Science

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Definition

This definition of science comes courtesy of Michael Shermer:

A set of methods designed to describe and interpret observed or inferred phenomena … aimed at building a testable body of knowledge open to rejection or confirmation.

Characteristics of scientific theories and ideas

The following list may help to distinguish scientific theories and ideas from pseudoscientific ones. If, after considering these matters, an idea still seems plausible, then chances are that it is scientific. That doesn't mean it is correct, of course - that depends on the evidence.

Testability

If an idea is claimed to be scientific, there should be a way to test the idea, either by making certain observations and gathering evidence or by performing certain experiments or other tests. Ideas which are not testable may actually be correct, but they are not scientific, because science aims to build a testable body of knowledge.

Repeatability/reliability

If a scientific fact is true, it should remain true regardless of who tests it and when they test it. In contrast, pseudoscientific ideas are often unreliable. Psychic powers seldom work in the presence of skeptics, and they are never producible on demand. Moreover, only some people can use these powers, apparently. In contrast, given appropriate methods and equipment, anybody can verify the speed of light.

Supported by evidence

All science is supported by evidence. In contrast, we are usually asked to accept pseudoscience on the basis of somebody's authority. Thus, psuedoscientists will often tell you how long they have spent working on their pet theory. They will tell you that many prominent people reject relativity, so it must be false. They will tell you that so many people have seen UFOs that they must exist, but when you ask them to show you convincing evidence of a UFO they cannot do so.

Onus of proof on the claimant

In science, the onus of proof regarding a claim is on the claimant. If I say that relativity is wrong, it is up to me to support my arguments. If I claim to have invented a water-driven engine, it is up to me to demonstrate a working model. In contrast, pseudoscientists always say "Prove me wrong." They claim the moon is made of green cheese and expect somebody else to prove it isn't so. Science expects them to produce a sample of moon cheese or other evidence which supports their claim.

Well delineated

Most advances in science have implications in a rather narrow field, though there are a few exceptions. In contrast, almost invariably, pseudoscientific theories will claim to revolutionise at least one major field of study, such as cosmology or evolution. Psuedoscientists always attack the most established and high-profile physical theories - relativity, quantum physics, evolution. They never attempt to revise one small area, such as providing a new measurement of the half life of plutonium.

Openness to revision

Scientific ideas are always open to change when new evidence comes along. For example, the big bang theory was shown to have a number of problems as a result of observations by astronomers. The theory was changed to include an inflationary period, and the modified theory solves many of the problems. No scientific theory claims to be the last word on something. Since science is tied to evidence, new evidence always has the potential to change the science.

In contrast, pseudoscientists tend to hold onto their ideas, even after they have been convincingly rebutted by argument or evidence. They also tend to be selective as to what evidence they consider valid; they select what supports their theories and ignore what is inconvenient.

Falsifiability

All good scientific theories are, in principle, falsifiable. When a scientific idea is proposed, the person putting it forward will usually suggest tests and/or observations which could show whether the idea is wrong or right.

Pseudoscientific ideas, on the other hand, are often deliberately constructed so as to be untestable and therefore unfalsifiable.

Realistic

Scientists are (usually) prepared to accept what the world throws at them, even if it means throwing out cherished ideas in the face of new evidence. Pseudoscience tends to be full of wishful thinking. Whilst it would be great if we all had psychic powers, scientists won't believe in them without good evidence - but pseudoscientists will.

See also