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Inductive Reasoning, Science, and Pseudoscience

Posted on 4/22/2021 1:16:16 PM

by Dr. Sharon Schwarze

Science is a discipline that we all look up to.  We think of scientists as the least biased of our communities.  After all, they work with nature and nature doesn't change.  It works according to rules and laws.  But scientists do disagree with one another  They do have webs of belief that cause them to see the world in one way or another.  (In this way they are like the father in the altered bicycle story whose son could ride the bicycle more quickly than he could.   Younger scientists are usually the ones who create new theories.)  But science is our least biased discipline.  

The problem with making factual statements about scientific phenomena is that all generalizations, including the "laws of nature," are based on induction and the law of induction.  That is, scientists assume that the future will be like the past.  They (like we) cannot prove that the future will be like the past.  Just because in the past the future was like the past, doesn't mean that this future will be like this past.  It could always happen differently.  The way -- the best way -- to prevent making mistaken predictions is to continually correct our webs of belief.  Throw out the predictions and assumptions that didn't work and generate new ones.  This is what Einstein did to Newton.  There were many known inaccurate predictions on Newton's account.   He came up with a theory that was more accurate and more encompassing.  

This is what the weather person does every day.  If the prediction of rain turns out to be false, then he/she will correct it for next time.  We know what tomorrow's weather will bring because of the revisions these scientists are constantly making.  And our GPSs would not know our positions and give us accurate directions without the changes Einstein made to the Newtonian descriptions of motion and matter.  A physicist once remarked, "Physics is like a jigsaw puzzle that's really old.  All the pieces are worn down.  Their edges are messed up.  Some of the pieces have been put together in the wrong way.  They sort of fit, but they are not actually in the right places.  The game is to put them together the right [meaning better] way to find out how the world works."

You are constantly revising your web, making new predictions, and having different expectations.  If you do not, you will continually make the same mistakes and be continually surprised by your future.  You will not be able to make plans or have much control over your life.  Some people are not good at seeing patterns.  They are overwhelmed by the flux around them.  They face many cognitive challenges in life that ordinary people do not.

The American physicist Richard Feynman was on the team that investigated the failed Challenger mission.  The engineers told him that there was little chance that it could fail -- but it did.  When he reviewed their data he found the chances of the O rings failing was much greater than they had said – so great that no one would have sent those astronauts into space in that vehicle.  We don't want Challenger failures!  We don't want those kinds of failures in our own lives.  But inductive reasoning is always fallible and must be subject to testing and revision.  We don't want to go around the same circle over and over again!  We have to keep revising.  We will never be able to say that our predictions are 100% certain.  If we think we are always right, we will be wrong -- over and over again!

Building on the previous announcement about science, we can see how differently pseudoscience and science reason and make claims about how the world operates.  Pseudoscientists make claims that they never allow to be refuted.  They reject as false evidence that is contrary to their claims and add assumptions to make their data fit the observed world.  In a nutshell, science is always testing its hypotheses, trying to refute them.  Pseudoscience hypotheses are never refuted and resist counter examples found through testing.  They always only speak to some small part of the existing evidence.

So how does the present Covid-19 pandemic illustrate this difference?  We have seen that scientists have been struggling to understand this coronavirus because it is unlike any virus of the past.  It is hard to reason inductively from past to future when there is no past!  There are some analogies, however.  It is also hard to make accurate predictions, given the uncertainties of induction itself.  And finally, causal reasoning is particularly difficult, since we do not see cause, but only constant conjunction.  So scientists have made some missteps and some course corrections.  This is normal, good science.

But this leaves room for the pseudoscientists to creep in.  They focus on the things we do not know and make claims to suit their agendas, whatever those might be.  Unfortunately, the agendas are mostly political and not about community health.  There are certainly legitimate value issues here about economic needs and health needs, etc. but pseudoscience does not help us to resolve those.  It only muddies the waters.  For example, some have thought that Covid-19 is a hoax because the government is leading the charge against it.  For them, everything (or almost everything) the government does is wrong.  This hypothesis is not refutable for them.  So masks, vaccines, social distancing are just one more way that the government is overstepping its bounds.  Others are against vaccines and have been anti-vaxxers on a variety of grounds, from earlier false claims of negative consequences such as autism to religious grounds. Still, other pseudoscience approaches have come from President Trump who limited his response to the pandemic because he thought it would hurt his chances for reelection.  Some people just love pseudoscience because they think they make them look smart.  Scientists don't have the answers.  They do!

This is where critical thinking is so important and where you can use the skills you are learning so you are not sucked into these kinds of false theories and hypotheses that lead to unpleasant consequences for you and for the community.  Good critical thinking helps us to anticipate the future, have fewer unpleasant surprises, and leads to more success in dealing with what comes along, like pandemics.