Irrationality, fallacies and pseudo-science
Let us now present a panorama of the main categories of obstacles on
the search for truth, than can lead to errors and misconceptions. We
shall call irrationalities such wrong ways of searching for
the truth where more reliable ways exist; or such weaknesses of
doctrines, insofar as their supporters fail to recognize these
weaknesses as such and to lower the strength of their belief
This list contains redundancies (different aspects of the same
things) (and might not be complete though the items are general
enough to include almost anything).
- The F character of MBTI, by which people would judge claims
according to how they feel it (how optimistic, affirming or fair
to people it sounds - while forgetting that feelings are often
subjective, thus leading different people to draw different
conclusions), rather than purely truth criteria. The F people can
be nice in some ways, and useful in their own jobs, but they need
to admit that it is not their job and ability to seek and discern
most cases of general truths, those concerning the large-scale
problems and solutions for society.
- Someone's insufficient intelligence (either from nature or from
lack of training and experience in rational practice) to proceed
the understanding on a subject (in other words, the subject is too
complex for this person to be able to properly understand it).
Some particular cases of this problem can be solved through
- General laziness of thought, or a priori disbelief in the
relevance of thinking efforts. Apart from a lack of intelligence,
this may proceed through a misconception or values system that
draws the attention away from serious thinking work.
- The insufficient amount of observational data, against which to
check the claims; this can include an ignorance of relevant
observation, or lack of effort in its systematic gathering; or, on
a personal level, the ignorance of already established knowledge,
or of other people's experience.
- Hidden assumptions, often operated by focusing the attention on
another step of an argument. This can include the act of
considering a subject in the terms of a given conceptual framework
or classification of possibilities, without proper justifications
for the relevance of this conceptual framework for the field being
studied (just ignoring other possibilities rather than refuting
- Vague concepts, that seem meaningful (informative) while in
fact they are not (leaving the way open to any possibility or
- Confusion (wrong identification) between concepts, or any use of
vague concepts, that give the impression some claim would be a
logically necessary conclusion from given premises, while in fact it
is not, once the argument is examined more accurately.
Example: fuzzy ideas on what the
essence of things should be, and confusion between this essence
and behavior (an inability to understand interactions in their
complexity, leading to a focus on essences of elements as a
substitute for it), so as to either make wrong expectation of
behavior based on assumed essences (assuming that focusing on
becoming a loving person in oneself would be the right and only
way to properly understand the truth and help others), or misjudge
the essence based on observation (ex: claiming that those who did
wrong things had bad intentions; if they did it in the name of a
religion that "calls for goodness", that they were not faithful
followers of that religion; accusing someone of having had wrong
intentions if he did something wrong or reached a different
- Failure to notice that the given view has internal contradictions
or discrepancies with known observational evidence (that would give
the chance to notice that the view is wrong, thus that previous
reasonings that led to it must contain mistakes, thus obliging to
search for where the mistakes could have occurred). This may be
caused by a values system that opposes any attention to the sort of
consideration that might lead to display the contradiction.
- Unfalsifiability : when a set of claims about the world (or the
universe) is developed, while the course of events that would be
going on if these claims were false (in a hypothetical world not
containing such things or kinds of determinations, but where people
would believe in these claims), would fail to give the chance for
the evidence of facts, to put an end to the perpetuation of beliefs
in these claims. Causes of unfalsifiability can range from being "not
even wrong", i.e. failing to satisfy logical positivism (it
does not express any clear logical distinction between likely and
unlikely/impossible observations), to different ways of ignoring any
contrary evidence, that may occur in unscientific environments.
An unfalsifiable worldview should be discredited as being both
irrelevant (if not even wrong, providing no information of interest
about life), and deserving the highest suspicion (that people's
belief in it, preserved and propagated by people, can be merely due
to its unfalsifiability and thus is no decent sign of its truth).
- A variant or particular case of unfalsifiability, is the case of
Pareidolia, or clustering illusion: finding interpretations
(meaning) in past data that gives an illusion of explanation, while
no such explanation is true.
For example, to claim something to be the cause of another thing,
while the real causality goes another way (the other way round or
from a common cause), or the conjunction of events may be a mere
Doctrines can develop based on such things. This is especially
convenient when the data is fixed once for all (ex: Bible codes;
constellations at the basis of mythologies), but can also apply to
an open range of observations, being perpetually reinterpreted,
modified or developed to fit any new data that may come, always
invariably claiming to be the Ultimate Truth and the only possible
source of any truth, while not progressing in the reliability of
predictions or discernment among opposing views on verifiable issues
(and regularly turning out to be among the worst for these).
Example: the unability of theologians to predict whether some
biblical claims should be understood literally or merely
To make a digital comparison, pareidolia would be like claiming to
compress a specific file by giving a dedicated compression
algorithm, where the sum of spaces taken by the algorithm and the
compressed file is finally larger than the initial file. This goes
unnoticed through underestimates of how complex is the
interpretation, and how arbitrary are the "hidden causes" presented
as explaining every particular situation.
See also Wikipedia: List
of cognitive biases
Philosophers have a mania of arguing about differences
between Popper's falsificationist conception of science and
logical positivism, and that neither of these can resist to stand
as any absolute and ultimate criteria for scientificity; that both
should be replaced by still some other philosophy, or eventually
that no general criteria for scientificity can ever resist. But
the truth is that, unlike philosophers, scientists don't care
about such debates which they see as insignificant, irrelevant and
"metaphysical" (= meaningless) : it does not change anything to
the scientific practice, which is about trying to understand our
universe, through studying specific theories that may fit with the
specific data of observations in our universe. They are not
concerned about making a general theory of the set all possible
theories and their connection with the set of all possible
universes satisfying any other theory with their respective
observational data at any given time of the search, for defining
any general measure of comparison of scientificity levels of every
possible theory in every possible universe given every conceivable
set of data at every time :-p
Examples of false reasoning
An example of irrational thought: claiming that conversion to
Christianity (or any other religion) is a matter of free choice and
how sincerely one searches for God.
This does not explain anything as it presents an arbitrary set of
data (who converts) as explained by another, as complex, arbitrary
set of data (who is sincerely searching for God).
It is unfalsifiable, as no examples of people sincerely searching
for God but not converting to that religion, can ever force the
claimant to admit his error (since, for whoever did not convert, it
is always possible to accuse him of not having sincerely searched
We already saw some examples of unfalsifiable spiritual claims in
Let us see more examples of wrong reasoning.
The base principle of empiricism, also called inductive reasoning,
is to infer some claims as being generally true out of their
verification on observed cases.
For example, if we could see many ravens and found they were all
black, we infer that all ravens are black.
But this observation is progressive, so that
The observation of a black raven
contributes to confirm that all ravens are black
Then, we can notice that an equivalent expression for "all ravens
are black" is its contrapositive "all what is not black is not a
raven". As this formulation has a similar form (A =>B) as the
previous one, the same reasoning should be valid on it. The use of
inductive reasoning to support this claim, is thus, for example
Now, spiritual people reading this might make fun of such a
reasoning, seeing it as a mere crazy invention of people who think
too much. Then, they would make the use of such an example to feed
the same usual argument they usually raise with so many other
examples, to argue that the use of human reason is invalid and
misleads us, and that we should depart from it and convert to some
spiritual ways, and rely on God (or any form of spiritual
enlightenment) as the only reliable source of truth. Their argument
The observation of a white goat contributes to confirm that all
ravens are black
(or, more generally, the observation of anything neither black
nor a raven)
The observation of a human error,
contributes to confirm that the only reliable truth is from God
(or: from "accomplished meditators" according to Buddhism, or any
such equivalent in any other religion). But, how strong is this
argument ? In fact, if we analyze in more details the reasons why
the first case of inductive reasoning (observation of a black raven)
is "more valid" than the second one (with a white goat), and apply
these reasons to the third case, then this third case turns out to
be no more valid than the second one.
More generally, spiritual people like to claim that "reason has
limits". What does it mean ?
It is certainly true that science cannot solve every question.
However, the existence of problems that science cannot solve (and we
don't know which ones), which is arguably true, does not contradict
the facts that:
1) The field of truths that reason can discover, is potentially
2) The success of science for finding truths and its technological
applications, is the living evidence that reason can success in
finding a wide range of reliable truths that are very helpful to
3) Scientific truths often happen to reach a maturity
(extensively confirmed empirical laws ; rigorously proven
mathematical theorems) where they are extremely reliable (all risk
of being mistaken is ruled out), while this reliability has
nothing to do with any divine or other supernatural origin.
