On The Fringe: Where Science
by Michael D. Gordin (Oxford University Press)
Reviewed by Gearóid Ó Loingsigh
20 July 2021
On the Fringe is a short book, of just 130 pages, that aims to look at the issue of distinguishing between pseudoscience and science. It is no easy task as the author himself acknowledges, but given the world we live in, with climate change denial and anti-vaxxers in abundance, the issue is important, though it is hardly new.
Scientists, a relatively recent term that first appeared in 1831, have been distinguishing between science and pseudoscience for centuries. Gordin cites Hippocrates, the father of medicine coming up with his own explanation for the cause of epilepsy and stating that no faith healer deserves, the title of physician. Despite Hippocrates best efforts, such charlatans and quacks are still with us and even on the increase in some countries: the power of prayer as the preacher would have it.
Gordin takes us through the attempts to come up with a workable model for what is pseudoscience, looking at Karl Popper's ideas on demarcation around falsiability, showing why it doesn't work and how it not only excludes whole areas of contemporary science but also gives a free pass to Flat Earthers, Creationists, Big Foot, the Loch Ness Monster and other quackery. The problem is how to categorise them.
The wide sweep of doctrines that have been called pseudosciences—from astrology to cryptozoology, from creationism to Aryan Physics, from parapsychology to alchemy—do not share enough of a common essence so we can declare: “Beliefs that claim to be sciences but possess properties x, y, and z are pseudosciences.”In his efforts to come up with a system to distinguish between science and pseudoscience, he divides fringe doctrines into families as there are so many, "no single taxonomy can classify the entirety of the fringe because the fringe mirrors the heterogeneity of science itself." He divides them into four examples
...vestigial sciences, which are based on past “legitimate” science that is out of date; hyper politicized sciences that are yoked to ideological programs; counter establishment sciences that replicate the sociological structures of mainstream science; and the lineage of theories that have posited extraordinary powers of mind.And he then proceeds to look at examples of each one, going through history. It is an interesting ride, with some surprising statements, like astrology being considered a science for a long time, and fading in part due to the acceptance of the heliocentric system. Though we might like to think of pseudoscience as the realm of fools, idiots, charlatans and others, it is not, quite a bit of it has been advanced by respected scientists, two notable examples being the Nobel Prize winners Lenard (1905) and Stark (1919) both linked to the Nazi Party, even before Hitler's rise to power, who promoted the idea of a German or Ayrian physics distinct from the "Jewish physics" of Einstein. Aside from such overtly hyper politicised uses of science (all science being political to some degree), many pseudosciences stem from science, failed and discarded ideas, theories and experiments, resuscitated by others who ignore the results, a case in point being anti-vaxxers who point to an article that later 10 of the 13 authors would disown in order to draw a link between the MMR vaccine and autism.
One of the interesting stories of this nature is the Flat Earth issue. Gordin has an interesting take on it all.
In popular parlance, thinking that “Earth is flat” is supposed to be a throwback to medievalism, a rejection of everything modern. In fact, since at the very latest the days of Plato and Aristotle, the Western tradition has been fully committed to a spherical Earth. The big debate was not the shape of the globe, but whether the southern latitudes were inhabited (or even habitable). With very few exceptions—such as the Christian holy men Lactantius and Cosmas Indicopleustes, writing between the third and sixth centuries—all thinkers about nature in the Christian and Islamic Middle Ages disparaged the notion of a flat Earth as nonsense. The idea that “the medievals” thought the planet was flat stems largely from the writings of the nineteenth-century American author Washington Irving, who proposed it in order to give Christopher Columbus the aura of a scientific revolutionary in heading West across the Atlantic. The twenty-first-century “revival” of this idea is not a revival at all, but a (post)modern invention.Gordin, does deal with the political uses of science and accepts the political nature of scientific endeavour and use, which is not the same as science per se, but does not adequately locate pseudoscience in a political context, which to be fair would be a mammoth task, given the varied nature of them. He doesn't think that pseudoscience arises due to a lack of education, pointing out that most if not all Flat Earthers would have been taught the Earth is round at school. But learning facts is not the same as having a critical mind and most educational systems do not actually teach children to use their critical faculty, as this might be dangerous. It is as the Brazilian educationalist Paulo Freire stated "it would be extremely naive to expect the dominant classes to develop a type of education that would enable subordinate classes to perceive social injustices critically.” This applies also to science one of the potential tools of human emancipation.
One of the issues Gordin deals with is Eugenics, a much-discredited idea, thanks in part to the Nazis taking it to its logical conclusion. Eugenics was not just a scientific fallacy that became a pseudoscience, it was along with a whole host of other ideas in the late 19th Century very popular, particularly amongst the ruling class and was just one of a range of "scientific" efforts around a supposed biological basis to intelligence and other positive attributes. It was intimately linked to class society, imperialism and the ideologies that justified and required both, it did not arise in a vacuum and the persistence and/or periodic resurrections of these ideas also occurs in a political context. This was the case in the 1980s with the rapidly expanding field of genetics and the search for a genetic basis to Empire. In 1994, with neoliberalism thoroughly established, it was perhaps no surprise that a book like The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life should be published, basically arguing that the working class and blacks in particular were inferior to the "cognitive elite". This was a political moment, not just a scientific one. Stephen Jay Gould tore apart not just this book but the whole tradition of seeking a biological basis to not only intelligence, but also poverty, crime and Empire in The Mismeasure of Man.
Pseudosciences when not part of an explicit political policy, always occur in a political context, there is a link between Flat Earth, Creationism, Anti-Vaxxers and Trump, for example, and though the efforts of scientists to debunk and even attack reactionary scientific pseudoscience is necessary, we can't do without Gordin or Gould, it is the retreat of the working class that facilitates the triumph of such rubbish. The current fad of denying the basic scientific fact of binary sexual dimorphism is a political movement more than just a pseudoscience, its hold in whole areas is due to the politics of pretending you can actually change sex and not the scientific merit of the case. Neil deGrasse Tyson's convolutions and contortions on the issue, even though he accepts part of the science, are not the result of an idiot at work, but of a man caught in the politics of the moment.(1) Gordin does not ignore the politics, it is just not the strong point of the book, which is an entertaining whistle-stop tour of the issues and deserves to be read along with Gould and perhaps also the more detailed case analysis Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstitition, and Other Confusions of Our Time by Michael Shermer (with a foreword by Stephen Jay Gould).