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The Michael Shermer Show

A series of conversations between Dr. Michael Shermer and leading scientists, philosophers, historians, scholars, writers and thinkers about the most important issues of our time.

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EPISODE # 191

Michael Gordin on the Fringe of Where Science Meets Pseudoscience

On the Fringe: Where Science Meets Pseudoscience (book cover)

Everyone has heard of the term “pseudoscience”, typically used to describe something that looks like science, but is somehow false, misleading, or unproven. Many would be able to agree on a list of things that fall under its umbrella — astrology, phrenology, UFOlogy, creationism, and eugenics might come to mind. But defining what makes these fields “pseudo” is a far more complex issue. It has proved impossible to come up with a simple criterion that enables us to differentiate pseudoscience from genuine science. Given the virulence of contemporary disputes over the denial of climate change and anti-vaccination movements — both of which display allegations of “pseudoscience” on all sides — there is a clear need to better understand issues of scientific demarcation. Shermer and Gordin explore the philosophical and historical attempts to address this problem of demarcation. By understanding doctrines that are often seen as antithetical to science, we can learn a great deal about how science operated in the past and does today. This exploration raises several questions: How does a doctrine become demonized as pseudoscientific? Who has the authority to make these pronouncements? How is the status of science shaped by political or cultural contexts? How does pseudoscience differ from scientific fraud?

Michael Gordin is Rosengarten Professor of Modern and Contemporary History and the director of the Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts at Princeton University. He specializes in the history of modern science in Russia, Europe, and North America, in particular on issues related to the history of fringe science, the early years of the nuclear arms race, Russian and Soviet science, language and science, and Albert Einstein. He is the author of The Pseudoscience Wars: Immanuel Velikovsky and the Birth of the Modern Fringe, Scientific Babel: How Science Was Done Before and After Global English, and Red Cloud at Dawn: Truman, Stalin, and the End of the Atomic Monopoly.

Shermer and Gordin discuss:

  • What is science?
  • What is the scientific method?
  • What is pseudoscience and what is the line of demarcation?
  • paranormal, supernatural, conspiratorial, fringe, crypto,
  • UFOs/UAPs,
  • skepticism, revisionism, denialism,
  • conspiracy theories: why do people believe them?
  • astrology vs. astronomy,
  • verification vs. falsification: Bayesian reasoning vs. Popper’s falsification,
  • replication crisis,
  • climate skeptics and evolution skeptics,
  • Aryan physics, Philip Lenard, Albert Einstein,
  • model dependent realism,
  • science, politics, and moral values,
  • Can a theory be accepted without an underlying mechanism? (evolution, continental drift, ESP, altered states of consciousness),
  • How is truth determined in science, religion, politics, economics, literature, and the arts?
  • string theory, consciousness, free will, the origin of the universe, and why there is something rather than nothing: are these soluble problems?
  • how to talk to a climate denier, anti-vaxxer, creationist, Holocaust denier, GMO denier, nuclear power denier, etc.

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This episode is sponsored by Wondrium:

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