that the mental health system is constructed upon the assumption that psychiatry is real and that psychiatric diagnoses have some connection with reality. The truth of course is that psychiatry is about as scientific as astrology. The sacred text of psychiatry, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), is best described as a work of imaginative fiction.

Which means that admitting a person against his will to a psychiatric hospital based on a diagnosis by a psychiatrist is really no different from locking someone up because they have Pisces rising or because of a very unfavourable conjunction of the planets. There’s no actual scientific basis to it, which means that the legal basis for such measures are built on non-existent foundations.

That’s not to say that mental illness isn’t real. It may be real. We don’t know. We have insufficient data. If psychiatrists and politicians were prepared to be honest enough to admit that they know very little about this subject it might be possible to do some good. But good can never be achieved when you’re basing policy and basing treatment on ignorance combined with arrogance.

There are of course lots of other problems. Psychiatrists are like cops. They stick together. They stick together very tightly when their actions are questioned by civilians. When a psychiatrist gets things hopelessly wrong (which is extremely frequent) it is very difficult to get that wrong reversed because the psychiatry code is that you don’t rat on a fellow psychiatrist. So even if you know that psychiatrist Dr Bill Smith is an incompetent buffoon who should not be allowed to practice as a horse doctor much less a psychiatrist other psychiatrists will tend to defend Dr Smith.

And of course there is the biggest problem of all. If you ever find yourself on the wrong side of the mental health system you will discover that absolutely everything you do, no matter how reasonable and understandable, will be interpreted as a symptom of your mental illness. It’s like the old line that if you turn up late for an appointment with a psychiatrist it’s a bad sign because you’re trying to avoid treatment. If you show up early it’s a bad sign because you’re showing hostility. If you turn up on time it’s a bad sign because it shows you’re obsessive-compulsive. You can’t win.

If a heart specialist makes a ludicrously incorrect diagnosis it can and will be overruled by another more competent doctor. Once you’ve been incorrectly diagnosed once as being mentally ill your chances of having that diagnosis overturned are slim.

I’m not suggesting that al psychiatrists are idiots or malevolent. Some try very hard to do good. Some actually succeed. But psychiatry is an art, not a science. We should never make the mistake of treating a pseudoscience like psychiatry as real science.