Popper’s Formulation of Scientific Knowledge: A shift from an inductivist account.

Popper’s Formulation of Scientific Knowledge: A shift from an inductivist account.

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Recently William Godfrey and I had our philosophy of science paper accepted for publication in The Philosopher. The article is coming out officially later in 2017, and so we thought we would share it early for our Mostly Science fans.


This essay will critically examine A. F. Chalmers’ inductivist description of science (Chalmers, 1976, 1) in light of Karl Popper’s hypothetico-deductivist account. Inductivist claims state that science has epistemic superiority because it utilizes a rigorous and specifically applied method, based on sensory experience, with intellectual detachment (Chalmers, 1976); this is not an accurate formulation in a descriptive or normative sense of how scientific knowledge is attained or how science is conducted (Popper, 2002, 3-27 & 74-80). In this instance one would be presented with a set of objects in the material world and a description which would be derived through observation using one’s faculties of perception, and once these facts are established a theory which takes into account the existence of these facts is formulated. This formulation from the specific observations to the more general theory, are typically only possible due to the shared characteristics each object has with other objects insofar as they can form a class of objects. Further the relationship and interaction between each object or class of objects with other objects which are not of the same class, would also inform the formulation of any general theory concerning facts about the objects in question. This prima facie would account for the methodological naturalism (Jones J, 2005) which informs the ‘act’ of science, where one conducts an experiment by isolating a specific object in a certain condition noting the factual outcome, and then performing the same experiment but exposing the object in question to a different condition and then observing the facts in that instance and then compare it to the facts in the former instance.

One would then repeat the experiment multiple times in order to find a pattern of observable phenomena from which a pattern of facts can be derived and then a generalization be made, using the pattern of facts as proof of the theory. However, this is problematic – it does not follow the form of a logical argument, where the truth of the conclusion must follow from and is dependent on the truth of the premise(s). The most one can say about the same outcomes and facts arising in each instance of the repeated experiments is that that outcome has occurred in that instance only, it says nothing about whether the same outcome will occur in the next instance even with the same set of conditions, it does not necessarily follow as a logical argument, it is temporally narrow the consequence of which is that it has no predictive power which one would expect from an account of scientific knowledge.

The notion that the same outcome will occur again based on previous experience is a psychological fiction highlighted in the example of Russell’s chicken (Deutsch, 1997, Ch. 3), where a chicken is the subject of a routine in which it is fed at the same time every day, this psychologically imprints a mental reflex action on the chicken where it has become so accustomed to the regimen that it starts to associate that particular time each day to the outcome of receiving food, only to meet its end one day when instead of being fed it becomes the subject of the main course. The recurrence of the observation of the farmer delivering food at the same time each day led the chicken to believe incorrectly that this would occur ad infinitum, until one day it did not. Through its previous experience, there was no way the chicken would have predicted its demise – mere repetition is not sufficient to sustain the conclusion.

The Popperian hypothetico-deductivist account of scientific knowledge rejects proof as forming a necessary component of science (Popper, 1957, 79 & 155). Popper disregards the notion that the central purpose of science was to reach theories backed by observation and evidence (Popper, 1957, 79), as supporting observational statements are too easily attained as they are just interpretations in light of an epistemological predisposition (for example – an already established theory which may not be necessarily correct or complete). Rather, Popper took into consideration that science is inherently a human endeavor, and therefore exposed to the shortcomings of humans themselves, such as bias and prejudice (Popper, 1957, 74-80).

What Popper offers instead is that scientific knowledge should, if formulated correctly, be falsifiable, to be fallible to a counter example (Popper, 1957, 57-70, 95-110 & 159). In this formulation we assume a current theory to be true in the broad sense and continue to conduct science based on this assumption, whilst strictly acknowledging that a current theory may in fact prove to be false or incomplete at the presentation of evidence or observation for which that theory failed to sufficiently account for. Therefore, our knowledge is merely provisional and conditional on new facts and new (although logically coherent) interpretations, we suspend judgment as metaphysical certainty can never be attained in an epistemic sense, thereby ridding the requirement of proof as a component of scientific knowledge. This permits both an intellectually honest and rigorous pursuit of any scientific endeavor.