4) Despite the much larger number of people who explored spiritual
paths, there has hardly been any evidence for the discovery of any
decently reliable general truth from any "mysterious" origin
(wrong teachings are widespread; if any mysterious genuine discovery
occurred, they are too scarce and not general enough to deserve any
significant attention anyway) while rational abilities (in which I
include common sense and any clear ordinary perception) can do much
better works for such discoveries and checking.
And ifever a mathematical proof might be suspected of containing a
failure, there is now an available final solution to this risk: to
proof with computer assistance (with an automated proof
checking software). Computers are the only infallible beings
under hand, that can provide us with absolutely reliable truths.
In an overwhelming majority of cases, only local truths,
with very limited interest (to the personal life of the involved
people, with no significant benefit for the rest of the world) could
be obtained in "mysterious" ways; while more far-reaching claims
made by "inspired" people, can be proven to be generally wrong (or
at best meaningless), full of ridiculous nonsense (full of the flaws
of spiritual teachings such as we already mentioned, and more
aspects will be developed later).
The main claims of global truths that come from a sort of "not
rational" way and that resist examination, are just a few: the
couple of intuitions about the mind-matter duality, the existence of
afterlife and that we should "be good"; but this is very poor
information; it is given in a "natural" way, without effort, with no
usefulness of any elaborate special searching method (except that,
to those who did not spontaneously perceive this intuition, there is
a chance to try to share it by a few arguments).
A few more global truth may be revealed during NDEs, but, as far as
I know, they are very simple and limited too. This rejection of spiritual truth
searching methods, is not a blind faith or dogma for rationalism,
as factual evidence that "revelations" never went much further
than this, will be presented later (part IV).
As says a recent proverb : Insanity = to keep trying the same
thing and expecting it to produce different result. In this sense,
spiritual people are insane, insofar as they still pretend that
the only way to change the world should be to keep following
spiritual paths to "change oneself", while this has already been
tried by billions of people for thousands of years, with no result
yet (except a "change" in their personal life, which they took
with them in their tomb); while science did change the world to a
much larger extend with much smaller efforts.
5) More essential truths of fundamental importance for mankind
are accessible to reason and just waiting for our initiative to
make use of reason to reach them and let mankind benefit of them
(we shall see examples later)
6) The abstract existence of problems that reason cannot solve,
which is arguably true, does not inform us on which they are;
there needs to be specific reasons for reliably claim that some
specific examples of problems would be out of reach of a progress
of knowledge by rational means. But problems that reason cannot
solve are usually unimportant; Most useful problems can be solved,
and if the possibility to solve a problem is not clear, the only
way to try to discover whether or not reason can bring some
knowledge to it, is usually... to try.
7) Anyone who puts forward the claim that human reason has limits
and may be fallible, as if it was an argument against it, is in
fact dealing with nothing more than the limits of his personal
rational abilities (and the usual ones of the fellow believers of
the religion he tries to promote), which are very limited indeed,
and which are anyway all the means he has for seeking any truth
whatsoever (no matter if he pretends otherwise); such limits can
be widely transcended by the rational abilities of other people.
In other words, putting forward "Reason has limits" as an
argument against the use of reason, would be as stupid as :
Girard, mathematician, wrote the following joke, in
on mathematical logic (and repeated it with slightly different
words in another
text). This is a variation of a logical enigma that, in
French, is usually expressed as being about the "Baghdad Cuckolds",
where every man is the only one to not know whether he is himself a
cuckold, but must kill his wife at midnight if ever he discovers it, a fact he may
infer from the observation that other men did not kill their wife yet.
In English, the same logical enigma is rather expressed in other words (commented
- if the existence of optical illusions and the impossibility to
see through walls were a good reason for cutting our eyes off;
- if the impossibility for transportation vehicles to go faster
than light, was a good reason for going by foot, in case this
might go faster.
Houston cuckolds. They are only two, V. and W., they know
everything concerning the other, and the fact that at least one
among them is betrayed ; in fact there is only one cuckold, W. So
W. knows that there is one cuckold, he knows that it is not V.,
but he draws no consequence, because he is. . . a bit slow. On the
other hand, V. is very smart and made his PhD on the Baghdad
cuckold ; he thinks "Gosh, if I were not a cuckold, W. would have
concluded that it's him and killed his wife". Therefore V. slays
his innocent spouse ; morality, too much epistemic logic can
damage your health.
This joke is interesting by the way it presents a concentration of
several real sources of troubles:
- The wrong assumption that all people's rational abilities are the
- The wrong assumption that all accessible truths of importance have
been already accessed
- It may be profitable to be stupid, while it may be harmful to be
- An intelligent person may be a victim of the stupidity of someone
else, especially if he is not aware of the difference of rationality
levels between them.
All these troubles contribute to different aspects of the world's
problems, in ways that we shall develop later.
In particular, they occur with Spirituality, in the following ways:
- Their democratic vision of the truth, that it should be accessible
to everyone, so that nobody can claim to understand the truth better
than what a large public came to believe in, or that there would be
no chance for more intelligent works to be ever more useful to the
world than stupid ones.
- Their argument of the form "If there was any evidence against [my
religion], it would be known" as a justification for not looking at
any evidence against their religion ever presented to them; their
blind assumption that apologists on their side have always been
infallible beings (from their divine inspiration, but then rejecting
any contrary example as irrelevant because Christians are mere
humans making human errors that their holy Gospel is not responsible
for) while people on the other side would have always been mistaken
(just because they were humans); for example, to hold the story of
Christian martyrs (that can as well have been distorted and not
properly reported in context; the historical debate, including that
the reason for killing Christians was not religious but their
refusal of paying taxes, and atrocities made
by Christians against non-Christians, can go far) as evidence for
the truth of the Gospel, as if being put in front of a death penalty
should have suddenly made Christians infallible beings in
theological matters - what can we say about Muslim terrorist
- To present their religion as true just based on the fact that it
changed their life and brought them happiness, ignoring that this
"advantage" can as well be the advantage of ignorance.
- To judge the virtue of their spirituality on the mere basis on
what happiness it brought to them, ignoring how harmful to others
their own spiritual behavior may have been.
More remarks and explanations about Christianity or other
spiritualities will be developed in Part IV.
Let us describe and explain in some more details the practical
experience of how things are going on in science, what
misunderstandings often occur about the nature of scientific
understanding and its distance with the minds of less scientific
people, and the troubles that this misunderstanding often creates
during attempts of debates.
(My experience is about maths and physics, but most of this can
apply to other sciences as well)
As already mentioned, the worlds of knowledge in mathematics and
physics are so vast and wonderful, it's such a pity that not more
people can understand and enjoy them. There are 2 causes for this
trouble. One is institutional (the teaching system does not properly
show the way). The other is natural: different people have different
intelligence levels, and also different sorts of intelligence,
oriented to different fields of interest (and for the society to
work, it is indeed necessary to have a diversity of people with the
different fields of interest that address different aspects of
Now, once said that the issue of intelligence level is but one
aspect of the big picture among others, we should not miss what it
As scientists are normally Thinkers rather than Feelers, it is not
in their normal concern to deal with issues of personal comparison,
and how intelligence levels can vary between people, despite the
crucial importance of intelligence for the progress of scientific
Moreover, intelligence is not something that can easily be measured
and compared between people. Instead, the purpose of scientific
research is to make discoveries and provide new understandings: for
scientists, this is the very heart (value) of their intelligence
(and similarly, for any job involving intelligence, the goal of
intelligence is to properly do these jobs). As the point of a
discovery is that it should be new rather than any automatic
consequence of what was already known, done or classified before, it
hardly makes any sense to compare them together, to say that the one
is better than the other. It can even be argued that it would not be
good to have all people with the highest skills, because such people
would naturally come to compete for making the same kinds of
discoveries, those of the hardest kinds of problems and pioneering
the most far-reaching fields of knowledge, while so many basic
necessary issues for the society would be left behind with nobody to
deal with them, because they would be "not interesting enough" to
deserve attention from the top thinkers.
There is a popular tool for lay people to try to measure and compare
their intelligence: the IQ test.
A criticism of this test was posted to the INTP forum:
tests are supposed to test your overall "potential". But I have
found that they ask knowledge based questions too, which really
do not test potential. Most INTP's don't like the test because
time is factored into your score. The pressure makes us not
perform to our full potential.
