Michael D. Gordin: “On the Edge” – How Pseudoscience Emerges

Whether it’s astrology, spiritualism, eugenics, ufology, or flat earth theories, pseudoscience is both fascinating and incredible because it leads to extraordinary systems of thought and challenges established science. Some are run by obscure but largely harmless “mad scientists,” while others are in league with very dangerous conspiracy theories.

From Nessie to conspiracy theories

But what exactly is pseudoscience, how do we distinguish it from true science, and can we learn anything from the historical process of its formation?

Such questions are asked by Michael D. Gordin, an American historian who teaches at Princeton University, who has studied apostate teachings, political instrumentalization and alleged rebels throughout the history of science. His 150-page book Am Rande. Where Science Meets Pseudoscience” provides some sort of index to pseudoscience as it summarizes the specifics of each doctrine in a concise and concise manner.

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If you want to know what cryptozoology is, three pages in you will learn that its followers believe in the existence of animals that are not recognized by “mainstream science”. The most famous cases: Nessie, Loch Ness Monster or Bigfoot, Yeti with large footprints.

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Demarcation problem

First, however, Gordin outlines an epistemological problem with the question of the distinction between science and pseudoscience. The problem of demarcation, a term coined by the philosopher Karl Popper, is at the beginning of his deliberations: if there were a “commonly recognized and enforced criterion of demarcation,” the task would be easy. But Popper’s falsification demarcation criterion turned out to be impractical, Gordin explains.

He suggests not looking for a common criterion of demarcation, but to look at the very different pseudosciences “locally” and from the perspective of the history of science. Precisely because science is characterized by “enormous dynamics,” the plan to limit pseudoscience must always remain imperfect.

The shadow of science

Rather than looking for a universally valid criterion of demarcation, Gordin identifies various pseudo-scientific groups, such as the “rudimentary sciences,” to which he includes astrology and alchemy: teachings that emerged from the remnants of an older science that had long since been disproved. . Other groups are “hyper-politicized sciences” that seek to support political claims to power, or movements that fight against “established science” and thereby mimic the structures of these established sciences.

“Pseudoscience is the shadow of science,” Gordin finally declares, an inevitable byproduct of conventional science. However, anyone looking back from the history of science can at least recognize and name the regularities of their occurrence.

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