What Is The Difference Between Science Denial, Pseudoscience, And Skepticism?

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What are the differences between science denial, anti-science, pseudoscience, and skepticism? originally appeared on Quora: the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.

Answer by Robert Crease, Professor, Philosophy Department, Stony Brook University, on Quora:

Science denial is different from anti-science, pseudoscience, and skepticism, and it’s important to distinguish between them.

Anti-science is a rejection of science and scientific method altogether. “Those scientists can’t be trusted,” I say; “they are all corrupt; they are on the wrong track.” Those engaged in anti-science don’t pretend to think scientifically or even to want to. Anti-science is mainly an attitude, a personal response. You therefore can’t respond to it by throwing more science at me. Responding to anti-science would involve showing how personally or socially destructive that attitude is. “Don’t you think you are going to hurt yourself if you continue to act this way?” you might tell me. “Look at people who refuse to take that medicine,” you might say “Look at those houses that fell because their owners didn’t trust the engineers.”

Pseudoscience is a charade that tries to pass off false, unreliable, or unproven claims as scientific — or at least as not needing any more justification. This is more than an attitude — it’s an activity aimed at convincing others. There’s a motive behind it; it’s salesmanship; it involves some product that one is seeking to foist on others. “I am certain it works because I saw it advertised on ‘Goop’” — without appealing to more evidence to justify what makes me certain. Responding to pseudoscience would require showing that the claims are not scientific. Responding would require trusting science to begin with and using scientific activity and evaluation as a measure against which to judge the pseudoscientific claims. “Here are the studies that show it does not work.”

Skepticism involves doubting a specific finding for specific reasons. If I am dubious of some scientific claim because I sense some shortcoming or failure in the method by which it was obtained, or if I have reason to doubt an entire class of some findings, that’s skepticism. Skepticism involves taking the validity of scientific procedure for granted, but doubting that that procedure was followed in this one particular case. Responding to it would involve carefully examining the procedure. If I am skeptical of a drug test because I am suspicious of the way it was tested, you could take me through the details of that test.

Science denial involves accepting science and expert advice for most things — I consult engineers when I buy a house, I listen to the weather people when making a decision about how to dress — but when it comes to specific findings I don’t like, I reject them as wrong. That’s essentially what THE WORKSHOP AND THE WORLD is about — the different ways this happens, and how to respond.

Let’s take an example. Suppose I go to a doctor who tells me that I have a disease that requires a costly and painful cure. If I doubt the advice of all doctors on principle, that’s anti-science. If I go to some untested cure that someone tells me is a surefire treatment, that’s relying on pseudoscience. But if the doctor recommends me something, and I do some investigating, and find that Mayo Clinic – Mayo Clinic or that the online NIH site lists alternatives, some of them cheaper or with better results, and I meet people who have tried the treatment that is being recommended to me who have had negative results – and then I hesitate and do not take my doctor’s advice, that’s skepticism. I have some evidence for my judgment.

But if I refuse to take the cure from my doctor whom I’ve relied on for years, and tell him or her that “I don’t have that disease!” or “That’s the wrong cure!” that’s science denial. There’s no evidence, and I am not qualified to make the judgment. The problem is then that I am implicitly at least called on to justify my action — which usually takes the form of accusing the doctor of ineptitude or conspiracy. Among other dangers there is that I am essentially slandering the doctor, undermining an important social institution.

In any case, science denial undermines institutions, and is a question of motive. Science denial is motivated by the pursuit of short-term economic, religious, political, or other agendas.

You may say that the difference between skepticism and science denial can be hard to discern. That’s true. I may do some investigating, and come up with evidence that is suggestive but not smoking gun, and I use that to justify my already existing strong inclination not to take the medicine. It’s hard to tell. But it often is not. If there is zero scientific evidence for something, but you accept that something anyway, that’s science denial. Or if there is near-complete scientific evidence for something – and the outliers all disagree among themselves – that’s science denial.

This question originally appeared on Quora – the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world. You can follow Quora on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+. More questions:

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