Science, Pseudoscience and Protoscience

This blog is not a scientific endeavor, nor is it a pseudoscientific one, but rather it is a protoscientific endeavor. This distinction is important to make as these three processes, though working towards similar ends, are pursued in dramatically different ways.

The general public is most familiar with the scientific method, which follows a straightforward protocol: a hypothesis is created to explain an observed phenomenon. The hypothesis is tested via repeated experimentation. If the experimental results match those predicted by the hypothesis, then the hypothesis is validated. If not, the hypothesis must be altered or discarded entirely.

Pseudoscience mimics this process, but with one important distinction: the hypotheses cannot be invalidated. Other than that, the pseudoscientist has all the characteristics of a scientist. They perform experiments and report their results just like a scientist would. They create theories and then try to convince people to implement their science as a solution to their problems. They even invent an extensive nomenclature to give it the veneer of being official. The problem is that their whole field of study is a house of cards waiting to collapse upon even minimal scrutiny. It’s seldom a pleasant event when this occurs. The most culturally relevant instance of one of these collapses can be witnessed right now with the field of women and gender studies.

Protoscience is the least understood of these three processes. A protoscientist is one who is engaged in the act of developing a new field of science. It is probably difficult for modern people to appreciate the work it takes to develop a new field of science. Modern people take it for granted that the modern fields of science (i.e. physics, chemistry, biology, etc.) have always been around. But there was a time in the not to distant past when the average person would have had a difficult time conceptualizing these fields of study, let alone appreciating their significance.

From Alchemy to Chemistry

Banner1.png

(L to R) The Alchemist in Search of the Philosopher’s Stone (1771), Paracelsus (1493-1541), Joseph Priestly (1733-1804), Antoine Lavoisier (1743-1794), John Dalton (1766-1844) and Dimitri Mendeleev (1834-1907).

Personally, I think the most interesting instance of a protoscience becoming a real science is that of alchemy transforming into chemistry (admittedly I may be biased due to my background in chemistry). Alchemists were convinced they could create gold from other matter (primarily lead) or that they could find a philosopher’s stone that would grant one eternal life. Their methods were not scientific and many were regarded as charlatans. However, they did manage to develop a lot of tools and techniques that are still in use by chemists today. Without these tools and techniques, it’s unlikely the field of chemistry ever would have emerged.

Scientists gradually emerged who built off the knowledge created by alchemists and applied it in a scientific matter. Others, in turn, built off this knowledge, eventually leading to the creation of chemistry.

Some of what I consider to be the more notable people in this process are shown in the image above. These people came from a variety of backgrounds and temperaments, and yet they did appear to have some unifying characteristics. Many were not formally recognized as scientists, at least not in the emerging field of chemistry. Most were ostracized and had to spend just as much time defending their reputations as they did developing their ideas.

Paracelsus was a surgeon at a time when surgeons were regarded as lowly and unclean people in comparison to the physicians that supervised them. He’s remembered more for revolutionizing medicine than the field of chemistry.

Antoine Lavoisier is widely regarded as the father of modern chemistry. While his introduction of the conservation of mass was a monumental scientific achievement, the work he did outside of the chemistry lab was just as important. Not only did Lavoisier revolutionize chemistry in a scientific sense, but he also engaged in a massive public relations campaign that convinced the public of the importance of his work. Society rewarded him by beheading him at the guillotine. Several years they were erecting statues in his honor.

John Dalton didn’t even go to college, nor was he educated as chemist but rather as a meteorologist. And yet his introduction of atomic theory completely revolutionized the field of chemistry.

The Nature of Protoscience

To the general public, it is puzzling why protoscientists consistently fall into these unusual patterns of behavior. Most people attribute it to the fact that people throughout history were illogical and close-minded, whereas we are an enlightened society that understands science. Though there may be some truth to this, I do not think that this on its own is a viable explanation. We may have more technology and higher levels of education than people in times past, but we are still people. Therefore we are prone to following all of the same patterns of behavior that they were.

