Science, Nonscience, and Neither
Those of us concerned with the multifaceted threat of creationism, as well as other ideas of that nature, need to make clear to the public that both the sciences and the nonsciences (including religion) are two legitimate areas of knowledge. Each of these, working in harmony with the other, is vital for the operation of any society. Pseudoscience, on the other hand, is a confusion of these two areas and, as often as not, involves a conscious attempt to convey that confusion to others.
Science, of course, should need no introduction to us. Its definition is a basis for all our arguments against creationist claims. As Ronald H. Pine so nicely pointed out, science is a "game"—a set of rules governing a certain process (1984). If you play by the rules, you're doing science; otherwise, you're not. By this standard, then, a biologist is a scientist; but a physician, though he or she uses scientific knowledge, is not.
I would like, however, to expand and loosen up the meaning of science a little and consider it not only a strict set of rules for a specific procedure but also as a sphere of human knowledge. Thus, both the biologist and the physician are involved in the interaction with scientific knowledge—that is, knowledge which has been acquired and tested using the scientific method—the rules of the game. Science then becomes the concrete knowledge we possess and use about the world in which we live.
Moreover, the basics of the scientific method are applied all the time outside of the realm of science as we usually conceive of it. The physician, for example, must articulate a problem (say, a person with an odd set of symptoms) and then generate hypotheses (in this case, possible diseases to explain the observed symptoms). Each hypothesis (diagnosis) is tested until one fits all the observed data, fulfills certain predictions, and is supported by additional data. Then it is acted upon. One does the same sort of thing when attempting to solve a financial problem. Thus expanded, scientific knowledge involves any ideas about the world which are based on inductive reasoning and which are open to testing and change.
Nonscience is the other sphere of human knowledge. It involves religions, ethical beliefs, moral precepts, and philosophical ideals. (Unfortunately, the "non" in nonscience almost implies some value judgment, but there doesn't seem to be a better term.) These kinds of knowledge also answer for us questions about the world, but, unlike scientific answers, these answers are based upon faith; they are taken for granted and they are not open to testing. They can be questioned and sometimes changed, but, when they are, it is not through any sort of inductive reasoning or experimentation. It is through abstract, philosophical analysis.
Nonscientific ideas show us how to use scientific knowledge. They tell us what our relationship is with the world around us and with each other. They answer questions which need answering but for which we have no scientific answers.
We must take note, however, that societies differ greatly in terms of just what sorts of things fall into each of these categories. Let us not be fooled into thinking that there are absolutes. ,For instance, the Fore people of New Guinea (famous for their unique disease kuru and for the cannibalism which transmitted it) consider all diseases and ailments to be the results of sorcery. It is an idea taken on faith, for no matter how successful or failed their attempts may be to counteract sorcery they still hold to that notion. Their scientific knowledge simply does not, or cannot, apply to disease. It's not that they don't have science; they do. Their agriculture, shelter building, and tool technology all involve reasoning and knowledge which we would have to consider scientific—at least under my expanded definition.
Our society, on the other hand, explains disease scientifically. But we are not without nonscientific ideas. The idea that all our citizens deserve the benefit of medical science is a nonscientific idea—it cannot be tested. Therefore, it can't be proved or disproved. It is taken on faith and is part of the larger religious-ethical concept about "do unto others . . ." which is the basis for our legal system.
So, for any society, though the content and form of each realm of knowledge may differ, both science and nonscience are vital. Every society needs a body of scientific knowledge through which to understand at least those aspects of the world directly relevant to its basic survival: how to get food, seek shelter, manufacture tools, and so on. But each society also needs rules that will govern the interactions of its people—with each other and with the world around them. The whole board in the game of life must be covered; all the questions must be answered and all the moves regulated—if not by science, then by nonscience.
Because of this, one realm cannot absolutely argue against the other. One cannot be set in opposition to the other with the goal of one taking precedence. To be sure, conflicts have always arisen. If they didn't, cultures would never change. But the resolution of such conflicts is not the victory of one sort of knowledge over the other but the reestablishment of a harmonious relationship, most likely by re-arranging the organization of the contents of each type of knowledge—that is, of those aspects of the world each speaks for and explains.
