Hierarchy of knowledge: Science, social science, pseudoscience (religion doesn’t make the list)

Like anyone with a university degree, a graduate education, and a devout affection for human knowledge, I fill much of my life with understanding our physical universe. I read academic journals ranging from Biology and Nature to Studies in History and Philosophy of Modern Physics. But unlike some educated people, I dedicated my education to the soft sciences. That is, in my undergrad I received a degree in political science. In my graduate work, I focused on security studies (although I wrote my thesis on altruistic suicide).

There’s a divorce between the hard sciences and the soft sciences. In fact, I would even go so far as to say political science, philosophy, and any of the other soft sciences are only one step above pseudoscience. The big things that separate us from pseudoscientists are that we don’t start with a claim, and we don’t pretend to be able to replicate our results. For example, it would be impossible — and highly unethical — to duplicate World War II. In building theoretical frameworks, therefore, it is essential that we remain as parsimonious as possible. Otherwise, our variables would be changing so frequently that theories would only explain individualized events. That’s why I have the deepest respect for Kenneth Waltz’s neorealism. We also rely heavily on statistical analysis. SPSS is a godsend! 

Because of my background in the soft sciences, I know well the delicate line between science and pseudoscience.

So it pains me when a group of bible literalists with Ph.Ds throw out the scientific method in hopes to “scientifically prove the biblical version of creation.” Let me make this clear: While soft sciences are one step above pseudoscience, creation science isn’t even a pseudoscience. It’s dogmatic manipulation of anything that contradicts their claim.

Pseudoscience begins with a claim and then searches for anything that can back up its claim, ignoring contradictory data. This is not science. Science begins by looking at all the data, making observations, formulating those observations into hypotheses and null hypotheses, relentlessly testing their hypotheses and null hypotheses, and finally making a claim and sending it out to the academic world for further testing. Creation science does none of this.

Creation science begins with an immovable claim. God created the earth in six days, et al. They originate without collecting any data or making any observations. Thus far it sounds like pseudoscience. But pseudoscientists often eventually admit when they’re wrong (see Uri Geller). These confessions actually build on our understanding because we have stricken their claims from our list of possible explanations. And whereas pseudoscientists will ignore contradictory data, creation scientists will incorporate contradictory data by appealing to divine agency. For example, they might tell us the cosmological redshift — an observation that supports the theory of a big bang (also see Hubble’s Law) — isn’t evidence of a big bang; it’s evidence of a divine hand guiding the universe according to a divine plan. Creation scientists attempt to turn science into a useless tool, incapable of even explaining why it rains. And I have the most utter disdain for these people.

And these are people who have previously contributed to the wealth of human knowledge. They should know better! In order to be awarded a Ph.D one must conduct original research in the gaps of our understanding. They must come to a conclusion about a previously unexplained phenomenon. The completion and successful defense of a dissertation is one of the most admirable feats a human can professionally achieve. I lose all respect for people who understand the scientific method and then throw it away in order to make unfalsifiable claims and then usurp scientific data to bolster their claims.

Thankfully the vast majority of academics scoff at these techniques, unwilling to let them in the banquet hall, let alone offer them a seat at the table of honor.

About Rayan Zehn

I'm a political scientist.
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8 Responses to Hierarchy of knowledge: Science, social science, pseudoscience (religion doesn’t make the list)

  1. I totally agree. Creationism isn’t science. It’s wishful thinking.

    • Rayan Zehn says:

      Yeah. It really gets on my nerves. At the university I have worked with several bible literalists. But they leave their religious beliefs at the door when they put on their academic caps. They never appeal to god in their work because that method doesn’t work. So it frustrates me even more when other people do, especially academics.

  2. studentgonzo says:

    I adored this post. As a historian, acknowledging that my discipline is only one step (though I’d argue a big step) above pseudoscience is a necessary cognitive dissonance.

    • Rayan Zehn says:

      Yeah, it’s a very big step.

      You just reminded me of something I thought was funny. I was talking to a Ph.D student a few months ago about cognitive dissonance in our work. I was trying to conceptualize ways we could avoid it in our work. She quipped back, “You’re showing your cognitive dissonance about cognitive dissonance!”

  3. Jennrvt says:

    Reblogged this on Standard Of Reason and commented:
    Wonderful read – if you haven’t, you should!

  4. I’m really surprised that someone who claims higher education in the so-called soft sciences hasn’t been exposed to natural law.

    Natural law unifies the physical and the metaphysical and also provides a consistent set of ethics to tie everything up in a nice rose colored bow.

    • Rayan Zehn says:

      SOM, can you read? I explicitly mentioned philosophy. Metaphysics is not actual physics. You do know that, right? It’s philosophy, a soft science, outside the scope of natural “law” (you incorrectly used that word). You can’t say philosophy unifies the physical and the philosophical world. I’m curious though. Why are you even commenting. Based off our previous conversations, I gather you’re not a biblical literalist/creationist. I gather you’re a science accepting Catholic, who does not challenge the natural explanations for this universe.

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