Pseudo-science and the Scientific Fundamentalists

What does fundamentalism mean in Science? | The nature of human perception and knowledge | How Science attempts to eliminate human fallibility | Alternative systems of knowledge and 'pseudo-science' | Can we go beyond Science? | Conclusion

There are many in Science who don't understand the limitations of their own approach, and this is a major weakness when everything that they know is built on this structure. I first explore this, then look at the nature of human perception and understanding before seeing how this interacts with Science and other systems of knowledge. Finally I look at how we can go beyond Science and explore what was previously off-limits.

What does fundamentalism mean in Science?

We know what fundamentalism means in religion: it is people hanging desperately onto their beliefs, denying any discussion or idea that might challenge those beliefs. Typically it means going beyond taking a measured and balanced interpretation of the doctrine, and instead taking a literal, inflexible and hard-line one. It is also associated with a hostile reaction to anyone with competing ideas.

Looking beneath the surface, we might say that the members have detected that the days are numbered for their religion, that there are too many inconsistencies coming to the surface and too many challenges to the authority of its leaders. Rather than face the pain and personal turmoil of admitting that their investment of faith in their religion was misguided, they go in the opposite direction, holding on ever more tightly. This is a vicious cycle -- as they become ever more tightly invested in their beliefs it becomes ever more painful to consider that they were wrong, reinforcing the problem.

Now then to Science. Science should have no need for fundamentalism, after all it is a system of beliefs that has had enormous success, making predictions which have led to the development of the technologies on which our entire world runs. Scientists should be walking around with a big smile on their faces, saying, "Look at what we have achieved."

But still there are growing signs of fundamentalism, people rigidly holding onto beliefs that they consider to be scientific without accepting any discussion on their validity. This is most obvious at the edges of Science, where it meets other systems of knowledge which it judges to be sub-standard. However, there are signs of fundamentalism even in some at the top of their profession.

So, what does this mean for Science? Can we compare this to the religious case and apply the same interpretation? Does it mean that Science's days are numbered and that there are too many inconsistencies? Looking at Science, I wouldn't have said so myself, but then why are some people acting as if that were the case? Perhaps it is true -- perhaps Science has some cracks and some people are unconsciously feeling a wobble in the boat's progress and are starting to cling ever tighter. Not so much in core Science, but perhaps more on the periphery where its conclusions are not quite so firm?

Perhaps it is necessary to investigate further how Science might be flawed.

The nature of human perception and knowledge

First it is important to consider the process by which humans establish knowledge. In this universe, the nature of reality is not transparent to us. Even after many decades of toil, no discipline (including Science) has come up with a complete explanation of everything. If we aim to understand reality, we first need to consider the steps by which that understanding takes place.

At zero distance from reality is reality itself. We do not know for certain what reality is. Maybe it is marbles rolling around in curved space. Maybe it is super-strings floating in a quantum soup. I don't know what it is, and neither does anyone else. The brightest people on the planet are trying to figure this out and still we don't have an answer. So we have to accept that the true nature of reality is still in essence an unknown.

At one step away from reality is human perception. Human perception is our direct feed of information from reality. In truth, it is all that we have. There is no other source of information for us to base our ideas and conclusions on. As many people have pointed out, human perception is deeply flawed. There are many ways that we may become confused. Our perception is influenced by our existing ideas in ways that can lead to embarrassing and ludicrous results. But still, as I said, human perception is all that we have -- everything we know has come through this channel into our consciousness.

At two steps away from reality are the systems of knowledge that we have built on top of our perceptions. These systems of knowledge include Science and all the other world-views. They are formed by taking human perception and putting it through additional filters. Those filters include consensus-building, model-fitting and likelihood-estimation. Consensus is about finding a version of reality that seems to make sense to everyone in a group. Model-fitting is about building theories about how things might be and trying to arrange perceptions to fit into that model. Likelihood-estimation is a way of judging the validity of a perception based on how well it fits in with existing ideas.

We are now far, far away from reality. Not only have added confusion to reality by perceiving it with our imperfect human minds, we have additionally filtered those perceptions to only the set that appears to agree with what we already think we know. We are now so far into la-la land we should be committed to an asylum, except that the asylum would be full of everyone else we know!

So this is what we have to work with. This is the challenge. Based on this incredibly imperfect means of understanding, we want to find out the true nature of reality. This is the challenge that Science set for itself.

