Magical Science

Elementary Dear DataArthur C. Clarke famously suggested that any sufficiently advanced technology would be indistinguishable from magic. This suggests another maxim: any insufficiency developed philosophy of science is incapable of distinguishing between science and magic.

We all have our own philosophy of science, our conceptual framework for understanding scientific topics. In the best case, our personal philosophy of science informs us of the limitations of scientific knowledge, allows us to put research into a wider context, and ensures we remember that the work of the sciences is still at heart an entirely human endeavour. Alas, few of us have such a clear view of the sciences. Far more widespread is a kind of pervasive mythos we might call ‘magical science’, which affords to the image of science unlimited future power, and to scientists an awesome capacity to divine the truth through singular experiments, like a Roman haruspex reading animal entrails to predict the future.

Magical science has the dubious honour of being the only superstition widely encouraged today. We are all too frequently adamant that science has all the answers, science is the royal road to truth, that we can trust in the science... I notice that even the British Prime Minister has taken to invoking magical science in his speeches these days to validate his increasingly dubious actions. At heart, magical science may seem harmless, a mere rose-tinted vision of the work of scientists, one that tries to account for all the successes of our various research networks without any attempt at balance or insight. We typically overlook this kind of naive enthusiasm for scientific achievement on the basis that it's at least ‘supporting the right team’. Yet it becomes increasingly clear that blind support for science can manifest in ugly ways, even in ways that can prevent the sciences from working, plunging research into the debilitating condition of pseudoscience, as previously discussed.

The perceived infallibility of the sciences as truth-seeking procedures clashes worryingly with the necessity of scientists making mistakes, and thus magical science leads to anger at scientists when the actual scientific work is not as wondrous as it is imagined it should be (as with the ugly 2009 L'Aquila trial, where terrible earthquakes in Italy were not successfully predicted and the scientists blamed), or when any scientist speaks out against a claim that has been proclaimed unshakably true by its advocates. It is precisely because magical science is incapable of distinguishing science from magic that it represents a far greater danger to scientific endeavours than other philosophies, perhaps even so-called ‘anti-science’ philosophies. What deceives us here, what elevates scientists to their misguided role as flawless augurs rather than researchers struggling with ambiguous data, are the bad habits we have learned from the manifestations of science in fiction, where magical science is the norm. If we wish to see the work of the sciences with clearer eyes, we may have to start by putting some of the most iconic characters in fiction on philosophical trial.

Sherlock Holmes and the Flawless Investigation

It is sometimes remarked that in creating Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle produced the first hero of ‘the scientific age’. The Victorians were the ones who coined the term ‘scientist’ and it was their obsession with the sciences that set the scene for the unfolding technological transformation of the world over the next century and a half. We tend to treat the character of Holmes as significant mainly for crime fiction, as the archetype from which all whodunits descend - but Holmes, quite unlike a Raymond Chandler or Agatha Christie detective, is always a practitioner of magical science. Partly, this proceeds from the inherent parsimony of storytelling whereby all questions will eventually be answered because everything is there by the author’s design. Partly, however, it proceeds from Holmes’ essential power - which upon closer inspection is not deductive reasoning at all, but rather the infinite convenience possible solely in literature.

Doyle gives Holmes a quite impossible access to every conceivable fact as a starting point, such that a berry stain or the smell of a particular tobacco can certainly be identified, and then (to pile on the absurdity) Holmes by purest chance always encounters a set of circumstances that allow for only one viable interpretation. This particular brand of tobacco, for instance, is sold in exactly one place in London... We thus end up admiring Holmes purportedly scientific form of investigation while what we ought to admire is the way Doyle effortlessly conceals the magical science entailed in this depiction by making it seem as if all of Sherlock’s deductions (and inductions) were strictly logical. Doyle has contrived a set of circumstances that Holmes, with his unlimited catalogue of facts, can be certain to solve. This makes Holmes a disastrous role model for scientists (or indeed, detectives!) since it is only through the meticulous construction of literary contrivance that he possesses any investigative power at all. This becomes clearest when Holmes relies upon facts we know are false - such as the ludicrous snake plot device in The Speckled Band, which entails behaviour implausible to coax out of any reptile. Holmes’ claims to be a man of science are rather fraudulent behind the scenes: he is simply the locus of a mythic depiction of magical science.

Neither is Holmes the only such character. Both Spock and Data in the worlds of Star Trek share this power of magical science - also manifested in these shows by the tricorder, which like Holmes spits out every required fact on demand and without error. Or consider Doctor Who from the third Doctor onwards: anything necessary is certainly known by the Time Lord, except when the story requires a convenient (and often temporary) amnesia for dramatic effect. That both Data and the Doctor had a spin at being Baker Street’s most eligible bachelor is not accidental, nor perhaps is Stephen Moffat’s concurrent time as showrunner for both Doctor Who and Sherlock... Magical science heroes seem to reaffirm our faith in the power of scientific knowledge, while also playfully exposing the quirky personalities of scientists. House, The Big Bang Theory, and much more besides all participate in a literary tradition that stems from the Sherlock Holmes tales, and is now seemingly dominated by his science fiction proteges. 

