Publisher's Corner:
What is science, anyway? or,
Head-on collisions with the Belief Engine

Robert L. Park

A best-selling health guru explains that his brand of spiritual healing is firmly grounded in quantum theory; power companies invest in "cold fusion" schemes that violate the most fundamental laws of physics; half the population believes Earth is being visited by space aliens who have mastered faster-than-light travel. Ancient beliefs in demons and magic sweep across the modern landscape, but they are now dressed in the language and symbols of science.

Scientists generally believe the cure for pseudoscience is to raise science literacy. We must ask, however: What is it we would want a scientifically literate society to know? There are a few basic concepts--Darwinian evolution, conservation of energy, the periodic table--that all educated people should know something about, but the explosive growth of scientific knowledge has left scientists themselves struggling to keep up in their own specialties. It is not so much knowledge of science that the public needs as a scientific world view: an understanding that we live in an orderly universe, governed by physical laws that cannot be circumvented.

A scientific world view is not "natural." Psychologist James Alcock describes our brains as "belief engines," constantly processing information coming in from our senses and generating new beliefs about the world around us without any particular regard for what is true and what is not. The same brain that recognizes that tides are linked to phases of the moon may associate the positions of the stars with impending famine, or victory in battle. This kind of belief generation was going on long before our ancestors began to resemble humans, but beliefs now spread around the world in the twinkling of a computer chip. Unfortunately, that which allows us to learn from others makes it easy to be misled by them.

Society, in fact, often holds it to be a virtue to adhere to certain beliefs in spite of evidence to the contrary. Belief in that which reason denies is associated with steadfastness and courage, while skepticism is often identified with cynicism and weak character. The more persuasive the evidence against a belief, the more virtuous it is deemed to persist in it. We honor faith. Faith can be a positive force, enabling people to persevere in the face of daunting odds, but the line between perseverance and fanaticism is perilously thin. The faith of the Branch Davidians in Waco and that of the Heaven's Gate cult members was tested; in both cases, they passed the test.

But we are not condemned to suffer the tyranny of the belief engine. Though its primitive machinery is still in place, evolution didn't stop there, but provided us with the ingredients for an antidote. The antidote begins with the marvelous pattern-recognition ability residing in the higher centers of the human brain. In humans, the ability to discern patterns is astonishingly general. Indeed, we are driven to seek patterns in everything our senses respond to. So intent are we on finding patterns that we often insist on seeing them even when they aren't there, like familiar shapes constructed from Rorschach blots.

That, again, is the belief engine at work. But once we recognize how easily we can be fooled by the workings of the belief engine, we can use the higher centers of the brain to consciously construct a more refined strategy that combines our aptitude for recognizing patterns with the accumulation of observations about Nature made possible by language. Such a strategy is called "science."

"Science is the systematic enterprise of gathering knowledge about the world, and organizing and condensing that knowledge into testable laws and principles." This elegant description, borrowed from biologist E.O. Wilson's Consilience,1 provides a template against which we can compare claims to see whether they belong in the realm of science. Is it possible to devise an experimental test? Does it make the world more predictable? If not, it isn't science.

The success and credibility of science is anchored in the willingness of scientists, first, to expose their ideas and results to independent testing and replication by other scientists, and second, to modify or abandon accepted facts or theories in the light of more complete or reliable experimental evidence. Adherence to these rules provides a mechanism for self-correction that sets science apart from "other ways of knowing," to use a fashionable euphemism. When better information is available, science textbooks are rewritten with hardly a backward glance.

Many people are uneasy standing on such loose soil; they seek a certainty that science cannot promise. For these people, the unchanging dictates of ancient religious beliefs, or the absolute assurances of quacks, have a more powerful appeal. Paradoxically, however, their yearning for certainty is often mixed with respect for the accomplishments of science. They want to be told that modern science validates the teachings of some ancient scripture or New Age guru. The purveyors of pseudoscience have been quick to exploit this ambivalence, often drawing tortured parallels between Eastern mysticism and modern science. While bemoaning scientific illiteracy, scientists have been timid about publicly confronting this kind of nincompoopery, lest they be accused of intolerance.

In this context, silence is irresponsible. The scientific community needs to assemble an interdisciplinary SWAT team of prominent scientists who will be willing on short notice to respond publicly and forcefully to pseudoscientific claims before they can put down roots. They need not challenge anyone's beliefs; it is enough to hold the science template up against the claims of ufology, qi gong, psychokinesis, and all the other pseudoscientific twaddle and allow the public to judge for themselves whether it fits. People may still choose to believe, but they should not do so under the illusion that it is science.

1. NY: Knopf, 1998.

Related links...

  • Collection of "occult tendencies" (mystical belief systems, irrationalist organizations, etc.), SIMPOS (Dutch acronym: Foundation for Information on the Social Consequences of Occult Tendencies)

  • Michael D. Sofka, "Myths of Skepticism," paper presented to Capital District Humanist Society and to Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York, 1996

  • Skeptical Briefs, Center for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal

  • ROBERT L. PARK, Ph.D., is professor of physics at the University of Maryland and director of public information at the American Physical Society.