The tests online are also all bullshit. Don't bother taking
them. The only online one even close to being "hard" is the one
on the mensa website."
In other words, the IQ test can be used for somehow comparing
intelligences among some majority of average people, but they cannot
properly measure high levels of intelligence in the sense of what
makes the true dignity of intelligence: its ability to resolve some
hard, complex problem that humanity is facing (or not).
Now, without assistance from such fake "objective" tools, what can
we say about intelligence levels ?
It turns out that the discrepancy of intelligence levels between
different people, both between scientists and non-scientists and
among scientists of a given domain (maths or physics), is litterally
tremendous. Well, somehow people know this. Precisely, they know
that science is "not for them", then reject it as an alien thing,
something for strange, odd people.
A large majority of people are so far from any decent use of reason
with respect to a number of non-trivial issues, especially if they
are attached to wrong views by some sentimental or ideological
influence, that the properly rational understanding of these
subjects is hopelessly out of reach for them.
Normally, among the small minority of civilized, maturely rational
people who have the wisdom to know their own limits and the
diversity of intelligence levels, this diversity does not create
troubles: they have no problem to admit the possibility for someone
else to master a given subject better than themselves. For example,
I have no problem with the fact that some scientists can be much
more clever than myself. When I hear people speak about a very
high-level theory which I have no clue of, I can admit the
possibility of its making sense from the way they tell about it. I
consider this admirable even if it is "not for me" (sometimes
because I cannot dedicate enough time for it, sometimes because it
is really so hard as compared with my abilities).
Other times I happened to read some of such high-level works; and
while there was not much of it I could really follow, it already
made me feel amazed at how high these concepts are. Examples of
amazing things I could have a glimpse of but I could not really
- In physics: quantum field theory and supersymmetry
- In logic: I could already master some good points, but there are
still quite higher things like "forcing", which I did not follow...
- In algebraic topology: Milnor's work, K-theory...
Globally, despite the fuzziness of the subject, and if we consider
intelligence in terms of global efficiency for properly dealing with
complex realities (thus, integrating the effects of natural
intelligence, training, knowing the relevant information, and some
wisdom or chance to know how to use intelligence in the best way), I
think we can say without exaggeration that:
- The average of scientists (as well as some other people, like
businessmen and other highly skilled professionals) is about 10
times more intelligent than the global average of the population
- The few top scientists can be about 10 times more intelligent than
the average of scientists.
(with all possible intermediate levels between these, without any
special separation of any group from others)
Don't misunderstand the claim here: this hierarchy only concerns a
specific measure of comparison, which is about a specific type of
human ability among others, the ability of discerning the truth on
difficult, complex issues. Even this very concept is ambiguous as
each person can have varying abilities between issues to understand
(the same person can be clever in one field and ignorant in other
fields); and diverse other kinds of human activities have their own
worthy values too, such as art (see the different MBTI types that
gives an sketch of the possible diversity of human abilities). So
many diverse human abilities are necessary and complementary to form
an harmonious world.
When debates go wrong
The problem comes when not maturely rational people enter (or worse,
invade) the scene of the debate. That is, people who don't have the
wisdom and/or ability to discern and acknowledge:
1) their own limits, i.e. their irrationality (as explained above in
the "irrationality" section), their inability to properly understand
a given problem which they want to judge
2) that some other people may be more qualified and able to access
(or have already accessed) the truth on that subject
Especially, some people have a prejudice that they have the right to
judge ideas as true according to how "simple" they seem. While it is
true that an understanding which is not "clear" is usually not an
accurate and satisfying understanding, and a clear and unifying view
is usually a better success if only it is a true one, this forgets
- The truth has no duty to satisfy this criteria just to please us.
Its duty is to be true, no more, no less.
- More complex truths can be mastered by some more clever people as
clearly as less complex ones
- The similarity to everyday habits and concepts that a majority of
people are familiar with (or the conformity to a conditioned way of
thinking religiously learned for years), is no true criteria for
simplicity either; very different concepts from the everyday ones,
can be developed and become familiar, and thus simple, for
scientists as well.
Generally, I have an experience of tries of debate with "normal
people" on complex issues, either political or religious; and I
observed that they are far from the necessary intelligence level for
having a chance to properly understand and reach a reliable
conclusion these subjects; still, they can't tolerate to not stand
as judges for these subjects (or, at least, to not have as much
"right" to do so as anyone else). Therefore, they cannot either
tolerate any claim by someone else to know the subject better than
them: they would see such a claim as automatically arrogant and
insulting (no matter that these other views may be the mere truth,
since they cannot tolerate such a possibility anyway).
Still, they would usually not be visibly dogmatic or refusing
rational debate (as such an attitude would be too easy to defeat and
thus would be quickly resolved). Instead, they would often be
requesting a "rational argument" why they would be wrong, and why
the other would be right. The problem is that the missing elements
of understanding, that the other would need to bring as a
justification for making things clear, may happen to be too complex
and subtle to be explained and shared in such a way and such a short
enough amount of effort to be affordable by both sides and with
decent enough chances of success. The result of the situation, is
that the one who knows the subject, and who knows that the debate is
hopeless, will be likely to give up.
And he may be right to do so, because anyway, no matter whether or
not he keeps trying to explain the situation, the other will have no
chance to understand it, but will keep the impression that the other
has "no rational argument" for the defense of his position.
Indeed, what's the point to keep working on a debate if the goal (to
let the other understand one's point) turns out to be hopeless
So, it may be a mere fact, observed by the rational person, that
there is no solution to the satisfaction of the ignorant, that is,
to let them understand the truth as easily as they are requesting
with their low intelligence level or other circumstances. Then, the
problem develops when the ignorant are replying with accusations of
pride, dogmatism or other foolishness, because, no matter how
sincere they are or whatever anyone tries, they have no available
means to interpret the situation otherwise.
So, the rational person will have to notice how unfair and hopeless
is the debate (even though nobody ever willingly decided to make it
so), and that the only expectable result of keeping tries at
understanding each other, will instead be to exchange insults and
negative judgments to each other over and over again. The next
"problem" is that few are the rational people that may be fond of
investing a lot of efforts in an activity that consists in
navigating in a desperate mess of errors, and whose only expectable
fruits will be to exchange a lot of insults and negative judgments
with someone : to be perpetually despised for the "fault" of
lucidity, and to have to fight back in a way that will fatally have
to be dis-affirming to the other (who strongly believes to be on the
right track and invest all his person there too).
As the rational person cannot fail to notice that the other's
irrationality is a major hindrance to the chance for the debate to
progress, making it hopeless, how could he pretend otherwise, as if
the other (or the course of the debate) was on the right track ? To
be honest, he can hardly fail to mention the real nature of this
obstacle, that is, the other's irrationality. But, the irrational
person will fatally perceive this as an insult and an ad hominem
argument, and will misinterpret the attitude of the rational person
as a dogmatic, arrogant and insulting attitude with no rational
basis. And indeed, there are good reasons for the rational person to
be angry or harsh in such a situation. What else should he do ? Say
amen to a process of pseudo-debate that will necessarily leave the
irrational participants to reinforce their own errors and mock the
rational view as stupid and indefensible ? Anyway, as this
foolishness cannot be stopped anyway, the least evil solution can be
for the rational person to just drop off and leave the irrational
people alone in their errors, in order to keep his energy for more
serious matters; and getting angry can be a good way to reach that
point. And if the irrational people will interpret this anger as a
sign of irrationality, and use it to reinforce themselves in their
view, then... it's their problem anyway.
Some people consider that a way to protest against the conditions of
a vote, that they see as not really democratic, is to boycott it. I
won't try to argue on this solution (which I'd rather be skeptical
of, while it may depend on cases); but I observe a similar situation
concerning debates in irrational circles: it is a fact that rational
people may have to boycott some sorts of "debates" that do not let a
chance for the truth to be understood and accepted.
Example of a situation I once experienced in a web forum:
1) I write an introduction to my ideas, and refer to my site for the
2) As these necessary details are very long, and the serious
participants need time to read them to have a chance to know what it
is about, thus these serious people are not writing any reply in a
3) Instead, reactions are coming from stupid people who decide to
judge the issue without caring to read what it is about
4) I can't help from writing a reply, mentioning how stupid is this
5) The dispute goes on, while the people keep replying in a way that
totally ignores what is the depth of the ideas written in the site,
but imagine something else instead (some favorite stupid cliché).