Yet these are not scientific heroes, but magical science heroes. They have exactly the facts and the circumstances to answer perfectly every time, without ever having to confront the ambiguity, indeterminacy, and incompleteness of an authentic scientific problem. They are to science what Superman is to police officers: naively idealized caricatures. They find the answers solely because they live in stories where uncovering the truth is possible by design. This is a wildly misleading template for scientific truth, and although we know these are ‘just’ stories, we somehow import our wilder beliefs about the sciences into our everyday thinking unless we are extremely careful. If we are to break this spell, we need a philosophy capable of distinguishing science and magic - and for this, we need a clearer understanding of ‘scientific truth’.

Desperately Seeking Truth

Even if we start with the acknowledgement that the sciences are capable of discovering or affirming truth, the question of what might qualify as a ‘scientific truth’ is far trickier than it seems. As the preceding discussion on pseudoscience made clear, we cannot simply append ‘scientific’ to known truths without distorting the essential ambiguities of the research process where we cannot in practice know if the apparent truth of a researched claim will hold in the future. In fact, we have a choice. We could align ‘scientific truth’ with the unshakeable deep truth of reality and thus admit that the claims asserted by scientists cannot be known as truth at all (effectively contracting the domain of scientific truth to concluded research programmes like optics). Or else we can align scientific truth with the body of beliefs held by scientists, with the inevitable consequence that such truths can be later revealed as false - or even abominable. We don’t even have to go back a century to find all manner of racist, sexist nonsense asserted as truth by those who identified as scientists.

Now those who buy into magical science have an easier job here, but only by being wildly dishonest about both truth and scientific methods. According to magical science, scientists uncover truth infallibly so all claims asserted by scientists are scientific truth. Thus if and when the circumstances shift we can ‘debunk’ or ‘discredit’ those responsible and say they were not really scientists at all, or even exclude their claims from consideration in the first place! This is where ‘pseudoscience’ has been used as a label, although as I have argued previously it is not a terribly viable way of using the term. Babette Babich has made even stronger - and oft misunderstood - claims about the way the discrediting associated with the term ‘pseudoscience’ serves as a dogmatic attempt to demarcate legitimate science, while all too frequently preventing any scientific enquiry from even beginning. Thus when this particular word comes out, it narrows scientific knowledge by declaring certain topics forbidden and out of bounds - and woe betide the researcher who goes on to try to report experimental results from such verboten fields...

The highly problematic implication of every attempt to discredit and thus demarcate ‘science’ from ‘pseudoscience’ must be that we cannot know when scientists assert a claim whether it will later need to be ‘debunked’. Thus faith in magical science is inevitably a distortion of the truth - for things we will say are scientific truths on this philosophy may later be ‘discredited’, or even discredited before they are considered at all. The alleged truths of magical science are thus only defended by ignoring the inevitable consequences of the inherent revisionism of scientific practice and pretending that the current consensus among researchers is ‘more true’ than it was yesterday and thus that now (and by implication, only now) we can trust everything scientists say as long as we are standing guard for those pernicious pseudoscientists who ruin it for everyone. To say that this is dangerous nonsense is easy; to replace it with a more sound philosophy of science will be much harder.

There might be a way out of this maze, but it would require us to think differently about the relationship between truth and the sciences. Part of what deceives us here is our desire to understand the truth in terms of a set of valid statements. Since we can point to scientific concepts we abandoned, like phlogiston (which was a hypothetical substance that made combustion possible), we want to assert a gradual improvement in the accuracy or scope of our ‘book of facts’. “We would not be fooled by phlogiston today,” we might think. Yet phlogiston was an important - and arguably entirely scientific - proposal that was merely discarded when our understanding of chemistry shifted such that combustion could be thought of in terms of a chemical reaction with oxygen.

The brutal truth of the ‘book of facts’ is that such a collection of statements today would theoretically contain far more ultimately false claims than it would in the 1770s, simply because the number of scientists and the diversity of research fields has increased dramatically we are now paradoxically more wrong than researchers in the 18th century (in terms of sheer numbers of errors made) - the inescapable consequence of asking both more and more difficult questions. What makes it feel as if we are now more right is knowing that phlogiston was to become replaced by a new understanding of chemical reactions and thus combustion and so forth. But this is largely an illusion caused by examining successful research programmes in hindsight.

Similarly, when I say phlogiston was ‘scientific’, I am projecting with hindsight since the term ‘scientist’ was not coined until 1834... researchers in the 1770s would not have described anything they were doing as ‘scientific’ - it is our desire to paint the sciences as something with a history of more than two centuries that makes us ‘claim’ both phlogiston and oxygen (not to mention Copernicus, Galileo, Newton and so forth) as part of the story of ‘science’, rather than the natural philosophy that those involved would have stated they were pursuing. Thus our ‘book of facts’ not only contains more errors than our predecessors two and a half centuries ago, it is not even entirely honest about its relationship with its own past. Add to this the unavoidable truth that this imagined ‘book of facts’ does not exist (for all that encyclopedias and their successors have wished to fulfil this role) and it begins to feel uncomfortably like we are deceiving ourselves - as if we have all fallen for the seductive confusions of magical science.

