We are losing the battle against pseudoscience. Major publishers and media are feeding the public a continuous stream of misinformation, most of which ends up on various best-selling lists. There are now “peer reviewed” journals, published by major publishers, devoted solely to pseudoscience. Almost sixty institutions, including Harvard, Yale, Johns Hopkins, Stanford, Columbia, and Mayo Clinic have departments in which acupuncture, mind-body medicine, qi, homeopathy, and other forms of quack medicine are taught.
What makes matters worse is the existence of certain legitimate and useful disciplines that historically have been considered science because of the attempt of their originators to apply the “scientific method” to them. Unfortunately, this imposition of the “scientific method” from the outside, which carries the personal viewpoint of the originator, has allowed followers to form various “schools” within the discipline, each school based on some competing viewpoint. And the diversity of schools has made it possible for pseudo-scientific ideas to creep into the mainstream of these disciplines.
It requires a Herculean effort to stop this abject intrusion of pseudoscience into the public mind. Nevertheless, it is worth the attempt to make a dent – as small as it may be – by helping the inexpert citizen to identify the unscientific nature of all the disciplines that claim to be scientific. To do so, we have to identify the characteristics that are common among the basic sciences: physics, chemistry, and (molecular) biology.
The inclusion of the word “molecular” is important, because historically, biology was one of the first victims of the imposition of the methods of the older science of physics from the outside. With the tremendous success of physics, some biologists of the 19th century ventured to postulate a sort of “mechanical biology,” whereby biological phenomena were to be explained by mechanical interaction of “biological matter” through the exchange of forces. However, in all such ventures, it was necessary to introduce an “ultra-material” force … the same force that Aristotle called the soul, which was later given a variety of names such as vital force, elan vital, purposiveness, teleology, and most recently, the biofield.1 Only through the natural development of biology in the first half of the 20th century and the discovery of macromolecules of life did biology join physics and chemistry as being truly a scientific discipline.
Acknowledging that any list of the characteristics of science is incomplete, I have gathered ten important characteristics, which I elaborate in what follows. I have to emphasize that I am considering only the mainstream science.
In any branch of science there are always some “fringe scientists” who work in isolation and their ideas are not accepted by the mainstream scientists because they are not tested and they contradict well-established and experimentally verified and verifiable ideas.
In other words, the following characteristics of science do not apply to crackpot or quack “science,” even if it is pursued by once notable scientists.
The first and foremost characteristic of science is that its objects of study are material. They could be stars and planets seen through the naked eye; an apple falling to the ground; liquids and gases changing colors and odors in a test tube; layers of the earth crust; electromagnetic fields emanating from an antenna; cells showing themselves through a microscope; atoms, molecules, and DNAs revealed through the eye of an X-ray machine; or quarks, leptons, and gauge bosons seen in the Large Hadron Collider. And this characteristic of science is as old as the conscious man.
No human endeavor can claim to be a science if it is not studying matter.
Galileo started modern – as opposed to Greek – science. His greatest contribution was the introduction of experiments and observation as the means by which we can understand nature. The main characteristic of an experiment or observation is that it reduces our investigation of nature to a very specific question whose answer is to be found in a very specific set-up. Galileo himself used this technique by observing how a block moves on an inclined plane to discover one version of the universal first law of motion. Newton used this technique by observing how an apple falls and how the moon revolves around the earth to discover the universal law of gravity. This process of reduction has continued ever since in all branches of science to the point that we now talk about the building blocks of matter.
Every material thing is made of some building blocks. Therefore, the scientific study of matter must concentrate on some building blocks and how they interact among themselves.
There is no science that studies objects “holistically!”
The building blocks of subnuclear physics are quarks, leptons, and gluons plus various forces they experience; the building blocks of nuclear physics are protons and neutrons and their electromagnetic and strong interactions; the building blocks of atomic physics are electrons and nuclei interacting electromagnetically; those of molecular physics, chemistry, and condensed matter physics are atoms and small molecules and their electromagnetic interactions; molecular biologists’ building blocks are specific smaller molecules forming macromolecules and DNA through their electromagnetic interactions; astrophysicists’ building blocks are atoms and molecules interacting through gravitational, electromagnetic, and nuclear forces, and so on.
In this hierarchy, one discipline borrows the knowledge gained in the preceding, more fundamental, discipline.
A chemist borrows from atomic physics; an atomic physicist borrows from nuclear and particle physics; an astrophysicist borrows from atomic and nuclear physics, etc. This hierarchy makes science a web that is fundamentally interconnected.
- See Hans Driesch, The History & Theory of Vitalism, Macmillan and Co., 1914. ↩