They assumed that there would be nothing worth understanding about
my ideas outside the usual caricature from their imagination.
Because they did not expect the presence of any deep idea worth
understanding (otherwise they would be taking their time reading it,
instead of reacting so quickly).
6) The way the debate goes on with exchange of insults, disconnected
from any deep idea, really gives the impression to everybody, that
this is the whole debate going on, and that there is no more idea
worth reading and caring to understand than what is being written
and exchanged in the replies, before drawing conclusions.
In similar lines, Bertrand Russel wrote "The whole problem with the
world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of
themselves, but wiser people so full of doubt".
(But, while this is a possible phenomenon that can cause troubles,
it cannot be used as a reliable criteria for wisdom either.)
Also, many people are interested with ideas they can easily
understand (which are already familiar to them), but won't bother
studying and understanding (and thus will naturally reject) any new
idea that require any thinking effort - except, of course, if it is
in their curriculum and requested for their exam.
The result of this situation, is that, in a world full of irrational
people, the misfortune of being sane enough to know a subject better
than those people and to be aware of this situation, turns out to be
condemned as a sin (of hubris) that needs to be cured; and if
someone does not "want" to "cure" this sin (just like if someone
would "refuse" to stay "open" the possibility that 2+2=5), then it
is condemned as a mortal sin.
In a sane environment, that is, surrounded with peer maturely
rational people, a rational person is free to live in peace and
debate with others according to his deep nature, that is, in a
rational, civilized, open-minded way, participating to opportunities
of constructive, rational debates whenever the opportunity appears
(which may not be very often because of the hyper-specialization by
which, not many researchers can have a lot of peers working on close
enough subject for having any common interests and ideas worth
This is the famous Ivory Tower of Science, which is the necessary
means to ensure to scientists a peaceful and constructive
intellectual life where the quest for truth has its full
opportunities of progression, protected from any harassment from the
unstoppable Forces of Irrationality that reign in many places
On the other side, in these much more widespread and very popular
other places dominated by the Forces of Irrationality, the
expression "critical mind" is defined to mean "questioning the dogma
of 2+2=4"; "open-mindedness" means an enthusiasm in examining large
treaties of tens or hundreds of pages developing worldviews where
2+2 may be equal to 5, 9 or 13 (this is no exaggeration: I did read
one blogger wanting to offer a new arithmetic rule where
(-1).(-1)=-1 just to save us from the need to bother with complex
numbers); and many more paradigm shifts are explored, such as
visions of a future when mankind would have finally discovered that
the Earth is flat and steady at the center of the Universe, or where
pink elephants would routinely fly and thus become the main
transportation means for the Third Millennium.
Such thought environments would be dangerous for the intellectual
life of the true scientists, quickly transforming them into hardcore
intolerant, arrogant dogmatists. But, as most of them don't
naturally like to be any intolerant, arrogant dogmatists, this will
naturally lead them to settle and keep developing their intellectual
life in the safer, more peaceful environment of this fine and
magnificent Ivory Tower of Science, moreover made quite more
interesting by the abundance of magnificent intellectual treasures
that their predecessors had the chance to discover, gather and
Let's illustrate some aspect of the situation through a metaphor.
Imagine a mountain guide who has a large experience visiting a
mountain region. He knows well all the paths in this region, all the
best ways to reach the different summits, with the difficulties and
risks in each path. He knows that many of summits in this mountain
are quite hard to reach, and require a lot of skills, strength and
training. He also has experience in guiding there many strong and
healthy tourists who are used to running and climbing a lot, as they
already made running and climbing visits to other mountains, and are
now willing to pay a first visit to this one.
Then, imagine a paralyzed, epileptic person who usually cannot
manage to properly go to the toilet by himself, who hears this guide
talk about these mountains, paths and summits, and does not believe
what the guide is telling about his experience of the mountain. So,
he replies to the guide by this request: "If you are really a good
guide knowing the mountain and how to go reach the summits as you
say, prove me that the mountain is really as you describe ! Bring me
Then, what do you think this guide should do in reply ? Should he
take this man and try to carry him on his back, up to these
difficult summits ? Twenty meters further, the man will have an
epileptic crisis, that will make him kick the guide and fall down on
the floor, then accuse him of having taken him to the wrong
direction because the summits were not reached yet.
Thus, the guide will have to give up and refuse trying anything
more; so that the epileptic man will accuse the guide of telling
lies and not really knowing the mountain, for lack of any credible
means to figure out how things could be otherwise.
So: science is about crossing large distances in the world of
knowledge without error. This world has many paths, and each
scientist only knows a small region as compared to the whole set of
what has already been explored, which would be much too big for a
single person to completely visit (though some can visit more of it
than others). Some errors can happen to be committed on the way,
first by students, then still sometimes by researchers (fewer, or
only because larger distances are crossed); then, other people may
care to track any error that may have occurred, in order to correct
them until, hopefully, a path will be found and checked without
error. As long as someone is good enough to manage well and not make
more than a few errors on the way, others will be willing to help to
track and correct these few errors that could be made, in hope to
reach a conclusion that will be reliable, without error (even if
there remains a small risk of presence of a remaining error : the
point is that any remaining error would hopefully be detected and
then fixed thanks to some next wise person that will check the way
But, if there is just hardly anything right in the way someone goes,
or if someone can only make a much smaller way than the one
necessary to reach some chosen goal, then others will give up trying
to help, because there would be anyway no hope to reach a decent
result (a fully correct way to the chosen goal).
You could sum up this by considering the world of knowledge as a
sort of capitalist world where only those who already have, will
receive the assistance of others to get more. This may be felt as
regrettable, but the truth does not care about efforts and justice.
To reach a reasonably reliable knowledge about a large complex
problem, reducing the number of errors that the conclusion is based
on, would be worthless. The only meaningful effort is for the
purpose of completely eliminating them all. As long as the
fulfillment of this goal cannot reasonably be expected, there is no
reason trying to start debating and pointing out this or that error
Still, there can be other sorts of hope and purpose learning and
doing rational work. Beginners need to start with simple problems,
to work on perfecting themselves and eliminating all their errors on
simple, short paths, before risking themselves on longer, harder
Let me explain how it feels like, for a rational person, to be faced
with fallacious doctrines full of errors and nonsense, and having to
deal with them through an obligation to try to explain things and
convince some supporters of these fallacious doctrines. It feels
like being jailed in place full of a very bad smell, with no hope to
get rid of this smell. Then, guess what: it is everything for making
someone angry. And people around insisting that "What problem do you
have with this smell ? this is a very good smell !" will not help.
In such conditions, the irrational people have an easy game
misleading themselves, by dismissing the view of the rational person
as an expression of a bad character. They would be missing the fact
that, if their view is rejected as utter nonsense, it is not the
fault of the lucid person who noticed that it is utter nonsense, but
the fault of the promoters of nonsense who are bringing their
nonsense, which is an insult to truth and reason. It is (somehow)
their fault if they are claiming nonsense and bringing ignorance,
chaos and misunderstanding to the world; it is not the fault of the
truth if their nonsense is nonsense. If they don't want to be
condemned, mocked or ignored by rational people, it's just up to
them to stop promoting nonsense and defending the indefensible. If
only they stopped promoting nonsense, then this would release
rational people from the necessity to get angry and to oppose them
in this way, so that there would not be such disputes anymore.
So: irrational people may complain that rational people seem to have
"no reason" in support of their position, as eventual tries of
explanations could not be satisfyingly "convincing", as intelligence
is personal and cannot always be shared that way.
If the irrational person says something and asks an answer from the
rational person, the rational person will naturally be tempted to
reply by saying the truth on the considered point as he sees it. The
problem is that this element of truth will not be convincing,
because many other elements of understanding are missing in the
irrational person, for the understanding of this reply with all its
justifications. So he won't be able to accept this reply as a
rational one, but will interpret it as nonsense, dogmatic, unclear,
or of any other irrational character(s). But, what else could the
rational person do, to have a chance of being accepted ? Pretend
that things are otherwise, and enter a long strategy of adapting to
the mind of the irrational person to lead to a conclusion that
remains acceptable ? Such strategic developments of how to convince
an irrational person who cannot directly understand the truth, by
not directly telling it, are the art of liars: how to navigate
errors and irrationality towards a given conclusion.