Legitimate Practices

We want to defend our intuitive impression of the sciences as truth-seeking, and also (in some nebulous sense) successful at doing so. How do we do it?

One option we can consider is that which I proposed in Wikipedia Knows Nothing: to switch our focus from facts (true statements) to practices (skills and equipment). To know how to use something - a polymerase chain reaction, an interferometer, a fractional distillator - is more a matter of knowing what to do than it is a ‘book of facts’, even though that knowledge also produces facts related to the equipment used (and any theories deployed to give a context to the reading of the instruments). Thus an astronomer armed with geometric theorems can use an interferometer to measure the diameter of stars, while an engineer can use an interferometer and the wave theories of light to measure very small objects precisely. The practices associated with both the equipment (the interferometer) and the theories associated with each specific usage give rise to facts - in this case, distances. The difference lies in what legitimizes the activity in question: on the usual conception of knowledge, if you had the facts you had legitimate knowledge if those facts were true and the reasons for justifying them were correct - which actually provides no means of knowing what is or is not legitimate since our criteria for legitimacy requires an appeal to something beyond the situation (the truth) that we cannot access directly. Conversely, when we view knowledge as a practice, what makes the facts legitimate is that we are using the tools correctly. In this context, we have recourse to everyone with the relevant knowledge of the tools entailed to verify the legitimacy of the practices used and hence the facts reported.

On this understanding of knowledge, unlike an appeal to the truth, we can construct a viable understanding of ‘scientific truth’, since certain equipment, certain theories can be uncontroversially attributed to the sciences, and their correct usage can be judged by anyone else with access to the same knowledge practices. On this path we can therefore distinguish between scientific truth (facts emerging from legitimate research practices) and errors, provided we allow the disagreements to be properly explored in any given research community. However, as Babich warns, this cannot happen if we rush in with a dogmatic cry of ‘pseudoscience’, since every attempt to discredit something a priori entails an outright refusal to think about a given topic at all. Ironically, such attempts to discredit effectively cause an outbreak of the condition of pseudoscience, in my sense (a state of disrupted communication where scientific work can no longer be pursued), since whomsoever speaks this word with the intent to discredit (and thus ignore something) signals the very breakdown of legitimate scientific disagreement required to understand whatever is (not) being discussed.

The deeper problem we encounter when we look more clearly at how scientists discover or verify truths is that the claims that are asserted soon exceed simple assertions of facts. Once they do, it requires another set of knowledge practices to disentangle the relationships between facts and conclusions - and these are not strictly scientific at all, for all that scientists engage (unknowingly) in these kind of interpretative philosophical practices every time they assert anything but the most trivial of claims. Indeed, precisely the crisis of contemporary sciences is that their application is not a scientific practice, but a philosophical one - and Einstein’s generation may have been the last where scientists spanned these disciplines rather than retreating behind specializations that narrow, rather than widen, the scope of our collective understanding.

It is small wonder that we seem to have arrived in a “post-truth” world: the attempt to make the only acceptable truths those that flow from scientific endeavours renders a great many of the truths that matter impossible to adequately discuss, precisely because the important truths (those that pertain to what we ought to do, for instance) could never be scientific and thus cannot be established solely by an appeal to the facts. Yet we keep looking to scientists to give us a certainty that is not in any way available through scientific methods - and as the L'Aquila trial in Italy demonstrated, we will turn upon those who do not live up to our insanely unrealistic expectations and even accuse them of committing crimes when they, inevitably, make mistakes. But it is we that have failed, by falling for such an impoverished understanding of the complexity of scientific research as that of magical science.

Breaking the Spell

The needs of a narrative require magical science for the very same role as arcane magic - as a plot device limited solely by our imagination - and the two are (in more ways than we tend to acknowledge) equivalent, exactly as Clarke foreshadowed. The problem is, the actual work of the sciences, the global cybernetic collaboration of scientists that began under that name in the 1800s and continues today, is magical solely in its lustre and not in its details. Yes, the collective technological achievements facilitated by the work of countless scientists is now already indistinguishable from magic in a great many situations. But the work of scientists is not magic, and is certainly nothing like the magical science of a Sherlock Holmes fable. When we mistake the two, when we treat a human who conducts scientific work as someone wielding all the sorcery of magical science to know, automatically, everything that needs to be known, we are not supporting scientific truth-finding at all, but making it far, far harder, and in the worst cases, rendering it entirely impossible.