In contrast to the inductivist account, Popper shifts the source of the epistemic authority of science to a self-corrective mechanism based on a social account of scientific inquiry. The notion of authority from ‘objectivity’ is not derived from rigid methodological scientific practice as Chalmers describes but through inter-subjective critical interactions with others where conjectures are postulated, which are then subjected to the rigorous scrutiny and criticism which comprise refutation – successful theories continue until they are refuted, in which case a new theory displaces the previous, less accurate one or is itself modified to accommodate new observations and evidence.

Popper offers a stronger account of scientific inquiry and knowledge. Occam’s razor favors Popper’s view in that it eliminates of the problem of induction because it need not be considered at all, and in Popper’s formulation, the assumptions of causation are removed. During scientific inquiry, Occam’s razor can be employed as a heuristic technique to facilitate the development of theoretical models. Whilst it is true that Occam’s razor is not on its own a proof against a given hypothesis or theory, it does allow for enhanced testability and therefore simpler falsifiability. This of course means that Popper’s formulation is not necessarily correct; however it does makes his formulation safer.

Further Popper’s formulation is more acceptable because it is epistemically modest, it limits knowledge by temporal means by constraining what one can know to the present, what follows is a rejection of certainty which leads to a conclusion that a scientific theory is just ‘more true’ or ‘less false’ than other theories, a strict result which accurately describes the development of scientific knowledge, and satisfies the philosophical principle of being conscious of the great extent of one’s own ignorance.

Popper’s formulation rightly dismisses the inductivist fictions based on unattainable ideals of the psychological states of human beings (pure objectivism, detachment, and absence of opinion). These unsafe assumptions undermine the inductivist position, because any conclusions which follow from these unattainable ideals are themselves unattainable; they are not grounded in reality in either the inductivist or the Popperian hypothetico-deductivist account of science, therefore denying that inductive reasoning forms the basis of scientific knowledge. Popper gives a more accurate account of reality than the inductivist does which strengthens his case. He accounts for what the inductivist overlooks – that scientific knowledge and science itself is muddled through the prism of personality.

Another strength of Popper’s formulation is that it exposed the permissiveness of inductivism in relation to the problem of demarcation – how to differentiate between legitimate science and what is either non-science or an illegitimate pseudoscience. Induction is merely an operation of thought and, strictly speaking practitioners of the pseudosciences such as phrenology and astrology do utilize inductive process, they fit data and make conclusions as to how their current theory dictates. In this sense they are not precluded from making truthful claims in the same sense that a broken clock with its hands fixed are correct twice a day. In fact, phrenology did in fact predict the phenomenon of the localization of brain function (Cooter, 1984), but failed to correctly categorize the precise nature of each region to the level of accuracy one attains from modern neuroscience. Astrology does account for the various spatial movements of celestial bodies in relation to one another, but fails to show why these phenomena affect human affairs (Cover & Curd, 1998).

In both instances the truthful claims derived from the use of experience whether it be intervening in neuroanatomy of mammals or using telescopes and mathematical calculations whilst observing the night sky. This accumulation of observable data would not seem out of place in university laboratories, when presumably what we call ‘legitimate’ science is being done. The truth claims whilst legitimate in themselves, are muddied by the ad hoc indiscriminate confirmations of the particular narrative (which one must accept as a phrenologist or astrologist) based on conclusions drawn from the ‘data’ accumulated when doing phrenology or astrology. Any observation or fact which can confirm the pervading narrative is seen as proof of the narrative’s legitimacy, on the other hand the narrative cannot be falsified by anything since any objection can be explained away by the ad hoc operation of the narrative itself. The formation of a body of data is itself insufficient to give an account of a theory, it only gives a trivial veneer of epistemic authority.