One needs to understand the obstacles protoscientists must overcome in order to promote their ideas. They need to rely on truths that are inconvenient for society on a political and religious level. It is inevitable that they will have to confront authority figures who have a monopoly on defining the truth. They will have to find alternative avenues of presenting their ideas (i.e. alternative academia). Oftentimes, these avenues do not exist and they have to create their own. Their professional reputation almost always suffers as a result.

Even if they do manage to secure an audience, that is just the beginning. Not only do they have to prove to the audience the validity of their claims, but they have to prove to the audience why they should care. This in turn creates more issues for the protoscientist. Their hypotheses need to be subjected to repeated experimentation and peer review in order to be validated. But experimentation is expensive, and peer review can only result if the protoscientist has a network of supporters who regard his ideas as legitimate science. Unfortunately, most protoscientists are short on allies and high on enemies. Money too, is an issue, as challenging authority figures is seldom good for one’s career.

When one looks at it from this perspective, it is apparent why protoscientists consistently behave in such unusual ways. They are expected to fill many roles: scientist, philosopher, celebrity, entrepreneur, politician. Nobody exists that can successfully fill all of these roles; the protoscientist is inevitably deficient in one or more of these areas. These weaknesses are commonly exploited by authority figures to destroy the protoscientist’s credibility. So the protoscientist must have a thick skin as well. Many develop such a thick skin that they end up upsetting people to the point where they are imprisoned or even executed.

My Protoscience: The Unification of the Hard and Soft Sciences

Right now there is a division in the scientific community between the so-called hard and soft sciences. The physical sciences (physics, chemistry and sometimes biology) are generally regarded as the hard sciences, meaning that their hypotheses are the most easily falsifiable. In other words, these are the fields that produce the most concrete and least subjective results. The social sciences, on the other hand (psychology, sociology, economics and political science), are generally regarded as the soft sciences. Their hypotheses are the most difficult to falsify, therefore they produce the least concrete and most subjective results.

I consider this way of thinking to be fundamentally wrong. My belief is that all the sciences are merely abstractions of one another, with physics being the science upon which all others are based. Abstractions are necessary to eliminate the needless complexity that arises from examining all phenomena using physics.

For instance, physics is the ideal science for studying the behavior of subatomic particles such as quarks, leptons, gauge bosons and scalar bosons. It is also ideal for studying the behavior of atomic particles that arise from the combination of these particles (protons, neutrons and electrons). But there is a point when the utility of physics begins to break down. When one studies the behavior of combined groups of atomic particles (i.e. atoms in the form of elements) it becomes too cumbersome to account for the behavior of all of the involved subatomic and atomic particles. Instead, chemistry is used as an abstraction of physics, wherein the elements are treated as single units and the behavior of the individual subatomic and atomic particles is ignored.

One can follow this level of abstraction and what they study from physics all the way up to political science: physics (subatomic and atomic particles), chemistry (atoms), organic chemistry (organic molecules), biochemistry (proteins, lipids, carbohydrates and nucleic acids), biology (organisms), psychology (humans), sociology (groups of humans) and political science (nations).

I believe that, despite being abstractions of one another, all of these fields of study  are governed by simple principles that are generally consistent regardless of the level of abstraction. Looking at science from this perspective greatly reduces the seemingly limitless complexity that arises from trying to understand all of these fields of study. One does not need to understand the intricacies of each abstraction, so long as they understand the general principles that all abstractions must unanimously obey. Looking at things from this perspective eliminates the so-called distinction between the hard and soft sciences.

The Importance of my Protoscience

Transhumanism and the technological singularity are rapidly approaching, and yet humanity is completely unprepared to deal with the myriad of moral and ethical issues that will result from these changes. The social sciences are the ideal fields for creating solutions to these issues, and yet they are fundamentally flawed at accomplishing this. This is because the social sciences study humans, and transhumanism and the technological singularity are going to change what it means to be human.

But this flaw can be overcome by incorporating the social sciences with the physical sciences and recognizing that they are merely abstractions of the physical sciences and as such are governed by the same general principles. The body of knowledge accumulated by the social sciences will not need to be discarded, but rather updated to fit within the new paradigm.

Unfortunately, this is easier said then done. The protoscientists who attempt to unify the hard and soft sciences are going to run into many of the same problems as those faced by protoscientists of times past. Whether or not they will be successful remains to be seen.