I will not say we must stop enjoying the fantasy of magical science in our stories - escapism is mostly harmless, after all, even if it is not entirely blameless - but is it not perhaps about time we stopped pretending that our scientists are superheroes with magical powers to determine truth? Scientific truths are extremely specific, and much narrower than we want them to be - they are at their most precise precisely when their claims are most limited. The heroism of actual researchers is of a patient, humble kind, that requires time and substantial disagreements to bring about. It is neither as spell-binding as Holmes’ contrived deductions, nor as charmingly detached from human fallibility as Data or Spock’s inhuman resourcefulness suggest. Neither has any living scientist access to the unquenchable moral certainty of the later incarnations of the iconic Time Lord to guide them either. These role models all imply a role that is impossible to bring to life: we should be careful not to buy too deeply into such implausible exemplars, without dismissing entirely the hopes and ideals that they embody.

Actual scientific practice is amazing, but it is neither miraculous nor supernatural. It is rather mundane in its details, which never entail perfectly prophetic experiments, and always require a great deal more arguing about the possible interpretations of the facts than literature has ever depicted. When we cannot distinguish science from magic, we obscure scientific truth and the immense and heroic efforts required to produce and understand it. We do all our scientists a disservice when we mistake them for sorceresses and wizards, and we entirely dishonour the scientific traditions when we censor or revile researchers for not living up to our hopelessly elevated expectations of their truth-discovering powers.

If we cannot distinguish science from magic, we need to either improve our philosophy of science or else remain silent on scientific topics. As Holmes remarks: the grand gift of silence makes Watson quite invaluable as a companion, for scientists, much like Holmes, often need us to pay close attention to their work and their disagreements, so that together we can eventually reveal true claims about our world. When we work to silence and discredit others we disagree with, rather than remaining silent so we might hear those disagreements we are denying, we have destroyed the very conditions for any kind of legitimate scientific investigation to occur. If we truly wish to be friends of the sciences, perhaps we too ought to know how to hold our tongue and try to listen to the quiet whispers of the truth when the game is afoot.

Comments always welcome, especially the polite ones!

What is Pseudoscience?

PhrenologyWhen we talk about something being ‘pseudoscience’ what we tend to mean is that it’s ‘not true’, and we reach that conclusion because what we mean by pseudoscience is something that is ‘not scientific’, and we associate the sciences with truth. Yet the alternative to truth is not automatically falsehood; there is also ambiguity, indeterminacy, and incompleteness to consider. What’s more, if we call things scientific only if they are true, we are admitting that we don’t actually know what is or isn’t scientific until some future time when the arguments about some given topic are finally resolved. There is a confusion here worth examining closely.

Implausible Methods

Ask someone to explain how the sciences work and chances are they will tell you about the scientific method:

1. Observe a situation
2. Come up with a hypothesis (an untested theory) to explain a phenomenon
3. Devise an experiment to test whether the hypothesis is valid
4. If the experiment is successful, the hypothesis becomes a theory. Congratulations you’ve discovered scientific truth!

This description is so far from adequate that it is a wonder that so many university students are taught it! Quite apart from the way it sets aside the most difficult aspect of scientific practice (the interrelationships of existing knowledge on any subject) it fancifully imagines that scientists determine truth simply by performing just one experiment, as if scientific truth were as simple as revealing a scratch card – three microscopes, we have a winner! Rather than an adequate description of how contemporary scientific processes operate, this is more akin to a catechism recited in order to bolster faith in the ability of the sciences to reveal truth – and as such, it obfuscates the complexity of the relationships between experiments, theories, and truth, and prescribes a method almost certain to lead to error every time.

If a hypothesis and experiments are indeed the necessary elements of a claim that a certain activity is ‘scientific’, then anthropology, economics, almost all of the evolutionary sciences, and a fair amount of biology and medicine are all doomed to be ‘unscientific’. These kinds of accusation are indeed sometimes advanced – a furore occurred in 2010 when the American Anthropological Association decided to removed the word ‘science’ from its mission statement, despite many of its members feeling this was a consequence of a narrow and reductionist description of the sciences. There are also questions here about concluded research programmes: no-one has needed to perform further experiments in optics, for instance... has it ceased to be scientific? Or did it earn its place in scientific heaven by being a good research field while it was still alive...?

Tied up with this confusion is the idea that the sciences are ‘value free’, i.e. that scientific research is inherently unbiased. This is a naive mistake to make, and on two counts. Firstly, as Nietzsche warned back in 1882, we are “still pious” when it comes to scientific truth – all scientific research rests on a core moral value, a commitment to the pursuit of truth. Without this, the endeavours we undertake in the name of science make no sense; ‘valueless science’ is entirely implausible. Secondly, and even more importantly, scientists are still human, and as such they have their own values. The attempt to purge the sciences of values is nonsensical and indeed impossible! No matter how much you try to present scientific research as a purely rational, emotionless, valueless activity, scientists will continue to pursue research motivated by their own moral values (to save lives or to save the planet, to advance knowledge or technology, to win fame or wealth etc.). The idea that having these values is somehow unscientific is to doom all the sciences to oblivion! The values and the facts are intimately related or, as Hilary Putnam described it, entangled. The idea of a science without values is pure nonsense.

