What objective criteria distinguish between valid science, fringe science and pseudoscience in physics?

I would like to take a stab at this, because I think that this is where we are most privileged. This is perhaps the last moment in time when science is the exclusive domain of the specialist. I am optimistic that soon every person will either directly possess, or personally know some people who together possess, enough expertise to access all human knowledge. Public dissemination makes science into what it was always intended to be: an activity of masses, not elites.

In such an environment, bogus ideas don't stand a chance.

Scientific criteria

Pseudoscience and fringe science are pejorative political terms, which are never used by the proponents of the ideas. I don't like the labels--- I prefer simpler labels, like "right" and "wrong". One can ask, what distinguishes a correct idea from an incorrect idea?

For this case it's simple. The only criteria are

  1. Internal consistency
  2. Theoretical elegance
  3. Experiment

Of these, the third is by far the most important--- without it, we would get stuck in ruts all the time, we would run out of new ideas, and research quality would be determined by pure politics, and we know by bitter experience that in politics, Aristotle beats Aristarchus. Further experiment suggest new theories, and new ideas, more often than theory suggests new experiments.

But experiment is not the sole arbiter, because experiment requires theory to interpret, and experiments can be flawed--- consider early studies on ESP, or more recent OPERA results So you need to consider 1 and 2 when evaluating theories and experiments, to see if they make sense in the framework of knowledge already accumulated. But you can't go overboard--- if experiment tells you something, and careful analysis shows that it is correct, then that's that.

It is my opinion that these three principles by themselves suffice to distinguish right ideas from wrong ideas, without any need for political labels like pseudoscience, fringe science, and so on. This way you don't take any chances dismissing an idea politically. If the idea is wrong, it should be trivial to refute it by finding an internal contradiction, a theoretical weakness like a huge amount of unnatural parameter tuning, or a flat out contradiction with experiment.

In today's media climate, it takes less time and effort to fully refute a wrong idea than it takes to come up with it in the first place. So wrong ideas today have a negative multiplication factor, and it should be a short while before they are all extinct. This is a pity, in a certain sense, because it means that future generations will never know an Archimedes Plutonium, or an Alexander Abian, they were quite possibly the last and best of their kind.

Evaluating theories

When evaluating theories, it is important to not restrict yourself to "right" and "wrong", although this classification is still important. You also need to consider "fruitful" vs. "dead-endy", "interesting" vs. "boring", "original" vs. "derivative". These criteria are more human, and more subject to error than the rigorous scientific standard of right and wrong, but they are necessary, because even wrong ideas can often be tweaked into correct ones, and you need to know where to tweak.

Most of the ideas that are traditionally labelled pseudoscience are generally easy to dismiss even in a theoretical evaluation without direct experimental evidence, because they are clearly boring, clearly derivative, and clearly dead-ends. One doesn't have to classify them as pseudoscience to see this--- one can label them boring, derivative, and dead-endy without distinguishing them from their peer-reviewed cousins which are just as boring, just as derivative, and just as dead-endy. I don't see much difference between a numerological analysis of the standard model that appears in a peer reviewed journal and a numerologically motivated analysis of the standard model that somebody publishes on a personal web-page.


Many ideas which were dismissed as pseudo-science turned out to be correct. So it is best to ignore the labels and consider the ideas on their merits. Here is an incontrovertible list:

There are further examples of theories which were dismissed as vague or ill-defined, perhaps not quite pseudoscience:

In addition, I personally find the following vague spiritual ideas impossible to refute, and perhaps they might gain statistical evidence in their favor with time, although they are currently not part of science:

Why do wrong ideas persist?

I believe that any persistent wrong idea, especially in today's media environment, is only alive because it is serving a social purpose which is not apparent. Once a good substitute correct idea is formulated which can serve the same social purpose, the idea can die. Alternatively, the social purpose might be rendered obsolete, by an evolution of society.

This, along with the published results of detailed models for the distribution of warming, ice-core data on the correlation between CO2 and temperature, and projected predictions that each successive year will be warmer than the last (predictions which are each exceedingly unlikely considering how hot current global climate is, and which are uniformly correct), make it certain that the world is warming due to the activity of humans. The only strike against this theory, as far as the media is concerned, is that it was predicted by left-wing activists in the early 1970s.

So there is a social force at work here. The obvious reason to deny warming is to prevent a carbon tax, or emissions cap, and this is supported by big money. So you have denials, but there is no sound science behind the denials. But global warming denial, like genocide denial or big-bang denial, is on the wane.

I think in this case it is important to recognize that the wrong ideas are persisting because of the important life-altering effects of religious experience, which has motivated people to allow reforms, even to the point where they will die for their beliefs.

The notion of religion, that it is possible to gain experience of consciousness different from that of the individual person, is to my mind entirely reasonable. But the authoritarian claim that the Bible is a good source of ethics is entirely bankrupt.

But people believe it, because these chants and prayers have a perceptual effect on the people who perform the ritual, and those that come in contact with them. This effect is real, but to what extent it is inter-objective remains to be seen. It is a powerful way to direct people's attention, see Allen Ginsberg's magical "Om": http://www.intrepidtrips.com/pranksters/ginsberg/ . These things transcends their emptiness as physics, because of their mental resonance.

Wrong ideas in science

In many fields of science there are flat out absurd ideas which gain traction, mostly because nobody thinks about them enough to realize that they are absurd. It is hard to name many of these, because I am just as blinded as anyone else by my place in time, but I will try:

These are a counterpoint to false ideas by non-scientists. These are false ideas promoted by scientists. I would call them pseudoscience, but unfortunately, they are mainstream positions today.

In physics, I compiled some of the persistent wrong ideas here: Common false beliefs in Physics

Cold Fusion

One of the most deplorable cases where the label "fringe science" and "pseudoscience" is thrown around a lot is in the field of cold fusion. Many dozens of groups, mostly in unpopular research centers, although a few in well financed respectable laboratories, have reported nuclear effects in deuterated Palladium. The political structure of physics dismisses these claims, but in my opinion, there is no sound theoretical argument against them.

I have not seen a convincing refutation of cold fusion, but I have seen papers with very solid evidence that nuclear effects are happening. The papers continue to trickle out, and cold fusion is now acceptable again to the American Chemical Society, although not yet to the American Physical Society, or the National Science Foundation.

It would be nice to see a debate of cold fusion on its merits, without political labels getting in the way. Only for some specific theoretical models, are there clear refutations.