I was just reading an introduction to a book this morning, The Pseudoscience Wars, by Michael D. Gordin. He is discussing the use of the word “pseudoscience.” I had never thought much about it, but his explanation rang true. It does not exist, he said.
There is good science, mediocre science (most) and bad science. Nothing else. The word “pseudoscience” is an epithet. It has no other purpose that to be an attack vehicle.
“What unifies the so-called pseudosciences is that scientists in various fields have chosen to ostracize them in this particular way (as opposed to declaring them incorrect scientific theories). It is a core argument of [his book] that individual scientists (as distinct from the monolithic “scientific community”) designate a doctrine a “pseudoscience” only when they perceive themselves to be threatened – not necessarily by the ideas themselves, but by what those ideas represent about the authority of science, science’s access to resources, or some other broader social trend. If one is not threatened, there is no need to lash out at the perceived pseudoscience; instead one continues with one’s work and happily ignores the cranks.”
So there it is, the use and purpose of the word “pseudoscience,” used by insiders to attack any outsider that threatens their dominance and access to research funds. I have seen it at work, I have seen it work. It is how established scientists undermine the upstarts. It is why it takes decades for new ideas to take hold. Those smug insiders have to die off along with their bad science.
The connection I am going for is another epithet widely used, “conspiracy theorist.” It too has no meaning. What exactly is the content of that phrase? What is a “conspiracy theory” as opposed to merely a general idea of how human society functions? Everything around us is the result of planning. Every project, be it a road or a building or an election campaign, requires group effort, advance planning and a certain amount of inside awareness. People work together, prefer their friends in the hiring process, play cards close to the vest, don’t talk out of school, and generally try to win things … elections, grants, contracts, jobs, money.
So a “conspiracy theory” must be an idea that is a threat to some established way of doing things. Here at this website our readers are going to be cognizant that certain events are probably fake, like the synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh recently. We look for evidence to that effect, and find it in crisis actors, illogical motives and actions, phony names, and a little numerology to boot. That information is a threat to the people who planned the fake event, so that calling us “conspiracy theorists” wards off that threat. People who hear those words back away, turn off their brains (as if), and the planners are kept safe behind a wall of fear and ignorance.
I have a standard rote response that I use when someone hurls the conspiracy theorist epithet towards me:
These attitudes you have adopted – I know they comfort you. You are indifferent and incurious about the important events of our times. You are smug about it, thinking yourself wise to be so. But I must advise you that from a distance your attitude is indistinguishable from stupidity.
Oddly, people take offense when I post that on a forum, though on Facebook it draws no comments, as it is more than ten words and does not get read.
The purpose of an epithet is to abuse others. The purpose of both “pseudoscience” and “conspiracy theorist” is to harm other people, discredit them and defame them. Use of these epithets by the smug to attack the authentic and honest among us is grating and offensive. I see only one possible effective response, to not just call them stupid, but to explain why they are stupid.
That is but one weapon we can use in the ongoing fight to win the hearts and minds of the American public. As with all other weapons at our disposal, it too does not work.