At this point, you have a choice in how you respond to this critique of ‘scientific method’, and this in itself may be illuminating. On the one hand (and especially if you’ve spent any time at all thinking about philosophy of science), you can happily cast off this quite ridiculous dogma and still maintain a viable understanding of the sciences without it. That’s the easy way... but it still has some hard consequences. Or alternatively you can dig in your heels and try to cast out the demons of those that don’t follow ‘the method’, attempting to purify research of pseudoscience, meaning in this case ‘not following the scientific method’, but usually playing out by simply deriding counter-claims against whatever dogmatic position has been adopted on any given point. That path is so misguided it’s a wonder that plenty of otherwise intelligent people seem to fall for it.

As it happens, the sciences themselves show us why this purported ‘scientific method’ is unworkable. Psychology – which has been staunchly dedicated to ‘the method’ yet still gets cast out as ‘soft science’ – has provided a lot of neat titles for the various kinds of human bias. Defenders of ‘the method’ like to evoke hindsight bias to defend the need for hypotheses – “if you don’t make a hypothesis, you’ll just end up seeming to expect the result you get!” But these cognitive biases cut both ways: if you do make a hypothesis, you are now prone to confirmation bias – cherry picking your data and references to support the position you have chosen. This is why medical sciences insist on good quality evidence from randomized trials where even the experimenters don’t know what’s going on until all the data is in. We know from bitter experience that when you set out to prove some specific claim, you are more likely to find (and report) the evidence that supports what you have chosen. In other words, not having a hypothesis condemns you to bias, and having a hypothesis condemns you to bias! What makes something legitimately scientific cannot be the elimination of bias, or else nothing could ever be sufficiently purified of values to qualify. There has to be another way of conceptualising the difference between ‘science’ and ‘pseudoscience’ if either is going to have any legitimate meaning.

Ghosts of Science Past

The celebrated historian of science, Thomas Kuhn, lays out the question of pseudoscience at the very outset of his project to understand the nature of scientific change. The problem as he presents it is that if we judge the historical precedents to our scientific practices as pseudoscientific (he talks of them being ‘myths’), then we have to acknowledge that pseudoscience can be pursued and justified by the same methods and reasons we now use to defend science against its alternatives. Yet if we call these artefacts of older research ‘science’, then we have to accept that the sciences were beset by wild beliefs that today we would find unthinkable (even abominable). He argues very persuasively that from a historical perspective we have no choice but to accept that “out-of-date theories are not in principle unscientific because they have been discarded.”

Kuhn’s position is widely accepted today – yet it runs directly contrary to the view of Sir Karl Popper that the boundary of legitimate science is falsification – the ability to have a theory proven false. Amazingly, this viewpoint is also widely accepted today, even though the two approaches are essentially incompatible, and indeed were the basis for an unresolved despite between the two academics. Kuhn saw Popper’s falsification as applying solely to those rare periods of scientific upheaval (paradigm shifts) where one way of thinking replaces another. His view was that ‘normal science’ never dabbles in big theoretical changes at all, but is always about solving problems using the current theoretical apparatus. Again, these two viewpoints are entirely incompatible, yet both are widely supported views on the sciences.

Popper suggested that Kuhn’s approach committed him to saying that astrology is a science because it entails problem solving within its own paradigm. Kuhn denied this, and argued that in the context of astrology “particular failures did not give rise to research puzzles” and thus astrology was never a science. Both men died without resolving their disagreement; I think it clear, however, that both are wrong about astrology. We cannot – as Kuhn himself warns – back-project our current scientific judgements upon prior practices that were claimed as sciences at earlier times without distorting what we are trying to assert. To do so is to deny the very capacity for scientific revolutions that Kuhn’s account provides. The suffix ‘-ology’ by itself is a clue that the practices of astrology had at one point in its history a claim to knowledge, and the question of whether astrology was ever a science in Kuhn’s terms is a historical investigation requiring far more application to the task than either Popper or Kuhn were willing to commit. As such, this question is in fact still very much open to debate! But nobody wants to do so, because everybody with any skin in this game wants to show that astrology isn’t a science and never was – thus again preempting any possible research except that which will prove this one tenuous point.

If Kuhn’s historical theory (albeit not Kuhn himself) is able to defend against Popper’s attack, Popper’s falsification criteria has no equivalent defence against Kuhn’s criticisms. Indeed, Kuhn expressly doubted that falsifying experiences ever really happen. He did not need the psychologist’s label ‘confirmation bias’ to realise that giving up a scientific paradigm is a major conversion for anyone (comparison with religious conversion is quite justified here), made all the less likely by the problem that if every failure of a theory in the face of contradictory evidence were sufficient grounds for rejecting it, all theories ought to be rejected at all times! That’s because the very reason that Kuhn’s ‘normal science’ has problems to solve is precisely that no theory is capable of fitting all the observations it seeks to explain. As the French science studies scholar Bruno Latour puts it, the theories are all under-determined with respect to the evidence – and this conclusion is unavoidable if you spend time examining what scientists actually do rather than merely reciting the catechism.

