An Example of the Difference Between Science and Pseudoscience

I read an article today in Physics World that is a great example of one of the big differences between science and pseudoscience. The article describes a series of experiments that shows that the size of the proton, one of the particles that make up an atom, is smaller that previous experiments have shown and, more importantly, than theory has predicted.

The part that really interested me and that is the basis of this post was near the end of the article. The article said:

“…the team has been working on the measurement for the past 12 years and got the first inklings of the anomalous result about six years ago. Since then, the researchers have reviewed, repeated and improved their measurements so that they are confident that the results are correct.

According to Jeff Flowers of the UK’s National Physical Laboratory there are three possible explanations for the discrepancy. The most likely is that QED (the theory of quantum electrodynamics) is correct, but has been misapplied in what he describes as a “very difficult calculation”. Alternatively there is a problem with the experiment – but Flowers, who was not involved in the measurement, believes that Pohl’s team has done an excellent job. The least likely – but most exciting explanation – according to Flowers is that there is something wrong with QED.
‘Big philosophical change for physicists’

While QED rests on a weak mathematical foundation, it has been extremely successful in predicting the outcome of experiments. “Changing QED would be big philosophical change for physicists”, says Flowers.

The result has already caused a flurry of experimental and theoretical activity, with some physicists carefully redoing Lamb shift calculations and others trying to improve electron-based measurements of the proton radius.”

It doesn’t matter if you don’t understand quantum mechanics or even have much of a clue what all this means. I want to direct your attention to the words in bold. Physicists are excited about the possibility that their theory might be wrong and are racing to double check pretty much every experiment and calculations of the theory that have been done so far. Just to make it crystal clear; physicists are excited that they may be wrong!

And herein lies the difference between science and pseudoscience: you will never, ever find a proponent of pseudoscience who will admit that they might be wrong, never mind actually be excited about it. Never. They will always find ways to explain away the parts of their theories that are shown to be wrong, can’t be proved or make no logical sense at all and have no evidence to support them. They will jump through hoops, crawl through holes, do somersaults, whatever it takes to avoid admitting that anything they say or have said is wrong.

Why is this important? Because being willing to admit that you are wrong, to go back to the drawing board, to start over if needed, based on experimental evidence is crucial to our basic understanding of the world. It is how all scientific and technological progress is made. Scientists are willing to change their minds and to admit that they were wrong if that is where the evidence leads.

You won’t get the same from the promoters of pseudoscience, just more contortions and more bullshit. The promoters of pseudoscience will cling to their beliefs to their last dying breath (or at least until they are completely, totally and publicly humiliated. Good scientists will always accept the evidence, even if it means discarding a lifetime of research and work. And this is why science will always trump pseudoscience every time.

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9 thoughts on “An Example of the Difference Between Science and Pseudoscience

  1. Great example! Quoting the words in their jargon-filled context is a good way of keeping it very transparent of what it means. Gotta love science!

  2. To be fair, QED just gives the right answers all the time. There’s no reason it should and other than being accurate, it doesn’t have much in the way of a reason why it should be accurate. Some of the giddiness about the proving things wrong is proving QED wrong. Maybe we’ll get clues towards making another theory that not only gets the right answer but has some underlying reasons why it’s answers are correct.

    It’s a bit like Ptolemy whose math was absolutely fantastic and produced more accurate results than any other models (including heliocentricity) well up into the 1600s. It just gives you the right answer, but there’s no reason why the answer should be right.

    • This is true, as it is of the whole Standard Model as well. Unlike special or general relativity which were proposed before they were confirmed, in the case of QED and the Standard Model, scientists worked backward from experimental results and observations to create theories that try to explain them. Either way, science will always put the evidence first before the theory, which is more than the pseudoscience people do.

  3. Well said.

    It just so happens that I’m currently crawling through “The Lightness of Being” (Frank Wilczek, not unbearable/Kundera), which seems to be asserting quantum chromodynamics as a theoretical improvement over QED, but I am such an armchair physicist that it’s all pretty freaking abstract to me. I still find it fascinating, though.

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