How Science attempts to eliminate human fallibility

So Science set itself the challenge of making sense of reality despite the terribly flawed situation that we find ourselves in as humans. And really it has to be said that Science has done remarkably well. There are obviously cases where the battle is temporarily lost, but Science's enthusiasm to win the battle remains undimmed.

But in the effort to eliminate human failings, scientists have had to make some sacrifices. To start with we attempt to work around the weaknesses of human perception by insisting on repeatable measurements, preferably with physical instruments. Next we insist that everything is checked and double-checked. If we're going to use a model for interpreting our new measurements, it must have survived rigorous checking for validity against our existing measurements.

This all makes a lot of sense. We are making great strides in our battle! We are cutting enormous flaws out of our human system of perception and understanding, leaving only the good, solid and reliable parts.

But at the same time, perhaps without realizing it, we are also eliminating enormous chunks of reality from our area of investigation. Perhaps we are unaware of the limitations that we are creating, but we have just eliminated all phenomena that can't be repeatably measured from our area of study.

Perhaps this bears repeating: phenomena that can't be repeatably measured are explicitly excluded from the domain of scientific knowledge. Please let that sink in. It was a conscious choice that we made a long time ago, and the compromise made a great deal of sense at the time, but it is a hidden weakness in the scientific method that is now starting to come back to plague it.

After all, Science has been so successful, it seems only right that Science should be able to explain everything. We have faith that it can, we expect it to. Those unaware of Science's hidden weakness march boldly forward with total confidence that all mysteries will fall ahead of Science's clarity of vision.

But that will never happen. Phenomena which through no fault of anyone happen to be unmeasurable or non-repeatable will never become part of the scientific world-view. They are beyond the borders of the domain of Science.

After all, is it really likely that the Universe has conspired to make absolutely every phenomenon that exists conveniently measurable and repeatable for the benefit of human scientists? Why should it have done so?

I think that scientists the world over need a gentle nudge to remind them of the limitations inherent in their discipline.

Alternative systems of knowledge and 'pseudo-science'

Well, scientists aren't the only ones on the planet trying to figure things out, and other groups have tackled the problem of the weaknesses of human perception and understanding from different angles, making different choices to the ones that Science has made. There have been systems of knowledge built up by every civilised society in history, and a few of them survive to this day.

None of them provide a complete and unchallenged explanation of reality, but then neither does Science, for all its efforts. If a system of knowledge has built up models that can make successful predictions and provide workable solutions within its own domain of knowledge it is useful and valid to its practitioners.

It is only the arrogance of scientists based on a misunderstanding about the supposed all-encompassing nature of their discipline that leads them to label all such other systems of knowledge as pseudo-science or worse. Science itself made the choice to exclude a large subset of reality from its domain, and then it decided that it had the right to judge the conclusions of those who had not excluded that part of reality from their search for knowledge! What can I say? Really not cool, guys!

That doesn't mean that all other systems of knowledge couldn't be improved. Certainly if we look at Science 10, 20, 30, 40 years ago we can now point out many errors and omissions, many failings. So it is with any system of knowledge. Pointing out one failing of a system doesn't disprove that system. It is just an aspect that perhaps needs some work doing on it.

A system of knowledge can only be judged according to the total value that that system brings to a practitioner of that system -- not to an outsider. Judging the value means putting yourself in the place of a practitioner -- i.e. effectively becoming a practitioner -- because the value of a system can only truly be understood from the inside.

One of the major reasons for this is that the fundamental assumptions of a system affect the very process by which we perceive and understand reality. Not one of us has a direct connection to reality, it is always one step away as human perception (influenced by the contents of the human mind) or two steps away as human understanding (influenced by consensus, model-fitting and likelihood-estimation). What we experience is unavoidably shaped by what we already 'know'.

If I have the assumptions of a scientist, then I will never experience the world like an indigenous shaman would. His reasoning and knowledge will never make sense to me because by the time I have perceived reality, I have already unconsciously filtered out all the data that he constantly perceives and on which he bases all his decisions and on which he builds his models of reality.

In short, the only way to truly understand another world-view or system of knowledge is to become a practitioner of that system, taking on (even if only temporarily) all the same assumptions that a practitioner of that system would use. This means not only getting your feet wet, but also perhaps studying for years to pick up the subtleties inherent in a given system of knowledge.