Instead, the interest of rational truth-seekers is to focus on the
truth (its proper understanding and justifications) and nothing
else. They are not interested to
navigate in the psychology of strong irrationality.
Managing desperate cases of people lost in a labyrinth of errors,
and/or who don't have the abilities to follow the proper
understanding of some chosen aspect of reality in the way it really
is, is not a normal interest of rational truth-seekers. Rather, it
is something disgusting for them, because it is a desperate hell of
nonsense and ignorance, an accident and a plague of nature which
should rather not exist in the first place, and from which it is so
hard to escape.
The rise of crackpots
So, it happens for many people to develop irrational views on
scientific subjects, in a way cut off from science, and hopelessly
unable of dialogue with scientists. For these people, all things
looks as if their position was the only possibly rational one, while
the scientific one was irrational. Their vision of the current state
of science is reduced to some shadow of it, some popularized version
of some pieces of information and conclusions that science could
They properly noticed that what they heard from science was not
satisfying (because indeed it is not the full understanding of it).
Then, they assume that it is a defect of science (as they have no
means to interpret it otherwise), and they will dedicate their
efforts to "solve the defects" in science, by reasoning on these
defects and developing their own ideas and interpretations. So, they
develop ideas that seem to them clearer than the (incomplete)
account of science as they could see it. And they think that, in
this way, they are making scientific discoveries beyond the
knowledge of actual scientists. So they dedicate a lot of time to
write their "theories", and try to let them known, sending them to
as many scientists as they can, expecting from them careful
attention and approbation, and accusing scientists of dogmatism and
close-mindedness whenever this does not happen (that is, necessarily
In some scientific forum in French, there was such a discussion,
when an astrophysicist quickly rejected a crackpot's view, then was
accused of dogmatism in return. He then explained:
"By being so brief in my negative
comment, I may have seemed arrogant or contemptuous, which is no
way the case. But please understand that professional scientists
receive, several times a week, whole files of amateur scientists
(fine activity in itself) that claim, by two handfuls of
Newtonian equations, to question one century of fundamental
physics (relativity, quantum mechanics). And they think that the
scientific "establishment" is thick-headed by not answering or
by not being interested in what they do. It's very easy: let
them send their theories to international scientific journals
with referees, where their articles will be read, discussed,
criticized or accepted ! I don't deny the existence of biases in
the judgement of "peers"; I found lamentable the attitude of the
medical establishment towards the "water memory" by J.
Benveniste. But in "hard" sciences, the criteria of judgement
are more objective."
example of a comment about crackpots
science really need maths?
For each idea or theory that first happened to be rejected as
crackpot but finally turned out to be true, there are hundreds or
even thousands of other crackpot ideas that it is right to reject as
crackpot because this is what they really are, in a more or less
obvious way from a scientist's viewpoint, which lay people may not
be able to understand. But you may not be familiar with this
overwhelming presence of crackpot ideas that were rejected by
scientists for very good reasons, because... precisely this made
them unworthy of being recorded in history.
Indeed many people (an overwhelming majority of "people who care
about the truth") are irrational : they cannot stop judging subjects
that are important to them while they don't have the means to
properly understand them. Thus, they will dedicate their life to
promoting their "truth" about these subjects, and therefore
bothering (persecuting) with their errors, whatever other voice that
they would see talking about the same subject.
In a way, the act of writing such stupid views and trying to let
them known, can be seen as spam. Because it is just wasteful,
misleading and/or bothering people (even if claiming to be
otherwise, even sincerely). And even if such a qualification as
"spam" could be seen abusive if considered as a work of only one
person developing and sending wrong ideas to a few other people, it
becomes very real once many people are doing the same. Indeed, if
any recipient accepted to bother being polite and caring for one
person's foolishness putting forward a foolish idea, where should
the limit be put when the same or similar foolishness is practiced
by thousands ?
Under such a persecution, reason and truth would have no chance to
One life would never suffice to reply to them one by one. This behaves
like spam, therefore it has to be treated, that is, ignored,
It is right for them, when they see BS, to censor and ignore it
rather than try to debunk it, because they consider the debunking
work to be a pure waste of time, for 4 excellent reasons:
- For any sane other rational person (scientist) who already learned a
large body of modern science, the fact this
"alternative" idea is BS, is self-evident and does not need any
- Nevertheless, these reasons why it is BS, may
be overall much too complex and too hard to explain in any reasonable
amount of time to others did not learn that huge thing. These crackpot
authors are just scientifically illiterate, so that it is up to
them to go to study and understand science if they can, or find
another job otherwise, but scientists cannot help.
- For this or other troubles of lack of intelligence, to crackpot authors
unable to see the absurdity of their ideas by themselves (which may as
well include over 99% of humans on this planet), no work of
debunking, however clear and true, will ever suffice.
They won't be able to
discern the validity of any genuine argument that may be
presented to them. Attempts at debate would lead them to mistake
the scientist who would dare sacrificing his time trying to
explain his reasons and debunking BS, for a stupid irrational
and dogmatic person, which would be a very unfortunate illusion
that the scientist prefers to avoid by the method of silence. No genius
can decently accept playing a game whose rule is a matter of trying to get one's
intelligence recognized by a damn idiot with strong nonsensical convictions.
- Once a crackpot author would be debunked, he will
automatically be replaced by another crackpot author with a
"completely different" idea that will feel unconcerned with the
previous debunking, so that the debunking work was vain and the
problem comes back to the same point it started with.
Scientists cannot afford to pay significant attention to fringe
ideas, to try to debunk them, or to give them a right of speech in
their working space: their working space would be full of hundreds
of nonsense for one truth, so that the voice of truth would have no
chance to be heard anymore, and their quest for truth would be
doomed to remain sterile. There could never have been a progress of
scientific knowledge in such conditions.
Instead, censoring them out of their working space (ignoring them,
stopping to read them after a few lines that smell like bullshit),
is a matter of survival for the chances of their work to ever be
"free" and productive for the development of more effective truth
research and applications.
Cleansing their working space from any BS, is a normal "intellectual
hygiene" practice that they need to follow, and which they expect
fellow "worthy debaters" to respect as well.
What made it possible for reason and science to work and make a real
progress to a scientific understanding of the world, was the
presence, in a way or another, of a huge antispam system protecting
the minds of scientists from the harassment of unreason.
One of the main usual anti-spam solutions has been to flee the
common subjects of interest of irrational people, and take refuge
far away, in more or less hyper-specialized subjects that don't
attract such interest, where the wrong people won't come to bother.
Other solutions are the peer review process, and the administrative
and professional selectivity, where scientists will only talk with
colleagues that have been previously selected by some institutions
for their scientific abilities. But these are not always reliable,
as we shall see later.
Typical Examples of cranky claims
A very common ridiculous kind of mistake, is to try to re-explain one observation that may usually be mentioned
as the basis of one scientific conclusion (frequent example: the Michelson-Morley experiment),
by trying to argue the possibility to interpret or explain this observation otherwise.
The big error here is of missing this fact: generally, established scientific conclusions are not based on one observation
but on thousands of independant observations of diverse kinds which all converge to confirm the exact same picture.
There may be or not be problem to dismiss a single reasoning that draws a conclusion from one observation (depending
on candidate ideas of how it could fail, and on diverse things that may make such idea serious or not).
The much bigger problem would be to explain the conspiracy involved
for the convergence of thousands of diverse independent observations to the exact same very coherent picture, if it was not
reality. Indeed no try to re-explain this or that observation as a possible mistake of interpretation, will never suffice, as it leaves intact
the extremely incredible conspiracy of facts that would be required to explain the multitude of confirmations of the current picture if it was incorrect,
in addition to the then strange absence of any observation that may be any kind of challenge to that picture.
1) "I discovered a new idea !"
Let's describe the situation by another metaphor.
Imagine a child on a beach, or some
handicapped person that cannot go far, but remained all his life
on the same segment of a beach. One day he discovers a shell there
(metaphor for some idea). He is amazed: he never saw such a thing.
Then he decides to dedicate the rest of his life claiming to
anyone, up to trying to call the U.S. president about it : "See
what I found ! Isn't this wonderful ? Maybe it is worth millions !
Maybe the secrets of the oceans can be found there !" and so on.
This is understandable, isn't it ? One has only one life (as it
may seem), and hopes that it makes sense. If the tip of one's life
seems to be the discovery of this shell, then it would be so awful
if it had no value.
