The scientific method is a discipline of solving a perplexing mystery when stakeholders are in a state of confusion or even desirous of exploiting the uncertainty it brings. In order to move beyond a good wallow in the mystery however, one must craft more art than simply a casual construct: rather, a set of disciplined, testable and risk incremental conjecture.
There exists a stark set of criteria which distinguish the construct from its more mature conjecture cousin, theory. Even more distinguished, is the social pseudoscience phenomena known as pseudo-theory. It behooves the ethical skeptic to understand what makes up each of these three conjecture domains: construct, theory and pseudo-theory and how they relate to the scientific method.
Pseudo-theory explains anything, everything and nothing – all at the same time.
As a young principal in a strategic advisory firm, I once supported a very familiar corporation who had an inventory problem. They asked me to initiate a project to investigate the cause of the recurring mismatch between their systems inventory and the actual physical inventories held in stock. I was already well recognized as an expert in this type of business mystery at a fairly young age. This company’s accounting firm, PricewaterhouseCoopers, had mandated that the company conduct quarterly inventories because this problem had become enormously impactful to accounting integrity and overall business performance. So pronounced in fact, that their quarterly inventory would again be off by 15 percentage points a mere three months after having ‘corrected’ it afresh each beginning of a new quarter. This mismatch between stock and what their information systems said was in their stock, was bringing the company to its knees. So they called my company. We were one of the best firms at analyzing signal theory and searching out the systemic causes of various industry operational or trade challenges. Our principals had seen it all, over the years. I set my talented team in place and we went to work on what is known as, yes, the scientific method – that is, a discipline of solving a perplexing mystery when stakeholders around you seem to be confused or even enjoying or exploiting a good wallow in the uncertainty it bears.
The executive team of the client possessed three primary ideas as to what might be causing the inventory drift. None of these were proven out however, each constituting only educated thoughts which the executive team had generated. Certainly valuable, these sets of preliminary conjecture were not theories per se; rather a less mature form of theory, what I call a construct. In order to solve a problem however and disabuse one’s self of enjoying a good wallow in the incumbent mystery, one must move beyond construct, and onto a set of incremental risk conjecture called theory. My team and I set about the process of establishing the necessity of theory. We were searching for those conjectures which bore both explanatory and quantifiable mettle, to sponsor into fully plausible explanations for the inventory drift. Hypotheses.
As sponsors, yet without a true hypothesis, we set about the beginning of solving a mystery: Observation, Intelligence and establishing Necessity. Every problem is solved in this fashion. We gathered data, tabled the premature ideas for a while, and began to assimilate intelligence – different ways of looking at the data we collected. We were looking for a thing called Necessity. What did the executive team know, know that they did not know, and did not know that they did not know? It is always this last category of not knowing, which I focus most upon. This is where a savvy investigator seeks to establish necessity. Indeed we found the problem by developing and falsification testing a theory inside a facet of their business which they least suspected to be an origination of the problem. However those executives who were exploiting the ‘wallow in uncertainty’ in an effort to get the VPIS fired, were not happy at all. They were the ‘social skeptics’ if you will. They were operating on pseudo-theory. Big on appearances, big on agenda. Easy to utter, no one can prove you wrong. They constituted a bigger problem than the inventory errancy ever pretended to be. This is essentially what I hinted to the CEO as we completed and presented our final report. Sure the VPIS made his share of executive miscalls. But the lack of team, and the disingenuous motives of these agenda-serving executives were significant problems for this electrical components company; ones which would continue long after tactical and technical issues were solved.
