How Science Works (and Why Pseudoscience Fails).

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Author: Steve Sobel
Date: Summer 2021
From: Skeptic (Altadena, CA)(Vol. 26, Issue 3)
Publisher: Skeptics Society & Skeptic Magazine
Document Type: Article
Length: 2,861 words
Lexile Measure: 1380L

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INDIVIDUALS CANNOT MAKE VALID DECISIONS WITH-out, the ability to distinguish reality from fantasy, and a society cannot thrive without the foundation of an underlying shared reality. We are constantly bombarded by information, innovative concepts, pseudoscience, conspiracy theories, expert opinions, and other ideas which we must evaluate as truth or fiction or something in between. Frequently it seems that some people are viewing the world through distorting lenses that result in a perspective that is incompatible with the reality we believe we know. We wonder what planet they are living on that would foster views so at odds with our own experience. How do we separate the wheat from the chaff among all these ideas in a world operating at warp speed? Do we simply accept the word of authority? If so, which authority? Do we blindly rely on a limited circle of those we trust to filter out the falsehoods? If it rings true or pulls at our heartstrings, should we instinctively give credence to it? Should we believe only what science has proven and, if so, what constitutes proof?

We are likely hardwired to connect dots and find patterns among disparate pieces of data, but we are not hardwired to challenge our swift or hasty conclusions. To the contrary, we are easily misled. The appeal of supernatural, miraculous, and heartwarming stories is hard to resist. The astronomer Carl Sagan, recognizing the allure of belief in an afterlife as he grieved the loss of his parents, was spurred to create a "baloney detection kit." Pseudoscience stands always ready to confirm our fantasies. Yet false beliefs based on rejection of rational and scientific reasoning can place our well-being and freedom in jeopardy. As Sagan wrote in The Demon-Haunted World: (1)

I worry that, especially as the Millennium edges nearer, pseudoscience and superstition will seem year by year more tempting, the siren song of unreason more sonorous and attractive. Where have we heard it before? Whenever our ethnic or national prejudices are aroused, in times of scarcity, during challenges to national self-esteem or nerve, when we agonize about our diminished cosmic place and purpose, or when fanaticism is bubbling up around us--then, habits of thought familiar from ages past reach for the controls.

But how do we distinguish falsehoods from truth? If we dive too deeply into epistemological debates about truth and knowledge, we might emerge as nihilists who reject the very possibility of establishing anything as truth. If we lapse into solipsism, we reject the idea of knowledge of anything outside our own minds. In between lies the realm of science and its goal of determining what we will accept as likely true and what we will reject as probably false.

Literary fiction can pack emotional truths and revelations of genuine impact into narratives. Thoughtful, coherent opinions may bestow enlightening insights. We learn much from personal experience, but optical illusions teach us that we cannot always believe what we see. Our own experience and sensory perceptions can sometimes deceive us.

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