But this does not mean there is no way of distinguishing science from pseudoscience, even though we have to accept a certain amount of historical contingency after Kuhn (or Foucault – he gets to the same place via a different route). What we might reasonably suggest as a provisional criteria for calling something ‘pseudoscience’ is a combination of Popper and Kuhn’s claims: when even the possibility of falsification is removed, or when the investigative practices cease to produce further enquiries in response to the questions the previous research implies, the claim to be scientific evaporates. As chemist-turned-philosopher Isabelle Stengers attests, successful experiments in the sciences give rise to new research questions. When they do not produce any more, it is because the field has managed a complete description of its subject matter (as with optics). The difference here is that such ‘completed’ fields have produced theories capable of making unfailing predictions. And such cases are vanishingly rare.

The Condition of Pseudoscience

What tied us up in conceptual knots here, and kept Popper and Kuhn from reaching an accord, is that we want to level the accusation ‘pseudoscience’ at fields like astrology or phrenology. But understanding the sciences as an ecology of practices, as Stengers has brilliantly discussed, shows that this is not the only way we might identify a breakdown of Kuhn’s ‘normal science’. We could (indeed must) give up the idea that ‘pseudoscience’ is a way of trashing any theory, research, or evidential claims we don’t agree with. On the contrary, I propose that the clearest way of understanding pseudoscience is as a condition within a scientific discourse that undermines or destroys its power to investigate.

Thus, to continue with phrenology’s original models of mental function after animal experiments began to show that its suggested brain regions did not hold up to scrutiny would have been to enter into a condition of pseudoscience, because its practices could not produce viable new research questions in the light of this new evidence. It would, however, be wildly unfair to it to suggest it was always in this condition: it is from phrenology, after all, that the idea of the brain being the organ of the mind originated, and while most of its specific claims did not pan out, it remains an important part of the backstory of neuroscience. If phrenology had not become spread around as working class ‘popular science’ (thus earning the enmity of Victorian cultural elites), we might well have kept the name ‘phrenology’ (science of the mind) rather than renaming brain research ‘neurobiology’. It’s not at all clear to me that phrenology was ever in the condition of pseudoscience, except perhaps at the very end – although anyone practicing it today would be behaving very oddly indeed.

Pseudoscience is thus akin to an ailment afflicting scientific practices that have become shorn from the logic of legitimacy provided by their current paradigm. The sign that a field has fallen into pseudoscience is not the truth or falsehood of its claims as such. Indeed, these will frequently not be in any way settled, forcing us into highly suspect retrospective accusations, such as that levelled routinely at phrenology. Rather, you can see the condition of pseudoscience occurring whenever scientists give up the values that motivate their enquiry - when they purposefully falsify data, or conceal it ‘to defend the truth’, or give up experiments and data gathering entirely in order to maintain a status quo based upon whatever happens to have been previously claimed. And once we see this, we are forced into the realisation that we are currently in the condition of pseudoscience in several entirely legitimate research fields, and over the last year we have had the audacity to defend the breakdown in the medical discourses that has put us into a state of collective pseudoscience as “following the science”!

The truth is, we cannot ‘follow the science’, it is the science that must follow us. For the values of science are those of discovery and verification, and this only has a purpose in so much as it serves to resolve those questions our other values compel us into exploring. Thus, while medicine commits to ‘first, do no harm’ as a supreme value governing its own practice, that particular principle sets no positive goal at all. The medical practitioners and the cybernetic networks supporting them take on the objectives that we have collectively given to them. If the circumstances that follow from that pursuit make falsification of a medical claim impossible, or provide no means to reliably answer the relevant medical questions, those medical practitioners affected (and anyone trusting their judgements) enter into the condition of pseudoscience, a (temporary) renunciation of the values of scientific practice, capable of precisely the great harm doctors are sworn to avoid. For the collective medical power we exercise cybernetically always causes some degree of harm along with the pursuit of its goals – requiring medical practitioners, on pain of becoming (temporary) pseudodoctors, to commit to studying the impact of any procedure or intervention attempted or else risk violating all the values of contemporary medical science. This is an extreme example, but it is also an extremely important one.

Now whether the values of discovery and verification have always conditioned the work of scientists, and whether they always will isn’t the point, for they are our moral requirements for the sciences now and on this point we quite miraculously do not disagree. In so much as pseudoscience is a phenomenon, it is merely a consequence of recognising that scientists are human, and what makes them seem otherwise is the remarkable power that they bring to bear when cybernetically linked into singular networks, working together – not just by co-operating but just as importantly by disagreeing, refining the research questions by honing the essential ambiguities into points sharp enough to penetrate our ignorance by pursuing further investigations and experiments. Pseudoscience prevents that dialogue from happening, and breaks up the network connections, making research harder or preventing it entirely, setting bias against bias and thus blocking the communication essential to verification, which is necessarily a distributed activity.

When verification stops, pseudoscience has begun... it goes away when we can go back to listening to those objections that our human bias prevented us from hearing. The ugly truth of it all is that fear, anger, and self-righteousness spread pseudoscience all too easily, yet banishing it is as easy – or as impossible – as going back and listening to the objections in order to work out where in the maze of ambiguity, indeterminacy, and incompleteness the truth of each disagreement can be found.

