Talking with NFO about “pathological science”, the anti-gun movement, and what we usually describe the same thing as today- pseudoscience. He’s part one; I’m part two.
The first thing I want to talk about is the notion that there is a single, real thing called Science and any confusion between it and pseudoscience (or “pathological science” as Langmuir codified it, which I had not encountered until recently and rather like) is like misidentifying species. It’s not true; it’s closer to true now that it ever was historically, although we often talk as though science has been an unchanging edifice or force, but it’s a reification of a collection of processes, models, and methods rather than a thing unto itself. The idea is to make a model for acquiring reliable knowledge that is robust against all the cognitive biases and fallacies of human thought processes; however, given that the entire enterprise is still done by humans, it’s merely better than less careful approaches, not infallible.
To give examples, here are some things that, within the lifetime of many readers, were either still serious scientific debates or were seriously held and debated theories: status thymicolymphaticus (died out for good in the 60s), whether plate tectonics is a real thing (considered crank science until the late 60s, seriously debated by the credible well into the 80s), whether menstruating women secrete toxins into their blood and sweat (didn’t start to really die out until the 1980s). Science and purely rational processes can come to completely wrong conclusions if the data or assumptions are bad.
That said, there are some things that are fairly telling markers of pseudo, or pathological, science:
1. Not only is falsification of the underlying theory not seriously tried, it seems to not be thought of at all.
It’s not enough to make predictions about things that happen, real science needs to make predictions based on theoretical logic that can be fully laid out and also account for cases in which the theory makes predictions that fail to happen. Predictions that fail don’t in and of themselves falsify theories, but they do call for explanation and investigation; in real science, predictions that fail wildly are a major engine of further research and progress.
Or, to return to what we were speaking of, when people predict an uptick of gun violence in states or cities where greater legal access to guns is granted, their next interest should then be whether that actually happens or not and if it fails to, investigation into exactly why. If it fails to happen over and over again, that should be the hottest topic in the field, not a minor detail.
2. Proponents of the theory treat every event as being clearly and solely about it.
Again to use an example NFO brought up, the Loughner shooting case is a case of gun violence, and a case of a dangerously mentally ill man having been able to get his hands on a gun. But it’s also a case of fixation and stalking, and all of the implications of “a mentally ill man was able to do a thing normal citizens are” are thought through, it raises a serious debate about freedom and security and how we logistically expect to differentiate “dangerously mentally ill” from the vastly more common “just mentally ill” and what justifications we may invoke to lock someone up and drug them against their will. There are also issues of privacy and the question of what happens to people who work with guns for a living, such as the danger for law enforcement and military in fearing mental health services due to a rational fear of being diagnosed mentally ill and thus potentially being diagnosed out of their careers. For professions with serious risks of depression and PTSD, no small concern*.
When it remains reduced to “access to guns” as the sole issue, that’s a sign there is something wrong.
3. Relevant experiments conducted by outsiders are ignored or only selectively acknowledged.
See the first point. In the case at hand, “experiments” are done nationally and locally on both a legislative level and a “local reality” level. This is much more glaring when said experiments are only noticed when they appear to confirm the theory; to give an example of an “experiment”, we have Japan, a country that has always had very strict gun laws. According to the theory that the presence of guns is a controlling variable for violent deaths, low/strict access to guns leads to fewer homicides and fewer suicides. Japan has a substantially lower homicide rate than the United States, which is touted as a fulfilled prediction- but its much higher suicide rate is left unaddressed.
Now, both the anti-gun/Violence Policy Center/Brady position and the pro-gun/NRA/Second Amendment Rights positions are politics, not science. Ultimately, they both start from an explicitly ideological position** and exist to justify their own existence. The reason I’m holding it up to the mirror of pseudoscience is that a great deal of anti-gun argumentation uses social science as its justification, and that social science must be judged by scientific standards; ignored evidence, ignored variables, manipulated data, and arguments based on faulty or disingenuous assumptions all count. This goes for the pro-gun side as well, and they have their own problems (OH JOHN LOTT NO)***, but ultimately their argument rests on the idea that access to tools for effective self-defense is a human right, not that private ownership of guns will make society better or is even in all cases a necessarily good idea for an individual.
The argument that private citizens should not be allowed to own guns because they shouldn’t be allowed to own/do anything that could result in the death of another citizen, no matter the circumstances, is not psudedoscience. Pseudoscience does not mean “disagrees with me”. Treating the presence or mere existence of guns as a strong controlling variable in ostensibly serious social science about violent acts and deaths, no matter the the circumstances, is.
*See this VPC editorial on military suicides. Note that the VPC position is unambiguously that anyone diagnosed as mentally ill at any point should be barred forever from owning firearms; note also the complete lack of concern or acknowledgment that such a policy might make veterans suffering from PTSD, depression, or plain old serious life issues reluctant to seek help or even acknowledge there is any sort of problem.
**Ideology is not inherently wrong just for being ideology. My position that we should under no circumstance put puppies in blenders is pure ideology, which does not make it in any way a bad idea, belief, or value.
***Or, more seriously, the domestic violence issue, on which both sides can be awful. The presence of a gun is not a bigger variable than the presence of an abuser willing to threaten or kill, but likewise its presence is not a magic talisman against the specter of killing a loved one. If abuse victims are often reluctant to report explicitly because they fear ruining their abuser- a loved one’s- life, how willing are they likely to be to shoot them?