But while , before examination, it might not be absolutely
impossible, for this new shell to be special and a potential
source of a breakthrough, the problem is that geologists already
examined millions of shells a priori comparable to that one
worldwide, among the billions of shells one can find; that some of
them proved to be very interesting but there is no hint why
precisely this one just would have something special; moreover, an
expert's eye may have already found this out very quickly, much
more quickly than this child who spent a lot of time focusing on
it, so that the accusation of not having properly checked it
before dismissing it, may just be untrue. Otherwise, the specific
circumstances that led this child to find this shell and try to
tell everybody about it, are not a relevant hint for its
worthiness. Each specialist or research team, according to their
research projects, have their own ways to orient and select the
places to explore; these methods may have qualities and defects,
but are probably better than a search at random or depending on
the presence of such a person there to find it and have nothing
else to make a sense of their life with. Namely, they have their
submarines and travels to faraway places, that amateurs could not
access, and that could lead to the most successful findings.
Moreover, about his new idea, the author will claim: "I proved that
this idea is possible". But what he only proved in fact, is that he
does not have the necessary knowledge to understand why it is not.
Still, from this "proof of possibility" he is strongly certain his
idea is worthy of consideration and has a chance to be true. The
problem is that, the certainty of the "maybe" is a certainty that
may be relatively absolute, but this cannot prevent it from possibly
being absolutely relative.
But it is not possible to provide him in reply the necessary
knowledge to show him why his idea cannot hold. This can require a
whole study of a lot of things. Several years of study are usually
required to become a scientist. While this use of time in academia
is not always as efficient as it could (we shall discuss this
later), anyway a few minutes or even hours of explanations has
hardly any chance to suffice to replace it, when hard subjects are
involved that are usually reserved for higher study levels.
So, if he wants to understand why his idea is not possible, it's up
to him to start studying the subject. This may take him months or
even years, but that's his problem and duty if he wants to be
serious about finding out what his idea is really worth. It is not
the duty of scientists to pretend that the idea is right by ignoring
what they know, if no other attitude can ever seem fair from that
person's viewpoint in such conditions.
2) A crank can dismiss requests calling him to go to learn
already established knowledge, because:
- he thinks he already studied the
subject... but based on the wrong literature. Usually, this is a
literature of popularization, rather than of science itself, and
the person missed the fact that this is very different, and that
popularization works are very insufficient, far from the real
understanding of the established scientific knowledge.
That may be written by
- True scientists who tried to popularize their knowledge but
made unfortunate conceptual approximations there, by a partial,
incomplete try at explaining their thoughts, trying to be
intuitive by basing their explanations on everyday intuition or
only explaining a few aspects of things, rather than making a
deep work of explaining things cleanly and completely from the
start with all the precisely relevant concepts (example: the
famous Einstein's book on relativity).
- Incompetent popularizers
- People trying to put forward their own ideology through
inaccurate accounts of the current scientific knowledge.
- He may assume that he already
knows what he needs from current science, that is "the ideas",
while the deeper study of the mathematical contents would be
irrelevant complications and technical details far from "the
ideas"; this attitude can be wrong and cut him off from true
- He may think that it is not his job to see how his ideas should
be mathematically formulated or connected with the main body of
scientific knowledge, so that he expects someone else to take his
ideas and operate the work of formalizing them and connecting them
to current knowledge; the problem is that when a scientist knows
that the current body of knowledge already shows that this idea is
invalid or worthless, the author will never tolerate this reply.
- Otherwise, if he can't study the subject for a reason or
another... maybe what he really needs is a brain transplant to
give him the missing elements of understanding ? Then sorry, this
cannot be obtained by mere arguing.
3) The claim that one's own ideas are clearer than others'.
The problem is that, by nature, everyone always feels one's own
ideas as clearer than others', because otherwise... one's opinion
would have already changed.
4) Some make abusive accumulations of quotations or other
grandiloquent references of thinkers of high reputation in a way or
another. And just by quoting them and approving them, one assumes
this ensures to be on the same side, protected by their authority or
reputation: assuming one is right and everybody must agree, just by
agreeing on something with a reputed person that nobody can
criticize either. But there are 2 problems here:
First, not all "reputed thinkers" agree, thus not all are
necessarily right. Some can have based their reputation on the
public's credulity and stupidity, while their teaching was wrong.
Referring to such people and quoting them, does not ensure to be on
the right track.
Second, the claim of being on the side of a "thinker" that one
refers to, can be abusive; this famous thinker (usually already
dead) is not here able to confirm or dismiss the interpretation of
his words, and to generally approve or disapprove the whole position
held by the people who quote them.
But... for those who like quotations, who think that they are right
because they make a lot of quotations, while my ideas here would be
wrong because I seem isolated and in disagreement with big thinkers
that I don't enough refer to, here are some quotations from two
"Only two things are infinite, the universe and human
stupidity, and I'm not sure about the former." Albert
Now, let me explain my own attitude: when I make quotations, even
from famous people, I don't mean that it must be true just because
they say so. It's just a matter of illustration, that I'm not the
only one claiming something, someone else already had that idea or
observed that thing. I don't mean to use it as an authority. I may
quote a claim by someone but disagree with him on other issues. So I
don't mean to avoid responsibility for a claim just by quoting
someone that says it.
"It has been said that man is a rational animal. All my life
I have been searching for evidence which could support this."
"Many people would sooner die than think; In fact, they do
"Men fear thought as they fear nothing else on earth -- more
than ruin -- more even than death.... Thought is subversive
and revolutionary, destructive and terrible, thought is
merciless to privilege, established institutions, and
comfortable habit. Thought looks into the pit of hell and is
not afraid. Thought is great and swift and free, the light of
the world, and the chief glory of man."
A famous list of typical cranky claims has been written by the
physicist John Baez, the "crackpot index".
Examples from this list:
2 points for every statement that
is clearly vacuous.
5 points for each word in all
capital letters (except for those with defective keyboards).
10 points for each claim that
quantum mechanics is fundamentally misguided (without good
10 points for pointing out that
you have gone to school, as if this were evidence of sanity.
10 points for offering prize money
to anyone who proves and/or finds any flaws in your theory.
10 points for each statement along
the lines of "I'm not good at math, but my theory is
conceptually right, so all I need is for someone to express it
in terms of equations".
10 points for arguing that a
current well-established theory is "only a theory", as if this
were somehow a point against it.
10 points for arguing that while a
current well-established theory predicts phenomena correctly, it
doesn't explain "why" they occur, or fails to provide a
10 points for claiming that your
work is on the cutting edge of a "paradigm shift".
20 points for talking about how great your theory is, but
never actually explaining it
This reminds me of spiritual teachings that spend their time
repeating about the importance of their divine guidance, direct
access to Reality or to the Ultimate Truth that would solve every
problem, but not explaining what it is, is there any reliable way
to it (or to obey it) and which one, and why would it change
things in the announced way, with effective examples of fruits or
truths that ever resulted or could be discovered from it (some
claim to be witnesses of some sorts of miracles or other wonderful
fruits; this will be discussed later)
Let's end with a last example :
50 points for claiming you have a
revolutionary theory but giving no concrete testable
The claim that a subject is not scientifically resolved yet but
still a subject of controversy, while in fact it is not (or much
less), because, either:
- it is in fact clear; but the explanation of how clear it is,
cannot be easily explained to the public, who keeps the illusion
that a problem or inconsistency remains (example: is light a
wave or a particle ? - the relativistic paradoxes...); or:
- There are disagreeing people, but only one side of the
opposition is truly scientific, while the other side keeps
denying the evidence by ignoring it or having some other
irrational attitude (examples: evolution vs "creation science";
climatologists vs climate-skeptics); and naive people cannot
make the difference. As nothing can stop a number of crackpots
or propagandists from telling nonsense on a subject, and from
"looking serious", nothing can ever stop a possible false
impression of a scientific controversy on any subject, from the
viewpoint of a public that cannot tell the difference between
true science and malicious propaganda against it.
The risk for a science to be fake or of low quality
A crackpot practice that grows big (a field of so-called knowledge
that develops irrationally) takes some appearances of science, thus
the name of pseudoscience.