In contrast, Popper’s formulation is able to exclude the pseudosciences, their epistemic authority is eliminated because their hypotheses are not even testable, they occupy the lowest rung of the epistemic hierarchy insofar as they relate to scientific claims, in that they are ‘Not even wrong’ (that is, a statement which can be neither correct nor incorrect as the idea posited failed to even meet the criteria by which correctness or incorrectness, is determined ) (Peierls, 1960, 174-192). Current pseudoscientific fields such as astrology, homeopathy and alchemy were once what could be called ‘protosciences’. Here we shall define a protoscience as a field which emerged before the scientific method was developed, and thus due to the scientific method and Popper’s solution to the demarcation problem, have now been relegated as pseudosciences. The currently understood foundations of fields such as alchemy and astrology have been proven wrong and thus when one tries to add actual science to their reasoning for their perceived validity of these fields they often find themselves being ‘not even wrong’.


Ideas that are proven incorrect are useful, progress can be made by virtue of constructing a theory, challenging it and demonstrating it is incorrect or incomplete. Pseudoscience is illegitimate because it is useless, no advance or improvement of knowledge can be drawn from its operation (Popper, 1957, 162-165); in other words it is not able to predict or react to corrections or new observations which challenge its legitimacy, resulting in pseudoscience being conceptually fixed and epistemically inward. This lack of intellectual agility inherent in pseudoscience manifests itself in its absorption of unfalsifiable claims, taking it beyond the bounds of knowledge, in terms of what can and cannot be known about the universe whereas a Popperian scientific theory being dynamic in nature avoids this default altogether. Therefore, Popper’s formulation is able to make this crucial distinction between science and pseudoscience which inductivism cannot highlighting its superior utility.

Falsifiability is in a sense a fragile criterion in terms of determining what one needs to falsify a theory – one need only find a legitimate counter example or phenomena for which the theory did not predict in order for a reevaluation or total replacement of the current theory to occur. This makes current theories acutely sensitive to even the slightest challenge, which counter-intuitively elevates the epistemic authority of current theories which persist and ones the ones which legitimately replace them. This ability to identify what is needed to challenge an idea is a strength in the Popperian formulation. Further, what follows from this is that there is a democratization of knowledge in which anybody can participate in scientific inquiry although only legitimate conjectures are considered; this balancing of factors in Popper’s formulation allows challenges from within the area of knowledge that that theory is founded on as well as those from another area of science the ability exploit isomorphisms in nature through heuristics they have already acquired elsewhere and laterally apply their expertise in another field, allowing novelty, creativity and collaboration to form part of scientific inquiry.

This accounts for the multidisciplinary character of modern scientific research. Take for example the determination of the structure of DNA by two people who trained as physicists (Crick and Wilkins) working with a molecular biologist (James Watson), where they used the physical and chemical principles and methods of X-ray crystallography to derive the double helix. In the 21st century, neuroscience necessitates the need for knowledge at different levels of abstraction, therefore in order to form a comprehensive account of brain function at each scale one must engage in principles and methods from a suite of scientific disciplines.

However, it should be noted that exposing the theory to a wider intellectual audience for scrutiny and therefore potential legitimate methods of falsification does not necessarily make falsifying the claims any easier, as a potential challenger would have to be familiar with the field in order to be well acquainted with the minutiae of the corpus of knowledge which makes up the theory.



Karl Popper’s formulation provides the most accurate descriptive and normative account of how scientific knowledge is reached and how science is and should be conducted. He has given a novel solution to the problem of induction (denying its utility altogether) by challenging old assumptions and theories and has also given an accurate account of the social, creative and inventive elements of science, which is elegantly analogous to Popperianism itself. Future work will further explore the issue of the demarcation of science and pseudoscience, by way of comparing and contrasting Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn, and their approaches to explaining and solving this problem.



Chalmers, A. What Is This Thing Called Science? Queensland University Press and Open University Press, 1976.


Cooter, R. The Cultural Meaning of Popular Science: Phrenology and the Organization of Consent in Nineteenth Century Britain. Cambridge University Press, 1984.


Cover, J.A and Curd, M. Philosophy of Science: The Central Issues. Ch. ‘Why Astrology Is a Pseudoscience’ by Thagard. W. W. Norton & Co. 1998


Deutsch, D. The Fabric of Reality, the Science of Parallel Universes and it’s Implications. Viking Adult 1997.

Jones, J. Kitzmiller V. Dover Area School District. 400 F. Supp. 2d 707 (M.D. Pa. 2005).