More philosophy of science soon.

Slowly Awakening

SunriseGreetings and salutations!

I am still gearing up for blogging and such, and not yet on top of anything (least of all Twitter, which I've not touched since early November). I have some philosophy of science pieces ready to run, but I need to get my head into my work a little more before I can start kicking things off here at the Game.

I confess, it was not my intention to go back to philosophy of science - The Mythology of Evolution was the one project I had intended in that space, and that was motivated by political diplomacy. I see now that the tension between the sciences and politics alluded to by Bruno Latour is far more problematic than I had previously imagined, and that if there's any hope of rescuing the Kantian project of living together, it is not only in the evolutionary sciences that we shall have to be careful not to mistake fantasies for facts.

So we'll have something of a mini-campaign on philosophy of science in the back-end of the Winter, and depending how long it takes to wrangle the drafts I'll be moving into political philosophy with Rethinking Intellectual Property in the Spring. Watch this space!

New rambling nonsense soon...

Player Motives, Player Practices

A blog-letter to Paul Gestwicki as part of the Republic of Bloggers.

10PlayerMotivesDear Paul,

Thank you for your blog-letter, Teaching Game Design with Player Practices. This is an interesting question, and one that I have had cause to ponder for quite a while since you first mentioned this to me. What makes it especially difficult to answer is the provision that this would be an introduction, rather than say, an entire course incorporating player practices into its framework. But it seems to me that if the player practices approach is viable at all, it would also be viable to teach as part of an introduction. So how might we do it?

Before I discuss a possible answer, I want to state my support for introducing game design to people using boardgames (analogue games, as game studies has branded them, according to its ongoing obsession with the digital). I can create a boardgame in three hours, albeit with years of prior experience to draw upon, and although the systems-thinking that goes into such designs is not applicable to all kinds of videogames, it cannot be avoided that teaching an introduction to game design with a digital tool would end up up with most of the time spent on debugging etc. and not enough iteration. The sheer pace of boardgame development makes it an ideal teaching tool.

But the benefit of thinking in terms of player practices is that it transforms the context of what is going on, and thus avoids a number of conceptual blocks that have beset game studies and game development for decades. The first of these is a personal bugbear of mine: assuming that 'the player' is merely a surrogate for 'me'. Too many otherwise-talented indie developers spread this pernicious propaganda: just make a game for yourself and then the players will find you! This is either a lie, or a gross error. It only works if you happen to possess play styles and tastes that align with a significant proportion of the audience and manage to get traction among the games press. Since the successful indies have already passed both hurdles, they erroneously assume that their strategy will work for everyone. It doesn't. But the 'file drawer' problem means that the hundreds of failures are invisible and thus ignored, creating an illusion where 'the player is me' is good professional game design practice, rather than a vast risk factor in commercial failure. Of course, when you make a pet project, you're absolutely entitled to make whatever you want! But the games industry today includes a rather desolate wasteland of failed game projects that were made 'for themselves'... browse the hinterlands of Steam and anyone will see exactly what I mean.

To think about game design in terms of player practices is to break out of the assumption that 'the player is me' and replace it with the idea that 'I am a player, there are other players' and (relatedly) 'the same game can be played in many different ways'. Yet how challenging this transition can be for us nerdy folks who thrive on systems thinking and prefer to ignore the complexity of actual human behaviour! A subtle part of the problem is that most of us have picked up a rather misleading view of the sciences that has been distorted by the fact that physics was a comparatively simple research field, while (say) medicine is an extremely complex one. We tend to elevate physics to the top of the science totem pole because it happened to be an area where mathematics could do a great deal of the heavy lifting... Einstein's work, for instance, was never experimental, but always 'merely' a matter of manipulating the algebra. The point being: those of us drawn to game design have learned to think about knowledge in a way conditioned by the formula-driven field of physics, which was 'easier' precisely because it's about 'things'. As you say, Computer Science students tend to be focused on 'things'. But games are not things. Games are what we play with things. So to get really good at designing games is to get really good at thinking about people, which is almost always much 'harder' than understanding things.

It follows that if the problem is to get folks more familiar with things-and-their-systems to think about people-and-their-practices, we need a system to scaffold the transition. In this regard, any player model will suffice as long as it captures some aspects of the diversity of play - so anything from Bartle’s types for MMOs to Lazzaro’s Four Fun Keys will do the job. My personal preference, unsurprisingly, is my own most recent model - 10 player motives - which was summarised in The Aesthetic Motives of Play, and is pictured above. A great introductory exercise is to have a test (sych as our legacy model BrainHex) that ‘types’ (i.e. badly approximates) students' play styles, and then allows the class to have a discussion about different elements of the play experience. This not only reinforces the remarkable differences in play styles and motivations for play, it helps students to see that everyone expresses multiple different motives and approaches in connection with the games they play. Once a system for appreciating player diversity is ‘installed’, the way is cleared to understand games from the perspective of their practices.