Can we go beyond Science?

Science is a magnificent effort, but as we have seen, it intentionally narrowed its own scope in order to eliminate sources of error in its conclusions. You might say that perhaps it over-narrowed its scope. What about the rest of reality? How can we hope to make sense of that?

We have to remember what we are working with: fallible human perception and human understanding. How can we best navigate our fallible process of understanding reality?

The most important thing to remember is that perception is one step closer to reality than understanding is -- in principle, understanding can deviate much further from reality than perception can.

So the rule is this: perceptions are more valuable than understandings. If I perceive a UFO landing, I may doubt my sanity or the processes by which my mind arrived at that perception, but I have to accept that that is indeed what I perceived. If I try to convince myself that I didn't perceive that, and that in fact I perceived something else, then I am lying to myself. I am trying to rewrite history. What I perceived is what I perceived, whether I like it or not.

That is the rule: Perceptions are measurements, they are sacred. Perhaps they are measurements with a flawed instrument, but that only means that we need to understand the instrument better. It doesn't make the measurement any less valid.

I may be able to find an explanation for my perception of a UFO that satisfies my models of reality, and that is fine, so long as I remember that I am now in a process of interpreting my measurements. I am trying to fit theories to facts. The perception is a fact, a measurement that I took from reality with my consciousness. My understanding is a theory that I am using to try to make sense of the facts available to me.

Perhaps I have another experience of unusual lights and sounds in the woods, and I gather some more perceptions. These are more measurements, more facts to store up. Maybe this throws into doubt my understanding. Maybe my head wants to explode with the implications of what I perceived. This is fine, this is a normal process. The previous understanding was incomplete, and it is necessary to find new explanations for the perceptions. This is normal scientific procedure: a new theory needs to be developed to fit the facts. Maybe my new theory will be an explanation of how I misinterpreted aircraft landing lights, or maybe the new theory will provisionally settle on there being something more unusual going on, or maybe I will choose to leave the perceptions unexplained for now until I can gather more data. These are all valid approaches. The data is sacred, the theory explaining it may change.

The human as an instrument of perception outputs hard data even when influenced by emotion or intoxication or illness. You cannot discard any of these data points. However you can use the knowledge of the situation as part of the subsequent explanation. For example: subject A, under influence of morphine, perceived guru standing beside bed and providing solace. This is a hard data point. It actually happened -- we cannot say that the subject did not perceive this -- the perception was real. This is a fact, as close to reality as we can measure. Whether the guru was real or not is up for debate. Was it a projection of the patient? Did the guru extend his influence? Was it merely a hallucination due to the morphine? Now we are in the process of forming a theory to explain the observed fact. Any of these explanations might be a valid approach.

So effectively we have re-purposed the scientific method to apply to the human as the instrument, with perceptions being the hard data output by this instrument. Scientists are used to working with imperfect instruments, this is not a big step. The difference is regarding human perceptions as hard data, as facts that -- whilst they may be open to re-interpretation or re-explanation in subsequent analysis -- cannot under any circumstances be thrown away or modified after being recorded by the instrument. After all, they are the closest we can ever hope to get to a direct experience of reality.

On this basis it is possible to approach all those weird events and alternative systems of knowledge that have so far eluded analysis, recording data and seeking explanations. The results of our study may not be acceptable to Science, but then we wouldn't expect them to be, because Science is a specialism within its own chosen domain, and there is a lot more to reality than that.


I hope my explanation has made sense. In this world, with our fallible process of human perception and understanding, it is very easy to forget how much our view of reality is re-written before it ever reaches our consciousness. Science in particular has made choices which limit its domain of study, leaving a large part of reality unexplorable through Science. If we are not careful, this can lead to inflexibility in our dealings with other internally-valid systems of knowledge. Understanding the process however, and treating the human being as a flawed instrument that nevertheless outputs reliable hard data points in the form of its perceptions, allows us to explore reality much further than can be done with Science alone.

-- Jim Peters, 8-Mar-2012

Relevant Bio: Jim Peters studied Physics at Merton College, Oxford before beginning a long journey of exploration of systems of knowledge on the periphery or outside of Science, including Reiki healing, binaural beats, EEG, Chinese energy practices, Tai Chi, Tensegrity and Toltec practices. He is currently studying on and off with a native Amazonian curandero whilst working as a software engineer.

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