On Philosophy, expounds about bad theory and how it can be exploited for gain, under its Metaphilosophy thread:
A good example of a theory that isn’t able to be falsified, even in principle, is Freudian psychology. Freudian psychology fails to be falsifiable not because the theory is unclear but because the objects of the theory don’t seem to correspond to anything real. Freudian psychology posits an ego-superego-id structure to explain human behavior. How the ego superego and id interact is pretty clearly spelled out in the theory, so the problem is not that the theory doesn’t say anything definite about the theoretical objects it posits to explain phenomena. The problem lies in the way judgments about the ego superego and id are made. The psychologist observes the patient and then, on the basis of the patient’s behavior, creates a story about the interaction of their ego superego and id that seems to explain those observations. It would seem then that once the doctor has arrived at a hypothesis about the patient’s ego superego and id that Freudian psychology would then be testable, by comparing future behavior to the kind of behavior the theory says should be displayed by someone with that combination of ego superego and id. And this is where problems arise, because if the patient does act in unexpected ways it does not prompt the psychologist to question Freudian psychology. Instead they simply alter their story about the patient’s ego superego and id to fit this new behavior, and Freudian psychology can provide a story for any combination of behavior.1
A good professional instinct recognizes necessity, construct, theory and pseudo-theory when he or she sees it. In the end, the problem was found to reside in an area which the executives of the company had not considered before. Of course we conducted deductive system audit work – but a discrete beginning of the inventory errancy occurred after a process which had theretofore been considered beyond question. This is called a signal. it is part of the Intelligence and Necessity steps of the process outlined below. They did not know, what they did not know. This is how an astute researcher develops theory, true scientific theory. The ‘systems transaction’ approach they foisted on us, bore explanitude and even some consilience (see elements of Pseudo-Theory below). To blame the systems and VPIS, was an approach which could explain everything we saw, and was very hard to falsify. And was politically expedient.
Beware of fake skeptics who push explanitude (as in the case of Freudian Psychology above) and do not appear to understand how the scientific method really works – but speak lots and lots about it. They may be enjoying a good wallow in the sustained mystery and the celebrated power it affords their Cabal. They may be catalyseurs, exploiting for celebrity and abetting conflict between the public and science. They may be celebrating and exploiting pseudo-theory.
Construct, Theory (Hypothesis) and Pseudo-Theory
A theory (hypothesis) is a construct with certain features added into the mix which make it a tool of plenary science. A construct, as incomplete as it is however, is a vital and useful tool at the sponsorship phase of the scientific method. In our project I just outlined above, one of the executives, who had no love lost for the Vice President of Information Systems, made it clear to me that “his intransigence on allowing input into the stock ledger management process, was the cause of the errant inventory.” The executive wanted the VP of Information Systems fired; and he wanted me to provide the evidence which would make his case. This construct was handed to my team and we were instructed to diligently pursue it. Everyone knew that it was the VP of Information Systems’ fault anyway. Argumentum ad populum, a key warning sign that maybe some stakeholders are enjoying or exploiting the mystery to increase their personal power base.
Wallowing in the mystery, this a habit which religious peddlers and social skeptics share in common. This is why many of our greatest social conundrums persist long after their shelf life has expired. The mystery can be exploited for club advantage.
Some of the cursory investigation their staff had conducted even clearly suggested his culpability in the matter. In the end, it was our ability to discern agenda, the wallow and pseudo-theory which made the difference in our use of time, and success in avoiding dead ends and joining in the frustration ourselves. We did not allow insistent social goals (which always masquerade as science), to derail what we knew to be good science and investigative work. It paid off.
/philosophy : science : knowledge development/ : an original explanatory framework or explanation for a phenomenon, which has not risen to the level of hypothesis or theory. A construct is contending for plurality screening under Ockham’s Razor, seeks to explain a context set of repeatable data, and is distinguishable from other hypotheses, theories or constructs attempting to cohesively explain the same or related data.
The Nature of Theory
A theory on the other hand, the real implement which is exercise-able under the scientific method and plenary science, bears features which the construct does not. More specifically the following list of items characterize those ideas whose sets of conjecture can be disciplined into what is in truth and method, a hypothesis.2
/philosophy : science : knowledge development : scientific method/ : is not merely a proposed explanation for a set of observations or phenomenon. Rather, true scientific theory (hypothesis) is an elegant mechanism of incremental and parsimonious conjecture, which explains consistently observed phenomena completely, without bearing the capability to explain everything, and which can be tested in objective fashion and repeated, and may or may not yet feature an underlying causal understanding or mechanism.
More specifically, a theory (hypothesis) bears the following critical traits or essences:
1. Bears Wittgenstein definition.
2. Is based upon necessity from developed intelligence, not simply bias or desire based upon data, anecdote or premature question.
3. Possesses critical historical explanatory strength – things explained must bear a chain of empirical veracity themselves and not be anecdote (unless falsifying) – as a theory which explains everything likely explains nothing.
4. Bears a critical element of measurability, under a context of incremental risk.
5. Undertakes risk in incremental conjecture (but not outlandish sets of risk).
6. Employs a proper regard and treatment methodology for both high probative value observations and perceived high reliability data, not filtering one in favor of the other.
