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Pseudoscience and the Problem of Scientific Truth

heatherl18's picture

 Heather Lewis

Bio 103: Web Paper #3
Pseudoscience and the Problem of Scientific Truth
In the beginning of this class, we emphasized the fact that science has no absolute truth. Each observation merely contributes to part of a larger story. These observations can be changed or eliminated by other observations, showing that the greater story is unchanging rather than fixed. However, society has developed a notion of science as absolute truth. We base our entire lifestyles on scientific findings, everything from transportation to medication. Many of these things depend on our trust in observations made by others. How else would we continue to trust that airplanes would stay aloft, or that we could safely change our body chemistry? But if we fail to recognize the subjectivity of science, we become blind consumers of information that was merely told to us. Our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors can be influenced and manipulated by pseudoscience or the wrong information. This puts dangerous power in the hands of scientists, and we have seen the effects of this power of influence going awry.
There has been a long debate about the validity of race as a scientific fact. Modern liberals accept the notion that race is not biologically determined, but rather, a social construction born out of racism and the desire for supremacy based on superficial factors. Moral justifications abounded for the treatment of blacks in the slavery and post-slavery eras. In turn, the world looked to science for a more convincing justification of racial supremacy. Out of this came a movement of scientific “evidence” for distinguishing between races.
Before the theory of evolution was as fleshed out as we think of it today, Darwin’s findings were used to support the idea of distinct races and racial hierarchies. In his publication On the Origin of Species, though Darwin emphasized a common human species, he also made reference to “the savage races.” This reference by a notable scientific theorist gave rise to the eugenics movement, a seemingly “scientific” movement to purify the human race through the reproduction of specific “desirable” traits. Those who participated in this movement used what was understood about genetics at the time to lend this racial discrimination credibility. Entire racial groups were deemed “unfit” and in threat of being wiped out, and the pinnacle of this movement was the mass extermination of Jews and people who did not look Aryan enough through the Holocaust.
      Though the eugenics movement died down by the end of World War II, the world witnessed another rise in pseudoscience during the development of anthropometrics. Anthropometrics literally means “measurement of humans.” The study of anthropometry was started by Alphonse Bertillon, who believed that people could be identified by the measurement of specific body parts. This provided a useful tool in fighting crime, but was soon warped into providing an argument for the inferiority of certain races. Measurement of human skulls was supposed to indicate brain size, and therefore, intelligence. It was “proven” that white people had bigger skulls, which meant that their brains had more capacity for intelligence, while black people had the smallest skulls, indicating that they were hardly smarter than animals.
      The societal acceptance of science as fact became problematic in this instance. Not only did this allow those with prejudices to justify those views, but it caused others who may not have subscribed to this belief to question themselves. It would be one thing to disagree with the notion of racial inferiority on a moral ground, but if there was scientific “proof” of such an idea it would be worth consideration. Those objecting to something that was believed to be a proven scientific fact would be seen as illogical with no evidence to the contrary. Therefore people blindly accepted the explanation of a natural hierarchy of race and helped cement the idea of racial difference as a cultural norm.
      The evolution of racial thought in this country is evidence of the important role that science plays in our culture. The ability to support a given belief system with a scientific experiment is a dangerous ability when it holds such influence in the way we live. The pseudoscientific use of anthropometrics as evidence for racial hierarchy helped influence the racial discrimination that was so prevalent in the post-World War II era and persists to a lesser extent today. While science is a useful way of making sense of our environment, it is difficult to make it both accessible and prevent the type of blind acceptance that has been problematic in the past. Given the practicalities of people not being able to run their own personal scientific experiments on everything, part of the responsibility is on scientists to help others understand that science is evolving, and there is no definite answer to anything. This could be aided through gestures as simple as not using words like “proven” or “evidence” and using more words like “may show” or “help support” an idea in articles that are released to the general public through the mainstream media.
      However, it is also up to the public to question the information they receive. One does not have to know science to determine how credible certain information is. Knowing which questions to ask is a good place to start. Who performed the experiment and what are their credentials? What is their agenda? How was the experiment performed? While science has significant power in influencing our lifestyles, we have significant power in choosing what we believe. You do not have to be a scientist to become informed. If everyone is willing to question the information they are presented with as truth, what we know of science would come to reflect all of its true diversity. We must be sure to allow for multiple perspectives in science, and in this class in particular, biology. These multiple perspectives prevent one cultural bias from tilting the field unfairly and allowing for the kind of horrific prejudice we observed in the racist pseudoscience era.


Paul Grobstein's picture

Science as evolution

Like the idea of rephrasing scientific findings ("may show," "help support"), and the notion that the responsibility to recognize science as what it is is not the responsibility of scientists alone.  How can we make it more this way, in both scientific communities and the world at large?