When a public debate happens between a scientific view, and an
opposed pseudoscientific one such as creationism or
climate-skepticism, a naive public unfamiliar with the subtleties of
science and with the existing body of knowledge, watching the
debate, may be efficiently mislead into giving more credit to the
pseudo-scientific view: it can seem more rational (open-minded,
critical-minded, rationally justified...) than the scientific view
itself. This is because of the ignorance of the public, which makes
it naturally closer to the pseudo-scientific view also based on
Indeed, the pseudo-scientific view is precisely developed in such a
way as to make the best illusion of scientificity from an ignorant
viewpoint. Being based on ignorance, convincing the ignorant is the
only purpose of the pseudo-scientific view, and therefore it can be
the best at it; while the scientific view is not free to say what is
most convincing to the public, because of its duty to only say the
truth. This duty is a possible source of "weakness" in debates, that
may bring discredit to it in public opinion.
Is there any chance for the public to become wiser in discerning
science from pseudo-science ? Somehow yes, by informing them on some
of the subtleties of sciences, in contrast with the current usual
unawareness on this issue. Still, I strongly doubt the possibility
for such an awareness to reach a satisfying degree of reliability.
This is because, in order to really make a wise and reliable
discernment, the public would need to become scientists themselves
(thus, mastering the existing body of knowledge and getting
intelligent critical thinking abilities), which they are not.
The difference between reason and irrationality is real and
objective, but this is so only from an abstract viewpoint that would
integrate all elements of understanding of all participants. The
problem is that such a viewpoint is not the one usually accessed in
practice by a third party that cannot read the minds of the
participants but only has access to the words exchanged in the
debate. Usually, debates are quite limited in time (a few minutes or
hours), and thus in number of words. The words that can be exchanged
there are usually limited and very poor compared to the full views
that participants had developed years long before, and which they
can base their claims on. So, a third party observing the debate
without all this experience, will have very poor means to understand
the depths of the issues, and can be as well driven to the wrong
We can even say that, somehow the situation is rather symmetrical:
the irrational person is somehow "rational" in himself. Because
irrationality is not an essence, but a discrepancy of a view or a
way of searching for the truth, with what the outside reality is,
and with the methods that would be required to discover it. The
irrational's view may be somehow more "rational" if it happened the
same in a world that would comply to it, and if there were in human
mind some possible foolishness processes that could produce these
claims actually supported by the rational person, without them being
true. The problem is: how plausible would such a world be ? In fact,
many people do not care how mad such worldviews can be (as they
don't examine that in details). Especially, some trends of
fundamentalist Christianity have no problem to explain away any
opposite view as a work of a sort of almighty Devil that can fool
everybody (except oneself) to any tremendous extents.
Thus, much of the characters of the opposition between rationality
and irrationality as we described them, if taken as criteria to try
to distinguish who is rational and who is not, while they can work
in some easy cases, may turn out to be insufficient in more tricky
ones, if tried by people who don't have the necessary knowledge and
For example, if the problem is that the irrational person does not
understand the other view and does not make proper efforts for it,
we can notice that the rational person would behave the same: he
won't take much effort to know a lot of the other side, because he
already has very good reasons why it would be pointless, just like
it is pointless to go and read a book that aims to prove that 2+2=5,
to find out whether that proof can be correct or not. So, it can be
rational to ignore the details of the other view. Thus, for the
other side... it can be very "rational in itself" to ignore the
rational view as well. It is "rational in itself" but not rational
in reality, because rationality is not an essence, but an extrinsic
property of a view or an attitude: the property of fitting with the
You may ask : in such conditions, how can the rational person really
know that he is rational ?
Well... this is a long story.
A lot of intelligence and careful work can be necessary to reach
true reliability. This is precisely why science is not a work for
amateurs nor for everybody.
Those who don't have the necessary skills and experience in this
field, can be completely lost.
This is the case of many philosophers, who considered the question
whether there is a criteria to distinguish what is scientific and
what is not. Some relatively simple criteria may work in relatively
simple cases. This is how Karl Popper noticed that scientific
knowledge about our universe is often characterized by its
falsifiability (the logical possibility for a given theory to be
refuted by facts), while many irrational (pseudo-scientific) views
did not have this character. So, he proposed to take this a
But then another philosopher, Paul Feyerabend, discovered that this
does clearly not apply to all cases. He then concluded that, during
the emergence of a scientific consensus (about what is
scientifically valid or not) that he could not explain after any
simple and obvious criteria, that this consensus would be nothing
more than an unjustified social phenomenon, a sort of democratic
choice of belief among scientists or something like this.
But he is missing the fact that this relativity (undefinability,
subjectivity) of reason and science, may be all what philosophers
traditionally have access to, but it is only a superficial one. For
scientists, really involved in the depths of the debates and
arguments, things may be clear and conclusions may be reliable.
Then, in practice, how is it possible to find out whether a work is
rational or not ?
The now widespread solution is peer review: the author should send
it to a journal, that will forward it more or less at random to a
reviewer, that is someone with the necessary skills and knowledge in
the concerned field of research, for being able to properly examine
the article and criticize it in relevant ways.
This aims to ensure an assessment that will not be influenced by the
diplomas or reputation of the author of the article. Then, the
reputation and academic position of scientists will be based on
their production of works that would have been objectively
recognized and published in such ways.
So, this method aims to be objective through anonymity procedures.
It does not depend on the reputation and position of the author.
Still, to make sense, it cannot be completely anonymous and
impersonal, as it has to select its reviewers among scientists known
for their skills and competence in that field. It cannot rely on
incompetent, lay people chosen at random from the street, for doing
the review, even if these would have convictions to express on the
But for all this to work, it requires to assume that this selection
of competent scientists for doing the review, was the right one.
This selection was based on their reputation, which came from the
previous acceptation of their own articles in peer review journals.
So: if peer reviewers in a given scientific field were competent and
properly rational during one generation, then there are high chances
for this fortunate situation to be preserved to the next generation
in that field.
But, what if they were not ? Then, there are high risks for this
unfortunate situation to last long too.
Thus, the success of the peer review system for ensuring a high
rationality level in some successful scientific field, does not mean
that doing the same in other fields could ever suffice to ensure
rationality levels to be similarly high there too.
And this risk is real. I will further mention specific examples of
fields of study where full rationality is currently not in force,
but irrational ideologies dominate instead, making it quite hard and
desperate for true rationality standards to ever come up as long as
institutional continuity is preserved.
The peer-review system is but an example of a more general natural
process that preserves the level of rationality or crankiness in a
field, and that roughly consists in the fact that similar-minded
people naturally forms groups, while dissimilar or disagreeing
people naturally reject each other.
Still, such a difference between rational and irrational states of
diverse fields, should not be taken in any essentialist sense
either. There are possible intermediate situations, with doctrines
that are somehow true but not with the depth, completeness or
accuracy that could be reached with higher scientific
professionalism. Also, situations can be mixed, letting some more
rational views be developed aside less rational ones as a diversity
of schools in the same fields.
As the Wikipedia article defines it, the name "pseudoscience" is
usually restricted to irrational movements that wrongly claim to be
scientific. However, I consider this criteria of whether a doctrine
claims to follow the scientific method or to reject it, to be
irrelevant. Instead, I'd include any movement that focuses on claims
of "truth" and "knowledge", thus including most religions. Indeed,
even inside a given religion, some movements claim their religion to
be rationally justified and in agreement with science, while others
claim to reject reason in the name of the same religion, and not
much practical difference can be found between these two opposite
trends. Anyway, both are ignoring the fact that much of the claims
of their religion is in the reach of scientific inquiry (logical
and/or observational), and refutable by it, as we shall develop
Now, while the rationality level of an individual view inside a
given field of knowledge where scientific rationality is in force,
can easily be assessed by peer review, it leaves unclear the
question how to assess the rationality level of a whole field that
includes the readily available "peers". This problem can turn out to
be very tough.
Still, once big, there are some other possible hints to assess the
rationality level of a discipline, even if they are not always
reliable, such as:
- How fruitful it is ? could it discover any important and useful
solutions for mankind, such as new technologies ?
- Does it progress towards more accurate knowledge and clearer
evidence to support it ?
it progress towards consensus on every specific issue that it is
studying (a consensus may be towards either a conclusion or an
acknowledgement that the issue is not resolved yet), or on the
contrary, does it face long-lasting internal divisions between
similar communities of belief that disagree on common questions,
whose divisions can only be limited by some form of dictatorship ?