Peierls, R.E. Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society: Ernst Wolfgang Pauli 5. 174-192, 1960.


Popper, K. The Logic of Scientific Discovery. Routledge Classics 2002.


Popper, K. Philosophy of Science: A Personal Report. British Philosophy in Mid-Century 1957.





Multiculturalism, Economics, Peace and an Argument with the Uninformed.

Multiculturalism, Economics, Peace and an Argument with the Uninformed.

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I recently was engaged in a wee argument with a friend of a friend around the concepts around multiculturalism, economics and peace. Now I am a man of evidence; I will believe anything if you can justify it with reasonable and accurate evidence since I am a skeptic. None of us can get everything right all of the time,

Ethical Relativism in light of Western and Islamic Values

Ethical Relativism in light of Western and Islamic Values

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Turn on the television in any Western nation and you will undoubtedly find a politician sounding off about Western values. Search some more, find a channel reporting on current immigration rates from the Middle-East, and watch how the discussion quickly descends into a contest between Western and Islamic values, their compatibility, and how to best resist those who find themselves fleeing war and famine.

In some of the more nationalistic cases in politics, such as Australia’s One Nation Party, policies are proposed that describe how to best deal with what they see as a clash of civilization (1). In Islamic countries a similar tone can be found among some of the more fundamental practitioners of Islam. In Matthew Thompsons, Running with the Blood God, he vividly describes the feud many of the Iranians, and indeed their government, have with the West.

Thompsons vision of Iran is not that dissimilar from the account given by the late Christopher Hitchens (2). Hitchens describes the nation as having two faces, one of the West-hating Islamic ruled fundamentalists, and the other which goes about life as if  the citizenry were free from religious tyranny and political dogma.

In the cases of Iran and Australia what is strikingly obvious is that this “culture war” is perpetrated mostly in the minds of the nationalists and fundamentalists. While both parties claim to be upholding their way of life, they also seem to be offering a defence of their values by appealing to an idea known as ethical relativism.

Ethical relativism will be defined here as the position that all moral views are equal and only answerable to norms of the society which gave rise to those views (3). What does that mean exactly? It means that you and I are not allowed, under ethical relativism, to comment on the Danish tradition of massacring dolphins. Because that’s their culture, and if they choose to do so, then so be it.

Here I hope to argue, and convince you dear reader, that a defence of Western or Islamic values is only possible when ethical relativism is not used, and that when abandoned, Western and Islamic values can both be celebrated and criticised equally without having to appeal to nationalism or fundamentalism; or phrased another way: the lowest common denominator.

Please keep in mind that the examples given to make this argument are not  the core of my argument here. When discussing ethical relativism we are exclusively discussing a rhetorical style of argument. Not so much the content of the debates themselves.

While ethical relativism will be shown to be a useless mode of inquiry, its underlying premise is still one of importance. That being that culture clearly influences the morality of a society (4). While it will be argued that this does not make any culture impervious to criticism, it is important to acknowledge these differences across societies to help facilitate a reflective equilibrium (a state of balance among beliefs arrived at through mutual  adjustment and understanding by all parties involved) in the hope of improving the ethical and moral standards of all societies.

Why care? For me personally, I like humanity and I’d like to see it improve. Civilisation is a continuous project, the work never ends, and it requires constant criticism and adjustment.

Whilst most ethicists reject the theory of ethical relativism, unfortunately many citizens do not (4). This fact is brought to light by the rise of populism and far-right political groups the world over (5) and here in Australia with the recent return of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party. In these circles policy is often built upon the defence of Western values (often described as British or Australian values etc) while simultaneously denouncing the values of others. For Hanson and her party of late it is Islamic values. However, 20 years ago it was Eastern values and Asian immigrants.

This defence of Western values is blurred as it is not ever made entirely clear what exactly those values are. If the Edinburgh educated Ibn Warraq (pen name) is to be believed (6), then individual autonomy and the right to live life free from oppression are fundamental Western values, then it seems most strange that many LGBT communities, the West over, are still fighting for equal recognition.

