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Opinion Doesn’t Make it Woo, Scientific Evidence Does

August 19, 2010

I posted some guidelines that should be in everyone’s skeptic toolkit; it was a short, simple post with no inflammatory rhetoric involved, nothing autism-specific, no examples of pseudoscience. In short, it was a completely unobjectionable post for anyone interested in how to avoid pseudoscience in general. After all, who in his right mind would be in favor of pseudoscience? Folks who buy into woo don’t think it’s woo, don’t believe its pseudoscientific. They accept the claims without ascertaining the validity of the claim, perhaps because they lack these tools or they prefer to believe in the fantastic.

Well, never fear, you can always count on someone to find the unobjectionable objectionable. Enter Harold Doherty, who posted this:

And when I responded that there was no name calling or drivel in the post, along with the admonishment that hate-filled rants would see his blog removed from the directory I run (feel free to look at the entire comment thread), this was his response:

Well, what is this resistance to scientific evidence that so many people have that they resort to strawmen arguments? Did Doherty argue the guidelines in the post? No. He brought up name-calling, insults, and drivel, of which I’m pretty sure there hasn’t been a lot of here at Countering in the last dozen posts or more. I mean, I have no problem with name-calling, nor any problem hurling insults, although I’d quibble with drivel, but hey, drivel is in the eye of the beholder, I’m sure.

Keith Stanovich, in his text How to Think Straight About Psychology, writes that “scientific psychology is threatening to some people.” He notes that “science is always a threat to the ‘anything-goes’ view, because it has a set of strict requirements for determining whether a knowledge claim is to be believed. Anything does not go in science. This ability to rule out false theories and facts accounts for scientific progress.”

I don’t label things woo or pseudoscience because I disagree with it based on opinion. If I label it woo, I’ve actually read the pertinent research in that field. It’s my job as an instructor of both English and psychology to instruct my students in critical thinking skills, to inform them of the fallacies that people use to falsely support their arguments. In short, it’s my job to equip students with bullshit detectors. If I do it well, I don’t have to tell them something’s woo because I say it is. They know to demand evidence and a valid argument for that claim.

Stanovich paraphrases Scott Lilienfeld’s (2005) article on how to distinguish science from pseudoscience in psychology:

“Pseudoscientific claims tend to be characterized by

  • A tendency to invoke ad hoc hypotheses as a means of immunizing claims from falsification
  • An emphasis on confirmation rather than refutation
  • A tendency to place the burden of proof on skeptics, not proponents of claims
  • Excessive reliance on anecdotal and testimonial evidence to substantiate claims
  • Evasion of the scrutiny afforded by peer review
  • Failure to build on existing scientific knowledge (lack of connectivity)”
I don’t understand why some people choose to not avail themselves of all the possible tools at hand to best understand how the world works, which therapies are empirically validated and which are not, why anyone would want to put blinders on that would allow them to be taken advantage of by people looking to make a fast and easy buck. I also don’t understand how anyone could be against arming our young people with the tools to evaluate claims, make reasoned and informed decisions, and avoid being scammed.
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