For example, in physics, there is only one theory of gravitation
accepted as our established understanding of gravitation, that is
general relativity; the classical Newton's theory of gravitation is
still used as an approximation in many practical cases, without this
being a disagreement. But every big religion has faced divisions
into disagreeing movements: Judaism gave birth to Christianity and
Islam; Christianity faced a proliferation of heresies at its birth,
and divided into many denominations; Islam divides into Sunni, Shia,
Sufism and others, as well as a diversity of national and individual
interpretations and practices. Further divisions of religions was
limited, at least by the common acceptance of a Holy Book that
cannot be modified and that must be taken as the ultimate truth
reference for being a member of the group; and sometimes also by
some hierarchical structure with a leader defining what everyone
must think. How can a view be the absolute and reliable Truth, if it
is either arbitrarily fixed (just as another option could have been
chosen instead), or similar with other variations that also claim to
be the Truth by similar methods ? How can it claim to be of
importance if it does not bring any observable and undeniable
benefits to mankind ?
In science, there is no leader; after a theory was discovered, it is
usually rewritten, reexplained and developed by different authors,
to no more depend on the specific approach and presentation made by
the discoverer, while naturally (rather than dogmatically)
keeping agreement among versions and with the previous discoveries
(except of course if the information initially suffered of being
inaccurate, but corrections are then accepted and do not give rise
to long-standing disagreements). For example, astronomers and
geologist naturally came to agree on the age of the Earth from
There has never been several coexisting ideologies which were
altogether undeniable ways to truth or progress, and in clear
conflict against each other.
(This is expectable, as the Universe is a consistent whole with many
aspects but no contradictions; so the genuine understandings of its
parts should not contradict each other either).
Looking for exceptions, I can just remember about Gandhi's
non-violence method for the independence of India - but this is a
very simple principle, not disagreeing with science by itself, not
an elaborate or mystical research, it only opposed colonialism and
not science; and its links to other aspects of the religious culture
of India, are not, in principle, necessary.
incompatibility and superiority of science over religion
Nowadays the only clear and undeniable way to truth and/or creative
useful practice for mankind, is science (another important creative
practice is the arts (music & cinema) but it only acts on the
imagination rather than the real world order, and often carries
stupid ideas with no effective claim on truth); possible benefits of
any religion are balanced by drawbacks observed by others. Drawbacks
of science can be observed but few people would be ready to live
without any modern technology (ok, some do, let them do so).
Some philosophies or religions in ancient history could have been
the way to truth and progress for their time while "differing" from
our modern science, just because they were better than the rest of
what dominated their time, and they did not have the opportunity of
interaction with modern science.
Some forms of traditional medicine may be good while possibly
"disagreeing" with modern conventional medicine, but modern
conventional medicine is not up to the same scientific standards as
most other natural sciences (see below). And there is not even a
clear disagreeing either, as most claims of disagreement are made by
"skeptic" groups who do not really represent science.
But there has never been inside science any long-standing opposed
sides with each their progresses and sets of clear visible fruits.
On the other hand, you can see disagreements between science and
religion. The question of whether science and religions do agree, is
neither a matter of
but a matter of:
- whether scientists think there is a God (as this would not
imply that God ever intervened to create "the right religion" or
ensure its promotion; even this would not tell which it is, and
we'll explain later that it's not the case anyway),
- whether religious zealots say that (have a strong
faith that) they are agreeing with, or supported by, science (of
course they could hardly oppose science without discrediting
themselves), or on the other hand, whether they have a strong
faith that science would be a mere arbitrary (wrong) religion -
thus projecting on science the flaws of the blind faith
principles they are themselves following, as they can't
understand science and reason in the first place.
- whether our European pioneers of science were Christians (most
cultivated people in Europe were Christian anyway, and how could
non-Christian scientists be heard when the Church was almighty
?). It can be answered that the scientific progress initiated by
the Greeks and others was interrupted by Christianity in the
Middle Ages; and that the compatibility claims by the pioneers
of science were forced by the cultural conditioning of that time
which had installed Christianity as the only source of
- whether someone can be scientist and religious at the same
time (one can be rational when dealing with scientific work, and
then switch off one's intellectual skills to make a lot of
nonsense on religious issues, like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde; just
like one can be an expert in one field and a nut in another
- that pareidolies can be found between ancient religious texts
and modern scientific discoveries (which, like so many other
fallacies they claim here and there, only proves that these
religions make their followers dumb, unable to properly
understand science and to objectively talk about it)
Among the different articles claiming for the harmony between
science and religion, I rarely saw any attempt to argue for such
hints of compatibility. The only such link (arguable) I heard of,
was between Eastern religions (I forgot the details), and quantum
physics, as Bohr, Schrödinger and other quantum physicists could
suggest. See here
a historical report on the links between modern science and
Eastern religions, written from a Buddhist viewpoint. But
Eastern religions can be criticized too, as will be developed in
- How discussions do turn out when scientists
and religious people are debating together. Because
rationality and effective truth seeking, are not a matter of
claim on a few trivial points, but a matter of living way of
thinking. Only live debates can reveal such
- Has religion (its methods or teachings beyond mere basic
natural intuitions) ever been of any help in the quest for
truth, (in comparison with some hypothetical scenario
where the same people would have lived without their religion,
i.e. had this religion been absent from their surrounding). Or,
has it been a hindrance.
- Is there any other scientific evidence supporting or refuting
the claims of a given religion.
Let's just notice something: among the people who actively promote
the thesis of an harmony between Science and Christianity, there are
many more non-scientist Christians, than scientists for whom Christianity
is not the big thing (and the same for every other religion). Guess why.
(When I say "scientist" here, I mean someone who actively practices
science, not just someone who believes in the existences of Big
Bang, black holes, galaxies, atoms and electromagnetic waves, and
the revolution of the Earth around the Sun in one year, and who uses
computers and mobile phones; when I say "Christian" I mean someone
in whose life faith plays a significant role, such as they spend
time reading the Bible, praying and/or attending churches, not just
someone who believes in the existences of God, afterlife and an
historical Jesus, and who visits churches for tourism, concerts,
baptism, Christmas, weddings and funerals).
Why is it that, despite the dire lack of popularity of science
(people more often value for example Christianity than science in a
moral scale; more people value religion as "higher" than science,
and manier people are Christians than scientists in the above
- Claims of compatibility
with science, have often been made by
people of any religion but
- only as a belief developed from inside their faith, based on
superficial historical accounts and/or a misunderstanding
(biased account) of science, rather than from science itself ;
- much more for trying to make their faith sound respectable,
keeping and trying to attract into their faith people who
trust science by giving it a sort of scientific confirmation,
rather than for promoting scientific activities among their
religious peers ;
- they could hardly convince anyone that did not already
belong to their own religion about it, maybe except a few
while, despite the widespread popularity and practice of religions,
- Since modern times (about the mid 19th century ?), no
religious apologist (maybe except extreme Postmodernists)
anymore claimed there would be no truth in science;
- Since modern times, no scientist anymore tried to argue for
the compatibility of science with any given religion for trying
to credibilize scientific knowledge, such as defending the big
bang theory to a Christian public by arguing for its
compatibility with the story of Genesis or by pointing out any
biblical approval for the use of reason, even when the promotion
of science is their only concern;
- Hardly any religion ever tried to argue for its compatibility
with any other religion to make it sound credible (the few
exceptions I know of are those whose sacred texts include those
from another religion, claiming for compatibility with it, like
the "Jews for Jesus" trying to convert Jews to Christianity but
this is debunked by other Jews; New Agers unseriously pretending
to be compatible with all other religions together);
- Every religion has been dismissed by many people, including
many scientists and members of other religions, as having no
truth in it
It's of course because science turned out to be the only decent and
self-sufficient source of credibility under hand. And, in itself, it
does not support any of our big institutionalized religions.
But, these remarks were only drawn from superficial observations on
public opinion. How truly reliable is science, finally ? here is an article
showing a form of credibility of scientific procedures
in the sense that criticism is at work, away from any conservatism.
But another thread referenced another
article indicating that, precisely, some scientific fields
like psychology and medecine suffer from an overabundance of
insufficiently verified breakthroughs, and therefore should be taken
Usually, religions while agreeing that science has its own field of
validity, claimed their superiority over science. But these claims
are always based on their own creeds, and only valid from their own
viewpoint. You may ask, how is it possible to develop a purely
rational viewpoint on these questions then ? We shall come back to
this in Part IV.
External link :Fundamental
misconceptions of science among Christians and other religious people
Related pages : Nottale's Scale
Relativity "theory" - Scientific
illiteracy - Design
argument - FQXI - quantum debate
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