For instance, the current debate in this country over abortion will not be "won" by the practical reasons for the practice nor by some philosophical ethic concerned with freedom-of-choice nor by a formal religious belief which considers abortion to be murder. Rather, the issue will be resolved, if it is resolved at all, by the evolution of a collective cultural "decision" on the matter. This decision will end up fitting into one of the spheres of knowledge and thus come under its purview. It may be that abortion will become "normal," entirely legal, and morally acceptable (though not universally practiced or liked) simply because the practical reasons for it become so pervasive that the practice increases to the point of being part of the cultural system. Or the moral compunctions against it may become so strong and widespread that other solutions are found to the practical problems which led to the practice in the first place, and it will become needed only in rare circumstances. Whatever happens will involve not a victory but a realignment of how our culture operates in terms of the interactions of scientific and nonscientific knowledge.
Pseudoscience is another matter altogether and is the real problem at issue here, for it confuses these other two areas of knowledge and endeavor and, in doing so, brings them into forced conflict with each other. Both are harmed in the process. Pseudosciences have the following characteristics:
- They involve ideas which are actually testable statements about the natural world. The stars foretell the future; ancient astronauts built the pyramids; you can bend metal with your mind; all life was created simultaneously. These are all statements which are perfectly open to testing using the rigorous methods we know of as science. However,
- Proponents of pseudoscientific ideas are not about to subject their ideas to testing or to anything that vaguely resembles science (titles such as "scientific creationism" notwithstanding). And this is because,
- They treat the ideas as nonscientific beliefs are treated—that is, as matters of faith. Thus, the ideas are unchanging. New data are manipulated to support the ideas rather than used to test them.
- (And this is where the confusion really exists.) The ideas are often connected to or dependent upon some legitimate nonscientific concept. This is clearly the case with "scientific creationism," based as it is on a fundamentalist literal interpretation of Genesis. And, as Robert Schadewald points out (1981-1982), it is also true of such things as a belief in a flat Earth (which finds its basis in biblical passages such as Matthew 4:8, which tells how the devil takes Jesus to the top of a high mountain so that he can see "all the kingdoms of the world."
So, it is the pseudosciences against which we are arguing—not the nonsciences—and it is the conscious confusing of these two by pseudoscientists that is one of the biggest threats to rational thought. But there is still one more distinction to be made in order to avoid misinterpretation. We must look at motive.
As I said, in our culture we view the treatment of disease in a scientific fashion. Any ideas about disease akin to those of the Fore would have to be considered by us to be pseudoscientific. The Fore would be attempting to answer questions about natural phenomena through nontestable, unchanging, a priori beliefs taken on faith. But not everyone who believes such ideas, even within this society, can be considered a pseudoscientist with the conscious motives that the name implies.
There are, for example, "faith healers" who are little more than charlatans. But there are at the same time many for whom nonscientific answers to questions of disease fall entirely and logically under the nonscience realm of knowledge. For them there is no conscious effort to confuse anyone else, no ulterior motives behind the expression of their beliefs. The problem here is simply that, for such people, their categories of knowledge are not aligned and organized in accord with those of their society as a whole. While we may be inclined to try to "educate" such people, we should not treat them as we do those who do have ulterior motives. Indeed, believers in such ideas are often the victims of proselytized confusion. And such confusion certainly was the case with most of those at my 1982 debate with Duane Gish who shouted "Amen!" after each of his "scientific" points.
We must, then, be careful to fight only those who deserve it, while, at the same time, try to impart knowledge to those who, out of ignorance or vulnerability, have succumbed to pseudoscientific nonsense. And one way to assist us in both these endeavors is to keep clear the distinctions between the two legitimate and the one illegitimate spheres of human knowledge and to understand that, at the hands of the latter, both of the former suffer—to the detriment of society itself.
Pine, Ronald H. Fall 1984. "But Some of Them Are Scientists, Aren't They?" Creation/ Evolution XIV, pp. 6-18.
Schadewald, Robert. Winter 1981-1982. "Scientific Creationism, Geocentricity, and the Flat Earth." The Skeptical Inquirer, VI:2:41-48.