The inability of ethical relativism to address differences of values within societies is another troubling sign. Ethical relativism assumes all subjects of a society, say Australia, hold the same moral beliefs. Which effectively abolishes any idea of individualism or dissent. And since we all know that this isn’t the case – even within our own friend groups – it follows that ethical relativism leaves no room for differing opinions among a population. Therefore what could it possibly contribute to a reflective equilibrium. “This is our way of life,” effectively means nothing. The pronoun describes nobody and everybody all at once.

This double standard, however, is not exclusively found here in the West. The same argument can be found in Islamic countries, albeit slightly different in appearance.

Freedom of speech, considered a fundamental of Western society, is not looked upon with the same reverence in some Islamic countries as it is in the West. Take for example Salman Rushdie, a British author, who, living under protection of British police, had several attempts made on his life. Rushdie’s portrayal of particular symbols considered sacred to the Islamic faith in his book, The Satanic Verses, lead to outrage in much of the Muslim world (the leader of Iran at the time, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, issued a Fatwa on Rushdie’s life, demanding Muslims the world over to kill him and anyone involved in publication).

Professor Ali Mazrui (7), writing at the time, said, “many devout Muslims felt that Rushdie had no right to poke fun at and twist into obscenity some of the most sacred symbols of Islam.” This objection undoubtedly has its roots in ethical relativism: How dare Rushdie represent our  symbols in such a manner. Unfortunately, a similar argument, using the same logic of ethical relativism, can be used in rebuttal (and was): How dare the Muslim world feel aggrieved enough to demand the life of a writer for simply expressing our  right to freedom of speech.

Both arguments, rightly or wrongly, rely on the premise that their respective cultures are exempt from criticism, while simultaneously criticising another. This hypocrisy seems to be missed on those who employ this line of thinking.

While there are arguments to be had on both fronts: How far should freedom of speech be allowed to go? and how much offence should the religious claim to take towards blasphemy? Neither of these discussions benefit from the inclusion of ethical relativism. If, for example, it is argued that freedom of speech should not be allowed to offend due to religious sensitivities, what is to be said of the “as if” citizens of Iran? After all, “as if” dissidents by their very definition do not share the same sensitivities as their fellow citizens. Shall their voices be ignored in favour of the more extreme and fundamental tenets of their state? This is what is meant when it is said ethical relativism assumes all citizens of a culture hold the same beliefs – they do not.

Similarly, here in the West, if it is argued that freedom of speech shall have no limits, then what of the Western voices who say otherwise? The answer to both of these questions is irrelevant for this argument. This essay is only concerned with the means in which these arguments are debated. If the very style and method of these debates is flawed from the get-go, what hope can there be to find a reflective equilibrium between contending parties.

The Western value of freedom of speech is of particular importance when discussing ethical relativism. In the case of Salman Rushdie, a free speech advocate would welcome the outcry of the Muslim world (without the violence or riots, of course). The free speech advocate should welcome any and all criticism. Without falling into ethnocentrism this much can be claimed. This suggests that at the core, and not without its own shortcomings, Western conversation has a fundamental advantage in these types of debates, being that disagreement and argument are had for their own sake.

In conclusion, it has been shown that using ethical relativism to defend one-self from another culture is not sound and eventually leads to a double standard and hypocrisy. While the West’s criticism of Islam may be valid in some areas, by using the arguments that rely on ethical relativism to make the case it allows the perpetual argument to continue. Similarly, Islam’s critique of Western values, in particular criticisms aimed at materialism and consumerism, suffer tremendously when ethical relativism is used to defend their motive for criticising the West.

The topic of best-practice-ethics from culture-to-culture would benefit greatly from frank discussion and honest introspection, on all fronts and by all peoples. Whilst free speech would be at the very core of any of these discussions, it is simply not a principle held dear by all the nations of Earth. Therefore, the West (and any other nation that espouses free speech ideals) have an unequivocal advantage of having almost all of their citizens freely and openly aware of their right to espouse any idea they see fit (look at me go). This should, and in many cases does, alleviate the need to call upon the arguments of ethical relativism to justify a criticism of a culture, and, I suspect, may be the reason why its use is largely seen in nationalistic, dogmatic and fundamental circles.