7. Features a testable (or vulnerable to falsification) mechanism.
8. Bears predictive power.
9. Offers an advisory protocol for replication.
10. Considers the confirmed observation of a presence or positive or negative to be data – and not an ‘absence’.
The Nature of Pseudo-Theory
Pseudo-Theory in contrast – is a construct which derives its viability through artificial or socially constructed mechanisms. The principle traits of pseudo-theory involve the following:
Pseudo-Theory (Mock Hypothesis)
/philosophy : argument : theory : pseudo-theory/ : a construct, belief or overarching idea which explains anything, everything and nothing – all at the same time. It is a premature and imperious proposed explanation for a set of post facto observations or phenomenon. Instead of bearing the traits of true scientific theory (hypothesis) – a pseudo-theory is quickly crafted and installed so as to exploit the advantages of pluralistic ignorance and the Lindy Effect. It explains everything without having to be approached by falsification, nor having to successfully predict anything. Usually installed as the null hypothesis before an argument is even framed around an issue, pseudo-theory is used primarily as a football enabling dismissal of competing alternatives from the point of its installation as the null hypothesis, onward.
More specifically, pseudo-theory (mock hypothesis) – in its essence, kills scientific inquiry through the following profiling traits or essences:
1. Can be developed in full essence before any investigation even begins.
2. Never improves in its depth, description nor falsifiable or inductive strength despite ongoing research and increases in observational data.
3. Possesses no real method of falsification nor distinguishing predictive measure which is placed at risk, nor does it offer any other means of being held to account or measure..
4. Employs non-Wittgenstein equivocal/colloquial terminology or underlying premises (possibly pseudo-theory itself) where the risk of conjecture is not acknowledged.
5. Is employed primarily as a symbolic or fiat excuse to dismiss disliked or competing explanations.
6. Filters out by method during the hypothesis formulation stages, high probative value information, in favor of perceived high reliability or authorized information only (cherry sorting).
7. Can explain a multiplicity of observations or even every non-resolved question (Explanitude).
8. Is artificially installed as the null hypothesis from the very start. Tends to resurface time and again after being falsified. The Theory from the Black Lagoon. It always resurfaces.
9. Attains its strength through becoming a Verdrängung Mechanism.
10. Considers the absence of observation or a data collection/detection failure as suitable to stand in as ‘evidence’ (argument from ignorance)
11. Pseudo-theory can be identified in that, as less information is held or information is screened out (cherry sorted), pseudo-theory tends to appear to grow more plausible and more pervasively explanatory, and is able to be produced with less effort (armchair debunking for instance). Whereas valid theory and hypothesis tend to strengthen with research effort and an increase in information.
12. Panduction – an invalid form of inference which is spun in the form of pseudo-deductive study. Inference which seeks to falsify in one fell swoop ‘everything but what my club believes’ as constituting one group of bad people, who all believe the same wrong and correlated things – this is the warning flag of panductive pseudo-theory. No follow up series studies nor replication methodology can be derived from this type of ‘study’, which in essence serves to make it pseudo-science. This is a common ‘study’ format which is conducted by social skeptics masquerading as scientists, to pan people and subjects they dislike.
/philosophy : argument : theory : pseudo-theory/ : the level of control and idea displacement achieved through skillful employment of the duality between pluralistic ignorance and the Lindy Effect. The longer a control-minded group can sustain a favored hypothesis (Omega Hypothesis) perception by means of the tactics and power protocols of proactive pluralistic ignorance, the greater future acceptability and lifespan that idea will possess. As well, the harder it will to be dethrone as an accepted norm or perception as a ‘proved’ null hypothesis.
In developing my thoughts around pseudo-theory I struggled for a better portion of a year, hashing over old idea failures, and socially influenced business and science communication cases before penning it. The struggle was over essentially three questions:
1. How does the soundness (validity of its premises) of the theory play into its role as pseudo-theory, and
2. How does the ultimate verity (success) of the theory itself relate to its status as pseudo-theory?
3. What if a construct is promoted into status as an accepted pseudo-theory, and then begins to show predictive consilience at a later time?
Regarding the first two questions, my conclusion was that neither factor plays into the delineation of whether or not a construct is being promoted into status as pseudo-theory. The theory’s (hypothesis’) formality, soundness, logical calculus, etc. are well known facets of argument discourse. The irony which elicits this is the fact that a pseudo-theory can also mature into one day being a real theory and further then a valid one – whereas a wrong answer can never mature into being a right answer. Thus, verity and pseudo-theory status, are two differing issues. The status of pseudo-theory pertains more to the idea – is this a real hypothesis, and is it ready for exercise under the scientific method? – or is it merely a construct, which has been promoted to the status of a theory, or even truth – without due process? It is not a judgement as to its construct being right or wrong, successful or failing; rather simply, premature.
