What is not scientific theory

Does anyone still remember the Kassel “Gnomen Klüngel”? Over twelve years ago, under this heading, Siegfried Bär aimed with a pointed pen at certain attempts to help anthroposophy achieve academic consecration by means of two rather bizarre endowed professorships at the University of Kassel. It was about biodynamic agriculture according to Rudolf Steiner, about biocrystallization - yes even about researching gnomes and elves.

Apparently the article is actually still read sporadically, because only recently we received another email with which the authors protested sharply against the article and vehemently defended anthroposophy. We had, of course, received a number of such complaints when the article was freshly published. What was special about this email - besides the time lag - was that it was signed by two scientists from a medical research institute.

Among other things, they accuse us of the following:

Your report on the anthroposophists [...] represents the maximum of intolerance and polemics. We can therefore not believe that your journal actually follows a truly scientific approach, when it obviously only works with people who do not tolerate different perspectives and schools of thought.

I beg your pardon? We really had to rub our eyes. However, as blatant as this accusation sounds, it was by no means the first and only example that made us doubt whether, as a trained scientist who continues to work at a scientific institute, one always knows what science actually is is. And above all: whether he is aware of what actually separates science from pseudoscience.

Karl Popper in particular thought about this demarcation line, which can clearly separate real science from "non-science that tries to work like science". Above all, he wanted to find out what exactly was missing in pseudoscience in order to turn it into real science. Its conclusions can be roughly summarized as follows:

Science begins with developing theories. However, these theories are always preliminary. They can be very speculative or extremely well tested - but either way, scientifically speaking, they are always theories. For example, the view that zebras have stripes is strictly scientific no Fact, rather a theory - after all, one day we might spot zebras without stripes. The term “theory” consequently has a fundamentally different meaning in science than in everyday life.

This is of course not very intuitive for the layperson. But what follows from this is that scientific claims are usually testable, and thus falsifiable (- as I said, you just have to look for zebras without stripes). This is a very important criterion, because in this way science is literally driven to constantly question its theories - and thus to look for clues that could prove that a theory is wrong.

So science can provide evidence that is safe to say that a conclusion is wrong - but it never finds evidence to conclusively and forever confirm a theory. And if, in this way, a scientific picture of the world should actually prove to be wrong, such science at least gives us the chance to find out that it's wrong - and we can switch to another picture.

Pseudoscience, on the other hand, seeks confirmation; she aims to look for evidence to support her claims. And these claims, in turn, are usually worded in such a way that they fit every conceivable type of observable result. The logical conclusion, therefore, is that no test can ever truly show that pseudoscientific claims are false - which ultimately means that they are not at all are testable. For example, how to falsify the existence of gnomes and elves - that is, test that gnomes and elves Not exist?

In the end, pseudoscience this way can make you feel like you have a pretty good idea of ​​how the world works - but it might as well be completely wrong! However: In contrast to science, you will never find out here.

Of course, hardly any scientist spends his time constantly thinking about how to question and falsify his own theories. What is important, however, is the fundamentally different attitude between science and pseudoscience. In an ideal world, a scientist is prepared to say goodbye to even his most beloved theory if the evidence against it piles up. Proponents of pseudoscience, however, would never do that.

Ralf Neumann


Keywords: problem of demarcation, anthroposophy, demarcation line, elves, falsification, gnomes, Karl Popper, pseudoscience, theory, science

This entry was published on Wednesday, July 24th, 2019 at 12:00 pm and saved under General. You can follow any comments on this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a comment or trackback from your website here.