You then have a wide variety of options for how to proceed. I personally like to come at player practices from a historical perspective, via key moments such as the practice of using arrow keys for movement, as established by Dungeon Keeper and preserved in early id games like SHOUTY ALL CAPS DOOM, and the transition to ASWD as a result of Quake’s mouselook options and then Half-Life establishing it as the standard controls for FPS. I can fill twelve hours of lectures with this sort of stuff, but most students only connect to the material when it entails games they have actually played. That being so, a viable alternative is to pick a major AAA game franchise most students will know and identify the different ways the same game can be played differently. It is not even necessary for everyone to have played the franchise (or whatever you end up picking) to do this - those that have not can be given the role of 'researcher' to catalogue all the ways of playing they can find by interviewing those that have played. It may even be gainful to break up one of these games into its designed systems (which would help clear the way for a later boardgame exercise) and consider which of the different play styles connect with which of the component systems.

Pokémon is ideal for such an exercise. Those players for whom Pokémon is primarily a competitive battling game are executing wildly different player practices from those who are trying to fill up the Pokedex like a stamp collection (or, more accurately given the player practices that led to it, the toys from a gacha capsule machine). A good resource for examining the differences in played experiences here would be to look at the individual Pokémon guides maintained by a community like Smogon that has developed its own style of play using the exact same resources that Game Freak put into these games (supplemented in this case with their own tool for playing out those battles externally to an 'official' Nintendo game context). If we expand our view to the level of the media franchise (not just the flagship AAA games) we can also consider the role of the cartoon, the trading card game, and indeed Pokémon GO, in sustaining a set of absolutely central imaginative practices (the contents of the Pokedex in toto) that every instance participates with versus those practices (going to specific locations in the real world, breeding, trading monsters both online or face-to-face etc.) that are specific to each instance.

Many other such examples could be constructed - but note that we do not, alas, have the option here of looking at obscure and interesting titles. It is the big titles that sustain the key player practices, while the small titles are largely parasitic upon these practices by 'borrowing' them - and indeed subverting them for more interesting purposes (The Stanley Parable, for instance, relies upon AAA game narrative practices for the entirety of its player experience). In order that such an education in player practices does not merely suck up to the media corporations, it would be extremely helpful to follow the above exercise with another that looks at the diaspora of player practices that expand outwards from the big, anchoring franchises. Personally, I would do this historically by using (say) Counter-Strike as an example of corporate-sustained practices (FPS controls) nucleating new player experiences in the hands of creative individuals. Of course, in this case (as in many others) the small team responsible for the subverting title is invited into the media conglomerate, so alternative cases like Dear Esther, which more than anything else subverted FPS control practices in the most unexpected fashion by removing the guns, are also worth discussing.

Ultimately, you need some practical exercises in game design, and this is where the boardgames might come in. It could be interesting to link the examination of player practices in the preceding exercises to a practical spell with cards, dice, and pawns - for instance, by challenging the neophyte game designers to choose a player practice in a digital game and find a way to spin it into a viable tabletop game. The Pokedex, naturally, is a fine resource for system-building in other styles, and the turn-based combat of Pokémon can be easily returned to the table because its battle practices descend directly from Dragon Quest, which acquired them originally from Dungeons & Dragons, and before that, from Avalon Hill games. There are videogames without a player practice lineage tracking back to the table... but the vast majority of titles today do, in spite of the fact that those practices descended directly from the arcade largely do not. 

The same point can be explored ahistorically, or by focusing solely on recent history (and hence, upon those games that the students will know) but I would personally go to great lengths to stress how far back these practices flow, that videogames did not come into existence ex nihilo, but develop as a continuation of practices coming from carnivals, gambling, storytelling, divination, and more besides. When I lecture Masters students on this topic, I take it back to 4,000 BC, and at my keynote for the Brazilian games industry I took it back to 540 million years ago just for the fun of it! You would undoubtedly have your own sense of how best to address this topic in order to keep your audience engaged - despite the contemporary obsession with so-called 'quality' in teaching, the vast majority of successful teaching practices entail forms of intellectual entertainment, since an engaged student is the only one who is actually going to retain anything being taught.

This is only a sketch, but I think this a plausible way of incorporating player practices into an introductory class on game design.

I offer my grateful thanks for your writing to me about this, not only because it is an excuse for me to talk about my own academic work (and I do not actually get as many of these as I should like), but also because it is an honour to have my work in player practices taken seriously. I went down a rabbit hole with this, discovered Wonderland, and of course have had to come back and write about it. But I am acutely aware that game studies holds me somewhat at arms length when it comes to my use of non-analytic philosophy to understand games and play. Perhaps when I am gone there will be some effort made to proverbially pat me on the back for my work, but of course, by then it will be too late then for me to appreciate it!

Also, I asked people to write to me and you actually did so. That means far more to me than I can say.

Hoping that every student you teach will both listen and hear you,


Further replies and comments always welcome.