So, pseudo-theory pertains more to the state of maturity of the idea (construct) in terms of its ability to be addressed by science, and NOT to its soundness, formality and logical calculus or truth. That comes later IF we have not promoted it to truth and into a state of exemption from being vetted by science in the first place.
The key for the ethical skeptic is this: one distinguishes themselves from their skeptical colleagues in recognizing when pseudo-theory sits in the seat as the null hypothesis (Imposterlösung Mechanism). There are many ideas which have been selected solely under the protocols of logical reduction, to reside as the null hypothesis – but bear no real definition, nor supporting evidence. Constructs of absence and negation for instance: this does not exist or that is not valid or those people are deluded for a variety of reasons. The ethical skeptic must discern the conditions between when a mere construct (pseudo-theory) resides as the null, simply from the standpoint of procedure, and when a real theory (hypothesis) – fully vettable by science, measurement and competing alternatives – has assumed the null hypothesis role.
This is the origin of the contention that an ethical skeptic recognizes and works with the null hypothesis, but that does not mean that he necessarily believes it.
Question 3 therefore, pertains to a more serious and challenging aspect of the delineation between skepticism and social skepticism. This is a very common play inside of socially promoted science – We come up with an idea, we promote that idea as truth, then we go out and look for science to back it up. To me, this is still a process of pseudo-science. Hence, a pseudo-theory, even backed by some post-installment inductive support, is still a pseudo-theory.
One of the oldest and most controversial theories in psychology and philosophy is the theory of the blank slate, or tabula rasa, which argues that people are born with no built-in personality traits or proclivities. Proponents of the theory, which began with the work of Aristotle and was expressed by everyone from St. Thomas Aquinas to the empiricist philosopher John Locke, insisted that all mental content was the result of experience and education. For these thinkers, nothing was instinct or the result of nature. The idea found its most famous expression in psychology in the ideas of Sigmund Freud, whose theories of the unconscious stressed that the elemental aspects of an individual’s personality were constructed by their earliest childhood experiences.
1. Was developed in antiquity before any in-depth knowledge of DNA, the brain or human developmental psychology and twin studies.
2. Never improved in its depth, description nor falsifiable or inductive strength (only became a Freudian appeal to authority).
3. Never really attempted to be falsified until twins studies, DNA and modern psychology challenged the notion.
4. Based upon the notion that man is a spirit primarily & wholly accountable to god for every thought and action (also a pseudo-theory itself).
5. Is employed primarily as a symbolic or fiat excuse to dismiss body-machine ideas.
6. Favored past record of psychological studies or easy to certify as ‘scientific’ corroborating data over actual probative observations and tests.
7. Was able to explain every motivation of mankind and men.
8. Was artificially installed, and ruled as, the null hypothesis from antiquity.
9. Attains its strength through becoming a Verdrängung Mechanism and appeal to authority for over 2500 years.
How it was Proven Wrong
While there’s little doubt that a person’s experiences and learned behaviors have a huge impact on their disposition, it is also now widely accepted that genes and other family traits inherited from birth, along with certain innate instincts, also play a crucial role. This was only proven after years of study that covered the ways in which similar gestures like smiling and certain features of language could be found throughout the world in radically different cultures. Meanwhile, studies of adopted children and twins raised in separate families have come to similar conclusions about the ways certain traits can exist from birth.
The Ethical Skeptic, “Qualifying Theory and Pseudo-Theory” The Ethical Skeptic, WordPress, 27 Nov 2017, Web; https://wp.me/p17q0e-62Y
- Peter, On Philosophy: Good And Bad Theories; April 27, 2007; https://onphilosophy.wordpress.com/2007/04/27/good-and-bad-theories/
- Please note that the term ‘theory’ here is used in the context of a competing alternative which bears supporting consilience and maturity. It is not meant to be congruent with ‘accepted theory’ of science; rather as a competing hypothesis. Both a hypothesis and an accepted theory must feature the same elements of scientific litmus – just that the hypothesis has yet to pass their test. Therefore, the terms are regarded as equivalent for purposes of this blog discussion.
- Top 10 Most Famous Scientific Theories (That Turned out to be Wrong); TopTenz: http://www.toptenz.net/top-10-most-famous-scientific-theories-that-turned-out-to-be-wrong.php