In summary, ethical relativism is a bad position to take as it hinders honest criticism, prevents honest defence, and offers no aid in finding a reflective equilibrium between ideas and points of contention. In the case of Western values, it offers nothing but a lazy defence of a system that so many revere and wish to take part in (6).

Bryce W. Harper



(1) One Nation Party. (2016). Islam. Retrieved from http://www.onenation.com.au/policies/islam

(2) Hitchens, C. (2011). Iran’s Waiting Game.   Retrieved from http://www.vanityfair.com/news/2005/07/hitchens-200507

(3) Baghramian, Maria, Carter, & Adam. (2016). Relativism.  Spring 2016. Retrieved from http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2016/entries/relativism/

(4) Velasquez, M. (1992). Ethical Relativism.   Retrieved from https://www.scu.edu/ethics/ethics-resources/ethical-decision-making/ethical-relativism/

(5) The New York Times. (2016). Europe’s Rising Far Right: A Guide to the Most Prominent Parties. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/world/europe/europe-far-right-political-parties-listy.html?_r=0

(6) Warraq, I. (2007). The Superiority of Western Values in Eight Minutes. Retrieved from http://www.westminster-institute.org/articles/the-superiority-of-western-values-in-eight-minutes/

(7) Mazrui, A. A. A. (1997). Islamic and Western values.(75th Anniversary Issue). Foreign Affairs, 76(5), 118

In Defence: Taking on the Natural Ruse

In Defence: Taking on the Natural Ruse

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The GMO “debate” never strays far from the headlines. Almost every person I know has an opinion on the matter, and I cannot stomach that. As Patrick Stokes, senior lecturer in philosophy at the Deakin University, argues:

“The problem with “I’m entitled to my opinion” is that, all too often, it’s used to shelter beliefs that should have been abandoned. It becomes shorthand for “I can say or think whatever I like” – and by extension, continuing to argue [with that person] is somehow [seen as] disrespectful. And this attitude feeds, I suggest, into the false equivalence between experts and non-experts that is an increasingly pernicious feature of our public discourse.”

And a disgusting feature at that, Dr Stokes.

You are entitled to an opinion; you are entitled to an opinion that can be reasonably defended with evidence and logical argument. This is why I am so fascinated by science denial. I have various friends and acquaintances who think GMOs and other “toxic” food ingredients are the single biggest threat to civilisation. I’m reluctant with my usage of civilisation as I’m not entirely sure proponents of this view can truly appreciate what civilisation is and why it is such a precious and fragile thing. However, they still expect their opinions as a non-experts to be respected and heard.

Dear Dr Internet

Dear Dr Internet

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Dear Dr. Internet
I have a weird rash forming on my neck. It’s red, slightly swollen, and it is hot to touch. Can anyone recommend some ailments or home remedies I could apply to stop the itching?

Questions like this have become all too common in a world where social media is saturated with perhaps a-little-too-much-information. I would be inclined to reply to this question by suggesting a dermatologist or perhaps I would rather slam shut my laptop and pry open a book to help immunise myself from such ignorance. Either way, this is a trend that I believe needs to be addressed.

There is no shortage of news stories depicting seemingly well-intentioned though neglectful parents who refused immunisation, or insisted upon some natural remedy, whose child either fell severely ill or died due to medical neglect. Almost every month a story of this sort finds its way into my inbox. It’s tragic, heartbreaking, and it need not happen.

Prof. Gero Miesenböck: A man of the mind

Prof. Gero Miesenböck: A man of the mind

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Image credit, www.cncb.ox.ac.uk

Please note this article is co-authored by both Christopher Haggarty-Weir and William Godfrey. William had the idea of interviewing Prof. Miesenböck (one of William’s current favourite scientists) and came up with the majority of questions, in addition to writing up the transcripts from the recorded interview. Christopher conducted the interview and attended the public lecture in Edinburgh. Also fellow readers, please accept our apologies for the delay in posting this piece; our website was hacked and had to be taken down for several weeks until we could sort the issue out. Anyway, I hope the wait was worth it!

Ow my feelings! A woo-full discussion of Chinese Medicine

Ow my feelings! A woo-full discussion of Chinese Medicine


There are times when we find ourselves talking nonsense, and in need of some harsh truths. I don’t know if it’s because I’m getting older and more cynical, but regardless, I have very little time for pushers and apologists of pseudoscience and quackery. Recently I got into an argument with a friend of a friend who was a staunch apologist of the woo that is Traditional Chinese Medicine. I have decided to include the discussion in full (only with their name changed for anonymity) from where I first came into the conversation. Note that “in full” also means including any spelling errors. See if you can spot the flaws in their argument before I make mention of them, and if I have missed any, please mention in the comments. After the argument speech, I will then also give some post-argument thoughts.

Snake Oil and Skepticism: Some recent examples.

Snake Oil and Skepticism: Some recent examples.


I would like to introduce a new contributor to Mostly Science, a Mr. Bryce Harper. Bryce is a student of the humanities and if you are interested you can check out his blog here. Full disclosure, Bryce wrote this article and I edited it, adding only a minimal amount of additional text. Hope you enjoy.


There are so many ways to be fooled. No human ever walked the earth without falling victim to gullibility. As we grow older and further develop what is known as our theory of mind, first coined by Premack and Woodruff in 1978, we tend to grow out of our evolutionary gullibility. But for one reason or another large groups of us still fall prey to this ever lurking provocateur of deception.

Denying Science – All a Big Miscommunication?

Denying Science – All a Big Miscommunication?

  • The measles vaccine causes autism.
  • HIV does not cause AIDS.
  • Genetically modified foods are dangerous.
  • Humans have had no impact on world weather patterns.
  • Diluting a compound a million times to single atoms increases their therapeutic potential.
  • Cancer can be cured with health eating alone.


Hopefully many people reading this blog will shake their heads in disbelief and recognize that these statements are wrong. They are not just wrong – they are dangerous! Michael Specter, a writer for the New Yorker and author of a book on scientific denialism, gave an excellent TED talk[1] about the danger of denying science.

The Science Behind ScienceMediaHype

The Science Behind ScienceMediaHype

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The Science Behind ScienceMediaHype, or “This it how it works in the real world.”


The cartoon linked here sums up pretty neatly a lot of things that are hard about being a scientist. If only science were as neat and pretty as what the press release sites and the newspapers described. In the world of newspapers, a line of research always yields fascinating and unequivocal results and the researchers’ cleverness and insight overcomes long odds to reveal amazing truths. Then, we pull the actual papers and the first thing we say to ourselves is, “Hmm. I wish they’d done this too. The paper would have been stronger.” And we recall the times we’ve published things ourselves that weren’t as done as we wanted them to be because it was time to move on, or because the funding was running out, or because it was time for the student to graduate.

Often, we’ve run out of time because we’ve run the same analysis 39 times and gotten 39 disparate answers, with no rhyme or reason as to why the variation. Maybe we’ll find out later that the undergrad intern reset the optics on the diffractometer, or that the rotavap was contaminated by that guy in the next lab who is a total slob.

All of us live for the “that’s funny” moments. Those moments when we see something unexpected that we suspect might hide something new and exciting. That’s not what usually happens, though. Usually, its a case of “I have no freaking clue why its doing that.” And often that means we’ve failed to control some variable or missed some confounding factor or interference. We have no idea what it is, but we do know that more likely than not, we’re going to spend the next month re-running that same experiment. Sigh.

And then. Then, inevitably we get data we believe, data that show that we’ve made the molecule we meant to make or something like that. We think about all these things and we say to ourselves, “These data look too good. I’m missing something. I’m going to run the experiment again.” Sigh, again.

It’s pretty in fashion right now in some circles to discount science as abstract and disconnected with the real world or to claim science has no advantage over various other sources of knowledge. I sometimes wonder why I don’t see more scientists speaking up about that, pushing back a little. Then, I see this cartoon and I’m reminded why they aren’t. They’re busy running that experiment for the 40th time, because this time (for reals!) they’ll figure out why its catching on fire in step 11.

This is a followup to a recent post in Curator’s Choice by Chad Haney (https://plus.google.com/105917944266111687812/posts/3r8ghecybAW)

This is a re-post from Brent’s Google Plus page with his permission.


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